Category Archives: Literature/Academia

Five Books on Espionage & Intelligence

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

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes (2020)

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

‘Dead Doubles’

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Atomic Spy’

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘An Impeccable Spy’

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

            Jan Berzin, 1924-April 1935

            Semyon Uritsky, April 1935-July 1937

            Jan Berzin, July 1937-August 1937

            Alexander Nikonov, August 1937-August 1937

            Semyon Gendin, September 1937-October 1938

            Alexander Orlov, October 1938-April 1939

            Ivan Proskurov, April 1939-July 1940

            Filipp Golikov, July 1940-October 1941

Alexei Panfilov, October 1941-November 1942

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

‘Master of Deception’

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

‘Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Secret’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

So no scandal here – or not yet anyway.

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Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:

Cockcroft                    Director

Arnold                         Security officer

Skinner                        Assistant director; Head of Theoretical Physics division

Fuchs                           Scientist

Pontecorvo                  Scientist

Davison                       Scientist

Buneman                     Scientist

Flowers                       Scientist

The Men from the Ministries:

Attlee                          Prime Minister

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

Perrin                           Deputy to Portal

Appleton                     Permanent Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research

Makins                        Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office

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

Rowlands                    Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Supply

Cherwell                      Paymaster-General (1953)

At MI5:

Sillitoe                         Director

Liddell                        Assistant Director

White                          Head of B Division (counter-espionage)       

Hollis                           B1

Mitchell                       B1E (Hollis’s deputy)

Robertson J. C.           Head of B2

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

Marriott                       B3

Serpell                         PA to Sillitoe

Skardon                       B2A

Reed                            B2A

Archer                         B2A

Collard                         C2A

Morton                        C2A

Hill                              Solicitor

Bligh                           Solicitor

At the Universities:

Mountford                  Vice-Chancellor, Liverpool University

Chadwick                    Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Oliphant                      Professor at Birmingham University

Peierls                          Professor at Birmingham University

Massey                        Professor at University College, London

Rotblat                        Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Fröhlich                       Professor at Liverpool University

Frisch                          Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge

Flowers                       Researcher at Birmingham University

Pryce                           Professor at Clarendon Laboratories

The Journalists:

Pincher                        Daily Express

Stubbs-Walker            Daily Mail

Moorehead                  Daily Express

Rodin                          Sunday Express

Maule                          Empire News

West                            New York Times

De Courcy                   Intelligence Digest

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

Contents:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Machinations at Liverpool
Sir James Mountford

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Klaus Fuchs

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Fuchs’s Interrogations
Jim Skardon

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Herbert Skinner

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Skinner’s Removal?
Sir James Chadwick

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • Boris Davison – after Attlee
Sir John Cockcroft

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  1. Conclusions
Dick White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Primary Sources:

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

The Mountford memoir at Liverpool University

Britain and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing

Half-Life by Frank Close

The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti

Klaus Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Trinity by Frank Close

Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Elemental Germans by Christopher Laucht

The Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde

Scientist Spies by Paul Broda

Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls

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

Cockcroft and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone

The Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown

Joseph Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown

Churchill’s Bomb by Graham Farmelow

Defend the Realm by Christopher Andrew

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp

Peter Wright

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

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

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

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

Contents:

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

Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’

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

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

The Background

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

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

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

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

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

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

Cable or Wireless?

Eastern Telegraph Cables: 1901

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

War and Peace

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

VENONA & HASP

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

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

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

Wright on HASP

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

J B S Haldane

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Salary for 7 months: 406

John:  195

?? from abroad:  116

Expenditure on apparatus (radio and microdots):  105

?? Expenditure:  55

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Remaining Questions

Two crucial questions arise out of all this analysis:

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

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

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

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

The Drought of 1942-1944

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘HASP’ Annotation to Soviet Messages Detected in 1942

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

Major Sources:

Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

Venona, by Nigel West

GCHQ, by Richard Aldrich

The Code Breakers, by David Kahn

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Handbook for Spies, by Alexander Foote

The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Battle of Wits, by Stephen Budiansky

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, by Nigel West

Sekretnyi Front General’nogo Shtaba’, by Vladimir Lota

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

Defend(ing) the Realm, by Christopher Andrew

The Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein & Alexander Vassiliev

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

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

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

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

Empire of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

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

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

The Venona Story, by Robert L. Benson

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

The Petrov Affair, by Robert Manne

A Spy’s Revenge, by Richard V. Hall

The Spycatcher Affair, by Malcom Turnbull

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Dangerous to Know, by Chapman Pincher

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

The National Archives

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Late Spring Round-Up

‘Dave’ Springhall’s Headstone

Dum spiro, conspiro

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

Contents:

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

Sonia and Len Beurton

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

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

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

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

Ben Macintyre

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

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

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

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

Prodding Comrade Stalin

Neo-Keynesian Stalin?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

                                                            Poor old has-beens

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Stalin Means War’

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

The National Archives and Freedom of Information

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian

Professor Frank Close

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

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

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

The BBC and Professor Andrew

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

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

Dear Xxxxxxxx,

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

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

Thank you.

Sincerely, Tony Percy.

Six days later, I received the following reply:

Good evening Mr Percy,

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

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

Regards,

Xxxxxxxx

EA to Group Managing Director.

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

Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.

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

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

Best wishes, Tony.

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

Dear Antony Percy,

Reference CAS-5759257-M8M4X9


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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nelson
Editorial Adviser, BBC News


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

I tried one last gasp:

Dear Sarah,

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

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

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

Sincerely,

Tony Percy.

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

Nigel West’s New Publications

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Ismail Akhmedov

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Survival of Gösta Caroli

Gosta Caroli

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

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

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

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

Dave Springhall and the GRU

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘I am the Daughter’

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

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

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

China and the Rhineland Moment

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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Border Crossings: Coldspur & Stalin

NIHIL ARCANUM MIHI ALIENUM EST

Immigration Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal Immigration

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

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

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

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

. . . and Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

The Kremlin Letters

‘The Kremlin Letters’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Low’s Cartoon on the Nazi-Soviet Pact

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

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

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

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The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 1)

Rudolf Peierls

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

‘The British Connection’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Moisei Uritsky

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

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

Leonid Kannegiesser

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

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

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

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

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

The Kannegiesser-Mandelstam Family Tree

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Genia and Rudolf Peierls

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

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

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

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

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

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

Arrangements for Travel

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

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

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

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

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

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

Conference Logistics

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

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

Scientists in Copenhagen (1937?)

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

Niels Bohr & Werner Heisenberg

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

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

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

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

The Political Climate in the Soviet Union

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Herbert Froehlich

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

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

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

Conference Proceedings

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Meeting with Nina

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Special Bulletin: A Letter to Frank Close

Professor Frank Close

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Dear Frank,

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

4) Peierls’ deceptive correspondence with Born.

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

6) Genia’s response when Fuchs was arrested.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Very best wishes, Tony.


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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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

James Thurber’s 1932 Cartoon

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

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

Freddie and Mollie Percy (ca. 2004)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

1. Circle the one that best describes your RACE:

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

2. Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:

            a. Hispanic or Latin

            b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin

            c. REFUSED

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Kingsley Amis

Jane Archer

John Arlott

Correlli Barnett

Raymond Chandler

Anton Chekhov

John Cleese

Robert Conquest

Peter Cook

Peter Davison

Theodor Fontane

Milton Friedman

Alan Furst

Peter and Rosemary Grant

Robert Graves

Emmylou Harris

Friedrich Hayek

Audrey Hepburn

Ronald Hingley

Clive James

Paul Jennings

Gordon Kaufmann

Hugh Kingsmill

Heinrich von Kleist

Arthur Koestler

Osbert Lancaster

Philip Larkin

Stephen Leacock

Fitzroy Maclean

D. S. Macnutt

René Magritte

Nadezhda Mandelstam

John Martin

Peter Medawar

H. L. Mencken

Christian Morgenstern

George Orwell

Arvo Pärt

Sergey Rachmaninov

Joseph Roth

Peter Sellers

Eric Shipton

Posy Simmons

Joe Simpson

Wilfred Thesiger

Alan Turing

Immanuel Velikovsky

Carolyn Wells

Michael Wharton

P. G. Wodehouse

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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

Special Bulletin: In Search of Henry Hardy

Regular readers will know that Isaiah Berlin has featured prominently in my research. His planned trip to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1940 was what triggered the course of study leading to my doctoral thesis; my article in History Today, ‘The Undercover Egghead’, analysed his role in intelligence; his study of Marx and Marxism plays a pivotal role in Misdefending the Realm, where I also record his wartime activities, including his somewhat shady dealings with the Soviet agent Gorsky; I have written about his private life in ‘Isaiah in Love’, and in ‘Some Diplomatic Incidents’, both posted on this website.

Isaiah Berlin

Throughout this time Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, and the man largely responsible for bringing Berlin’s writings to orderly publication, and a broader audience, has been very helpful to me, providing me with unpublished source material, and answering my questions. He attended the seminar on Berlin that I held at the University of Buckingham, and I had the pleasure of travelling to the Wirral to visit him a few years ago. Yet Henry has, quite naturally, been a little suspicious of my motives, thinking that I was perhaps a ‘conspiracy theorist’ (true, in a way), and he has probably not agreed with all my conclusions about the qualities of Berlin’s thought, or the judiciousness of some of his actions. I believe I can confidently state, however, that he respects the seriousness of my methods, and my commitment to scholarship.

Henry Hardy

Last year, Henry published a book titled In Search of Isaiah Berlin, in which he describes his decades-long relationship with Berlin, and his struggles (as they must surely be called) to bring Berlin’s papers to a state ready for publication and see them into print. (He had already kindly sent me some of these works that I had not already acquired.) A philosopher himself, Henry also records the exchanges he had with Berlin in trying to understand exactly what lay behind the ideas his mentor espoused, attempting to resolve what appeared to him to be contradictions.

The book recently became available in the USA, and I have now read it. While enjoying the saga of Henry’s activities as an editor, I must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the essence and outcome of the philosophical debate. (I am probably a little jealous, too, that Henry’s book has received far more attention in the press than has Misdefending the Realm, but that must be due both to Henry’s energies and the fact that Berlin is still regarded as a national treasure.)

‘In Search of Isaiah Berlin’ by Henry Hardy

Henry’s reflections concern some of Berlin’s more controversial assertions, especially those about the universality of human nature, and the nature of pluralism. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a deep discussion in the second part of Henry’s book, the paradoxes arising from Berlin’s writings that particularly interested me could be stated as follows:

  1. Are human values in some way universal, and thus shared? If so, whence do they derive? And should we treat behavior that appears essentially as ’evil’ as still ‘human’?
  2. How does a pluralist outlook relate to the national culture to which it belongs, and how should it treat dogmas that ruthlessly reject such a compromising worldview?
  3. Can pluralism function as a remedy against relativism, namely the view that values have no standing outside the society or person who espouses them?

Berlin appeared to cherish some thoughts about the objectivity of such a common core of values across humanity, but provided little evidence, and Henry’s earnest and well-framed questions frequently drew no convincing response from Berlin. I was somewhat alarmed at the fuzziness of all of this, and accordingly organised some thoughts to send to Henry, to which he generously replied. That exchange comprises this Special Bulletin. Henry’s comments appear in bold in the passage below.

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

Dear Henry,

Congratulations on the publication of In Search of Isaiah Berlin. I enjoyed the story of your quest. I wonder: will we soon read a parody by David Taylor in Private EyeHope springs eternal …

I was prompted by the intensity of your debate, and my own exposure to IB’s writings, to record a few reactions, not exactly random, but not comprehensive or fully-formed, either. (I have not studied what sociologists have no doubt written about these issues.)

The dominant thought that occupied me was that, if the great thinker’s ideas needed to be explained by his amanuensis, and yet that interpreter could not find any consistency or coherence in them That’s an exaggeration: my difficulties are local, and I believe resolvable, though not, it seems, by IB at that stage of his life, when his mind had begun to rigidify, then perhaps the ideas were not that outstanding in the first place. Some critics have called out IB for humbuggery, but, now having read your book, I am more convinced that IB accepted that he was not a great or original thinker, and was indeed surprised by the attention, acclaim, and awards that he received. Yes, I think he meant it, though he was not too keen when one agreed too readily.

What also struck me was a disappointing vagueness in the terminology used in the discourse. That point is well taken, and indeed I make it myself in the book (e.g. p. 207). But to some extent vagueness goes with the territory: ‘Out of the vague timber of humanity no precise thing was ever made’, one might say. This point was made by Aristotle: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.’ Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1094b.24. IB himself is aware of this point: I could look for the references if you wanted them. But the main message is that human affairs do not lend themselves to the same precision as the sciences. You may recall that, in Misdefending the Realm, I wrote of IB’s book on Marx: “In his method and style, Berlin echoes much of Marx’s verbosity, and displays an unexpected lack of precision in his references to such concepts as ‘civilisation’, ‘class’, ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘community’, ‘people’, ‘group’, ‘culture’, ‘age’, ‘epoch’, ‘milieu’, ‘country’, ‘generation’, ‘ideology’, ‘social order’, and ‘outlook’, which terms all run off the page without being clearly defined or differentiated.” I am not sure that watertight definitions of these terms are possible; but of course one should use them with all due care. (I also asserted that the book was ‘erudite, but not really scholarly’ – an opinion with which Professor Clarke of All Souls and the University of Buckingham agreed. I agree too. Did you really find it ‘brilliant’ (p 61)? Yes, in the sense that he gets inside Marx’s skin and understands what makes him tick: far more important, in my opinion, than getting the references right. Sadly, I saw this pattern repeated in many of the exchanges you had with IB. What does it mean, for example, to wish that humanity could have ‘moral or metaphysical unity’ My phrase not IB’s: I meant living in a shared moral and conceptual world (p 251)? Who are ‘normal human beings’ (p 177)? That is the $64,000 question, to which chunks of this book, and all of the next one, are/will be devoted. It was also one of IB’s recurring themes, of course, but it is not an easy one: he appeals to ‘A general sense of what human beings are like – which may well not merely have gaps but be seriously mistaken in places – but that cannot be helped: all vast generalisations of this kind are neither avoidable nor demonstrable’ (p. 189).

 I also found the debate all very abstract. That may be a valid criticism. My own default methodological rule is to give at least one concrete example of every abstract point, but I expect I fail to do this reliably in the book. However, part of the problem is that IB and I have a more philosophical temperament than you do, as a historian. That’s why I invited unphilosophical readers to skip chapters 9–11. Do you not agree that it could have benefitted from more real-world examples? Probably (see above). Perhaps some references to research being performed in more scientific disciplines than philosophy, such as anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, or even history, and the dreaded sociology? Perhaps, but a leading burden of IB’s song is that human studies are generically different from scientific ones, and this means that there is a limit to how far the latter can throw light on the former. Some disciplines are partly hybrids between the two, including those IB mentions on p. 189; and he always insisted that science should be used to the maximum extent possible. I, however, am too ignorant to summarise the current state of science. (IB tends to support this point of exposure on p 189.) As I write, I have in front of me the March 1 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. In one review, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham is quoted as identifying ‘coalitionary proactive aggression’ as a drive that launched human ancestors toward full humanity. I read that review too, and found it enormously suggestive. A few pages later, Michael Stanislawski draws our attention to Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide (which I have read, and have referred to on my website), which describes how members of a friendly community suddenly turned mercilessly on each other under the experience of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. What do such pieces tell us about any consistent ‘human nature’, and how could other such experts contribute to the debate? Good questions, which again I am not competent to answer. But there are connections between them and my suggestion that IB underrates evil.

I believe that one of the problems is that, if we talk about ‘human nature’ in a vacuum, we enter the world of mysticism, akin to that of religion. Ignorance rather than mysticism, in my case: I am dead against mysticism. Where does human nature reside? In human biology, history and society. How is it passed on genetically by DNA, or modified by culture and education? IB (p 184) indicates that he thinks that religion is ‘hard-wired’ into human nature: if this were true, how and when did this occur? Who knows? We can only examine ourselves as we are now, and such records of the past as we have, and speculate. And when did the wiring fail I don’t regard its absence as any kind of failure, but as a (sometimes hard-won) strength for those of us who do not require that facet in our lives? And how do such religious instincts get wired into those who would practice, say, honour killings, under the guise of religion by culture, again, which can be a malign force? Does human nature thus not end up being simply those traits that we enlightened beings consider desirable? We must avoid that risk: it should be those traits that are actually beneficial, which is a different matter. Or is human nature just another name for something that is mere tradition, and thus differs in separate countries and times, like the practice of suttee or female circumcision? No: that’s exactly what the term is not supposed to refer to. (Would their adherents say it was ’tradition’ it’s mistaken tradition, in my opinion or ‘human nature’?) And what do we do with a monster like Eric Hobsbawm, who was feted for his historical accomplishments, but to his dying day refused to deny that the murder of millions on behalf of the Communist cause had been a mistake? Was he human? Or was he simply ‘malign’, a ‘pinpusher’, as IB might describe those who fall outside the morally acceptable? Was he ‘evil, without qualification’ (p 194)? Not quite, perhaps; but he was what IB describes as ‘wickedly wrong’ (p. 261).

P.S. I noticed that, in the next issue of the TLS, dated March 8, David Kynaston offers a review of Richard J. Evans’s biography of Hobsbawm, subtitled ‘a national treasure whose politics provoked endless bitterness’. What can one say about a ‘culture’ that promotes a worm like Hobsbawm to such status? It is all here, including the notorious ‘Desert Islands Discs’ programme where Hobsbawm openly approved the slaughter of millions in the communist cause. As John Gross is recorded here as saying, such apologists would have been the first to be lined up against the wall to be shot.

On religion, I was surprised by your rather weak defence of atheism, as if we needed a new term to define somebody who simply ‘doesn’t understand’. I think we do, for the reasons given; but this doesn’t make one a weak(er) opponent of religion, as my book surely shows. If I am faced with all the verbal paraphernalia of, say, Christianity, with the ideas of God, angels, saints, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, Holy Spirit, saviour, resurrection, eternal life, soul, immaculate conception, transubstantiation, prayer, etc. etc., it is quite easy to take the line that this is all mumbo-jumbo, and no more worthy of discussion than the existence of the Tooth Fairy. It would be easier for me to have conversation about beginnings and ends with an atheist from Turkmenistan than with my fundamentalist Baptist neighbour, who is presumably of the same ‘culture’ or ‘society’ that I find myself in. I share your alienation from that terminology, but to call it mere mumbo-jumbo underestimates its allegorical/metaphorical significance for many believers, something IB accepts (up to a point).

It is no doubt fashionable to talk about ‘cultures’, and the pluralist bogeyman of ‘multiculturalism’, but I believe the concept is much more fluid (and evasive) than your debate suggests. I would maintain that we have to inspect ‘culture’ in at least three dimensions – temporal, geographical, and social, and determine how it relates to the concept of a nation (is there a national ‘culture’ yes, to a greater or lesser extent is specific cases; how does it relate to that country’s rule of law closely?). For example, British (or English!) culture has changed over the centuries: we no longer accept bear-baiting, hanging, slavery, child labour, or duelling, but are currently torn over fox-hunting, and largely indulgent of fishing for sport. Our mores over divorce and homosexuality have gradually evolved in recent decades. We extend the geography to talk about ‘European’ culture, which in its most lofty forms presumably means such features as a free press, scientific inquiry, French cuisine, the Prado, and the Eurovision Song Contest, but have to make exceptions for such localised cultural activities as eating horseflesh, bull-fighting, euthanasia, and lax regulations concerning gun-ownership. (European culture also produced the horrors of Nazism and Communism.) Within a certain country, there may be differences between (and I hesitate to use the terms) ‘high’ culture, such as opera, fox-hunting and polo, and ‘low’ culture, such as fishing, greyhound racing, grunge rock, or trainspotting (p 223)! I might consider myself a ‘cultured’ person without indulging in any of those activities. Thus I find it very difficult to identify something that is a clear and constant ‘culture’ among all these behaviours. Fair enough. One can certainly try to be more careful in one’s use of terms such as ‘culture’. But everyone knows what one means by something being characteristically British, German, Japanese etc.

 So what is the pluralist culture that IB defends? He says (p 194) that he is ‘wedded to his own culture’ – but what is that? Englishness, mainly. He writes about a ‘dominant culture’ in every society, and asserts that the ‘society’ has a right to protect itself against ‘religious or ethnic persuasions which are not compatible with it’ (p 199). But what standing does this have in law? Culture doesn’t operate only by legal means; but law can help support the dominant culture. Enlightened people should stand up against ‘grooming’ and bigamy, presumably of course, but who decides what is compatible and what is incompatible outside the processes of legislation? Everyone, by consensus. What allowances are made for religious observance? I wish it were none, but can’t persuade myself to defend such an extreme position. Should parents be allowed to indoctrinate their own children in some faiths, but not others? Not in any faith, say I: all children should be educated in the plurality of faiths, in the hope (for me) that this will help inoculate them against faith as such. Are they allowed to reject certain socially beneficial practices, such as vaccination? I say no. Don’t tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses! What would IB have said about wearing the niqab in public places? He was probably in favour of allowing it: some Jews, after all, wear skullcaps in public; some Christians crosses. It makes my own flesh creep, but I can’t agree that it should be totally banned. The best test of one’s tolerance is when it is most severely tried.

While I was groping with the elusiveness of what ‘a culture’ means, I read further in the March TLS. It was fascinating. I read pieces about Jews in Belarus, and Circassians in Palestine, and reflected how sad it was that individuals should try to solve their problems of ‘identity’ by searching for the odd habits and practices of one of their grandfathers. Quite so. (I would not expect my grandchildren to do this, since they have a mixture of Vietnamese, West Indian and typically complex British grandparents: is that because we are privileged, or merely sensible?) And then I encountered a marvellous essay by Hanif Kureishi, ‘Touching the Untouchable’, where he looks back at the Satanic Verses scandal. He quotes (disapprovingly) some remarkably silly statements by John le Carré and Roald Dahl, which run as follows:

“My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity” (le Carré), and

“In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work why? in order to reinforce this principle of free speech” (Dahl), and then goes on to state:

“The message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods, revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no monopoly – but universal ones.”, and closes with:

“Notions of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these, even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.”

I think making that equivalence of ‘a culture’ with ‘pluralism’ is spot on bravo, although I think Kureishi is being too optimistic yes: what he should have said is that they should be universal values when claiming these are ‘universal values’, as apparently even members of the intellectual elite do not share them with him, let alone Islamicists = Islamists/Moslems?. And of course, Britain is still part of Europe, with or without Brexit, so the distinction between ‘British’ values and ‘European’ values is somewhat specious, but also telling.

 In summary, I find all the talk about a ‘common core’ of human values, an inherent ‘human nature’, and a definable ‘culture’ all very unconvincing. ‘The crooked timber of humanity’ is indeed that: human beings are very unpredictable, and display very different traits over time and space. Human culture, including religious belief, is not genetically wired in any way, but passed on through the agencies of family, school, friends, church, etc. (For example, I hear so many Americans say that ‘hunting is in everybody’s blood, because once “we” were hunters’: but I have never had any desire to hunt, although if I were starving, I might rediscover the skill. cf. my remarks in the book about militarism, e.g. p. 333) There is no biological basis for ethnicity I think this an exaggeration, given the generalisations of physical anthropology, or the notion of practices inherited through it. Geneticists still do not understand exactly how evolutionary adaptation works. Morality is the sphere of the personal: expansive social actions claiming broader virtue frequently fall foul of the Law of Unexpected Consequences a point IB regularly makes. What governs cultural activity is partly the rule of law, which operates at the level of the nation-state, whose actions themselves should be controlled through democratic processes. The preferred ‘culture’ should simply be pluralism. There is also room for culturally specific ingredients like the Japanese tea ceremony, which are neither required nor prohibited by law, but maintained by tradition for as long as they last. (And, in my implementation, Hobsbawm would not be persecuted, but he would not be invited to appear on Desert Island Discs.)

In Misdefending the Realm I attempted to draw my own picture of how this dynamic operates in a liberal, pluralist society. ‘Forgive me’ (as you are wont to say to your mentor) for including a paragraph here: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere. So long as the laws are equally applied to all citizens, individuals can adopt multiple roles. The historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has featured so largely in this book, was a major contributor to this notion of the ‘incommensurability of values’, although he did not confidently project it into political discourse why do you say this? I don’t say it in the cited article?.[i] Moreover, a highly important distinction needs to be made: pluralism is very distinct from ‘multiculturalism’, which attempts to reduce the notion of individual identity by grouping citizens into ‘communities’, giving them stereotyped attributes, and having their (assumed) interests represented collectively outside the normal political structure and processes.”

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Henry and I could probably debate further, but I think we are of a very similar mind, and the differences are minor. I did add to him that I thought that philosophers (and others) have to be very careful when they use analogies from the sciences in describing human behaviour (e.g. ‘hard-wired’, ‘in our DNA’), because the usage is dangerous as a metaphor, and inaccurate if meant literally. I also don’t deny the succour that religion has brought to many people (the Paul Johnson theory that because it is beautiful and beneficial, it must be true), but it doesn’t alter my belief that it should be called out for what is, and mumbo-jumbo conveys exactly the right spirit for me. I hope this exchange encourages readers to seek out Henry’s book – and, of course, Misdefending the Realm, for those who have still resisted my entreaties. I look forward to the next publication he promises us.

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

Two Cambridge Spies: Dutch Connections (1)

I use this bulletin to update my story of two Cambridge Spies – Donald Maclean, one of the notorious set of 1930s communists, and Willem ter Braak, a member of the Abwehr’s LENA group who underwent a mysterious death in Cambridge in April, 1941. Because of its size, and the distinct subject areas it addresses, I have decided to split this report into two sections, even though there are areas of overlap. Part 2 can be seen here.

Donald Maclean

First, a recap. In ‘Donald Maclean’s Handiwork’ (coldspur, December 2018), I analysed the peculiar and provocative indications that Andrew Boyle and Goronwy Rees had left behind concerning the possible stronger clues that MI5 may have received to the identity of the Foreign Office employee identified (but not named) by Walter Krivitsky as a Soviet spy. Krivitsky had named (John) King as a spy in the Foreign Office, but only hinted at the person who was the ‘Imperial Council’ spy. Two strong hints appeared: the first was Rees’s belated identification of a photographer called ‘Barbara’, who had testified to Maclean’s abilities with a camera, and Rees’s suggestion that Krivitsky had recognized Maclean’s handiwork when he (the GRU officer) had last been in Moscow in 1937. The second was an enigmatic reference to a diplomat called ‘de Gallienne’ in a note in Boyle’s ‘Climate of Treason’, which attributed to him an early reference to Krivitsky and the latter’s description of the persona of Maclean.

At the time, I questioned the reliability of Rees’s deathbed testimony. Rees had historically been a highly dubious witness, and the posthumous account of the conversation he had had with Boyle, which appeared in the ‘Observer’, was a typical mixture of half-truth, downright lies, and questionable accusations. It sounded as if ‘Barbara’ was an inspired invention. As for ‘de Gallienne’, the name was probably wrong. I had discovered a diplomat called ‘Gallienne’, who was chargé d’affaires, and then Consul, in Tallinn in Estonia at the time, but it seemed a stretch to connect this official with Krivitsky and the information that the defector provided to the FBI or to his interrogators from MI5 and SIS in London.

And then – a possible breakthrough. I thus pick up the story and analyse the following aspects of ‘Donald Maclean’s Handiwork’:

  1. The identity of ‘Barbara’, and her relationship with Maclean;
  2. The investigations by MI5 and MI6 into Henri Pieck’s exact involvement in handling Foreign Office spies;
  3. The missing file in King’s folder, and how it relates to anomalies in the story;
  4. The Foreign Office’s obstinacy in the face of Krivitsky’s testimony; 
  5. The possible contribution of Wilfred Gallienne, diplomat, to the investigation; and
  6. Boyle’s apparent reliance on Edward Cookridge and Guy Liddell for information.

‘Barbara’

Barbara Key-Seymer

As I recorded soon after I posted the December story, the author of the recent biography of Donald Maclean, Roland Philipps, suggested that ‘Barbara’ could well be Barbara Key-Seymer, a well-known society photographer of the 1930s. Astonishingly, I had read of this woman only a week beforehand, in Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, Dancing to the Music of Time, where, on page 108, she describes Powell’s friend in the following terms: “As observant as he was himself, she was well on the way to becoming one of London’s most up-to-date photographers  . . .”. Yet the Barbara-photographer connection with the Rees testimony had eluded me. A quick search on ‘Key-Seymer & Donald Maclean’, however, had led me to a portfolio of her photographs at the Tate. The gallery contains an impressive set of artistic names from the 1930s, and on the album page 12 at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-974-5-5/ker-seymer-photograph-album/14, alongside Cyril Connolly, can be seen a photograph of Donald Maclean, in Toulon, probably in the summer of 1936. Yet in the annotations provided by the Tate, a question mark appears next to Maclean’s name.

Other communists appear in the album. On page 19, Goronwy Rees can be seen at the 1937 May Day march, and on page 25 two photographs of ‘Derek Blakie’ appear. The editor has not seen fit to correct the script here, but the person is certainly Derek Blaikie, who accompanied Guy Burgess to Moscow in 1934. Blaikie had been born Kahn, attended Balliol College, Oxford, and become a friend of Isaiah Berlin, who suggested in a letter to Stephen Spender that he was a rather dangerous Marxist. Kahn changed his surname to Blaikie in 1933. According to Stewart Purvis & Jeff Hulbert in The Spy Who Knew Everyone, Blaikie’s primary claim to fame was to write a letter to the Daily Worker, just before Burgess’s introductory talk on the BBC in December 1935, in which he explained that Burgess was ‘a renegade from the C.P. of which he was a member while at Cambridge’. This letter, suggesting that Burgess’s conversion to the far right was a ruse, was intercepted by MI5, and entered in Blaikie’s file, but then apparently forgotten. Significantly, Helenus (‘Buster’) Milmo, the QC who interrogated Philby in December 1951, had access to this letter. In his following report Milmo quoted another passage, which ran as follows: “In “going over to the enemy” Burgess followed the example of his closest friend among the Party students at Cambridge who abandoned Communism in order successfully to enter the Diplomatic Service.” A massive tip was not followed up.

I asked Mr Philipps about the collection. I was amazed to learn that he was not aware of its existence and availability. Furthermore, when I followed up about a week later, he told me that he had not yet inspected the display, even though, for reasons he would prefer I not disclose, the albums contained several photographs that would have been of intense interest to him. I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the author of A Spy Named Orphan, which is promoted as ‘the first full biography of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious spies, drawing on a wealth of previously classified files and unseen family papers’ would show such a lack of curiosity in his subject. He then added: “  . . . I also don’t think that the man in that one is DM.  He doesn’t seem tall enough or have quite the face and hair.  Also, I didn’t find him mixing in that society much – he didn’t care for Burgess and I don’t know of any records of his connections with Rees and his rather more social circle.”

Is that not remarkable? That a biographer, without inspecting the photograph personally, instead relying on the on-line image, would distrust the evidence that the photographer herself had recorded? How the figure’s height can be determined when he is squatting, or how his hair could confidently be judged as unrecognizable some eighty years on, strikes me as inexplicable. The evidence for Philipps’s conclusion about Maclean’s social activity is sparse: if we consult his biography, we can find only a few examples of the spy’s life in this period. We learn that ‘wearing the regulation white tie and tails, with his silk-lined opera cloak draped around his tall figure, he escorted Asquith’s granddaughters Laura and Cressida to dances . . .’, and that he was Tony Rumbold’s best man in 1937. Yet Maclean also mixed in bohemian circles – especially after he moved to Paris in 1938. E. H. Cookridge wrote, in The Third Man, that Maclean ‘became a regular visitor to Chester Street’ (Guy Burgess’s residence), and that it was at such parties that he became a habitual drinker. (Cookridge’s anecdotes are, however, unsourced. For some reason he did not consider that Maclean was a Comintern agent at this time.) Nevertheless, no matter how well (or poorly) Maclean and Burgess got on, it would have been considered poor spycraft for them to have gathered together too frequently.  As Philipps himself writes: “Acting on Deutsch’s instructions, Maclean never mentioned Burgess or Philby or spoke to them on the rare occasions when their paths crossed at parties.” Moreover, Maclean became a close friend of the louche Philip Toynbee. Thus I find Philipps’s instant dismissal of Key-Seymer’s evidence, and lack of interest in pursuing the lead, astonishing – mysterious even.

As for Rees, his (and Blaikie’s) presence in the album only reinforces the fact that the Ker-Seymer circle included leftist enthusiasts.  Philipps has told me that Ker-Seymer ‘adored Rees, but was wary of him’, while a letter to the Independent in 1993, after an obituary of Ker-Seymer was published, recalled Barbara with her ‘old friend Goronwy Rees sitting on a banquette during World War II’. Yet the connection sadly does not advance the investigation very far. The inveterate liar Rees may have bequeathed us all a truth when he declared that he and Maclean did indeed have a mutual friend Barbara, who was a photographer, but his testimony does not show that her studio was used by her, or by Maclean, as a location to take photographs of purloined Foreign Office documents. And her studio was not in Pimlico. So why would he bring the subject up? The quest continues.

Henri Pieck and Krivitsky

The career of Henri Christian Pieck, the Dutchman who recruited John King, and then handled him until his operation was suspected by British Intelligence, merits closer analysis. Ever since MI5 and SIS learned from Krivitsky that there was a second spy in the Foreign Office (the ‘Imperial Council’ source), they speculated whether Henri Pieck may himself have run both agents. This investigation picked up after Krivitsky was murdered in Washington in February 1941, especially since Pieck had made a bizarre attempt to leave Holland and work as a cartoonist for the Daily Herald in early 1940. Nothing came out of this venture, but, after the war, when MI5 betook itself to reinspect the vexing case of the Imperial Council spy, with new minds on the case, the evidence was re-examined for the purpose of verifying whether there were physical and logical links between Pieck and the unidentified traitor.

One might ask why Krivitsky, if he was so unwilling (or unable) to offer his interrogators the identity of the Imperial Council spy, but had readily provided them with the name of John King (a mercenary), was so forthcoming about Pieck (a dedicated communist, who had worked for Krivitsky in the Hague). The most probable explanation is that Krivitsky believed that Pieck was no longer working for the Soviets. Pieck had had to withdraw from handling King in early 1936, and to retire to Holland, although he did make one or two discreet visits back to the UK in 1937. Yet Krivitsky did suggest that, if Maly were still alive (of course, he was not), because of the good relationship that existed between Maly and Pieck, there was a possibility that Pieck could be resuscitated at some stage. Telling the British authorities about his role would surely have scotched that: it was not as if Pieck were a shadowy character without a public presence.

Hans Christian Pieck (from TNA file)

A certain amount of animosity existed between the two, however, which might explain Krivitsky’s diminished loyalty. Krivitsky considered Pieck’s expense account for the entertainment and bribing of his agents and friends in the cipher department of the Foreign Office, and others, lavish. When Krivitsky had gained an ideologically committed spy in the Foreign Office (Maclean), he told Pieck, who had had to leave London soon after Maclean was recruited because his ‘safe’ house was no longer secure, that he now had a much cheaper and more effective source. Pieck’s replacement as King’s handler, Maly, then recruited a further Foreign Office source, John Cairncross, before he was recalled to Moscow in the summer of 1937. King’s role thus became markedly redundant, and he was abandoned. Krivitsky may have taken pleasure in that. He was also critical of Pieck’s ingenuousness about the approach in Holland by the ex-SIS operative Hooper (who had ostensibly been fired), saying that it might well be a plan to infiltrate the GRU. He considered Pieck ostentatious and indiscreet: his spycraft was poor.

From his side, Pieck much later told MI5 that Krivitsky’s account of the attempt to acquire arms for the Spanish Republicans in the autumn of 1936 was false, even though Krivitsky’s presentation probably shows Pieck’s performance in better light than what in fact occurred. Krivitsky had described Pieck’s role to his interrogators without naming him, and had not specifically identified the ‘Eastern European capital’ in which the transaction was attempted as Athens. Perhaps trying to boost his own track-record, Krivitsky did not explain that the attempt made  – when Pieck was accompanied by the Englishman William Fitzgerald – was a total failure. (The exchange was also reported back to Menzies, the head of SIS, by the local ambassador.)  Yet one can also not trust Pieck’s account of his dealings with Krivitsky. He claimed that Krivitsky ordered him to kill Reiss: that is unlikely. Like Philby with Franco, he would not have made a reliable hitman, as the NKVD files attest on both of them. Finally, Pieck told his interrogators that he disliked Krivitsky and his wife, so there was clearly no love lost between them. Thus it seems safe to conclude that Krivitsky felt free in giving to MI5 and SIS a name to whom he owed no particular loyalty, and whom he felt they could pursue without any further exposure.

It did not seem to occur to MI5 that, if Pieck had indeed handled both spies, it would have been unlikely that Krivitsky would have talked so freely about him, as Pieck might have been able to reveal information which Krivitsky was clearly reluctant to share. But MI5 and SIS (the latter becoming involved because the breach occurred in the Foreign Office, and was being controlled from overseas), showed a track-record of sluggishness in following up the leads. They were constantly one step behind, and never resolute about what to do next. For example, the SIS renegade Jack Hooper knew, by January 1936, through Pieck’s business associate Conrad Parlanti, of the meeting-place in Buckingham Gate, and even told Pieck, at a house-warming party held by the latter in the Hague later that month, that MI5 knew he was a Communist and that he had been under surveillance in Britain. MI5 and Special Branch had supposedly been trailing Pieck all year. By then, of course, Maly had already replaced Pieck as King’s handler/courier, as Pieck no longer had legitimate reasons for staying in London, and it was taking too long for material to get to Moscow when Pieck had to take it with him to the Hague each time. Just as with Maly shortly afterwards, MI5 and Special Branch would let Pieck slip through their fingers.

What is remarkable about this period, and highlights how unprepared MI5 and SIS were when they were faced with the evidence of an ‘Imperial Council’ spy, is the mess that Valentine Vivian (of SIS) and Jane Sissmore (of MI5, who became Jane Archer when she later married, on the day before war was declared) made of the Pieck investigation when they picked it up again in 1938. 

Vivian and Sissmore Move In

Two years after Pieck supposedly had left the country for good, Vivian was exchanging memoranda with Sissmore about Pieck’s role in Soviet espionage. It appears that Sissmore was taking stock of the situation after the successful, but highly time-consuming, prosecution of Percy Glading, who had been passing on secrets from Woolwich Arsenal to his Soviet contacts. She had played a key role in preparing the case, and Glading was sentenced on March 14, 1938. Glading’s diary had triggered some valuable leads, including one that led MI5 to Edith Tudor-Hart. Pieck was another piece in the puzzle, but his exact role was still a mystery. We should remain aware that, through the agency of Hooper in early 1936, the Intelligence Services had learned of Pieck’s Buckingham Gate location, and what it had been used for, and the fact that Foreign Office documents had been ‘borrowed’ for photographing. The process was a mirror of the Glading exercise. Moreover, MI5 and SIS knew that Pieck had met Foreign Office clerks in Geneva in the early 1930s, and it could trace who those individuals were.

Given the later painstaking process that the CIA and MI5 undertook, in late 1949 and early 1950, to try to discover who in the Washington Embassy had access to the report that finally gave Maclean away, it is surprising that a similar procedure was not initiated on the important report that the ‘Imperial Conference’ spy had passed on. In fact, as her conversations with Krivitsky in early 1940 show, Jane Archer identified it as a secret SIS report, which had been distributed to several Foreign Office contacts by MI5. The exchange is vivid, as her report to Vivian in early February 1940 informs us: “In accordance with your instructions I took Thomas [Krivitsky] yesterday the photographed copy of the cover of the C.I.D. Imperial Conference document No 98., the last page and the portion dealing with the U.S.S.R.  As soon as I showed it to him Thomas said ‘Yes, I have seen this cover several times in Moscow, in white on black form, in the office of the man who receives the material.’ Yet when Krivitsky read the text about the Soviet Union, it was unfamiliar to him.

Archer then tried something else. “I then showed him part of the very secret S.I.S. document of 25.2.37, particularly the paragraph on Page 2 marked (1). He read the first few lines and then said ‘this is the document’.” Archer did not provide a precise pointer to the document in question, but we can learn more about it from elsewhere in the Krivitsky file, at KV 2/405-1, a passage that is worth quoting in full. We find that, much later, on May 1, 1951, A. S. Martin, B2B, wrote: “Xxxxxxx xx [redacted] S.I.S showed me on 28.4.51 extracts from a file held by Colonel Vivian from which it was clear that in 1940 SIS had identified document which K had seen in Moscow. Its title was ‘Soviet Foreign Policy During 1936’; its reference was Mo.8 dated 25.2.37. It had been circulated by S.I.S to FO Northern Department, FO Mr. Leigh, War Office (M.I.2.b, M.I.3.a, M.I.3.b, M.I.5 and the Admiralty. Xxxxxxx told me that he had been unable to trace the document in the S.I.S.  registry and he presumed that it had been destroyed. Xxxxxxx had passed the description of this document to Mr. Carey Foster of the Foreign Office. I subsequently found that the M.I.5 copy of this document was filed at 1a on SF. 420/Gen/1.’ (from). A handwritten note indicates that the document was in ‘K Volume 1’. If K means ‘King’, that was a file that was destroyed (by fire? – see below).  Thus the investigation fizzled, and, as each year passed, the trail became colder.

Valentine Vivian

In any case, Vivian’s insights on Pieck were seriously wrong, out of inattention or laziness. In his letter to Sissmore of March 25, 1938, he wrote: “Pieck has filled much the same position in this country as the ‘PETERS’ (Maly) and ‘STEVENS’ of the recent GLADING case. . . . If his statements are to be believed, he had established himself with certain Foreign Office contacts by the end of 1935 or beginning of 1936, and was able to get the regular loan of documents, which were photographed with a Leica camera and apparatus at an office, which he had taken in, or in the vicinity of, Buckingham Gate.” The ‘has filled’ is deplorably vague, suggesting that Pieck has recently played a role similar to that of Maly and was probably still active, and one of Britain’s most senior counter-intelligence officers appears to think that the purloining of state secrets is an act akin to the borrowing of library books. Should Vivian, moreover, have perhaps developed a mechanism by which he would first distrust the declarations of Soviet agents? Why would they tell the truth? He then shows his disconnectedness by representing the time when Pieck was withdrawn as the time that he started his conspiratorial work with the Foreign Office clerks.

Kathleen (aka ‘Jane’) Archer, nee Sissmore, MI5’s most capable counter-espionage officer

What is even more surprising, given Sissmore’s sharpness and Vivian’s relative dullness, is her not correcting Vivian. MI5 had apparently done nothing in the interim: it must surely have informed Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, some time back, because he refers to the leakages in his diary. Yet no suspects had been interviewed, security procedures had not been tightened, and, for all that MI5 knew, the extractions of secret documents could still have been going on. Just because Pieck had also told Hooper that he was out of the espionage game, why should MI5 believe him, as SIS apparently did? Should they not have attempted to verify? Had they been tracking his movements? After all, they had also learned that Pieck had made his unsuccessful bid to acquire arms for the Republicans in Spain when he and Fitzgerald approached the Greek government in the summer of 1936, as the British Embassy in Athens had reported the encounter to SIS. Pieck was thus still clearly active in the Soviet Union’s cause.

Archer wanted to bring Pieck over from Holland to talk, so she and Vivian must have regarded his commitment to Communism as weakening, and considered that he might now be willing to help his erstwhile target.  This thought was balanced by a strange request from the Dutch Government.  Vivian told Sissmore that his agent in Holland had learned from the Dutch police that Pieck ‘travelled frequently between Holland and England in 1937 and is believed by them to have had the confidence of a high official of Scotland Yard’. Yet his permission had now been withdrawn: they wanted to know why. Vivian could not add much, explaining that they had not been in touch with Hooper since 1935, but did not appear nonplussed by the Scotland Yard linkage. Did he perhaps think that was normal practice for Soviet agents? Moreover, he made an obvious error, as Hooper had had the significant meeting at Pieck’s apartment in January 1936. Was Pieck also stringing the Dutch police along?

Moreover, if that assertion about Pieck’s travel habits was true, how on earth had he managed to fly or steam in to England under the noses of MI5 without being detected? Why did Vivian not express surprise at this revelation? After all, this was a man whom Special Branch had been watching assiduously in 1935, although they never spotted anything untoward. Sissmore had written to Vivian in April 1935 that they could not detect anything suspicious about his visits, but had noted that Pieck should be watched ‘if he ever came over again’. One might expect at least that all ports of entry were being watched. Sissmore next made an inquiry to Inspector Canning of Special Branch on September 2, 1938, and her words are worth quoting verbatim: “It is reported that Pieck is an espionage agent working on behalf of the Soviet Union, and is believed to have at one time filled the place of Paul Hardt (Maly) in the Glading espionage group in this country. He has paid frequent visits to England in the past, but is at present in Holland.”

This is an extraordinarily tentative and detached statement by Sissmore, in its vagueness about dates and use of the passive voice: one explanation might be that she had been unduly influenced by Vivian. Yet her letters to him do not indicate that she was in awe of him: she treats him very much as an equal, and he responds likewise. After all, who was authorized to perform the reporting, and articulating beliefs, if not Sissmore herself? And how could she get the timetable of events so direly wrong, indicating that Pieck had replaced Hardt (Maly), when she knew that Maly, who in fact had replaced Pieck, had left the United Kingdom for good in June 1937, barely escaping capture by Special Branch, and that Pieck’s most frequent visits to Britain had occurred in 1935? (She also unaccountably records this year incorrectly in her report on Krivitsky.) Did she really believe that Pieck had started up his subversive activities again in 1937, simply because of what the Dutch authorities said? And should she not have been a bit more careful in approaching the Metropolitan Police, if Pieck was claiming he had some kind of protection on high at Scotland Yard? Was she simply all at sea? It is an untypically undisciplined performance by MI5’s star counter-espionage officer. One could perhaps surmise that she was being directed to hold back. It is almost as if she were sending a coded message in her reports: ‘This is not my true voice’.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Canning (and Colonel Hinchley-Cooke) (from Stanley Firmin’s ‘They Came to Spy’)

Inspector Canning was then able to inform Sissmore that Pieck had made two visits to England, via Harwich and Folkestone, towards the end of 1937, but these passages had gone completely unnoticed by MI5. What is more, their log showed that Pieck made fifteen visits to the UK in 1935, making his final departure for a while on February 14, 1936, not returning until October 14, 1937. The last trip was a lightning event, since he arrived on February 13 at Dover, and left from Harwich the following day, probably hoping that the change of ports would avoid immediate suspicions. So what did Vivian mean when he said that Pieck established contact at the end of 1935, or early in 1936, if the suspect then disappeared for twenty months? It appears that no detailed chronology – a sine qua non of successful detective work – had been created. The archival record is disappointingly blank after this – until the stories start to appear from Krivitsky and Levine a year later. Perhaps Sissmore and Vivian realized they had severely mishandled the job.

For those who relish intrigue and conspiracy theory, they might find an explanation for Vivian’s enigmatic behavior elsewhere. A Dutchman, F. A. C. Kluiters, has written an article that suggests that Jack Hooper was a double-agent for the Abwehr and the NKVD, and was probably being used by Claude Dansey to pass on disinformation to the Germans. The article can be seen at:
https://www.nisa-intelligence.nl/PDF-bestanden/Kluiters_Hooper2XV_voorwebsite.pdf
   I do not recommend it lightly, as it is so convoluted that it makes a typical chapter of Sonia’s Radio seem like Noddy Goes to School. One day I may attempt to analyze this particular tale, but all I say now is that, if this scheme actually had any substance, and was indeed the creation of Claude Dansey, his arch-rival Valentine Vivian would have been the last person in British Intelligence to know what was going on. Vivian and Dansey were at daggers drawn on many issues, not least of which was the treachery of Jack Hooper, and his subsequent re-engagement after being fired. Vivian may well have been set up to perform a mea culpa over Hooper’s betraying to the Abwehr a spy named Dr. Krueger, who had been providing the British with details of German naval construction for some years.

Yet such theories of double-dealing should not be abandoned as irrelevant to this quest. In the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew (who mentions Pieck on a couple of pages, but does not grace him with an Index entry) states that SIS was dangerously misled by Hooper, who, ‘it was later discovered, was in reality the only MI5 employee who had previously worked for both Soviet and German intelligence (as well as SIS)’. Sadly, and conventionally, Andrew does not provide detailed references for his sources from the Security Service archive, ascribing proof of King’s guilt to interrogations of German prisoners after the war, but he indicates that SIS made a poor decision in re-hiring Hooper in October 1939, after he had worked with the Abwehr in 1938-39. What is remarkable is that Keith Jeffery, in the authorized history of SIS, has only one line about Hooper, stressing instead the treachery of a Dutchman recruited by the SIS office in the Hague, Fokkert de Koutrik. I suspect Hooper’s role in the King/Pieck story has not been fully told. It is not often one comes across an agent with such multiple allegiances – especially one who survived. (Another is the mysterious Vera Eriksen, who landed alongside Druecke and Walti in Scotland on September 30, 1940, but escaped the death penalty.  A book on her is about to be published.) This one will clearly run and run. Is anyone out there, apart from Mr. Kluiters, researching his story? (I notice that four files on Hooper were released by the National Archives in November 2017: they must form a valuable trove, and I look forward to inspecting them some time.)

A Fresh Look

The story moves forward to 1940, to the Krivitsky interrogations, and beyond. As readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall, Jane Archer was already being eased out of her job as MI5’s leading officer in communist counter-intelligence when she compiled her report on Krivitsky in March of 1940, and she was replaced by her subordinate, the unremarkable Roger Hollis. 1940 was a difficult year for MI5: the transition from Chamberlain’s administration to Churchill’s, the sacking of its Director-General, Vernon Kell, the imposition of the Security Executive layer of management, the insertion of unqualified supervisors, and the fear of invasion accompanied by the ‘Fifth Column’ panic, with the stresses of making thousands of internment decisions. Little attention was paid to concealed communists, with Hollis’s activities directed more at the possible unreliability of communists in the factories, and Guy Burgess doing a skillful job of directing energies away from his conspirators in government. During 1940, there were occasional communications about Krivitsky between Vivian and Cowgill of SIS, Harker, White, Liddell and Archer of MI5, and even the occasional guest appearance from the sacked supremo Kell. Krivitsky was in Canada for most of the year, and attempts were even made to contact him directly. Yet no apparent effort was made to pick up the unresolved matter of the ‘Imperial Council’ spy.

Unsurprisingly, we cannot read any reaction within MI5 to the announcement of Krivitsky’s death. Even Guy Liddell could not stretch to recognizing the event in his diaries: true, an item in his February 11, 1941 page has been redacted, but there is no corresponding entry for ‘Krivitsky’ in his Index. A half-hearted attempt was made, however, to investigate the Pieck case in the light of the disturbing murder set up to look like a suicide. In the same month, Pilkington in B4C tried to track down Pieck’s architect friend, Stuart Cameron Kirby, who had accompanied Parlanti in 1934 to see Pieck in Paris. In April, Pilkington eventually interviewed Kirby in Cambridge, where he had secured an impressive-sounding sinecure as ‘Home Office Assistant Regional Technical Advisor’, but nothing came of it. Two years later, Shillito of F2B (i.e. in Hollis’s new Division, split off from Liddell’s B) was requested to confirm that Pieck was still on the ‘Black List’ of dangerous communists. All thoughts of identifying the ‘Imperial Council’ spy appear to have been dispelled, however. The Soviet Union had become an ally, and all energies were directed towards the Nazis.

After the War

By the end of the war, however, the Soviet Union was accepted as the dominant threat to the nation’s security. But perhaps not by Alexander Cadogan, still Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office. Cadogan, who had been so distressed about the spies in his domain in 1939, had apparently forgotten about their existence by the autumn of 1945. Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet Vice-Consul to Turkey, approached the British Embassy in Istanbul in August of that year, offering to name nine agents who were ‘employees of the British intelligence organs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain’, as well as one who currently ‘fulfils the duties of the chief of a department of the English counter-intelligence Directorate in London’. As Nigel West reminds us in his new book Cold War Spymaster, Volkov’s follow-up letter was translated and sent to Cadogan himself. Rather than sounding alarm-bells in the Permanent Under-Secretary’s mind, the arrival of the message prompted an instruction simply to pass the document on to the Chief of SIS, Stewart Menzies. Likewise unable to fathom that perhaps a degree of caution was required in the circumstances, Menzies delegated the task to the head of Section IX, the group responsible for Soviet affairs, Kim Philby. Volkov was soon afterwards spirited back to Moscow and executed, and Maclean and Philby survived another shock.

Sir Alexander Cadogan

A few months afterwards, in apparent ignorance of the Volkov affair (although Guy Liddell was very familiar with the incident), the possibility of a Pieck/Imperial Council spy connection was resuscitated. By then, stories had arrived about Pieck’s survival from Buchenwald. On September 13, 1946, Michael Serpell (F2C) issued a long report titled ‘The Possibility that Pieck was in Touch with the Source of the “Imperial Council” Leakage’. Serpell had quickly immersed himself in investigating Soviet espionage, and would soon become a notable player in the studies of Soviet spies. He was one of the officers who analysed the papers of Henri Robinson, the ‘Red Orchestra’ agent, that had been captured from the Gestapo in Paris after the war, and he would soon gain himself a reputation for dogged criticism of the handling of the Fuchs and Sonia cases. He was the officer who accompanied Jim Skardon to interview Sonia in Oxford in September 1947. He also interrogated Alexander Foote, recommending that he not be prosecuted for desertion, and then wrote the report on him that was distributed to such agencies as the CIA. His status was such that he was selected as the officer who accompanied the director-general of MI5, Percy Sillitoe, to Canada in March 1951.

In the case of the Imperial Council source Serpell’s instincts and objectives were correct, but his analysis wrong. He suggested that Pieck may have recruited an agent ‘at a much higher level than King’ when in Geneva, and that his large budget would have allowed for such a recruitment. Yet he slipped up badly on chronology, noting that the Imperial Council source (according to Krivitsky) had begun to become active in 1936. He assumed that the same camera at Buckingham Gate was probably used by this agent, but failed to note that Pieck had fled the country by then. He could hardly have ‘run’ the spy from Holland. In mid-stream, Serpell catches the contradiction, backtracking to claim that Pieck could have handled early examples of the photographic material. He admits that the main plank against his theory is that King described how he was abandoned after Maly’s departure in summer 1937, although he has been made aware of Pieck’s brief return to the UK in November 1937.

Serpell’s report rambles somewhat, and it is probably not worth any further inspection. Furthermore, what inevitably tainted his investigation was the fact that he and Roger Hollis had to communicate with SIS to gain information about what was going on in Holland. The officer they had to deal with was Kim Philby, who, while pretending to offer substantive support for Serpell’s inquiries, would surely have encouraged Serpell in his mistaken pursuit of Pieck as the handler of Maclean. To begin with, John Marriott of B2c was energised by Serpell’s research, especially since he provocatively admitted, in a letter to Commander Burt of Special Branch on December 12, 1946, that the idea that Pieck might have recruited other agents ‘is lent some support by our knowledge from more than one source that Government information has been communicated to the Russians since King’s retirement.’ After a meeting between the three of them, however, Marriott disagreed with Serpell. As the dispute carried on into 1947, Serpell’s arguments looked increasingly weaker: one might wonder whether he, as a tenderfoot, had been put on a false trail to give the impression of earnest endeavour. Marriott recommended dropping the investigation even though Serpell (now moved from F Division closer to Marriott as B1C) continued to disagree.  Meanwhile, the prospect arose of MI5 actually being able to interview Pieck himself.

Dick White, now director of B Division, is the officer whose name appears as heading plans to bring Pieck to Britain, in the early months of 1950. After Pieck had been released from Buchenwald, the British had apparently been in touch with the Dutch authorities, and reminded them that Pieck had been a Soviet spy. It seems that a private security organisation had got in touch with Pieck, who declared that he was surprised by the Krivitsky revelations. But he also said that he was very short of money, and might be prepared to talk. After some local negotiation, however, he agreed to MI5’s terms for the interrogation, which involved no payments, but some protection from prosecution, and some conditions concerning confidentiality, and arrived in London on April 12. What is extraordinary is that, in November 1949, Pieck had made a visit to London, in a search for help with his embryonic exposition business, without MI5’s knowing about it.

Pieck and Vansittart

Another mysterious dimension to Pieck’s relationships with British officials needs to be explained, however. Before the war, Pieck had made puzzling references to his association with Sir Robert Vansittart, a very prominent figure in the Foreign Office. Vansittart had been the Permanent Under-Secretary until 1938, when his continued vigorous opposition to Germany’s aggressions resulted in his being ‘kicked upstairs’ to the purely symbolic post of Chief Diplomatic Advisor. At the time, British intelligence officers had interpreted Pieck’s references to Vansittart as a code for his acquaintance with John King, attributing the deception as a clumsy method of confusing them. Yet, after the war, Pieck indicated that he looked forward to meeting Vansittart again, and it transpired that in May 1940, with the Germans about to invade Holland, Pieck had expressed an urgent desire to flee to England, where he expected his friends in high places to welcome him. This was bizarre – or very brazen – behavior from a Soviet spy who knew that the British authorities had rumbled him.

Sir Robert (later Baron) Vansittart

Yet when it came to bringing Pieck over, and interrogating him, the MI5 officers, led by Dick White, made no attempt to question him about the Vansittart connection – or, if they did, the redacted record conceals the fact. Certainly, the consequent report does not mention him. The oversight might seem simply careless, or an admission that the reference was jocular, and thus not worth pursuing. Other evidence, however, points to more complicated entanglements. In a Diary entry for January 5, 1945, Guy Liddell had written: “Kim [Philby] came to see me about xxxxxxx, who had been taken on in his section. Jane [Archer] when introduced to him recollected that he was one of the people who might possibly have been identical with the individual described by KREVITSKY [sic] as acting as a Soviet agent before the war, and as being employed in an important government office. [sentences redacted]  Kim was very anxious to get at the old records of the KING case in order to satisfy himself that he was on sound ground. I have put him in touch with Roger.”

As can be seen, the identity of this possible recruit has been redacted. Yet, when publishing his selections from the Diaries in 2005, Nigel West very blandly, and without comment, inserted the name of ‘Colville Barclay’ in the place of the redacted name. In his 2014 biography of ‘Klop’ Ustinov (the father of Peter), Klop, Peter Day went further. He claimed that Barclay had come under suspicion by Jane Archer and Guy Liddell when they interrogated Krivitsky, as Barclay fitted the profile of the ‘Imperial Council’ spy as described by the defector – aristocratic, artistic, Scottish, and educated at Eton and Oxford. Unfortunately, Day does not provide a precise reference for this claim. In the published version of the MI5 Debriefing (edited by the scrupulous Gary Kern), which faithfully reproduces the text from the archival Krivitsky file, no mention of Barclay can be found. But we should be able to rely on Liddell’s gratuitous recalling of what Jane Archer told him about Barclay’s coming under suspicion.

Sir Colville Barclay

So what has this to do with Vansittart? In 1931, Vansittart married Sarita, Barclay’s mother, who had recently been widowed. Thus Colville Barclay became Sir Robert’s stepson. Moreover, in another memorandum that did not make the final Krivitsky report, Jane Archer did allude to Sir Robert. As the interrogations progressed, Archer would send a daily summary to Vivian in SIS, and this correspondence can be seen at the National Archives in KV 2/804. In the item dated February 5, 1940, Archer wrote: “The C.I.D. case was the first discussed with Mr. Thomas [Krivitsky]. He said that the Soviet authorities had a great regard for Sir Robert Vansittart and followed his activities with great interest. None of the information regarding Sir Robert, however came through the source which furnished them with the C.I.D. documents. In further attempts to identify the person who procured the C. I. D. information Mr. Thomas was asked whether any mention had been made of this man being the stepson of some highly paced official. The word ‘step-son’ certainly aroused some memories in Mr. Thomas’s mind.”

This is all I have found. It does not offer anything conclusive about Barclay or Vansittart, but begs for some kind of follow-up. Why did the Soviets track Vansittart’s activities with such interest? If not the ‘Imperial Council’ spy, who was it who provided them with information? John Cairncross? Why was the stepson’ reference not pursued? (Was Krivitsky being devious again, confusing the issue of orphans, sons and stepsons?) Peter Day reports that Barclay did not know that he had become a suspect: he told Day in 2003 that he had never been questioned. One might have expected some reflection of this conversation to have appeared in Archer’s final report, but, either she felt that it was not so important, or her superiors instructed her to omit any such potentially embarrassing details.

Any closer inspection of this web of intrigue will of necessity require a plunge into the murky waters described by Kluiters above, and I am not yet ready to do this. It would not be surprising, however, to see a relationship between Pieck and Vansittart confirmed. Vansittart came from an originally Dutch family; he was a fierce anti-fascist (and might have mistaken the objectives of Pieck: Vansittart was equally opposed to communism); he maintained a private intelligence group, and he apparently received information from both Putlitz in the German Embassy (according to Norman Rose), as well as from Soviet agents (according to Charles Higham). Thus we should not discount the fact that Pieck may have played a very cagey game, and skillfully exploited Vansittart.

Be that as it may, if Pieck’s interrogators expected to hear more about the Imperial Council source when Pieck arrived for questioning, they were disappointed. Pieck confirmed that he had started to photograph documents at the Grosvenor Hotel in 1935, but then switched to use his apparatus at Buckingham Gate. He stated, however, that he had never controlled a second source at the Foreign Office, although he had heard of one from Krivitsky. “Krivitsky told him they could get the same material from another man at a tenth of the price”, the report ran, and went on: “Pieck was unable to throw any light on the other facts about a Foreign Office source which do not fit into the King case: – a burglary from the Foreign Office, the disused ‘kitchen’ in the Foreign Office alleged to have been used by an agent for photographing documents, and the renting of a special house. Pieck did not train King in photography, nor did he give him a Leica.” MI5 reluctantly concluded Pieck was telling the truth, but admitted they could not be sure until the Imperial Source were identified.

But the sleuths were getting closer. The VENONA transcripts had helped identify Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced on March 1 to fourteen years’ imprisonment. Sonia had escaped to East Germany two days before. Since 1949, MI5 and the FBI had been whittling down the names of possibilities for the agent with the cryptonym HOMER, as revealed by VENONA, and in April 1951 they were able to point quite confidently to Donald Maclean, because of the visits he made from Washington to New York to visit his wife. The defection of Burgess and Maclean in May 1951 would give MI5 the name of the ‘Imperial Council’ source they had not very vigorously been pursuing since 1939.

A Missing File, and other Embarrasments

One of the last enigmas of the case is the destruction of the first volume of the John King archive. In this, one might have expected to find such items as the complete correspondence between Washington (Mallet) and the Foreign Office (Jebb) concerning the information that Levine was passing on. If you look up the files on John Herbert King at the National Archives (e.g. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C11050136 ), you will find under both KV 2/815 & KV 2/816 a note that says ‘Vol 1 destroyed’. You will have to delve elsewhere to learn more. For example, in the Pieck files (KV 2/809-814), you can find at least three references to the destruction, which say, variously that the file was ‘destroyed’, ‘destroyed by fire’ and ‘destroyed by enemy action.’

While all three statements could be interpreted as communicating the same truth, this strikes me as more than a little suspicious. It seems to this particular observer that an enemy attack would have to be particularly selective to destroy completely just one of the King files, but leave the others completely unscathed. We do know that MI5’s offices at Wormwood Scrubs were bombed in September 1940, and several records burned, but the histories tell us that they had all been photographed beforehand, and that nothing was lost. Is it possible that this event could have been used as a convenient alibi for the removal of material that was potentially embarrassing?

The process of copying individual records into files to which they were related means that some of the items have been preserved, and one can tell from their Serial numbers that their source was the missing file. For instance, the interrogation of Oake, a colleague of King’s, that took place on September 26, 1939, receives the following handwritten comment: ‘(Original in PF 48713 KING, 50A Volume 1 destroyed in fire)’. Yet all such comments are made in the 1946-1947 time-frame: the Pieck records from 1941 never refer to the destruction of any files, by fire or any other agency. Unfortunately, the salvaged records that I have managed to identify and inspect do not offer anything spectacular: maybe another sleuth can come up with more dramatic examples.

One awkward fact that Jebb and the Foreign Office may have wanted suppressed was King’s connection with Mallet himself. Michael Serpell believed that some of the missing records could have referred to Special Branch’s search of King’s property. In a summary of the tripartite meeting with Inspector Rogers, John Marriott and him that took place on January 6, 1947 can be found the following astonishing statement: “Rogers handled King, and elicited his confession. He does not believe King told the whole truth and suggests King may have been shielding friends such as Quarry, Oake and Harvey. King claimed he left his wife because she became mistress of Victor Mallet who was until recently the British Ambassador to Spain (or maybe Mallet’s brother.)”

Victor Mallet was indeed the chargé d’affaires in Washington who had been dealing directly with Krivitsky’s agent, Isaac Don Levine, and communicating with Jebb, in September 1939. It is not clear where Serpell derived this fact of King’s wife’s affair, or when King actually admitted it, unless Rogers himself had just divulged it: it was not until March 7, 1947 that Serpell recorded an interview with the ailing King, who had just been released from prison. (During this interview, it was revealed that King’s son lodged in Pimlico, and that King himself had lived there during 1935-36! Pimlico – the district that Goronwy Rees mentioned!) Yet this disclosure, if it were in fact true, must have been highly embarrassing. Mallet would surely have had to own up to Jebb about the connection, as the truth would surely come out in any investigation, and it would presumably have damaged his career. (If he had a brother, he appears to have sunk without trace.)  From Washington, however, Victor moved to Sweden as Envoy during the war, and was appointed Ambassador to Spain in 1946. He did not suffer.

Thus one can only speculate what else might have been lost in the destroyed file – including the source SIS report which Krivitsky saw, as detailed above. Certainly we are missing the full set of exchanges between Washington and London. It is thus impossible to build a reliable chronology of exactly who informed whom. One of the earliest accounts is actually Valentine Vivian himself, who wrote a report titled ‘Leakage from the Communications Department, Foreign Office’, dated October 30, 1939, which appears in full as the second King file, KV 2/816. Vivian is very open about the failure of SIS to take seriously the evidence of ‘Agent X’ (Hooper), who was treated ‘with coldness, even derision’ when he tried to pass on what Pieck had told him two years earlier, and had ‘remained forgotten, and in abeyance’ until Conrad Parlanti came forward on September 15, 1939. Vivian then reflects the current Foreign Office thinking (see below) when he dismisses Krivitsky – testimony that he would presumably have preferred buried when the defector came over a few months later. “We had, therefore, the bare word of KRIVITSKI – at the best a person of very doubtful genuineness and one, moreover, whose ability to speak on such a matter with authority was even more doubtful – to incriminate Captain J. H. King of the Communications Department, whose record appeared on the surface to be quite impeccable.” Peter Cook would have been quite proud of that performance.

Yet a strange anomaly appears. In his report, Vivian says that, after the identification of King was received on September 4, he was instructed to go on leave until September 25, but was to be kept under surveillance. Oake was interrogated on the 25th, and King the following day, after which King tripped up by visiting his mistress Helen Wilkie, and was thus charged the same day. But Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, wrote – in an unpublished part of his diary dated September 15 – that King was currently being interrogated. Is it possible that, because of the Mallet connection, the Foreign Office decided to undertake its own investigation without informing MI5 or SIS? Or, perhaps Vivian did know about it, but was encouraged to portray another series of events, and to record it in some haste? Is the fact that Cadogan’s estate prohibited Professor Dilks from including this item in the published Diaries an indication of this subterfuge? (I have contacted Professor Dilks, but he can shed no light in the matter, as the sources I refer to were not available when he edited the Cadogan Diaries fifty years ago.)

Further indication that the Foreign Office was unduly embarrassed by the King affair was its determination to keep the conviction secret. Nothing appeared in the press, and Levine even stated, in November 1948, that the disgraced cypher clerk had been executed. (He had in fact been released by then.) It was not until 1956 that the British Government was forced to admit the whole account, after Levine offered the same testimony to a Senate investigation committee. The Foreign Office initially denied that there had even been a spy named King, but, when faced with the prospect of awkward questions in the House of Commons, then had to reveal that King had been tried under the Emergency Powers Regulations, and sentenced on October 18, 1939. One might understand the coyness as war approached, but the desire to cover up when the convict had already been released seems simply obtuse.

Lastly, how did the Foreign Office regard the evidence of Krivitsky? It was exposed to the first of the Saturday Evening Post articles in May 1939, and was immediately dismissive. Such comments as ‘mostly twaddle’, ‘Don’t want the rest’, ‘a few grains of sense in this rigmarole’, ‘General’s “revelations” not worth taking seriously”, are scattered among the hand-written annotations of the file as it gets passed around, including from the pen of the head of the Northern Department, Laurence Collier. The degree to which this official was clued into current events – and the responsibilities of his own section  –  is shown by a plaintive note he sent to Gladwyn Jebb on May 24: “Do we know anything about Genl. Krivitski?”. At the end of May, Collier rather reluctantly sent the cutting, with a letter, to the Embassy in Moscow, writing: “On the whole we do not consider that these would-be hair-raising revelations of Stalin’s alleged desire for a rapprochement with Germany etc. are worth taking seriously  . . .”. Collier must have been a bit chastened to hear back from his colleagues in Moscow a few weeks later that the articles ‘have excited considerable interest’, and that ‘the consensus of opinion is that they may well be genuine’. He still opined that Krivitsky was ‘talking nonsense’ but agreed that Washington should be asked for the complete series, which arrived at the end of July. (He did not know that Jane Sissmore had had copies of the articles in her possession since they came out.)

What is extraordinary about this exchange is the apparent awareness in Moscow of German-Soviet negotiations, while London was still vaguely planning for a British agreement with the Soviets. The mission to forge such a compact, led by the improbably named Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, left from Tilbury on August 15, and was thus doomed from the start, whether Chamberlain was in earnest or not. (Marshal Voroshilov is said to have inquired of our gallant emissary: “You are not one of the Somerset Ernle-Erle-Draxes, by any chance?”) Collier and his minions continued to pooh-pooh the contributions of the Soviet defector, but then the record goes eerily silent. The next item recorded is not until November, two months after Ribbentrop and Molotov had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. On December 27, an official notes that ‘Stalin is expert at reconciling the apparently irreconcilable, as recent events have shown’, to which Collier adds that ‘he will find this particular reconciliation harder than most’.  Collier would also survive to see the ‘Imperial Source’ unmasked, but I have not discovered any record of what his reaction was.

The Elusive Gallienne

And what of ‘Wilfrid de Gallienne’, the diplomat whom Andrew Boyle credited with the information about Krivitsky? The British consul in Tallinn, Estonia, during 1939 was indeed Wilfrid Gallienne (sic), and he was deeply involved in discussions about the protection of the borders of the Baltic States, including Estonia of course, in any future negotiations between the Soviet Union and Great Britain. His main claim to fame, however, appears to be the disagreement he had with a British lecturer in the Estonian capital, Ronald Seth, who was providing information to the Foreign Office while bypassing the local resident diplomat. In his reports to his superiors in London, Gallienne justifiably complained about this irregular back-channel, and admitted that he had had to rebuke the nosy academic. (For readers who want to learn more about the extraordinary adventures of Seth, who was later parachuted into Estonia as an ill-equipped SOE agent, but survived, I recommend Operation Blunderhead, a 2105 account by David Gordon Kirby.)

Yet, despite the imaginative endeavours of my researcher in London, I have not yet been able to find any minute or memorandum from Gallienne that touches on Krivitsky. My next step is to explore the Andrew Boyle archive, and, as I write this in mid-February, I am waiting to hear from the Cambridge University Library whether it can send me photographs of the relevant papers. Rather than starting with what are presumably voluminous documents that concern the creation of A Climate of Treason, I have made a more modest request to inspect Boyle’s correspondence with E. H. Cookridge, Malcolm Muggeridge and Isaiah Berlin, as I suspect these smaller packets may provide me with a glimpse of the way that Boyle nurtured his sources.

Cookridge is a fascinating case. He was born Edward Spiro, in Vienna in 1908, and knew Kim Philby well from the spy’s subversive work with communists there in 1934. His Third Man (1968) is thus a most useful guide to Philby’s early days. While claiming in his Preface to that book that he had access to secret sources (“Through my work in the Lobby of the House of Commons I had access to sources of information not available to the public”), it is clear that he was used by the government as a method of public relations as far back as 1947. He published in that year a book titled Secrets of the British Secret Service, in which he openly acknowledged the help that he had received from the War Office and the Foreign Office. One must therefore remain wary that, while being given access to certain documents, Cookridge would have been shown what the authorities wanted him to see.

His relevance lies in the attributions that Boyle grants him in his Notes to A Climate of Treason. Much of Boyle’s information comes from named sources, and most of them are actually identified, rather than being cloaked in the annoying garment of ‘confidentiality’. While I have not performed a cross-reference, I would hazard that most of the correspondence with these persons is to be found in the Boyle Archive, where individual letter-writers are clearly identified. Of this period, Boyle writes, for example (p 455, Note 15): “Confidential information to the author as attested in E. H. Cookridge’s notes from Guy Liddell of MI5.” One might react: What on earth was Liddell doing speaking to Cookridge? Did Cookridge (who died on January 1, 1979) ever publish an account of these confidences? Did Boyle consider, now that Liddell and Cookridge were both dead, that he could safely write about these secrets, or did he still fear the Wrath of White? I hope that a study of the correspondence with Cookridge will clear some of this up. If anyone reading this lives in the Cambridge area, and is interested in inspecting the Boyle papers in a more leisurely, more efficient and less expensive manner, I should be very grateful if he or she could get in touch with me. Similarly, I should love to hear from anyone who can shed light on the Gallienne puzzle.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, all this evidence does not bring us much closer to determining how and when MI5 and SIS might have learned more about the identity of the Imperial Council spy, and thus have been able to apprehend Maclean before he did any more damage. Yet the fruits of the research do show that Andrew Boyle’s claims may have some truth behind them, and that the assertions of the rascal Goronwy Rees may indeed have some substance. Moreover, the multiple anomalies in the archival record suggest that some persons had a vested interest in muddying the waters, and even using the written documents to start a bewildering paper-chase that might distract analysts from the real quarry. If one considers such events as the following:

  • The reluctance of Krivitsky’s interrogators to apply pressure on him;
  • Pieck’s enigmatic claim to have protectors at the Special Branch;
  • Pieck’s professed desire to escape to England as the Nazis approached in May 1940;
  • Pieck’s carelessness in confessing to Hooper his illicit activities in London;
  • The reluctance of SIS to listen to anything that Hooper told them for two years;
  • Vivian’s obvious discomfort and confusion about the facts of the King case;
  • The contradictions in the chronology shown up by Vivian and Cadogan;
  • King’s alarming claim about Mallet’s affair with his wife;
  • The coyness of the British Government in admitting the facts about the King trial and sentencing;
  • The barely credible account of a single King file being destroyed by enemy action;
  • The apparent destruction of the copy of the SIS report that Krivitsky recognized during his interrogation by Jane Archer;
  • Jane Archer’s uncharacteristically unprofessional and detached approach to the investigation;
  • Pieck’s ability to re-enter Britain unnoticed after a watch had been put on him;
  • The official historian’s laconic but undeveloped comment about Jack Hooper’s having worked for MI5, SIS, the Abwehr and the NKVD;
  • The enigma of Pieck’s exact relationship with Sir Robert Vansittart;
  • The failure to follow up on the clue of the stepson, Colville Barclay;
  • The dogged efforts to try to put together a case that Pieck controlled the Imperial Council spy as well; and, overall,
  • The remarkably unenergetic efforts, over a period of twelve years, of MI5, SIS and the Foreign Office to try to unveil an important spy in the corridors of power;

one does not have to be a rabid conspiracy theorist to conclude that there was another narrative being stifled that would tell a completely different story. If I were forced, before this programme of research were over, to identify one theory that might explain the anomalies in the story of Sonia, the Undetected Radios, and the Imperial Council spy, I would doubtless point to the delusional belief of Claude Dansey that his wiles, accompanied by the fearsome reputation of British Intelligence, could somehow control all the agents of hostile espionage organisations on this planet, and probably some on galaxies as yet undiscovered.

Thus we have a double Dutch Connection to be pursued: Jack Hooper, the half-Dutch disgraced SIS officer, who apparently worked for both the Abwehr and the NKVD, and is a pivotal figure in the Krivitsky-King-Maclean case; and Willem ter Braak, who has been claimed to be both a Nazi fanatic in the Abwehr, and a well-disguised NKVD spy. Could Claude Dansey possibly have been behind all this, pulling the strings? I shall have to put my best men and women on the job.

This month’s new Commonplace entire can be seen here.

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