Category Archives: Literature/Academia

The Hoax of the Blunt Confession (Part 2)

Anthony Blunt after his exposure

This month, I conclude my analysis of the accounts of Anthony Blunt’s Confession, and describe what I think really happened, and what the lessons are.

Primary Sources:

1          Defend the Realm [The Defence of the Realm in the UK] by Christopher Andrew (2009)

2          The Prime Minister’s Statement to the House of Commons: November 21, 1979 (extract)

3          The Fourth Man by Douglas Sutherland (1980)

4          Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher (1981: paperback version 1982)

5          MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (1981)

6          MI5: 1945-72, A Matter of Trust by Nigel West (1982)

7          After Long Silence by Michael Straight (1983)

8          Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher (1983)

9          Conspiracy of Silence by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (1986)

10        Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5 by Nigel West (1987)

11        Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright (1987)

12        Mask of Treachery by John Costello (1988)

13        Seven Spies Who Changed the World by Nigel West (1991)

14        My 5 Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin (1994)

15        The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower (1995)

16        The Enigma Spy by John Cairncross (1995)

17        Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter (2001)

18        Open Secret by Stella Rimington (2001)

19        Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (2005)

20        Triplex by Nigel West (2009)

21        CIA files on Straight (released March 2007)

22        The FBI Vault: Michael Straight

23        Treachery by Chapman Pincher (2012)

24        The Shadow Man by Geoff Andrews (2015)

25        FCO 158/129 – ‘Foreign and Colonial Office file on John Cairncross, 1953-1982’ (released 23 October, 2015)

26        Spymaster by Martin Pearce (2016)

27        CAB 301/270 – ‘John Cairncross, former member of the Foreign Office: confession to spying’ (released July 20, 2017)

28        Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (2018)

29        The Last Cambridge Spy by Chris Smith (2019)

30        Agent Moliere by Geoff Andrews (2020)

Secondary Sources:

The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969)

With My Little Eye by Richard Deacon (1982)

The Secrets of the Service by Anthony Glees (1987)

The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (1999)

The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera (2012)

The Secret World by Hugh Trevor-Roper (2014)

Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence by Nigel West (2014)

The Black Door by Richard J. Aldrich & Rory Cormac (2016)

A Question of Retribution? edited by David Cannadine (2020)

How Spies Think by David Omand (2020)

MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney and Andrew Moretta (2020)

I see four major topics encapsulating the study of the Hoax of the Blunt Confession: the circumstances of the encounter itself at the Courtauld Institute; the contribution made by Michael Straight; the details of Cairncross’s confession in Ohio; and the role and character of Arthur Martin. All these issues are coloured by the actions and objectives of Roger Hollis and Dick White.

The Courtauld Institute (in Portman Square)

The Events at the Courtauld Institute:

It must be borne in mind that all reports of the circumstances of Anthony Blunt’s confession derive from one source – Arthur Martin, who apparently carried out the project singlehandedly. The unnumbered and unidentifiable archival record that Christopher Andrew claimed to have seen must have been written by him. Martin was the source for the accounts adumbrated by Chapman Pincher, Nigel West, and Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, even though some of them they may have been channelled through Martin’s fellow officer, Peter Wright. All subsequent narratives rely on one or more of these five authors. Thus the analyst has to deal with the disquieting fact that Martin disseminated conflicting accounts of what happened, and I shall inspect later to what degree I think this aberration was due to artifice or to indiscipline.

To begin with, the encounter’s externalities clash. In the official record, Martin called on Blunt on the evening of April 23, as if on an unscheduled visit, in the hope of finding his quarry at home (1). Alternatively, it occurred in the mid-morning of April 22 (10), or perhaps in the morning of the following day (12). By all accounts, Martin carried out the interview alone (a fact which American intelligence officers found astounding (12)), although a report in the Washington Post of November 22, 1979 quoted Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, as informing the House of Commons that ‘When officials [sic] went to Blunt’s Home in April 1964 to question him for the 12th time  . . .they revealed new information implicating him’. The report in Hansard simply states that Blunt was interviewed ‘by the Security Service’.

Thereafter, the accounts diverge further. The authorised version runs as follows (1): Martin asked Blunt about Michael Straight, at which Blunt started to twitch. He disagreed over Martin’s account of Straight’s recruitment, at which point Martin offered the assurance of immunity should Blunt confess. A minute of silence followed, before Martin informed Blunt that he had recently put John Cairncross through such an exercise, and gained a confession. Blunt declared that he needed ‘five minutes to wrestle with his conscience’. He then left the room for five minutes, returning to pour himself a drink. He stood at a tall window for several minutes. Martin appealed to him again, whereupon Blunt came back to his chair and confessed.

Several aspects of this account are highly unlikely – or pure melodrama. The fact that Blunt apparently expressed no shock or surprise on learning of Cairncoss’s confession, and asked no questions about it, suggests that the claim was a later insertion to the archival record (as I have earlier suggested), or that Blunt already knew about the events in Cleveland, but fluffed his lines. Instead, he is reported to have made the ludicrous remark about his ‘conscience’ – an item in the screenplay that Alan Bennett would not have considered including even on an off day. To give the game away about having a guilty conscience before making the confession would have been an astonishing mis-step by someone who had successfully weathered almost a dozen interrogations beforehand. And what was the evidence from Straight that incriminated Blunt? That Blunt had tried to recruit him in Cambridge twenty-seven years ago, maybe acting on behalf of Guy Burgess? After all, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said in 1979 that Blunt had come under suspicion ‘as a result of information to the effect that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources’. The whole scenario seems like a bad comic opera.

One might also question the wisdom of a single junior officer’s being charged with such an assignment, especially since Blunt was allowed to leave the room for several minutes. Would he come back? Might he have done a runner, or even topped himself? Was a posse of Special Branch constables waiting outside to apprehend him should Plan B have been required, in the event that a saloon from the Soviet Embassy rolled up to steal him away? One cannot imagine the KGB goons indulging Oleg Penkovsky or Oleg Gordievsky with permission to leave the room for a few minutes while either gathered his thoughts. (‘Certainly, comrade. But don’t be too long, mind.’) Pincher very early on thought the whole performance was bogus (8), that Blunt had been pre-warned, and no plans had been made for the eventuality where he did not confess. Martin echoed this opinion to Costello (12): he may have thought that he was breaking fresh ground in having been granted the peachy assignment, and executing it so successfully, but the way that it developed make him think otherwise, and no doubt contributed to his frustrations.

Yet the evidence that Martin provided to other journalists added further wrinkles. In his first testimony to Pincher (4), Martin offered differing evidence (without mentioning Cairncross), describing a scenario where Blunt never left the room. According to Nigel West (6), Blunt took only a few seconds to confess. In Pincher’s next offering (8), he also echoed the point that Blunt capitulated too soon, and that Martin never articulated the conditions of the immunity deal. Moreover, Pincher introduced the fact of the tape-recorder as a substitute for any written record. One might think that Blunt would have reacted to such an obvious device with some alarm or mis-giving, but nothing appeared to faze him. He agreed to the recording, knowing that it would have no legal status. Penrose and Freeman (9) even state that Blunt ‘nodded in assent’ when the tape-recorder was presented.

The evidence of these latter two authors was dependent upon letters that Martin had conveniently supplied to them in 1985. In this deposition, Martin said he had ‘unequivocal evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet agent during the war’: the authors state that Blunt denied this, ‘as the assertion simply wasn’t true’. It is not clear whether they are expressing their own opinion, or Martin’s, but the fact is that the assertion was true (the business with Leo Long in MI14), but had been conveniently been buried. If Martin truly did have access to this information at the time, it could have appeared to him as more damning evidence than the stories Straight old, but White and Hollis had known about it, and tried to minimise its significance. No conceivable new source of this allegation is given, but perhaps Martin had been given this ammunition just beforehand. Since that gambit provoked no response, Martin next turned to his interviews with Straight, but Blunt was ‘expressionless’ (no ‘twitching’ then), walked to the window, poured himself a large drink (without leaving the room), and immediately admitted to Martin that it was all true. In this version, Martin played back the recording, so that Blunt could agree that it was an accurate record of the conversation. (How could it have been otherwise?) The meeting was over after twenty-five minutes.

According to West (10) and Wright (11), the events were collapsed to a shorter time-frame, with Wright indicating that Blunt admitted his espionage ‘almost immediately’. While gin has been shown to be the preferred tipple up till now (4), Miranda Carter suggests that Blunt ‘poured himself a large Scotch’ (17). In his last work on the subject (23), Chapman Pincher picked up from Penrose and Freeman the thread of Blunt’s wartime complicity and detection, but did not investigate the source of this new intelligence. He echoed the story that Martin had told Costello that Roger Hollis had warned Blunt about the coming confrontation.

The whole charade is a mess. Amid all these conflicting stories, however, one thread appears prominent: that Michael Straight had provided breakthrough evidence of Blunt’s guilt. And it was that external evidence, rather than MI5’s mismanagement of its suspicions, that had given the senior officers of the Security Service an alibi, and had provoked Blunt’s confession.

Michael Straight

Michael Straight & Anthony Blunt:

Michael Straight was a somewhat sad actor in this whole pantomime. His life and career were characterized by irresolution, privilege and lack of purpose. He was pliable and weak. Critics of his memoir have challenged him as to why he did not confront his own missteps earlier, instead of conniving at the activities of his erstwhile Cambridge colleagues in espionage. He vacillated, admitting his failings, but was also deceptive and misleading in his explanations. A review by a CIA officer of his memoir concluded: “As to Michael Straight himself, no semantic contrivances can avoid the conclusion to which he guides us; as both man and agent he was too gullible, too idealistic, too self-serving, and too long silent.”

For example, when Straight made his long-winded confession to the FBI in June 1963, he emphasised his contacts and friendships in Cambridge, and admitted his recruitment by Blunt, but minimised the level of espionage he had undertaken, and understated Blunt’s close association with Moscow (see below). He claimed tentatively that, during his assignments with his contact Michael Green (Akhmerov) in Washington, ‘he may have furnished Green with memoranda which he prepared from public material and his personal knowledge’. When Pincher broke the story of the investigations into Hollis in Too Secret Too Long in 1983, and pointed indirectly to Straight, Straight claimed to David Binder of the New York Times that he had declined Blunt’s 1937 invitation to spy. (Pincher may well have alerted the journalist. The column about Straight’s denial appears on the same page of the March 26, 1981 issue as the news on Hollis.) In After Long Silence, Straight admitted that he had ‘failed to reject Anthony’s scheme out of hand’, but again claimed that he had passed on to Akhmerov only papers he had written himself, or publicly available material.

Yet, reluctant spy that he claimed to have been, Straight was indeed persuaded to hand over important classified material. In The Haunted Wood (1999), Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, the latter having inspected relevant KGB archives, record the usefulness of agent NIGEL (Straight’s cryptonym). They write, for example, “Nevertheless, in June [1938], he finally delivered his armaments report to Akhmerov, and, the following month, the Russian noted that Straight had passed on a report from the American consul in London about British war reserves of raw materials.” While Straight’s contributions waned after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, his Moscow bosses still considered him an important ‘agent in place’, and obviously had a hold over him by then. The US authorities would surely have not have been as indulgent with Straight after his confession had they known the true extent of his treachery.

Commentators have asked: ‘What took him so long to confess?’ And ‘Why did he confess so much?’ After all, was it really necessary to introduce Blunt as his recruiter, given that all his espionage was carried out in the USA? Yet Straight was aware that his Communist affiliations in Cambridge were known by a few, and probably believed that, if he did not tell a comprehensive story, and then further unpalatable facts emerged, he would face fresh challenges. By 1963, however, the McCarthyite climate of the early nineteen-fifties had ameliorated, and previous communist sympathies would not have been so harshly treated. That does, however, provoke, a further question that I do not believe has been analysed: ‘Did Straight warn Blunt of his proposed confession?’ And if so, ‘how and when?’

Since there was a sort of childlike simplicity and decency in Straight, I believe that he would not have betrayed Blunt’s role without informing him of his intentions, and I thus suspect that the two of the must have prepared the ground before June 1963. They surely met some time after that as well, before the improbably late and apparently harmonious encounter in September 1964 that Straight describes in his memoir (7), on an occasion which is strongly referred to in the CIA and FBI records (21 & 22), and implied, with supporting evidence, by Perry (19). Moreover, we have the perplexing series of events described by Costello (12). Costello also believed that Blunt would have been given a warning, but presented messy evidence from various items of Courtauld correspondence. Lastly, we have Costello’s suggestion that Blunt made a late decision to travel to Pennsylvania for his summer lecture series (12), when published evidence confirms that the commitment with Blunt had been forged a year earlier.

The University of Pennsylvania

The timing of Straight’s confession, as articulated by the agent himself, is driven by his coming nomination to the Advisory Council on the Arts, and set in June 1963. But it is quite probable that he had considered such eventualities earlier than that. In his memoir, he tells how he had completed two novels in 1962, was looking for other ‘good causes’ to pursue, and that his mother-in-law had been trying to secure him a prominent position several times before he was approached about the position of Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission in May 1963. With his interests (he had been editor of the New Republic from 1948 to 1956, and on the board since), he would surely have heard about Blunt’s public invitation by the University of Pennsylvania, and Perry records his visit to the United Kingdom in April, where he stayed at Dartington Hall in Devon (‘his third trip inside a year’) and then spent time at 42 Upper Brook Street in London, ‘a short walk from Blunt’s flat in Portman Square’. Straight did not disclose this visit in his memoir: he conceded to Costello that he had been in the UK that April, but claimed that he had not visited the Courtauld.

If Straight was reconciled to making a (partial) confession at this time in the confidence that he would emerge without penalty, Blunt may also have felt emboldened. Philby had absconded to the Soviet Union from Beirut in January of that year, and Blunt had made a provocative and controversial visit to that city the month before. On November 18, 2013, the BBC posted a bulletin by George Carey (, who pointed out that Blunt had gone to Beirut in December 1962, staying with his friend the British Ambassador (Sir Moore Crosthwaite), on a quest to find a frog orchid. But frog orchids apparently do not grow in the Lebanon, so Carey assumed that Blunt was lying. The conventional interpretation of this visit is that Blunt came to warn Philby about the imminent arrival of MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, sent to unmask him at last, and that Blunt had been sent by his Soviet controllers.

Blunt had previously visited Philby there, some time in 1961. In Their Trade Is Treachery (p 142), Chapman Pincher relates how Blunt later admitted to helping Philby escape, describing how he had visited Philby in his flat, in an event that is undated. His host had said: “I have been asked by our friends to make contact with you, Anthony, but I have told them that you are not in a position to do anything useful”, an opinion to which Blunt gave his immediate assent. Yet this encounter seems incongruous to me. If Blunt took advantage of his presence in Beirut to look up Philby, why would Philby show the initiative by saying that their ‘friends’ (Moscow) wanted to re-establish contact with Blunt? Would that not have been simpler for the KGB to do in London, without drawing attention to an unusual rendezvous in Beirut? And, if Blunt had not been in contact with his KGB masters for a long time, while Philby apparently still was, how come that Blunt had been sent by them to warn Philby, when they could have relayed a message to Philby through their own networks? Moreover, 1961 would have been very early for aiding Philby in his escape plan, unless Blunt was conflating two visits into one.

It is thus plausible that Dick White, continuing to use Blunt as a ‘consultant’, knowing him to be tainted, but believing him to be far less dangerous than Burgess, Maclean and Philby, sent Blunt out to alert Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival. White knew that the best place for Philby was Moscow, rather than being repatriated for an embarrassing trial. After all, how would Blunt have learned of this highly secret mission? That would explain how Philby was prepared for Elliott’s visit, as he explained when he told his former fellow-officer that he had been ‘expecting him’ (10).

Be that as it may, and given that the evidence, like all other material in this investigation, is largely circumstantial, Blunt did not appear unduly embarrassed by Straight’s actions if he knew of them in the summer of 1963. The garbled statements from Mrs Jefferies about Blunt’s chagrin that Straight was ‘going to shop them’ are impossible to analyse properly unless the original letters surface (12). For instance, why is the letter dated August 1962? Moreover, it seems highly unlikely, to me, that Straight would have been allowed to visit the UK so soon after his interrogation, in July 1963, before the FBI and MI5 had discussed the case properly. After all, Sullivan asked him only that month whether he would be prepared to repeat his story to British intelligence!  And it also seems very improbable that Blunt would be able to make a decision to fulfil his commitments for a summer school in the USA as late as that, and then depart for a six-weeks adventure. (Of course, if all these events at the Courtauld did occur in 1962, it would bring an entirely new perspective to the discussion.)

Lastly, some commentators have pointed to Blunt’s probable irritation at the continuing deceit and subterfuge, and his fear that Guy Burgess might return to the United Kingdom and unmask him. Andrew Boyle raised this question in The Climate of Treason, suggesting that Blunt wanted to get his story out first, and control the narrative. Yet Burgess died on August 19, while Blunt was in the USA. Yuri Modin suggested that he confessed as a reaction to Burgess’s death (14), a counter-intuitive idea if one accepts the previous premise. In his review of The Climate of Treason in the Spectator on November 17, 1979, Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed this notion, since Burgess in Moscow had threatened to expose him, which, in the historian’s words, ’would have been fatal for Blunt’. Trevor-Roper overlooked the fact, however, that, if Burgess had successfully negotiated a guarantee of immunity, it would have had to be applied to Blunt (and others) as well, in the fashion that Blunt’s eventual deal was extended. Trevor-Roper then made the rather illogical statement that Blunt’s confession ‘may have been unnecessary, since Burgess then died in Moscow, having revealed nothing.’. Either the writer was pointing to an earlier confession (something clearly not indicated by the rest of his text), or he was confused by the chronology. It is all very strange.

William Sullivan & Edgar J. Hoover

The FBI & MI5:

Thus it seems more fruitful to start by inspecting the intentions of the FBI to inform their colleagues in MI5 of what had transpired with Straight. The assertions of a delay until January 1964 are made by Nigel West (6 & 7), on the grounds that Hoover did not trust MI5 with the material. He again attributes the lack of action to ‘petty inter-agency rivalry’ (13), presumably suggesting competition between the FBI and the CIA, though why that should be, given the clear territorial responsibilities, is not clear. Admittedly, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s chief, never told the CIA anything. Carter (17) says that the FBI waited several months before telling Martin.  To select Martin as their target would have been highly irregular, as it would have bypassed the proper level of communication. Even if Hoover and Sullivan had trusted Martin more than they trusted Hollis, it would have been a crass political move.

Yet the FBI and MI5 appeared overall to enjoy a positive relationship. Roger Hollis went back with Hoover a long way. As the Liddell Diaries inform us, in the summer of 1945, Hoover had made repeated requests to MI5 Director-General Petrie for Hollis to visit the FBI to help them with plans for countering Soviet espionage. In 1950, during the Pontecorvo investigations, Hollis had felt impelled, when head of F Division, to tell George Strauss, the Ministry of Supply of the ‘special relationship’ between the two organisations. As Edward Perrin reported on November 9: “Roger Hollis of M.I.5 was present at the meeting with our Minister last Monday and he made it very clear that the utmost care should be taken to avoid release of this information [concerning BSC, RCMP, and US Embassy in London], particularly in view of a recent agreement reached between Sir Percy Sillitoe and Mr. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. to the effect that neither organisation would say anything about the other’s actions without consultation and agreement.” (FO 371/8437) (In the light of the Fuchs and Pontecorvo fiascos, Hoover may have been assuaged by the fact that he had just been awarded an honorary KBE.) And Richard Deacon, in his 1982 memoir With My Little Eye, wrote (p 226) that Hollis ‘had been on exceptionally good terms with the allegedly anti-British J. Edgar Hoover to be given a signed photograph and a set of golf clubs.’ Strangely, Andrew offers no analysis of the relationship between the FBI and MI5 between 1950 and 1963. Liddell refers frequently to Hoover’s temper, but it seems that the FBI director was much more concerned about his personal reputation and status than he was about relations with MI5.

There appear to be no available archival records of any early communications on the Straight business from the FBI to MI5. Andrew states, however, that Hollis flew out to Washington at the end of September, having been encouraged to do so by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1). Hollis had been barraged by a cabal of MI5 officers (Wright, Martin, Winterborn, and one other), who each threatened to resign unless MI5 were open with the FBI about the Mitchell investigation – a worrisome lack of group judgment, as it turned out. Wright claimed in Spycatcher that Hollis faced opposition from his officers when he was more cautious about revealing MI5’s embarrassing inquiries to the Americans (11): it is not clear whether Andrew extracted this fact from Wright’s book, or had access to an alternative source, so readers should be naturally cautious. In any case, Hollis had been unnerved enough to have to consult with White over the visit, and then gain the approval of the Prime Minister. Since Macmillan had been required to inform President Kennedy of the possible exposure caused by the suspicions over Mitchell, and had been ‘humiliated’ by the experience, he was anxious that no more secrets be withheld from the Americans, and gave the nod.

For some reason, Martin followed a day later, to go into the details of which American intelligence sources might have been compromised (1). Yet, if Hollis did glower across the table at Martin, and say he would brief the Americans himself, he might have decided to do so in order to request of his counterparts that the rewards from the Straight confession not be shared with Martin when he followed. As West claimed, Hoover’s deputy, Sullivan, had been ordered not to reveal Straight’s existence (20). And, if Martin did indeed fly over the following day, Hollis could hardly have succeeded in convincing his team that he perform the briefing exclusively himself, since he was not familiar enough with the details.

Another version of the story has Dick White playing a more active, almost interfering, role. In this scenario (15), White recommends that Hollis inform the FBI and the CIA about the state of the Mitchell inquiry, at which Hollis ‘reluctantly’ flew out. If this is true, it shows that Hollis was even more under the influence of White, taking instructions from him on how to handle the situation. Hollis certainly would have bridled at revealing what had occurred to the arch-molehunter James Angleton of the CIA, but, since the latter would otherwise have been informed by Maurice Oldfield, White’s man in Washington, it was something he had to swallow.

In any case, it would seem hard to imagine that the meetings in late September would not have presented the perfect opportunity for Hoover and Hollis to discuss the Straight confessions. And, when he returned to the UK, Hollis surely shared what he learned with White, but probably with none of his subordinates in MI5 – certainly not with Martin. That is what Pincher surmised (8). The intelligence from Straight provided Hollis and White with a perfect opportunity to inform their political masters that proof of Blunt’s guilt had come from an outside source, thus distracting attention from their own fumblings. The two of them may then have decided that a further session with Blunt was called for, and prepared to invite Straight to come over to confront him.

That would explain the suggestion that Straight was in London in the October-November period (19), and what Straight himself admitted to the CIA (21), where he actually stated that he had a private fifteen-minute meeting with Blunt before the MI5 officers entered the fray. This visit was confirmed by what Straight ‘later’ told the FBI about confronting Blunt in London, claiming that his challenges to Blunt ‘broke’ him and made him admit his espionage (22). Pincher refers to a letter concerning Straight sent to the US Embassy in November (8), but does not present the details. It may have referred to Straight’s coming visit. Of course, the ‘confrontation’ may have been a staged act by the pair of them, but the event surely occurred. Straight may have lied to the FBI about the nature and extent of his own espionage, but it is hard to imagine why he should have deceived them over the external circumstances of this encounter.

As for the secrecy within MI5, Pincher wrote that Martin ‘was not informed about Straight in the November time-frame’ (8), which represents a very strong indication that an important meeting did occur then, but that events were not explained to Martin until some time in 1964, when Martin’s career crisis occurred. (Pincher declares that, at the time, in January 1964, Martin believed that the Washington encounter was the first occasion where MI5 had heard about Straight and his information.) The source for this assertion is, tantalisingly ‘the Straight-Martin correspondence’. *  Obviously, if Martin had been told about the November agreement at the time, he would not have been interested in listening to Straight in Washington in January. Correspondingly, Straight must have been sworn to an oath of secrecy about his visit to London: otherwise, he would have briefed Martin about it in Washington. It seems highly likely that Martin and Straight exchanged letters after April 1964, and Martin thereby learned the whole story. Pincher also makes the strange claim that Straight ‘was ignored by MI5 during the November visit’ (8), but that can be interpreted as the fact that he was overlooked by the rank and file because they were not aware of his presence in London.

[* In Too Secret Too Long (p 360), Pincher refers to ‘Correspondence Between Straight and Martin in 1982’, but his note suggests that Straight corresponded with Pincher in 1982, referring to earlier letters exchanged with Martin. These letters have not been located, so far as I know.]

The conclusion must be that the immunity agreement with Blunt was made at the end of 1963. The primary source evidence is scarce, admittedly, but no scarcer than that supporting the April 1964 confrontation, and the secondary indications are stronger and more consistent. Blunt presumably successfully sought immunity as well for Leo Long and John Cairncross (at least), who were the leading lights that he identified to his interrogators. Hollis and White were surely the only intelligence officers who knew about it, and Hollis hoped to keep it that way. Whether Dick White had any ulterior motives must be an issue for debate. Yet the situation was thrown into rapid turmoil through the fortuitous but unfortunate entry of Cairncross himself into the drama.

John Cairncross

Cairncross and His Visa:

John Cairncross’s appearance in London, probably in December 1963, can only be an extraordinary coincidence. The existence of the Graham Greene-Cairncross correspondence proves that Cairncross had approached the author as early as August 4, 1963 for a reference for the position at the Western Reserve University (30), so it is impossible that MI5 could have lured him from Karachi to be interrogated in London as a result of Straight’s involvement. Thus Cairncross’s appearance there, before travelling to Rome to pick up his paperwork, must have caused much embarrassment. First of all, Blunt had very recently named him as a fellow-conspirator, a fact that MI5 would have to address. Secondly, Cairncross had applied to the USA authorities for a visa. If MI5 concealed from US Customs and Immigration (via the FBI) what they had learned from Blunt, it would no doubt turn out to be a frightful indictment when the FBI found out about it later. If MI5 informed the FBI, Cairncross’s visa would surely be denied, and the publicity risk of preventing an apparently harmless citizen from pursuing his career would have to be faced. In fact, even without the recent unveiling of Cairncross, if he had been honest in any interviews he had with the US immigration authorities, his previous political sympathies should have excluded him, as the Foreign Office files suggest (25).

All this leads to explain the extraordinary shenanigans that were displayed by Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend and his colleagues (27). MI5 wanted the job appointment to go ahead, and to pursue the serious interrogation of Cairncross on foreign soil, where any testimony would have less standing. Thus they had to ‘fix’ the FBI. If we are to believe Pincher (23), Martin flew out to Washington in early January, presumably to explain the dilemma, and to convince the FBI to go along – at least temporarily – with the plan to indulge Cairncross. The Foreign Office files prove that Cairncross had applied for the visa some time before February 7, 1964, albeit with a degree of urgency. Martin must have performed his task effectively, because a later memo confirms that his visa had been granted (25).

Thus the conflict over Martin’s presence in Washington appeared to be quickly resolved. It was not as a follow-up to the ‘Mitchell inquiries’, as Pincher was led to believe early in the cycle (8). The need to talk to the FBI about Mitchell had evaporated, and nothing of that nature would have required such an extended stay. (Pincher’s claim that Hollis deputed the task of interviewing Straight to Martin, and then recalled him before the interview (8) is patently absurd.) It did not arise as a result of Martin’s accepting a long-standing invitation by Sullivan to talk to Straight (7). West asserts that Sullivan had been ordered by Hoover to be very discreet about Straight, and not reveal what had occurred (20). It is impossible to imagine that Martin would have been given permission by Hollis to visit Washington on such a pretext, and again, such a project would not have taken weeks. Martin had been sent to handhold the FBI through the Cairncross project.

Martin was in ignorance about the recent Blunt confession. As laid out above, Martin told Pincher that he did not know about the ‘November confession’ (8). He was assuredly also not told about the Cairncross interview that must have occurred, where Cairncross was instructed in the role he had to play. And then, when he arrived in Washington, Martin was told by Sullivan that he needed to meet an important person. This is the encounter that Straight describes in his memoir, expressing surprise that he had not been called ‘before January 1964’ (7). Where they met is a matter of dispute, though probably immaterial. Straight’s Daily Telegraph obituary says Martin ‘attended a lunch given by the FBI’s Bill Sullivan, where he met Straight, who volunteered to confront Blunt’. Nigel West has told me that Penrose and Freeman were wrong in indicating that the meeting took place at the Mayflower Hotel, and that the lunch was held at Straight’s club in Washington.

What is more important is why the encounter was arranged. One can believe that the molehunters in the CIA – enthusiastically led by Angleton – would by now have become extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-up on MI5’s part after Straight’s unmasking of Blunt. The meeting was surely set up without Hoover’s knowledge, and I have pointed out that Sullivan had been forbidden to mention his name to any MI5 officer. That, in itself, must have bred resentment. Martin had been working closely with Angleton ever since the arrival of the defector Golitsyn, and Martin disclosed that he had had to be discreet about Straight because Sullivan had been ordered not to reveal his existence (20). What is potentially ominous, however, is the possible involvement of Maurice Oldfield. In the memoir of his uncle, Martin Pearce makes the claim that Sullivan liaised with his ‘MI6 associate’, Oldfield, and that Oldfield ‘arranged for Arthur Martin to fly out to interview Straight’. This is a provocative statement, as the official lines of communication were MI6-CIA and MI5-FBI, and the FBI and the CIA were jealous enemies. Yet Martin had gained the confidence of Angleton, showing that the contacts were by now more flexible. I have not been able to gain a confirmation of this item from Pearce, but, for the multiple reasons given above, it sounds totally implausible that Dick White, notwithstanding his influence over Hollis, would have been able to arrange for Martin to fly out on such a mission.

Martin was no doubt astonished and energised about Straight’s revelations, thinking he had fallen on a scoop. Yet he did not immediately return home in excitement, contrary to what Penrose & Freeman, Bower and Perry all asserted (9, 15 & 19). Nor did he meet Straight after his interrogations of Cairncross, as West claims in his books on MI5 and in Molehunt (5, 6 & 10). Pincher distorts the events utterly (8 & 23). Whether Martin subdued his excitement until he returned home, or whether he sent a cable to alert his bosses, cannot be determined. If Sullivan warned him appropriately, he probably kept it to himself until his return. For Martin was to stay out in the United States for several weeks, as the Cabinet papers prove (27).

Finally, an analysis of Straight’s evidence is in order. Martin was impressed enough by what Straight told him to believe that it was the information that MI5 needed to nail Blunt. He was ‘elated’ (7). But what did Straight tell him? If he repeated to Martin what he had told the FBI, as he claimed, his account did not point to espionage on Blunt’s part, but to his role as a messenger. It referred to ‘anti-fascism’, ‘the Third International’, to an opinion that Straight was required to gather economic data in New York, that Straight’s ‘protests had been rejected’, and that Blunt was a ‘mild communist’, and was acting on behalf of Burgess (22). Yet in his memoir, Straight clearly indicates whence Blunt was getting his instructions, as the latter refers to the fact that Straight’s reluctance had been discussed in ’the highest circles of the Kremlin’.

Reliable information indicates that MI5 already knew that Blunt was not just an ‘intellectual communist’, and had direct links to Moscow. Professor Glees wrote an article for the Journal of Intelligence and National Security in 1992 (Volume 7, Number 3), titled War Crimes: The Security and Intelligence Dimension, resulting from an assignment with the British Government. In this piece, Glees wrote that, in 1952 (the Sillitoe era), MI5 had discovered from an Eastern European ex-Soviet intelligence officer that an ‘art adviser of HM the King worked for Soviet intelligence’. This is, to me, an astonishing revelation, indicating a far more serious indictment of Blunt than a casual supplier of military secrets to a wartime ally, which is how White and Hollis probably viewed him at that time. Even if, again, the evidence would not stand up in court, the direct identification would surely have been something that Blunt would have struggled to deny. Glees stated that this item would have been presented ‘to the very highest level in the Security Service’. *  Assuredly so, and Martin, and the other officers who repeatedly interrogated Blunt, were not made aware of it.

[ * The information did not apparently reach Guy Liddell, deputy Director-General in 1952. His Diaries show that he continued to seek Blunt’s advice over problematic communists in the summer of 1952, and even came to the spy’s defence when he was warned – probably by Goronwy Rees – about Blunt’s shady past. Did Sillitoe pass on the information to White on the latter’s accession in 1953? I imagine so.]

(Case) Western Reserve University

The Cairncross Confession:

The confession all happened very quickly. Andrews suggests that Cairncross had been ‘pleasantly surprised’ that MI5 had done nothing to stop his visa application, and confidently travelled to London to perform research at the British Museum and see his estranged wife, Gabi (30). Yet it was a while before the application was approved. In a rather breathless minute, Street in the Foreign Office reported, on February 18, that not only had Cairncross’s application been approved at last, but the subject had also already confessed! Cairncross had flown to New York on February 11, and had been notified by a Customs official that he would be needed for further questioning when he reached his destination. Martin had visited him at his hotel in Cleveland on Sunday, February 16, and apparently gained a confession immediately. The haste and efficiency of the whole operation were almost unseemly, and certainly suspicious.

Why had Cairncross confessed so rapidly? The explanations are hardly convincing. Cairncross’s own story is unreliable, primarily because he sets the event as occurring in April (16), presumably to grant the timing rather more credulity. In his version, an FBI officer arrives first, informing him that Arthur Martin will be calling shortly. When the MI5 officer declares that he believes that Cairncross has not told the whole story, Cairncross folds, out of a desire to ‘make an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all’. He guesses that someone has informed on him, and concludes that it must have been Blunt, a notion espoused by Costello (12), thereby giving ammunition to the theory that Blunt confessed first, as Geoff Andrews boldly indicates (24). West has a slightly different representation: the meeting was ’by appointment’, and Cairncross ‘attended’ because he was fearful about his job (20). That goes against the grain of Smith’s account, which states that Cairncross was ‘doorstepped’ (29), suggesting an element of surprise.

But what would one expect the normal reaction of a person in Cairncross’s position to be, as an innocent academic who has just been cleared for employment in the United States? He is warned at US Customs, but seems to express no alarm. When Martin and the FBI turn up, he does not reflect: why on earth did these people allow me to come all this way, and then immediately harass me about these long-ago events? When Martin approaches him with the soft-ball challenge that he may not have told him all before, why does he not send him away with a flea in his ear, and tell him he has nothing more to say? It must have been because he was primed for the whole episode before he left London, and it was explained to him that Blunt had confessed, and that he likewise would be given immunity from prosecution if he admitted everything on foreign soil.

So all the references to ‘a second bite of the cherry’ –  after twelve years (10), ‘D Branch retracing its steps’ (7), and Cairncross’s being ’thrown to the wolves’ by Blunt (29), must be discarded. So must any assertion that Cairncross received no immunity, and thus risked returning to London at his peril (30), his book on Klugmann (24), Andrews singularly does state that Martin offered Cairncross an immunity deal. Claiming that Klugmann had been his recruiter, and thus distancing himself from Blunt, was part of that agreement. Now Hollis and Trend have to go through the machinations from the Cabinet Office (27), trying to establish what the FBI and the US Immigration Authorities will do, hoping to avoid publicity, and attempting to ensure that Cairncross finds a safe haven in a foreign country (Italy) where he will not be able to cause any trouble. And the FBI duly expels him in June – not to Cairncross’s obvious surprise, it seems.

As I have shown, Martin did not rush back after this interview. He had to stay while the panjandrums discussed what had happened, and decided what to do next (27). On February 19, Trend informed the Prime Minister of the confession. Douglas-Home convened a meeting, at which it was determined that gaining a statement under caution should be attempted. On March 2, Martin was thus instructed to return to Cleveland, and the news quickly came back (on March 4) that Cairncross had declined the invitation. So, probably in mid-March, Martin was able to return to London, and brief Hollis and White on the Straight breakthrough. According to Bower, White, in true Captain Louis Renault style, was ‘shaken’ by the news (15).

Hollis must have been furious, however. First of all, how and why could Sullivan of the FBI break the commitment that Hoover had given him about keeping the Straight business confidential? And why had Martin been snooping around in Washington, communicating with CIA people without instructions to do so, when he had been sent specifically to liaise with the FBI on Cairncross? Moreover, on his return Martin must have pressed for interrogation of Blunt, and prosecution. He was probably told that the evidence that Straight provided would not stand up in court, and that Blunt would continue to deny everything. Fresh from his triumph in Cleveland, however, Martin probably believed he was on firm ground. Even though Hollis was infuriated by Martin, he was probably encouraged by White to appease him, and that is where the rumour started that it was Martin’s idea that Blunt should be offered immunity (despite Martin’s lack of sympathy for the idea), and that Martin would be chosen to interview Blunt in his flat (4). And that is what led to the pantomime of late April, where the key players (except for Martin) repeated their roles from the previous November.

The Role of Arthur Martin:

Arthur Martin remains an enigmatic figure. Why was such an ordinary but volatile officer selected for such an important task? How much did he know? Why had he become such an enthusiastic acolyte of James Angleton? Why did Dick White recruit him after Hollis had suspended him? And, most intriguing of all, why did he spread such conflicting stories about the Blunt confession?

(A profile of him can be found at, but it contains several egregious errors, primarily on chronology.)

Martin had his champions. Michael Straight found him ‘sophisticated and urbane’, in contrast to FBI agents (7), and told the CIA that he was ‘the original for George Smiley’ (21)  – an unconvincing comparison.  According to William Tyrer (who accessed the Cram archive), Cleveland Cram, CIA officer and historian of the agency, may have been echoing what Straight told him when he observed that Martin was ‘generally agreed to have been the counterintelligence genius of the British services’, surely an over-the-top assessment. Penrose and Freeman, while characterising him as ‘unprepossessing, self-made, and down-to-earth’ (does the suggestion of plain speaking jibe with ‘sophistication and urbanity’?), went on similarly to portray him as ‘a creation of John le Carré; a brooding spycatcher’ (9). Furthermore, they wrote: “His mind was a constant blur of bluffs and double-bluffs and, although he never claimed to be an intellectual, he was quick-witted and open-minded.” (Martin may have helped promote that image himself.)

In his Guardian obituary, Richard Norton-Taylor referred to Martin’s ‘sharp, analytical mind’ (but that could surely be said of most intelligence officers worth their salt), and in his BBC piece, described him as ‘a hardened interrogator’. Cairncrosss described him as ‘one of the most effective intelligence officers I have ever met’ (16), yet, since Cairncross probably met few such animals, and doubtless wanted to provide a solid explanation as to why he had quickly confessed, he probably over-egged the pudding. And Nigel West offered Martin praise for his performance at the Courtauld, writing of ‘the carrot dangled skilfully’, which appears a bit of a travesty when the record is inspected carefully. Peter Wright claimed that Martin proved himself ‘a brilliant and intuitive case officer’ (11).

Yet Martin had his critics and detractors, too. His close associate, Peter Wright, was also one of the most outspoken, writing that he was ‘temperamental and obsessive’, and ‘never understood the extent to which he had made enemies over the years.’ Bower expressed some surprise at White’s ‘tolerance’ for Martin (15). White was told that Martin ‘had a chip on his shoulder’, a judgment echoed by Gordon Corera, but then White was overall too trusting of people until it was too late. Christopher Andrew depicted Martin as follows: ‘a skilful and persistent counter-espionage investigator . . . , but he lacked the capacity for balanced judgement and  a grasp of the broader context.’ (1) Andrew also considered him and Wright  ‘the most damaging conspiracy theorists’, one of the most damning dispensations the historian can deliver (see ), and this characterisation was echoed by John Marriott of MI5, who wrote in an earlier memorandum: “In spite of his undeniable critical and analytical gifts and powers of lucid expression on paper, I must confess that I am not convinced that he is not a rather small minded man, and I doubt he will much increase in stature as he grows older.” (1; 28)

Martin had worked for the Radio Security Service (RSS) in World War II, and then moved to GCHQ, where he was liaison officer to MI5. Andrew informs us that it was Kim Philby who recommended him to MI5 in 1946, having met him in his RSS days. (Martin was apparently disappointed to have been replaced by Elliott for the mission to Beirut to interrogate Philby, though why an MI5 officer would have been considered for the job is not clear. Gordon Corera claims that White believed that Philby would be more likely to confess to an old friend.) Martin’s Guardian obituary stated that he was the first to learn – from the CIA – that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet agent. Yet this would appear to contain some grandstanding. Serial 260/9 in KV 6/134 shows that Maurice Oldfield communicated the breakthrough news to Martin on August 17, 1949, and that it resulted from the efforts of Dwyer and Paterson (the MI6 and MI5 representatives in Washington), working on research performed by Philp Howse of GCHQ. Thus the first symptoms of Martin’s vainglory appear. In his Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, Nigel West reinforces Martin’s contributions, but it is hard to identify any specific counterespionage feat he accomplished, apart from those placed in his hands by such as VENONA and the disclosures of defectors.

It was Martin’s encounter with the defector Golitsyn that set him on the trail of believing that the British intelligence services were infested with moles, and I turn the reader to Chapter 10 in Section D of Andrew’s Defend the Realm to learn more about his dogged efforts, and the obstacles and objections he faced in his pursuit of traitors (although the details of some events, such as the transfer of Cumming, and the reorganisation of D Division, are wrong). In the episodes when first Graham Mitchell, and then Roger Hollis, were suspected of being Soviet agents, Martin gained an inappropriately sympathetic ear from Dick White, who had been his mentor when Martin acted as White’s emissary in 1951. Then Martin had helped to plant hints on the CIA that Philby was the primary candidate for abetting the escape of Burgess and Maclean (see DickWhite’sDevilishPlot.) White, of course, had been a senior officer in MI5 at the time, and shifting the blame to MI6 helped him protect his position and career. In 1963 and 1964, from his vantagepoint as chief of MI6, White was now quite happy to suggest that MI5 was the leaky vessel, in order to achieve a similar goal.

Thus Martin was an unlikely choice to carry out a careful interrogation of Blunt. It was not that he had similar successes under his belt, unlike the experienced (but overrated) Jim Skardon, for instance. His noted successes with the Portland Spy Ring and Vassall cases were prompted by information from defectors rather than superlative sleuthing. Gordon Corera credits him with his persistence in trying to pin down Philby’s guilt, and convincing Dick White of the fact, but White himself had understood that back in 1951. The exercise was probably set up as a sop to his vanity: having believed that he was going to impress Hollis and White with his news from Straight, he was rebuffed by their lack of enthusiasm. Hollis and White had their hands forced, but would later be able to represent the faux confession as something imposed on to them by Straight’s revelations, when in fact they knew about the facts all along. They needed to try to keep Martin loyal. Martin had not been told of the November-December 1963 negotiations with Blunt (as his comments to Pincher indicate (8)), or the details of the Cairncross interviews in London, but he must have been informed of the requirements of the Cairncross case, as he was sent on a delicate mission to strategise with the FBI some weeks before Cairncross’s arrival in the United States.

And then he got into trouble with Hollis, becoming such a disruptive influence, frustrated that Blunt was continuing unpunished, demoralised that Cumming was moved into the D Division as his boss, and next having key personnel removed, that he had be suspended, and then dismissed. Corera writes: “Even his friends acknowledged that he lacked tact, but he became increasingly reckless, even self-destructive, in his single-minded pursuit.” (The Art of Betrayal, p 204) Yet for White to then hire him, in November 1964, was very controversial. As Aldrich and Cormac write in The Black Door (p 241): “Remarkably, Dick White, who had been director-general of MI5 and was now chief of MI6, was inclined to agree with Martin, and felt that suspicions lingered around his former colleagues Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell.” The whole episode is redolent of what happened to Jane Sissmore, when Guy Liddell had to fire her in 1940 under dubious pretexts, whereupon she was picked up by MI6. White’s action was a monstrous insult to his protégé Hollis.

Lastly, what could Martin’s motivations have been, in adopting such a scattershot approach to leaking information to journalists and writers? Was he undertaking an official disinformation exercise? And, if so, was he simply chaotic and disorganised, with a faulty memory? I think not. In his 2020 poorly titled but overall engrossing study of how intelligence analysts should approach their tasks, How Spies Think, David Omand, former head of GCHQ, explains what is essential to detect a successful disinformation project. “The corollary is that to detect deception as many different channels should be examined as possible. It requires great skill to make the messages consistent on each channel and avoid errors. One inconsistency may be enough to reveal the deception.” (p 267) Thus, if an agency is going to peddle a Big Lie on any target audience, it has to have a watertight, well-conceived story – such as the legends developed by the Double Cross team in World War II.

Yet Martin’s (and Wright’s) stories are all over the place, riddled with inconsistences, conflicting chronologies and details, and unconvincing psychological portraits. I have come to the conclusion that Martin probably did this deliberately – to draw attention to the fact that a gross injustice had been performed, and a cover-up perpetrated, and to provide solid hints for the more intrepid and inquisitive of those who chronicled the events that the story was not as it seemed. Andrew Boyle got a portion of the way there, but the baton was scandalously dropped by every analyst afterwards. And one of his stories even reached the authorised history, thus receiving officially blessing.

Guy Liddell (with secretary Joan (?), Arthur Martin’s second wife)

Martin retired from MI5 in 1969, and took on a job as a clerk at the House of Commons. In 1984, he collaborated with Stephen de Mowbray in writing an Editor’s Foreword for their ghosting of Golitsyn’s New Lies for Old. He died in 1996, after expressing public doubts that Hollis had been a spy. As Anthony Glees records in the Secrets of the Service (p 316), Martin had written in the Times, on July 19, 1984, that only new evidence could shed light on an inconclusive case. His second marriage was to Guy Liddell’s secretary, Joan. According to West, both he and his wife ‘abhorred’ the notoriety that his doggedness over KGB penetration had brought him.


Here follows my version of events.

Sometime in 1963, probably in April, Michael Straight and Anthony Blunt agreed to try to regularise relations with their respective intelligence authorities. In June, Straight confessed to the FBI, and the news was passed on to Roger Hollis, who kept it to himself and Dick White. In September, Hollis in person impressed upon Hoover the need for secrecy. Straight was invited over to the UK in October, where he briefed Hollis and White, and a highly confidential immunity agreement for Blunt was made with the help of Cabinet Secretary Trend, Home Secretary Brooke, and Attorney General Hobson. Blunt revealed the involvement in espionage of (at least) Cairncross and Long, and pointed the finger at several other dubious characters. Cairncross unexpectedly sprang on the scene in December, when he arrived in London in the process of trying to gain a USA visa to work in Ohio. MI5 convened a hurried session with Cairncross, where they explained to him the situation, promised him immunity if he would talk, and explained that they would prefer to interrogate him formally in Cleveland. MI5 started negotiations with the FBI for the approval of Cairncross’s visa.

Martin was sent on to Washington in advance, to finalise the visa arrangements, prepare the ground for Cairncross’s interrogation, and to alert the FBI of the sensitivity of the situation. With Oldfield’s assistance, Martin was immediately introduced to Straight, as Angleton and the CIA had grown impatient with the lack of evident action on the interrogation of Blunt. Cairncross arrived in the USA in February, and swiftly confessed, but Martin had to stay on to try to gain a statement from him under caution, which Cairncross not surprisingly declined. Martin returned to London, armed with the new evidence and expecting a hero’s welcome, but was chagrined at the lack of enthusiasm for interrogating Blunt. Hollis and White then decided to re-stage the confession, with Blunt’s obvious compliance. But Blunt remained not only unprosecuted but unscathed. Martin quickly realised that he had been hoodwinked, and started to make boisterous objections, which eventually cost him his job. He landed on his feet under Dick White in MI6, but the resentment lingered, and White became an enthusiastic supporter of his theories about a mole in MI5.


I present five main areas of conclusion, on the essence of the hoax, on the policy of offering immunity, on Hollis’s lack of leadership, on White’s duplicity, and on the failures of authorised history.

The Hoax:

Some might argue that this was no hoax, since no obvious victim was deceived. Perhaps the events were just part and parcel of the cloak-and-dagger activities that are intrinsic to the business of the ‘Secret World’. Yet a large deception was undertaken. And why did MI5 plant a bogus document in the archives, unless they intended seriously to mislead someone? The authorized historian was deceived, swallowed the whole story, and everyone who followed him trusted what appeared in Defend the Realm.

In a partial sense, Blunt’s confession was a hoax. He committed to give a full confession, but prevaricated and dissembled, so that his interrogators never gained the full story. But the major hoax was that perpetrated by Hollis and White, in the deceptions they played against various agencies. They claimed to the Home Secretary and the Attorney General that that it was Straight’s testimony that proved Blunt’s guilt, when they already had powerful evidence of his traitorous activities that they had kept to themselves. They concealed from their own officers in MI5 the fact that a very private deal with Blunt had been concluded in December 1963. They prepared documentation for posterity that indicated that an authentic confession had been elicited from Blunt in April 1964, when the whole episode had been choreographed. In addition, in a supplementary plot where they tripped over themselves in the chronology, they suggested to the Foreign Office that Cairncross had confessed for the first time, in Cleveland, in February 1964, when they had in fact followed up Blunt’s revelations the previous December and interrogated Cairncross in London.

In The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969), Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff made an important distinction between the genuine and the authentic. They wrote: “The two adjectives may seem synonymous but they are not: that is genuine which is not forged; and that is authentic which truthfully reports on its ostensible subject.”. In this scheme, the Hitler Diaries would be ungenuine and inauthentic, a counterfeit copy of a book would be ungenuine but authentic, and Arthur Martin’s description of the Blunt Confession would be genuine but inauthentic. It is that document – if it exists – that is the kernel of the hoax.

The Failure of Immunity:

Offering immunity from prosecution in exchange for full cooperation is not a strategy.

This policy might be called the Macmillan Doctrine, since the Prime Minister, when admonishing Roger Hollis for proudly informing him that MI5 had caught the spy John Vassall, declared: “When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room; he buries it out of sight”. Yet Macmillan overlooked the fact that, while dead foxes may tell no tales, pardoned spies usually have witnesses, who will frequently seek that fairness and equity be observed. As Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta remind us in their recent book on MI5, MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law, in 1961 Macmillan pressed for immunity to be granted to George Blake, in exchange for his full co-operation, but Dick White insisted that the business go to trial. Blake was sentenced to forty-two years, and the later comparison of the fate of Blake (a Dutchman with a Jewish father) with that of the aristocratic Blunt helped fan the flames of the protestors’ cause.

The problem is that the authorities will never know how much co-operation they are getting from their suspect. In his August 7, 2020 Times Literary Supplement review of A Question of Attribution (the British Academy and the Matter of Anthony Blunt), edited by David Cannadine, Richard Davenport-Hines wrote: “The compact between the Security Service and Blunt was broken by a novice prime minister fifteen years later.” Yet that is a perversely one-sided interpretation of what happened: the news had escaped through no fault of Margaret Thatcher, but Blunt remained unprosecuted. Blunt did not fulfil his side of the bargain, as his wishy-washy written ‘confession’ shows. Moreover, one condition of Blunt’s immunity deal, insisted upon by the Attorney General, John Hobson, was that he admit that he had not spied after 1945, as Miranda Carter reported (17). So what did Blunt do? He made that assertion to Martin, one which turned out to be untrue.

That does not necessarily mean that Blunt should have been prosecuted. A public trial – or even one held in camera – would have been very embarrassing, and even the Arthur Martins and Peter Wrights of this world would have recognized that. But, apart from the fact that he should never have been recruited by MI5, Blunt should never have been treated so leniently when he was found assisting Leo Long in espionage in 1944, should never have been trusted during the Burgess-Maclean fiasco, should never have been used as a ‘consultant’ in the Philby business, or by Liddell in further investigations of dangerous communists, and certainly should never have been sent to Beirut to warn Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival (as the evidence strongly suggests). He should have been asked to resign his posts, have his perks and privileges taken away, and found his own new niche – perhaps even a minor chair at Liverpool University, which he might have regarded as only slightly more appealing than exile to Moscow. And this should have been effected with a promise that he would maintain his silence. The secret might still have leaked out eventually, but at least the objections to his tolerant treatment would not have been so strong. (Contrary to what Professor Sir Michael Howard claimed in a letter to the Times, Blunt was never used as channel of disinformation to the Soviets: see for a debunking of this absurd notion.)

Thus the policy as executed for Leo Long and John Cairncross  – and maybe others unknown – and planned for Kim Philby, was a misguided show of passivity and evasion.

The Weakness of Roger Hollis:

Roger Hollis must be held accountable for much of this failure, since most of it occurred on his watch (1956-65). One must recall that, during this eventful year of 1963 (so far as the actions surrounding Blunt, Straight and Cairncross were concerned), Hollis also had to deal with the Profumo case. This had problematic outcomes: Stephen Ward had committed suicide, while John Profumo had been let off extremely lightly, considering the misdeeds and lies he undertook. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta (see above) make a strong case that, even though Hollis was cleared by Lord Denning in the latter’s inquiry, Hollis had in fact acted very indolently in not informing the Home Secretary of what MI5 knew about Profumo, Ward, Keeler and Ivanov, and that he had avoided the truth that it was an issue of ‘defending the realm’.

Hollis clearly had more important matters on his mind. But that is no excuse: as the saying goes, ‘it came with the territory’. Hollis was yet another senior MI5 officer who let himself be taken aback by events, and had not worked out what the agency should do if unpleasant surprises came along. Maybe that was an outcome of MI5’s exact statutory footing’s being indistinct, but that had been clarified to a certain extent by the Findlater Stewart report at the end of the war, and the following Attlee and Maxwell Fyfe Directives. Hollis had enough time to attempt to resolve such issues, but preferred to keep his head down, and try to maintain a quiet life. Moreover, Hollis was apparently far too much under the influence of Dick White, with MI6 officers also appearing to be meddling in MI5 affairs far more than was suitable.

Thus the strategy over Blunt and Cairncross, of trying to keep the secret to as small a number of persons as possible, was bound to fail in the long run. It was one thing to conceal important facts from the incoming and possibly naïve Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (where Hollis was abetted by the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Attorney General), but the policy of deceiving junior officers, with their natural inquisitiveness and interest in internal gossiping, did not inspire trust as the story went around. Perhaps it is surprising that the secret remained in the private sphere so long as it did. Hollis died in 1973, and thus did not live to see his handiwork unveiled.

The Duplicity of Dick White:

Dick White’s contribution to the whole affair is controversial, even sinister. He had recommended Roger Hollis as the officer who should succeed him when he was appointed head MI6 in 1956. And maybe Hollis looked for guidance from his mentor when he took over the reins as director general. In any case, White appeared to maintain a very active involvement in MI5 affairs. No doubt he kept in close touch with Arthur Martin, who had been a loyal servant to him during the machinations of the Burgess-Maclean business. It is White who encourages Martin to pursue the Mitchell inquiries, and Hollis is regularly consulting with White, for example when the information from Straight arrives. It is White who encourages Hollis to fly out to Washington to explain the details of the Mitchell case to the FBI and the CIA.

Yet White apparently did not have a high opinion of Hollis’s capabilities. Chapman Pincher, in Treachery (p 428), cites a letter that White wrote to Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) in 1984: “Hollis was never interested in CE (counter-espionage) work, having one of those crabbed minds that prefer protective security measures to the fun of sniffing things out.” This was a highly unprofessional statement for White to make. Either he deliberately wanted MI5 to fail under the leader he had recommended, or MI5 had no other candidates who could have competed. But, if White had always had this opinion of Hollis (‘never interested’), it would have been incumbent upon him to recommend that someone be appointed from outside. (Cleveland Cram dubbed Hollis ‘the biggest dolt to come down the pike in years’.) After all, there had been two recent precedents for such a decision (Petrie and Sillitoe).

White had as much to lose in the Blunt business as anyone, having been the sole surviving officer in the agencies who had witnessed his recruitment in 1940, and he had been hoodwinked by him and his cronies ever since. White had believed that Philby was guilty back in 1950, or earlier, but had avoided MI5-M6 strife by channeling his accusations through the FBI. On taking over MI6, he had banished Philby, but the spy had managed to get back on the books as an unofficial contributor. Now Philby had disappeared, and it suited White to suggest that someone within MI5 (where the main molehunt was occurring) had been responsible for leaking the news of the impending visit by Nicholas Elliott. Gordon Corera writes (p 194) that ’it was Martin’s theory that his old foe had been tipped off that most intrigued the MI6 chef’, but, in light of Blunt’s visit to Beirut, it is safe to assume that White played along with Martin, and saw a great opportunity for camouflage.

So was White a serious believer in the presence of an ELLI in MI5, whether Mitchell, Hollis, or anyone else? I doubt it. Yet he very quickly turned against Hollis. When Hollis fired his troublemaker, Martin, White quickly recruited him. Shortly afterwards, Hollis’s deputy, Furnival Jones, after discussing the problem with Dick White, agreed that an inter-agency investigative committee needed to be set up, and White convinced a reluctant Roger Hollis that it was a good idea Thus the FLUENCY sub-committee, under Peter Wright’s chairmanship, was established, and it soon had to consider whether Hollis himself was a spy. The outcome was inevitably destructive, and may have contributed to Hollis’s early death in 1973.

White retired from MI6 in 1968, somewhat detached from the fray that he had set in motion. In 1974, however, after the less eventful tenure of John Rennie, a fresh anti-MI5 thrust emerged from MI6. As Professor Glees described in The Secrets of the Service, Stephen de Mowbray of MI6 (a member of the FLUENCY team) ‘broke his cover’ to write an article in Encounter magazine that revivified all the theories of Soviet subversion within MI5, and the probable guilt of Roger Hollis. The new head of MI6 was Maurice Oldfield, White’s molehunt facilitator from Washington.

Authorised History:

My final observations concern the phenomenon of authorised history – and specifically Christopher Andrew’s work. Readers who are swayed by my theories about the confessions will agree that the exposition in Defend the Realm is, in the coverage of Blunt and Cairncross, erroneous. It contains misrepresentations and oversights. Yet Andrew’s book is generally regarded as biblical in its authority, even to the extent that historians and biographers will ignore evidence before their own eyes that suggests an alternative story in favour of Andrew’s account. In May 2017, in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’(, I laid out my objections to authorised histories in general, with Defend the Realm as one of my examples, and I withdraw nothing I wrote at that time. In fact my message is reinforced by the Blunt case.

In many respects Defend the Realm is an impressive work, with a masterful synthesis of complex issues. Yet it is deeply flawed, primarily in its indiscriminate use of dubious sources, and in its vast number of citations of anonymous archival records that cannot be verified independently. The passage describing Blunt’s confession is the latest notorious example. I see no reason why the document that is claimed to play such a major role in Andrew’s narrative, and those related to it, should not be released by MI5, so that independent historians could make their own assessment of their authenticity, and how they shed light on the events of 1963 and 1964. Moreover, I suspect that Andrew, and those who assisted him, may not have maintained a scrupulous cross-reference of documents and citations so that a full concordance could be constructed if and when the authorities see fit to make the archival material accessible. (It is not as if relevant Freedom of Information requests can easily be made, as there are no identifiers to refer to.) I made this point in my original script, and I know at least one distinguished historian who maintained such a system in his researches and writing.

The scope of Defend the Realm is surely too ambitious. So much released material exists that a new History could probably be divided up into volumes covering the stewardship of each Director-General. That would have to be complemented by a judicious and methodological treatment of other literature (memoir, biography, other government sources, etc.). I happen to believe that my own contributions in this area, covering such as Fuchs and Peierls, Agent Sonya, Dick White and the Burgess-Maclean affair, Liverpool University, the RSS and the Double-Cross System, the LENA spies, VENONA and HASP, the Portland Ring – and now Blunt and Cairncross – constitute a valuable corpus of material that should be used in any fresh enterprise.

Yet it is difficult to see how such a programme would evolve. For example, despite the best efforts of Professor Glees and me, it has been a struggle to gain serious attention over the hubbub of publicity given recently to Agent Sonya, and correct Ben Macintyre’s story. Serious historians do not seem to want to challenge the establishment history of MI5. A few years ago, the FBI gave serious airtime to the debate about ELLI and Roger Hollis (see ), but it fizzled out. I do not see any mechanism in the UK for performing a similar exercise on MI5 molehunts, but, if anyone decides that it should be pursued, I am very willing to contribute.

Late-Breaking News!

I have not yet received my copy of the February 26 Times Literary Supplement in the mail, but my on-line colleague Michael Holzman has just informed me that the following item appears on the back page:

‘Antony Percy writes from Southport, NC, to point out a near-enough coincidence: as we were quoting John le Carré (January 22) wondering if the future might bring about a “fairer, less greedy world” than the present (with its “jingoistic” England – “an England I don’t want to know”), Hunter Davies was recalling in The Times (January 21) how le Carré, fifty-odd years ago, “handed over £2.6 million to a tax avoidance schemer in the West Indies – and lost it all”. The top rate of tax at the time, Mr Percy omits to mention, was 95 per cent.’

What the columnist fails to consider is that, if John le Carré had been serious in wanting to contribute to a ‘fairer, less greedy world’, he would presumably (unlike me) have supported the government’s ‘progressive’ tax policies, as it obviously would have been far wiser in spending (ahem, ‘redistributing’) his hard-earned income than he himself was.

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The Hoax of the Blunt Confession (Part 1)

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt

Dramatis Personae 1963-1964

UK Government:

Alec Douglas-Home (Prime Minister since October 1963)

Rab Butler (Foreign Secretary)

Henry Brooke (Home Secretary)

John Hobson (Attorney-General)

Bernard Burrows (Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee)

Howard Caccia (Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office)

Burke Trend (Secretary to the Cabinet)


Roger Hollis (Director-General)

Graham Mitchell (deputy to Hollis, retired in September 1963)

Martin Furnival-Jones (head of D Division, transferred to deputy to Hollis in September 1963)

Malcolm Cumming (head of D Division, replacing Furnival-Jones)

Arthur Martin (head of D1, ‘Investigations’, former henchman of Dick White)

Peter Wright (joined D1 in January 1964)

Ronnie Symonds (working for Martin, compiler of report on Mitchell)

MI6 (SIS):

Dick White (Chief since 1956; former head of MI5)

Maurice Oldfield (White’s representative in Washington)

The Spies:

Guy Burgess (absconded to the Soviet Union in 1951)

Donald Maclean (absconded to the Soviet Union in 1951)

Kim Philby (absconded to the Soviet Union in January 1963)

Anthony Blunt (strongly suspected of being Soviet spy)

John Cairncross (forced to leave the Treasury in 1952)

Leo Long (detected spying in 1944, but not prosecuted)

James Klugmann (open CP member, and ex-SOE officer)

Michael Straight (American recruited by Blunt in 1937)

In the USA:

Edgar Hoover (Chief of FBI)

William Sullivan (Hoover’s deputy)

James Angleton (Head of CIA Counter-Intelligence)

Anatoli Golitysn (KGB defector)



The Official Account

Had Blunt confessed before?

The Sources: Wave 1 – Conflicting Rumours

The Sources: Wave 2 – Digging Deeper

The Sources: Wave 3 – The Era of Biography

The Sources: Wave 4 The Archives Come Into Play


When I set out on this project, I did not know whether it was important, or why it might be so. I did not even seriously believe that there could be significant doubts about the facts of Anthony Blunt’s confession. Yet I had a nagging suspicion that all was not right, and my impressions were that the official account was at loggerheads with other descriptions I had read. Thus, as my investigation continued, and I became more convinced that the official accounts were false, I asked myself: If the event had indeed been bogus (as Chapman Pincher suspected), why would Hollis and White go to such elaborate lengths to construct such a flimsy story, and why did they execute the misinformation exercise with such appalling clumsiness? The irony remains, however, that, despite the project’s ham-handedness, every historian, journalist and commentator has been taken in by what appears to be an absurdly clumsy attempt by Dick White, former head of MI5, and chief of MI6, to divert attention from his profound culpability over Anthony Blunt. This report lays out the historical evidence. Next month I shall interpret it all.

[Note: In my text, as a general rule, standard parentheses enclose natural asides. Square parentheses indicate editorial comment.]

The Official Account

Christopher Andrew

The anchor for the analysis of the confessions of Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross in early 1964 should probably be the account of the events by the authorised historian, Christopher Andrew, delivered in 2009. We should recall that MI5 had set out on its celebrated ‘Molehunt’ two years before the Blunt confrontation. In April 1962 the Soviet defector Anatoli Golitsyn had defected to the USA. On James Angleton’s invitation, Arthur Martin of MI5 had interviewed him, and Golitsyn later declared the existence of a ‘Ring of Five’ Cambridge spies. Burgess and Maclean were the obvious first two. Philby was not named, but was indirectly identified. The names of the last two were unknown. Philby, perhaps with MI6’s connivance, escaped from Beirut in January 1963. Cairncross and Blunt had apparently been interviewed by MI5 several times since the abscondence of Burgess and Maclean in 1951. Cairncross had been required to leave the Treasury in April 1952 when evidence of his espionage came to light.

The famous and much quoted passage in Defend the Realm runs as follows (pp 436-437):

“The decisive breakthrough in the Service’s investigation of Anthony Blunt came when the American Michael Straight admitted that Blunt had recruited him while he was an undergraduate at Trinity College, Cambridge. Arthur Martin called on Blunt at the Courtauld Institute on the evening of 23 April 1964 and asked him to recall all he knew about Michael Straight. Martin ‘noticed that by this time Blunt’s right cheek was twitching a good deal’ and ‘allowed a long pause before saying that Michael Straight’s account was rather different from his’. He then offered Blunt ‘an absolute assurance that no action would be taken against him if he now told the truth’:

He sat and looked at me for fully a minute without speaking. I said that his silence had already told me what I wanted to know. Would he now get the whole thing off his chest? I added that only a week or two ago I had been through a similar scene with John Cairncross who had finally confessed and afterwards thanked me for making him do so. Blunt’s answer was: ‘give me five minutes while I wrestle with my conscience.’ He went out of the room, got himself a drink, came back and stood at the tall window looking out on Portman Square. I gave him several minute of silence and then appealed him to get it off his chest. He came back to his chair and [confessed].

Andrew sources this passage as ‘Security Services Archives’.

Now, I do not doubt that Professor Andrew did find a document containing this information, but it is bewildering that it has not been released by MI5 to the National Archives for perusal by objective historians. It is not unknown for inauthentic documents to be inserted into an archive in order to indicate that things were other than they actually were. For the melodramatic event poses all sorts of pertinent questions. Andrew’s vagueness about dates (including in a predecessor passage where he describes Cairncross’s confession to Martin in Cleveland, Ohio) provokes some major challenges: the circumstances of Martin’s approaches to Blunt raise a few more. For example:

Straight confessed to the FBI in June 1963. Why did it take so long to confront Blunt?

Why was Cairncross interrogated in Ohio, when he had recently passed through London?

What was Martin’s real business in the USA in January 1964?

What made Cairncross confess, just when he had taken up a new academic post in Ohio?

Why did Martin visit Blunt alone? This was not normal investigative practice.

Why did Martin state that Blunt’s account ‘was rather different from’ Straight’s, when Blunt had apparently not said anything at that time?

Why did Martin’s claim that Cairncross had confessed not have any discernible effect on Blunt?

Why were Blunt’s revelations about Cairncross such a big issue if Cairncross had already confessed?

Why did Martin say that Cairncross’s confession had occurred ‘only a week or two ago’, when it had happened over two months beforehand?

How did Martin and MI5 expect to be able to establish whether Blunt told them ‘the truth’ or not?

I shall attempt to answer those questions by peeling away the various records and interpretations of the event in books and archival material published since Andrew Boyle’s unveiling of ‘Maurice’ in 1979, and Margaret Thatcher’s subsequent admission in the House of Commons that Anthony Blunt had been given immunity. The story displays a kind of ‘Rashomon Effect’, although the testimony of the scribes is rarely that of eye-witnesses, and those closest to the action appear to have the most at stake in distorting the facts of what actually happened. Perhaps it should be seen as more of a detective-story, where a Hercule Poirot-like figure interviews all the participants in order to establish the truth.

But first, the claims about an earlier Blunt confession.

Had Blunt confessed before?

Andrew Boyle

In one provocative paragraph in Climate of Treason, Andrew Boyle suggested that Blunt (‘Maurice’) had voluntarily approached MI5 to admit his connections with Burgess and Maclean. “Yet less than two years after the reappearance of Burgess and Maclean in Moscow [February 1956]”, he wrote, “‘Maurice’, the Fourth Man, belatedly called on the security authorities to confess all he knew about the past links between himself and his fellow conspirators.” Boyle went on to describe how Blunt gained the equivalent of a ‘Royal Pardon’ for disclosing what Blunt claimed was ‘a secondary role’ in the ‘nefarious exploits of Burgess, Maclean and, to a lesser degree, of Philby’.

Boyle offers no source for these assertions. And it is easy to grant this event (if it occurred) more substance than it merits. After all, Blunt apparently did not admit to grand espionage on his own account, but merely to abetting the real traitors. Moreover, such revelations would not have come as much of a surprise to Dick White and Roger Hollis (who had succeeded White as head of MI5 on the former’s transfer to MI6 chief in 1956), since Blunt’s behaviour at the time of the abscondence of Burgess and Maclean had been well-noted, and Blunt’s collaboration with Leo Long at MI14 in 1944 was still fresh in their minds. 1958 seems rather early in the cycle, yet, if Blunt was anxious to get his account out before Burgess spoke up and distorted the story (in Boyle’s thinking), one might have assumed that Blunt would have spoken up even earlier.

Other writers, however, have brought up stories in a similar vein. In her 2001 biography of Blunt, Anthony Blunt: his lives, Miranda Carter reports a claim made by Michael Taylor, an undergraduate at the Courtauld in the early sixties (pp 438-439). In a letter to Carter of February 8, 1996, Taylor had written:

I knew MI5 had offered him immunity if he would confess, that he had got up, walked over and poured himself a drink and gone over and gazed out of the window for a while before turning around and admitting he was a spy. I knew he had been questioned a number of times over the years and had proved too clever to be trapped. And I knew that the car of the last of the three had been finally located in the carpark of the Courtauld Institute galleries  . . . To me this was common knowledge and it was told to me by a fellow undergraduate in 1961 (or perhaps 1962).

This anecdote may betray a confusion of memories: how would Taylor have known of the drink-pouring incident? He may have recollected it from another account, as I shall show later. Carter goes on to claim that Blunt’s guilt was ‘canteen gossip at MI5’ in the early 1960s. She shows that there were frequent declarations made among the denizens of the art world that their resident expert on Poussin had been a Soviet spy. Yet all these denunciations could be indicative only that senior officers at MI5 believed that Blunt was a spy, and were happy to have their suspicions broadcast. They do not necessarily point to the fact that Blunt had made a confession, and agreed to some form of an immunity deal.

Carter also identifies the story in Private Eye, in the issue of 28 September 1979 (i.e. before Blunt was officially unmasked) that named Blunt as the interested party, after a leak from the practices of Blunt’s lawyer, Michael Rubinstein. One of the statements that the magazine made was that Blunt ‘had confessed in 1957’.

‘Open Secret’

Other indications of an earlier confession have surfaced. In his 2019 biography of John Cairncross, The Last Cambridge Spy, Chris Smith informs us (p 154) that Dame Stella Rimington (Director-General of MI5 from 1992 to 1996), when a junior officer, had interviewed Cairncross in 1973, and noted that he had claimed that Blunt was MI5’s source on Cairncross’s guilt. Was she perhaps just parroting what Cairncross said? Indeed, in Cairncross’s memoir The Enigma Spy (p 141) the author declared, in describing Martin’s arrival in Cleveland, Ohio, and the subsequent interview, that ‘his informant was again Anthony Blunt, the man who had organized my recruitment without appearing on the scene himself.’ Moreover, in Open Secret, her 2001 memoir, Dame Stella appears to make a far more authoritative declaration (p 119): “He [Cairncross] had been exposed as a spy for the KGB by Anthony Blunt, and had been interviewed by, amongst others, Peter Wright, to whom he had made some limited admissions.” In other words, Blunt confessed before Cairncross.

It must be daunting for any biographer new to this sphere to sort out such conflicts. Thus, instead of analyzing this valuable item of evidence from a highly authoritative source, and considering its implications, Smith has to resort to trusting ‘the archival evidence’ (which of course he has not seen, as it has not been shown to any writer except Christopher Andrew). “Yet, the archival evidence conclusively shows that Martin had interviewed Cairncross by 18 February 1964. They cannot have been interested in Cairncross because Blunt tipped them off”, Smith writes. The evidence is, however, not conclusive at all. So what does a researcher do: accept the judgment of the authorised historian that an authentic and reliable document exists, or trust the word of a director-general of MI5, who was there at a critical interview? Of course, you must do neither. You have to accept that there is a conflict, and dig more deeply yourself.

My method here is thus to study in depth the publications that cover the Cairncross-Blunt confessions, to determine what source material they relied upon, and thus to attempt to establish how some of the mythology took hold. Next month I shall propose what a more likely explanation of events might be. This study may be very laborious for some: for true aficionados I hope (and believe) that it will be as compelling to read as it has been for me to compile it. I know no other way of dismantling the scaffolding of untruths that has concealed the structure behind it.

The Sources: Wave 1 – Conflicting Rumours

Margaret Thatcher

The Prime Minister’s Statement to the House of Commons: November 21, 1979 (extract)

“The defection of Burgess and Maclean led to intense and prolonged investigations of the extent to which the security and other public services had been infiltrated by Russian intelligence.

At an early stage in these investigations Professor Blunt came under inquiry. This was as a result of information to the effect that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources. Blunt denied this. Nevertheless, he remained under suspicion, and became the subject of intensive investigation. He was interviewed on 11 occasions over the following eight years. He persisted in his denial, and no evidence against him was obtained. Of course, until his confession, the authorities did not know the extent of his involvement with the Russians or the period over which it lasted.

It was early in 1964 that new information was received relating to an earlier period which directly implicated Blunt. I cannot disclose the nature of that information but it was not usable as evidence on which to base a prosecution. In this situation, the security authorities were faced with a difficult choice. They could have decided to wait in the hope that further information which could be used as a basis for prosecuting Blunt would, in due course, be discovered. But the security authorities had already pursued their inquiries for nearly 13 years without obtaining firm evidence against Blunt.

There was no reason to expect or hope that a further wait would be likely to yield evidence of a kind which had eluded them so far. Alternatively, they could have confronted Professor Blunt with the new information to see if it would break his denial. But Blunt had persisted in his denial at 11 interviews; the security authorities had no reason to suppose that he would do otherwise at a twelfth. If the security authorities had confronted him with the new information, and he still persisted in his denial, their investigation of him would have been no further forward and they might have prejudiced their own position by alerting him to information which he could then use to warn others.

They therefore decided to ask the Attorney-General, through the acting Director of Public Prosecutions, to authorise them to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution, if he both confessed and agreed to co-operate in their further investigations.”

‘The Fourth Man’

The Fourth Man by Douglas Sutherland (1980)

Quick off the press after Boyle was Douglas Sutherland, who had written a book with Anthony Purdy titled Burgess and Maclean in 1963, and now felt encouraged to make more explicit what he had hinted at earlier. The Fourth Man is a paradoxical work, since it starts out by criticizing MI5 and other government agencies for being in their employment practices too tolerant of Burgess, Maclean, Philby and Blunt, but concludes that it did not really matter, since they all achieved very little in the line of espionage, and that Cairncross was an unfortunate victim of spy fever. Of course, these latter assumptions were all made in ignorance of the secrets later revealed in the Moscow archives.

His coverage is relevant for this discussion of the challenge he threw down to Blunt in 1962. He writes (p 18): “In 1963, when Anthony Purdy and I published our book Burgess and Maclean, we had known with complete certainty that the shadowy figure now known in the popular numbers game as ‘The Fourth Man’ was Sir Anthony Blunt.” Sutherland thus invited Blunt to a meeting at the Travellers’ Club, and confronted him, listing the reasons he thought he was implicated. Blunt was visibly shocked, but Sutherland spoiled his opportunity by making a weak claim that allowed Blunt to wriggle free. “Unfortunately I did not realize at the time just how the last minute tipoff to Maclean had been contrived and wrongly accused Blunt of using his MI5 contacts to tell Maclean on Friday that he was to be interrogated on the Monday after his flight. This, it now emerges, was not the case. My inadvertent disclosure that my information was not entirely accurate seemed to rally Blunt. He stopped shaking and mumbling, told me in a comparatively firm voice that I would hear from his solicitors immediately if his name appeared anywhere in connection with the case, and beat a hasty retreat.”

Sutherland used this experience, however, to suggest that Blunt, over the eleven interrogations that the Prime Minister stated had occurred, could well have been broken, and he also expressed his belief that MI5 might have brought Blunt in from the cold and asked for his cooperation. Thus Sutherland is another who doubted the solemn implications of a stagey April 1964 melodrama, and, in his own style, he anticipated the Stella Rimington story. Yet he showed his own inconsistencies. On page 162, he claimed that Blunt held back on what he admitted because of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and on the next, indicated that Blunt made a ‘full confession’ in 1964. He overlooked the obvious irony.

‘Their Trade is Treachery’

Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher (1981: paperback version 1982)

When Pincher issued the first edition of Their Trade is Treachery, he was prevented, on legal advice, from naming some of the figures in the drama, such as Michael Straight, Leo Long, and Jack Jones, and instead had to deploy vague coded language. Straight, for instance, was described as ’a middle-aged American belonging to a rich and famous family’. But by the time the paperback version was published the following year, Straight had been flushed out by an enterprising journalist (Pincher), and admitted his role. In this revised edition, Pincher described how he had been able to interview Straight: he and Straight became close friends, and met several times before the paperback version was published. Pincher was free to name names.

Peter Wright was the source for the story. He had been introduced to Pincher by Victor Rothschild, and was seeking monetary reward to compensate for the fact of his pitiful £2000-a-year pension. Pincher had travelled to Australia to see Wright, and had made detailed notes from his conversations with him in Tasmania and from his inspection of the chapters that Wright had written. (Wright would not hand over his manuscript.) In his 2014 autobiography, Dangerous To Know, Pincher said he wrote the book in four months on his return to England. And sometimes it shows.

Pincher’s account runs as follows: Straight was asked by President Kennedy, late in 1963, shortly before he was assassinated, to be chairman of the National Council for the Arts. Concerned about what a security check might bring up, Straight met with the FBI, and admitted that he had been recruited in Cambridge by Blunt,’ whom he knew to have been a Soviet agent’, and was willing to give evidence against Blunt, if necessary. The FBI gave the news to MI5, and senior MI5 officers ‘discussed the situation for several weeks before taking any action’. Pincher continued by making a rather brazen observation: “It was agreed inside MI5 that the main purpose of confronting Blunt with the evidence was to induce him to talk in the hope that he would give a lead to the still unknown Fifth Man, to others he and his friends might have recruited, and to the identities and methods of the Soviet intelligence officers who had been involved.”

It was (according to Pincher) Arthur Martin who came up with the idea of offering Blunt immunity, and the Attorney-General approved the idea. After an intense discussion in April, Martin was chosen to interview Blunt in his flat. When the testimony from Straight was described to him, Blunt denied it, but, after Martin, in a huge bluff, indicated there was further evidence, and then made the offer of immunity, Blunt poured himself a stiff gin, and confessed that he had been a long-serving KGB agent. No written confession was made. Hollis suspended Martin almost immediately after the confession, an indication, in Pincher’s mind, that Hollis was himself a Soviet agent.

I see several problems with this account. The first is the date given for Kennedy’s offer of a job to Straight. Working backwards, Pincher must have assumed that it occurred just before Kennedy was killed, as the news would surely have been passed quickly to MI5. Moreover, Pincher claimed to have interviewed Straight. As Straight’s testimony, and the FBI files show [to be analyzed in this piece later], the events happened in June 1963. Why did Straight not make this clear? Thus the ‘several weeks’ for which MI5 sat on the information are highly problematical. And the fact that MI5 decided to interrogate Blunt in order to determine who the ‘Fifth Man’ was fairly comprehensively suggests that the Security Service had already concluded that Blunt was the ‘Fourth Man’. Had this realization happened before the Straight incident? Moreover, the description of the interrogation departs from the version appearing in the Authorised History. There is no mention of the recent interrogation of Cairncross, or of the way that the latter’s confession was used as an opening to encourage Blunt to do the same. And it is highly unlikely that Martin, an avid molehunter, would have been the person who came up with the idea of offering Blunt immunity. Martin was head of D1 at the time, a relatively low-level officer in the hierarchy.

It is difficult to pin down why this account was so sloppy – especially as Straight had been interviewed. Did Straight dissemble? Did the interview even take place? Was Wright simply confused, as he had not been close enough to the action? Or had Pincher made a number of transcription errors during his time in Tasmania? Some of these issues would get reconstructed in the coming years.


MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (1981)

The first instalment of Nigel West’s history of MI5 presents some historiographical problems. The project fell into West’s lap because of Dick White’s annoyance that Prime Minister Thatcher had cancelled the publication of Volume 4 of the British Intelligence in the Second World War series. Drawing on a conversation he had with Sir Michael Howard, White’s biographer, Tom Bower, described White as being ‘furious’ about her veto, and went on to write: “  . . .White encouraged a new writer, Rupert Allason, alias Nigel West, to write the history of MI5  up to 1945. With his assistance, West would be introduced to Tar Robertson and the MI5 officers who had rune the double-cross operation.” White was also upset that John Masterman (of Double-Cross fame) had been gaining all the glory.

West rather disingenuously recorded White’s contribution in his Introduction to MI5, where he wrote: “When I began my research I was told by a former Director-General of the Security Service that the task was virtually impossible, especially for an outsider.” Since three of the four previous DGs with deep knowledge of the period in question were deceased (Petrie, 1961; Sillitoe, 1962; and Hollis, 1973), the finger was pointed fairly squarely at Dick White. And West became an insider.

MI5 was first published in 1981, hard on the heels of Their Trade Is Treachery, and its ambit is clearly up to the end of World War II. Yet, at some stage, West added a Postscript that refers to Pincher’s book, and searches on West’s text suggests that the Postscript was added as early as 1982. It shows enough knowledge to indicate the role of Michael Straight, but is vague enough on the details to indicate that his precise testimony had not been examined. In his Postscript, West refers to Chapman Pincher’s Their Trade is Treachery, stating that it ‘caused such a furore early in 1981’, a choice of phrase that suggests it was a recent year, and not the same year in which MI5 originally appeared.

The story West tells is rather odd. Unfortunately, he displays a haphazard and imprecise approach to chronology. Cairncross is introduced into the story before the Straight incident. Without providing any context or timing, or explanation of what made Cairncross suddenly change his tune, West blandly declares: “Cairncross underwent a further interview in the United States, where he was lecturing, and made a full statement on his role as a Soviet agent. Although he was able to fill in a number of gaps about Burgess, he was unaware of Blunt’s talent-spotting and thus failed to name Blunt as a suspect. Cairncross wisely decided not to return to England and went to live in Rome when the American Department of Immigration declined to renew his visa.” But was this interview further to one he had submitted to recently, or further to his confession of 1952?

The temporal flow of West’s account suggests that the Cairncross confession occurred before Straight’s admissions to the FBI. West offers no date apart from ‘1963’ for the episodes involving Straight, and the passing on of Straight’s information to Hollis. Likewise, the sequence of events concerning the formal immunity from prosecution, and Blunt’s agreement to co-operate, is undated. West was probably uncomfortable with Pincher’s description of events, but was fed another leaky story by White and his cohorts, and was not ready to try and synthesize from all these half-baked stories exactly what happened, when.

‘A Matter of Trust’

MI5: 1945-72, A Matter of Trust by Nigel West (1982)

Soon after the publication of MI5 came Nigel West’s second instalment, not without controversy. On October 12, 1982, Her Majesty’s Attorney-General, Sir Michael Havers, QC, MP, successfully applied to Mr Justice Russell for an injunction against publication, as West’s work contained much secret information, including names of MI5 officers. After some negotiation, and the removal of some fairly innocuous names in organisation charts, the Court Order was discharged, and the book was published in November of that year.

MI5:1945-72 went through several impressions in the 1980s (my paperback copy is from the sixth impression in 1987), so it is not easy to determine whether subtle changes were made in the text concerning Cairncross and Blunt. In his Introduction, West volunteered the information that the Stephen Ward case had caused some major revisions, while making the claim that ‘this final version of A Matter of Trust is the most detailed account of MI5’s work ever published, or ever likely to be.’ Well, West could probably not imagine an authorised history coming out in 2009: his work held the stage for over twenty-five years.

In any case, it does not appear that A Matter of Trust took advantage of other works published during the mid-1980s. In fact, West’s account is singularly obtuse over the 1963-64 events. He identifies the trigger for the interrogation of Cairncross, after Blunt had repeatedly declined to co-operate, with D Branch’s decision to ‘retrace their steps’ and arrange an interview with Cairncross, ‘who was then lecturing at the University of the North-West in Cleveland, Ohio.’

Accordingly, Martin flew to Cleveland late in March 1964 ‘to talk over the situation with Cairncross’. [We know now that those dates are false.] For some reason, ‘the years abroad had mellowed him and he appeared ready to admit his espionage for the Russians.’ [The mellowing had presumably taken place in Pakistan or Italy, not the USA, as Cairncross had only just arrived in his post there.] West does not attempt to analyze why Cairncross would suddenly jeopardise his new career by owning up to something for which there was no fresh evidence.

West’s informer was no doubt Arthur Martin: no written record of Cairncross’s ‘confession’ has come to light. Cairncross was apparently able to reveal how he had been recruited by Guy Burgess in 1935, and he confirmed the awkward situation in 1951, when MI5 had tried to set him up with a rendezvous with his handler, Yuri Modin, during which only the Soviet officer’s quick-wittedness prevented a compromising meeting. Satisfied with his meeting with Cairncross, Martin prepared to return to London, travelling through Washington, where he was surprised to find that his opposite number in the FBI, William C. Sullivan, had some news for him. (Sullivan was assuredly not Martin’s ‘opposite number’.)  He was told that Sullivan’s boss, Edgar Hoover (whom Sullivan loathed) ‘knew all about the communist cells at Cambridge because the FBI had its own special source on the subject’. That source was, of course, Michael Straight, and Martin had a meeting with him the following day. The story again came out: Hoover, apparently, had not trusted MI5 with the information. The given interval, however, between the end of March, for Straight’s revelations, and the date of Blunt’s confession [as we now know, dated on April 22] seriously belies Pincher’s assertion that MI5 officers ‘discussed the situation for several weeks before taking any action’.

Martin reportedly flew promptly back to London [an event we now know not to be true], and informed his boss, the head of D Division, Martin Furnival-Jones. West collapses the events concerning the agreement, and Martin’s interview with Blunt, into a few short sentences. Blunt took only a few seconds to consider the promise of immunity from prosecution, and then admitted that he had been recruited in 1936. Later, he admitted talent-spotting for Burgess, and recruiting Cairncross, which went rather against the grain of Cairncross’s claim that he had been recruited in 1935, as well as West’s assertion in MI5 that Cairncross was not aware of Blunt’s activities as a talent-spotter, and denial that he had been effectively recruited by him. The overall conclusion from this account, however, is that Arthur Martin was a professional liar who could not even construct a solid legend about his activities.

West does add some commentary on Martin’s subsequent suspension by Hollis, although his description of the conflict is undermined by his listing of Malcolm Cumming as Martin’s boss of D Division, since the organization charts provided by West show that Furnival Jones held that position until Hollis’s retirement in 1965. If indeed Cumming had been appointed head of D Division, Martin might well have resented it. [I shall cover this later.] In explaining Martin’s suspension, however, West strongly counters Pincher’s assertion that Hollis was the prime mover behind the act. He states that the decision was made by the Security Service Directorate (i.e. the six Directors alongside the DG and the Deputy DG). Lastly, West adds the laconic but portentous sidenote: “In his [Martin’s] absence, Peter W. took over Blunt’s debriefing.”

‘After Long Silence’
Michael Straight

After Long Silence by Michael Straight (1983)

The last book from this exploratory period is Michael Straight’s own confessional work, which laid out for the public to read the whole saga of his recruitment as a Comintern spy in Cambridge. He describes how Blunt, about two weeks after the news of the death of Straight’s hero and friend, John Cornford, in Spain had reached the colleges of Cambridge (mid-January 1937), explained that ‘their friends’ had plans for him. By exploiting Cornford’s sacrifice, Blunt persuaded Straight that he could not turn down his assignment to move back to the USA and work on Wall Street, providing economic appraisals ‘of Wall Street’s plans to dominate the world economy’. Straight’s obvious distress at Cornford’s death would form a first-class cover for his breaking away from Cambridge.

Straight then covers his not very subversive career in espionage until June 1963, when he was invited to the White House to see Arthur Schlesinger, who showed him J. F. Kennedy’s plans for creating an Advisory Council on the Arts. Straight’s membership of that body would not have been problematic, but when he was recommended as chairman of the administrative arm of the new agency, the National Endowment of the Arts, he had to reconsider. Prior to his appointment, Straight would have to undergo an F.B.I. check.  He decided he could not risk it. He told Schlesinger the whole story, and was set up with an interview with William Sullivan, the deputy director of the F.B.I. He told his whole story again.

In July, Sullivan asked Straight if he would repeat his story to the British intelligence authorities, and he willingly agreed to do so. For some reason, however, he was not called again until January 1964. Straight attributed this lack of exchange of information to the distrust and suspicion that lingered with the F.B.I after the Burgess/Maclean fiasco of 1951. Nevertheless, Sullivan called Straight in January 1964, saying that a friend of his was flying in from London. It was, of course, Arthur Martin, and he had a long discussion with the MI5 officer. He told Martin that he believed that Burgess had been behind the plot to send him back to America. He said he thought Leo Long had been brought into the network as well. Martin was elated at the breakthrough, and asked Straight if he would be prepared to confront Blunt if the latter declined to confess. Straight said he would, and the two parted.

Straight does not describe any other events of 1964 until he flew to London in September to be with his mother. Martin debriefed him, explaining that Blunt had confessed (though why Straight could not have been informed of this before is not analysed). “He had, in the course of many interrogations, named his Russian and his British colleagues; he had described the material that he had turned over to the Soviet government; he had provided the intelligence services with a great deal of information.” Yet Straight appears incurious about Blunt’s fate. He has a long chat with Blunt, who appeared to bear no grudges. Straight forgot most of what they discussed, but added that ‘the question of immunity from prosecution was never mentioned”. One might imagine that a person in Straight’s position would have shown greater interest in why a confessed spy was apparently being allowed to survive unscathed and unprosecuted.

This memoir adds some valuable facts that are probably reliable: the confession in June, the role of Sullivan, the meeting with Martin in January 1964 [which will be confirmed later in the course of historiography]. But it thus sheds a lot of doubt on the testimony of Martin himself, when telling West that he did not meet Straight until the end of March, on his way back from Cleveland, and it raises some thorny questions about the six-month hiatus when the FBI and MI5 apparently never discussed Straight’s extraordinary testimony.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *

Thus the first wave concludes with some conflicts in dates, as well as in evidence. How much of this was due to misunderstanding or mistranscription, and how much to forgetfulness or even active disinformation?

The Sources: Wave 2 – Digging Deeper

‘Too Secret Too Long’

Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher (1983)

Chapman Pincher was first to return to the fray, with a weightier volume, Too Secret Too Long, published in 1983. The publication of Their Trade Is Treachery had resulted in a groundswell of communications to the author from around the world, and Pincher exploited his many contacts in government and the civil service to flesh out his story. He contacted Michael Straight, and befriended him, and Straight in turn showed him his communications with Arthur Martin. Pincher harvested many useful items from Parliamentary proceedings, published in Hansard. Some of his information sources, however, had to be masked as ‘Confidential’, indicating that certain civil servants knew they were betraying secret information. He was able to access F.B.I. papers on the Straight confessions. And he started to construct a more rigorous chronology of events, while neglecting to follow it up in a truly disciplined manner.

The first major breakthrough that Pincher brought to the table was an illumination of the movements of the key players in 1963. He shows how Blunt was himself in the USA, at Pennsylvania University [sic], while Straight’s debriefing was being completed in August of that year. He points out that Roger Hollis had been in Washington in September, in an attempt to explain to Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. the rationale behind the inquiry into Hollis’s deputy, Graham Mitchell, and that Arthur Martin followed close behind. He states that John Minnick, the legal attaché at the U.S. Embassy in London (and also the resident F.B.I. officer) delivered a letter from Hoover carrying the Straight-Blunt information – but only in November 1963. Pincher correctly draws attention to this astonishing delay, and surmises that Hollis did perhaps get briefed by Hoover in September, but decided to keep the information to himself.

Yet Pincher then breaks down in his own details. He goes on to write: “Whatever the extent and reasons for the long-time gap, Hollis decide to introduce a further delay. He allotted the case to Arthur Martin who was already in Washington pursuing the Mitchell inquiries and could easily have seen the F.B.I. about Blunt. Hollis, however, told Martin nothing, insisting that he must first return to London for discussions before either the F.B.I. or Straight could be approached.” This analysis is illogical, and in contradiction of Pincher’s own facts. If Hollis had truly been trying to keep things quiet, the last thing he would want to do would be to let loose an officer with a reputation for skulduggery in Washington, digging up secrets. There were no ‘Mitchell inquiries’ to be pursued in Washington. Moreover, this sequence of events flies completely in the face of what Straight had published in After Long Silence, where Martin in early 1964 was flown out to the U.S.A. on a mission (to interrogate Cairncross, as other accounts would soon confirm), and had a surprise encounter with Straight engineered by Hoover’s deputy, Sullivan.

But then Pincher corrects himself. He uses the Straight-Martin correspondence to show that Martin was not permitted to see Straight until early January, 1964, and cites Martin (who ‘recalled the situation to an informant recently’) as confirming that he had not been told about Blunt in the November time-frame, and that it was Sullivan who approached him about it when he was in Washington ‘for another purpose’. Pincher writes; ‘He seems to believe that the information he then received from Straight, in January 1964, was the first that MI5 had ever heard about it, implying that the F.B.I. had delayed for almost eight months before sharing its knowledge. This does not accord with my information from other MI5 sources.” Pincher then posits an arrangement between Hoover and Hollis (who apparently got on well) to set up the Straight-Martin meeting, so that Martin could return in triumph, and cover Hollis’s clandestine knowledge since November. But what would Hollis have hoped to gain through that intrigue?

The main thrust of Pincher’s case is, however, that Blunt’s confession was essentially bogus. [Chapter 37 of his book should be re-inspected by those readers who need to see his full analysis.]  Pincher considers that Blunt must have been pre-warned about the proposed immunity offer: there was no planning for the eventuality that Blunt would not confess; the meeting did not take long; Blunt capitulated too soon; Martin never outlined to Blunt the conditions agreed on for the deal itself; there was no written record of the event; Martin tape-recorded it, and asked Blunt to agree to the proceedings, but Blunt knew that it could have no status in law. Moreover, Pincher now states (in contradiction of what he claimed in Their Trade Is Treachery) that Martin made no attempt to bluff Blunt. “The circumstances of Blunt’s confrontation by Martin would be rejected by an author of spy fiction as too wildly improbable a scenario”, was how Pincher summed it up.

Pincher’s natural instinct is by now to blame Hollis for everything. In this assessment he completely ignores any role for Dick White, but I think that is a gross oversight. Hollis and White were surely in the plot together. White had ensured that Hollis succeeded him as D-G of MI5, and White had far much more to lose than Hollis did, given White’s leading part in MI5 when Blunt had been recruited, his treachery later discovered and then condoned, and then his advice sought in the Philby affair. Martin had been White’s henchman in the 1950 business to mislead the F.B.I and the C.I.A. (see Dick White’s Devilish Plot), and it is possible that the strife immediately after the Blunt engagement of April 1964, whereafter Martin joined his former boss in MI6, was a ruse to isolate Hollis.

There are two further gems in Pincher’s account. He informs us that Straight visited London in September 1964 and with Hollis’s assent confronted Blunt, ‘having been ignored by MI5 during a visit in the previous November’ [my italics]. I believe this is sensational. Pincher cites ‘Letters from Michael Straight’ as his source. Yet Straight had carefully elided over any intermediate visits to Britain – and possibly to Blunt – in After Long Silence. Why? Was he now trying to provide a hint to Pincher? As will be shown later, Straight’s biographer added some flesh to this particular journey. Yet Pincher’s reinforcement of his hints from MI5 insiders that the FBI had contacted MI5 earlier in the cycle is important.

The last revelation is Pincher’s treatment of Cairncross, in Chapter 40. He goes over the now familiar story of Cairncross’s career and partial confession in 1952, and stresses that one of the first fellow-spies whom Blunt named was Cairncross, that he had talent-spotted him, and arranged for him to be recruited by James Klugmann. Next, however, as part of the prevailing doctrine that Cairncross’s confession followed that of Blunt, Pincher writes: “MI5 had no option but to take some action and in 1964 Martin travelled to Rome to interrogate Cairncross who could, of course, have simply refused to be interviewed.” Cairncross apparently made a full confession to Martin.

As we know now, this is hogwash. And Pincher should have realised that a massive disinformation campaign was under way, as Nigel West had written in 1982 about Martin’s interrogation of Cairncross in Cleveland earlier in the year, before the date of Blunt’s reported confession. Martin was feeding stories to West and Pincher, but tripping over himself by not getting a watertight story together first. Pincher then absolved him by stumbling over his own details, and focusing exclusively on Hollis. He spotted that the Blunt confession was a sham, but was not imaginative enough to propose an alternative scenario. Martin was turning out to be a liar, and not a very good one. Enough evidence was around in 1983 to explode the whole façade that Hollis and White had been constructing.

‘Conspiracy of Silence’

Conspiracy of Silence by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (1986)

The hardback version of Conspiracy of Silence came out in 1986: energized by the Spycatcher Trial, an expanded paperback edition with a lengthy new postscript was issued in 1987 [the version I own]. Penrose and Freeman were journalists on the enterprising Sunday Times team, and they had been spurred into action by the death of Blunt in 1983. The subtitle of their work is The Secret Life of Anthony Blunt, yet it covers much more.

Penrose and Freeman had shown the skills of some old-fashioned sleuthing in flushing out Cairncross and Leo Long in the wake of Andrew Boyle’s book. In December 1979, following up on a clumsy hint from Sir John Colville, Winston Churchill’s sometime private secretary, Penrose had landed on Cairncross’s name and tracked him down to Rome, where they interviewed him, and it was Arthur Martin himself who told the reporters that Straight had informed him about Long. In this regard, the role of Martin in Penrose’s and Freeman’s story is quite remarkable. He is cited generously, having granted the authors off-the-record interviews in 1985, at a time when the Government was attempting to tighten up on unauthorized disclosures by retired intelligence officers (such as Peter Wright). These interviews provide the bulk of Penrose’s and Freeman’s account of Blunt’s confession. Was Martin being encouraged to string West, Pincher, Costello and others on with conflicting stories, just to sow confusion?

On pages 431 and 432, the authors offer as flattering a profile of Martin as you will find anywhere else: ‘unprepossessing, self-made, and down-to-earth’.  He had enjoyed an unconventional entry into MI5, and had headed D1, the service’s ‘elite section’ responsible for Soviet counter-espionage since 1960. Penrose and Freeman portray him as ‘a creation of John le Carré; a brooding spycatcher’. “His mind was a constant blur of bluffs and double-bluffs and, although he never claimed to be an intellectual, he was quick-witted and open-minded”, they go on to write. [This goes entirely against the grain of how his close colleague Peter Wright would describe him in Spycatcher.]

Yet Martin was not sharp enough to construct his own legend carefully, since, right off the bat, he records a series of events that counters what he has told before. Perhaps the ‘constant blur’ of his impostures had destabilised him. Martin relates how, when he arrived in Washington, on his way to interview Cairncross, he found a message from Sullivan to meet him at the Mayflower Hotel that afternoon. There he met Straight, who told him about his recruitment by Blunt, alongside Leo Long. He then claimed that he returned from the USA a few days after his meeting with Straight. The authors add that ‘the trip had gone better than Martin had dared hope. John Cairncross had, or so Martin believed, confessed to having passed information to the Soviets.” Yet Penrose and Freeman offer no explanation of the timeline of the Cairncross interview, and do not question Martin’s newest account, which directly contradicts what he told Pincher and West.

Thus the three of them dig a deeper hole. “There was a delay of several months between Martin’s return from the States and his crucial meeting with Blunt when he presented Straight’s evidence”, they write, and then have to fall into useless contortions trying to explain why there was such a delay. Thus they offer a long digression into the Profumo affair, before returning to the main plot. “Martin and Hollis spent weeks debating how to handle the Straight material”, even though Martin was a member of the anti-Hollis faction, the ‘Young Turks’, and Martin has to offer his interlocutors a crust that maybe the anti-Hollis group was wrong about him.

The emphasis that Penrose and Freeman make on Martin’s and Hollis’ intense collaboration on a strategy for Blunt rather goes against the grain of Hollis’s abrupt suspension of Martin a few weeks later. According to Martin, he and Hollis came to concur on the need to offer Blunt immunity from prosecution. The authors then go on to describe the negotiations with the Home Secretary, the Attorney-General, and the Queen’s private secretary, before describing the fateful meeting of April 23, 1964. And this is the story that has been picked up as the ‘official’ account by various writers since.

The key ‘facts’ are as follows. Martin asks Blunt if he would mind his using a tape-recorder. Blunt nods in assent. Martin says he has unequivocal evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet agent during the war, something that Blunt denies, as the assertion simply wasn’t true. Martin then introduces his meeting with Straight, and outlines the allegations Straight made. Blunt is expressionless, so Martin decides he has to use the immunity card. Blunt walks to the window, pours himself a large drink, and turns to Martin, saying ‘It is true’. Martin plays back the tape, so that Blunt can agree it was an accurate record of the conversation. Martin reminds Blunt that ‘total co-operation’ is the price of immunity. Blunt nods: the meeting, lasting twenty-five minutes, is over.

There is much bogus about this story. If readers recall the description by Andrew at the beginning of this bulletin, they might wonder why Martin made no mention of Cairncross in this account. Blunt ‘left the room’ in the authorised version: not so here. The business with the tape-recorder is absurd: first of all, the real meeting could have been only about ten minutes if the total length included the playback, and yet in the authorised version Blunt requests five minutes to ‘wrestle with his conscience’. (Did Martin turn the tape-recorder off during this time?) And how would Blunt have been able to challenge the accuracy of what had just been recorded? Martin’s quickness in switching to the offer of immunity is clumsy and unrealistic. Why did he not exploit the Cairncross episode more imaginatively?

One might conclude that the version supplied by Andrew was an attempt to ‘correct’ what was a transparently spurious record on file, since other evidence would show that Cairncross had provided a full ‘confession’ only weeks before Blunt was given the same treatment. Yet the argument is full of holes, and should have been picked apart at birth.

Conspiracy of Silence was recognized as having benefitted from the indiscreet, and surely unlawful, revelation of information from present and past intelligence officers. According to Hansard, on November 19, 1986, Mr. Campbell-Savours (Member of Parliament for Workington) asked the Attorney-General whether he would prosecute Russell Lee, Christopher Harmer, William Luke, T. A. R. Robertson, Lord Rothschild, Leo Long, Andrew King, William Skarden [sic], Stephen Demoubray [sic], Lord Dacre, George Carey-Foster, Nigel Burgess, Constance Burgess, John Cairncross, Malcolm Muggeridge, Sir Robert Mackenzie, Sir Ashton Roskill and Lord Clanmorris under the Official Secrets Act of 1911. Arthur Martin – whose name appears most prominently in the book – was not listed.


Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5 by Nigel West (1987)

By 1987, Nigel West felt confident enough to claim, as he did in his Introduction to Molehunt, that “The molehunts have now ended, and are of only historical importance, so at last the full, bizarre story can be told.” I recommend readers return to West’s book, published as the Spycatcher trial was concluded, but before Wright’s book came out, to assess how comprehensively West’s judgements should be accepted, and to learn the fate of ELLI, and Graham Mitchell, West’s bête noire for the role of chief mole in MI5, before determining whether they agree with West’s opinions.

Where was West looking for his authority? His text is irritatingly imprecise, his chronology customarily haphazard, and his sources generally feeble. In his chapter 3, Operation Peters, which covers the events of interest to me here, the only sources he lists are Straight’s After Long Silence, Goronwy Rees’s A Chapter of Accidents, and a World in Action programme featuring Peter Wright. Yet the text is littered with evidence that could have come only from Arthur Martin. And, immediately, new variations on the significant visit to the USA in 1963 appear.

West introduces Martin’s activities in the context of the FLUENCY Committee, chaired by Peter Wright, that had been set up in late 1964 to take over the investigation into moles. Operation PETERS, which had looked into Graham Mitchell as a candidate, had been wound down. West salutes Martin’s success with Cairncross and Straight in the following terms: “ . . . Arthur Martin had scored an important success during his visit to America to explain the outcome of the Peters inquiry to the FBI.” West thus explains Martin’s visit to Cleveland as an incidental opportunity, a by-product of his briefing, rather than the main purpose of his assignment. Hereby Martin conflates two visits, or West has got his wires crossed over what he was told. “Since Martin was already in the United States, he decided to have a second bite at the cherry.” This is all nonsense, as we know that Cairncross was recently in London, and could have been interviewed there, and that Martin had expressly been sent out to interview Cairncross.

The next event is Martin’s return to Washington, where he apparently ‘briefed William Sullivan of the FBI on the latest development’, and then was introduced to Straight. West next travels over the now familiar Straight confession. “Armed with this valuable information, Martin returned to London and informed Hollis of this remarkable development.” Yet West is very terse about the build-up to the confrontation at the Courtauld, where ‘all that remained to be done was to obtain his [Blunt’s] co-operation.’ Then we receive a modified version of the engagement, given by West as April 22, not the 23rd, and described as taking place ‘in midmorning’, not in the evening, as Andrew claims. The Straight experience is related (but not the Cairncross meeting), and the offer of immunity given. “Blunt slowly got up from his desk, walked over to a tray of bottles and poured himself a stiff gin, apparently deep in thought. As he did so he turned and said, simply: “It’s true.”

What are we to make of this? That Martin would discuss with Sullivan the Cairncross confession before he had even spoken to his bosses at MI5 is simply absurd. That would have been extremely irresponsible – and highly unlikely, if the F.B.I. truly had withheld their information on Blunt for six months. Why does Martin now push back his meeting with Straight and Sullivan to the end of his visit(s) to Cleveland? And why are all those details about the Courtauld meeting such a mixture of the precise (‘he poured himself a stiff gin’), and the erratic (Blunt’s leaving the room in one account, and walking over to the window in another). The whole imbroglio is simply farcical.

West takes up the ‘bluff’ angle again, and is generous in his praise of Martin’s performance. “The trump card had been the offer of immunity from criminal prosecution.” But, if Martin thought he had sufficient information from Straight to prove Blunt’s guilt (which he did, although it would not stand up in court), it wasn’t a bluff at all. Just a ruse to get Blunt to talk without all the embarrassing business of a trial. West’s conclusion runs as follows: “If self-preservation was to be a factor in Blunt’s motivation, the carrot dangled so skilfully by Martin contained everything he might be seeking: no embarrassing police involvement; no public humiliation; no obvious betrayal of friends.” But what did MI5 and Martin gain from this? A ‘cooperation’ that allowed Blunt to be as secret and reclusive as he wished.

Molehunt is thus a rather sad and inadequate display of sleuthing. West allows Martin to get away with an alarming number of untruths, and it is merely further evidence that these chroniclers, as they obtained their ‘insider’ information, naively believed that they were the sole receivers of the actualités. And the simplest of facts are not cross-checked.


Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright (1987)

Spycatcher is an unreliable memoir. I have drawn attention to some of its flabby arguments in HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp, and it is likewise a very shaky source for the events of 1963 and 1964. There are no footnotes, no sources or references quoted, and thus the reader frequently cannot discern how Wright knew about events at which he was not present, or on whom he relied for information. The approach to chronology is chaotic: one might alight on an interesting event, but then have to step back for several pages to determine which year the author is writing about, as he weaves around, skipping from topic to topic.

Yet there are diamonds in the rough. On more neutral topics, where it would appear that Wright has no reason to dissemble, some important facts emerge. He provides (undated) insights on Hollis’s decision to move Furnival Jones from his position as head of D branch to C Branch, in preparation for his appointment as Deputy-Director on Mitchell’s retirement. Furnival Jones was replaced by Malcolm Cumming, an old and not very imaginative hand, and Wright claims that Arthur Martin expected to get the job himself. Mitchell retired in September 1963, so West’s account of Martin’s return to inform Furnival Jones of the Straight interview is wrong. Further ammunition for Martin’s resentment, and Hollis’s distaste for Martin’s disruptive tendencies, is provided, yet, if Martin did work closely with Hollis on the Blunt plan, it would appear that Cumming had been considered superfluous by that time. What should also be noted is that Wright himself drew attention to Martin’s faults, dubbing him ‘temperamental and obsessive’, and noting that he ‘never understood the extent to which he had made enemies over the years.’

Wright also adds details on the activities of summer 1963, where Hollis, facing opposition from his officers on disclosing the fruits of the Mitchell inquiry to the Americans, ‘glowered at’ Martin across the table when he announced, that he would visit the USA himself, to keep the F.B.I. informed. Wright then states how Hollis left for the United States ‘almost immediately’, but, since the controversial meeting where Hollis’s voice had been outnumbered is undated, we cannot pin an exact time on his departure. ‘Shortly after’, Martin followed him. Thus there exists strong evidence that Hollis and Martin were in a position where they could have, and should have, been briefed about Straight. Yet Wright was almost certainly not at that meeting himself: he started working for Martin only in January 1964. He also provides details about the scientist/officer, Hal Doyne Ditmass, whom Hollis tried to remove from D3 in May 1964, at a critical time of negotiations with the Americans. That was another event – accompanying the failed promotion – that riled Martin.

The most astonishing revelation, however, is made when Wright introduces the Blunt case. “It brewed up in late 1963”, he writes, “when MI5 were informed by the FBI that an American citizen, Michael Whitney Straight, had told them that Blunt had recruited him for the Soviets while they were both at Cambridge in the 1930s.” This awareness of a much earlier disclosure forces Wright to re-draft the reason for Martin’s visit to Washington. “Arthur Martin flew over to interview Straight, who confirmed the story, and agreed to testify in a British court if necessary.” Thus, in one short sweep, Wright annuls all the previous leaks that the meeting with Straight was the first time that MI5 heard about the Straight-Blunt imbroglio, that it was a coincidental encounter, engineered by Sullivan, and that Martin’s chief purpose in visiting the States had been to interview Cairncross. Wright does not even mention Cairncross in this situation. It is an extraordinary proof that MI5 had lost control of the legend.

Wright is lapidary about the events leading up to the meeting at the Courtauld. His account runs as follows: “. . . Blunt was confronted by Arthur Martin and almost immediately admitted his role as Soviet talent spotter and spy.” Yet he has not finished yet. After a diversion about the impact of the Blunt confession on Victor and Tess Rothschild, he tells how Blunt swiftly named Leo Long and John Cairncross as fellow spies, and how they both then confessed. “Long, informed by Arthur that a prosecution was most unlikely provided he cooperated with MI5, swiftly confessed, as did Cairncross, who was seen by Arthur in Rome.” Wright was either completely uninformed about what really happened, or very stupidly tried to cast a web of deceit around events in the belief that he would not be smoked out. Cairncross had already confessed, according to the official line. Dick White, for one, must have been horrified when he read Spycatcher.

In summary, therefore, we have a rather ingenuous admission that MI5 did learn about Straight from the FBI in November 1963, which makes a lot of sense, and then a naïve attempt to explain the outcome in a way that belies nearly every account of the story. What Christopher Andrew made of all this is a mystery: he lists Spycatcher as one of his sources in his authorised history, but he does not investigate the claim about the November debriefing at all.

‘Mask of Treachery’

Mask of Treachery by John Costello (1988)

The final study in this section is John Costello’s Mask of Treachery, bearing the rather convoluted sub-title Spies, Lies, Buggery & Betrayal, The First Documented Dossier on Anthony Blunt’s Cambridge Spy Ring. It is an extraordinary work, reflecting the author’s dedicated search to discover all the facts about the treachery of Blunt and his cronies. He digs far and wide. Yet it is also a highly flawed creation, as if Costello imagined that, by assembling all the information in one place, a confident hypothesis about the moles inside MI5 would magically appear. His conclusion? Remarkably, that Guy Liddell was the obvious flake in MI5’s management ranks, a suggestion that distances himself from the dominant theories of West (Mitchell), and Pincher, Martin and Wright (Hollis).

The major problem with Costello’s record is that he drags in all manner of possibly relevant details, but omits to apply any rigorous methodology in his approach, not attempting to define the reliability of all evidence he cites, and leaving many matters of chronology unsettled. Very typical is his handling of the Straight business. He echoes the accepted fact that Straight went to the Justice Department, and then the F.B.I., on June 7, 1963, but then hypothesizes that ‘it would not be surprising if he had not considered himself under an obligation to give Blunt the same sort of warning in 1963 that he had given Burgess twelve years earlier.’ Costello then assembles the following weird paragraph:

“Straight had several weeks in which he could have alerted Blunt that an impending Presidential appointment would require FBI clearance and would raise the possibility that the Cambridge connection would be uncovered. According to Stella Jefferies, an administrative secretary at the Courtauld, Straight appeared unannounced at the institute one day that summer. She says Blunt ‘was not keen to see him’. Later, she heard Blunt telling someone ‘he –  meaning Straight – was going to shop them.’ Jeffries claims the incident stuck in her mind because it occurred shortly before the director himself went off to America – at short notice.” Blunt, rather suddenly, decided to spend six weeks in the United States.

But then Costello immediately adds: “Straight has admitted that he was in England that April, but he insists that he did not visit the Courtauld.” That is, however doubly irrelevant. Straight did not know about his appointment, and the need to confess, back in April, and thus not visiting the Courtauld at that time merely casts suspicion on his testimony. So when did the encounter occur? Costello adds a Footnote that claims that Mrs. Jeffries said it was in July 1963, but the letter from Blunt she presents is dated August 1962! Pincher claimed that Straight was still being debriefed by the F.B.I. in August. And if Blunt heard about Burgess’s death in Moscow on August 19 while he was at Pennsylvania, probably at the end of his six-week engagement, it leaves no time for Straight to have warned Blunt – unless he contacted him through other means, and arranged to talk to Blunt while he was at the university. The whole cavalcade is a mess, with much possibly irrelevant detail being introduced without analysis.

What makes this testimony even more dubious is that Blunt had been invited by Pennsylvania State University the previous year to lecture at the summer school in 1963 (as an announcement in the Art Journal in 1962 proves), and thus the idea that he made a sudden decision is patently false. And, since his invitation had been well publicized, Michael Straight would certainly have learned about it. Thus we have to face the possibility that Straight and Blunt did in fact meet in April 1963, despite Straight’s denial.

Lastly, Costello covers the Straight-Martin encounters. Yes, Sullivan did not approach Straight until January 1964, when he arranged for him to meet Martin at the Mayflower Hotel, where Straight told Martin all. “Straight did not know that Martin had just finished interviewing John Cairncross at Northwestern University”, he writes. He might just as well have written that Straight did not know that Martin was on his way to interview Cairncross. He then presents an uncontroversial account of the events leading up to the immunity deal, but then introduces an insightful observation: “Considering what was at stake in Blunt’s confession, it is astonishing that Arthur Martin was sent alone to confront Blunt on the morning of April 23, 1964. (American counter-intelligence officers have assured me that the standard practice calls for at least two officers to be present.) Martin still believes that Blunt had been forewarned and held out for the immunity deal.”

Thus we have a third timing of the event, the morning of the 23rd, as opposed to Andrew’s evening of that day, and West’s mid-morning of the 22nd. And Martin surely knew that he was involved in a staged set-up, in which he and Blunt were equal players. Costello continues by tersely stating that Blunt and Cairncross were unmasked by Blunt, and that they ‘confessed on the understanding that they would not be prosecuted either’. So what was going on between Martin and Cairncross in January, Mr. Costello? There is no answer.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

This wave of studies shows an extraordinary lack of discipline. The authors must surely have felt themselves in competition, yet one can detect a large amount of collaboration behind the scenes. None of them, however, applied any amount of rigour when evidence turned up that clearly contradicted other evidence they cited. And yet, until now, I do not believe they have properly been called to account.

The Sources: Wave 3 – The Era of Biography

A strange hiatus settled on the investigations between 1988 and 2005. For example, Christopher Andrew’s and Oleg Gordivesky’s KGB: The Inside Story (1990) has only a couple of sentences on the events of 1964. Matters picked up again with the release of a number of biographies and memoirs, the first of which was Tom Bower’s profile of Sir Dick White. But first, Nigel West’s gallery of spies.

‘Seven Spies Who Changed the World’

Seven Spies Who Changed the World by Nigel West (1991)

Nigel West selected Blunt as one his Seven Spies (the others being Popov, Schmidt, Buckley, Blake, Powers, and Wynne). Whether his title is meant to signify that these seven ‘changed the word’ (while others did not), or whether the author just happened to choose these seven for some special reason (since all spies change the world, just as all non-spies do, too), or whether the title is simply one foisted on West by his publisher, is not clear. In his Introduction, however, West does state: “All these men, to a greater or lesser degree, have made a remarkable contribution, either positive or negative, to the course of history, and most have been known to me personally.”

West’s caption for Blunt’s photograph is unfortunate. “Anthony Blunt, a long-term Soviet asset who penetrated MI5 and then switched sides in return for an immunity from prosecution. His confession ruined the careers of a dozen top civil servants, but MI5 eventually concluded that he had duped his interrogators and remained loyal to the KGB.” ‘Switching sides’, eh?  Receiving an immunity deal, not specified in writing, in return for promising to ‘co-operate’, is hardly descriptive of the process of realigning one’s skills to the cause of the erstwhile enemy – especially when he could not help whatsoever with espionage against the Soviets.

The story of Blunt is a fascinating one, but marred by West’s irritating practise of providing references for many well-thumbed and familiar incidents, while inserting highly provocative assertions that do not carry any supporting evidence whatsoever. [They are surely feeds from the highly unreliable Martin.] For example, he writes (without identifying Martin): “This [review] resulted in an inconclusive statement from Cairncross, then lecturing at Northwestern University, who reluctantly named James Klugmann as his recruiter at Cambridge.” No source; no date; no explanation of ‘inconclusive’; no indication of why Cairncross admitted something ‘reluctantly’, or why he admitted to anything at all. He then goes on to write, about Straight’s confessions, that ’Petty inter-agency rivalry, exercised by J. Edgar Hoover, had prevented the FBI from sharing this crucial information with MI5.’ Another bold and cryptic statement that does not disclose a source, nor provide strong evidence.

The description of Blunt’s confession is likewise weak. West discloses nothing about the intriguing that went on, and repeats his notion of Blunt’s ‘switching sides’, only a few lines later equating this act with ‘a decision to collaborate with MI5’. When he identified his fellow conspirators, ‘among the first were John Cairncross, who was already known to MI5, and Leo Long, who had never previously been a suspect.’ Well, of course Cairncross was known to MI5, not solely because of the confession that West had revealed on the previous page, but was that all that there was? Leo Long, moreover, had been known a suspect, having been caught in the act of espionage in MI14 in 1944. West appears as muddled as he was in MI5.

‘My Five Cambridge Friends’

My 5 Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin (1994)

Yuri Modin was the controller of the Cambridge Five at the end of WWII and into the 1950s. His memoir has some useful facts about his dealings with the spies (especially John Cairncross), but his access to reliable information is naturally flawed. He offers some problematic ideas about the confessions of Blunt and Cairncross that need to be recorded as they constitute part of the mythology.

On Cairncross, he writes that ‘some people say he was finally exposed by MI5 in 1964. I think he confessed, but well before that date, in 1951 or possibly 1952’. He goes on to state that he is convinced that ‘Cairncross told everything he knew in the early 1950s, in exchange for a promise of immunity.’ Of course, Cairncross did make a very constrained confession in 1952, but the evidence thereafter confirms that it was only after Blunt’s confession that he extended his story, but even that failed to do justice to his complete record of espionage, which was revealed in KGB archives.

As for Blunt, Modin tends to overstate Blunt’s attachment to Guy Burgess, and interprets Blunt’s desire to confess as a reaction to Burgess’s death in August 1963. He introduces yet a new date (early 1964, ‘soon after’ Blunt’s death) for the timing of Blunt’s confession, and describes it as follows: “All the same, he prepared and refined the actual content of his confession with the greatest care, and delivered it only when he had received the assurance of the Attorney-General that he would be immune to prosecution if he revealed the truth about his dealings with the Soviets.”

Where Modin gained this intelligence is not clear. There is no doubt a measure of truth about Blunt’s carefully honed confession, but to suggest that he was in control of the whole process does not bear close analysis.

‘The Perfect English Spy’

The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower (1995)

Tom Bower took over from Andrew Boyle the project of writing Dick White’s biography, since Boyle had died in 1991. Boyle had gained White’s confidence for a while, but had also annoyed him by pressing too hard on some sensitive matters. Nevertheless, the very wary response Boyle received from White on the Blunt case proved to him that this was a sore subject with the only man to have been head of MI5 and MI6.

The Perfect English Spy is a bit of a muddle, written without a lot of precision, and relying too much on volumes like Spycatcher, and unattributable or undocumented conversations Bower had with various figures in intelligence. Yet it has enough substance to provide another dimension to the Molehunt – the fact that White, having held a prominent role in MI5’s counterespionage operations from the day Blunt joined in 1940 to the day White retired in 1956, had even more at stake in protecting his own reputation, and that of the Service, than did Hollis himself. White’s involvement in the action thus explains a lot of the successful cooperation between the CIA and British Intelligence, with Maurice Oldfield (White’s representative in Washington) and White himself acting as go-betweens to Arthur Martin and Hollis in MI5 (Martin having been White’s loyal sidekick in the Burgess/Maclean/Philby deception of 1951: see DickWhite’sDevilishPlot).

Thus Bower starts off by emphasizing Martin’s close relationship with White, and the reinforcing to him of Angleton’s persistent declarations about Soviet penetration. White shows a lot of trust in Martin, and encourages him, in early 1963, to approach Hollis on the need for a proper investigation, even following up by speaking to Hollis about the requirement for Graham Mitchell to be surveilled. At the same time, Angleton of the CIA is applying pressure on Oldfield on the Golitsyn testimony, and encourages Oldfield and Martin to invite the defector to Britain that summer, where he causes some havoc. Hollis acts unreasonably: White is clearly in charge of the investigation. The rather ineffective Martin Furnival Jones has been moved in a position within MI5 to head the investigation, and the even less impressive Cumming takes over as Martin’s boss in D Division.

It is here that Bower calls out White for being overimpressed by Martin, whom Bower categorises as ‘not a trained intelligence officer nor a skilled interrogator; hardworking but with no understanding of the history of espionage’. Readers should bear this in mind when they consider why Martin was selected as the officer most likely to obtain, working on his own, a confession from Blunt in April 1964.

When the Mitchell affair petered out, an important meeting was held in September 1963, at Hollis’s house (Bower does not record who else was there), where White strongly recommended that MI5 inform the CIA and the FBI about the state of the case, and their ongoing concerns. In Bower’s account, Hollis ‘reluctantly agreed ‘to fly to Washington to do just that. [This is in contrast to the description by Peter Wright (see above) of what was perhaps a meeting with his officers immediately afterwards, where Hollis grabbed the reins and told his subordinates that he was going to Washington.]  Hollis apparently received a derisory reception there, especially from Angleton and the CIA, although Hoover and Sullivan of the FBI were also fairly contemptuous. Bower then writes: “Martin heard about Hollis’s humiliation from Angleton. At the same time, Angleton invited Martin to consult with him in Washington.” No dates, or items of correspondence identified, and Bower does not specifically say that Martin had flown out in Hollis’s wake (a fact we have learned elsewhere). Yet, while Martin (of MI5) dealing with the CIA’s Angleton was highly irregular, it does provide a clue as to how the CIA, behind Hoover’s back, and surely with Oldfield’s assistance, was able to engineer the meeting between Straight and Martin in January 1964. And it adds another wrinkle to the question of Martin’s primary mission in visiting the Unites States at that time.

The narrative thins out after that. Straight repeats his story to Martin, who returns to Britain excited by the disclosure [patently untrue, and an echo of Martin’s dissemblance marked earlier]. He gives his report to Hollis, and they meet with White, who was apparently ‘shaken’ by the revelation. Accusations against Blunt had been common in Leconfield House, but White claimed to have been ignorant of the whole business. White thus had to face the dilemma of protecting the Queen and the Government from embarrassment, and pursuing the right cause, which would be prosecution. He consults Trend, who advises him of the political realities. White tells Hollis that sufficient evidence would never be found to prosecute any of the Cambridge Five, so the plan to trap/entice Blunt with a pardon goes ahead.

Apart from Hollis and White, Bower indicates that only Burke Trend, the Home Secretary (Brooke) and the Attorney-General (Hobson) were in on the deal.  Now Bower uses Penrose and Freeman as his source for the event of April 23, 1964. How much Martin knew, going in to the Courtauld that day, is not clear. In any case, he soon got incensed by the lack of aggression in going after Blunt, and Blunt’s less than comprehensive revelations., and incurred the wrath of Hollis and Cumming. He was thus suspended, and later transferred to MI6, to work under his old mentor, Dick White, As Bower shrewdly observes, at this time White appeared to express more sympathy for Martin and Wright than he did for Hollis.

‘The Enigma Spy’

The Enigma Spy by John Cairncross (1995)

Cairncross’s posthumously published memoir had a chequered history. The author Nigel West apparently had some agreement with Cairncross and his wife, Gayle, before John died in October 1995, and was the chosen ‘ghost-writer’ to compile an autobiography from various jottings, letters, etc. But Gayle Cairncross developed other ideas, tried to buy West out of his contract, and engaged Ronnie Challoner to take over as ghost-writer. The result was a highly-sanitised account of Cairncross’s espionage, which cast him in a much better light than he deserved.

Thus The Enigma Spy cannot be treated as a reliable source, since events are distorted or overlooked to minimise Cairncross’s culpability. Yet, as so often happens with such works, the larger issues are falsely represented, but minor observations (and omissions) betray much more about the author’s integrity and intentions. Cairncross’s account of the events of 1963 and 1964 starts with the job offer from Western Reserve University in Cleveland, Ohio, enabled through Professor Raymond Picard. While he was working in Karachi at the time, his visa application had to go through the American Consulate in Rome, since that was where he had last resided. No problems arose, and, in Cairncross’s words: “On my return from Pakistan to London I therefore had to fly to Rome to make my visa application.” This is an important detail: Cairncross was in London while his visa request was being processed.

The academic’s first few months in Cleveland are described with enthusiasm by Cairncross, but he then implodes his whole story by describing a knock on the door of his room at the Hotel Commodore in mid-April. (Would he not have had to find lodgings by then?) It was a member of the FBI who informed him that Arthur Martin of MI5 ‘would be calling on me shortly’. Martin duly turned up, and, without giving any indication at first that he had fresh evidence, pressed Cairncross to tell him the full story. We know from other sources that the initial interview with Cairncross had been in February, and that Martin had gone back in March to determine whether Cairncross would be willing to return to the UK to give a confession under caution. Cairncross collapses the episode to one event, and gets the date woefully wrong.

Yet Cairncross was apparently clever enough to assess, solely from Martin’s claim that he had not told the whole story, that ‘the remark was enough to convey to me that someone had spoken.’ He adds in parentheses that ‘His informant was again Anthony Blunt, the man who had organized my recruitment without appearing on the scene himself.’ Why did Cairncross present this so cagily? Did he want to pretend that he discovered that Blunt had been an informer much later? Why did he not express any annoyance at this betrayal? And another extraordinary giveaway occurs: “The other point on which Martin questioned me was my connection with the four members of the Cambridge Group.” Not three – four. If reliable, Martin’s aside would undoubtedly point to the fact that Blunt had already been identified as the Fourth Man, which was directly antithetical to the way MI5 preferred to represent its conclusions at this time.

The spy then chooses to describe how he intended to ‘make an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all’. Yet there is no discussion of a pardon, or the risk of his being extradited and prosecuted. “Finally, however, I decided to take a strong whisky [Were large whisky – or even whiskey – bottles available in Cleveland hotel rooms in 1964? I doubt it.] and make a full confession of my association with the KGB.” He and Martin covered the usual ground – including the claim that James Klugmann recruited him – and Cairncross offered spontaneously to sign a statement at the end of the interrogation. “To my complete amazement, Martin said that a great many people had been mixed up in the affair, by which he clearly meant that no such gesture on my part was called for, and that it was planned to keep everything under wraps.” This exchange will have to be assessed carefully, given how vitriolic Martin was later reported to be when Blunt and Cairncross were allowed to go free.

The narrative trails off rather incoherently after this. The FBI apparently warned Cairncross that he would be arrested if he set foot in London again: Cairncross does not explain why this advice differed from Martin’s, or why even the FBI should be the source of such guidance. He adds, however, that he expected to be shipped back to England to face trial. He did have to make a statement to the FBI, which must have hastened the relinquishing of his professorship in Cleveland. At the end of the semester, he left for Paris, and then Rome, where Martin (and Peter Wright) again put him through an interrogation. The fact that he was invited to provide testimony against Klugmann in London implicitly confirmed that such cooperation carried immunity from prosecution with it. Otherwise, silence reigned for almost seven years.

‘Anthony Blunt: his lives’

Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter (2001)

One might expect an elegantly-written, well-researched, prize-winning biography of the spy to produce some new insights on Anthony Blunt’s treachery and the immunity he was granted. Miranda Carter’s work fails to do so – not for want of trying, but because she lacks an insight into the multi-layered deceptions of the intelligence world. She conducted interviews with well over one hundred named sources in her research, with many more who wished to remain unidentified, but it would have been a miracle if a sustainable image of Blunt had arisen from such a multitude of voices.

Her broad research leads her to some highly original observations, but she lacks the inquisitiveness to drive more deeply. At the beginning of this piece, I listed her citations of evidence that Blunt may have confessed beforehand: she does not know to handle the contradictions, falling weakly on the statement ‘Blunt would not confess until 1964.’ Similarly, when introducing the Straight anecdote, and describing how he decided to ‘unburden himself’, Carter merely comments: “The FBI, for its own reasons, waited for several months before telling Arthur Martin . . .” Those reasons, and whether they were in fact genuine, beg for further examination, but it was a challenging topic that could have derailed Carter for years. There was little information to go by apart from all the doubtless conflicting testimonies of those chattering experts which became, as Carter put it ‘the marrow of this book’.

Thus Carter relies on those old mainstays, Penrose & Freeman, and Peter Wright, for most of her narrative of the events surrounding the April 1964 confrontation between Blunt and Martin. As for Cairncross, she defers to Wright in reporting how Leo Long and Cairncross were brought in for questioning, and ‘confident that they like Blunt, must be safe from prosecution, confessed their involvement’. The fact that she had earlier reported that the reason why Martin was in America was to interview John Cairncross is soon forgotten. Did she not ask any of her distinguished interlocutors whether they detected any contradiction in these events?

One last comment. Carter states that the divisions of opinion, within MI5, over communist infiltration, were heightened because of educational matters. “The divisions were all the more bitter because Martin and Wright were perceived, and perceived themselves, as outsiders in the public-school-dominated world of MI5.” Wright was educated at Bishop Stortford’s, the same school that Dick White attended, and he then went on to St. Peter’s, Oxford. There may be a highly insightful and educational lesson to be given here, but this is not it.

‘Last of the Cold War Spies’

Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (2005)

Roland Perry is an Australian investigative journalist who has produced works that display some dogged research, but lack a guiding methodology. I tried to contact him a few years ago, with questions about his rather sloppy biography of Victor Rothschild, The Fifth Man, which raised some challenging theories, but left whole parts of Rothschild’s life unexplored. I never received a reply. In his biography of Michael Straight, Last of the Cold War Spies, Perry shows some of the same traits: a willingness to drive down into some overlooked details, but also a naïve susceptibility in believing that members and ex-members of intelligence services are going to tell him the truth. As he writes in his Acknowledgments: “Other contemporary and retired employees of several spy agencies – notably the Australian Secret Intelligence Service, the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, the CIA, the U.S. National Security Agency, the KGB (RIS), French intelligence, MI6 and MI5 – were all essential sources in establishing solid information and facts, and certain theories.” The FBI must have been very miffed at being left out, and not being given the chance to spin its particular view through such a valuable outlet.

What Perry does bring to the table is a close analysis of Michael Straight’s movements. Thus he introduces 1963 by informing us that Straight visited Dartington in April (‘his third trip inside a year’), and while in London, stayed at 42 Upper Brook Street. ‘It was a short walk from Blunt’s flat in Portman Square.” Yet this leads to a combination of valid supposition and a stretched hypothesis.  “The odds are that these two now mature intriguers would have met, using their long-time skills at avoiding the watchers from MI5. The topic of Golitsyn, which was presently hot within British intelligence circle, would have been discussed. Perhaps this was the time when they decided – at the next propitious moment –  to make a deceptive confession.”

Or maybe it was not the time. Straight had not yet been offered the job by President Kennedy, he was certainly not practised at avoiding MI5 surveillance teams, and it is difficult to imagine Anthony Blunt dodging around London Underground Stations in order to meet Straight in some dingy suburban park or pub. The idea that Straight and Blunt might have felt the need to act first to pre-empt Golitsyn does have some merit, however, and Perry makes an astute observation about Golitsyn’s return to the US in August 1963, having had an opportunity to study British intelligence files. Straight could afford to relax a bit: he had handled his FBI interrogators well, and they seemed rather clueless about events in Britain.

In September, Straight had an important meeting with Richard Nixon, when they discussed Britain’s independent nuclear deterrent. He then appeared in Britain again. Perry’s examination of Dartington Hall’s Visitors’ Book reveals that Straight and his wife stayed there from October 11-14, 1963, before flying on to Greece. If there were a more pivotal time to discuss matters with Blunt, this would have been it. Might Straight have contacted Blunt by letter, or even the telephone? Perry avoids the opportunity, however, and says nothing about the FBI’s apparent sluggishness in informing MI5 about Straight’s confession before describing Martin’s surprise encounter with Straight in Washington.

And then Perry falls into the role of gullible insider-led investigator. “ . . . Martin and MI5 were excited. They seemed to have concrete leads at last, Martin hurried back to England, thrilled by his ‘coup’”. The Conspiracy of Silence melodrama is next invoked, except this time we gain the fresh insight that Blunt poured himself a large Scotch. Martin then accepted Blunt’s claim (necessary for the immunity deal) that he had not spied after 1945. Once again, the author, having correctly described the reason for Martin’s mission to the USA in February 1964, records that Blunt divulged Cairncross’s name, and that Cairncross made similar admissions when Martin visited him in Rome. “Once more it was suggested he would not face prosecution if he confessed,” he writes.


Triplex by Nigel West (2009)

West’s compilation focuses on the reproduction of documents passed by some of the Cambridge Five (Blunt, Philby and Cairncross) to the NKVD, with translations back to English of the texts that had formerly been translated from the English to the Russian. It is remarkable in this context for a statement West makes in his Introduction: “Cairncross, implicated inadvertently by documents left behind by Burgess, resigned from his post in the Treasury in 1951 and finally confessed to a joint MI5-FBI interrogation team in the United States in 1963.”

What is going on here? Cairncross was never in the United States in 1963. He underwent serial, separate interrogations by Arthur Martin, and the FBI, from February 1964 onwards. If a joint ’team’ (which suggests more than one officer from MI5) was at work, it must have been in London, in December 1963, when Cairncross made his visa application, and travelled to Italy via London. Thus a vigorous hint towards FBI-MI5 collaboration over Cairncross has appeared, but it lacks any kind of verifiable source. I thus wrote to Nigel West, asking for details on his source, and how he now interpreted the data.

Mr. West responded promptly, and was generous with his time. He admitted that the year should have been 1964, but after that we spoke somewhat at cross-purposes. He did not address my question about a ‘joint MI5-FBI team’, saying only that the FBI witnessed Martin’s interrogation of Cairncross. He claimed that the idea of ‘a second bite at the cherry’ meant that the first bite had been back in 1952, an association I found not a little incongruous. He said that ‘Martin had to be discreet about his introduction to Straight as Bill Sullivan had been ordered not to reveal his existence’. West added: “Martin’s appointment with Cairncross in Cleveland was by appointment, and it was agreed that the FBI would observe, but not participate. Cairncross attended because he was anxious about his job and thought his visa would be cancelled if he failed to cooperate with MI5.” He didn’t think that Freeman and Penrose had ever met Martin.

Part of my response ran as follows: “It is difficult for me to see how an interview described as a ‘second bite at the cherry’ could refer to one given twelve years before hand as the assumed ‘first bite’. It was surely difficult for Martin to be ‘discreet’ after his introduction by Sullivan. After all, what did Sullivan expect would happen? That Martin would be able to carry out an investigation back in London without Hollis knowing? My suspicion is that Hoover had a secret deal with Hollis, whereby both agreed to bury Blunt and Straight, and then Angleton got involved, annoyed that was nothing was happening after the Straight confession. Oldfield, White’s man in Washington, had been grooming Angleton, and Martin was White’s old sidekick from the 1951 events. So Sullivan (who disliked Hoover considerably) was used to effect the introduction. Hollis was naturally annoyed when Martin came back with the news, but couldn’t do anything since he was in White’s pocket. He then suspended Martin, and Martin went over to MI6.’ I continued:

“Penrose and Freeman’s Chapter 18 is almost entirely dependent upon interviews they claimed they had with Martin in 1985, including the description of the Martin-Blunt encounter at the Courtauld, which has been used by multiple writers as a reliable source since. Of course, in 2009, Andrew revealed the real ‘document’. Isn’t it strange how the recent interview with Cairncross is suddenly added to Martin’s narrative, while Blunt appears to show no reaction whatsoever?”

Mr. West did not reply to this message.

The Sources – Wave 4: The Archives Come Into Play

CIA files on Straight (released March 2007) (

This item is at least dated – a transcript of a conversation between Michael Straight and Fred Fiske on the WAMU station in Washington on January 26, 1983, following the publication of After Long Silence. The dialogue is overall unremarkable, but it does contain a few gems that contribute to the debate. It appears that Fiske and Straight must have had some preliminary discussions to lubricate the interchange. Very early on (p 2), Fiske throws Straight a leading question:

FISKE: You had a 15-minute private meeting with him [Blunt] before the British intelligence people came in, and he thanked you for it. He said he was expecting the other shoe to drop for a longtime and he was relieved.

            Now if he thanked you for it, who’s criticizing you?

Straight does not deny Fiske’s assertion, nor does he directly answer his interlocutor’s question. Yet the suggestion of a private meeting before Blunt’s confession is startling. It cannot be the well-publicized visit in August 1964 (described in After Long Silence), since Blunt had confessed four months beforehand. It cannot be the publicized date of the confession, in April, as there are no records of Straight’s being in England at that time. It could, however, have taken place in those days in the middle of October, 1963, when Straight was shown to have been in England. Yet the formality of it all is bewildering: that he should then be allowed some time with Blunt ’before the British Intelligence people came in’ indicated a high degree of collaboration, as well as pointing to a late 1963 confession by Blunt.

Straight gives away some other clues. On page 9, he is outspoken in saying that he recognized that Blunt was a member and spokesman of the Communist International, not just an anti-fascist group, as he had hinted at before. Without identifying Martin, on page 15, he characterises him as follows: ‘The British Intelligence officer who interrogated me at great length and who on the basis of this information that I gave him confronted Blount [sic] and forced Blount to confess was the original, I think, for George Smiley in this series we’ve all watched and admired.” [An advancement on Penrose’s and Freeman’s analogy, outlined above.] Apart from the dubious correlation of the deceitful and unpractised officer, Martin, with the subtle and principled Smiley, one has to marvel at Martin’s sudden achievement in forcing Blunt to confess. After all, the accounts we have read indicate that Martin’s contribution was amateurish and ham-fisted. Moreover, if Straight had spoken to Blunt, and convinced him to confess, before the MI5 contingent trooped in in, what was there left for Martin to do?

This is another significant item of evidence that has not been granted the attention it deserves.

Defending the Realm by Christopher Andrew (2009)

Christopher Andrew’s authorised history is the dominating influence in this section. I have covered it earlier, but remind readers now that Andrew’s rendering of the unidentifiable document from the Security Service’s Archive introduces the sentence: “I added that only a week or two ago I had been through a similar scene with John Cairncross who had finally confessed and afterwards thanked me for making him do so.” Why has the reference to Cairncross been omitted from all the accounts to date? Could it be that some shrewd censor at MI5, in reviewing Andrew’s copy, observed that it would be very odd if the transcription of the meeting failed to recognize the fact of Martin’s recent encounter with Cairncross? Perhaps that sentence was thus inserted – into the archive, and into the history. Yet no one stopped to think: if Martin had really informed Blunt of Cairncross’s confession, would Blunt not have displayed some reaction of note?

Another highly significant feature of Andrew’s account consists in his coverage of Martin. He indicates that Martin (now reporting to Malcolm Cumming) flew out to Washington a day later than did Hollis, at the end of September 1963. Cumming had immediately become suspicious of Martin when he discovered his ‘dirty tricks’ in feeding bogus ‘barium meal’ intelligence to Mitchell through himself, and judged Martin to have serious character defects. In the US, the CIA, the FBI and the RMCP were all very sceptical about the case against Mitchell. Yet Andrew goes on to write: “By the time Martin flew to Washington, the direction of the PETERS case (the investigation into Mitchell) had been taken out of his hands. The investigative part of his section, D1, was split off as D1/Inv, whose head became increasingly doubtful about the case against Mitchell, partly as a result of the scepticism of the CIA and FBI.” Andrew also records that the new head of D1/Inv complained to Hollis in the summer of 1964 that Martin was undermining his authority.

This passage throws up a few anomalies:

  1. How could the decision have already been made, based partly on the scepticism of the FBI and the CIA, if it occurred before the briefing that Hollis reluctantly agreed to perform?
  2. If Cumming had already decided that Martin needed to be discouraged, why did he not consult with Hollis, and even recommend that Martin not be sent as an emissary to support Hollis with the details of the investigation? Did Hollis know about his decision before he left?
  3. Why did Martin fly out the day after Hollis did? Would it not have been useful for them to confer on the flight? Did Hollis need to consult with Hoover privately before Martin’s arrival?
  4. If PETERS was no longer in Martin’s hands, and Martin was considered a liability, why was he entrusted with a further mission to the US in January 1964, ostensibly to interrogate Cairncross?
  5. Furthermore, why was Martin, with all the antagonism he had caused, and with no successful experience in interrogation, chosen to confront Blunt?

Some of these questions may have been addressed by Peter Wright. In Spycatcher, he indicates that the reorganization of D Branch was initiated by Hollis in October 1964, over a year later. Since Andrew, as is habitual, does not provide a specific identifiable source for his claim, we cannot inspect it. Moreover, Wright states that the head of D1, Ronnie Symonds (who had compiled the report on Mitchell), complained to Cumming and Hollis about Martin’s behaviour soon after the reorganization, which led to Martin’s dismissal in November. Malcolm Cumming was the officer who recruited Dick White to MI5, and Arthur Martin was White’s sidekick in the Burgess-Maclean affair. Cumming also recruited Peter Wright. Is it possible that White was still pulling the strings from his base in MI6?

The FBI Vault: Michael Straight (

The timing of the records released by the FBI is not given, but they were presumably made available to the public around this time. A comprehensive report on the interview that Straight had with FBI agents in June 1963 can be seen from page 134.

Yet pages 41 and 42 tell a more startling story. In June 1965, Straight was interviewed in depth about Americans who had attended Cambridge University at the time he was there. He was further interviewed on June 6, 1966. In a follow up letter to the Director of the FBI, dated June 14, which appears to have been written during an investigation into Philby, the anonymous author writes:

During interview STRAIGHT related about five years ago he had been interviewed by an officer of MI-5 who came over to this country for the interview and had furnished his recollections of Britons who were involved in communist activities during his days at Cambridge University.

            STRAIGHT mentioned later he had gone to England and confronted Professor ANTHONY BLUNT with his allegations concerning BLUNT with the result that BLUNT had broken and admitted his involvement in Soviet intelligence.

Apart from the shaky syntax of Straight’s statement (it appears that the MI5 officer had been doing the ‘furnishing’), what does this tell us? First, the timing. Straight said ‘about five years ago’, which would put the event in June 1961. It is difficult to imagine how vague Straight could have been in recollecting dates, but the actual distance of three years is presumably acceptable. But the astonishing item of information is the claim that he had gone to England, and confronted Blunt. This must have been in the latter months of 1963, and suggests that Blunt made a confession soon after in response to Straight’s approaches, and not to the clumsy negotiations of Arthur Martin. This is another extraordinary item of evidence that appears to have been completely overlooked.

After this, the account of Straight’s confession, dated June 25, 1963, appears rather bland. He described the Communist group (outside the Communist Party) at Cambridge, that was led by Cornford and Klugmann, and led from that in to the now famous meeting between him and Blunt, which resulted in his moving to Wall Street, as a sacrifice similar to that of Cornford’s, who had died in Spain. He suspected that Guy Burgess was behind Blunt’s approaches to him.


Treachery by Chapman Pincher (2012)

Treachery is something of an anomaly in this set. Pincher was not renowned for his scrupulous use of sources, but the recent publication of Andrew’s history propelled him – quite justifiably – to point out the neglect of so many verifiable incidents by the authorised historian. Yet Pincher misses an opportunity to ground in solid facts his argument that Hollis was the arch-fiend within MI5, and in fact his obsession with Hollis leads him into some embarrassingly conflicted analysis.

Pincher stumbles over the Straight incident, having apparently forgotten much of the reports that had been written since Too Secret Too Long. He refers to the ‘chance event’ in Washington in June 1963, but then, avoiding all the stories about FBI jealousies, and probable meetings between the FBI and MI5, simply goes on to write: “Straight was not interviewed by MI5 until January 1964 . . .”.  Martin presented the news to Hollis and White, who were both ‘dreadful[ly] embarrassed’. Pincher then describes a delay in questioning Blunt that was ‘imposed by Hollis’, but, since Martin had returned from the USA only at the end of March, this was hardly a delay of significant proportion. Pincher finesses the whole issue of why the FBI information did not get to Hollis earlier. He boasts of the fact that it was he who eventually exposed Straight publicly, and the conducted several interviews with him, but they were clearly a wasted opportunity.

Overall, Pincher greatly overstates the influence that Hollis had on the pact with Blunt. He hardly mentions White’s role in the affair, and completely ignores Burke Trend, the Cabinet Secretary, who was intimately involved in the processes, even to the extent of agreeing not to inform the Prime Minister. He presents Hollis as a friend of Blunt, and suggests that Hollis may have secretly approached him before the deal, to discover the terms on which he was prepared to admit his guilt. White had been much closer to Blunt, and had felt personally betrayed, and to ignore his role shows a strong measure of obtuseness on Pincher’s part.

And then we have Pincher’s version of the 23rd April event. This differs from Andrew’s version. “Arthur Martin visited Blunt’s apartment and wasted no time in telling him that MI5 had acquired proof that he had been a Soviet spy during the war. He said that he had been authorised by the attorney general to offer him immunity from prosecution.” No mention of Straight. No mention of Cairncross. No attempt to get Blunt to confess before the immunity offer is drawn out of the bag. No source is given for Pincher’s informant. He then reports that Martin had informed Costello that he was convinced that Hollis had warned Blunt in advance that he had been blown by Straight.

Pincher is inherently sceptical about the legitimacy of the confession, and how it was staged, but cannot divert himself from the Hollis-campaign to consider how he may have been hoodwinked by his informants. “As both Hollis and White [with a rare deference to White’s involvement] desperately wanted Blunt to agree, it would be surprising if he had not been instructed in some detail how to behave when confronted”, he writes. Pincher gets very close to the truth, but cannot conceive that maybe Blunt had already confessed several months ago.

Martin’s goose was cooked. Pincher suggest that after consulting White [my italics], Hollis called a meeting of his directors, and ‘seized the opportunity to get rid of him’, his rebellious officer, Martin. Moreover, Martin was offered a transfer to MI6, ‘where White was keen to acquire him’. It is further evidence that White was in charge of the whole business: Martin had performed his job, and could move on to bolster the team investigating the Moles.

Lastly, Pincher displays a very haphazard knowledge of the Cairncross affair. He starts his description of Cairncross’s role with the absurd sentence: “For a short spell, Cairncross was in America, teaching at Cleveland University, where Arthur Martin warned him to get out, as he was about to be expelled from the US following action by the FBI.” This statement contains so many obvious and blatant errors or misinformation that I shall not bother to list them. Yet Pincher has a hunch that things are not quite right (has he forgotten the accounts of Cairncross’s confession?), as he goes on to write that, after he moved to Rome, ‘he was questioned by Martin and Wright, who secured a further [my italics] confession containing details of his recruitment’. Further to his unrecognized confession in Cleveland? Or further to his confession in 1952?

A summary of Cairncross’s Enigma Spy is then presented, but Pincher cannot even bring himself to mention Cairncross’s wildly erroneous date for his confession to Martin in Cleveland. The more one inspects Pincher’s prose, the more unreliable and fantastic his stories become. The coverage of Straight, Blunt and Cairncross is another stunning example.

‘The Shadow Man’

The Shadow Man by Geoff Andrews (2015)

Andrews’s biography of James Klugmann has much historical value: in respect of Cairncross, it carefully lays out how Klugmann, the open member of the Communist Party, was able to recruit Cairncross to the cause when Blunt and Burgess had failed.

Yet in his coverage of the affairs of Straight, Blunt and Cairncross, Andrews is lost at sea. First of all he fumbles over the date of the visit by Arthur Martin in Cleveland – ‘just two months after taking up his appointment’. He then goes on to make the following remarkable assertion: “On this visit, helped by information from Blunt – who had, by now, confessed, though this was not made public for another 12 years – and the ongoing investigations into Philby’s disappearance in 1963, succeeded in extracting a confession from Cairncross about his own espionage.”

Well, it was actually fifteen years before Blunt’s confession was made public, but no matter. The extraordinary dimension to this statement is that Andrews makes a confident claim that Blunt had already confessed, i.e. before Andrews’ implicit date of March 1964, and implicitly before the actual date of mid-January 1964. Andrews must surely have been conscious of the prevailing intelligence (he cites Defence of the Realm in his sources, and quotes a passage from it in this very chapter), but can quite blithely declare that Blunt’s information helped Martin in extracting the confession.

Yet Andrews is not finished in his caprices. He continues: “Cairncross was told that the matter was treated ‘very seriously’, had been discussed by the British cabinet, and he should be in no doubt that there would be big headlines if the news got out. It was made clear that as things stood he would be arrested if he returned to Britain, with the prospect of a long sentence, something that was confirmed to him by the FBI. However, Martin told him that his confession would not be made public on the understanding that he would not return to England permanently.” It is not clear where Andrews gained his information, which even includes a quotation, as if from some document. He provides no sources. The mixture of clumsy veiled threats by Martin to Cairncross, while all the time MI5 was desperately trying to keep the lid on things (whom did they think those headlines would embarrass most?), combined with threats about prosecution, and advice on staying out of Britain, is quite ridiculous.

Andrews completes his coverage of these events with the information that, after Cairncross was duly required to leave the USA ‘only a couple of months after arriving’ (not true), he received another visit from Martin in Rome, this time accompanied by Peter Wright. In his stumbling way, Andrews shines fresh light on the fact of the late 1963 confession by Blunt.

FCO 158/129 – ‘Foreign and Colonial Office file on John Cairncross, 1953-1982’ (released 23 October, 2015)

This file constitutes firm evidence that the Foreign Office was being hoodwinked by the cabal of Hollis and White, Burke Trend, the Home Secretary and the Attorney-General. The items within it are very fragmented, often with only one side of a correspondence included, and it is therefore difficult to string together a coherent narrative. The dominant themes can be represented as follows:

The proceedings begin with a letter from ‘MRS’ of MI5, dated February 7, 1964 writing to Street in the Foreign Office. This announces that Cairncross has applied for a US Immigration Visa ‘and has been the subject of correspondence between us and the Americans under reference PF.72,493/c3D/2.’ This unreleased file strongly suggests that MI5 and the FBI have been in intense discussion about the visa application, and how to respond to it. Yet very quickly, the story gets tangled. Street writes to his superiors the very same day, including Sir Bernard Burrows, who appears to have been sharing the post of Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office with Howard Caccia, but was also Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1963 to 1966. It appears that Street has since talked to Cumming, the head of D Division, on the telephone. He tells them that Cairncross has applied ‘urgently’ for the visa.

Street then reveals the scheme that MI5 had been cooking up, and unwittingly betrays the lies that MI5 has started spinning. He writes: “The Security Service have felt for some time that they never got the full truth out of Cairncross and when they first heard of his visa application it occurred to them that in the United States, Cairncross might be prepared to talk more freely, where he would be outside the jurisdiction. It happens that Mr. Arthur Martin, the head of the Soviet Counter-Espionage Section, is in the United States and could talk to Cairncross if this were thought appropriate.” This is a very tantalising suggestion. Either Street received a true notice from MI5 – that Martin had indeed travelled to the USA on other business (perhaps to meet Straight?) – or MI5 was trying to make it appear a fortunate circumstance that Martin would be able to interrogate him.  Whatever the truth, MI5’s goal becomes immediately clear: they want to extract information from Cairncross, but they do not want to prosecute him.

The contortions that MI5 was now wrapping itself in are displayed. The FBI has told MI5 that they think the US Immigration Service should be given the full security facts on Cairncross. So far, all they appear to know is that he had been a Communist in the 1930s. But, if MI5 gives the full story, the visa application would probably be refused, and that would cause embarrassment, as the news would get out that a British citizen had been rejected, and the public would want to know why. MI5 might be justified in withholding information for a short visit, but for a long-term employment opportunity, it would be difficult to approve such a policy

Burrows thinks the type of visa is irrelevant. It is important (he writes) not to give a chance for any US authority to say the British have withheld information. It would cause great embarrassment if the visa request were withheld from a British citizen because of information given to the US authorities by Her Majesty’s Government. He recommends giving the CIA authority to inform the US Immigration Service, but adding the strong request that, if the visa were refused, it should not be attributed to information from the British government. Harrison, “C”, and Carrington all agree. The Foreign Office is now compliant in the plot.

By February 18, Street reports that the visa has been granted, and that Cairncross has already confessed to Martin! This news causes Burrows and Caccia alarm, as now Cairncross may be deported, and they wonder whether the ‘alert procedure’ should be brought into play. These two senior civil servants want Cairncross brought to justice. They now have an inkling of what is going on, but disapprove of the actions taken. Here Caccia makes his insightful statement about MI5’s manœuvrings: “At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implications of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” He hit the nail on the head.

There follow a few ancillary comments and resolutions: Guidance for the Press, Trend’s weaselly accounts of the meetings at 10 Downing Street [which I shall cover later], in turn echoed by Hollis, some exploration of US deportation law, and how Cairncross might be affected by it, and the approaches to Cairncross to determine whether he would be prepared to make a statement under caution, even suggestions that Cairncross’s brother, Alex, a financial adviser to the Foreign Office, may have come under suspicion. There is a report by Hollis, which raises the possibility that Cairncross was a member of Golitsyn’s Ring of Five. And right at the end, is a humorous entry by Street, who records on August 12, 1964 that he had encountered Arthur Martin. “I asked Mr. A. S. Martin today whether anything of interest to the Foreign Office had emerged from his interrogation of John Cairncross. He said that Cairncross had admitted to having been recruited by the R.I.S. shortly after he entered the Foreign Office in 1936. Otherwise nothing of interest.” Very droll.


Spymaster by Martin Pearce (2016)

One would not expect a biography of Sir Maurice Oldfield to carry much of relevance to the Straight episodes, but Martin Pearce (who is a nephew of the late Sir Maurice) in his 2016 work introduces a provocative incident. Richard Davenport-Hines was generous enough to offer a blurb: “An exemplary biography . . .I cannot think of a better biography of a spy chief”, a plaudit that may reflect the paucity of biographies of spy chiefs, a subtle disdain for Bower’s Perfect English Spy and Cave- Brown’s “C”, the regrettable fact of Davenport-Hines’s fading memory, or possibly a combination of all three explanations. It cannot be because of the book’s Sources, since these are sketchy at best.

Pearce sets up a plausible set of circumstances for Oldfield’s involvement – in the wake of the Philby disaster he had been sent over by White to ‘ingratiate him with the CIA, and with James Angleton in particular’, a job he did very well – and, according to Pearce, Martin flew to Washington to join Oldfield and James Angleton to discuss Golitsyn’s theories. So there was a history of collaboration between Martin and Oldfield. The key passage appears when Pearce describes Straight’s approach to the FBI, when the case is passed to Bill Sullivan.

“Sullivan liaised with his MI6 associate Maurice Oldfield, and Oldfield arranged for Arthur Martin of MI5 to fly out to interview Straight.” Where did this anecdote come from?

Pearce’s sources for the chapter (‘Mesmerised by Moles’) are the predictable list of ‘Molehunt’ books, as well as ‘National Archive material’, but he does not identify any direct source for this statement, or for any other. Now this series of connections is in some sense quite plausible, reflecting the reputation that Oldfield had won in Washington, the regard in which Dick White held him, and White’s and Oldfield’s closeness to Arthur Martin, but it leaves a lot unexplained. Sullivan’s association with British intelligence was through MI5, not MI6, Oldfield could not have ‘arranged’ for Martin to be sent out without Hollis’s authority, and the absence of any dating of these events leaves them in a highly speculative state.

I thus wrote to Pearce just before Christmas 2020, via his press agent, of course, asking about the authority for these remarks, and was informed that no emails would be processed until the New Year. I have not yet received a reply.

CAB 301/270 – ‘John Cairncross, former member of the Foreign Office: confession to spying’ (released July 20, 2017)

For those cold-blooded individuals who are apt to classify all ‘conspiracy theorists’ as undisciplined fantasists, CAB 301/270 should provide a dramatic wakening-up call. This collection of Cabinet papers, containing communications over Arthur Martin’s visit to Cleveland to interrogate John Cairncross, is vivid proof that Burke Trend, the Secretary to the Cabinet, was orchestrating a careful plot to deceive the Prime Minister, the Foreign Office and the public – through manipulation of the Press.

We should remember that Sir Alec Douglas-Home had been appointed Prime Minister only a few months before, in October 1963, and was no doubt overwhelmed with what was going on with his intelligence services. And on February 19, 1964, Trend has to break the news to him that Cairncross has confessed, under interrogation of a representative from MI5, in Cleveland. Anticipating the Prime Minister’s querying why Cairncross could not have been interrogated on British soil (since he had passed through the UK on his way to the United States), Trend observes, in the typically passive voice that indicates no single person shall be held responsible for dubious decisions, that ‘it was thought that an interrogation in the United States might secure better results.’ He happily adds that a full report is awaited, and that the FBI are pleased, and co-operating.

Trend warns the PM that there could be embarrassment, over the failure to interrogate Cairncross in the UK, and the knowledge of his links beforehand. “Was the link between him and Maclean (if this is disclosed?) followed up with sufficient vigour?” He then, rather cryptically, offers two options. Number One is ‘Should Cairncross be discreetly encouraged to leave the US and settle elsewhere (but not UK)?’: Number Two is ‘Should we ask and if necessary put pressure on US authorities to deport him for further interrogation to the UK?’. Trend presumably expected Douglas-Home (who did not have the wary instincts of his predecessor, Harold Macmillan) not to see through the illogicalities of these arguments. Why would MI5 not wish to bring Cairncross back and prosecute him? Why would they want him to settle elsewhere? Why, having assisted the FBI and the Department of Immigration in gaining Cairncross a visa, would the Home Office suddenly want to put pressure on them to deport him? Why would the FBI be pleased that, having just been encouraged to grant a dubious alien a visa, it turns out that the subject has confessed to spying for the Soviet Union for fifteen years?

A busy exchange of memoranda follows. The attitude of the US Immigration authorities cannot be foreseen: ‘we cannot connive at his evading UK conviction, or appear reluctant to have him back in the UK’. (The charade is admitted.) The confession in the US had been volunteered in return for certain inducements; therefore Cairncross’s evidence is inadmissible. Thus a suggestion is made to send a police officer to Cleveland, to see whether Cairncross will repeat his confession ‘under caution’. ‘The best solution would be for Cairncross to decide to leave for a third country’, implying that the government offices will not have to deal with this mess any more. Minuting a meeting held at Number 10 on February 20, Trend makes the absurd statement that they were justified in deciding not to interrogate Cairncross in the UK as ‘we had known virtually no more about him than we had known before’.

The cabal are now in a bind with the FBI, since they do not want it seen that they are applying pressure on the FBI not to return Cairncross, or that they are reluctant to prosecute him, and they certainly do not want it to come out that the British government was applying pressure by suggesting that Cairncross was an undesirable. The Cabinet and Foreign Office make furtive attempts to discern what US deportation policy is. On March 6, they learn that Cairncross has rejected the offer to make a statement under caution (surprise! surprise!). They do not want to refer the whole business to the Security Commission, which would mean bad publicity, and there is a precedent (Philby) for not taking such a move, as opposed to the cases of the Portland Spy Ring, George Blake, and John Vassall. On March 9, Douglas-Home decides that no further action should be taken. The matter is in the hands of the FBI and the US Immigration Service. Maybe it will all blow over.

There is no mention of the Martin-Straight interview in these records.

‘Enemies Within’

Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (2018)

Richard Davenport-Hines, perhaps the self-appointed authority on the impact of the Cambridge Spies (his book is subtitled ‘Communists, the Cambridge Spies and the Making of Modern Britain’) arrived with an ambitious agenda, a broad knowledge, a breath of fresh air, and some dubious theories. He is overall very critical of the Molehunters (Wright and Martin), and explains how their pursuits eroded the confidence of MI5 for decades. Yet his conclusions rely less on any fresh sources than on his wide knowledge of British society and literary history, and he claims to have discovered underlying trends in educational opportunities, in recruitment into the civil service and Intelligence that have’ transformed the social and political temper of modern Britain’.

That may be, but Davenport-Hines does not dig deeply into the Blunt-Cairncross confessions. He trusts what the conventional authors (Andrew, Wright, Deacon, Costello) tell him. He reminds us that the Straight evidence was concealed from Sir Alec Douglas-Home, but chooses to demean Arthur Martin’s molehunts, seeing him as ‘ominously under the sway of Golitysn’. He cites an internal assessment of Martin, given by John Marriott, who had noted thar despite ‘his undeniable critical and analytical gifts and powers of lucid explanation on paper’, Martin was ‘a rather small-minded man, and I doubt he will much increase in stature as he grows older’. Far from the wily Smiley character portrayed by others.

Thus Davenport-Hines fails to spot the anomalies in Cairncross’s confession occurring before Blunt’s, or the circumstances of their pardons. He specifically did not exploit the relevant archives recently released at Kew.

‘The Last Cambridge Spy’

The Last Cambridge Spy by Chris Smith (2019)

The first biographer of John Cairncross is a devotee of the archives. In his Introduction, Chris Smith lists the only four files on Cairncross that have been released for public inspection, yet he includes in this inventory a Home Office file, heavily redacted, which he obtained via a freedom of information request. In his Notes, he indicates that the latter is titled HO 532/4, although he fails to include CAB 301/270 here, while nevertheless registering it in a very comprehensive and useful Bibliography section.

HO 532/4 is listed in the National Archives catalogue as ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’, where it is described as being ‘retained by a Government department’. It covers Cairncross’s activities up to his death in 1995, but Smith appears to exploit it only once, when he describes the anxiety that beset the Foreign Office whenever Cairncross showed intentions of returning to the United Kingdom, as a known Soviet spy, but one who was not going to be prosecuted. The file therefore probably contains some further embarrassing incidents the importance of which Smith was not able to discern. [I have recently been able to communicate with Dr. Smith, and he has generously shown me the file. It does not contain anything startling.]

Smith takes his guidance on the interrogation of Cairncross mostly from the probably less reliable FCO 158/129, thereby relegating the more central CAB 301/270 to second fiddle. He echoes the ’second bite at the cherry’ idea (without crediting West), and reinforces the controversial claim that Martin ‘just so happened to be in the United States at that time and could simply drop by’. (Cleveland is about 400 miles from Washington, roughly the same distance as Edinburgh from London.) Smith notes that interrogating Cairncross ‘outside the jurisdiction’ had its advantages, and shrewdly questions why the USA was so different, when MI5 had had opportunities in Italy, for example. Yet he does not follow up: “The answer to this question remains unclear.”

The plot, however, is unfortunately lost when Smith, after describing Martin in glowing terms, informs us that ‘in April he [Cairncross] was doorstepped by an FBI agent who had called to let him now that Martin would be dropping in to talk to him.” Smith seems to have been inveigled by Cairncross’s declaration of the timing, since by April Martin was back in the UK preparing to interrogate Blunt. [Dr. Smith has expressed to me his regret over his overlooking of the plain evidence in CAB 301/270 about the timing of Cairncross’s interrogation.] ‘Doorstep’ is an unusual term, since it suggests a journalist pestering one’s home, but it would tend to counter the various writers who have claimed that Cairncross was interrogated in his hotel in Cleveland.

Smith then picks up the Chapman Pincher claim that Cairncross was ‘thrown to the wolves’ by Anthony Blunt, and dismisses it because Cairncross had already been interrogated (now in February, in contrast to his earlier assertion). As I have explained above, Smith rejects any claim that Blunt could have led MI5 to Cairncross because of the ‘archival evidence’ that Blunt did not confess until April 1964. He thus argues that Cairncross could thus not have known about the tipping-off. He sums up as follows: “He was convinced that it was Blunt who had given him up and this was only confirmed by the likes of Wright and Pincher. Blunt became for Cairncross a convenient scapegoat character, one upon whom he could pour a lifetime’s worth of anger and blame. Cairncross was wrong.”

In the matter of believing that he had been shopped by Blunt Cairncross was surely not wrong, despite all the other misrepresentations he made. But I believe that Smith is in error in attributing all this bile to his subject. Cairncross was no doubt told by his interrogators that he would be offered a deal similar to Blunt’s. Smith’s understandable confusion over the precise chronology, complemented perhaps by a flawed assessment of the possible deviousness of the intelligence services, may have caused him to underestimate the questionable character of Cairncross’s ‘confession’.

‘Agent Moliere’

Agent Moliere by Geoff Andrews (2020)

Last year, Geoff Andrews switched his attention from James Klugmann to John Cairncross. Among the new source material for his study he introduced Cairncross’s personal papers and correspondence maintained in the Special Collections section of Cambridge University Library. One startling reference is to an FBI file on Cairncross, presumably derived from its questioning of Cairncross in Cleveland. Andrews annotates this file, in Box 11 of the CULMC papers, as follows (Note 24, Chapter 13): “FBI file 65-68525. The FI file was released after request made by Richard Norton-Taylor.”  [I am attempting to gain a photocopy of the relevant documents. I have also been in touch with Andrews, but his description of the contents of the relevant file was very sketchy.]

Andrews also exploits the considerable correspondence between Cairncross and Graham Greene. Thus we can easily date the time when Cairncross approached Greene for a reference for the post at the Western Reserve University (August 4, 1963) which safely places Cairncross’s desire to move to the USA outside the Straight-Blunt discussions. Andrews writes: “He worried initially that the US authorities would be aware of his previous difficulties with MI5 and block his visa application. However he was pleasantly surprised that this was not the case and had sufficient confidence in the prospect of a new career that after returning from Karachi he made a brief stop in London to do some research at the British Museum before heading back to the American Consulate in Rome to finalize the paperwork.”  While this claim is unsourced, and no dates of Cairncross’s movements, such as his visa application, his arrival in London, his time spent at the British Museum, and seeing his estranged wife, or his return to Rome to pick up his visa, appear in Andrews’s narrative, it does appear to confirm the fact that Cairncross spent some time in London on his way from Karachi to Cleveland via Rome, and thus could have been interviewed by MI5. [I have asked Andrews for any dates he can supply to fix these events, but he has not replied.]

Cairncross arrived in Cleveland in February 1964, and Andrews describes a couple of happy months during which Cairncross enjoyed his stimulating new life. After a discursion on mole-hunting and Philby, Andrews returns to the moment when Cairncross’s ‘past caught up with him’. We are given an exact date and flight-number for Cairncross’s arrival (PAA103 on February 11). Andrews does not give a source for this detail, but it is a very significant event. For, if Cairncross flew out only on February 11, and Martin travelled to the USA expressly to interrogate Cairncross, some time in January (as most of the histories suggest), and was surprised by the introduction to Straight, what was Martin doing in all those weeks in Washington? Even if the encounter had been set up remotely, Martin surely did not need all that time. And we should recall that Chapman Pincher stated that Martin had arrived in early January, and was in Washington ‘on the Mitchell business’. (Martin had simply told him ‘other business’.) How could he possibly have spent so many weeks discussing a closed case? Wright, it will be recalled, said that Martin had flown out, on Sullivan’s invitation, for the purpose of interviewing Straight. That sounds equally unlikely, given how long the process would have taken. It seems much more probable that Martin was carrying out some careful discussions with the FBI as preparation for the Cairncross interrogations.

Thereafter Andrews portrays a fairly conventional story. He recognises that Cairncross lied about the interrogation date in his memoir. He refers to the collaboration between the FBI and MI5. He reports that Cairncross suddenly decided to ‘get it off his chest and confess to Martin’ without any analysis of what motivated him to do so. Despite his acceptance that Cairncross was a liar, he accepts the explanation that the spy gave in his memoir. Strangely, Andrews then jumps to the Blunt confession of April 1964 (when ‘Cairncross was fielding questions from the FBI in Room 309 at the Commodore Hotel in Cleveland’) before returning to the Prime Minister’s meeting on February 20, and what Cairncross was up to with the FBI in Cleveland. He then echoes the possibly misleading evidence provided in FCO 158/129, but fails to make any breakthrough observations about what was going on, or why such obviously hypocritical statements about the wish to prosecute Cairncross were being made.

Things were not going well for Cairncross with the FBI, apparently. In another passage that presumably relies on the Cambridge archive, Andrews writes: “The FBI told him that he must leave the United States by 29 June and so, two days before the deadline, he took a flight from Cleveland to New York, where the FBI escorted him on an Air France flight to Paris that had been chartered for the use of French assistants and teachers.” Amazingly, the British Press did not hear about it. “Suspected British Red Diplomat in Secret Deportation Drama” did not hit the headlines of the Daily Mail.

Yet, MI5 was ready for him. Cairncross underwent another ‘debriefing’ (just to make sure he had the story straight?) by Martin and Wright in Paris. He was now doing his best to co-operate, and apparently there followed several further sessions in Rome. There were a combination of threats and enticements: Cairncross was allowed to return to the UK, unthreatened, for further interviews, and for an unsuccessful attempt to gain a confession from James Klugmann.  Andrews’s final judgment is that ‘unlike Anthony Blunt, Cairncross was never given confirmation of immunity from prosecution in exchange for his cooperation’. That is, however, highly unlikely. Blunt would have been sure to gain such a promise for his conspirator before shopping him.

*                *                      *                      *                      *

That is the analysis. Readers can probably predict what my conclusions will be. If any of you can recommend sources I have overlooked, or have comments on the evidence, please contact me. I shall deliver my theory for what really happened next month.

Lastly, this is not the launching of a ‘conspiracy theory’. We know there was a real conspiracy to conceal the immunity deals negotiated with Blunt (and Cairncross) because Margaret Thatcher admitted them in 1979. But the even darker aspect of the conspiracy was to divert focus on the cause of the agreements away from internal mismanagement to an unavoidable outside agency.  It occurred when the CIA’s Angleton poked his nose in, extending the knowledge of the plot to a broader audience, and leading Hollis and White to distort the facts of the confessions.

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


Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Literature/Academia, Management/Leadership, Politics

Year-End Wrap-up – 2020

At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?

The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:

  1. ‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
  2. The John le Carré I Never Knew
  3. The Dead Ends of HASP
  4. Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
  5. Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
  6. Bandwidth versus Frequency
  7. ‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
  8. Puzzles at Kew
  9. Trouble at RAE Farnborough
  10. End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes

‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out

Kati Marton

Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see:  I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:

Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’

Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.

Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.

A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.

She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.

Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.

Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.

A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.

It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.

(For verification of the true story about Sonya, see and )

My letter was not published.

As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.

The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.

Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.

His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.

The John le Carré I Never Knew

John Le Carre

I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.

In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”

I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.

And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.

Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”

Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?

It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.

I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.

On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)

I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.

“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead?  Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”

But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”

I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.

(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)

The Dead Ends of HASP

Professor Wilhelm Agrell

I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.

Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.

The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.

In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.

I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.

One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.

It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.

It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.

Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt

Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.

The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.

This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.

The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.

The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home.  In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):

“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’  (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)

“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)

“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)

“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)

The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.

Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away

Trevor Barnes

Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.

With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.

In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)

Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.

Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:

“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”

The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:

“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”

That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.

For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt  . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.

So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.

Snelling is not a very common name, although, in an extraordinary coincidence, a ‘Freddie Snelling’ also appears in Dead Doubles. He was an antiquarian book-seller friend of the Krogers. From an inspection of genealogical records, however, it does not appear that the two could have been related. I performed some searches on ‘J. W. E. Snelling’, and came up with a couple of intriguing items. The name appears in the St. Edmund Hall Magazine of 1951-52 (see , and the Statesman’s Yearbook of 1966-67 shows that he was a First Secretary in the British Embassy to South Africa (see  I wrote to the Librarian at St. Edmund Hall, asking for further details on Snelling. She acknowledged my request, but after several weeks the Archivist has not been able to respond.

Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.

Bandwidth versus Frequency

Dr. Brian Austin

My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:

Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:

“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”

This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain.  The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz.   On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz).  Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.

By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide.  As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!

So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency.  It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength.  And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).

You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.

In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.

An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely.  The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.

Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.

Puzzles at Kew

The National Archives at Kew

I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.

My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)

A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.

Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”

This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.

Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.

My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.

Trouble at RAE Farnborough

RAE Farnborough

Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.

On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.”  But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?

Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:

‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’

Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.

This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.

Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.

Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’

The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?

I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.

And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.

So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:

“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.

Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’

Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.

Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”

Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.”  Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.

End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes

Tom Clark

Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team  .  .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?

I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:

            But to myself they turned (since none puts by

            The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)

This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.

Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:

                Let us go then, you and I,

When the evening is spread out against the sky

It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?

Let us go then, you and me,

When the evening is spread out above the sea

But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.

It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.

Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”

I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.

I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.

December Commonplace entries can be found here.

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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: .  (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 ), 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: 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 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:

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


  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.)


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

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  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)


  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 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 ) 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.


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:, 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 ) 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.


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 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

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


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.


  • 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 ) 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 ( ), 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 . 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 ( ) 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, 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 ( ) 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:, 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 ) 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.



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

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 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?


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 , 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 ), on which my colleague Denis Lenihan has recently posted an invigorating article (see ). 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 .) 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  and ), 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 and at

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, 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.


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

Border Crossings: Coldspur & Stalin


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 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,   
( ), 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?


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

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 ), and I do not believe that the Royal Historical Society will come to our rescue. I have thus continued to try to bring 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 . 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 ].

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 )

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 ), 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 ). 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’ ( . 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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