Category Archives: Geography

Late Spring Round-Up

‘Dave’ Springhall’s Headstone

Dum spiro, conspiro

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

Contents:

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

Sonia and Len Beurton

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

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

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

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

Ben Macintyre

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

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

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

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

Prodding Comrade Stalin

Neo-Keynesian Stalin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            Poor old has-beens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stalin Means War’

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

The National Archives and Freedom of Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian

Professor Frank Close

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

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

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

The BBC and Professor Andrew

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

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

Dear Xxxxxxxx,

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

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

Thank you.

Sincerely, Tony Percy.

Six days later, I received the following reply:

Good evening Mr Percy,

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

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

Regards,

Xxxxxxxx

EA to Group Managing Director.

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

Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.

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

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

Best wishes, Tony.

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

Dear Antony Percy,

Reference CAS-5759257-M8M4X9


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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nelson
Editorial Adviser, BBC News


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

I tried one last gasp:

Dear Sarah,

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Tony Percy.

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

Nigel West’s New Publications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismail Akhmedov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survival of Gösta Caroli

Gosta Caroli

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

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

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

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

Dave Springhall and the GRU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am the Daughter’

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

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

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

China and the Rhineland Moment

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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On ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

‘Wilmington’s Lie’ by David Zucchino

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

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

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

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

Next, four anecdotes . . .

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Notes taken after seeing the ‘Witness’ Exhibition

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

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

            “Who am – ? . . .’

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

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

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

The Orton Plantation

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

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

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

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

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

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Wilmington 1898 Memorial

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

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

The Wilmington Coup, 1898

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

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

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

“Proud Caucasians one and all . . .

Hear your wives and daughters call  . . .

Rise, defend their spotless virtue

With your strong and manly arms  . . .

Rise and drive this Black despoiler from your state.”

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

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

The Dawes Severalty Act

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin: The Letter from Geneva

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

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

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

The Geneva Letter

An image of the document appears here:

The Letter from Geneva

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

First of all, the text:

“My dear Burton,

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

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

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

            [ ‘paragraph missing’ *  ]

            Let us hear from you some time,

                        Your sincerely, V. C. Farrell”

* British Postal Censorship

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

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

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

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

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

The Sender of the Letter

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

SIS in Switzerland

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Implications of the Letter

Len Beurton

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

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

“He had no proper sense of shame.

He told his friends his Christian name.”

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

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

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

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

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

Analysis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Farrell’s Intentions: A Closer Study

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Postscript

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin: Response to Denis Lenihan

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

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

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

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

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

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

The 1939 Register of 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington

Hello Mr Percy

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes , Alan Anderton

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

Dear Alan (if I may),

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes, Tony.

(Anderton to Percy, 8/8)

Hello Tony

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

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

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

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

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

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

Best wishes , Alan

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

Thanks, Alan.

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

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

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

Best wishes, Tony.

(Anderton to Percy,8/8)

Hi Tony 

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

MI5 being devious, I’m shocked

Have a good evening , Alan

(Anderton to Percy, 8/8)

Hi Tony

Just found something on lostcousins dot com

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

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

It’s a strange old world, Alan

(Percy to Anderton, 8/8)

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

I enjoyed our exchanges today, Tony.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

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

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

The investigation continues  . . .

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

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Geography

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.)

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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.

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

A few weeks ago, at the bridge table at St. James, I was chatting between rounds, and my opponent happened to say, in response to some light-heated comment I made: ‘Touché!’  Now that immediately made me think of the famous James Thurber cartoon from the New Yorker, and I was surprised to learn that my friend (who has now become my bridge partner at a game elsewhere) was not familiar with this iconic drawing. And then, a few days ago, while at the chiropractor’s premises, I happened to mention to one of the assistants that one of the leg-stretching pieces of equipment looked like something by Rube Goldberg. (For British readers, Goldberg is the American equivalent of W. Heath Robinson.) The assistant looked at me blankly: she had never heard of Goldberg.

James Thurber’s 1932 Cartoon

I recalled being introduced to Goldberg soon after I arrived in this country. But ‘Touché’ took me back much further. It set me thinking: how had I been introduced to this classic example of American culture? Thurber was overall a really poor draughtsman, but this particular creation, published in the New Yorker in 1932, is cleanly made, and its impossibly unrealistic cruelty did not shock the youngster who must have first encountered it in the late 1950s. A magazine would probably not get away with publishing it these days: it would be deprecated (perhaps like Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes) as a depiction of gratuitous violence, likely to cause offence to persons of a sensitive disposition, and also surely deemed to be ‘an insult to the entire worldwide fencing community’.

Was it my father who showed it to me? Freddie Percy was one of the most serious of persons, but he did have a partiality for subversive wit and humour, especially when it entered the realm of nonsense, so long as it did not involve long hair, illicit substances, or sexual innuendo. I recall he was fan of the Marx Brothers, and the songs of Tom Lehrer, though how I knew this is not certain, as we had no television in those days, and he never took us to see a Marx Brothers movie. Had he perhaps heard Tom Lehrer on the radio? He also enjoyed the antics of Victor Borge (rather hammy slapstick, as far as I can remember) as well as those of Jacques Tati, and our parents took my brother, sister and me to see the films of Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – from a Thurber story – and Hans Christian Andersen), both of which, I must confess, failed to bowl me over.

Freddie and Mollie Percy (ca. 2004)

What was it with these Jewish performers? The Marx Brothers, Lehrer, Borge (né Rosenbaum) and Kaye (né Kaminsky)? Was the shtick my father told us about the Dukes of Northumberland all a fraud, and was his father (who in the 1920s worked in the clothes trade, selling school uniforms that he commissioned from East London Jewish tailors) perhaps an émigré from Minsk whose original name was Persky? And what happened to my grandfather’s Freemason paraphernalia, which my father kept in a trunk in the attic for so long after his death? It is too late to ask him about any of this, sadly. These questions do not come up at the right time.

I may have learned about Thurber from my brother. He was a fan of Thurber’s books, also – volumes that I never explored deeply, for some reason. Yet the reminiscence set me thinking about the American cultural influences at play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they corresponded to local traditions.

Movies and television did not play a large part in my childhood: we did not have television installed until about 1965, so my teenage watching was limited to occasional visits to friends, where I might be exposed to Bonanza or Wagon Train, or even to the enigmatic Sergeant Bilko. I felt culturally and socially deprived, as my schoolmates would gleefully discuss Hancock’s Half Hour, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I had no idea what they were talking about. (It has taken a lifetime for me to recover from this feeling of cultural inferiority.) I did not attend cinemas very often during the 1950s, although I do recall the Norman Wisdom escapades, and the Doctor in the House series featuring Dirk Bogarde (the dislike of whom my father would not shrink from expressing) and James Robertson Justice. Apart from those mentioned above, I do not recall many American films, although later The Searchers made a big impression, anything with Audrey Hepburn in it was magical, and I rather unpredictably enjoyed the musicals from that era, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I.

It was perhaps fortunate that I did not at that stage inform my father that I had suddenly discovered my calling in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, as the old meshugennah might have thrown me out of Haling Park Cottage on my ear before you could say ‘Jack Rubenstein’. In fact, the theatre had no durable hold on me, although the escapist musical attraction did lead me into an absorption with American popular music, which I always thought more polished and more stimulating than most of the British pap that was produced. (I exclude the Zombies, Lesley Duncan, Sandy Denny, and a few others from my wholesale dismissal.) Perhaps seeing Sonny and Cher perform I Got You Babe, or the Ronettes imploring me to Be My Baby, on Top of the Pops, led me to believe that there was a more exciting life beyond my dreary damp November suburban existence in Croydon, Surrey: California Dreaming reflected that thwarted ambition.

We left the UK in 1980, and, despite my frequent returns while I was working, and during my retirement, primarily for research purposes, my picture of Britain is frozen in a time warp of that period. Derek Underwood is wheeling away from the Pavilion End, a round of beers can be bought for a pound, the Two Ronnies are on TV, the Rolling Stones are just about to start a world tour, and George Formby is performing down the road at the Brixton Essoldo. [Is this correct? Ed.] I try to stay current with what is going on in the UK through my subscriptions to Punch (though, as I think about it, I haven’t received an issue for quite a while), Private Eye (continuous since 1965), the Spectator (since 1982), and Prospect (a few years old), but, as each year goes by, a little more is lost on me.

We are just about to enter our fortieth year living in the USA. As I wrote, we ‘uprooted’ in 1980, although at the time we considered that the relocation would be for just a few years, to gain some work experience, and see the country, before we returned to the UK. My wife, Sylvia, and I now joke that, once we have settled in, we shall explore the country properly. We retired to Southport, North Carolina, in 2001, and have thus lived here longer than in any other residence. Yet we have not even visited famous Charleston, a few hours down the road in South Carolina, let alone the Tennessee border, which is about seven hours’ drive away. (The area of North Carolina is just a tad smaller than that of England.) We (and our daughter) are not fond of long journeys in the car, which seems to us a colossal waste of time overall, and I have to admit there is a sameness about many American destinations. And this part of the world is very flat – like Norfolk without the windmills. You do not drive for the scenery.

Do I belong here? Many years ago we took up US citizenship. (I thus have two passports, retaining my UK affiliation, but had to declare primary loyalty to the USA.) My accent is a giveaway. Whereas my friends, when I return to the UK, ask me why I have acquired that mid-Atlantic twang, nearly everyone I meet over here comments that ‘they like my accent’ – even though some have been known to ask whether it is Australian or South African. (Hallo! Do I sound like Crocodile Dundee?) Sometimes their curiosity is phrased in the quintessential American phrase: ‘Where are you from?’, which most Americans can quickly respond to with the name of the city where they grew up. They may have moved around the country – or even worked abroad – but their family hometown is where they are ‘from’.

So what do I answer? ‘The UK’ simplifies things, but is a bit dull. To jolly up the proceedings, I sometimes say: ‘Well, we are all out of Africa, aren’t we?’, but that may unfortunately not go down well with everyone, especially in this neck of the woods. Facetiousness mixed with literal truth may be a bit heady for some people. So I may get a bit of a laugh if I respond ‘Brooklyn’, or even ‘Connecticut’, which is the state we moved to in 1980, and the state we retired from in 2001 (and whither we have not been back since.)

What they really want to know is where my roots lie. Now, I believe that if one is going to acknowledge ‘roots’, they had better be a bit romantic. My old schoolfriend Nigel Platts is wont to declare that he has his roots in Cumbria (wild borderlands, like the tribal lands of Pakistan, Lakeland poets: A-), while another old friend, Chris Jenkins, claims his are in Devon (seafarers, pirates, boggy moors: B+). My wife can outdo them both, since she was born in St. Vincent (tropical island, volcano, banana plantations: A+). But what do I say? I grew up in Purley, Coulsdon, and South Croydon, in Surrey: (C-). No one has roots in Purley, except for the wife of the Terry Jones character in the famous Monty Python ‘Nudge Nudge’ sketch. So I normally leave it as ‘Surrey’, as if I had grown up in the remote and largely unexplored Chipstead Valley, or in the shadow of Box Hill, stalking the Surrey Puma, which sounds a bit more exotic than spending my teenage years watching, from a house opposite the AGIP service station, the buses stream along the Brighton Road in South Croydon.

Do I carry British (or English) culture with me? I am a bit skeptical about these notions of ‘national culture’. One might summarise English culture by such a catalogue as the Lord’s test-match, sheepdog trials, pantomime, fish and chips, The Last Night of the Proms, the National Trust, etc. etc., but then one ends up either with some devilish discriminations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or with a list of everything that goes on in the country, which makes the whole exercise pointless. And what about ‘European’ culture? Is there such a thing, apart from the obvious shared heritage and cross-influences of music, art and literature? Bullfights as well as foxhunting? Bierfests alongside pub quizzes? The Eurovision Song Contest? Moreover, all too often, national ‘culture’ ends up as quaint customs and costumes put on for the benefit of the tourists.

Similarly, one could try to describe American culture: the Superbowl, revivalist rallies, Fourth of July parades, rodeos, NASCAR, Thanksgiving turkey. But where does the NRA, or the Mormon Church (sorry, newly branded as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), fit in? Perhaps the USA is too large, and too new, to have a ‘national culture’. Some historians have claimed that the USA is actually made up of several ‘nations’. Colin Woodard subtitled his book American Nations ‘A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America’, and drew on their colonial heritages to explain some mostly political inclinations. Somewhat of an oversimplification, of course, as immigration and relocation have blurred the lines and identities, but still a useful pointer to the cultural shock that can occur when an employee is transplanted from one locality to another, say from Boston to Dallas. Here, in south-eastern North Carolina, retirees from Yankeedom frequently write letters to the newspaper expressing their bewilderment and frustration that local drivers never seem to use their indicators before turning, and habitually drive below maximum speed in the fast lane of the highway. The locals respond, saying: “If you don’t like how we do things down here, go back to where you came from!”.

And then is the apparent obsession in some places about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’. The New York Times, leading the ‘progressive’ (dread word!) media, is notorious on this matter, lavishly publishing streams of Op-Ed articles and editorial columns about ‘racial’ identities and ‘ethnic’ exploitation. Some of this originates from the absurdities of the U.S. Census Bureau, with its desperate attempts to categorise everybody in some racial pigeonhole. What they might do with such information, I have no idea. Shortly after I came to this country, I was sent on a management training course, where I was solemnly informed that I was not allowed to ask any prospective job candidate what his or her ‘race’ was. Ten minutes later, I was told that Human Resource departments had to track every employee’s race so that they could meet Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. So it all depended on how a new employee decided to identify him- or her-self, and the bureaucrats got to work. I might have picked ‘Pacific Islander’, and no-one could have questioned it. (Sorry! I meant ‘Atlantic Islander’ . . .) Crazy stuff.

A few weeks ago, I had to fill out one of those interminable forms that accompany the delivery of healthcare in the USA. It was a requirement of the March 2010 Affordable Care Act, and I had to answer three questions. “The Government does not allow for unanswered questions. If you choose not to disclose the requested information, you must answer REFUSED to ensure compliance with the law”, the form sternly informed me. (I did not bother to inquire what would happen to me if I left the questions unanswered.) The first two questions ran as follows:

1. Circle the one that best describes your RACE:

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian
  3. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  4. Black or African American
  5. White
  6. Hispanic
  7. Other Race
  8. REFUSED

2. Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:

            a. Hispanic or Latin

            b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin

            c. REFUSED

What fresh nonsense is this? To think that a panel of experts actually sat down around a table for several meetings and came up with this tomfoolery is almost beyond belief. (You will notice that the forms did not ask me whether the patient was an illegal immigrant.) But this must be one of the reasons why so many are desperate to enter the country – to have the opportunity to respond to those wonderful life-enhancing questionnaires created by our government.

This sociological aberration leaks into ‘identity’, the great hoax of the 21st century. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial in which it, without a trace of irony, announced that some political candidate in New York had recently identified herself as ‘queer Latina’, as if that settled the suitability of her election. The newspaper’s letter pages are sprinkled with earnest and vapid statements from subscribers who start off their communications on the following lines: “As a bald progressive Polish-American dentist, I believe that  . . . .”, as if somehow their views were not free, and arrived at after careful reflection, but conditioned by their genetic material, their parents, their chosen career, and their ideological group membership, and that their status somehow gave them a superior entitlement to voice their opinions on the subject of their choice.  (I believe the name for this is ‘essentialism’.) But all that is irrelevant to the fact of whether they have anything of value to say.

The trouble is that, if we read about the views of one bald progressive Polish-American dentist, the next time we meet one of his or her kind, we shall say: “Ah! You’re one of them!”, and assume that that person holds the same opinions as the previously encountered self-appointed representative of the bald progressive Polish-American dentist community. And we end up with clumsy stereotypes, which of course are a Bad Thing.

Identity should be about uniqueness, not groupthink or unscientific notions of ethnicity, and cannot be defined by a series of labels. No habits or practices are inherited: they are all acquired culturally. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad for that reason, but people need to recognize that they were not born on predestinate grooves to become Baptists or Muslims, to worship cows, to practice female circumcision, or to engage in strange activities such as shooting small birds in great numbers, or watching motor vehicles circle an oval track at dangerous speeds for hours on end, in the hope that they will at some time collide, or descending, and occasionally falling down on, snowy mountainsides with their feet buckled to wooden planks, while doing their best to avoid trees and boulders. It is not ‘in their blood’, or ‘in their DNA’.

Social workers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to seek foster-parents for adoption cases that match the subject’s ‘ethnicity’, so as to provide an appropriate cultural background for them, such as a ‘native American’ way of life. Wistful and new-agey adults, perhaps suffering from some disappointment in career or life, sometimes seek out the birthplace of a grandparent, in the belief that the exposure may reveal some vital part of their ‘identity’. All absolute nonsense, of course.

For instance, I might claim that cricket is ‘in my DNA’, but I would not be able to tell you in what epoch that genetic mutation occurred, or why the gene has atrophied in our rascally son, James, who was brought to these shores as a ten month-old, and has since refused to show any interest whatsoever in the great game. On the other hand, did the young Andrew Strauss dream, on the banks of the blue Danube, of opening the batting for England? Did Michael Kasprowicz learn to bowl outswingers in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains? 

Yet this practice of pigeon-holing and stereotyping leads to deeper problems. We now have to deal with the newly discovered injustice of ‘cultural appropriation’. I read the other day that student union officials at the University of East Anglia had banned the distribution of sombreros to students, as stallholders were forbidden from handing out ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’. Well, I can understand why Ku Klux Klan hoods, and Nazi regalia, would necessarily be regarded as offensive, but sunhats? Were sombreros introduced by the Spanish on reluctant Aztecan populations, and are they thus a symbol of Spanish imperialism? Who is actually at risk here? What about solar topis? Would they be banned, too?

We mustn’t stop there, of course. Is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala is now viewed by some as a national British dish an insult to the subcontinent of India, or a marvellous statement of homage to its wonderful cuisine? Should South Koreans be playing golf, which, as we know, is an ethnic pastime of the Scots? Should non-Maori members of the New Zealand rugby team be dancing the haka? English bands playing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Should Irving Berlin have written ‘White Christmas’?

The blight has even started to affect the world of imaginative fiction. I recently read, in the Times Literary Supplement, in an article on John Updike, the following: “Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (‘Autofiction’ was a new one on me, but it apparently means that you can invent things while pretending to write a memoir, and get away with it. Since most autobiographies I have read are a pack of lies planned to glorify the accomplishments of the writer, and paper over all those embarrassing unpleasantnesses, I doubt whether we need a new term here. Reminiscences handed down in old age should more accurately be called ‘oublioirs’.)

The writer, Claire Lowdon, almost nails it, but falls into a pit of her own making. ‘Socio-cultural sphere’? What is that supposed to mean? Is that a category anointed by some policepersons from a Literary Council, like the Soviet Glavlit, or is it a classification, like ‘Pacific Islander’, that the author can provide him- or her-self, as with ‘gay Latina’? Should Tolstoy’s maleness, and his ‘socio-cultural sphere’, have prevented him from imagining the torments of Anna Karenina, or portraying the peasant Karatayev as a source of wisdom? The defenders of culture against ‘misappropriation’ are hoist with the petard of their own stereotypes. (And please don’t ask me who Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are. Just because I know who John Updike, James Thurber and Rube Goldberg are, but fall short with these two, does not automatically make me nekulturny, and totally un-cool.)

The whole point of this piece is to emphasise the strengths and importance of pluralism, and diminish the notion of multiculturalism. As I so urbanely wrote in Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere.”   

Thus, while tracing some allegiance to the cultures of both the UK and the USA, I do not have to admit to interest in any of their characteristic practices (opera, horse-racing, NASCAR, American football, Game of Thrones, etc. etc.) but can just quietly go about my business following my legal pursuits, and rejoice in the variety and richness of it all.

It was thus refreshing, however, to find elsewhere, in the same issue of the TLS, the following statement  –  about cricket. An Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote: “And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Ram. That claim might be a slight exaggeration and simplification, avoiding those tetchy issues about Hindu-based nationalism, but no matter. Cricket is a sport that was enthusiastically picked up – not appropriated – in places all around the world. I cannot be the only fan who was delighted with Afghanistan’s appearance in the recent World Cup, and so desperately wanted the team to win at least one game. I have so many good memories of playing cricket against teams from all backgrounds (the Free Foresters, the Brixton West Indians, even the Old Alleynians), never questioning which ‘socio-cultural sphere’ they came from (okay, occasionally, as those readers familiar with my Richie Benaud experience will attest), but simply sharing in the lore and traditions of cricket with those who love the game, the game in which, as A. G. McDonnell reminded us in England Their England, the squire and the blacksmith contested without class warfare getting in the way. Lenin was said to have despaired when he read that policemen and striking miners in Scotland took time off from their feuding to play soccer. He then remarked that revolution would never happen in the UK.

For a while, I considered myself part of that very wholesome tradition. I was looking forward, perhaps, to explaining one day to my grandchildren that I had watched Cowdrey and May at the Oval (‘Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago  . . .’), and that I could clearly recall an evening in late July 1956 where I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him whether he had heard that ‘Laker took all ten’. But Ashley, and the twins Alexis and Alyssa (one of their maternal great-grandfathers looked just like Ho Chi Minh, but was a very gentle man with no discernible cricket gene in his make-up) would surely give me a quizzical look, as if it were all very boring, and ask me instead to tell them again the story of how I single-handedly tracked down the Surrey Puma . . .

Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley reacting to the story of Jim Laker’s 10-53 at Old Trafford

Uprooted and rootless I thus remain. My cosmopolitan days are largely over, too. Even though I have never set my eyes on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand (or Minsk), I was fortunate enough to visit all five continents on my business travels. I may still make the occasional return to the United Kingdom: otherwise my voyages to major metropolitan centres are restricted to visits to Wilmington for appointments with the chiropractor, and cross-country journeys to Los Altos, California to see James and his family.

So where does that leave me, and the ‘common cultural mosaic that binds us together’? A civilized culture should acknowledge some common heritage and shared customs, while allowing for a large amount of differences. Individuals may have an adversarial relationship in such an environment, but it should be based on roles that are temporary, not essentials. Shared custom should prevent the differences becoming destructive. Yet putting too many new stresses on the social fabric too quickly will cause it to fray. For example, returning to the UK has often been a strange experience, revealing gradual changes in common civilities. I recall, a few years ago, walking into the branch of my bank in South Croydon, where I have held an account since 1965. (The bank manager famously gave me what I interpreted as a masonic handshake in 1971, when I was seeking a loan to ease my entry into the ‘property-owning classes’.)  The first thing I saw was a sign on the wall that warned customers something along these lines: “Abuse of the service staff in this bank will not be tolerated! Offenders will be strictly prosecuted.”

My, oh my, I thought – does this bank have a problem! What a dreadful first impression! Did they really resent their customers so much that they had to welcome them with such a hostile message? Was the emotional well-being of their service staff that fragile? Did the bank’s executives not realise that customer service requires a thick skin? And perhaps behind all that lay a deeper problem – that their customer service, and attentiveness to customers’ needs, were so bad that customers too often were provoked into ire? Why would they otherwise advertise that fact to everyone who walked in?

I can’t see that happening in a bank in the United States, where I am more likely to receive the well-intentioned but cringe-making farewell of ‘Have a blessed day!’ when I have completed my transaction. That must be the American equivalent of the masonic handshake. (No, I don’t do all my bank business via my cell-phone.) Some edginess and lack of trust appear to have crept in to the domain of suburban Surrey – and maybe beyond. Brexit must have intensified those tensions.

Another example: In North Carolina, when walking along the street, we residents are in the habit of engaging with strangers as we pass them, with a smile, and a ‘Good Day!’, or ’How are you doin’?’, just as a measure of reinforcing our common civility and good humour. When I last tried that, walking around in South Croydon, where my roots are supposed to be, it did not work out well. I got a scared look from an astonished local, as if to say: ‘Who’s that weird geezer! He clearly doesn’t belong here’. And he would be right.

In conclusion: a list. As a retired Anglo-American slightly Aspergerish atheist ex-database administrator, I love lists, as all persons with the above description predictably do. My choice below catalogues fifty cultural figures (including one pair) who have influenced me, or for whom I hold some enthusiasm, a relationship occasionally enhanced by a personal encounter that contained something special. (I should point out, however, that I was brought up in a milieu that stressed the avoidance of showing excessive enthusiasm: ‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle!’. Somehow I survived American business without being ‘passionate’ about anything.) That does not mean that these persons are idols, heroes, icons, or role-models – they simply reflect my enthusiasms and tastes. But they give an idea of how scattered and chaotic any one person’s cultural interests can be in a pluralist society. Think of them as my cosmopolitan roots. Rachel Cusk did not make the list, but she would probably have beaten out J. R. R. Tolkien and Eric Hobsbawm.

Kingsley Amis

Jane Archer

John Arlott

Correlli Barnett

Raymond Chandler

Anton Chekhov

John Cleese

Robert Conquest

Peter Cook

Peter Davison

Theodor Fontane

Milton Friedman

Alan Furst

Peter and Rosemary Grant

Robert Graves

Emmylou Harris

Friedrich Hayek

Audrey Hepburn

Ronald Hingley

Clive James

Paul Jennings

Gordon Kaufmann

Hugh Kingsmill

Heinrich von Kleist

Arthur Koestler

Osbert Lancaster

Philip Larkin

Stephen Leacock

Fitzroy Maclean

D. S. Macnutt

René Magritte

Nadezhda Mandelstam

John Martin

Peter Medawar

H. L. Mencken

Christian Morgenstern

George Orwell

Arvo Pärt

Sergey Rachmaninov

Joseph Roth

Peter Sellers

Eric Shipton

Posy Simmons

Joe Simpson

Wilfred Thesiger

Alan Turing

Immanuel Velikovsky

Carolyn Wells

Michael Wharton

P. G. Wodehouse

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Filed under General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Personal, Philosophy, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 5)

News update: A few weeks ago, one of my on-line research colleagues contacted me on some topic, adding incidentally: “You probably know that Ursula Beurton [i.e. SONIA] is the title of Ben Macintyre’s next book.” Well, I did not know that, but was able to verify the information at https://www.thebookseller.com/news/macintyre-reveals-20th-centurys-greatest-woman-spy-viking-979556. I thought it appropriate and timely to record the fact that I had tried to contact Macintyre towards the end of last year, sending the following message to his agent at Penguin/Random House, and asking her to forward it to the author:

“Dear Mr Macintyre, 

I have just finished reading ‘The Spy and the Traitor’, which I enjoyed as much as your previous books on espionage and sabotage (all of which I own). 

I wondered whether you were searching around for a topic for your next project. If you consider that extra-judicial execution of a German spy by the British authorities in World War II might be an attention-getting subject, may I suggest that you look at my latest monthly blog at www.coldspur.com? This is a fascinating case that has not received the attention it merits. Alternatively, you might want to pursue a highly credible explanation for the failure by Britain’s Radio Security Service to detect Soviet agent SONIA’s radio transmissions a little later on. The full saga can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio/.

I am a serious historian. My book ‘Misdefending the Realm’, about the communist subversion of Britain’s security during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, published a year ago, was based on my doctoral thesis at the University of Buckingham. I clearly have some copyright interest in what I have written on my website, but I am keen to encourage an author like you to pick up my research, and collaborate with me on broader publication. 

I thank you for your time, and look forward to hearing from you. 

Sincerely,

Antony Percy (Southport, NC)”

I did not receive the favour of a reply, not even an acknowledgment, but that is sadly not an unusual experience. I am intrigued to know what secret sources Mr. Macintyre has been able to lay his hands on, but I would have thought that ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and ‘Sonia and the Quebec Agreement’ would have provided him with some valuable research fodder. After all, if he came up with similar conclusions to mine, that would be quite noteworthy. On the other hand, if he did not, it would mean that he had missed an opportunity. Just sayin’. (And of course he may come up with some spectacular evidence that counters everything I have written.)

So I thought I should lay this marker on the ground, just in case.

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

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part 5

“S.I.S. foresee no difficulties in the provision of W/T sets on the scale we understand the S.O.2. require, but the extension of this form of communication will raise demands for an increase in the W/T frequencies and the number of skilled wireless operators allotted to the S.I.S., or to S.O.2. if an independent organisation is set up under their direction. As the whole plan will depend on successful communications, and their establishment must necessarily form a commitment in the early stages, we feel that favourable consideration should be given to these demands.” (from ‘Special Operations Executive’, Report by the Joint Planning Staff, 9 August 1941)

The previous chapter in this saga concluded with an analysis of the military situation in Europe of June 1941. Hitler’s war machine had recently invaded the Soviet Union, prompting the latter’s agents back in Germany to be urgently re-activated by Moscow Centre. In Britain, the Radio Security Service had found its permanent home within SIS, and David Petrie, the new Director-General of MI5, was implementing the organisation he had envisioned before he accepted the job, which allowed B Division to concentrate exclusively on anti-Axis counter-espionage and counter-sabotage activity. The Nazi invasion of Great Britain had been (temporarily) called off, but the Abwehr believed it maintained a few residual spies from the Lena operation in place, to keep it informed of morale, weather conditions, and military plans. A year after its foundation, the Special Operations Executive was still groping its way in search of an effective and secure model for building a sabotage network in Nazi-occupied Europe. The acquisition of new territories brought more flexible and more powerful wireless detection capabilities to the Reich’s defence and intelligence organisations, but presented fresh challenges in scope, geography, communications and the management of hostile populations.

France – Occupied Zone & Free Zone

I had originally intended, in this installment, to take the story up to the end of 1943, but the volume of material forced me to be more conservative. Instead, this chapter covers the period up to the autumn of 1942 – a similarly critical turning-point in the conduct of the war. Fortunes for the Allies were probably at their lowest in 1942. Even though the USA had now joined the conflict, Great Britain was being battered on all fronts, and the Soviet Union was trying desperately to repel the Nazi advance. Stalin and his minions were applying pressure on the UK and the USA to open a ‘Second Front’, yet Churchill did not impress upon the dictator the impossibility of launching a successful invasion of Europe so soon. Nevertheless, plans were already underway for the deception campaign deemed necessary for the eventual assault on the European mainland, and the unit responsible, the London Controlling Section, acquired new leadership. The XX Committee nursed some doubts: whether their most established agent, TATE, was trusted by the Abwehr, and whether their opponents saw through the whole deception exercise. Attempts to cooperate with the Soviets on wireless and cypher matters (some officers hoped that the Soviets would share with them their codes, and thus eliminate decryption needs!) also started to break down at the end of 1942.

Meanwhile, the Abwehr, now joined by the Gestapo, was starting to mop up the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), the spy network controlled by the Soviets. Schulze-Boysen was arrested on August 30, 1942, and Germany had by then started to apply to the operations of SOE and SIS what it had learned in radio detection and infiltration of Soviet enemy cells. The invasion of North Africa prompted Germany, in November 1942, to take over control of Vichy France, putting a severe dent in the efforts of French resistance movements that had been operating with relative freedom there. In Britain, the Soviet Union’s spies were able to take advantage of the pusillanimity displayed by British politicians, anxious not to upset Stalin. SONIA was active, and had been joined by her husband: Fuchs had recently adopted British citizenship. Despite Petrie’s concerns, the communist spy Oliver Green was not prosecuted. And the RSS appeared to ignore many illicit wireless transmissions that were being made from British soil.

I should make clear that it is not my intention to provide a comprehensive summary of all aspects of these resistance movements, and the various attempts at espionage and sabotage. My goal has been to show patterns of wireless usage among the various agencies, the techniques that led to both success and failure, and reveal how the advances in expertise and technology in radio-detection and location-finding contributed to the fortunes of the secret radio-operators, and thus to the outcome of the war.

Countering the Red Orchestra

Plans for increased wireless activity from Soviet spies in Germany had begun before Barbarossa. At the beginning of May 1941, for example, Berlin station had asked for more, and improved, radio-sets for the Harnack group. Thus it was only a few days after Barbarossa, on June 26, that German monitoring-stations intercepted the first of the transmissions from the network that the Nazis would come to call the ‘Rote Kapelle’. It was the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, in its interception station at Cranz, that picked up the callsign ‘KLK from PTX’. As Heinz Höhne wrote, in Codeword Direktor: “By 8 July 1941 the intercept service had seventy-eight Comintern transmitters on its books and by October there were a further ten. (By July 1942 there were 325 clandestine Soviet sets working in German-occupied Europe, the majority admittedly on the Eastern Front.)”

Organisation of German Radio Counterintelligence (Praun)

The Funkabwehr (Wireless Defence, which was not subordinate to the Abwehr) had been approved by Hitler as the authority for radio monitoring in June 1941. Competing intelligence groups had tried to take responsibility for the interception of illicit broadcasting, but both the Abwehr and the Ordnungspolizei (the Orpo, or regular police) had failed. The Orpo, which at the start of the war was responsible for locating unlicensed transmitters, had tried to develop its own interception capabilities, and, after setting up in Norway and the Netherlands, extended its reach into France, Poland and Russia, hoping to be able to work independently.  Yet it was overwhelmed by sheer volumes. The Funkabwehr was stronger, bolstered by the transfer of expertise and men from the army interception service, with five companies formed to cover Europe from Norway to the Balkans. Yet, at this stage, the equipment used by the Funkabwehr was inferior to, say, that of the Luftwaffe. It possessed only short-range direction-finders, and its mobile units were too bulky and obvious. It might have come as a surprise to the British authorities (who, it will be remembered, were at the time concerned that transmissions from their double-agents might be accurately located by the Abwehr) to learn that the FuIII (the shortened version of the very Teutonic name for the radio section, OKW/WNV/FuIII) as late as September was still trying to establish whether the transmitter with the PTX callsign was working in North Germany, Belgium, Holland or northern France – that is an area as large as England itself.

In fact FuIII discovered, through ground-wave detection,  three illicit transmitters on its doorstep, in Berlin, and by October 1941 was ready to pounce. The operation was bungled, however, and an observer was able to warn Schulz-Boysen of the impending raid, after which the transmitters (who had deployed solid security practices) were shut down on October 22, and not reactivated until February 1942. FuIII had thus to return its attention to PTX, and, with improved direction-finding techniques, was soon confident that its operator was working in Belgium, probably in Bruges. FuIII then engaged the assistance of the local Abwehr office. A few weeks later, on November 17, Berlin confidently informed the local team that Brussels was now the source. Captain Piepe flew over the city with direction-finding equipment, and aided by improved short-range detection gear (as well as by disastrously long broadcasts by the radio operators), a successful raid was conducted on the night of December 13/14. The agent KENT’s set had been disabled, and the chief, Trepper, had to flee to France.

German Direction-Finding Operation (Praun)

The Rote Kapelle in Germany was eventually mopped up quite speedily. Hitler, provoked by the insult of hostile wireless operators continuing to transmit, ordered its destruction in early 1942, and brought the Gestapo in to assist. The exercise was a rare example of the German intelligence agencies cooperating. As Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his report on the Abwehr: “Liaison at the centre for the most part consisted of little more than the transmission of reports between departments, though some large-scale cases, such as the Rote Kapelle, appear to have been centrally controlled by co-operation between different organisations.” The counter-espionage operation was thus aided by the secret police’s merciless interrogation and torture of agents they had arrested, as well as by some absurdly irresponsible behavior by the wireless operators. The papers seized in Brussels had given Germany’s decryption agency insights into the codes used, and this experience was parlayed into more aggressive pursuit of the members of the network in 1942. Yet as early as October 10, 1941, a fateful message had been sent from Brussels that revealed the addresses of the major spies in Berlin, Schulze-Boysen, Harnack and Kuckhoff, and when that message was deciphered in July 1942, it allowed the traitors to be tracked down quickly, and eventually executed.

For some time more, the Rote Kapelle operated outside the boundaries of Germany: the Brussels cell was effectively moved to Paris, while the unit in Switzerland, first detected in September 1942, would remain a thorn in the Funkabwehr’s flesh until late in 1943. The Abwehr learned, however, several lessons from the successful exercise in Brussels and Berlin. More accurate long-range direction-finding was necessary, but it would always have to be complemented by more discrete, miniaturised, and concealable local equipment. Gaining access to codebooks, and torturing spies to betray secrets, made up for slow and lengthy decryption capabilities. Given the rivalries that were endemic to German intelligence, a degree of cooperation between the Gestapo, the Orpo, and the Abwehr (who all had different agendas) turned out to be an important contributor to success. Moreover, the experiences that shortly followed in the Netherlands and Belgium proved that an efficient machine could, with some patience, ‘turn’ radio networks into an efficient vehicle for arresting further agents before they even started broadcasting. The improved techniques in location-finding would eventually, some time in 1943, be consolidated in the Gestapo’s headquarters on the Avenue Foch in Paris.

The Abwehr and the ‘Englandspiel’

The Abwehr was then able to apply some its lessons learned to confounding the attempts of the SOE to install sabotage agents into Nazi-occupied Europe. The Netherlands was one of the busiest countries, and, from the German standpoint, had one if its most ingenious teams working on the problem of illicit wireless. With its territory expanded, the RSHA was able to deploy more accurate direction-finding techniques, and Section IX of the Abwehr in the Netherlands had been informed, in the summer of 1941, of what sounded like classical agent activity (call-signs, irregular times of communications, short traffic-periods, etc.) in the country, in a triangle with a base of about twelve miles between Utrecht and Amersfoort. Another transmitter was indicated in an equilateral triangle of about twenty miles between Gouda, Delft and Noordwijk. An intense campaign of close-range tracking was initiated.

Issues of territorial ownership had to be resolved, however. If the groups responsible were working independently of London, it would fall to the Orpo (which, predictably, had its own Radio Observation Office, known as FuB) to investigate and prosecute. In the Abwehr’s mind, the Orpo would enter the project bull-headedly, quick to trumpet its success and punish the offenders: Himmler’s Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or Sipo), of which the secret police, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), was a part, alongside the criminal police (Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo), would be even more aggressive. The Abwehr, on the other hand, had longer-term goals of undermining the network, learning more, and inveigling further indiscretions. Hermann Giskes of the Abwehr had been able to gain the cooperation of the Orpo and the Sipo, and was then informed that the Funkabwehr had been able to prove that the stations were communicating with contacts in England. (A few months later, the station communicating with PTX had been localised to ‘North of London’ – still not a very precise estimate.)

The transmitter with the callsign UBX was caught red-handed by the Sipo, but the opportunity to play the agent back dissolved, as Sipo insisted on performing the interrogation, and the codes used turned out to be hard to crack. Another failure occurred in the Hague, where the local direction-finder, disguised as a meter-reader, was too obvious. Even though the operator with callsign TBO was localised to a single block of flats, the operator got away. These failures, and the corresponding decline in illicit transmissions, meant that the Wehrmacht direction-finding detachment was withdrawn from the Netherlands at the end of September, showing that, at this time, such units were something of a luxury that had to be deployed sparsely. Yet, early in 1942 the FuB had discovered a new transmitter with the call-sign RLS, located only as ‘somewhere in South Holland’. Close-range direction-finding was able to ‘pinpoint’ (a perhaps overused term in this sphere of discourse) to a modern block of flats in the Farhenheitsstraat in the Hague. The Sipo was able to conduct a successful raid on March 6, and haul in one Lauwers, who was to play a major role in allowing the Germans to run the SOE network in the famed ‘Englandspiel’, by which the Abwehr controlled almost all the SOE’s network in the Netherlands..

When Giskes wrote his book about the operation (London Calling North Pole), he described how incompetent and poorly trained the SOE wireless operators had been. “Without doubt, lack of experience and gullibility played an important part on the other side. The agents were really amateurs, despite their training in England, and they had no opportunity to work up through practice to the standard required for their immensely difficult task.” Yet the main fault lay with their contacts in England, who overlooked the omission of security signals that would have indicated that the agents were not operating under duress. Giskes rightly criticised the total radio organisation of British Intelligence for its sloppy approach to security, which allowed a small team of Orpo men to hoodwink the Baker Street setup, going on to write: “The carelessness of the enemy is illustrated by the fact that more than fourteen different radio links were established with London for longer or shorter periods during the Nordpol operation, and these fourteen were operated by six ORPO men!” He also showed that both parties were in total ignorance of the enemy’s direction-finding techniques, grossly overestimating the comparative capability of the other. Giskes said that the Abwehr assumed that the British would be taking bearings on the wireless locations of their agents, just as B1a in MI5 took pains to ensure that agents like TATE did actually transmit from where they were supposed to be.

The successful deception would carry on until March 1944, when Giskes recommended to the RSHA of putting a stop to it, sending a message of disdain and triumph to the British when he did so. The whole exercise was a coup for the Germans, and a tactical disaster for the British. Certainly, Giskes and his team showed as much flair and imagination as the members of the Double-Cross operation, and the British SOE Netherlands group was woefully naïve and gullible about what was going on (and later tried to cover up its mistakes). Yet the impact on the war’s outcome was meagre: many gallant lives were lost (the Germans executed most of the wireless operators, despite the Gestapo making promises to Giskes to the contrary), but sabotage in the Netherlands was not a critical component of the conflict, while deception of Allied invasion plans most assuredly was.

I shall study the infrastructure that the Funkabwehr supposedly deployed from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the next instalment. It represents an impressive achievement – if it can be entirely believed. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote a very informative account of the detection and location methods deployed by the Orpo and the Funkabwehr, which can be seen in the HW 34/2 folder at Kew, encouraged a certain degree of caution. After describing the technical means by which a transmitting station could be precisely located within half an hour, he went on to write: “The greater amount and reliability of information which has become available since the end of the war has shown that the picture presented by these reports was very far from accurate. In point of fact there is no real evidence that the size of the Funkabwehr was in any way remarkable nor that it possessed greater technical efficiency than might have been expected. This throws an interesting light on the origin of these reports which came from apparently quite distinct sources but which were yet mutually confirmatory. In the light of this it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that they were the result of exaggerated information deliberately put out by the German authorities to discourage the Allies from the use of illicit wireless. In this case they may in effect have been a form of preventive weapons used by the Funkabwehr itself whose effectiveness may have been feared by its own chiefs or by other security services to be very different from what these reports suggested.” That judgment would echo a familiar theme – that the Germans exaggerated their direction-finding abilities in order to deter operators and instill fear.

German Radio Counterintelligence Operations (Praun)

Lastly, the Germans admitted that ‘cooperation’ was a technique forced upon them by confused organizational structure. In his report on German Radio Intelligence given to the Americans in March 1950, General Praun wrote that this structure: “ . . .  in which the authority of the counterintelligence agencies, the civilian police, the Central Office of National Security, and the like overlapped constantly –  –  led to a waste of effort and constant jurisdictional conflicts. As a result many an enemy radio agent was able to escape, although his whereabouts had been definitely established by D/F.”  Maybe there is an element of buck-passing in General Praun’s account, but the reputation for ruthless efficiency over wireless matters enjoyed by the Nazi counter-intelligence machine received another buffeting.

SOE Strikes for Independence

In the previous instalment, in which I concentrated on SOE in France, I showed how histories of SOE have tended to overstate the efficiencies of Nazi radio-detection and location-finding techniques in the first couple of years of its existence, as an honourable but incorrect method of covering up its own operational failures, primarily in the area of training and security. Thus the experience in the Netherlands constitutes a more useful representation of how the Germans made advances in their defensive techniques, taking advantage of geography (a smaller, adjacent area, with flatter terrain, which made concealment difficult, and radio-wave distortion less likely). The Netherlands was also a crowded theatre in terms of the overall conduct of the war: the obvious sea-based entry towards Germany from the British Isles, and the territory that bombers on their way to the German heartland had to cross. For those two reasons it was stoutly defended. I now turn to analyzing the Allied perspective of SOE’s accomplishments in the Low Countries.

Whereas British Intelligence was able to compose (primarily through interpretation of ULTRA intercepts) a highly accurate picture of the organisation of their Nazi counterparts – insights that amazed officers interrogated after the war – the Germans had only a hazy idea of the structure of their adversaries’ intelligence units. M.R.D. Foot has written about how the SS and the Abwehr did not understand the distinctions between SOE and SIS, were slow to conclude that they had separate missions (sabotage and intelligence-gathering, respectively), and even thought that the SAS was a uniformed wing of SOE. Yet SIS and SOE were at daggers drawn, in a rivalry that matched any of the internecine battles of the Nazi hierarchies. From the outset, Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, had regarded SOE, set up under the civilian control of Hugh Dalton, as an irresponsible upstart unit whose destructive sabotage activities would interfere with SIS’s mission of intelligence-gathering. While jealously protecting his ULTRA information sources, since the Government Code and Cypher School reported to him, Menzies had also been given control of RSS, and had established a wireless section (Section VIII) under Richard Gambier-Parry.

The problem was that SOE was scorned by SIS, interfered with by the Foreign Office, and excluded from the military planning mechanism in the War Office, all of which led Frank Nelson to threaten to resign in November 1941. Hugh Dalton does not even mention SIS or Menzies in his diaries (primarily for reasons of secrecy), but they were a thorn in his flesh, and it was not until after Dalton was relieved of his post in February 1942 that SOE was able to take better control over its own communications. For SOE had to go begging, not only for airplanes that it had to plead for against the priorities of the Air Ministry, but also for wireless equipment and ciphers. As Foot wrote: “ . . . all SOE’s W/T equipment and ciphers were handed out by SIS, of which the home station handled all the traffic – with no increase in the cipher staff. This naturally caused delays, which in turn caused friction.” Thus the dry, bureaucratic minute with which I introduced this segment does not do justice to the struggle that evolved between SOE and SIS. SOE’s requirements had by far surpassed what SIS could provide. The matter would not be resolved until June 1942. Professor Hinsley, who in Volume 2 of his History of British Intelligence in World War II overall revealed a rather hazy and misleading understanding of how MI8 morphed into RSS, recorded how SOE, in March 1942, ‘acquired its own codes and wireless organisations and no longer depended on those of the SIS’.

Moreover, Menzies, and his sidekick Dansey controlled the information coming back from SOE agents. Claude Dansey – – an even more committed enemy of SOE than Menzies – was the latter’s liaison at Baker Street, the headquarters of the SOE, and was responsible for ensuring that, under an agreement made as early as September 15, 1940, any intelligence gathered by SOE agents had to be passed to Menzies even before SOE officers and managers had a chance to see it. (I was intrigued to read in the London Review of Books, May 9, 2019, an extract from an unpublished memoir by Kenneth Cohen, shared by his son, in which Cohen, who had worked for Dansey in the highly clandestine ‘Z’ unit, reported that ‘the SIS organisation was at its worst, partly because it made no serious attempt to pool varied intelligence sources on France: diplomatic (even Vichy); Free French; SOE, and our own counter-espionage were all operating uncoordinated.’ Neglect of SOE was no surprise, but Menzies was clearly in love with ULTRA, and derived his power and prestige from his role as communicator to Churchill of the output of the project.)

Thus the setbacks which SOE experienced in the Low Countries have to be reviewed in the light of the challenges imposed upon them by SIS. Several mishaps were reported in the attempts to land agents in the Netherlands in the summer of 1941. Radio equipment frequently failed, as it had been wired improperly (or so was the claim by SOE alumni). A lone agent, J. J. Zomer, was parachuted in in mid-June, and the first successful pair (Homburg and Sporre) arrived by the same means on September 7, which time happened to coincide with an increase in sabotage, probably caused by Dutch communists who had now changed sides. In any case, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who had been appointed Reichskommissar over the Netherlands in May 1940, was ordered to clamp down. As Giskes reported in detail, none of the agents survived long undetected. Zomer was discovered near Utrecht on August 31, by direction-finding equipment: his capture turned out to be a colossal liability, as ‘the text of about a hundred messages that he had exchanged with London since his arrival in mid-June, both in cipher and in clear’ (Foot), was captured with him. On the night of November 7/8, Taconis and Lauwers were sent into Holland to find out what had happened to Homburg and Sporre. Lauwers’s set would not work, and he had to get it repaired by a student. It was not until early January that Lauwers was able to make his first transmission, a delay in operation that some at Baker Street thought suspicious, only this time his silence had been an accident.

By now, the Abwehr knew about planned aircraft arrivals, with stores or further agents. Lauwers was arrested on March 6, and was turned just quickly enough to meet his transmission schedule. When a junior employee in N Section of SOE pointed out that Lauwers’s next message did not contain any security checks, he was told ‘not to worry about trivia, at the start of great events’. Foot indicates that security checks were regarded as an annoying fad of Menzies’s, but in this case, Gambier-Parry and his team were correct. It took a long while for Baker Street to come to the conclusion that its network had been suborned: since running a successful agent was what defined the career of the home officers, they were reluctant (as were the Abwehr espionage officers) to believe the evidence they had been trained to suspect. At the end of April, Gubbins, responsible for operations, expressed to Hambro the uncertainty felt by the Dutch authorities about which groups in the Netherlands should be regarded as intact. Yet the network was not closed down, and further agents were needlessly sacrificed.

SOE was undone more by its own incompetence in Belgium: it seemed to experience special trouble in recruiting appropriate persons. If no subversion of the networks on the lines of the Dutch fiasco occurred, enough missteps were made for ‘T’ Section of SOE effectively to shoot itself in the foot. Parachute drops started in May 1941, but the navigator on the first run forgot to press the switch to release the container of the wireless, with the result that it actually landed in Germany. Training was frequently rushed. The wireless operator Leblicq died horribly after making a bad exit from a plane. Agents were frequently dropped miles beyond their designated dropping-zone. One Courtin foolishly strung up his set immediately he had booked himself into a hotel: the casual curiosity of the local police resulted in his aerial being spotted, and his wireless set discovered under his jacket. (That is at least an indication that less clumsy and bulky apparatus was in use at the time.) Another, called Campion, started transmitting on December 1, but he was quickly captured, and his set turned, allowing the Germans to confirm new arrivals, and be waiting for them. Agents frequently fell out with their wireless operators, whom they regarded as feckless, careless or idle. One named van Impe plugged his AC-adapted set into a DC socket, and burned it out. Brion and van Horen stayed on the air for over an hour, and were caught by direction-finding: Van Horen had to watch while an Orpo sergeant played his set back. Fonck always transmitted from the same place – his mother’s home, and was caught on May 2, 1942. In June 1942, ‘Lynx’ could not make his wireless work.

Such maladroitness was compounded by the nervousness of the local population. Belgium was a small country, and it was difficult to hide. It was perhaps understandable that scared members of the population, doing all they could to survive the war, brought such illicit goings-on to the attention of the authorities. Thus Foot’s conclusion is not wholly surprising: “London normally put these arrests of wireless operators down to efficient German direction-finding. D/F was in fact often the cause; but so was careless talk, and so sometimes – as Campion’s example shows – was treachery. It suited the Germans to have the British believing in D/F, rather than realizing how widespread were the Germans’ informers, conscious and unconscious, in resistance circles. One contemporary account put down denunciation as responsible for 98 per cent of the arrests in Belgium.” It was much more Secret Army than ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And I unashamedly quote Foot again, at length, with his final judgment on the Belgian operation.

“By late October 1942 T had dispatched forty-five agents to Belgium, of whom thirty-two had fallen into enemy hands, ten of them – including three killed in enemy action – on their dropping zones. Besides Leblicq, who had never landed, eighteen of these forty-five were wireless operators. Among these, Verhafen had returned safely, Vergucht had no set, and all the rest were already dead or in enemy hands: in most cases, unknown to T. It may help the reader to have these unhappy results set out in the table on the following page; which adds two relevant agents from DF and one from the NKVD to T’s tally.”

“The Germans were both ingenious and assiduous in playing back their captured sets; T’s war diary is full of imaginary tales of minor acts of sabotage, with a few major ones – undetectable from the air – thrown in; T dutifully reported all this to higher authorities, and it was generally understood in the secret world in Whitehall that Belgian resistance showed great promise. This was all illusion: T had so far achieved very little.” The sense of failure was crystallized in the fact that, in August 1942, SOE and the Belgian government-in-exile came to break off relations in a dispute over objectives.

The timing of Foot’s analysis (and what I reported in January) shows that SOE’s move to independence from SIS brought results only slowly, and that the lessons of security were not quickly learned by Gubbins himself. The switch occurred in June 1942, and SOE took control of wireless, as well as the deployment of codes and ciphers. It constructed its own sets, and developed a training centre at Thame Park in Oxfordshire. It established two transmitting-receiving statins at Grendon Underwood and Poundon, on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. Later, Passy, of de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, was to claim that SOE professionalism in wireless operation greatly improved after this, but the service was still hindered by the abilities of those it could hire, and the struggle to complement solid, reliable and more concealable equipment with safe transmission practices.

SIS in Europe

While most of the attention in the media has focused on SOE, SIS had a valuable role to fill in providing intelligence from Nazi-occupied Europe. The networks had to be re-built almost from scratch, however, as the Venlo incident (whereby two SIS agents had been captured by the Germans, and identities of SIS networks betrayed), and the rapid overrun of European territories by the German war machine had left SIS without active agents or wireless capabilities to communicate back to the United Kingdom. The history of this attempt at reconstruction is choppy: much of it relies on individual testimonies that have frequently been romanticized to emphasise the heroic. Keith Jeffery, in The Secret History of MI6, provided some fragmented accounts of the challenges and successes, but there is no dedicated ‘authorised’ history of SIS espionage in Europe to draw on. Hinsley’s history reminds us that SOE was accused by SIS of recruiting some of its agents, and then invading its turf by using them to transmit intelligence when its mission was one of sabotage.

Claude Dansey’s Z organisation had moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war, but the wireless set in Geneva could be used only for receiving messages, because of local regulations. Despite friction between SIS and the Dutch government-in-exile, SIS was able to send in fifteen agents into the Netherlands between June 1940 and the end of 1941, but eleven of these lost their lives. Operations in Belgium were a little more successful: Gambier-Parry learned a lesson from early mishaps that trying to train an agent with no signalling experience into reliable wireless practices was a lost cause. (He apparently did not pass this insight on to his dependent ‘colleagues’ in SOE; moreover, it was a hopelessly utopian principle, given the recruitment pool to which the subversive organisations had access.) Thus a successful network called ‘Cleveland’, later ‘Service Clarence’, under Dewé operated fruitfully until Dewé was captured and shot in 1944. ‘Cleveland’ was joined by three other networks at the end of 1941, although Jeffrey writes that their effectiveness as a source of intelligence was jeopardized by their use of a courier service for British service personnel trying to escape home via Spain. By 1942, however, with new, properly-trained wireless operators in place, the Air Ministry and the War Office were complimenting the SIS networks in Belgium for their valuable intelligence on German troop movements, night fighter organisations, and railway activity.

The theatre of France differed in many ways. What it offered in the way of terrain – large and spacious, offering scope for concealment – was offset by some intractable political problems, very representative of the fact that, while all the governments-in-exile were bitterly opposed to Hitler, they frequently nourished vastly differing visions of what should replace the Nazi tyranny when the war was won. France had a strong Communist contingent, which was muted during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but took on new breakaway life after Barbarossa. SIS’s strongest contacts had been with men who continued to serve under the Vichy regime, a faction that was strongly opposed by de Gaulle’s Free Frenchmen. Thus, as Jeffery points out, the split was reflected within SIS where Wilfred (‘Biffy’ *) Dunderdale headed Section A.4, in contact with the Vichy French, reporting directly to Menzies, while Kenneth Cohen, who had served under Dansey in the Z Organisation in Paris, continued to report to Dansey as head of A.5, dealing with the Free French.

[* It is one thing for Wodehousian or Boy’s Own Paper -type nicknames, such as ‘Biffy’, ‘Jumbo’, ‘Bobbety’, ‘Buster’, and ‘Sinbad’, to be used by their colleagues, but a regrettable aspect of this mannerism is that all too frequently the sobriquets leak into the authorised histories, sometimes perpetuating a character belied by the evidence.]

The War Office applied pressure on SIS to infiltrate France immediately after the country’s fall. For the first year, efforts were tentative, and successes meagre. The professionalism of agents sent in was sub-standard, and attention to security was weak. Far too many persons knew the names of other agents in a network, and the networks were too big. One of the most prominent networks, Navarre’s ‘Kul’ organisation, had successfully penetrated much of Northern France, as well as the unoccupied zone, but Navarre was arrested in July 1941. The network was then taken over by Marie-Madelene Fourcade, as ‘Alliance’, and the latter has received a large amount of attention in histories and biographies. Cohen was able to report a high degree of success in many exploits, including the information gained by the Confrérie de Notre Dame about Saint-Bruneval that led to the successful raid on the radar station in February 1942, but the losses, especially of wireless operators, caused a constant drain on efforts to get information back to London.

Alliance was largely undone by the recruitment of one Blanchet who, immediately after Navarre’s incarceration, was sent out by London with a new type of transmitter, and a mission to train agents in its operation, and in cyphers. At about the same time, communist resistance fighters took up a more aggressive campaign of assassinating German officers, which provoked sterner measures on all in the movement. The Metro Barbès assassination of August 21, 1941 led to fierce reprisals culminating in the execution of forty-eight hostages at Chateaubriant on October 22. In turn, fierce debates took place between the governments-in-exile and the more radical leadership of SOE, again spotlighting the contrary aims of sabotage and intelligence-gathering.

SIS benefitted from some relaxation. In the spring of 1942, for example, the British Ambassador in Spain cancelled his ban on the deployment of clandestine wireless sets. SIS thus continued with its mission, but in much of France and the Low Countries the atmosphere had been contaminated by carelessness and civilian fear. For a while, a burst of productivity allowed reports to be sent to London from six French cities, but then disasters started to occur. Agents in Pau were betrayed by the head of Alliance in the Dordogne, who had been having an affair with the daughter of a policeman. Blanchet turned out to be a Nazi informer: he was eventually executed by Alliance officers in November 1942. David Stafford informs us of another major disaster: “In November 1942 the names of 200 of its [Carte’s] important members fell into the hands of the Abwehr when a courier fell asleep on a train and a German agent walked off with his briefcase . . .” While the intensity of requests from London for information increased every week, the networks were becoming under more and more stress.

A significant fact about this period is that radio direction-finding, at least until the summer of 1942, did not play a large role in the dissolution of the networks, which were undermined by traitors and poor security procedures. Yet the Nazi RSHA was impatient at the progress that the Abwehr had been making in eliminating all illicit wireless activity. On April 18, 1942, the ardent pro-Nazi Pierre Laval became head of the Vichy government, and collaborated in a much harsher policy. Laval gave his approval for the SS to transport into the South nearly three hundred agents from the SS and the Abwehr, accompanied by a fleet of cars and vans with the latest direction-finding equipment. Alliance tried to adapt by giving instructions to operators to move around more, and restrict their broadcasts, but the attempt was largely futile. On November 11, the so-called ‘Free Zone’ was invaded by several divisions of the Wehrmacht: the period of intense and accurate surveillance, so familiar from the war movies, started at this time. As Hinsley records:  “  . . .operation Torch led to a further setback for the SIS by precipitating the German occupation of Vichy France, where its own and Polish and the Free French networks suffered heavy casualties and widespread arrests, and Bertrand [who had developed productive connections both in Vichy and Paris] forced to retreat to the Italian-occupied zone in the south, lost most of his remaining contacts.”

The Double-Cross Operation

Back in Great Britain, as the threat of imminent invasion wore off, MI5 started to prepare its double-agents for the inevitable deception operation that would be required when Allied forces would cross the Channel into Europe. Some had had to be discarded, because their credible sell-by date had elapsed, or they had turned out to be untrustworthy (e.g. Reysen (GOOSE), ter Braak, Caroli (SUMMER), and Owens (SNOW) – all incarcerated or dead. TATE (Wulf Schmidt) appeared to have the most potential, but he had to be given a credible cover-story to explain his survival. While the investments that MI5 made in his equipment eventually provided him with a reliable transmitting capability, the need for him to find permanent employment put restrictions on his mobility, and he was thus prevented from answering much of the questionnaires sent to him by his handlers. But first, his ability to maintain reliable communications with the Abwehr had to be developed.

Coverage of Great Britain by German agents (from KV 3/77)
Guide to German agent activity – October 1940 (from KV 3/77)

TATE experienced an extensive number of teething-problems when his communications were tested out in the latter half of 1941. He had been given frequencies that were too close to a commercial station, and thus needed an alternative crystal. But when Karel Richter flew in with a replacement, in May 1941, Reed of B1A later discovered that it would not work on TATE’s apparatus. His transmitter was unstable, his receiver was too weak; modifications had to be made to his aerial. His handlers failed to pick up messages on his alternative wavelength (which made MI5 question how efficient the German equivalent of the RSS was). He was having problems with corroded parts, but received poor technical advice from the Germans on replacements. The apparatus was too large and conspicuous, and thus could not be moved around the country easily.

The experiments and tinkering went on into March 1942, when it appears that MI5 had almost given up. RSS was constantly monitoring TATE’s attempts to make contact (and the responses from the Abwehr). One irony from this exercise was the arrived conclusion that any double-agent working in the UK would be at great risk from direction-finding. As Reed wrote on March 16, 1942: “It is quite apparent from this that as soon as any agent here starts to send more than one or two messages at a time the possibility of his station being intercepted and located by means of direction finding is very great. TATE for example can usually get through his traffic in about ten or twelve minutes, but operating is spread over a period of an hour to an hour and a half, the danger to the agent is great . . .” Reed therefore made efforts to reduce the radiation output from the set, so that groundwave detection would be more difficult.

At last, in the spring of 1942, regular communications were achieved, and TATE’s wireless traffic was of high standard, and being picked up. RSS was able to monitor the fact that TATE’s organisational control was based in Hamburg, and that there were regular exchanges between Hamburg and Paris about his messages. The state of the art of remote direction-finding can be assessed by the fact that Reed was able to report that bearings indicated that the replying station was probably located ‘some twenty miles south of Paris’. By this time, however, TATE had been set up with a new legend: having been called up for military service, he had found notional employment on a farm, in September 1941. His apparatus had been in actuality been established in Letchmore Heath, east of Watford, which was presumably near enough to agricultural land to convince the German direction-finders, if they were indeed similarly acute in such calculations, that his new occupation was genuine. TATE’s opportunities for secret communications, however, were small, what with his long farming hours. He kept his transmissions short, and infrequent, just at the time that the pressures for increasing the information he could send were intensifying. But by the end of 1942, MI5 was confident that the enemy trusted its prime radio performer.

While the London Controlling Section, given the mission of masterminding the deception campaign, had been set up in April 1941, it was slow finding its feet, and acquiring the appropriate leadership. And MI5 struggled to expand its array of agents with wireless capabilities: it is astonishing how much information at this time was still relayed through invisible ink to poste restante letter boxes in neutral countries. John Moe (MUTT) and Tor Glad (JEFF) had arrived in April 1941, in Scotland, but their behavior was often troublesome, and JEFF had to be interned in September 1941. It was not until February1943 that MUTT received a new workable wireless set, parachuted in near Aberdeen. One agent who eventually turned out to be the most productive, Garby-Czerniawski (BRUTUS), arrived in Gibraltar in October 1942, after making a deal with the Nazis, who had arrested him, but he did not disclose his full story and hand over his wireless crystal until November 1942, so his story belongs to the next episode. Likewise, Natalie Sergueiew (TREASURE), who had even been trained in wireless operation and tradecraft in Berlin in 1942, and who would turn out to be a valuable (but temperamental) contributor, was in May 1942 taught how to use invisible ink. After moving to Madrid that summer, she had to remind her handler, in November 1942, that she had had wireless training, and needed to be equipped with a proper apparatus. Thus her story will appear in the next instalment, also. Dusko Popov (TRICYCLE) did not bring back a wireless set from Lisbon until September 1943.

Perhaps the most famous of the XX agents was Jan Pujol (GARBO), who will turn out to be the most controversial of all those who broadcast before D-Day, and whose wireless habits are critical to the story. Not only did he himself (or, more accurately, his MI5 wireless operator) provide some of the most important messages concerning invasion plans, but he also ‘recruited’ a complex network of imaginary sub-agents who were able to report from around the country. Yet GARBO’s ability to use wireless was also delayed: he had arrived in London in April 1942, and Reed had quickly acquired a transmitter for him and his network to use. Yet it was not until August of that year that his handlers in Lisbon gave him permission to use it, and in fact it took until March 1943 before his first transmission was sent.

On May 21, 1942, the Chiefs of Staff had approved John Bevan to replace Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section. He would turn out to be a great success: calm, forceful, inspiring, and insightful. Thus the pressures on MI5 and the XX Operation increased. At that time, MI5 confidently told the LCS that it controlled ‘80% of the German espionage network’, which was a surprising assertion, in many ways. How did it know who the remaining 20% were? And what efforts was it making to unveil them? Yet it was probably very sure that it controlled all the wireless agents, as it had an effective RSS on its side; indeed, Masterman wrote to the W Board in July, 1942, claiming all such agents were under his control. Yet some eerie fears set in. On August 8, one of Robertson’s officers, John Marriott, voiced the concern that the Germans might be suspicious of TATE. In his diary entry for August 13, Guy Liddell expressed a general scare that the Abwehr must realise that its ciphers had been broken, and its messages were being read. And how effectively was RSS operating in picking up illicit traffic?

The Radio Security Service

(I have already written quite deeply about the activities of RSS, and interception of illicit Soviet and Russian traffic  – the two not necessarily being synonymous, of course – in the 1941-1943 period,  at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-ix//.  Rather than my repeating that analysis, I would suggest that readers might like to refresh their memories by inspecting the latter part of that instalment. I summarise here the findings, and add a few observations gained from research since, with the contributions of a former RSS interceptor, Bob King, especially poignant and relevant.)

Unlike the USA, which enforced a ban on any non-governmental wireless traffic when it entered the war on December 7, 1941, Great Britain had a more complicated set-up to deal with. It had granted permission to the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments-in-exile to have their own telecommunications facilities. Thus official bans became difficult to enforce, especially since SIS was trying to gain foreign government approval for its own clandestine wireless usage overseas (such as in Switzerland). Moreover, with the Soviet entry into the war, a more testing challenge reared its head, what with the Russians seeking permission for similar facilities – and if not gaining permission, going ahead anyway. In the United States, the FBI had its claws clipped on April 2, 1942, when it had to agree not to move against any clandestine transmitters without service approval, suggesting that some illicit operators were working under military control.

In Britain, the coyness of the early part of the war disappeared. The National Archives (HW 34/1) report that RSS in 1942 busily started monitoring the communications of the foreign governments-in-exile – ‘mainly [sic] Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’, thus proving that spying on allies was viewed as a necessary ploy. Guy Liddell and Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of SIS’s Section VIII (which controlled RSS) had frequent disagreements about illicit transmissions. Early in 1942, Liddell noted in his diary that he was being let down by RSS, as it had failed to detect transmissions from the Soviet consulate, and (maybe more alarmingly) from German agents in Croydon and Blackpool. Gambier-Parry was not interested, enigmatically insisting that he had everything under control with the Russians. “They are well watched”, he dismissively told Malcom Frost on March 6, 1942, when Frost wrote to complain about illicit transmissions detected at 3, Rosary Gardens in London, effectively telling the MI5 officer to mind his own business. Gambier-Parry would later have to review his casualness.

RSS grew under its new control, SIS. One report indicates that, at its peak, it had a staff of 2094, of which 98 were officers, 1317 operators, 83 engineers and 471 administrative personnel, as well as 125 civilian clerks. That team was complemented by over 1200 Voluntary Interceptors in the UK, as well as units abroad. And, while it eventually had to concede some of its control of equipment and codes to the SOE, it took ownership of more location-finding capabilities. In the autumn of 1941, SIS terminated its contract with the General Post Office for mobile direction-finding units. The GPO had developed quite an extensive fleet of such vans, but they were judged (by one RSS insider) as being too obvious, too slow, and their operators not disciplined enough. Yet, by this time, the prevailing wisdom was that, since all extant enemy wireless operators were under MI5, no remaining operators, however illicit, could harm the national war effort.

What spurred all this research, as will be known to those who are familiar with ‘Sonia’s Radio’, is the question of how such an efficient RSS organisation could have overlooked the transmissions of Sonia. I reproduce here an extraordinary artefact from December 1941 that was passed to me by Bob King, a veteran of RSS. As is clear, it is a log sheet of Mr. King’s as a ‘watcher’ in the Oxford area, where Sonia Kuczynski operated. In an email message to me last summer, Mr. King wrote: “The RSS knew of her [Sonia’s] presence, with over 2,000 widely spread operators listening for any unidentified signals we could hardly miss her. But as she was not Abwehr we didn’t follow her up. I expect someone else did.” He later added: “I can say the tests and good evidence shows that it is unlikely that any illicit transmission within the UK during the war years escaped our notice. If it was not our assignment we dropped it. Whether the information (call sign, frequency, time and procedure, if any) was passed to some other organisation I cannot say. I was informed by one RSS operator that Sonia (he later discovered it was she) was copied and told ‘Not wanted’”, and then: “But it is certain that no Abwehr traffic escaped our notice including the movements of all spies/agents (with the exception of Ter Braak).”

I was overwhelmed by being able to exchange information with a survivor from the war who had operated before I (now a 72 year-old) was born, and intrigued by Mr. King’s revelations. I followed up with other questions, asking, for instance, how his unit knew that the operator, was Sonia, even that she was a woman. Mr. King replied: “I am sorry but I have no further information.  We identified the Abwehr by several means: procedure, tying in with other Abwehr (already known) and such things as operator recognition, note of transmitter and an experienced knowledge hard to describe. It was an operator (I forget who) who wrote to me long after the war saying that he had copied Sonia (this was sometime after 1946 I believe) when I left RSS and had no connection with it at all. Surveillance of short waves continued post-war I understand and exercises demonstrated that transmitters could not go undetected for long. Pre-war a rogue transmission was located by the GPO in many cases, it was their job to catch unlicensed transmitters and post war radio amateurs as well to report a station sending coded messages which in peace time was strictly forbidden.  This is why I maintain that Sonia could not have been undetected at any time since.  What the authorities did about it I am not in a position to say.” Mr. King also told me that the Interceptors were instructed to log everything, indiscriminately, on the wavelengths they were responsible for. They could not make independent decisions, say, on listening for overseas transmitters.

RSS Logsheet from December 1941

When commenting on one of my posts on Sonia, Mr. King summed up his experiences and opinions: “I am convinced that no illicit, or other, transmission audible in the UK could escape detection for long.  The whole high frequency spectrum was divided into sections (the size dependent on frequency) and searched regularly by several thousand skilled listeners.  All signals, recognised or not, by the operator, were passed to Arkley unless directed otherwise.  If not identified by us as Abwehr we either asked for a ‘Watch please’ or ‘Not wanted’. We had several VIs in or near Oxford (I was one in 1941) and I visited a full time one in Somerton so Sonia’s signals must have been reported. In my nearly 5 years at Arkley reading logged reports I may well have stamped ‘Not Wanted’ on a Sonia transmission.  There were some inquisitive attempts to discover the ownership of strange signals but I know no more or where information that we had was dealt with. Embassy traffic also I am sure was monitored.”

Like all members of RSS who were sworn to secrecy about what they did in the war, Mr. King obeyed the interdiction, but was then taken aback by the sudden revelations in the 1980s and 1990s, with books like The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay being published, and he warns about the possibility of faux memoirs among such publications. (I have written about the inventions recited in the periodical After the Battle, and how they have been promulgated by careless writers.) Mr. King’s goal is only to keep the memory of the dedicated persons who worked for RSS alive, and to ensure that the truth is told. He is very confident about the watertight coverage of illicit transmissions that occurred, and added the following: “We were always concerned that an enemy agent may have slipped our notice and put the XX system in danger.  It transpired after the war from our records and those of the Abwehr that no operational agent went undetected.  Several times spoof transmissions were arranged by us to test the RSS intercept capabilities.  They always appeared on our operators’ logs.  The longest delay was only about 5 to 6 weeks but usually much quicker.   This is hardly surprising with a least 2,000 people listening (about 500 on 24 hour watch) distributed over the UK.”

Yet there was a darker story behind the energies of RSS, an account that the rather sunny analysis in Hinsley’s official history overlooks. The archive at KV 4/97 (itself frequently redacted, which is alarming) shows a prolonged struggle between the forces of MI5, pressing for stricter interception of illicit wireless, and the more relaxed, but obviously arrogant, leaders of RSS, who were driven by other priorities. The main protagonist was the maverick Malcolm Frost, the ex-Post Office man who had so excited Guy Liddell early on in his career with MI5, but then antagonised so many by his own power-seeking and arrogance. From the time that SIS took over RSS up until the end of 1942, Frost ceaselessly prodded RSS to be more communicative on its ‘discrimination’ practices (i.e. selection of wavelengths and messages to pursue), and to bolster up the defective mobile units that the RSS had inherited from the General Post Office. This thrust, gradually taken up more enthusiastically by Guy Liddell himself, evolved from two drivers: the increasing knowledge that the airwaves in the UK were being illegally exploited by various agents, including suspicious Russian traffic, and the developing recognition that such interception apparatus and skills would be required after the eventual invasion of Europe in order to handle all the wireless-using agents that the Nazis were expected to leave behind as they retreated from the Allied attack.

Maltby in RSS at last grudgingly agreed with much of Frost’s argument: that the RSS Engineering staff had been dedicated to other work, and had not invested anything in the ‘deplorable’ state of the mobile units they had taken over (a fact they had concealed from Liddell). The apparatus was bulky, and required too many operators probably visible to the subject under scrutiny. They had made poor personnel choices, the incompetent Elmes heading up the teams being a prime example, and morale in the detection squads was low. RSS reputation for arrogance and poor leadership went before it: potential candidates for detection squads were refusing to join it. The mobile units themselves were too sparse, and too slow to move in on their prey. (A note by Guy Liddell in October 1942 states, for instance, that ‘the existing Mobile Unit bases at Leatherhead and Darlington should be transferred to Bristol and Newcastle respectively’, with Newcastle having to cover an area from Edinburgh to Leeds, and Bristol required to cover Wales. That is not a rapid-response organisation.)

Frost continued to probe and pester. In September 1942, he had reported that it could take three weeks for a unit to move in on suspect premises. Communications were slow and insecure, via telephone, when radio contact was essential. For such a search operation to be successful, of course, the illicit transmitter would have to keep on operating at the same location – highly likely if the culprit was an operator at a foreign embassy in London, but less probable if the transgressor was a trained Abwehr agent or Soviet spy looking out for detector vans. On October 23, 1942, Frost requested a correction/insertion to the minutes of the recent RSS Committee meeting: meeting: “Major Frost said in his experience it was unlikely that d/f bearings taken from this country could possibly give an clearer indication of the location of an illicit transmitter than a minimum area of 100 square miles, and he did not consider that this would be of much material assistance in making an arrest.” This observation matched what an expert such as Frank Birch wrote in his Official History of British Signals Intelligence. The fact that Frost had to make this observation would suggest that RSS was probably making exaggerated claims about the power of remote direction-finding techniques when mobile units tracking groundwaves were essential to trap offenders.

What all this meant was an expressed desire by Frost and Liddell to bring back the GPO, and Dollis Hill as a research establishment, and have MI5 put in charge of the mobile units. Liddell, somewhat belatedly complained, in September 1942, that ‘for eighteen months, RSS had done nothing to provide a solution to the problem which was of vital interest to the Security Services’. (He even told Maltby that MI5 had been undertaking its own research into better apparatus, which rather shocked the RSS man.) Yet RSS was overall obdurate, claiming territorial ownership. The foolish Vivian had endorsed the breaking up of the joint RSS-MI5 committee, being pushed by Gambier-Parry without knowing the facts, and then had to climb down. Maltby had to admit that his unit was really only interested in technical matters, and did not want to deal with the messy details of liaising with the Police, for instance. Gambier-Parry was clearly impossible to negotiate with, condescending and obstinate: he did not want his operation run by any committee, and he was evidently just very single-minded and parochial, or simply taking his orders from someone behind the scenes. Thus matters between RSS and MI5 (not purely involving intercepts) came to a head at the end of 1942, when new committees were set up, and an improvement in operations occurred.

Conclusion

The rapid progress that the German intelligence machinery made in detection techniques and apparatus during 1942 contrasted sharply with the relaxed and inefficient way that the British infrastructure dealt with the challenge. First of all, the Weimar Republic’s prohibition of private radio traffic, an order provoked by the fear of illicit Communist communications, ironically deprived it of a pool of capable amateur interceptors. The Germans were faced with a real and growing threat as their Reich expanded, and they complemented their improvements in technology with an uncharacteristic degree of cooperation between rival agencies, as well as a ruthless approach to interrogation and torture. It was a necessary survival technique – or so they believed. The various forces working subversively helped to soak up valuable German effort and resources, and both their intelligence and sabotage ingredients contributed much to the success of OVERLORD. Whether the carpet bombing of Germany or the thrust of SOE – so often at apparent loggerheads in the demand for resources – was a more effective factor in the prosecution of the war is still debated by historians. But the Germans took SOE and SIS very seriously – and probably exaggerated their detection capabilities as a deterrent.

The British, on the other hand, got lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of their isolation and relative impregnability, by their confidence that they had turned all existing wireless agents of the Abwehr, and probably by the notion that their decryption of the ULTRA traffic was really the key to winning the war. Unlike the Germans, they had a very gifted set of ‘amateurs’ in their Voluntary Interceptors: the Germans recognized the diligent way that the ‘Radio Amateur Association’ (as General Praun called the Radio Society of Great Britain) had selected and managed its members. On the other hand, the overall organisation and management of RSS was flawed. (Of course, it helped the cause of the Double-Cross Operation if the Germans gained the impression that British location-finding was weak!)  The British were not helped by a more bureaucratic approach to decision-making, a greater respect for the law, and a more humane approach in handling offenders. Yet there was also a failure of will, a slowness to respond to political conflicts, and a lack of clear leadership from the top. One can detect an absence of resolve in such subjects as how important the actions of SOE were, and how the organisation should be helped, how firm a line should be taken with such a dubious ally as the Soviet Union, and what actions should be taken with obstinate leaders such as ‘Bomber’ Harris  or Richard Gambier-Parry, and how the weaknesses of Stewart Menzies’s organisation was protected by his custodianship of the ULTRA secret. Certainly SOE suffered especially from some very poor management and preparation of agents. Yet overall there endured a cultural respect for rival personalities and institutions, a feature entirely lacking in their adversaries, which helped them surmount the various crises.

New Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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Special Bulletin: Hurricane Florence

Trees down on the triangle with Irwin Drive

I interrupt my regular bulletins to report on our experiences with Hurricane Florence. This major storm passed directly over St. James, in Southport, North Carolina, where our family lives, and caused some catastrophic devastation. It left us without power for several days, and we were able to keep up with what was going on only through our battery-driven radio, and cellphone contact with friends – some of whom had evacuated the town for safer havens. St. James issued a ‘mandatory’ evacuation order, but that meant that, if you did decide to stay, it was at your own risk, with no access to emergency facilities. About 300 families – maybe 15-20% of the occupants of St. James – decided, like us, to sit it out.

We have survived hurricanes up to a category 3 or even 4 beforehand. We have a variety of hurricane-shutters installed. While we are only a couple of miles from the ocean, we reside at the highest point in St James, about thirty feet above sea-level, which means we drain quickly. Brunswick County beaches face south-west, so the winds are normally less severe. We have stands of trees protecting us on the south side, where the first, ninth and seventh holes of the Members Club golf course – as well as the driving-range – help to break up the fiercest gales. And our closest friends are 1500 miles away. All of which reinforced our decision to stay. But we do not have a generator. . .

Our shutters are of a variety. Several are managed by a hand-driven crank, with a ratchet mechanism. Many are true shutters, which are closed and secured by bolting on a simple iron rod – downstairs from the outside (see picture) and upstairs from the inside, with one notable exception. We also have concertina-type doors that roll across the two large window-doors at the back of the house. The front door, and the windows of the recently converted back porch are all designed to resist hurricane-force 4 winds.

The hurricane shutters at No. 3835

But this was no ordinary hurricane. It was enormous – about half the size of France, which is 210,000 square miles. And even though it was only a category 2 when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, it brought an enormous volume of water with it. The water temperatures in the western Atlantic were very warm (in the 80s Fahrenheit), which gave Florence some enormous punch. She took a very slow and erratic path, which meant she stayed over the Cape Fear region for days. Forty inches of rain was expected in some parts (I am writing this on Sunday 16th September, without access to any news). Moreover, the ground was saturated. We have had sixty inches of rain this year before Florence arrived – over half of in the summer months – which means that trees were weakened, and there was nowhere for the water to go. Storm surge – abetted by the tides when they were high – was the biggest danger.

So Florence arrived on Thursday afternoon, when the first drops fell. We lost power about sixteen hours later. At noon on Friday, the eye passed over us, an episode normally accompanied by clear skies and calmness, although we learned from observation and the radio that the eye had filled in with rain. Two hours later, the gales returned, and it has been raining – mostly in torrents – ever since (11:00 am on Sunday, as I write), when raindrops are still falling into the new stream in our back yard. That means that the backside of the storm spent about forty-five hours to pass through: at two miles per hour, about 800 miles in radius. (I make these estimates with the help of my spies watching the radar on the Weather Channel from out-of-state safe houses, and communicating with me over an encrypted cellular connection. For security reasons, I cannot identify them by name, but their cryptonyms are ORCHARDIST, SAILOR, and TREASURER. They know who they are, and I am very grateful to them.)

At the end of our driveway

But this is a very serious matter. People have lost their lives, and property damage must be immense. We are in the hands of highly dedicated engineers and linesmen trying to restore our power. St. James is isolated, with all access roads impassable, and the main interstates (95 & 40) are also closed off in sections. I have not ventured beyond my driveway, but the flooding here must be disastrous in places. A few trees came down in the triangle opposite our house, but fortunately did not damage any property. One of Sylvia’s Bradford peartrees did not survive.

Sylvia’s Bradford Pear – probably cannot be replanted

I also took a few photographs of the flooded 1st hole at the Members Club, by the tee of which our house sits. (See below). We shall learn more soon, I hope.

The picturesque first hole at the Members Club. Be sure to take enough club to carry the demanding water hazard that bestrides the fairway . . .

Now you have cleared the water, you will need all of your 3-wood to reach this demanding par five, with its green well-protected by sand and water, and then face a tricky eagle putt.

Looking back to the first tee of the Members Club ‘Water Hole’. (Actually all eighteen are now called ‘the Water Hole’.)

And what about that last shutter? For some reason, the house designer decided that for two windows – in separate rooms – upstairs, each window would not have its own internal bar, but instead they would be linked and secured by an external bar that crossed the intervening wall. That means that a ladder has to be used to free the shutters, fold them back, and then bolt the shared bar tight. And the ladder has to be moved. Well, not only do I not really work on ladders any more, since the last practice I had with this, several years ago, the holly-tree in front of the windows has grown to such an extent that I had to abandon the exercise (see photograph), and risk the possibility that hurtling pine-cones (very dangerous missiles, by the way) would not break through our defenses.

The exposed windows!

One benefit of all of this was that I had a little nook during the day where enough light came through that I was able to read, as there was little else to do but meditate. (I was able to read Professor Foot’s extraordinary ‘SOE in France’, written in 1966 when he could not even admit that SIS existed.) During one long session, I started calculating how much water Florence actually dropped on SE North Carolina. If you take a section of 10000 square miles, which is not massive, just a portion of the tract that Florence covered, and a tenth of Florence’s area – Brunswick County is 1050 square miles, about 150 % of the size of Surrey, England, the area of which is 642 square miles – and project 40 inches of rain, I could fairly easily calculate mentally the number of cubic yards of water that must have fallen in the broader local area. Then I had to convert that number into recognizable gallons. But how many gallons in a cubic yard? I reckoned about 40, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me the divisor was 54. So I was able to adjust my result to come up with 2,000,000,000,000 gallons, that is 2 European billion, and an American 2,000 billion. That means 6 cubic miles of water for the section I describe. Multiply that by six, and Coldspur diehards will recall that this amount would be enough to fill Lake Tahoe.

[Note: On September 19, the New York Times reported that Florence had dumped 8 trillion gallons on North Carolina alone. Sounds right.]

Lastly, I plucked from my shelves ‘The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book’, edited by Alan Cash, and published by Penguin in 1964. I had completed a few of the puzzles, but most had lain dormant, and it was a convenient way of spending the time, alternately reading a couple of clues by flashlight, and then trying to solve them in the dark. The first few were by the ‘legendary’ (though he did in fact exist) Ximenes, and it surprised me a) how verbose he was allowed (or allowed himself) to be, and b) how unXiminean his clueing occasionally was. Thus I was initially baffled by the following:
‘Refer with a certain amount of freedom – yes, with more of it (5)’, until I realized it was much more obvious than I had imagined. I believe the Times of today would have rejected what D. S. MacNutt was able to deploy in the Observer sixty year ago. He disobeyed some of his own rules (such as clue length), and his clues reflect a number of awkward structures (e.g. overuse of ‘I’ and cockneyisms, clumsy joining segments, superfluous ‘thes’ in anagrams, duplicated signifiers in the same puzzle, rather dubious indicators of troublesome letter sequences, and references to living persons), as well as classic and literary references that would be considered far too academic and esoteric for today’s solvers. Still, his influence on the craft of cruciverbalism was enormous, and I believe that individual setter styles ought to be allowed to transcend too rigorous formalism.

My thanks to everyone – especially those in England – who passed on their good wishes at a time that I was not able to respond. I shall do so individually. In the meantime, expect a stunning and shocking story on Coldspur on the regular last day of the month. This one will blow you away more than Florence ever could!

The power was restored at about 8 a.m. today, Monday. Wilmington still cut off, St. James still isolated, and water not potable, but we are making progress. Yet there is more rain forecast, and I hear thunder in the background, and it is getting closer.

Postscript: Now that we are on-line again, I can see how devastating the damage has been, how many lives were lost, and how many are suffering. We were lucky, and I thank all the responders and service people helping out those whose property has been ruined by the storm. In fact, just as I was about to post this on Monday afternoon, we lost cable, Internet and telephone service. It came back at about 1:50 today, Tuesday.

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Surveying Lake Tahoe

 

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Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a travel piece about Lake Tahoe, that body of water that straddles the California-Nevada border. The article included an astonishing claim – that the lake contained enough water to cover the whole drought-ridden state of California to a depth of fifteen feet. At the time, I found it hard to believe, but was too busy to perform the research and calculations that would verify or refute this assertion. So I was not surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, the paper issued a correction that stated that the lake would cover the state to a level of fifteen inches, not feet.

Is this still credible? After all, Lake Tahoe is the size of a small English county, 191 square miles, something between Rutland and the Isle of Anglesey. California is almost 164,000 square miles, almost double the area of Great Britain. Lake Tahoe must be very deep, right? Well, its average depth is given as 1000 feet (its maximum being 1644 feet), offering it a volume of 36 cubic miles (1000/5280 *191). The multiple of California’s area over Tahoe’s is 858.6 (164,000/191). Spreading Tahoe’s water over the area of California gives 1.164 feet (1000/858.6), or about fourteen inches. So the revised claim is fairly accurate.

So I got to thinking about other freshwater lakes. The largest in North America, Lake Superior, is 31,700 square miles in area, not as deep as Tahoe, but still providing 2903 cubic miles in volume. The greatest in the world in volume is Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which, while only 12,248 square miles in area (one and a half times the area of Wales) contains 5700 cubic miles of water, as its average depth is 2500 feet, with the deepest section reaching over a mile (5387 feet), well above the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. Thus, if the 15-inch claim is correct, the water in Baikal could cover the whole of California to a depth of 200 feet (5700/36 x 1.25). Perhaps President Putin could spare some for those long-suffering Californians? (While in California, one of the books I read was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Frazier quotes Dr. Sergei V. Shibaev, director of the Siberian Geophysical Survey at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in downtown Yakutsk, as saying: ‘But all other rivers in Yakutia are extremely pure, with reserves of water for all mankind. There is a deficiency of freshwater on the planet, as is known. We in Yakutia have freshwater here.’)

I thought I should check out Lake Tahoe. As it happened, we travelled to San Jose, California, in June, to visit our son and his family, now consisting of five – wife Lien, Ashley, now three years and eight months, whom regular readers will recall from ‘An American Odyssey’, and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa, whose second birthday we celebrated while we there there. We broke our visit to spend a few days in South Lake Tahoe, a drive of about four hours away from San Jose, and ascended the gondola (a ski-lift in winter) to a height of about 9000 feet, where I was able to take the pictures below. Yes, you could easily fit Rutland into the lake – including Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake when it was constructed in 1971 – and, with a highpoint of 646 feet, the county would easily be submerged in Lake Tahoe. Truly multum in parvo, as Rutland’s motto goes.

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Lake Tahoe, looking North towards Nevada

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Looking West towards San Francisco

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Julia and I at Lake Tahoe

Meanwhile, Ashley and the twins gave us great pleasure: we hadn’t seen them for eighteen months. After some initial shyness, they took to us very well. It is astonishing to me that Lady Ashley, at that age, could be so facile with an iPad and iPhone. I do not believe such skills are ‘in her blood’ or ‘in her DNA’, as that would mean a magical transfer of genetic material some time between the birthdates of her four grandparents and her arrival on the scene, but she has taken to them with complete confidence. (Her father’s working for Apple, and her mother’s aptitude in the same area, may have something to do with it.) However, I was able to introduce her to some new gadgets – a ‘non-scrollable, foldable, combustible information delivery vehicle’ (commonly known as a ’newspaper’), as well as a ‘single-function photographic device’ (a ‘camera’). Ashley was intrigued by both items, as she had clearly not seen either of them before. I present a few photographs of our visit.

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James, Lien, and the girls at the twins’ 2nd birthday party

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My three grand-daughters and I

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The girls overpowering their father.

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Sylvia and I at Father’s Day Dinner at Morton’s

A few new Commonplace entries for the month, to be found here.     June 30, 2015

 

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