Category Archives: Literature/Academia

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 2)

Cyril Fairchild of RSS: Ditchling Beacon, 1939

When I set about my research into the puzzle of the apparent failure of the British Radio-Direction Finding mechanisms to detect the German agents incorporated in the Double-Cross System, I thought it would turn out to be a relatively straightforward case of guile – foolish, perhaps, and lucky – but still a feint. Yet my readings led me to conclude that here was a multi-dimensional enigma, involving the following conundrums: the bizarre and humbling treatment of Gill, after he made a breakthrough analysis; Gill’s mistake over the assumption that Hitler’s agents all had receivers as well as transmitters; the mystery of Lt.-Col. Simpson, who made a significant impact, but was almost completely removed from the records; the deceptions of Dick White about the timetable of the Double Cross System; the misrepresentations of Guy Liddell about his organisation; the official exaggeration of the Abwehr strategy, and finessing of some technical aspects of their agents’ method of operating; the contradictory representations, by various ‘experts’, of the state-of-the-art of wireless direction-finding; and the scanty coverage of the topic by the authorised historians.

Yet perhaps the most extraordinary finding was the almost apocalyptic observation that appeared in John Curry’s confidential history of MI5 compiled at the end of the war, asserting that the decisions made about the responsibility for the Radio Security Service (RSS) had caused a tragedy of Greek proportions to take place. This judgment was made when the war had recently been won, and the activities of the Double Cross Committee, in exploiting the agents under its control to promote the message that a dummy army (FUSAG) was assembled to invade the Pas de Calais, had been a primary contributor to the success. Was Curry hinting at the Cold War, and the betrayal of Eastern Europe by the Allies? Was he suggesting that British Intelligence had abdicated its responsibility for monitoring illicit Soviet transmissions? Did a careless decision not to deploy the RSS with the correct discipline allow the Soviets to transmit undetected, or did a careful decision to soft-pedal RSS in order to allow the spies to be surveilled open up a different exposure? Or was he simply lamenting the handing-over of control of RSS to SIS, with the struggle over the release of ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material implying a colossal failure in joint intelligence? Given the political climate at the time, it is difficult to posit any other scenario beyond these. And, in fact, archival documents that have recently come to my attention firmly suggest that it was complacency about German agents that led to carelessness over other threats.

In my May blog, I had referred, in passing, to three documents written by the enigmatic Lt.-Col. Simpson that I believed were no longer extant. In June, through the agency of Dr. Brian Austin, I managed to contact a wartime RSS operator, one Bob King (who can be found in Pidgeon: see below) now in his nineties, who passed on to me a few files. One, though undated and unauthored, was surely an early draft of a contribution by John Curry of MI5 to his 1946 history of the institution (as the style was unmistakeable), but included comments that did not find their way into the eventual published version. The second was the 1938 report by Simpson on the threats constituted by the use of low-powered and miniaturized wireless transmitters in time of war, and what infrastructure, technology and organisation would be required to take on and eliminate such a menace. The discovery of this document is as if one of the lost plays of Aristophanes had suddenly been found. Likewise, I had not been able to locate this report from the Index of the National Archives at Kew, but, if any of Simpson’s contributions have been made publicly available, it astounds me that no historian appears to have grasped the significance of both these pieces. Another absorbing item is a report by an engineer who worked on a secret wireless interception project under the Metropolitan Police. I have no doubts whatever as to the authenticity of these documents, and shall use them (and others) to update the story in this entry. Moreover, in an email communication, Bob King assured me that Sonia’s illicit messages were picked up by the RSS, but the unit was told to ignore them. This nugget of information has enormous significance, and I shall address it in a future episode.

I had originally intended that this chapter would move the whole story – including progress in wireless transmission and detection techniques made by British, Soviet and German espionage and counter-espionage agencies – up to June 1942. The discovery of these new sources, however, means that this piece is dedicated to a deeper analysis of the evolution of RSS leading up to its transfer to SIS in the spring of 1941, and the immediate decisions made in the months afterwards.  I shall return to a full discussion of Phase 2 (January 1941 to June 1942) in a couple of months’ time.

RSS finds its Home

  • Background

For my research on the RSS as displayed in ‘Sonia’s Radio’, I had relied primarily on the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World, subtitled Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War, written by its Editor, Edward Harrison, for much of my information on the evolution of the Radio Security Service in the first two years of the war. That was complemented by a revealing chapter in Nigel West’s GCHQ, although West probably ascribes too much importance to the role of Lord Sandhurst, since West enjoyed exclusive access to the Sandhurst papers, and relied on them for much of his narrative. I found valuable, but mainly anecdotal, evidence in Geoffrey Pidgeon’s The Secret Wireless War, some rather fragmented accounts in Frank Birch’s often inscrutable Official History of British Sigint (which frequently reads as if it had been poorly translated from a foreign language, probably German), and some revealing but often imprecise material in Professor Hinsley’s official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Philip Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying is overall very thorough and contains good corrective analysis. But Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 is very disappointing in its coverage, considering that it is the authorised history, and that RSS was an integral part of SIS after the spring of 1941. I had inspected some of the source material at the National Archives on a visit in 2017, but, since little of it has been digitised, I have not been able to analyse any other since, apart from a few pieces shared by other researchers.

I recently discovered (thanks to Stan Ames, an RSS enthusiast) a longer paper published by Harrison, which appeared in the English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV, no. 506, dated January 13, 2009. It is titled ‘British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-1943’, and provides a very comprehensive account of this critical era in wireless and intelligence. Harrison, who suggests that his contribution ‘fills the gap’ in offering an academic article ‘dedicated to the organisation’ of RSS, generally provides an insightful guide to the literature, and skilfully exploits a broad number of sources. He crisply explains the evolution of RSS, taking the line that MI8 tried to find it a  home in MI5; that MI5 resisted, because of issues of overstretch and competence; how Walter Gill, introduced to the unit late in 1939, brought to it new skills in discrimination (isolating and organising signals of relevance from among a vast noise in the ether); how Gill’s findings shifted efforts towards Abwehr signals abroad rather than illicit transmissions from the UK; and how, because of this geographical re-focusing, with the approval of the imminently-to-be-appointed chief of MI5, David Petrie, RSS was handed over to SIS early in 1941, with official approval occurring in May. He then relates the continuing battles between MI5 and SIS – primarily through the personalities of Guy Liddell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Maurice Cowgill – over the availability of ISOS decrypts that MI5 thought were critical for the smooth running of the Double-Cross system. It is a masterful and highly valuable contribution to the history.

Yet Harrison’s story does, I believe, not perform full justice to RSS, or describe accurately the manoeuvrings that went on behind the scenes to determine the control of RSS. It is a more a study of the relationships and tensions between MI5 and SIS than of the machinery and contributions of RSS itself, and Harrison is perhaps a touch too respectful of Trevor-Roper’s role, describing him as ‘the intellectual inspiration of RSS’. Moreover, Harrison largely ignores some of the figures who participated. He says nothing about Lord Sandhurst, who was appointed to RSS, and played some role in recruiting or training the Volunteer Interceptor force in the first months of the war. (As indicated above, this may have been a sagacious choice, as Sandhurst’s involvement remains somewhat controversial.) Harrison does not mention, however, the greater contribution of Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson, who wrote the seminal paper that defined the structures, technology and organisation that he felt were vital for protecting the nation’s defences. Harrison seems to be unaware of SIS’s own clandestine interception capabilities constructed in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police, documented by Kenworthy, and chronicled in the National Archives, which throw a bizarre light on the whole issue of MI5/SIS territorial control. He rather bizarrely devotes a section to Malcom Frost’s late efforts to increase the efficiency of the mobile detection units without offering an explanation of what illicit operators they were supposed to be pursuing. He mentions Richard Gambier-Parry, who headed SIS’s Section VIII, under which RSS resided, only in passing. He offers a restrained analysis of John Curry’s highly provocative assessment of the ‘Greek tragedy’ that resulted from SIS’s takeover of RSS, an opinion that Curry himself appeared to abjure elsewhere.

Moreover, Harrison brings to the surface a number of anomalies and paradoxes that are not satisfactorily addressed in his paper, and I have to backtrack a little to the topics I introduced in the first chapter of this saga to refresh the story. I should point out that I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive account of RSS’s history, but to focus on the questions highly relevant to radio interception and direction-finding policies in WWII. Who drove the takeover of RSS by SIS? Why were domestic interception and detection so casually executed? Why were Sonia’s radio transmissions overlooked? Why did British intelligence believe it could convince the Abwehr that the Double Cross agents had not been detectable?

  • The Strange Decline of Lt.-Col. Simpson

Simpson’s Report: First Page

Now that one of Simpson’s papers has come to light, one can understand his considerable strengths, as well as what probably caused him to fall into disfavour. (If not familiar with him, readers should inspect Chapter 1 of this saga first.) His October 1938 report to the Director of Security Service at the War Office, titled ‘Illicit W/T Communication’, is a masterful explanation of the way developments in wireless technology could allow a nest of foreign spies to remain undetected in Britain. He pointed out that low-power transmitters would be able to broadcast to receiving stations overseas (in Germany) while remaining difficult to detect locally via normal ground waves. He recommended the establishment of three fixed Direction-Finding (DF) stations, each complemented by a pair of portable (i.e. mobile) stations, that in turn would be supported by a set of hand apparatuses that could be used for house-to-house search. Landlines to connect the DF stations would be essential, and a line would also link the main DF station with the fixed Interception station. The project was to be enabled by the recruitment of ‘some 50 or 60 picked amateurs out of the 4,000 now existing in this country’; Simpson did add, however, that he believed that the creation of such an organisation was already under way.

Lt.-Colonel Simpson’s Plan for Interception, 1938

Simpson expressed concern about the suitability of the G.P.O., the institution currently chartered with executing MI5’s requirements in this area, since it had a more regulatory and bureaucratic approach to the issue of frequency usage. ‘Our objective’ (which should probably not be interpreted as ‘MI5’s objective’, but as a national interest), he said, is to prevent any unauthorised transmissions, not just investigate them after they had happened. That is why he focused on developing a more elite, professional staff from among all the amateurs who held experimental licenses. He did add, however, the intriguing comment that one of the objectives would be to ‘locate the source of transmission with the least possible delay, but not necessarily stop it’, hinting at the notion of possible control of alien broadcasts, but in fact suggesting a desire to distort the suspected propaganda signals to make them unintelligible. His final appeal was for centralised control over the whole process of interception, direction-finding, and message gathering, and that, when the collection ‘of a certain class of highly confidential intelligence’ had been made, it would be conveyed to the appropriate department ‘to take the necessary executive action’. Lastly, he nominated three very distinguished names to serve on a Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. James Robinson, Director of Wireless Research at the Air Ministry, Captain Round, an expert in DF and interception work, and Mr. K. Tremellen, ‘the greatest practical authority alive on the subject of short-wave communication’. Strangely, none of these names appears in the authorised histories.

Some of Simpson’s ideas would be echoed later (e.g. the need for unification of resources, the professionalisation of voluntary interceptors), but his recommendations were perhaps influenced by two notions that were gradually becoming obsolete: i) a too technical approach that emphasised that the problem was one simply of interception and location, not foreshadowing the technique of traffic analysis, and the way in which that process, alongside (even partial) decryption, fed back into the act of discrimination, and ii) the belief, perhaps encouraged by WWI memories of German spy threats, that the country was riddled with German agents, equipped with wireless, who were ready to spring into action. What is also significant that he articulated the mission as ‘closing . . . all illicit channels of communication with the enemy in time of war, and of locating sources of political propaganda in time of peace’. What he did not include was the need to protect the realm from hostile (not necessarily declared enemy) communications designed to help subvert the country – i.e. transmissions by Communist spies, whether in time of peace or war. This must have been a failure of knowledge or imagination, and it is astonishing that, since he was offering his report on behalf of MI5, he was allowed to make his submission to the Director of Security Service at the War Office without this oversight being pointed out.

John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, suggests that MI5 rejected his ideas there and then, ‘being firmly of the view that German agents would only be using the mails or couriers to send in their reports’, and that the matter was turned back to the War Office. But that does not make sense. The source that Bryden provides for this explanation (Curry) does not give that as the reason: Curry blamed it on the administrative burden and financial commitments required. Moreover, despite the fact that the War Office approved Simpson’s recommendation that the RSS unit be set up, it did not endorse his ideas of ‘unified control’, and when MI5 declined to become involved, Simpson stayed on as the Security Service’s expert. He was surely happy to see his recommendations accepted, no matter where the unit reported. (His perspective on MI5 ownership is a little ambiguous: at one stage in his report he refers to ‘our’ DF or interception stations, but then goes on to write that they would be used ‘in conjunction with M.I.5.’ It appears he had an open mind on the command structure.) Bryden and Curry do agree, however, that the founding of MI1(g) was attributable to MI5’s lack of eagerness to take charge. Accordingly, RSS started collaborating with the Post Office in March 1939, with MI5 demoted to the sidelines, waiting for results.

Simpson may have been somewhat deflated, but thus hung around in MI5 (though without warm recognition from Liddell, his boss in MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division). The fragment from Curry indicates that he was vigorously promoting his original vision of unified control, and stressing the importance of the Post Office in harnessing the appropriate resources to tackle the threat of illicit transmissions by supplying suitable personnel, and moving to build the new facilities required. Indeed, Curry reports that Simpson was the main muscle behind the establishment of the Voluntary Interceptor system: a recognition that other commentators have overlooked. As B3b, he was actively supplying the liaison between MI5 that was later mirrored in SIS’s Section V. As MI5’s representative on the Technical Committee on Leakage of Information (TCLI) that the War Office set up in October, 1939, he was quick (in February 1940) to try to persuade the Ministry of Home Security to bring pressure on to the GPO. He attended the critical meeting on March 20 at Bletchley Park after which GC&CS agreed to set up the ISOS decryption unit. Yet his stubbornness in believing that a domestic German menace was being overlooked (when none existed) must have clashed with the messages coming from RSS. His emphasis on the need for widely dispersed Voluntary Interceptors to pick up illicit ground signals turned out to be something of a luxury, although the wide dissemination of interceptors greatly aided the ability of the unit to avoid omissions provoked by the whimsicality of ‘skip zones’ and the presence of thunderstorms. His expressed frustrations with the GPO’s lack of urgency in constructing new DF and Interception stations was probably on target, but his insistence that the detection of illicit wireless was ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ was not.

Maybe the SNOW affair changed Liddell’s mind somewhat. Simpson’s ideas must have had a slight resurgence with the ‘Fifth Column’ scare in the summer of 1940, but Liddell’s entering discussions with ‘the BBC man’ Malcolm Frost in May 1940 suggests that Simpson was no longer around. (Frost had been the BBC representative on the TCLI, and thus presumably had caught Liddell’s eye as a possible replacement for Simpson.) Indeed, the system of Regional Security Liaison Officers that MI5 set up by Guy Liddell in June 1940, specifically to address the threat of illicit wireless (and which was headed by Jane Archer, mysteriously sidelined from her expert role in tracking Communist subversion) mapped very closely to Simpson’s areas of demarcation. But when that was shown to be a false alarm, his whole infrastructure was seen to be somewhat redundant, especially in the light of the lessons being learned by Gill and Trevor-Roper in the RSS organisation. Interceptors were needed in large numbers, but did not have to be located so evenly around the country in order to pick up ground waves. Simpson’s attendance at the meeting at Bletchley Park where the revelations about the discovery of Abwehr traffic were made is the last reference that Liddell makes to him in his Diaries.

Still, Simpson’s omission from the record books (outside Curry) is extremely puzzling, and some of his contribution remains uncredited. For example, his report clearly refers to the 4,000 amateurs known to the Post Office who had the potential of providing the elite force that Simpson needed. Yet most histories and memoirs attribute the imaginative idea to Lord Sandhurst, who was reportedly recruited by RSS at the outbreak of war to develop a professional force of interceptors to replace the largely part-time group assembled by Colonel Worlledge. Sandhurst, who had also been instructed to liaise with R. L. Hughes of MI5 (who, Curry informs us was B3b, responsible for liaison with the RSS and the BBC, and thus working directly for Simpson at that time), soon approached Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society of Great Britain. Watts had ‘several thousand’ members who were radio hams, so Sandhurst then began to select the most suitable for training. Thus Simpson’s contribution is overlooked: Davies, like Harrison, remarkably makes no mention of wireless expertise in MI5 before Frost.  Simpson will turn up again in this account, when I write about the negotiations to find RSS a suitable home, but the verdict on his contribution must be that he was technically correct, but strategically wrong. He brilliantly assessed the state of the art of short-wave wireless telegraphy, and its potential subversive use, but he was caught up in the tide of searching for a phantom menace – the German W/T agents installed in the English countryside – and failed to gain the confidence of his colleagues in MI5. The irony was that the flock of interceptors he identified to protect the nation did not need to be precisely dispersed to detect ground waves, as there were no illicit operators at large at that time, but the volume and placement of such individuals did turn out to be essential to pick up the mass of signals originating from overseas.

  • The Rise and Fall of Walter Gill

Walter Gill

Walter Gill, on the other hand, was (in a specialised sense) technically wrong, but strategically correct. It still comes as a surprise to some observers that nearly all the Abwehr agents infiltrated by air or sea in 1940 were equipped only with a transmitter, and not with a combined transmitter-receiver, or with a separate receiver. Operating ‘blind’, without any confirmation that one’s message was being received at all, or perhaps not clearly enough (and thus needed to be re-sent) would appear to reflect a less than serious objective by the perpetrators of the scheme. And that is one interpretation that can be cast on the German planning, as I have suggested. (Preparations for sending agents into Britain did not begin until July 1940.) Yet that phenomenon is confirmed by the archival reports, as well as by the memoirs of some of the members of RSS. While Gill showed great insight over the question of the source of beams guiding German aircraft, his thesis, that if the supposed German agents could hear their controllers’ signals, then so should the operators in RSS have been able to, and that there were therefore none operating, was based on a false assumption. The focus on enemy signals originating abroad, and the eventual deciphering of many of them (ULTRA), was, however, a major contributor to the success of the war.

Gill’s policy must come under continual scrutiny, however. I have recently read accounts of two Abwehr agents who parachuted on to English soil before the main wave (Operation LENA) that arrived in early September 1940. Each of this pair was reported to have brought a working transmitter/receiver unit and successfully exchanged messages with his controller. Such transmissions were presumably not detected by RSS, since Gill claimed the unit had not identified any unexplained outgoing Abwehr signals. Such agents might therefore have been able to transmit undetected for some time, contrary to the accounts that the authorised and semi-official historians would have us believe. I shall investigate such adventures in my next chapter, to judge whether this was all an elaborate hoax. It should perhaps also be noted that Gill came to his breakthrough conclusion about the absence of German agents in Britain in December 1939, when SNOW was, almost certainly, the only wireless operator recruited by the Abwehr. His report, however, was not written until November, 1940, when the experience of Operation LENA, under which a dozen or more spies landed on British soil, would have sharpened sensitivities in MI5. Indeed, as early as July 13, 1940, Liddell felt compelled to record in his diary the following: “While I feel it is likely that there are a few German agents here, possibly transmitting by wireless, I do not envisage anything in the nature of large bodies of individuals going out to stab us in the back as soon as the Germans invade this country.” That observation indicates that the Gill doctrine had not been accepted wholesale at that time, and Liddell did not have complete trust in the energies of RSS.

I have little here to add to my account of Gill’s demise that I described two months ago, but the account that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave of Gill’s departure is somewhat paradoxical. Trevor-Roper was known for his caustic dismissals of many of those he encountered in wartime, especially the blimpish characters he considered to be his intellectual inferiors, but he clearly had some admiration and affection for Gill. Gill had been a lecturer on electricity at Oxford University, and a successful Bursar at Merton College, although Trevor-Roper had diminished his overall academic qualifications by writing that he ‘could only by a charitable laxity of definition be included among the educated’, a harsh and inaccurate judgment (as revealed in Dr. Austin’s detailed profile of him), which sheds more light on Trevor-Roper’s arrogance than on Gill’s cultural accomplishments. Yet they worked well together as a team. Trevor-Roper, however, when commenting on Gill’s clumsy and harsh dismissal and demotion, could only comment (in Sideways into SIS) as follows: “The real genius of the affair, Major Gill, was also deliberately overlooked. Left to find other employment, he became a radar officer and an expert on captured German equipment. Under the new regime, his name was never mentioned.”

Was there a reason for Trevor-Roper’s coyness over Gill’s treatment, which he also characterised simply as ‘rather shabby’? After all, Gill had been fired without even a formal notification, and then demoted from Major to Captain. Major Cowgill, the offended SIS officer (who had joined SIS only in March 1939, so did not enjoy a reputation of any sort), had repeatedly called for Trevor-Roper, who had been just as complicit in the affair as Gill, to be court-martialled. Yet Trevor-Roper escaped unscathed, even though the head of RSS, Colonel Worlledge, lost his job as well. It is surprising that Trevor-Roper did not provide a more comprehensive coverage of the whole business. In fact he concluded that Cowgill in fact ‘had every right to explode’, as Worlledge had revealed secrets concerning intelligence and security ‘not only to his official contacts in the Armed Services intelligence departments . . . but also (horror of horrors!) to the civilians of the Post Office.’ Perhaps Gill and Worlledge were punished because, as military veterans from WWI, they should have known better. In fact, as will be shown, it was a bit more complicated than that.

One last mysterious incident concerns Gill’s reappearance in April 1942. Despite what Trevor-Roper wrote over fifty years later, Gill’s name was apparently mentioned again, because (as Harrison reports) Trevor-Roper was in contact by letter with F. E. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was Churchill’s scientific adviser, at a time when Trevor-Roper, disenchanted again with his work in SIS, was looking for other opportunities. As Adam’s Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper makes clear, he was highly frustrated over the failure of RSS management (Maltby and Gambier-Parry) to keep technical policy aligned with intelligence aims. He had earlier rather indiscreetly criticised the leaders of RSS, specifically Gambier-Parry, and now told Lindemann that Menzies (chief of SIS) had called him in, and then accused him (Trevor-Roper) ‘of having supplied facts to Gill which he had supplied to you and you to Swinton’. Is that ‘he’ Menzies or Gill? Unlikely the former, as Trevor-Roper would presumably not have been party to information passed by Menzies to Lindemann: Menzies would in that case have been concerned about a breach of security elsewhere.

So if it was Gill supplying facts to Lindemann that got back to Menzies via Swinton of the Security Executive, what could those facts have been about, and on what basis were Gill and Trevor-Roper still in communication over important matters if Gill was by then working in a completely unrelated sphere of the war effort? And why would Gill want to leak secrets to Lindemann? It may be relevant that, at exactly this time, as Dr. Austin informs us, Gill joined the Army Operational Research Group, where he was responsible for investigating advanced aspects of Army field communications, but no details of the exchange have come to light. It sounds very much as if Gill and Trevor-Roper had stayed in touch, as ex-colleagues who had collaborated very productively on the matter of intelligent signals analysis, and that Gill was a man whose reputation had been restored, and had connections with influential persons. Another interesting twist to the story (as related by Sisman) is that when Trevor-Roper made a trip to Ireland in early 1942, i.e. just before the contact with Gill, Colonel Worlledge invited him to his home, Glenwilliam Castle, where ‘over a convivial dinner each outlined to the other what he knew of the takeover of RSS by SIS’. The existence of this conversation hints at untold scheming and plotting. Vivian of SIS was later to use this incident to make the astonishing claim that Trevor-Roper had gone to Dublin to betray the Ultra secret to the Germans, and that he had been ‘motivated by resentment against SIS for its treatment of Worlledge, and of Gill in particular.’ (Vivian was by now unstable: Liddell reports that he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1942.) Trevor-Roper’s published account of Gill’s dismissal was clearly much more muted than this: he was surely concealing something of substance, but it may have no important connection with the fate and mission of RSS.

Gill’s major contribution to the debate about RSS’s future was his November 19, 1940, paper on the Organisation of RSS. Curry represented the arguments therein (the whole Theseus episode, after which focus was shifted to interception of overseas transmissions) as a clinching argument for RSS’s ‘vitality and value’, and for moving it into MI5, but that judgment appears weak and woolly. The timing of this report suggests it was produced under some pressure, but Gill’s account expresses no concern about the current organisation, or the allocation of work between RSS & GC&CS, and it concludes simply with a modest request for more resources. Yet the report includes a very telling statement concerning Direction Finding: “Any of the residue [i.e. the messages remaining after known ones had been identified] found by D.F. to be outside the country could for the above purpose have been neglected [but were not].”  RSS was successful in tracking those same messages, but, by implication, some unknown messages did originate inside the country. Gill gave, however, no indication of how these were investigated, a statement that should have alarmed MI5’s officers. If anything, the case as he made it was an argument against moving the unit to MI5, contrary to what Curry claimed. As we shall see, the question of territory and ownership would play a strong role in the decision, and MI5, even if the service had an outspoken champion, was on its weakest footing at this stage. The transfer to MI5 of course did not happen, but it did provoke a major debate about where RSS should report. Had Gill performed his job, and was thus no longer needed? Or was his demise just an accident of politics? That question may be unanswerable.

  • Kenworthy and the Secret Interception Unit

SIS was a notoriously secret organisation, but even it had clandestine corners that were not apparently known to all its officers, or even its authorised historian. In Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 the author informed us that the strategic split between the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 (SIS) was made on October 1, 1931, when the semi-autonomous unit of the Special Branch, SS1, which consisted of the familiar Guy Liddell and his colleague Hugh Miller, experts in counter-subversion, was peeled off from the Metropolitan Police and handed over to MI5. SIS was also stripped of its domestic intelligence network, the ‘Casuals’, which was causing an embarrassment. This decision apparently simplified and clarified the missions for MI5 and SIS to handle subversion in the Empire and in foreign countries, respectively. “Thus . . . the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service took on their modern form and distinct spheres of responsibility which were to survive for at least the next eight years”, Jeffery wrote, with a high degree of authority (p 236).

Yet it was not quite like that. The reader will learn, from Nigel West’s 1986 book, GCHQ, that in 1930, a Commander Kenworthy reported ‘an illicit Comintern circuit operating between a site just outside Moscow and a terraced house in a suburb of London’. (The Moscow location was verified by direction-finders located in Palestine’s Sarafand, in India, and in London, thereby showing that widely dispersed location-finders working in harness could place remote transmitters with an accuracy that could not always be exercised in more confined areas. Such phenomena perplexed security officers like Liddell.) West added that Kenworthy was ‘the controller of the Home Office intercept station at Grove Park, Camberwell’. It might surprise some that the Home Office was involved with interception. Indeed, in West’s later book (2005) on this Comintern project, MASK, the author informs us that ‘GC&CS’s [sic] monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934 . . .’. Aided by the revelation by an MI5 mole of the cipher used, the codebreakers Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman were able to read the traffic until January 1937. By employing the full force of the direction-finding equipment of the Army (Fort Bridgewoods), Navy (Flowerdown) and Air Force (Waddington), the team of technicians were able to locate the members of a worldwide Comintern ring.

Fort Bridgewoods

The intercept station, however, was not run consciously by the Home Office or by GC&CS. It was run clandestinely by the Metropolitan Police. We owe it to a memorandum by Kenworthy himself, available at HW 3/81 at the National Archives, for a richer account of how Special Branch, assisted by both SIS and MI5, kept a watch on traffic that the armed forces declined to surveille. Supported by secret funds, an interception unit was encouraged by its experience in the General Strike (1926) to seek support from SIS in trying to detect foreign diplomatic stations which did not have ‘Berne List’ status (the latter presumably representing official frequencies allocated by international agreement). Kenworthy made it clear that Admiral Sinclair, the chief of SIS, was intimately familiar with what was going on. Remarkably, Kenworthy indicated that the expertise in interception gained by his unit entitled him to attend Y [= Signals Interception] Committee meetings, where the Services ‘looked to him for guidance’. He described his success in locating the illicit Comintern operator in Wimbledon, also showing that he and his colleague Lambert developed a portable direction-finding piece of apparatus that was critical for their mission.

What is intriguing is that The Metropolitan Police was the institution responsible for tracking the increasing volume of diplomatic traffic that appeared in the 1930s. “The Services were however disinclined to intercept Diplomatic (Commercial) Wireless to any extent as it would lead to a curtailment of the examination of their particular Service channels of Foreign Countries, as it became more and more important that encouragement should be given to Police by S.I.S”, Kenworthy wrote. Soon SIS was funding the exercise, as it was difficult to account for the expenses internally, and not long thereafter the new Receiving Station at Denmark Hill was constructed. Some official funding was approved, and made public, in 1938, but SIS maintained a controlling interest in the project. (At the base of one of his many organisational charts, Birch lists the Police Y Station at Denmark Hill as being controlled by the Foreign Office, i.e. SIS’s sponsor!) Now the interest of GC&CS (which reported to Admiral Sinclair, SIS’s chief) was piqued. In 1939 it decided that Commercial traffic should be intercepted as well, requiring a workload that Denmark Hill could not handle. “G.C. & C.S. realised that more facilities were required but unfortunately they had to cloak their activities and could not openly control wireless stations.” Everything that was going on was contrary to the rules of the protocol-oriented GPO. The outcome was that a new interception station was set up at Sandridge, near St. Albans, ‘specially for G.C. & C. S.’. Finally, to tidy up the picture, GC&CS took over the complete Police signals intelligence capability between November 1939 and January 1940, as the summary of the relevant files at the National Archives website informs us. (Regrettably, I have not yet been able to inspect the complete file.)

This whole chapter in British signals intelligence contains some remarkable ironies. The first is that the task of intercepting commercial and diplomatic traffic had devolved to a clandestine unit of Scotland Yard, a fact that appears to have been overlooked by all historians except Frank Birch. (HW 3/81 was not declassified until 2004: Andrew and Jeffery would have had access to it anyway, but chose not to use it.) The second is that SIS was involved in intercepting traffic occurring within the territorial boundaries of the UK, which flagrantly broke the rules that had been set up in 1931 guiding the missions of the two intelligence services. Since one of the main planks of the argument for placing, in early 1941, RSS under SIS’s aegis was the fact that RSS, after the beginning of the war, changed its focus from domestic to international interception, the episode sheds fresh light on the sincerity and professionalism of Sinclair and Menzies. The third irony is that MI5 knew all about this incursion on its turf, but apparently did not raise any protest: Curry mentions, without judgment, that ‘a certain amount of interception work was being done by M.I.6’, referring to the illicit set operated by the Russians. (One of Kenworthy’s paragraphs reads: “A conference took place with S.I.S. and M.I.5. The latter pointed out that strictly speaking the G.P.O. as the Communication Authority were the Department who should tackle these sorts of jobs but for reasons best known to S.I.S. and M.I.5. G.P.O. were not considered a very secure body.”) In early 1941, the Security Service, already weak in its drive and leadership, would have been on insecure footing had it tried to play the territorial card.

The fourth irony is that GC&CS was allowed to enter the interception game at the beginning of the war (the transfer presumably muscled through quickly by Menzies) at a time when Commander Denniston was making vigorous representations about interceptors invading his own domain of cryptography, an action that led to Worlledge and Gill losing their jobs. Denniston was extremely possessive about GC&CS’s ownership of cryptanalysis, even though he and others (according to Birch) accepted that ‘Y generally involved interception, traffic analysis and ‘low-level cryptanalysis’. But Hinsley also records that, in the summer of 1940, Denniston opposed the demand from MI8 (RSS) that its Traffic Analysis staff of 70 officers be transferred to GC&CS (on the basis that Traffic Analysis and cryptanalysis should be done in the same place), on the grounds that ‘his establishment should continue to be a cryptanalytical centre’ (only).

Kenworthy thus moved to GC&CS, worked there during the war, when it became GCHQ, and retired in 1957. Though working for Bletchley Park, he was stationed at Knockholt, where he led the project to intercept German Teleprinter Communications. This was the very important ‘Fish’ set of non-Morse messages, and Kenworthy wrote a report on that activity in 1946. But of enduring interest to this area of research is his achievement in developing, so early, effective handheld location-finding equipment. I have not yet been able to trace the extent to which his inventions passed on to the GPO in wartime, apart from a brief mention by Curry, who stated that Kenworthy’s portable D-F set was tested by MI5, and that ‘some interesting Mobile Unit operations were carried out on connection with this case [the detection of the Comintern transmissions]’. I thus have not been able to determine whether the apparent dilatoriness of the GPO – so frequently demeaned by intelligence officers – was caused by inadequate technology or by official edict.

  • The Transfer to SIS

So was the transfer of RSS to SIS a smooth operation, or was it bedevilled with conflict and controversy? One can learn little from the authorised histories. The History of British Intelligence in the Second World War contains some errors, as well as some very puzzling observations that do not always make sense. Christopher Andrew does not mention the episode at all, or even the mission that MI5 shared with MI8/RSS. You will not find Lt.-Colonel Simpson, Malcolm Frost, the RSS, or even Section B3, in his Index. Keith Jeffery devotes just two sentences of his equally massive book to the adoption by Section VIII of RSS, indicating simply that it occurred ‘on Petrie’s recommendation’. He has nothing to say about Trevor-Roper, and Cowgill receives just a cursory mention. Geoffrey Pidgeon records the event as follows: “In January 1941, Swinton recommended that RSS be handed over to SIS, but this met with fierce opposition throughout the upper echelons of MI5, resulting in a battle that reached the highest levels”.  However, since Pidgeon (like many commentators) appeared to be under the impression that RSS had been run hitherto by MI5, his account may have been coloured. Nigel West, in his 1985 history, MI5, represents the struggle as one more between Menzies, the SIS chief, and Worlledge of RSS than a conflict between SIS and MI5, although West’s somewhat haphazard chronology of events means it is difficult to follow his narrative. He does, however, make the provocative claim that the change-over ‘was, in effect, “C”s (i.e. Menzies’s) final consolidation of his grasp on signals interception, and was only achieved after a closely-fought struggle with MI5’s ‘old guard’, but this interesting thread is not picked up or developed in his history, MI6, which came out two years later. Since Menzies did not assume his leadership of SIS until November 1939, and did not enjoy a reputation as a deep thinker or strategist, West’s opinion comes over as rather startling. I shall return to it later.

Stewart Menzies

So what does the evidence indicate? Birch suggests that several agencies had had their eyes on the prize of domestic interception, namely MI1b, MI5, SIS, the armed services, the police and the Post Office, before the 1938 decision that the War Office should be in charge, and the establishment of RSS. MI5 had a natural interest, because of the mission it shared with the unit, but, as has been explained, was reluctant to plunge in. Lt.-Col. Simpson must have grown frustrated, because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs on September 15, 1939, and, according to Curry ‘suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxx [name redacted] (an M.I.6. officer) should be sought’. Now, there were not many established Colonels in SIS at that time. Sinclair, mortally ill, was an Admiral, and Colonel Dansey was absent in Switzerland between September and November 1939. Unless Simpson intended to invoke Dansey, not knowing he was abroad, that left Colonel Menzies, head of Section II (military) and Sinclair’s deputy, Colonel Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage). Another officer, however, had been promoted to Colonel earlier that year – Richard Gambier-Parry, head of the Communications unit, Section VIII. There is no doubt, given the length of the name redacted, that it is he whom Simpson approached, and the significance of this connection will be explored later. It is not clear why Simpson decided to voice his frustrations at this time, apart from the fact that war had recently been declared. Was he annoyed at the pace of RSS hiring? Or at the shift to tracking overseas transmissions? Or at MI5’s continued reticence to grab the bull by the horns? The fragment from Curry’s report indicates that his ideas had moved on to consider broader issues of signals security, but his plans at that time encompassed a leading role for MI5 as the hub of a wireless intelligence organisation that it must have been reluctant to assume. Perhaps Gambier-Parry was an old ally, and this was a move to invite SIS to step in. But Simpson might have upset his bosses in MI5 during the process.

Richard Gambier-Parry

RSS was in fact moving along reasonably well: the GPO must have been propelled into action, though perhaps reluctantly. It did not think its mission was to build interception stations that would be focusing on detecting traffic originating from overseas. Three new Direction-Finding stations had been set up, and arrangements had been made in August for linking them with telephone lines. Lord Sandhurst was turning the corps of radio amateurs into a more professional body, though perhaps not as quickly as Simpson would have liked. As Nigel West writes: “The operators had to be skilled, discreet and dedicated, so the recruitment process was necessarily slow. By Christmas 1939, the Home South Region boasted only seven VIs (Voluntary Interceptors) on its roll.” Within three months, RSS had recruited fifty VIs, who were tracking 600 sources – all on the other side of the Channel. West reports that the Home South section had produced 1,932 logs by the end of the year, a figure that grew to 3,052 by March 1940. And, by that time, Gill and Trevor-Roper had cracked the Abwehr hand-cipher, and Bletchley Park had agreed to set up a special-purpose cryptographic unit to handle the traffic. RSS’s reputation was on the rise, but its role probably not broadly understood.

At the same time, fierce arguments over policy and organisation were being discussed by members of the Y Committee, which broadly was responsible for interception, traffic analysis, and low-grade cryptography. There were disagreements about the degree to which the needs of the three Services should be shared, or kept separate, but there was also questioning as to why SIS (whose head, Menzies, chaired the meetings) should control proceedings. It took an appeal to Lord Hankey, the ultimate committee man, for a solution, which involved a stronger Y Committee with a full-time chairman, and supporting clerical staff. Frank Birch suggests some of the confusion when he indicates that the news about the interception and decryption of Abwehr traffic in Europe, and the establishment of GC&CS’s ISOS group appeared to come as some surprise to the committee. ‘Officially, all this was no one’s concern’, he wrote, but in May 1940 the Committee gave formal recognition to the extension of RSS’s responsibility to provide preliminary investigation of these groups of signals. Seven months into the war, the Committee was still in reactive mode, instead of setting policy. The full Committee met for the first time not until January 1, 1941.

In the summer of 1940, after Simpson’s departure, Liddell also found a new candidate to lead B3b (Simpson’s unit), one Maurice Frost of the BBC, whom Swinton encouraged Liddell to hire. After initial good impressions, Frost was signed up, and in June 1940, Liddell reported plans for Frost to set up a new branch (the W Branch), instead of reporting to Liddell in B. The decision was made in July, and ‘Tar’ Robertson (who was handling SNOW) was deputed to work for him. But Liddell had to backtrack, and in August the W unit was folded back into B Branch, much to Frost’s annoyance. (Curry’s report states that Frost was Director of the W Division at this time ‘which comprised B.3’. It is probable that Liddell’s journal is more accurate than Curry’s memory on this matter.  MI5 was also notoriously inconsistent in its naming conventions for Branches and Divisions.) Yet Frost was beginning to get under everybody’s skin by this time. Robertson declared he could not work under him, and even Lord Swinton, who had supported Frost’s recruitment, said in late November 1940 that Frost could not stay in MI5. His ambition and untrustworthiness had become intolerable: moreover, he probably did not possess the appropriate skills for such a job. His interest was more in establishing a service to monitor foreign broadcasts.

Matters appeared to come to a disruptive head in September. According to Hinsley, the War Office concluded that its own interception capabilities (of German Air Force Enigma traffic) were not keeping up with GC&CS’s capacity to absorb it. Thus, on Winston’s Churchill’s bidding, Hankey ordered a transfer of an unspecified number of ‘operators’ from RSS to the Services, ‘overruling RSS’s protests’. This was probably a gross misjudgement: the failure to detect the enemy’s movements in the Nazis’ overrun of Europe in the summer of 1940 was due more to an incapacity to analyse and integrate intelligence properly than a paucity of intercepts. That was the insight that Gill and Trevor-Roper had arrived at.  Moreover, the War Office was responsible for MI8, which was where the unit reported. RSS received intercepts from its team of VIs, the permanent stations managed by the Post Office, as well the Armed Forces, the BBC and the cable companies, so simply shifting operators around was not likely to fix the poorly identified problem. Somehow the discoveries that Gill and Trevor-Roper had made about Abwehr communications with agents as the German war machine moved across Europe in the summer of 1940 should have made it to the General Staff, but there was no mechanism for that to happen.

By now, however, MI8 was feeling the pressure. On October 9 it pushed MI5 to take over the RSS unit en bloc, as it needed to concentrate on military matters, clearly not understanding that the work that RSS was doing was much more closely related to the theatre of war than the stated mission of detecting illicit domestic transmissions. But, of course, MI5 did know. Moreover, Brigadier Allen (MI5’s assistant director) went on record as saying that the service was being asked to take over an organisation that was breaking down. MI5 thus still demurred, because of cost and complexity, and because it understood that the current concentration on Abwehr traffic in Europe (and beyond) made the procedural case for the responsibility’s belonging to the Security Service completely tenuous. MI8 and MI5 were at cross-purposes. No doubt the secret but successful execution of an unchartered mission had to be revealed. The publication of Gill’s report in November 1940 thus brought the achievements of RSS into the open, perhaps preventing any further poaching by the Military, but inevitably driving the unit further away from MI5.

MI5 was also experiencing considerable turmoil at the time: even as Vivian of SIS was reminding MI5 officers (via Jasper Harker) of the correct procedures for communicating with SIS, Liddell was lobbying for Vivian to head MI5, so confusing was the current leadership. Lord Swinton, who headed the Security Executive set up by Churchill, had made life difficult for acting Director-General Jasper Harker, and had inserted William Crocker as an awkward co-head of B Division with Liddell. On December 3, 1940, Churchill’s security adviser, Desmond Morton, had told the Premier that MI5 was ‘close to collapse’, but the previous month the Lord President of the Council, John Anderson, had already brought in David Petrie to review its operation. Petrie had in fact been offered the job of Director-General, but declined to accept until he had performed a proper survey of the operation. He did not complete his report until February 13, 1941, but by January 30 he had already recommended to Swinton that SIS take over RSS. Where is the evidence of the struggle of ‘MI5’s old guard’, identified by West? It seems they put up no fight at all.

David Petrie

Yet the same day that Petrie arrived in MI5 to perform his investigation (January 1), Swinton approached the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General F. H. N. Davidson to discuss the future of RSS. In an exchange that underlined what critical observers might say about the oxymoron of ‘military intelligence’, Davidson was reported to respond that he found RSS and related matters ‘very interesting, very complicated, and a strain on one’s brain’. Maybe this ‘very model of a modern major-general’ was simply overwhelmed, since he had assumed his new post only the previous month. Harrison, having inspected the Davidson papers, observes that Davidson noted in his diary that Swinton was ‘not satisfied that it [RSS] was doing its stuff’. Whether Swinton understood what RSS’s ‘stuff’ was, or consulted Lt.-Colonel Simpson, as a possibly sharper analyst of RSS’s failings, is not recorded. Davidson’s overall contribution is ambiguous: Cavendish-Bentinck, a normally good judge of character, who was the highly successful Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for most of the war, recorded that Davidson was ‘a very mediocre officer, with a permanent desire to make our reports fit in with the views of the CIGS [Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff].’ On the other hand, the official history of the JIC makes it clear that Davidson sensibly pressed, in January 1941, for a more integrated view of intelligence to assist the war effort – although he did not include MI5 or SIS in his choice of contributors to the process.

When Worlledge opposed the transfer on February 14 (’vigorously’, as Davies informs us), he also cast aspersions on SIS’s administrative skills, as well as making tactless criticisms of Gambier-Parry’s technical abilities, a mis-step that would later cost him his job. Why Worlledge was so set against SIS’s taking over RSS is puzzling, since it should have been clear to him that MI5 was even less endowed with managerial and technical talent than SIS. Hinsley writes that ‘the MI8 Colonel in any case fervently believed that the Services should control Sigint in time of war’. Was Worlledge perhaps aware of the Metropolitan Police unit, and its mobile detection exercises over the Comintern spies, and harboured some doubts about SIS’s interception policy and strategy?

Maybe Davidson was a fast learner, and had quickly unravelled the complications of RSS. The next day, he questioned Petrie’s decision, pointing out that ‘MI6 is concerned with the transmitting of signals and not their interception or location’, a claim that, as has been shown above, merely indicated that the Director of Military Intelligence did not know the full story of what was going on in the world of interception. Yet Davidson’s preference appeared to be to keep RSS under MI8 control rather than pass it to MI5, echoing his clearly diminished regard for the civilian services. Swinton coolly demolished Davidson’s objections, drawing on his position as supremo of both Intelligence Services to ensure that matters would work out fine, that the necessary committees would be in place to handle overlaps and conflicts, and that more professional training of RSS personnel would address his colleague’s concerns. Davidson was subdued, but not eliminated as a threat. Nigel West informs us that Davidson would later cross swords with Menzies, as he was not happy about the civilian nature of GC&CS, and wanted to wrest control back to the War Office. He believed the Office had not gained the results from interception which it merited for the investment it had made.

Yet another extraordinary step occurred before the eventual decision was made. According to Curry: “Early in 1941 it was suggested that an independent adviser, Mr. Kirke of the B.B.C., should carry out an investigation into R.S.S. organisation from the technical point of view and make recommendations for its future running by M.I.5.” The passive voice disguises an unlikely initiative: that the opinion of a BBC manager, supposedly independent of Frost and his objectives, might have been considered a fair judge of the best home for RSS, with the outcome of the investigation apparently pre-determined, and when in the past year the unit had moved well away from its mission of tracking voice broadcasting, and Frost himself had fallen out of favour, is simply shocking. Unsurprisingly, ‘this proposal aroused considerable opposition’. Curry nevertheless noted that ‘although it was partially carried out’, it resulted in meetings between the Director-General of the Security Service and representatives of SIS. Unsurprisingly, Petrie’s recommendation held. Liddell reported in his diary entry for March 6 that Gambier-Parry of SIS was taking over RSS, and the formal transfer occurred the next day.

  • The Aftermath: RSS under Gambier-Parry

RSS was indeed transferred to the control of Colonel Gambier-Parry in Section VIII of SIS. Gambier-Parry was a larger-than-life character who had been recruited by Sinclair in 1938 to fix the ailing communications systems of SIS and its satellites overseas. Gambier-Parry was an expert on radio: he had worked for the BBC, and for Philco, an American radio company. He had a reputation for being able to get things done, while showing a disdain for any bureaucrats who placed constraints on his will. From most accounts of those who worked for him, he was a popular figure who brought much energy and understanding to the complex challenges facing SIS. He thus embarked on a crash programme of building transmitter-receivers for the locations on the Continent, establishing broadcasting stations in safe places on the UK mainland, and devising the protocols to allow them to communicate securely.

Section VIII was certainly not in the business of interception – overtly, at least. Yet an enigmatic comment by Keith Jeffery in his history of SIS hints at a perhaps clandestine programme that has otherwise escaped the analysts. When Maurice Hankey performed his investigation into SIS at the beginning of 1940, one of the officers he interviewed was Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, seeking his views on the effectiveness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Godfrey was less than enthusiastic about GC&CS, though Jeffery then wrote: “But for Godfrey ‘the one really bright spot’ was the ‘” Y’ side”, in particular the intercepted signals and call signs, which the Admiralty found of the greatest possible use. All praise for this state of affairs’, he added, ‘was due to Colonel Gambier-Parry’. Now Admiral Godfrey was no slouch: he was a well-respected intelligence officer (celebrated for being Ian Fleming’s boss and mentor), and had even been a candidate to replace Admiral Sinclair as head of SIS. It is thus highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood someone else’s contribution as that of Gambier-Parry. This insight therefore does appear to confirm what Nigel West alluded to, namely SIS’s deeper involvement with interception than the authorised histories are prepared to admit.

Guy Liddell knew in March that Gambier-Parry would be taking over RSS, and he was initially optimistic about the changeover, although he recorded in his diary his concern that RSS might now concentrate on ISOS messages solely, to the detriment of MI5’s total interests. Swinton informed the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan on March 10, and on March 16 a meeting was held between representatives of MI5, RSS and SIS to discuss responsibilities. Liddell’s diary entry shows that Gambier-Parry was already putting his stamp on the organisation: “It was agreed that G.P. should set up two Y. masts and retain a limited number of skilled V.I.s. At present there were some 450, many of whom were useless and could be returned to store. He would have expert personnel with his Y. masts who would know the ether and be in a position to eliminate anything but the suspicious traffic. Any communication thought to be peculiar would be sent to the W. Analysis Committee and would be co-related and distributed by Cowgill’s organisation. G.P.s organisation would only be responsible for sifting in the first instance genuine traffic from the suspicious.” It seems clear that Gambier-Parry believed the interceptors themselves were capable of deciding what should be investigated, and would be authorized to do so.

In a significant move, Felix Cowgill had replaced Valentine Vivian as head of Section V in January. It was Cowgill who had objected so strongly to Worlledge’s initiative over the Morocco revelation, and for some reason he was given the task of developing a charter for the new RSS. Liddell again wrote an ominous comment on the proposal in his entry for April 10: “It seems to lay far too much emphasis on the interception of the Group traffic and to neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country. We are replying in this sense.” Was someone guiding the novice Cowgill on this issue? Liddell reinforced his concerns in a conversation with Gambier-Parry on May 1, when he urged that he did not want transmissions from the UK ignored. Gambier-Parry gave a very revealing response, echoing the Gill doctrine that traffic had to be two-way, and arguing that ‘thus we have good chance of picking up traffic from abroad’. Gambier-Parry thus appeared to be set out in an unnecessarily dogmatic vein, parroting a policy that he had not crafted himself. Why would he not show greater sensitivity to his customer’s needs? Since the source of previously unidentified short-wave signals could not easily be located, why would Gambier-Parry promote a policy of diminishing efforts at direction-finding on the mainland? It was another indication that, despite the experience from the MASK exercise, non-Abwehr traffic was not going to be considered seriously. Meanwhile, the highly security-conscious Cowgill was already tightening up on the distribution of ISOS material.

The official handover occurred in early May. Gambier-Parry moved swiftly, installing a long-time friend, Major E. H. Maltby, as Controller of RSS. Liddell reported that Army Signals was taking over the responsibilities of the sniffer vans. A new interception station was set up at Hanslope Park, and some select VIs were recruited to become part of a more professional Royal Signals cadre there. Gambier-Parry dismissed Gill in an unprofessional manner, but Worlledge, contrary to some reports, was not fired immediately. He was instead effectively demoted, to work under Cowgill of Section V. Worlledge did not last long there: Dick White reported later that he resigned that summer on a matter of policy. He might have found working for Cowgill intolerable, but it is also quite possible, given his outspoken comments the previous December, that he did maintain grave concerns about the way interception policy was being diverted away from the mission that he had been attempting to execute. As for Trevor-Roper, he escaped dismissal – no doubt because he and Gambier-Parry had enjoyed hunting together with the Whaddon hounds before the war. “In the world of neurotic policemen and timid placemen who rule the secret service, he moves like Falstaff, or some figure from Balzac, if not Rabelais”, wrote the Oxford don of his comic-opera friend. Adam Sisman goes on to record that, after his appointment as head of Section VIII, “Gambier-Parry had seized an opportunity to establish his headquarters at Whaddon Hall, which was not far from Bletchley. There he lived like a colonial governor, with a fleet of camouflaged Packards at his disposal.”

Whaddon Hall in wartime

On May 20, Liddell chaired the first meeting of the Joint Wireless Committee, attended also by Malty, White, Cowgill and Frost. This was a series of fortnightly gatherings that would eventually create deep rifts between the two security services. The first resolution at this meeting ran as follows: “It was agreed that it was the function of the committee to coordinate the mutual interests of S.I.S. and the Security Service in the Radio Security Section [sic: according to Trevor-Roper, ‘Section’ was a temporary name soon abandoned]. It should lay down general directions for the operation of R.S.S. and decide priorities of service to be supplied by R.S.S. to S.I.S. and the Security Services.” It was also resolved to invite Mr. Strachey from GC&CS to become a member, and Captain Trevor-Roper was appointed Secretary. On the provocative and controversial matter of detecting domestic illicit transmissions, the minute for Item 4 read as follows: “It was agreed to proceed with a limited policy of ‘snifting’ in cases where intelligence information gave rise to a reasonable belief that an illicit transmitter existed at any known location in the British Isles. All Sections of the Security Service should be informed of the facilities available but demands should be strictly allotted to those important cases where the position of a wireless set by any individual was considered a genuine possibility. Major Frost would consult with Mr Dick White on the importance of the cases submitted, and the priority to be given to them.” The bland implication here is that some examples of illicit transmissions would be ‘unimportant’. But who would be the judge of that unless the incident were properly investigated?

That same week, at the end of May 1941, agent Sonia of Soviet Military Intelligence sent, from her lodgings in Oxfordshire, her first wireless message from British territory to her masters in Moscow.

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So what evidence is there for Nigel West’s claim about SIS’s long-term ambitions to gain control over interception, and that Gambier-Parry’s Communications Section may have been assisting in its objectives? We have the clandestine operation that uncovered the Comintern spies, sponsored by SIS. Lt.-Colonel Simpson may inadvertently have helped the SIS’s cause when he brought Gambier-Parry into the picture in September 1939. That may have provoked SIS into moving on the Denmark Hill operation: the unit was transferred to GC&CS as the disputes over RSS’s future heated up in the winter of 1939-1940. We have the evidence of Admiral Godfrey, who appreciated Gambier-Parry’s valuable contribution to interception and traffic analysis in early 1940. Worlledge is outspoken on his concerns over Gambier-Parry’s and SIS’s suitability for tackling the interception problem thoroughly, and resigns on a point of policy. And SIS’s charter for RSS is oddly delegated to Major Cowgill, who is a relative newcomer to the business, has had no involvement in telecommunications, and does not work for Gambier-Parry. Moreover, Cowgill has recently taken over from Colonel Vivian, who was always bitter enemies with a man who is now his rival as second-in-command at SIS, Colonel Dansey. Dansey will be familiar to readers of Sonia’s Radio, and the most perspicacious of you will recall, from Part 9, that I pointed out an exchange of opinions between Dansey and Gambier-Parry in 1943, which showed conclusively that Dansey maintained a very active interest in clandestine wireless communications. As the saga enters the phase where SIS is in control of RSS, Liddell is soon seen to harbour grave concerns about the purity of SIS’s intentions, and Gambier-Parry gives the impression of voicing a dangerous policy crafted by someone else.  But why would SIS set out so obstructively, not accepting MI5’s requirements, or attending to their legitimate concerns?

Claude Dansey

An observer might ask at this stage: why did the JIC not take a firmer interest in all these negotiations? The committee was in fact still finding its feet after a revitalisation arising from Churchill’s accession to the premiership. MI5 and SIS were not even admitted to the committee until mid-1940, and were normally represented by Brigadiers Allen and Menzies, respectively, who might not have known exactly what was going on, or may not have been certain how much they should disclose. After all, Cavendish-Bentinck, even as Chairman of the JIC, did not know about ULTRA at this time. Yet Hinsley records that the first attempt during the war to involve the JIC in the discussion of Sigint policy and organisation foundered on Menzies’s opposition. This is an extraordinary assertion, given that Menzies, as a newcomer, presumably could not have had much clout, and he would not have been able to display his ULTRA card. As I have shown, the Y Committee, which determined interception priorities, was likewise undergoing a high degree of turmoil at the time. The whole dispersal of policy and practice for interception and intelligence gathering seems a glorious muddle, and then one remembers that glorious muddling-through is the modus operandi of liberal democracies, and the reason they thrive. Halfway through this chapter of RSS’s wartime translocation, the Conservative administration of Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill’s coalition, with new ministers, new ideas, new appointments. There was in fact a great deal of trust and creative, open discussion between the departments, unlike the fiercely competitive agencies in Hitler’s Germany, or those cowed into indecision under Stalin, with both intelligence groups mainly telling their respective dictators what they wanted to hear.

And, finally, what about the ‘Greek tragedy’ alluded to by John Curry? We recall that this judgment appeared in the official internal history completed by Curry in 1946. Yet in his draft chapter on Illicit Interception dated October 22, 1945, Curry (who was a rather cautious and neurotic individual, as Liddell’s Diaries inform us) came to a very different conclusion. “It is nevertheless true to say that the benefits derived as a result of R.S.S. being under the control, first of the War Office, and secondly of M.I.6. were considerable and the results achieved and the benefits to intelligence work were immense. However, one is left with the feeling that had M.I.5 accepted responsibility for the organisation in 1938 a great deal of the trouble which ultimately arose between R.S.S. and M.I.5. and the ultimate change of command in 1941, would never have arisen and indeed the organisation detecting illicit wireless transmissions would have been just as good, if not better, than the one that ultimately emerged.”

That is a weak and fudgy statement that sounds as if Curry was trying to please too many audiences. Why those multiple ‘ultimates’? Is Curry referring to friction between RSS and MI5 before the ‘ultimate change of command’, or that which occurred afterwards? Was his subjective and unanalytical ‘feeling’ shared by other officers? Why did Curry alone believe that MI5 would have found the right talent and skills to sort out RSS’s house, when its own organisation was in such a mess, and short of managerial talent, and Simpson had resigned? If the SIS control turned out to be a disaster, why did he not say so?

I suspect that the ‘Greek tragedy’ conclusion may have been inserted by Petrie himself. Harrison implies (tacitly) that it might have been the Director-General who doctored Curry’s official history, since he disagreed with Curry’s conclusions, and wanted a firmer statement made on Cowgill’s obstinacies. Harrison, by the way, clearly identifies the ‘Greek tragedy’ as the withholding of ISOS material in April 1942 by Cowgill. Yet that was an Act III episode that was overcome before the finale. I have pointed out before how the circumstances of Petrie’s retirement are finessed by Andrew: I suspect Petrie had discovered some of the nasty smells that derived from a flawed interception policy when he retired in 1946. It is possible that he then realised that a deal between SIS and MI5 had already been in the works when his opinion was sought, one that effectively hamstrung him in his effort to protect the nation from the malign efforts of Soviet spies. Ensuring that his opinion of the whole affair was recorded for posterity was his swan-song.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, for his very helpful comments during the evolution of this article, and to Stan Ames and Bob King for their research contributions and insights. The conclusions made in it, and any errors therein, are mine alone.)

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Homo Sovieticus

Aeroflot Advertisement, New York Times, 2017

A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.

Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.

I reproduce the letter here:

Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972

It reads:

“Dear Sir,

I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.

. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;

И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . .  (Lermontov)

Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”

[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless  . . .”]

I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.

I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.

The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika

My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.

At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.

H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg

I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”

Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest

My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.

The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.

The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.

I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.

(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)

I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see  But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.

Some people opposed the . . .  rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.

Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips

As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.

So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler?  Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.

President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.

So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.”  (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)

I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:

“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.

The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.

We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”

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Isaiah in Love

(Since I shall be on holiday/vacation in California and Maui for the remainder of December, I am posting this month’s blog early, as a special gift to all my readers – and especially to the members of the Murmansk Chapter of the Coldspur Appreciation Society  –  and presenting a piece that I wrote five years ago. When I started my research for what was then going to be a master’s degree, the focus was very much on Isaiah Berlin, and I decided then to write up some initial findings on various episodes in his life that Michael Ignatieff’s biography bypassed. I have used parts of this essay in a previous post (‘Some Diplomatic Incidents‘), and have explored in depth some aspects concerning Berlin’s role in intelligence  in my book Misdefending the Realm. I have also described the strange coincidence that found Berlin in Estoril at exactly the time (early January 1941) when Soviet agent Sonia received her permission to travel to the UK (see ‘Sonia’s Radio: Part VIII)’. The essay could also be updated in the light of more recent findings. For instance, I have now discovered that Berlin’s claims to have stayed at the Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal, in that January, appear to have been completely fabricated, which must cast some doubt on the accuracy of other details he provided on his journey from the UK to the USA. Exploring those murky events warrants a dedicated blog later in 2018. I thus present ‘Isaiah in Love’ unchanged. I shall update the Commonplace files on my return. A happy seasonal festival to all my readers! December 12, 2017.  P.S. Please note that I now list, for ease of access, all previous monthly blog entries on the ‘About’ page.)

December Commonplace entries duly posted here. (December 31)

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One of the more bizarre episodes in the life of the great intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin occurred when Guy Burgess invited him to join him on a trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. Burgess, probably anxious to make contact with his spymasters after the purging of the London station, had persuaded his mentor Harold Nicolson that Berlin, a native Russian speaker, should be appointed as press officer at the embassy in Moscow. Was Berlin merely a cover? Did Burgess have other motives for enticing Berlin to Russia? Maybe – but Berlin was in any case eager to fulfill a long-time desire to visit the Soviet Union. The necessary paperwork was arranged, and Berlin and Burgess left Liverpool for Moscow, via Montreal, the US, and Vladivostock. They never completed the journey. In New York, Burgess received the news that he was to be recalled to London. Unlike ‘recalls’ to Moscow, where agents would probably be sent to the Lubianka, for no other reason than that they had been exposed to Western influences, Burgess was simply fired by MI6 on his return.  There, in the treatment of agents under a cloud, lay a key difference between the West and Soviet Russia: in Moscow, a bullet in the back of the head; in London, a transfer to the BBC. Yet, despite Berlin’s ease in gaining a visa from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, the Foreign Office quickly scotched his hopes of taking up his post in Moscow, and he was left twiddling his thumbs. Adapting to circumstances, he quickly earned a reputation for his deft analysis of the American scene, and through the British Embassy was offered a semi-permanent job with the British Press Service. While successful in this role, Berlin wanted to return to the United Kingdom first, one strong reason he gave his biographer being that he was did not want to be thought cowardly in avoiding the Blitz back in England. Was this desire not to end up as a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, like the elopers Auden and Isherwood, whom Waugh so sharply lampooned as Parsnip and Pimpernel, some neat retrospective insight? Put Out More Flags did not appear until 1942. The timing is unclear: Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin states that Burgess came to Berlin’s rooms with his plan ‘in mid-June’, while Henry Hardy notes in Volume 1 of Berlin’s Letters that it was ‘in late June’. On June 23, Berlin wrote to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix, the associate justice on the Supreme Court, joining in the condemnation of Auden, Isherwood and Macneice, and added: ‘ – if I could induce some institution in the U.S.A. to invite me, I would. But cold-blooded flight is monstrous.’.

Ignatieff’s biography covers this period, but depicts the philosopher’s return to the United Kingdom, in the winter of 1940-41, as an insignificant interlude. In doing so, Ignatieff was largely reliant on Berlin’s account of that journey. After describing how Berlin returned on a sea-plane with Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador, as far as Lisbon (whence Lothian moved on alone, leaving Berlin to await a regular flight), he devotes a paragraph to Berlin’s time in Oxford and London, mentioning along the way a lunch with Guy Burgess and Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information. He then writes: ‘A month into term, a letter arrived from the Ministry of Information ordering Berlin to return immediately to New York. Having reassured his parents, arranged his leave from New College, and having proved that he wasn’t running away from the Blitz, Isaiah now returned to New York with a clear conscience.’

But did Berlin really have a clear conscience? While he evidently did not want to be seen as an escapist, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought that of him, since his journey to Washington had been on government business. Nevertheless, all the evidence suggests he had a hidden agenda that he was never comfortable making public, and points towards his motivation for returning to Europe being a desire to meet with his current hero, Chaim Weizmann, at an important rendezvous in Lisbon to discuss Zionist matters. Why, as his life was fading to a close, would he wish to conceal such activities from his biographer? Both his Zionist enthusiasm and scepticism were well-known; after the creation of the Israeli state, he had had misgivings over the way it had developed, as well as over the pusillanimity of the British government towards it. He had had to be careful about promoting ideas too energetically while being employed by that same government. So why would he try to prevent his attendance at a meeting in Lisbon becoming part of the record?

That he intended to meet Weizmann in Lisbon seems clear from a reading of the biography and his Letters 1928-1946. The following conclusions are derivable:

1) Berlin contrived a convoluted story about the renewal of his post in Washington. The first impression he leaves is that he was offered a permanent job with the British Press Service there in 1940, but negotiated that he had to return to the UK first. A letter to his parents, dated October 5, from New York, states that his job is ‘practically fixed’. But in his Introduction to Washington Dispatches (1980), he muddies the waters by indicating that he returned home without an understanding that he had an offer to continue the job in Washington. When in the UK, he reports that he received a sharp letter from the Ministry of Information asking him to explain why he hadn’t reported for duty, at which he claims that he had never been told about the appointment, an observation which the Ministry admitted was true. (Henry Hardy, the editor of the Letters, points out this contradiction in a note.) On the other hand, he writes to a friend, Marie Gaster (January 3, 1941) and gives a very different account, claiming he was not offered anything attractive in Washington, and wanted to return to the UK to look for something more appropriate. He further suggests that, much against his will, he was then encouraged to take up the job with the British Press Service, and ‘return to America at once’. (Hardy suggests that this account ‘offers a possible explanation of what really happened’, but it gives the appearance of yet another smokescreen.)

2) Berlin indicates that his return to the UK should have been considered as a personal trip, because he takes pains, in a letter to his parents (October 5, 1940), to make arrangements for the cost of the four links in the journey (New York-Lisbon-UK-Lisbon-New York) to be paid partly by them. If he was in any way on government business, because an appointment had come to a close, or he needed to be interviewed for another position, he would surely have had his expenses paid for him by the UK Government. In fact, in another letter to his parents (January 10, 1941), when stuck in Estoril, he writes that, ‘unlike the private passengers, I can claim a Govt. priority from the Air Attaché.’ And, indeed, the manifest for his voyage from Lisbon to New York, on the SS Excambion, does indicate that his fare was paid for by the British Government.

3) Berlin always intended to see Chaim Weizmann during his visit, probably to explore a position with the Jewish Agency. Ignatieff reports on that preference in the biography. In another letter to his parents (September 3, 1940), he writes: ‘I should like to hop back [sic] to England, see some people, Lord Lloyd [Secretary of State for the Colonies], Weizmann, etc., arrange with Oxford, & skip back [sic] again, preferably by Clipper.’ ‘Hopping and skipping’ was not the normal mode of travel across the Atlantic during the early years of WWII, but it helps suggest to posterity that Berlin was in a hurry to get back, implying again that he had a permanent position waiting for him in the USA that he was eager to assume. He also made a reference to possible ‘ice on the Clipper’s wings’ in January, which might necessitate a slower return by boat. The Weizmann papers in fact show that Weizmann did enjoy a thorough de-briefing from Berlin soon after his arrival in the UK. Berlin was asked to describe the disruptive effect a visit from a Foreign Office functionary, a Mr Voss, had had on Jews in the US. Weizmann expressed his desire that Berlin could delay his trip back to the States so that they could journey together. Communications must have broken down, because, shortly before his departure, writing from Oxford, Berlin tries to contact Weizmann, after abortive phone-calls, with a note of urgency detectable in the message, at the Dorchester Hotel in London in December 1940, saying that he would ‘make a gigantic effort to see you before I go’, and asking Weizmann to ‘write or wire me in Oxford where & when you are to be expected in Lisbon and whom I could ask, while there, about your probable whereabouts?’ Berlin was due to leave on January 3, from Bournemouth airport. Lastly, he writes to his old friend Maire Gaster (wife of the Communist activist, Jack Gaster) again, just before his flight to Lisbon, informing her that he is very miserable at the prospect of leaving the UK for New York, but that ‘there is no doubt that there is a job to perform & my new God Dr Weizmann is wooing me ardently into doing it.’ For some reason, communications broke down, or Weizmann lost his enthusiasm for having Berlin work for the Jewish Agency. Berlin was deceptive when explaining this offer to his biographer: he told Ignatieff that Weizmann had urgently pressed him to accept a position with the organization when in New York, but that he had ‘diplomatically declined the Chief’s embrace’. On the other hand, he was perhaps playing for time.

4) Berlin had been impressed with Weizmann when he met him early in 1939. At the time, Weizmann was heavily involved, as head of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, in negotiating with the British Government the form of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as the shape of a Jewish Fighting Force to be established in Palestine as part of the British Army. But talks had stalled. Lord Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, was fatally ill, and would die on February 2, 1941. Anthony Eden, representing the Arabist Foreign office, was executing delaying tactics; Weizmann decided to extend his stay in London until he could witness the proclamation of the communiqué announcing the Jewish Unit. Of all this, Berlin seemed to be unaware. He wrote to his parents (January 10, 1941), in the Excambion, on Hotel Estoril Palacio notepaper – about to leave, but still moored – that he intended to buy dried fruit for the journey later in the day. The timing means, that, despite his – and his employers’ – desire for him to report quickly to the States, he would have been able to have a few days with Weizmann, and almost a week in Lisbon for any meetings before embarking on his voyage. Mysteriously he told his parents that ‘Chaim said he was going – the 15th’, which suggests that he was very much out of date. Weizmann did not leave England for the United States until March 10. Finally, Berlin bizarrely informs his parents, in a letter from New York (January 28, 1941), that he spent ‘two agreeable days in Portugal about which I wrote to you from Lisbon’ – a gross understatement of the time he spent there. As for Weizmann, he completely ignores this interval, his autobiography Trial and Error skipping directly from meetings with Churchill in September 1940 to the bland statement: ‘In the spring of 1941 I broke off my work in London for a three month trip to America.’

Was there a secret Zionist meeting in Lisbon, at which Berlin and Weizmann had hoped to meet? As the Nazi net closed around the capitals of Europe, the Portuguese capital had become a popular city for assignations of every kind. For example, an important Jewish charitable organization, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was compelled to close its offices in Paris as the Germans approached in 1940, and relocate to Lisbon. With official German authorization, Dr. Josef Löwenherz, described as ‘the leader of Jews in Vienna’ visited Lisbon in neutral Portugal (apparently in 1940 or 1941) to meet with representatives of the World Jewish Congress, including Dr. Parlas, described as ‘secretary to Chaim Weizmann’ (but who does not appear in the Index to Weizmann’s memoirs), and with WJC financial affairs director Tropper. Löwenherz wanted to negotiate an agreement for the mass emigration of Jews from German-controlled Europe. But if Berlin attended such meetings, he says nothing about them. And, as a government employee, he had to be very careful about adopting Zionist causes too vigorously.

Berlin’s enthusiasm for Zionism was typical of the contradictions that appeared to grip him at times, and cause perennial self-doubt. While he believed fervently that a home in Palestine was essential to protect the beleaguered and oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, in the United Kingdom (as well as the United States) Berlin would often encounter Jews who had gradually been assimilated and who were taken aback by the whole idea of Zionism. Some found the notion that the world could be divided into Jews and Gentiles to be as bizarre – and even as offensive – as the notion that it could be divided into Aryans and non-Aryans. And Berlin was not consistent himself. In his government role, he was often asked to calm the more urgent Zionists, and he often called upon the secular Jew Victor Rothschild to help him in his mission. Such gestures, of embracing a vague ‘Jewish’ but unreligious culture but resisting the more extreme aspects of Zionism, sometimes got him into trouble. Ignatieff represents Berlin’s views on cultural identity in the following way: ‘individuals must have secure cultural belonging if they are to be free’. While that sounds more like T. S. Eliot than Isaiah Berlin, Berlin appeared never to come to terms with the paradox that assimilated Jews whom he encountered could be happy with their situation, having cast off so many cultural remnants, whereas he always had feelings of being an outsider. Right up to the time of his death he expressed feelings of alienation, of not being accepted in English society, unaware, perhaps, that an insistence on tribal separateness constituted the real irritant to a pluralist culture. But many Jews established in Britain were not interested in aspirations for a homeland for Jews. As Kenneth Rose writes of (some of) the Rothschilds: ‘By a century and a half of assiduous assimilation they had emerged from the ghetto of Frankfurt to the broad, sunlit uplands of Buckinghamshire; they were not prepared to see their security eroded by a sentimental attachment to Zionism.’ Later on in life, Berlin saw Zionism in action – the terrorism, the jingoism – and began to realize that it was becoming just another of those Grand Solutions of which he was instinctively suspicious. His enthusiasm for it nevertheless sometimes blinded his judgment, and caused him some missteps. Ignatieff recounts the way that Berlin, stung by a critical review by the Stalinist Isaac Deutscher, was antagonized by ‘Deutscher’s political dogmatism and his hostility to Zionism’, and decided to destroy the historian’s chances for being appointed to a professorship at Sussex University, saying that Deutscher was ‘the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.’ But anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism: in an exchange with the critic Christopher Hitchens, Berlin tried to wriggle out of the charge of trying to scotch Deutscher’s ambitions, and thus suppressing free speech.

In any case, a momentous encounter causes the plot to take a sudden switch, as in a Hitchcock film. In his letter to his parents dated January 28, 1941, after he arrived in New York, Berlin gave a thumb-nail sketch of the voyage across the Atlantic. ‘A mixed, very mixed company, a Duchess, a lot of rich expatriated Americans, the Times correspondent from Lisbon, a plump Jewess from Geneva called Frieda Vogel who insisted, to the general amusement that she was a Turk, a member of an old Turkish family, etc.’ Indeed, some breathtakingly clear camera footage of the arrival in New York of the Excambion appears to confirm some of this picture. These are not images of starving refugees delirious at their first sight of the Manhattan skyline, but of comfortable-looking citizens in furs and plush coats, chewing gum and smoking cigars, looking happily at familiar landmarks. They receive perfunctory inspections of their landing passes, and make landfall without stress. On the other hand, it must have been a much more arduous inspection for escapees from Nazi Europe; US immigration officials were urged to be very careful in discriminating between US citizens and aliens. And from a study of the ship’s manifest, one can fill in a few details in Berlin’s account. The Times journalist was Walter Edward Lucas, returning with his American wife, Lenore (née Sandberg). The duchess was 27-year-old Solange de Vivonne, described as widowed; Frieda Vogel, single, aged 39, and travelling with her mother, had indeed been born in Istanbul. Yet Berlin fails to identify someone who must have been the most famous passenger on board at that time, someone very close to the Roosevelts in the White House – Eve Curie, who had in 1937 published an extremely successful biography of her mother, Marie Curie, the Nobelist scientist, and was travelling from the UK on a lecture tour. When interviewed in one of the lounges on the Excambion, as it moved from Quarantine to Pier F, in Jersey City, Madame Curie gave a promotional speech for Great Britain, and pleaded for more tangible aid to the war effort there. Berlin, himself a government propagandist, surprisingly makes no mention of her or her role. Maybe his attentions were drawn elsewhere during the ten-day voyage. For, as he decades later told his biographer, it was on that ship that he first saw a striking lady. ‘He had noticed the tall, elegant, shy woman, and wondered who she was.’

The woman was named Aline Strauss, and would fifteen years later become his wife. Aline was travelling with her son, Michel, aged four. She was a widow, and had fled south from Paris as the Germans approached, staying in Biarritz, then Nice, and running to Portugal after the Vichy regime published its anti-Jewish edicts. (Ignatieff reports all this.) But it could have not been easy exiting France and crossing Spain to get to Lisbon, especially with her parents in tow. Susan Zuccotti, in her book The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews writes: ‘Hoping to leave legally, Aline Strauss wrestled with government bureaucracies for weeks. Her top priority was to obtain entry visas to the United States for herself and her family – a supremely difficult challenge, for few such visas were being issued at the time. She also needed to secure French passports for herself and her family, transit visas through Spain and Portugal, French exit visas, and proof of ship passage. The entire process was complicated by endless bureaucratic obstruction and by the intricate time frame involved. Visas were often valid for only a limited period, and by the time they were all in place, a ship might have sailed. Miraculously enough, Aline Strauss finally succeeded. She left France with her son in January 1941; her parents, to avoid giving the impression of a family exodus, followed three months later.’ Apart from the ‘With one bound Jack was free’ nature of this adventure, one wonders whether concerns about ‘a family exodus’ would really have been that intense under the circumstances, and how Aline’s parents managed to organize their departure with similar dexterity in Aline’s absence. For a historian such as Zuccotti to go all the way to Headington House in Oxford to interview Aline Berlin, and take back no explanation of the ‘miracle’, is disappointing.

Did Aline get help? Did she have connections? Probably. As Chaim Weizmann once said to Berlin: ‘Miracles do happen. But one has to work very hard for them.’  And the account of the trek offered by her son, Michel, in his 2011 publication Pictures, Passion, and Eye is far more revealing, showing the tenacity and resolve she had to adopt. What Michel adds is that Aline had to make repeated visits to the US Embassy in Nice to get her exit visa, not being allowed to see the consul or vice-consul, since the necessary affidavits had not arrived from the US. After receiving assistance from the American Embassy in Vichy, she did manage to gain access to the vice-consul in Nice, and acquired the necessary visas. But then she was unable to acquire the necessary exit visa from the Vichy government, and had to start the whole process again, having to invent a justification for her journey by claiming that she was getting married in America.  The Vichy government even demanded that the banns for such a marriage be read, until the Consulate lawyer issued a paper stating that in America, banns did not have to be read. Finally, she had the exit visas; the miracle had occurred, and she and her son made their way by train, from Barcelona to Madrid, and on to Lisbon – not without further scares – until they were able to rest at a small hotel in Estoril, in all probability not the Palacio, where Berlin was staying, to wait for the departure of SS Excambion.  One surprising datum from the ship’s manifest, however, is the description of Aline Strauss’s marital status as ‘married’ not ‘widowed’ – a simple mistake, perhaps, or possibly a reflection of her desire to be taken as attached, and thus unavailable, by possible suitors on board. But she was on the less prestigious list of ‘Aliens’, for whom immigration officers performed additional checks. Was it not dangerous to represent herself this way, especially as the method by which she had gained an exit visa was a laborious and stressful process in which she claimed that she was to be married in the USA?

Who was Aline Strauss? She had been born Aline de Gunzbourg – in England, in 1915, away from the war zone – and had been brought up in an apartment block in the Avenue d’Iéna in Paris, enjoying contacts with some of the most celebrated names of French society, such as the Rothschilds. She was a close friend of Liliane Fould-Springer (a great-aunt of the actress Helena Bonham-Carter), who lived in another apartment in the block, and who was later to marry Elie de Rothschild, her childhood sweetheart. As Ignatieff reports: ‘Aline’s father was Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg, an illustrious banker and philanthropist of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. Her father had settled in Paris and had married the daughter of a Jewish family from Alsace, who had made their fortune in heating oil.’  In fact, there was another Rothschild link here, because her grandfather had set up a company to sell American oil in other European countries with the Rothschilds. (There was also intermarriage between Rothschild and de Gunzbourg: for example Marguerite de Gramont (1920–1998), daughter of the Count de Gramont, Officier of Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre, was later to become Baroness de Gunzbourg, and Aline’s cousin, Bertrand Goldschmidt – of whom more later – married Naomi de Rothschild, who was the daughter of Victor Rothschild’s cousin Lionel, in 1947.)  Aline spent considerable time in the United Kingdom. She would pass several summers in a rented house in North Berwick with relatives, and regularly played golf in England with some of the world’s best-known players: she can be seen in photographs on the course at Stoke Poges, for instance, in the early 1930s. Indeed, she was a golfer of renown. After winning the National Ladies’ Championship of France in April 1934, she represented her country in the tied match against England, and, in July of that year, lost in the semi-final of the country’s International Championship to the eventual winner, Pam Barton. But Aline also had her share of tragedy. Her husband, Jules Strauss, a well-known art-collector, died young of cancer in 1939. She had also lost a brother (while he was a conscript in the army in 1933) and a sister (who fell to her death from a horse in an accident in Windsor Great Park in 1925).

The story now resembles a world conceived by Alan Furst, but with the clumsy plotting of Raymond Chandler. Aline Strauss had a few other encounters with Berlin in the US before their love affair blossomed, several years later, in England. The first few appear at first glance to be chance meetings at which the two really did not connect. From an inspection of Ignatieff’s biography, and Berlin’s Letters, they run as follows:

i) Berlin spots the elegant shy woman on the Excambion. (January 1941)

ii) They meet at the Rothschilds on Long Island, where Aline is playing golf with Cécile Rothschild. Isaiah is impressed; Aline less so. (undated)

iii) Aline visits Victor Rothschild’s apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York, to find Isaiah there. She ignores him, since she is pre-occupied with gaining news from Rothschild about her brother Philippe, then working for the Resistance in France. (November 1942)

iv) Aline and Isaiah meet at a tea arranged by Victor Rothschild in New York. Berlin reports that ‘marriage has crushed her, she is meek and unhappy’, although Aline of course does not talk about any problems. (Spring 1946)

What has been going on here? Berlin was known for his perceptiveness about other people’s state of mind, but how has the callow Isaiah suddenly become an expert on woman’s psychology?  And why the emphasis on the failure of these two engaging personalities to connect? The studied reinforcement of the distance between the two is overdone, and thus generates a degree of scepticism.

Many aspects of this account do not ring true. Aline Strauss was certainly ‘tall and elegant’, but hardly shy – although those who know her say that she is diffident in front of high-powered intellectuals. She was travelling with her son; she had moved in dazzling social circles, had been in the limelight in the world of golf, and had shown great enterprise and fortitude in escaping to Portugal while dealing with obstructive officials in Southern France. She was acquainted with several other passengers on the Excambion, and, upon her arrival in New York, left her son in the care of nannies in order to take up a hectic social life. There may have been more alluring companions on the ship than Isaiah Berlin, but it was unlikely that she shrank back to her quarters, or avoided company out of shyness. Even more telling, on the occasion of his marriage to Aline on February 8, 1956, Berlin informed a reporter from the Hampstead and Highgate Express that their first ‘meeting’ had been ‘in the middle of the Atlantic in 1941’. A ‘meeting’ suggests an introduction, and exchange of names, at least. So why did he tell his biographer that he wondered who she was?

The next two encounters also stretch the bounds of credulity. Here was a refined Jewish woman, attracted to intelligent men, being introduced to another Jew with roots in St Petersburg, while both of them had strong connections with the Rothschilds. Moreover, this was no ordinary Jew. Berlin was the first Jew to be elected to a fellowship at All Souls, and had been described as the best conversationalist in Britain (in truth, more of a monologuist), noted for charming both the men and the ladies with his quick-wittedness and intellect. His gift of good companionship, and his ability to lift people’s spirits, have been well-recorded. Yet Aline Strauss ignores him. And then, a few years later, Berlin meets her again, at a tea-party on Long Island, evidently not surprised to find her married (he makes no comment).  Despite his lack of close acquaintance with the lady, he is immediately able to detect signs of stress, although Aline has been married for only a little over two years and is pregnant with her first son by Hans Halban, to be born on June 1, 1946. What is more, the archives indicate that her husband, who had also recently returned from a visit to the UK, was present at the meeting. It had apparently been set up by Victor Rothschild to facilitate the move by the Halbans to Oxford, where Hans was taking up a job at the Clarendon Laboratory, so that they would have ready friends there. How did this sophisticated lady, on such a happy occasion, with a birth imminent, at a positive meeting set up by their mutual friend, soon to welcome the arrival of her Resistance hero brother and his family in New York, and the prospect of an exciting new life in Oxford ahead, give such signals of attrition and stress to a man she had hardly noticed on previous encounters?

Were there problems with her marriage already? Certainly Hans Halban had had his difficulties.  Halban was a nuclear scientist who was working on the Manhattan Project in Montreal. Ignatieff, again, does not quite get the story right. He reports that, in 1943, ‘Aline met Halban, a physicist of Austrian extraction who had worked on the French nuclear programme and had escaped to America in 1940, carrying with him important information about the production of heavy water, a component in the manufacture of atomic weapons.’ According to Ignatieff, they married and went to Montreal. But Halban’s journey had in fact been more circuitous, and tinged with controversy. Halban was indeed an Austrian, of half-Jewish descent, who had been educated at Leipzig, and worked with Irene Joliot-Curie, and with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen before being invited to Paris to collaborate with Frederic Joliot-Curie at the Collège de France, where he was granted French citizenship. As the Nazis approached, he had escaped with his colleague Lew Kowarksi to the UK with a valuable canister of heavy water (stored temporarily at Wormwood Scrubs, where MI5 was also located for a while, and then at Windsor Castle). Winston Churchill invited him to work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge; he was greatly aided by John Cockcroft and Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), both of whom became lifelong allies. Halban was eventually appointed to the technical committee of the Tube Alloys Project, the codename for research into atomic power and weaponry. His team was later reconstituted in Canada, in order to be close to the US atomic research efforts, and where resources for their experiments would be more available. Halban moved to Montreal in 1942.

But Halban had the knack of acquiring some highly dubious characters to work for him. The connections and conspiracies that evolved among his team constitute some of the most significant espionage activities of the century, and are worth listing. In Cambridge, he employed one Engelbert (Bertl) Broda, who was in fact a Communist agent (code-named ‘Eric’). Broda had come to the UK in 1938, found his way to Cambridge University, and was by 1942 assisting Halban in his work on atomic reactors and controlled chain reactions. In that seedbed of communist subversion, Vienna in the early 1930s, Broda had probably been the lover of another Soviet agent, Edith Tudor-Hart. Tudor-Hart was acquainted with the master-spy Kim Philby via the latter’s first wife Litzi Friedman, whom he married in Vienna in 1933, and may have been responsible for recruiting him to spy for the Soviet Union. Broda was eventually to return to Austria in 1947, having been a steady provider of atomic secrets to the Soviets in the intervening years. MI5 also suspected Broda of being responsible for the recruitment of the spy Alan Nunn May, who also worked for Halban – and followed him to Montreal in 1943.  Nunn May was closely connected to the notorious group of Soviet agents known as ‘the Cambridge 5’. He was a friend of Donald Maclean at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, was tutored by the Communist sympathiser Patrick Blackett, and had joined the Communist Party on the early 1930s. He was able, however, able to get past security checks, as he was a ‘secret’ member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and had been recommended by the prominent scientist James Chadwick to join the Cavendish team. He was recruited by the GRU (the Army side of Soviet intelligence) while on the Tube Alloys Project, and it was only through the testimony of the Soviet cipher-clerk Igor Gouzenko, who identified him after defecting in Toronto, that Nunn May was arrested, and subsequently confessed to his espionage activities. He was jailed in 1946, and when released a few years later, went to work in Ghana, having married Bertl Broda’s former wife, Hildegarde.

But there were other snakes in the grass who worked closely with Halban. Bruno Pontecorvo, the spy who suddenly defected to the East in 1950, had worked with him in Paris, and escaped to the US as the Nazis approached.  He then not only gained employment in Canada under Halban, but also rejoined him at Harwell in 1948 under John Cockcroft’s leadership. Working there, too, was yet another notorious spy, Klaus Fuchs, maybe the most brilliant of them all. Having recruited Nunn May, Broda had been responsible for the KGB’s recruitment of Fuchs, who continued his spying activities after the war. In 1946, Fuchs was hired at Harwell as Head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and gave the Soviets some of the most critical and useful information about the USA’s nuclear achievements and potential, which directly affected Stalin’s military decisions, such as initiating the Korean War. When Soviet wartime radio traffic was decrypted in the Venona project, evidence pointed to a spy at Harwell, and Fuchs’s background made him an obvious suspect. He was arrested in January 1950, confessed under interrogation, and was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment, though released after nine. He then left for the German Democratic Republic (DDR), (leaving London on a plane with a ticket in the name of Strauss!), and in September 1959 married a Central Committee employee, Margarete Keilson (a widow, six years older), whom he had met as a fellow Communist in Paris in the 1930s. He later indicated to Markus Wolf, the head of the DDR’s foreign intelligence division, that he had expected the death penalty. While Halban’s role was reduced in the post-war organization at Harwell, it was perhaps a signal of recognition for his skills and knowledge that so many spies gathered around him during his career.

While he tried to re-build, in Canada, the team that had worked for him in Paris (to the consternation of the Americans, who did not trust the French implicitly), Halban’s managerial skills were tested. His colleague Kowarski declined to accompany him to Montreal, frustrated by the politicization of dealings with patents, and Halban’s treatment of him. Later, another physicist on the team, Bertrand Goldschmidt, reported how the team was frustrated by lack of access to raw materials, and that ‘their demoralization was to be further increased by the difficult character, the authoritarian manners and the poor managerial abilities of Halban, their leader’. (Goldschmidt was in fact a cousin of Aline Strauss, and was the person responsible for introducing her to Halban in Canada when they were on a ski-ing trip early in 1943.)  Despite his reputation for acting alone, and not being the best communicator, Halban had nevertheless managed to bring other members of his Parisian team to Montreal. One was Georg Plazcek (who married Halban’s first wife, Els Andriesse, after Els followed Halban to Montreal, but then left him); another was the afore-mentioned Communist agent, Bruno Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo had failed security checks for joining the Manhattan project in the USA, but had been able to get hired in Canada.

The Americans were very suspicious of Halban. Their misgivings increased when he visited  France after the liberation of Paris in 1944, with the purpose of discussing the issue of patents with Joliot-Curie. They wondered whether he was planning to pass atomic secrets to the French. Knowing the situation was tense, Halban had travelled to England, but waited there for approval for his visit to Paris. On gaining it from Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he left on November 24, and was given hospitality by the UK’s Ambassador to France, Duff Cooper, who was staying at Victor Rothschild’s elegant house in the Avenue Marigny. Halban had been caught in a complex conflict of loyalties. He had taken patents created in Paris with him to the UK in 1940, and given them to the UK government. And as the Americans started to wonder about why so many French scientists were working on the project in Montreal, they tried to apply stricter controls on participants without firm allegiances to the USA or the UK. This process resulted in the passing of the McMahon Act of 1946, which restricted access to nuclear secrets even to accredited citizens of countries who were US allies (like Great Britain and Canada), and thus solidified the preliminaries to the Cold War. Halban denied giving secrets to Joliot-Curie, but the Americans were annoyed, knowing that Joliot-Curie was a member of the Communist Party who had made threatening noises about contacting the Soviet Union if he were not treated respectfully. They thus applied pressure on the British to replace him – which they did, demoting Halban to head of the physics committee, and bringing in John Cockcroft as leader in Montreal. Nevertheless, Halban was soon put under detention in the US for a year, and not allowed to work. Ironically, the man who replaced him in Montreal was the spy Alan Nunn May. Any secrets that Halban might have confided to Joliot-Curie were dwarfed by the revelations of Nunn May, Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Broda, as well as those made by Guy Burgess’s fellow absconder, Donald Maclean, working in Washington.

The week of the meeting between Berlin and the Halbans that was set up by Victor Rothschild can be pinpointed, as Berlin completed his assignment in Washington on March 31, and left for the UK on the Queen Mary on April 7. Clearly, Halban had been under stress, which might have affected his marriage. Here was a man, born von Halban in Austria, of half-Jewish background, who was sometimes taken for a German, but who then adopted French citizenship (and dropped the ‘von’ from his name on that occasion) when he worked in Paris. After his escape to France, he was employed by the British government, and owed it his allegiance, signing the Official Secrets Act, before leaving to work in Canada in co-operation with the United States government. He was intensely concerned about the patents he had brought with him from France, and his loyalties were thus pulled in multiple directions. His health was not good: he had a weak heart, which had necessitated his travelling by cruiser rather than aircraft during the war, and Bertrand Goldschmidt attributes his dictatorial and impatient manner partly to that affliction. He was harsh with his stepson, Michel, who explained his own asthma attacks as being caused by Halban’s treatment of him: this must have distressed his mother. But in the spring of 1946, Halban was coming to the end of a frustrating nine months’ period of cooling his heels in New York, eagerly waiting for June to come round, a date on which he would be free to return to Europe. One might have imagined a positive outlook from both Halban and his wife.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, had just returned from experiencing one of the most significant adventures of his life – his encounter with the famous Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, in Leningrad. Berlin had been able to fulfill his longtime desire to visit the Soviet Union after the British ambassador in Moscow from 1942 to 1946, Archibald Clark Kerr, had suggested to him that he survey the scene, and write a report on relations between the Soviet Union and the West. Having carefully gained approval from the Foreign Office, Berlin was initially subject to obstructive tactics by the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Molotov eventually granted him official accreditation as a member of the British Embassy, and Berlin was given a visa in September 1945. It is ironic that Berlin breezed through his visa application with the Soviet authorities in Washington in 1940, before that particular journey was cancelled. Clark Kerr, made Baron Inverchapel in 1946, had shown a remarkable talent for engaging Stalin’s confidence, and no doubt influenced the approval process. The historian John Costello has written of Clark Kerr’s enthusiasm for communism. He had consorted with Stig Wennestrom, a Soviet spy from Sweden, in the 1930s, and in his role as ambassador to China in the late 1930s, had also been a keen admirer of Mao Tse-Tung. He then developed a special relationship with Stalin himself, going to so far as being a supporter of Stalin’s demands for the repatriation of Russians as the war came to a close. As Costello writes (in Mask of Treachery) ‘The ambassador was so cozy with the Soviet dictator that he secured the release from prison of a Red Army deserter whose sister was on the British embassy staff. Instead of facing a firing-squad, Yevgeny Yost found himself presented – like some medieval serf – as a valet to Inverchapel when he left Moscow and returned to London at the end of the war.’  Clark Kerr had also been a close friend of Anthony Burgess, and, on visits back to London in the 1940s, held parties which communist sympathizers and Soviet diplomats attended: his suggestion that Berlin travel to Moscow was thus an eerie echo of the abortive exploit of 1940.

Ignatieff covers the journey in depth, so only the key aspects of his encounter with Akhmatova, whose first husband, Gumilev, had been executed in 1921, and whose son had suffered in the Gulag, need be retold here. On a visit to Leningrad, Berlin had casually asked about her in a bookstore, and had been led to her apartment. He ended up talking to her all night about Russian friends, about art and literature. She told him her bitter life-story, her love affairs, her exile, and encouraged him to speak of his own personal life. He admitted to her that he was in love with one Patricia de Bendern (née Douglas), whom he was to visit in Paris on his way back. (Extraordinarily, the previous August, Patricia, despondent after the collapse of her marriage, had proposed to Berlin, a suggestion which he assessed as unlikely to have a happy outcome, and thus declined.) What Akhmatova made of all this is unknown, but Berlin’s account of their meeting suggests it was erotically charged.  At eleven the next morning, when he returned to the Astoria Hotel, he exclaimed to Brenda Tripp, his companion from the British Council: ‘I am in love, I am in love.’

Akhmatova went on to write a cycle of elegiac poems about Berlin and his visit, titled Cinque. But the encounter caused her problems, too. The fact that Berlin had eluded Stalin’s secret police in managing to meet Akhmatova infuriated the dictator, who had essentially been blackmailing her, forcing her silence in public by holding a sword over the head of her son. When Zhdanov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, sent him a report on the encounter, Stalin was reported to have said: ‘So our nun has been seeing British spies’, accompanying his reaction with a vulgar epithet. The matter was complicated by the fact that Randolph Churchill, the son of Stalin’s old rival Winston Churchill – sometime ally, sometime adversary – had also been present, according to Berlin’s account, outside Akhmatova’s residence. Seeking Berlin out, he had reputedly called boorishly to him, although he had not been able to gain entry. Akhmatova thought enough of her own importance, and the way Stalin behaved afterwards, to state to Berlin, years later, when she visited Oxford, that she thought their encounter provoked the Cold War – a probable overstatement, though an accurate insight, no doubt, into the fact that Stalin did not like to be thwarted or challenged. Akhmatova’s biographer Roberta Reeder makes the point that Stalin used her as a victim to teach a lesson to the Soviet people, and the writer Konstantin Simonov represented Stalin’s attack on her as a general one on the intelligentsia, cosmopolitanism, and even the independent westernized spirit of Leningrad itself. Stalin had delivered a speech in February 1946 that reaffirmed the superiority of communism, which in turn prompted Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in March, so the fresh challenge from his former ally was on his mind when he heard that Randolph was meddling.

Most commentators have pointed out that Stalin was exaggerating in describing Berlin and Churchill as ‘spies’, since Berlin’s mission to prepare a dispatch about American-Soviet-British relations had been approved by the Soviet Foreign Office. Eluding one’s minder was not evidence of espionage, but the Soviet authorities were obviously suspicious of any covert activity, or attempts to contact Soviet citizens without supervision. Berlin took pains to declare his lack of involvement with any intelligence activities at any point in his life. ‘I had nothing to do with intelligence in any country, at any time, and took no interest in what he [Alexander Halpern] did,’ he wrote in his profile of the Halperns, maybe a little disingenuously. (It should be pointed out that he informed his parents – in a letter of June 2, 1944, from Washington – that Halpern ‘works for us here’, suggesting a close familiarity with Halpern’s activities.) There is a difference between ‘having something to do with intelligence’ and ‘formally working for the Intelligence Service’, the latter being what Berlin appears to want to disassociate himself from. While nominally working for the British Embassy in New York and Washington, Berlin had actually been seconded to the assuredly covert British Security Co-ordination, an organization dedicated to propaganda and intelligence-gathering. And another little-known relationship that Berlin had in the world of intelligence was with Efraim Halevy, who was head of Mossad (Israel’s Intelligence Organization) from 1998 to 2002. A casual search of the Internet will give a careless browser the news that Halevy was Berlin’s nephew: he was in fact a nephew of Berlin’s aunt. Their relationship was close: Halevy was born in London in 1934, and his parents were friends of the Berlin family in Hampstead. Isaiah, along with his parents, attended Halevy’s bar mitzvah. But you will not find an entry for him in Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin. That is doubly remarkable, as the Letters, Volume 2, reports that Halevy accompanied Berlin on the 1956 trip to the Soviet Union. As the editors report: ‘As Secretary-General of the National Union of Israeli Students, he was in Moscow ostensibly to assist in planning for an international youth festival to be held in Moscow the following year, but his main intention was to make contact (normally impossible) with young Russian Jews.’ They go on to say that Berlin and Halevy did succeed in the early hours of one morning in getting away to meet Berlin’s aunt Zelma Zhmudsky, although Halevy was later reprimanded and delayed at the border for the ‘crime’ of escaping surveillance. More significant is the fact that Halevy delivered the seventh annual Isaiah Berlin lecture in Hampstead, London, on November 8, 2009, choosing the title: ‘Diplomacy and Intelligence in the Middle East: How and why are the two inexorably intertwined?’ After lauding Berlin’s contribution to the Jewish people, the Israeli nation, and the Rothschild Foundation, he went on to say: ‘Shaya, as we all called him, was not a neutral bystander as history unfolded before our eyes. He was often a player, at times a clandestine one, as when he met me in the nineties to hear reports of my many meetings with the late King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Crown Prince Hassan, who had been his pupil at Oxford. In retrospect, I regret not taking with me one of my secret recording machines to allow for these titillating exchanges to become part of recorded history. Alas, one more Israeli intelligence failure.’ That is hardly the evidence for someone who was never involved with intelligence, and to commemorate Berlin via a lecture on the subject suggests a pride in his achievements in that sphere. But this aspect of Berlin’s life is smoothly finessed, as is information about the Rothschild Foundation. Kenneth Rose’s biography of Victor Rothschild practically ignores that whole segment of Rothschild’s life. It appears that many people would prefer it to remain a mystery.

Berlin returned to the USA to tidy up his commitments in Washington, and to have the equally fateful meeting with the Halbans. But questions have arisen about his version of what happened in Leningrad. When György Dalos was researching his account of the event for his book The Guest From The Future, and interviewed Berlin in 1995, Berlin significantly downplayed the romantic aspect of his feelings. ‘No’, he said, ‘there was no Utopia for me’, and his feelings towards Akhmatova were expressed in terms of fascination, respect, admiration and sympathy – not love. Perhaps he said so to protect the feelings of his wife, Aline, whom he had taken to the Soviet Union in 1956, and whom Akhmatova, possibly with a sense of jealousy, but also because she was fearful that the thaw in the oppression of writers such as her might only be temporary, declined to see. Berlin always stated that his meeting with Akhmatova was the most important event of his life, but he felt guilty for the mayhem that occurred afterwards – including the growing anti-semitism in the Soviet Union that was fostered by Stalin. (Akhmatova was not Jewish, but Berlin had relatives who suffered under Stalin’s persecution.) The focus of that new purge, the uncovering of a so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, was derailed only by the dictator’s death in 1953, a couple of days before those indicted were to go on trial. By the time Berlin returned to the Soviet Union in 1956, matters had improved considerably. Khrushchev’s celebrated speech debunking Stalin (February 1956) had resulted in a release of political prisoners, including Akhmatova’s son, Lev, who was freed on May 14 and officially exonerated by the Supreme Soviet on June 2, shortly before the Berlins arrived. Akhmatova had not been re-admitted to the Writers’ Union, and still felt threatened, but there is no doubt that she felt peeved at the realisation that her ‘Guest From the Future’ had turned out to be just like other men, and had transferred his affections to someone else.  Berlin himself reported the long silence on the telephone after he spoke to Akhmatova about his marriage, a pause followed by: ‘I am sorry you cannot see me, Pasternak says your wife is charming’, after which came another long silence. Roberta Reeder, in Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, writes: ‘Her grief and disappointment, as in the past, were transformed into poetry, into a cycle entitled Sweetbriar in Blossom’, in which Akhmatova compares herself to Dido abandoned by Aeneas.

Later commentary, namely Josephine von Zitzewitz’s article in the Times Literary Supplement of September 9, 2011,‘That’s How It Was’ (effectively a review of a book published with that title, ‘I eto bylo tak’, in St Petersburg in 2009) represented further research into records from contemporaries at the scene, as well as study of archives in Britain. This analysis suggests that Berlin must have known that Akhmatova was still alive beforehand, that the original encounter may not have been as spontaneous as suggested, that there may have been further encounters between Akhmatova and Berlin (namely five, to match the number in Cinque), that details of those present are incorrect, that the incident with Randolph Churchill was invented, and that the meetings may have been more intimate that Berlin admitted. One key plank concerning the first part of this claim, not explained in the piece, is Berlin’s friendship with Alexander and Salomea Halpern (née Andronikova). Berlin had been introduced to this couple by a friend in New York, found them appealing (especially Salomea), and they became close friends. Salomea had been a noted beauty, and a very close friend of Akhmatova’s in pre-war St. Petersburg, sharing a circle including the poets Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova’s husband, Gumilev. Indeed, Mandelstam had fallen deeply in love with her. It seems inconceivable that Salomea Halpern would not have besought Berlin to try and visit Akhmatova while he was in Leningrad, yet Berlin later claimed to have asked naively inside an antiquarian bookseller’s whether she was still alive. (In a letter to Maurice Bowra, dated June 7, 1945, he refers to Akhmatova’s forced seclusion at that time in Leningrad, thus showing knowledge of her status.) This association has further wrinkles: Alexander Halpern, like Berlin, worked for the British Security Coordination in the US, helping to set up propaganda on a dummy radio station in Boston, and his role as head of Special Operations Executive’s (SOE’s) Political and Minorities section included responsibilities for the sensitive category of Ukrainians. Moreover he had been an official in Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917, as well as being an advisor to the British Embassy in St. Petersburg. If Stalin’s intelligence network had been doing its job, such a relationship would surely have come to his attention. Salomea herself was an enigma: by the 1950s she had become a rabid Stalinist herself, and when she moved to London after the war (so Berlin himself informs us), Russian writers were encouraged by the Soviet authorities to visit her primitive salon in Chelsea. ‘Salomea’s opinions were evidently noted favourably in Moscow’, notes Berlin.

The conclusions of Zitzewitz’s article are enigmatic: Berlin may have wanted to protect Akhmatova, but it does not explain why, since Akhmatova died in 1966, he would have needed to continue to shield her from the facts concerning his visit when he recalled the encounter, both in his 1980 essay Meetings With Russian Writers in 1945 and 1946, and in his conversations with Ignatieff shortly before he died. Moreover, a faulty memory cannot really explain all the distortions of the truth. As in other aspects of his life, Berlin frequently presented facts in a disturbingly deceptive manner. Akhmatova challenged Berlin on his sense of reality: after she received an honorary degree at Oxford in June 1965, she visited the Berlins at their opulent Headington House, and declared: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ (She then went on to have a long-awaited reunion with her close friend, but now a political adversary, Salomea Halpern, in London.) Ignatieff notes that, after Akhmatova’s death, Berlin wrote to a friend, Jean Floud, that he would always think of her as an “uncontaminated”, “unbroken”  and  “morally impeccable” reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history. This avowal was doubly ironic: Jean Floud was the sister-in-law of another Soviet agent, Bernard Floud, and she misguidedly came to his defence in a letter to the Times. And Berlin would later undermine his heartfelt comment about fellow-travellers in his praise of another woman.

In April 1946 Berlin returned to England, and Oxford. The Halbans sailed back on July 1; Peter had been born on June 1, and their two children followed them on the Queen Mary in September. Berlin resumed teaching at New College, now a celebrity with a reputation gained from his Washington dispatches. Hans Halban was pleased to assume a post as Professor of Physics at the Clarendon Laboratory, after an offer from his old friend Lord Cherwell. By all accounts, he had eight successful and productive years working there. At first, the Halbans lived in a rented mock-Tudor house outside Headington; a year later, the family moved into Hilltop House ‘a finely proportioned Georgian House with a large garden at the top of Headington Hill’, as Michel Strauss reported. In 1953, Aline and Hans found a larger Georgian house on six acres of land in Old Headington, Headington House, which was to become the Berlins’ domicile after Hans and Aline divorced, and Hans moved back to France, in 1955. As Victor Rothschild had hoped, Isaiah became good friends with the Halbans during the next few years. Ignatieff relates: ‘Isaiah became part of their life, taking Aline to concerts, dining at their house and gradually becoming a family friend. She felt at ease with him; he made her laugh and provided her with a safe and blameless escape from a marriage that was becoming more difficult by the year.’

An example of this new intimacy was apparent in 1949. The way Ignatieff reports it, it was an accident: ‘when he went to Harvard, she was on the same boat heading to visit her mother in New York, and they spent ten happy days together on a crossing which included Marietta and Ronald Tree and other friends.’ The least ingenious of sleuths might conclude that there had been some planning to this highly enjoyable voyage, perhaps a subtle twist to Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband? Berlin’s diligent amanuensis, Henry Hardy, and his co-editor, Jennifer Holmes, inform us that Berlin had indeed suggested that Aline join him and his friends on the voyage, and she travelled from Paris to pick up the Queen Mary when it docked at Cherbourg. As luck would have it, the ship, driven by a gale, ran aground there, and had to limp back to Southampton for repairs. Isaiah and Aline took the opportunity to leave the rest of the party marooned in a dock on the Solent, and to return to Oxford until the ship was ready to sail again. Earlier, as he waited off the Isle of Wight on January 2, while the ship was being inspected by divers, Berlin wrote to his parents: ‘Life is terribly gay & agreeable: breakfast in bed with every kind of delicious juices & eggs: then promenades with Mrs Halban, the Trees, Miss Montague, Alain de Rothschild’. Ignatieff (provided with this insight by Isaiah and Aline in the 1990s) states that it was on board ship that they became inseparable friends, but the evidence suggests that they had already formed a strong bond. And at some stage they started an affair. Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.

Halban’s social stature had improved in his time at Oxford. A significant feather in his cap was being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin (who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war) was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration. Halban was offered a Fellowship; when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: ‘The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.’

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more skeptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5. Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. The History laconically reports: ‘Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.’ The source was James Joll. After returning to France as a professor at the Sorbonne, Halban was invited to direct the construction of a nuclear research facility (a large particle accelerator) at the Orsay facility in Saclay, outside Paris, for the French Energy Commission. When the divorce between Mr and Mrs Halban was finalised, Isaiah and Aline were married at Hampstead Synagogue on February 7, 1956, with Victor Rothschild as Aline’s witness. For over forty years, they enjoyed a stable, loving, and rewarding marriage. Practically the last thing he said to his biographer was how much he loved Aline, and how much she had been the centre of his life ­– no doubt a sincere claim, but one made with the intent of comforting Aline and stilling any doubts she may have had about competition from other relationships.

There was, however, at least one more twist to the story before Isaiah and Aline were able to be together. Berlin had seemed to be destined for the life of a bachelor: his correspondence shows that he was able to keep up a lively and affectionate dialogue with attractive young females, but they did not appear to view him as romantic material. (One exception was a pupil, Rachel Walker, of Somerville College, who fell in love with him, but whose attentions he found discomforting.) In the early 1950s he still professed to be in love with Patricia de Bendern, even as she misused him, continually playing with his affections. Moreover, Berlin had been telling friends he wanted to get married. Then, out of the blue, in the summer of 1950, Berlin started an affair with the wife of an Oxford don. When Ignatieff wrote his biography, the woman’s identity was thinly veiled, but the story came out when Nicola Lacey published, in 2004, her biography of the woman’s husband, H. L. A. (Herbert) Hart. Hart was a prominent professor, one of the great legal philosophers of the twentieth century. Berlin had known Jenifer and Herbert for a long time; indeed, Henry Hardy describes Jenifer as ‘a close and lifelong friend of IB’. Herbert was a don at New College, and Jenifer had been an admirer of Berlin’s intellectual talents ever since she first met him. Unlike Aline Berlin, who claimed to struggle to understand what he was saying at their first encounter, Jenifer Hart recorded in her own memoirs, Ask Me No More, her first impression of Berlin, in 1934: ‘It was here [New College] that I first met the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose conversation I found so dazzling that, already in an excited state, I was almost reduced to hysterics.’ Ignatieff describes the historic seduction as one initiated by Berlin when he was sick, and Jenifer came to visit him: Hardy and Holmes note that, much later, both Isaiah and Jenifer would claim that the other initiated the affair. Berlin’s state of mind was probably at a low point; on May 11, 1950, Aline Halban gave birth to her third son, Philippe, her second with Hans. For what Berlin had gauged as a rocky marriage several years ago was perhaps re-energizing itself, and his opportunity was fading. Isaiah was anguished over his affair with Jenifer, believing that he had to explain himself to the husband, also a close friend; Herbert Hart (who had homosexual tendencies, and once declared to his children that the problem with their parents’ marriage was that ‘one of the partners didn’t like sex, and the other didn’t like food’) refused to accept the reality of the situation. The Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa has written about Berlin’s ‘adulterous affairs with the wives of university colleagues’, which makes Berlin sound like a satyr of Ayeresque proportions. It is possible that Llosa has inside information that would expand the list of Berlin’s amours: no other lady, apart from Mrs Hart and Mrs Halban, has been identified, but of course it is as difficult to prove that somebody definitely did not have another lover as it is to prove that any senior British Intelligence officer was for certain not an agent of the Soviets. (Though the sexual mores of the intelligentsia of that time seem bizarre even in this enlightened age: Isaiah Berlin was in love with Patricia de Bendern, who was sleeping with A. J. Ayer, who was two-timing her with Penelope Felkin, who was married to Elliott Felkin, who had been the first lover of Jenifer Hart, who initiated Berlin into sex: a veritable La Ronde on the Isis.)

And here the timing looks a little awry. It is impossible to plot the exact trajectory of the affair of Isaiah and Aline, since the prime source of facts about it is Berlin himself, and he has proved to be an unreliable witness, events blurring from a faulty memory forty years later, and maybe a desire to believe that the course of true love had been more honourable than it really was. Ignatieff writes that ‘the affair continued for several years, but Berlin’s affections slowly began to transfer towards another woman, also married to an Oxford colleague’. Berlin’s affections for Aline had of course been harboured for many years already: in a letter to Alice James (August 12, 1955), he writes about his impending marriage: ‘I have loved her long and very silently for fear of upsetting what seemed to me a household.’ And then, after claiming his innocence, and rather ingenuously stating that ‘No “deeds” occurred’, he writes further: ‘I am naturally in a state of enormous bliss; & think myself fantastically lucky & cannot conceive how such happiness can have come my way after eating my heart out for years (I first saw her in 1941) nor does Dr Halban seem to mind much now’. It seems very incongruous for a man who had loved in vain for all those years to have set upon a sudden affair with another woman only five years previously, and indicate to his biographer that his affections slowly began to transfer to another woman. In any case, the usual accompaniments to such affairs took place: secret assignations, surreptitious telephone calls overheard, private detectives tracking movements, confrontations, temporary separations and tearful reunions. Berlin tried the same tactic of confronting Halban, pointing out to him the philosophical challenge of trying to keep caged someone yearning to be free (neatly paraphrasing a saying of Herzen about the impossibility of providing a house for free people within the walls of a former prison), and how such behavior would be counterproductive. At the end of 1954, another deus ex machina saved the situation. Halban was offered the position in Paris, and gave Aline the famous ultimatum. She decided to stay: Halban somehow must have been persuaded to give up Headington House, no doubt with some monetary payment to assist the process, and after waiting for the divorce to come through, Isaiah and Aline became engaged. Jenifer Hart happened to hear the news at an All Souls lunch, and was notably shocked and upset. According to Ignatieff, she came to Isaiah’s rooms and he could only comfort her as best he could: ‘Cry, child, cry’ (since emended by Henry Hardy, after inspection of the tapes, to ‘Weep, my child, weep’). Marx and Belinsky meet Mills & Boon.

Yet Jenifer Hart’s world contained another momentous secret: she had been a member of the Communist Party, and a Soviet agent, suspected by MI5 of passing on secrets from the Home Office to her Communist handlers. In her autobiography, Hart makes no secret of her Communist affiliation, but claims that she abandoned her allegiance at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. (Protestations made by former Soviet agents under gentle Security Service interrogation are notoriously untrustworthy, as the experience with Anthony Blunt showed. Unfortunately, statements made by their more innocent friends, such as Rothschild and Berlin, likewise have to be treated with circumspection.) She was one of the group that regularly mingled at the apartment in Bentinck Street that Victor Rothschild rented to Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Others are not so sure that she abandoned her role in espionage that soon. The historian Professor Anthony Glees even lists her, in his Secrets of the Service, in a rogues’ gallery of Soviet spies, in the same class as Blunt, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Long and Fuchs; other analysts, such as the veteran tracker of communist subversion, Chapman Pincher, consider her as relatively small fry. But there seems no doubt she was a traitor. She concealed her membership of the Communist party, being told by her masters to go underground. She gained employment at the Home Office, where she had access to information on telephone taps, without declaring her affiliation, and signed the Official Secrets Act. She married Herbert Hart, and recommended him for work at Bletchley Park, where he worked on decrypts of Nazi radio traffic. Glees believes that she would have had to pass on secrets to prove her commitment to the cause: that was the pattern that the Stasi followed in East Germany, and what the KGB demanded of its agents in the UK and the USA. Her role was revealed by Anthony Blunt and his associate Phoebe Pool, who was incidentally a very close friend of Jenifer Hart’s. Pool stated that Hart had been recruited by Bernard Floud – another agent in the Oxford Ring that mirrored the Cambridge Five – who committed suicide shortly after being interrogated by MI5. Arthur Wynn, another recently uncovered agent, was her handler. She might have escaped more public attention, but she made some unguarded comments to a journalist in 1983, expressing overtly unpatriotic opinions, which provoked interest in her all over again, actions which caused her to threaten Professor Glees. She blustered, but eventually backed down from the threat of a libel action, as her previous disloyalty was undeniable. As Markus Wolf, the Chief of Foreign Intelligence for the German Democratic Republic, wrote in his memoirs, Man Without A Face: ‘No co-operation with an intelligence service will ever leave you. It will be unearthed and used against you until your dying day.’  Moreover, Hart’s life was one of hypocrisy: she claimed to be a socialist, but clearly believed that socialism was not for her, as she took advantage of all the benefits of a liberal education, watched her investments (like that other armchair socialist A. J. P. Taylor), sent her children to public schools, jointly inherited a large house in Cornwall, and travelled around the world with her husband on the proceeds of a trust established by an American entrepreneur. And as the cycle of Berlin’s life came to a close, she revealed in the book a last ironic twist: Aline de Gunzbourg had been a schoolmate of hers in Paris, and she included in the memoir a photograph of her class at the Cours Fénelon, which clearly identifies herself and Aline.

All this might not affect Isaiah Berlin’s legacy, except for the fact that he wrote a very flattering foreword to Hart’s memoirs just before he died. (The volume was published only after his death in 1998.) In some matters, he was blunt. He spoke of Hart’s betrayal of her husband. He named Michael Oakeshott, the conservative philosopher, as an early amour, and added: ‘Nor was he her only lover’, but did not divulge that he himself was one on that list. And he showed some awareness of her shady past. He recognized her communist commitment, but was indulgent with her failing. ‘At any rate, Jenifer was much taken in by what I have described, and that is what made her drift towards the Communist Party; a great many friends had done the same, and in peaceful, civilized England communism must have seemed mainly a strong remedy against illiteracy and injustice, an illusion which persisted in the West for a very long time.’ He even recognized her role as a Soviet agent while working at the Home Office, but was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. ‘The Party was probably pleased to have an agent in so sensitive a place, but in fact Jenifer never did anything for the benefit of the Party – gave no secret information  – this has never been refuted in all the examinations of Soviet penetration that took place in later years.’ How did Berlin know that for sure? Did he really believe it? (The only sure fact about the whole affair appears to be that there is no record of Clement Attlee’s receiving a report from MI5, and then commenting: ‘So our monk has been seeing Soviet spies.’) But what reflected really poor judgment was his going overboard in his testimony to Hart’s character: ‘Before her unyielding integrity, her acute moral sense, even the cynical or complacent or indolent or wheeler-dealers, were bound to quail, or at least feel uncomfortable.’ There is a world of difference between having vague sympathies for Communism (such as Berlin himself might have harboured had he not been inoculated in his youth by the barbarity of the Revolution), and breaking an oath of loyalty to one’s government to betray secrets to a foreign power. So is this the implacable foe of Soviet totalitarianism, disgusted by the violence he saw as a boy in Petrograd, and by the cruelty of Stalin’s institutionalized terror that he witnessed in the 1950s, speaking? Is this the man who would not stay in a room with Christopher Hill because of his ideology, and who prevented Isaac Deutscher from getting a chair at Sussex University because of his totalitarian sympathies? Berlin liked to see the positive aspects of people he knew (witness his Personal Impressions), but he could have performed a favour for an old friend and lover without putting her on a false pedestal.

Having one’s judgment about treachery affected by one’s friendship and liking for someone is a familiar symptom: Graham Greene notoriously offered an apology for Kim Philby’s sincerity of  beliefs when he wrote his introduction to Philby’s My Silent War – ‘who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?’ Such a plea clearly echoes the famous statement by E. M. Forster that he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country rather than a friend, a view that calmly glides over the fact that friendships of the kind Forster enjoyed (as well as a climate that tolerated eccentricity and openly unpatriotic opinions) were one of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy. The patrician Lord Annan, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, said of another traitorous rascal, Leo Long, in his memoir Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany: ‘Whether he was still passing information to the Russians I do not know, but my activities in Berlin against the KPD, of which he can hardly have approved, did not affect our relations.’ But, as Jacques Duclos, general secretary of the French Communist Party, said in 1949 at meeting in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lenin’s death: ‘Any man of progress had two homelands, his own and the Soviet Union.’ The bargain that British traitors made was to replace their own patriotism with that of another country. The brave Soviet defectors thought poorly of such cowardice. Ismail Akhmedov, who saw at first hand the horrors of Stalin’s police state, said of Philby in In And Out Of Stalin’s GRU: ‘This traitor was never a fighter for the cause. He was, and still is, a sick alcoholic weakling’, and Akhmedov contrasted the relatively comfortable choices the Cambridge Five made with the perils the Old Bolsheviks suffered – ‘the true champions’. ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  This is what Berlin had spoken up for all his life – the right of the pluralist and independent citizen to be protected from the horrors of ideological dictatorship. And yet his final literary act was to praise one of Stalin’s agents, one of the fellow-travellers he had so sharply scorned after Akhmatova’s death, and thus did he betray Akhmatova and all she stood for. Pluralism does not extend its arms to embrace a creed which irrepressibly denies the essence of pluralism itself.  And as an echo to his tribute, the first in the series of his Letters – loyally and indefatigably edited by Henry Hardy – is dedicated to that same woman, Jenifer Hart (although one cannot determine Hart’s treachery from the biographical glossary at the back of the book.) According to Hardy, Hart gave ‘heroic assistance’ in the editing of the Letters, and it was Aline’s suggestion that the first volume be dedicated to her. It seems also to have been a gesture from Berlin’s widow to the woman who introduced her third husband to carnal delights, maybe overlooking her guilty past. Berlin’s love for his wife meant that he diminished ‘the most important event in his life’, and betrayed Akhmatova’s memory. In the long run, Stalin’s long arm stretched out and plucked his revenge.

Roger Hausheer, in his introduction to Berlin’s Against The Current, wrote: ‘Berlin’s works may seem to many to offer a vision of life shot through with pessimism, and indeed, it cannot be denied that in this conception of man and the ends of life there is a powerful element of tragedy: avenues to human realisation may intersect and block one another; things of inestimable intrinsic value and beauty around which an individual or a civilisation may seek to build an entire way of life can come into mortal conflict: and the outcome is eradication of one of the protagonists and an absolute unredeemable loss.’ Thus the messiness of an individual life echoes the messiness of history, and so it was with Berlin, saved from irredeemable loss by Aline’s slowly emerging love for him. He was reputed not to have cared about posterity’s verdict. He was very willing for his letters to be published – and for all those nasty little secrets, those jealous quips and barbs, the attempts to cover up for an indiscreet remark or move, those internecine aspects of college politics, those actions and favours initiated for not perfectly honourable motives, to come out in the wash. And what they show, for all the great sweep and humanity of his ideas, is that Berlin was simply human, like everyone else. He was essentially unsure of himself and his identity, maybe feeling his fame was undeserved, anxious to be loved and liked, wanting to please, jealous of competitors, and he struggled to balance the private persona with the public image. He did not want to upset anybody, and thus reinvented his life-story again and again. The unpredictability of life, and the inability of big ideas to result in satisfactory conclusions in which no one was hurt, were central to his thinking, and his own life resembled his view of history. In ‘The Song Before It is Sung’, his highly fictionalized version of the relationship between Berlin and the conspirator against Hitler, Adam von Trott, the novelist Justin Cartwright provides a fitting epitaph on Berlin’s distortions. ‘After years of reflection, old people reorder their lives. We all do it our way. We construct our self-image as if we are hoping for some retrospective distinction, a vision of the person we believe we are supposed to be; without being able to see a template, we carry on relentlessly, like bees obeying an order they don’t understand, until death makes it all irrelevant. Why is it important to practice willful amnesia and invent myths?’

And in his desire to define his legacy in his own terms, controlling the narrative for the biography that Ignatieff wrote, Berlin echoed the opinions of one of his favourite historians, Giambattista Vico. In his essay, One Of The Boldest Innovators in the History of Human Thought, he describes how Vico developed an almost mystical notion of how history can be understood, contrasting it with the analytical methods of science. Berlin paraphrases the obscure Vico to demonstrate the inevitable biases of the historian too close to his subject: ‘All history in the end relies on eye-witness testimony. If the historian was himself engaged in the affairs of he was describing, he was inevitably partisan; if not, he would probably not have direct access to that vital information which only participants possessed and were hardly likely to divulge. So the historian must either be involved in the areas he describes, and therefore partisan, or uninvolved and liable to be misled by those who had an interest in bending the truth in their own favour; or, alternatively, remained too far from the true sources of information to know enough.’ As the influential historian of his own life, Berlin demonstrated that partisanship. He died on November 5, 1997; Ignatieff’s biography came out in 1998, and clearly could have benefitted from some tighter editing and fact-checking. With Volumes 3 and 4 of his Letters still to be published, and a more objective and thoroughly researched biography still to be written, Berlin has successfully simplified and sanitised a life that was far more complicated and paradoxical than the record currently shows.

Lastly, one must consider the role of Lord Rothschild, omnipresent and influential, either an aristocratic Zelig, a fixer par excellence, or the deus ex machina himself. The Rothschild family welcomes Berlin after his appointment at All Souls, and it is Victor who provides Berlin with a taxi home from Cambridge to Oxford by aeroplane. It is Rothschild who cancels Burgess’s visit to Moscow, and he who is the facilitator of Isaiah’s and Aline’s encounters in New York, and their eventual friendship in Oxford. Rothschild entertains Herbert and Jenifer Hart at Tring, and it is Rothschild’s flat in Bentinck Street that Guy Burgess shares with Anthony Blunt, and where Burgess’s cronies, including Jenifer Hart, meet. Rothschild, Fellow of the Royal Society, heads counter-sabotage operations in MI5 during the Second World War. As the war winds down, Rothschild makes his house in Paris available to the newly installed Ambassador, Duff Cooper, who takes care of Hans Halban during his brief mission to see Joliot-Curie. His kinship relationship with Aline is strengthened when Aline’s cousin marries his cousin’s daughter. When Isaiah and Aline get married, the bride’s witness is Victor Rothschild. It is Rothschild who assists Weizmann in enabling Israel’s nuclear research programme, using his contacts in British intelligence, making frequent visits to Israel, and encouraging the French to assist in the project. On one of these missions he encounters Flora Solomon at the Weizmann Institute, who recalls to him that Kim Philby once tried to recruit her, thus leading to Philby’s unmasking. Berlin works on unspecified business for the Rothschild Foundation. Rothschild hobnobs with President Roosevelt and Edgar Hoover, and ensures that Churchill’s gifts of cigars are free from sabotage. He chairs the high-level think tank under Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson, and advises the Shah or Persia in his role as head of research for Shell Oil. It would not be surprising if the archives some time showed that, late in 1954, Rothschild made a discreet call to Mendès-France, the Prime Minister of France, to suggest quietly that it would help a few matters greatly if the eminent scientist and expert on nuclear power, Hans Halban, could quickly be offered a prominent post in the French administration.

(© Antony Percy 2012)

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Misdefending The Realm


“Which are we, Carruthers – workers, peasants or intellectuals?”

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon ( ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

“When, early in 1940, an important Soviet defector provided hints to Britain’s Intelligence about spies within the country’s institutions, MI5’s report was intercepted by a Soviet agent in the Home Office. She alerted her sometime lover, Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s friend, Guy Burgess, whereupon the pair initiated a rapid counter-attack. Burgess contrived a mission for the two of them to visit the Soviet Union, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, in order to alert his bosses of the threat, and protect the infamous ‘Cambridge Spies’. The story of this extraordinary escapade, hitherto ignored by the historians, lies at the heart of a thorough and scholarly exposé of MI5’s constitutional inability to resist communist infiltration of Britain’s corridors of power, and its later attempt to cover up its negligence.

Guy Burgess’s involvement in intelligence during WWII has been conveniently airbrushed out of existence in the official histories, and the activities of his collaborator, Isaiah Berlin, disclosed in the latter’s Letters, have been strangely ignored by historians. Yet Burgess, fortified by the generous view of Marxism emanating from Oxbridge, contrived to effect a change in culture in MI5, whereby the established expert in communist counter-espionage was sidelined, and Burgess’s cronies were recruited into the Security Service itself. Using the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column as a diversion, Burgess succeeded in minimising the communist threat, and placing Red sympathizers elsewhere in government.

The outcome of this strategy was far-reaching. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s troops in June 1941, Churchill declared his support for Stalin in defeating the Nazi aggressor. But British policy-makers had all too quickly forgotten that the Communists would still be an enduring threat when the war was won, and appeasement of Hitler was quickly replaced by an appeasement of Stalin. Moreover, an indulgence towards communist scientists meant that the atom secrets shared by the US and the UK were betrayed. When this espionage was detected, MI5’s officers engaged in an extensive cover-up to conceal their misdeeds.

Exploiting recently declassified material and a broad range of historical and biographical sources, Antony Percy reveals that MI5 showed an embarrassing lack of leadership, discipline, and tradecraft in its mission of ‘Defending the Realm’.”

One day I might write a blog about the process of seeing a project like this come to fruition, but now is not the time. Instead I wanted to introduce readers to a sample of the cartoons that I selected to illustrate the period under the book’s microscope, that between the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. (The sketch I selected for the frontispiece appears above.)

Ever since I first set eyes on Osbert Lancaster’s precise illustrations of architectural patterns, accompanied by their witty and ironic commentaries, I have been an enthusiast of the cartoonist and architectural critic. In another universe, I might have claimed that his influence propelled me into a career in theatrical design, but, alas (though at no great loss for the world of drama), all it did was to confirm me as a perpetual fan of his work. My father had acquired a few of Lancaster’s volumes, and I particularly recall how, before the age of ten, I pored over Homes, Sweet Homes & From Pillar to Post (combined later in one volume as Here, of All Places, with additions describing American structures), as well as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete, with their precise draughtsmanship, all too-human and familiar caricatures of citizens in history, and their satirical, but not malicious, commentaries. (Of course I was too young at the time to appreciate the texts.) The books displayed a sense of the unique continuity of habitation on the British Isles – unique, because of the lack of invasion over the centuries  ̶  which brought history alive for me.  The first date that a schoolboy in the 1950s would learn was 1066, and I can recall as a child regretting that I would not be around to enjoy the millennium of that occasion. There must have been something about the durability of certain things among monumental change that captured my imagination, and a strong aspect of that element can be found in Misdefending the Realm.

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at ( One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

‘Which are we, Carruthers . . .?’ is one of Lancaster’s most famous pocket cartoons. Lancaster was responsible for the success of the genre of ‘pocket cartoon’ after convincing his art editor at the Daily Express to publish such in the newspaper, as part of Tom Driberg’s column, early in 1939. The feature ran for the best part of forty years, interrupted primarily by Lancaster’s commitments abroad. Thus he provided a very topical commentary on many of the events that occurred in the time that interested me. As I declare when introducing Lancaster’s cartoons among other illustrations (I also use several Punch cartoons from the same period): “He skillfully lampooned authority figures during World War II, but never maliciously, and his insights into the ironies and absurdities with which the war was sometimes engaged brought entertaining relief to persons in all walks of life.”

I love this particular cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Express on July 18th, 1941, at the end of the period on which my study concentrates, because it suggests so much in such simple lines. Who are these blimpish and aristocratic characters, no doubt enjoying a tiffin in their London club? They have presumably been told that the Russians are now our allies, and that they had better acquaint themselves with the principles of Marxism, and learn more about the workers’ paradise over which Stalin prevails. It all appears to be something of a shock to the system for these two gentlemen, yet their confusion underlies the nonsense of the Marxist dialectic.

‘Carruthers’ is a poignant name, as it appears most famously in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is a Foreign Office member who goes sleuthing over German skulduggery in the Baltic Sea before the First World War. Ever since then, the name ‘Carruthers’ has epitomised that doughty and loyal comrade that any intrepid wayfarer would want to be accompanied by, as in the way that Times obituaries used, not so very long ago, to describe such men: ‘someone you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. Yet this Carruthers does not look like a tiger-shooter, or even an SIS spy. He looks more Wodehousian, perhaps a rather dim-witted younger son of an earl, and his territory is probably more Lord’s and Ascot, with a trip to the grouse-moors in August, than the coasts of the Baltic.

These two are supremely ‘superfluous men’, as Turgenev might have identified them, although they probably lack the artistic talent that was characteristic of the Russian novelist’s grouping. Lancaster’s caption wryly suggests that these fellows are not intellectuals. The pair of clubmen might well have been encountered in Boodle’s, or the Beefsteak, perhaps, of which club Lancaster himself was a member.  Lenin and Stalin would certainly have considered them parasites, ‘former people’, and they would have been on the list as members of the class enemy to be exterminated as soon as possible, as indeed such people were treated in Poland and the Baltic States. They are clearly bemused by the radical division of the world found in Life in the U.S.S.R. Yet their simple question drives at the heart of simplistic class-based Marxian analysis.

That same Marxism, which grabbed so many intelligent persons’ fascination at this time – something that endures seventy-five years later, despite all its nonsense  ̶  should surely by then have been shown as bankrupt. In my book, I describe how much damage the young Isaiah Berlin caused in his effervescent biography of Karl Marx, which gave an utter and undeserved respectability to the studying of Marxism, while gaining the eager approbation of such as Freddie Ayer and Guy Burgess. By 1940, it should have been obvious that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a cruel nightmare, with Stalin, as a power-mad ex-peasant, ruling over a prison-camp more horrible than anything Hitler had yet prepared. Yet even MI5 fell victim to the appeal of ‘intellectual Marxism’. When the German general von Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, his interrogators tried to impress upon him the doctrines of the new world of communism. “You should know that Germany’s workers and peasants are among the most prominent supporters of Hitler”, he replied. Even Churchill hailed the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving nation’ in June 1941, and Roosevelt was to fall even more sharply under the delusion that Stalin was a man of peace.

What was different about Britain was that buffers like these two were tolerated. Even if they were on the way out, there was no reason that they should have to be eliminated through a bloody slaughter. Lenin is said to have abandoned hope of a revolution in Britain when he read about strikers playing soccer with policemen: class war would never reach the destructive depths into which it sank in Russia after the Communist takeover. And that is one of the points in my book: that liberal democracy in the Britain of the 1930s was certainly flawed, with the aristocrats in control, and position of power excluded from those without the proper background or standing. It did not have enough confidence in its structure and institutions to resist Fascism resolutely, and the Communists took advantage of that fact to propagandise the British, and cause the monstrosities of Stalin’s penal colonies, famines, purges and executions to be overlooked. Stalin ended up enjoying a massive intelligence superiority over the British and the Americans at Yalta. Yet the UK was eventually able to evolve into the more democratic and more fair country of Attlee’s administration, the days of imperialism were clearly over, and the realm was still worth defending.

For the endpaper of the book, I used the following cartoon, published just after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 23rd, 1941. That is all the caption says.

It reminds me so much of a famous photograph of a gathering of communists during the Spanish Civil War, dated February 5, 1937. Could this not have been a caricature drawn by Lancaster?


Here we see the ice-cold demeanour of the French apparatchik, Maurice Thorez, the flamboyancy of the street bully in the leather-jacket, Antonio Mije, and the pious gaze skywards in the beatific pose of Francisco Antón (who eerily looks rather like the young Osbert Lancaster). They epitomise all the ghastly aspects of the Soviet totalitarian machine, the efficiency, the cruelty, and the self-righteousness. ‘What an absolute shower!’, as Terry-Thomas might have called them. Thus I can see this set piece as a tableau vivant by Lancaster himself, akin to his famous sketch of John Betjeman and others performing the madrigal ‘Sumer is icumen in’.


“A musical evening laid on for the Uffington Women’s Institute by Penelope Betjeman. At the piano: Lord Berners; back row: Adrian Bishop, Karen Lancaster and Osbert on the flute, Penelope, seated, playing ‘a strange instrument resembling a zither’; standing at the front, Maurice Bowra and John Betjeman.” [source: Cartoons and Coronets]

In my book, I use a total of ten of Lancaster’s cartoons, each one representing the theme of a single chapter, or pair of chapters. I gained copyright permission from the Daily Express owners, yet strangely the institution could not offer me images of the originals themselves, even in its fee-based archive on the Web. Nor is the Lancaster Archive of any use. I relied on my own collection of cartoon books. For readers who may be interested in pursuing this historical side-alley more extensively, they may want to investigate the following.

The richest guide to the work of Lancaster is probably Cartoons and Coronets, introduced and selected by James Knox, and designed to coincide with the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Wallace Collection, 2008-2009. The Essential Osbert Lancaster, a 1998 compilation, selected and introduced by Edward Lucie-Smith, contains an excellent introduction to Lancaster’s life and offers a rich representation of his graphic and literary work. Lancaster provided an illuminating foreword to his 1961 compilation of pocket cartoons, from 1939 to that year, titled Signs of the Times, which offers a solid selection of his wartime sketches. The Penguin Osbert Lancaster (1964) is a thinner and unannotated selection, including excerpts from Homes, Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post. Earlier, Penguin also offered a fine glimpse into his wartime work in Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (1945).

And then there are the (mainly) yearly selections, all of which (apart from the very rare first 1940 publication) I have in my possession. They are worth inspecting for Lancaster’s Forewords alone. Many of the captions appear very laboured now (compared, say with Marc Boxer’s Stringalongs), and the references are often recondite, but the cartoons still represent a fascinating social commentary. Here they are:

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

My book also contains a few cartoons from Punch, likewise culled from my ‘Pick of Punch’ albums from the years 1940 to 1942. (Permission for use was also gained from the copyright-holder.) But, if you want to see any more, you will have to buy the book. You will also be treated to three Affinity Charts, which show the complex relationships that existed between various groups when war broke out, as well as a Biographical Index of almost three hundred persons who feature in the work. Enjoy!

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

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Web Woes

Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@  . .  .) , and waited for a response.

And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.

I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.

I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.

When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.

Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.

After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.

As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?

At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.

Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.

But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.

Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks.  In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible.  I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”

I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter  . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.

I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.

Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content.  These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”

Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).

I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.

On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.

Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?

*                   *                  *                      *                      *                      *

The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.

Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”

Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:

“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?

For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.

The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.

Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”

My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.

*                      *                      *                      *                      *                      *

Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that  ̶  but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services  ̶  but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?

The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye  ̶  for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”

I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).

But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155  ̶  ‘as favored by grandparents’.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted.   I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive.  I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.

I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.

Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.

The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

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Officially Unreliable

During my research into intelligence matters, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon. Very often, writings by authors of dubious credentials, as well as informal interviews with eminent persons, are cited by professional historians in an indiscriminate and unqualified way. Whole volumes may be recommended, statements may be paraphrased or quoted, and items will appear in bibliographies, without the historian’s advising the reader on what terms the sources and publications should be treated. The now more authoritative assertions take on a new life of their own, and are referred to afresh in further works, thus consolidating what may have been utterly false in the first place. When this process occurs with official or authorised histories, the problem is particularly egregious, as the latter publications maintain an awe about them that may in fact be completely unmerited. By this process of implicit approval, more serious histories can apply a certificate of merit to works and conclusions that would have been otherwise justifiably questioned.

For example, the same day on which I started writing this piece, I came across the following passage, in Tyler Anbinder’s fascinating City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York: “Nearly every history of Civil War New York, for example, repeats the story that in June of 1863, ‘some 3,000 striking longshoremen, most of whom were Irish, were forced to watch as black men, under police protection, took their jobs on the docks.’ But this tale is apocryphal, repeated over and over since the first historian mistakenly published it in 1910. White soldiers, not African Americans, temporarily replaced the strikers in question.” (p 236)

I do not know what to call this phenomenon. It is a kind of Gresham’s Law of historiography, whereby the assembly of dubious assertions crowds out the results of more disciplined fact-finding methodologies. But that does not tell the whole story, and is not a reliable enough guide to what happens. After all, in the world of intelligence, archival sources may be no more dependable than those of private memoir, and distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ facts can be a considerable challenge. Indeed, the reverse sometimes occurs: theories and claims of apparent substance are sometimes ignored completely in favour of a highly dubious but protective political line, a default position that is provocative in itself. The phenomenon is more a kind of halo effect, whereby the seal of approval of the Official History gives a gloss to sometimes unmeritorious anecdotes, and a taint to reports that might otherwise have been considered creditworthy. It seems to be an inevitable side-effect of the practice of history-writing as public relations.

Official histories, it is true, recognize the role that personal memoir and witness statements play in complementing the archival record. The problem is that such sources frequently contain a mixture of well-documented research and practical experience, alongside the swallowing of dubious second-hand reports and even the fabrication of untruths – often out of a desire to enhance the subject’s reputation. What is needed is a rigid testing and verification of such accounts, and an explanation, when such narratives or assertions are re-presented, of the forensic case for accepting or doubting the quality of the secondary material. What is also essential is a selective reference to such material, rather than the blanket bibliography that appears to treat each listed work as having equal quality, and possessing a consistent internal integrity that it may well lack.

I plan to show examples by analysing four official or authorised histories in my sphere of research. The first is Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, published in two parts in 1964 and 1974. The second is the  five-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley and others (encompassing a foot of shelf-space in my library), which appeared between 1979 and 1990. The third is Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (titled, for some strange reason as Defend the Realm in the USA), published in 2009. The last is Keith Jeffery’s MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 (again re-titled for US consumption, rather deceptively, as The Secret History of MI6, 1909-1949), which came out in 2010. As I study these volumes, I shall also explore the different constraints under which they were produced, and the apparent methodology applied to their creation.

(I am barely going to touch, in this piece, the highly controversial and important topic of concealment or destruction of massive arrays of government files, primarily by the Foreign Office, and the secret warehouses such as that held at Hanslope Park. I refer the interested reader to Ian Cobain’s generally excellent 2016 work The History Thieves. I also regret that I have not yet been able to inspect Herbert Butterfield’s no doubt indispensable essay Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria from his 1951 publication History and Human Relations.)

Margaret Gowing was historian and archivist of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell when she was commissioned to write the official history. In her Preface, she defended the need for ‘official’ history because of the embargo on declassifying documents until 50 years after they had been created, saying that ‘the official historian’s official standing, his [sic] ties with a Government organisation, his signature of a declaration under the Official Secrets Act, make it possible for Government servants to speak freely to him and give him access to their papers”. She described her experience as altogether positive, with no obstacles put in her way, and access given to her to all government documents, with a small academic advisory committee set up to ensure proper standards of integrity were being applied, and the nation’s interests were being protected. In a ‘Note on Documentation’, she added: “In accordance with the practice of the official war histories, references to official papers that are not yet publicly available have been omitted: footnotes are confined to published material.” Her work is quite certainly an ‘official’ history.

Possibly anticipating objections, the author also asked: “What is the justification for official history at all?”, responding that ‘it lies primarily in the need for histories of recent events based on the documentary evidence, supplemented where possible from the oral evidence of people who lived through these events.’ She also said that ‘the historian and his employer bear a heavy responsibility for ensuring that an official history is written according to the strict criteria of the historical profession’. Yet the historian needs to be wary of oral evidence: on the one hand, memory may be at fault, but in sensitive areas (of which research into nuclear energy is undoubtedly one), the recollections of those involved may be subject to some censorship or distortion. Nowhere was this more clear than in the matter of espionage and the stealing of nuclear secrets, and here Ms. Gowing showed herself to be far too trusting of third-party sources (i.e. not relying exclusively either on her interviews with officials involved or on the written archive).

While Ms. Gowing overall provided a painstaking and very thorough of account of a highly technical subject, in one area she allowed herself to be manipulated. She appeared to rely almost exclusively on Alan Moorehead’s book The Traitors for her coverage of the Klaus Fuchs case, Fuchs having been convicted early in 1950 of stealing atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union. She lists it as her primary source, even though the work was facilitated by MI5 as a public relations exercise. Moorehead was guided in his research while being shown select secret papers, and his conclusions completely misrepresented the chronology of Fuchs’s recruitment by both Soviet Intelligence and by the Tube Alloys Project (which was the codename for the undertaking when it was first set up). Gowing declares that Moorehead was granted more extensive access to official information than she was, a decidedly regrettable state of affairs: occasionally she gives hints of knowledge that Moorehead does not provide (such as the FBI interview with Fuchs in prison), but her sources are not provided. She thus echoes Moorhead’s public relations exercise, defending MI5’s weaknesses in not countering communist influences more aggressively, and reinforcing the notion that Fuchs’s communist beliefs were well-concealed. In summary, she thus let down the standards that she had claimed to espouse by relying on the conclusions of a journalist, failing to demand access (at least) to the same sources that Moorehead had been allowed to inspect.

My second example, the multi-volume history of British Intelligence in WWII, is tersely introduced as one of the set of ‘official histories’. “The authors of this, as of other official histories of the Second World War, have been given free access to official documents. They alone are responsible for the statements made and the views expressed”, we are told on the page facing the title-page. The Preface, however, explains a rather more complex set of compromises. A written parliamentary reply of January 12, 1978, had reminded former intelligence officers (and current historians) of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and had attempted to make a distinction between ‘records of the Service Intelligence directorates, which will be placed with other departmental archives in the Pubic Record Office’, and other information which could not be disclosed. Yet, while this statement did not explain how such distinctions would made, or how or when the future decisions about declassification would be reached, the authors felt confident in stating that the guidelines issues have ‘not prevented us from incorporating in the published History the result of our work on records which are not to be opened’. The outcome was that the history includes a large number of assertions and conclusions that cannot be verified, since no specific source could be provided.

Furthermore, the authors rather disingenuously conclude their prefatory remarks with the following less-than-comforting statement: ‘That room remains for further research is something that goes without saying. [‘Obviously not!’] Even on issues and episodes for which we have set out to supply the fullest possible accounts, the public records will yield interpretations that differ from those we have offered.” Well, maybe so, Sir Humphrey. But if other historians are not allowed to inspect all the records that the official historians have investigated, they will be severely hamstrung. What the Government is effectively saying is that it trusts only its insiders (for Professor Hinsley was indeed one), and such confidants will clearly toe the line if they want to gain that well-earned knighthood. And the official history can thus not really be challenged, and instead monopolises the academic space, as any pretenders will not have had access to the real but very sensitive records that contributed to the account.

Notwithstanding the multiple merits of this work, which for the most part represents a solid integration of military and intelligence history, reflecting a painstaking and very thorough processing of much complex material, one has to regret the hypersensitivity of Hinsley’s political masters. Followers of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ will immediately recognise how unsatisfactory the methodology is. I have (in Chapters 4 and 5) provided two cases where the ‘interpretation’ of events by Hinsley and his team is highly dubious, and where no written record to support the assertions appears to exist. One was the endorsement of an event that probably did not take place (the claim that all work on Russian ciphers and codes stopped, on Churchill’s order, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, without any explanation as to how that decision was issued and acted upon), and the other the desperate attempt to prove a negative (that, contrary to rumours, the British authorities did not use the Lucy Ring to forward Ultra intelligence to Moscow). These two statements are not the stuff of serious historiography: they are political statements emanating from a defensive sense of security, from a belief that the authorities know best, and that the reading public should unquestioningly accept such dogma.

In reference to the main point of this piece (the unqualified use of third-party memoir), Hinsley and his co-authors are for the most part judicious, occasionally even – sensibly – challenging Churchill’s account of events. Yet the guard does drop. Hinsley has been broadly criticised for skating over technical issues concerning the interpretation and decryption of Enigma traffic.  Gordon Welchman (the main architect and creative mind behind the Ultra project, and author of The Hut Six Story) pointed out the flaws in Hinsley’s understanding, writing, in a letter from 1984: “Hinsley’s account of Bletchley Park activities during the first year of the war is wrong in almost every detail, and I do not know why.”  The challenge with methodology and technical coverage continued. Volume 5 of the History (Strategic Deception) was written by Michael Howard, who had the integrity to admit, in his Preface, that a situation where the text ‘must therefore be accepted as the only evidence of the contents of these files that can be made publicly available’, is one ‘with which no professional historian can be entirely happy’. Again, however, the historian concluded with the less than sincere comment that ‘although this is an “official” publication, it should not be regarded as the last word on the subject: nor should its judgements (for which the author bears sole responsibility) be necessarily regarded as definitive’. Howard indicated that he had the availability of foreign archives in mind when he wrote that, but the same objection arises: why should other professional historians not have the same access to confidential files as Howard did? The inevitable occurred: ‘Arise, Sir Michael’.

Where Howard lapsed was in his coverage of the Double-Cross System, whereby German agents were ‘turned’ to provide a mixture of false and harmlessly true information to their handlers. Howard passed the ball. “The technical problem of running double agents . . . . has been so well described by Sir John Masterman in his book The Double Cross System (1972) that little more need be added here”, wrote Howard. It is as if the controversy over the publication of his book, which Masterman had had to issue in the United States, since the British Government had refused permission, and threatened to sue Masterman, had been forgotten. The authorities wanted dozens of passages removed, but Masterman’s publisher agreed to only a few, and the government had to acquiesce. Dick White, who had supervised the whole MI5 Double Cross operation, was (according to his biographer, Tom Bower) infuriated by the vanity of Masterman, who had ironically been White’s former tutor, and whom White had brought into MI5. In fact, Bower claims that White only approved the project for Hinsley’s History as a method of bringing Masterman down to size. “Masterman’s self-glorification would be neutralised if the whole truth were told” , wrote Bower, paraphrasing White’s opinions.

Thus Howard’s sanitising of the whole controversy comes over as a little too fastidious, and some of the more technical aspects of the Double Cross system remained unanswered.  For example, why did the Germans not appear to question how Britain’s location-finding apparatus had not been good enough to detect the sizable and numerous transmissions sent to them by their supposed agents in the months before D-Day? (Howard reports that five hundred transmissions were made by agent GARBO alone between January and June 1944. The Gestapo would quickly have tracked down such an illegal activity. Why was Britain’s RSS group not able to do so?) Masterman, in his book, allocates only one sentence, with a footnote, on the purely technical aspects of managing double agents, and Howard sidesteps the issue by cross-referring to one of Hinsley’s Appendices, provided by an ex-MI5 officer, on the challenges of radio communications. This flabby appendix, which is somewhat embarrassing in its naivety, is also presented without commentary or explanation. True, Howard offered a much more comprehensive account of the XX project (no doubt to White’s satisfaction), and was able to introduce the previously secret dimension of Enigma decrypts to his story, but a more selective analysis and parsing of Masterman’s contribution would have been acutely appropriate. Incidentally, Howard also completely ignored the role that Soviet spies in Britain’s intelligence might have played in strategic deception, and in particular how their leaks may have affected the negotiation of joint ventures with the Russians.

Now the overall very competent Hinsley-Howard compendium has come to be recognised as a valuable authority. Yet it does not tell the whole story, it is inaccurate on much technical detail, much of its conclusions are unverifiable, and it is not discriminating enough in its selection of third-party sources. Moreover, any historian wanting to provide a review of the subject (perhaps based on those foreign sources that Howard could not consider) will be unable to inspect many of the primary materials that Howard was privileged to see, and will also not be able to interview the ‘experts’ who contributed to the official history.

Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5 is presented as being not ‘official’ but ‘authorised’, although the distinction is hardly crisp. Indeed, in his Preface, Andrew describes his response to MI5’s advertisement for a ‘part-time official [sic] historian’. The head of MI5 in the year of publication, Jonathan Evans, wrote in his Foreword that ‘striking the balance in the text between openness and the protection of national security has been a complex and demanding exercise requiring many hours of detailed discussion between Professor Andrew and members of the service, and an extensive clearance process involving other departments and services’. Evans went on to say that the History contained some embarrassing and uncomfortable information, but implied that Andrew had been given the independence to reach his own conclusions. Evans then made the extraordinary and illogical point that ‘it should not . . . be assumed that his conclusions are based solely on material in our records which is unavailable to the public’, as if a comprehensive, 850-page History could be crafted exclusively from unclassified documents. Perhaps this message of discomfiture was intended to communicate to the reading public that there could not possibly be yet more distressing secrets that could be revealed – unless, of course, questions of national security were at stake. (Evans provided a url which he claimed would explain the principles that governed MI5’s approach to the text: Regrettably that page is no longer available.)

Andrew records his occasional frustration at the constraints under which he had to work.  He confides in his readers that he felt it was important to read highly-sensitive files ‘in order to try to ensure that conclusions in The Defence of the Realm based on documents which can be quoted are not contradicted by files whose contents remain classified’. Yet that process lays an enormous onus on Andrew’s skill as an interpreter, for presumably no one else will be allowed to inspect such files that may be permanently classified. And we still do no know which documents fall into which category. For one of the most frustrating aspect of Andrew’s work is the unscholarly methodology for sources. Literally hundreds of citations state merely ‘Security Service Archives’, or ‘Home Office Archives’, and there is no indication given as to whether such documents are permanently embargoed, or which will be released after a certain time-limit.  There could be value in such a tabulation only if an internal document identified each individual source, on the basis that, if and when the archives in question were declassified and made available to the general public, an accurate cross-reference could be supplied to expand Andrew’s Notes (even as they stand, an impressive 123 pages), and allow future historians to develop more informative studies.

Moreover, Andrew certainly tilled other fields. His bibliography contains about 500 titles, quite an exhausting assignment of reading for a part-time historian: again, it is not clear whether every title was deserving of equal respect as far as authenticity and reliability were concerned. Peter Wright’s occasionally dubious Spycatcher appears in the bibliography, but Andrew admittedly qualifies his endorsement by discussing Wright’s collaboration with Chapman Pincher in the text. On the other hand, what is one to make of the fact that Andrew Boyle’s journalistic and controversial Climate of Treason appears in the bibliography, but not in the Index? Or the fact that the highly deceptive Sonya’s Report, by Ruth Werner, is also quoted as a source? At least Andrew does not list Alan Moorehead’s public relations exercise on behalf of MI5, The Traitors, but the outcome was that he completely ignored the internal crisis over the Fuchs case, where Sillitoe was required to lie to Prime Minster Attlee in order to maintain MI5’s survival after the Fuchs fiasco. But it is not clear that the bibliography offered represents ‘works in which I found useful nuggets’, ‘items for suggested further reading’, or something else altogether. It is certainly unscholarly.

Yet the apparent neglect (or ignorance) of such works poses its own set of unique puzzles. Should the fact that Andrew does not even mention, let alone analyse, Moorehead’s work, which the official historian of Atomic Energy had treated with such respect, be noteworthy? And why was Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies not consulted, given that it was largely ghosted by an MI5 officer, yet Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me is deemed worthy of mention? Why did Foote not even appear in the Index, given that he underwent intensive interrogation by MI5 in 1947? And why did Fred Copeman not appear in the History, given that he was a leader in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931 (which is covered), and later, after his conversion from Communism to Catholicism and Moral Re-Armament and his award of the OBE, acted as a consultant to MI5 during the Foote investigation, and wrote a fascinating (but maybe deceptive) memoir titled  Reason in Revolt? Etc., etc.  Should we make conclusions about books and topics that were not considered suitable for inclusion in the bibliography?

Andrew’s production is in many ways an impressive achievement. It is a fascinating account of an institution that has for too long been unnecessarily secret. Moreover, most of the history is probably accurate. But we cannot know. Andrew necessarily had to compromise his professional integrity by submitting to bureaucratic demands and possibly spurious claims about risks to national security. Many of his sources cannot be checked, and his indiscriminate reference to works of dubious merit begs the questions: if what these authors say is sometimes untruthful and unverifiable, why do you trust what they write on other matters? How do you select what you consider to be accurate? Where is the methodology that distinguishes useful and reliable facts and experiences from the self-deception of memoir, the faulty memory, the desire for self-aggrandisement, the concealment of unpalatable actions, and the shakily passed-on rumour?

Jeffery’s history of SIS, presumably no longer ‘secret’, suffers from similar identity problems. The flyleaf (of my American edition) introduces it as an ‘authorized’ history. John Sawers, the then head of SIS, states in his Foreword that his predecessor decided to commission an ‘independent and authoritative’ volume. In the Preface, Jeffery writes that, in his practice of not including source references for documents not in the public domain, he follows ‘the precedent set by past British official histories’. The work is obviously supposed to be the ‘definitive’ history, a term that Jeffery uses, for example, to characterise Gill Morton’s study of Desmond Morton, Churchill’s Man of Mystery. Yet it also is confused about its scope. The flyleaf promotes SIS in glittering terms: “The Service pioneered cryptography on an industrial scale at Bletchley Park”, but Jeffery admits that GC&CS (later GCHQ) was really only a reluctant stepchild of SIS, under Menzies’s overall supervision. Jeffery’s coverage of GC&CS is superficial (there has yet to be written an official or authorised history of that institution), and sensibly concentrates on such matters as the controversy over Section V’s distribution of the so-called ‘ISOS’ (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material coming from Bletchley Park. This spin on SIS’s responsibilities – something echoed by Sawers in his Foreword  ̶  may have been a useful way of promoting the book, but it was highly misleading.

This historian does show some concern for his professional role. He recognises the extraordinary decision that allowed him the opportunity, given the traditional secrecy that surrounded SIS (the existence of the service was not admitted until 1993), to perform his task. He appreciates the fact that he was given ‘unrestricted access’ to the Service archives. He regrets the fact that he cannot name names that have not already appeared in print. Yet he does not allow much room for alternative interpretations, or express the hope that other historians might be allowed to see what he was able to inspect.  Moreover, he is perhaps over-confident in the trustworthiness of the files he studied.  “The history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based.” That means he has been more guarded in using accounts by ex-officers of SIS. “I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention.” Indeed – but what is the methodology that distinguishes such from fact? It is not clear.

On Notes and Sources, Jeffery is a bit more informative than Andrew, although his explanations are a little ambiguous. John Sawers explains a policy distinguishing ‘information drawn from the archive’ from ‘non-release of records’ that has in practice allowed the ‘occasional official release of some Service material’ in order to facilitate the writing of biographies of ‘important intelligence figures’ – hardly a water-tight or objective guideline, one might say. He also confirms the constraints of national security, the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy of government, as well as that elusive and controversial principle, the lack of damage to the ‘public interest’, the definition of which should probably not be left to those authorities whose business is secrets. Jeffery then writes: “As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments.” Yet it is not always clear from the Notes themselves what the status of the records is: at times, Jeffery provides a serial number, and indicates that the files are retained (which fact a brief inspection of the National Archives Catalogue confirms. The institution tantalising describes many files that have not been released). At others, he refers to minutes and memoranda that have no discrete identifier, but are listed less specifically as (for example) ‘PUSD papers, FCO’. (PUSD is not listed in his abbreviations, but is presumably Permanent Under-Secretary for Defence.) It is a big step forward from the anonymity provided by Andrew, but still very unsatisfactory. There is a lesson to be learned here.

As for non-archival sources, such as memoirs and biographies, Jeffery is a little more discriminating, although that in itself raises questions. Andrew was happy including Nigel West’s highly unofficial history of MI5 in his sources, but Jeffery does not list West’s book on SIS, nor Stephen Dorrill’s, nor even Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of the wartime head of SIS, Stewart Menzies. What are we to make of that? That they were valueless? Why no mention of Isaiah Berlin’s revealing Letters? Was Berlin’s D Section mission to Moscow with Guy Burgess considered to be a fabrication? On the other hand, he does include in his bibliography the highly contentious biography of Claude Dansey by Anthony Read and David Fisher, Colonel Z, although in one of his notes he writes ‘for Dansey’s early life, see Read and Fisher’, as if the book should not be trusted for the bulk of Dansey’s career. Yet he never explains why. In Sonia’s Radio, I have pointed out that Jeffery was extremely cavalier in so blandly recommending Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (‘this book is excellent for Anglo-Soviet intelligence relations generally’) as it completely overlooks the influence that access to strategic information provided by Stalin’s spies must have exerted on negotiations. The less than completely honest statement concerning the traitors within British intelligence services remains one of the major flaws. Jeffery restricts his coverage of Philby primarily to reactions to the Gouzenko defection in 1945: Volkov (the would-be defector whom Philby betrayed the same year) does not even appear in the Index.

Thus Jeffery’s book turns out to be a rather indigestible confection, with too many loose ends, too many stories not pursued, too many unresolved questions, and too many controversies avoided. It may have been politic to avoid some topics, such as the mission to Moscow, the possible recruitment of Alexander Foote, the distribution of Ultra information to the Soviets, the entanglement with Soviet spy rings in Switzerland, all explained away in the implication that the evidence in the archive was too slim or non-existent for the episodes to be taken seriously. But we simply do not know that for a fact. And there exist far too many reports in memoirs by reputable persons of a countercultural series of activities to justify such inertia and complacency. Jeffery’s work is hardly the ‘rigorous’ treatment that Sawers advertised, and there appears to be no suitable forum for the unresolved issues to be thrashed out in a methodological and disciplined manner. Jeffery died of cancer in 2016, at the comparatively young age of 64, very surprisingly without having received any government award or honour.

What does all this mean?

First, that ‘official’ and ‘authorised’ histories should be approached with a great deal of suspicion. They may have honest and sometimes deserved pretensions as works of serious history, but should always be considered as items of propaganda. They cannot be reviewed properly in the open forums of academia and journalism, as their sources cannot be verified.

Second, that any historian who discovers facts in unpublished archives, but then has to negotiate with those who authorise his work over publicity of the same, and concede to their demands, is professionally compromised. If he or she is prohibited from expressing judgments and opinions about those events in future undertakings and teaching, effectively suppressing the truth, that person’s academic integrity is tainted, and scholarship is tarnished.

Third, while government institutions might be said to have a right to judge what is an issue of ‘national security’, they surely should not be allowed to have the last word on what is ‘in the public interest’, and hence censor what the public has a right to know. Certainly the reason given of ‘avoiding embarrassment’ that appears to dominate policies on withholding files should be excluded from any consideration. We should also always be suspicious of any person or body that assumes the omniscience to understand what constitutes ‘the public interest’. A parliamentary committee should be set up to adjudicate, or, better still, the Freedom of Information Act, which automatically calls for the release of files after a defined period, should be enforced in a consistent and disciplined manner.

Fourth, that greater discipline should be exercised over archival sources. All sources should have an identifier, even if it is not yet made public. We need three categories of registration: classified (retained) and unpublicised; 2) classified and publicised (as in many unreleased files described at the National Archives); and 3) declassified. A confidential registry of sources should be maintained when any authorised history is written, so that the sources may be revealed at that future time when the files are declassified (if indeed that happens).

Fifth, that it must be remembered that archival sources in the world of intelligence matters are especially suspect, since they may have been doctored, weeded, or redacted. While the accuracy of published material can be debated in public forums, an extra layer of scepticism must be applied when dealing with one person’s individual interpretation of secret archives, in the face also of justifiable doubt about the completeness of the sources.

Sixth, that all interviews undertaken by historians with individuals temporarily unshackled from the Official Secrets Act (or other confidentiality agreements) should be recorded and transcribed. They should then be made available at the same time that relevant files are released. That would help ensure that deceptive self-promotion and concealment were reduced in quantity, and government officials would be held accountable for their contributions.

Seventh, that all such historians should provide a methodology for how they approach memoir, biography and other historical works not based on the archival record. They should explain why an item appears in any bibliography, and discuss any individual work in that context in their History. Robert Conquest once said: “Just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not invalidate all its evidence.” The corollary would be that, just because a source can be shown in some places to be true, it does not mean that all its evidence is reliable. Historians should also be prepared to explain why they reject well-founded and broadly-supported published theories, and not simply make ex cathedra denials of them.

Can an objective history be written? Herbert Asquith said he did not believe there had ever been an historian who had not exhibited some amount of partisanship: “It is a common infirmity of the tribe.”  And I recorded the following in my April 2017 Commonplace entries: “Indeed, those who don’t like his [Eamon Duffy’s] work say he is a Roman Catholic first and a historian second. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. All of us bring our whole selves to scholarship, including our faith.” (Giles Fraser, in Prospect review of Duffy’s Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, May 2017) Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. When does a point of view become a prejudice? A principle become a dogma? No doubt every historian brings some unique perspective to his or her process of interpretation, and selection itself reflects some intellectual preference, but if any allows a particular credo to dominate, the result will be an inferior product. While Evelyn Waugh was a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Graham Greene was undeniably a Catholic novelist, and I believe his oeuvre suffered because of that. (“Get a grip, Greene! You weren’t born with it. Make a choice, man!”)

So it is with history. Just as there can be no ‘Marxist’ or ‘feminist’ history, there can be no ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ history – or even ‘definitive’ history. Just history, written by qualified academics, with sources available to all, competing for credibility and reputation in an open market, and subject to refinement and re-interpretation in the light of new evidence. As Basil Liddell Hart was reputed to have said about an ‘official’ history of WWI: ‘official – but not history’.

P.S. As I was preparing this piece, I discovered the existence of an essay titled Intelligence and ‘Official History’, by Christopher Baxter and Keith Jeffery (the same), published in the 2013 compilation Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945, edited by Christopher R. Moran and Christopher J. Murphy. I ordered it, and it arrived after I had completed my text. The authors focus more on the lack of intelligence analysis in official military histories, but include many of the same points that I make about the propagandisation of officialdom, the ambiguity of sources, freedom of access, and the dubiousness of memoir. In that vein they cite my supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, who in 2003 said: “I don’t think governments should write their own history”, and “academics should not become ambassadors or politicians, or work for the secret service.” In the treatment of non-official sources, the authors provide a telling example with Brook Richards’ official history of clandestine sea operations during World War II, where the author stated that he was responsible ‘for the accuracy of any information not obtained from official British documents’, an assertion that would have been welcome in the histories that I have analysed. The authors also make the following conclusion: “Acknowledging and handling this kind of material (whether in the form of memoir or careful scholarship, as well as more popular works) can pose a problem for the official historian, who, in many cases, cannot simply ignore its existence, but whose use of it may be taken in some way to authenticate it.” Exactly: I could not have put it better myself.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here. And I have added a few more examples of Hyperbolic Contrast here.


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


The main purpose of my visit to the U.K. this month was to attend the degree ceremony at the University of Buckingham and to receive formally my doctoral award. As many readers will recall (wake up at the back, there!), my thesis covered the subversion of MI5 by communist agents and influences at the beginning of WW II. A symptom of this institutional failure was the later indulgence shown to the Soviet spy Leo Long after he was caught red-handed passing military secrets from MI14 in 1943, my claim being that this ‘Sixth Man’ may have been even more dangerous than the pentad of Cambridge graduates that has gained practically all the publicity. (The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, the alumni magazine of my Oxford college, contains an article about my research, titled ‘The Moscow Plot’, and it can be viewed here.) Followers of my subsequent research on ‘Sonia’s Radio’ may also have noticed that I have hinted at the remote possibility that the 1956 death of Alexander Foote may have been faked by MI5 (with the connivance of SIS) to prevent his assassination by Soviet military intelligence. The relevance of these two items will become clear by the end of this blog entry.

On the first evening of my trip, after I had arrived early in the morning at the Battersea residence of my brother, Michael, and his wife, Susanna (who has courageously and gratifyingly recovered from her cancer treatment), Michael and I went to the Instituto Cervantes  near the Strand to attend an interview with Professor Sebastian Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics. Professor Balfour and Michael had become friends when they were both in hospital, and the Professor had very kindly ensured that Michael received special attention when he was in dire straits. I had met the Professor and his wife, Grainne, at Michael’s house on my previous visit, and was eager to learn what the Professor had to say about Spanish matters in the last century, and later even, right up to the secession attempts now being made by Catalonia. What with Philby’s association with Franco, Spender’s mission on behalf of the Comintern, Foote’s action with the International Brigades, as well as the whole sorry story of the Soviet-directed elimination of the anarchists, and the orchestration of the stealing of Spain’s gold by Orlov on Stalin’s behalf, the events of the Spanish Civil War were very relevant to my research area.

Professor Balfour offered us some excellent insights, skillfully weaving the experiences of Spain in the twentieth century into the fabric of today’s cultural and ideological dynamics. Moreover, at the party after the event, I was pleased to meet Mark Ezra and his wife, who were neighbours of the Professor. Mark turned out to be a film-producer, and I was happy to take his address as a possible contact for arranging a deal for the script (based on the central event of my thesis) that my friend and colleague Grant Eustace has been trying to place. Moreover, in one of those strange coincidences that tend to aggregate as one gets older, I discovered later that Mr Ezra had attended Ampleforth College, and had been educated both by Susanna’s father (Haughton) as well as by her first (deceased) husband (Dammann).

After the Spanish event, Michael and I took a taxi to Chelsea, where Susanna was winding down a dinner with four long-standing friends, all outstandingly bright professional women, and wonderful company.

Nicola, Nemeen, Mo, Janie & Susanna

The conversation was lively, and one of the friends (Mo, who is a psychotherapist) decided to issue nicknames to us all. I was given the cryptonym POLARBEAR, (surely in ignorance of my austere reputation as COLDSPUR), which prompted me to respond that my times must be numbered, as the beast ran the risk of soon becoming extinct. This was a highly enjoyable and lively end to the day, which had started by seeing me deplane at Heathrow at what was in fact 3 am in Southport, North Carolina (already on summer time), and which closed by my collapsing into bed at midnight local time.

I had arranged to meet Grant Eustace for lunch in Victoria the following day (Friday 10th), and was able to pass him the lead. Grant and I exchanged sympathies over the struggles with making headway in the worlds of publishing and the media, but maybe something will become of this opportunity. In any case, Grant is always working on some stimulating project, and I enjoy learning about his new ventures. On Saturday morning, I had to catch a train to Newcastle, in the North of England, since I was attending, as my more impulsive alter ego of HOTSPUR, the annual Listener Crossword Setters’ Dinner in Gateshead. I had not attended this event for ten years, but the opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I was a bit embarrassed by the mistake in my centennial Alan Turing puzzle of five years ago. I need not have worried: I was not booed on arrival. It was an excellent occasion, where I re-encountered some old friends, and established new ones. The pseudonyms of the setters often resemble the cryptonyms of agents working for Soviet Intelligence: thus my friend Ian Simpson (who was one of my testers) bears the same sobriquet (HOMER) as the Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. The photo below shows Ian sitting next to Richard Heald, a renowned solver. THIRD MAN (Richard England, not Kim Philby), who holds the current record of most consecutive Listener puzzles correctly solved (103, I believe, and still active), was supposed to be in the photo, but he, who remembered me as a fellow London Society Rugby Football referee, somehow was recorded only in a short video-clip. (‘Third men’ customarily prefer being airbrushed out of history.) I was honoured to be sitting next to SHACKLETON (John Guiver), who won the prize for the best puzzle of 2016. This event is a very British affair, and a great institution, populated by smart, inventive and congenial people, who love words, and crosswords, and all the cultural trappings that accompany the Listener puzzle. But 2017 will probably be my last dinner.

Ian Simpson & Richard Heald

The Elusive Third Man (Richard England) (video not yet displayable)

Hotspur & John Guiver

I took the return train to London the following morning, arriving back in Battersea in mid-afternoon. That evening I was fortunate enough to meet the philosopher John Hyman, Professor in Aesthetics at the University of Oxford, who is also a friend of Michael’s and Susanna’s, and had been invited to dinner. John had expressed interest in my thesis since he knew Isaiah Berlin (indeed he had once been on a bus with him, and thus considered Isaiah and himself ‘fellow-travellers’) and asked me several penetrating questions. I was happy to discuss the implications of Berlin’s friendship with such as Guy Burgess, Lord Rothschild, and, most of all, Jenifer and Herbert Hart, since Jenifer had been Berlin’s lover, and Herbert had been a most important influence on jurisprudential philosophy, being acknowledged several times in Hyman’s recent Action, Knowledge and Will, a volume I might perhaps not have picked up otherwise. I prepared for the occasion by reading the most relevant chapters on the train from Gateshead, but (perhaps fortunately) we ran out of time before I could be questioned on the arguments. (I regret I am a bit slow on these matters: I am still trying to come to grips with ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic.) But again, a most enjoyable evening.

Monday saw me meeting my old friend David Earl, who picked me up at East Croydon Station, whence we repaired to a pub for lunch and caught up with each other’s news. David has always shown a solicitous interest in my research, and asked me again whether I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ over my subversive line of inquiry. I suggested to him that it might be a bit late for that, and that any such warnings would now only aid publicity for my forthcoming book. Later that afternoon, I went to Whitgift School, where I was able to see two long-standing friends, Tia Afghan, the Head Librarian, and Bill Wood, the Archivist, before preparing to attend the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Old Whitgiftian Golf Society, a group I had joined on a previous visit to the U.K.  Some of the gentlemen attending I had never met before, a few I had played golf with, but I was delighted to see again some old colleagues from the rugby and cricket fields, such as Mike Wilkinson, Paul Champness, Alan Cowing, Howard Morton, and Jeremy Stanyard. It was another highly enjoyable evening: golf is thriving at the School, and while the Headmaster chose the occasion to give a rather supererogatory motivational speech, it did not detract from the sense of fellowship. Howard Morton kindly drove me home to Battersea.

Messrs. Stanyard, Wilkinson & Champness (centre)

Peter Abel (left) et alii

Work followed on Tuesday. I went to the National Archives at Kew, where I had to wait to get my Reader’s ticket renewed, and then hung around while my requested files were retrieved. My goal that day was to dig around in the records of the Radio Security Service to discover what attempts had been made to intercept unfamiliar and unauthorised radio traffic either being received or transmitted within the UK’s shores in the 1940s. I also managed to inspect the missing volume of the files on the Rote Kapelle: for some reason, the third volume of biographical information on RK members and affiliates had not been digitised, and thus I had been unable to download it from my home in Southport. When I brought this oversight to the attention of the Kew authorities a few weeks ago, they could not explain it, and committed to rectify the problem, but were in no rush to do so, especially as I was about to visit the Archives. I discovered several nuggets, some that addressed enigmas, some that provoked new ones.

The next day saw Michael, Susannna and me driving to Oxford, where we were scheduled to be shown round the exhibition on Volcanoes at the new Weston Library of the Bodleian by its lead curator, David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University. This visit had been arranged by another coincidence: I have been a Friend of the Bodleian for some years, and when I met Jessica Brown of the Development Office last summer, I had happened to mention that my wife Sylvia had been born in St. Vincent. A few weeks later, astutely recalling the connection, Jessica contacted me about the Volcanoes plans, saying that the eruptions of La Soufrière on the island constituted an important part of the coming exhibition, and would I be interested in it? I was able to inform her that Sylvia and I had trekked up to the top of the mountain in the autumn of 1978, whereupon our guide – who had never seen smoke emanating from the base  ̶  wanted immediately to dash back down the mountain for fear it were about to erupt again. Moreover, I was able to extract from my files a report on the adventure that I had written back in May 1979, after the major eruption that occurred on Easter Friday. (See here.) The long and short of it was that I agreed to help fund a video and audio display about the Caribbean volcanoes in the transept space at the exhibition, and the personal attention of the kind and expert volcanologist, Professor Pyle, was our reward. The exhibition contained a remarkable set of accounts, illustrations, and maps from the Bodleian Libraries, as well some items borrowed from outside. I heartily recommend a tour: the exhibition closes on May 21.

La Soufrière at the Bodleian

Michael, Susanna & I on the roof of the Weston Library

We then moved on to Christ Church, my alma mater, where I had arranged a visit to the Library. Dr Cristina Neagu, who is keeper of the Special Collections, was able to show us a rich and assorted set of documents, from commentaries by Maimonides to recently discovered notebooks and publications by Lewis Carroll, as well as the remarkable Graz camera that is contributing to an exciting digitisation project at the Bodleian. The wealth of the Special Collections is extraordinary, and is being made more broadly available through the interpretation of scholars, and the efforts of Cristina and her team, supported by innovative digitisation techniques. This was another very fascinating experience, and we returned to our hotel at Peartree Road well stimulated, ready for some excellent refreshment and dinner at the Trout at Godstow.

No relaxation! The next day (Thursday), Susanna was seeing a friend in Oxford, so Michael drove us to Bletchley to spend a day at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (renamed Government Communications Headquarters at some stage during the war). While I knew a fair amount about GC&CS from my reading (especially about the analysis of ENIGMA traffic), I had never visited the place itself. For me, much of the inspection of the various huts was less than overwhelming, but the experience was enhanced by a brief tour of Bletchley Park House itself (in which the office of its chief, Alastair Denniston, stood), and capped by a remarkable exhibition in Block B, where a moving account of Alan Turing’s life and tragic end was given, as well as a crisp and articulate demonstration of a reconstructed ‘Bombe’ at work. An ENIGMA message was decrypted with the help of a ‘crib’ that relied on the fact that no letter could ever be encoded as itself, the multiple wheels rotating until a trial set of complete matches was made. The (volunteer) demonstrators performed a superlative job: one of them told us that her father had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and then, after learning Russian, had moved on to manage English Accessions at the Bodleian. But the exhibition was also a little coy about the controversies that still surround wartime security and management. For example, in the Visitor Centre, three plaques show Stewart Menzies (head of SIS, to whom GC&CS reported), Alastair Denniston (who led GC&CS from 1921 to 1942), and Edward Travis (director from 1942 to 1952). Menzies is graced with his ‘Sir’, but with no dates. Denniston and Travis are both given their years of birth and death, but no titles, although Travis was given his knighthood a few months after his appointment, while Denniston was shamefully never given one. Maybe embarrassment over this snub still lingers.

Susanna took the bus from Oxford to Buckingham to join us on Thursday evening, where we were staying in preparation for the degree ceremony on Friday. Friday turned out to be the coldest day of my stay: I had to pick up my cap and gown in good time before setting off for a meeting with Christopher Woodhead, the editor at Buckingham University Press. We had not met in person, so it was good to discuss across the table plans for the book based on my thesis  ̶  indexing, illustrations, cover, launch. We appear to be on target for a September publication. And then   ̶  off to the Church of St Peter and St Paul for the secular Convocation for the Conferment of Degrees. This was a very well planned and executed ceremony, one of five held over two days, so that each graduand could receive a personal introduction. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University (and also my internal examiner) gave a bravura performance in orchestrating the ceremony, which was enhanced by a wise and amusing speech by Lord (Mervyn) King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and honorary graduand for the School of Humanities. It was followed by an excellent buffet, where we were pleased to be joined by my supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, and Sir Anthony Seldon, as well as by the MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the House) John Bercow. The whole event was a grand example of British pluralism: persons of many countries, creeds, colours and cultures (and ages) coming together (in a Protestant church) to celebrate academic achievement and to be individually recognised, before dispersing to their different groups and associations. Pluralism, not multi-culturalism, in the spirit of the endorsements in my thesis. A very satisfactory day, and I am proud to be associated with the sole independent university in Britain with its motto  ̶  Alis Volans Propriis (‘Flying On Our Own Wings’). I was sorry that Sylvia and Julia could not be there to witness it, but the support of Michael and Susanna meant a lot.

Sir Anthony Seldon & Michael

Susanna & John Bercow

So then back to London, and champagne. The next day I had a reunion of the 1965 School Prefects at Whitgift, held at a pub near Hyde Park Corner. On my way there, I saw Howard Morton, who lives in Chelsea, and I was introduced to his charming Rwandan-born wife, Yvonne, and son, James. Twelve prefects attended the lunch: three of them I had not seen in over fifty years. Of course we each had perfect memories of what happened all that time ago, even if they did not all coincide, but Peter Kelly had brought along a few artifacts to provide documentary evidence, and to provoke lively discussion. We all fondly remembered our former leader and Head Prefect, John Knightly, who had sadly succumbed to cancer a couple of years before. I was sorry that not all could make the event, but Peter kindly arranged it at fairly short notice, and it was good to see so many old friends again. One remarkable fact that arose from the occasion was that Andrew Jukes (one of those whom I had not seen for fifty years) told me that he was in Washington (where his father worked in the Embassy) at the time that Burgess and Maclean absconded in 1951  . . .

Percy, Earl, Flood, Stewart, Hislop & New

Kelly, Rawlings. McCombie, Jukes, Kirk & Singleton

Sunday was a day off. I needed a rest, and to catch up. On Monday morning, I took the train to Minster  ̶  between Canterbury and Ramsgate  ̶  to have lunch with Nigel West (Rupert Allason), the doyen of writers on intelligence and espionage matters. I have read (and own) several of his books, but I keep encountering vital titles that I have overlooked and need to read. Nigel had attended the seminar I held at Buckingham a few years ago, so I was able to update him on the progress of my research and conclusions. We covered a lot of ground, including ELLI’s identity, Sedlacek and Roessler, Alexander Foote and Claude Dansey, the mistreatment of Denniston, the ISCOT program, and Sonia’s broadcasts. (Nigel once interviewed Sonia.) Nigel is not surprised by Denniston’s lack of a knighthood, pointing out that neither R. V. Jones nor Commander Godfrey was thus honored, but I continue to maintain that there is a deeper, murkier story behind the insult. Nigel also explained to me the reason why one’s effects are checked before entering the Archives at Kew: an academic had been detected inserting falsified documents into files, and then claiming breakthrough ‘findings’ some time later. (Not in my field, I hope.) That story can be inspected in West’s latest book, Cold War Counterfeit Spies. I was also very happy to meet Nigel’s charming wife, Nicola, a professional violinist, and the time went all too quickly before I had to catch the train back to London.

I needed one more day at Kew, so on Tuesday I caught the train from Clapham Junction to Richmond, switching to the ‘Underground’ to Kew Gardens, with an easy walk to the National Archives. I had a few files I needed to re-inspect, namely Dick White’s apologia to the Cabinet Office, the records of Leo Long, as well as the Kuczynski files that are not available on-line, in order to catch any details I had overlooked beforehand. I also discovered another intriguing RSS file, which included a highly provocative 1943 letter from Richard Gambier-Parry (head of Section VIII in SIS) to Claude Dansey, requesting his support in an attempt to tighten up radio security in the light of unauthorized foreign traffic from England. This was interesting, since Guy Liddell of MI5 Counter-Espionage frequently complains about Gambier-Parry’s lack of concern for such matters, while Dansey has never been known as showing much interest in wireless technology. Gambier-Parry also wrote, alongside SOE, about a unit named ‘P5’, which I had not encountered before. (The structure of wartime SIS is a highly confusing topic: the authorised historian of SIS Colin Jeffery suggests that P5 was a group liaising with Vichy France, while Phillip Davies indicates it dealt with the Polish government-in-exile and the Free French, which is a much more likely scenario.)

Before I left Kew, I bought a copy of West’s Cold War Counterfeit Spies, as well as Peter Matthews’ SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, which appears to fill an important gap in the literature by concentrating on German interception and decryption techniques.  From a quick scan, I noticed that Matthews makes the confident assertion (on p 196, though curiously without providing a reference or source, or even listing Foote in the index) that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable ULTRA information. (This is a hypothesis I am attempting to prove in ‘Sonia’s Radio’.) Thus casually do narratives get confirmed in the historical record, so I was naturally intrigued in the evidence after which he came to this conclusion, which directly contradicts what Professor Hinsley, the authorised historian of British Intelligence in WWII, has written about the release of ULTRA information to the Soviets. I look forward to reading the work from cover to cover, but have already succeeded in making contact with Mr. Matthews, and he has just informed me that he was actually with the Army in Berlin when Foote defected there in 1947! (He also carried out at that time several interviews with German radio intelligence officers.) He has promised to inspect his files to find out what sources confirm the impression he had at the time. But I certainly agree with him in one respect: Foote’s life story ‘could fill another book’.

Time to come home. I left Battersea for Heathrow at 5:30 on Wednesday in order to catch my 8:50 plane to Charlotte. It left at 9:30, and arrived half an hour early, which can be explained only by extraordinary tailwinds, or a padded schedule that leads to improved on-time arrival records. So I had plenty of time for my connection to Wilmington – too much, in fact. The plane coming in from Columbia, SC, was delayed because of maintenance problems, so that, instead of leaving at 4:10, it taxied off to the runway at about 7:00. As we were about to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to return to the gate since one of the flight attendants would otherwise exceed her working time for the day. This was doubly ridiculous: American Airlines should have known what was happening and made a decision beforehand, and the policy that a flight attendant would be dangerously overworked, having spent three hours in Columbia presumably doing nothing, and when the 30-minute flight to Wilmington does not even allow for serving drinks in cabin class, is an example of regulation at its most absurd. Furthermore, we then waited another half an hour until the replacement crew member arrived, while American Airlines told us nothing. What about regulations helping passengers? By the time I arrived home, I had been travelling for twenty and a half hours – something my doctor has advised me not to do. Of course, I do not seek expensive regulations to support frustrated passengers. I want choice of airlines, and less government interference when safety is not an issue. But the options are currently few without even longer flights and journey segments.

Lastly, a strange coincidence. On the train to Newcastle on March 11, I had started reading Charles Cummings’s The Trinity Six, an intelligence thriller about an academic, Sam Gaddis, who chases down a story about a notorious ‘Sixth Man’, and even encounters, at the National Archives, a beautiful SIS officer disguised as a helpful employee. The death of the Sixth Man turns out to have been faked by MI5/SIS, so that his existence can be concealed from the Soviets, who have even more interest than SIS in shielding the public and press from the real story behind his betrayal. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. What is noteworthy, however, is that Chapter 26 begins with the following sentence: “Forty minutes earlier, Tanya Acocella had been passed a note informing her that Dr. Sam Gaddis – now known by the cryptonym POLARBEAR because, as Brennan had observed, ‘he’ll soon be extinct’ – had visited an Internet café on the Uxbridge Road and purchased an easyJet flight to Berlin.” Is this art imitating life, or vice versa, or simply a normal occurrence in the world of spooks? I had never met Susanna’s friend Mo before, she knew nothing about me, and I had not opened a page of Cummings’ book at that time. Gaddis does not fall victim to the multiple murders being carried out by the Russians, which is a good sign, I suppose: on the other hand, no sultry temptresses welcomed me at Kew.  Yet I suspect that it will be MI5 who may not be very happy with me when my revisionist history of that institution comes out this autumn. Is POLARBEAR a marked man? My friend David may think so. I arrived in Britain, however, on my UK passport, and left on my American one. This highly sophisticated ruse   ̶  one learned from my handlers  ̶  may have thrown them off the scent. POLARBEAR landed, but never took off again.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

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Revisiting Smiley & Co.

Last month I re-read John le Carré’s classic story of betrayal in Britain’s security services, Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy. It must be almost forty years since I first picked it up, since my Pan paperback edition came out in 1978. I do not believe I completely understood what was going on at the time, although the television serial produced by the BBC a year later made things a little easier. Now, with my deep background reading into espionage and intelligence, it was much easier to understand the plot, and pick up the threads and references.

A now obvious theme that had not made much impression on me earlier was the veiled introduction into the plot of real-life incidents and characters. Thus Rikki Tarr’s involvement with the Soviet agent Irina, and her sudden extraction back to the Soviet Union, echo the Volkov incident, where the would-be Soviet defector and his wife were spirited out of Turkey to be killed in Moscow, after Philby had betrayed them. The Arabist father of Bill Haydon (‘our latter-day Lawrence of Arabia’) is a clear pointer to the political persuasions of Kim Philby’s own father, Harry St. John.  The Oxford club of ‘Optimates’ (‘an upper-class Christ Church club, mainly old Etonian’ – Chapter 29) while of conservative leanings, is a clear analog of the Apostles, based at Trinity College, Cambridge, where most of the Cambridge Spies were recruited. The formidable Connie Sachs was probably based on the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, who maintained scrupulous records on Communist suspects for MI5, and had a phenomenal memory. Under-Secretary Oliver Lacon, with his ‘tight-lipped moral complacency’, has all the patrician smoothness of Gladwyn Jebb, who was indeed responsible for liaising between the Foreign Office and the security services. Even the workname of Jim Prideaux, Ellis, is a sharp pointer to the infamous Soviet mole, ELLI, never accurately identified, but whose brief syllables provide eerie hints to the various characters who have been at one time or another suspected of being the person behind the cryptonym: Guy Liddell, Graham Mitchell, Roger Hollis, and the undeservedly overlooked Leo Long (‘LL’). Le Carré even introduces a naval intelligence officer named ‘Lilley’ (Chapter 16) to extend the joke and enrich the pageant.

But one aspect that newly impressed me was Le Carré’s skills in characterization, especially his use of different speech registers both to describe and distinguish the intelligence officers. This was a strength that I had picked up in the last Le Carré novel that I read, The Russia House. The idioms and manners of speaking that anyone uses are influenced by many factors: family, locality, education, friends, associations, interests, etc. If taken to extremes, such registers become mere caricature, or may be applied for humorous affect if out of character (for instance, if I started using Cockney rhyming-slang in an exaggerated manner, or used Bertie Wooster vernacular). If deployed subtly, however, they can add much credibility and distinctiveness. Hence Ricky Tarr’s cheeky-chappie sub-American slang makes him instantly memorable and situates him somewhat out of his element among the refined bosses of the Circus; Toby Esterhase’s struggles with British idioms plant him carefully as an anglicised mid-European intellectual, and thus an outsider; Percy Alleline’s sarcastic and pompous banter ( his ‘one instrument of communication’) sharply sets him up as the boss who keeps control by reminding his underlings of their inferior status; Roy Bland’s ‘caustic cockney voice’ incorporates disrespect; Bill Haydon’s sharp-witted barbs and lively images can be seen as a screen to conceal his real character and actions.

And then there is Smiley himself.  His character comes through not so much in his idiom, but more in his manner of speaking, understated, with well-placed silences, and tentative questions, all encouraging his interlocutor to speak more. Perhaps, when most intelligence officers are represented by Le Carré as having all the traditional human failings of ambition, jealousy, and disloyalty, he is everything we should expect in an intelligence officer responsible for guarding the realm – solid, dry-witted, pragmatic, apolitical, dogged, analytical – and a little boring. Those plodding and unspectacular attributes are what enable him to solve the problem. Yet Smiley’s triumph in uncovering the mole Bill Haydon is undermined by Le Carré in a discomforting – and, to me, unconvincing  ̶  way. Even though Smiley has been cuckolded by Haydon, on the disclosure of the latter’s treachery, he still harbours doubts about Haydon’s guilt:  ‘Yet there was a part of him that rose already in Haydon’s defence. Was not Bill also betrayed?’ (Chapter 36)  Le Carré continues: ‘Thus Smiley felt not only disgust; but, despite all that the moment meant to him, a surge of resentment against the institutions he was supposed to be protecting.’ But Le Carré presents those institutions as being the officers of the Circus: ‘such men invalidate any contract: why should anyone be loyal to them?’ To portray a traitor as someone who has inexplicably been betrayed by the survival of decent life after the ruins of war and the onslaughts of two varieties of totalitarianism, yet somehow because of that succumbs to a bankrupt and cruel creed, is a bit rich. Haydon was no hero for the communist cause, no purist like Milovan Djilas, carping at the obtuseness of Stalin and the extravagances of Tito.

Not only that. For it is part of Le Carré’s grudge (as is clear from some of his later works, as well as from Adam Sisman’s 2015 biography of him) that the Western system was as essentially corrupt as was Communism, and their security services thus equally at fault. And here the author falls into the familiar territory of moral equivalence, providing the false contrast of ‘capitalism’ with ‘communism’, and suggesting that there is really nothing to choose between them. As he has Haydon say: ‘In capitalist America economic repression of the masses is institutionalised to a point which not even Lenin could have foreseen’, something that simply sounds absurd coming from someone as cultured and intelligent as Haydon. ‘He had often wondered which side he would be on if the test ever came; after prolonged reflection he had finally to admit that if either monolith [sic!] had to win the day, he would prefer it to be the East.’ What nonsense! It is a very unconvincing portrait: on the one hand suggesting Haydon is a victim, and then giving him the most vapid ideological reasons for staying with Stalinism. The logic is as sophistical as one of the main reasons that Kim Philby, Le Carré’s model for Haydon, gave for his own loyalty, and clearly echoes it. Despite ‘some things going badly wrong in the Soviet Union’, as Philby wrote in My Secret War, ‘finally, it is a sobering thought that, but for the power of the Soviet Union and the Communist idea, the Old World, if not the whole world, would now be ruled by Hitler and Hirohito.’ It is as if Le Carré (who declared that he blamed Philby for his premature exit from SIS), unconvinced by Philby’s feeble defence of Communism, was unable to come up with any better rationale to explain Haydon’s treachery, and had to resort to a message of Haydon as someone with a justifiable chip on his shoulder, over which Smiley is taken in.

Moreover, Le Carré falls for that familiar Marxist-Leninist dogma, weakly adopting the terminology of that argument. The struggle was not between capitalism and communism, but between totalitarianism and liberal democracy, with its pluralist instincts and necessarily messy approach to making policy. The West was no ‘monolith’. The problem with resisting dogmatic and pernicious creeds is that liberal democracies struggle to defend themselves confidently, as it is difficult to make an ideological virtue out of such fragmentation, out of pluralism itself. But it was the defence of such liberal institutions as parliamentary democracy, universal suffrage, regular open elections, an independent press, freedom of religion and conscience, trial by jury, etc. that Smiley was supposed to be guarding – not the transient careers and reputation of the officers of an intelligence service. In fact it was a misguided loyalty to MI5 that encouraged Liddell, Hollis and Dick White to attempt to cover up their mistakes – not only about the discovery of moles in their midst – but also (for example) over Klaus Fuchs, and force their boss, Percy Sillitoe, to lie to the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, over their surveillance of the atom spy, a deception that has not been properly revealed to this day.

Some of the brave defectors from the Soviet Union realised this self-delusion better than their emancipated cousins resident in the West. One of these, Ismail Akhmedov, in his memoir In and Out of Stalin’s GRU wrote, of Philby: ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  Philby’s hypocrisy was revealed in a video recording discovered and broadcast a few weeks ago. He was recorded giving a lecture on spycraft to some STASI (East German secret police) officers in 1981 (see . His final lesson for them? ‘Never admit to anything if you are caught.’ But Philby never had to undergo torture, or threats to his family of he did not admit his guilt, or the prospect of a shot in the back of the head without trial. If MI5 and Special Branch had found convincing proof of his guilt, he probably would not have been prosecuted successfully without a confession and an embarrassing trial, and would likely have been told instead (as was Anthony Blunt, in effect): ‘Why don’t you quietly retire, old boy, as we don’t want any nasty mess and bad publicity for the service, do we?’.

Yet this bias of indulgence towards Stalin’s despotism is well-entrenched in Western intellectual life. I have just read David Lodge’s ingenious, but bizarre and ultimately unfulfilling, ‘novel’ about the love-life of H. G. Wells, A Man of Parts, where Lodge offers the following observation: ‘It took him [Wells] a long time, for instance, to recognize how completely Stalin’s police state had betrayed the ideals [sic] of the Russian Revolution. But at least he was never taken in by Mussolini and Hitler, as many British pundits and politicians were.’ ‘At least’?? Who was ever taken in by that strutting Italian socialist-cum-fascist showman? As for Hitler, the number of intellectuals (or pundits or politicians) truly taken in by his ideology was dwarfed by the number of useful idiots and fellow-travellers who were duped by Stalin. Certainly, the odious message of Mein Kampf was a dire warning of worse to come, and the persecution of Jews was well under way, but, at the outset of WWII, the quantity of massacres and murders perpetrated by Stalin was orders of magnitude greater than that for which Hitler had thus far been responsible.

A strong residue of sympathy endures for the great Communist ‘experiment’, and Marxist apologists are still all too ready to overlook the famines, the purges, the Gulag – and the Maoist Great Leap Forward and Cultural Revolution, and Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge . . .  In fact, wherever the communist attempt to make a ‘new man’ has taken root, it has meant the elimination of millions who either chose the wrong parents, or defied the new ideology, or who were simply innocent victims caught up in the terror. Unfortunately, it appears that John le Carré, who, while having welcomed the fall of the Berlin Wall, continues to rail against capitalism as he maximises his substantial royalty cheques, did not, and still fails to, understand the relationship between free enterprise and liberal democracy. But he tells a rattling good yarn, and has a great ear for the registers of speech.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.  (May 31, 2016)


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, Literature/Academia

Hey Big Spender!

‘So let me get right to the point
I don’t pop my cork for every guy I see
Hey, big spender!
spend a little time with me’                                                                                                                     (from Sweet Charity, 1966: lyrics by Dorothy Fields)

Shortly after it was released in 1977, I saw the movie Julia, starring Jane Fonda and Vanessa Redgrave. Based on a memoir by the American playwright Lillian Hellman, it tells the story of a close friendship between Hellman and the mysterious ‘Julia’, a rich American girl who had gone to Europe, studied at Oxford, and then moved to Vienna in the hope of being treated by Freud. Having involved herself in rescue operations of Jews and Communists from under the noses of the Fascists, Julia is severely crippled by the latter. Hellman, struggling with her writing in the summer of 1934, goes off to Europe to try to find her friend, and a few years later undertakes a dangerous mission of smuggling money into Berlin to help save more souls. Later, she learns that her friend had been attacked and was near to death in Frankfurt, but had been spirited out of the country to London, where she died. Hellman tries to discover what happened, and attempts to contact Julia’s grandparents, but finds instead a wall of silence.

I thought the film rather overwrought and unlikely at the time, but knew next to nothing about Hellman (or even Dashiell Hammett, of Maltese Falcon fame, with whom she was living on Long Island), and had only a vague understanding about Austrian politics in the mid-1930s. So I put it to the back of my mind, thinking it was a harmless vehicle for Hanoi Jane and the ambassadress for the Trotskyist Workers’ Revolutionary Party, Ms. Redgrave, and concluded that the luvvies at the Academy of Motion Pictures Arts and Sciences must have seen something I didn’t when it was nominated for eleven awards, and won three.

My interest in Julia was sparked a year or two ago as I was performing research for my thesis on communist subversion. The name of Muriel Gardiner came up, and I learned that she had been the model for Hellman’s Julia, who had featured in an eponymous chapter in Hellman’s 1973 memoir Pentimento, and had also appeared in embryonic form in her 1969 memoir An Unfinished Woman. Muriel Gardiner was indeed a rich American who from 1922 to 1924 had spent time at Oxford performing graduate work in English Literature, had moved to Vienna to seek out Freud and be psychoanalysed by him, and had become involved with the communist movement there. But the coincidence ended at that point, as Muriel Gardiner was in fact very much alive when she brought out her own autobiography, Code Name ‘Mary’ in 1983. What is more, she wrote that she had never met Lillian Hellman.

Gardiner explains in her memoir that she had been prompted to write her account to set the record straight, several of her friends having pointed out to her the resemblance between her and Hellman’s Julia. She apparently read Hellman’s book soon after it came out: Sheila Isenberg (Gardiner’s biographer) says that she paid ‘little heed’ to it at first, as her time was consumed with looking after her husband, apparently stricken with Alzheimer’s disease, and her interest was not stirred until the movie was released. But Isenberg then represents the chronology very awkwardly, suggesting that Gardiner had discussions with her friends about the movie, but ‘at first refused to say anything directly to Hellman’. Isenberg next reports, however, that ‘in 1976, she did finally write a letter to Hellman’. But since Julia was not released until 1977, the timetable does not make sense.

So what about the letter? It is an extraordinary compilation, a mixture of deference and polite puzzlement. Gardiner starts by describing Pentimento as ‘a beautiful book’  – a somewhat unfortunate choice of words, as later paragraphs will show. She wonders whether the character Julia could be a composite of several persons: “I do not at all think so, but cannot help wondering that I never – as far as I know – met Julia. Nor have I met you, though I heard of you often from our good friend, Wolf Schwabacher  . . .”  (Schwabacher was a lawyer, with whom Muriel and her husband, Joe Buttinger, shared a large house in Pennington, New Jersey, when she returned to the USA in 1940.)   Why would Gardiner bother to point out to Hellman that they had never met, and, even more to the point, why would she not have tried to arrange a meeting to discuss the topic first? An introduction would surely have been easy.

Gardiner’s biographer adds that Hellman had ‘first borrowed Muriel’s life’ late in 1940, when she created ‘the wealthy American Sara Muller, the wife of a European resistance leader’, in The Watch on the Rhine.  But Gardiner had missed the play and the film. Now her tactful approach gave Hellman an opportunity to explain all. Yet she signed off her letter by saying even that there was no need for Hellman to answer it. Why? If she was genuinely interested in what had happened, why give Hellman the out? Instead, Gardiner studiously avoided pinning Hellman down, and when she came to research her own memoir a few years later, she even made contact with the head of the Documentary Archives of the Austrian Resistance, in Vienna (a Dr. Herbert Steiner), to confirm that no other resistance fighter with the same profile had existed. Instead of pursuing Hellman a little more energetically, behavior that would have been much more conventional and acceptable, she went chasing hares.

Hellman accordingly took advantage of the invitation, and did not answer the letter, yet continued to lie about the person of Julia. Anyone interested in more details on this part of the saga can read Sheila Isenberg’s biography of Gardiner (Muriel’s War), or William Wright’s biography of Hellman (Lillian Hellman), or such articles as the New York Times review of Code Name ‘Mary’, at What is certain is that Hellman was not only a Stalinist, but an inveterate liar, and was called out as such. She died before her famous lawsuit against Mary McCarthy came to court. McCarthy had famously said of Hellman on the Dick Cavett Show on October 18, 1979 that ‘every word she writes is a lie, including “and” and “the”.’ Hellman’s mendacity is made perfectly clear in a volume of conversations she had with the media between 1974 and 1979 (i.e. before and after the movie was made), published as Conversations with Hellman (1986), where she confidently begins by boasting of her memory, and swears to the truth of her story, and the strength of her friendship with Julia, but by the end is resorting to awkward equivocations as some of the inconsistencies come to light.

This February, I at last read Pentimento, and also rented the movie Julia from the University Library. The memoir is pure hokum. For example, Hellman describes Hammett and herself spending the summer of 1934 on Long Island, until Hammett agrees to pay her fare to go to Europe for two-and-half months, so that she can finish her play The Children’s Hour, and see Julia. She arrives in Paris, where she calls Julia in Vienna, and tells her she will join her. As Hellman tells it: “Then, two weeks after my phone call, the newspaper headlines said that Austrian government troops, aided by local Nazis, had bombarded the Karl Marx Hof in the Floridsdorf district of Vienna.” Hellman arrives there to find Julia in hospital, having been severely wounded in the fracas surrounding Floridsdorf. Yet the storming of the Karl Marx Hof (the worker community constructed by the Viennese socialist administration) had occurred in February 1934! And the first night of The Children’s Hour was on November 20, 1934, which made the whole construction a nonsense. It was hardly worth my reading on. (Hellman’s biographer Wright notes the first anomaly, but how come nobody else did at the time?)

The movie was even worse, second time around. True, the producers did try to fix some of the obvious problems in the original story  ̶  such as correcting the oversight that, when she returned to Europe in 1937 on a mission to go to a conference in the Soviet Union, Hellman was able to change, while in Paris, her itinerary to Moscow to go via Berlin without gaining permission from the Soviet consulate, and the plugging of some other obvious gaps. But the character ‘Julia’ drew such attention to herself with her nervous mannerisms, and flamboyant outfits, that it defied credibility. As Gardiner herself said to friends (Isenberg, p 378): “How absurd to think that the likes of Jane Fonda could have sat unobserved, wearing that ridiculous hat, waiting for Vanessa Redgrave in the middle of a restaurant in broad daylight in Nazi Berlin!” And why select a Jew for the dangerous job? Wright lists other anomalies, such as the fact that the whole premise of having to smuggle in dollars to Berlin was false. Why some researcher did not investigate all this before the film was made is astonishing. (One irony, to me, was that it would have made better casting sense to have had Julia, i.e. Muriel Gardiner, who was a very attractive woman, played by Fonda, while Redgrave’s – ahem  ̶  more austere beauty would have suited better the less than stellar features of Hellman. But the producers no doubt had to have an American playing Hellman.) As for Redgrave’s Academy Award as Best Supporting Actress, it was a joke. She doesn’t appear much, and is swathed in bandages for half the time. Otherwise, she just sits there, looking saintly, peering devotedly into Fonda’s eyes.

The main focus of this piece, however, is on Gardiner, who has always been presented as a very honest person compared to the monster Hellman. Yet a careful examination of her memoir, and of other accounts of her adventures, indicates that she could be parsimonious with the truth as well. This pattern is reflected in three key incidents in her life: her first marriage, her voyage to Moscow in 1932, and her romantic encounter with an English poet, which events together suggest that her account of her dealings with Lillian Hellman may also be unreliable.

In her memoir, Gardiner completely overlooks what one would think would have been an important episode in her life  ̶  her first marriage. While in England, she had met, at the British Museum, an American, Harold Abramson, whom she had known from Ithaca, New York. A passionate affair led to an apparently reluctant marriage in London on November 25, 1925, and it was the failure of that marriage that led her to psychoanalysis. Abramson accompanied her to Vienna, where she failed to see Freud, but underwent analysis with one of his pupils, Dr. Mack. She then had a tempestuous affair with a Welsh artist named Richard Hughes during a trip to England, and divorced Abramson in the spring of 1929. By then she had met an English musician, Jonathan Gardiner, in Vienna, and married him on May 20, 1930. Gardiner glides over this period of her life, which must have been very painful. Yet in the Introduction to her memoir, she writes, while explaining her decision to write the autobiography in the first person: “I decided I would rather risk a lack of modesty than questionable honesty.” Admittedly, the lie was more one of omission than commission, but it was still an extraordinary failing by someone purportedly aiming to set the record straight.

The Gardiners had a child, Constance Mary, born on March 24, 1931, when Muriel was already falling out of love with her husband. And in the next few years, she embedded herself deeply in the leftist/communist movement in Vienna. She met the journalist G. E. R. Gedye, who put her in touch with people in the underground, and she became friendly with various English socialists there, such as Hugh Gaitskell and Frederick Elwyn Jones. Muriel even recalls meeting Kim Philby at this time, although she claims she didn’t realize it was Philby until much later, when she saw his photograph in a bookshop in Connecticut. Philby asked her to deliver a package to a comrade: she claims in her autobiography that she opened the package after he left, and was annoyed to find a large amount of money, and Communist literature. Surprisingly, Gardiner never mentions Philby’s wife, Litzi Friedmann, although there were few women active in the groups working to help the socialists and Jews. In The Third Man E. H. Cookridge says that Philby claimed that he himself had recruited Gardiner into the Revolutionary Socialists, but Cookridge says she was discovered by one Ilse Kulczar. As Isenberg tells the story: “Muriel’s first covert action was to establish her apartment (the one she would soon have to vacate) as a place to hide people. There she also held several meetings of Leopold and Ilse Kulczar’s Funke (Spark) group, named after Lenin’s underground newspaper, Iskra (The Spark). The Kulczars were intelligent and savvy left-wing socialists – a label that also identified her, Muriel now realized, bemused.”

Gardiner was in fact heavily involved in clandestine activities, with her several properties in Austria exploited for meetings and storage of illicit materials. The Communists were busy infiltrating the Socialist groups in Vienna, and managing their work from the comparative safety across the border, in Czechoslovakia. Philby’s British passport was a vital asset that allowed him easy transit between the two countries. As Cookridge (born Edward Spiro) relates of Gardiner, with convincing detail: “She had plenty of money, a villa in the Vienna Woods, a large apartment in the Rummelhardt-Gasse in one of the outer districts and a pied-à-terre in the Lammgasse near the university. She also had a four-year-old daughter, looked after by a nanny and a maidservant. . . . She made her flats available for illegal meetings; the garden sheds at her villa were soon filled with stacks of clandestine news-sheets and pamphlets.” Thus her claim that she was not aware that Philby was asking her to pass on money and Communist literature (how was such distinguishable from revolutionary-socialist pamphlets approved by a Leninist cell, one might ask?) appears a little naïve. Cookridge says that he broke with Philby when he realised that the latter’s money was coming straight from Moscow, but Gardiner did not appear to initiate any similar rift.

Just after the storming of the Karl Marx Hof, Gardiner decided to take a holiday. According to her account, in late April 1934, she chose to go to Mlini, in Yugoslavia, with her daughter and the governess, Gerda. (‘Governess’ sounds a bit advanced for a three-year old, but then all good socialists have governesses for their children.) As she wrote: “I had selected this spot from various circulars because it was the only one that advertized a sandy beach. The proprietor, replying to my various inquiries, told me that two distinguished English journalists who had been staying at the inn for several weeks were enchanted with it.” After that, she planned to leave her daughter and attendant while she travelled down the coast to Greece. What she didn’t say was that she was accompanied by her current lover of the time, Furth Ullman. In Mlini, she discovered who the ‘two distinguished English journalists’ were. One of them was the poet Stephen Spender, and she was smitten. Spender was ‘strikingly handsome, very tall and well built, with a slight stoop, probably because of his height’. This reaction is echoed by Isenberg: ‘Muriel’s impression of the tall, boyishly handsome young writer was of a “graceful animal”’. Now, an argument could be made that Muriel did in fact ‘pop her cork’ for many men she saw, but this time she was truly entranced. And so was Spender, who found Muriel ‘irresistible’.

There was a slight problem, however. For a highly attractive and lusty young woman in the 1930s, Stephen Spender was perhaps not the best candidate for a long-term relationship. For Spender’s sexual adventures had been solely with men up till then: not only that, he was accompanied in Mlini by his current boyfriend, Tony Hyndman. Yet Muriel and Stephen exchanged confidences, and spoke intimately of their pasts, before Muriel moved on to Greece. Muriel claimed she had never heard of Spender, which was somewhat surprising, given that her post-graduate research in English Literature, and that by 1932 Spender was already a hero of the Oxford literary scene, alongside Auden and Isherwood. She writes that Spender was ‘eager to learn all he could about the events of February and the underground movement’, and adds: “We had both been at Oxford, although not at the same time, and we shared similar reservations about it”, but, oddly, she does not remark as to whether they had shared acquaintances there.  In any case, after two weeks with Ullman touring the Greek coastline, Muriel picked up Connie and Gerda, and returned to Vienna by early May. Later that month, Spender and Hyndman joined them there, as Hyndman needed treatment for an inflamed appendix, and Muriel was soon able to seduce Stephen. Yet Stephen could not choose between her and Tony, although he wrote lyrically to Christopher Isherwood about his affair. Gardiner soon started to become interested in another man, a Socialist colleague Joe Buttinger, whom she would marry, and remain with all her life.

Can we trust the accounts of this affair? To begin with, the dates of the encounter do not ring true. Gardiner said she picked Mlini after looking at several brochures, but also indicates that she had decided to go on holiday at the end of April, had then had an exchange of letters with the proprietor of the hotel, who promoted the hotel’s attractiveness by saying that two English gentleman had been there for several weeks. According to John Sutherland, in his biography of Spender (Stephen Spender, A Literary Life), Gardiner picked Mlini because of the sandy beach, and that she continued her journey to Greece ‘after a day or two’. As Gardiner recounts it, she left Connie and Gerda in Mlini, and took a leisurely trip down the coast, exploring each town at every port of call, and then spending ‘a few days in Athens’. She then returned to Dubrovnik, where she picked up Connie and Gerda, and they were all back in Vienna ‘in early May’. That is quite a speedy accomplishment, especially if Gardiner truly made her decision to leave for Mlini only ‘in late April’. Even with an efficient postal system, how could she have had such a productive exchange with the proprietor in such a short time? And was the line about the ‘sandy beach’ an inadvertent gaffe in trying to add verisimilitude? Sunderland observes laconically: ‘Stephen recalls it having a stony beach: brochures fib.’ Perhaps leftist subversives fib, too. (Current tourist material states: “But the main assets of Mlini are its beautiful, natural beaches with clear blue sea, surrounded by rich and fragrant Mediterranean vegetation. There is even [sic] one sandy beach and a beach for nudists reachable by boat”. So perhaps they are both right.) Sutherland also seems to get it wrong about the Englishmen. He says that the proprietor told her of them when she checked in: Gardiner gives the impression she had received the news in a letter.

Irrespective of how sabulous was the beachfront at Mlini, what was Spender’s version of the timetable? Spender and Hyndman had in fact left London by train in the first week of April with Isaiah Berlin, who split from them in Milan. They continued on in leisurely fashion via Venice and Trieste. But Sutherland reports that Spender and Hyndman arrived in Mlini only in the second week of April, which makes nonsense of the proprietor’s claim to Gardiner. And the choice of Mlini was somewhat problematical. Earlier, Stephen had indicated that he planned to go to Dubrovnik for the winter of 1933, but had been talked out of it by Gerald Heard. Then Geoffrey Grigson apparently recommended Mlini (which is about six miles down the coast from Dubrovnik), and the recommendation was taken up. (Grigson had founded Poetry Review, and in 1936 was the messenger who informed Isaiah Berlin that Spender had joined the Communist Party, a fact that Spender then awkwardly denied, calling Grigson ‘a donkey’.) Was Grigson complicit in the meeting, perhaps?

And what about the decision to meet in Vienna? Isenberg writes that ‘Muriel made plans to see Stephen in Vienna where he and Tony planned to seek medical help for Tony’s inflamed and possibly infected appendix.’ Sutherland indicates that the appendix flared up after Muriel had left: “In May, medical opinion hardened around the appendix diagnosis. The Dubrovnik doctors recommended an operation – in Vienna preferably.” (Doctors? How many? One might imagine that in 1934 experienced gastroenterologists were as sparse in Dubrovnik as Huntingdonshire Cabmen, although it is touching to visualise a group of them around Hyndman’s bed, stroking their beards, and discussing the optimum treatment, while milord Spender sits pensively in the background, composing an ode for the occasion.) Thus the medicos conveniently anticipated the plans that Stephen had already communicated to Muriel. So Stephen then wrote to Muriel, and she arranged for Tony to be accepted at a hospital. Thus a further conflicted story appears: moreover, appendicitis was not an ailment that could be addressed leisurely – especially in 1934, when it was frequently fatal. Yet Spender and Hyndman took their time, and did not arrive in Vienna until May 22.

Moreover, Spender later tried to mask the identity of his beloved. After his arrival in the Austrian capital, he wrote a very mediocre poem (‘Vienna’) that attempts to mingle his ambiguous sexual impulses with the stumblings of the revolution. He openly dedicated it to ‘Muriel’, as my Random House 1935 first edition informs me. Yet, by the time he published his autobiography, World Within World, in 1951, Spender disguised Muriel as ‘Elizabeth’, indicating also that she (with daughter and nurse, but no mention of the lover) all stayed for ‘a few days’. It was not until he was interviewed with Muriel by a TV station in Chicago in 1984 that he admitted to the presence of Ullmann  ̶  ‘a rather steely fawn-eyed young man who passed as her cousin (actually he was her lover)’. So why the deception: did he think no-one would pick up his poetic dedication?   He also wrote that he did not learn about Muriel’s two failed marriages until later, in Vienna: Isenberg, using Gardiner’s unpublished reminiscences, suggests he learned of them while in Mlini. Thus no clear lead on the chronology appears.

One spectacularly unusual item in Spender’s account from this time, which must cast doubt on his overall reliability, is a claim that he climbed one day up a path from Mlini beach to the coastal road, and saw a cavalcade of six-wheeled cars passing, in the first vehicle of which a man turned his head to Stephen and stared at him. It was Hermann Goering, President of the Reichstag. But has anybody verified that Goering was in fact in Croatia at this time? (Leonard Mosley’s biography of Goering does not help here.) Was this event an elaborate hoax by Spender, or a dream, where the form of Goering haunted him? Stephen had recently completed a poem about Goering, who had indicted and humiliated the mentally-deficient Dutchman, van der Lubbe, for burning down the Reichstag. Van der Lubbe was then falsely convicted at the show trial, and beheaded in January 1934. The timing of this coincidence is extraordinary.

All in all, it sounds very much as if Gardiner and Spender arrived in Mlini at about the same time, in mid-April. The perspicacious reader (if he or she has lasted this far) may well have noticed the writer’s implicit suspicion that the encounter was perhaps not accidental. As a matter of social etiquette, it should surely have been very difficult for two strangers to develop so quickly such an intimate relationship (especially given Spender’s inexperience with women), when they were each accompanied by their sexual partners. What did Ullmann and Hyndman do while Muriel and Stephen were getting to know each other? Yet, despite the disconcerting details about the sandy beach, the time the two Englishmen had been there, the by no mean galloping appendicitis and its aftermath, and how Muriel’s itinerary worked, the evidence that the surprise encounter was bogus is admittedly still flimsy. Except for one very significant last point.

In 1932, Muriel had made a visit to the Soviet Union. She is very lapidary about this expedition in her autobiography, just indicating that she spent a few weeks in Moscow, and ‘became familiar with the views of a large number of foreign students in Moscow’, but she says nothing about her companions on the trip, or how it was organised. Later, however, describing her time in Vienna at the time of the Anschluss (March 1938), Muriel provides a hint, mentioning that she found someone called Shiela Grant Duff in her apartment. “Shiela, a young English friend whom I had first met in Vienna and who had been with me in Russia in 1932, was now a reporter in Prague. She had come to Vienna to witness the Anschluss first hand.” So how well did she know Grant Duff, and what happened concerning Moscow?

Grant Duff was one of the many female leftist/communist acolytes of Isaiah Berlin. What is more, she had been the girl-friend (but almost certainly not the lover) of Berlin’s friend, and sometime Soviet agent, Goronwy Rees.  (I have written about the 1933 exploits of her, Rees and Berlin in Central Europe before: see Homage to Ruthenia.) In 1982, Grant Duff published a memoir, A Parting of the Ways, subtitled A Personal Account of the Thirties, which is a useful description of the rise of Fascism in that decade, and the reactions of committed socialists like herself. In the summer of 1932, she was in Germany with Rees, and they witnessed the Nazi brutality against Jews and socialists, followed by the vigorous acceptance of Hitler at the polls at the end of July. They decided to leave Germany for Vienna, since ‘many Oxford friends were in Vienna’. Her words describing her time there are worthy quoting in full.

“The smiling, familiar faces of our Oxford friends and acquaintances were infinitely reassuring. William Hayter was there at the Embassy and Duff Dunbar. Martin Cooper was studying music there. Stephen Spender was around and had made a wonderful American friend, Muriel Gardiner, who befriended us all. She was studying psychoanalysis under Freud and living with her little daughter in a flat near the Opera.” Grant Duff goes on: “One night  . . . I fell asleep, only to awake to a most startling proposition – that Neill [her brother], Goronwy and I accompany Muriel on a visit to the Soviet Union, entirely at her expense.” After Muriel returned to London ‘on urgent business’ they reunited in Warsaw, and made their voyage to Moscow. Just like that. Wasn’t it in practice much more difficult to get visas for the Soviet Union?

If Grant Duff’s account is true, it is an astonishing revelation. (Isenberg cites Grant Duff’s memoir, but does not appear to have noticed the early reference to Spender.). Is it possible that she had got the dates wrong? That she had erroneously imagined Spender was there in Vienna in 1932, even though she clearly associates the encounter with the Gardiner-Spender friendship? But it hardly seems likely that she would have made a mistake of that magnitude, just before making a trip to Moscow funded by Gardiner herself. Moreover, she does recall the daughter, and the location of Muriel’s flat. As for Spender, according to Sutherland, his movements that year were as follows: he was in Berlin on July 12, and five days later, travelled to Salzburg, where he remained until the middle of August, reportedly in the company of Isaiah Berlin. Before returning to England on August 18, he spent a few more days in Berlin. Isaiah’s only two published letters from Salzburg that August are to Goronwy Rees and John Hilton: in the letter to Rees, he mentions (vaguely) Spender’s name, but says nothing about his presence there. [Since this original posting, I have discovered, on the Isaiah Berlin website maintained by Henry Hardy, a newly  published letter from  Berlin to Julia Pakenham, dated August 1934, which gratuitously introduces the fact that a Mr. Coughlan had met Berlin with Stephen Spender in Salzburg in 1932.] He writes to Grant Duff on October 13, so she is clearly back in the United Kingdom by then (she had to be back for the beginning of the Oxford term), though nothing is said of the visit to Moscow. Is that not strange? Was it deliberately avoided?

Michael Ignatieff, Berlin’s biographer, offers no details on the summer of 1932: Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, states in his notes to the Letters of that time that Berlin was in Salzburg with Frank Hardie in July, with no mention of Spender. Did Spender thus use Salzburg and Berlin as an alibi for a visit to Vienna to see Muriel? It is entirely possible. Spender’s son, Matthew, has told me that he believes Stephen was in Vienna twice ‘before he met Muriel’: he is seemingly unimpressed by the Grant Duff anecdote. And, even if the presence of Spender in Vienna was an illusion, surely, if Gardiner had accompanied Grant Duff, her brother, and Rees to Moscow, they would have discussed possible acquaintances at Oxford? And, if Muriel and Stephen had met before, what was the purpose of Mlini? Was Spender acting as some kind of courier?

At first glance, that notion does not make sense. After all, Spender’s and Hyndman’s next port of call would be Vienna – though admittedly an unscheduled one, if one believes what Spender said. So why would Gardiner travel to Croatia to deliver a message to Spender? No clearcut reason – unless Philby had perhaps been involved. Again, Gardiner is misleading about the chronology. She suggests that her meeting with Philby took place after she had met Spender in Mlini, and Isenberg echoes this theme, stating that ‘Philby had arrived in Vienna that spring of 1934’, and adding that it was ’his mission to work with leftists, such as Stephen and Muriel, in the Socialist struggle’. But Philby actually left Vienna in April 1934 (i.e. just before Gardiner decided to get away), having married Litzi Friedman in a hurry. Cookridge says that he had to leave quickly, warned by his Comintern friends that he had been compromised. Philby had arrived the previous autumn, and some historians, such as David Clay Large, make the reasonable assertion that Philby was recruited by the Comintern while in Vienna, not when he returned to London, as Philby claimed in his own memoir, and in conversations with various journalists. And, if Philby’s mission had been to work with leftists like Muriel and Stephen, it would imply that Stephen had associated with Muriel well before the Mlini encounter. Isenberg does not explain this anomaly. Perhaps Philby needed to pass a message about his recruitment, hasty marriage, imminent exposure, and escape to London to his cohort, Spender, and encourage his friend to take over some role in Vienna. Indeed, Spender did act as a courier helping Muriel, and the two of them went to Brno in January 1935, taking messages from the Kulczars. Hence the story about the appendicitis. If so, this would be a link between Spender and the ‘Cambridge Spies’ that has not been explored hitherto.

In his recent memoir A House in St. John’s Wood, Matthew Spender recounts the circumstances in which, after Guy Burgess absconded with Donald Maclean in 1951, his father was questioned by MI5, in the person of William Skardon, the interrogator of Klaus Fuchs, as to whether he knew his friend Burgess was a Communist agent. Spender immediately responded that Burgess continually told people he was exactly that, every time that he got drunk, which was ‘almost every night’. Skardon immediately dropped the subject and slunk away: Burgess socialised regularly with Dick White and Guy Liddell of MI5.  That was not news that the government would want revealed. But Philby was a different matter: he had boldly denied his possible role as the ‘third man’. Hugh Gaitskell had ignored Philby’s dubious activities in Vienna when he (Gaitskell) helped recruit him to the Special Operations Executive in the summer of 1940. Maybe Spender was another who knew Philby’s true colours? And one might conclude that Gardiner’s story about not knowing who Philby was at the time was all a pretence.

What is absolutely clear to me is that you can’t really trust the record of any of these people. It looks as if Gardiner and Spender had met some time earlier, and went to some lengths to conceal their association, agreeing to meet in Mlini, but both bringing cover in the form of their respective lovers to divert distraction. Maybe it isn’t so, but it doesn’t smell right, as the published facts stand.

After his break-up with Muriel, Spender had his own adventures. He joined the Communist Party of Great Britain, and in January 1937, was summoned by its secretary, Harry Pollitt, and charged with going on a secret mission to Spain on behalf of the Comintern to discover what had happened to the crew of the Soviet ship, the Komsomol, which had been sunk by Franco’s Nationalist navy. (“It will be a difficult task, comrade. But Moscow Centre has decided that only you can carry it off.”) Yet a less likely intelligence agent than Spender is hard to imagine (with the possible exception of Jane Fonda and her elegant hatbox). MI5 looked on in amazement as the man whom Cyril Connolly called ‘an inspired simpleton, a great big silly goose, a holy Russian idiot, large, generous, gullible, ignorant, affectionate, idealistic’ started making his inquiries, and, after getting sent back by Franco’s immigration officers at the Cádiz checkpoint, eventually engaged Lord Marley to investigate on his behalf, via the Italian consulate in Cádiz, what had happened to the missing crew. That was not how Comintern agents did things.

Spender’s failure to be entirely honest about the duration of his love-affair with the Communist Party would lead him into difficulties later, every time he wanted to enter the United States. In 1947, by which time his Communism had been watered down to a wishy-washy United Nations liberalism (The God That Failed came out in 1949), he was offered a visiting professorship for a year at Sarah Lawrence College in Bronxville – not part of the Bronx, it should be made clear  ̶  in New York State. Travelling alone, and in first class (his wife Natasha and son Matthew were to join him in the autumn), Spender left on the Queen Mary on August 20, and found congenial company. As Sutherland tells us, ‘on the boat were Lillian Hellman and John dos Passos’. History does not relate whether the man-eating Stalinist popped her cork at the gangly English man of letters, but the two comrades became friends, and Spender later invited Hellman to join him and a faculty colleague, the aforementioned Mary McCarthy, at an end-of-term party for his class. It was a disaster: McCarthy and Hellman were already sworn enemies, and Hellman for ever afterwards thought she had been set up to be ‘red-baited’.

But is it possible that Spender and Hellman could not have discussed their mutual friend, Muriel Gardiner, now Buttinger, during their shipboard encounter? Hellman would surely have been interested in Spender’s experiences near the barricades in Vienna, and, even if he was discreet about his affair with Muriel, Spender would probably have explained to Hellman that his family was looking forward to spending time with the Buttingers in New Jersey, whom Hellman had heard of via the Schwabachers. Sutherland writes that the three Spenders spent many weekends with the Buttingers in Pennington: Stephen’s son Matthew has indicated to me, interestingly, that it was Ethel Schwabacher, not Wolf, from whom Hellman learned Muriel’s history. And he was there (though very young). Isenberg indicates that Hellman, Wolf’s client, had been hearing tales ‘of the glamorous former member of the Austrian resistance’ for ten years already in 1950, when Muriel and Ethel had a falling-out.

Yet the relationship between Hellman and Gardiner is a puzzlement. As I have shown, Gardiner was a very reluctant inquisitor of the woman who had exploited her identity, and she displayed an uncharacteristic loyalty to the mendacious Stalinist. And, despite apparently serious attempts to meet, and an awkward telephone call shortly before their deaths, they reportedly never actually came face to face to discuss what had happened. Is it possible that they had agreed to some deal, whereby Hellman would use Gardiner’s story for propaganda purposes? Why would the Schwabachers not have suggested, from any time after 1940: “You two should meet! I have told both of you so much about each other, and, as sympathizers with Communists, you must have so much in common!” Why would Gardiner, of all people, on reading Pentimento, not have spotted the mangled chronology, realised where Hellman had picked up the story, and pointed out the glaring anomalies, instead of beating about the bush with Hellman, and then doggedly trying to establish whether there was an alternative ‘Julia’? Why did she almost encourage Hellman not to respond to her letter? Why is the chronology of the letter mangled? Is the letter perhaps part of a false trail? Why the business with Dr. Steiner – and what would he have said about the erroneous dates? Why would Hellman believe she could have got away with so blatant a lie, unless she had some form of approval from Gardiner? Should we really trust Muriel’s account of her meeting with the ‘stranger’, Philby? (And why did Gardiner write her memoir under the long-lapsed ‘Gardiner’ name, as opposed to the legal surname of ‘Buttinger’?) Gardiner’s story is just a bit too pat, too deliberate, and too innocent – yet psychologically unsound – and is thus hardly credible.

I believe this extended anecdote confirms several lessons that I have gained during my doctoral research: 1) memoirs are frequently unreliable accounts designed to enhance the legacy of the writer; 2) the creation of a precise chronology is essential for scholarly analysis; 3) biographers face the challenge of being too close to their subjects: if they want personal information, they need to be trusted, but if they press too hard on challenging accounts, they will get rebuffed: 4) tough questions should be asked of all these witnesses to vital matters of security and intelligence while they are alive; 5) fabulists who try to make a dubious story more convincing often introduce details that turn out to undermine the whole fabric of their deception; 6) these unverified stories, especially when they issue from the pens of the Great and the Good, all too easily fall into the realm of quasi-official historical lore, and get repeated and echoed. (For example, Jenny Rees, Goronwy’s daughter, reproduces Grant Duff’s version of the encounter without question in Looking for Mr Nobody, while the Spender-Gardiner version is accepted everywhere else. Martin Gilbert reproduces Spender’s encounter with Goering as fact in his esteemed History of the Twentieth-Century.)

The thirties were indeed a ‘low dishonest decade’, as Auden said, but the intellectuals of the time were often as dishonest as the politicians. An alternative screenplay of the whole Gardiner-Spender-Hellman melodrama probably exists, one in which Muriel and Stephen did meet before Mlini, in which Philby was involved, and in which Gardiner had an uneasy collusion with Hellman over her experiences. It is perhaps waiting for the evidence to leak out from obscure memoirs, letters and reminiscences. And as for you, Big Spender, what were you thinking? Why didn’t you tell us the truth about Muriel, and what on earth possessed you to imagine that you could be a successful agent for the Comintern? What secrets you took with you to the grave!

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.                     (March 31, 2016)

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Some Diplomatic Incidents

I was prompted to read a compilation of essays titled Telling Lives, edited by Alistair Horne, this month. It consists of biographical profiles by writers, all of whom have at one time held an Alistair Horne Fellowship at St Antony’s College. It is a lively collection, which provided sketches of some familiar characters, but also introduced me to a number of persons I knew very little about, from Carole Lombard to Bram Fischer.

Two items caught my eye especially. The first was written by D. R. Thorpe, in his essay on Alec Douglas-Home, and he provides commentary on the Cuban Missile Crisis of October 1962. It runs as follows: “The mood of dazed anxiety in those weeks reminded some of the period leading up to Munich, though Home’s regular contacts with Sir Frank Roberts, the British Ambassador in Moscow, gave him insights into what the ordinary Russian people were thinking, which proved so different from those in Havana and London. When Kennedy’s ultimatum about the missiles were made public Frank Roberts told Alec Home that there was no sign of panic buying in Moscow and that people there were going about their business in an orderly manner. Roberts interpreted this correctly, as a sign that in the end Khrushchev would back off from full-scale nuclear confrontation.”

Could this be serious? ‘No signs of panic buying in Moscow’, when there was nothing to buy in the shops in the first place? ‘What ordinary people were thinking’, when they had no access to independent news, and were discouraged from thinking? I recalled my visit to Leningrad and Moscow a few years later, in 1965, when the citizens were so desperate for Western goods that I had a furtive night-time encounter with a youth my age, at which I exchanged a couple of nylon shirts and some Bic pens for some useless roubles that had to be spent before I left the country. So Soviet citizens went about their business ‘in an orderly manner’. What did Frank Roberts think would happen if those same good people went about in a disorderly manner? That the KGB’s goons would come up to them and say: ‘Move along there, sir, if you don’t mind’? I could not believe that our diplomatic intelligence was in the hands of such amateurs. Just as useful as reading the entrails of dead chickens, I should have thought.

And then, a few days later, I was reading the extraordinary memoir by Heda Margolius Kovály, Under A Cruel Star: A Life in Prague 1941-1968. This is a searing account of a young Jewish woman who is arrested by the Nazis in Prague in 1941, and shipped off to a concentration camp, whence she manages to escape while all her relatives are killed. After harrowing and dangerous times back in Prague, when the war is over, she watches how the Communists stealthily seize power, and sees the obnoxious ideology bring out the worst in all citizens. Eventually, her husband, who worked as an economist for the government, is arrested, falsely accused, sentenced to death in the Slansky trials, and soon after executed. (I shall leave you to discover the full story.)

What hit me between the eyes were the following sentences, as Kovály describes the struggles of the Czech economy: “There were endless lines in front of stores. There were shortages of practically every household staple. Every few months, there were new rumors about an upcoming currency devaluation. People would panic, buying up everything they could find. The chaotic economy and the constant barrage of ideology drained all pleasure from honest work.” So there was ‘panic buying’ behind the Iron Curtain. But I still wonder whether Soviet citizens would have been informed enough by their masters to be able to detect how serious the missile crisis was, and that their leaders had a firm grasp on the tiller. And if they did ‘buy up all they could find’, and stuff it in those avoska bags, I bet it would have been useless things, like clothes-pins and miniature busts of Lenin, as opposed to the flashlight batteries and toilet-paper that their Western counterparts would have started hoarding.

The other anecdote concerned Sir Isaiah Berlin. In his Introduction, Alistair Horne gives a brief profile of a man whom I have followed very closely in the past three years, and writes as follows: “An honorary fellow at St. Antony’s, Isaiah was truly a Don for All Seasons; he could, and would, talk at any level whatsoever to make his interlocutor feel prized beyond belief. At a first meeting my wife expressed alarm at finding herself seated next to such an august academician at a St Antony’s dinner. I reassured her, ’Don’t worry, he’ll take charge!’ Looking up from my end of the table, I was relieved to see them in lively conversation with each other. When afterwards I asked what they’d talked about so busily and what Isaiah’s opening gambit had been, she said, ‘As we sat down, he said, “Tell me, my dear, did you have many lovers when you were young?”’ – then proceeded to talk about his own, in extenso.”

Now, again, I find this extremely unlikely. First, I think it very bad taste of Horne to relate this anecdote, even if it were true, as it shows appalling manners. Ladies and Gentlemen who have not been met before do not discuss their past sex lives (well, not in the environment that I grew up in –  perhaps it is different with St Antony’s intellectuals.) I would expect Horne’s second wife (for it was she) to have been insulted by such a question, rather than feeling ‘prized beyond belief’. And I do not believe that Berlin, who had developed a canny knack for fitting into whatever milieu in England he found himself, whether playing cricket at St. Paul’s, or gossiping over the port at All Souls, would have been crass enough to make this an opening gambit in his dinner-time conversation. Moreover, evidence has it that Berlin’s sex-life developed quite late, so in extenso seems hardly the right phrase to use to describe it, unless the esteemed historian of ideas was fabricating somewhat. In his biography of Berlin, Michael Ignatieff reports on Berlin’s first sexual encounter with a woman (I shall have to leave the possibilities of what happened with Guy Burgess unexplored, although Berlin did complain, perhaps facetiously, that Burgess never made a pass at him), but leaves the lady in question unidentified. It took Nicola Lacey, in her 2004 biography of Herbert Hart, to confirm for all of us that the personage was none other than Herbert’s wife, Jenifer, the Soviet agent.  Henry Hardy, who knew Berlin very well, tells me that this affair (which went on for several years, until Berlin married Aline Halban, née de Gunzbourg, an event that severely upset Mrs Hart) began in 1949, but that it was not certain who initiated it.

The affair with Aline Halban itself is an interesting tale. Berlin had first espied Aline Strauss (her husband had been killed) on the SS Excambion, sailing from Lisbon to New York, in January 1941. After the war, during which Aline had met and married Hans Halban in Canada, they came to England, where Halban succeeded in being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin (married to the Rumanian Livia Stela, known as ‘Pussy’, so-called for her very feline grace, I am led to believe, who was the inspiration for Ian Fleming’s Pussy Galore) had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin, who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war, was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration.

Halban was offered a Fellowship: when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: “The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.”

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more sceptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5.

Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. Aline’s son Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.  The History laconically reports: “Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.” The marriage was a very happy one.

But they were a pretty rum lot, after all, these St Antonians. I expected to see Freddie Ayer in the wings – and Iris Murdoch taking notes.

As an epigram to Berlin in this whole affair, I conclude with the following lines (with apologies to Philip Larkin):

 Sexual intercourse began

In nineteen forty-nine

(through no clear fault of mine) –

Between the release of Welles’ ‘Third Man’

And the launch of ‘What’s My Line’.

The usual set of Commonplace entries to be found here.                   (September 30, 2015)

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