Category Archives: Espionage/Intelligence

War in 1944: Howard’s Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Professor

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

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

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

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

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

Her Majesty & Professor Sir Michael Howard

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

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

The Warsaw Uprising

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

The Monte Sole Massacre

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

Site of the Monte Sole Massacre

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

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

The Red Army and Warsaw

  1. Military Operation:

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

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

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

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

  • Political Goals:

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

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

Stanislaw Mikolajcyzk

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

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

  • The Partisans:

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

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

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

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

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

  • Offensive Strategy:

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

General Rokossovsky

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

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

  • The Aftermath:

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

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

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

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

The Allies in Italy

  1. Military Operations

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

Operation ANVIL

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

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

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

  • Political Goals

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

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

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

  • The Partisans

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

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

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

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

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

  • Offensive Strategy

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

General Alexander of Tunis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

Reassessment of Howard’s Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

‘ . . had issued orders to unmask themselves’.

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

‘ . . .and attack German communications’.

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

‘The Germans reacted with predictable savagery.’

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

‘Allied armies did not come to their help’.

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

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

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

‘It was still believed . .  .’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Someone must have known what was going on’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Russia at War 1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

War in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo

Captain Professor by Michael Howard

The House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead

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

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

Between Giants by Prit Buttar

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

Rising ’47 by Norman Davies

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

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

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

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

(New Commonplace entries may be viewed here.)

Leave a Comment

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

Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan on Sonia & Quebec

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Atomic Spies

  • Fuchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

2. Sonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

All this put together shows that Hollis:

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

– was in Oxford at the relevant time;

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

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

Obiter dicta

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

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

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

Denis Lenihan

London

January 2020

Coldspur’s Response to Denis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

August 24: Stalin sends a more conciliatory message.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 1:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Chapter 23:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Tony Percy, January 2020

Response by Denis Lenihan, February 20, 2020

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

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

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

Under Pincher p 187 you say that ‘It is extremely unlikely that Hollis would have had to be informed of their [the first batch of scientists] departure: they were all British citizens’. While I can’t lay my hand immediately on any evidence, I’d be surprised if British-born scientists were not also checked (or supposed to be checked) if they were going to the US for this sort of work. (Oliphant was Australian-born but in those days – until 1949 – would have had a British passport). As you point out, however, the four had all been to the US previously, so there would have been no need for any additional check on this occasion if they had been checked previously. Nunn May went to Canada, where the word of the mother country in those days would have been sufficient. Clearly Pincher got his two lots of scientists muddled, however.

You’re right about it being incredible that Pincher did not interview Perrin. He may have tried and Perrin refused. Perrin may have been willing to talk to Williams about Fuchs, but not to Pincher about Hollis. Another straw in the wind? We really do need that Pincher archive in Kings College.

You ask: ‘If Fuchs did indeed meet Sonia in mid-August, why would she wait until her childbirth was imminent to inform her bosses of his message about Chadwick and co.?’ The answer to this might be as you suggest in Sonia’s Radio that Sonia sent two separate messages: one about the scientists (perhaps in mid-August after meeting Fuchs) and another in early September having received a message from Hollis/Elli/Whoever about the conference outcome.

I note that you do not address what I think is one of my strongest points: the message about the conference went from Sonia in Oxford, not from the Embassy in London, thus pointing to an Oxford source – and a high-level one at that, not many people being in the know about Quebec.

While many of your comments about particular passages of Pincher in Treachery are right, it is with respect a bit over the top to describe him as ‘a fantasist and a highly unreliable chronicler’. He was a superb reporter with a genius for getting people to talk to him. More often than not he was right during his career; otherwise he would not have flourished in the way that he did. He may have got it wrong or got out of his depth here and there in Treachery but some of this may as you say be down to being fed false information. Like an historian, a reporter is only as good as his sources.

February 2020

Contribution by Richard Learie, February 26

Richard is another electronic colleague, living in Brussels, whom I have regrettably not yet met. He is an eager and well-read student of the tribulations of MI5, and of the efforts to unmask ELLI, and I think it is safe to describe him as a coldspur enthusiast. Here follows his contribution, for which I heartily thank him.

                                                                                                                                                Brussels 17 February 2020

Dear Tony

I offer my comments to your intriguing proposal after reading Denis Lenihan’s post. I read your comments in reply but that hasn’t changed my views which remain in summary:

  • I believe Hollis was ELLI
  • It is likely he passed the Quebec Agreement directly to Sonia

I’m not sure if most of my comments are within your scope because Sonia and the Quebec Agreement is but one of many strands to the “Who was Elli?” debate. I will start with the general debate and then add my small contribution to the detailed matter at hand.

The ELLI Debate

I have written to you before on the ELLI debate and I still consider that the weight of evidence on Hollis (despite it all being circumstantial) means that it was probably him. Clearly we know that ELLI existed so to debunk Chapman Pincher entirely is problematic for 2 reasons: if it wasn’t Hollis then who was it? – there cannot be too many possibilities/candidates!! And debunking Pincher is a long and arduous task since Treachery is over 600 pages of the case for the prosecution containing his many so called “anomalies” (50 or so from memory).

If I may say, Tony, that here we have a classic difference in styles. It is clear to me that, as stated in the Introduction to your book, you are a serious researcher, analyst, writer and historian who uses a very scientific methodology to ensure that your output is always of a high quality. In my opinion your book and website prove that this Introduction is no bluff and the detail in your work is prodigious and well thought-through. In contrast, Pincher was a journalist who did not always quote his sources and “Treachery” is a kind of character assassination rather than a piece of work “keeping all options open”. However, Pincher certainly found a lot of circumstantial evidence pointing to Hollis, although I admit that in Treachery he always seems to be trying to use evidence to prove Hollis’ guilt. That is consistent with what journalists do to provoke interest in their stories.

Nevertheless, I see the ELLI debate as a bit like solving a murder. We know the crime has been committed and we need to investigate the prime suspects. Graham Mitchell was also investigated within MI5 by his own junior officers but they quickly realised that Hollis was a much better fit and his background was ideal and similar in many respects to the Cambridge 5. There were not many candidates to investigate at all because ELLI obviously had high level access to material. Hollis’ background and inaction/incompetence would be well explained if he were ELLI. I am particularly persuaded by the University drop-out in Shanghai element to his background where he admitted to meeting Agnes Smedley who knew Richard Sorge and Sonia. It seems obvious that there would have been attempts to recruit him. He had left wing views and was at a low point in his life. Also on his return to UK he applied for jobs at the Times and the Intelligence Services – classic GRU/KGB advice!!

So I personally (for what its worth as solely an avid reader) remain in the “Hollis was ELLI” camp. As I read a lot of the espionage material from this period, I am continuously frustrated by authors who claim that the spy in MI5 story is a conspiracy theory. Clearly it is not and it’s the greatest intelligence mystery out there. Let’s hope there is a breakthrough one day.

I have not noticed that you have nailed your colours to the mast either way. Denis Lenihan’s papers on Paddy Costello presents another “anomaly”. I hope that this is “the straw that breaks the camel’s back” for you personally.

Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

Coming back to the matter at hand. I will follow the Sonia/Quebec Agreement issue with great interest.

If it was Fuchs who supplied the Agreement to Sonia, then it was under Hollis’ nose because both Fuchs and Sonia were on his radar. That would be consistent with Hollis’ inaction/incompetence strategy as an agent of influence that was to become so damaging to UK/US relations.

It could have been Hollis himself of course because he was in the Oxford area. Also Hollis appears to have had an excuse for visiting the area where Sonia lived because I seem to remember reading she was renting a Laski property.

Hollis was clearly a very cautious man in his MI5 career. I believe this character trait served him well and explains why he got away with it for so long.

Tony, you have contributed enormously to the debate with your epic series of posts about Radio Security matters and the Sonia mystery. I really look forward to any progress you make with the theory that MI5 aided Sonia’s arrival in the UK in order to keep an eye on her and use her for mis-information and to trap Russian spies in the UK. Have any other writers written to provide support? Your theory makes sense but it seems that it was spectacularly bungled? The interesting part would be then “was that due to incompetence or was it due to the work of ELLI (or both)”? Whichever it was a massive cover up has been carried out ever since. I believe part of this cover up was the Skardon/Serpell visit to Sonia in Oxfordshire. MI5 seemed to fear that their bungling could be exposed and clumsily tried to practice some damage limitation. Frank Close (and others) seem to think they were outwitted by Sonia. But they had so few cards to play and so little to gain at that stage except to limit further damage on UK/US relations. I don’t think they even wanted to outwit or trap her. Certainly by that stage there was no way MI5 could ever let her be prosecuted.

Finally, if Hollis was Elli (and also if Elli is revealed to be someone else) then clearly the espionage history of this period needs to be reassessed from top to bottom. But at least it would resolve a few mysteries whilst leaving MI5 to sort out the exposure of their biggest ever cover up.

Good luck with this experiment, Tony.

Best regards

Richard LEARIE

Response to Denis and Richard by Tony, February 26

Thank you, gentlemen! I wonder whether your eagerness to seal the case on ELLI means that you have been a bit too forgiving of the evidence  . . .

The questions that Denis poses about aspects of the ‘Quebec Agreement’ prompt me to suggest something else. First, we must remember that there were two parts to the decisions that were made at Quebec. There were the decisions about opening the so-called ‘Second Front’ in 1944, which were secret, but widely dispersed among military and government departments. (It was on those decisions that Liddell was briefed by Lennox: Liddell does not refer to any ‘Quebec Agreement’.) And then there was the highly confidential Tube Alloys Agreement, which concerned sharing of skills and technology in the realm of atomic weaponry and energy, between the USA and the UK (and Canada), which was so secret that neither Roosevelt’s nor Churchill’s cabinet ever knew about it.

Thus, whenever a writer refers to the ‘Quebec Agreement’, one needs to ascertain to which part of the overall decisions he or she is referring (such as when Tyrer talks about ‘outcomes from the conference’). I should like someone to point out when the phrase ‘Quebec Agreement’ first came into existence, and whether it was then used to replace the term ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’. It appears as the header in the transcript at Appendix 4 of Margaret Gowing’s history, but, on p 171, she writes that Anderson handed to Churchill and Roosevelt the ‘Tube Alloys Agreement’ for signature, and then she simply slips into calling it the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When Roosevelt and Churchill signed an aide-mémoire at Hyde Park on August 18, 1944, confirming the ‘utmost secrecy’ of the project, it contained no mention of a ‘Quebec Agreement’, but continued to refer to ‘Tube Alloys’. Furthermore, the official US Army copy of the Tube Alloys agreement (see https://avalon.law.yale.edu/wwii/q003.asp ) introduces the Articles as ‘The Quebec Conference – Agreement Relating to Atomic Energy’. The document was created from a photocopy of the British original.

It thus seems to me that, because of the ambiguities, and the need for compartmentalization, it would have been highly unlikely for any of those in the know at the time to have referred to the overall conclusions, or the separate Tube Alloys Agreement, as the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When Lota refers to ‘the conference in Quebec’, he may accurately not be referring to what has become to be known as the ‘Quebec Agreement’. When you claim, Richard, that Hollis passed ‘the Quebec Agreement’ directly to Sonia, I think you need to explain what document you believe that was, and why a highly secret subset of all the written outcomes was identified that way. Any claim for the existence of a ‘copy’ of a comprehensive ‘Quebec Agreement’ must be treated very sceptically, as no document containing all the decisions signed in Quebec exists (so far as I know). And any archival material in Moscow that actually referred to the combination ‘Quebec Agreement’ in September 1943 would reflect some tantalising ingenuity.

I repeat my assertion that, even if Perrin had divulged to Hollis the terms of the upcoming Tube Alloys Agreement, it would have been very premature to refer to it as the ‘Quebec Agreement’ before the participants had even congregated there. Moreover, it makes no sense to talk about ‘the next batch of scientists’. The four whom Akers had shipped out before the Conference were not ‘the first batch’: Vannevar Bush told Akers that his move was premature, and that the role of any British scientists on the project would have to await the meeting of the Combined Policy Committee. There was no time for any further check on the four, even if it had somehow been required. As I think we all agree, the four had already visited the United States in their scientific capacity. It was weeks before the other scientists were chosen. Hollis never had to ‘get cracking’, and was not even in the picture, as I showed in my last response.

The reason I did not address what Denis describes as ‘one of my [his] strongest points’, namely the claim that, since the message about the conference went ‘from Sonia in Oxford’, it thus pointed to an Oxford source, is that I have still to see any solid evidence that a message from Sonia about the conference was received in Moscow. Offering the inescapable conclusion that ‘Pincher got his two lots of scientists muddled’ does not bolster the case.

I concede that my characterization of Pincher as a ‘fantasist’ was a little extreme. But it was intended to be provocative. Since he embellishes what could be a very workmanlike argument with so many absurdities, his worth as a reliable witness diminishes. Denis says he had ‘a genius for getting people to talk to him’, but Pincher may never have imagined that he was being used as a conduit for any number of damaging stories about Hollis that may have been designed to distract attention from another suspect, or simply to muddy the waters while other groups maintained his innocence.

As Richard indicates, I cannot yet come off the fence on ELLI. I agree that Pincher has presented an enormous amount of circumstantial evidence that could point to Hollis’s guilt, but in a Scottish court the verdict would be ‘not proven’. The apparent failure of Pincher to engage with Perrin is, to me, a vitally important example of ‘a dog that did not bark in the night-time’. If a clincher for Hollis’s being ELLI exists, it is definitely not the anecdote about Sonia and the Quebec Agreement.

P.S. I notice that the Wikipedia entry for the Agreement still boasts Tyrer’s claim that Fuchs supplied Sonia with the details. Does anybody know who the author is? Should he or she be introduced to this discussion?

4 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios – Part VII

[An imagined conversation between Stewart Menzies, SIS Chief, and Richard Gambier-Parry, head of Section VIII, the Communications Unit in SIS, in early March 1941. Both attended Eton College, although Gambier-Parry was there for only one ‘half’ (i.e. ‘term’): Menzies is four years older than Gambier-Parry. Menzies replaced Admiral Sinclair as chief of SIS in November 1939, on the latter’s death. Sinclair had recruited Gambier-Parry from industry in April 1938. At this stage of the war, Menzies and Gambier-Parry were both Colonels.]

Stewart Menzies
Richard Gambier-Parry

SM: Hallo, Richard. Take a pew.

RG-P: Thank you, sir.

SM: I expect you are wondering why I called you in.

RG-P: Mine not to reason why, sir. Hope I’m not in trouble.

SM: Dammit, man. Of course not. Some news to impart.

RG-P: Good news, I trust.

SM: Fact is, our man has gone over to the enemy.

RG-P: The enemy, sir? Who?

SM: [chuckles] Our Regional Controller in the Middle East. Petrie. He’s agreed to become D-G of MI5.

RG-P: Very droll, sir! But that wasn’t a surprise, was it?

SM: Well, Swinton always wanted him. Petrie went through the motions of performing a study of ‘5’ first, but there was no doubt he would take the job.

RG-P: I see. So how does that affect us, sir?

SM: First of all, it will make it a lot easier for us to work with MI5. No longer that clown Harker pretending to be in charge . . .

RG-P: Indeed. But I suppose Swinton and the Security Executive are still in place?

SM: For a while, yes. But there are other implications, Richard. [pauses] How is Section VIII coming along?

RG-P: Fairly well, sir. We had a tough few months in 1940 learning about the struggles of working behind enemy lines, but our training efforts are starting to pay off, and our ciphers are more secure. Moving the research and manufacturing show from Barnes to Whaddon has worked well, and it is humming along. As you know, the first Special Signals Units are already distributing Ultra.

SM: Yes, that seems to have developed well. Swinton signed off on Section VIII’s readiness a few weeks ago. [pauses] How would you like to take over the RSS?

RG-P: What? The whole shooting-match?

SM: Indeed. ‘Lock, stock and barrel’, as Petrie put it. The War Office wants to rid itself of it, and MI5 feels it doesn’t have the skills or attention span to handle it. Swinton and Petrie want us to take it over.

RG-P: Dare I say that this has always been part of your plan, sir? Fits in well with GC&CS?

SG: Pretty shrewd, old boy! I must say I have been greasing the wheels behind the scenes . . .  Couldn’t appear to push things too hard, though.

RG-P: Indeed, sir. I quite understand.

SG: But back to organisation. Petrie has a very high opinion of your outfit.

RG-P: Very gratifying, sir. But forgive me: isn’t RSS’s charter to intercept illicit wireless on the mainland, sir? Not our territory at all?

SM: You’re right, but the latest reports indicate that the German threat is practically non-existent. We’ve mopped up all the agents Hitler has sent in, whether by parachute or boat. The beacon threat has turned out to be a chimera, as the Jerries were using guidance from transmitters in Germany for their bombers, and our boffins have worked out how to crack it. The really interesting business is picking up Abwehr transmissions on the Continent. Therefore right up our street.

RG-P: I see. That changes things.

SM: And it would mean a much closer liaison with Bletchley. Denniston and his crew at GC&CS will of course decrypt all the messages we pick up. Dansey’s very much in favour of the move – which always helps.

RG-P: Yes, we always want Uncle Claude on our side. I had wondered what he had been doing after his organisation in Europe was mopped up . . .

SM: You can never be sure with Colonel Z! He’s got some shindig underway looking into clandestine Russian traffic. He’s just arranged to have a Soviet wireless operator from Switzerland arrive here, and wants to keep an eye on her. He’ll be happy to have RSS close by on the ranch.

RG-P: Fascinating, sir. Should I speak to him about it?

SM: Yes, go ahead. I know he’ll agree that the move makes a lot of sense. Learning what the enemy is up to is a natural complement to designing our own systems.

RG-P: Agreed, sir . . .  But isn’t RSS in a bit of a mess? All those Voluntary Interceptors, and all that work farmed out to the Post Office? And didn’t MI8 want MI5 to take it over?

SM: Yes, they did. So did Military Intelligence. But once Simpson left, MI5 lost any drive it had.

RG-P: Ah, Simpson. The ‘Beacon’ man. I spoke to him about the problem back in ‘39.

SM: Yes, he went overboard a bit on the beacons and criticized the GPO a bit too forcefully. He wanted to smother the country with interceptors, and set up a completely new organisation with MI5 at the helm. MI5 had enough problems, and wouldn’t buy it. Simpson gave up in frustration, and went out East.

RG-P: So what does Military Intelligence think?

SM: As you probably know, Davidson took over in December, so he’s still learning.

RG-P: Of course! I do recall that now. But what happened to Beaumont-Nesbitt? He’s a friend of yours, is he not?

SM: Yes, we were in Impey’s together. Good man, but a bit of a . . .what?  . . . a boulevardier, you might say. I worked with him on the Wireless Telegraphy Committee a year ago. He seemed to get on fine with Godfrey then, but maybe Godfrey saw us as ganging up on him.

RG-P: Godfrey wanted your job originally, didn’t he?

SM: Indeed he did. And, as the top Navy man, he had Winston’s backing. I managed to ward him off. But later things turned sour.

RG-P: So what happened?

SM: Unfortunately, old B-N made a hash of an invasion forecast back in September, and the balloon went up. Put the whole country on alert for no reason. Godfrey pounced, and he and Cavendish-Bentinck used Freddie’s guts for garters. The PM was not happy. Freddie had to go.

RG-P: Well, that’s a shame. And what about Davidson?

SM: Between you and me, Richard, Davidson’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I don’t think he understands this wireless business very well.

RG-P: I see. What did he say?

SM: Not a lot. He was initially very sceptical about the transfer. Didn’t think we had the skills, but wasn’t specific. He’s probably still seething about Venlo.

RG-P: Is Venlo still a problem, sir?

SM: Always will be, Richard. Always will be. But it damaged Dansey more than me. Partly why I am here, I suppose. And it makes Bletchley – and RSS – that more important.

RG-P: Access to the PM?

SM: Precisely. Ever since he set up those blasted cowboys in SOE, it has become more important. They’ll go barging in on their sabotage missions, raising Cain, and make our job of intelligence-gathering more difficult. I see Winston daily now, which helps.

RG-P: I see. And Gubbins is starting to make demands on our wireless crew. Should I slow him down a bit?

SM: I didn’t hear you say that, Richard  . . . 

RG-P: Very good, sir. But I interrupted you.

SM: Where was I?

RG-P: With Davidson, sir.

SM: Yes, of course. He did come up with a number of better questions about the proposed set-up a few weeks ago, so maybe he’s learning. He’s probably been listening to Butler in MI8. And I think he’s come around. Swinton has been working on him, and I don’t think he wants to upset the apple-cart. But you should try to make an ally of him. I don’t trust him completely.

RG-P: Very well, sir. I wouldn’t want the Indians shooting arrows at me all the time. And, apart from Petrie, is MI5 fully behind the move?

SM: Very much so. Liddell is all for it. They still have this BBC chappie Frost making a nuisance of himself. His appointment as head of the Interception Committee went to his head, I think. I gather he has upset a few people, and even Swinton – who brought him in in the first place – is getting fed up with him.

RG-P: I think I can handle Frost. I knew him at the BBC. I agree: he needs to be brought down a peg or two. But he has enough enemies in ‘5’ now, doesn’t he?

SM: So I understand. Wants to build his own empire: Liddell and co. will take care of him. Your main challenges will be elsewhere.

RG-P: Agreed. The RSS staff will need some close attention.

SM: Yes, it will entail a bit of a clean-up. Augean stables, and all that, don’t you know. That is why I am asking you to take it over . . .

RG-P: Well, I’ve got a lot on my plate, sir, but I am flattered. How could I say ‘No’?

SM: That’s the spirit, man! I knew I could rely on you.

RG-P: I may need to bring in some fresh blood . . .

SM: Of course! We’ll need our best chaps to beat the Hun at the bally radio game. And you’ll need to speak to Cowgill. The W Board has just set up a new committee to handle the double-agents, run by a fellow named Masterman. One of those deuced eggheads that ‘5’ likes to hire, I regret. But there it is. Cowgill is our man on the committee.

RG-P: Very good, sir. What about the current RSS management?

SM: Good question. Those fellows Worlledge and Gill are a bit dubious. Worlledge is something of a loose cannon, and I hear the two of them have been arguing against an SIS takeover.

RG-P: Yes, I had a chat with Worlledge a few weeks ago. He asked some damn fool questions. But I didn’t take them too seriously, as I didn’t think we were in the running.

SM: Well, he was obviously testing you out. Quite frankly, he doesn’t believe that you, er, we  . . . have the relevant expertise. Not sure I understand it all, but I have confidence in you, Richard.

RG-P: Very pleased to hear it, sir. Anyway, I think Worlledge’s reputation is shot after that shambles over the Gill-Roper decryptions.

SM: Oh, you mean when Gill and Trevor-Roper started treading on the cipher-wallahs’ turf at Bletchley with the Abwehr messages?

RG-P: Not just that, which was more a matter for Denniston. Worlledge then blabbed about the show to the whole world and his wife, including the GPO.

SM: Yes, of course. Cowgill blew a fuse over it, I recall.

RG-P: Worlledge clearly doesn’t understand the need for secrecy. I can’t see Felix putting up with him in SIS.

SM: You are probably right, Richard. He’d be a liability. But what about Gill?

RG-P: Can’t really work him out, sir. He definitely knows his onions, but he doesn’t seem to take us all very seriously. Bit flippant, you might say.

SM: H’mmm. Doesn’t sound good. We’ll need proper discipline in the unit. But if you have problems, Cowgill will help you out. Felix used to work for Petrie in India, y’know. Now that he has taken over from Vivian as head of Section V, Felix is also our point man on dealing with ‘5’. He won’t stand any nonsense.

RG-P: Will do, sir.

SP: What about young Trevor-Roper? Will he be a problem, too?

G-P: I don’t think so. He got a carpeting from Denniston after the deciphering business with Gill, and I think he’s learned his lesson.

SP: Cowgill told me he wanted him court-martialled  . . .

G-P:  . . . but I intervened to stop it. He’s a chum of sorts. Rides with us at the Whaddon. Or rather falls with us!

SP: Ho! Ho! A huntin’ man, eh? One of us!

G-P: He’s mustard keen, but a bit short-sighted. We have to pick him out of ditches now and then. I think I can deal with him.

SP: Excellent! But you and Cowgill should set up a meeting with Frost, White and Liddell fairly soon. Make sure Butler is involved. They will want to know what you are going to do with the VIs. They have been losing good people to other Y services. 

RG-P: Very good, sir. (pauses) I think Worlledge and Gill will have to go.

SP: Up to you, Richard. Do you have anyone in mind to lead the section?

RG-P: H’mmm. I think I have the chap we need. My Number Two, Maltby. He was at the School as well, and he has been in the sparks game ever since then. He’s a good scout. Utterly loyal.

SP: Maltby, eh? Wasn’t there some problem with the army?

RG-P: Yes, his pater’s syndicate at Lloyd’s collapsed, and he had to resign his commission. But he bounced back. I got to know him again after he helped the Navy with some transmission problems.

SP: And what about that business in Latvia? Didn’t we send him out there?

RG-P: Yes, he reviewed operations in Riga in the summer of ‘39. And it’s true we never received any intelligible messages from them. But I don’t think it was Maltby’s fault. Nicholson and Benton didn’t understand the ciphers.

SP: I see. So what is he doing now?

RG-P: He’s running the Foreign Office radio station at Hanslope Park. I know I shall be able to count on him to do the job. He also rides with the Whaddon.

SM: Capital! Have a chat with him, Richard, and let me know. All hush-hush, of course, until we make the announcement in a week or two.

RG-P: Aye-aye, sir. Is that all?

SM: That’s it for now. We’ll discuss details later. Floreat Etona, what, what?

RG-P: Floreat Etona, sir.

Edward Maltby

 “Maltby, who seemed to have started his military career as a colonel – one has to begin somewhere – was also an Etonian, but from a less assured background, and he clearly modelled himself, externally at least, on his patron. But he was at best the poor man’s Gambier, larger and louder than his master, whose boots he licked with obsequious relish. Of intelligence matters he understood nothing. ‘Scholars’, he would say, ‘are two a penny: it’s the man of vision who counts’; and that great red face would swivel round, like an illuminated Chinese lantern, beaming with self-satisfaction. But he enjoyed his status and perquisites of his accidental promotion, and obeyed his orders punctually, explaining that any dissenter would be (in his own favourite phrase) ‘shat on from a great height’. I am afraid that the new ‘Controller RSS’ was regarded, in the intelligence world, as something of a joke –  a joke in dubious taste. But he was so happily constituted that he was unaware of this.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, quoted by Edward Harrison in The Secret World, p 6)

“Peter Reid considers Gambier-Parry, Maltby & Frost as bluffers, and to some extent charlatans.” (from Guy Liddell’s diary entry for June 9, 1943)

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

In preparation for this month’s segment, I was organizing my notes on the Radio Security Service over the holiday in California, when I discovered that a history of the RSS, entitled Radio Wars, had recently been published by Fonthill Media Limited, the author being one David Abrutat. I thus immediately ordered it via amazon, as it seemed to me that it must be an indispensable part of my library. I looked forward to reading it when I returned to North Carolina on January 2.

For some years, I have been making the case on coldspur that a serious history of this much under- and mis-represented unit needed to be written, and hoped that my contributions – especially in the saga of ‘The Undetected Radios’ – might provide useful fodder for such an enterprise. Indeed, a highly respected academic even suggested, a few weeks ago, that I undertake such a task. This gentleman, now retired, is the unofficial representative of a group of wireless enthusiasts, ex-Voluntary Interceptors, and champions of the RSS mission who have been very active in keeping the flame alive. He was presumably impressed enough with my research to write: “The old stagers of the RSS over here would be delighted if you were to write a history of the RSS.”

I told him that I was flattered, but did not think that I was the right candidate for the task. My understanding of radio matters is rudimentary, I have no desire to go again through the painful process of trying to get a book published, and, to perform the job properly, I would have to travel to several libraries and research institutions in the United Kingdom, a prospect that does not excite me at my age. Yet, unbeknownst to my colleague (but apparently not to some of the ‘old stagers’, since Abrutat interviewed many of them), a project to deliver such a history was obviously complete at that time. My initial reaction was one of enthusiasm about the prospect of reading a proper story of RSS, and possibly communicating with the author.

The book arrived on January 4, and I took a quick look at it. I was then amazed to read, in the brief bio on the inside flap, the following text: “David Abrutat is a former Royal Marine commando, RAF officer, and zoologist: he is currently a lecturer in international relations and security studies in the Department of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He has long had a passionate interest in military history.” How was it possible that an academic at the institution where I had completed my doctorate was utterly unknown to me, and how was it that we had never been introduced to each other, given our shared interests, his research agenda, and the record of my investigations on coldspur?

What was more, the book came with a very positive endorsement from Sir Iain Lobban, Director of GCHQ from 2008-2014. He referred, moreover, to the author as ‘Dr Abrutat’, and finished his Foreword by writing: ‘I commend Radio War to all students of the strategic, operational, and tactical difference that intelligence can make in conflict and what passes for peacetime’. My interest heightened, I flipped through the book quickly, but then decided I needed to know more about the author.

His Wikipedia entry is inactive, or incomplete. I then discovered his personal website, at https://www.abrutat.com/. This confirmed his biography, but added the factoid that he also held the post of’ ‘Associate Fellow’ at Buckingham University. So I then sought out the Buckingham University website, but was puzzled to find that he was not listed among the faculty staff. Was the information perhaps out of date? I noticed that in 2018 Abrutat had delivered a seminar at Prebend House (the location where I had delivered my seminar on Isaiah Berlin), but I could not find any confirmation that he was a permanent member of the faculty. I thus posted a friendly message under the ‘Contact’ tab on his website, explained my background and interests, introduced him to coldspur, and indicated how much I looked forward to collaborating with him.

While I was waiting for his response, I reached out to Professor Anthony Glees, as well as to Professor Julian Richards, who now leads the Security and Intelligence practice (BUCSIS) after the retirement of Glees (my doctoral supervisor) last summer. Indeed, Professor Glees’s initial reaction was that Abrutat must have been signed up after his retirement, as he knew nothing of the engagement. I very gently pointed out to Richards the anomalies in the record, and stated how keen I was to know more about the doctor whose research interests so closely overlapped with mine. I also contacted my academic friend, whose ‘RSS’ colleagues appeared to have contributed much of the personal reminiscences that are featured in Abrutat’s book.

What happened next was rather shocking. Professor Richards admitted that Abrutat has been recruited as an occasional lecturer, but was not a member of the faculty. He insisted that Abrutat’s bona fides were solid, however, encouraging me to contact Abrutat himself to learn more about his qualifications, including the nature of his doctorate. After an initial warm response, Abrutat declined to respond further when I asked him about his background. Yet he did indicate that he had been appointed ‘Departmental Historian’ at GCHQ, a fact that was confirmed to me by another contact, who said that Arbutat was replacing Tony Comer in that role. An inquiry at GCHQ, however, drew a highly secure blank.

Thus I had been left out in the cold. But the information gained was puzzling. How was it that Abrutat had been engaged as some kind of contract lecturer without Professor Glees being in the know? And why would Abrutat claim now that he was a member of the faculty when he had indicated to me that his lecturing days were in the past? Why would the University not challenge Abrutat’s claims, and request that he correct the impression he had been leaving on his website and in his book that he was a qualified member of the faculty? And why would he give the impression that he had a doctorate in a relevant subject?

A few days later, I was just about to send a further message to Richards, when I received another email from Abrutat, in which he said that he had indeed been involved in some ad hoc engagements as a lecture at Buckingham, but had insisted on secrecy and anonymity because he was working for British Intelligence at the time. Now, such an explanation might just be plausible, except that, if Richard was hired in 2018, after his guest seminar at Prebend House in March, he was at exactly the same period publicising his relationship with the University to the world beyond. His website page declaring the affiliation was written in 2018, as it refers to a coming book publication date in May 2109, and one can find several pages on the Web, where, in 2018 and 2019, Abrutat promotes another book of his (Vanguard, about D-Day), exploiting his claimed position on the faculty of Buckingham University. So much for obscurity and anonymity! Moreover, the blurb for Radio Wars describes his current role as a lecturer ‘in the Department of Economics’ at Buckingham, even though Abrutat implied to me that even the informal contract was all in the past.

I thus replied to Abrutat, pointing out these anomalies, and suggesting that he and Professor Richards (who had taken five days to work out this explanation) might care to think again. Having heard nothing in reply, on January 13 I compiled a long email for Richards, expressing my dismay and puzzlement, informing him of my intentions to take the matter up the line, and inviting him thereby to consult with his superiors to forestall any other approach, and thus giving him the opportunity to take corrective action. My final observation to Richards ran as follows: “It occurs to me that what we might have here is what the business terms a ‘Reverse Fuchs-Pontecorvo’. When the scientists at AERE Harwell were suspected of spying for the Soviet Union, MI5 endeavoured, out of concern for adverse publicity, and in the belief that the miscreants might perform less harm there, to have them transferred to Liverpool University. The University of Buckingham might want to disencumber itself from Abrutat by facilitating his installation at GCHQ.”

After more than a week, I had heard nothing, so on January 21 I wrote to the Dean of the Humanities School, Professor Nicholas Rees, explaining the problem, and attaching the letter I had sent to Richards. A few days later, I received a very gracious response from Professor Rees, who assured me he would look into the problem.

On January 29, I received the following message from David Watson, the Solicitor and Compliance Manager at Buckingham:

“Dear Dr Percy

I refer to your email to Professor Rees of 21st January, which has been referred to me for response. I advise that Dr Abrutat, who has recently been appointed the official historian at GCHQ, is an Honorary Associate Fellow of the University of Buckingham (“the University”) and he does occasionally lecture at the University. The University intends for this relationship to continue and does not consider Dr Abrutat to have made any representations regarding his relationship with the University that would be harmful to the University’s reputation. In the circumstances, the University does not intend to take this matter any further.

As an alumni [sic!] of the University, as well as having been a student in the BUCSIS Centre, we would like to maintain close contacts and good relations with you.  As in all matters academic, there are some matters of academic judgement involved, and is important to respect the views of those with whom we might not always agree. 

I note your comment to the effect that you will “have to change your tactics” if the University does not act upon your concerns. Whilst it is not clear what you mean by this, I trust  that you do not propose to engage in any activities, which might be considered defamatory to the University and would request that you refrain from making any statements that go beyond the realm of reasonable academic discourse and which could potentially damage the University’s reputation (this includes ad hominem attacks on the University’s academic staff and/or associates).

I trust that the University’s position has now been made clear and advise that the University does not propose to enter into any further communications with yourself on this matter.

Yours sincerely 

David Watson”

I leave it at that. I have presented most of the facts, though not all.

Lastly, I have now read Abrutat’s Radio War. I decided that I needed to see what the author had to say, and the method he used to tell his story, before concluding my investigation of his relationship with Buckingham University. The experience was not good: it is a mess. I have, however, not addressed the book thoroughly, or taken notes – yet. I wanted to keep this segment exclusively dependent on my own research, and I shall defer a proper analysis of Abrutat’s contribution to the story of RSS for another time.

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

This segment of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’ is something of an aberration, designed to amplify statements and conclusions I made some time ago. It has been provoked by my access to a large number of National Archives files, non-digitised, and thus not acquirable on-line. This inspection was enabled by the efforts of my researcher Dr. Kevin Jones, photographing the documents at Kew, and sending them to me. I wish I had discovered Dr. Jones, and been able to us these files, earlier in the cycle, as this analysis would have found a better home in earlier chapters, especially Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the saga, and it should probably be integrated properly later. Readers may want to refresh their memories of my earlier research by returning to those segments, or reading the amalgamated story at ‘The Undetected Radios’. There will be some repetition of material, since I believe it contributes to greater clarity in the narrative that follows. It covers events up to the end of 1943.

The following is a list of the files that I relied on extensively for my previous research: WO/208/5096-5098, HW 34/18, HW 43/6, CAB 301/77, ADM 223/793, and FO 1093/484

For this segment, I have exploited the following files: DSIR 36/2220, FO 1093/308, FO 1093/145, FO 1093/484, HO 255/987, HW 34/18, HW 34/19, HW 34/30, HW 40/190, HW 62/21/17, KV 3/7,  KV 3/96, KV 3/97, KV 4/27, KV 4/33, KV 4/61, KV 4/62, KV 4/97, KV 4/98, KV 4/213, KV 4/214, MEPO 2/3558, WO 208/5095, WO 208/5099, WO 208/5101, WO 208/5102, and WO 208/5105.

This list is not complete. In my spreadsheet that identifies hundreds of files relevant to my broader inquiries, I have recorded several concerning RSS and wireless interception that my researcher/photographer in London has not yet captured. At the same time, Abrutat lists in his Bibliography many of the files that I have inspected, as well as a few that I did not know about, or had considered irrelevant. I have added them to my spreadsheet, and shall investigate those that relate to my period. (I have spent little time studying RSS’s story after the D-Day invasion, and have steered clear of its activities overseas.) On the other hand, I note several files used by me that have apparently escaped Abrutat’s attention. Thus some further process of synthesis will at some future stage be desirable.

One of the files (FO 1093/308) I received only at the end of January, just in time for me to include a brief analysis. This file, in turn, leads to a whole new series, the transactions of the Wireless Telegraphy Board (the DEFE 59 series), which should provide a thorough explanation of how the organisational decisions made on Wireless Telegraphy (‘Y’ services) in early 1940 affected wartime policy. That will have to wait for a later analysis.

I should also mention that E. D.R. Harrison’s article, British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-43, published in the English Historical Review, Vol. CXXIV No 506 (2009) continues to serve as a generally excellent guide to the conflicts between MI5 and SIS, although it concentrates primarily on the control over ISOS material, and does not (in my opinion) do justice to the larger issue of Signals Security that caused rifts between MI5 and RSS. I note, however, that Harrison lists some important files (e.g. HW 19/331) that I have not yet inspected.

I have organized the material into seven sections: ‘Tensions Between MI5 and RSS, Part 1’ (1940-41); ‘Tensions Between MI5 and RSS, Part 2’(1942-43); ‘The Year of Signals Security’;  ‘Mobile Direction-Finding’; ‘The Management of RSS’; ‘The Double-Cross Operation’, and ‘Conclusions’.

Tensions between MI5 & RSS, Part 1 (1940-41)

The overall impression given by various histories is that the transfer of control of RSS from MI8 to SIS in the spring of 1941 all occurred very smoothly. This tradition was echoed in the Diaries of Guy Liddell, who was initially very enthusiastic about the change of responsibility, since he knew that the Security Service was hopelessly overburdened with the challenges of sorting out possible illegal aliens and ‘Fifth Columnists’ at a time when the fear of invasion was very real. MI5 was deficient in management skills and structure, and Liddell initially had great confidence in the capabilities of Gambier-Parry and his organisation. It is true that, as the war progressed, Liddell voiced doubts as to whether SIS’s Section VIII was performing its job properly, but his complaints were generally very muted.

An early indication of MI5’s exclusion from the debates can be observed in the early wartime deliberations (January and February, 1940) of the Wireless Telegraphy Board, chaired by Commander Denniston of GC&CS (visible at FO 1093/308). Maurice Hankey, Minister without Portfolio in Chamberlain’s Cabinet, called together a task force consisting of the Directors of Intelligence of the three armed forces, namely Rear-Admiral Godfrey (Admiralty), Major-General Beaumont-Nesbitt (War Office), and Group-Captain Blandy (acting, for Air Ministry), Colonel Stewart Menzies, the SIS chief, and the Zelig-like young Foreign Office civil servant, Gladwyn Jebb. The group recommended a full-time chairman for a task that had changed in nature since war broke out, what with such issues of beacons, domestic illicit wireless use, and German broadcasting complicating the agenda. Yet what was remarkable was that the Group seemed to be unaware that Y services were being undertaken outside the armed forces. Moreover, there was no room for MI5 in this discussion, even though Lt.-Colonel Simpson was carrying on an energetic campaign to set up a unified force to handle the challenge of beacons and illicit domestic transmissions. Amazingly, the Board appeared to be completely unaware of what was going on inside MI5, or the negotiations it was having with MI8.

MI5 was in danger of losing its ability to influence policy. A year later the transfer of RSS took place, despite the fact that influential figures had challenged SIS’s overall competence. Major-General Francis Davidson, who had replaced Beaumont-Nesbitt as Director of Military Intelligence in December 1940, in February 1941 first questioned Swinton’s authority to make the decision to place RSS under Section VIII. (Beaumont-Nesbitt, who held the position for only eighteen months, was probably removed because he was notoriously wrong about a predicted German invasion, in a paper written on September 7, 1940. Noel Annan indicated that Admiral Godfrey did not rate ‘less gifted colleagues’ such as him highly, and in Changing Enemies  Annan witheringly described him as ‘the charming courtier and guardsman’.) Davidson apparently knew more about MI5’s needs than did his predecessor, and, as WO 288/5095 shows, he subsequently expressed major concerns about SIS’s ability to understand and manage the interception of signals, and to deal with the Post Office. He regretted that Petrie had apparently not yet spoken to Worlledge, or to Butler in MI8. (Handwritten notes on the letters suggest that Davidson was getting tutored by Butler.) Davidson’s preference echoed Simpson’s ‘unified control,’ but he was perhaps revealing his naivety and novelty in the job when he stated that MI5 (‘our original suggestion’) was the home he preferred for RSS, being unaware of MI5’s deep reluctance to take it on. He nevertheless accepted Swinton’s decision.

Colonel Butler had been particularly scathing about Gambier-Parry’s understanding of wireless interception issues. Before the decision was made, he stated (WO 208/5105) that Gambier-Parry had ‘little or no experience of this type of work’, and on March 23 reported Gambier-Parry as saying that, if RSS were under his control in the event of an invasion, he could not be held responsible for the detection of illicit wireless within the Army Zone, and had suggested a new organisation under GHQ Home Forces. “Colonel Gambier-Parry refers to operational agents and static agents but I do not know how one can differentiate between the two when heard on a wireless set,” wrote Butler. Both Butler and Worlledge thought that Petrie did not have full knowledge of the facts – a justifiable complaint, it would seem.

Worlledge had written a very sternly worded memorandum on February 14, 1941, where he stated: “It is not clear to me that anything would be gained by the transfer of R.S.S. ‘lock, stock, and barrel’ to any other branch unless that branch is in a position to re-organize R.S.S. completely on a proper military basis. In my opinion, R.S.S. should be organized as one unit, preferably a purely military unit though I would not exclude the possibility of a mixed military and civilian unit.” He was chafing more at the frustrations of dealing with the Post Office rather than the reliance on a crew of civilian interceptors, and his concerns were far more with the threat of soldiers in uniform invading the country, bearing illicit radio transmitters, than with the possibility of German agents roaming around the country. His voice articulated the broader issue of Signals Security that would rear its head again when the circumstances of war had changed.

And in April, 1941 (after the decision on the transfer was made, but before the formal announcement) when the threat of invasion was still looming, Butler had to take the bull by the horns, and inform the General Staff that RSS was incapable of providing the mechanisms for locating possible illicit wireless agents operating in the area of active operations, and that military staff should take on that responsibility, using some RSS equipment. Butler showed a good insight into the problem: “Apart from actual interception, the above involves a number of minor commitments such as the control of some wireless stations erected by our Allies in this country, monitoring of stations in foreign Legations in London, checking numerous reports of suspected transmissions and advising the Wireless Board and G.P.O on the control of the sale of radio components.” Fortunately, the threat of invasion was now receding, and Operation Barbarossa on June 22 confirmed it. The problem of ‘embedded’ agents was deferred, and the General Staff relaxed.

A valuable perspective on the challenges of the time was provided by one R. L. Hughes. In 1946, Hughes, then of MI5’s B4 section, submitted a history of the unit he had previously occupied, B3B, which had been a section in Malcom Frost’s group (see KV 4/27), and had played a large role in the exchanges of the time. What was B3B, and what was its mission? The exact structure of B3 between the years 1941 (after Frost’s W division was dissolved, and B3 created), and 1943 (when Frost left MI5, in January, according to Curry, in December according to Liddell!) is elusive, but Curry’s confusing organisation chart for April 1943, and his slightly contradictory text (p 259), still show Frost in charge of B3A (Censorship Issues, R. E. Bird), B3D (Liaison with Censorship, A. Grogan), B3B (Illicit Wireless Interception: Liaison with RSS, R. L. Hughes), B3C (Lights and Pigeons, Flight-Lieutenant R. M. Walker) and B3E (Signals Security, Lt. Colonel Sclater).

The confusion arises because Curry added elsewhere that Frost had taken on ‘Signals Security’ himself, and B3E was created only when Frost departed ‘in January 1943’. The creation and role of B3E needs to be defined clearly. B3E does not appear in the April 1943 organisation chart which Curry represented, and Frost did not depart until the end of November 1943. As for Sclater, the Signals Security expert, Colonel Worlledge had appointed him several years before as his ‘adjutant’ (according to Nigel West) at MI8c, and he thus may have been a victim of the ‘purge’ after Gambier-Parry took over. But a valid conclusion might be that Frost was unaware of how Sclater was being brought into MI5 to replace him, and saw his presence as a threat, even though Signals Security was nominally under his control. That Sclater would effectively replace Frost was surely Liddell’s intention, as Signals Security once again became a major focus of MI5’s attention.

Thus Hughes was right in the middle of what was going on, liaising with RSS, and he adds some useful vignettes to the tensions of 1940 and 1941, echoing what Lt.-Colonel Simpson had articulated about the importance of Signals Security. For example: “Colonel Simpson reported on the 15th September, 1939 on the condition of affairs at that time. He considered it quite unsatisfactory and suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxxx should be sought. It is interesting to note that he stressed the importance of Signals Security and recommended that there should be a monitoring service studying our own Service transmissions. He also stressed the importance of the closest possible collaboration between the Intelligence Organisation, M.I.5. and the technical organisation, R.S.S. He drew a diagram which pictured a wireless technical organisation in close liaison with the Services, G.C.& C.S., M.I.5., R.S.S. (then known as M.I.1.g.) and, through Section VIII, with M.I.6. M.I.5.was to provide the link with police and G.P.O. It may be noted that during the latter part of the war the organisation approximated to this, as Section V of M.I.6. established a branch working with R.S.S. under the name of the Radio Intelligence Section (R.I.S.)  . . .”

Why the name of the Colonel had to be redacted is not clear. As I have written before, it was probably Gambier-Parry himself, as the names of all SIS personnel were discreetly obscured in the records, and Curry in a memorandum indicated that Simpson had indicated that the Colonel was in MI6 (SIS). Gambier-Parry was not known for his shrewd understanding of signals matters, however, and at this stage Simpson would more probably have been invoking support from his true military colleagues. In any case, it is salutary that Simpson was so early drawing attention to the failings of security procedures within the armed forces, as this would be an issue of major concern later in the war, in which Frost would take a keen interest. Simpson’s message of ‘Unified Control’ is clear, and Hughes states that this issue caused a breakdown in negotiations between MI5 (then represented by Simpson) and RSS/MI8c. He goes on, moreover,  to describe how Malcolm Frost had responded to Walter Gill’s memorandum describing the functions of RSS by making a bid to manage the whole operation. This was a somewhat audacious move, as Frost had been recruited from the BBC to investigate foreign broadcasts, and he had nothing like the stature or reputation of Simpson.

Malcolm Frost is one of the most interesting characters in this saga, as his role has been vastly underrepresented. He may be one of those public servants whose contributions were sometimes diminished by jealousy, or personal dislike – perhaps like Felix Cowgill in SIS, or Jasper Harker of MI5 – and whose reputations have suffered because they were not invited to tell their side of the story. He was certainly a favourite of Lord Swinton for a while, as Swinton appointed him from the BBC, where he had been Director of Overseas Intelligence, to chair the important Home Defence Security Intelligence Committee, which included wireless interception. This promotion apparently went to his head a bit, and his ambitions and manœuverings quickly got under the skin of Liddell – and eventually Swinton himself. Yet, even though Swinton was recorded as saying, at the end of 1940, that Frost’s days at MI5 were numbered, Frost was a survivor, and proved to be an important thorn in the flesh of Gambier-Parry and RSS for the next couple of years. He seemed to be a quick learner, an analytical thinker, and a painstaking recorder of conversations, an operation that may have been designed to cover himself should his enemies turn against him more volubly. And indeed he had many enemies, probably because he behaved so antagonistically when trying to work through differences of opinion with anyone.

Ironically, however, the primary challenge to RSS’s governance in mid-1940 had come from the Post Office. What might have pushed Simpson over the edge was the GPO’s insistence that it had a charter to provide personnel and materials to MI8c, granted by the War Office, and approved by the Cabinet. When it was challenged on the quality of such, and on its sluggish bureaucracy, however, its representative dug his heels in, and reminded MI8c and MI5 that it was exclusively responsible for the detection of illicit wireless transmitters and would pursue that mission on its own terms. That charter was a legacy of peacetime operations, when it needed to track down pirate operators who might have been interfering with critical factory operations, or public broadcasting. Yet it was an argument doomed to failure.

Yet the GPO was not the only fly in the ointment. As the military threat increased, and Swinton soured on MI5’s capabilities, competent critics sighed over the apparent muddle. Before the SIS takeover, RSS had set up regional officers at exactly the same time (June 1940) that MI5 had established its own Regional Security Liaison Officers (RSLOs), leading to conflicts in searches and reporting. Both the military and the police were confused as to who exactly was in charge. And while the responsibility was more clearly defined with the transfer to SIS, several observers expressed their doubts about Gambier-Parry’s understanding of the true problem. As I have showed, the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Francis Davidson, newly appointed to the post, expressed his strong concerns to Swinton in January 1941, before the official decision was announced. Swinton tried to assuage him, but he was still expressing doubts in May 1941.

At the same time, Worlledge, having had a meeting with Gambier-Parry, also thought that the future new owner of the unit did not understand the technical issues well. Likewise, Colonel Butler of MI8c concluded that Gambier-Parry had ‘little or no experience’, and pointed out that Gambier-Parry had told him that he did not think that RSS would be responsible for any detection of illicit wireless in the event of an invasion – an appalling misjudgment. (At this stage of the war, there was a deathly fear of the possibility of German wireless agents working on English soil, assisting the invaders, with their traffic inextricably entwined with military communications.) But Butler was not to last long: he was feuding with Gordon Welchman of GC&CS at the time, and was let go in June 1941, perhaps another victim of Gambier-Parry’s purge.

What is fascinating is that Frost, despite his being logically discarded by his sponsor, Lord Swinton, in December 1940, evolved to be the main agent pestering Gambier-Parry over his inadequate machinery for tracking illicit transmitters in the UK – the core mission of RSS. KV 4/97 and KV 4/98 show how, after the year of acquaintanceship in 1941, when committees were setup, and procedures defined, the distrust began to establish itself in 1942. Liddell had already clashed with Gambier-Parry in May 1941 over possible undetected transmissions, Gambier-Parry holding on to the Gillean line that they would have to be two-way, and using this argument to deny that any could exist. (He was probably politically correct, but technically wrong, but at that stage of the war, a German invasion had not been excluded from consideration.) Trevor-Roper, performing brilliant work in developing schemata of the Abwehr’s operations, but now forced to work formally under Cowgill, was by now chafing at his boss’s obsession about control, as Cowgill was unwilling to distribute Trevor-Roper’s notes to MI5 or even to GC&CS, and a series of meetings attempted to resolve the impasse.

Frost was in the meantime becoming too inquisitive. On September 9, 1941, another meeting was held between Liddell, Frost, Gambier-Parry and Maltby to define Frost’s charter. A document was approved, although Liddell noted in his diary that it contained ‘a good deal of eyewash’. At an important meeting on October 3, Frost kept up the attack. Liddell reported that RSS was now intercepting 216 stations, and that there had been a steady rise in decoded traffic. Yet Frost voiced concerns about RSS’s energies being directed too much at group (i.e. Abwehr) traffic, and that a gap between RSS & Army Signals continued to exist. Liddell deemed that nobody was responsible for parachutists and the Fifth Column (if, of course, there was one: in truth, it remained a creation of another group in MI5 at the time.) In November, Cowgill was still expressing horror at the distribution of ISOS material, and effectively preventing MI5 from gaining feedback on the activities of its double agents.

Then, on November 19, Frost made a very puzzling comment to Liddell, informing him that ‘Gambier-Parry & Maltby deprecated his departure to the B.B.C.’ It would appear from this item that Frost was at this stage on the way out, and it might partly explain why Curry (who had moved on to a position as Petrie’s aide in October 1941) later wrote in his ‘History’ that Frost left MI5 in January of 1943, which was admittedly over a year later, but still a long time before Frost’s eventual departure. This show of remorse was certainly one of crocodile tears from Gambier-Parry and Maltby, and maybe Frost, under attack on all sides, was making a plea to Liddell that his talents were still needed. By this time, Liddell, who was beginning to get frustrated by illicit wireless transmissions (mostly from foreign embassies), may have concluded that, while he continued to complain to Vivian at SIS of the problem, he needed a dedicated pair of hands working below decks, and, with Frost having had his ambitious wings clipped, the BBC-man gained a stay of execution. Indeed, Liddell did later plan to liquidate Frost’s division: on February 9, 1943, however, he wrote that that move had been shelved, and Frost was not to leave until the end of November of that year. Liddell was probably already looking for a replacement.

Tensions between MI5 & RSS, Part 2 (1942-43)

Thus, despite the efforts to move him out, Frost survived, and 1942 was his most significant year in MI5. KV 4/97 shows a fascinating account of his perpetual tussles with Gambier-Parry and Maltby. In December 1941 and January 1942 he harangued Maltby over the problems and responsibilities of the mobile units, and argued with Morton Evans over transferring receivers to them. He asked questions about the distribution and equipment of personnel and equipment, which caused Morton Evans to rebuke him for being nosy. He became involved with the abortive exercise to exchange details of codes and frequencies with Soviet intelligence, and asked Maltby to disclose SIS secrets. Gambier-Parry had to lecture him that everything was under control. He wrote a detailed report on the state-of-the-art of interception, again suggesting that RSS did not really understand it. On September 20, he submitted a report to Liddell that criticised the clumsiness of current mobile detection devices, and his text indicates that at this stage MI5 was performing some experimental work of its own. A meeting was set up with Liddell and Maltby just over a week later, and soon afterwards Maltby was forced to admit that current coverage in the UK was inadequate. Frost pointed out problems with Elmes, one of Maltby’s sidekicks, and had to inform Liddell that the minutes of one RSS meeting needed to be corrected to include the mission of identifying illicit wireless in the British Isles – the perpetual blind spot of Gambier-Parry’s team.

All this resulted in a spirited defence by Major Morton Evans, who submitted a carefully argued paper on March 3, 1942 about the conflicts between the demands of watching and recording the undeniably real traffic of the enemy, and the need to uncover any wireless agents on the mainland (the ‘General Search’ function), concluding that a necessary balance was maintained that could not ensure both goals were perfectly met. He introduced the challenge of domestic illicit interception by writing: “By working at full pressure it is only possible to take about one hundred effective bearings a day, which means that only a very small percentage of the signals heard can be D/F’d, since the number of transmissions taking place throughout the day is in the order of tens of thousands. It therefore becomes necessary to narrow the field of those signals which are to be put up for bearings, and this means that the signal has to be heard more than once before it can be established that it is unidentified and therefore suspicious. The D/F stations are therefore employed largely by taking bearings on signals which have been marked down for special investigation, and when this is not a full time job the remainder of their time is spent on taking bearings of all suspicious signals which may be put up at random.”

This is a highly important report which shows the stresses that were placed on the Discrimination Unit that passed out instructions to the VIs, and how ineffective the Mobile Units would have been if they had to wait for multiple suspected transmissions, and then organize themselves to drive maybe hundreds of miles in the hope of catching the pirate transmitting again from the same location. It is also presents a provocative introduction to the claims made by Chapman Pincher about what Morton Evans told him about the traffic suspected as being generated by Sonia, and what Morton Evans was supposed to have done with it. As I shall show in a later piece, Morton Evans’s career makes Pincher’s testimony look highly dubious.

All this pestering by Frost, however, must have caused immense irritation to Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Cowgill, and may well have contributed to SIS’s suggestion (made through Vivian) that the RSS Committee be abolished. At a meeting on December 2, all except Maltby and Cowgill voted that the committee should not be discontinued, however, and a useful compromise, whereby the committee was split into two, a high-level and a low-level group, was eventually worked out. But, by now, the planning emphasis was much more on signals protection and detection of ‘stay-behind’ agents on the Continent when the inevitable Allied invasion of Europe took place, and Frost’s attention to domestic mobile units was beginning to sound wearisome.

In 1943, Frost took up the cudgels again, as KV 4/98 shows. A note by Frost to Liddell, dated January 27, 1943, indicates that Frost has now immersed himself into the techniques of broader signals security, and violently disagrees with Vivian and Gambier-Parry. Frost wrote: “He [Vivian] appears to presume that Gambier-Parry and S.C.U.3 are responsible for all functions which can be included under the heading ‘Radio Security’. This is false. Radio security involves not only the technical interception of suspected enemy signals, which is the function of R.S.S., but the planning of our own and Allied radio security measures and the investigation of illicit wireless activities from an intelligence angle. Parry frequently implies that he is responsible for all these activities. In fact, many bodies other than R.S.S. and the Security Service are engaged on radio security work under one heading or another, including the British Joint Communications Board, the Wireless Telegraphy Board, the Censorship, and the Signals Department of the Three Services.”  Thus Gambier-Parry was accused of two crimes: ineffectiveness in illicit wireless detection, a function he denied having, and misunderstanding the scope of Signals Security, a responsibility he thought he owned.

Frost goes on to mention Gambier-Parry’s excuse that he needs more funding: Frost asserts that Gambier-Parry has plenty of money for his own pet projects. Two weeks later, Frost is making demands to be on the high-level committee, and that Gambier-Parry should be removed – a bold initiative, indeed. This echoes the statement that Liddell had made to Petrie in December 1942, that ‘the plumbers (i.e. Gambier-Parry and Maltby) were directing intelligence, rather than the other way around’. Yet there was a further problem: while Vivian may have been declaring Gambier-Parry’s overall responsibility, Gambier-Parry was becoming a reluctant warrior on the broader issue of civil and military signals security. Gambier-Parry’s chief interest was in technology, in apparatus and codes, and some of the more complex and political aspects of radio security eluded him.

By now Frost was being eased out. Vivian’s proposal to Liddell on participants on the low-level committee excludes Frost, with Dick White and Hubert Hart suggested as members instead. Liddell and Vivian argue, about Frost and the Chairmanship, as well. Even Petrie agrees that MI5’s radio interests are not being adequately represented. The record here goes silent after that, but an extraordinary report in KV 4/33 (‘Report on the Operations of B3E in Connection with Signals Security & Wireless Transmission during the War 1939-1945’), written in May/June 1945 (i.e. as Overlord was under way) suggests that MI5 thereafter effectively took control of signals security through the efforts of Lt.-Colonel Sclater, a probable reject from Maltby’s unit at Hanslope, who at some stage led the Signals Security Unit within MI5.

The Year of Signals Security

A close reading of Liddell’s Diaries gives a better insight into the machinations of this period than does anything that I have discovered at Kew. 1943 was the Year of Signals Security, and the matter had several dimensions. The overall consideration was that, as the project to invade Europe (‘Overlord’) developed, the security of wireless communications would have to become a lot tighter in order to prevent the Nazis learning of the Allies’ battle plans. The unknown quantity of dealing with possible ‘leave-behind’ Abwehr wireless agents in France would require RSS to turn its attention to direction-finding across the Channel. Moreover, there were military, civil, and diplomatic aspects. While the Navy and the Air Force had adopted solid procedures for keeping their traffic secret, the Army was notoriously lax, as the General Staff had learned from decrypted ULTRA messages. * Much government use of wireless was also sloppy, with the Railways particularly negligent. When troops started to move, details about train schedules and volumes of personnel could have caused dangerous exposures. Governments-in-exile, and allied administrations, were now starting to use wireless more intensively. The JIC welcomed the intelligence that was gained by intercepting such exchanges, but if RSS and GC&CS could understand these dialogues, why should not the Germans, also?

[* The frequently made claim that naval ciphers were secure has been undermined by recent analysis. See, for example, Christian Jennings’s The Third Reich is Listening]

These issues came up at the meetings of the high-level Radio Security Committee. Yet, as Liddell reported in March 1943, Gambier-Parry was very unwilling to take the lead. He refused to take responsibility for signals security (suggesting, perhaps, that he had now taken Frost’s lesson to heart), and used delaying tactics, which provoked Frost and Liddell. Liddell believed that the JIC and the Chiefs of Staff should be alerted to both the exposures caused by lax wireless discipline and Gambier-Parry’s reluctance to do anything. As Liddell recorded on April 12: “G-P has replied to the D.G. on the question of Signals Security. His letter is not particularly satisfactory and we propose to raise the matter on the Radio Security Committee. Parry is evidently afraid that it may fall to the lot of R.S.S. to look after Signals Security. He is therefore reluctant to have it brought to the notice of the Chiefs of Staff that the Germans are acquiring a considerable knowledge about the disposition of our units in this country and elsewhere through signals leakages.” What is perplexing, however, is that Liddell does not refer in his Diaries to the April 1943 report put out by Sclater [see below], which presumably must have been issued before Sclater was officially hired to MI5.

Another trigger for action (May 31) was the discovery that agent GARBO had been given a new cipher, and that he had been given instructions to use the British Army’s procedure (callsigns, sequences) in transmitting messages. While this news was encouraging in the confidence that the Abwehr still held in GARBO, it was alarming on two counts. It indicated that the Germans were successfully interpreting army traffic, and it indicated that it would be a safe procedure as RSS had not been able to distinguish real army messages from fake ones. (Astute readers may recall that agent SONIA received similar instructions: the Soviets probably learned about it from Blunt.) This was of urgent concern to MI5, since, if RSS could not discriminate such messages, unknown Abwehr agents (i.e. some not under control of the XX Operation) might also be transmitting undetected. Even before this, the Chiefs of Staff realised that special measures need to be taken. In classic Whitehall fashion, they appointed a committee, the Intelligence Board, to look into the question. But in this case, they selected a very canny individual to chair the committee – one Peter Reid, who was a close friend (and maybe even a relative) of Guy Liddell.

On June 9, Liddell had a long chat with Reid, and informed him of the details of Garbo’s new cipher. Reid was characteristically blunt: “Reid considers G-P, Maltby & Frost as bluffers, and to some extent charlatans”, wrote Liddell. Reid thought that the Army ciphers and operations had to be fixed first: fortunately the Army staff now recognised the problem. A couple of weeks later, Reid was telling Liddell that MI5 should ‘logically control RSS’. He thought Frost was not up to the mark, technically inadequate, and probably recommended at this stage an outsider for Liddell to bring in, which might explain the eventual recruitment of Sclater. Reid’s committee also inspected RSS’s operation itself: Frost told Liddell that Reid might be looking into the communications of SIS and SOE, which had been Gambier-Parry’s exclusive bailiwick, and of which the head of Section VIII was particularly proprietary. Reid is much of a mystery: where he came from, and what his expertise was, are not clear. It is difficult to determine whether he is offering strong opinions based on deep knowledge of the subject, or energetic fresh views deriving from relative ignorance. (He was not the P.R. Reid who escaped from Colditz, and wrote of his exploits.) On August 20, Liddell recorded that Reid was ‘almost violent about the stupidity in handling intercept material’.

While Gambier-Parry was becoming increasingly under siege, Frost also appeared to have received the message that a career move was imminent. He told Liddell on August 7 that he was investigating a job with the Wireless Board. He was unhappy with his salary, and said ‘he should give another organisation the benefit of his services’, an observation that defines well his pomposity and high level of self-regard. Soon after this, one finds the first references to Sclater in Liddell’s Diaries. Yet Sclater is talking to Liddell ‘in the strictest confidence’ on August 26, which suggests that his appointment has not yet been regularized. It suggests that Sclater was frustrated with working at RSS (as any man of his calibre reporting to Maltby must surely have been): similarly, one can never see him accepting a job under Frost, to endure the same insufferable management style.

A few paragraphs in Sclater’s post-war History of the unit, submitted to Curry, gives a hint of how Sclater’s influence started. He claims that MI5’s initiative, in raising questions about possible leaks from civilian authorities, such as the Police and Railway Lines, resulted in the collection of ‘all possible details from other departments thought to be using radio communications’. MI5 then requisitioned the services of some RSS mobile units to monitor them. But the outcome was not good. “The results of monitoring some Police and Railway communications indicated a deplorable lack of security knowledge and some examples were included in a report which eventually reached the Inter-Department W/T Security Committee.” MI5 then succeeded in expanding the scope of the committee to include civilian use, the Committee having its name changed to ‘W/T Security’. This new Committee then issued the report that appeared on April 28, under Sclater’s name. Thus it is probably safe to assume that Sclater was at this time on secondment, since he did not appear in Curry’s organisation chart of April 1943, and would hardly have been nominated to criticize RSS from within the unit. Frost, however, should be credited with keeping the matter alive, even if he did not show mastery over the subject, or display tact when pursuing his investigations. (Harrison states that Sclater was not officially recruited by MI5 until January 1944.)

Liddell here records some shocking details of Sclater’s conclusions about RSS: “He told me in the strictest confidence that they had 3 M.U.s [mobile units] which had been carrying out exercises under McIntosh. He does not however think that the latter is a suitable person to conduct a search. He also told me that RSS in d.f.ing [direction-finding] an alleged beacon near Lincoln had given an area of several hundred square miles in which the search would have to be made. Their methods in d.f.ing continental stations were improving but they reckon on an error of 1% per hundred miles. This would mean a transmitter could only be located within an area of some 400 sq. miles. He also told me confidentially that he believed RSS were attempting to d.f. certain stations in France which only came up for testing periodically since they are believed to be those which will be left behind in time of invasion. RSS have said nothing to us about this officially. All this of course will have to come out when we get down to I.B. [Intelligence Board] planning.”

This exchange shows the high degree of confidence that Sclater had in Liddell and MI5 assuming the responsibility for Signals Security, but also his disillusion with Gambier-Parry. (A few weeks later, Gambier-Parry was to suggest that mobile units should not be taken across the Channel until the RSS had detected an illicit transmitter. A rather feeble interpretation of ‘mobility’  .  . .  Gambier-Parry certainly did not understand the problem of mobile illicit wireless use.) Yet Sclater’s willingness to criticize the RSS’s direction-finding capabilities implicitly suggests that the acknowledged expert on direction-finding, Major Keen, who also reported to Maltby, was not being used properly. Did Keen perhaps have something to do with Sclater’s move away from RSS?

Sclater’s arrival must have boosted Liddell’s knowledge – and confidence. An entry in his diary from September 10 is worth citing in full. The first significant observation is that he records that Vivian appeared not to be aware of RSS’s mission in detecting illicit wireless from the UK, thus providing solid reinforcement of the signals that Gambier-Parry had been issuing. In the only chapters of substance covering RSS (that I have found, before Abrutat), namely in Nigel West’s Sigint Secrets, suggests that RSS’s straying into counteroffensive operations at the expense of defensive moves was a result of Guy Liddell’s success, and that he himself initiated it (p 154). Since West mistakenly informs us that RSS was in fact created by MI5, and given the identity of MI8c ‘as a security precaution’, one has to remain sceptical of the author’s conclusions, while understanding how he might have contributed to the confusion about RSS

Newly emboldened, Liddell then wrote: “The other question to be decided is the security of the communications of allied Govts. This can be divided into three parts: allied forces, allied diplomatic and allied secret service. Vivian takes up a rather non possumus attitude on this question by saying that monitoring of the services of allied forces can easily be evaded by the transfer of the traffic to diplomatic channels. If this possibility exists, and obviously it does, we should monitor the diplomatic channels. All we are really asking is a clear statement of the facts. The services are supposed to be responsible for the security of the signals of allied services. What in fact are they doing about it? The Secret Service communications of allied Govts’ are supposed to be the responsibility of SIS. Have they the cyphers? Do they know the contents of the messages? If the cyphers are insecure what steps have been taken to warn the governments concerned? Do SIS ever take it upon themselves to refuse to send certain communications? If so is it open to government concerned to have them sent either through military or diplomatic channels? Our sole locus standi in this matter is that when a leak occurs we may well be looking all over the country for a body whereas in fact the information is going out over the air.” He followed up with a trenchant analysis of the R.S.C.  committee meeting on September 14, encouraging the RSS to deal with the Reid committee directly.

Realising that Frost was not a good ambassador for MI5, Liddell at this point tried to harness his  involvement with the Reid Committee until his new position was confirmed. “It was agreed at that meeting that RSS should monitor the civil establishments as and when they were able and turn in the results to the Reid Committee on which are represented Min. of Supply, MAP, GPO, Railways, and Police. All these bodies are on occasions co-opted to the Reid Committee. The reason why I did not press this matter at the meeting at Kinnaird House was that I did not want to build Frost up in a new job where he would again be at logger-heads with everybody. Had he not been there I should have pressed hard for our taking over the educational side and urged that RSS as our technical tool should monitor from time to time and turn in the products to us”, he recorded on November 12. The next day, Reid told Liddell that Frost had accepted a job with the BBC in connection with broadcasting from the Second Front. Frost’s swansong was to try to ‘liquidate’ the whole Barnet operation, and told his staff, before he left, of that drastic action. But, after his departure, Sclater was able to take on his role in B3E officially, and consider more humane ways of dealing with the problems at RSS. By then, with Frost gone, Maltby was sending out conciliatory signals to Sclater and Liddell about wanting to cooperate.

The relevant files on B3E (KV 4/33) can thus now be interpreted in context. The unit was stationed close to RSS’s Barnet headquarters, an outpost of MI5 in RSS territory, and Sclater maintained close contacts with parties involved with wireless, including the GPO Radio Branch, the Telecommunications Dept., responsible for Licenses, the Inspector of Wireless Telegraphy (Coast Stations), the Wireless Telegraphy Board, as well as the RSIC, the low-level RSS committee. Sclater’s main point was that the lessons of listening to the Abwehr, with their lack of discipline to names, identities, repeated messages, en clair transmissions, etc. were not being applied to British military or civilian communications in 1942. He pointed out that MI5 also had no official knowledge of all the many organisations that were using transmitters legally, which must have inhibited the effectiveness of any interception programme, whoever owned it. He identified appalling lapses of security, especially in the Police and Railways. The outcome was the report published on April 28, 1943, which made some urgent recommendations. Yet it must be recalled that B3E was apparently not established until after Frost left in December 1943, so Sclater’s account is not strictly accurate in its self-representation as an MI5 document.

This report therefore (with some allowances, perhaps, for the author’s vainglory) makes the claim that MI5 effectively took over control of RSS, ‘rooting out undisciplined use’, especially in the Home Guard. RSS was given strict instructions on how to deploy resources to cover Civil or Service traffic ‘as shall appear to the Security Service desirable’. MI5 was now represented on all bodies to do with radio interception, and exerted an influence on the JIC and SHAEF. MI5 co-authored with the Home Office instructions to all civil units, which were copied to the RSS. This file contains a fascinating array of other information, including examples of flagrant breaches of security, and it demands further attention. Signals Security had come full circle from Simpson to Sclater in five years. The ascent of Sclater marked the demise of Frost. Can it all be trusted? I don’t know. You will not find any reference to ‘Sclater’ or B3E’ in Christopher Andrew’s Defence of the Realm, but that fact will perhaps not surprise anybody.

Mobile Direction-Finding

The course of mobile direction-finding (and, implicitly, location-finding) during the war was not smooth. It was partly one of technology (miniaturizing the equipment to a degree that vans, or even pedestrians, could pick up signals reliably), and partly one of resources and logistics (to what extent was the dedication of personnel to the task justifiable when the threat seemed to diminish). Thus the years 1941-1943 can be seen in the following terms: a year of sustained concern about the threat of an invasion (1941); a year of relative quiet, and thus reflection, on the mainland, while the outcome of the war generally looked dire (1942); and a year of earnest preparation for the Allied invasion of Europe, when security of radio traffic, and the threat of illicit broadcasts, again rose in importance (1943).

The GPO had begun serious experiments as early as 1935, as is shown in DSIR 36/2220. The fact that a problem of ‘illicit radio transmissions’ in rural districts was considered a threat at this stage, even before Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, is breathtaking. Hampshire was chosen as the locality, and the exercise led to some dramatic conclusions. Negotiating country roads, and relying primarily on 1” scale maps (since cars had no built-in compasses) required much visual indication, and constant changing of direction to take fresh bearings. It was estimated that forty minutes of transmitting-time were required for any successful pursuit. Market-day interfered with the activity, and night operations required stationary observations at main road crossings, ‘as these are the most easily identifiable landmarks’. This was, for 1935, a remarkably imaginative exploit by the Post Office, and showed some important lessons to be built on.

By 1938, the War Office and the GPO, assuming war was imminent, were bringing the role of mobile operations to the forefront. Colonel Ellsdale of the Royal Engineer and Signals Board submitted a very detailed report (WO 208/5102, pp 68-74) of the perceived threat from agents operating in Britain, even ascribing to them a degree of mobility that was far beyond capabilities at the time. In March 1939, the War Office agreed to a considerable investment in Illicit Wireless Interception, including significant investment in mobile stations (see HW 62/21/17). Yet the focus by November 1939 had very quickly switched to beacon-finding, in the erroneous belief that Nazi sympathisers or German agents in Britain would be using such signals to help direct bombers to their targets. Thus the GPO’s annual expenditure in detection was planned to rise from £27,058 in 1939 to £343, 437 in 1940, and capital expenditures to increase from £13,425 to £211,325. A rapid-response squad was envisaged, with up to one hundred vans operating, and identifying the target in a period of between thirty and ninety minutes.

Fortunately, this investment was quickly shelved, as interrogations of prisoners-of-war indicated that there were no beacons operating from British territory. The direction of flights was maintained by tail bearings in Germany. Despite the generic concern about illicit transmissions, and MI5’s lack of knowledge of what licit transmissions were occurring, Beaumont-Nesbitt, the Director of Military Intelligence, called for a slowdown because of the costs. The GPO continued to make investments, but drew criticism from other quarters because of its inefficiencies and bureaucracy. By October 14, 1939, a meeting revealed that the GP had 200 mobile units in operation, but Simpson complained that the staff operating them were not competent. It was this background which prompted Colonel Simpson’s energetic response, but, since he was the individual most closely associated with the Beacon Scare, his voice was not always attended to seriously enough. In all probability, the units were disbanded, the staff was moved elsewhere, and the equipment was put in storage.

After the transfer of RSS to SIS in May 1941, MI5 actually started cooperating with the GPO on the creation of its own mobile units. In a history of B3B written by a Captain Swann (and introduced by R. L. Hughes of B3B – see KV 4/27), can be found the following statement: “Two mobile D/F and interception units were designed and constructed in co-operation with the G.P.O. Radio Branch, for use in special investigations outside the scope of the R.S.S. units. [What this means is not clear.] These cars were provided with comprehensive monitoring and recording facilities, and proved very useful in connection with the special monitoring assignments involved in the campaign to improve the Signals Security of the country’s internal services.”  A laboratory and workshop were set up, using contents of a private laboratory placed at the section’s disposal by one of the MI5 officers. The author said that it was cost-effective, supplemented by GPO apparatus. Hughes comments that this enterprise was a mistake, as it competed with RSS, and earned their enmity. (RSS obviously learned about it.) But ‘it filled the gap that RSS declined to stop’. Units and laboratories were supplied and equipped by the GPO: they were not handed over to RSS until March 1944. Thus another revealing detail about how RSS was seen to be unresponsive to MI5’s needs has come to light.

I shall consider Maltby’s approach to the problems of the mobile units later, when I analyse the minutes of his meetings. Malcolm Frost, meanwhile, was making constant representations to Liddell about the failings of the operation, and how it was having a deleterious affect on RSS-MI5 relationships (see KV 4/97). He reported on October 18, 1942, on a meeting with Gambier-Parry, which resulted in a commitment to provide greater local detection capabilities, but still using equipment and research facilities from the GPO. A few days later, Maltby, Elmes and Frost discussed moving MU bases from Leatherhead and Darlington to Bristol and Newcastle respectively. This was the period (as I discussed above), where Maltby was reluctantly admitting that little had been done with the units since RSS took them over from the GPO in the summer of 1941. The record is important, since it shows that Frost was capable of making some very insightful comments about the state-of-the-art of wireless interception. On September 8, 1942, he submitted a long report to Guy Liddell on the implications of signals security in the event of an allied invasion.

Moreover, policy in the area of follow-up remained confusing. Frost was also energetic in ensuring that local police forces did not act prematurely when illicit transmissions were detected – presumably to safeguard the sanctioned traffic of the double-agents around the country, and to ensure they were not arrested and unmasked. Regulations that MI5 had to be consulted in all cases had been set up on August 9, 1941, but they were not being obeyed faithfully. HO 255/987 describes some of the incidents where Frost had to remind the authorities of the law. “The Home Office has instructed Police that they may not enter houses of people suspected of possession of illicit wireless transmitters, without prior reference to MI5.” The exception was the case of suspected mobile illicit transmitters, since all double agents were stationary. Though even this policy had its bizarre aspects, as another memorandum notes: “An Individual apparatus is not enough for impounding; there have to be sufficient components to form a complete transmitter.” And Frost sometimes received his rewards. One notorious case (the Kuhn incident, wherein an employee of the Ministry of Supply was discovered using a radio illegally in Caldy, Cheshire) resulted in Frost’s receiving an obsequious letter of apology by a Post Office official.

Lastly, a section of the report on B3E gives a glimpse of how MI5 was at some stage strengthened by the arrival of personnel from RSS. In a report titled ‘Liaison with R.S.S. Mobile Units’, the author confirms that MI5 was deploying a parallel organisation. “For this purpose,’ the report runs, ‘in addition to the main D/F stations belonging to R.S.S., there was a Mobile Unit Organisation with 4 bases, namely Barnet, Bristol, Gateshead and Belfast. At each base were station cars fitted with direction-finding apparatus for the search after the fixed D/F Stations had defined the approximate area in which it was thought the agent’s transmitter was situated. It was the duty of B.3.E. to co-operate with R.S.S. Mobile Unit Section at all times and, if necessary, supply an officer to accompany the units on any operation which might take place in the U.K.” Such cases came two ways: through RSS interception, and from MI5 evidence. The MI5 officers on whom liaison duty evolved were all ex-RSS employees.

This is a strange account, for, if B3E was indeed not established until January 1944 (as Harrison asserts), the threat of detection of domestic illicit wireless agents (the ‘purpose’ referred to above) was at that time negligible. Is this another example of grandstanding, in this instance by Sclater? By now, the primary and consuming focus was to on the challenges of mobile units in Europe, on ‘the Second Front’, as Liddell and all irritatingly continued to call it, echoing Stalin’s propaganda. Illegal transmissions would continue to be an irritant, as HW 34/18 displays, but they would occur when the war was virtually over, and then won, such as in foreign embassies. One entry from December 20, 1945 even states that ‘Much useful information was passed on to Discrimination as a result of further transmissions from the Soviet Embassy, only 100 yards from Colonel Sclater’s home, from where the MU detachment worked.’ The fact that those who are entrusted with the task of writing the history may distort it to their own benefit is once again a possibility.

The Management of RSS

Was Maltby unfairly maligned by Trevor-Roper? The historian’s experiences in dealing with the Controller of the RSS are, it appears, a rare impression. Trevor-Roper’s waspish comments about members of the military whom he encountered during the war may not be entirely fair: he accused Gambier-Parry of ‘maintaining a fleet of Packards’ at Whaddon , without indicating that it had been acquired in order to provide mobile units equipped with wireless to accompany the major command headquarters of the Army with capabilities for Ultra intelligence to be distributed. It is true that the seventy or so 1940 Packard Coupes included three that Gambier-Parry reserved for himself, Maltby and Lord Sandhurst, as Geoffrey Pidgeon’s Secret Wireless War informs us. When the first models were shipped out to North Africa, they were however found to be unsuitable for off-road use, and in 1943 the equipment was installed in existing army vehicles instead. This perhaps echoed the unfortunate experiences of wireless equipment that could not survive parachute jumps.

An equipped RSS Packard in Alexandria

Yet Pidgeon’s fascinating compendium does provide some other hints to Maltby’s character and prowess. He was apparently not the sharpest technical officer, and relied largely on Bob Hornby: the episode of his travelling to Latvia to coach embassy staff (cited by Nigel West in GCHQ) is confirmed by Philip J. Davies, in MI6 and the Machinery of Spying, but does not reflect well on his technical competence.  Davies states that Maltby made a ‘cameo appearance’ in the memoir by Leslie Nicholson, the Passport Control Officer (cover for SIS) in Riga, which was confirmed by Kenneth Benton, Nicholson’s deputy. Pidgeon describes how the ace technician, Arthur ‘Spuggy’ Newton, made several trips to Europe before and during the war to install two-way wireless links. Between 1938 and the end of 1941 he was constantly travelling, and one of these assignments involved Nuremberg, Prague, Warsaw, Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm. It is probable that Riga was another capital he visited, although one John Darwin was also involved. Maltby may have toured Europe after Newton, checking on the field networks. Pat Hawker recorded how Maltby was more ‘in his element’ showing VIPS around the premises at Whaddon, and Pidgeon claims that Arkley (the headquarters of RSS), ‘although nominally under Maltby, was actually run on a daily basis by Kenneth Morton-Evans’, his deputy.

Maltby was generally not popular. At one stage there were three candidates in the running for the position as Gambier-Parry’s second-in-command, Maltby, Micky Jourdain, and John Darwin. On June 6, 1939, Darwin wrote that he took Maltby out to lunch, writing: “I think we will get on well together but if I am to be Gambier’s second-in-command, it is going to be a trifle difficult.” Pidgeon states that harmony between all three deputies did not last.  Squabbling between Gambier-Parry’s wife and Mrs. Jourdain broke out openly, with the result that Jourdain had to be transferred.  Darwin was in fact mortally ill, and had to leave the unit in January 1940, so Maltby rose by default to his post as Gambier-Parry’s deputy.

After Maltby’s appointment as chief of RSS, Lord Sandhurst, who had been responsible for assembling the troupe of Voluntary Interceptors, indicated he disapproved of Maltby’s appointment as Controller of RSS. Pat Hawker, one of the VIs, wrote the following: “‘Sandy’ was no longer in a position directly to influence RSS policy; indeed both he and particularly his wife had little affection for [Colonel] Ted Maltby who had been made Controller, RSS by Gambier-Parry. Unlike most of the original Section VIII senior personnel, Maltby had not come from Philco (GB) but had been chief salesman to a leading London hi-fi and recording firm well used to ingratiating himself with his customers and superiors.” It is perhaps surprising how the wives were integral to the career prospects of such officers, and there may be some disdain for commerce behind these opinions, but the indications are that Maltby was better at public relations than he was in intelligence matters or leadership.

He left a remarkable legacy, however. The National Archives file at HW 34/30 offers a record of all Maltby’s staff meetings from 1941 to 1944. The first noteworthy aspect of this is that the minutes exist – that a highly secret unit would perform the bureaucratic task of recording discussions and decisions made. The second is the manner in which Maltby went about it. He was clearly a lover of protocol, and believed that his primary job was recording decisions made in order to improve communications, and the understanding of responsibilities by his staff. Moreover, each meeting is numbered, so the record can be seen to be complete. (No meetings were held in 1944 until after D-Day, which is a solid signal that security was tightened up everywhere.)

The first meeting of the Senior Officers’ Conference was held on September 29, 1941, and sessions were held each Tuesday in Maltby’s office at Barnet. The initial intent was to hold meetings weekly: this apparently turned out to be excessive, and the frequency diminished, with intervals of up to several weeks, on occasion, but each meeting was still numbered sequentially. Maltby’s obsession with recording every detail shows an organizing mind, but also betrays that he really did not distinguish between the highly important and the trivial: thus the ordering of gumboots for the mobile unit personnel in Thurso, Scotland, the construction of womens’ lavatories, the ordering of photocopying equipment, and the precise renaming of Trevor-Roper’s unit as 3/V/w/ are given exactly the same prominence as the major problem of trying to make the Post Office deliver the secure lines required for communication between Hanslope and Whaddon. Maltby is not one who can make things happen behind the scenes: he likes to delegate, but does not intervene when tasks cannot be accomplished on time, which probably frustrated many of his team. Lord Sandhurst, for instance, was an active participant for the first few months, but left to take up a senior post elsewhere in SIS by the end of 1941.

The authorised historian (whoever that will be) will do proper justice to these minutes, and maybe they will be transcribed and published one day. I here simply extract and analyse a few items that touch the question of the detection of illicit wireless in the United Kingdom, and shed light on Maltby’s management style. One sees glimpses of the recognition that a more disciplined approach to classifying suspicious traffic was needed. Hence a meeting of November 9, 1941 focuses on the matter of General Search, ‘to ensure that any new and unidentified signal shall be heard and reported’. The VI, ‘having found a new transmission he should continue to watch it whenever heard, until his initial report has been returned with instructions.’ ‘Normally signals such as (i) a known R.S.S. Service. (ii) Army, Navy and Airforce traffic of all nations. (iii) known commercial stations. (iv) transmissions previously reported but identified as unwanted by R.S.S. are not suspicious. But the V.I. should bear in mind that an illicit signal might be an imitation of (i) or (iii).’ The effort is considered tedious, but very important. Yet the issue is left dangling, and it was behaviour like that which must have frustrated Frost and Liddell in MI5. (This analysis was picked up by Morton Evans in the report mentioned earlier.)

What puzzles me is that a complete register of known approved and official transmitters of wireless messages, with their schedules, callsigns, frequencies, patterns, etc., was not compiled at the outset. (This was a problem that Sclater had identified, noting in his report that at the beginning of the war, ‘MI5 had no official knowledge of many organisations using transmitters: Experimental Stations of the Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Aircraft Production, Police, Fire Brigade, Railways, in addition to all the G.P.O. and Cable and Wireless Stations.’ Sclater estimated a thousand transmitters in operation, excluding the supply ministries and the services.) A forceful leader would have overcome the security objections that would no doubt have been raised, and accomplished such a project, thus making it much easier to detect signals that were not covered by the register. And if an earlier motion had been made in demanding the improvement of Army Signals Security, the troublesome matter of alien transmissions imitating Army procedures could have been forestalled. Indolence in that area led to the departure of Sclater to work on the problem for the Intelligence Board, and then MI5.

Another example involves Major Keen, the acknowledged worldwide expert on direction-finding.  At a meeting on October 7, 1942 (Number 26), under the line item ‘VHF – DF Equipment’, it is recorded: “Major Keen reported that he had been in touch with Marconis regarding the delivery of this equipment, and had found that the holdup was not due to non-availability of vibrator units but to the fact that Marconis were prone to concentrate on the orders of those who badgered them most.” The Controller (always identified as such) responded in less than helpful terms: “The Controller suggested that Major Keen should apply pressure to expedite delivery and that, if necessary, he would himself call and see Admiral Grant. It was decided that he would not do this until Major Keen had made further efforts to expedite delivery.” Major Keen was not suited to such work, and it was inefficient to make further demands on him in this role: the matter should have been sorted out at the Gambier-Parry level.

The file is replete with such gems. My conclusion is that Trevor-Roper was probably justified in describing Maltby as he did. He was unsuitable in the post, and resembled an Evelyn Waugh figure from Men at Arms, promoted above his due by the fortunes of war, and the fact that Gambier-Parry seemingly found his company congenial. Moreover, I can find no reference to Major Sclater, Worlledge’s adjutant. The minutes of the first few meetings include the ‘Deputy Controller’ as one of the attendees, and since most of them were Majors, one might expect Sclater to have been on the team in that function. Yet the indication is that Lt.-Colonel Lacey filled that role, as his name appears in the minutes, but he is not identified separately as attending. (In 1942, Major Morton Evans would become Deputy Controller: after the war, he joined MI5, and would work in B Division, as his name appears as ‘B2B’ in the Foote archive. At some stage, in 1950 or later, he was appointed Security Adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, since Nigel West states that, when Liddell retired, he replaced Morton Evans in that role.) As former adjutant, Sclater may have been listed as ‘C/ i/c Administration’, with access to the minutes, but not invited to the conference. Further investigations may show us the facts, but, in any case, one cannot see Sclater lasting long under Maltby’s leadership. Worlledge had resigned, or been forced to move out, in the summer of 1941, and maybe Sclater soon followed him.

The Double-Cross Operation

A few important activities have come to light in a perusal of KV 3/96 and 3/97, HW 40/90, KV 4/213 and KV 3/27.

A decryption of Abwehr traffic from August 13, 1940, made on September 20, indicated that General Feldmarschall Milch had reported that thirty spies were then in training to be sent to the United Kingdom. Soon afterwards, Vivian of SIS informed Dick White (assistant director of B Division) that the Germans claimed to have efficient agents in many British harbour towns who were supplying information on shipping movements. This advice may have alarmed White, but it was probably unreliable. Vivian was able to provide much more useful information in December, when an agent in Budapest telegraphed that the Germans were planning to insert several Sudetenland Germans into the country under the guise of being Czech refugees. This confirmed the German policy of not sending German nationals as part of the LENA spies, as their cover stories would not hold up so well, and the Nazis may have judged non-German natives might well escape the direst prosecution of ‘working for the enemy’.

Another item shows that DMI Davidson was learning – slowly.  KV 4/213 provides great insights into MI5’s thoughts as to how the double agents should be most effectively used, and indicates that after the threat of invasion had passed, and plans for using them for deception proposes to support OVERLORD were not yet relevant, there was much discussion as how they might be sued for propaganda purposes. (It was not until July 1942 that operational plans were advanced enough for the double-agents to be considered suitable for deception purposes.) After one meeting in mid-February, 1941, when Masterman had been educating members of government about the project, he added a fascinating observation to his memorandum to his boss: “D.M.I. asked me after the meeting whether R.S.S. picked up the messages of our agents. He made the point that, if they did not, it was an alarming criticism of their efficiency and utility. If, however, they did, it was equally alarming, because our messages would then be known to a large number of people, including many of the voluntary interceptors.”

Davidson was groping towards an important truth. As Masterman pointed out to him (although the record shows that Masterman himself was not really familiar with the details, since he admitted that he was not sure how often RSS picked up their messages). ‘it would be difficult for the voluntary interceptors to decode the messages.’ In fact it would have been impossible, owing to skills and time pressures, but, the major point was that, if RSS could pick them up, then certainly German Intelligence Services would have been able to. That was the perpetual dilemma that MI5 had to deal with throughout the war.

Lastly, KV 4/27, outlining the achievements of B3B, contains some rich accounts both of Illicit Wireless activity investigated by MI5 from 1939-1945, as well as the duties that the unit assumed in liaising with B1A in controlling double agents, based on interceptions reported from RSS. The former report is worthy of deeper analysis another time, but the author reported that about 2,400 incidents were investigated during the course of the war, and some were of B1A double-agents whose activity had raised suspicions by housewives, window-cleaners, etc. R. L. Hughes, B4 in August 1946, included the following paragraphs, when describing how he kept RSS informed of what B1A’s agents were doing: “B.3.B maintained records of no less than 14 agents who came into this category. The work involved reporting back to B.1.A.the results of R.S.S. monitoring of any suspicious stations noted and was undoubtedly of value to both parties. Full details of these cases concerned will be found in the B.1.A. records referring to ZIGZAG, TATE, ROVER, SNIPER, BRUTUS, FATHER, MUTT & JEFF, SPRINGBOK, TRICYCLE, DRAGONFLY, MORIBUND, GARBO, IMMORTAL and MOONBEAM.” Rather mournfully, he added: “The B.3.B. papers concerning these activities have been destroyed.” The list is fascinating, as little is known about ROVER or MOONBEAM (apparently based in Canada), and I have not come across IMMORTAL or MORIBUND before.

Conclusions

In January, 1946, Sir Samuel Findlater Stewart wrote a report on the achievements of RSS, with recommendations for its future disposition (see FO 1093/484). His DNB entry states that, during the war he had been ‘chairman of the Home Defence Executive and chief civil staff officer (designate) to the commander-in-chief, Home Forces. He was also appointed chairman of the Anglo-American co-ordinating committee set up to deal with the logistic problems of the establishment of the United States forces in Britain, and ‘played a significant part during this period in dealing with the problems of security’. Findlater Stewart also had to approve the information to be passed on by the double agents of the XX Operation. He was thus in all ways in an excellent position to assess the mission and contribution of RSS. I shall return to Findlater Stewart’s report in my final chapter, and merely highlight a few of his observations here.

The report is drafted with typical civil servant vagueness, with heavy use of the passive voice. The author does, however, indicate that it had originally (when?) been intended (by whom?) that the RSS should report to Menzies’s Communications Section, because of the natural affinity between the latter’s establishment of secret radio communications, and the RSS’s need to detect them, but that Swinton wanted to wait until Section VIII had matured. Findlater Stewart then went on to write: “The new system attempted a much greater precision. It started from the proposition that the basis of an efficient service must be as complete an identification of all the traffic capable of being received in this country. When this had been done the task of identifying illicit transmission would be simplified, because almost automatically the suspect station would be thrown up as one which did not fit into the pattern of licit transmissions the Service had drawn.”

This is, to me, an astonishing misrepresentation of the problem and the response. Apart from crediting too much to the level of systematization achieved, the emphasis on reception in the UK, rather than transmission from it, betrays a lack of understanding of the challenge. To assert that all traffic from around the world that was perceptible by monitoring stations in the UK could be catalogued, and sorted into licit and illicit transmissions is ridiculous: the volume was constantly changing, and the notions of ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ have no meaning on international airwaves. Moreover, many of the UK’s interception (Y) stations were overseas. What might have been possible was the creation of a register of all licit transmitting stations in the UK, so that apparently unapproved stations – once it could be shown that they were operating from UK soil, which almost exclusively required detection of the groundwave – could be investigated. Maybe that was what Findlater Stewart meant, but on this occasion ‘his sound practical judgment of men and things; his capacity to delegate; his economy of the written word’ (DNB) let him down. And even if we grant him license for the occasional muddling of his thoughts, he greatly overstated the discipline of any such system. What he hinted at would have made obvious sense, and it may have been what he was told at Security Executive meetings, but it definitely did not happen that way.

Thus, as the story so far covers events up until the end of 1943, I would make the following conclusions:

  1. Military Intelligence wanted to cast off RSS (MI8c), because of a) the problems of managing civilian staff, b) the struggles in dealing with the General Post Office, and c) the responsibility of a mission for civilian protection. Yet it neglected its responsibility of wireless security in the military. Worlledge and Sclater were champions of the latter, but lost out. Worlledge’s pressing for MI5 after Simpson left, however, was foolish. If Military Intelligence couldn’t solve the GPO supply problem, why did it think MI5 or SIS could do so?
  2. Y (interception) services were surpassingly scattered, among the GPO, RSS (professional stations as well as Voluntary Interceptors), the Army, Navy and Air Force, Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, and even GCHQ itself. This was probably not an efficient method of organizing the collection of potentially harmful messages and valuable enemy traffic. Simpson’s energies within MI5 and the efforts of the high-level Y investigation in 1940 appeared to proceed in parallel, without any cross-fertilisation. The new Y Committee, set up in 1941, was not an effective force. The VIs were allowed to drift into concentrating more on Abwehr signals, and the domestic threat was not approached in a disciplined fashion. Gambier-Parry’s and Vivian’s repeated denials of responsibility for interception are very provocative in their disingenuousness. (Even such an accomplished historian as David Kenyon has been swept into this misconception: in his 2019 book, Bletchley Park and D-Day, he describes RSS as ‘a body tasked with the interception of Abwehr wireless traffic’.)
  3. RSS was weakly led, but it did not receive much direction –  not from Maltby, not from Gambier-Parry (whose preferences were more in design of equipment), not from Menzies (who, according to JIC chairman Cavendish-Bentinck, would not have survived for more than a year had it not been for GC&CS), not from the JIC, not from the General Staff, and certainly not from the Foreign Office or the Home Office. Findlater Stewart of the Security Executive was confused, as was Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence.
  4. Gambier-Parry’s Section VIII did some things very well (the secure distribution of ULTRA), but others not so well (manufacturing of equipment for SIS and SOE agents, and providing mobile units to accompany the army).
  5. Signals Security did not appear to be the responsibility of Section VIII or RSS, but it took an ex-RSS adjutant, working independently for the Intelligence Board, and then for MI5, to get matters straightened out. A History of Signals Security needs to be written: not just RSS (but other Y), not just GC&CS, not just SIS (where Jeffery fails). It would analyse MI5, SIS, including RSS & GC&CS, the armed forces, the GPO, the BBC, the JIC, the General Staff and Military Intelligence, the Foreign Office and Governments-in-exile.
  6. The practice of domestic illicit wireless was never tackled properly, especially when it came to a disciplined approach of tracking it down. What mobile units were supposed to achieve was never defined, and they remained a gesture of competence, frequently inventive, but too sparse and too remote to be a rapid task-force. Fortunately, they were never really required.
  7. MI5 was caught in a Morton’s Fork over its double agents, but got away with it. It desperately did not want them to be casually discovered, and the whole secret to come out in public. It wanted RSS to be able to detect their transmissions, even when they were masked as official military signals, as it was important that MI5 became aware of any unknown German agents who had infiltrated the country’s defences, and were transmitting back to Germany. Yet, if RSS did indeed pick up and discern these transmissions, it meant that the Germans might in turn be expected to wonder why its agents were so remarkably able to broadcast for so long undetected.
  8. There was a tendency, once the war was won, to praise every section enthusiastically. The RSS VIs did well, and so did GCHQ, but SIS and Section VIII had a very mixed track-record, and the Double Cross operation was exaggeratedly praised. A remarkable number of persons and officers were unsuited to their jobs, and, despite the coolness with which the authorised histories describe events, the conventional array of jealousies, feuds, ambitions, rivalries and even blunders exerted a large influence on proceedings.

The last chapter of the saga will describe the events of the first six months of 1944, when the FORTITUDE deception campaign led to the successful invasion of Normandy.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

1 Comment

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

Border Crossings: Coldspur & Stalin

NIHIL ARCANUM MIHI ALIENUM EST

Immigration Problems

One of the most stressful days of my life occurred at the end of July 1980. I had been spending the previous few months commuting between the UK and the USA, courtesy of Freddy Laker, spending three weeks in Connecticut before a break of a week at home in Coulsdon with Sylvia and the infant James, and then flying back to the USA for another sojourn. For some months, we had been trying to sell the house, while I looked for a place to live in Norwalk, CT., and began to learn about US customs, banking practices, documentary requirements for applying for a mortgage, etc. etc.. Meanwhile, I started implementing the changes to the Technical Services division of the software company I was working for, believing that some new methods in the procedures for testing and improving the product with field enhancements, as well as in the communications with the worldwide offices and distributors, were necessary. Sylvia successfully sold the house. I had to arrange for our possessions to be transported and stored, and decide when and how we should eventually leave the UK. On the last decision, Sylvia and I decided that using the QEII for the relocation would be a sound choice, a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity, perhaps, and one that would be less stressful for the three of us. We thought we would stay in the USA for a few years before returning home.

And then, three days before we were due to sail, I discovered that our visas had still not come through. I had been told by my boss (the CEO of the company) that an attorney who specialised in such matters would apply for an L-1 visa (a training visa, of limited duration), and that it would later be upgraded to a resident alien’s visa. I had met the attorney, and given him all the details, and he had promised me that I would be able to pick it up at the American Embassy in London. But when I went there, the officials knew nothing about it. Some frantic phone-calls across the Atlantic followed, and I was eventually able to pick up the visas the day before we left Southampton. Such was the panic that I cannot recall how we travelled from home to Southampton, or how we packed for the week’s cruise with a ten-month old son, but we made it. The cruise itself turned out to have its own nightmares, as my wallet was stolen (probably by a professional pickpocket who funded his trips by such activities), and I spent the last three days on the ship desperately looking for it, since it contained my driving licence (necessary for applying for a US driver’s license), as well as a few other vital items. It was not a comfortable start to our new life.

Fortunately, we still had our passports and visas intact. We were picked up in New York, and I was able to show Sylvia her new house (which, of course, she had never seen before). If she had any qualms, she was very diplomatic in suppressing them. We settled in: the neighbours were kind. They were Jews originally from Galicia, Bill and Lorraine Landesberg. I recall that Bill named ‘Lemberg’ as his place of birth – what is now known as Lvov, in Ukraine. (Incidentally, I recall a school colleague named Roy Lemberger. I conclude now that his forefathers must have moved from Lemberg some generations before in order for his ancestor to be given the name ‘the man from Lemberg’.) I suspect that the Landesbergs found us a bit exotic, even quaint.

I recall also that my boss had encouraged me to rent, not buy (‘Interest rates will come down in a couple of years’), but I had thought that he was probably trying to cut down on relocation expenses. That conclusion was solidified by another incident. During the summer, he had succeeded in selling his outfit to a local timesharing company (‘timesharing’ being what was not called ‘cloud computing’ at the time). I obtained a copy of the parent company’s Personnel Policies, and discovered that it offered a more generous overseas relocation allowance, and presented my findings to my boss. He was taken by surprise, and somewhat crestfallen, as he knew nothing of the policy, and the expenses had to come out of his budget.

In any case, this windfall helped with the acquisition of new appliances, required because of the voltage change. I must have applied for a re-issue of my UK licence, and soon we acquired two cars. We chose General Motors models, a decision that my colleagues at work also found quaint, as they were buying German or Swedish automobiles, and stated that no-one would buy an American car those days. Gradually, we found a pace and rhythm to life, a reliable baby-sitter, and the changes I had made at the company seemed to have been received well – especially by the support personnel I had left behind in Europe. My parents were coming out to visit us that Christmas.

Indeed, I was next recommended (by my predecessor) to host and speak at the key product Users’ Group being held that autumn/fall. I later learned that relationships between the company management and the Users’ Group were very strained, because of failed promises and indifferent support, and I was thus a useful replacement to address the group – a fresh face, with a British accent, an expert in the product, with no corporate baggage. I thus quite eagerly accepted the assignment, prepared my speeches, and set out for Toronto, where the meeting was being held. It all went very well: the group seemed to appreciate the changes I was making, and I was able to offer several tips on how to diagnose the system expertly, and improve its performance.

Thus I made my way back through Toronto airport with some glow and feeling of success. Until I approached the US customs post, after check-in. There I was told that I was not going to be allowed to re-enter the United States, as I was in possession of an L-1 visa, and as such, had committed an offence in leaving the country, and could not be re-admitted. (My visa had not been checked on leaving the US, or on entry to Canada, where my British passport would have been adequate.) I was marched off to a small room to await my fate. Again, the experience must have been so traumatic that I don’t recall the details, but I believe that I pleaded, and used my selling skills, to the effect that it had all been a harmless mistake, and Canada was really part of the North-American-GB alliance, and it wouldn’t happen again, and it was not my fault, but that of my employer, and I had a young family awaiting me, so please let me through. The outcome was that a sympathetic officer eventually let me off with an admonishment, but I could not help but conclude that a tougher individual might not have been so indulgent. What was the alternative? To have put me in a hotel, awaiting a judicial inquiry? This could not have been the first time such a mistake occurred, but maybe they didn’t want to deal with the paperwork. And I looked and sounded harmless, I suppose.

I eventually acquired the much cherished ‘Green Card’, which gave me permanent resident status, and the ability to change jobs. (That became important soon afterwards, but that is another story.) This was an arduous process, with more interviews, forms to fill out, travelling to remote offices to wait in line before being interrogated by grumpy immigration officials. Many years later, we repeated the process when we applied for citizenship. It was something we should have done before James reached eighteen, as he had to go through the process as well on reaching that age. One reason for the delay was that, for a period in the 1990s, adopting US citizenship meant a careful rejection of any other allegiance, and we were not yet prepared to abandon out UK nationality. At the end of the decade, however, we were allowed to retain both, so long as we declared our primary allegiance to the USA. (Julia was born here, so is a true American citizen, as she constantly reminds us.) More questions, visits to Hartford, CT., citizenship tests on the US constitution and history, and then the final ceremony. I noticed a change: when I returned from a visit abroad, and went through the ‘US Citizens’ line, the customs official would look at my passport, smile and say ‘Welcome Home’.

Illegal Immigration

All this serves as a lengthy introduction to my main theme: what is it about ‘illegal immigration’ that the Democratic Party does not understand? I know that I am not alone in thinking, as someone who has been through the whole process of gaining citizenship, that such a firm endorsement of an illegal act is subversive of the notion of law, and the judicial process itself. When, at one of the early Democratic Presidential Candidate debates held on television, all the speakers called not only for ‘open borders’ but also for providing free healthcare to all illegal immigrants and asylum-seekers, I was aghast. Did they really think that was a vote-winner, or were they all simply parading their compassionate consciences on their sleeves, hoping to pick up the ‘progressive’ or the ‘Hispanic’ vote? For many congresspersons seem to believe that all ‘Hispanics’ must be in favour of allowing unrestricted entry to their brethren and sisterhood attempting to come here from ‘Latin’ America. (Let us put aside for now the whole nonsense of what ‘Hispanic’ or ‘Latino’ means, in relation to those inhabitants of Mexico and South America who speak Quechua, Aymara, Nahuatl, Zapotec, German, Portuguese, etc. etc.) Many ‘Hispanic’ citizens who are here legally likewise resent the entitlements that others from south of the border claim, suggesting that it is somehow their ‘right’ to cross the border illegally, and set up home somewhere in the USA. There should either be a firmer effort to enforce the law, as it is, or to change it.

Moreover, the problem is by no means exclusively one of illegal immigration. It concerns authorized visitors with temporary visas who outstay their welcome. Almost half of the undocumented immigrants in the USA entered the country with a visa, passed inspection at the airport (probably), and then remained. According to figures compiled by the Center for Migration Studies, ‘of the roughly 3.5. million undocumented immigrants who entered the country between 2010 and 2017, 65% arrived with full permission stamped in their passports.’ The government departments responsible can apparently not identify or track such persons. I read this week that an estimated 1.5 million illegal immigrants reside in Britain.

The problem of mass migration, of refugees, of asylum-seekers affects most of the world, in an environment where asylum was conceived as a process affecting the occasional dissident or victim of persecution, not thousands trying to escape from poverty or gang violence. But we do not hear of throngs of people trying to enter Russia, China, or Venezuela. It is always the liberal democracies. Yet even the most open and generous societies are feeling the strain, as the struggles of EU countries trying to seal their borders shows. It is not a question of being ‘Pro’ or ‘Anti’ immigration, but more a recognition that the process of assimilation has to be more gradual. A country has to take control of its own immigration policy.

I was reminded that this cannot be made an issue of morality, instead of political pragmatism, when I recently read the obituary of the Japanese Sadako Ogata, the first woman to lead the U.N. Refugee Agency. She was quoted as saying: “I am not saying Japan should accept all of them [people escaping from Syria]. But if Japan doesn’t open a door for people with particular reasons and needs, it’s against human rights.” The statement contained the essence of the dilemma: Ogata recognised presumably inalienable human ‘rights’ to move from one country to another, but then immediately qualified it by suggesting that only ‘particular reasons and needs’ could justify their acceptance. And who is to decide, therefore, which reasons and needs are legitimate? Not an Open Borders policy, but some form of judicial investigation, presumably.

. . . and Healthcare

The Democratic candidates then compounded their confusion by their demonstration of ‘compassion’ for claiming that they would allow such illegal immigrants free access to healthcare. Now here is another controversial example of the clash between ‘rights’ and pragmatism. Heaven knows, the healthcare ‘system’ in this country is defective and ‘broken’, but then I suspect that it is in any other country where, alternatively, medical treatment is largely controlled by the state. I read last week that Britain’s National Health Service has 100,000 vacancies, and that 4.4 million persons are now on waiting lists. (We have the antithesis of the problem over here. While a patient needing a knee-replacement has to wait six months or more in the UK, when I was referred to a knee specialist a few months ago, within ten minutes, without even calling for an MRI, the doctor recommended, because of arthritis showing up on X-Rays, that I needed a knee-replacement, and, before you could say ‘Denis Compton’, he would probably have fitted me in for the operation the following week if I had pursued it. His prosperity relies on his doing as many operations as possible. I am successfully undertaking more conservative treatments. Moreover, the American insurance system is littered with incidents where insurance companies pay absurd sums for processes that never happened.) France, I read, is having similar problems as the UK: is Finland the current model for how welfare and enterprise coexist successively? Maybe we should all migrate to Finland.

‘Medicare for all’. Apart from the fact that such a program is estimated by its champions to cost about $30 trillion over the next ten years, where will all the doctors and medical practitioners come from to satisfy the new demands? Will they be raided from ‘developing’ nations, who would surely ill afford the loss? Again, this matter is often represented as an ‘entitlement’ issue, one of ‘basic human rights’.  Consider what the UN says. Article 25 of the United Nations’ Universal Declaration of Human Rights states that ‘Everyone has the right to a standard of living adequate for the health and well-being of himself and of his family, including food, clothing, housing and medical care and necessary social services.’ Well, one can regret the obviously sexist language here – what about ‘every person and his or her wife or husband, and members of their blended or rainbow family, including members of the LGBQT community’ – but let that pass. It also did not state that subscribing nations should appoint a Minister for Loneliness. This was 1948, after all.

Reflect also on what the Declaration does not say: “Every individual should have access to healthcare, including the ability to gain, in a matter of four weeks, an appointment with a reputable gastro-enterologist whose practice is within twenty miles of where he or she lives.” “Every individual has the right to be treated by a qualified shaman who can recite the appropriate incantations over the invalid for an affordable fee.” “Every individual has the right to decline approved immunization processes for their children out of religious conviction.” I do not make these points as a frivolous interjection, but again to point out how the provision of healthcare in any country has to be based on pragmatics and economics, and will often clash with religious opposition and superstitions.

It is bewildering how many of the electorate in the USA appear to have swallowed the financial projections of Senators Warren and Sanders for their expansive plans. To suggest that such money can be raised by taxing what are mostly illiquid assets, and that such government programs could presumably be permanently funded by the continuance of such policies, is economic madness. Some commentators have pointed out that wealthy individuals would find ways of avoiding such confiscation, yet I have noticed very little analysis of the effect on asset prices themselves in a continued forced sale. The value of many assets cannot be determined until they are sold; they would have to be sold in order to raise cash for tax purposes; if they are to be sold, there have to be cash-owning buyers available; if a buyers’ market evolves, asset values will decline. (One renowned economist suggested that the government could accept stocks and shares, for instance, and then sell them on the open market  . .  . . !) The unintended consequences in the areas of business investment and pension values would be extraordinary. Yet the Democratic extremists are now claiming that such a transfer of wealth will provoke economic growth, quickly forgetting the lessons of a hundred years of socialism, and also, incidentally, undermining what some of them declare concerning the deceleration of climate change.

In summary, we are approaching an election year with a Democratic Party desperate to oust Donald Trump, but in disarray. The candidates for Presidential nominee are a combination of the hopelessly idealistic, the superannuated and confused, and the economically illiterate. I believe that those who stress the principles of Open Borders and a revolutionary Medicare for All program seriously misjudge the mood and inclinations of what I suppose has to be called ‘Middle America’. But now Michael Bloomberg has stepped into the ring. As [identity alert] ‘an Independent of libertarian convictions with no particular axe to grind’, I have found it practically impossible to vote for either a Republican or a Democratic Presidential candidate since being granted the vote, but here comes someone of proven leadership quality, a pragmatist (for the most part), and one who has changed his political affiliations – just like Winston Churchill. In a recent interview, he described himself as ‘a social liberal, fiscal moderate, who is basically nonpartisan’. I could vote for him. But Michael – you will be 78 next February! Another old fogey, like Biden and Sanders! Why didn’t you stand four years ago?

The Kremlin Letters

‘The Kremlin Letters’

I started this bulletin by referring to experiences from thirty-nine years ago, and conclude by describing events thirty-nine years before that, in 1941. This month I started reading The Kremlin Letters, subtitled Stalin’s Wartime Correspondence with Churchill and Roosevelt, edited by David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov, which was published last year. It is proving to be an engrossing compilation, since it exploits some previously undisclosed Russian archives. The Acknowledgements inform readers that ‘a carefully researched Russian text was revised and rewritten for an Anglophone audience’. The core material is therefore what historians prefer to base their interpretations on – original source documents, the authenticity and accuracy of which can probably not be denied. A blurb by Gabriel Gorodetsky on the cover, moreover, makes the challenging assertion that the book ‘rewrites the history of the war as we knew it.’ ‘We’? I wondered to whom he was referring in that evasive and vaguely identified group.

Did it live up to the challenge? A crucial part of the editing process is providing context and background to the subjects covered in the letters. After reading only one chapter, I started to have my doubts about the accuracy of the whole process. David Reynolds is a very accomplished historian: I very much enjoyed his In Command of History, which analysed Winston Churchill’s questionable process of writing history as well as making it. I must confess to finding some of Reynolds’s judgments in The Long Shadow: The Great War and the Twentieth Century a little dubious, as he seemed (for example) to understate what I saw as many of Stalin’s crimes.

What caught my attention was a reference to the Diaries of Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador in London for much of WWII. I have previously explained that I think Maisky’s Diaries are unreliable as a record of what actually transpired in his conversations with Churchill and Eden, in particular, and regretted the fact that certain historians (such as Andrew Roberts) have grabbed on to the very same Gabriel Gorodetsky’s edition of the Diaries (2015) as a vital new resource in interpreting the evolution of Anglo-Soviet relations. (see http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/) Now David Reynolds appears to have joined the throng. Is this another mutual admiration society?

The controversy (as I see it) starts with Stalin’s initial letter to Churchill, dated July 18, 1941, a few weeks after Barbarossa (the invasion of the Soviet Union by Nazi Germany), following Churchill’s two messages of support communicated via Ambassador Cripps. Stalin’s message included the following paragraph:

“It is easy to imagine that the position of the German forces would have been many times more favourable had the Soviet troops had to face the attack of the German forces not in the region of Kishinev, Lwow, Brest, Kaunas and Viborg, but in the region of Odessa, Kamenets Podolski, Minsk and the environs of Leningrad”. He cleverly indicated the change of borders without referring to the now embarrassing phenomenon of the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact. (Stalin then went on to request, absurdly and impertinently, that Great Britain establish ‘fronts’ against Germany in northern France and the Arctic.)

What is this geographical lesson about? Reynolds introduces the letter by writing: “And he sought to justify the USSR’s westward expansion in 1939 under the Nazi-Soviet Pact as a life-saver in 1941, because it had given the Red Army more space within which to contain Hitler’s ‘sudden attack’.” My reaction, however, was that, while Stalin wanted to move very quickly on justifying the borders defined by the Molotov-Ribbentrop Pact, his military analysis for Churchill’s benefit was poppycock. For what had been a strong defensive border built up during the 1930s, known as the Stalin Line, had effectively been dismantled, and was being replaced by the Molotov Line, which existed as a result of aggressive tactics, namely the shared carve-up of Poland and the Baltic States by Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. (See diagrams below. In all the historical atlases I possess, I have not been able to find a single map that shows the Stalin and Molotov Lines, and the intervening territory, clearly, and have thus taken a chart from Read’s and Fisher’s Deadly Embrace, which does not include the border with Finland, extended it, and added the locations Stalin listed.)

The Stalin Line
The Molotov Line
The Area Between the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line

I was confident, from my reading of the histories, that the Soviet Union’s annexation of the limitrophe states (as Hitler himself referred to them) had weakened the country’s ability to defend itself. After all, if the ‘buffer’ states’ that Stalin had invaded (under the guise of the secret protocols of the Molotov-Ribbentrop pact) had been allowed to remain relatively undisturbed, Hitler’s invasion of them on the way to Russia in the spring of 1941 would have warned the Soviet Union that Hitler was encroaching on the Soviet Union’s ‘sphere of influence’ and that its traditional, internationally recognised border would soon be under attack. ‘More space’ was not a benefit, in other words. Thus the analysis of this period must address how seriously Stalin believed that forcing the buffer states to come under the control of the Soviet army would impede a possible invasion (which Stalin expressly still feared) rather than facilitate it. Reynolds does not enter this debate.

Ambassador Maisky delivered this message from Stalin to Churchill at Chequers. Reynolds then echoes from Maisky’s diary the fact that Churchill was very pleased at receiving this ‘personal message’, and then goes on to cite Maisky’s impression of Churchill’s reaction to the border claims. “Churchill also expressed diplomatic approval of Stalin’s defence of shifting Soviet borders west in 1939-40: ‘Quite right! I’ve always understood and sought to justify the policy of “limited expansion” which Stalin has pursued in the last two years’.”

Now, my first reaction was that Churchill, as a military historian and as a politician, could surely not have expressed such opinions. I seemed to recall that he had been highly critical of both the Nazi invasion of Poland as well as the Soviet Union’s cruel takeover of the Baltic States, where it had terrorized and executed thousands, as well as its disastrous war against Finland in the winter of 1940. (Lithuania was initially assigned to Germany, according to the Pact, but was later transferred to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.) Churchill must also have known that dismantling a strong defensive wall, and trying to establish a new one, under pressure, in countries where Stalin had menaced and antagonised the local citizenry, would have been a disastrous mistake as preparation for the onslaught that Hitler had long before advertised in Mein Kampf. Did he really make that statement to Maisky? Had these assertions of Maisky’s been confirmed from other sources?

Then I turned the page to read Churchill’s response to Stalin, dated July 20. Here was the evidence in black and white: “I fully realise the military advantage you have gained by forcing the enemy to deploy and engage on forward Western fronts, thus exhausting the force of his initial effort.” This was astonishing! What was Churchill thinking? Either I was completely wrong in my recollection of how historians had interpreted the events of Barbarossa, or Churchill had been woefully ignorant of what was going on, and insensitive to the implications of his message, or the British Prime Minister had been tactfully concealing his real beliefs about the annexations in an attempt to curry favour with Generalissimo Stalin. Which was it? In any case, he was shamelessly and gratuitously expressing to Stalin approval of the brutal invasion of the territory of sovereign states, the cause he had gone to war over. Churchill’s message consisted of an unnecessary and cynical response to Stalin’s gambit, which must have caused many recriminations in negotiations later on. As for ‘exhausting the force of his initial effort’, Churchill was clutching at Stalin’s straws. Where was the evidence?

I decided to look up evidence from sources in my private library to start with. First, Maisky’s Diaries. Indeed, the details are there. Maisky indicates that he translated (and typed up) the message himself, and that, since he told Anthony Eden that it dealt with ‘military-strategic issues’, the Foreign Secretary did not request that he be in attendance when it was read. Maisky adds that ‘the prime minister started reading the communiqué ‘slowly, attentively, now and then consulting a geographical map that was close at hand’. (Those placenames would certainly have not been intimately familiar.) Maisky singles out, rather implausibly, Churchill’s reaction to the ‘expansion’ policy. When Churchill had finished reading the message, however, Maisky asked him what he thought of it, and Churchill ‘replied that first he had to consult HQ’. One thus wonders whether he would have given anything away so enthusiastically in mid-stream, and why he would have concentrated on the geographical details when the substance of the message related to more critical matters.

What other records of this visit exist? I turned to John Colville’s Fringes of Power: 10 Downing Street Diaries,1939-1955. Colville records the meeting, albeit briefly. “At tea-time the Soviet Ambassador arrived, bringing a telegram for the P.M. from Stalin who asks for diversions in various places by English forces. It is hard for the Russians to understand how unprepared we still are to take the offensive. I was present while the P.M. explained the whole situation very clearly to poor, uninformed Maisky.”  Maisky records Churchill’s protestations about the futility of trying to invade mainland Europe without admitting his own miserable ignorance: Colville makes no reference to the exchange over the Baltic States.

Did Churchill or Eden make any relevant observation at this time? I have only my notes from Eden’s The Reckoning, which refer to Maisky’s demands for the Second Front, but indicate nothing about the Baltic States at this time. (The matter would surface ominously later in the year, when joint ‘war aims’ were discussed.). I own only the abridgment of Churchill’s war memoirs, which contains no description of the meeting with Maisky. And what about the biographies? The Last Lion, by William Manchester and Paul Reid, while spending several paragraphs on Stalin’s demands for a second front, makes no mention of the telegram and the Maisky meeting, or the contentious issue of Soviet borders. Roy Jenkins’s Churchill is of little use: ‘Maisky’ appears only once in the Index, and there are no entries for ‘Barbarossa’ or ‘Baltic States’. I shall have to make a visit to the UNCW Library in the New Year, in order to check the details.

Next, the military aspects of the case. Roger Moorhouse, in The Devil’s Alliance, provides a recent, in-depth assessment. “Since the mid-1920s, the USSR had been constructing a network of defenses along its western border: the ukreplinnye raiony, or ‘fortified areas,’ known colloquially as the ‘Stalin Line.’ However, with the addition of the territories gained in collaboration with the Germans in 1939 and 1940, those incomplete defenses now lay some three hundred or so kilometers east of the new Soviet frontier. Consequently, in the summer of 1940, a new network of defenses was begun further west, snaking through the newly gained territories from Telŝiai in Lithuania, via eastern Poland, to the mouth of the Danube in Bessarabia. It would later be unofficially named the ‘Molotov Line’.” These were the two boundaries to which Stalin referred, obliquely, in his telegram.

Moorhouse explains how the Soviets were overwhelmed in the first days of the invasion, partly because of Stalin’s insistence that his forces do nothing to ‘provoke’ Hitler, but also because his airfields and troops were massively exposed. “After two days, the capital of the Lithuanian Soviet Republic, Vilnius, fell to the Germans; a week after that, the Latvian capital, Riga, the Byelorussian capital, Minsk, and the western Ukrainian city of L’vov (the former Polish Lwów) had also fallen. By that time, some German units had already advanced over 250 miles from their starting position. Already, almost all the lands gained under the pact had been lost.” The Red Air Force had been annihilated on the ground, with thousands of aircraft destroyed because they sat in airfield in rows, unprotected and unguarded. “Facing the full force of the blitzkrieg, the Red Army was in disarray, with surviving troops often fleeing eastward alongside columns of similarly leaderless refugees. In some cases, officers attempting to stem the panic and restore order were shot by their own troops.”

This account is echoed by Antony Beevor, in The Second World War: “The Red Army had been caught almost completely unprepared. In the months before the invasion, the Soviet leader had forced it to advance from the Stalin Line inside the old frontier and establish a forward defence along the Molotov-Ribbentrop border. Not enough had been done to prepare the new positions, despite Zhukhov’s energetic attempts. Less than half of the strongpoints had any heavy weapons. Artillery regiments lacked their tractors, which had been sent to help with the harvest. And Soviet aviation was caught on the ground, its aircraft lined up in rows, presenting easy targets for the Luftwaffe’s pre-emptive strikes on sixty-six airfields. Some 1,800 fighters and bombers were said to have been destroyed on the first day of the attack, the majority on the ground. The Luftwaffe lost just thirty-five aircraft.” Michael Burleigh, in his outstanding Moral Combat, reinforces the notion of Soviet disarray: “On 22 June three million troops, 3,350 tanks, 71.146 artillery pieces and 2,713 aircraft unleashed a storm of destruction on an opponent whose defences were in total disarray, and whose forces were deployed far forward in line with a doctrinaire belief in immediate counter-attack.”

Yet I struggled to find detailed analysis of the effect of the moved defensive line in accounts of the battles. Christer Bergstrom’s Operation Barbarossa 1941: Hitler Against Stalin, offers a detailed account of the makeup of the opposing forces, and the outcomes of the initial dogfights and assaults, but no analysis on the effect on communications and supply lines that the extended frontier caused. Certainly, owing to persecutions of local populations, the Soviet armies and airforce were operating under hostile local conditions, but it is difficult to judge how inferior the Soviet Union’s response was because of the quality of the outposts defending the frontier, as opposed to, say, the fact that the military’s officers had been largely executed during the Great Purge. The Soviet airfields were massively exposed because German reconnaissance planes were allowed to penetrate deep into the newly-gained territory to take photographs – something they surely would not have been permitted to perform beyond the traditional boundaries. On the other hand, I have found no evidence that the Soviet Union was better able to defend itself in Operation Barbarossa because of the movement of its western border, as Stalin claimed in his telegram.

I have also started to inspect biographies of Stalin. Dmitri Volkogonov’s Stalin: Triumph and Tragedy (1998, English translation 1991) is quick to list several causes for the disaster of Barbarossa: Stalin’s hubris in wanting to restore the old imperial borders too quickly, the lack of attention to defensive strategies, the fact that, in January 1941, General Zhukov recommended unsuccessfully that the ‘unfavourable system of fortified districts’ be moved back 100 kilometres from the new border, the overall zeal in meeting production quotas resulting in too many defective aircraft, and high crash rates, and their poor protection on exposed airfields. But while criticising Stalin, Volkogonov appears the inveterate Communist, claiming equivocally that  ‘while the moral aspect of the annexation of the Baltic states was distinctly negative, the act itself was a positive [sic!] one’, that ‘the overwhelming majority of the Baltic population were favourable to their countries’ incorporation into the Soviet Union in August 1940’, and even that ‘the decision to take over Western Ukraine and Byelorussia  . . . was broadly in accord with the desire of the local working class population’. These statements are highly controversial, and further study is called for. Meanwhile, Marshall Zhukov in his Memoirs (1969) offers a mostly propagandist account of the tribulations of 1941, but does provide the scandalous information that German saboteurs had cut the telegraph cables in all of the Western Frontier Districts, and that most units had no radio back-up facilities.

How did Churchill’s attitudes over the Baltic States evolve over time? Anthony Read’s and David Fisher’s Deadly Embrace contains an indication of Churchill’s early opinions cited from the latter’s Gathering Storm: “The British people  . . . have a right, in conjunction with the French Republic, to call upon Poland not to place obstacles in the way of a common cause. Not only must the full co-operation of Russia be accepted, but the three Baltic States, Lithuania, Latvia, and Estonia, must also be brought into the association  . .  There is no means of maintaining an eastern front against Nazi aggression without the active aid of Russia. Russian interests are deeply concerned in preventing Herr Hitler’s designs on Eastern Europe.” Yet that was said in April 1939, well before the pact was signed. Churchill at that time was surely not considering that the Baltic States had to be occupied by the Soviet Union in order to provide a bulwark against the Germans. In any case, the States (and Poland) were more in fear of the Bolsheviks than they were of the Nazis.

I turned to Robert Rhodes James’s edition of his speeches, Churchill Speaks 1897-1963, and was rather astonished by what I found. On October 1, 1939, after war had been declared, and after the dismemberment of Poland, Churchill referred to ‘Russia’s’ interests without referring to the fate of the Baltic States. “What is the second event of this first month? It is, of course, the assertion of the power of Russia. Russia has pursued a cold policy of self-interest. We could have wished that the Russian armies should be standing on their present line as the friends and allies of Poland instead of as invaders. But that the Russian armies should stand on the line was clearly necessary for the safety of Russia against the Nazi menace.” A highly inflammatory and cynical opinion expressed by the future Prime Minister, who quickly turned his attention to the Balkans in his ‘riddle wrapped in a mystery inside an enigma’ oration.

A few months later, Churchill picked up his analysis with commentary on the Finnish war, where the Soviet invasion (part of the exercise to create a buffer zone between Leningrad and hostile forces) had provoked a robust reaction in Britain, and even calls to send troops to help the Finns. Again, Churchill evinced more rhetoric than substance. “Only Finland – superb, nay sublime – in the jaws of peril – Finland shows what fine men can do. The service rendered by Finland to mankind is magnificent. They have exposed, for all to see, the military incapacity of the Red Army and of the Red Air Force. Many illusions about Soviet Russia have been dispelled in these fierce weeks of fighting in the Arctic Circle. Everyone can see how Communism rots the soul of a nation: how it makes it abject and hungry in peace, and proves it base and abominable in war. We cannot tell what the fate of Finland may be, but no more mournful spectacle could be presented to what is left to civilized mankind than this splendid Northern race should be at last worn down and reduced to servitude by the dull brutish force of overwhelming numbers.” Well, it surely did not take the invasion of Finland to show how a nation subjugated by Communism could be ruined, as the famines of the Ukraine and Stalin’s Gulag had showed.

On March 30, 1940, Churchill was again critical of the two totalitarian states. “What a frightful fate has overtaken Poland! Here was a community of nearly thirty-five millions of people, with all the organization of a modern government, and all the traditions of an ancient state, which in a few weeks was dashed out of civilized existence to become an incoherent multitude of tortured and starving men, women and children, ground beneath the heel of two rival forms of withering and blasting tyranny.” Indeed, sir. Yet Churchill could be remarkably selective in identifying the places suffering under extremist cruelty: Britain was at war with Germany, not with the Soviet Union, and he would come to soften his criticism of Stalin’s variety of tyranny.

For the year after his appointment as Prime Minister, Churchill was concentrated primarily on the war in western Europe, and the threats of invasion, and his speeches reflect those concerns. All that time, however, he was welcoming the time when the Soviet Union would be forced to join the Allies. In February, 1941, he reminded his audience that Hitler was already at the Black Sea, and that he ‘might tear great provinces out of Russia.’ In April, he said that the war ‘may spread eastward to Turkey and Russia’, and that ‘the Huns may lay their hands for a time upon the granaries of the Ukraine and the oil-wells of the Caucasus.” By this time he was warning Stalin of the coming German invasion, advice that the dictator chose to ignore.

When the invasion occurred, Churchill immediately declared his support for the Soviet Union. This was the occasion (June 22, 1941) when he professed that ‘no one has been a more consistent opponent of Communism than I have for the past twenty-five years’. But then he dipped into his most sentimental and cloying prose: “I see the Russian soldiers standing on the threshold of their native land, guarding the fields which their fathers have tilled from time immemorial. [Actually, not. Millions of peasants had been killed and persecuted by Stalin, whether by famine or deportation. Their fields had been disastrously collectivised.] I see them guarding their homes where mothers and wives pray – ah yes, for there are times when all pray – for the safety of their loved ones, the return of their bread-winner, of their champion, of their protector. I see the ten thousand villages of Russia, where the means of existence was wrung so hardly from the soil, but where there are still primordial human joys, where maidens laugh and children play.”

This is all romantic tosh, of course. Stalin had so monstrously oppressed his own citizens and those in the countries he invaded that the Nazis, from Estonia to Ukraine, were initially welcomed as liberators by thousands who had seen family members shot or incarcerated, simply because they were bourgeois or ‘rich peasants’, who had seen their churches destroyed and their faith oppressed, and who had experienced their independent livelihood being crushed. As Christopher Bellamy writes, in the Oxford Companion to Military History. “The next biggest contribution [to Soviet victory] was made by Hitler, who failed to recognize the importance of the fact that his armies were initially greeted as liberators in Belorussia and the Ukraine.” Some maidens did indeed start laughing when the Germans arrived, as Georgio Geddes’s extraordinary account of Ukraine in 1941 to 1943, Nichivó: Life, Love and Death on the Russian Front, informs us.

Moorhouse and others have written of the dreadful purges and deportations that took place after the Soviets invaded the Baltic States, and the portion of Poland awarded to it through the Pact. From The Devils’ Alliance, again: “In the former Polish eastern regions, annexed by Stalin in 1939, at least 40,000 prisoners – Poles, Ukrainians, Byelorusians, and Jews – were confined in overcrowded NKVD prisons by June 1941. As elsewhere, some were released or evacuated, but around half would not survive. The worst massacres were in L’vov, where around 3,500 prisoners were killed across three prison sites, and at Lutsk (the former Polish Ĺuck), where 2,000 were murdered. But almost every NKVD prison or outpost saw a similar action – from Sambor (600 killed) to Czortkov (Czortków) (890), from Tarnopol (574) to Dubno (550).” Moorhouse continues: “Latvia had scarcely any history of anti-Semitism prior to the trauma of 1939 to 1941; it had even been a destination for some Jews fleeing the Third Reich, including Russian-born scholar Simon Dubnow. Yet, in 1941 and beyond, it became the scene – like its Baltic neighbors – of some of the most hideous atrocities, in which local units, such as the infamous Arajs Kommando, played a significant role. It seems that the Soviet occupation – with its informers, collaborators, denunciators, and persecutions – had so poisoned already fragile community relations that, even without Nazi encouragement, some sort of bloody reckoning became inevitable.”

These facts were all revealed with the benefit of hindsight, and access to archives. I need to inspect diplomatic and intelligence reports to determine exactly how much Churchill knew of these atrocities at the time. After all, the deportation and execution of thousands of Polish ‘class enemies’ was concealed from Western eyes, and the Katyn massacre of April-May 1940 remained a secret until April 1943, to the extent that Stalin claimed that the Germans were responsible. By then, his British and American allies were too craven to challenge him, even though they knew the truth. Yet Churchill’s previous comments showed he was under no illusions about Soviet persecution of even nominal opposition. If ‘communism rots the soul of a nation’, it presumably rotted the Baltic States, too.

I started this exercise in the belief that I would be uncovering further mendacity by Maisky, and soon reached the stage where I was astonished at Churchill’s obsequious response to Stalin. Stalin laid a trap for Churchill, and he walked right into it. One cannot ascribe his appeasement of Stalin solely to his desire to encourage the Soviet leader to continue the fight against Hitler, and his need to rally the British public behind a regime that he had condemned for so long. Churchill acted meanly, impulsively, and independently. In his recent biography of Churchill, Andrew Roberts writes: “Churchill announced this full-scale alliance with Soviet Russia after minimal consultation with his colleagues. Even Eden had precious little input into the decision. Nor had he consulted the Russians themselves. Over dinner at Chequers that evening Eden and Cranborne argued from the Tory point of view that the alliance ‘should be confined to the pure military aspect, as politically Russia was as bad as Germany and half the country would object to being associated with her too closely’. Yet Churchill’s view ‘was that Russia was now at war; innocent peasants were being slaughtered; and that we should forget about Soviet systems or the Comintern and extend our hand to fellow human beings in distress’. Colville recalled that this argument ‘was extremely vehement’.” He does not mention whether anyone brought up the fact that Stalin himself was responsible for the deaths of millions of peasants in his own homeland.

Throughout, Churchill showed as much disdain for the fate of the Baltic States as Chamberlain had done over the rape of Czechoslovakia. I believe that it is a topic that cries out for re-assessment. Churchill certainly did not know the extent of the disaster in the Soviet Union’s defences in July 1941, but, knowing so little, he did not need to go overboard in agreeing with Stalin’s claims. We thus have to face the possibilities: either a) Churchill knew all along about the cruelty of Soviet oppression in the areas between the Stalin Line and the Molotov Line, and chose to suppress them in his desire to rally Stalin to the cause of fighting Hitler, or b) he had managed to remain ignorant of what persecutions were occurring in these buffer states, sandwiched between the infernal machines of Nazism and Bolshevism. And, whichever explanation is correct, he omitted to explain why he, a military man, believed that the Soviet Union had managed to contain better the onslaught of the Nazi war machine by choosing to defend remote boundaries created in a campaign of aggression.

It is hard to accept the second thesis. The famous cartoon by Low, published in Punch in September 1939, where Hitler and Stalin rendezvous over dead bodies, with Hitler saying ‘The scum of the earth, I believe?’, and Stalin responding ‘The bloody assassin of the workers, I presume?’, reflected well the mood and knowledge of the times. In the USA, Sumner Welles was much more hard-nosed about the menace represented by the Soviets. As the excellent Moorhouse again writes: “Nonetheless, in British government circles the idea of de facto recognition of the annexations was soon floated as a possible sop to bring Stalin onside. The American reaction was more principled. Undersecretary of State Sumner Welles issued a formal statement – the Welles Declaration – condemning Soviet Aggression and refusing to recognize the legitimacy of Soviet control in the region, citing ‘the rule of reason, of justice and of law,’ without which, he said, ‘civilization itself cannot be preserved.’ In private he was even more forthright, and when the Soviet ambassador, Konstantin Oumansky, opined that the United States should applaud Soviet action in the Baltic, as it meant that the Baltic peoples could enjoy ‘the blessings of liberal and social government,’ his response was withering. ‘The US government,’ Welles explained, ‘sees no difference in principle between the Russian domination of the Baltic peoples and the occupation by Germany of other small European nations.’”

David Low’s Cartoon on the Nazi-Soviet Pact

The research will continue. I believe an opportunity for re-interpretation has been missed, contrary to Gorodetsky’s bubbly endorsement. (And I have read only one chapter of The Kremlin Letters so far. What fresh questions will it provoke?) Can any reader out there point me to a book that carefully dissects the implications of the defence against Barbarossa from the Molotov line, and maybe a study of virtual history that imagines what would have happened had Stalin been able to restrain himself from moving his defensive line westwards? Did Basil Liddell Hart ever write about it? In the meantime, I echo what I wrote about the Appeasement of Stalin a few months ago (see coldspurappeasement), except that I admit that I may have been too generous to Churchill in that piece. What was really going on in his mind, apart from the sentimentality, and the desire to capture some moving sentences in his oratory? It seems to me that Hitler inveigled Stalin into exposing his armies where they would be more vulnerable to his attack, that Stalin hoodwinked Churchill into making a calamitous and unnecessary compliment to Stalin’s generalship, and that Churchill let down the Baltic States by mismanaging Stalin’s expectations.

The last point to be made is to draw parallels with these times. The question of borders is all very poignant in view of current geopolitics. NATO was designed to provide concerted defence against westward extensions of the Soviet Empire. When communism died, NATO’s mission became questionable. Then Putin annexed the Crimea, supported separatists in eastern Ukraine, and this month forged a tight embrace with Belarus. Largely because of the reoccupation by the Soviet Empire after World War II, both Estonia and Latvia have 25% Russian ethnicity. Could Putin, in his desire to ‘make Russia great again’, possibly have designs on Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania?

I wish all coldspur readers the compliments of the season. I leave for two weeks in Los Altos, CA on December 17.

Leave a Comment

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

A Thanksgiving Round-Up

NIHIL ARCANUM MIHI ALIENUM EST

When I first started planning this bulletin, I had imagined that Sylvia, Julia and I would be leaving North Carolina for California for a couple of weeks over Thanksgiving, departing on November 18, and that I would thus not be able to publish any intensive research this month. We then learned that our son’s new house, being built in Los Altos, would not be occupiable until late November, so we had to postpone our visit until mid-December. The tragic fires in the state have imposed additional stresses on Pacific Gas and Electric, which has accordingly been tardy in installing the power-lines for the house (which involved digging a trench under the road). PG&E may not be the best managed utility in the country, but others’ suffering has been unimaginable, and we must all be patient.

Nevertheless, I decided that I needed a break from the more intensive and exhausting work that a segment like the study of the House of Peierls demanded, and I am using this opportunity to bring readers up-to-date on a number of research projects.

The BBC and Christopher Andrew

One of my most intense recent frustrations has to do with the behaviour of the BBC, specifically the editors of the BBC Radio 4 Today programme, and what I have called the ‘grandstanding’ of Sir Christopher Andrew, who is wheeled out by the corporation when it wants to add gravitas to some segment on intelligence. The matter in question concerns an intelligence officer, Eric Roberts, who was informed in 1947 by Guy Liddell of suspicions about a senior MI6 officer’s being a Soviet mole, but was then apparently strongly discouraged from saying anything further in 1949, when he (Roberts) returned from an assignment in Vienna. The easiest way for me to explain the saga here is to reproduce part of the text that I sent to Sarah Sands, the current editor of Today. (She was not Editor when the segment in question was aired, but I would claim that she holds a professional responsibility on behalf of her predecessors.)

“The story was issued by Sanchia Berg on July 14, 2015, and the related Magazine entry can be seen at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358 . It concerns a letter that Eric Roberts, an MI5 field agent, wrote to Harry Lee, an old friend, in the late 1960s. Sir Christopher Andrew is quoted as commenting: ‘It’s the most extraordinary intelligence document I’ve ever seen. It’s 14 pages long – it will keep conspiracy theorists going for another 14 years. It’s a mixture of fact and fiction and the other thought I have is to be desperately sorry for the individual who wrote it.’

Now, I suspect that you will agree that, in order for the ‘conspiracy theorists’ (itself an odd, and disparaging, term for the authorised historian of MI5 to use) to be kept busy, the letter would have to become publicly available for inspection. A research colleague of mine approached Ms. Berg, asking about the letter’s availability. Her reply was evasive, maintaining that, as far as she knew, the family had not published the letter in full, and suggesting we consult ‘Agent Jack’, by Robert Hutton, for possible further extracts. Hutton does indeed quote from Roberts’s letter, but provides no clue as to its whereabouts, and our attempts to contact him on the matter have remained unanswered.

We thus next contacted Sir Christopher himself, and were astonished to receive his reply, by email, part of which ran as follows: “Sorry, I don’t have a clear recollection of this document.” Given the significance that he imparted to the document only four years ago, it seems inexplicable to me that Sir Christopher could have so easily forgotten about it. And, in view of the fact that he is regarded as the doyen of intelligence historians, I believe those of us who toil without such publicity deserve greater consideration than he offers us by what I can only describe as irresponsible behaviour. I know of other prominent researchers in this field who resent Sir Christopher’s constant criticism of anyone whose research into intelligence penetration contradicts his often erroneous conclusions.

I wonder, therefore, whether it is timely for you to enter the ring, to contact Sir Christopher about his high-handed behaviour, to ask him to offer the world an explanation, to re-consider using him for such promotional purposes in the future, and perhaps to engage other academics and historians who would provide a more insightful opinion on intelligence matters. Most important of all, however, I should like you and Ms. Berg to provide to the public the letter so vigorously advertised by your programme.”

I sent this letter, both by email and by airmail, on October 9. I never received any acknowledgment, let alone a reply. On October 28, I accordingly sent a letter to both Mohit Bakaya, Controller of Radio 4, and Bob Shennan, Director of BBC Radio, requesting them to intervene and give me a response. Four weeks later, I have heard nothing. Between them, three BBC’s executives trousering annually well over half a million pounds of license fee money from the public cannot organise themselves even to send out an acknowledgment of a letter from a member of the public. True, I am not a license-payer, but BBC promotes its brand strongly overseas, and I am a UK tax-payer. (The BBC website knows where I live from my TCP/IP address, and thus prevents me from viewing recent videos from the cricket coverage, yet it does send me annoying pop-up windows inviting me to participate in a survey. I thus feel entitled to offer the institution my opinions.)

It seems to me that, if Sir Christopher Andrew is too senile to provide continuity and enlightenment in these matters, his contract with the BBC should be terminated. And if he has been muzzled by MI5 because of its discomfort over the revelations, he should disqualify himself from any further involvement since he can no longer provide objective analysis. So what do I do next? Invoke the Curse of Gnome, and appeal to Private Eye? Organise a demonstration in Trafalgar Square? Chain myself to the railings at Broadcasting House? Engage the support of Greta Thunberg?

On November 26th, I decided to try to call Mr Shennan in person. First, I inspected the ‘Contact’ button on the BBC website, but the last thing the BBC wants members of the public to do is actually ‘contact’ any of its precious executives, so you will find no telephone numbers there. ‘Contact’ in BBC-speak means reading the institution’s ‘how to’ guides. By pressing the ‘Complaints’ tab, however, I did find a number to call, in Darlington, with the disturbing rubric ‘charged as geographic numbers’ (I do not know what that means), so I decided to call the main switchboard at Broadcasting House, and asked to be put through to Mr. Brennan. After the operator took down my particulars, so that I could be introduced appropriately to Mr. Brennan’s PA, I was soon talking to that lady. After I explained my mission, she told me that Mr. Brennan has since been promoted. I had noticed that he is now a member of the Executive Board, but wondered, since my letter had also gone to Sarah Sands and Mohit Bakaya, why none of the three could have responded. A positive signal, however – the PA remembered my letter, and had in fact sent it to ‘Audience Services’. I expressed my alarm that, without some person with authority taking responsibility for tracking its progress, my letter might disappear in another Reithian or Birtian labyrinth, and reminded the good woman that, since the BBC had my email address, it did not have to rely on the slow transatlantic postal traffic (a factor she had brought up as a reason for the tardiness in response) to keep me informed of progress. She committed to be that pointperson: we shall see.

Agent Jack

Meanwhile, Robert Hutton’s book about Eric Roberts, Agent Jack, was published this month in the USA, and I received my copy forty years to the day after Anthony Blunt’s pardon was disclosed. (Forty Years On – what a great title for a play!) I immediately turned to the pages where the exchanges between Guy Liddell and Roberts are recorded, and reproduce their contents as follows. Before Roberts left for Austria in 1947 (no specific date offered), on secondment to MI6 (SIS), Liddell ‘hinted that he suspected MI6 might have been penetrated by the Soviets’. On his return in 1949 (‘after just over year’, which suggests a late 1947 departure), dispirited from a fruitless mission trying to inveigle Soviet intelligence to approach him, Roberts talked to Liddell again, looking for career advice. But Liddell ‘changed the subject’, and wanted to know whether Roberts suspected that MI5 had itself been infiltrated by a traitor. He followed up by asking Roberts how he thought MI5 might have been penetrated.

The conversation prompted Roberts to reflect on the time he had confided to Dick Brooman-White, another officer in MI5, that he suspected two MI5 men might be working for the Abwehr. (Infuriatingly, the encounter is undated: all that Hutton writes is ‘not long after he began working for Rothschild’, which suggests early 1941.) One of the men was in Maxwell Knight’s department, and the other was ‘a man with access to some of MI5’s greatest secrets’. At the time, Brooman-White ridiculed his suspicions, saying (with unconscious irony): “You will be suspecting Victor Rothschild next!” According to Andrew Boyle, Brooman-White, who died in 1964, went to his grave firmly believing in Philby’s innocence, so he was perhaps not the best judge of character. Apparently, Roberts did not share this anecdote with Liddell in 1949, but when he suggested to him that the ‘perfect spy’ would ‘be a member of one or two of the most exclusive clubs’, and thus have an unimpeachable reputation, Liddell went very silent, and the conversation came to a close. The two men never spoke again.

(Can traitors be detected by their habits? In an article on John le Carré in the Times Literary Supplement of November 8, the writer of spy fiction Mick Herron recalls that his father, when watching the first scene of Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy on television in 1979 immediately identified Bill Haydon (as played by Ian Richardson) as the traitor because he entered the room carrying a cup of tea, on which he had balanced a saucer, to prevent spillage. “That’s a strange way of carrying his tea”, said Herron pêre. “I bet he’s the traitor.” P.S. I have never read any of Mick Herron’s books. Mark Amory’s enthusiasm for him in the Spectator’s Books of the Year segment suggests that I should.)

Years later, in 1968, when Roberts had retired to an island off Vancouver, he was visited by Barry Russell Jones of MI5, who presented him with a sealed envelope that contained the name of a man who had confessed to being as Soviet spy four years earlier, ‘in return for a guarantee of anonymity and immunity from prosecution’. The name was, of course, Anthony Blunt, the same person whom Roberts had identified to Brooman-White. As Hutton observes: “He now believed he had got the country for whom the man was spying wrong, but not the identity of the agent.” Blunt had been recruited as Liddell’s personal assistant.

Thus it must have been all too poignant for Liddell in 1949. As attentive readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall, Liddell was very aware of Soviet penetration of MI5, since Blunt – alongside Leo Long – had been discovered stealing secrets during the war, and had been let go with a slap on the wrist and a spot of gardening-leave. And, early in 1949, MI5 was deep in the inquiry into the leakages from the British Embassy, prompted by the VENONA traffic, that would lead to the unmasking of Donald Maclean. Moreover, it was clear that MI5 had been building a file on Kim Philby, whose possible guilt had been strengthened by the mysterious Volkov incident in 1945, and the increase in radio traffic between London and Moscow immediately after Volkov’s attempt to flee to the West. It was all starting to unravel for Liddell. Moreover, it sounds as if MI5 and SIS had performed a deal whereby SIS would stay silent about Blunt if MI5 kept quiet about Philby.

Yet we still do not have the transcripts of the letters that so excited Christopher Andrew. Material to keep the conspiracy theorists active for years? So far just old-fashioned clues, traditional digging at the coalface, and confirmation of cover-ups. In other words, routine business in the world of intelligence.

At the end of the month, I completed my reading of Agent Jack. Robert Hutton has written a very engaging and accessible account, in the style of Ben Macintyre, of a story that needs to be told. But I wonder whether he has missed the larger point. The ‘Fifth Column’ that MI5 encouraged was a fantasy of Victor Rothschild and Guy Liddell, sustained by a blatant provocation exercise. It was dominated by some veritable fruitcakes, and it did contain some potentially dangerous Nazi enthusiasts, including some German nationals who never should have been allowed to work on sensitive weapons programmes where they were able to purloin or copy important material. But neither the Abwehr nor the Wehrmacht ever knew of their existence, and no information passed on to Roberts ever reached Nazi hands. The artificial group was never a true ‘Fifth Column’.

Moreover, the project sheds searching light on the characters and motivation of Liddell and Rothschild. Liddell is again shown to be a man of straw, who allowed matters to drift because he did not want to face the implications of the entrapment: at some stage, MI5 would have to recommend that that the offenders be arrested. But a highly skeptical Home Office would demand that an open trial be carried out, whereupon both the identity of Roberts and the nature of the illegal provocation exercise would come to light. Thus Liddell and Rothschild ignored the obvious, and tried to continue the program even after the war was over as a default from taking any decision at all. Petrie, White and Hollis were all critical of the operation, and wanted it closed down, and the perpetrators prosecuted. But Liddell waffled, and Rothschild temporised, not considering the possible outcomes of a highly controversial provocation game. After the war, Rothschild omitted any mention of the operation in his in-house history of the department.

Rothschild’s motivations must be carefully scrutinised, however. Here was the leader of MI5’s anti-sabotage group (B1c) taking control of what was effectively a counter-espionage project, one that should strictly have been managed by Roger Hollis’s F Division. Moreover, Rothschild maintained separate, highly detailed files of all the several hundred persons who were part of Roberts’s ‘Fifth Column’ organisation. Hutton refers to the accusations made against Rothschild as a Soviet agent – something Rothschild strenuously denied in the Thatcher era, even misguidedly asking the Prime Minister to provide Sabine Lee-esque ‘proof’ that he had not been a spy – and also points out that fact that Rothschild’s crony, Anthony Blunt, turned out to be a dangerous Soviet agent. Yet Hutton never considers investigating whether Rothschild’s motives might have been to distract attention from the Soviet subversive threat, and prepare for his putative Moscow controllers a list of possibly dangerous opponents who would need to be eliminated.

In addition, Hutton, in his focus on the years of the ‘Fifth Column’ investigation, leaves unattended the hare that he scares out of Roberts’s experiences in Vienna, and who might have architected the utter failure of Roberts’s mission. Vienna was in 1947 and 1948 a very dangerous place, and to think that a bank-clerk with a gift for enticement in his own country could somehow star as a potential plant with Soviet intelligence was an exercise in self-delusion. Why would SIS have plucked Roberts from obscurity, and on what pretext would they have had him resident in Vienna? Sanchia Berg reported, citing Roberts’s letter, that he was ‘posing as a disaffected British civil servant and passing low-grade harmless information, to a Communist named Jellinek’, and that he, Roberts, then declined to meet a ‘star agent’ maintained by the SIS station chief, George Kennedy Young. Young revealed to Roberts a few weeks later that his ‘star agent’ turned out to be a Soviet spy, and Roberts credited Liddell’s advice for his evasion of the encounter.

Moreover, if Liddell confided to Roberts that he thought SIS had been penetrated, why on earth would he have encouraged Roberts to be recruited by SIS for a mission the security of which was highly questionable? And why would Roberts have accepted such an assignment in the knowledge that his recruiters contained a mole? It also seems bizarre that Barry Russell Jones would travel all the way to Vancouver to discuss Blunt’s pardon with Roberts. Was that, in itself, not a great security risk, especially if MI5 suspected that Roberts himself was a Soviet agent, as Roberts hinted at in his letter? What else had Roberts done to warrant such attention? Lastly, Young’s replacement in 1950 as station chief in Vienna was one Andrew King, who concealed his communist past from his superiors. Nigel West wrote, in The Friends (p 73), that Philby in 1946 ‘could not have had any illusions about keeping his Party membership concealed, for Andrew King, one of his contemporaries at Cambridge and another rising star in SIS, had attended Party meetings with him at Cambridge.’ Since Philby was stationed in Turkey in 1947, was it perhaps King whom Liddell was warning Roberts about?

There is a lot more to be told here, and I am analyzing it with one of my most supportive and dedicated coldspur colleagues – someone who understands well the mechanics of ‘dangling’ operations.

The House of Peierls

I have received some very positive reactions to last month’s segment on Rudolf Peierls. I was hoping for some challenges, as well, as I believed my piece might arouse some controversy. I had alerted Frank Close and Sabine Lee shortly before it appeared, but heard nothing from either of them. True, I had given up on Ms. Lee (Professor of Modern History and Head of School in History and Cultures at Birmingham University), as it was clear from her last message to me that she was clueless about the process of historical analysis and the establishment of ‘proofs’, but I expected some response from Professor Close. After all, he had been tutored by Peierls, was – and remains – an admirer, is in touch with Peierls family members, and had urgently encouraged me to drop my investigation into Peierls’s libel action. I had occasion to contact Close in the middle of the month with some questions about Bruno Pontecorvo, and asked him, in an aside, whether he had had a chance to read my article.

I was a bit dumbfounded by his response. He said he had ‘skimmed’ it. ‘Skimmed’, eh? That was all. Now, as some of my readers point out to me, my pieces are not easily read superficially. They call for either intense concentration, or icy disdain. Is it not extraordinary that an academic in Frank Close’s shoes, with his biographies of Pontecorvo and Fuchs published, and given Peierls’s close involvement in the affairs of both these men and of Alan Nunn May, would not show more intellectual interest in a piece that tries to evolve our understanding of what was going on in the parallel worlds of British and Soviet physics, and the intelligence subterfuges behind them – especially since Close has so stoutly defended Peierls’s innocence in the whole endeavor? In a way, I am not surprised. I have learned that persons – especially academics – who have found themselves on a lofty pedestal, but who harbour secret fears that they do not really deserve such recognition, frequently display such behaviour. Remarkably, Close and I continue to have cordial email exchanges about other matters of intelligence; yet any discussion of Peierls appears to be off limits. I refuse to consider myself insulted [are you sure? Ed.], and shall continue as if nothing were awry.

I learned from my days as a Gartner Group analyst that companies did not really care much when you got their story or strategy wrong, as in that case they complacently believed that they had hoodwinked you, and what they were up to remained a secret. What really upset them was the realisation that you had worked out the truth. I suspect I may have stumbled on a more accurate account of Peierls’s career, and that Close has been stunned into silence. Moreover, there is an amusing side to this process of ‘skimming’. The point I was asking Close about concerned an FBI document on Pontecorvo from December 1949: he replied that he was not aware of any such document. I pointed out the pages in Half Life where he had discussed it, and I believe he was a little humbled. We shall see what evolves: I should be very interested if any of the Peierls controversy comes up during the Skimmer’s forthcoming book-signing tour for Trinity. I am sure my spies on the ground will keep me informed.

I shall be returning to Peierls’s activities, concentrating on his time in the UK, and his associations with other scientists, especially with Max Born and Klaus Fuchs, in a future coldspur bulletin. As dedicated readers will recall, I analysed the efforts of Peierls and Born to secure Fuchs’s return to the UK from detention in Canada in Misdefending the Realm (pp 216-223), and it would probably be appropriate for me to reproduce that section on coldspur, as a segue to my next piece on Peierls. At the time of writing that segment of my book, I was using notes that I had taken from the Peierls-Born correspondence at the Bodleian. Sadly, I shall not now have access to that resource, or Peierls’s numerous other letters. Sabine Lee’s two volumes of the Peierls Letters (very expensive, poorly edited, and selected very much with a bias towards highly technical scientific exchanges) will be of little use, I fear. Christopher Laucht has written some interesting passages about Peierls’s correspondences in Elemental Germans, but my study will have to rely mostly on other sources until I can return to Oxford some time. I plan for the next chapter to appear on coldspur in February or March of next year.

RSS and the Undetected Radios

I had started gathering my research for the last episode of ‘The Undetected Radios’ when I came across (thanks to the photographic skills of my London-based researcher, Dr. Kevin Jones) some obscure files at the National Archives that covered aspects of the history of the Radio Security Service, as well as others that contained various interrogations of German intelligence officers after the war. While these files did nothing to contradict my main conclusions so far (that the tensions between MI5 and SIS over the RSS were more highly strung than portrayed, that both the RSS and the Abwehr/Funküberwachung greatly misrepresented the strength of their interception and direction-finding capabilities after the war, that agents were in many cases poorly trained and ill- prepared for infiltration into Europe, and were much more frequently discovered by local betrayal than through interception and location-finding, that SOE’s and SIS’ wireless equipment was often defective, that RSS’s general surveillance of illicit transmissions was very lax, and the state of Britain’s mobile-direction finding service feeble, and that the Double-Cross organisation acted very naively in managing its agents’ wireless communications), these archives certainly revealed some valuable new detail on some of the personalities and committees involved. I have thus decided to allocate one more chapter summarizing these findings before I cover the final six months of wireless activity up until D-Day. My current plan is to write this additional report in January of next year.

Maclean and Boyle

Regrettably, there is little to report on the Boyle-Gallienne connection (see http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/ and http://www.coldspur.com/the-importance-of-chronology-with-special-reference-to-liddell-philby/ . National Archive files including Gallienne’s reports from Estonia are not revealing, and do not show any links between Soviet Intelligence, Krivitsky, and the ‘Imperial Council’ spy. My following up the rather feeble leads in the Boyle archive led me to an unresolved question about Liddell’s role in leaking information to writers such as Boyle, and an expressed intent to explore the Springhall archive in depth, a project not yet started. So this matter has had to be placed on the back-burner for a while.

Project ‘Hegira’ and the Double-Agents

I have recently been studying some of the lesser-known files at The National Archives. One of these, KV 4/211, was titled ‘Functions and Disposal of Special Agents in Event of Invasion of UK’. Well, that ‘Disposal’ was somewhat alarming, but I learned a fair amount about Project Hegira, which was designed at the beginning of 1941 as a procedure for ensuring that double agents, and other potentially dangerous individuals, would not be allowed to escape and inform the invaders of what MI5 had been up to. The file contains few sparkling revelations, although Hegira was a project that has not received the attention it deserves. You will find no mention of it in Christopher Andrew’s authorised History of MI5, nor in Nigel West’s unauthorised account of the story of the Security Service’s development.

One might have thought that MI5 had more important fish to fry than the safety or security exposures of having double agents ‘fall into the hands of the enemy’, as the introductory letter describes the problem, but, in early 1941, when there were only three named agents, it appeared to be a manageable problem. The fact that the project seemed unworkable was highlighted later by Cyril Mills in a long memorandum of March 25, 1943, when he wrote about the stretch on resources to handle all the agents, especially since Billy Luke had now left B1A. He recommended instead that all agents should be taken to Colonel Stevens’s Camp020 for incarceration, or to its back-up location in the country. But by then, the threat of invasion had receded.

Yet the file betrays some secrets. For those analysts still keen to portray MI5 as some kind of secret police organisation, it may come as a shock to learn that ‘Tar’ Robertson had to apply to the Special Branch to borrow five pairs of handcuffs (as well as pistols, and ammunition) to be used in the event of invasion. These had to be signed for, and duly returned, at the end of 1943, when the threat of an invasion had disappeared. All the letters and receipts are here to be inspected. It is difficult to think of the civil security service of any other country being forced to go through such bureaucratic procedures, and to document it all for posterity, providing evidence that all legal processes were being followed.

The plan was to secrete double agents and other dubious personages in Colwyn Bay, in North Wales, and hotels were identified for their accommodation. I suppose that such locations would have been the last place where the dastardly Nazis would have looked for their ‘Fifth Column’, but perhaps the agents would by then have suffered so much under their strict Methodist landladies that they would have been willing to talk to anyone. (I hasten to add that, despite my experiences with the University of Aberystwyth, I have nothing against what must be called ‘the Welsh Methodist Landlady community’.) But what is highly interesting is the identification of such agents in the memoranda and letters, as the latter reveal important facts about the existence of such persons at different times. Thus, in January 1941, the emphasis is on TATE, SNOW and STORK. Two months later, GANDER and SUMMER are listed. Soon after, reflecting capture of other agents, MUTT and JEFF are added, and, as the year goes on, we see the names of BALLOON and others.

I was familiar with most of these names, even such as VICTOIRE, who was a Frenchwoman of dubious character who had ‘escaped’ to Britain after betraying the Interallié network. She was not an exclusive MI5 ‘double agent’, as her fate – and expense of upkeep – was shared between MI5, SOE and SIS. (I have just finished David Tremain’s epic and encyclopaedic, but ultimately indigestible, Double Agent Victoire: Mathilde Carré and the Interallié Network, which describes a wilderness of subterfuge and double-dealing in French, Polish and British agent networks in France in 1941 and 1942, so I was well-armed.) But other names were puzzling.

Agent STORK, for instance. I could not recall ever reading about a double agent with the cryptonym STORK. Neither West, nor Andrew, nor even Ben Macintyre lists this person in their books. Yet here he was in KV 4/211, described as a Norwegian agent, accompanied by a wife and son, who would need to be evacuated to the fjords of North Wales. I found his name in one place, in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, and Nigel West, in his published version of the same, provides an extract for February 17, 1941, which notes that STORK, ’who has refused to go into his house at Hendon as his wife is going to have a baby’. (Was that the reason for the choice of cryptonym?) But West lists STORK as an MI5 ‘agent’, as if he were a hired hand to spy on domestic institutions like the Communist Party. I have found no record of the real name of STORK, or when and how he landed in the United Kingdom. And his name quickly disappears from the roster. It is all very odd.

Two others of special interest are Reisen (GANDER) and Caroli (SUMMER). Reisen (listed as ‘Riesen’) is mentioned in March 1941, but in all other accounts his name fades away – except for here, where Cyril Mills refers to him in his letter of March 1942! Nigel West just records that Reisen was no longer used after the end of 1940, as he had a transmitter only. Moreover, he was probably not a committed anti-Nazi, and thus potentially dangerous, but the revelation here is astonishing, since the implication is that he has not had to be interned since the time that he was de-activated. SUMMER disappears after March 1941, however, as if he no longer had need to be specially ‘disposed of’ in the event of invasion. Studious readers of coldspur will recall that a far more ominous explanation of SUMMER’s disappearance from the scene has been posited: that he was extrajudicially hanged in prison after his attempt to escape and kill his guard in the process. If that did indeed happen in March 1941 (as some authors have suggested), it would explain why his name was no longer mentioned when the list of agents to be transported to the provinces increased in 1941 and into 1942.

By 1943, the whole operation (now affectionately referred to as ‘Mills’ Circus’, after the member of the Bertram Mills Circus family who worked for MI5 and Robertson, Cyril Mills), was called off. The handcuffs could then be safely returned to a grateful Special Branch.

The ODNB

Following my pointed remarks about the inferior quality of Nigel West’s entry on Guy Liddell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, I wrote to my contact at the ODNB, pointing her to my coldspur article. She promised that its editors would look into the topic, and get back to me. In what has become a sadly predictable phenomenon, I never heard back. So I thought I should check out the latest versions of the biographies of intelligence officers, physicists and spies, and accordingly spent a couple of hours recently at the University of North Carolina Library in Wilmington, using the on-line access provided, to verify whether any changes had been made.

Sadly, nothing has changed. Liddell’s entry was last updated on May 24, 2008. And I was struck by how unimpressive and incomplete many of the entries were. Dick White (head of MI5 and SIS) was responsible for the entries on Roger Hollis (who succeeded White as head of MI5) and John Sinclair (whom White succeeded as head of SIS). An unimaginative choice. There is no mention of Philby, or how Sinclair protected him, in the latter entry. The entry for Klaus Fuchs is by one Mary Flowers, who coyly refers to a ‘relationship’ at Harwell, but does not identify Erna Skinner. The biographies of Max Born, Nevill Mott, Herbert Fröhlich and Joseph Rotblat are all very bland, and omit any controversial aspects.

What struck me most, however, was that the ODNB carries no entry for Bruno Pontecorvo, the famous Italian-born physicist who defected in 1950, and has been suspected by some of spying for the Soviet Union (a fact which Roy Medvedev confirmed in Let History Judge). Now, the reason for this cannot be nationality: after all, the ODNB finds room for Pyotr Kapitza, the Soviet physicist who spent many years in Cambridge in the 1930s, and even was elected a Fellow of the Royal Society in 1929, but never became a British citizen. Pontecorvo took up British citizenship in 1948, and other proven spies (such as Fuchs) have been awarded entries. I again wrote to my contact at the ODNB, asking for an explanation over this extraordinary omission, but answer came there none.

No doubt the ODNB is struggling with its business model, and finding it difficult to attract thorough and objective writers who know their stuff, and to create a mechanism for updating entries in the light of new research findings. It is all rather sad, but the ODNB is turning out to be little better than Wikipedia – and in some cases inferior. I often have reason to dip into the volumes of the Dictionary of National Biography on my shelf, and am rewarded by the unfailingly fascinating, thorough and elegant (though frequently overdiscreet) accounts of lives – in a recent trawl in the 1961-70 edition, for instance, Cockcroft, Forster, and Eliot – to be found there. The ODNB has sacrificed quality for volume.

Methodology

“The art of writing history is the art of understanding men and events more profoundly than they were understood when they lived and happened.” (Michael Oakeshott)

“The great challenge facing the storyteller and the historian alike is to get inside people’s heads, to stand where they stood and see the world as they saw it, to make some informed estimate of their motives and intentions – and this is precisely where recorded and recordable history cannot reach.” (Michael Frayn, in Postscript to Copenhagen)

One of my most loyal supporters has urged me to publish the chapter on methodology from my thesis. When my editor and I considered how the thesis should be adapted for publication as a book, we agreed that the introductory chapter, which contained some historical background as well as a detailed exposition of my methodology, should be trimmed back. Some of the material was omitted, a brief Preface on methodology was added, while another section was incorporated into Chapter 8 of Misdefending the Realm. I have now thus posted the complete content of the original chapter on coldspur, and it can be found here.

Other Projects

In the longer term, I have a number of other projects that I want to pursue.

  1. The Apostates: One important topic that I believe has not been addressed comprehensively is that of members of the CPGB (Communist Party of Great Britain) who renounced their membership – or were banned from the party. I am thinking predominantly of such as Frederick Copeman and Humphrey Slater. Did they rebel against Stalinism, but remain communists? Or did some perform a complete volte-face, and suddenly become crusty conservatives? Some became informers – but was the apostasy sometimes a ruse engineered by the Party? And were they in danger? Were their occasionally premature and unusual deaths not accidental? (I think of the fate of Juliet Poyntz and others in America, thrown from high buildings . . . )

Incidentally, I was reminded of the parallels in the USA when I started reading The Millionaire Was a Soviet Mole: The Twisted Life of David Karr, by the estimable Harvey Klehr. A couple of weeks ago, I had noticed a letter in the New York Times Book Review from one Jonathan Brent, who described himself as ‘the visiting Alger Hiss professor of history at Bard College’. I found it hard to believe that a chair would be named after the notorious Soviet spy, but it is true. It was as if a Kim Philby chair in Moral Philosophy had been established at Trinity College, Cambridge. And then I noticed a blurb on the back cover of Klehr’s book from the same Jonathan Brent, here introduced as ‘YIVO Institute for Jewish Research and author of Inside the Stalin Archives’. No mention of the Alger Hiss professorship. Quite understandable, but rather coy, Professor Klehr (Andrew W. Mellon Professor Emeritus of Politics and History at Emory University), but how very odd! For Klehr, along with John Earl Haynes, wrote VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, the book that confirmed Hiss’s guilt despite the protestations of the Left. Perhaps Mellon and Hiss are designed to cancel each other out, but shouldn’t Klehr have perhaps been more open about Brent’s credentials, and how he liked to describe himself? It would have been an amusing flourish.

2. Chapman Pincher: I have for some time intended to perform a thorough analysis of Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, and the claims he makes about Roger Hollis. Sadly, Pincher’s thesis was fuelled very much by ‘insider’ information, often anonymous, and mostly unverifiable, and some of his claims are openly ridiculous. Others may be confirmed or refuted by more reliable evidence.

3. Alexander Foote & Canada: The enigma of Alexander (Alan) Foote remains, an earthy uneducated countryman who rose to become not only an expert wireless operator (true) but also a skillful negotiator of international banks (highly unlikely). I intend to return to the two different editions of his ghost-written memoir Handbook for Spies, and the extensive archives from Kew, to check out his career – and also those of the mysterious Sedlacek and Roessler. Foote showed a deep interest in the processes of the Canadian Royal Commission into the Gouzenko affair, primarily because of the interrogation of his banking contact there, and the Dallin archive may show up some fresh intelligence. My correspondent via coldspur Greg McNulty has performed some diligent delving into Foote, and I look forward to collaborating with him further on these matters.

4. Pontecorvo and Liverpool University: The case-histories of Herbert Skinner, Klaus Fuchs and Bruno Pontecorvo indicate that Liverpool University was sometimes unwittingly involved in a strange game of academic musical chairs, where positions were to be opened up for the putting out of distressed spies to grass. The integration of archival material from Kew and Churchill College suggests that MI5 learned of Pontecorvo’s communism a few months before it let it be recorded for posterity in Pontecorvo’s files. Once Fuchs was arrested, the prospect of having to park him at Liverpool disappeared, but similar plans to deal with Pontecorvo had antedated even Fuchs’s arrest. All this is complicated by a running feud between John Cockcroft (of AERE Harwell) and James Chadwick (whose chair at Liverpool Skinner filled in a very puzzling sequence of events) over Harwell’s intrusions on the turf of British universities, and its being granted generous capital expenditures. Chadwick was reluctant to leave Liverpool, his staff did not want him to leave, he had good relations with his boss .  . .  and yet he left. Who pushed him, how, and why? One little-known irony of the whole fiasco is that, while Fuchs and Pontecorvo, as potentially dangerous communists, were going to be dumped on to a provincial university where it was assumed that they could do no harm, Nunn May, who was convicted of espionage, was blacklisted by all British universities on his release from prison. A very English arrangement.

5. MI5 & Gouzenko: Another aspect of the Gouzenko case that puzzles me is the way that SIS succeeded in hi-jacking the inquiry away from MI5. Canada was MI5’s territory, and, while posts were sometimes shared between the two services (the MI5 representative happened to be returning to the UK when the story broke), there was no reason for SIS to intercept the communications that came to the Foreign Office in that September of 1945, with the result that Philby heard of it before Liddell and White. This is not a major item of research, more a loose end that needs to be tidied up. Yet Roger Hollis’s subsequent interrogation of Gouzenko is also problematic.

6. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: I had left readers in suspense when describing the surely coincidental presence of Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon, in January 1941, at the same time that Sonia was attempting to get her visa papers for the final leg of her journey to Britain. Berlin was characteristically evasive about his movements before and during his stay in Portugal, and the account of his activities on behalf of the Jewish Agency needs to be inspected more closely. I doubt whether any further documentary evidence will turn up, but Henry Hardy has already discovered that contemporary guest records for the period that Berlin stayed at the hotel have gone missing  . . .

7. The Law, ter Braak and Caroli: I believe that the British authorities got themselves into a fearful tangle when they enabled the passing of the Treachery Act in 1940, in an attempt to be able to exploit newer legislation that would address the challenge of prosecuting enemy agents infiltrated into the United Kingdom, without having the embarrassment of a public trial, and the possible security exposure concerning the Double-Cross system. Giselle Jakobs, in her study of her grandfather (executed as one of those spies) The Spy in the Tower, has very capably analysed the unsatisfactory attempt to resolve the dilemma, but my study of archival material suggests to me that the topic is worthy of deeper inspection. This casualness about precision in legal verbiage extended into the Official Secrets Act, and the prosecution and conviction of Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs. I have not looked closely into the literature yet, but I believe justice has not yet been done to the legitimacy of the forces applied to some of these ‘traitors’. I notice that an article on the Treachery Act was published in the Modern Law Review of January 1941 by D. Seaborne Davies. I have ‘skimmed’ this short piece, and shall study it carefully at some later date.

8. The Oxford Ring: I am again not very hopeful, but I believe some tighter analysis of the group of Communists that comprised the counterpart to the Cambridge Spies and the latter’s cohorts is required. Guy Burgess was a link between the two, but MI5’s investigation into the Ring was abandoned when supposed members of it started committing suicide. Nigel West has identified Arthur Wynn as its leader, and archival material is starting to surface that may shed more light on his activities, and his links with other such subversives.

That should keep me busy for a while. And then there are always books coming out that generate fresh controversy. I expect Ben Macintyre’s book on Sonia, planned for publication early next year, will be one such volume . . .  Lastly, I realised that I have not updated my examples of the Hyperbolic Contrast for a couple of years, so the latest entries can be seen here. The newest Commonplace entries appear here. And my December bulletin will be published on or around December 16.

Leave a Comment

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

The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 1)

Rudolf Peierls

(Sir Rudolf Peierls was a German-born British scientist whose memorandum, co-authored with Otto Frisch in early 1940, helped convince the British authorities that an atomic bomb was a possibility. He later earned some notoriety by recruiting Klaus Fuchs to what was called the ‘Tube Alloys’ project. Fuchs then proceeded to betray secrets about the development of nuclear weaponry to his Soviet controllers, both in the UK and the USA. He was identified by decrypted Soviet Embassy traffic in 1949, persuaded to confess, and in early 1950 was convicted of offences against the Official Secrets Act.)

‘The British Connection’

One of the rarest books in my library must be a volume titled The British Connection, by Richard Deacon, which appeared in 1979. It looks to be a harmless publication, subtitled Russia’s Manipulation of British Individuals and Institutions – a subject obviously close to my research interests. I recall buying it via abebooks a few years ago, from Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information Services. A stamp indicates that it was ‘withdrawn’ at some stage, but the fact that it had been issued its Dewey categorization number, 327.120947, suggests that it may have rested on the library shelves for a while. A small square of paper stuck to the inside of the back cover includes the numbers 817 563 779 5, and the letters W/D handwritten underneath. Perhaps an enterprising young librarian decided to place it in the archive, and later, when all memory of the surrounding events had passed, the authorities decided to sell off surplus stock.

For all copies of The British Connection were supposed to have been withdrawn and pulped. The publishers, Hamish Hamilton, under threat from a lawsuit by Sir Rudolf Peierls, submitted to the claim that a libel had been written against the physicist’s good name. As Peierls himself wrote of Deacon’s book, in his 1985 memoir Bird of Passage (pp 324-325):

“It contained many unsubstantiated allegations against well-known people, including, for example, a completely unfounded slur on Lise Meitner, the well-known nuclear physicist. But nearly all the individuals mentioned were no longer alive, since in English law there is no libel against dead people. But for some reason the author thought I was dead, too, and made some extremely damning and quite unjustified statements about me.

Because of this I was able to take legal action very early, and a writ was served on the publishers and the author a few days after publication. The matter was settled out of court very promptly; the distribution of the book was stopped at once, so that the few copies that were sold are now collector’s items. I received a ‘substantial sum’ by way of damages. The speed of action was impressive: the settlement was announced in the High Court just thirteen days after I first consulted my solicitors. The publishers could have reissued the book in amended form, but they decided to abandon it.”

A few copies must have escaped, however, which makes one wonder how rigorous the process was. The Spectator even managed to commission the journalist Andrew Boyle (the author of The Climate of Treason) to review it. In its issue of July 21, 1979, in a piece titled Unnamed Names,   
(http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/21st-july-1979/19/unnamed-names ), Boyle drew attention to the book’s ‘unsightly scar tissues of transplanting and overhasty cutting’. He expressed doubts about Deacon’s allegations concerning Pigou, Tomàs Harris and Clark Kerr, but overlooked the Peierls references. The British Connection is still available at several second-hand booksellers, and also at prominent libraries, so Peierls may have been misled about the severity of the censors’ role.

I cited this whole incident in Misdefending the Realm (pp 206-207), but believe now that I identified the wrong passage as the offensive slur. I concentrated on Deacon’s statement that ‘Peierls was one of the first to be suspected’ (after the acknowledgment by the British government that there had been leakages by scientists to the Russians), and pointed out that it was an undeniable fact that Peierls had come under suspicion, as the voluminous records on Peierls at the National Archives prove. Yet, after I sent scans of the relevant pages to Frank Close, the biographer of Bruno Pontecorvo and Klaus Fuchs (who had not been able to read the book), we realized, when I discussed the text with him, that another passage was probably much more sensitive. (Three years ago, Close shared some thoughts with me about the passage, but asked me not to promulgate them. These comments thus represent my own reactions.)

I shall not quote Deacon’s statements verbatim – which might be construed as repeating a libel, even though the victim is dead. He implied that a source of intelligence on the atom spies in the late 1940s was Alexander Foote, whom regular readers of this website will recognize as an important figure in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Foote had been trained as a wireless operator by Sonia, and had worked in Switzerland as an illicit transmitter during the war until his incarceration in 1943. After the war, he had been summoned to the Soviet Union, a directive he bravely accepted, where the KGB/GRU grilled him. Convinced of his loyalty, however, Moscow then despatched him on a mission to South America. Foote ‘defected’ to the British in Berlin in July 1947. He was interrogated, and then brought back to Britain. (See Sonia’s Radio: Part VI)

The essence of Deacon’s information was a ‘hitherto unpublished’ statement made by Foote, who had been extremely upset by the perceived lack of interest in what he had to say to his interviewers (or interrogators) from MI5 after his experiences in Moscow. Foote claimed he was obstructed in his attempts to warn the Home Secretary of the fact that MI5 had been negligent in its surveillance of Ursula (Sonia) and her husband, Len Beurton, despite repeated approaches through private letters and interviews to members of Parliament. The most provocative claim that Deacon listed was that Foote had been fully aware, by the late 1940s, that the important figures in Zabotin’s network in the USA and Canada were Nunn May and Fuchs, and that Foote also believed that Peierls had also played a role in this network, although not such a risky one as Fuchs or May. Had Foote picked up this intelligence in Moscow? In any case, this was probably the accusation that provoked Peierls to invoke his solicitors.

One needs to be a bit careful with Foote. He no doubt had a grudge with the way he had been treated by MI6 (who, I believe, had been his employers), and probably expected to be treated as a hero on his return, rather than with the evident suspicion that he faced, mainly from MI5 officers who were not aware of his MI6 connections. He was also probably by then under a death-sentence from Moscow, which must have disturbed his equilibrium. Yet his personal loyalties were not as clear-cut as he made out. One of Deacon’s key statements is that ‘Foote himself was convinced that the vital information he gave the British authorities concerning the Beurtons, then living in Oxford, was passed back to the couple through someone in MI5 so that they were able to escape to East Germany before action was taken.’ We now know that MI5 had kept a watch of some sorts on the Beurtons, and evidently knew what they were up to – but chose to do nothing – and that Sonia and Len made their escape to East Germany immediately they heard of Fuchs’s arrest. No ‘action’ was ever intended, as MI5 knew what the Beurtons were up to when Foote broke the news to them. And, presumably out of affection for his instructor in Switzerland, Foote himself had vicariously sent a warning message to Sonia.

I carefully stated in Misdefending the Realm that I believed that Peierls was never engaged in direct espionage himself, but that he was probably an ‘agent of influence’ who, for whatever reasons, abetted Fuchs in his efforts to steal atomic secrets. I have identified multiple patterns of activity and testimony that contribute to this opinion, not least of which is the fact that a file exists at The National Archives (or, more correctly, in some government office, presumably the Home Office) that is titled ‘Espionage Activities by Individuals: Rudolf Peierls and Klaus Fuchs’, and is identified as HO 523/3. The record has been retained by the Government Department in question: I have made a Freedom of Information Request, but am not hopeful that it will be declassified because of my beseechings. What intrigues me is that the title does not say ‘Suspected Espionage . . .’ or ‘Investigation into Claims of Espionage . . .’, but simply ‘Espionage Activities’. If Deacon’s claims can still be considered erroneous, is it not strange that the British authorities would publicize the fact that they have retained a file that explicitly makes the same claim that he did?

Other documentary evidence that cries out for a re-assessment of Peierls’s role consists of the following: his own memoir, which elides over, or misrepresents, some very important events in his life; the large files at The National Archive that are publicly available, which point out many contradictions in his and his wife’s stories; the FBI files on Peierls and his wife that point out contradictions in their stories; the memoirs and biographies of other scientists, which highlight some anomalies, especially in Peierls’ awareness of Fuchs’s early communist activities, and whether he ignored them; accounts from the former Soviet Union, which point out a distressing way in which western scientists were manipulated and threatened; facts concerning Peierls’ courting of, marriage to, and escape with, his wife, who was born in Leningrad; and the details of Peierls’ highly controversial visits to the Soviet Union, including one at the peak of the Great Terror, in 1937, that he attempted to conceal at the time. It is the last two aspects on which I focus in this coldspur article.

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

Moisei Uritsky

On August 30, 1918, Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd branch of the Russian secret police, the Cheka, was murdered by a young Socialist-Revolutionary. The next day (according to some accounts, a couple of weeks later, according to others, confusion over which may be attributable to hesitation over adopting the New Style calendar), another Socialist-Revolutionary, Fanya Kaplan, fired at Lenin himself, seriously wounding him, but not mortally. She was very short-sighted, and may have struggled to line up her target. These two events provoked Lenin to activate what has been called the ‘Red Terror’ – a frightful orgy of executions of thousands who could be considered enemies of the Bolsheviks. Robert Service, in his History of Twentieth-Century Russia, wrote: “According to official records, 12,733 prisoners were killed by the Cheka in 1918-19; but other estimates put the figure as high as 300,000.”

Some histories suggest that Lenin had been preparing for a fierce campaign of elimination of groups hostile to the Revolution for a while beforehand, and that he might even have set up the assassination of Uritsky as a justification for extreme measures. (Uritsky had been a Menshevik before joining the Bolsheviks, so he might have been considered expendable.) Uritsky had, however, gained a reputation for extreme cruelty, and enjoying the task of murdering aristocrats and members of the bourgeoisie. The man who killed him, with only one of eighteen shots finding his target, was a military cadet named Leonid Kannegiesser, a sensitive bisexual poet. Kannegiesser had been embittered and enraged when Uritsky killed his boyfriend in the Army, Victor Pereltsweig, that summer. Robert Payne, in his biography of Lenin, stated that Kannegiesser had also been revolted by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the fact that so many of the Bolsheviks were Jewish. Kannegiesser was cool enough to have spoken to Uritsky on the telephone the day he killed him, and to have played chess with his father an hour before the deed.

Leonid Kannegiesser

The Kannegiesser household had been a popular venue for artists and poets to meet. In his study Marina Tsvetaeva, The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry, Simon Karlinsky writes: “The Kannegiser [sic: many variant spellings exist] home was a major artistic and literary center of the northern capital. Numerous writers of the Russian emigration were to remember it in their memoirs. Tsvetaeva saw a great deal of the Kannegiser family during that visit and became especially friendly with the elder son, Sergei. But she also got to meet the younger son, Leonid, a budding poet and a close friend of the celebrated peasant poet Sergei Esenin. (Tsvetaeva strongly intimates in ‘An Otherworldly Evening’ that Esenin and Kannegiser were lovers at the time of her visit, a supposition supported by a close reading of their respective poems of the summer of 1916.)”

After the attack, Kannegiesser escaped by bicycle to the English Club. Some reports say that he was a British spy, and Bruce Lockhart, in his Memoirs of a British Agent, recounts how, immediately after the attacks, he and Captain Hicks were arrested and taken to the Lubianka under suspicion of being accomplices. In any case, Kannegiesser was quickly arrested when he reappeared from the Club in a longcoat, a weak disguise. After torture, he was executed in October 1918. Yet his guilt and ignominy spread further, both among his artistic circle and his immediate family. In her record of the time Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), the author wrote that Kannegiesser contacted her a few days before the assassination, hinting that he was being followed, and that he did not want his pursuers to be able to track him to Teffi’s apartment. The poet Marina Tsvetsaeva explained in her Earthly Signs that Kannegiesser had been a childhood friend, and when she mentions it on a mission to barter goods for grain soon after Uritsky’s death, a Communist severely reproaches her. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in Hope Against Hope, relates how her husband Osip had met Kannegiesser, shortly before the deed, in Boris Pronin’s Stray Dog, which was a cabaret/club where all the leading poets of the day got together to recite. These associations surely tainted the police-record of Kannegiesser’s friends.

Reprisals were swift. Ivan Bunin, in Cursed Days, wrote that ‘a thousand absolutely innocent people’ were killed in retaliation for the murder of Uritsky. Kannegiesser’s telephone book was found on him, with nearly five hundred names in it, with the result that many of his relatives and friends, and other people in the list, were immediately arrested. Mark Aldanov, who also knew Kannegiesser well, and published an account of the event from Paris in the 1920s, wrote that a thousand persons were killed in two days in early September. Kannegiesser’s father was taken in the same day of the murder: his aunt’s second husband (Isai Mandelstam, a distant relation of the famous poet, Osip) the following day. His parents (Ioachim and Rosa, née Saker) were interrogated for months before being released in December, and they would be persecuted for years. Kannegiesser’s older brother, Sergey, had committed suicide in 1917, but the no doubt distraught couple was allowed to leave the country in 1924 with their sole remaining child Elisaveta (who would later die in Auschwitz). Isai Mandelstam was exiled and persecuted for decades. He was lucky, I suppose, not to have been shot, unlike Osip, who died on his way to the camps, in 1938.

Iochaim Kannegiesser, an engineer, was the son of Samuil Kannegiesser, a medical doctor, and Rosalia Mandelstam, who lived in St. Petersburg. To show how tightly bound the families of Kannegiesser and Mandelstam were (interleaving with the Levins and Bloks, also), Rosalia’s brother Benedikt, who married one Zhanetta Gurevich, had three offspring, one of whom, Elena, married Rosalia’s son, Alexander – from her second marriage to Avram Blok –  while another was the same Isai mentioned earlier. [See the family tree below for clarification.] Moreover, Samuil and Rosalia had another son, Nikolai, who became a famous gynaecologist. He married Maria (another Levin), and had two daughters. But the genealogical record shows that Nikolai had another daughter, Olga, whose mother was apparently named ‘Kennegiesser’ (another variant). Whether from a previous marriage, or a child born out of wedlock, is not clear. Nikolai died from septicaemia in 1909, and his widow then married Isai Mandelstam, the very same individual mentioned above. Isai was an electrical engineer, but he had a flair for languages, and engaged in translations of western classics for much of his life.

Nikolai’s premature death, at the age of 43, meant that his first daughter, Eugenia, was not yet two when he died, while his second daughter, Nina was born posthumously. Eugenia became a physics student at the University of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg, next Petrograd, had now been named), and was an exact contemporary of the future Nobelist Lev Landau. The two of them joined up with other young physicists, George Gamow, Dmitri Ivanenko, and, later on, Matvei Bronstein, in a group known as the ‘Jazz Band’. Bronstein was killed in the purges of 1938; Landau was arrested the same year and freed only on the intervention of the influential and courageous physicist Pyotr Kapitza; Ivanenko was arrested in 1935, but survived until 1994. In 1930, from August 19th to the 24th, the All-Union Congress of Physicists was held in Odessa. It was attended by Eugenia Kannegiesser, Gamow and Landau, as well as by several foreign guests. Amongst these was Rudolf Peierls, attending as an assistant to the Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was introduced to Eugenia. They fell in love, were married in Leningrad the following year, and after some bureaucratic hassles and delays, were allowed to emigrate at the end of 1931.

The Kannegiesser-Mandelstam Family Tree

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

You could have searched in vain for published details of Rudolf Peierls’s connection with the assassin of Moishe Uritsky, and the revenge harboured by Lenin and Stalin against the kin of murderers of the Bolshevik vanguard. Both his Wikipedia entry and his citation in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biograph, simply refer to his encounter with Genia, and their subsequent marriage. In his memoir Bird of Passage, written as late as 1985, Peierls merely ascribes his invitation to Odessa, even though he was not at that time a scientist of renown, to Yakov Frenkel, a prominent member of the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Leningrad. (Abram Ioffe was also at the conference in Odessa.) Peierls describes how he met Genia (‘a recent physics graduate’) on the beach at Lusanovka, but does not mention George Gamow in this context, even though a photograph from the Segré archive shows him, Gamow and Ioffe talking together in Odessa. Gamow and Genia had been close friends for a while, as the photograph below, taken from Gamow’s autobiography, shows.

George Gamow, Eugenia Kannegiesser & Lev Landau (from Gamow’s ‘My World Line’

(The very perceptive follower of these events might have noticed, in an article by Sabine Lee in the Winter 2002 issue of Intelligence and National Security titled The spy that never was, an observation that Peierls ‘had enough reasons for hating their [the Soviets’] system like poison’, with a clarification relegated to a footnote that ran as follows: “His wife’s family had been persecuted by the Stalinist regime, because one of her cousins had been an outspoken counter-revolutionary who had assassinated the then head of the Russian secret policy [sic], Uritzky.” The author, who did not delve deeply into the matter, and was clearly echoing what Peierls himself wrote, used as her source the letter to Viscount Portal found in the Peierls Private Papers held at the Bodleian: the MI5 files on Genia and Rudolf were not declassified until 2004. I shall return to Lee’s article later.)

Thus the account of the couple’s courtship, and trials in managing to gain a visa for Genia, must be viewed with some scepticism. Later, Peierls wrote of a time in 1934: “It was in their [the Shapiros’] house that we awaited a telephone call from Leningrad that brought us some disturbing news. Genia’s parents and her sister, Nina, had been exiled from the city to a small town some distance east of Moscow. One did not have to ask for a reason for this order; exile or arrest were then hazards that struck people at random, like lightning or disease. One tended to speculate about what factors might have contributed to this result, but this would never be known.” This can now be seen as disingenuousness of a high order – and it was before the assassination of Kirov, which did provoke more reprisals. Frank Close, in commenting on Genia’s reaction to Fuchs’s arrest in Trinity, states simply: “In Russia, members of Genia’s family had been incarcerated on the whims of the authorities.” There was random terror in Stalin’s Russia, but Stalin’s organs carried out more carefully targeted campaigns. Peierls undoubtedly knew the reasons.

I had found only one clue indicating that Peierls ever admitted that a dark cloud hung over his relationship with the Soviet government. It is to be found in one of the files on Peierls at the National Archives, namely KV 2/1662. After accusations had been made against Peierls in early 1951 because of his association with two academics at Birmingham University, known to be communists (referred to as ‘Prof. P’ – certainly Roy Pascal, and ‘Dr. B.’  – possibly the economist Alexander Baykov, but more probably Gerry Brown, a former Communist Party member in America, whom Peierls, shortly after Fuchs’s sentencing, had invited to a post at Birmingham University), in April 1951 Peierls had a conversation with Viscount Portal about the relationships. Portal had been chief of the Air Staff during World War II, and was Controller of Production (Atomic Energy) at the Ministry of Supply from 1946 to 1951. In a letter he sent to Portal after their conversation (the same one identified by Sabine Lee), Peierls tried to defend himself against the accusations, suggesting his associations were harmless or short-lived, and then presented the following tentative declaration:

“On the other hand, is it known that my wife is the cousin of Kannegiesser, a counter-revolutionary who assassinated Uritsky, who was then head of the Russian secret police? With the same, very rare surname, she was never allowed to forget this connection. It is known that her family was banished from Leningrad in 1935, partly because of this connection, and partly no doubt because of her marriage to a foreigner. They have not dared communicate with her for several years, and we do not know whether they are still alive.”

Peierls misstates Uritsky’s level of responsibility, but this paragraph is highly important. The scientist used this strange admission to shed doubt about the credibility and intelligence of his accusers, yet dug a pit of his own in so doing. The statement is to me remarkable, for the following reasons:

  1. His feigned ignorance as to whether the authorities [presumably] knew about Genia’s connection with Leonid. If he had not volunteered the information at any time, why would he expect them to know? And yet, if he seriously considered that it was the responsibility of intelligence organisations to uncover such facts, why was he not surprised that he had not been challenged by the association, given all that had recently happened?
  2. The claim that Genia was ‘never allowed to forget this connection’. Given that Peierls’ stance was that he and his wife were in complete ignorance of the persecution of her family members, what agency or person was constantly reminding her of the connection? True, she and Rudolf made a return visit to Leningrad in 1934, where she would have learned from her sister and her mother what was happening, but in 1937, at the height of the terror, Peierls went to Moscow alone. Was Genia in touch with members of the Soviet Embassy, and were those the persons who continued to threaten her, and presumably kept her informed on the fate of her relatives?
  3. The deliberate vagueness of ‘it is known that her family was banished from Leningrad in 1935’. Known by whom? Peierls claimed that, during his oppressive visit to a physics conference in Moscow in 1937, he managed to engineer a meeting with Genia’s sister Nina, who would have updated him on Stalin’s persecution. (Indeed, Stalin probably arranged for this meeting himself, as it would have been fatal for Nina otherwise, Peierls at that time being considered a German spy. I shall discuss this unlikely sequence of events later.) But who else would have known about this state of affairs, unless Peierls himself chose to tell them?
  4. When Peierls came to write his memoir, over thirty years later, he chose to overlook this particular exchange as he told his life-story, no doubt believing that the unfortunate episode and its aftermath were safely buried by then. Perhaps he thought the letter to Viscount Portal would never come to light.

We have no exact record of how Portal responded, but the outcome was favourable for Peierls. (The story of revenge executed on family members of defectors and enemies should have been known to MI5: Walter Krivitsky’s three brothers-in-law were killed after he and his second wife Tonia escaped to Canada, and he published his articles denouncing Stalin.)  By March 1954, F3 in MI5 was able to confirm the Uritsky story, but also concluded that there was no doubt as to Peierls’s loyalty. Rudolf Peierls was knighted in 1968, and a succession of honours and medals followed. He died in 1995. In 2004, the building housing the sub-department of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University was named the Rudolf Peierls Centre.

I had essentially finished the research that appears above by October 1 of this year. That day the book Love and Physics landed on my doorstep. Subtitled The Peierlses, it was published earlier this year, and is the work of a professional Russian-speaking theoretical physicist, Mikhail Shifman, now a professor at the University of Minnesota. (From information in Shifman’s book, I have been able to extend the details on the family tree I created, which is richer than the one Shifman offers, but not so extended. Otherwise, the research is my own.) Love and Physics is a valuable addition to the Peierls lore, since it combines letters written between Rudolf and Genia (extracted from Sabine Lee’s compilation of the correspondence), items from Rudolf’s diaries, reminiscences from such as Genia’s sister, Landau’s students, and the Peierlses’ friends, as well as archival material from both Russian, American and English sources (including the complete text of the notable letter to Viscount Portal quoted earlier.) Remarkably, it also contains the text of letters sent by Genia’s mother and stepfather, exiled to Ufa, from 1936, and a photograph of a postcard sent by Genia on November 25, 1936 to them. This correspondence presumably ended with the onset of the Great Terror, but the Soviet censors were surely familiar with its contents.

Yet Shifman singularly fails to interpret the material synthetically. The volume is essentially a scrapbook – a very rich scrapbook, but still a scrapbook. (I learned towards the end of this month that Love and Physics has been withdrawn by its publisher, because of copyright infringements. So now I own another rarity.) The various escapes (of the Peierlses, of Gamow, even of Landau) are ascribed to miraculous intervention. Shifman sees no anomalies in the fact of Peierls’s being invited to a conference in Moscow during the Great Terror at the same time that Isai Mandelstam was being interrogated in jail about Peierls’s activities as a spy. He seems completely unaware of the work of Pavel Sudoplatov, who boasted of engaging scientists in the West to provide secret information under the threat of their relatives being harmed. He criticises Peierls for being ‘naïve’ in helping carry out the Soviet Union’s message of ‘Peace’ over nuclear weapons after the war, but delves no further. The Uritsky episode is described in detail, but he makes no linkage between Genia’s plight, or the conflict in Peierls’s own testimony about the connection. The volume has been put together with the intent of gaining ‘re-assurance’ from various witnesses and participants that Peierls’s role was entirely honourable.

Shifman does refer, however, to one significant event in the saga. On May 29, 1999 the weekly magazine the Spectator carried an article by Nicholas Farrell which picked up the necessarily abandoned claim by Richard Deacon that Peierls had been a spy. Commentators have assumed that Farrell gained his information from the historian of intelligence Nigel West, who had recently published his book on the VENONA project. On the assumption that the identities behind the cryptonyms FOGEL/PERS and TINA were Rudolf and Genia Peierls, the author took advantage of the fact that Peierls was now dead to try to breathe fresh life into the theory that the couple had been working for the Soviets. It should be remembered that Nigel West had been a researcher for Richard Deacon as a young man, and Deacon’s stifled accusations probably still resonated strongly with West. Unfortunately, the identification was a mistake (and in Misdefending the Realm, I unfortunately echoed the Farrell/West hypothesis). The Spectator article was carelessly prepared, and overemotionally presented. Later research showed that TINA was Melita Norwood, PERS was Russell McNutt, and MLAD was Theodore Hall.

In 2002, Professor Sabine Lee, now Professor of Modern History at the University of Birmingham, the institution at which Peierls spent most of his academic life, published the article referred to earlier, The spy who never was. It stated as its objective the investigation of the claims that Peierls and his wife had spied for the Soviet Union. (Lee made an acknowledgment of thanks to the British Academy for supporting the research on which the article was based: why the British Academy felt it had to get involved with such an endeavour is not clear to me, since the piece appears only to exploit information available at the Peierls Archive at the Bodleian Library, and on the MI5 files on Peierls and Fuchs accessible online from the National Archives. Lee’s Acknowledgments in her editions of Peierls’s Letters credit both the British Academy and the Royal Society for funding the project, which is a phenomenon worthy of analysis some other time.) Lee painstakingly took her readers through Peierls’s career and his relationship with Fuchs, and, concentrating on the erroneous assumption concerning VENONA, treated these items as the only significant evidence for the prosecution. Yet she omitted to analyse all the other incriminating evidence: hers was a whitewash job that showed that she failed to understand the complexity and subterfuge of the agencies of Soviet intelligence, and the strains that many western scientists were put under. Lee correctly dismantled the Farrell/West allegations, but failed to address the core of the matter.

Thus a triad of academics has lined itself up to protect Peierls’s reputation: Frank Close, the author of Trinity, who was taught by Peierls at Oxford University; Sabine Lee, who is the lead historian at Peierls’ primary seat of learning, the University of Birmingham, and has edited a comprehensive set of the Peierlses’ letters, as well as a biographical sketch of Peierls (which appears in Shifman’s book); and Mikhail Shifman, whose thesis adviser at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow was Professor Boris Ioffe, who worked under Kurchatov when Fuchs was supplying purloined information to the Institute. (Ioffe may have been a distant relation of the first director of the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Abram Ioffe, who chaired the notorious 1937 conference in Moscow attended by Peierls.) Shifman comes to no outright conclusion on Peierls, but he is very respectful of Lee’s expertise and research, and admits to looking for ‘reassurance’ about Peierls’s loyalty from both Lee and the Peierlses’ offspring. Lee admits to having been much inspired by Peierls’s former protégé, the communist Gerald Brown: her edition of the Peierls-Bethe Letters is dedicated to him. None of these three writers appears to be familiar with the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks, which outlined the strategies of issuing personal threats adopted by Soviet Intelligence to aid the country’s atomic weapons research.

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

I wrote about Sudoplatov’s statement in a posting of three years ago: ‘Mann Overboard’. It is worth reproducing the extract in full again here. Pavel Sudoplatov was deputy director of Foreign Intelligence of the NKVD from 1939 until 1942, and in July 1941 was appointed director of the Administration of Special Tasks. ‘Special Tasks’ involved both assassination abroad (Sudoplatov had personally killed Konovalets in Rotterdam in 1938, and had supervised the assassination of Trotsky in 1940, so he was well qualified for the job), and stealing of secrets to assist the Soviet atomic bomb project. Sudoplatov wrote:

“There was one respected scientist we targeted with both personal threats and appeals to his antifascism, George Gamow, a Russian-born physicist who defected to the United States in 1933 when he was permitted to leave the Soviet Union to attend an international meeting of physicists in Brussels, played an important role in helping us to obtain American atomic bomb secrets. Academician Ioffe spotted Gamow because of his connections with Niels Bohr and the American physicists. We assigned Sam Semyonov and Elizabeth Zarubina to enlist his cooperation. With a letter from Academician Ioffe, Elizabeth approached Gamow through his wife, Rho, who was also a physicist. She and her husband were vulnerable because of their concern for relatives in the Soviet Union. Gamow taught physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and instituted the annual Washington Conference on theoretical Physics, which brought together the best physicists to discuss the latest developments at small meetings.

            We were able to take advantage of the network of colleagues that Gamow had established. Using implied threats against Gamow’s relatives in Russia, Elizabeth Zarubina pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information.” (Special Tasks, p 192; published 1994)

Sudoplatov’s account has been challenged: he did get names of some spies wrong, for instance, but most of it has been confirmed by other sources. (Sudoplatov’s disclosures provoked wrath from some diehard KGB officers.) He does not specifically identify the Peierlses as targets, but Genia’s intimate friend Gamow had almost certainly been recruited in the Soviet Union: the comic-opera story of his plans to escape the country, followed by an absurd plea made to Molotov, can be inspected in my piece ‘Mann Overboard’. The prolonged delay of six months after the Peierls marriage before Genia’s exit visa was approved indicates that the decision was made only after very careful planning, with sign-off occurring at the highest level. In a testimony provided to Shifman by the scientist Freeman Dyson, the latter wrote of Genia’s ‘long experience of living in fear of the Soviet police’, which indicates that she and Rudolf confided to their closest friends how they were being threatened.

Genia and Rudolf Peierls

Yet even the somewhat starry-eyed Shifman shows a realistic assessment of the horrors of 1937, when he describes the intensification of the Great Terror in July of that year, and directly echoes Sudoplatov’s claims:

“Working on my previous book, Physics in a Mad World, I looked through a notable number of files from the archive of the German and Austrian sections of the Comintern. This archive is now kept in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI) in the public domain. I was amazed by the number of German and Austrian communists who were agents of the Comintern in Western Europe and carried out the order of Stalin with an iron fist. In many dossiers there is a note ‘performed special assignments’. ‘Special assignments’ is a euphemism that could mean anything: from espionage to discrediting opponents among Russian emigres, from eliminating disobedient agents, to assassinating defectors from the ‘socialist paradise,’ Trotskyists (and Trotsky himself), and other ‘undesirable elements’.”

            “In 1934-36, many of the Comintern agents fled or were recalled to Moscow, and almost all disappeared in 1937-38: they were either sent to Gulag, or were executed immediately after their arrest by the NKVD.” (Love and Physics, p 265). There were other emotions than Love involved with Physics, for sure.

Thus Rudolf Peierls’s extraordinary trip to Moscow in the autumn of 1937 has to be analysed very closely. What was he thinking, walking into the lions’ den, still a German citizen who knew that the Germany Embassy would not come to his aid if anything untoward happened, at a time when Stalin was persecuting Germans scientists, especially those of Jewish origin? I start with Peierls’s account of the enterprise:

“In the summer of 1937 I was invited to a nuclear physics conference in Moscow, and Genia planned to come with me. But we were warned that her presence might prove an embarrassment to her friends and relatives, so she did not go. I went by myself, stopping for a week in Copenhagen. I then went . . .  to Leningrad, where I met Genia’s sister, Nina, who had by then been allowed to return to Leningrad. Landau was very worried by the state of affairs, a fact he mentioned only when we were walking in a park, and were secure from being overheard. Nevertheless, the scientific discussions at the conference itself were normal and fruitful.” (Bird of Passage, pp 129-130)

A dissertation could probably be written on this paragraph alone, given the numerous items that are left unsaid. Now that historians can pick up so much more background to the events in the Soviet Union and Copenhagen at the time, multiple questions have to be posed as to the accuracy of Peierls’s statement, from the circumstances of his departure to the question of whether, given the flimsiness of his account of it, he even attended the conference. I organize these questions around the following five subjects: 1) Arrangements for travel; 2) Logistics of the conferences; 3) The political climate in the Soviet Union; 4) Proceedings in Moscow; and 5) The meeting with Nina.

Arrangements for Travel

Remarkably, Sabine Lee completely overlooks the 1937 Moscow visit in her biographical sketch. This oversight is doubly strange because Peierls assumed his new position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Birmingham University in October 1937. (He was offered the chair, in the spring of 1937, by Professor Mark Oliphant, who himself did not take up his chair of physics at Birmingham until the same month.) The Conference in Moscow took place from September 20th to the 26th. I suspect no record of the exchange between the organisers of the conference and the Peierlses exists (if indeed it was conducted by mail), but the event conveniently fell between the end of Rudolf’s period at the Mond Laboratory, where his position had been financed by the availability of funds released by the unexpected detention of Pyotr Kapitza in the Soviet Union, and the assumption of his new post.

So who warned Rudolf and Genia that Genia’s presence might prove ‘an embarrassment’ to her friends and relatives? That gesture showed an unusual amount of sensitivity and compassion on the behalf of the Soviet authorities. Given, however, that Genia’s parents were at that time in disgrace, exiled in Ufa, it seems unlikely that they would have been discomfited further by the presence of Genia in Moscow, unless, of course, the physicist’s wife made some sort of public protest – a highly unlikely happening. It would appear to me that Genia would have been mortally afraid of returning to the Soviet Union at this time, and might even have attempted to persuade her husband from going, had she not been aware that his summoning was a vital part of any arrangement made to protect her family from the direst outcome.

As will be shown, Rudolf combined his excursion with a visit to Copenhagen, which contains its own contradictions. Moreover, Rudolf was clearly aware that a visit to Moscow at this time might provoke some difficult questions from his British hosts. He must have gained a Soviet visa (his German passport had been renewed in Liverpool in 1934, for a period of five years), because an alert customs official at Harwich noticed the Soviet stamps in his passport – but not until Peierls returned from a holiday, ‘spending his Easter vacation’ in Copenhagen, in April 1938. As part of the report on his arrival at Harwich declares: “During the examination of his passport it was noticed that it contained a Soviet visa and Russian control-stamps for 1937, but the alien, when questioned, beyond confirming that he had visited the U.S.S.R. last year, did not appear to be willing to give any reason for his visit to that country, and, in view of his substantial position as a professor, Peierls was not further questioned on the subject.” (TNA, KV 2/1658/2, serial 1A)

Why Peierls should have to behave so furtively about a legitimate conference in Moscow is not clear. Had he perhaps concealed the whole adventure from his new supervisor, Professor Oliphant? One would have thought that the timing of the conference was excellent cover for whatever other business he had to attend to in the Soviet Union, about which he was clearly diffident to talk. If he had given a straight answer, perhaps no report would have been filed, and no one would have been any the wiser. Instead, MI5 opened a file on him, one that eventually ran to eight bulky folders.

One other aspect that has not been analysed properly is the financing of Rudolf’s and Genia’s travel in the 1930s. It was not as if they were flush with money, yet they flitted around Europe and the Soviet Union with seeming ease.  Shifman informs us (via Sabine Lee) that Rudolf’s father, Heinrich ‘provided some financial support to the young family, through wire transfers first to Switzerland and then to England, within the limits imposed by the Nazi government of Germany’, but Henrich was very cautious. He had not approved of Rudolf’s marriage in the first place, and he regarded their ventures to the Soviet Union as risky and hazardous. It was unlikely that, under these circumstances, he underwrote their extensive voyages, many of which were not even traced at the time.

For example, Sabine Lee’s edition of the Peierlses’ Letters (Volume 1) proves that Rudolf and Genia engaged in a lengthy and enigmatic visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 (completely ignored in Bird of Passage, which is an astonishing lapse), when Rudolf had already expressed how difficult it would be for the married couple to survive in Zürich on his meager salary after their marriage. For some reason, in the spring of 1932, Rudolf went to Moscow without Genia, and there applied for a visa for his wife to join him. It took so long that he had to leave the Soviet Union before Genia gained her visa, after which she was able to travel to Leningrad to stay there several weeks without him. (In the interview with Weiner [see below], he deceptively stated that he ‘came back earlier than my wife, who was staying longer’.) It sounds very much as if the granting of Genia’s visa was conditional on some effort or commitment by Rudolf. (Professor Lee offers no commentary at all on this highly controversial visit.) MI5 slipped up massively in not pursuing aggressively Kim Philby’s source of funding when he was sent as a journalist to Spain in early 1937. It probably should have been more pertinacious in ‘following the money’ when it came to the Peierlses’ travel arrangements. Yet the Security Service probably knew nothing about these journeys at the time: Rudolf and Genia were not yet resident in the United Kingdom.

Conference Logistics

Elsewhere, Peierls has given some vague descriptions of the movements of that summer, so threadbare that one might be justified in wondering whether he did in fact attend it. We owe it, however, to Paul Josephson, in his book Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (1991) to confirm that Peierls did actually attend the conference. “The second all-union conference on the atomic nucleus, held in Moscow late in September 1937, drew over 120 Soviet scholars, and several physicists from abroad including Wolfgang Pauli, Rudolph Peierls, a longtime associate of L.D. Landau, and Fritz Houtermans”, he wrote.  Josephson cites official Russian records in his footnotes to this passage in Chapter 6, so this account can presumably be trusted. Yet Josephson does not mention Bohr, whose presence would certainly have been sought in normal circumstances, given his prominence and reputation. Izvestia sent him telegrams in November 1937, seeking his opinions on Landau’s discoveries, which indicates the level of regard in which he was held in Moscow. Bohr had spent some time in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1937, however, lecturing, and meeting Kapitza, so he presumably did not need to return so soon.

Peierls indicates very clearly that he spent a week in Copenhagen first, before advancing through Stockholm and Leningrad. Presumably that week must have taken place in the first half of September. But what was the purpose, and whom did he meet? It is very odd that he does not mention an important Scientific Conference reportedly organised by Niels Bohr, of which a very famous photograph exists, with Peierls sitting among many luminaries in the second row [see below]. Shifman reproduces this photograph, with the caption “The famous A auditorium of the NBI: Photograph by Nordisk Pressefoto, Niels Bohr Institute, courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segré Visual Archive, Fermi Film Collection, and Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen.” It all sounds very authentic – but the occasion is undated. (This image, with attendees named in manuscript, can be found, but it has a question mark after ‘1937’.) In her commentary to the Letters, Sabine Lee indicates that Genia accompanied Rudolf to a conference in Copenhagen at the beginning of September – a fact that appears to be confirmed by a reference in a letter to Rudolf from his father – after which Rudolf proceeded to Moscow alone, but no details are given. And in that case, why did Rudolf write that he ‘went by myself, stopping for a week in Copenhagen’? Was a meeting in Copenhagen a cover for a visit to Moscow?

Scientists in Copenhagen (1937?)

Searching for details of the Niels Bohr conference on the web is a mostly fruitless task: the photograph is the most regularly cited item. One rare specific reference to a Bohr conference that autumn comes from N. L. Krementsov, who, in his International Science Between the Wars: The Case for Genetics, writes: “Just a few weeks earlier, in mid-November [1937], he [Otto Mohr] had spent several days with Muller in Copenhagen (at a conference organized by Niels Bohr) . . . ”  But mid-November does not work with Peierls’s calendar. Another famous photograph shows Niels Bohr chatting with Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen some time in 1937, yet again it is sadly undated. (Bohr’s Collected Works confirm that a meeting of the Copenhagen Academy was held on November 19: it states that the photograph was taken at Fredericksborg Castle.) The scene looks as if it were a conference, at some kind of open-air cocktail party: most of the attendees are wearing overcoats. But I find it extraordinary that, if so many famous scientists were assembled at such a critical time, there would not be some more tangible and reliable record of the proceedings.

Niels Bohr & Werner Heisenberg

Peierls added to the confusion by explaining, in Nuclear Physics 1919-1952, a work he edited, that Bohr was on a lecture tour of Japan in the early summer of 1937, and in June gave an address on nuclear physics in Moscow during his return home. In October 1937 he apparently spoke at the Congrès de Paris, but Ruth Moore, one of Bohr’s biographers, informs us that ‘in late September, not long after the Bohrs had returned to Copenhagen, Bohr went to Bologna, to attend the centenary [sic] celebration for Galvani.’  Abraham Pais, however, records that the Bohrs returned home as early as June 25: Moore’s ‘not long’ has to be interpreted vaguely. Further research indicates that the actual bicentennial of Galvani’s birth occurred on September 9, but the event was celebrated between October 17th  and the 20th . Moore continues by stating that Bohr was expecting to see Ernest Rutherford in Bologna, but there learned that Rutherford had died after a fall from a tree. (The dates now mesh.) Bohr thus rushed to England for the funeral service shortly after Rutherford’s death on October 19. No mention is made of a conference in Copenhagen amid all these activities.

Thus the facts about the Copenhagen conference, and Bohr’s activities in September, are very elusive and contradictory. No Bohr archival record or biographical work appears to refer to an early September conference: Volume 9 of Bohr’s Complete Works, edited by Peierls himself, contains an entry in its Index for ‘Copenhagen Conferences’, but for years 1932, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1947 and 1952 only. An early trawl through biographies of scientists appearing in the ‘1937’ photograph shows no reference to such an event. (The search will continue.) As I mentioned before, in his memoir, Peierls specifically indicates that he spent a week in Copenhagen before Moscow, in discussions with Bohr, but makes no reference to any conference. In the Letters, however, hints are planted at the holding of such an event, Peierls’s father echoing his son’s description of the coming function. In her own account, Genia travelled to Copenhagen, but then went home. Yet Peierls later wrote that he travelled to Copenhagen alone. In the Letters, Peierls and Hans Bethe discussed Bethe’s visit to Europe that summer, and they planned a ten-day motoring tour in Paris in early September, as Bethe was due to sail back to the United States in the third week of September. The September conference is like a refined version of Schrödinger’s Cat, where the box emblazoned with the photograph of the gathered scientists can be opened, but nothing is to be found inside.

Thus the only recognised conference in Copenhagen that autumn occurred much later, and was noted by Peierls when he edited Volume 9 of Bohr’s Complete Works. He wrote that Bohr delivered a paper back in his hometown in November: “Of a paper read to the Copenhagen Academy on 19 November 1937, only an abstract is published  . . .” So was that the occasion when the photograph was taken? If so, how did Peierls manage to attend it? Did he return to Copenhagen in November, fresh in his new post? If so, why did he not describe it? It is all very puzzling: I have written to Professor Sabine Lee to ascertain whether she can shed any light on the matter. In her initial response, she offered to help, but evidently completely missed the point of my questions: she had evidently not inspected coldspur. I followed up with more detailed questions about Peierls’s puzzling movements, and even offered to send her the current draft of this piece, so that she could enjoy a sneak preview.

Professor Lee eventually responded, on October 24. She failed to address my questions, however, simply writing: “As far as I can see, all the issues relating to the Peierlses and security have comprehensively been addressed in many thorough and serious explorations which, in my view, have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no question about the integrity of the couple.” I must surely have overlooked some important works. I found this attitude astonishing in its lack of intellectual curiosity, and for its untenable suggestion of ‘proof’, but also thought it a not unusual reaction for an academic with a territory and position to protect. Having appointed herself as the editor of Peierls’s Letters, Lee has shown a disappointing lack of energy in providing useful exegesis: if she encounters an event that can be confirmed by Bird of Passage, she refers us to such a text; if a phenomenon is ignored by Peierls, she likewise ignores it. And she appears to have little understanding of the world of intelligence.

The Political Climate in the Soviet Union

Summer 1937 was a dangerous time in Moscow – especially for Germans. Three major show trials had recently taken place. In August 1936, the prominent Party leaders Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were among a group of sixteen who had been found guilty of plots against Stalin, and executed. In January 1937, Karl Radek and others were accused of plotting with Nikolai Bukharin against Stalin, Radek delaying his own demise by implicating Bukharin and Marshal Tukahchevsky. Nearly all were executed immediately. In late May, Tukhachevsky was forced to sign a confession that he was a German agent in league with Bukharin in a bid to seize power. He was tried and found guilty on June 11, and executed a few hours later. (Bukharin was executed the following March.) At this stage, Stalin was executing anyone – including his Comintern agents recalled from overseas – who could have been tainted by exposure to Western influences.

Shifman refers to the dangers that German scientists faced at this time. He reports how Hans Hellmann (1903-1938) emigrated to the Soviet Union after being dismissed from the University of Hanover on December 24, 1933. In Moscow, he assumed leadership of the Karpov Institute’s Theoretical Group. On March 9, 1938, however, he was arrested on the charge of spying for Germany, and was sentenced and executed on May 28, 1938. Fritz Noether (1884-1941) was a mathematician who likewise emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he was appointed professor at the University of Tomsk. He was arrested in November 1937, and on October 23, 1938, found guilty of sabotage and spying for Germany. He was sentenced to twenty-five years of Gulag, but executed on September 11, 1941.

Fritz Houtermans, who was described erroneously as a visitor from abroad, attending the conference with Peierls, was a German Communist who had worked for EMI in England – near Cambridge, where Peierls worked – before emigrating to the Soviet Union in 1935. Houtermans’ biographer states that Houtermans was arrested by the NKVD in December 1937. He was tortured and confessed to being a Trotskyist plotter and Gestapo spy (as his charge sheet, reproduced in Mikhail Shifman’s Physics in a Mad World, described), out of fear from threats against his wife, Charlotte. They had married in Tbilisi in August 1930 (or 1931), and Peierls and Pauli had attended the ceremony. However, Charlotte had already escaped from the Soviet Union to Denmark, after which she went to England and finally the USA. On May 2, 1940 Houtermans was extradited to Germany and arrested by the Gestapo at the Soviet-Polish border. Owing to the intervention of another scientist, he was released to work on German nuclear research, and survived until 1974.

According to Herbert Fröhlich’s biographer, G. J. Hyland, another member of the ‘Jazz Band’, Dmitri Ivanenko, had been arrested on February 27, 1935, in the wake of the Kirov assassination. (Kirov was head of the Party organisation in Leningrad, and was assassinated on December 1, 1934. Some accounts suggest that Stalin had himself arranged the murder.)  Shifman reports that Ivanenko and Landau had quarrelled in 1928, and Ivanenko had moved to Kharkov, but writes, however, that Ivanenko was not arrested until March 4, 1936. Whichever date is accurate, Ivanenko had then been exiled to a labour camp in Karaganda, but Vladimir Fock – another physics student whom Genia Kannegiesser/Peierls mentioned in a poem and in letters to Rudolf – managed to engineer an extraordinary intercession with Fröhlich before the latter escaped from the Soviet Union. Fröhlich was then able to gain further pressure from Pauli and Paul Dirac, and Ivanenko‘s sentence was commuted to exile in Tomsk.

Most poignant of all was the fate of Matvei Bronstein, another of the ‘Jazz Band’ alongside Landau, Gamow and Genia Peierls. He was arrested on the night of August 6, 1937, when aged thirty. According to the archives, his captors demanded that he hand over his arms and poisons, to which Bronstein responded with a laugh. He was sentenced and executed, on the same day, in a Leningrad prison in February the following year. It is not surprising that Lev Landau spoke to Peierls in tones of terror when they met the month after Bronstein’s arrest. Landau, a future Nobelist, was himself arrested on April 27, 1938, for comparing Stalinism to Nazism.

A report in Ukrainian Week from June 2019 (Landau worked in Kharkov) reinforces the fact that Landau and his circle had been under pressure for a while. It reports: “Already in 1936, the NKVD had begun to build a case against ‘a group of counterrevolutionary physicists at UPTI led by Professor Landau.’ The police interrogated Lev Rosenkevich, who was then the head of the radioactive measurement lab at the Institute. During this interrogation, Rosenkevich supposedly confessed that back in 1930 Landau’s ‘counterrevolutionary group’ had already been active at UPTI, and included Shubnikov and the head of the x-ray laboratory, Vadim Gorsky. The NKVD acted swiftly and in November 1937, Shubnikov, Gorsky, Rosenkevich and nuclear physicist Valentin Fomin were shot.” Thus we have further evidence of the horrors that Landau must have confided to Peierls in their furtive meetings of September 1937.

Another study might draw some interesting comparisons between those Germans persecuted in the Soviet Union and those like Charlotte Houtermans who were able to engineer a miraculous flight from the terror. Herbert Fröhlich was another who reputedly managed to ‘escape’. Fröhlich had been invited to work at the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute in Leningrad by Yakov Frenkel, the same scientist who had invited Peierls to the Odessa Conference in 1930, and he thus left the University of Freiburg in 1933 for his new life. He in fact sought employment in the United Kingdom first, but failing to be awarded any funding, accepted Frenkel’s offer, waited six months to pick up a visa in Paris, and arrived in the Soviet Union only in the late summer of 1934. Thereafter, Frohlich’s account becomes increasingly dubious, however.

Herbert Froehlich

Fröhlich blamed his disillusionment on the assassination of Kirov in December 1934, and the ‘Great Terror’ that followed. Yet that was a premature assessment: the Great Terror is not generally recognized as starting until 1936, and foreign scientists were not persecuted at that time. Fröhlich, through another miraculous series of events that almost matched George Gamow’s picaresque adventures (see ‘Mann Overboard’), including a fortuitous exit visa planted in his passport, and his ability to buy a sleeper ticket on a train to Vienna with rubles without the NKVD’s noticing, managed to escape to Austria in May 1935. (Fröhlich’s ODNB entry states that he was ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. If Moscow wanted to punish him, it would surely have handed him over to Germany.)

What is also significant, as Christopher Laucht informs us in Elemental Germans, using part of the Peierls correspondence not published by Sabine Lee, is that Peierls was also involved in helping Fröhlich’s egress. With whom he communicated, and what exactly he achieved, are not clear, but any lengthy exchange with the Soviet authorities does not match with the more frenzied activity by which Fröhlich described the events. In any case, the community of German leftist émigré scientists in England no doubt took notice of his adventures. In England, Fröhlich took a position under Nevill Mott in Bristol, alongside Klaus Fuchs, and eventually became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Even more astonishing is the fact that Fröhlich, despite all his tribulations with his Soviet hosts, apparently seriously considered an invitation by Frenkel to return to Russia soon afterwards. Even his biographer was moved to note: “Why he should ever have entertained this course of action is not at all clear, given his earlier experience there, and the fact that Stalin was still conducting his Great Purge.” The naivety of émigré Germans scientists was matched only by the clumsiness of the NKVD.

Thus Peierls’s decision to visit Moscow in the late summer of 1937 seems incredibly rash, unless he had some kind of relationship with the Soviet authorities. He was not yet a citizen of the United Kingdom, while his wife was in England with two children: he owned a German passport. It would be unlikely that the Germans would come to his rescue should he encounter any difficulties. He must have gained a clear understanding of the horrific goings-on in the Soviet Union. He admitted that Landau furtively explained to him the general oppressions of the Terror, but did not explain how Landau and his associates themselves were being persecuted at that time. A subtle point that has been overlooked, moreover, is this: if Landau was under intense investigation at the time, why did the authorities allow him to travel from Kharkov to Moscow for the conference, to meet a ‘Gestapo spy’? The NKVD surely intended him to speak to Peierls, and reinforce the fear that he should hold for the Soviet secret police.  He might well have impressed upon his friend that, unless Peierls continued to co-operate, his (Landau’s) life would be in danger. Otherwise, exactly what the benefits of attending such a conference would have been were extremely murky, as the following section makes clear.

Conference Proceedings

For someone who recalled so many events so crisply, Peierls was remarkably vague about Moscow in 1937. In an interview conducted by Charles Weiner of the University of Seattle in 1969, Peierls said: “I don’t remember much in detail about the conference. It was a time when work on cyclotrons in Russia had started. People were reporting on the progress. I don’t think they had a working cyclotron yet . . . “, adding later: “There was a conference in Moscow and when already the chance of foreigners to go there was already deteriorating, when the mass arrest had started. This was heading for Stalinism.” Apart from the outrageous misrepresentation about the nature of Stalinism, and how long Stalin’s murderous policies had already been in evidence, Peierls here completely finesses the point of why he had gone to Moscow. Given the poisonous atmosphere of the mid-1930s, might he perhaps have verified how useful such a gathering would be before agreeing to attend? And would he not have been required to submit a report on the proceedings his return? Yet he struggled to recall what the conference was about: “I think it was nuclear physics”. He recalls Bohr’s having been in Moscow in the summer, but mistakenly described George Gamow as being present that September, and had to be corrected by Weiner (who appears to be confused about the ‘conference’ at which Borg spoke in June, and the September event). Weiner was overall a very incisive interrogator, and had done his homework, but he missed an opportunity here.

The atmosphere in Moscow in 1937 must surely have been memorable, apart from what appears to have been a very meaty set of presentations. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provides the following details about the agenda: “Twenty-three of the 28 papers were by Soviet authors, and they covered five main problems: the penetration of matter by fast electrons and gamma rays; cosmic rays; beta decay; the interaction of the nucleus with neutrons; and the theory of nuclear structure. There were also discussions of high-voltage apparatuses used for penetrating the nucleus.” The chairman of the conference was Abram Ioffe, who also chaired the conference in Odessa in 1930. He must have had special significance for Peierls, since his daughter, Valentina, was one of the ‘Jazz Band’ group of which Genia, Landau and Gamow were members. In view of Ioffe’s position, one might wonder whether information about the not totally reliable group filtered back to Ioffe himself. Landau was arrested soon after the conference, and I have already described what happened to Ivanenko and Bronstein.

A report on Ioffe’s address to the conference (from the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences) is worth quoting in full:

“Ioffe’s opening speech at the second conference reflected the forces at work under Stalin in the late 1930s and indicated that the field of physics was not immune to the political currents of the day. He spoke about the tremendous achievements of Soviet science, which under socialism was devoid of the slavery and exploitation of capitalist science. He described how advances in nuclear physics served to verify the validity of dialectical materialism. Ioffe praised the emergence of proletarian scientists who replaced the old intelligentsia and highlighted the great strides made since 1933: the creation of a large network of physics research institutes, and the fact that in four years the number of nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union had quadrupled to more than one hundred.

On a more somber note. Ioffe acknowledged the failure of Soviet physicists as yet to achieve ‘any kind of practical applications’. And while the Academy of Sciences Presidium, in the protocol issued at the end of the conference, touted the achievements of Soviet nuclear physics as outlined by Ioffe, it also drew attention to the failure to begin construction of a new, powerful cyclotron.”

Peierls obviously found this unremarkable, not noting the irony of the fact that Soviet scientists were being persecuted and murdered, while ‘capitalist science’ was reportedly riddled with ‘slavery and exploitation’.  Nor did he comment on the final communiqué issued by the attendees to the person who inspired the whole affair. According to the archive, “On September 1937 at the Second All-Union Conference on nuclear physics in Moscow, the participants addressed Comrade Stalin with these passionate words of admiration: ‘The successful development of Soviet physics occurs against the background of a general decline of science in capitalist countries, where science is falsified and is placed at the service of greater exploitation of man by man. . . Vile agents of fascism, Trotsky-Bukharinist spies and saboteurs  . . . .   do not stop short of any abomination to undermine the power of our country  . . . Enemies penetrated among physicists, carrying out espionage and sabotage assignment sin our research institutes  . . . Along with all the working people of our socialist motherland, Soviet physicists more closely unite around the Communist party and Soviet government, around our great leader Comrade Stalin  . . .’”

Either Peierls did not hang around to hear this nonsense, or listened, and concluded it was not worth recording for posterity when he returned to the United Kingdom. I repeat his only technical conclusion: “Nevertheless, the scientific discussions at the conference itself were normal and fruitful”, as if it had been just another conference, like one in Brussels, or Bath, perhaps. Why did this experience not solidify his resolve against the dark forces of Communism? On the other hand, his colleague David Shoenberg at the Mond Laboratory, with whom he worked on a paper on magnetic curves in superconductors in 1936, returned from Moscow in late September 1938, and told everyone about Landau’s arrest and incarceration. Shifman rather oddly suggests that Fuchs should have spoken to Shoenberg to learn the truth of Stalin’s oppression: but his mentor Peierls would have been just as capable, and much more conveniently placed.

Peierls, unlike Kapitsa, never petitioned Soviet authorities (except in a plea to Khrushchev for the emigration of Genia’s sister, Nina), never expressed or published any criticism of the murder and imprisonment of Soviet physicists under Stalin, including many eminent physicists and colleagues he had met at conferences in the Soviet Union. Nor did he support Soviet physicists who were active in the dissident movement, notably Yuri Orlov or Andrei Sakharov. His most fervent defense was for identified Soviet agents, such as Fuchs, and for suspected Soviet agents, such as Oppenheimer, and in his tortuous appeal on behalf of the convicted spy Nunn May.

The Meeting with Nina

The likelihood of Peierls’s being able to set up a safe meeting with his sister-in-law, Nina, in Leningrad at that time must have been extremely slim. Again, Peierls is terse about the occasion.  From Bird of Passage: “I then went . . .  to Leningrad, where I met Genia’s sister, Nina, who had by then been allowed to return to Leningrad. From there I went to Moscow.” No description of how he had managed to locate her, or what they discussed. Yet it would have been exceedingly dangerous for Nina to make contact with any foreigner. As Timothy Snyder has written in Stalin and Europe: Imitation and Domination, 1928-1953: “Well aware of the threat of total espionage from abroad, Stalin had by the 1930s created a system of ‘total counterespionage’ in the Soviet Union: ubiquitous surveillance and terror. Every contact with foreigners was watched. Every visitor to foreign consulates was investigated. Every immigrant was suspected as a possible foreign agent.”

Nina had been allowed to return from exile, of course. In March, 1935, she and her parents had been exiled to Ufa for five years, but, at the end of April, 1936, she had been allowed to return to Leningrad. Nina described this fortuitous event in these terms: “The slogan ‘Children are not answerable for their parents’ which Stalin suddenly produced at the start of 1936 immediately granted freedom to all young people who had been exiled from Leningrad as ‘members of the family’, and I was one of these. At the end of April I returned to Leningrad.” This fact is confirmed by a letter that her parents were able to send to Genia on May 9, 1936, when her mother writes that she knows only that Nina has gone to Leningrad. (The truth that Nina’s parents were as innocent as she was is irrelevant in this picture.) For some reason, however, Nina makes no mention of any meeting with Peierls in her memoir about her step-father, which was published posthumously in 1991. And maybe they did not meet in in Leningrad: Shifman writes elsewhere (p 13) that Nina, after her exile to Kazakhstan ‘returned to Leningrad after Stalin’s death’. Someone has the facts wrong.

What is more likely is that the whole encounter had been engineered by Stalin, to communicate to Peierls that his wife’s relatives were suffering, but that their situation could be eased by Peierls’s continued contribution to the Soviet acquisition of western atomic research. After all, it was no use threatening persons with the uncertain fate of their relatives unless you were able to confirm to your victim that they were still alive, but in permanent danger, and that others like them had been exterminated. And Isai’s fate would remain on a roller-coaster. Nina herself describes how autumn 1937 saw the start of arrests among people exiled from Leningrad, and that Isai was arrested in March 1938, and spent eight months in an overcrowded prison cell in Ufa. She remarks, about Isai: “He was interrogated twice: a repeat interrogation about the murder of Uritsky which had happened 20 years before, and on the ‘spying activities’ of Rudolf Peierls, who by that time already a physicist of world renown.” He was not physically assaulted, but subject to all manner of threats, as well as ‘screaming and foul language’.

We thus see the duplicity of the NKVD’s operation. On the one hand, it threatened an innocent man purely because of a distant (and non-blood) relationship with a known assassin, and sought to acquire knowledge from him of a German scientist’s supposed espionage simply because he (Isai) and his wife had been visited in 1934 by his step-daughter and husband, showing off their baby daughter. At the same time, they allowed this German spy to enter the country, unchallenged and unarrested, and permitted him to conduct a clandestine encounter with the prisoner’s other step-daughter, who had recently been released early from a term of exile, and converse with a suspected rebel (Landau), who was under close investigation. The contrast between the fate of other Germans, and Peierls’s relatively serene sojourn, and his ability to meet Nina unharassed, could not be more stark or provocative.

As a final twist in this saga of distorted memories and deliberate disinformation, I present the enigma of the text of a letter sent by Nina to Genia in May 1936, just before she returned to Leningrad, where she commented on the photographs of the Peierlses’ daughter. “Thank you for the pictures of Gaby”, she wrote. “We also received the Berlin pictures. Gaby there is a bit worse seen, but your Shweiger [father-in-law] is amazingly clear-cut; he has the face of an actor and resembles Isai. . . . Rudi looks best of all from the viewpoint of expressiveness.” Did Nina get the date or location wrong? Peierls never mentioned in Bird of Passage a visit to see his father in Germany after his own escape in 1933. He indicates that the next time he saw his father (and his step-mother, Else, his own mother having died in 1921) was in 1939, when they were allowed to emigrate, and stopped off in the UK on their way to the USA.  Yet that is also untrue, as the letters from his father and his step-mother indicate very clearly that they visited Rudolf and Genia in England in June 1936, i.e. after Nina’s letter was sent. Heinrich Peierls also refers to meeting Genia and Gaby early in 1934, in Hamburg, so Nina could not have been referring to photographs taken on that occasion.

What was Peierls doing back in Germany in 1935 or 1936, and why would he conceal the fact in his memoir? His published Letters also show that he and Genia made a visit to the Soviet Union in 1936, which again he ignores in his autobiography. In a letter to L. I. Volodarskaya of 27 September, 1989 (printed in Volume 2 of Lee’s edition of his correspondence), he tells his addressee that he and Genia visited the Soviet Union ‘a few more times in the early thirties’.  Yet he completely overlooks these events in his memoir. In a letter to H. Montgomery-Hyde of March 35, 1981, in Captain Renault style, he rebuked the author over his book The Atom Bomb Spies, writing; “I must say I am quite shocked by many inaccuracies and the general careless attitude to the facts which it reveals.” But Peierls is no better. How can one trust anything he says?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

According to all accounts by friends and colleagues Rudolf Peierls was a decent man, an integrated, pipe-smoking, crossword-solving English gentleman, feted, honoured and respected. Even if the meeting with his future wife had been arranged, theirs was clearly a love-match, and Rudolf was an attentive husband and a doting father. He was a brilliant scientist, and an excellent teacher who inspired hundreds of students. As the awards tumbled over him in the last couple of decades of his life, he surely basked in the reputation he had gained among scientists world-wide, and with the British intellectual elite.

Yet the great secret must have haunted him – to the degree that he could never even hint at it in his autobiography. Apart from his confession to Viscount Portal, he could never admit to the world that his wife’s kinship with a mortal enemy of the Bolshevik regime had placed intolerable burdens on them both. For there is surely another narrative that has to be pieced together: the flight from Germany; the fortuitous acceptance of a post at Cambridge using funds released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union; the unexpected invitation by Frenkel to attend a conference in Odessa; the introduction to Genia by another manipulated deceiver, George Gamow; the struggle to gain a visa for Genia, and then their miraculous departure to the West; their unexplained and unreported return visit to Moscow in 1932, when Peierls laboured to gain a re-entry visa for Genia; the assistance given to Fröhlich to ‘escape’ from the Soviet Union in 1934; the unlikely direct correspondence with exiled ‘criminals’ in 1936; the concealed visit to the Soviet Union in 1936; the unnecessary and dangerous attendance at the conference in Moscow in 1937, and the problematic private encounter with Landau; the perilous meeting with Nina in Leningrad that same year; the evasive explanation for that visit given to immigration officers in 1938; the adoption of British citizenship to allow him to work on the MAUD project; the timely awareness that Klaus Fuchs would be a useful asset on the project, and the promotion of his employment; his nurturing of Fuchs despite the knowledge of his Communist past; Peierls’s continued friendships with open Communists such as Roy Pascal; his recruitment of Gerry Brown, an open subversive communist from the USA, to a post at Birmingham soon after Fuchs’s conviction; and his contribution to the Manhattan project followed by his immediate support of peace movements that were instruments of Stalin’s aggressive objectives.

It is very difficult for those of us who have never suffered under a totalitarian regime such as Hitler’s or Stalin’s to judge the actions of those who were subject to the kind of threats that the Peierlses, Gamow, and others underwent. The date on which Genia and Rudolf sold their souls to the Devil will probably never be verifiable, but when it happened, they must have quickly realised that they were being sucked into a vortex that was inescapable. And yet . . .  Need Rudolf have been quite so diligent and dedicated in fulfilling Stalin’s wishes? Was he in fact specifically instructed to recruit Klaus Fuchs? Since his authority was at that stage minimal, could he have not found a way to exclude him from the project without damaging his own credibility, and thus possibly causing harm to Genia’s relatives? Did he and Genia not conclude that Stalin’s cruelty was capricious and random, in any case? Did he have to take so naively such an active role to promote the Atomic Scientists’ Association, since it had enough steam and authority to communicate its message without him?

I believe the April 1951 letter to Lord Portal is a vital part of the puzzle. Peierls must have been disturbed enough by his recent conversation with Portal to conclude that some kind of statement was appropriate. Suspicions and accusations were coming from the Americans, as well as from British sources (such as the rather dubious Kenneth de Courcy). It was the only place where he lifted the veil enough to admit that the Kannegiesser association might have been a factor. My theory would be that, soon after this, some kind of agreement (like that with Anthony Blunt) was forged between Peierls, MI5 and other authorities: Peierls probably admitted to a minor degree of carelessness with Fuchs, or sympathy for the Soviets in time of war, and was essentially forgiven. (‘Quite understand, old man . . .’; ‘Utter devils, those Russkies, eh?’; ‘What your poor wife must have been through  . .  .’; ‘At least that Fuchs fellow is behind bars  . . .’) The Russians had the bomb, so it was all (heavy) water under the bridge. Stalin died in 1953: maybe Peierls breathed a sigh of relief. Genia’s mother died in 1953, her step-father in 1954. Alexander Foote, a potential threat, died in 1956. Nina was the only surviving close relative, and Peierls made appeals to Khrushchev for her to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

Thus when the rumours were aroused again in 1979, with the publication of Deacon’s book, Peierls, now Sir Rudolf Peierls, with the Establishment behind him, bearing a  reputation for covering up embarrassing secrets about espionage and counter-espionage, was emboldened to deny everything, rightly thinking that there was not enough evidence around to disprove his contentions. The secrets of VENONA had not yet been publicised: there was no Internet. MI5 or the Home Office probably had a quiet word with the publisher, who did not put up a fight, not even bothering to re-issue Deacon’s book with the offending passages removed. In 1985, Peierls published his heavily sanitised memoir, which conveniently omitted several facts, distorted others, and elided over the more troublesome parts of his career and life. Even then, with Nina having died in Oxford in 1982, he could not bring himself to tell the full story. Neither Uritsky, nor Nikolai Kannegiesser, nor Stalin appears in the book.

If there is one experience that convinces me of Peierls’s harbouring of more dangerous affiliations to the forces of Communism, it is the 1937 Conference in Moscow. How could a liberal democrat, albeit with leftist leanings, as he described himself, possibly not conclude, after what he saw and heard in Moscow that dreadful summer, with the arrests and executions of the innocent  in their hundreds, that a Stalinist regime based on Communism was the most inhuman and destructive agency that could in those days be imagined? Peierls was surely not a Denis Pritt or a Leon Feuchtwanger, who reported enthusiastically about the justice of the show trials, but his silence places him in the same league as those rogues. Would not such a lover of liberty and pluralism have immediately reported on his experiences, informed his fellow-scientists (such as Fröhlich and Mott) of the true nature of the system they admired, and carefully re-assessed where his own allegiances lay? And would he not have been wary of any open communist, such as Fuchs, and at least striven to convince such persons of the folly of their convictions? Sabine Lee has written that ‘Rudolf Peierls never shied away from expressing his views in public’, but if that is so, he should be castigated as a humbug and a shameless apologist for Stalin.

Peierls in England: that will be the subject of the second (and maybe final) chapter of my analysis of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. And now that Professor Lee has declared that their project is complete, I wonder whether the Royal Society and the British Academy would consider funding my more searching and inquisitive investigation into Rudolf Peierls?

3 Comments

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

On Appeasement

‘Appeasement’ (‘Appeasing Hitler’ in the UK)

The New York Times chose to present the following as its leading letter in the Book Review dated August 4, 2019:

“In her review of Tim Bouverie’s ‘Appeasement: Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill, and the Road to War’ (July 20), Lynne Olson gives a number of reasons for what happened at the Munich conference, among them Chamberlain’s ignorance of foreign policy. However, she omits an underlying motive for that sordid episode, namely anti-Communism.

Throughout the 1930s, Conservative political opinion in Britain mostly saw Nazi Germany as a buffer against Marxism. Such views played as much of a role in ‘appeasement’ as did Chamberlain’s limitations and naivete. That anticommunism was a key component of European fascism, alas, is a truth that has been long forgotten.”

(Gene H. Bell-Villada, Williamstown, Mass.: August 2, 2019)

What is the message the letter-writer is trying to leave us? It was not immediately clear (to me), and the text thus needs to be parsed carefully. ‘Alas’: that suggests regret, regret that some unnamed persons have forgotten that ‘anticommunism was a key component of European fascism’. Well, that may not be correct, in two senses. It may not be correct that the ‘truth’ has been forgotten (by whom?), but it is also possible that the ‘truth’ itself is debatable. Hitler’s brand of fascism, according to most accounts, singled out the communists as the prime threat to his ambitions for nationalist vigour, and he persecuted them immediately he gained power in 1933. On the other hand, Mussolini’s brand of European fascism evolved from socialist roots. One might conclude, however, from the way Stalin propagandized antifascism in the 1930s, that antifascism was a more vibrant component of communism than the other way around. After all, countless deluded intellectuals ran to his banner in the belief that only communism could resist fascism. That all changed, of course, in August 1939, when Stalin decided to change the rules.

Bell-Villada’s contention is thus not without its sceptics. I read in this September’s History Today that Brendan Simms has just published a book, Hitler: Only the World Was Enough, in which he claims that Hitler has been misunderstood as a ‘far-right’ anti-communist. The reviewer Nigel Jones wrote that “Simms argues forcefully that his primary motivation was fear that Germany would be crushed by the Anglo-Saxon capitalism epitomised by the US and the British Empire.” (Please check it out, Mr. Bell-Villada.) Moreover, many years ago, A. J. P. Taylor remarked that Hitler’s anti-communism was soon dampened after his assumption of power, being replaced by antisemitism. Perhaps the mutual loathing disappeared when Hitler and Stalin realised that they had more in common with each other than their ideologies superficially suggested: despite his rallying-calls to anti-fascists, Stalin was a secret admirer of Hitler’s tactics for increasing power. Or, more probably, Hitler’s anti-communism weakened because all the active communists in Germany had either been murdered, or had fled the country. Quite simply, Hitler and Stalin both wanted to obliterate everyone who disagreed with them, or did not declare loyalty to them, or simply who did not fit in their perverse sociological tribes.

Yet the author seems to be suggesting two further ideas. The first is the subtle insinuation that ‘anti-communism’ is the nadir of political depravity, and that, by expressing opposition to communism, Chamberlain and his team were essentially fascists themselves, and had more in common with Hitler than the history-books have shown. Apart from the illogical and careless temporal connection that Bell-Villada makes between the 1930s and Chamberlain (Chamberlain did not become Prime Minister until May 1937), the assertion is absurd. While there were certainly many fascist sympathisers in government during the late 1930s, the Conservative Party was defending a pluralist liberal democracy against the pressures of the two totalitarian adversaries. It was a flawed democracy, no doubt, with too much of an aristocratic influence, unsuitable delusions about the Empire, and an inherent disregard for equality of opportunity, but it was as good as any of the time, and capable of evolution. It was worth defending. The expression of both anti-fascist and anti-communist sentiments was a healthy and necessary part of the political stance.

The second suggestion is that the failure of British political opinion to sympathise with communism, and thus form a speedy alliance with Stalin, was one of the main reasons why Hitler was allowed to pursue his imperial ambitions unchecked. I believe the writer here discloses a colossal naivety about the Soviet Union in the 1930s. It was a vast prison-camp, where Stalin had been responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens in the name of Leninism-Marxism and the Communist Experiment. The historian Richard Evans, in his recent Gresham’s College Provost lecture, pointed out that the German middle classes, before Hitler established his one-party state in July 1933, were ‘terrified of communism, whose supporters had put 100 deputies into the Reichstag in November 1932’. They were therefore much more familiar than their British equivalents were with what had happened to the bourgeoise in Russia. Fear of communism was clearly not a specifically fascist characteristic, even in Germany.

It would thus have been absurd for Great Britain and France to pretend that they had goals in common with Stalin for the setting up of some stable political order in Europe at a time even before the horrors of Hitler’s own programmes of mass murder had been initiated, and it would have been impossible to sell such ideas to the British electorate, or even to the nation’s allies in eastern Europe. As one historian. Larry Fuchser, has written: “To Chamberlain, reaching agreement with the dictators [Hitler and Mussolini] was a supremely important goal in its own right, and he did not need the additional ideological factor of Germany as a bulwark against communism to convince him that such agreements would be worthwhile.” Chamberlain’s policy was desperately naïve – to satisfy any demand of Hitler’s in order to avert war. But Hitler’s hatred of communism had nothing to do with it.

A common theme in historical writing, however, is that, if Britain had adopted serious talks with the Soviet Union, Germany might have been encircled and intimidated, and the Third Reich quashed before war broke out. Indeed, some Russian and Western historians even today lament the failure of the Western powers to have sent a serious negotiating team to Moscow in the summer of 1939: this is a prominent theme of Bouverie’s. Yet Chamberlain rightly detested Stalin and Communism, and found it impossible to consider personal parleys with the Soviet leader. And when the Soviet Union wanted a guarantee from Poland to provide a path for its army to pass through in the event of hostilities, it did not approach Poland for permission, but requested Britain and France to intervene! The fact was that Poland’s government feared Stalin more than it feared Hitler, and would have nothing to do with any accommodation with the Communists. Had Britain come to some agreement with the Soviet Union, would it have had to connive at Stalin’s occupation of the Baltic States and Poland? Such a pact would have meant the replacement of the appeasement of Hitler by a similar grovelling position towards Stalin. As George Orwell later wrote: “. . . all the appeasers, e.g. Professor E. H. Carr, have switched their allegiance from Hitler to Stalin.” (London Letter to Partisan Review, April 17, 1944)

Molotov Signing the Pact (with Ribbentrop over his shoulder)

In any case, what happened next blows a hole in Mr. Bell-Villada’s thesis. In August 1939 the determined anti-fascists and the resolute anti-communists got together to sign a non-aggression pact, and the Soviet Union started providing matériel to help Hitler wage his war against the West, including, of course, the Battle of Britain. The conflict joined was now a battle against imperialism, not fascism. Alas, the truth that Molotov and Ribbentrop came together to sign a pact that immediately turned the remnants of a Popular Front into a Highly Unpopular Devils’ Alliance has long been forgotten by many eager armchair observers.

So what was the Times Book Editor thinking? I suspect he (or she) didn’t really take it all in: the apparent message rang a bell in his head that Communism would have defeated Fascism, and that war would have been averted, and Europe would have been a better place for it if only the West had reached out to Stalin. The vague regret about the implosion of communism that imbues the Times editors must have overtaken him. That is a common opinion of the American Leftist intelligentsia. After all, this is the newspaper that instructs its journalists to report the catastrophe of Nicolás Maduro’s dictatorship in Venezuela as his ‘mismanagement of the economy’, carefully avoiding the ‘S-word’ of ‘socialism’ (which might turn out to embarrass Bernie Sanders), as if the moustachioed Marxist caudillo were merely an incompetent version of John Major.

And it does not appear that Mr. Bell-Villada has even read the book. He is allowed to assume that Lynne Olson’s review offers a comprehensive summary of Bouverie’s account. The nature of Mr. Bell-Villada’s credentials for offering an opinion on this matter is not clear, however: he offers a suitable Massachusetts address, but his Wikipedia entry describes him as ‘an American literary critic, novelist, translator and memoirist, with strong interests in Latin American Writing, Modernism, and magic Realism’. Bell-Villada (the entry goes on to say) has been a professor at the private liberal arts Williams College since 1975. No apparent degree in modern history is evident in his curriculum vitae, although he does hold a mysterious doctorate from Harvard.

Analysis

It happened that I had read both Lynne Olson’s review and Bouverie’s book. Bell-Villada is correct about Olson: the Soviet Union and Communism get nary a mention in her review. Yet Bouverie is hardly expansive in his coverage either. He repeatedly refers to Chamberlain’s ‘distrust’ of the Russians, but discusses the antipathy for Bolshevism in mainly impersonal terms: “ . . . the western Powers needed to reach an understanding with Soviet Russia, a nation widely distrusted and against which Nazi Germany had originally been conceived as a bulwark.” (p 334). (Note the evasive passive voice.) Yet, on the following page, Bouverie undermines the nature of what such an ‘understanding’ might have taken, referring to events as late as April 1939: “The Foreign Policy Committee could see no advantages in an alliance with Russia – on the contrary, such a move was likely to perturb allies in eastern Europe – and, although Chamberlain had assured the Labour leadership that he had ‘no ideological objection to an agreement with Russia,’ he admitted privately to being deeply suspicious of her.”

‘No ideological objection’? ‘Suspicious?’, when the state that Lenin founded was pursuing the extermination of capitalists like him? This shows another gutless aspect of Chamberlain, who believed that dictators could be transformed to behave like English gentlemen. Was he more suspicious of Stalin than he was of Hitler? In that case, why not respond more robustly? Neville Chamberlain was not known for his intellectual stature, but that sounds more like a move to ‘appease’, or reconcile with, his Parliamentary opposition rather than the reflection of any political principles. Nevertheless, if Chamberlain had been prepared to discard Czechoslovakia because of ‘a quarrel in a far-away country between people of whom we know nothing’, he would have been unlikely to want to establish an association with the even more mysterious and inscrutable Russians, and explain it to his electorate. If he had found it difficult to find a common level of discourse with Hitler, and had been betrayed by him, it would have been an even worse struggle with Stalin. Chamberlain was out of his depth. If he and Stalin had abandoned parleys, and resorted to an arm-wrestling match, I would have instantly put my money on the Gremlin from the Kremlin rather than on the Birmingham Bruiser.

Unfortunately, Bouverie offers only a very superficial analysis of Britain’s relationship with the Soviet Union, in an Epilogue titled ‘Guilty Men’.  But he gives a hint to where his unsubstantiated opinion resides, in a paragraph that might put some air behind Bell-Villada’s sails (p 415): “The failure to perceive the true character of the Nazi regime and Adolf Hitler stands as the single greatest failure of British policy makers during this period, since it was from this that all subsequent failure – the failure to rearm sufficiently, the failure to build alliances (not least with the Soviet Union), the failure to project British power, and the failure to educate public opinion – stemmed. For defenders of appeasement, this is an exercise in ahistoricism. It was not until after Hitler tore up the Munich Agreement and marched into Prague, they argue, that he demonstrated his mendacity, while the full horrors of the Nazi regime only became apparent after the end of the war.”

Yet Bouverie does not substantiate this claim. Does he think that Chamberlain ‘failed to perceive the true nature of the Soviet regime’, as well? He does not say. Bouverie cites three paragraphs from Sir Warren Fisher’s ‘damning survey’ of British foreign policy, delivered in 1948, but Fisher omitted the Soviet Union in his castigation of the failure of ‘the British Empire, the United States and France’ to face the facts in unison. Earlier, Bouverie explained that the Chiefs of Staff had made an about-turn about the role of the Soviet Union when Molotov replaced Litvinov as Foreign Minister, and feared a rapprochement between the Germans and the Soviets, and that such arguments swayed Halifax and most of the Cabinet into responding to Soviet overtures. Yet this was probably too late, and largely a bluff. In a well-written book on Chamberlain, Neville Chamberlain and Appeasement by Larry Williams Fuchser (a 1982 volume strangely missing from Bouverie’s bibliography), the author shows his opinion of how unimportant negotiations with the Soviet Union were. He spends only two brief sentences on the topic. Fuchser indicates that it was the pliable Halifax, at the bidding of Cadogan and the Foreign Office, who pushed for this approach, but then enigmatically adds: “Chamberlain was forced into these negotiations quite against his will, and it is clear that in this respect at least, he had lost control over British foreign policy.”

This does not make complete sense, however, as the remainder of Fuchser’s thesis is that Chamberlain maintained tight control over a sycophantic inner Cabinet, a compliant Foreign Policy Committee, and a loyal party apparatus. Thus we have to return to Chamberlain’s sudden lack of resolve: if he was not able to stand up to his Labour opposition, the Foreign Office, and his Chiefs of Staff, what hope did he have of standing up to Hitler or Stalin? Why did he simply not veto any attempt to reach out to the Soviets? It was not as if Halifax was going to resign in a flash of pique (as if that mattered), as Eden had done. It is true that Chamberlain felt handicapped by the French, because of her agreements with the Poles and the Soviet Union, but he was overall prepared to reject the French implorations. Fuchser and Bouverie both point out that Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, wrote in his diary that Chamberlain ‘would rather resign than sign alliance with Soviet’. ‘Appeasement’ is sometimes domestic political compromise – and not always a necessary act. 

Thus it would have been better to have sent no mission at all rather than the underpowered and underauthorised Slow Boat to Leningrad that resulted, and which failed to impress Voroshilov and company. That misguided venture encourages Bouverie, however, to make his dubious conclusion: “Unlike his successor, he [Chamberlain] treated the United States with frigid disdain, while his failure to secure a deal with the Soviet Union stands out as among the greatest blunders in that calamitous decade.” But it wasn’t ‘failure’: Chamberlain was never serious. And what kind of a deal with the unscrupulous Stalin would have made sense? The independence of the Baltic States was a major bone of contention. And what would happen if Stalin had still invaded Finland, for instance? Again, Bouverie does not explain.

A J P Taylor

One of the historians with whom I am familiar is A. J. P. Taylor. Taylor studied this period in his much-cited 1961 work, The Origins of the Second World War. This is a book that needs to be used cautiously, however, since Taylor notoriously came up with some bizarre and controversial judgments. For example, he presented some equivocal and provocative opinions, such as: “The blame for war can be put on Hitler’s Nihilism instead of on the faults and failures of European statesmen – faults and failures which their public shared. Human blunders, however, usually do more to shape history than human wickedness.” Such vague attributions of guilt and responsibility are highly dubious and unconvincing. In addition, Taylor could be infuriating when he made lofty generalisations about ‘the British’ and their assumed intentions, when in the next sentence he would analyse the differences of opinion that existed in various politicians and diplomats, and which thus contributed to indecision. (Taylor deployed too much use of the passive voice for my liking.)

Yet Taylor could provide trenchant and pithy insights as well, worthy of essay-type ‘Discussions’.  “Both sides wanted agreement, but not the same agreement. The British wanted a moral demonstration which would enable them to reach a settlement with Hitler on more favourable terms. The Russians wanted a precise military alliance for mutual assistance, which would either deter Hitler, or secure his defeat”, he wrote, in the relevant Chapter Ten of Origins. And his conclusion to this chapter ran as follows: “Alliances are worth while when they put into words a real community of interests; otherwise they lead only to confusion and disaster, as the French alliances did. It was inconceivable, in the circumstances of 1939, that the British should commit themselves, irretrievably and decisively, in favour of Soviet Russia as against Germany; and equally inconceivable that the Russians should commit themselves to defence of the status quo.” That judgment is sound and clear, notably so, given Taylor’s own communist sympathies.

Later, in 1965, in English History 1914-1945, Taylor gave a more guarded explanation of what happened. He suggested that the Soviet Union made demands for reciprocity in its approaches to France and Germany, and that Chamberlain dithered, not only because of distaste of communism, but owing to the pressure of public opinion, and the appeals of such as Lloyd George – a now familiar refrain. In addition, Taylor raised the important spectre of the Soviet Union’s invading Poland and the Baltic States under the mantle of an agreement with the democracies, which would have been a bitter pill for Chamberlain to have swallowed and explained to his constituents. Taylor significantly repeated his earlier conclusion that the Soviet Union was as unenthusiastic about an alliance with the United Kingdom and France as the latter were themselves.

How has historical research advanced in the past fifty years? The theme of a missed opportunity has been picked up since by many other historians, some of whom have had access to Russian archives. For instance, in 1999, Michael Jabara Carley wrote 1939: The Alliance That Never Was and the Coming of World War II (a work apparently uninspected by Bouverie) and in 2018 followed up with a paper in International History Review titled Fiasco: The Anglo-Franco-Soviet Agreement That Never Was, and the Unpublished British White Paper, 1939-1940, The latter explores these events in great depth, and points to rifts between France and Britain in the response to the Soviet approach, and describes a White Paper on the failed negotiations that was suppressed by Chamberlain.

Unfortunately, Carley’s work is representative of the fashionable academic left (including, no doubt, Mr. Bell-Villada), emphasizing the themes of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union, attributing the distaste for communism to Britain’s ‘elites’, and ignoring the fact of how unreliable a signer to an agreement Stalin would have been.  Chamberlain and other conservatives are classified as ‘hard-core Sovietophobes’, as if their distaste were a dire medical condition rather than a serious and justified ideological opposition. Carley supposes the existence of Soviet ‘views’ towards Britain and France, as if the country had vigorous parliamentary debates, a free press, and public opinion polls. He appears to think that Soviet military ‘assistance’ to adjoining countries from the Black Sea to the Baltic would have been welcomed, and somehow beneficial. He reports that the Soviet Union had one hundred divisions to deploy, while Britain and France had only two, but treats seriously Stalin’s suggestion that he did not want be ‘left in the lurch to face Nazi Germany alone’. Carley is far more trusting of Stalin’s objectives in a military alliance than he is of Chamberlain’s justified scepticism about it. Stalin’s replacement of Litvinov (a Jew) by Molotov at the end of April is attributed to British ‘stalling’ to Stalin’s offer of a couple of weeks before rather than interpreted as a signal that Stalin meant at that point to do business with the Germans (as has been pointed out by other historians). He says nothing about Stalin’s access to Britain’s diplomatic thinking by virtue of spies in the Foreign Office (notably John Herbert King). In summary, according to Carley, the signing of the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was all Chamberlain’s fault.

If this is the current state of research on the crisis of the late 1930s, it is highly regrettable. The controversy over the missed opportunity would have been a highly profitable avenue for a contemporary historian to pursue, perhaps investigating the counterfactual history that would have evolved if a Soviet-Franco-British alliance had had any teeth. Would they have had to declare war on Germany in September 1939? And, since the retrospective judgment of the Soviet Union is that it signed the pact in order to gain time and rebuild its armed forces, would it really have wanted to engage Germany on foreign soil in 1939? Threatening joint hostilities would surely have not deterred Hitler, or brought Europe to peace. Hitler would not have abandoned his plans for Lebensraum. What would the Poles have done if the Red Army invaded its territory? How would a land assault on Germany by French and British forces have fared? Would Hitler have had to conduct a war on two fronts, or would he have been able to reverse his strategy, fighting the Soviet Union first before invading France and Belgium? Life would still have been made intolerable for millions of innocent civilians from Finland to Bessarabia, and Hitler would certainly not have stayed his hand over Dunkirk when he had the chance to eliminate the British Expeditionary Force. (I expect some military historian has already explored such scenarios.)

Tim Bouverie

In summary, Appeasement is a very readable, and imaginatively composed, book. The author is a fresh-faced young journalist who was educated at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, gaining a degree in history. He has exploited a rich range of sources – works of history, both familiar and obscure, private and public archives, memoirs, articles and dissertations (though almost exclusively written in English) to write a fascinating account of a still controversial period in the nation’s history. Yet debates continue about responsibilities and blame for what was a very complex challenge in allowing Hitler to advance his plans as he did, and I do not think Bouverie sheds any fresh light on the matter, and does not provide support for his conclusions. Despite the extraordinary parade of puffs from distinguished historians on the back-cover (Kershaw, Frankopan, Moorehead, Hastings, Macmillan, Beevor and Fraser), I do not regard Appeasement as a major work of history bringing innovative research to the table. But it prompts me to inspect now one or two aspects in more detail.

Lewis Namier

As an example, I quote again from Bouverie’s Epilogue, where he cites several leading figures (e.g. Boothby, Churchill, Warren Fisher) who apparently held the opinion that, with greater diplomatic skills, war could have been averted (p 410). Among these he lists the historian Lewis Namier, who (he says) believed that ‘at several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice’. Well, this sounded to me a point at which a book should begin, not end. I knew of Namier (mainly through my study of Isaiah Berlin), but had not read any of his books. This statement came from Diplomatic Preludes: I thought it might address several questions on my mind, so I obtained the volume from the local university library.

Lewis Namier

The Introduction and Outline of Namier’s book contains the following passage (which I recorded in my August Commonplace file): “The issue of a crisis depends not so much on its magnitude as on the courage and resolution with which it is met. The second German bid for world dominion found Europe weak and divided. At several junctures it could have been stopped without excessive effort or sacrifice, but was not: a failure of European statesmanship. Behind the German drive were passionate forces, sustained by obsessionist, sadistic hatreds and by a cruel ideology; to these the Germans, whom defeat had deprived of their routine of life, showed even more than their usual receptivity, while the rest of Europe had neither the faith, nor the will, nor even sufficient repugnance, to offer timely, effective resistance. Some imitated Hitler and hyena-like followed in his track; some tolerated him, hoping that his advance would reach its term – by saturation, exhaustion, the resistance of others, or the mere chapter of accidents – before it attained them; and some, while beholding his handiwork, would praise him of  having ‘restored the self-respect of the Germans’. Janissaries and appeasers aided Hitler’s work: a failure of European morality.”

And that’s it. There was nothing else in the book to back it up – just these windy, abstract statements about ‘European statesmanship’ and ‘European morality’. (I do not know what is meant by those entities. History is made by individual agents contributing to events.) I found the rest of the book, which describes only the events of 1938 and 1939, practically unreadable, and utterly useless in illustrating the claims that Namier made in his Introduction. So why would Bouverie choose to extract such a vague and unsupported assertion to bolster the rather thin conclusion to his book? Exploring this idea might have led to something valuable.

Maybe Namier wrote about appeasement in more depth elsewhere. (Bouverie lists In the Margin of History as a primary source, but I have not been able to inspect it.). So I dug around. In his essay on Namier, published in Personal Impressions, Isaiah Berlin gives a glimpse of how his friend really thought:

“He spoke bitterly about the policy of appeasement. He felt that their sense of reality and their empiricism had evidently deserted the ruling classes in England: not to understand that Hitler meant everything he said – that Mein Kampf was to be taken literally, that Hitler had a plan for a war of conquest – was self-deception worthy of German or Jews. The Cecils were ‘all right’; they understood reality, they stood for what was most characteristic of England. So was Winston Churchill. The men who opposed Zionism were the same as those who were against Churchill and the policy of national resistance – Geoffrey Dawson, the editor of the Times, Chamberlain, Halifax, Toynbee, the officials of the Foreign Office, Archbishop Lang, the bulk of the Conservative Party, most trade unionists. The Cecils, Churchill, true aristocracy, pride, respect for human dignity, traditional virtues, resistance, Zionism, personal grandeur, no-nonsense realism, these were fused into one amalgam in his mind. Pro-Germans and pro-Arabs were one gang.”

This was progress, at least, the recognition that in a pluralist society, many different standpoints contribute to eventual policy-making, rather than ascribing causation to the abstraction of ‘European morality’. Namier identified some of these agents. Yet I found it too stereotyped: ‘the ruling classes’ – who are they? Why should a hesitation about the merits of Zionism automatically be assumed to indicate a sympathy for Hitler? Surely opinions were more complex than this? Indeed, Berlin mentions that Namier used to harangue ‘pen-pushers of the Foreign Office’ and ‘the hypocritical idiots of the Colonial Office’ at his club, the Athenaeum, and do more harm than good by his supplications. And did Namier really understand the various aspects of what ‘appeasement’ meant?

Interestingly, elsewhere in this essay, Berlin draws attention to Namier’s failings as a historian. “He believed that objective truth could be discovered, and that he had found a method of doing so in history; that this method consisted in a sort of pointillisme, ‘the microscopic method’, the splitting up of social facts into details of individual lives – atomic entities, the careers of which could be precisely verified; and that these atoms could then be integrated into greater wholes. This was the nearest to scientific method that was attainable in history, and he would adhere to it at whatever cost, in spite of all criticism, until and unless he became convinced by internal criteria of its inadequacy, because it had failed to produce results verified by research.” Berlin then concludes that Namier then integrated his atomic facts ‘with a marvellous power of imaginative generalisation’, lacking the skills of a narrative historian.

Is ‘imaginative generalisation’ a feature to be admired in historians? Maybe not so much these days, Sir Isaiah. (Berlin was rather good at that stuff himself, as was Taylor.) As another example of Namier’s shortcomings, in his memoir Bird of Passage, Rudolf Peierls reinforced the impression that Namier gave of theatrical vagueness when he wrote: “He was very fond of saying ‘we’. And you had to be very alert in following the course of the conversation to know whether at the given point this meant the University of Manchester, All Souls College, Oxford, the Jews, the Foreign Office, or Poland.” Such ways of thinking do not lead to historical precision. I do not believe Namier is a productive and reliable source. But very shrewd on Peierls’ part.

An Alternative Approach

My first exposure, therefore, to one of Bouverie’s influences was not positive. Moreover, I think Bouverie overlooks the fact that ‘appeasement’ (like ‘remembrance’, which can mean both ‘recalling from experience’ and ‘commemoration’) carried two clear meanings in the 1930s – ‘pacification’, and later ‘conciliation’. (This is a point that David Dilks made: “The word in its normal meaning connotes the pacific settlement of disputes; in the meaning usually applied to the period of Neville Chamberlain’s premiership, it has come to indicate something sinister, the granting from fear or cowardice of unwarranted concessions in order to buy temporary peace at someone else’s expense.”) The ambivalence is shown in the fact that the book, titled Appeasing Hitler in the UK (which does not do justice to the policy as pursued), was re-titled Appeasement in the USA (when it is not a study of appeasement in general), with an odd subtitle (Chamberlain, Hitler, Churchill and the Road to War) that suggests that Churchill was party to the process. Thus the fact that much of Baldwin’s and Chamberlain’s policy, spurred by their deep desire to avert a repeat of the WWI carnage, was motivated by an honourable desire to bring a stable peace to Europe, and only later sharply criticised as a shabby propitiation of Hitler’s and Mussolini’s demands, is overlooked by Bouverie.

Chamberlain and Hitler

I have read only a handful of the book in Bouverie’s Bibliography, but, if I were striving for a methodological approach to the challenge of defining when the policy of appeasement might have taken a different course (Namier’s ‘junctures’), I would need to bring some structure to the environment, along two axes. The first would offer a time-line, listing the critical events by which Hitler’s growing belligerent moves became more obvious and threatening. The second would attempt to profile the varieties of opinion that existed in influencers and policy-makers in Britain’s pluralist society. Indeed, from studying materials such as Bouverie’s, one can track how the opinions of individual factions did evolve in the light of events on the Continent. (Some historian may have already analysed the period under such a structure, and I apologise if I have overlooked such a study.)

I would start with Hitler’s accession to power in 1933 – a grab, but performed with some democratic authority. At that stage, observers should have sat up to take the Austrian more seriously. Here follow what I would classify as the main events that western politicians should have addressed and analysed:

  1. The Publication of Mein Kampf: Hitler’s book was published in Germany in 1925 and 1926, but did not appear in English until 1933, in a heavily abridged version. As Bouverie relates, the Ambassador to Germany, Sir Horace Rumbold, immediately after Hitler’s accession, warned the Foreign Office of the threats inherent in Mein Kampf, but he was largely ignored. Indeed, many politicians did not even read the English version until too late (see ‘Who read Mein Kampf?’)
  2. German Rearmament (1): Brigadier Temperley, who had attended the Geneva Disarmament Conference in 1932, pointed out in 1933 that Germany’s development of over a hundred fighter airplanes was in contravention of the Treaty of Versailles.
  3. Withdrawal from the League of Nations: Germany withdrew in October 1933, in protest against its members’ refusal to allow the country to achieve military parity.
  4. The Night of the Long Knives: In June-July 1934, Hitler showed his ruthlessness by purging Ernst Röhm’s Sturmabteilung, seeing it as threat to his own power
  5. The Murder of Dollfuß: Having banned the Austrian Nazi party, Dollfuss, the Chancellor Austria was assassinated in July 1934 by Nazi agents.
  6. German Rearmament (2): On March 16, 1935, Hitler openly announced that Germany would build an airforce, and begin conscription, in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
  7. Anglo-German Naval Agreement: This agreement was signed on June 18, 1935, and set out to regulate the size of Hitler’s Kriegsmarine in relation to the Royal Navy.
  8. Italian Invasion of Ethiopia: On October 3, 1935, Hitler’s fascist ally Mussolini invaded Ethiopia, showing his imperial ambitions. The inability of the League of Nations to respond emphasised its hollowness.
  9. German Reoccupation of the Rhineland: In violation of the Treaties of Versailles and Locarno, Hitler’s forces remilitiarised the Rhineland on March 7, 1936, including a considerable swath of land on the right bank.
  10. Fortification of the Western Wall: Soon after the militarisation of the Rhineland, Hitler started a project to fortify the old Siegfried Line.
  11. Aid to Franco in Spanish Civil War: Immediately the war started, in July 1936, Hitler sent in troops, aircraft and material to aid the Nationalist effort.
  12. Hitler’s Assumption of Control of Army: With the sacking of Field Marshal von Blomberg and General von Fritsch in January 1938, Hitler made himself Supreme Commander of the Army.
  13. The Anschluß: On March 12, 1938, Austria was annexed into Germany, a process forbidden by the Treaty of Versailles.
  14. The Expropriation of the Sudetenland: In October 1938, the Sudetenland (a primarily German-speaking part of Czechoslovakia that had once been part of Austria) was assigned to Germany.
  15. The Munich Pact: On September 30, 1938, Chamberlain and Daladier signed the pact with Hitler, effectively handing over Czechoslovakia to the Germans.
  16. Kristallnacht: On November 9-10, 1938, The Germans oppressed Jewish homes, businesses and synagogues, killing about a hundred Jews throughout Germany.
  17. The Invasion of Czechoslovakia: The Germans invaded Czechoslovakia on March 15, 1939.
  18. The Nazi-Soviet Pact: Molotov and Ribbentrop signed a pact of non-aggression on August 23, 1939.
  19. Invasion of Poland: The Nazis invaded Poland on September 1, 1939, thus triggering a declaration of war by Britain.
  20. Extermination of Jews: On December 16, 1939, The Times made its first report on the mass execution of Jews, in Lublin.

Next, the profiles of political figures. One must remember that the United Kingdom, in trying to forge policy, had to consider the opinions of the leaders of its Dominions, as well as those of its allies in Europe. In addition, Roosevelt started to poke in his oar at the beginning of 1938.  I shall restrict myself here to the spectrum of opinion within Britain itself.  I would classify it as follows, with examples of the main adherents:

  1. Complete agreement with Nazi policies (Mosley; Londonderry)
  2. Sympathy for fascism, but essentially patriotic (Dawson)
  3. Universal Christian pacifism (Lansbury)
  4. Pious abdication of leadership (Baldwin)
  5. Labour distaste for Nazi policies, but essentially pacifist (Attlee)
  6. Liberal admiration for Hitler’s reconstruction of Germany, but opportunistic and hypocritical over the Soviet Union (Lloyd George)
  7. Labour distaste for totalitarianism, and stressing rearmament (Bevin)
  8. Tory disdain for Hitlerism, sympathy to German grievances, but confident it can be stopped via good will (Chamberlain)
  9. Vague impressionable Tory piety (Halifax)
  10. Realistic abhorrence of Hitlerism (and Communism), and urging re-armament (Churchill)
  11. Distaste for Hitlerism, and unwilling to negotiate with dictators (Eden)
  12. Belief in Communism as only valid anti-fascist force (Pollitt)

This segmentation is necessarily simplistic, but serves to show how fragmented political opinion was. (I hope it carries enough ‘imaginative generalisation’ to satisfy Berlinian requirements. It may attribute a depth of political thinking to such flabby figures as Halifax and Eden that they perhaps do not merit.) Moreover, opinions evolved. Attlee became more militaristic after the Sudetenland episode; Lord Londonderry, a diehard fascist supporter, was revolted by Kristallnacht; Chamberlain had to swallow his previous idealistic notions after the Munich agreement was shown to be empty; Lloyd George suddenly switched his affiliations to Moscow after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and made personal remonstrations to Chamberlain about an agreement with the Soviet Union, as did Churchill, supported by Vansittart; all but Halifax and the diehard corps of the Conservative Party rallied to Chamberlain after war was declared; several prominent Communists (such as Goronwy Rees) abandoned the Party when the Ribbentrop-Molotov pact was signed; Mosley was interned, but renounced support for Hitler when he understood the nature of Hitler’s aggression; Churchill remarkably overlooked his hatred of Communism when Germany invaded the Soviet Union. What should also be remembered, however, is that before the war Chamberlain used his authority to apply great pressure on the media to support his policy of trying to contain Hitler, which helped to stifle any oppositionist communications to the mases.

Nevertheless, one can accept that, at a certain stage, opinion might have consolidated around a strategy of deterrence of Hitler, of sending him a message that continued infractions of international treaties would not be tolerated, of showing a degree of force before the dictator had been able to assemble any comparable military strength of his own, of pointing out to the German people that a resurgence of imperial aggression across Europe would not be tolerated. For Hitler was a bully: and bullies will continue to flex their muscles until they meet resistance. Indeed, they will interpret a failure to resist as a sign of weakness, and an encouragement of the policies that brought them to where they are.

I would select the remilitarisation of the Rhineland as the critical event that should have turned the tables. Hitler had been given enough benefit of the doubt by then, and the seriousness of his aggressive ambitions was clear. This was a territorial push, the first implementation of his objectives for Lebensraum. Yet Hitler’s military strength was poor: he had not yet built a competent and extensive army. The French forces were larger and stronger. Hitler did not yet have access to the munitions factories of Czechoslovakia. And when the French army moved, Hitler blinked. Repulsing this German incursion would not necessarily have meant war. Yet nothing happened. The entry of Hitler’s troops into the Rhineland, and the failure of France and Britain to take action, removed the last obstacle to the defence of the west. The Treaty of Locarno in 1925 had committed Britain, France (and Italy) to guaranteeing the Franco-German border against ‘flagrant violations’. It is difficult to imagine what could constitute a more flagrant violation than this move of Hitler’s. William Shirer was one journalist who at the time recognized the pivotal chance that had been allowed to escape.

As Bouverie explains, the Rhineland exploit had not come as a surprise. The instincts of the newly appointed Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, were to honour the Locarno Treaty arrangements, and come to France’s aid if she requested help. But he dithered, despite hawkish views from such as Vansittart in the Foreign Office, and spoke against any action by France against Germany. As Bouverie writes: “Despite stating in a memorandum to the Cabinet on March 8 – the day after the invasion – that Hitler could no longer be trusted to abide by treaties even when they had been freely entered into, he nevertheless, and contradictorily, argued that the Government should use this opportunity ‘as far-reaching and enduring a settlement as possible whilst Herr Hitler is still in the mood to do so.” (p 87)

Moreover, the public had not been prepared. Maynard Keynes’s The Economic Consequences of the Peace was still an influential book, arguing that the cost of reparations on the German people was too punitive, and they could not be expected to provide such wealth in an effective state of slavery. His book was misunderstood, and criticised at the time. The problem was that politicians such as Chamberlain and Baldwin were not imaginative enough to recognize that, while the scale of reparations may have been a mistake, it did not mean that Germany should be allowed to break other treaty-defined obligations, rearm itself as an aggressive power, and make incursions into the territories of its neighbours. Such subtleties were thus lost on the British public: Bouverie records that the Dean of Chichester believed that ‘the ordinary man almost breathed a sigh of relief when he heard that Hitler had entered the Zone.’ Hitler gained further confirmation of the pusillanimity of the British and French.

The crux of the matter is that Chamberlain has come to be defined by Appeasement, as Eden was by Suez, and Cameron will be by the Referendum. The man they called the ‘Coroner’ has borne the brunt of the failed policy. In his tenure as Prime Minster, Chamberlain tried to impose his will by creating a Cabinet dominated by sycophants, and undermined those who stood up to him, such as Duff Cooper and Eden. But at least he had a policy, however misguided it was, unlike Baldwin. In a recent Literary Review article, Professor Cornwall observed that Chamberlain ‘believed that a European war should be avoided because Sudeten German grievances were basically credible’. That may have been so, but the damage had been done long before. Again, it must be remembered that Chamberlain did not become Prime Minister until May 1937. The failures went back many years.

Thus an innovative and scholarly approach might investigate whether and why Chamberlain was able to exert such an influence on foreign policy when he held only the office of Chancellor of the Exchequer. For example, did his control of the purse-strings allow him to hinder or help the cause for re-armament? A recent book by Lord Lexden, Redressing the Balance, tries to restore Chamberlain’s reputation by inspecting the many reforms that he helped implement before the dire days of Munich for which he is remembered, and even claims that his delaying tactics actually helped prepare the British Empire for the inevitable conflict. A fresh inspection of Chamberlain’s influence before he became Prime Minister, and of his timidity over the Soviet Union in the face of the War and Foreign Office pressure in the summer of 1939 might have provided a dramatic new addition to the historical record.

Dealing with Stalin

‘Judgment in Moscow’

Moreover, Britain would have had to deal with Stalin eventually. I have recently been reading Vladimir Bukovsky’s penetrating study of the Politburo’s manipulation of western opinion, Judgment in Moscow, which explores how the intellectual dupes of the western democracies were taken in by the siren songs of ‘co-operation’, ‘peace’ and ‘détente’, all designed to be implemented on the Kremlin’s terms. Written over twenty years ago, it has only just been published in English. It is an absolutely indispensable volume to be read by anybody who wants to understand the sham of ‘perestroika’ and ‘glasnost’, and the fraudulent behaviour of Gorbachev, leading to the resurgence of kleptocratic communists in the control of Russia. My only regret about this work is that its detailed analysis picks up only around 1970, whereas the propaganda campaign went back to the Second World War. In any case, Bukovsky writes: “Ironically, the architects of Ostpolitik are being touted as heroes and are claiming that the downfall of communism in the East was a product of their ‘delicate’ games with Moscow. This is shameless beyond belief. According to such criteria. Neville Chamberlain could have declared himself the victor in 1945, as peace with Germany was finally reached.”

Vladimir Bukovsky

Of course, poor Chamberlain died in November 1940 of stomach cancer, so did not live to see that irony played out. Yet the analogy is clear – a clear case of post hoc non propter hoc. Bukovsky explains how the shameful policy of détente needlessly prolonged the lives of the communist regimes, and echoed the decades-long practice of the West’s attempts to come to grips with its adversary by taking its implorations for ‘peace’ seriously.

Stalin and Churchill

I have written before about the futility of trying to build a culture of ‘co-operation’ with an agency whose objectives are in fact to help the tide of history in trying to destroy you. (See http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/) Yet immediately the Soviet Union became an ally in the war against Germany, Britain (and then the United States) had to deal with Stalin’s untrustworthiness, duplicity, and propagandizing, and her representatives seemed incapable of countering the Generalissimo’s demands for fear of upsetting him, performing damage to the war effort, and even possibly pushing him back into Hitler’s arms. (Such negotiations did in fact happen later, through Switzerland and Sweden, but they were initiated by the Nazis through third parties when they had effectively seen the writing on the wall.)

Stalin was ungracious about Churchill’s offer of material aid (which the nation could not afford) after Barbarossa, and immediately (July 1941) started making demands for a ‘Second Front’, ignoring the fact that the British Empire was engaged on several fronts already. Beaverbrook and Harriman made lavish promises to Stalin in person, in October 1941. Despite informing Churchill in September that the Soviet Union was ‘on the point of collapse’, Stalin arrogantly insisted on a statement of ‘war aims’ in November, to which Churchill meekly offered ‘co-operation’. Stalin threatened Ambassador Clark Kerr that he might seek peace with the Germans if the Allies did not help him more. He asked for (and received) legitimisation of the Soviet Union’s extended borders in the Baltics. He made incessant and offensively-worded demands for the highly dangerous convoy system to be resumed. He ferociously placed the guilt for the Katyn massacre on to the Germans: Churchill knew that was a lie, but did nothing. Stalin was insincere about the exchange of intelligence, demanding much, but revealing little. He undermined the Polish government-in-exile, and captured their representatives in Warsaw. To Churchill he expressed ‘shock’ on hearing of the Warsaw uprising, and his forces stood by. He used his spies in the governments of the United Kingdom and the United States to undermine his allies’ negotiating tactics over the future of the central states of Europe shortly to be ‘liberated’ by the Soviets. He was ruthless over the return of prisoners-of-war to the Soviet Union. And the Iron Curtain fell.

Indeed, on July 18, 1943, Anthony Cavendish-Bentinck, the chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, warned that the appeasement of Stalin closely resembled the previous attitude to Hitler. But by then, it was again too late. British influence was diminished by then, with the resources of the United States influencing the outcome of the war. The vain, ingenuous and sickly Roosevelt was calling the shots, sometimes influenced by his mischievous wife. He undermined Churchill, believing that he alone knew how to manage Stalin. Shortly before he died in April 1945, Roosevelt acknowledged that Stalin had betrayed all his Yalta promises, and that he was not a man he could do business with any longer.

Yet I believe that Churchill must be held largely responsible. When Barbarossa occurred in June 1941, he immediately sent a message of support to Stalin, without consulting his Chiefs of Staff. That was fine as a gesture, indicating the shared campaign against Naziism – which Churchill rightly rated as a direr threat than Communism at the time. But I wonder, if he had visited the Kremlin soon after, whether a speech along the following lines might have set expectations a little straighter without damaging the war effort:

“Marshall Stalin: You may recall that, on June 22, when ‘the monster of wickedness’ invaded your country, I stated to the House of Commons that ‘the Nazi regime is indistinguishable from the worst features of Communism’, and I declared that I, as the most consistent opponent of Communism for twenty-five years, would unsay no word that I have spoken about it. Yet I then reached out to the long-suffering Russian people, and offered them ‘any technical or economic assistance which is in our power’.

Let me now explain further. We have watched your experiment with communism with the gravest dismay. We are highly suspicious of its cruel ideology, and its determination to eradicate the freedoms of western democracy that we treasure. We have seen how you have murdered your opponents, and condemned millions to starvation in your fruitless quest to eliminate any private endeavours in agriculture. You have established a prison-camp of monstrous dimensions in which to incarcerate those who oppose your regime. We have observed your purges and show-trials with amazement and disgust, as apparently loyal members of your political and military administrations have been condemned to death on the flimsiest of pretexts. We know that you have infiltrated spies into our offices of government, intent on stealing secrets of state in order to abet your political cause. We were astonished that, having chastised the organs of German Fascism, you then made a partnership with the Devil himself, and then provided war matériel that has helped Hitler wage his aerial assault on Britain, causing thousands of lives to be lost. We were shocked by your invasion of innocent Finland, and your enslavement of the Baltic States, where you have again murdered anyone who might be considered an opponent of your proletarian dictatorship. We repeatedly warned you of Hitler’s plans to turn his aggressive impulses away from Western Europe to the Soviet Union, but you ignored our advice, or treated it as provocation.

Yet, for all this, as Hitler moves his armies across your borders, we again offer you our moral support, and the few military supplies that we can spare. Jointly, and with the hoped-for involvement of the United States ere long, we will force Hitler and his minions into defeat and submission. Yet our determination to resist the forces of communist tyranny will not fade away after the deed is done, and we hope that your involvement with us will help persuade you that your version of socialism is an insult to our common humanity.”

Would that have been over the top, and have been interrupted before Churchill was able to finish? Quite possibly. (Would the interpreter have had the guts to complete the translation?) But Stalin preferred tough talk from military officers to the appeasing noises he received from milquetoast Foreign Office men, and he might have been impressed. At some stage, of course, Churchill would have had to convince Roosevelt of the correctness of his opinions, but at least he would have made the most of his opportunity to tell Stalin what he really thought. Instead, Stalin started to make demands, and intimidate his allies. It is a failing of many democratic political leaders overendowed with vanity that they believe they can ‘do business’ with despots (Chamberlain with Hitler, Roosevelt and Churchill with Stalin, Thatcher with Gorbachev, Trump with Kim). Yet they forget that, while they themselves have to be re-elected, the tyrants endure. And as Vladimir Bukovsky said to Margaret Thatcher: “The difficulty of ‘doing business’ with communists is that they have the disgusting habit of lying while looking you in the face.”

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

Leave a Comment

Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics

Special Bulletin: A Letter to Frank Close

Professor Frank Close

Almost two years ago, I contacted the particle physicist Professor Frank Close by email. I had just read his biography of the Soviet atom spy, Bruno Pontecorvo, titled ‘Half Life’, and had some questions about Rudolf Peierls. Peierls had been the mentor of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, and, in ‘Misdefending the Realm’, I had suggested that Peierls, while not a spy himself, had probably abetted Fuchs in his endeavours, and that the conventionally described career of his wife, Genia, whom he had married in the Soviet Union, was highly questionable. Close had worked under Peierls, and I believed he might have some insights.

What followed was a very thorough, productive, and detailed exchange, lasting several months. Close and I shared a similar doggedness in working through the archives, and were similarly puzzled by the conflicting stories thrown up by the records, and by the memoirs of the participants. Close was researching a book on Fuchs: he was not familiar with my book (which devotes two chapters to Fuchs), so I introduced it to him. I think we both learned from each other, although we had different methods for interpreting the evidence.

Our communications suddenly stopped – outwardly because of Close’s deadlines, but in fact, as I learn now, for reasons that I am not at liberty to divulge. Thus I looked forward to the arrival of his book on Fuchs, ‘Trinity’, with great expectations. When it came out this summer, I sent a message to Close, congratulating him on the event of publication, but he did not respond. I started reading the book with enthusiasm, but, as I progressed, I began to experience disappointment, as the letter below explains. I felt that Close had stepped away from engaging with some of the remaining problematic aspects of Fuchs’s espionage, aspects that I and others (e.g. Mike Rossiter) had explored.

I thus compiled the following message for Close. He responded quickly, and we have since commented creatively on many of the points that I brought up. He is, however, very busy because of the success of his book (lucky man!), and said he could not respond fully for a month or more. I thus let him know about my intention to publish my message on Coldspur, and invited him to offer a placeholder response if he wanted to. I am not sure what the best forum for pursuing these ideas is: Coldspur is all I know. (Any other medium simply takes too long, and has too many hurdles.) At some stage I want to publicise Close’s responses to my questions, and summarise our dialogue, but I shall not post verbatim his messages to me without his permission.

For some reason, Close appears to want to discourage any further discussion on Peierls. I believe the message he wants to leave is what he wrote to me: ‘You perceive some deep mystery or conspiracy and will not take yes for an answer. That is your affair not mine.’ While I hold a very high regard for Close’s dedication and skills, and believe we continue to enjoy a very cordial relationship, I find that an odd response for any historian/biographer who presumably should retain a natural curiosity about his area of interest. In this business, no issue is completely settled. Moreover, I do not see my mission as having to convince Close of anything. I plan to return to the Mysterious Affair at Peierls in a future edition of Coldspur. Meanwhile, here is the unexpurgated text of my message.

(We patiently await the arrival of Dorian. We are sitting it out, hoping that it will not leave us without power as long as Florence did last year.)

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

Dear Frank,

I have just read your epic ‘Trinity’. It is an astonishing work, showing very patient and broad research into archival material, well-written, and unique because of the expert knowledge of atomic science that you bring to the table. I congratulate you on it.

I was obviously delighted about the credit that you gave to our electronic discussions, for including ‘Misdefending the Realm’ in your Bibliography, and for the three (as far as I could see) references to my book in your Endnotes. Thank you very much.

In the spirit of historical curiosity, however, I have to add that I was disappointed in some of your interpretations, and alarmed by some of your conclusions. I should have liked to see perhaps less detail on (say) the overheard conversations of Fuchs, the Skinners and the Peierls, and more analysis of what it all meant. It led me to ponder on how you would describe your methodology.  I recall that you wrote to me once that, as a physicist accustomed to the scientific method, you were very reliant on documentary evidence, and reluctant to hypothesize. (“Being trained as a research physicist and not a historian has mixed blessings. It makes me focus obsessively on facts and only give a judgment when the conclusion is beyond doubt. In physics I can do that; in history I prefer to assemble everything I can find first hand and then leave it to the reader to decide what to do with it.” : November 6, 2017)

Have you changed your opinion since then about what your role as scientist/biographer should be? What is your methodology for determining which ‘facts’ are reliable, and which are not? How do you deal with uncertainties? Are the books listed in your Bibliography to be considered utterly dependable? Do you believe that all other biographers of Fuchs would agree with you on the dependability of the documentary evidence? In any case, I do not think you should be surprised if one of your readers takes up the gauntlet of ‘deciding what to do with it’, or if, having presented conclusions yourself that you consider ‘beyond doubt’, you might be challenged by readers who do not share your degree of confidence. The contradictions and paradoxes of evidence in this sphere do not go away simply by being ignored.

I would aver that the archives of the world of ‘intelligence’ are inevitably deceptive, and sometimes deceitful, that ‘facts’ are frequently highly dubious, and that historians have to develop theories of what actually happened from incomplete or conflicting information. If one abandons interpretation to the reader, one ends up being just a chronicler – and maybe a selective one at that – and allowing all manner of theories to flourish. Moreover, in ‘Misdefending the Realm,’ I presented evidence on several subjects that I think is critical to understanding the Fuchs case (e.g. on Rudolf and Genia Peierls, on Radomysler, on Moorehead) that you appear to have overlooked or forgotten. I wonder why that is? My conclusion would be that the ‘definitive’ story about Fuchs (and his mentor Peierls, who is so vital to the analysis), still remains to be written.

So what should be the forum for developing these discussions? I noticed that, on page 458, you write: “Although somewhat peripheral to our primary purpose. I record this in the hope that subsequent investigations might shed light on this episode [Jane Sissmore/Archer’s return to MI5], and Jane Sissmore’s career in general”, indicating a curiosity to extend the research process. I clearly share your interest in Jane, as well as your desire for the exchange of ideas. But I have been frustrated in my attempts to find a mechanism for such explorations to be shared (see my account at ‘Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist’ at http://www.coldspur.com/confessions-of-a-conspiracy-theorist/ ), and I do not believe that the Royal Historical Society will come to our rescue. I have thus continued to try to bring www.coldspur.com to a broader audience, and am gratified to receive comments on the subjects I raise from readers (professional and amateur historians, intelligence officers, journalists, enthusiasts) around the world.

In that spirit of continuous discovery, I therefore present a number of topics which I believe are still controversial, and do not appears to have been settled by your study. There is no particular order to these, but I do analyse what I consider the most important first.

  1. The Overall Judgment on Fuchs: I am clearly not competent to express opinions on the matters of Fuchs’s technical expertise. I admit, however, that I was a little puzzled over the paradox that ‘the Most Dangerous Spy in History’, who knew more about the conception and construction of the atom bomb ‘than anyone in the UK’ was really only outstanding in solving mathematical equations. And how did his contribution rank alongside that of Melita Norwood, whom recent evidence indicates was very highly regarded by the KGB? I notice there is no mention of Norwood in your book. I was confused as to how you wanted to define his legacy.

You rightly highlight his ‘treachery’ in the subtitle of ‘Trinity’, but then, on page  418, you refer to the testimony of Lorna Arnold (who, you state, inspired you to perform your research into Fuchs) as follows: “She insisted that he [Fuchs] had not been understood, and that he was an honourable man who stuck by his principles; people might disagree violently with those principles, but there are many who shared them, and to decree what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a profound question of moral philosophy where the line of neutrality itself moves with the era. For Lorna, Fuchs was man who had yet to receive a fair trial. I hope to have contributed to that.” Were you aware that Lorna Arnold, who was not a physicist, contributed greatly to Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, which relied for much of the coverage of Fuchs on Alan Moorehead’s mendacious work of public relations commissioned by MI5, The Traitors, instead of inspecting source materials? See ‘Officially Unreliable’ at http://www.coldspur.com/officially-unreliable/ . Do Arnold’s close association with Peierls and his political aims, and her controversial statements about loyalty and morality, perhaps make her not an entirely objective muse?

While a case could be made that Fuchs’s legal trial was fixed, and the procedures sadly broken, the fact that you seem to want to present evidence in his defence rather counters the notion of the ‘treachery’ of ‘this most dangerous spy in History’ that your title embraces. A further clue might be what you record, without commentary, on page 321: “The answer [to Peierls], which the detective overheard, was that he felt ‘knowledge of atomic research should not be the private property of any one country, but, instead, shared with the world for the benefit of mankind.’” I am not sure what ‘principles’ drive that admission. Fuchs did not share his knowledge of atomic research with the world: he gave it to the Soviet Union, whose mission was to destroy the western liberal world in what it saw as the inevitable clash between capitalism and communism (as Lenin and his adherents erroneously characterized the conflict.) Fuchs, who betrayed his adopted country, and broke the Official Secrets Act, an honourable man? I do not think so.

2. The Timing of Fuchs’s Espionage:  I was a little surprised to read, in Jay Elwes’s review of ‘Trinity’ in The Spectator, that ‘Close suggests that he [Fuchs] offered his services to Moscow even while it was still aligned with Nazi Germany’, as my reaction was that you remained equivocal on this point. Moreover, that was a claim that I had first made in ‘Misdefending the Realm’, one which you rejected in our correspondence (“You write as if it’s established that Fuchs was active during the Soviet-Nazi pact, which is tantalisingly possible as I mentioned in my first email but I have not been able to establish that”: November 11, 2017). I cannot find anything stronger in your text than: “This is, however, an example of Fuchs crafty setting of false trails, as he was in fact spying by the summer of 1941, and possibly even earlier. The date is of more than scholastic concern, for if he began to spy soon after he joined Peierls that would have been in the period when the Soviet Union still had a non-aggression pact with Germany, and was by implication an enemy of the United Kingdom.” (page 63) On page 287, however, you do offer a Note: “It seems that Fuchs was deliberately hiding his 1941 espionage, probably because his initial contacts were made dangerously near to the time when the USSR was allied to Germany – up until June 1941.” I am not sure what ‘dangerously near’ implies, because the issue is surely binary: he either passed on information before Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, or he did not. The fact that Fuchs continually lied about the dates, changing his testimony from ‘1942’ to ‘late 1941’, when the VENONA transcripts prove he was already active by August, and had met with Jürgen Kuczynski (whom he had known earlier) soon after he was recruited by Peierls in April, suggested to me that he passed on to fellow-Communists all he knew about his assignment as soon as possible. As we both agree, it was in the interests of everybody (British, Soviets, Fuchs) to pretend that the betrayal did not happen while the Soviet Union was sharing its pact with Germany. Since there is no ‘proof’, and no unquestionable ‘fact’ for you to rely on, I imagine you would abstain from any judgment, which rather undermines Elwes’s observation. Have you protested it?

3. The Role of Rudolf Peierls: I believe that Peierls, as Fuchs’s mentor and recruiter, is very central to the story. I was thus astonished at the almost hagiographical treatment that you gave him. You make him out to be a victim of the ‘communist witch-hunt’ until 1954 (page 399), and then skate over the Deacon lawsuit, which we discussed at length a couple of years ago. Yet, as ‘Misdefending the Realm’ explains, there is so much more to the Peierls story. I wrote to you then: “I believe there are simply too many incriminating actions or words to conclude that Peierls was innocent of abetting the Soviets. Like most agents of influence, he was very careful not to leave any obvious trails behind (such as purloined documents, or meetings with intermediaries), but a whole list of incidents and anecdotes indicate his guilt.

1) Pressure on him and Genia from OGPU. There was no way a Soviet citizen would be allowed to leave the country, especially marrying a foreigner, without his/her committing to espionage. This was not really blackmail, but threatening the safety of family members unless the person obeyed instructions.

2) Relationship with Gamow. I take it you have read my piece on Wilfred Mann, and Genia’s relationship with him, and Gamow’s deviousness [at  http://www.coldspur.com/mann-overboard/ ].

3) Peierls’ lies over his return visit to the Soviet Union.

4) Peierls’ deceptive correspondence with Born.

5) Peierls’ pretence that the idea of Fuchs working for him came only when Fuchs had returned from internment, when he had worked with Born to get him released.

6) Genia’s response when Fuchs was arrested.

7) Peierls’ relationship with Kapitsa and the chair at Cambridge.

8) Peierls’ exaggerated response to Deacon (but I may be wrong on this).”

These were just the primary examples. I wonder, have you read Nigel West’s ‘Mortal Crimes’, which develops this theme? I notice it is not in your Bibliography. You also did not refer to the intriguing MI5 file on the service’s suspicions of espionage surrounding Fuchs and Peierls, which was suddenly withdrawn. You informed me that you looked into the Deacon lawsuit in some detail, but omit any analysis in the book: you do not mention Alexander Foote, and what Deacon claimed Foote told him.  I shall say no more about this now, but I think the whole question of Peierls’ possible knowledge of what Fuchs was up to deserves some very detailed analysis.

4. The Role of Genia Peierls: Genia is even more controversial, I believe. I recall that you were sceptical about my claims that the OGPU would have applied pressure to any Soviet citizen allowed to marry a foreigner and escape to the West. That is nevertheless the undeniable fact about how they operated. Yet your account oddly chooses to finesse the whole question of Genia’s marriage, and her background in the Soviet Union. On page 318, when describing Genia’s reaction to Fuchs’s arrest, you write, again without comment: “In Russia, members of Genia’s family had been incarcerated on the whims of the authorities (see chapter 1). News of Fuchs’ arrest renewed nightmares, which now made her afraid that the same might be possible in Britain.” And later you cite the extraordinary statement of Freeman Dyson (page 415) – perhaps not an objective observer:  “For Genia with her long experience of living in fear of the Soviet police, the key to survival was to have friends that one could trust, and the unforgivable sin was betrayal of that trust”.

But Genia did not have a long experience of ‘living in fear of the Soviet police’! She married Rudolf at the age of 22, having lived a protected life as a physicist assistant to the Nobelist Lev Landau, and occasionally frolicking on the knee of George Gamow, another scientist who made a miraculous escape from Soviet Russia. It is true that she may have been put in a very invidious position, with threats concerning her extended family made if she did not meet OGPU’s demands, but misrepresenting her experience, and not giving ‘credit’ to the known and widely repeated practices of Stalin’s intelligence organs, does not perform justice to her story. And her supposed suggestion that Britain’s authorities were about to engage upon ‘whimsical incarcerations’ in the manner of the KGB is simply ridiculous. Was it not the civility of life in the UK that eventually impressed Fuchs? What could Genia have intended with those absurd comments?

And then there is her highly suspicious reaction to the news of Fuchs’s arrest on charges of espionage. If an innocent person, unaware of a friend’s possible treachery, had heard of such an event, my belief would be that that person might exclaim: “How can that be true?” Yet Genia’s first response, as you report on page 318, was: “Good God in Heaven. Who could have done this?”, as if her stupefaction was over who could possibly have shopped Fuchs, not whether he was guilty or not. Her comments to her husband afterwards (that a similar fate might overcome him), and their careful conversations in Russian, suggest an awkwardness that indicates another explanation. In this light, Fuchs’s regretful musings in prison over the betrayal of their friendship could take on another whole meaning. The FBI file on Genia Peierls shows a committed communist: I believe this is another dimension to the story that needs to be studied in more detail.

5. Fuchs’s Confessions to Communism: In a Note on p 41, you write: “The myth that Fuchs announced his communism at the Aliens’ Tribunal in 1941 appears to have been a creation of the writer Rebecca West in 1950 with no basis in fact. Contrary to a widely held misconception, there is no evidence that Fuchs ever admitted to membership or support of the Communist Party, at least in any publicly available document.” I believe this statement is contestable, but, on the other hand, it may not perhaps matter much. For example, as you write on page 284: “Picking up from his tête-à-tête with Arnold, Fuchs talked [to Skardon] about his work for the Communist underground in Germany, and his fight against the Nazis . . .” In addition, the FBI report on the Second Confession (issued October 10, 2014 by the Los Alamos Laboratory) cites that ‘Fuchs stated that he joined the Communist Party of Germany while he was attending the University of Kiel.’ Furthermore, “Fuchs said that he was  considered to be a member of this section of the German Communist Party, and  probably had filled out a biography concerning himself and furnished it to  officials of the German Communist Party sometime after his arrival in England,  because of the fear of the Party that they might be infiltrated by Nazis. Fuchs also said that he was aware that Jürgen Kuczynski was regarded as the head of the underground section of the German Communist Party during this period. Thus there is no doubt that he did not deny his communist beliefs.” Maybe Fuchs made no admission before his arrest, but that is not what you claimed.

What is perhaps more surprising, and worthy of inspection, is why, given his understanding of the value of proper espionage tradecraft (which his contact Harry Gold was not aware of), Fuchs did not conceal his associations with communists and ‘anti-fascist’ activity during his time in Bristol and Birmingham, as this should surely have drawn the attention of the authorities. Max Born and others were clearly aware of it.  But that question leads into the whole discussion of how woolly MI5 was at the time over communist subversion, and the belief it held that dangerous activity would originate only from persons who were actually members of the Communist Party. Fuchs’s leftist persuasions never got in the way of his recruitment to Tube Alloys, and official policy even drifted into that netherworld where he was regarded as a loyal servant because he was a communist.

6. The FBI and McCarthyism: I was disappointed that you fell into the habit of inseparably linking ‘McCarthyist’ with ‘witch-hunts’ in your text, a tired trope of the left. However one may regret the extent that Senator McCarthy pushed his agenda, and disapprove of his personal habits, the fact is that it was the House of Representatives’ Committee on Unamerican Activities that took up the cause, a cause that the State Department tried to stymie. Moreover, while there never was such an entity as ‘witches’, there was a group of communist infiltrators in US government who were loyal to Joseph Stalin. That the hunt was justified is hardly deniable now, especially since the VENONA transcripts have identified many of the traitors for us. (For more analysis, please see http://www.coldspur.com/soviet-espionage-transatlantic-connections/ )

I was also shocked at the parallels that you implied between the FBI and the NKVD/OGPU/KGB. On page 212 you write: “The Cold War provided a perfect backdrop, even while Hoover’s spying on American citizens was often indistinguishable from the totalitarian regimes he despised.” Really? The Soviet Secret Police exercised a terror on citizens, with powers of immediate arrest without cause, followed by secret shooting, or staged trials followed by ‘judicial’ execution or despatch to the Gulag. Stalin had millions of his own citizens murdered – and was ready to murder his own atomic scientists if the Soviet bomb project failed. How on earth were the actions of Hoover’s FBI ‘indistinguishable’ from those of the Soviet Secret Police? I find your comparison very unfortunate.

7. Herbert and Erna Skinner: This couple remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Is there more to be told about Herbert’s activities? He was ‘of the left’: did he have similar political beliefs as Blackett and Bernal, for example? I was in communication with a distinguished alumnus of Liverpool University last year who told me that the official historian of the University knew nothing about the shenanigans at Harwell: he (the alumnus) was in disbelief when I told him that Fuchs and Erna had been having an affair. And Herbert’s death in Geneva at the comparatively young age of 60 – has that ever been investigated? Rossiter also tells us that Skinner informed Fuchs that someone in MI6 had told him about the Soviet atomic research taking place in Odessa. How was it that Skinner was informed of this? Was this an official briefing – or a leak? Was he alone in receiving this information, and, if so, why? Do you have any opinions?

Another aspect that intrigues me is Fuchs’s revelations to the FBI about the Skinners. In the FBI report that I referenced earlier, this remark about Fuchs, concerning his stay in New York in 1947, appears: “He recalled 111th Street in view of the fact that he remembered that Mrs. H. W. B. Skinner was residing in an apartment on that street.” Later, when Fuchs describes meeting Dr. Cohen, he introduces a seemingly irrelevant detail about a lost hat. “Fuchs said that he left his hat in the restaurant and later requested Cohen pick up the hat and return it to the home of Mrs. [?] Skinner, West 111th Street, in New York City. Fuchs said that this incident did not have anything to do with his espionage activities.”  Erna Skinner was presumably in New York, staying with her father-in-law, since Herbert accompanied Klaus to Washington. (Rossiter states that it was here that Fuchs became more acquainted with Herbert and Erna.) Was the fact that Fuchs identified Erna Skinner as the contact not extraordinary? And, in any case, why would Fuchs gratuitously introduce their names to the FBI at a time when the organisation was strenuously looking for leads on further spies? Would anyone really trust what Fuchs said was connected to his spying activities? It is all very strange. Have you considered this anecdote?

8. Halperin’s Diary: In an endnote to page 376, you refer to my claims about the possible concealment of the evidence from Halperin’s diary, in which the appearance of Fuchs’s name led the FBI to him. Note 14: “MI5 records imply that they first learned of these documents only on 4 October 1949, TNA KV 2/1247, s. 230c. In his critique of MI5, Antony Percy, Misdefending the Realm . . . suggested on page 255 that early references to Halperin were removed from Fuchs’ file and ‘the record edited to make it appear that the FBI had only recently (October 1949] informed MI5 of the discoveries in Halperin’s diary,’ He offers no direct evidence to support this.”

The evidence I used was the letter from Geoffrey Patterson, the MI5 representative in Washington, to Arthur Martin of MI5. I wrote: “The British Embassy letter, dated October 4, 1949, is from a G. T. D. Patterson, addressed to A. S. Martin, Esq., and begins: “With reference to previous correspondence about FUCHS and HEINEMAN I have just received from the FBI some further information about their activities in this country. Much of it you already know, but some is new and I think you will agree of considerable interest.”[i] The next paragraph has been redacted: the letter then starts describing (repeating?) the evidence of Halperin’s address book when he was arrested in February 1946, and it later cites the captured German document compiled in 1941. Paragraph 18, which appears after Patterson’s suggestion that Fuchs and his father are “key GPU and NKVD agents” has also been redacted. The inference is clear: the majority of the information had been given to MI5 some time before. This evidence is conclusive that Archer, Robertson and Serpell were basing their claim on the revelations from Washington in 1946 – intelligence that White and Hollis did not want to accept as valid.”

In our correspondence, I also wrote the following: “In Amy Knight’s ‘How The Cold War Began’, she says that the RCMP told the FBI that they had made the Halperin evidence available to the British. She offers the following reference for the paragraph: NARA, S.3437. Fuchs Case, 882012-359-383. I performed a search on this, but came up with nothing.”

Now this may not meet the requirements of the strictest scientific investigation, but I continue to assert that Patterson’s reference to ‘previous correspondence’ which is not to be found on file is extremely provocative, and should not be dismissed lightly.’

9. MI5 Suspicions of Sonia/Sonya: On page 421, you refer to the fact that MI5 apparently overlooked Sonia as a candidate for espionage. “Sonya – interviewed by Skardon and Serpell in 1947, overlooked by everyone in 1950, and only identified after she had escaped to East Germany.” On page 57, you state that ‘this manoeuvre’ (her acquisition of a passport) was ‘noticed by MI5’. What is your explanation for the inactivity of the Security Service, given the circumstances?

As I believe I have fairly convincingly shown in my on-line articles titled ‘Sonia’s Radio’ (see http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio/ ), senior officers in both MI5 and MI6 were very aware of Sonia’s activity, facilitating her bigamous marriage in Switzerland, her application for a British passport, and her eventual return to the United Kingdom, where they probably kept an eye on her, hoping to surveille her wireless transmissions. Yet lower-level officers were not confided in, and eventually left hanging. Michael Serpell and Hugh Shillito were two officers who doggedly tracked such malfeasants as Sonia and her husband, the Soviet spy Oliver Green, and Fuchs himself. For example, on November 13, 1946, Serpell demanded that the Fuchs case be followed up, and he was the officer who interrogated Alexander Foote in July 1947, before the interview with Sonia. Shillito, in November 1942, had recommended that the Beurtons be prosecuted, and in 1943 he was responsible for the Green case, and wanted him prosecuted. Yet their efforts were quashed – even, I suspect, to the chagrin of David Petrie himself, to whom Serpell was close. I believe this was an internal tension that should not be overlooked.

In addition, I should mention that in two places (pages 57 and 382), you describe Sonia as ‘head of the GRU network’, or ‘GRU station chief”. That is not true. As you accurately state on page 92, she was the leading GRU ‘illegal’ in the country.

10. The Gouzenko Case: On page 376, you remark, in connection with the follow-up to Gouzenko’s disclosures, and Peter Dwyer’s declining to take the Halperin information from the FBI: “ . . . nor, if the FBI account is correct, does it explain why MI6 had failed to act. Whatever the reasons, MI5 was unaware of these aspects of Fuchs’ history.” Yet I believe that there lies another fascinating anomaly in this story. The Gouzenko affair took place on Canadian soil, which was the province of MI5, not MI6. Dwyer was the MI6 representative in Washington, but he took over the case on behalf on MI5 because Cyril Mills, the MI5 Security Liaison Officer for the Service (who had been GARBO’s handler before Tomàs Harris in WWII) was on his way back to the UK – temporarily, according to one account by Nigel West, permanently because of demobilization, as the same author wrote elsewhere. Yet, when Dwyer’s report was sent in to the Foreign Office, it was routed, on September 9, 1945, not to Liddell and Sillitoe in MI5, but to Menzies, the head of MI6, who gave it to Philby to look at. As his Diaries inform us, Liddell learned of the matter from Philby on September 11. Astonishingly, Liddell does not express any protest to Philby that the matter was not the latter’s responsibility, and most written accounts echo the account that Philby was able to manipulate the whole event by not having Jane Archer sent over to investigate, but the pliable Roger Hollis (who did of course work for MI5.) On whose authority was Dwyer acting, if he did indeed decline the FBI’s help, and why was MI5 so timid in this exchange? Why did MI5 have no representative of its own in Washington between August 1945 and February 1948 (when Thistlethwaite arrived)? It is all very puzzling.

11. ‘TAR’ Robertson’s Role: On page 173, when describing Fuchs’s unexpected and (by MI5) unknown return to the United Kingdom in October 1946, you state that Robertson was head of Soviet Counter-Espionage, at B4. I do not think that is true. Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is of no use on post-war organisation, but Nigel West, in his account of MI5, states that Robertson was so disgusted with the appointment of Sillitoe (official on May 1) that he immediately resigned. That is clearly not true, as the memoranda signed by Robertson prove. But he was surely not in charge of Soviet counter-espionage, in which he had no expertise. In his biography of Robertson, ‘Gentleman Spymaster’, Geffrey Elliott informs us that, when Dick White returned from Europe to take over B Division, Robertson was put in charge of ‘Production and Coordination of Aids to Investigation, etc.’. In October 1947, it seems that Sillitoe gave him the responsibility for tackling ‘Russian and Russian Satellite Espionage’. Robertson fell out with Sillitoe, however, and in 1948 was given a menial post, as B3, with some responsibility for liaising with Overseas Stations. Robertson retired on August 31, 1948.

12. Philby as Double-Agent: I have spent some considerable time trying to classify properly the notions of spies and double-agents (see ‘Double-Crossing the Soviets’ at http://www.coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/ ). I do not expect my terminology to gain widespread adoption (although no one has yet challenged me on it), but I do believe my claim that a person with inimical convictions who signs up for his or her national intelligence service with an intent to betray that service, and the national interest, to a foreign power is not a ‘double-agent’. He is a traitor. A double-agent is an enemy agent who has been arrested and ‘turned’ – either ideologically or through some kind of threat, or via a mechanism of controlling his or her communications apparatus. In several places, you refer to Philby as a ‘notorious double-agent’ (e.g. page 78), and on page 247 you even describe him as ‘the notorious double-traitor’. I do not know what that last term means, but I would continue to suggest that it is inaccurate to call Philby a ‘double-agent’.

13. Liddell’s Marriage and Career: I thought you might be interested to read what I have uncovered about Guy Liddell’s fortunes, inspectable at ‘Guy Liddell: A Reassessment’ (http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/) . Thus what you write about the departure of his wife, Calypso, and the subsequent lawsuit, should be updated.

14. Enemy Status: Maybe I share with you some confusion about how British politicians and lawmakers consider how Britain’s ‘enemies’ should be defined. In the quotation I used earlier, you wrote (page 63): “The date is of more than scholastic concern, for if he began to spy soon after he joined Peierls that would have been in the period when the Soviet Union still had a non-aggression pact with Germany, and was by implication an enemy of the United Kingdom.” And on a Note to page 338, you write: “Russia was at no stage an enemy of the United Kingdom during Fuchs’ Birmingham period but had become so by 1950. Fuchs’ espionage at Harwell, which was on the charge sheet, is consistent with Perrin’s description. [‘potential enemy’]”

Is this not critical to the legal case against Fuchs? If the Soviet Union was ’by implication’ an enemy of the United Kingdom by virtue of its non-aggression pact with Germany, would that have affected the treachery charge? As Fuchs was not yet a citizen, what did that mean? (MI5 had problems during the war because of the inability of current laws to address ‘treachery’ by foreign agents, not part of a military organisation, who had entered Britain illegally, and thus had no predefined loyalty to the country.) But was Russia (the Soviet Union) truly an ‘enemy’ in 1950? War had not been declared (apart from the Cold War, I suppose!), but what validity did ‘potential enemy’ on the charge sheet have? Was giving secrets to any foreign power – which was essentially what the McMahon Act defined – merely enough? 

15. US & UK Espionage: I was intrigued by what you wrote on page 315: “Fuchs was a ’very eminent scientist in his own right’, Souers pointed out, and might have information about the state of British atomic science.’” That suggests that the USA, having recently banned any sharing of atomic research with even its allies, was still interested in staying up-to-date with what its former partner was doing. The corollary of that, of course, is the claim, made by Mike Rossiter and others, that Fuchs was actually spying on the USA on Britain’s behalf. Rossiter writes in his book, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, that the documents concerning the latter had been suspiciously removed from the National Archives after he had previously successfully inspected them. If it had been true, I would be surprised that Fuchs did not bring that up with his defence lawyer. Is this something you looked at?

16. Photograph of Sonia: I noticed that the photograph you used came from your ‘personal collection’. May I ask where you acquired this? I scanned the same photograph from my copy of the English version of Sonia’s memoir, and posted it on my website, where it is searchable by Google. Indeed, the editors of two separate biographies of Richard Sorge approached me asking where I had found it, as they wanted to use it in their authors’ books. I have not checked them out yet, but the publisher of Sonia’s memoir came up a blank, and I recommended approaching Sonia’s son.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you will agree that stepping into what Christopher Andrew calls the ‘Secret World’ involves a lot of murkiness, where matters are not black and white. Most months I write about various unresolved aspects of espionage, counter-espionage and intelligence on my website, and open myself up to questions, criticisms and challenges all the time. I welcome it, as it is an inevitable part of the task of trying to establish the truth. Thus I hope you will accept what I have written in the same spirit.

Very best wishes, Tony.


Leave a Comment

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

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 6)

Virginia Hall of SOE & OSS operating, with Edmond Lebrat pedalling a generator, in July 1944 (by Jeff Bass)

The previous chapter of this story concluded by describing the state of events in the autumn of 1942. It had been a difficult year for the Allies, but the tide of the war had begun to turn in their favour. The five-month battle of Stalingrad, which represented the Soviet Union’s critical effort to repel the Wehrmacht, began in October, and the USA’s arsenal was beginning to have an effect in the rest of the world. Nazi Germany accordingly intensified its efforts to eliminate subversive threats, and by this time had rounded up the sections of the Red Orchestra operating on German soil, executing many of its members in December. The Allied landings in North Africa (November) prompted Germany to occupy Vichy France, which removed a safer base of operations for espionage and sabotage work originating in Britain. Meanwhile, Churchill had ended his opposition to the Overlord invasion plan in a deal over sharing of atomic research and technology with the USA. Colonel Bevan had thus been appointed to reinvigorate the important London Controlling Section, responsible for strategic military deception, in August 1942, and serious plans for the invasion of Europe were underway. Yet Bevan had a large amount of preparatory work to do, and circulated his draft deception plan for the broader theatre of war, Bodyguard, only at the beginning of October 1943. It was approved later that month, with refinements still being made in December. All domestic intelligence agencies would be affected by the objectives for the segment describing the European landings, named Fortitude.

This (penultimate?) chapter takes the story of wireless interception up to the end of 1943, and again concentrates on the territories occupied by the Nazis in Central Western Europe – the Low Countries and France, with a diversion into Switzerland, as well as the domestic scene in Great Britain. Roosevelt had founded the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, roughly equivalent to MI6 and SOE) in June 1942, and thus Britain’s dominant role in European resistance began to fade. The rather haphazard approach to sabotage that had characterized SOE’s work up till then began to evolve into a more considered strategy to support the invasion. It was placed under closer military control in March 1943. The uncertain role of Britain’s Double-Cross agents received a much sharper focus in preparations for a campaign of disinformation to deceive the Germans about the location of the landings. The RSS started to concentrate more on the challenge of locating ‘stay-behind’ agents in Europe than on the detection of illicit domestic transmissions in the United Kingdom. Yet issues of post-war administrations began to surface and introduce new tensions: as the Red Army began to move West, Churchill and Eden started to have misgivings about the nature of some nationalist movements, SOE’s associations with communists, and Stalin’s intentions. Moreover, Roosevelt’s OSS was much more critical of Britain’s ‘imperialism’ than it was of Stalin’s ‘communist democracy’, which also affected the climate with the various governments-in-exile in London.

The Reality of German Direction- and Location-Finding

Whereas the missions of the various German interception services had previously been focused on the illogical basis of the political motivations of the offenders, in 1943 a split based on geography was initiated. The WNV/FU assumed control for Northern France, Belgium and South Holland, the Balkans, Italy, and part of the Eastern Front, while the Orpo (Ordnungspolizei) was given responsibility for Southern France, the rest of Holland, Norway, Germany and the rest of the Eastern Front. This may have led to differences in operational policy, and equipment used: little intelligence-sharing went on, however, because of political rivalries. In the previous chapter I had suggested that the scope and effectiveness of the German direction- and location-finding machine had been exaggerated by the Gestapo as a method of deterrence, and that, in reality, infiltrated wireless operators were betrayed more by shoddy practices and informers. I now examine this phenomenon in more detail.

A popular reference work on espionage (Dobson and Payne, 1997) describes the operation as follows:

“German direction-finding operations in France were centered on Gestapo headquarters in the Avenue Foch in Paris. Relays of 30 clerks monitoring up to 300 cathode-ray tubes kept up a continuous watch on every conceivable frequency between 10 kilocycles and 30 megacycles. When a new set opened up it showed at once as a luminous spot on one of the tubes. Alerted by telephone, large goniometric stations at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremburg started to take cross-bearings. Within 15 minutes they were able to establish a triangle with sides about 16 km (10 miles) across into which detector vans from a mobile regional base could be moved to pinpoint more precisely the area of transmission.

Typically, a mobile regional base would be equipped with two front-wheel-drive Citroen 11ight vans, each crewed by four civilians carrying machine guns, and two four-seater Mercedes-Benz convertibles with fake French licence plates. If the transmission had ended the vehicles would move to the intersection points of the triangle and wait in the hope that the unknown station would acknowledge a reply to its message. An acknowledgment of a mere three to four seconds would allow an experienced team to reduce the sides of the triangle to no more than 800 m (0.5 mile). If the transmission were longer, the operator would almost immediately be compromised.”

I see several problems with this account. First of all, it contains no dates, no sense of gradual establishment. I have not discovered any images of the CRT equipment claimed to be deployed. If a transmitting set were to be detected without high-powered interception stations working in harness first, it would have to be via ground-wave, which would be restricted to a distance of about ten miles. That limitation would not justify the huge expense required in the centre of Paris, since most illicit transmissions occurred in the provinces. In any case, the assumed illicit signals would have to be discriminated from all the other police, military and industrial activity going on at the same time. The number of personnel, vehicles and equipment to cover the whole of France would be astronomically high, and, especially at this advanced stage of the war, Germany did not have an available competent and dedicated labour force to deploy successfully in such a project. How many ‘mobile regional bases’ were there? It would have been a colossal waste of resources to deploy this infrastructure on the assumption that occasional illicit transmissions could be promptly identified and eliminated.

This dubious reference attempts to shed light on the process by means of an imaginative diagram:

German Direction-Finding

The text for this entry is echoed almost verbatim in Jean-Louis Perquin’s The Clandestine Radio Operators (2011), a work that boasts a serious bibliography and set of sources. Here a few additional details are supplied by the author. The German unit is identified as the Kurzwellenüberwachung [Short-Wave Observation], or KWU, with a codename for the operation of DONAR. (I cannot find any other reference to a such-named unit – a true hapax legomenon?)  “A total of one hundred and six men, seven mobile goniometers mounted either on trucks or on one of the service’s 35 cars was made available”. The author adds that protection was provided by the French Sureté Nationale. Yet the mechanisms are vague. “A control station equipped with over 300 (ultra-modern) receivers continuously monitored over thirty thousand frequencies  . . .”  The principle behind the scheme was that any unregistered frequency used was ‘highly likely to signal a covert radio-operator’. Then a telephone message was immediately sent to the three direction-finding centres in Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg, which would quickly be able to determine an equilateral triangle of 20 kilometre sides in which the operator was transmitting. Thereafter, the trucks were sent in to the tip of the triangle, sometimes supported by a team of pedestrian monitors using sensitive magnetometers on their wrists. In that way, they would quickly identify the building where the transmission was occurring, and arrest the agent before he or she committed suicide.

The operation was claimed to be very efficient.  “This was the procedure used in 1943. If the clandestine transmitter was located in the same city as a mobile goniometer base, the location of the transmitter could be identified within a 200-metres radius in less than a quarter of an hour.” Further: “As an example, the German DF could be within sight of a transmitter half an hour after it sent its very first signal. It is likely that, by the spring of 1944, the Germans were using a fully automated, car-mounted DF system using a cathodic screen monitor.” The official historian of SOE, M. R. D. Foot, may be the originator of this particular histoire, writing, in 1984: “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.”

It seems as if these accounts were also received by the RSS, which at the end of the war compiled a report on the Funkabwehr (available at HW 34/2 at the National Archives).  The writer lists the claims made by captured German officers, and ‘various sources’, illustrating them with such dramatic detail as: “Within a period of two minutes each new suspect signal was observed and reported by line to a large scale system of D/F networks which could obtain bearings with an error of less than half a degree and so plot the position of any station to an area within a radius variously estimated at from 4 to ten kilometres. This process required a further seven minutes, after which five further minutes were necessary to bring a very strong mobile unit organisation into action and for them to proceed by short-range D/F and shifting to locate the transmitter.” The report then casts serious doubts on the reliability of these statements, which appear to be the work of German propaganda, sent out by various media, in an attempt to discourage Allied wireless use.

The RSS report includes some details about mobile unit operations: that the 1942 Operation Donar in the Unoccupied Zone was largely ineffective, as few French-speaking persons took part, and it was very obvious; that a single mobile unit roamed around Southern France in 1943, ‘principally Marseilles and Lyons, until it settled in Lyons’ (which does not suggest dense coverage); that the communications between interception and the D/F stations in the OKW were poor, certainly not as good as the Orpo’s; that effectiveness was hindered by personnel transfer; that local and atmospheric conditions greatly hindered accurate readings; that many cases were recorded where the mobile units were totally unable to locate the groundwave. In certain cases, mostly in urban areas, a very focused operation could produce results, especially when the famous ‘guertel’ snifter (the Gürtel Kleinpeiler für Bodenwelle) was introduced in 1943, but, overall, location-finding was a very haphazard affair, and nothing like the streamlined operation that the authorities liked to represent.

There is no reliable evidence of the number or names of clandestine operators who were caught by this method. It should be concluded that there must be a large amount of propagandizing in this scenario, with no reliable source provided. As previous incidents have shown, there is no dependable way of identifying the physical source of a ‘new’ message stream over the ether unless something is known about the data sent – the callsign, for instance, which may have been revealed through torture or collaboration. Only when triangulation occurs could the rough proximity of the transmission zone be determined. And the operator would have to continue transmitting for an inordinate amount of time for the detectors still be able to sense him or her when they eventually turned up in their vans. Moreover, part of agent practice was to employ ‘watchers’ who would look out for the tell-tale features of the DF vehicles, and agents were taught to stay on the air for only a few minutes at a time before signing off and moving location.

Inside a Gestapo DF Truck

The whole process is belied by some of the autobiographical accounts that were published after the war. Jacques Doneux’s They Arrived By Moonlight is considered one of the most reliable descriptions of the life of a clandestine radio operator – this time in Belgium. He explains how he managed to evade the direction-finding vans, by transmitting at different times of the day, by varying the location, by staying on the air for no more than half an hour, and by using a protection team to warn him of approaching vans. Significantly, one of the statements he makes runs as follows (p 105): “We went to a place called La Hulpe which was a short way out of Brussels and fairly safe from direction-finding; this meant that we could have a good long sked with little fear of interruption.” This suggests that urban detection capabilities were based on ground-waves, and that the mechanisms for intercepting and trapping illicit broadcasters were much less sophisticated than has frequently been claimed. (I return to Doneux when discussing SOE later in this piece.) Another technique used with some success by the territorial guardians, however, was the deployment of radio-detecting planes. Doneux reports that ‘a Fieseler-Storch, flying low, often appeared about ten minutes after an operator had started to transmit’. This very visible and obvious mechanism clearly encouraged radio operators to be brief. The RSS Report on the Funkabwehr claims, however, that the Fiesler-Storch was equipped to operate where mobile units could not go, namely the Russian Front and the Balkans.

Perquin presents a more down-to-earth analysis at the end of his article, where he breaks down the record of SOE’s F Section. “For ten arrested radio operators, at least five fell victims to carelessness of breaches of basic security rules; another two arrest [sic] could have been avoided had the transmissions not been sent from cities where German DF teams had regional branches. Many radio operators like other members of resistance networks were compromised because of careless talk, gossip, indiscretion, police investigations or sheer bad luck in the form of a routine police check. On the other end, the fact that ten radio operators were captured should not hide the extraordinary usefulness and effectiveness of the remaining ninety if one is to mention only F section. ‘Kleber’, belonging to the French intelligence branch and not to the SOE, never had a single incident when it used its eight transmitters to send signals to Algiers from the immediate vicinity of Pau (SW France). By 1944, the average duration of a transmission was less than three minutes per frequency.”

In summary, the existence of location-finding teams is not in doubt, but they were certainly far fewer in number than claimed by some expansive reports. They may have picked up some random operators. Yet, rather than a comprehensive mechanism for picking up previously unknown operators, it is much more likely that the system was deployed to try to mop up remaining members of a network whose predecessors had already been betrayed by some source or behaviour, when the general neighbourhood in which they were working was already known. Promoting the mythology of a powerful and ruthless machine may however have acted as a useful deterrent for the Nazi security organs, and ascribing failure to it may have served to absolve leaders and remote directors of resistance groups of lapses in security procedures.

The Red Orchestra

A more reliable model for how the Gestapo worked is provided by the successful efforts to close down the section of the Red Orchestra that operated out of neutral Switzerland. As I explained in the previous episode, the units of the Red Orchestra in Germany and France had been largely mopped up by the end of 1942, primarily because of atrociously lax inattention to security procedures by the Communist agents. (The executions at Plötzensee carried on until December 1943.)

Developing an accurate account of the operation of the ‘Rote Drei’ (as the main three wireless operators in Switzerland, Foote, Radó and Bölli, were known) is notoriously difficult. The memoirs of Foote – which were ghosted – as well as those of Radó, are highly unreliable, and the source of much of the strategic intelligence, probably gained from Ultra decrypts, is still hotly contested. The authoritative-sounding analysis emanating from the CIA is also riddled with disinformation. For a refresher on the background, I refer readers to ‘Sonia’s Radio’, especially http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-vii/.

German Intelligence had been intercepting the messages of the Soviet agents in Switzerland since November 1941, but apparently no headway had been made on decrypting them. Then, as the German network was being closed down, the volume of messages from across the border increased. According to V. E. Tarrant, in The Red Orchestra: “During the latter half of 1942 the German long-range radio monitoring stations in Dresden and Prague reported heavy radio traffic from three short-wave transmitters operating in neutral Switzerland. Through cross-bearings two were tracked to Geneva, close to the Franco-Swiss border, and the third to Lausanne on the northern shore of Lake Geneva.”

In January 1943, with the German network rounded up and executed, attention thus switched to group in Switzerland, and the pressure mounted for making sense of the transmissions, and determining how vital and accurate they were. OKW/Chi (Chiffrier Abteilung) was charged, on February 23, with attacking the messages, and, perhaps surprisingly, made swift progress, an achievement which suggest, perhaps, that some work had been undertaken in a more dilatory fashion before then. Tarrant again: “When the intercepts of these transmissions were sent to the radio traffic analysts in the Funkabwehr offices on the Matthaïkirchplatz they concluded that the cipher employed by the Swiss operators was of an identical format to the one-time pad that had been used by the Grand Chef’s [Trepper’s] pianists.” Tarrant suggests that the agent ‘Kent’, who was in the custody of the Gestapo, helped in the deciphering process. In any case, the CIA reported that Chi had gathered all the extant traffic by the end of March, and in a few days had discovered the main principle of the encryption technique. By April 22, sixteen messages had been broken.

The first reaction by German Intelligence was to conclude that the information was of the highest quality, and continued dissemination could seriously damage the war effort. Yet the organs found it very difficult to identify a Berlin-based source responsible for the information, or the medium by which the information could have been passing. (I shall not re-explain here the claim that ‘Lucy’, the enigmatic Rudolf Rössler, was in fact receiving his intelligence from the United Kingdom, itself deriving form Ultra decrypts.) Instead, they resolved to track down the suspects in Switzerland. Their location-finding techniques could identify the cities from which the transmissions were being made, but Switzerland was of course neutral territory.

Radó’s network took a fairly relaxed attitude towards security. The Swiss Government was reasonably tolerant of foreign intelligence activity, so long as it was not directed against Switzerland itself. The unit considered itself free from the observations and threats of the Gestapo, and was under enough pressure from Moscow Centre, in the latter’s persistent requests for identifying sources, and the torrents of questions that they presented to Radó and his team. Thus the Germans had to use a combination of traditional espionage and political pressure to help them track and close down the dangerous wireless trio.

In 1941 (or, according to some accounts, 1942), Walter Schellenberg had been appointed by Himmler to head Section VI, the RSHA’s foreign intelligence branch. Indeed, he had already had clandestine meetings with the Swiss intelligence chief, Roger Masson, in the summer and autumn of 1942, after Masson had heard rumours that the Germans were planning an invasion of the country. Yet Schellenberg’s intentions in setting up the meeting may have been to persuade Masson to cooperate in prosecuting the Rote Drei. Max Hastings, in The Secret War, informs us that Schellenberg told Masson then that Berlin had already decrypted two of the ring’s messages, and was seeking help. The threat of invasion, which was always a real threat to the Swiss, because of its German-speaking population, and Hitler’s designs on the ‘Südmark’, was a not-so-gentle incentive for Masson to ‘help with the RSHA’s inquiries’. The two met again, early in 1943. It appears that Germany had made serious demands that Switzerland maintain its neutrality, under threat of invasion, and Masson did indeed crumble, and deploy his native counter-intelligence experts to mop up the illicit wireless network.

The Gestapo had also tried inserting agents to subvert and betray the network, but these were mostly clumsy efforts that Alexander Foote was able to deflect. The mopping-up operation did not take long, however. In September 1943, the Swiss Bundespolizei (BUPO) began the operation to silence the transmitters. They used the traditional goniometric techniques to locate the equipment more accurately, starting with Geneva. Since the agents were not accustomed to moving premises, or having to restrict the length of their transmissions (Foote recorded being on the air for hours owing to the volume of work), there was no rush. Tarrant even reports that ‘it took a few weeks for Lt. Treyer’s direction-finder vans to pin-point the actual locations . . . ‘. That luxury would not have been available in the pressure-cooked environment of Belgium or France. The BUFO also used the famous method of turning off the power to houses individually in order to notice when transmission stopped. And the frailties of war-time romance took their effect, as well. Margrit Bölli, one of the wireless operators, took a lover, Peters, who was in fact a German agent and stole her cipher key. She ignored instructions, and moved to his apartment, where BUFO agents tracked her. The Hamels were arrested on the night of October 13/14, and just about a month after that Foote himself was arrested.

Radó escaped into hiding, and some abortive attempts to resuscitate the network were made, but they fell short – primarily because of funding. Ironically, BUFO tried to carry on a ‘Funkspiel’ (along the lines of what the Germans performed in the Netherlands) with the Soviets. Foote had owned a powerful wireless set, capable of reaching Moscow, obviously, but also the Americas, and Treyer, in possession of Radó’s code, initiated messages in German on Foote’s set, using that code. Yet, as David Dallin inform us in Soviet Espionage, ‘Foote’s previous messages, always in English, had usually been transmitted in his own code’. (The Soviets deployed techniques for alerting Moscow Centre of code-switches to be deployed in a following suite of messages.) The Soviets saw through the ruse very quickly.

Because of the sympathetic role that the spies had been playing in support of Switzerland’s resistance to Nazism, they were all treated relatively well. Yet an important source of intelligence was closed down. By then the Battle of Kursk (to the success of which the Lucy Ring had substantially contributed) was over, the Wehrmacht had been mortally damaged, and the war was as good as won. From the standpoint of illicit wireless interception, however, the story has multiple lessons. It reinforces the fact that remote direction-finding, across hundreds of miles, could be an effective tool in locating transmissions at the city-level. It shows that suborned and tortured agents, with knowledge of callsigns, schedules, ciphers and codes, could provide a much quicker breakthrough to decryption than laborious ‘blind’ brainwork. It stresses the importance of solid tradecraft and security techniques for agents to avoid successfully those in pursuit of them (although, in a small country like Switzerland, where their activities were suspected anyway, it would have been impossible for the Rote Drei to have held out for long). It emphasizes the role that simple security techniques could play in avoiding the successful ‘turning’ of networks. One other consequence of the operation was that Moscow stopped relying so much on the illicit transmissions of mainly ‘illegal’ agents, and switched its focus on using couriers and equipment in the Soviet Embassies to manage the traffic that their spies were still accumulating.

Exploits of SOE & SIS

I have earlier drawn attention to the renowned actions taken by General Gubbins in tightening up SOE security in 1943, and how they need to be questioned. Not only were these initiatives very late, the claims about their success are not really borne out by the evidence. Much has been written about the careful psychological screening of potential SOE agents, and their wireless operators, and even more has been written about their lengthy training in all manner of tradecraft as a foreign agent, from practice at parachute-jumping to secure methods of wireless transmission. Yet the experiences in France and the Low Countries, as recounted by M. R. D. Foot, tell of a parade of broken backs, legs and ankles resulting from clumsy parachute landings, of wireless sets that broke on impact, were lost, or simply did not work. It seems quite extraordinary that so much would be invested in preparatory training, only to be wasted in the minutes following the dropping of the parachutists. (Several of these highly trained wireless operators were killed in plane crashes.) SOE did not have the luxury of a rich labour pool from which to select the most suitable candidates, and the pressures on it to deliver were immense. Yet, despite the attention given to training, it was clearly deficient in many areas.

Moreover, procedures regarding wireless security were still inconsistently applied. Foot again: “It did not take long [sic] 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 the order that no transmission was to last more than five minutes did not go out until the winter of 1943-44. In September 1943 (when Gubbins replaced Hambro as head of SOE), more flexible and unpredictable ‘skeds’ (transmission schedules – a critical part of the software, since they had to take into consideration such factors as atmospheric disturbance) were introduced: irregular hours and switching of frequencies made detection more difficult.

What became necessary was a keen sense of how active the organs were in a particular area. Foot relates how, in May 1943, an agent named Beckers was able to stay at his set ‘for two hours without any trouble, and only once heard of a D/F car in the neighbourhood’. Another, Léon Bar, was quickly arrested after starting to address a backlog of messages, and tried to shoot his way out of trouble. He was tortured, and then killed, but it is not clear whether direction-finding or betrayal caused his demise. Wendelen escaped surveillance because he had an informer in the Vichy police, who warned him of all direction-finding efforts in the Indre département. Yolande Beekman successfully transmitted from same spot at the same hour on the same three days of the week for months on end during 1943 and 1944. It is somewhat shocking to read, however, that, in the summer of 1943, Wendelen returned to England, and had to make some fundamental suggestions for better tradecraft, such as water-proofing the containers, and requiring at least one look-out man during every schedule. Why did it take so long to learn and apply these lessons?

Yet some of the practices were not repeatable. Scheyven never transmitted from the same house twice, and remained undetected. Goffin learned from predecessors: “He kept his sets buried in large boxes in gardens; kept codes and crystals hidden in a different address; never carried his set himself. His case can stand for an example of how sensible SOE agents were able to benefit from the more foolish mistakes of others.” Agents on the run, with no variety of safe houses to choose from, could not afford such luxuries, and local residents became increasingly petrified at being found out by the Gestapo harbouring an illicit wireless operator. They knew the penalty. The operational pressures were imperfectly understood by the controllers in London.

Jacques Doneux’s memoir seems to be a more reliable guide to the psychological stress. He provocatively wrote that the locals, who had been working on subversive work much longer than any agent, were frequently dismissive of strict security procedures, preferring to rely on their own wits, and sense for danger. Doneux was certainly aware of detector vans, but always used a squad of look-out men, and paid solid attention to location and transmission-times. He was one who considered that Nazi claims of radio-detection efficiency were inflated (viz. his comment about moving to La Hulpe), but it did not take much for the transmission to be interrupted, and the carefully prepared sked ruined. Extra controls deployed by the Gestapo made walking around with a wireless transmitter even more perilous, so mobility caused fresh challenges.

Lastly must be considered the advances in equipment, especially when SOE set up its own workshop in 1942 on being freed from dependence upon SIS. One of its first breakthroughs was the S-Phone, which was designed to be worn on an agent’s chest, whereby he could make contact with an allied aircraft by voice, up to a distance of thirty miles, and to a height of 10,000 feet. This technology had the advantage of using UHF, and was not detectable by conventional D/F techniques owing to the highly focused antenna, and the low power consumption. The S-Phone was used primarily to guide arriving planes on drop areas or landing-sites, but was also used to convey brief instructions and information between the two parties. Articles published elsewhere indicate that the S-Phone had been deployed as early as 1941, which suggests that SOE was very early in its lifetime carrying on secret research while nominally still under the control of SIS.  William Mackenzie’s Secret History states, however, that ‘one of the very early uses of the S-Phone’ occurred only on July 22, 1943, when Lieutenant-Colonel Starr had been deprived of any regular wireless contact since November 1942, and had up till then had to rely on couriers through Switzerland and Spain. In any case, Gambier-Parry of Section VIII got to hear about the development.

The SOE’s S-Phone

Certainly, by 1943, smaller transmitters were being used for regular short-wave communication. Doneux refers to his carrying round his set under his overcoat. Foot describes the first innovations by F. W. Nicholls as follows: a Mark II in action by October 1942, 20lb in weight, which sent at 5 watts on 3-9 mc/s. Its successor, the B2 (technically, the 3 Mark II) was even more popular: it required 30 watts, and needed only two valves. It could transit between 3 and 16 mc/s, and could also receive. “None of the SOE’s sets suffered from a tiresome disadvantage of the paraset, which when switched to receive would upset any other wireless set in use for a hundred yards around: a severe brake on action in built-up areas where civilians were still allowed their own receiving sets.” The B2 weighed 32 lb., which sounds a bit bulky to be slipped under an overcoat, however. It was for longer ranges. Doneux may have been using the Mark III, which weighed only five and a half pounds, and fitted with its accessories into a tiny suitcase. Its 5-watt output could reach up to 500 miles.

In Western Europe, electric current was usually available, which meant that generating capabilities were seldom required. Matters were much tougher in other areas, such as Yugoslavia and Albania. During the same period, authors such as Deakin record the treks involved in lugging 48-lb transmitters and chargers driven by bicycle-type pedalling mechanisms across mountainous country. (A famous example with the OSS in France can be seen in the painting of Virginia Hall that I selected as the frontispiece to this article.) Mules were required to carry such a load, and in one memorable passage Deakin describes such a mule toppling into a crevasse, taking the equipment with him. For purposes nearer to home, successful miniaturization was slow to take hold: later in the war, when the Jedburgh teams were set up, a new small ‘Jedset’ was developed, but its fragility and size meant that it was frequently broken on landing. Not enough attention had been paid to insulating it from hard contact with the ground.

The SIS appeared to have greater success in 1943, although its mission of intelligence-gathering was subject to consistent interference from the sabotage objectives of SOE. With the invasion plans starting to be made, the demands made on SIS branches for information about German defences, installations, and troop movements, and research on potential landing-sites for the invasion, and the like, became more intense – and more immediate. Couriers were slow, which switched pressure to wireless communications.

The volume of information that was successfully passed back to London suggests that dozens, or even hundreds, of wireless operators managed to evade surveillance, and send their reports successfully across the airwaves. Keith Jeffery, in his authorised history of SIS, praises ‘Section VIII’s outstanding achievement in developing and refining radio transmitters and receivers’, which ‘made an indispensable contribution’. The author adds, however, that ‘at the sharp end it was up to individual men and women to operate the equipment in often very hazardous circumstances’. As an example, he cites the experiences of ‘Magpie’ in March 1943, who, pursuing loyally the strategy of trying to keep mobile, had to walk nine miles to his next safe house, during which journey the handle of the set broke twice, as it was not strong enough. Perhaps not such an outstanding job of design, after all. The answer was – more sets, a requirement to which Kenneth Cohen in London complied.

In Belgium, at the end of 1942, SIS also experimented with specialised ground-to-air communications, which allowed agents to communicate directly (and without the lengthy process of Morse codification) using the so-called ‘Ascension’ sets developed by Gambier-Parry’s team. (These were presumably similar to the technologies used by SOE. Indeed, an article in Cloak and Dagger suggest that the sets were an enhancement of the SOE invention: see https://www.docdroid.net/MEaQLK7/cloak-and-daggerair-enthusiast-2007-07-08-130.pdf ) Jeffery writes that ‘the Ascension sets were used with some success in Belgium and elsewhere, but the system was not very useful for long messages which still had to be smuggled out by courier across long and precarious land routes’.  That statement implies that long messages could not be trusted to conventional short-wave radio connections, because of the requirement to be on air for hours at a time, and the real or imagined threat of radio-detection techniques. Jeffery suggests soon afterwards that a lag of three or four months was occurring between information-gathering and receipt, and that the results were therefore valueless. By May 1943 even the courier supply lines had broken down.

Whether that problem was restricted to Belgium is not clear (remember the ‘elsewhere’). Certainly in France the networks were overall much more productive, despite a new set of challenges. A continual danger of a network’s having been suborned existed, but this threat was complemented by the onset of ideological disagreements between the various resistance groups, who, as the day of liberation became more real, each promoted their own view on what the political shape of the country should be after the war. For a while, the Gestapo appeared to use propaganda rather than competent feet on the ground, and anecdotal evidence suggests that the organisation was having trouble providing enough sharp and well-trained officers and men to control the noisy underworld. It frequently resorted to denouncers to make up for its deficiencies.

Yet, by the end of 1943, Madame Fourcade’s ‘Alliance’ organisation was almost completely destroyed – not by super-efficient surveillance techniques, but by Nazi infiltration of the groups. As Jeffery reports: “  . . . by the late autumn of 1943 most of the Alliance groups in north-west France and the Rhone valley had ceased to function”. Overall, communications out of France were considered to be inadequate, and the main channel for passing information was with a French diplomat in Madrid. Jeffery rather puzzlingly states that this person (named ‘Alibi’) ‘managed to establish wireless communications with networks in France’. This is one of the many enigmatic, vague and incomplete observations in the authorised history: no date is given, and the statement poses many questions. How were skeds set up? How many staff were on hand to receive messages, at what hours? And what did they do with them? Moreover, if a link could be made between networks in France and Madrid, how was it that the sources could not communicate with London directly?

The Evolution of the RSS

“James Johnston recalled in letters to me that he and his colleagues had intercepted messages from an illegal transmitter in the Oxford area, which he later believed to be Sonia’s, and had submitted them to MI6 or MI5. ‘Our logs recorded her traffic, but they were returned with the reference NFA [No Further Action] or NFU [No Further Use].’ According to Morton Evans, it was Hollis and Philby who decided that the logs should be returned to the RSS marked ‘NFA’ or ‘NFU”. This meant that the RSS was not required to send out its mobile detector vans. No such action was ever taken against Sonia during the whole duration of her illegal transmissions. ‘Her station continued to work, off and on,’ Johnston recalled. ‘It must be a mystery as to why she was not arrested.’’ (from Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, p 141)

This now famous passage by Chapman Pincher is extremely controversial, suggesting that the identity of Sonia was known to the authorities who monitored and instructed the interception plans of the squad of Voluntary Interceptors who scanned the airwaves. In this latest manifestation, it even identifies the senior RSS officer making the claim to Pincher, Kenneth Morton Evans, who, in a letter to Pincher, reportedly stated that gave ‘full details to Hollis in MI5 and Philby in MI6’, and implied that those two intelligence officers were unable to decrypt the messages.

That latter assertion is absurd, as neither Philby nor Hollis, had they indeed been passed the original texts, would have possessed the skills or authority to start trying to decrypt them. Yet it is the suggestion that the order to send out the mobile vans was withheld that is even more provocative. Earlier, Pincher had written: ‘The RSS had responsibility for locating any illicit transmitters. Detector vans with direction-finding equipment could be sent in the area to track down the precise position of a transmitter with police on hand to arrest the culprit. As a former operator James Johnston told me, ‘Our direction-finding equipment was so refined that we were able to locate any wayward transmitter’.”

Thus the objective observer, perhaps now familiar with the urgent security rules impressed upon SOE agents in Europe, has to accept the following scenario: Possibly illicit Soviet signals are detected emanating from the area of Oxford in the UK, perhaps identifiable by their callsigns. These are sent to the RSS discrimination unit, which studies them, and passes them to officers in MI5 and MI6. After these gentlemen get around to inspecting them (and perhaps attempting to decode them), it is their responsibility to say whether or not the transmitter should be located. If so, the vans are sent into action (perhaps a few days later), in the hope that the transmitter will still be obligingly cooperating by transmitting from the same place.

It is not the purpose of this analysis to determine whether the RSS was negligent over Sonia. This reader is convinced that she was left in place so that her transmissions could be surveilled. (Remember, on January 23, 1943, the Oxford police had visited Sonia’s residence, and reported to MI5 the discovery of a wireless set on the premises.) What needs to be established is how reliable is the testimony (if it truly exists) of Kenneth Morton Evans, a senior and capable wireless professional. From 1941 to 1945 he was the officer in charge at Arkley, the RSS facility that gathered and processed all the messages received by the Voluntary Interceptors. (In 1951, as an MI5 officer, he wrote a letter to the Guardian claiming that The National Association for Civil Liberties was a Communist front: see https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jan/06/humanrights.world ) How was it that Morton Evans expected an illicit agent to hang around in the same location for several days? Was his understanding of the readiness and efficacy of the mobile vans accurate? Or was he also a party to the cover-up over surveillance of Sonia, contributing to the convenient story that Hollis had successfully protected her? And how did his account overall undermine the pretence that Nazi agents were able to work undetected in England for years?

The facts about the mobile detection apparatus are elusive. I have started to examine some of the historical records at the National Archives. [But not all: I am still waiting to receive photographs of many critical files, such as the WO 208/5099-5102 series. This section may thus require a later update. This analysis is based on WO/208/5096-5098, HW 34/18, HW 43/6, CAB 301//77, ADM 223/793 and FO 1093/484.]

Soon after the outbreak of war, Colonel Burke of MI8c (the forerunner of RSS) listed the equipment then in service, and made requests for expansion. His deposition ran as follows:

Direction Finding Stations      6 + 4

                                    Listening Stations                   4 + 2

                                    Mobile Vans                           10 + 14

                                    G.P.O. Detection Vans           88 (up to 200 available)

                                    Amateur Listening Posts        27

                                    Local D.F. systems for regional centres 1 + 16

                                    Transmitters for beacons        0 + 20

He added that ‘only one of the mobile vans is now fully equipped’, but that ‘the remaining vans should be ready in two to three weeks’. It is not clear what the distinction is between ‘mobile vans’ and ‘G,P.O. detection vans’. It could not be solely one of ownership: an earlier memorandum noted that the GPO provided the six fixed and ten mobile stations. It may have been one of designed function: a paper written in January 1941 records that ‘mobile vans (which were normally used to assist listeners in the detection and suppression of radio interference from industrial and domestic equipment) had been lent by PO to deal with the problem of detecting illicit radio beacons.’ Meanwhile the notion of ‘beacons’ (devices to assist arriving bombers to find their targets) had evolved to one of illicit transmissions. The Post Office was seen by military men as an unreliable, slow and bureaucratic organisation, unsuitable for holding responsibility for such critical tasks.

The official SIGINT history reinforces a rather casual approach to the use of mobile units: “Fixed interception stations would search the ether . . .  In the event of signals being intercepted, they would pass to the direction-finding stations the callsign, wavelength and text of the message. Supplementing this would be the widespread corps of voluntary interceptors whose function it would be to listen to the amateurs working in their area, observe their habits and report anything unusual. Mobile units were to perform the function of determining the exact location of the illicit transmitter. After the fixed D/F stations had located the general area of the transmitter, the mobile direction-finding units would proceed there, await further signals, obtain more accurate bearings and so narrow down the area of search.” And it indicates that, when the transmitter was located, the responsibility for what happened next would be MI5’s: the service might want to monitor it rather than close it down. (In that case, why sending out mobile vans, which might frighten the transgressor, and cause him to stop broadcasting, is not explained.)

But what happened to the expansion programme? It probably never occurred. As I have described before, by 1940 the interception mission of RSS was almost focused on overseas traffic. The History suggests a somewhat desultory approach could have been taken to what was then considered a non-problem. At some stage, a Mobile Units Group, under Major Elmes, centred in Barnet, controlled also the bases in Gateshead, Bristol and Gilnakirk, the establishment of which I described in the previous chapter. Fixed stations would then locate a general area of about 400 square miles. A report would be given to MI5, and the Mobile Unit organisation set in motion. At least three mobile vans were posted on the perimeter of this area, in contact with the Police Station in neighbourhood, a headquarters to which an MI5 officer would be attached. When the transmitter was heard, simultaneous bearings were taken by the Mobile Units and reported to HQ, where they were plotted on a map. The units then moved closer, and took fresh bearings ‘until definite action was possible on the part of the MI5 officer present’. But MI5 had no powers of arrest, and it is not clear what judgments the MI5 officer would be able to make on the spot in the event that a transmitter was caught red-handed. The narrative sounds like a good deal of wish-fulfilment, and post facto puffery for the historians.

Mobile vans definitely did exist, as Guy Liddell makes occasional reference to them in his Diaries. Yet, in 1943, as RSS started to consider the security needs for the invasion of Europe, it encountered fresh challenges. The History again informs us: “‘During this period RSS had accepted a further extension of its commitments without, however, affecting the vital features of its programme. This was the monitoring, by mobile units, of certain classes of signal made by our own stations, to prevent the inadvertent passage of information likely, if intercepted, to be of use to the enemy. the possibility of such leakage had been recognized and dealt with in the early days of the war by the cancellation of amateur transmitting licences and the impounding of transmitters, and the vetting of MI5 of firms requiring licenses for experimental or testing purposes. With GPO collaboration such action was easy to take, since licences were granted by that body. As the GPO did not necessarily license other Government departments however, it was found that there was a number of organisations using radio transmitters of which the Security Service had no official knowledge, as for example, experimental establishments of the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Railways, the GPO stations themselves and Cable and Wireless stations. In addition the Police and the Fire Service possessed their own transmitters.” The organisation was under stress, and memoranda attest to the fact that its original mandate was being ignored.

A budgetary memorandum from 1941 indicated that capital expenditures for two Intercept Stations, at £25,000, and for Vehicles & Equipment, at £3,500, were requested. Annual Expenditures for P.O. Agency Services (D/F & Mobile Unit [sic!]) were estimated at £78,000. Yet, after some disturbing gaps in the record, the Estimates for RSS in the Budget Year of April 1942 to March 1943 include very little on mobile units, with Special Apparatus given as £10,000, and expenses of Mobile Unit Operations a mere £8000. This is not the high-powered, swift-moving organisation reportedly described to Chapman Pincher by Andrew Johnston and Kenneth Morton Evans, but a service apparently being rapidly wound down. (Were radio-detection vans perhaps later requisitioned and repurposed as transmitting vehicles to roam around issuing bogus signals of a phantom army? And an intriguing minute from D. I. Wilson of B1A in MI5, dated February 24, 1943, recommends that, if phantom armies were to be created, bogus wireless traffic needed to be realized as well, to support the false information to be passed on by the agents. Was Wilson perhaps the originator of one of the more spectacularly successful aspects of the whole OVERLORD operation?) Other memoranda written at this time indicate that the resources of RSS, including the reconstruction and repositioning of receiving stations at Hanslope, Cornwall and Forfarshire, and the installation of rhombic aerials, were being increasingly focused on mainland European needs.

Meanwhile RSS struggled to resolve its political problems in 1943, caused mostly by the over-secretive Cowgill, the highly-opinionated Trevor-Roper, the arrogant Gambier-Parry, and the manipulative Malcolm Frost. Frost left MI5 in November 1943 to return to the BBC, and some of the organisational issues were addressed by splitting the RSS committee into two, one for high-level policy, and the other for detailed intelligence. Guy Liddell continued to be frustrated that Gambier-Parry was not performing his mission regarding illicit wireless interception. In his diary on February 18, he recorded that RSS was not doing its job, as two German agents had been detected. One might interpret this discovery as a sign that RSS had indeed been doing its job, but maybe the agents – whoever they were, and whose existence was an alarming fact since T.A. Robertson had already reported that all agents had been mopped up – were not detected through electronic means. The same month he recorded that one Jean Jefferson had left the CPGB to operate a radio as an illegal, but she is not heard of again. On March 11, Liddell noted that Gambier-Parry had refused to accept responsibility for signals security. On April 1, he wrote that Frost had informed him that the Post Office had ‘bumped into’ an unknown 75-watt transmitter in Bloomsbury. It may have been SOE’s, but it all went to show (as indicated earlier in this piece) that a large amount of authorised radio transmission was carrying on of which MI5 had not been informed. And on June 3, not yet licit transmissions were detected coming from the Soviet Embassy.

The problem certainly got worse, with multiple foreign embassies now starting to transmit from the privacy of their premises, and the British government unwilling to intervene because of possible reciprocal moves. A major meeting occurred on September 10, 1943, at which (as Liddell noted) Colonel Valentine Vivian seemed ‘unaware of RSS’s charter for detecting illicit wireless communications from UK’. Liddell went on to write: “As regards the diplomatic communications of the allies there appears to be no real supervision. It was felt that to monitor and break these communications would impose too great a task on GC & CS, who were already overburdened with operational work. It was agreed that we should have a permanent representative on the Reid Committee, that we should continue to look after the security of non-service bodies, but that the results of the monitoring of the communications of non-service Govt. Depts. should be sent by RSS to the Reid Committee and not to ourselves.” Gambier-Parry’s apparent disdain for interception is shown in a record of October 13, where the head of Section VIII is shown to be a lone voice, thinking that ‘mobile units should not be taken across the Channel until RSS have detected an illicit transmitter’. The issues of quick mobility and transmission habits were obviously lost on him. (I have written more about this matter, and especially the illicit broadcasts of the Soviet spy Oliver Green, at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-viii/) .

Several reports written at the end of the war, in the summer of 1945 (inspectable at HW 34/18), suggest that deploying mobile units to track down illicit transmitters was a laborious and often futile exercise. (Of course, operations may have been scaled back by then, as the obvious threat had diminished, but the experiences are still informative.) In March 1945, a team of four mobile units were sent to Cheshire, and after several days managed to apprehend a GPO employee, a Volunteer Interceptor in Warrington. Another case in Birmingham was abandoned after five days. When unidentified transmissions were found to be emanating from the area of Kinross in Scotland, a troop of mobile vans was ordered from Barnet (about 400 miles away – hardly a rapid-response force) to investigate. The vans eventually discovered a Polish Military Signals Training Unit, which had conveniently and innocently continued with its traffic. Repeated interception of signals in London led back several times to the Soviet Embassy, where a ‘prototype model of a wide band DAG-1 D/F receiver’, which could track rapid changes in wavelengths used, was successfully utilised.  Such cases confirm that RSS worked under a serious lack of intelligence about potential transmitters, and it had no mechanisms for adding to the portfolio of sources of radio-waves listed above. Why was no register, with geographical co-ordinates, maintained? Moreover, the mobile force the RSS deployed was scattered so broadly as to be almost completely ineffective for trapping careful illicit operators.

The Ellipse in Kinross (from HW 34/18)

One last aspect of the interception wars is that MI5 had a respectful admiration for the Germans, believing that they were as efficient as RSS was in intercepting and interpreting traffic emanating from domestic control stations. In his diary entry for May 23, 1942, Guy Liddell describes how the Nazis were able to concentrate on Whaddon Hall (the nerve-centre for SIS, which was also handling SOE traffic, at the time), and quickly pick up the changes in frequency adopted by the British when they were communicating with agents in Europe. He concluded by writing: “It seems that the Germans have made a very close study of the form of Whaddon operators and can recognize them very easily. Their Direction-Finding apparatus is considered to be extremely good and accurate. They must think ours is very bad in view of the fact that TATE and company have got away with it for so long.” Indeed. Yet Liddell and his troops did not appear to conclude that that observation represented a considerable exposure, or that the Germans might have expected them to address this loophole as the plans for the invasion of Europe solidified.

There is no doubt more to be told of this period, but the evidence already points to a strong contrast in perceptions about illicit wireless transmission in mainland Europe and Great Britain in this period. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the organs of security moved aggressively and cruelly to eliminate any dangerous wireless traffic, although admittedly with propaganda about mechanized forces that clearly did not exist, with agents feverishly trying to escape capture by keeping transmissions short and moving around to other safe houses. In Britain, the problem was not seen to exist, but if it did, agents were able to move around unmolested in what should have been an openly hostile climate, with no safe places to withdraw to, or believed to sit at their same stations waiting conveniently for the mobile vans to turn up in a few days at the appointed time, when they would start transmitting again – and then the vans and the nervous MI5 officer might do nothing at all. Yet that is not what the RSS officers said after the war. The judgment of Hinsley and Simkins, on page 181 of Volume 4 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second world War (“In all its activities the RSS achieved a high and continuingly increasing degree of efficiency”) merits some re-inspection. The mission from Barnet to Kinross particularly epitomizes the poor use of intelligence and resources.

The Double-Cross System

After the invasion of Britain was called off by Hitler towards the end of 1940 (but kept alive for propaganda purposes until well into 1941), the role of the captured and turned wireless spies as an instrument for influencing Nazi policies was debated at length. All through 1941, and the beginning of 1942, officers of MI5 had discussed among themselves, and sometimes with outsiders, such as those in Military Intelligence proper, what the role of the information passed on to the Abwehr should be. Should it be veiled propaganda? Should it overstate or understate Britain’s military capabilities? Dick White recommended to his boss, Guy Liddell, in April 1942 that the Committee managing double agents should change ‘from that of a body of censors to that of a body of planners’, adding that ‘the difference is that we are now asking questions of the Germans while previously we were answering questions from them’.  Yet it needed a lead. It was not until July 1942, after John Bevan had replaced Oliver Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section, that operational plans were able to take on more solidity. The XX Committee, under Masterman’s chairmanship, and MI5’s B1A could start to think about serious deception strategies. (Volume 4 of the authorized History, by Hinsley and Simkins, covers this period very well. KV 4/213 at the National Archives is useful. Ben Macintyre’s breezy but uneven Double Cross is also generally recommended as a contemporary study of the project.)

Meanwhile, the Committee had to convince the Abwehr that its remaining agents were safe, and ready for action, but not over-exuberantly so. After all, the Abwehr was supposed to be in control. Long discussions took place over the necessity of passing facts on via the agents, in order to maintain credibility, but also allowing for occasional mistakes. Yet one critical aspect of the whole double-cross operation was the extent that the undeniable primary contributors to the successful deception project (BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO and TRICYCLE) were mostly very late arrivals to the scene. What is even more important to state, moreover, is that none of these was a classical ‘double agent’. They were all Allied sympathisers who had inveigled themselves into the Nazi apparatus under the pretence of wanting to help the Axis cause, but who then betrayed their recruiters by disclosing their true allegiance when they arrived in Britain (or spoke to British officials in Lisbon.) Admittedly, they might have been lying (and agent ZIGZAG fell into this highly complex netherworld), but MI5 strenuously tried to verify stories. TATE was the only true double agent, who had been turned after he had been captured, convinced of the necessity of his role as a tool of British intelligence, mostly out of the fear for his life, but who then gradually came to appreciate the benefits of his democratic host country. As I explained in the last chapter, TATE’s value as a contributor to the deception over FORTITUDE was diminished because the necessity for him to find a modus vivendi and occupation to survive in Britain forced him to be a more reclusive and less mobile observer of invasion preparations.

For a short while in April, 1942, moreover, the Double-Cross Committee had considered the implications of running double-agents overseas, and taking over the transmitters that SIS maintained at Whaddon Hall. This was because the SOE agent VICTOIRE, Mathilde Carré, who claimed she had escaped from her German captors, had convinced her interrogators that she was genuine. Masterman and Marriott in B14 thus started to plan how messages could be sent back to members of the Interalliée as a method for deception, since MI5 and SIS knew that the agents had been turned by the Germans, but the Germans were assumed not to know this. The task presented fresh challenges as to how lies and truth should be managed without detriment to the real war effort. Before this task became reality, however, VICTOIRE was unmasked by one of the officers she had betrayed, agent BRUTUS (see below), and she was incarcerated for the remainder of the war.

In any case the official accounts need to be treated carefully. John Masterman’s Double Cross System contains an Appendix that claims that there were at least 120 double agents managed by the XX System, and it lists thirty-nine of ‘the more interesting cases that were operated from this country’. Yet this list includes such dubious characters as SNOW (who was dropped as early as March 1941 since he was probably a triple agent), the enigmatic GANDER (who may never have been turned, and disappeared mysteriously from the scene in November 1940), and the turncoat SUMMER (who tried to escape in January 1941, and whose fate remains controversial). It also includes such figures as BALLOON, who was recruited by TRICYCLE, which hardly puts him in the class of ‘double agent’: the term sometimes used in the authorised history by Hinsley et al., ‘double-cross agent’, is more suitable. (Masterman omits to mention a figure named BRISTLE, the cryptonym appearing in KV 4/214 at the National Archives, an oversight that suggests there may be a yet undiscovered tier of ‘less interesting’ agents whose names MI5 would prefer to forget.) As Hinsley and Simkins more accurately represent the state of the game in late 1943: “The newly acquired double agents [sic!] off-set the loss of Zigzag, Rainbow, Father, Dragonfly, Balloon and Mutt and Jeff, whose operations were now closed down or suspended.”

This account necessarily focuses on agents who successfully contributed to deception through wireless communications, which was a complex issue in its own right. Because of MI5’s desire to have information passed quickly to the Abwehr, agents who had hitherto used secret ink or microphotography requested wireless apparatus from their controllers. Indeed, GARBO exploited a delayed, but highly accurate, message about TORCH landings, which conveniently arrived after the event, to encourage a move to wireless usage. This may have prompted the Germans to accelerate the use of wireless communications with GARBO. That would, of course, allow the British to get disinformation in the hands of their adversaries in a much more timely fashion, but it would also eliminate the convenience of delivering highly accurate information with a built-in delay, thus increasing the risk of injurious retaliatory action. The adoption of radio did necessitate the delivery of codes, however, which was mightily useful for GC&CS in extending the range of intercepted signals that could be decrypted.

So how did these vital agents fare in the use of radio? The final 1942 entry in the files of TATE [Wulf Schmidt] at Kew expresses confidence that the enemy trusts him, and that his story about transmitting early in the morning, before the farm hands go to work, has been accepted. Yet 1943 appeared not to be so successful, and his handlers voiced concern about his viability.  (It was impossible to verify what the Abwehr thought of him, as messages from Hamburg to Berlin were sent by land-line.) During the period March-September he received only fourteen messages from the enemy, most of them very routine, as if it could not expect much valuable information from an agent fully engaged in agricultural work. An added complication arose because of the repatriation of a Nazi in November 1943. It was feared that this officer might have picked up rumours inside the camp where he was being held to the effect that MUTT, JEFF, SUMMER and TATE were all under control of the British.  That encouraged MI5 to put TATE on ice for a while. A report in early January 1944 also lamented the fact that he had only one transmitting frequency (4603 kcs), which made communication as far as Hamburg difficult outside daylight hours. TATE thus made a request to have a small portable apparatus workable off the mains, and the minor role he was able to play in OVERLORD will be described in the next episode.

Agent BRUTUS

BRUTUS [Roman Czerniawski], a former Polish fighter Pilot, experienced a comparatively short career as a double-cross agent. After the Germans arrested him in late 1941 in France, where he had built up an intelligence network, he manufactured a deal whereby he traded the safety of his family for a role spying in Britain. Before he left Paris, he was given quartzes to take with him for the purpose of building a transmitter with the help of his Polish friends, although BRUTUS asserted that it would be difficult finding a wireless operator. After an ‘escape’ via the Pyrenees, he arrived in England on October 2, 1942. Certain necessary checks with Poles in exile complicated his adoption, but he was approved, and established contact in December 1942, with an apparatus constructed for him by MI5. (The archive does not indicate how he suddenly acquired operating skills.) He was then instructed to build his own radio set in early January 1943. Masterman was cautious, telling Bevan he wanted to run BRUTUS giving information, not as a deception medium.

The year 1943 turned out to be problematic, as BRUTUS stumbled into hot water with the other Poles over the Katyn massacre, and his overexuberant politicking. (The Germans had discovered the site of the massacres in April, but the Soviets had denied any responsibility, thus causing a rift in Allied circles. On April 25, the Soviet Union broke off relations with the Polish government-in-exile.) Moreover, there was a security problem, as the Poles had access to BRUTUS’s codes (and thus might learn about the deception plan for OVERLORD). Harmer also reported to Robertson on May 6 that White and Liddell were concerned lest the Russians intercept and decode the BRUTUS traffic and use it ‘as a basis for their allegations that the Polish Government are maintaining contact with the Germans’. Reed assured Harmer that the range for BRUTUS’s transmitter was only 400 miles, so there was no danger of interception, but the episode showed the tangled politics that were starting to affect counter-espionage exercises. BRUTUS successfully reported on the arrest of CARELESS in May 1943, and Ultra decrypts showed that his reports were being taken seriously. However, BRUTUS’s arrest in the fracas over Katyn caused an awkward interruption. MI5 found him a notional ‘operator’ (purportedly in Reading, actually working in Richmond, thus apparently breaking the rules observed in other cases to protect against German direction-finding) so that he would not have to operate the wireless himself. Intercepts indicated that he was not fully trusted, and by the end of the year, Harmer was suggesting that he be used solely as a courier. On the last day of the year, however, BRUTUS informed his handlers that he needed a new transmitter.

Agent TREASURE

The career of TREASURE [Lily Sergueiev], a journalist of Russian extraction, was very short, and she was not even activated as a wireless agent until January 1944. Yet her association with German Intelligence went back as far as 1937, when she had declined to work for a contact in Berlin, one Felix Dassel. After the fall of France, when in Paris, she had recontacted Dassel, and agreed to work for the Abwehr. She had been introduced to her handler, Emile Kliemann, in June 1941, and soon started receiving training on operating wireless equipment. This was somewhat unusual, as the Abwehr seemed keener at this time to have their agents use couriers, secret writing and microdots. By February 1942, she had started practicing, transmitting and receiving on a proper set, but for reasons primarily to do with Kliemann’s rather erratic behavior and complicated love life, the practice was neglected. Indeed, as late as May 18, she was taught how to use invisible ink, and it was not until July 17, 1943 that she appeared at the British consular office in Madrid declaring that she intended to travel to England to spy, but wanted to switch her allegiance.

After researching her background, MI5 concluded that her intentions were genuine. But she still had to wait for the distracted Kliemann to get organised, and it was not until a few months later (her MI5 handler, Mary Scherer, said November 11; Ben Macintyre states October 7) that she was able to fly from Gibraltar to Bristol. Kliemann had promised her that she would be given a wireless set to be disguised as a phonograph, but he let her down, unable to procure one for her, instead promising that she would be passed one after she arrived in Britain. She boarded the plane without it – also without her beloved dog, an incident that would later cause deep rifts between her and those in MI5 she trusted. Her activity as a spy was then further delayed owing to her becoming seriously ill in December, and being hospitalised. Thus it was not until January 11, 1944 that MI5 started conceiving plans for putting TREASURE in possession of a wireless set. She was able to write to Kliemann informing him that she had now bought an American Halicrafter radio (actually supplied by MI5), even though possession of an unlicensed wireless transmitter was still a civil offence.

Agent TRICYCLE

For most of his career TRICYCLE [Dusko Popov] was not a wireless agent, and he never used such equipment himself. He had managed to convince the Germans as of his bona fides, while remaining free to travel because of his import/export business, but had declared himself to the British back in 1940. Yet he had been sent by the German to the USA in October 1942, and spent most of 1943 in what turned out to be a fruitless (and expensive) sojourn. Even before his spell in the USA, the British had deciphered messages that indicated that the Germans had suspicions about him, but TRICYCLE bravely walked back into the lions’ den in Lisbon, and managed to brazen out his interrogators, who were anxious to believe that they still had a valuable resource under their control. On September 14, 1943, TRICYCLE flew back to Britain, carrying with him various espionage material and money, and also a wireless transmitter. So who was to operate it?

TRICYCLE had ingeniously convinced the Abwehr of a scheme to infiltrate supposed Yugoslavian Nazi sympathisers into Britain, disguised as refugees. Through his brother, Ivo Popov, TRICYCLE arranged for a naval officer called Frano de Bona to be recruited by the Abwehr and trained as a wireless operator. TRICYCLE returned to Lisbon and Madrid in his role as a Yugoslav diplomatic courier in November 1943, and there negotiated de Bona’s [FREAK’s] passage via Gibraltar to London, where he would operate TRICYCLE’s equipment. On December 8, Guy Liddell recorded his fear that the whole TRICYCLE set-up might collapse at any moment, but later that month FREAK started his work as a wireless operator. He would transmit regularly (his location not apparently revealed) for five months until being necessarily closed down because of a scare.

Agent GARBO

The most famous of the double-cross agents, and the one who contributed most to the deception exercise of FORTITUDE, was the Spaniard Juan García Pujol (GARBO). Again, his career went back a long way, and it was not until late in the war that his ‘network’ was supported by wireless transmission. He had originally presented himself to the British Embassy in Madrid in January 1941, but was turned away. Inventing information for the Abwehr, his reports were picked up by SIS, and he was eventually interviewed again in November 1941. He was smuggled out of Lisbon to Gibraltar, and hence to London, where he arrived on April 24, 1942. After interrogation, GARBO was transferred to the control of B1A in MI5. Over the next few years he would craft hundreds of letters written in secret ink, which mysteriously managed to reach the Germans in Spain and Portugal. As Ben Macintyre writes: “The information they theoretically supplied was written up in secret ink and dispatched inside innocuous letters that the Germans believed were either brought by courier or sent by airmail to various cover addresses in neutral Spain and Portugal. In fact they were transported in MI6’s diplomatic bags.”

Yet this was not going to be a swift enough medium for the purposes of FORTITUDE. In August 1942, GARBO had in principle gained permission to use wireless. The Abwehr had encouraged GARBO to make his ‘notional’ agents use secret ink to communicate directly, which would have made the control and distribution of disinformation very difficult. Thus GARBO, having fortuitously ‘discovered’ a radio technician employed on the outskirts of London who was a friend of his ‘Agent No 4’, suggested that wireless should now be attempted for communications. When GARBO reported, in November 1942, on convoy departures for the TORCH landings, and the information arrived too late for the Germans to act upon it, it was a timely signal for them to adopt a newer technology, and they wrote to him on November 26 more warmly accepting his recommendation. In the words of Hinsley and Simkins: “To begin with a large volume of material continued to pass by air mail and courier. From the end of August [1943], however, almost all his [GARBO’s] messages were sent on his radio link. This followed from the need, in support of Allied deception plans, to force the Germans’ correspondence with him on to the air and receive it with greater speed, and also from the fact that, to give verisimilitude to his network by indicating to the Germans that MI5 was aware of its existence but could not track it down, steps were being taken to show them that its air mail letters were being intercepted.”

The first transmission was scheduled to take place on March 6, 1943, and Guy Liddell reported that GARBO did in fact establish radio contact with Madrid on March 12, with the MI5 operator resident at 55 Elliot Road, Hendon. The provision of a new cipher by the Abwehr was highly valuable: Liddell further commented, on June 5, that GC&CS regarded the results of interception as ‘outstanding’. Yet wireless procedures were outstandingly undisciplined. Despite instructions to their new operator to keep messages as short as possible (‘No transmission should exceed fifty groups for safety sake’), and warnings about direction-finders, even referring to the use of aeroplanes (which was a technique the Abwehr was domestically familiar with), GARBO’s operator was shown to be on the air for two hours at a time in June 1943, owing to the prolix and flowery reports that he and Tomás Harris, his minder, compiled. By the end of August, nearly all GARBO’s messages were sent by the wireless link, and after one or two hiccups due to the Abwehr’s concerns about British censorship of the mails, and possible exposure of the wireless-led network, communications flourished for the remainder of the year.

As an interesting sidenote on the efficiency of RSS, Hinsley and Simkins report that the service was able to detect GARBO’s station. It was clearly closely involved with tracking the transmissions of the agents. What had happened was that GARBO had been given a transmitting plan that required the station to adopt military procedures for callsigns and introductions, with the result that the signals would be confused with a swelter of other military traffic, making connection with Madrid difficult for a while. “  . . . in fact GARBO’s transmissions were temporarily lost by the operators who had been intercepting them for the RSS from places as far apart as Scotland, Gibraltar and Canada. . . “, the historians wrote. “It was a tribute to the efficiency of the RSS’s intercept network that after a few weeks it again reported Garbo’s transmitter as a suspect station.”

Conclusion

As the preparatory period for the long-awaited invasion of Europe started, a strange, asymmetrical confrontation of wireless intelligence had developed. From the German side, the notion of a powerful direction- and location-finding apparatus had been created in response to a pervasive and potentially dangerous threat. Yet it was hard to implement. Its menace was used more as a deterrent than an enforcement mechanism, the security organs struggling with the practical limitations of such techniques, and having to rely more on informers and infiltration to subvert and destroy the enemy’s networks. In Britain, a similar powerful detection capability kept a close ear on the airwaves. The authorities, however, confident that no genuine hostile agents were operating on native soil, owing to the RSS’s interception, and GC&CS’s decryption, of Abwehr traffic, maintained a surprisingly casual stance towards illicit transmissions and their origin. Both German and British Intelligence were justified in thinking that the capabilities of their foe were at least as advanced as their own. After the war, the British boasted of their capabilities in a manner similar to that of the Germans. Yet MI5, in managing its Double-Cross System, was woefully careless in supervising the transmission schedules of its agents, and the Abwehr deluded itself in thinking that its agents could survive undetected in a small, hostile island.

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

Leave a Comment

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

Dick White’s Devilish Plot

Dick White

The Time: March to June 1951

The Places: London and Washington

GCHQ Eastcote
Arlington Hall

The Organisations: In the UK, Government Communications Headquarters (GCHQ), operating out of Eastcote, in the London suburbs; the Foreign Office (FO), the Security Service (MI5), and the Secret Intelligence Service (SIS, or MI6) – all based in Central London. (GCHQ, which during the war, as the Government Code and Cypher School, had reported to SIS, broke free at the end of 1945, and was then responsible to the Foreign Office.) In or around Washington, D.C. in the USA, the Armed Forces Security Agency (AFSA, which in 1952 became the National Security Agency, working out of Arlington Hall), the State Department, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), and the newly formed Central Intelligence Agency (CIA). The organisations are paired, in function and in primary communications, as follows: GCHQ and AFSA; the FO and the State Department; MI5 and the FBI; and SIS and the CIA.

The Personnel:

Edward Travis is head of GCHQ. The leading cryptanalysts at GCHQ working on VENONA are Wilfred Bodsworth and Jeffrey Northbury.

The Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, the ministerial head of the Foreign Office, Herbert Morrison, is new to his post, having succeeded the deceased Ernest Bevin in March 1951. At the FO, William Strang is Permanent Under-Secretary, Roger Makins is his Deputy Under-Secretary, while Patrick Reilly serves as Assistant Secretary, and acts as liaison with SIS. Reilly served as Secretary to the head of SIS, Stewart Menzies, during the war, and has also chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee since 1950. George Carey-Foster is Security Officer for the FO, while Robert Mackenzie fulfils an equivalent role in the Embassy in Washington, under the Ambassador, Oliver Franks. Christopher Steel is Franks’ deputy.

Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, is a shadowy figure in the background. His deputy, Valentine Vivian, is responsible for security in SIS. (According to Nigel West, Vivian retired in March 1951, but his name appears in the archives as an SIS officer after that date.) At some stage in this spring, Vivian is replaced as Menzies’s deputy by Jack Easton. Kim Philby, who was recruited to SIS by Vivian in 1941, was transferred to Washington in 1949 as SIS’s representative, replacing Peter Dwyer, primarily to liaise with the CIA on special subversive operations, but with an additional mission to assist the FBI (but not the CIA) in identifying possible spies hinted at by the VENONA project. Maurice Oldfield headed the counter-intelligence section, R.5., for a while, but moved to South-East Asia in 1950.

Percy Sillitoe has been Director-General of MI5 since 1946, but gains little respect from his subordinates because of his police background. His deputy, Guy Liddell, previously headed B Division, responsible for counter-espionage, which is now led by Dick White, whom Liddell mentored. (Dick White worked in intelligence under General Walter Bedell Smith – see below – between 1943 and 1945.) Arthur Martin, who acts as liaison with GCHQ, and James Robertson are B Division officers knowledgeable about Soviet espionage. MI5’s Liaison Officer in Washington is Geoffrey Patterson, who replaced Dick Thistlethwaite in the summer of 1949.

J. Edgar Hoover is chief of the FBI, Mickey Ladd is his Director of Domestic Investigations, and Robert J. Lamphere is the agent working with AFSA on the VENONA project. John Cimperman is the FBI’s legal attaché in London.

Walter Bedell Smith has been Director of the CIA since 1950.  He is an ex-army general who has also served as Ambassador to the Soviet Union (1946-1948). He appointed Allen Dulles as Deputy Director for Plans in February 1951. His leading officer on Soviet counter-espionage is William Harvey. Harvey is unusual in that he joined the CIA from the FBI, and maintains a close relationship with Robert Lamphere. James Angleton (who built a close association with Kim Philby) works at this time in the Office of Special Relations.

Rear-Admiral Earl Stone is the head of AFSA. Meredith Gardner is his chief cryptanalyst working on VENONA. The senior British liaison officer at AFSA is Brigadier John Tiltman, at some stage replaced as SUKLO (Senior UK Liaison Officer) by Patrick Marr-Johnson. (Accessible records show them both present in Washington in 1951.) Philip Howse and Geoffrey Sudbury are cryptanalysts from GCHQ assigned to AFSA. William Weisband is a Soviet spy in AFSA who has worked in Signals Intelligence since 1942.

The Thesis:  That Dick White devised a plan to draw attention away from MI5’s own security failures towards Kim Philby, bringing the CIA in as an apparently imaginative source to cast aspersions on Philby’s loyalty without MI5 having to challenge Stewart Menzies and SIS directly.

VENONA – the Background

The Two Gentlemen of VENONA

John Tiltman
Meredith Gardner (on left)

Keith Jeffery concluded his authorised history of SIS on a celebratory note. In May of 1949, Menzies’s Principal Staff Officer (probably Jack Easton) and William Hayter, who was Foreign Office Liaison Officer, had visited Admiral Hillenkoetter, the head of the CIA, in Washington, and enjoyed the ‘very cordial’ tenor of the negotiations as they discussed Cold War initiatives. At the same time, Maurice Oldfield, who headed the R.5 counter-intelligence section, was gratified by the goodwill he encountered when visiting the CIA and the FBI. Hillenkoetter wrote to Menzies in June to speak glowingly of the organisations’ common purpose, and of the close working relationship they enjoyed. Jeffery pointed to this mutual enthusiasm as indicative of the special nature of the transatlantic intelligence relationship. Oldfield would in 1977 write to William Harvey’s widow that he had enjoyed knowing her husband since 1949, so the two must have met during this visit. Hillenkoetter was, however, a failure, and on the way out, unsuitable by temperament and experience to be a leading intelligence officer.

Maybe Sir John Scarlett, chief of SIS, who commissioned the history, was adroitly trying to define a positive legacy and avoid the more disturbing events. “Full details of our history after 1949 are still too sensitive to place in the public domain,” his successor, Sir John Sawers, wrote in his Forward to the 2011 publication. Indeed. But the lid of the seething cauldron could not be completely sealed. In late September 1949, Oldfield briefed the officer who had occupied the same post that he, Oldfield, currently held, before being posted to Ankara, Turkey at the end of 1946. The officer, Kim Philby, was about to be posted as Counsellor attached to the Embassy in Washington, with responsibility for liaising with the CIA, replacing Peter Dwyer, who, according to Anthony Cave-Brown, was being recalled at his own request. Yet memoirs indicate that Philby was brought in specifically to liaise with the Americans over the joint SIS-CIA operation to infiltrate exiles into Albania in an attempt to overthrow Enver Hoxha’s communist government. For instance, Queen Geraldine of Albania recalls that she and her husband, King Zog, met Philby in 1949, and both instantly ‘hated him’, the King refusing to have the SIS officer in the room with him again. [P.S. Neil ‘Billy’ Maclean, in a separate interview, claimed that Queen Geraldine was mistaken, and that the Englishmen they met was either Harold Perkins, or maybe Julian or Alan Hare, but not Philby.]

Alongside the briefings on Albania, Oldfield explained to Philby that a project that had been able to decrypt intercepted Soviet cables had identified a spy in the heart of the Foreign Office, working in the Washington Embassy in 1944 and 1945, who had passed on highly confidential communications to the Soviets. His cryptonym was HOMER, an identity that Dwyer had noted as early as March 1949 (but which had surfaced some time before, as I explain later). It would be an important part of Philby’s job to help his counterparts apply a name to the traitor who had betrayed these communications between the Foreign Office and the Moscow Embassy, and between Prime Minister Churchill and President Roosevelt, on negotiations with Stalin as the war was running down. But the mutual trust and confidence that characterised the relations between Washington and London were about to break down.

The project was known as VENONA (initially as BRIDE in the UK). Its success lent itself to a procedural mistake by the Soviet authorities, who carelessly reused a set of one-time-pads for diplomatic and intelligence transmissions during the period 1943-1948. (One-time-pads were regarded as an almost unbreakable technique for encrypting messages.) These messages were sent both by cable (in the USA, where commercial carriers provided a copy of all such traffic to the US Government), or by wireless – between London and Moscow and between Canberra and Moscow, and later between (primarily) Washington and Moscow. An intense decryption exercise was initiated by the AFSA, who then brought in the GC&CS (who may well have had a parallel operation in play already) as partners in the exercise. One important aspect of the project is that, while the Soviets changed their procedures in 1948 once they had learned via spies of the breakthroughs, the task of message decryption carried on until 1980, and the whole programme was not officially revealed until 1995.

Yet the process of decryption, namely the timing at which (portions of) certain messages were resolved has not been revealed – apart from the survival of the occasional exchange of messages between cryptanalysts, and the evidence of critical breakthroughs that forced intelligence organisations to take action. This lack of archival evidence has made it very difficult for historians to assess the reactions and intentions of the persons directing the investigation. What is also important to recognize is that the process of translation required a lot of help from political and diplomatic sources, to help identify the source messages stolen by the Soviets, since the original texts were invaluable as ‘cribs’, and the contexts were vital in helping identify the thieves. This was especially true in Australia, where the richness of the cribs meant that traffic was being digested almost in real-time by the beginning of 1948. The search for original texts did, however, run the risk of alerting a broader audience to the highly secret VENONA project itself.

That the group of intelligence officers and Foreign Office officials stalled in passing on to their own teams and their American partners their conclusions about VENONA ‘recoveries’ (as the evolving messages were called) is indisputable. But was such behaviour caused by institutional embarrassment, or was it guided by high politics? Some analysts have interpreted such dilatoriness as a pattern of the latter dimension – that it was a high-level strategy ordered by the British prime minister Attlee to protect a fragile Anglo-American agreement over the sharing of atomic weapons technology. Negotiations on resuming the wartime agreement had begun only in September 1949, and, as Aldrich and Cormac inform us in The Black Door, Secretary of State Dean Acheson had recently explained (maybe insincerely) to the British Ambassador that Congress would probably be able to roll back the embargo that the 1946 McMahon Act had imposed on any technology-sharing.

Some authors, such as Anthony Cave-Brown, in his biography of Menzies, “C”, even hint at a ‘double-agent’ game (actually a misnomer) arranged by Menzies and Hoover (FBI) to use Philby as a medium for disinformation to the Soviets (with Angleton, of the CIA) – an unlikely collaboration. Cave-Brown’s case, however, is woolly and muddled, with a haphazard chronology. The delusion of such endeavours, moreover, lay in thinking that an intelligence unit could control what an agent handed over to the target when the unit had not comprehensively ‘turned’ that agent, and did not manage exclusively his medium of communication. Even if such a dubious programme had been entertained, the selection of an agent for such deception when that agent had been indoctrinated into the secret VENONA programme, which demanded the highest security precautions, would have simply been absurd.

Despite that obvious paradox, the legend lives on. The prime promoter of such a theory is C. J. Hamrick, who, in his 2004 book Deceiving the Deceivers, makes a number of claims about the deception that the British intelligence agencies planted on the public during this exercise. His book contains many ingenious passages of analysis, offers a remarkably insightful account of the controversies surrounding the CIA in its initial years, reflects some painstaking research into the evolution of cables processed at Arlington and Eastcote, and contains a fascinating array of valuable insights and facts concerning the relationship of intelligence to politics. Unfortunately, however, Hamrick makes some huge leaps of imagination in putting his theory together. His book constitutes overall a poorly constructed and frequently dense narrative, full of circumlocutions, non sequiturs, vague hypotheses, unsupported assertions and simple errors that make it difficult to determine a verifiable thread.

If I can discern Hamrick’s argument correctly, I would say that it runs as follows: Under the authority of Lord Tedder, Air Marshall Robb, and General Hollis, Dick White masterminded, with his co-conspirator Roger Makins, a counter-intelligence scheme that none of his immediate colleagues or superiors knew about. What Hamrick suggests is that, after the discovery of purloined ‘Churchill’ telegrams, the VENONA decryption exercise became a predominantly British affair, that the authorities knew about the existence and identity of HOMER as early as 1947 (and that Oldfield was able to give this information to Philby in 1949), and that White contrived to conceal the results of the Eastcote decryption exercises from his peers. Moreover, Percy Sillitoe (who was White’s boss) reputedly kept Hoover up to date on the progress of the investigation using something called an ‘MI6 cipher’, to which Philby had access, and from which Philby thus gained his knowledge of VENONA decrypts, and the progress of the investigation. The proposed goal of all these machinations was for White to exploit Maclean, Philby and Burgess (even though they did not work for him) as unwitting tools to mislead the Soviet Union about the West’s nuclear capability, a project, incidentally, that should presumably have been carried out by SIS, not by MI5.

The germ of this idea came from a General Edwin L. Sibert, who communicated his beliefs in such a deception operation to the author on intelligence matters Anthony Cave-Brown. According to Hamrick, Cave-Brown misunderstood the message, and garbled it in his Treason in the Blood. (Cave-Brown reprised the idea in “C”, adding the testimony of William R. Corson, from the latter’s Armies of Ignorance, but then cited severe doubts emanating from Reilly and Easton that apparently quashed the story.) Sibert had in fact retired eighteen months before Philby arrived in Washington, but Hamrick was impressed enough by Sibert’s story to write: “A strategic deception operation using Anglo-American war plans and bombers as a deterrent to Soviet aggression in Western Europe required a suspected or known Soviet agent of proven credibility whose long loyalty to Moscow and unique access to official secrets [my italics] amounted to verification. Was one available? Evidently he was.” It was if Britain had dozens of such persons waiting in the wings, proven Soviet spies, of many years’ vintage, allowed to flourish and remain unpunished, and all the authorities had to do was to select one with the best profile, and plant information on him. And that it made sense to post the candidate to Washington to perform his duplicity, even though a project that had been initiated to help unmask such spies had been underway in the same capital for over a year.

It does not make sense. There are too many anomalies in this thesis for me to list them here. A full dismantling of Hamrick’s exposition, which ascribes some superhuman sleights to White, as if he were in total charge of GCHQ, and was able to hoodwink his colleagues, including Patrick Reilly (who was, after all, chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee), will have to be undertaken on another occasion. I present just a few comments. While it is true that senior officials probably concluded that Maclean was HOMER well before they communicated this fact to their subordinates, it does not mean that Dick White (and he is incongruously given the credit for being able to manage the whole charivari from his position as B Division chief in MI5) was successfully controlling the output from GCHQ, and running the trio of Burgess, Maclean and Philby as disinformation agents to the Soviets. Hamrick’s repeated referral to a frequent series of messages from Sillitoe to Hoover on the progress of the investigation, using ‘Philby’s secret MI6 cipher’, by which Philby gained his information, is simply absurd. Philby gained his information from Patterson, and Admiral Stone, the head of AFSA, knew about Philby’s clearance, because on June 8, 1951, he sent a message to the FBI to ascertain whether Burgess had also had access.

So much of what Hamrick asserts is contradicted by the evidence of the archival records (the KV 6/140 to 6/145 series) released in October 2015 that one must conclude either that the archive itself has been handsomely faked, or that Mr Hamrick has written a work more of fiction than of history. As Hamrick himself wrote: “Ignoring the fact that not one shred of documentary evidence has been found nor is ever likely to be found to support it [General Sibert’s deception plan], its probability can be considered by asking how such an operation could have successfully escaped disclosure.” Ipse dixit.

According to some analysts, the Fuchs case (see below: he was found guilty of espionage in February 1950) killed cooperation on atomic technology sharing between the USA and the UK for good. M.S. Goodman wrote an article in The Journal of Cold War Studies in 2005, quoting a US diplomat who said: ‘We were getting very close to getting into bed with the British, with a new agreement. Then the Fuchs affair hit the fan, and that was the end of it’. Goodman then commented: “The case destroyed any British hopes for a resumption of the wartime nuclear partnership, and even Attlee’s artful performance before Parliament could not rescue it.” The reality is rather more complicated. A research colleague (and biographer of both Guy Burgess and Donald and Melinda Maclean) Michael Holzman has drawn my attention to the recently issued Documents on British Policy Overseas, which include records of negotiations in 1950 between Makins, Bevin and Attlee, accompanied by Canadian Secretary of State Lester Pearson, and Dean Acheson of the State Department. Makins attributed the lack of progress on overturning the McMahon Act to allow exchange of atomic power and weaponry technology between Canada, the USA and Britain on the dampener that Fuchs’s arrest gave to harmonious relations, and tried to appeal to Acheson, through Bevin, that the discovery of one spy (although he forgot about Nunn May) should not be considered cause enough to break off plans.

I have been able to inspect these documents, and to verify from Volume 2 of Margaret Gowing’s authorised history of Britain and Atomic Energy (1974) that the author used the same sources in researching her account. According to Gowing, Acheson temporized and prevaricated, as he knew that Congress would not move quickly on the issue. There was an election coming up in November, and thus prospects for new legislation were slim, especially with the Korean War underway. The flight of another Harwell scientist, Bruno Pontecorvo, to Moscow in September 1950 did not help matters. Britain would have to go it alone, and did so, with a story about its decision published in the New York Times in March 1951. Aldrich and Cormac strongly suggest that Attlee’s attention quickly moved elsewhere, to covert operations in Europe by SIS, and that he left the boffins to produce Britain’s weaponry independently. Thus, while Makins’ concerns may have put a temporary brake on the project to unmask HOMER in April-May 1950, such sensitivities quickly became irrelevant. That summer, the American spies Harry Gold and the Rosenbergs were arrested (Gold as a result of Lamphere’s interrogation of Fuchs in London), so the one-sidedness of Britain’s exposure to treachery was quickly removed. Gowing’s conclusion was that ‘the negotiations would have failed even if there had been no Fuchs, Pontecorvo, Burgess or Maclean’ (p 320).

Moreover, more recent releases to the National Archives, in 2007, indicate that Attlee, when he was informed, on June 11, 1951, of the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean, had been completely unaware of their errant behavior, let alone of any suspicions of espionage. Foreign Secretary Morrison stoutly came to the defence of Maclean and of the Foreign Office. At the time of the Fuchs case, Attlee had been briefed on the VENONA investigation, but it appears he was not given comprehensive updates on the project thereafter. Thus there appears to have been little scope for political interference into what the Embassy Spy investigations were uncovering.

Kim Philby and VENONA

Kim Philby

Why was Kim Philby being brought into this web? The story contains multiple anomalies, and a number of unlikely twists and turns.

First of all, from the UK side, the investigation into the Embassy leaks was supposed to be an MI5 responsibility, not one for SIS. Dick White pressed hard for this at the beginning of 1949, and believed he had the support of Menzies and Carey Foster. He soon found, however, that it was not the case with GCHQ, and then learned that he could not rely on the compliance of SIS and the Foreign Office, with the latter starting to playing a much more inquisitive role. White’s representative in Washington, Dick Thistlethwaite, felt he was being undermined by Travis’s and Carey Foster’s officers in Washington, Marr Johnson and Mackenzie, respectively. Thistlethwaite therefore complained to White, who was not only his boss but a close friend as well. The fact was that every department felt it had  a proprietary interest: GC&CS, because it was in charge of the intercepted material, the Foreign Office, because the leak had occurred on its own territory, and SIS, because the initial prime suspect was Alexander Halpern, of British Security Coordination (BSC, the wartime British intelligence service in the USA), which had reported to SIS. Peter Dwyer, Thistlethwaite’s counterpart from SIS, had worked for BSC during the war, so could contribute very usefully to the investigation.

What was especially poignant, moreover, was the fact that FBI maintained domestically a very jealous hold over the VENONA product: not only did Hoover intensely dislike the CIA, and regretted it had ever been created, he also believed that both it and the State Department were riddled with Soviet spies. (He had a point.) While a few CIA officers were introduced to VENONA earlier, the CIA would learn about the programme officially only in 1952, ironically after a controlled leak to Bedell Smith by the British forced Hoover’s hand. Thus bringing in a senior officer like Philby primarily as the SIS-CIA liaison officer (he had developed a great relationship with James Angleton during the war) would, given the sensitivity of the VENONA enterprise, on the surface appear to be a highly risky and unnecessary move that could only ruffle feathers more. White’s failure to maintain intellectual and practical leadership of the project points, however, to a developing malaise.

For some reason, MI5’s representative in Washington was replaced at about the same time. No official explanation has been offered for the change in the team. A large gap in the record for the summer of 1949 can be seen at KV 6/140, but the authorised history states that Geoffrey Patterson took over from Dick Thistlethwaite in June 1949. These moves would have unbalanced the arrangement, as Thistlethwaite was a senior campaigner, on first-name terms with Dick White. Patterson seems to have been a keen but inexperienced officer, while Philby was clearly a man on the move, identified by some as a future head of the service. It could have been coincidental, of course, but the fact that Philby was heavily briefed by Oldfield before he left could suggest that Menzies was keen that SIS take a stronger hold of the investigations. On the other hand, the author Ben Macintyre suggests, in A Spy Among Friends, that Philby’s appointment arose from the high-level discussions in the USA, and that Philby was a name preferred by some of the CIA officers whose opinion was sought. Macintyre offers no source for that statement, but it would make sense for the presence of Philby to be desired primarily in the light of the plans for joint CIA-SIS operations in Eastern Europe, where the help of an experienced heavyweight would be necessary.  Philby would however have been instructed to stay silent about VENONA before CIA officers, but no doubt became extremely curious once he learned of the dangerous project. Menzies – who viewed Philby as his blue-eyed boy – would not have thought twice about the appointment.

Yet how much did SIS and MI5 suspect about Philby’s possible career as a spy at that time, and should he have been excluded from any sensitive post in Washington? Maurice Oldfield later informed his biographers that, having inspected Philby’s profile, and the records concerning Volkov, the Soviet diplomat who tried to defect from Turkey in 1945, but who was betrayed and killed, he had suspected Philby of treachery, and he even confided his thoughts to his friend Alistair Horne at the time. Yet, even though he was only four years younger than Philby, Oldfield had been in SIS for only three years, and Philby, with his allies high up, was not a figure he could easily challenge. Moreover, Richard Deacon, in his biography of Oldfield, “C”, suggests that Philby’s contacts with the Soviets that he made in Turkey were approved by Menzies, as some kind of disinformation scheme.  “Whenever MI5, or anyone else, raised the issue of treachery, the SIS would come to Philby’s defence and indignantly reject such pleas, explaining that what he was doing in Istanbul, and elsewhere for that matter, was carried out with their full approval”, wrote Deacon. That would explain, if it were true, why Philby was regarded as untouchable.

That account of Philby’s inviolability might also help explain the Guy Liddell discomfort. The information recently distributed about Eric Roberts, as I described in the April coldspur, indicates that Liddell in MI5 also had nourished suspicions about a senior member of the SIS in 1947, but had obviously been told to suppress them by the time Roberts returned from Vienna in 1949. [The BBC has so far not responded to our request for the 14-page document that Christopher Andrew described as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document I have ever seen’, so the historian must be charged with irresponsible grandstanding until he helps facilitate the release of this document to the public.] Dick White was lower on the totem-pole than Liddell, but was a more dominant character, yet between them, with their own skeletons in the cupboard, they must have concluded that speaking out against Philby at that juncture would not help their careers, or the reputation of MI5.

Soon after Philby’s arrival in Washington, however, an extraordinary event occurred: he completely changed the tone of the investigation by pointing the inquisitors towards Krivitsky and his 1940 testimony. (Krivitsky had warned of a spy on the ‘Imperial Council’, but his hints had not been strenuously followed up.) Throughout 1949 the project had taken a desultory course, involving the collection of staff lists and checking the background of, almost exclusively, secretaries and members of the Cypher Department. (Halpern and Cedric Belfrage were also suspected, but the latter, who later confessed to being a spy, was discounted early since he was not in Washington when the cables were stolen.) As early as November 19, 1949, however, Philby wrote a memorandum to Robert Mackenzie which crisply summarized the advice that Krivitsky had given about a spy in the Foreign Office, advice that Patterson enthusiastically picked up on. Somewhat surprisingly, Patterson received a rather lukewarm response when Martin and Carey Foster received the message in London, as if to say that of course they had considered a link between the two cases. Carey Foster did, however, produce a shortlist of six diplomats who could fit the Krivitsky/Washington profile, namely Balfour, Makins, Hadow, Wright, Gore-Booth and Maclean.

This bravado from Philby surely suggests that he realised that the evidence against Maclean was so substantial that his goose was essentially cooked, and that Philby’s best course of action was therefore to distance himself as sharply as possible from his comrade in espionage, and boost his counter-Soviet credentials. Yet his action raises further questions: did he have access to pointers that were available to other investigators, and, if so, why did the latter not come to similar conclusions? Otherwise, was it not a bit premature to risk changing the direction of the probe so dramatically, and risk additional attention on himself, and his associations with Maclean?

The Search Takes Time

On reflection, it might seem highly negligent for the multiple leads to Maclean as the source of the Foreign Office leakage not to have been assimilated and acted upon sooner. That was the sentiment that Robert Lamphere expressed in late 1948, a few months after he had been informed by his colleague Ladd of the first VENONA breakthroughs. As he waited for a more urgent response from his British counterparts, he recorded that the counter-intelligence machinery in the USA would surely have moved into top gear in such circumstances. After all, if, following the creation of the shortlist, a notice had been taken of Maclean’s leftist opinions at Cambridge, and his less than outright rejection of them at his diplomatic service interview, and his nervous breakdown after consorting with Philip Toynbee, a ‘known Communist’ (as MI5 considered him) in Cairo, one might have expected him to rise quickly on the list of suspects.  Yet MI5 appeared to be overwhelmed by the list of possible offenders, knowing also that it would be very difficult to elicit a confession from any of them on such circumstantial evidence, and that the best chance of gaining a conviction would be to catch him or her in the act of passing information to the Soviet contact. For the VENONA transcripts would be inadmissible in court: apart from the fact that all intelligence agencies did not want to reveal the extent of their decryption efforts, the nature of the translations and interpretations would mean that their veracity would be able to be picked apart by any capable defence lawyer. And MI5 was not certain, even when the information about the visits to the spy’s wife in New York were revealed in early March 1951, that Maclean was the only Foreign Office staff member who fitted that profile. (Or so it claimed, as long as was possible.)

Donald Maclean

Dick White then made, in February 1950, a shocking and irresponsible suggestion. He had been in Australia when Philby’s memorandum came through, but must have been made aware of the resulting exchange. He held a meeting on January 31, attended by Reilly, Carey Foster, Vivian, Oldfield, Marriott & Martin, at which he floated the idea that the whole investigation should be called off, at least until dramatic new evidence arrived, because of the overwhelming staff lists to be combed through. At this stage, it appeared that he had high-level agreement from the attendees. Carey Foster agreed the field was wide, but wanted MI5 to continue to pursue traces in some way. Vivian was still interested in Halpern. MI5 was charged with providing a formal report, which White duly provided on February 16, laying out the reasons for abandoning the quest, and suggesting that the project be handed over to the FBI.

This reckless initiative must be seen in the context of what else White and MI5 were occupied with at the time. On February 2, Klaus Fuchs (whose role as a spy had also been confirmed by VENONA transcripts) had been arrested, and was sentenced a month later to fourteen years’ imprisonment. White was heavily involved in the project to cover up MI5’s negligence and incompetence over Fuchs, during which Sillitoe vented his fury at White and Liddell for their lack of thoroughness. As Tom Bower, White’s biographer, put it: “There were good reasons to hold MI5 responsible. Not least was White’s failure, in the chain of responsibility, to adopt Suppell’s [Serpell’s] suggestion of investigating Fuchs.” The outcome was that Sillitoe and White had an uncomfortable meeting with Attlee where they lied to the Prime Minister in order to protect the institution. Moreover, Guy Burgess had come under suspicion at this time. On January 23, Liddell noted in his diary that Burgess had probably passed on secrets to Freddie Kuh, a Soviet spy, and three days later was discussing with his colleagues whether Burgess should be prosecuted for Official Secrets Act offences. The last thing White wanted was a fresh revelation that MI5 failures to follow up the Krivitsky testimony had allowed another spy – and a homegrown Briton, at that – to escape the net. White simply wanted the problem to go away: the remedy preferred by him and Liddell was for unmasked spies to fade quietly into the backwaters, and promise not to misbehave again, with no fuss and no publicity involved. Whether in this case he was acting on his own, or was being guided by political considerations, say by Attlee, or possibly Foreign Secretary Ernest Bevin, is not clear. The 2007 archival information referred to earlier strongly suggests that Attlee was not involved.

Perhaps White overlooked the fact that the Eastcote/Arlington decryption exercises were going to continue no matter how hard he tried to stifle the investigation. For a while, however, he appeared to have been successful. On February 22, Carey Foster (who like many emerges from this whole farrago as a weak character, far too defensive of the organisation he is supposed to be auditing) expressed support for White’s move, although he reserved the right to interview one Samuel Barron, one on the longlist of suspects. The archive is somewhat confused at this point, with memoranda and letters being split into separate files, but a couple of weeks later, it seems that Carey Foster had been spurred into reaction, probably at the behest of his boss, William Strang. On March 9, Carey Foster wrote a determined riposte to White’s suggestion, which was followed up by a similar outpouring from Strang himself, effectively pouring cold water on White’s plan, and suggesting that the Foreign Office would take over the investigation itself, if necessary. It is clear that White was not happy about Strang’s offensive, but he had to clamber down. Yet this rapid volte-face suggests that there was probably no higher-level political direction at work.

So the project continued all through 1950. In August, new material did turn up, primarily about references to the spy’s wife in Washington, and, more dramatically, showing that highly critical correspondence between Churchill and Roosevelt had been compromised. MI5’s desire for secrecy enveloped the officers even more deeply in a mire of subterfuge. Part of the new intelligence-sharing agreement between the USA and the UK commanded full disclosure of information, and, indeed, Eastcote and Arlington would continue to share findings irrespective of MI5’s fears. The responsibility for decrypting the exclusively British telegrams of 1944 was passed to GCHQ in the summer of 1950, which meant that Arlington officially had to rely on Eastcote for the latest decryptions. As the search narrowed, it touched tricky ground in dealing with the FBI. MI5 could not afford any premature disclosure of suspicions, or plans to interrogate, to be communicated to Hoover and his cohorts, lest leaks occur and jeopardise the inquiry. At the same time, Lamphere in the FBI was pursuing a similar line, and MI5 had to stay a step ahead of what his progress might be. If Hoover, who was not sympathetic to Great Britain and its intelligence apparatus (he had considered BSC a gross infringement of his territorial rights) learned of the fruits of the inquiry from another source, he would be apoplectic. Thus the mandarins gradually switched from a policy of measured indolence to one of nervous deceit, which resulted in a ‘real’ inquiry being accompanied by a ‘notional’ one, which had to lag a bit behind so that the FBI could be stalled.

A Breakthrough?

How quickly should MI5 have started the quest for HOMER? The records are bewilderingly opaque. There is much controversy about the first appearance of the cryptonym ‘HOMER’ (or ‘GOMER’, sometimes ‘GOMMER’: since the Cyrillic alphabet has no letter for ‘H’, ‘HOMER’ was represented as ‘GOMER’, and frequently abbreviated to ‘G’.)   The folder HW 15/38 at Kew includes a report by Meredith Gardner that shows that HOMER had been identified as a source as early as 26 September, 1947, providing information about the upcoming meeting between Roosevelt and Churchill in Quebec in September 1944. One might judge that the amount of information contained in this message should surely have prompted a well-focussed search on qualified individuals with access to such information. Yet an anonymous post-mortem report written in October 1951 appears to bury this fact, stating: “The resumé mentioned was transmitted 7 September 1944, but the opening (which contained the name ‘HOMER’) was not solved until much later (probably 1951). [handwritten note – ‘not until just before May 1951’: coldspur] The resumé concerned chiefly occupation policies, mentioning both American and British plans.” It is difficult to interpret what this could mean: is the ‘opening’ something different, but, if so, why does it matter, since HOMER was so clearly identified elsewhere in the text? Very oddly, Nigel West (in Cold War Spymaster) ignores the Gardner evidence, and echoes this conclusion that the ‘opening’ was not solved until May 1951.

The investigators were waiting for a stronger clue to the identity of HOMER, facts with which they could confront Maclean. If MI5 and the Foreign Office leaders still had any doubts that their prime suspect was Donald Maclean, they were apparently dispelled on March 31, 1951, when (according to the prime chronicler, Nigel West) the team of Wilfred Bodsworth and Jeffrey Northbury at Eastcote decrypted enough of a message from Stepan Apresyan in June 28, 1944 to identify Maclean by ‘HOMER’s visit to Tyre [New York] where his wife is living with her mother awaiting confinement’. (Nigel West states that this was the first cable, chronologically, that referred to HOMER [GOMER], rather than just ‘G’.) Yet even the exact process of transcription is not clear: in Venona, West provides the text of the above message, not released until 1973, but does not present this cable as the one that provided the breakthrough. In Cold War Spymaster, however, the same author specifically names this Apresyan cable as the one that succumbed to Bodsworth and Northbury at the end of March, and thus allowed Maclean to be confidently identified, presumably because of the ‘wife in New York’ reference. In any case, the news was sent to MI5, and also to Arlington, where Bodsworth’s counterparts congratulated him on the achievement. Thus we know that AFSA experts knew about its content, although what they did with the information has not been recorded by the historians.

Yet it is difficult to trust West’s updated account of what happened. The archives at KV 6/142 reveal a very startling alternative sequence of events, however. On March 31, that is the same day on which the above information was reputedly passed by GCHQ to MI5 in London, Geoffrey Patterson wrote a long letter to the Director-General (nominally to Sillitoe: Harrison’s cables are normally addressed that way, although it is more likely that Martin, Robertson, or sometimes White was first to read them), in which he declared that ‘PH’ (unidentified) ‘has sent to his Headquarters a letter  . . . and enclosures  . . . which are of considerable interest and may take us another step forward in our search  . . .’.  He added: “PH despatched these documents to London on March 30.” The primary suggestion in PH’s conclusions is that ‘HOMER may be identical with G’. (Patterson then added, rather alarmingly, that he and Kim Philby ‘have discussed these latest developments with Bob Lamphere’.)

‘PH’ was undoubtedly Philip Howse, a member of GCHQ, as the October 1951 report cited above explicitly recognises. In his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, under ‘BRIDE’, Nigel West writes: “Although Philip Howse had been assigned to Arlington in a general liaison capacity, the Canberra-Moscow channel revealed the need for a British input into BRIDE, and he was integrated into the JADE team to look after British interests, which were also focused on the leakage attributed to HOMER in the British Embassy.”(JADE was the name assigned to the technique by which VENONA messages identified which page of the one-time-pad to use.) S. J. Hamrick states that Howse was assigned to Arlington Hall from 1944 to 1946, pointing out that the National Archives records on VENONA do not name the 1951 contributor. Howse clearly returned, however, and Patterson’s weak effort at concealing his identity failed to confuse posterity.

For some reason it had taken a long time for the equation to be made that GOMER represented the same source as ‘G’, a shorthand that was frequently found in Soviet cables. Hamrick reports, without comment, that Meredith Gardner, who must have been one of the smartest cryptanalysts in the world, was not able to work out that ‘G’ and ‘GOMMER’ were the same as ‘HOMER’ before the Embassy telegrams were passed over to GCHQ for further decryption and analysis in 1949. The correspondence between ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was confirmed, however, as having been made by Mrs. Gray of AFSA in August 1950, and the fact was immediately communicated to the British. It was given to Marr-Johnson, the GCHQ representative, and presumably passed on to Eastcote. The August 1950 memorandum continues “These recoveries were communicated to the British 11 August 1950, who thereupon set up work-sheets for further recovery work. The suspicion that ‘G’ was the source of material ‘G’ occurred to people at AFSA immediately upon seeing Mrs. Gray’s work, and this suspicion was suggested to the British at the same time.” HW 15/38 goes on to report: “On 30 March 1951, Mr Howse transmitted to England the suggestion that G. was Homer and GOMMER. . . . This identification, if true, allowed the placing of G. in New York in June 1944.”  

Yet what is not explained is why Howse’s insight, the correspondence of ‘G’ and ‘GOMER’, was necessary to make the breakthrough. As we can see, ‘HOMER’ – not just ‘G’ –  appears in the Apresyan cable of 28 June 1944, which referred to the agent’s wife in New York. (The cable can be seen at https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1944/28jun_kgb_mtg_donald_maclean.pdf) Yes, ‘G’’s communications would have provided supportive evidence, but Bodsworth did not need Howse’s analysis to make his breakthrough reconstruction of the text, and, in any case, Howse’s message would not have arrived in time for Bodsworth to apply it, and then make his report. So what was going on here? If the ‘breakthrough’ did indeed occur at GCHQ, maybe Bodsworth informed his American colleagues well before he let MI5 know, and Howse then tried to claim the credit, presenting a different, but maybe equally important, conclusion to Philby and Patterson as if it had been his own. Howse’s action in sending a package to Eastcote probably negates that, however, and if Howse despatched the documents only on March 30, they would not have arrived at Eastcote in time for Bodsworth to make his report. Was this just a coincidental timing of independent threads? Or was Howse instructed to report the ‘non-breakthrough’ to indicate for posterity that London had had no inkling about HOMER’s identity until he provided the insight?

Given the intensity of this effort, and its being undertaken by cryptanalysts highly skilled at the task, the time it took for these correspondences to be made defies belief. The name HOMER was decrypted on September 26, 1947.  Messages also emanating from the British Embassy, ascribed to ‘Source G’, were known by some time in 1949. The equivalence of ‘Source G’ and ‘G’ was worked out in August 1950. On March 31, 1951, a suggestion was made that perhaps ‘G’ and HOMER were the same person, at which time Eastcote announced it had solved the puzzle.  It took three-and-half years for Maclean’s identity as HOMER to be recognized and admitted: a period longer than that between the USA’s entry into the war and VE-Day. (Anthony Cave-Brown very provocatively, and without comment, wrote, in “C”: “Homer’s identity and nationality remained unknown to the State Department and Foreign Office until 1949.”) So why was the ‘breakthrough’ announced at that juncture?  It should perhaps be noted that the America spies Julius and Ethel Rosenberg had been convicted on March 29: did that event perhaps prompt the investigators to conclude that it was now politically safe to step into the daylight?

The evidence bequeathed us superficially makes no sense at all. Yet the historians generally have stepped away from trying to analyse the conflicts in front of them. C. J. Hamrick, however, on pages 45-48 of Deceiving the Deceivers, offers a fascinating analysis of the conundrum, concluding that Arlington Hall had been out of the picture on the British Embassy cables since the summer of 1950, and that Eastcote had been sitting on the solved cable for some time. That is one of Hamrick’s conclusions that holds together well. In any case, the scribes creating what turned out to be the HW 15/38 archive then entered some disinformation to help breed confusion. The whole imbroglio demands some more detailed analysis.

We can, nevertheless, make some striking conclusions: i) both Patterson and his colleagues in London were in on the act, since they reciprocally referred to Howse as ‘PH’, and obviously recognized that concealment and subterfuge were necessary; ii) MI5 had an independent back-channel into the AFSA organisation, and might therefore have gained information on the progress of VENONA decryption even before the FBI learned of it; iii) GCHQ in Eastcote was probably not aware that Howse was leaking information to Patterson; and iv) an immense security exposure occurred, since Patterson did not just share the confidences with Lamphere (whom MI5 apparently accepted as a justifiable recipient) but also Philby, which meant that the information would surely be passed on to SIS – and the KGB.

Patterson certainly had not been briefed by London, since he makes some creative suggestions about the identity of HOMER. Indeed, he follows up with another letter (presumably also sent by diplomatic bag) in which, having also discussed the material with Mackenzie, he expands on his analysis, and, somewhat impatiently, but justifiably, looks for a response. On April 4, Robertson responds by cable, apparently quite unconcerned that Patterson has seen the material before the officers of MI5. His main advice runs as follows:

  1. Agree new material most important. Leakage enquiry now being pursued on presumption HOMER equals G.
  2. Collateral for G.C.H.Q. being collected here and, unless we ask specifically, consider it safer you do not repeat not draw subject files from Embassy.

His response does not make sense if Bodsworth’s solving of the Apresyan telegram had provided the ‘breakthrough’. Robertson then asks Patterson to work with Mackenzie in inspecting travel documents that might help clarify the New York visits made by HOMER.

Apart from the anomaly of the ‘HOMER=G’ equivalence, and what relevance it had to the Bodsworth exercise, at least four aspects of this exchange are breathtaking for the interpretation of the decisions for the handling of Maclean, confirming the conclusions outlined earlier. The first is the total lack of surprise shown by MI5 at the fact that its Washington outpost has worked out the HOMER=G breakthrough before London has. The second is that London intelligence (by which I mean MI5 and the Foreign Office, with fragmented attendance by SIS) should have realised that, once the information about ‘the latest recovery’ (as it came to be called) floated around Washington, anyone over there could have been privy to the supposed secret. The third is that Patterson’s and Philby’s access to cryptographic sources, and thus awareness of what was going on, meant that they could not be hoodwinked in any way about the progress of the inquiry. The fourth was the news that Lamphere was right in the thick of things, and could thus presumably come to the same conclusions as MI5’s detectives: moreover, much of the evidence required to seal the deal was to be found in the United States.

Yet MI5 proceeded as if they knew none of this. Indeed, Robertson followed up by trying to dampen Patterson’s enthusiasm: ‘ . . at this stage consider enquiries  . . . should not be confined to preconceived theories but cover all Chancery, cipher and registry staff. Feel sure you agree and will exercise moderating influence on premature speculations’. It was as if dozens of Embassy staff had pregnant wives in New York whom they visited in New York occasionally, and were thus under suspicion. Indeed, Mackenzie in Washington was keen to look for other culprits, and, partly on the grounds that Krivitsky had said that the Foreign Office source had attended Eton and Oxford, pointed the finger at Paul Gore-Booth, who had the disadvantage that his name more closely resembled the letters of ‘GOMER’. It was then, on April 2, that Philby made an even more persuasive case that HOMER was the Imperial Council spy. In a telegram to his boss, Menzies (in the archive at KV 6/142-2, unsigned, and with its first paragraph redacted) he refines the analysis discussed with Patterson and Mackenzie, and adds helpful information about Gromov (Gorsky) and Paul Hardt, who had also been mentioned by Krivitsky. The letter is a masterful exhibition of subterfuge, with Philby trying to protect his reputation and deflect possible criticism. And it apparently worked with Menzies.

What is also extraordinary is the lack of archival evidence of how MI5 received the critical information from GCHQ, and the lack of any initiative to let the Washington representatives know formally of the results. The final entry in the KV 6/141 folder is a note whereby Robertson, Martin and Carey Foster have a meeting at the Foreign Office on March 28, 1951, where they discuss a long report that lists several dozen Embassy employees, including junior staff, in order to whittle down the suspects. The report focuses on Messrs. Pares, Middleton, King and Payne. It is an exercise in self-delusion, probably written by Carey Foster, as if the writer thought the problem would go away if the authorities sat on it for long enough.

The Great Deception

As soon as the British authorities accepted internally that Maclean was indeed HOMER, on April 17, 1951, according to its formal chronology, they started to dither. Martin had told Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was the top suspect, but the MI5 and Foreign Office mandarins suddenly realised the implications of their conclusion. They would eventually have to interrogate Maclean. But if they informed the FBI of their suspicions and plans, the news might leak in a horribly prejudicial way. Lamphere might, however, also come to the same conclusion, which could make them look very foolish if they had not confided in the FBI as they were supposed to. Thus they concocted all sorts of strategies to pretend that they were less well advanced in creating the recent ‘recoveries’ than they actually were, that there were still six suspects they had to investigate. MI5 wanted to tell the FBI more, but the Foreign Office held back, as it did not want the Department of State to hear of it before the FO was ready. Patterson was squeezed: he was again encouraged to let Lamphere harbour his suspicions about ‘Fisher’ (actually Belfrage), even though Belfrage had been eliminated from the inquiry long before.  Mackenzie therefore pressed for continued deception of the FBI: Patterson and Philby disagreed.

By May 15, a tentative timetable had been arranged, whereby Maclean (who was now under surveillance, and had had secret papers withheld from him, so had a strong suspicion of what was going on) would be interrogated on June 8, and the FBI would be informed of that event the day before. On May 17, the KGB sent instructions to London for the escape of Burgess and Maclean, deeming that Maclean was in such a nervous state that he needed accompaniment. Martin prepared for the interrogation, and wrote up his detailed case against Maclean, which he sent to White (but not the Foreign office) on May 19. Sillitoe intervened to insist that no action on Maclean could be taken unless the FBI were informed. The interrogation date was then pushed back to June 18 (because of Mrs. Maclean’s imminent confinement), and Sillitoe planned to be in Washington at that time to explain things, and soothe Hoover. On May 25, Foreign Minister Morrison signed off on the interrogation warrant. That same evening, Burgess and Maclean absconded via Southampton.

The events following the disappearance have been described in multiple books, and I shall not go over them in full here. Instead, I shall concentrate on two aspects of the case: White’s ploy to unmask Philby, and the puzzling use of Anthony Blunt as some kind of witness/consultant in the investigation. Menzies realised immediately that Philby was compromised, because of his close association with Burgess in Washington. In fact, Verne Newton, in The Cambridge Spies, even wrote that Vivian had been sent out to Washington in March to warn Philby about the unsuitability of his boarding Burgess, an account that Cave-Brown also reports, having interviewed Easton. Philby had written another memorandum, on June 4, in which he tried to distance himself from Burgess by providing hints to his suspicious behaviour. Cave-Brown represents this message as a key trigger for Martin to confirm his suspicions about Philby. Martin then tells White, who conveniently presents a damning report on Philby written by Millicent Bagot, and then convinces Menzies that Philby must be recalled. Any complacency Philby had was shattered when John Drew, an experienced and trustworthy officer who had worked for the London Controlling Section in World War II, who happened to be on a visit to Washington, was on June 6 able to hand Philby a letter from Jack Easton, Menzies’s deputy, which alerted him to the fact that he would shortly be formally recalled. He duly arrived in London on June 10, and was immediately summoned by Dick White ‘to help with our inquiries’.

White had meanwhile been very busy, making sure Sillitoe was properly briefed for his meeting with Hoover, and also preparing Patterson for the line of deceit to take. In a letter of May 25, he introduced the concept of the ‘real and notional aspects of the case’, emphasizing how the wool had to be pulled over the eyes of Lamphere and Hoover so that they would not guess that the authorities had concluded that Maclean was their man well before the day he absconded. It would have been disastrous if the FBI learned that Maclean had been at large for several weeks since being identified, and been able to escape the nation’s security forces. (On June 2, Patterson was even instructed to tell Hoover that Sillitoe believed that Maclean’s disappearance was a coincidence.) White decided that Sillitoe should be accompanied by the impish and devious Martin, as Sillitoe needed someone who understood what was going on (which Sillitoe clearly did not) and could plausibly lie about the situation. Sillitoe would work at the high level, and Martin would brief Lamphere. But this is where the story diverges: in the account that he gave his potential biographer, Andrew Boyle (whose notes were inherited by Tom Bower after Boyle’s death) greatly distorted the sequence of events in order to disguise his plot.

Robert Lamphere divulged what happened next in The FBI-KGB War. While Sillitoe met with Hoover, on June 13, Martin engaged Lamphere, and handed over the famous seven-point memorandum (which I described in the April coldspur). This report sharply described several aspects of Philby’s ostensibly communist background, and Martin then passed it on to Lamphere’s old friend William Harvey in the CIA.  The Cleveland Cram archive shows that, on June 15, Harvey then presented his scathing report to Bedell Smith, actually derived from the Martin memorandum, but claimed by Harvey (with encouragement by Martin, no doubt) as resulting from his own inspiration. The next day, Sillitoe met with Allen Dulles of the CIA, who passed ‘Harvey’s’ memorandum to him, Sillitoe of course being completely unaware of what the source was. Sillitoe cabled back home on June 17 to say that he had also had a very satisfactory meeting with Bedell Smith (see Guy Liddell’s Diaries), Bedell Smith telling him he would rather deal with MI5 than SIS in the future. On June 18, Sillitoe and Martin flew back to London. The same day, Hoover told Admiral Sidney Souers, special consultant to the President, about Burgess’s habitation with Philby while in Washington, and that Philby’s first wife had been a Communist. Aldrich and Cormac show this as evidence that ‘Truman was getting better information on the British moles than Attlee’. If that were true, it was because MI5 was not providing the intelligence they gave to the FBI and CIA to their own Prime Minister, not because the US organisations were more efficient.

General Bedell Smith in Moscow

Many of the accounts of this period (including Andrew’s authorised history of MI5) have Bedell Smith banishing Philby from Washington at this time, but, as the archival chronology clearly shows, Philby was back in London by the time Sillitoe and Martin left for Washington. Meanwhile, David Martin, in Wilderness of Mirrors, incorrectly amplified the story about Harvey’s heroic insights into Philby’s background, a story that has been picked up by innumerable chroniclers. I described this in the April coldspur, and also showed that Guy Liddell was completely unaware of what was going on.

Bedell Smith may well have stated that he did not want to see Philby in Washington again, but the record shows that the chief of the CIA was much more annoyed at Hoover’s withholding information about VENONA from him than he was at either Sillitoe’s deception or even possible treachery by Philby. After acting Ambassador Steel visited Bedell Smith in October of 1951, Steel wrote to Reilly about Bedell Smith’s mood, quoting him as follows: “Of course Percy Sillitoe lied to me like a trooper but I appreciate he had to do it on account of your understandings with Hoover and it was not his fault.” Steel went on to write: “Bedell’s principal worry is concerned with how much Burgess may have learned casually from Philby and in his house about his, Bedell’s, organization. He was very anxious to be reassured that we had not had any previous cause for suspicion of Burgess as we had of Donald Maclean and that we had let him know about Burgess as soon as our suspicions were aroused. He is naturally not very happy about what Burgess may have picked up but appeared much more interested in a vindication of our own bona fides towards himself.” That did not sound like the voice of a man greatly offended by rumours about Kim Philby.

As for White, his version of the story, as related in The Perfect English Spy, was a gross distortion of the truth. First of all, he represented Martin’s conversations with the CIA as ‘focused on Burgess’, concealing the Philby memorandum. He then claimed that the long message from Philby that hinted at Burgess’s possible flirtation with espionage arrived on June 18, when that message had actually been seen two weeks earlier. Next White asserted that at only at that stage did Jack Easton send the letter to Philby warning him of the cable to call him home, when that had happened on June 6. He then told his biographer that it was only then that he and Martin started to compile a record of Philby’s work, as preparation for the interrogation of Philby to which John Sinclair had given his grudging approval. Lamphere’s report makes it abundantly clear that the research had been completed well before Sillitoe and Martin left on June 11. Cave-Brown reported that White immediately produced a dossier compiled by Milicent Bagot on Philby. David Martin then contributed to the White caprice, however, by adding that it was at this stage, on June 20, that MI5 compiled the dossier on Philby, listing the seven points so ingeniously provided by Harvey! White also made sure that his harsh opinion of Rees was articulated (‘why did he not come to us earlier’?), and he left a very clear impression that Liddell was irreparably tainted by his association with Blunt.

‘Old Men Forget’. Was this just a misremembrance by White in his declining years? That is very unlikely: his account is a tissue of lies. What he was trying to do is show that he and Martin had nothing to do with the plot to bring Philby down, and were simply following up doggedly on their investigation, since Burgess’s friend from Washington had been brought to them on a platter. Yet it was imperative for White to show that the creation of the dossier on Philby had been prompted by outside investigations, and that it had not occurred until after Burgess’s escape. That was a somewhat risky line to take, as it indicated a fair amount of naivety about Philby’s past, a track-record which, if William Harvey could work out from so far away (from the planted evidence), MI5 should have been able to conclude themselves, as any objective observer might suggest. Philby was in SIS, not MI5, of course, which ameliorated their responsibility. As seems much clearer now – especially if the Liddell-Roberts anecdote is shown to have substance – White had very probably already made that calculation, but he had enough problems on his hands without taking credit for identifying another skeleton in the closet whom he should have called out a long time before. And, if Philby’s guilt could swiftly be acknowledged, though perhaps not proven or admitted, it would help his cause. Yet his old ally Bedell Smith did not respond with the degree of specific outrage that he had hoped for. And, in a clumsy interrogation carried out by White himself immediately Philby returned to Britain, the master-spy resisted the attempts to make him confess, despite the damning evidence.

The ghastly secret that haunted White was as follows: if it could ever be shown that he had harboured serious doubts about Philby before he was sent to Washington, or while he was there, and done nothing about it, he (White) would have to be regarded as putting the whole VENONA project in jeopardy. White would therefore continue to dissemble over the years (see, for example, what he said to Nicholas Bethell over the Albanian incidents, as recorded in Bethell’s book The Albanian Operation of the CIA & MI6) – highlighting his own insights into Philby’s culpability, but not saying exactly when he came to any individual conclusion about a certain activity, or with whom he shared it. #  Meanwhile he concealed from his interviewers the plant that was placed with Harvey and Bedell Smith that listed the fuller indictment. In summary, he distorted the truth to indicate that he had no suspicions of Philby before Burgess absconded. When Burgess and Maclean disappeared, however, he could not hold back any longer. He needed to punish the old foe, SIS, without drawing attention on himself. The fact that he went behind Menzies’s back to attempt to unmask Philby proves that Menzies was not aware of the plan. And White could not have masterminded a deception project using Philby without Menzies’ and Easton’s participation. But was White working alone? Who else knew what was going on?

# For example, in his comments to Bethell, the historian manqué attempted to excuse MI5’s tolerance of communists in 1940, the year in which Philby was recruited by SIS, by telling his interlocutor that at that time ‘the Russians were our allies’, when of course they were then allies of the Nazis, providing matériel to the Germans for the prosecution of the Battle of Britain.

Philby as the Third Man?

What would have been convenient for White would be evidence that Philby had been the agent who had warned Maclean about the net closing in on him, and let him and Burgess know about the imminent arrest. Was Philby thus the Third Man? That question is one of many that surround the eighteen months that Philby spent in Washington, and it is probably educational to list the main conundrums about the man’s activity at this time, and attach some tentative answers to the riddles:

  1. Why did Menzies send Philby to Washington in 1949? (He seriously had no doubts about Philby’s loyalties.  In his Forward to The Philby Conspiracy, John le Carré points out that Menzies had appointed him head of Soviet counter-espionage in 1944 despite knowing his past, and was not apparently disturbed by the Volkov incident in 1945.  According to Cave-Brown, based on interviews with Easton, Reilly was similarly not aware of the questions surrounding Philby, as he was party to the discussions on Philby’s possible promotion in early 1951.  Whether Menzies entrusted a mission of deception and disinformation to Philby cannot be verified.)
  2. Why did Philby so quickly help point the finger at Maclean? (Philby immediately realised from what Oldfield told him that Maclean was probably doomed, and he had to save his own skin.)
  3. Why was Burgess sent to Washington in 1950, despite his malfeasance? (It was typical FO incompetence, as reinforced by its treatment of Maclean after his riotous behaviour in Cairo. The Foreign Office was absurdly indulgent to its senior employees: Attlee was shocked when he later learned of the continued employment of Burgess and Maclean, despite their transgressions.)
  4. Why did Philby take on Burgess as a boarder? (He genuinely thought Burgess’s reputation was safe, needed him as a convenient courier to New York, and believed he could control Burgess’s aberrant behaviour better by keeping a close eye on him.  It was, however, appalling tradecraft.)
  5. Why was White not concerned about Philby’s close collaboration with Patterson? (He probably was concerned, but could do nothing about it without incurring Menzies’s ire.  If White truly had concluded much earlier that Maclean was HOMER, he may have even believed the situation would resolve itself without MI5’s being tainted.)
  6. Why did SIS only warn Philby about his association with Burgess in March 1951? (Menzies and his lieutenants – apart, possibly, from Jack Easton – were so out of touch that they genuinely did not know Burgess was a threat until his outrageous behaviour that month.)
  7. Why did SIS immediately recall Philby in May 1951 if it regarded him as a loyal officer? (Given that Burgess had absconded with Maclean, it accepted that Philby would be contaminated in Hoover’s and Bedell Smith’s eyes.  Cave-Brown claims that Menzies acted only after White had informed him of Martin’s suspicions, provoked by his reading Philby’s awkward letter about Burgess)
  8. Why did Menzies agree to White’s interrogation of Philby immediately he returned? (The political pressure was intense, but Menzies was confident that Philby would be exonerated.  Thus he instructed Easton to agree to the trial, grudgingly. In July, Easton would travel to Washington to tell Winston Scott of the CIA that SIS believed Philby was innocent.)
  9. Why was Lamphere not more shocked when he was told about Philby’s probable culpability? (He had never liked Philby, but was overwhelmed by the implications of Maclean’s treachery. He wrote that he did not believe Philby was an active spy since he had spent so little time trying to woo him, Lamphere.)
  10. Why did Philby later promote himself as the Third Man, despite the obvious logistical difficulties? (It distracted attention from the real facilitator in the bowels of MI5 and magnified his reputation as a fixer extraordinaire.)
Guy Burgess

In his notoriously unreliable memoir, My Silent War, Philby wrote, of the plan to use Burgess to help Maclean escape: “In somebody’s mind – I do not know whose – the two ideas merged: Burgess’s return to London and the rescue of Maclean.” From this emerged an extraordinary series of events that involved Burgess’ s being booked for speeding three times in one day in the state of Virginia, and thus arrested, a project that Burgess ‘brought off  . . . in the simplest possible way’, according to Philby’s account. Burgess was accordingly reprimanded by the Ambassador and sent home, where he then successfully met his Soviet contact, and informed Maclean of the escape plan.

This flight of fancy does not stand up to serious analysis, on the following grounds:

  1. Risk: To require Burgess to engage in dangerous driving, an activity that might have resulted in death, was irresponsible. The desired outcome of having Burgess recalled to London was by no means certain.
  2. Speed: The process was extraordinarily laborious. Burgess’s driving escapade happened on March 1: Ambassador Franks received the letter of complaint from the Governor of Virginia on March 14, and told Burgess he was seeking FO approval for his recall. On April 14, he was ordered home, but did not leave on the boat from New York until May 2, arriving in the UK on May 7. If Burgess had been serious, he could voluntarily have returned home earlier without suspicion.
  3. Necessity: As the Mitrokhin archive informs us (probably reliably, in this case), Philby had a Soviet handler in New York named Makeyev, and Burgess was used as a courier to take messages to him. Makeyev could have had messages passed on to Moscow and London much more easily – and no doubt did so. (While in New York, Burgess stayed with Maclean’s younger brother Alan, who was working as Gladwyn Jebb’s private secretary at the time – a series of visits, including Alan’s unrecorded role as a prison visitor to another traitor, George Blake –  that the Macmillan publisher unaccountably omitted from his jocular memoir, No I Tell a Lie, It Was the Tuesday  . . .)
  4. Logistics: It would have been impossible and irregular for Philby and Makeyev (or Philby and a claimed contact in Washington) to make arrangements for Maclean’s escape from so far away, a claim made by both Modin and Philby. Moscow Centre would have had to approve and organize the whole project.
  5. Timing: While Philby did not make the claim, critics have pointed to the fact that Burgess and Maclean absconded on the very day that Foreign Secretary Morrison signed the order for interrogation, suggesting that the Third Man was able to tip off the traitors immediately that decision was known. That would have been impossible for Philby to accomplish: the timing was probably coincidental.
  6. Pragmatics: The Soviets did not have to wait until the date of interrogation was determined to initiate the escape, which must have been planned for weeks ahead. Once Maclean had been confidently identified, his extraction would have occurred as soon as all the pieces were in place.

The fact that Philby was not aware of the timetable, or what the plans were for Maclean’s escape, is shown by a message from Makeyev that even Hamrick quotes, one ‘verifiable’ (although that word should always be used carefully when dealing with Soviet archives) from the Mitrokhin papers. Makeyev met Philby on May 24, and Hamrick comments on it, without dating it, as follows: “In one or only two of Philby’s documented face-to-face meetings with his KGB illegal, Makayev found him distraught: STANLEY, he reported, ‘demanded HOMER’s immediate exfiltration to the USSR, so that he himself would not be compromised.” Thus, the deception was a tactic to draw attention away from a real source close to the centre of power: and that process helped MI5 as well. Despite its obvious flaws, the account of Philby as the Third Man who warned Burgess and Maclean became a political catchphrase, and has been picked up by numerous writers. It suited Philby to deny it when under fire in 1955, and it suited him to confirm it when writing his memoir.

The Strange Case of Anthony Blunt

Anthony Blunt

When Guy Burgess arrived at Southampton on May 7, he was picked up by Anthony Blunt at the Ocean Terminal. The descriptions of Blunt’s role in helping the Soviet cause in the next two-and-a-half weeks before the May 25 departure of Burgess and Maclean are notably unreliable. The account by Yuri Modin (who was the KGB handler of Blunt and Maclean at the time) in My 5 Cambridge Friends is notoriously wrong on many points, such as Philby’s access to VENONA information and the timing of his suspicions concerning HOMER, Philby’s passing hints to the investigation in London, his own failure to recognize Makeyev, and the details of Krivitsky’s interrogation. He adopts the fiction of the Burgess mission undertaken to alert Modin and company of the imminent threat to Maclean, and that Philby and Burgess planned the details of the escape (for Maclean only, of course) while others (such as John Costello) have reported, by access to the Petrov papers, that the decision to exfiltrate Maclean had been taken months before. Somewhat puzzlingly, Miranda Carter in her biography of Blunt, Anthony Blunt: His Lives, despite acknowledging Modin’s flaws, cites him repeatedly. What is certain, however, is that Blunt acted as a go-between, communicating with Modin and Burgess about what shape the plans would take.

In his 1987 book, The Secrets of the Service, Anthony Glees quoted the testimony that Blunt provided to the Times in an interview published on November 21, 1979. It is an awkward and deceitful explanation in which Blunt gave away his continuing relationship with the Soviets, while denying that he had had any involvement in warning Burgess and Maclean. Thus Blunt supported the story that it was Philby who provided the hints that were based on VENONA. “Philby warned them, as has been publicly stated and I could not have had any knowledge of this.” Glees points out the anomalies, reminds us that Hugh Cecil and Andrew Boyle echoed the same line of reasoning, and cites Robert Lamphere’s account of the obstructive MI5 inquiry. But Glees’s argument focuses on the notion that the escape was provoked by the decision to interrogate Maclean in the week beginning May 21 (actually made on May 24), thus absolving Philby of the ability to communicate a warning from Washington.  If Blunt had been the source, however, he would have had to rely on another insider in MI5, since he had left the service in 1945. That conclusion would point to the existence of another mole, as Chapman Pincher strongly asserted, naming Hollis. Glees, sceptical of the case against Hollis, then turned to the evidence of Patrick Reilly, which I shall analyse soon. Yet if the timing of the abscondence had been coincidental, it would not have required the constant refreshment of the investigation’s progress to Blunt, or to anyone else, in those heady days of May 1951.

In my February posting of coldspur, I laid out the bizarre chain of events which led to Goronwy Rees arriving to have an interview with Guy Liddell, on June 7, only to find Anthony Blunt in the room. The source for the timing of this event comes from Jennifer Rees and John Costello, yet there must be some doubt about it. Liddell’s Diaries (which contain many redactions over Burgess and Maclean) are interrupted for the period between June 2, when he met with Blunt to discuss Burgess’s travel patterns, and June 12, when he indicates that he had just returned from Wales – presumably on holiday. His first entry on his return is to deflect the discussion to Dick White: “Dick had had a talk with Anthony and Garonwy [sic] Rees, which seems to indicate that Burgess had in 1937 been fairly closely implicated in Communist activities.” Thus it seems likely that the Rees/Liddell/Blunt encounter probably occurred earlier. Jennifer Rees provides no source for the date: Costello cites Nigel West’s MI5 and Chapman Pincher’s Too Secret Too Long, but neither of those works gives a date for the meeting. Maybe Rees’s hazy memory imagined a delay that did not occur. In any case, Liddell either tried to minimise the event, and reduce his involvement.

In The Perfect English Spy, however, the timetable changes. White told his biographer that Liddell’s meeting occurred on June 1 – but did not mention Blunt’s presence – and that he, White, interviewed Rees on June 6, i.e. while Liddell was away, which would grant more sense to Liddell’s comment. Yet there is no mention of a previous meeting between Liddell and Rees, and certainly no reference to Blunt’s presence. Was that ‘second’ meeting part of Rees’s imagination? The evidence of White and Liddell might suggest that it was: perhaps it was part of Rees’s fevered campaign of denunciation of Liddell. While White’s recollections are frequently dubious, and he might have had good reason for suppressing Blunt’s involvement, Liddell’s diurnal records were less sensitive, and occasionally very ingenuous. As Liddell wrote in that same careful June 12 entry, after dining with a very perturbed Blunt: “No new facts emerged, except that I feel certain that Anthony was never a conscious collaborator with Burgess in any activities that he may have conducted on behalf of the Comintern.”

Guy Liddell

Liddell’s contribution to the investigation was certainly unusual. He had headed B Division before White, and was now Deputy Director-General, but his Diaries show that White introduced him to the leakage case only on April 11, 1951! He does not appear to be surprised or upset about this, but does become more involved after May 25. A note to file by Robertson on May 29 states tersely: “Mr Anthony Blunt is being contacted by DD [Deputy-Director, i.e. Liddell].”  At this stage the whereabouts of Burgess and Maclean were not known, and most of the investigators would claim that they had no inkling that Burgess might come under the same suspicions that surrounded Maclean, so Liddell must have volunteered the information that Blunt, as a friend of Burgess, might be able to shed more light on him. Again, the lead-up to this invitation is ambiguous: both White and Costello reported that Liddell had received a telephone call from Rees on May 26, but had not been able to make sense of it. Rees said that he had tried to contact Liddell unsuccessfully that day, and thus contacted Blunt. Yet Liddell’s diary entry for May 29 (after a large redacted segment for the previous day) indicates that Burgess’s absence came as a complete surprise. He (Liddell) knew about Maclean’s departure, but not that he had been accompanied. It was Blunt who informed him: it is either an enormous bluff, or he was for some reason being kept out of the picture.

In any case, the outcome was that Blunt turned out to be the main witness for the prosecution. The archive at KV 6/143 contains an entry (June 6) where Blunt’s testimony that Burgess worked for the Comintern is used as the primary background material in the briefing-book prepared for Sillitoe for his coming meeting with Hoover. (Reilly’s and White’s knowledge that Guy Burgess had eagerly shown he had contacts inside the Comintern in June 1940 was conveniently overlooked.) At the same time, it is clear that Rees tried to exonerate his friend somewhat: he told the investigators that in 1939 Blunt had echoed his (Rees’s) protestations at the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact. That was not true, but Rees no doubt felt some obligation to a man he admired for dragging him into the controversy. And this whole exercise aroused the excitement of MI5’s B2 section. On June 11, Robertson was minded to declare: “Blunt has been named in Goronwy Rees’s statement as a person who was understood by Rees to have been one of Burgess’s source of information, at the time when Burgess was working for the Russians. Blunt has given every appearance of co-operating with M.I.5 in the present investigation but, by reason of his employment in this office during the war, must be regarded as under some suspicion.”

The irony was that the junior ranks in MI5 had just learned of Blunt’s possible treacherousness, while Liddell and White had known about it since 1944. After all, Blunt had made no secret of his Communist pretensions, he had written about them in the Spectator, he had been recalled from a Military Intelligence course in 1940 because of his dubious background (and somehow had been exonerated), and had then been recruited by MI5. As I also showed (conclusively, I would say: I have not received any rebuttal) in Misdefending the Realm, Blunt was caught red-handed accepting purloined secrets from his sidekick Leo Long, then working for MI14, which he then passed on to the Soviets. No doubt Blunt apologised, saying it was a one-off event, to which he was inspired by a deep sympathy for our struggling ally. He probably added that he believed Stalin was not receiving the richness of intelligence from Britain that he deserved, and felt entitled to show such initiative – an action, we should remember, with which Valentine Vivian expressed sympathy in another context. Long was suspended for a while, and Blunt was no doubt given a slap on the wrists, and continued with his perfidy.

Thus it might have come with a sudden and dreadful shock when White came to the realisation that, if apparently reformed Communist sympathisers like Maclean, and then Philby, and most recent of all, Burgess, could turn out to be red-blooded traitors and snakes in the grass, there was no reason why Blunt might not be in the same category, too. And here Blunt was, pretending to help the cause in nailing Burgess, just as Philby had gone out of his way to help incriminate Maclean. The final irony was that that, immediately White concluded that Philby’s guilt was proven – because of Burgess’s escape – he must have known that the fact of VENONA would have been leaked to the Russians, and thus there was no harm in confronting Maclean with the cables to cause him to confess. That would have been dangerous if Maclean had brazened out his interrogation (though that was unlikely, given his psychological condition), but it would no longer have mattered. By now, however, he had flown the coop.

Reilly and the Hollis Mystery

While Kim Philby had certainly acted as a ‘Second Man’ in warning Moscow of the net closing in on Maclean, many commentators and historians have picked up this unauthentic issue of a Third Man – an intelligence insider – warning Burgess and Maclean of the imminent plan to interrogate HOMER. Several have alighted on Liddell as the prime suspect, among them Costello, Lamphere, Oldfield, Deacon and Rees, as I listed in the April coldspur. An alternative theory has been strongly promoted by Chapman Pincher. Indeed, it was his life’s work to prove that the man behind all the counter-espionage disasters was Roger Hollis, who succeeded Dick White as Director-General of MI5 in 1956.

One of Anthony Glees’s objectives, in The Secrets of the Service, was to inspect Pincher’s claims, and I recommend the Professor’s book to anyone interested in the controversy. [I should declare that Professor Glees was my doctoral supervisor.] Glees analysed some of Pincher’s assertions about Hollis, and then reviewed them in the light of the Burgess-Maclean case. I have to say that I think Glees may have been influenced a little too much by some of the prominent politicians and officers whom he interviewed, among them Lord Sherfield (previously Roger Makins in our cast), Sir Patrick Reilly and Dick White. For instance, Lord Sherfield diminished the harm that Maclean had been able to cause, focusing on the matter of nuclear weaponry, when we now know that Maclean’s betrayal of Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s plans for negotiations at Yalta resulted in untold death and misery for much of eastern Europe, especially Poland. It is the post-mortem of the Burgess-Maclean affair, where Reilly contributed several comments in writing to Glees, that is even more provocative, I believe, and bears some close relationship to my inquiry.

Patrick Reilly

Glees introduces Reilly by citing Lamphere’s recently published FBI-KGB War, where its author complains about the way that the FBI were ‘misled and repeatedly lied to’ about the events that led up to the identification of Maclean. Lamphere stated that the Americans were told nothing about Maclean until after the escape, and he quoted Arthur Martin as ‘telling him that MI5 had insisted the FBI not be told about Maclean’. Glees then goes on to write: “As Chapman Pincher rightly observes, if this is true then Philby cannot have tipped off Maclean, since Philby would have known about Maclean and the date of interrogations only in his capacity as MI5’s postman to the FBI. But is this true? The answer must be ‘no’.” One might point out that, irrespective of Philby’s briefing by Oldfield in 1949, there is a solid difference between Maclean’s being identified as one of the suspects – a fact that was communicated to Lamphere, by Patterson – and the fact that he alone was about to be hauled in for questioning. In any case, Glees then called on one of the main participants in the investigation, Patrick Reilly, for his opinion.

To Glees, Reilly is a figure who instantly commands respect. “For against these allegations we must set the far more authoritative testimony of Sir Patrick Reilly . . .  His first concern now is that the full story of Maclean’s identification be told.” Reilly was generous enough to write letters to Glees on the topic, and I reproduce some of his statements here, adding my own commentary:

  1. “In the circumstances of the time, someone who was a member of the Communist Party might not have been acting dishonourably in not disclosing his political sympathies, provided, of course, he was not acting as a Soviet or a Communist agent.”

This is an extraordinarily ingenuous and weaselly policy to defend. First of all, it reflects the regrettable but all too real belief that there were ‘academic’ Communists who were harmless (probably British), and ‘practical’ Communists whose mission was to overthrow liberal democracy (probably foreigners), and that it was therefore quite acceptable to hire the former, even though they concealed their affiliations, while persecuting the latter. Did Sir Patrick not understand that the CPGB took its orders from Moscow, and that agents were known to engage in subterfuge, and thus conceal any illicit activity?

  • “One important stage in the investigation has, however, been overlooked. This is that at a fairly late stage a message became available that Homer was being consulted by the Russians  . . . The new message however showed that the spy was someone of some importance and we were then able to produce what was a relatively short list, about 9, I think. But we still had nothing special pointing to Maclean and indeed I remember clearly that we thought someone else was a more likely suspect.”

This is probably the only occasion in the history of intelligence where the treachery of leaking secret information has been described as a ‘consulting’ exercise. As KV 6/142 shows, Martin informed Patterson on April 12 that Maclean was then ‘the top suspect’. Reilly’s colleague in the Foreign Office, Carey-Foster, may have hoped otherwise, but the Washington Embassy was informed ‘at this fairly late stage’ of HOMER’s probable identity.

  • “The other part of the story quoted by Pincher is pure fabrication; it is totally untrue that the Foreign Office told MI5 not to inform the FBI that Maclean had been identified. On the contrary, Sir Percy Sillitoe [head of MI5] was absolutely determined not to put a foot wrong with Hoover since he had had such a lot of trouble with the latter over the Fuchs and Nunn May cases. He kept Hoover informed with messages which were sent over for special security through MI6 and therefore, of course, through Philby. And there is not the slightest doubt that it was Philby who was thus able to set Maclean’s escape in train. Indeed, I remember that when we in the FO were getting impatient about the delay in interrogating Maclean we were told that Sillitoe wanted to be quite sure we were in step with the FBI before the interrogation took place.”

There is no evidence that Sillitoe, who was out of touch with the details of the investigation, maintained regular communications with Hoover on the subject. (Hamrick makes much of the ‘special MI6 link’ accessed by Philby). K 6/142 shows that Reilly reported at a meeting on April 17 that ‘Strang wants no information passed to the Americans’. Martin passed that message on to Patterson on April 18. On May 10 Mackenzie suggested: ‘If Maclean breaks under interrogation, we should tell the FBI we intend to question him and very shortly afterwards give them the results’.  K 6/142 offers, from a meeting on May 15, that the Foreign Office ‘was anxious that nothing be disclosed to the State Department’, and thus nothing should be sent to Hoover (for fear of leaks). On the same date, Makins and Mackenize pressed for Hoover not to be informed until after Maclean’s interrogation had taken place.

  • “The allegation that Maclean was not going to be prosecuted is also totally untrue. The long delay in interrogating him was due to the fact that it was considered that the evidence from the deciphered telegrams could not be used in court.”

This is partly true. Unless Maclean could be encouraged to confess, or had been caught red-handed passing over information (which was then unlikely, given the obvious surveillance imposed on him), he could not be tried in court based on VENONA evidence. Thus there was no certainty that he was going to be prosecuted, but also no decision made in advance not to prosecute.

  • “MI5 therefore considered that a conviction could only be obtained by a confession and in order to obtain a conviction their star interrogator, Skardon, needed much more information about Maclean. Hence the long delay which proved disastrous, especially as MI5 did not have enough men to keep Maclean under continuous observation.”

On May 15, a meeting between Reilly, Carey Foster, Mackenzie, White, Robertson and Martin agreed to go ahead with the interrogation, but keep silent about it to Washington for up to 3-4 weeks. Reilly did have a point, however. MI5’s report of May 18 stated that the service needed three months to prepare for the interrogation: that was partly because they wanted the FBI to make further investigations about Maclean’s wife, but Lamphere was very nervous about leakages to the State Department.

  • “Morrison would certainly have had before him a written submission, certainly already signed and approved by Strang, drafted by me or Carey Foster.  That submission would have certainly have been the result of prior discussion and the Home Secretary’s concurrence would have been obtained.”

The use of the conditional tense shows evasiveness. Could Reilly, so anxious to set the historical record straight, not recall what papers he signed?

  • “All Sillitoe’s messages to Hoover went through Philby who was thus able to arrange for Burgess to get himself sent home to alert Maclean without the latter’s contact in the UK having to contact him. Philby would of course have been on the alert for information about the date of the interrogation. He could have telephoned to Burgess who was not then suspected or under observation. But it is surely much more likely that he would have used the safe channel of his Soviet contacts in Washington who would have informed their colleagues in London who must have told Burgess by the morning of the 25th since the latter spent the day preparing for the escape.”

Communications on the progress of the BRIDE/VENONA investigation were sent variously by Robertson, Martin or White to Patterson, who then shared the results, as guided, with Philby and Lamphere. There is no evidence of secret traffic between Sillitoe and Hoover. The existence of safe contacts in Washington is highly dubious: Philby used Burgess to contact Makeyev in New York, but does claim he made contact once or twice with handlers in Washington. In any case, Philby would not have had time to act. The decision to go ahead with interrogation (for June 18-25) was taken on May 24, the day before the abscondence.

  • “At last, towards the end of May, MI5 declared themselves ready to interrogate. Full details of the plan were telegraphed to Washington (via Philby). I seem to remember that some hitch with the FBI caused a last-minute delay.”

On May 25, White informed Patterson of the recent meetings, and the schedule. He claimed that the discovery of Maclean’s wife in New York was ‘very recent’, and introduced ‘the real and notional aspects of the case’. The same day, Sillitoe sent copies of the instructions to Menzies, adding that they would be available to Philby, too (via Patterson). The FBI was not party to the decision.

  • “In the FO we had no conceivable motive for further delay. We were longing for the end of three months of intense suspense.”

On the contrary, the Foreign Office was trying to stretch the process out.  For example, reluctant to admit that Maclean could actually be a traitor, Mackenzie continually sought to investigate Gore-Booth.

  1.  “Our service had the tradition of a closely knit family. That one of us, the son of a Cabinet Minister, should be a Soviet spy was something quite horrible and we had been living with this knowledge for months.”

Apart from the fact that the Foreign Office, like any normal family, had its black sheep, rivalries, jealousies, misfits and idlers (as is clear from memoirs and archives), if Reilly had known this fact ‘for months’ (and the description pointed solely to Maclean), how could he pretend that, ‘at a fairly late stage’, the shortlist of suspects had been reduced to nine? And had he already forgotten about the conviction of John King, and Krivitsky’s warnings about the ‘Imperial Council’ spy?  What is more, Maclean had confessed to a secretary, while in Cairo, that he was ‘the English Alger Hiss’, and the secretary had written a letter that eventually landed in Maclean’s personnel file – a file which Sir William Strang refused access by MI5, on the grounds that the notion of traitors inside the Diplomatic Service was inconceivable. On the issue of ‘family’, Richard Deacon informs us that George Wigg, who had been the intermediary between Prime Minister Harold Wilson and the intelligence services, told him that esprit de corps was the bane of the Foreign Office.  Deacon wrote: “Wigg himself said that Morrison, when he left office, ‘still persisted in the view that Foreign Office esprit de corps was in part responsible for the affair [the failure to apprehend Burgess and Maclean before they defected]. Esprit de corps, apparently, had kept Morrison ignorant of information implicating Maclean which had been given to the Foreign Office by Stalin’s former agent, Walter Krivitsky, in 1940; it had also kept him ignorant of the Volkov revelations, made through the British Embassy in Turkey.”

  1.  “What is of course impossible to understand is that Arthur Martin should have told Lamphere (if he really did) that the FO told MI5 not to keep the FBI informed. . . If he is concerned to incriminate Hollis and therefore wants to minimize Philby’s part, he is being deliberately untruthful. I am absolutely astonished that it is possible for any doubt to be cast on the fact that it was Philby who warned the Russians of the investigation of Maclean and thus enabled them to plan his escape. The statement that the FO had told MI5 not to inform the FBI is false. I say that with complete certainty.”

As I have shown above, Reilly’s statement is simply untrue. There is not necessarily a logical link between the desire of the Foreign Office to keep information from the FBI (because of the risk of leakage, and the discomfort of having an announcement of Maclean’s interrogation pre-empted by the Americans) and the casting of doubt on the assertion that Philby could not have been responsible for all that Reilly (and others) claimed he did. Philby no doubt did warn the Soviets of the investigation into Maclean, but he would not have been able to alert them to the imminent interrogation. Indeed, no one may have done so.

Professor Glees’s conclusion from Reilly’s contribution was that ‘the full truth about the defection of Burgess and Maclean serves to incriminate Philby and to exonerate Roger Hollis in particular”. Apart from the fact that Philby was incriminated anyway (if not by the last-minute disclosure), if Reilly’s testimony can now be shown to be untruthful, would that incriminate Hollis? Not necessarily, but that is the topic of a completely different discussion. (Hollis hardly features in all the archival reports about the Embassy Spy investigation, but that was because he was intensely involved with the Australians in investigating their VENONA leaks, travelling to the Dominion frequently in 1948 and 1949, and helping to establish the ASIO organisation.) The major point here is: what was Reilly trying to hide?

The first declaration to be made is that, like White, he wanted to divert all attention away from any potential mole in MI5 (or a further one in the Foreign Office). This would likewise minimise the highly irregular relationship with Anthony Blunt, which must have also embarrassed Reilly enormously when the truth came out in 1963. If one maintained the stance that Burgess and Maclean had really been alerted at the last minute, but then Philby was eliminated from the line-up, fingers would have to point at another source close to the discussions. Blunt was later shown to be an intermediary for the Soviets, but he was not close enough to the action – unless Liddell had been keeping him constantly updated. But Liddell was largely out of the picture, too. The subsidiary point was that he wanted to clarify that MI5, not the Foreign Office, had been the main stumbling-block in the move to interrogation. That was perhaps petty (and White was still alive when he wrote to Glees), but it presumably meant a lot to Reilly.

Reilly thus remains something of a paradox. Why, after all that time, did he not simply admit that Philby had known about Maclean for a long time, and that the timing of the escape was probably coincidental? He would not have constructed such a web of deception around himself. Moreover, his professional contribution to intelligence matters appears very flimsy. His period as Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a position he held from November 1950 to April 1953, is treated with complete lack of interest by Michael S. Goodman in his official history of the Committee (2014). Goodman grants Reilly and his specific tenure only two uninformative paragraphs. (The sole fact that Michael Goodman vouchsafes us, about Reilly’s term as Chairman of that body, is that he destroyed a chair when he heard the news about Burgess and Maclean – a highly symbolic gesture of Chekhovian, or even Dostoyevskian, proportions.) Goodman does comment, however, on the JIC’s general abrogation of responsibility over VENONA and Soviet espionage, whether out of ignorance or indifference: “The JIC’s failure to probe the strategic implications of the damage caused by Soviet espionage is even harder to understand, despite the fact that administrative responsibility for security and counter-intelligence lay with MI5”, he writes. Goodman might have added that Reilly was in close cahoots with White at the time, but clearly concealed everything from the JIC itself. The real mystery is why such an unimpressive character as Reilly was not only appointed Chairman of the JIC, but lasted there three years.

Summary and Conclusions

Jorge Luis Borges likened the Falklands War to two bald men fighting over a comb. Here were two old-age pensioners claiming that neither of them, when schoolboys, broke the window. In 1951, Dick White, when he realised that Philby was blown, executed a crafty move to plant the responsibility for MI5 lapses on his rival organisation, SIS. Thirty-five years later, he distorted the real sequence of events when he described the happenings of that spring to his biographer, not wanting to reveal that he had suspected Philby long before. Back then, Patrick Reilly, embarrassed and enraged by the leakiness of the Foreign Office, had tried to stave off the inevitable. Thirty-five years later, under no pressure at all, he volunteered to document for Anthony Glees ‘the full story of what occurred’, and tried to turn the reading public’s attention away from the rottenness of MI5 and towards the comprehensive culpability of Philby. He could quite plausibly have simply debunked the ‘Third Man’ concept without practising to deceive.

Why did they do it? Because they could get away with it, and they knew that, even if the archive were opened, they would not be around to see it. This was the 1980s, however. The decade had kicked off with Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason, and the unmasking of Blunt. Chapman Pincher had followed in 1982 with his searing Too Secret Too Long. The secret of VENONA was starting to leak out, from David Harvey and Nigel West, and then Robert Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War in 1986. It does not appear that either White or Reilly read Lamphere’s account, but Glees’s reading of it prompted his approach to Reilly. Peter Wright’s controversial and revealing Spycatcher came out in the same year (1987) that Glees’s book was published, at the same time when Tom Bower started interviewing White. The mandarins needed to move on to the offensive, and try to protect the reputations of themselves and their institutions. Dick White’s deep plotting shows a hitherto undocumented side of his character as he elbowed and intrigued his way to the Director-Generalship of MI5.

The last point to be made is on the rather romantic notion of ‘intelligence sharing’, with which this piece started. The practice has a humorous aspect, in that Britain was invited by the Americans to join an exercise that would turn out to embarrass its intelligence circles. MI5 (for a while) shared the fruits of the Embassy Spy investigation with the FBI, but the FBI did not share them with the CIA, who did not even know about VENONA. And it has its darker side, too. It appears that Dick White, to meet his own political objectives, shared his inner suspicions with the CIA in order to spite his real rival, SIS, while concealing what he was doing from his boss, Sillitoe (a policeman) and his political master, Attlee (a Socialist). All the time, the real enemy, Stalin, learned more about VENONA (from Philby, and the American spy, William Weisband, uncovered in 1950) than either Truman or Attlee.

The research is never over. While I am relatively happy that my explanation in this piece is as solid as possible, given the sources available, further questions remain to be answered: For example:

When did White seriously begin to suspect Philby? In 1945? In 1947? In 1949?

Was there anything devious in Philby’s posting to Washington in 1949?

Did Menzies apply pressure on White to remain silent between 1945 and 1951?

Was there any outside political pressure on White & Reilly?

Was the Embassy leakage investigation extenuated for reasons other than embarrassment?

How much did Liddell tell Blunt?

Why was Menzies so tacit in the whole project?

Why did Reilly feel he had to lie so poorly?

Did Eastcote truly delay or conceal some of the VENONA decipherments?

Readers may think of others. Please let me know.

And lastly, what historiographical lessons can be learned from this? They are familiar.

  1. Luminaries will say anything to protect their legacy if they believe the archival record will not be released. Do not trust interviews of ‘The Great and the Good’ for historical exactitude.
  2. You cannot rely on authorised histories. Their sweep is to great, their sources too random, and they are works of public relations.
  3. Too many accounts pluck indiscriminately from semi-reliable sources, and lack a research methodology, as if an accurate story can be enticed from a volume of facts both reliable and unreliable, or from a succession of interviews with persons loosely connected with the drama.
  4. A methodology is thus essential, containing a rigorous chronology, knowledge of the roles, ambitions and objectives of the participants, and the background in which they worked. The historian has continually to ask: Why should we trust certain sources? What does redacted information in the archive tell us? How can conflicts in the record be resolved? Why would a participant in the drama want to make such falsifiable claims?

Sources Used

I list the following, in a hierarchy of those most reliable downwards.

Level One comprises mostly official archives. The series KV 6/140-145 at the National Archives at Kew is the primary source, even though it is selective and has been redacted. Publicly available CIA & FBI records have been used, although they are likewise often heavily redacted. I am grateful to an anonymous colleague for showing me excerpts from the Cleveland Cram archive. KGB records should always be viewed with some suspicion, but the Mitrokhin Archive contains some items that most critics have judged reliable. The VENONA transcripts are trustworthy (despite what some leftist apologists have claimed in recent years). Guy Liddell’s Diaries have also been a useful source, as they mostly bear the aroma of immediacy, but they have also been heavily redacted in places, and Liddell was not above inserting the occasional deceptive entry.

Level Two consists mostly of serious, primarily academic, histories. It must be remembered that all of these were published before much of the relevant archival material was released. They are thus highly reliant on what little ‘authorised’ history had been published, on other secondary sources, on the press, sometimes on controlled access to archives, on testimonies from participants through interviews, even on leaked documents. They are characterised (mostly) by a seriousness and objectivity of approach, with some governing methodology apparent, but not always a sound approach to the resolution of conflicts in evidence. (If you challenge interviewees too closely, they will cut off the oxygen from you.) Andrew Boyle’s Climate of Treason (1979) clearly broke new ground. Robert J. Lamphere’s FBI-KGB War (1986) adds some well-supported facts, although the author is very loose on dates. Anthony Glees’s Secrets of the Service (1987) offers a painstaking analysis of the affair, but unfortunately is too trusting of the evidence of Reilly, Makins and White. John Costello’s Mask of Treachery (1988) is a compendious but more journalistic volume, suffering from the author’s apparent desire to cram every ‘fact’ he could find about the case in the hope that a consistent story would emerge from the exercise. Verne Newton’s Cambridge Spies (1991) provides a thorough US-centric view of the spies’ activity, although it uses some dubious sources a little too indiscriminately.  The accounts of VENONA are generally solid: the official publication VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957 (1996), edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner, Nigel West’s VENONA: The Greatest Secret of the Cold War (1999), John Earl Haynes’ & Harvey Klehr’s VENONA: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America (1999), and Herbert Romerstein’s and Eric Breindel’s VENONA Secrets (2001), but they are all weak on the exact process of message collection and decryption, and contain errors.

Level Three displays a broad range of more specialised works, biographies mainly, by such as (but not restricted to) Miranda Carter, Jennifer Rees, Andrew Lownie, Michael Holzman, Ben Macintyre, Stewart Purvis and Jeff Hulbert, Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, and Roland Phillips. They all bring something to the table, but are for the sake of this exercise a little too narrowly focussed, or are acts of homage, or rely too much on oral evidence and memoir. I would place in this category the very readable works of Chapman Pincher, who rewards his readers with some tireless excavation of ‘facts’, but provides no sources, is too easily impressed by insiders who may be stringing him a line, and whose methodology is flawed by his objective of having all evidence point to Roger Hollis as a traitor. Nigel West’s Molehunt is also useful, but has been carelessly put together, and requires caution. Anthony Cave-Brown’s Treason in the Blood (1984) has some valuable material, but is undisciplined, as is his biography of Stewart Menzies, “C” (1987), which throws out some will-o’-the-wisp stories about Philby in the course of reporting interviews the author arranged with contemporaries.

Level Four includes a number of unreliable works that need to be listed, since they are so frequently cited by books in Categories 2, 3 and 5. The comparison of misleading stories appearing in memoirs with new archival sources does however often result in new syntheses. David Martin’s Wilderness of Mirrors (1980) is perhaps the most dangerous because it has been so widely quoted, a journalistic creation lacking sources. I have covered S. J. Hamrick’s fascinating but irresponsible Deceiving the Deceivers (2004) in my text. Kim Philby’s My Silent War (1968) needs to be approached with great scepticism, as do most books about Philby, including Patrick Seale’s and Maureen McConville’s Philby: The Long Road to Moscow (1973), a work completely devoid of sources but apparently reflecting a belief that a plausible story could be woven from interviews with about one hundred-and-fifty persons, and The Philby Conspiracy (1968) by Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley. The biography of Dick White, The Perfect English Spy (1995), by Tom Bower, is a classic example of how a prominent intelligence officer manipulated the media and distorted the truth. Goronwy Rees’s memoir, A Chapter of Accidents (1972) is highly unreliable. Dozens of works, by authors from such as Richard Deacon to Yuri Modin, could be included in this category.

Level Five includes the official or authorised histories. In normal circumstances such would at least appear in Category 2, but for this subject, they add nothing, and, moreover, frequently cite items from Level Four for their authority. Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 (2010) stops in 1949. Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm (2009), the authorised history of MI5, has solid coverage of VENONA in general, but is weak on the Burgess and Maclean case, and uses Wilderness of Mirrors as a source. No authorised history of the FBI exists, but John Ranelagh’s The Agency (1986), which comes closest, shows the same defects as Andrew.

Lastly, as part of my background reading for this project, I read Robert Littell’s The Company (2002), a semi-fictional account of the life of the CIA. It is an epic work in many ways (900 pages), a complement perhaps to Vasily Grossman’s Life and Fate, and a real page-turner. It has the disquieting feature, however, of mixing in historical figures (e.g. Kim Philby, James Angleton, Richard Helms, J. F. Kennedy) with invented characters, which may give the work some measure of authenticity, but is bound to lead to disillusion among the cognoscenti. The figure of William Harvey of the CIA, who fulfils a minor, but very important, role in the story of Dick White’s deception, is thinly masked by Littell’s giving him the name of Harvey Torriti. The reason for this is, I think, simple. The author needed his hero to be alive when Communism collapsed (the real Harvey died in 1976), and he also wanted to describe Torriti’s experience in dealing with a botched defection in Germany – which he ascribed to Philby’s mischief – by the time he wrote his report to Bedell Smith condemning the British traitor. In real life, however, Harvey was not sent to Germany until after the 1951 incident. The facts would have impaired a good story.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

5 Comments

Filed under Economics/Business, Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics