Category Archives: Literature/Academia

2022: Year-End Round-up

[from an original cut paper collage by Amanda White]

Seasonal Greetings to all coldspur readers! Thank you for all your comments, hints, corrections, praise, criticisms, messages of support, and challenges throughout 2022! Stay in touch.

The SOE On-Line Forum

‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’

Gibson & Gubbins: Further Myths?

Geoffrey Elliott: An Obituary

Coldspur and the archive

Notes and Queries

Dr Austin and ‘Agent Sonya’s Wireless’

John le Carré: Letters & TSWCIFTC

The National Archives

Documents No Longer Talk

Hilary Mantel, Fiction and History

Envoi: Philip Larkin’s Nightwear & Homo Sapiens and Us

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The SOE On-Line Forum

The Special Operations Executive appears to have settled into a sedate maturity. Now over eighty years old, its authorized histories have been written (partially); the plaques and memorials of its most brave and intrepid agents have been set up: several biographies – all very flattering – of its most celebrated leader, Colin Gubbins, have been written; the ceremonies of remembrance take place with appropriate dignity and respect; the obituaries of its members are diminishing in number; occasional items on the radio and in the press about the exploits of SOE include a mix of romantic embellishment with more solid facts. Overall, its reputation is good: new histories of the war regularly emphasize the contribution it made to the conclusion of the hostilities, frequently citing the somewhat overstated opinion of General Eisenhower. No academic historian appears to want to rock the boat and present a re-assessment of the practices and achievements of the organization.

I am rather uncomfortable about this state of affairs. I have performed enough research this year, on the incidents involving PROSPER and the Cockade deception scheme, and in a detailed analysis of the contribution of Colonel Gubbins, to convince myself that the current story is inadequate and misleading. Part of this conclusion emanates from the fact that the authorized histories of SOE are so defective. The only substantial volume covers France, but the original 1960s edition was severely censored, and, when the author, M. R. D. Foot, came to revise it in 2004, he neglected to analyze subsequent research, and failed to reconcile conflicts in his story. Meanwhile, the air has been cluttered with a host of memoirs and biographies that casually mix archival records with highly dubious assertions about events.

Thus, earlier this year, I was energized to discover an SOE forum/chat-group on the Web, and joined it. I thought that a colloquium of serious students of SOE would lead to a more profound assessment of all the new evidence about the strategies of SOE, and its relationship with the Chiefs of Staff, with MI6, and with the London Controlling Station. The members of the group whose postings I have read are almost exclusively dedicated and estimable persons who are sincere about establishing the facts about a number of SOE actions and projects. They include some distinguished authors of books on military history and intelligence. They share their findings, and encourage others (many of whom are performing family-based research) in their aspirations, and guide them in their inquiries. They are led by a member of the Special Forces Club, which was created to perpetuate the heroics of members of SOE.

Yet I rapidly became disenchanted. The group is very absorbed with (and efficient at) resolving questions such as: At which country house did the Poles get their training? What airport was used for launching Operation X? What medals were awarded to the members of Mission Y? Exactly what firearms did they carry? What was the background of Agent Z? Whenever a matter of more controversial substance arises, however, I have noticed that a sepulchral silence takes over. I have been prompted a few times, by the raising of a topic close to my research on SOE (such as my coverage of PROSPER, or the career of Colin Gubbins, or the troublesome history of the Russian Section), gently to draw attention to my researches on coldspur by providing a link. While I have received some private messages of encouragement arising from such introductions, the only public statements from the forum have almost exclusively been intemperate and dismissive lectures from one of the senior members.

It seems to me that the group is somewhat in awe of Francis Suttill, and he has a cabal of supporters who rally round him. Now, I happen to think that Mr. Suttill deserves a lot of sympathy and respect: sympathy, because his father was cruelly murdered by the Nazis in March 1945, and respect, because he has performed some painstaking (but flawed) research into the exploits of F Section of SOE in WWII. But that does not entitle him to maintain a closed mind on the tribulations of 1943, which standpoint he has unmistakably adopted. He is in the thrall of M. R. D. Foot, the late historian of SOE, and of Mark Seaman, the successor to the advisors from the Foreign Office, and it appears to me that he is not really willing to engage in calm and constructive debate about the surviving anomalies of SOE’s French adventures in 1942 and 1943.

When in early November I drew attention to my research on coldspur, and my theory that Francis Suttill Sr. probably made two journeys back to the UK in May and June 1943, Suttill Jr. responded on the SOE forum with an ill-mannered attack on my scholarship. I ignored it, as previous direct exchanges with him had proved fruitless, and he had abandoned me mid-stream in April after we had started an email dialogue about the events of summer 1943. And then, a few days later, a person identified as ‘Emma’ submitted his complete tirade to me on coldspur, and I decided to approve the whole message, while pointing out that neither she nor Mr Suttill had apparently read what I had written. I said I would welcome any serious response, and would be delighted to engage in debate. Emma then replied, expressing her surprise at what I had written, while erroneously suggesting there was evidence that Suttill had never made a second visit to the UK (an almost impossible task to prove, incidentally).

All those postings can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/, following the text of the article. At this stage I decide that Emma needed to come out into the open, and I accordingly sent an email message to the address supplied with her WordPress posting, where I explained that she needed to divulge to me (confidentially) details about her real name, her residence, and her qualifications and connections before we moved forward. I then discovered that the email address she gave me was a non-existent one, and I alerted her (via coldspur) that she was henceforward disqualified from posting any comments on my site until she came clean with her name and affiliations. (The original email, and the subsequent posting, can also be inspected on coldspur.)

That was not the last I heard from ‘Emma’: a few days later she explained that she had mis-spelled her email address, and did not want to divulge her full name. That was enough for me: my policy is not to allow anyone to enter serious debate (as opposed to offering incidental comments) on coldspur who is unwilling to confide to me his or her name and qualifications. ‘Emma’ may not have been a woman; she may have been one of Suttill’s acolytes put up to goad me. I have no idea. In fact, since she has not offered one single argument of any merit, but simply shown herself as a shill for Suttill, it doesn’t really matter. But the whole farrago seems to be exceedingly sad: that a group established to investigate SOE (and promote the memory of its gallant agents, of course) should so smoothly slide into such incurious and obstinate behaviour, and that one of its members should so naively dissemble in an effort to discredit my own careful and professional researches, reflect poorly on the state of serious historical inquiry.

And then, out of the blue, at the end of November, I received a conciliatory email from Mr. Suttill, apologizing for taking so long to respond to my questions from last April. I thanked him for his insights, promised to follow his advice and delve carefully into the records, and on December 11 sent him a long and careful email listing a number of questions I had concerning his conclusions. A week later, I received a detailed reply, for which I was very grateful. It communicated a very useful message, although the text confirmed to me that Mr. Suttill really has no methodology behind his researches. Shortly after Christmas I consequently sent a long screed to Mr Suttill, in which I explained my methodological approach, and outlined in detail the flaws that I believe exist in his account of the events. I shall report on the outcome next month.

The Airmen Who Died Twice

Operation PARAVANE

Several correspondents have asked me where this project stands. I presented a teaser article back in early June of this year, where I described the crash of a Lancaster aircraft in Norway in September 1944, on a return from a bombing raid on the Tirpitz using a temporary airbase in Yagodnik, in northern Russia. I suggested that the records of the anomalous casualties had been covered up, as two of the fatalities initially reported survived only to be killed by the Germans on the Swiss border a month later, and I committed that a full explanation would be forthcoming.

It has proved to be a fascinating exercise. Nigel Austin (with whom I am collaborating) and I have now completed seven chapters of ten, and plan to complete the project by early 2023. What will happen with our story is uncertain: we hope to find a reputable outlet that will issue the story, although its length may be challenging. As a back-up, we have coldspur, and, if we decide to use that medium, shall probably release a chapter a week in order to make it a more manageable serial.

The ramifications of the accident have been wide-ranging. Our researches have taken us into such fields as: the strange, late decisions that were made on the logistics of the Tirpitz raid; Stalin’s SMERSH organization, and its relationship with the NKVD; the Warsaw Uprising; the use of bases in Poltava by the USAAF; SOE’s relationships with Norway’s resistance organization, MILORG; Communist factionalism in Norway; the Soviet Union’s plans for regaining territory in Finland and acquiring some in northern Norway; Stalin’s desire to acquire Allied technology clandestinely; the controversies surrounding the British Military Mission in Moscow; disagreements over policy between the War Office and the Foreign Office; and SOE’s relationship with the NKVD representative in London, Colonel Chichaev. The investigation is thus multi-faceted, and the conclusions are shocking. Watch this space for more information.

One of the most fascinating parts of the project has been studying the records of the communications between the Foreign Office, the Chiefs of Staff, the Air Ministry, the Joint Intelligence Committee, the Embassy in Moscow, and the 30 Military Mission (which was strictly independent of the Embassy and its own attachés representing the armed forces). A continual battle took place in 1943 and 1944 between the appeasers of the Foreign Office (rather surprisingly supported by Cavendish-Bentinck, Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee) and the Chiefs of Staff, who demanded a more rigorous approach by the Head of Mission in order to overcome Soviet intransigence and lack of co-operation. The Foreign Office managed to have General Martel recalled, presumably because of his arrogance and obstinacy, and arranged for the more conciliatory General Burrows to replace him. Yet Burrows quickly encountered the same difficulties as Martell had experienced, and started to echo Martell’s tune, much to the embarrassment of the Foreign Office mandarins.

One anecdote in this business I found very amusing. Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Minister, believed that he had established a strong personal relationship with Vyacheslav Molotov, the Soviet Foreign Minister, and wrote a personal note to him introducing General Burrows, assuring Molotov that he would take to Burrows ‘because he is a close personal friend of mine’. How Old Stonearse responded privately to this message is not recorded, but the allusion might have been lost on him. In the Soviet Union, ‘friends’ were people you informed upon and betrayed, lest they do the dirty on you first. Molotov himself failed to come to the rescue of his own wife, who was arrested and incarcerated by Stalin as an obvious member of the Great Jewish Conspiracy, and he subsequently divorced her. It just shows how little the Foreign Office understood the nature of the Soviet system.

Coincidentally, as I was concluding this section, I found an observation by George Kennan (at the time deputy to US Ambassador in Moscow Averell Harriman) made during the Yalta conference in February 1945. When asked to comment on personal relationships (Roosevelt had boasted of the ‘friendship’ he enjoyed with Stalin), Kennan said:

            For a Soviet official to do anything or say anything in deference to a personal relationship which one would not have done or said in a straight performance of official duties would be considered equivalent to acting in the interests of a foreign state.

Verb. sap.

Gibson & Gubbins: Further Myths?

When I wrote recently about Harold Gibson, and his imaginary spy in the Kremlin, I drew attention to the fact that an eager crew of writers was ready to promulgate the myth on the shakiest of evidence. As I delved more deeply into the stories surrounding Gibson, I discovered that Colin Gubbins, the SOE chief from September 1943 onwards, about whom I had somewhat disparagingly written earlier in the year, had also been infiltrated into some historical narratives, and such tales now appear as facts in many serious-looking article on the Web.

It all started with Frederick Winterbotham, who, in 1974, in his book The Ultra Secret, broke the silence on Bletchley Park and the decryption of ENIGMA (and other) signals that became known as ULTRA. Unfortunately, Winterbotham had only a vague idea of exactly what was going on, and he was assuredly ignorant of how the expertise in the internals of the ENIGMA machine had been developed. Someone must have fed him a line, since he described how, in 1938, a Polish mechanic working in Eastern Germany on ENIGMA got himself sacked and was sent back to Poland. In Warsaw, he reputedly contacted British Intelligence in Warsaw. The head of MI6, Hugh Sinclair, delegated the project to his deputy, Stewart Menzies. The Pole was smuggled out to Paris with the help of the Polish Secret Service, where the Deuxième Bureau gave him a workshop in which he constructed a model of ENIGMA.

Unfortunately, none of this was verifiable, but it did not prevent Anthony Cave-Brown from enthusiastically picking up (and embellishing) the story in his 1975 publication Bodyguard of Lies. He described how, in June 1938, Gibson issued a report on a visit he made to Warsaw, where he had met a Polish Jew named ‘Lewinsky’ (not his real name), who had worked at a factory in Berlin where the ENIGMA was produced. He had been expelled because of his religion, but felt he had valuable information to sell, and requested ₤10,000, a British passport, and a resident’s permit in France for him and his wife. He claimed that he knew enough to build a replica. Menzies was suspicious, but when the technical data were examined, the judgment emerged that his information was genuine. In August 1938, he sent two experts to meet Lewinsky in person, Dillwyn Knox and Alan Turing. If that distinguished twosome were satisfied that Lewinsky was genuine, they were to arrange with Gibson to take the Pole and his wife to Paris.

Now the careful student might at this stage raise some questions. Turing was not recruited by GC&CS until September 1939, so it would be unlikely that Knox would have selected him for such a sensitive project at that time. In any event, as Cave-Brown reported, they went to Warsaw and met Lewinsky, ‘a dark man in his early 40s’, as Wilfred Dunderdale, resident MI6 officer in Paris, described him. Knox and Turing returned and advised Menzies that the bargain should be accepted. Lewinsky and his wife were taken by Gibson through Gdynia and Stockholm to Paris, where Dunderdale took them under his wing. Lewinsky created the replica of the Enigma machine from his apartment.

Now this whole adventure is probably a complete hoax – and Dunderdale might have been complicit in it rather than responsible for providing an authentic-sounding testimony. In August 1939, a successful visit was made by GC&CS personnel to Polish Intelligence to gain information on, and a replica of, the Enigma machine. In several stories that can be found on the Web (at least one by a published author), Gubbins’ arrival in Poland just after the war broke out, on a military intelligence mission, has been presented as part of this successful exploit, but the claim does not hold any water. I shall explore and explain the whole shifty and contradictory story of how the Poles actually contributed to the success of the Enigma project in a posting early next year, but simply make the point here that the British, the French, and even the Poles, all out of reasons of national pride, or to cover up their own inadequacies or exaggerate their own creativity, all contributed to the haze that has surrounded the transfer of cryptologic skills to Bletchley Park, and their subsequent development.

The particular poignancy that this story has for me concerns Alastair Denniston, and the cruel way that his contributions between the wars were diminished when he was removed from his leadership in 1942, becoming the only head of GC&CS/GCHQ not to receive a knighthood. (I wrote about this puzzle in http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-iv/ ) Now I believe I may understand why. I suspect that he made a fateful blunder in the early 1930s, when he rejected an approach from the French about gaining a copy of the specifications of the ENIGMA machine from Polish sources. That must have caused enormous frustration to Knox when he learned about it, and the British campaign to provide mechanisms to decrypt Enigma messages was set back several years. I shall pick up this story in my coming account, and also inspect the occasional claim made that the Gibson aspect of the adventure may have some truth to it.

Geoffrey Elliott: An Obituary

Geoffrey Elliott

Earlier this year I was invited to contribute an obituary on Geoffrey Elliott for the on-line newsletter published by the Whitgift Association, under the auspices of Whitgift School, which establishment we both attended (although Elliott left a year before I arrived). My father, who attended Whitgift from 1922-1930, was a master there for over thirty years, acted as honorary archivist, and wrote the History of Whitgift School, had also taught Elliott. The following duly appeared in October:

Geoffrey Elliott (1949-1955) was born in April 1939 to Kavan Elliott, a bohemian character who worked for the Special Operations Executive during World War II, and Sonia Redstone, the daughter of emigrés from Siberia. With his father engaged in both forced and unforced absences from the family home, Geoffrey’s mother had moved Geoffrey and his sister Jennifer to Purley, probably because Dick White, then a senior officer in MI5 (who had taught at the School in the early 1930s) had recommended Whitgift as an institution suitable for her son.

His career at Whitgift was unremarkable (described with wit in Geoffrey’s memoir about his father, I Spy), but in 1957 Sonia Elliott was killed by a drunk driver in Purley High Street. In Elliott’s words ‘life span out of control for a while’. Yet, with the support of his grandfather, he managed to find a position working as an articled clerk for the illustrious lawyer Lord Goodman, one of the two major influences in his life. Goodman had been the solicitor for the Balkan Sobranie tobacco business run by Geoffrey’s grandfather and great-uncle.

National Service then called, and Elliott entered the Intelligence Corps. Having applied to learn Arabic, he was then sent on the last of the courses for interpreters in Russian, and spent an enjoyable couple of years journeying between Cambridge and London. He starred at this assignment (despite never having learned any Russian from his grandparents). The rewards, however, were unexciting. As he wrote: “Not for me the clandestine delights of supposedly chance encounters on that well-worn Regent’s Park bench with some charismatic unfrocked Hungarian priest coyly sounding me out for membership of the Whitgift Twelve.”

Instead, his training led him to a productive spell of translating, where his main customer was ‘that bow-tied bullshit artist’ Robert Maxwell. He married Fay (who predeceased him by two years), and moved to Reuters, where he very successfully monitored Soviet radio broadcasts. It was at this time that he worked in some capacity for ‘the Firm’ (MI6), following his father, who had undergone painful experiences in Hungary after being arrested there in 1948 with the cover of an executive for Unilever. Elliott became a senior associate member at St Antony’s College, Oxford, and his friends and colleagues there became an important part of his research activities in later life. He was elected to an Honorary Fellowship there in 1997.

The second major influence on Elliott was the banker Siegmund Warburg, the head of an ‘arriviste’ but very successful banking-house, who had refreshing ideas about recruitment and training. Elliott prospered there before being tempted to move to the USA, where he became Managing Director for Morgan Stanley. In 1990 the Elliotts retired to Bermuda, where they embarked on a generous and culturally rich course of philanthropy. Geoffrey became Chairman of the Bermuda National Gallery, and was awarded the OBE in 2004 for his contribution to Bermuda’s cultural heritage. In 2002, Geoffrey and Fay also donated an exceptional assortment of rare books and manuscripts to the Special Collections Library of Leeds University.

Geoffrey Elliott was a widely-read individual, with a broad interest in many matters of history and culture, and he devoted much of his retirement in a quest to learn more about his errant father’s life and exploits, as well as the exotic background of his maternal grandparents. He left two outstanding memoirs, I Spy (primarily about his father), and From Siberia, With Love, which is an extraordinary account of how the Redstones met in prison, married, and made their way to London before returning to Siberia and escaping a second time. His books are percipient, witty, and allusive, a combination of the content, style and anecdotage of John le Carré, Fitzroy Maclean and Alan Furst.

Yet one unique achievement occurred in a more covert way. Elliott contributed to other books, such as Secret Classrooms, with Harold Shukman, which tells the story of the Joint Services School for Linguists, and with Igor Damaskin to a biography of Kitty Harris, Donald Maclean’s lover, The Spy With Seventeen Names. He was also in demand as a translator, applying his skills to Rufina Philby’s memoir, and more exquisitely, translating documents from the KGB archive for Nigel West’s book on government secrets purloined by the Cambridge Five (Triplex), which the Soviets had translated into Russian. Since many of these original papers have not been released by the British Government, Elliott’s re-translations of these back into English are the only available versions.

This obituarist had the pleasure of becoming acquainted with Elliott (by email and telephone) while researching his doctorate in Security and Intelligence Studies a few years ago. Geoffrey was modest, insightful, patient, amusing – and sometimes very waspish. The character and wisdom of the man came through immediately, and I was very grateful for his guidance on some problematic matters of intelligence.

Geoffrey Elliott’s heritage was surely more exotic than most. Yet in some way it perhaps mirrored that of many Whitgiftians. Mysterious backgrounds tend to be subdued in the uniforms and conventionality of suburban schooling, and the subjects probably believe their lives are just as normal or abnormal as that of every other boy. And then they take their experiences to make some sort of mark in the wider world. In Geoffrey’s case, he underwent a few apparently mundane years in Surrey suburbia, plagued by teenage worries and bizarre schoolmasters. A full life then followed, an outstanding career in several fields of endeavour, all carried out with aplomb but little trumpeting. He concluded in his retirement that he had become a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, but, despite his lack of sense of belonging, Elliott left a deep and positive impression everywhere he worked and lived. He died in Bermuda on May 1, 2021.

(Soon after this piece was published, I heard from my friend Nigel Platts, who edits the newsletter in which it appeared, that he had recently encountered a close schooltime friend of Geoffrey Elliott’s on a social occasion. This colleague mentioned that, when he and Elliott took O-Level Latin, Elliott left Big School after 20 minutes or thereabouts, not because he was stumped by the paper but because he had completed it. His friend said that Elliott was a most remarkable linguist – it was no surprise that he went through the JSSL or that he prospered in investment banking.)

Coldspur and the archive

Since I wrote about the challenges of preserving my library of books and papers, and making it available for a future generation of researchers, a few correspondents have expressed sympathy with my efforts to find a suitable home, and have offered some suggestions. I am grateful to them all, and am happy to report – rather cautiously, as nothing has been signed yet – that I am engaged in very positive discussions with an institution that is very enlightened about ‘special collections’, appreciates the unique substance of my collection of books and archival material, and is also imaginative as to how some of my research aids, such as the very detailed Chronology of Events supported by hundreds of sources, could be deployed electronically to empower students of twentieth-century history. I shall report further as the project evolves.

Two other aspects of the archive occupy my mind occasionally. I am frequently stressed to recall in which posting an important reference occurs. The internal search capability provides some introductory information, but is not adequate for detailed inspection, and I have to switch to my Word versions to obtain highlighted incidences. A comprehensive Index would be very desirable, but, owing to the density of the texts, would be a mammoth exercise that I am not prepared to undertake. Perhaps an undergraduate project at some stage.

The other exercise would be to create PDF versions of major pieces, a feature that a few correspondents have asked about. (Some find the on-line version unwieldy to read, and I do provide Word versions of each piece on request.) PDFs would presumably give the articles greater substance and identity, and maybe increase their utility and availability. I do not have a full license for Postscript, so have not been able to experiment with such a process, but, if any reader has insights and advice on this topic, I should be happy to receive them.

What about the short term? Over the holidays I was reading about the new ‘chatbot’ (dreadful word!) ChatGPT, and how it was amazingly producing elegant responses to routine inquiries. So I decided to try it out, to see how it would respond to the question ‘Who was ELLI?’, and thereby advance the cause of human knowledge. I thus went to the OpenAI site, requested a download for the free trial, entered my email address, and then responded to the verification message by entering my telephone number. I then received the message: “SMS Verification is not supported by landline phones”.

Ha! I wasn’t falling for that! The oldest trick in the book! My cellphone sits in my drawer, turned off, for 98% of the time, and is only powered on when I go out. (Though I expect that, before too long, I shall need to reveal it in order to access my own bank account . . .) I don’t give the number out to anyone: the only two persons who know it are our son and my wife. So OpenAI isn’t that smart, is it? On the other hand, perhaps someone else who is more liberal in passing out his or her mobile phone number could try out ChatGPT, and let me know the answer to the ‘ELLI’ question.

So what about coldspur in 2023? On the docket: PROSPER’s secret return to the UK; the truth behind Alistair Denniston and ENIGMA; the resolution of The Airmen Who Died Twice; the structure of Soviet counter-espionage in MI5 at the end of the war; John Tiltman’s mysterious exploits in Finland; a study of wireless traffic probably betrayed by George Graham; an inspection of the recently release MI5 files from Kew; perhaps more on ELLI and Archie Gibson  . . . . (although, at some stage during 2023, I might hand over the writing of the blog to ChatGPT. I doubt anyone will notice). Don’t touch that dial!

Notes and Queries

I frequently receive from correspondents tips on matters of intelligence, some of which seem particularly fruity, and need to be followed up. Yet I always ask the following questions:

  • Who is the source?
  • Is there any documentary evidence?
  • May I quote you?

And if any of the answers are negative, I tread very carefully, lest I appear like Chapman Pincher, fed spurious information by ‘good authorities who have to remain anonymous’.

One recent item sounded plausible. I was told that MI5 applied a lot of pressure on Leo Marks (and his publishers) when he wrote Between Silk and Cyanide, as he had included some very critical remarks about SOE’s performance in WWII, and the service had successfully managed to keep such comments out of the book. Now that would not surprise me, as Marks made some fairly scathing observations about Colin Gubbins, and what he had originally written might ‘help me with my inquiries’ into the deceptions of F Section. My informant said that Marks’s original manuscript existed somewhere, waiting to be inspected, but could not tell me any more. Can anyone out there help?

My second query relates to Genrikh Borovik’s Philby Files. Keith Ellison and I have been working closely on this very chaotic book recently, trying to resolve its many errors, paradoxes and contradictions. For instance, Borovik’s claim that Ivan Chichaev handled Philby during the war turns out to be almost certainly false, since Borovik equates VADIM with Chichaev, and has him handling Philby in early 1941. But Chichaev did not arrive in London until December 1941, and VADIM was Anatoly Gorsky.

A passage that has particularly engrossed us is the transcription of a report made by Gorsky (then named ‘KAP’) from London, to Moscow Centre, on July 10, 1939. It runs as follows:

            Very soon, ‘S’ will come here to resolve the question of future work. While here, ‘Mary’ met one of her intimate friends, a certain ‘Stuart’, whom, she says, we knew nothing about. She has written a detailed report on him. This ‘Stuart’ is now working on some top-secret project, probably for the illegal ministry of information and, in his words, has already recommended ‘Söhnchen’ for this work to his bosses. The question will be decided while ‘Söhnchen’ is here.

(‘S’ and ‘SÖHNCHEN’ are Philby. ‘MARY’ is Litzi Philby, domiciled primarily in Paris, where Donald Maclean is currently stationed. Maclean’s cryptonym is now STUART, it having been changed since Kathy Harris, his courier and lover, revealed his previous cryptonym, LYRIK, to him, against all the rules.)

Keith and I disagree about the probable identity of ‘Stuart’. He thinks that it refers to Maclean, and that Maclean was probably involved with Guy Burgess’s project at the Joint Broadcasting Company (the ‘illegal ministry of information’). He deems it unlikely that two agents would have been given the name of STUART. My thought is that ‘Stuart’ is the person’s real name. Litzi Philby strongly suggests that the person is working in London, and that she had a meeting with him there. Maclean, moreover, would hardly have been spending time on any such surreptitious projects from Paris.

There is ambiguity in the phrase ‘we knew nothing about’ him. Is ‘we’ the London residency, or the NKVD overall? The London station was being rebuilt, and trying to discover who its agents were. Yet, if Litzi knew that her ‘Stuart’ was actually Maclean, why would she have to write a detailed report on him, since she could have referred Gorsky to Moscow Centre, which was receiving Maclean’s reports from the Paris residency? It sounds to me as if ‘Stuart’ is a potential new contact working in the government (and probably not Stuart Hampshire, who, while having a slightly dubious reputation in this business, was a fellow at All Souls’ College at this time). ‘Stuart’ knows Philby well enough to want to recommend him for a job, and is surely working on the wrong side of the blanket if he is an ‘intimate friend’ of Litzi’s.

Ironically, this may not be the only occasion where confusion over cryptonyms has reigned. In SOE’s F Section in 1943, Henri Déricourt was known as ‘GILBERT’. In some communications, GILBERT was taken as referring to Gilbert Norman (ARCHAMBAUD), PROSPER’s chief wireless operator, with unhappy outcomes. For instance, in May 1943, the Abwehr agent Richard Christmann, posing as a Belgian resistance worker called ‘Arnaud’, asked the proprietor of a Paris restaurant where members of PROSPER’s group frequently met if he could put him in touch with GILBERT, and the owner naively led him to Gilbert Norman.

Borovik uses this incident to show the confusion at the Lubyanka over the identity of their sources, but perhaps it has a simpler explanation. Can anyone help? How would you interpret this passage? And can you shed light on who ‘Stuart’ might be? Answers on a postcard, please.

Dr Austin and ‘Agent Sonya’s Wireless’

Dr. Brian Austin

Coldspur readers may recall Dr Brian Austin, now retired, who was a distinguished academic in the Department of Engineering and Electronics at Liverpool University, and is a noted historian and biographer (of Sir Basil Schonland). Over the years, he has been very helpful in guiding me on wireless matters, and he contributed a vital column on coldspur in December 2020, where he explained the difference between wavelengths and frequencies. He is also a keen follower of intelligence matters, and has tracked with great interest the erratic accounts of Sonya’s adventures with wireless. He even wrote to Ben Macintyre to challenge the popular author’s claims, but his appeals went unanswered.

That interest was recently converted into a fascinating and comprehensive analysis of the unlikely exploits that Sonya must have undertaken to achieve the results attributed to her in Macintyre’s largely fanciful account of her enterprises in espionage, or, more accurately, couriership. Dr Austin’s article, ‘Sonya’s Wireless: fact, fiction, fantasy and fable’ was published by Signal magazine in August of this year. Unfortunately, the publishers of Signal do not offer an on-line version, but Dr Austin has generously allowed me to post the PDF of his article on coldspur, and it can be viewed at Sonya’s Wireless.

[I regret that I have experienced a few problems installing and using the Plug-In for importing PDFs to WordPress, which may not have been tested with the release of the product that I use. The result is not as clean as I hoped: the PDF can appear only as a ‘Post’, not a separate ‘Page’, and I cannot correct the text, or its erratic disruption of paragraphs. I may try scanning the individual pages into a separate document. My apologies.]

I am sure all coldspur readers will be impressed by Dr Austin’s scholarship and insights. He brings to what could easily have become a dry-as-dust study a wonderfully entertaining analysis, laced with wit and wisdom. His article deserves wider distribution. One item to which I want to draw attention, however, is Dr Austin’s link to my review of Ben Macintyre’s book on the website of the Journal of Intelligence and National Security. Since the review will be blocked from non-subscribers, I remind readers that they can access it on coldspur, at http://www.coldspur.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Courier-traitor-bigamist-fabulist-behind-the-mythology-of-a-superspy.pdf.  Now, if only we could persuade Ben Macintyre to study our articles seriously. . . .

John le Carré: Letters & TSWCIFTC

John le Carre

My copy of John le Carré’s Letters, A Perfect Spy, arrived earlier this month, and I have been reading it with mixed reactions. Overall, it is rather a bland and routine collection, where the letter-writer rarely gives much away of the secret self that he protected for so long. Le Carré carefully selected which of his letters should be preserved, although the editor, his son, Tim, was able to supplement the trove with items from various addressees, and their archives. I had to turn back to Adam Sisman’s unsatisfactory biography (he appeared to lose interest as his subject aged) to fill in some of the pieces. A few extracts appear, but no letters written to le Carré are included, a phenomenon that always gives a one-dimensional aspect to the dialogues that must have gone on. Only occasionally does the wit, drive and magnetism that made le Carré such an attractive partner come through – as in a very impassioned letter that he wrote to his lover, Susan Kennaway, who was, with her husband, close friends of le Carré and his first wife, Ann. Here he essentially breaks off the relationship, but the inclusion is surely made to remind readers of his essential decency. While I should have liked to read the letter le Carré claimed he sent to Stalin, expressing his support for opening the ‘Second Front’, and complaining about his boarding-school,  I was distressed to read his letter to Ben Macintyre of August 31, 2020, complimenting him on Agent Sonya: ‘ . . . it’s absolutely terrific; an elegantly assembled, scrupulously researched, beautifully told compulsive read, and an extraordinary slice of history’, and ‘But best of all you made us over time love and admire Sonya herself’. ‘Love and admire’? ‘Us’? Pass the sick bag, Alice.

TSWCIFTC

Over the holiday I also watched the DVD of The Spy Who Came In From The Cold, which I had acquired a few months ago. I had imagined that I must have seen this film back in 1966, soon after it came out (when I had already read the book), but I could recall only one scene –  the event in the grocery-shop where Leamas attacks the proprietor for not granting him credit –  and the bulk of it seemed entirely fresh, so maybe I just saw a trailer. I know I did not understand all the twists when I read the book as an eighteen-year-old, so I brought a more seasoned perspective to the story in 2022.

It was an engrossing experience in many ways. The views of 1960s London were fascinating, and it was good to see again some familiar faces (e.g. Robert Hardy, Michael Hordern, Rupert Davies, and the delightful Claire Bloom, still with us, I happily notice, at age ninety-one). The sets were suitably damp and noirish, and the acting was generally excellent. But the scenes in cars looked very phony (why did drivers think they had to twist childishly the steering-wheel left and right all the time to suggest they were really manipulating a vehicle?), and the proceedings of the DDR tribunal, all being carried out in impeccable English, were jarring. If those scenes were re-done, I imagine they would take place in a mixture of English and German, but with sub-titles.

The actions of the East German traitor, Mundt, troubled me, and I wondered whether le Carré had got in a bit above his head. Mundt has inveigled Leamas’s lover, Nan Perry (Liz Gold in the book) into the country, in order for her to show the tribunal that she knew George Smiley, and that MI6 was paying her rent. Leamas himself is shown to be a false defector, under control of MI6, and would face a hefty sentence. (In the book, he kills an East German guard: I did not notice that in the movie.) Mundt is in a quandary: he knows that he is expendable to the British, and that he must be being watched carefully by the DDR government. Nan is a British citizen (though a member of the Communist Party), and would be expected to be able to make an open return to the UK. But she knows too much, and could betray him. Mundt would have little ideological sympathy for Leamas, since he himself is a mercenary, not an ideological, traitor, but he presumably feels he has to send Leamas back somehow to please his controllers in London.

So why the ruse to have Leamas and Perry make a dangerously arranged flight over the Berlin Wall (although the murder of Perry was always planned that way)? Why did Perry go along with it? And why didn’t Mundt simply arrange for them to have been unfortunately killed in a car accident, disposing of them relatively quietly, and washing his hands of them, instead of organizing a highly unlikely escape from their place of incarceration? No doubt I am missing something. The recruitment of Mundt, and the matter of his psychology and motivations, must present challenges that are not easily side-stepped. I shall have to go back and re-read the book. (I note that le Carré, in a 1994 letter to a German reader who spotted inconsistencies in the novel, wrote: “The book was always a rough instrument and underwent none of the fine editorial tuning to which I and my publishers have subjected my more recent work.”)

The National Archives

On October 11 a considerable number of MI5 files was released to the public. They contained files ‘on people with links to the Cambridge spy ring, including Fred Warner, Jack Hewit, Victor and Tess Rothschild, and Goronwy Rees’. I am sure that Victor Rothschild would have objected violently to being described in those terms, as it suggests that he was in some way associated with the ring itself, as opposed to just being on friendly terms with its members, but the categorization is just. What is regrettable that the files on the spies themselves have not been released, and the supposed reasons (such as members of a family having to be protected) are obviously spurious in the case of Guy Burgess, who had no offspring.

I have not inspected carefully any of these files yet, but plan to do so in 2023. One of my correspondents, Edward M, has beaten me to the punch, and he has posted a comment against my November 2019 Round-up concerning Rothschild’s attempts to alert Peter Wright to the true identity of ‘PETERS’ (the MI5 investigation into the reliability of Graham Mitchell). William Tyrer has alerted me to a 1961 investigation into Jenifer Hart as a possible ‘ELLI’ suspect. Keith Ellison has also dug into the file on Harold Philby (actually released in 2002), and discovered some references to vetting procedures being explored with Litzi Philby (Kim’s first, Communist, wife) and Kim himself at the end of 1939 and early 1940, before Philby’s official interview with Valentine Vivian of MI6 in July 1940. Keith has written these up in his e-book (page 22), for which a link appears in my recent report ‘Gibby’s Spy’.

Young Stalin

My interest was piqued by the fact that the files recently released included records of the notorious rabble-rouser Joseph Stalin, as if he were one of those dubious characters that MI5’s watchers should ‘keep an eye on’ if he managed to gain entry to the country via Harwich or some other port, perhaps in some disguise. In fact the Personal File on Stalin was created only on December 13th, 1920, when he was recognized as a ‘revolutionary propagandist’, and most of the file concerns reactions after his death in 1953, and various rumours about his death, and his possibly having been a spy for the Okhrana in his younger days.

Yet Stalin had visited the United Kingdom in 1907, and was watched by the Special Branch. As Stephen Kotkin wrote in the first volume of his biography, Stalin: Paradoxes of Power 1878-1928:

. . . Jughashvili [Stalin] stole across the border to attend the 5th Russian Social Democratic Workers’ Party Congress held between April 30 and May 19, 1907, in north London’s Brotherhood Church. Congress luminaries were lodged in Bloomsbury, but Jughashvili stayed with the mass of delegates in the East End. One night, utterly drunk, he got into a pub scrape with a drunken Brit [serious historians should never refer to subjects of HRH as ‘Brits’. Ed.] , and the owner summoned the police. Only the intercession of the quick-witted, English-speaking Bolshevik Meir Henoch Mojszewicz Wallach, known as Maxim Litvinov, saved Jughashvili from arrest.

Who was that heroic citizen who, with a better-guided punch, might perhaps have caused a career-stopping injury to the future dictator? He should have been given an OBE on the spot. And if Stalin had been arrested, could not an unfortunate accident have been arranged that would have taken him permanently out of commission? What worldwide pain and suffering might have been averted had he come to a sticky end in Stepney! In any case, the Special Branch appeared not to start a tab on him. And maybe the survival of Litvinov (who married an English girl, Ivy Low, in 1916) owed something to the fact that he had intervened to save his room-mate and pal back in 1907. Anastas Mikoyan, however, suggested that Stalin had had Litvinov murdered in a motor accident in 1951.

One significant item in the file is a somewhat portentous obituary written by Sir Alvary Trench-Gascoigne, the British Ambassador to the Soviet Union at the time of Stalin’s death. He composed a tribute to Stalin for the attention of the Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs, Anthony Eden, rather understating the Marshall’s cruelties while exaggerating his leadership qualities. It is titled ’Some of the Main Facts in Stalin’s Life’. Thus we learn that, when Stalin became supreme ruler of Russia [sic: actually the U.S.S.R.] in 1924:

            He ruthlessly disposed of his enemies, replaced the ‘old’ intelligentsia with his own bureaucratic henchman [sic], and finally purged the party of most of the remnants of the old guard Bolsheviks, sending many thousands of guilty and innocent alike to death or concentration camps.

Thousands? Maybe that was the best assessment the Foreign Office had at the time, but the summary ignores all the horrors of the Holodomor, the Purges, and the immensity of the Gulags. Gascoigne (as he signs himself here) goes on to praise Stalin’s personality:

            He has played an outstanding part on the world scene for almost thirty years of this century. His position was due to his extraordinary tenacity and strength of character, his salty realism, shrewdness and common sense. In company he knew how to relieve his normal dourness of manner with striking flashes of humour and undoubted reserves of personal charm. His personality had the quality of greatness, the proof of which is the way in which he transformed Russia from a backward semi-agrarian economy into a military-industrial State of first importance.

What a mensch! About the only thing Gascoigne left out was that Stalin ‘was a man you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. It is all rather gruesome and feeble. Here was a man who had recently extended his prison-camp over the whole of eastern Europe, and had designs on bringing the western countries under his orbit, by force if necessary. And Gascoigne appears to be oblivious to the threat. Still, that had been the dominant Foreign Office view of the man, and of the Soviet Union, for a while.

Documents No Longer Talk

Documentstalk was a website that I occasionally used to visit. It was managed by someone called Svetlana Chervonnaya, and she introduced it with the following text:

            I live in Moscow, Russia, and by education and professional experience I am what we call here an ‘Amerikanist’ – a scholar whose occupation is the study of the United States of America.

Chervonnaya’s mission was to shed light on fresh revelations from Soviet archives on the exploits of Soviet espionage in the United States. It appeared that she had access to files that were not available to other researchers, although I questioned that assertion, as her explanations were not convincing. William Tyrer, who performed some valuable original research on Igor Gouzenko, and also had some challenging experiences with the Cleveland Cram archive, was in regular touch with her.

Yet www.documentstalk.com  is no more. At least, the substance has disappeared. President Putin must have decided that such open discussions acted counter to Russian interests, and closed it down. The website is now just a shell. However, by clicking on it, one can discover a replica of its final status maintained elsewhere, at http://deadlypass.com/wp/highlights/.

An intelligence insider told me the following: “Chervonnaya’s site was taken down. Its mission to spread historical defamation was unpopular as she tended to complicate rather than correct. She was a collector of suggested anomalies in US cases. There was fear of leakage too from other official historians. Agentura.RU was useful for the contemporary scene.  But it has also been closed down by Putin although the SVR director is a ‘keen historian’. He was assigned by Putin to rewrite the school history curriculum.”

For better or worse, such a fate probably does not await coldspur. An inferior destiny than having too much attention paid, however, is not having any attention at all. What I would give to gain the notoriety of having coldspur suppressed by the authorities! I have illusions that Calder Walton is feverishly emending his Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence, because of disclosures that he has read on coldspur; that tense meetings are being held at Vauxhall Cross, owing to my revelations about the ‘legendary’ MI6 officer, Harold Gibson, and for fear of publicity about George Graham’s betrayal of secret codes and cyphers in the wartime Soviet Union; and that Mark Seaman, ‘historian’ at the Cabinet Office, is nervously polishing his MBE medal under the supposition that the colossal mis-steps of SOE in 1943 are about to be made public. When I next travel to the United Kingdom, I shall be ready for that ‘tap on the shoulder’ as I attempt to pass through Customs.

Hilary Mantel, Fiction and History

Hilary Mantel

During my researches, I continually come across the challenge of deciding what archival material is authentic, and what is spurious – that is, issued as a means of disinformation. In the world of intelligence, fiction masquerading as history is a common occurrence, whether it is Ben Macintyre regurgitating Sonya’s ‘memoir’, MI6 officers passing on stories to Chapman Pincher, or the SOE adviser guiding M. R. D. Foot through selected massaged reports and memoranda. Thus, when a colleague a few weeks ago introduced me to statements made by Hilary Mantel in her First 2017 Reith lecture, comments that described how she viewed the roles of historical fiction and history-writing, my interest was piqued. I am a fan of Hilary Mantel, have enjoyed her Cromwell books immensely, and support most of her ideas about writing historical fiction. I responded very positively to some of the statements she made, such as: “To retrieve history we need rigour, integrity, unsparing devotion and an impulse to scepticism”, but I had to disagree with many of her comments, which I found sentimental – even mystical – and lacking in that intellectual rigour she admitted to admiring. I hereby comment on some excerpts:

We carry the genes and the culture of our ancestors, and what we think about them shapes what we think of ourselves, and how we make sense of our time and place. . . . . My concern as a writer is with memory, personal and collective: with the restless dead asserting their claims. . . . . . I have no names beyond my maternal great-grandmother – but let me introduce her, as an example, because she reached through time from the end of the nineteenth century to form my sense of who I am. . . .

The first assertion is both a truism, and untrue. Of course we carry the genes of our ancestors, but to select a partial ancestor (as Mantel does) to create some kind of mystical linkage is simplistic. She has eight great-grandparents: why does she single out her maternal great-grandmother, just because she is the only great-grandparent she knows anything about? What did the other seven contribute to her sense of who she was? (What does that mean, anyway? Is this a 21st-century fetish about ‘identity’?) And what does this whimsical notion of her great-grandmother’s ‘reaching through time’ mean? (It was Mantel who performed the ‘reaching’.) If you go back six centuries to the Tudors, one’s potential ancestors could maximally number about sixteen million, at a time when the population of England was about three million. The conclusions are obvious. Duplication compresses the number, so why and how can anyone reduce one’s lineage to a known few? Moreover, we do not ‘carry the culture of our ancestors’: that is absurd. ‘Culture’ is not magically imprinted into DNA, but transferred through teaching and practice. And again, why single out the ‘culture’ (whatever that means) of a few whose behaviour and beliefs are known to us? This is just sloppy thinking.

There is no such entity as ‘collective memory’, or ‘living memory’. It resembles that other fashionable trope – ‘the lived experience’, as if there were any other kind. If facts about previous times are passed on, that is a version of history, or possibly folk history. (Later in the lecture, Mantel writes: “When we remember – as psychologists so often tell us – we don’t reproduce the past, we create it”, thus openly admitting that ‘memory’ is a flaky construct.) The notion that the ‘restless dead’ assert their claims is mystical nonsense. Her concern as a writer is more about ‘imagination’, how to attribute, based on facts about an era and possibly imperfect knowledge about the lives of her subjects, how they might well have thought and acted, given some universal insights into ‘human nature’ (again a very dubious concept – as Mantel herself conceded in answering a question at the time).

We remember as a society, with a political agenda – we reach into the past for foundation myths of our tribe, our nation, and found them on glory, or found them on grievance, but we seldom found them on cold facts.

I do not know who this ‘we’ is. Does Mantel claim to speak for all of ‘society’, or does she grant that quality to historians or other historical novelists? Which are our ‘tribes’ in twenty-first century Britain – the Freemasons? the MCC? The Iceni? I agree that ‘foundation myths’ are frequently perpetrated erroneously (as I was taught about the British Empire as a boy), but to unify everybody into a ‘political agenda’ whereby history is used supposedly to achieve political ends is simply absurd. What about those scholars who step outside the ‘tribe’ and try to deal with ‘cold facts’? What are the ‘cold facts’ that Mantel recognizes? Which historians established them? What method does she use to distinguish cold facts from lukewarm ones?

Nations are built on wishful versions of their origins: stories in which our forefathers were giants, of one kind or another. This is how we live in the world: romancing.

Again, some truth in the legend-making of much historiography – see Putin or Arthur Marshall – even Churchill. But to universalize the notion by suggesting that ‘we’ all live in a world this way is patronizing and incorrect.

Historians are sometimes scrupulous and self-aware, sometimes careless or biased. Yet in either case, and hardly knowing which is which, we cede them moral authority. They do not consciously fictionalize, and we believe they are trying to tell the truth. But historical novelists face – as they should – questions about whether their work is legitimate. No other sort of writer has to explain their trade so often. The reader asks, is this story true?

Again, who is this ‘we’, and why generalize all historians this way? Who ‘cedes them moral authority’? Of course, some are careless or biased, but, if they are, other historians should point that out, and refine the story – which is precisely what happens. Mantel indicates this when she writes: “Any worthwhile history is a constant state of self-questioning, just as any worthwhile fiction is”, although the comparison with the tasks of historical fiction is irrelevant. As someone dealing with the challenge of highly dubious archival records I try to do this all the time, especially with the ‘authorized’ historians of intelligence. But the response should be – better history, not more historical fiction.

The problem is that when ‘public intellectuals’ advance in the public eye, are invited on to Any Questions, and then rise to the status of being a ‘national treasure’, which is what Mantel became, persons who should know better treat their utterances with a respect that is undeserved, and consider their opinions on any subject under the sun as coming from authority. (The transcripts of Mantel’s lectures can be viewed at https://bluebook.life/2021/07/19/hilary-mantels-lectures-on-historical-fiction/ .) She was thrown mostly softball questions, and was showered with applause.

Envoi: Philip Larkin’s Nightwear & Homo Sapiens and Us

Virginia Stride, Alan Bennett & John Sergeant

My attention was recently drawn to an article in the Times Literary Supplement that described how the Poet Laureate Simon Armitage had ended up examining the pyjamas of the poet Philip Larkin. I immediately recalled an analogous sketch on the 1960s BBC2 comedy program On The Margin, written by, and starring, Alan Bennett, and it occurred to me that the only two persons on the planet who might remember it were my brother and Alan Bennett himself. My brother, true to form, knew instantly to what I was referring, and I decided to write a letter to the Editor of the TLS. It ran as follows:

            Kyra Piperides’ report on the poet laureate’s ‘bemusement and indignity of excavating Larkin’s pyjamas’ (TLS, November 25) was a poignant example of life imitating art. I recall a sketch from Alan Bennett’s BBC2 series On the Margin (scandalously destroyed by a BBC functionary) where the authenticity of Kafka’s Underpants was discussed by Bennett. Moreover, with the knowledge of Larkin’s enthusiasm for jazz, we now have a reliable explanation for the source of the phrase ‘the cat’s pyjamas’.

Sadly, the Editor declined to publish my letter. Perhaps it was not serious enough for him. I can still today hear the voice of my Russian teacher, Martin Clay, booming to me: ‘Don’t be frivolous, Percy!’

On the other hand, the Editor must have been more impressed with a letter I sent him a week later, where I twitted the faulty logic of Charles A. Foster, a fellow at Exeter College, Oxford, and visiting professor at the Oxford Law Faculty. The Editor, Martin Ivens, published the following in the issue of December 16th, my seventy-sixty birthday:

            In his somewhat excitable review of Paul Pettitt’s Homo Sapiens Rediscovered (TLS, December 2), Charles Foster comes to the provocative conclusion that ‘we’ are all ‘Upper Paleolithic hunter-gatherers’. While that might come as a surprise to many of your readers, Foster undermines his logic by stating that ‘when we arrived in Eurasia it was already occupied by other humans – Neanderthals and Denisovans’, whose DNA nevertheless, because of sexual interaction, endures in ‘us’. Thus to exclude Neanderthals and Denisovans from ‘us’ appear a very unscholarly – one might say ‘speciesist’ – analysis of humanoid history.

I wish a very productive and prosperous 2023 to all my fellow Upper (and Lower) Paleolithic hunter-gatherers! As the anthropologist Domenica Lordie said in Alexander McCall Smith’s A Time of Love and Tartan: “I have lived with hunter-gatherers before, you know, and they tend to be utterly charming people, with lots to say.” Of course, there are some ‘climate’ activists who would have us return to those innocent times of hunting/gathering. Though I suspect that fox-hunting would be banned under their régime, a long list of species would be protected from any venery, and the much-maligned ovine community would be shut down as an inefficient protein-conversion agency . . .

Lastly, a bit of animal nonsense for the New Year, from Christian Morgenstern:

Wie sich das Galgenkind die Monatsname merkt [How the gallows-child remembers the names of the months]

Jaguar

Zebra

Nerz

Mandrill

Maikäfer

Pony

Muli

Auerochs

Wesenbär

Lochtauber

Robbenbär

Zehenbär

(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

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

An Armful of History Books

Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network by David Burke (History Press, 2021; 292 pp.)

Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921 by Antony Beevor (Viking, 2022; 576 pp.)

In the Wake of Empire: Anti-Bolshevik Russia in International Affairs, 1917-1920 by Anatol Shmelev (Hoover Institution Press, 2020; 555 pp.)

Stalin and His Hangmen: The Tyrant and Those Who Killed for Him by Donald Rayfield (Random House, 2004; 541 pp.)

Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945 by Halik Kochanski (Liveright, 2022; 936 pp.)

Surviving Katyn: Stalin’s Polish Massacre and the Search for Truth by Jane Rogoyska (Oneworld, 2022; 370 pp.)

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *        

Family Betrayal by David Burke

The title of David Burke’s latest book, Family Betrayal, raises some pertinent questions about who was betraying whom. Was a family betrayed? Or did a whole family betray some other agency? With a sub-title of Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network, and a hammer and sickle boldly displayed against a red flag on the cover, the suggestion would appear to be that Burke is delving into the world of Soviet espionage and treason. The subjects of his tale, the Kuczynskis, as agents of Stalinism are presumably to be given a bad rap for betraying the United Kingdom, the country that gave them asylum and employment. Such expectations will be rapidly demolished, however. The Kuczynskis, a ‘comfortable German bourgeois family of Jewish origin’ are further described as ‘a remarkable family of Communist refugees from Nazism’, and ‘not only a family who spied but also one of the chief channels of leakage of information to the Soviets from a variety of sources’. This is the language of adulation.

Burke may be familiar to readers of intelligence literature as the author of The Spy Who Came In From The Co-op (2008), about Melita Norwood,and The Lawn Road Flats (2014), which explored the nest of leftist subversion located in the modernist Hampstead address in the 1930s and early 1940s. In both books, the author complemented someremarkable sleuthing with what can only be called padding, where extraneous and much repeated lore about espionage and counter-espionage was trotted out to give the books more substance. Quite simply, there was not enough known about Melita Norwood to form a book, and Burke resorted to writing about such figures as Percy Glading, Klaus Fuchs, Kim Philby and Igor Gouzenko, all of whom had little to do directly with Norwood and the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association where she worked.

A similar pattern emerges with Family Betrayal. Apart from boosting the size and vigour of ‘The Kuczynski Network’, an entity to which the author devoted a whole chapter in the Lawn Road Flats, Burke chooses to enrich his rather thin gruel with a number of profiles of related hangers-on and associates within the broader ‘anti-fascist’ movement, the assorted societies and factions to which they belonged, and the requisite pamphlets and lectures with which they harangued the public at large. Political activities are introduced rather haphazardly, so we learn about the Indian Communist Party and the Greek Civil War, even though such phenomena have only a very vague connection with the shenanigans of the Kuczynskis.

In 2017, John Green published his study of the Kuczynskis (A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War), and last year Ben Macintyre released his rather fanciful profile of the family’s most notable scion in Agent Sonya. So what new information has Burke to offer? He cites Green only once, and the arrival of Macintyre’s book assuredly occurred too late for him to assimilate it. Yet Burke has dug around the archives pertinaciously enough to reveal some useful new (or overlooked) facts about the Kuczynskis (such as the employment at Bletchley Park of Barbara Kuczynski’s husband Duncan Taylor, a tidbit that had eluded this writer). He provides a wealth of detail on the backgrounds of the various lovers and spouses that the six Kuczynski offspring maintained, and their contributions to the cause of Stalinism. It is perhaps no surprise that MI5 failed to decompose this complex web of subversives.

Yet Burke also completely misconstrues some important aspects of their lives, for instance collapsing Ursula’s miraculous escape from Switzerland in a single sentence, and attributing its success to the wiles of a Kuczynski uncle, Hermann Deutsch, who ‘finalized the arrangements to bring Ursula to Britain’. This assertion is in complete contradiction to what Burke described in The Lawn Road Flats (her transfer was ordered by Stalin), and moreover completely ignores how MI6 colluded in her pursuit of a divorce, naturalization, and an exit visa. On Ursula’s ‘spying’, or more accurately, acting as a courier for Klaus Fuchs, Burke repeats the now tired myth that she transmitted Fuchs’s secrets from a wireless concealed at Great Rollright. He has been misled by many mendacious memoirs.

Above all, however, Burke displays a lack of intellectual curiosity that might have given his book some snap. To begin with, it is as if he feels a little guilty about spending so much ink on such a disreputable clan. In his Introduction, he writes:

            How legitimate is spying in defence of a cause? Is it possible to confer the honourable title of anti-Nazi resistance on the Kuczynski family, and have done with it? Or should we condemn the family for its espionage activities on behalf of the Soviet Union that, in the main, targeted Great Britain and the British Empire?

Burke never resolves this question. One of his conclusions is that, from 1920 to 1999 ‘the Kuczynskis never faltered in their unswerving support for the Soviet Union’, and he rewards such Stalinist fervour with the following judgment:

            Anyone writing about the skills of the Kuczynskis as spies confronts a thorny issue: their abilities might be manifest but their Stalinism cannot be glanced over lightly. What makes this a difficult activity is the fact that Stalinism, unless attacked with a moral vocabulary that misrepresents the true nature of the phenomenon, was a system that attracted many good people, the Kuczynskis among them.

Here lies the traditional apology for Stalin’s useful idiots and fellow-travellers –  their sincerity. Some might say that an ability to be duped by Stalin’s monstrous regime, and to try to reproduce it elsewhere, was a sign of moral deficiency, not goodness. Yet the process of ‘glancing over lightly’ is exactly what Burke exercises.

For example:

* In 1938 the paterfamilias, Robert Kuczynski, was appointed Reader in Demography at the London School of Economics, where he concentrated on ‘methodological questions and the study of non-European populations’. What insights he brought to this position is not explained, but he assuredly did not comment on the fact that, when the 1937 census showed that Soviet Union’s population had decreased during the Great Terror, Stalin had the chief officers in the Census Bureau executed, nor, when Robert was offered the post of Democratic Adviser to the Colonial Office in 1943, did he discuss Stalin’s wholesale deportations of nations (e.g. Germans, Kalmyks, Tatars) from their homelands to regions east, as a punishment exercise.

* Jürgen was a consistent critic of labour conditions in the West. In 1938, his book Hunger and Work was published, and Burke informs us that it described ‘seven lean years at the height of the depression from 1931 to 1937’. Yet he makes no comparison with real labour conditions in the Soviet Union (of which Jürgen presented a ‘roseate picture’ the following year), where the economy functioned largely on slave labour, and where prisoners in the Gulag were driven to exhaustion and death, to be replaced by innocent victims in their thousands. Burke presents the work as a defence against such charges, and posts that opinion without comment.

* In 1939, the Left Book Club published Jürgen’s The Condition of the Workers in Gt. Britain, Germany and The Soviet Union. A main theme of the book, Burke informs us, was ‘its damning indictment of the role played by finance capitalism’, and the young firebrand compared Great Britain’s version of ‘finance capitalism’ with Germany’s, concluding ‘Fascism rules’. Burke never inspects what ‘finance capitalism’ meant in the environment of the late 1930s, in what way it made sense to present capitalist enterprises as being driven by non-financial interests, or how the inferred monopolistic tendencies compared to the totalitarian control of industry in the Soviet Union.

Those are just a few of the occasions when a more imaginative writer might have introduced some refreshing context and educational perspective to the questions he himself introduced. Yet Burke’s evasiveness appears to be derived from the fact that he actually admires this family of delusional, mischievous, ungrateful, hypocritical, gossipy busybodies. ‘Good agents need to be more than effective conspirators’, he states in his Conclusion. “They have to be capable of getting their bearings fast in ever-changing political situations and for this reason intelligence work is primarily political work”. And his final judgment is that the Kuczynzkis were undoubtedly suited to this activity. “Norwood and the Kuczynskis were successful not simply because they were adept in the field of their intelligence, but because they had a belief in the certitude of their ideology.”

In summary, this is a weak book, misguided in its conception, and evasive in its execution. The author could have converted his fascinating researches on archival material, newspapers, memoirs, etc. into a valuable analysis of the ferment of ideas that seethed in the totalitarian-dominated 1930s. He could perhaps have explained where fervor ended and knowledge began, and why it was that so many ‘good people’ chose to ignore the realities of Stalin’s massive prison-camp, and instead tried to bring about the Communist utopia to the western world. For those interested in the petty squabbles of the leftist intelligentsia of those times, and the multitude of factions, societies, and pressure-groups that were formed, Family Betrayal may be a useful addition to their library, but even for them, the book’s multiple errors, a style that is frequently clumsy, and the author’s amoral lack of intellectual guidance, will probably leave them disappointed.

Russia by Antony Beevor

“Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” (A. J. P. Taylor)

This is not the first occasion where I have used the above quotation by the historian A. J. P. Taylor in a coldspur piece, nor will it probably be the last. It shocked me when I first read it in 1965, and it astounds me still. To think that Lenin, whose ideas for revolution were ridden with hatred and cruelty from the first, could be considered by any educated person as some semi-saintly figure, is simply perverse. For an influential historian to promulgate such an agenda (in the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century) was strikingly irresponsible and absurd, and yet Taylor exerted a strong influence on British popular imagination.

If testimony were required to reinforce the notion that the Russian Revolution was steeped from the outset in extreme and barbarous killing, Antony Beevor’s Russia should fulfill that role. It is in fact a catalogue of horrors. After the August 1918 killing of the Petrograd Cheka leader Moisey Uritsky, and the assassination attempt on Lenin (both exploits being the work of single subversives), Felix Dzerzhinsky ordered that ‘that all those listed as Kadet party members, police officers, officials of the monarchy, and all sorts of princes and counts imprisoned in Moscow jails and concentration camps were to be executed’. Thus did the Red Terror start – with the slaughter of the innocent, except that, in Lenin’s mind, anyone who opposed the Revolution was guilty.

Not that the Reds had exclusive ownership of excruciating methods of torturing and killing their enemies (e.g. burying alive; tying up in barbed wire, or loaded with stones, and drowning; throwing alive into furnaces; disembowelling by rats; hacking to death with sabres; slow burning; smothered naked by freezing water): the Whites, conscious of the deeds of the Bolsheviks, and the initiation of the ‘Red Terror’, exacted their own revenge in retributions of similar fashion. The strategy of executing anyone who showed resistance to the Revolution, as ‘class enemies’, does not fit easily into current notions of ‘genocide’, which focus unduly on supposed ‘ethnic’ traits as being a reason for extermination, and that is probably why the monstrous massacres of the Reds have not received the attention and scorn that they in fact merit.

I find it difficult to sort out Antony Beevor, if indeed he has to be sorted. He does not have a conventional historian’s background. He was born two days before me, so I can understand his general arc of experience. After Winchester School, and the Royal Military Academy at Sandhurst, he received a commission in the 11th Hussars in July 1967, but then resigned it in August 1970. The next event in his life appears to be the publication of The Spanish Civil War in 1982. So what had he been up to in the intervening years? It is unusual for any young man with spark – even if independently wealthy – not to pursue some life-expanding profession in his formative twenties, but Beevor appears to keep this dark. Was he perhaps ‘attached to the War Office’, as they use to write of spooks in World War II? Or did he seclude himself away, reading prodigiously and taking copious notes for a decade or more as preparation for writing his first book?

I had read Beevor’s D-Day, and was impressed with its narrative drive, and rich detail. It admittedly takes an especial sense of geography to keep track of all the fronts, salients, flanks, redoubts, bottlenecks, pincer movements, etc. that characterized these battles – or any other, for that matter, and my spatial understanding frequently failed to keep up with the action. Beevor used a broad array of sources to highlight the myriad small disasters that occurred as the often ill-conceived plans of the Allied assault forces were executed on the beaches and in the difficult bocages of Normandy. For example, he was excellent on comparing the tactics of the Germans, fresh with lessons from the Eastern Front, with those of the Americans and British, who had been practicing in the lanes and fields of southern England. But this was a terrain he was familiar with: the geography was localized, the combatants and causes were clear, the archival sources were generally reliable, and he understood well the social backgrounds of the main combatants. He was able to complement the official records with a wealth of personal memoirs. As one review stated: “His account of atrocities on both sides, of errors committed and of surpassing bravery makes for excellent – though often blood-soaked – reading.”

Russia is even more blood-soaked. Yet Beevor faces a vastly different landscape in trying to bring the same technique to the horrors of the Revolution and the Civil War. The territory covered is the Eurasian continental landmass, from Warsaw to Vladivostok. The agents are a mixed lot of nationals, tribes, factions and groups. The historical record is fragmented, and may not be very reliable. Any sense of strategy or historical direction is undermined by the chaos of the punches and counterpunches of the conflict. In some ways, Russia is a magnificent scrap-book, a compilation of hundreds of facts and observations scrupulously arranged by date and location. Yet it frequently comes across as exactly that, with a bewildering collage of names and places that strain even the most patient reader. Without constant recourse to detailed maps (as with D-Day), one is lost.

For example, one can read such passages as:

There was no guarantee that the Baltic States could defend themselves, yet at the same time the White Russian forces planned to attack Petrograd. But neither the Finns nor the Estonians welcomed these anti-Bolshevik Russian supremacists who refused to acknowledge their independence. A White venture to invade Soviet territory was likely to fail and provoke a Red counter-attack. And to complicate the Baltic imbroglio further, while Yudenich applied to the British and French for military support, there was another White Russian force under Colonel Pavel Bermondt-Avalov financed from Berlin, and

Denikin, increasingly angered by separatist tendencies in the Kuban, was outraged to discover that a delegation of the Kuban Rada had signed a treaty of friendship with the Chechen and Ingush who, with Georgian encouragement, had been attacking the Volunteer Army in the Caucasus

only a few times before one’s eyes start to glaze over. This was not a simple civil war.

It is also not clear to me what knowledge Beevor expects his readership to have already. For instance, he lists the factions in the 1917 Provisional Government (Bolsheviks, Mensheviks, Kadets, Socialist Revolutionaries, Progressives) without any explanation as to how they evolved, or what their different agendas were. Of the three likely reasons for eliding this matter, i) he is not interested, or is unaware; ii) he assumes his readers all know this already; or iii) he regards such details as irrelevant to the main story; I must assume that the third is the likeliest. Yet he snows his text with such a cavalcade of names that it is easy to become lost in the torrent. And his rather cavalier and incomplete Index does not help matters. I had a particular interest in three names: Paul Dukes, who played a significant role in intelligence-gathering for MI6; Leonid Kannegiser, who assassinated the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Uritsky (and was related to Rudolf Peierls’s wife, about whom I have written); and General Evgeny Miller, the leader of the Northern Russian Government, who was later abducted in Paris and killed by Stalin’s goons in Moscow. Each individual receives one brief mention in Beevor’s text: none of the names appears in the Index. That seems to me to be irresponsible: Beevor does not declare the rationale for including some key figures in the Index, but not others.

Beevor is stronger, and more forthright, on the actions and mistakes of the Whites than he is on the Reds. The White armies were dispersed, over thousands of miles, with Yudenich leading in the North, Kolchak in the East, and Denikin (constantly at loggerheads with Wrangel, and criticized by many as being too liberal) in the South. Their communications had to be routed via Paris, and consequently took weeks to arrive: if they had enjoyed access to Zoom, matters might have turned out differently. But they were corrupt: many of them drank to excess, or took drugs. They mistreated their ranks, and looted for the benefits of their families, mistresses, and clans. They alienated what peasant allies they might have had by insisting on a return to the old system of land-ownership, and they lost any possible loyalty from populations of outlying territories (e.g. Finland, Estonia, Latvia) by insisting that their goals included restoration of the old imperial boundaries. All that those fighting the Bolsheviks had in common was a hatred of communism.

The Reds, on the other hand, were single-minded. Yet Beevor spends less time on their energies and activities. Lenin is a very shadowy figure during this period. Admittedly, he did not interfere in military affairs in the way that Hitler, Stalin or Churchill did, and other sources inform us that he spent most of his time ordering that anyone disobedient or timid should be shot. Trotsky (also not an expert in warfare) zipped around on his special train, printing pamphlets and broadsides, and exhorting the troops. After intense discussion, Trotsky and Lenin had decided, over Stalin’s objections, that the Red Army needed professional soldiers to develop a proper fighting army, and thus members of the tsarist officer corps were recruited, on pain of death to their families if they showed signs of cowardice, or betraying the revolution, to train the men and lead them into battle. In July 1919, the tsarist General Sergei Kamenev (not Lev, the Bolshevik) was appointed commander-in-chief of the Red Army over Trotsky’s strenuous objections, but makes few appearances on the scene after that, until Stalin berates him and Trotsky for the disastrous Warsaw campaign.

But how were all these armies, and the secret police, recruited? Was the Cheka staffed with criminals and psychopaths, or were the common people convinced of the need for mass terror, and signed up? How did they learn such bloodlust? In a paradoxical aside, Beevor claims that the head of the Cheka, Dzerzhinsky, was something of a softie, leaving the killing to others, but then, a page later, writes that he murdered a member of the left Socialist Revolutionaries, Aleksandrovich , ‘of whom he became rather fond’, with his own hand. Were the organs and soldiers press-ganged? How were the armies populated, trained, supplied, and kept motivated? Beevor failed to engage in such pressing questions, an oversight that leaves his story incomplete. (These were issues he covered well in D-Day.) He spends much more time on Churchill, the British secretary of state for war, who displayed his most picaresque tendencies in his hatred of Bolshevism, and brought Prime Minister Lloyd George to distraction, than he does on the Red Army leaders, and their conduct of the war. He is flimsy on the claims, now apparently confirmed, that the Bolsheviks were very reliant on German gold to finance the war.

Beevor provides some crisp description and analysis. He is sound on the dithering of Kerensky with the Provisional Government; he is incisive in telling the story of Kolchak’s eventual betrayal, trial, and execution; he describes the horrific exodus from Odessa, with the thousands left behind to be murdered, with chilling detail. His prose is mainly elegant, although he shows the occasional lack of language sense, such as with the clumsy lack of agreement in “Yet the presence of British armored cars in Kiev were thought to have prevented a Bolshevik uprising”. I note here some errata to be fixed in the paperback edition: ‘Xenephon’ (Xenophon) on page 126; ‘sunk’ (sank) on page 136; ‘Phyrric’ (Pyrrhic) in note on page 350; ‘kaleidescope’ (kaleidoscope) on page 469. The Index is inadequate.

In summary, a rich, encyclopedic compilation, but rather indigestible. Apart from reinforcing the horrors and widespread brutality of a wrenching Civil War by including a wide section of details from memoirs, Russia does not provide much fresh insight into the motivations and objectives of its combatants.

In the Wake of Empire by Anatol Shmelev

In Russia, Antony Beevor summed up the failure of the Whites as follows: “The different armies of Kolchak in Siberia, Denikin in the south, and Yudenich in the Baltics had never been able to coordinate their operations. The very few communications between them, which went via Paris, took weeks to arrive. The great handicap of the Whites was their dispersion around the central core of Soviet territory, while the Red Army benefitted enormously from interior lines or communication and a more centralized command structure.”

That, in a nutshell, is the subject of Dr. Anatol Shmelev’s In the Wake of Empire, which is a very different compilation. I must declare an interest: I have met Dr. Shmelev, and found his company very rewarding, as I wrote a few months ago, when I gave a thumbnail sketch of his book. But I have unrestrained and objective admiration for the depth of his scholarship in tracking down the minutiae of the Whites’ negotiations with foreign governments during the Russian Civil War. And I wanted to wait until Beevor’s book came out before giving it the full critical appreciation. In his bibliography, Beevor credits Shmelev with three earlier references (including a preliminary and much narrower version of this book, published in Russian in 2017, The Foreign Policy of Admiral Kolchak’s Government, 1918-1919), but clearly has not studied the ‘substantially reworked and broadened volume’ (in Shmelev’s words) that was issued in 2021.

Shmelev is one of those scholars who have been able to take advantage of the considerable number of archives that were opened up in Russia in the 1990s and 2000s before Putin retightened the screws. He received his PhD from the Institute of Russian History of the Russian Academy of Sciences in 1996, and thereafter, apart from being able to use familiar archival resources, including the substantial material at the Hoover Institution, he was able to draw on the State Archive of the Russian Federation (GARF), the Archive of Foreign Policy of the Russian Empire (AVPRI), the Russian State Naval Archive (RGAVMF), and the Russian State and Russian National Libraries, as well as the Library of the Academy of Sciences and the Russian State Historical Library.

The outcome is that an enormous amount of material has had to be sifted through, and Shmelev carries the task out with aplomb. The overall story is perhaps familiar: how the various White factions, dispersed around the fringes of the old Russian Empire, tried to prevail on the western powers to help them oust the hated Reds, but that those countries, exhausted by the travails of the Great War, were reluctant to assist an entity that presented fresh imperial ambitions and might be a threat to them if successful. The Communists were an unknown quantity, and their terrors not yet known: the public citizenry was overall against intervention, and it was left to energetic politicians like Churchill to try to raise money and troops for what would turn out to be a lost cause. The Whites’ insistence on restoring the old Russian imperial boundaries disaffected many potential allies who also detested Bolshevism, in, for example, the former Duchy of Finland, who had more independent aspirations.

Baron Roman Ungern-Shternberg

The author brings fresh depth and insights to the debate, and his judgment over much controversial material is authoritative but not pedantic. His sketches of some of the players who contributed – some well-known, others less familiar – are frequently incisive and innovative. I was captivated, for example, by the name of Ungern-Shternberg, almost as arresting as that of Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, who led the British overseas mission to Moscow in 1939. I was familiar with Roman Ungern-Shternberg, known as the ‘Mad Baron’, a White Russian psychopath (b. 1886) who terrorized Siberia and was executed by the Reds in 1921, and wondered how he was related to the Baron Rolf Ungern-Shternberg, the Russian chargé d’affaires in Lisbon, who gains a couple of paragraphs from Shmelev for rather dangerously supporting Trotsky’s plans for peace proposals. Some searches on the Web led me to multiple branches of the Ungern-Shternberg family tree, but I could not find any connections going a couple of generations back. Estonia must have been riddled with offshoots of the clan.

I also learned much about the tortured attempts by Alexander Kerensky, the leader of the Provisional Government, to gain recognition and support from the western democracies, even while he tried to steer a problematic path between Lenin and Kolchak, represented by the group of leftist activists known endearingly as the ‘ninisty’ (‘neither-nor’; ‘neither Lenin nor Kolchak’). (Were they perhaps the models for ‘the knights who say “Ni!”’ in Monty Python and the Holy Grail?) Even though the initiative might have impressed President Wilson, appealing to the harsh Kolchak, maybe the strongest White officer, that he should become more democratic was a hopeless cause. As Shmelev writes: “For the mainstream Whites, the ninisty remained a symbol of the despised Kerenschina of 1917, hollow and rotten.”

Shmelev’s account is liberally sprinkled with many such illuminating insights and observations. I might challenge, however, one or two perspectives. For instance, he describes how the White ‘appeals for Allied aid and pressure on Finland and the Baltic States show that White foreign policy was being conducted in a vacuum – their representatives not only had no influence over foreign policy, but more often that had no conception of Allied policy.’ I would add that was mainly because the pluralist democracies did not possess a single-minded coherent policy – not just amongst themselves, several different countries with unique histories and territorial outlooks, but internally, within their governments (as the clashes between Lloyd George and Churchill prove), and even within their individual offices of administration, as inside the British Foreign Office itself. So perhaps it was not surprising that the Whites could not discern the intentions of their potential saviours. I also questioned (in a private email) Shmelev’s characterization of Churchill’s attitude to Bolshevism: “Long after the civil war, he continued to inveigh against the dangers of Bolshevism, and it was only the Second World War that brought about an alliance that must have amazed Churchill himself, although the end of the war resulted in the return of the natural order of things.” ‘The natural order of things’, with Stalin’s prison-camp extended over all eastern Europe? That is a bizarre assessment, and one of the very few where I judge Shmelev puts a foot wrong.

One highly illuminating event for me was the issuance of the document known as ‘the Colby Note’. After the Whites had been ousted in Siberia in early 1920, Bainbridge Colby, who had been appointed by USA President Polk as Secretary of State, sent a note to the Italian ambassador describing the attitudes of the United States towards the ongoing Polish-Soviet war. In what could be interpreted as a repudiation of Wilsonian self-determination, it savagely criticized the morals and policies of the Bolshevik government and hinted at official recognition of the previous boundaries of the Russian Empire – except for Finland, ‘ethnic Poland’ [an amorphous entity!], and part of the state of Armenia. in fact, Wilson thought that Bolshevik Russia would self-destruct as it was ‘wrong’ – a woefully feeble assessment. As Shmelev points out, it did collapse – but not until seventy years later. Yet the articulations of an ill-prepared Secretary of State gave hope to many, especially General Wrangel, who stated that the Colby Note represented his own political program. The initiative was unauthorized, too weak, too late, and too muddled, and fizzled out.

What fascinates me is how the White movement tried to persevere after the war, and how determined the Bolsheviks were to eradicate it, partly out of political principle, but also out of vengeance. The memoirs of exiled tsarist officers, trying to maintain a life of dignity in the West (particularly in Paris), but frequently having to work as cab-drivers or kitchen-hands, are exquisitely sad, but also rather pathetic are the aspirations they maintained about the chances of overturning the revolution, and perhaps of regaining their position and prestige. Stalin manipulated such persons most cruelly, infiltrated ROVS (the Russian émigré military veterans’ organization) with OGPU agents, and carefully killed such prominent persons as Generals Miller and Kutepov. Shmelev provides an Epilogue where he summarizes the fates of many of the diplomats who managed to escape (although for some reason overlooks Vrangel [sometimes Wrangel], who was probably poisoned by Stalin’s thugs in 1928), and highlights the role that the treacherous Sergey Tret’iakov played. Tret’iakov had been appointed foreign minister under Kolchak in 1919, but made an ingenious escape to Harbin and Japan before settling In Japan, and then moving to Paris. He was later recruited by the NKVD, and betrayed Kutepov (in 1930) and Miller (in 1937). Tret’iakov was arrested by the Germans in June 1942, and taken to Germany to be shot.

In the Wake of Empire is not the definitive story of the collapse of the White resistance to the Bolsheviks. There probably can be no such volume: neither is Beevor’s. But it should be read as a necessary complement to the blood and thunder of the tales of the Revolution and Civil War. Very little blood is spilled in Shmelev’s book, but a host of fascinating details of what went on behind the scenes is provided instead. Clausewitz said that war was a continuation of politics by other means, but the Whites were forced into war without having a chance to negotiate, to practice their politics. And then they were too fragmented, too dispersed geographically, and lacked authority. Diplomacy is also an aspect of bringing war to a close, but they were outgunned, outmanœuvred and outwitted by the ruthlessness of the Reds.

Stalin and His Hangmen by Donald Rayfield

Donald Rayfield is another historian who has been able to exploit the availability of new Russian archival material, in his case in order to shed fresh light on Stalin’s murderous schemes. He cites the State Archive of Social-Political History and the State Archive of the Russian Federation as his richest sources, while lamenting that the FSB has recently restricted its access to families of the oppressed and former employees, and that the Presidential Archive has become much more conservative in what it releases. Rayfield, who speaks Russian and Georgian, extended his search to the Georgian Central State Archive and the Russian State Archive of Literature and Art as well as several private collections. “There is enough material for seven maids with seven mops for seven thousand years”, he writes in his Preface, ”and much remains unexplored, particularly since archival catalogues give only the vaguest indication of what anything may hold.” Thus we may hope to expect further revelations – so long as historians with the calibre and style of Professor Rayfield are around to inspect them.

For a comprehensive and insightful account of the machinations of the various secret police organizations in Russia (including those of tsarist times), I would recommend Ronald Hingley’s excellent Russian Secret Police (1970), although he was able to use only a much more restricted set of sources. Rayfield is able to go into much more detail on the personalities of the chiefs involved, and their habits and character, as well as expand coverage to a broad set of players.  The author, Professor of Russian and Georgian at the University of London, is a proper man of letters, and I referred to his impressive biography of Anton Chekhov in my September post. Since then, I have also read his book Understanding Chekhov, which sheds penetrating light on the influences on the writer’s works, and skillfully explains how he achieves his effects in the stories and plays. Not unexpectedly, then, Stalin and His Hangmen expresses a flair for language and idiom: moreover, Rayfield displays some of the same stylistic traits of understatement and irony that Hingley used to such great effect.

But why ‘Hangmen’? It was not until April, 1943 that Stalin introduced public hanging as a method of execution, borrowing from the Germans, because he concluded that shooting was ‘too lenient’. Lenin had in fact recommended that method back in 1918, as it would have the educational value of being visible to the public. (In 1943, it also led to spectators stealing clothes from the bodies of the corpses.) The title of the book would better be Stalin and His Executioners, but maybe Rayfield thought that that nomenclature would echo too closely Daniel Goldhagen’s Hitler’s Willing Executioners, and thus selected the more figurative term. Then again, his subject is actually the chiefs of his Stalin’s terror apparatus – the Cheka, OGPU, NKVD and the various manifestations of the KGB – those who prepared the lists and sent them to Stalin to sign, who issued the quotas and ordered the extralegal executions. They were not Albert Pierrepoints: Dzerzhinsky, the first head of the Cheka in Moscow, shot someone himself on only one occasion. The victim was a drunken sailor, according to Rayfield (testimony that thus collides with Beevor’s), and it provoked a convulsive fit. Poor sensitive soul. Still, it makes poetic sense to call Dzerzhinsky and his successors all ‘murderers’.

I was pleased to see that Rayfield takes an outspoken stance on the horrors of Stalinism in the 1930s. When I described, in my doctoral thesis (and repeated in Misdefending the Realm, p 282) how Stalin’s massacres of his citizens had vastly outnumbered the murders that Hitler perpetrated against his victims (communists, Jews, gypsies, homosexuals, etc.) in that decade, I received some pushback from Professor Glees, as if I were diminishing the evils of the Holocaust. Yet the facts of Stalin’s own funeral pyre were undeniable – even though Stalin nurtured a set of western ‘useful idiots’ at the time who did indeed deny them, as Rayfield records. I stoutly defended my statements. Moreover, Rayfield points out that not only does the Putin regime not deny the Stalinist evils, it actually celebrates its ‘heroes’. He writes in his Preface:

In 2002, without comment abroad or at home, the Russian post office issued a set of stamps, ‘The 80th Anniversary of Soviet Counterintelligence’: the stamps show Artur Artuzov né Frautschi, one of the most dreaded OGPU leaders in the early 1920s; Sergei Puzitsky, who organized the killing of half a million Cossacks in 1931; Vladmir Styrne, who slaughtered thousands of Uzbeks in the 1920s; Vsevolod Balitsky, who purged the Ukraine and enslaved the Soviet peasantry. Imagine the uproar if Germany issued stamps commemorating Reinhard Heydrich, Heinrich Himmler, and Adolf Eichmann. Nobody in Germany smokes ‘Auschwitz’ cigarettes but Belomorkanal cigarettes, commemorating a camp where 100,000 were exterminated, are still sold in Russia.

State-sponsored terrorism began as soon as the Revolution started, and was aggressively promoted by Lenin. After the assassination attempt on Lenin by Fanny Kaplan, and the successful killing of the head of the Petrograd Cheka, Leon Uritsky, in 1918, the Red Terror started. Anybody who expressed – or even symbolized – counter-revolutionary impulses was in danger. Dzerzhinksy took out his lists, and started killing indiscriminately. As Rayfield informs us: “In 1919 all Moscow’s Boy Scouts, and in 1920 all members of its lawn tennis club were shot.” Thus the slaughter began, complemented by the campaigns of targeted persecution, such as the liquidation of so-called ‘kulaks’, whose only crime might have been to have owned a cow or two, or kept some grain for themselves, which resulted in the frightful famines in Ukraine and elsewhere, and the creation of the Gulags, which few survived, followed by the Great Terror. As late as 1938, 328,618 executions (yes, each death was recorded) for ‘counter-revolutionary activities’ took place. (Robert Conquest estimated that the NKVD killed two million directly, i.e. discounting deaths in the Gulag, in 1937 and 1938.) As if the total population of Nottingham were taken out and shot over the course of twelve months.

Felix Dzherzhinsky

Rayfield describes a grisly series of murderers with panache and energy. To begin with they were mostly non-Russians. Dzerzhinsky was a Pole, and the bulk of his crew were initially Poles and Latvians who had been oppressed in their native countries. Then native Russians joined the slaughter: ‘convicted criminals and certified psychopaths appointed themselves officers of the Cheka’. What is extraordinary is the degree to which cultured individuals, too, such as artists and doctors, could banish any inhibitions and cruelly torture and kill innocent human beings simply because they had been told that they were ‘enemies of the people’. Dzerzhinsky died of ill-health, as did his successor, Menzhinksy, another Pole, whom Rayfield portrays as relatively human. Many of these sadists eventually became victims themselves, including Yagoda (the head of the NKVD from 1934 to 1936), and his successor Yezhov, who, like Kamenev, went to the dungeons of execution bawling for mercy. Yezhov, having been responsible for the horrifying purges in his régime known as the Yezhovschina, was dismissed for not showing enough chekist vigilance, but then condemned to death for his over-exuberance.

The last of Stalin’s hangmen, Lavrenty Beria, comes under some provocative treatment by Rayfield, who bizarrely expresses some kind of admiration for him (p 343). 

Unlike Ezhov, Beria knew when to hold back, when to step back. Beria was not just a vindictive sadist, he was an intelligent pragmatist, capable of mastering a complex brief, and one of the best personnel managers in the history of the USSR. With very slight adaptations, he could have made himself a leading politician in any country of the world.

But he then he goes on to write about Beria’s libertine behaviour (p 459):

As for Beria’s legendary sexual proclivities, he was certainly guilty of many rapes – usually by blackmail rather than force – and of violating young girls. On the other hand, some of his mistresses were fond, or at least respectful, of him. By the standards of some Soviet leaders, who used the Bolshoi Ballet as a brothel, or even compared to J. F. Kennedy or David Lloyd George, Beria was not beyond the pale, even if at intervals during meetings he ordered women to be delivered to his house, as modern politicians order pizzas.

On a pervert like Beria, this judgment appears to me to fall on the wrong side of good taste.

Lavrenty Beria

The crux of the matter was that Stalin harbored fatal grudges against anyone who had ever opposed him, had challenged the righteousness of any Politburo decisions engineered by him, or weaknesses in the Soviet infrastructure (such as fallible aircraft), anyone who had ever voiced sympathy for Trotsky, or assisted in his attempts at propaganda, anyone who had recommended more lenient policies (such as Bukharin), or who had shown him up as flawed in military action (like Tukhachevsky, from the Polish campaign of 1920-1921). He had his spies and surveillance mechanisms, and knew exactly what his detractors said about him. They all had to go, eventually, just like the millions of utterly innocent victims whose neighbours or co-workers may have got their defamation in first, or who were banished to the Gulag on utterly spurious charges.

On Stalin, Rayfield expresses more sceptical opinions on some of the allegations that have populated other biographies of the dictator. When the head of the NKVD in Spain, Alexander Orlov, defected in 1937, it was later rumoured that he had knowledge that Stalin had been an agent of the Okhrana, the tsarist secret police, and had thus bargained his protection out of it. Rayfield appears to dismiss this. The assassination of Sergey Kirov, the party secretary in Leningrad, in 1934, has been broadly stated to have been engineered by Stalin himself, as a way of eliminating a dangerous rival. (Kirov could be seen in relation to Stalin as DeSantis is to Trump.) Rayfield pours cold water on this theory, too, while agreeing that the killing gave Stalin an excuse to purge others in the rival urban centre who threatened him. Here, he goes against the grain of what others – including Hingley – have concluded, with Hingley citing the hints that Khrushchev supplied in his 1956 speech denunciating Stalin. On the Tukhachevsky affair (where the Red Army general was accused of plotting against Stalin, which may well have been true, and was executed with seven other outstanding commanders in June 1937), Rayfield laconically writes: “Stalin’s ingratitude toward the Red Army, without whose brilliance and energy he could have died on the gallows in 1919 or 1920, is attributed by some to a German sting.” The inquisitive reader would be justified in desiring a more forthright and authoritative opinion than that. Likewise, Rayfield classifies Pavel Sudoplatov’s memoirs (Special Tasks) as ‘mendacious’ without explaining where they can be trusted, and where they should be treated with scepticism. It is an uneven performance.

The OKHRANA Badge

Rayfield’s stances are usually bold and vividly expressed, if a little idiosyncratically. I was puzzled as to why he insisted on spelling out Dzierzynski, Ezhov, Iagoda, and Khruschiov, when anyone who has been exposed to only a little Soviet history would be familiar with Dzerzhinsky, Yezhov, Yagoda, and Khrushchev. He whimsically refers to the tsarist secret police as the Okhranka, instead of the Okhrana. His prose is mainly very elegant, although I noticed some clumsy repetitions and flow of logic (for example, consecutive sentences starting with ‘But’), and some incorrect use of pronouns in appositional clauses. He uses the term ‘legendary’ inappropriately, in a journalistic voice. On the other hand, his sometimes waspish observations are almost universally sound and entertaining, as when, in true Hingleyesque style, he describes the atmosphere in 1937: “The streets of Moscow and Leningrad were still dangerous at night, but now that banditry was as severely punished as telling anti-Soviet jokes, some of the public regained confidence.”

Occasionally, his judgment falters, and he indulges in some donnish sermonizing. For example: “As Georgians, Stalin, Beria and Kobulov detested the Ingush and Chechens with that antipathy of lowland townsmen to highland warriors that goes back to the dawn of history and is still felt in Georgia.” This is dubious scholarship: I doubt whether such divisions existed ‘at the dawn of history’, whenever that was, and to characterize the peasant Stalin as a ‘lowland townsman’, as if he were an Edinburgh grocer, is erratic. And the final sentence of his book likewise displays a lack of academic rigour: “Until the story is told in full, and until the world community insists that the legacy of Stalin is fully accounted for and expiated, Russia will remain spiritually sick, haunted by the ghosts of Stalin and his hangmen, and, worse, by the nightmares of their resurrection.” ‘World community’? Who are those persons? There is an important message within this Thunbergian waffle, but Rayfield missed an important opportunity to explain to us how this transformation, and international pressure on Putin, could come about.

Lastly, I want to comment on some of Rayfield’s choice of poetry to amplify his messages. (My editor has generously granted me some extra space to digress on a matter of great personal interest to me.) On page 213, to introduce a section titled ‘The Trophy Writer’, where he discusses the writer Maxim Gorky, Rayfield introduces a fragment by the German poet Christian Morgenstern, which he has translated into English himself. He does not identify the title of the piece, but I can reveal that it is Der Werwolf (The Werewolf).

Christian Morgenstern’s ‘Galgenlieder’ & ‘Der Gingganz’

Dedicated coldspur readers may recall that Morgenstern is an enthusiasm of mine. As a teenager, I was introduced to him by the Cohens’ Penguin Books of Comic and Curious Verse, and I still have those volumes, as well as my dtv copies of Morgenstern’s Palmström and Galgenlieder in my poetry bookcase. He was a writer of nonsense verse, greatly influenced by Edward Lear and Lewis Carroll, and died of tuberculosis shortly before the outbreak of World War 1. Consisting largely of plays on words, his verses are notoriously difficult to translate. The translations in the Penguin series were delivered by R. F. C. Hull (1913-1974), who worked at Bletchley Park in World War II on the Ultra transcripts.

The paradox behind Der Werwolf is the fact that ‘Wer’ means ‘Who’ in German, but has no plural form, and the Werewolf seeks out a dead grammarian who might explain how his family of multiple werewolves can exist. Hull tries to finesse the issue by using the ‘Were’ of ‘Werewolf’ to suggest a problem of conjugating a verb rather than declining a pronoun. He does a decent job of making the poem accessible to readers, but is challenged by the fact that ‘were’ is regularly a plural form already.

What this has to do with Gorky and Stalin is a mystery. Moreover, Rayfield’s attempt at translation is doggerel. He displays no metrical sense, and cuts off the verses before the crux appears. It is all rather pointless. Maybe he is simply a fan of Morgenstern, and wanted to promote him, but it is very bizarre. (My hunch concerning a personal enthusiasm was reinforced when I read Understanding Chekhov: Rayfield rather incongruously introduces Morgenstern by referring to his imitation of Chekhov’s ‘theatre of smell’.) This digression is a rare false note in what is a compelling story. Let those maids with their mops pick up the gauntlet, and insist that Putin recognize the errors of his ways.

Yet there is more of Morgenstern. Rayfield also, rather enigmatically, presents a standalone verse of Morgenstern’s, Allen Knechtschaffenen, translated as To All the Enslaved, as a frontispiece to the book. The verse runs as follows:

An alle Himmel schreib ich’s an,

die diesen Ball unspannen:

Nicht der Tyrann ist ein schimpflicher Mann,

aber der Knecht des Tyrannen.

Rayfield’s translation runs:

            I write it all over the heavens

That encompass our earthly sphere;  

It’s not the tyrant we should abuse,

But the serf who works for the tyrant.

This is very odd. First of all, what was Morgenstern, who wrote these lines in 1906, suggesting? That those suffering under tyranny were responsible for letting it happen? He could not have anticipated the Liquidation of the Kulaks, or the quiescence of the German citizenry under Hitler. While ‘Knecht’ itself has a more moderate meaning (‘servant’ or ‘menial’), the word ‘Knechtschaft’ has a more intense signification of ‘servitude’ or ‘slavery’, and Morgenstern’s title, Allen Knechtschaffenen, would therefore suggest all victims in that miserable state, as Rayfield’s translation endorses. In that case, Morgenstern would appear to be describing those properly enslaved – not those who simply worked for the tyrant, carrying out his bidding. Yet Rayfield is writing about Stalin’s Hangmen, and one would assume that the ‘Knecht’ he alludes to was not a true slave, but represented any one of the despot’s secret police chiefs. (I would have used ‘lackey’, not ‘serf’, to suggest any of the minions who carried out the dictator’s orders.) It is Rayfield, moreover, not Morgenstern, who introduces the notion of ‘working for the tyrant’ rather than just ‘being the tyrant’s slave’. Thus why Rayfield would condemn Morgenstern’s slaves, or why, if he truly meant those who worked for the tyrant directly, Stalin’s hirelings should be considered more ‘disgraceful’, or worthy of abuse, than Stalin himself is not clear. It is all an eccentric and perplexing muddle to me.

Resistance by Halik Kochanski

I detect a competition between the epic new history of an era or event and the minimalist approach. Thus the phenomenon of Mark Galeotti’s A Short History of Russia, limiting an analysis of an enormous entity in space and time to 194 pages (which I have not yet read), competes for media coverage with Halik Kochanski’s monumental account of the underground movements against Hitler, Resistance, running at 960 pages, which I did complete a few weeks ago. In attempting to gain the attention of the critics and the reading public, one would imagine that the former would have a distinct advantage. Yet how could such an abbreviated work, if bringing a fresh revisionist message, deliver the argument convincingly if it lacked a host of supporting detail, and a wealth of references? On the other hand, can any single academic do justice to the scope of such a multifarious and international cause as that of anti-fascist resistance, which would surely merit an encyclopedia?

My preference these days is for neither option. The amount of material that is available to write a comprehensive history of some select subject, performing justice to the social, political, military and intelligence aspects, using archival material, authorized histories, and memoirs and biographies, demands that the period and geography covered be highly localized. Thus John Lukacs’s Five Days in London: May 1940 has more appeal than, say, Antony Beevor’s Second World War (which is sitting on my shelf, waiting to be read). That is the approach I have taken in writing my analyses of SOE and the Prosper disaster, or the complications of Gouzenko’s defection and revelations. Any encyclopedic approach is bound to leave several stones unturned, and the creatures that hide beneath them unexamined.

Kochanski’s work is an extraordinary achievement, yet the nature of her sources is both a strength and a weakness. This book appears to have arisen from nowhere, with Kochanski’s 2012 account of the Poles at war, The Eagle Unbowed, hardly indicative of the massive scope of the research that propelled this volume. Her bibliography lists almost eight hundred items (I assume that she read them all herself), but the works are almost exclusively publications in English (with a few Polish and French volumes and articles thrown in), and many of them are memoirs and biographies of dubious reliability. For example, I counted at least three bearing the sub-title of ‘The True Story of. . . .’, when they are manifestly not such. There is no original primary archival material listed, and nothing from the German – where one might expect some useful insights on the Nazi approach to handling resistance to be found. Thus, without a directional methodology explaining why some sources should be trusted, the reliability of Kochanski’s narrative and judgments must remain an open question.

The scope of Kochanski’s study is the nature of resistance in all the European countries occupied by the Germans, and thus excludes Germany itself, and Austria. The subtitle of the book is The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which would tend to suggest that native resistance should very much have been in its focus. In commenting on this choice, Kochanski makes the surprising observation that there was nothing in those countries to resist, as ‘much of the German opposition to Hitler was not anti-German and did not want Germany to lose the war’. This seems to me an oversimplification, and an error of judgment, since it ignores multiple aspects of German resistance, including the broad plots inside the Wehrmacht and the Abwehr, the White Rose faction, and the Communist opposition that included the Rote Kapelle.

In 1994, Anton Gill published a very respectable book titled An Honourable Defeat: Resistance Against Hitler, 1939-1945, which covered civil and military opposition to the Führer. The appearance of that book would tend to confirm that there is an important tale to be told. True, the nature of such resistance was for the most part different, as it involved minimal sabotage, and hardly any guerrilla warfare. The story is nevertheless important since, if the military conspirators had spent less time plotting, and acted more decisively, they could have caused the whole ghastly edifice to come crashing down, and nullified the need for resistance elsewhere. Moreover, the Allies did try to infiltrate agents into German/Austrian territory with the goal of fomenting and exploiting local antagonisms, and such exploits constitute an important part of the overall history.

In fact the whole role of Communists in the Resistance across all of Europe, especially in France and Italy, and especially the way that Stalin insisted on controlling their activities, merits far more attention than Kochanski is prepared to allocate to this vexing subject. Communists were generally much more committed, and unconcerned about reprisals. Their activities, strangely enough, embarrassed both the Britain and the USA, as well as Stalin himself, who did not want premature uprisings in countries that he was not going to control, lest the Lend-Lease programs be jeopardized. The Foreign Office misjudged Stalin completely, and was manipulated by him. Britain’s role in appeasing its autocratic ally, and the misguided way in which it found itself arming Stalin’s servants in contravention of the desires of the relevant governments-in-exile, is almost completely overlooked by Kochanski.

As an encyclopedic survey of the resistance movements, Resistance will act as a splendid (but somewhat heavy) vade-mecum. It gathers a host of fascinating accounts of the efforts in each country for the general populace to come to grips with the presence of Nazi occupation forces. Circumstances in each territory were different, because of German attitudes, the culture of the country, and the nature of its terrain. I learned a multitude of new facts about the mistakes, tragedies and ironies of the conflict. For instance, in 1953, when twenty-one members of the SS Das Reich regiment were put on trial for the massacre at Oradour, it was discovered that fourteen of them were Frenchmen from Alsace, conscripted and fighting to protect their families back home. In 1942 the native Rinnan gang in Norway successfully infiltrated intelligence and resistance groups in the Trondheim region, leading to the execution of about a hundred resisters and SOE agents. As late as November 1944 (when the Warsaw Uprising was essentially over), Stalin still refused to allow the RAF to conduct operations to Warsaw over Soviet territory, even though he had recently encouraged the British to use Soviet bases in northern Russia to launch bombing-attacks on the battleship Tirpitz.

Yet in trying to provide an integrative account of how resistance unfolded, and how the Nazis reacted to it, Kochanski makes too many errors, and fails to follow up her individual observations with a series of patterns. It is a work of painstaking analysis, but of little imaginative synthesis. She does not understand the organization of SOE, MI5 and MI6, and how they interacted. Similarly, she does not distinguish between the Gestapo and the Abwehr in their rival domain and missions in France, or delineate the rivalries and squabbles that characterized their relationship. She similarly does not collect her multiple accounts of SOE’s exploitation of local resistance groups in France, Italy and Greece as a ploy to please Stalin, and to distract German attention from the Normandy landings, often with fatal results, into a coherent narrative. She likewise does not explore fully the way that resistance groups often exploited SOE with their relentless demands for weapons and money: SOE was an organization encouraging sabotage, not armed revolt. She hints at betrayal, but fails to grasp the bull by the horns. In the areas where I have studied the archival material (and the often deceptive memoirs) with some diligence, I found her history seriously wanting, and thus had doubts about the events with which I am not so familiar. On the other hand, I found her re-appraisal of the abuse of Mihailović, and the shady transfer of British support to Tito, a fine piece of revisionist writing.

Her overall assessment of SOE is very weak, merely reflecting some misty-eyed reminiscences of those who would like to see it in an exclusively positive light, and highlighting the opinion of its internal historian, William Mackenzie. The fact was that most European citizens living under the Nazi yoke did not want to see their country ‘set ablaze’, and the cruel reprisals that frequently followed were often indiscriminate and utterly demoralising. The assassination of Heydrich in Prague, and the horrendous reprisals that occurred thereafter, effectively quashed Czech resistance for good. The acquiescence and acceptance of subjugation that many pursued was not a sign of appeasement and treachery, but simply reflected a desire to survive, and no one who did not live through such times can comfortably judge behaviour that may have seemed dishonorable in retrospect. Kochanski several times observes how partisan groups spent more of their energies fighting each other rather than the Germans, but does not elevate these phenomena into any fresh conclusions. It is all very well to justify SOE retroactively on its delivery of intelligence instead of causing mayhem, but there existed other mechanisms  – more discreet – for gathering such information.

One whole aspect of resistance that Kochanski overlooks is the strategy of the occupiers. What did the Germans expect when they invaded a country, and did they adapt their tactics to the circumstances and reactions of the local populace? How did the character and stature of the respective Governor, and his policies, affect the dynamics of resistance? What effect did a royal family in place (as in Denmark and Belgium) have on the conflicts between the occupier and the occupied? It is poignant that, in Ukraine, and in the Baltic states, the Nazis were initially welcomed by many as liberators from the hated Communists, but the monstrosities of the execution squads against the Jews, and the attitudes of the Germans to ‘sub-human’ Slavs, soon showed that the invaders were as odious as the Bolsheviks. In Norway, on the other hand, where the Germans considered the natives as part of the favoured Nordic race, the attitude was far more indulgent, and positive, until the Gestapo concluded that they were generally hated as they were elsewhere. Even if fierce reprisals – demanded by Hitler – partially discouraged further subversion for a while (and that was a bitter source of controversy in Norway), at some stage the SS (Schutzstaffel) should have realized that more intensive terror would be self-defeating. Yet the brutalities of the Wehrmacht and the SS continued – sometimes out of sheer anger and frustration – in France, Italy and Greece, even when the outcome of the war was certain, and individual barbarities could be traced and be punished.

Like most books I read these days, Kochanski’s work could have benefitted from some tighter editing. Far too many statements are made in the passive voice, so that the source of claims is unverifiable, or the reader is uncertain who is making the judgment. She has an irritating habit of misplacing ‘only’, with the result that it does not correctly qualify the intended phrase. Her deployment of terms to describe the various resistance groups is imprecise: for instance, youths fearing conscription by the Germans who run to the woods do not suddenly become ‘maquis’. Thus, in summary, a noble and impressive work, but by no means definitive, with many opportunities missed. Maybe Kochanski did not feel up to the task of taking on what could turn out to be a controversial re-assessment of the contributions to the victory over the Axis powers of SOE and the resistance movements it tried to abet.

Surviving Katyn by Jane Rogoyska

If you read only one of the books I have reviewed this month, it should be Jane Rogoyska’s Surviving Katyn. It is a brilliantly researched and beautifully written account of one of the major examples of the Soviet Union’s brutality and mendacity –  the murder of thousands of Polish officers and professional men at Katyn Forest in 1940, and the subsequent cover-up and denial after the Germans discovered the scene of the butchery in 1943. The deceit, and the hunting down and elimination of many of the witnesses, carried on until the fall of the Soviet Union, when in 1990 Gorbachev faced the inevitable truth. The shameless refusal by the British and American authorities to accept the evidence, because Stalin was an ally, and his ‘good will’ was necessary to secure the defeat of the Nazis, continued through the war crimes trials at Nuremberg, and throughout the Cold War, even after Stalin’s death, and Khrushchev’s denunciation of Stalin’s crimes.

The Katyn Massacre

It is difficult to determine what qualified and equipped Ms. Rogoyska to execute this project in such a polished fashion. Her Wikipedia entry indicates that her grandfather escaped from Poland to England at the start of World War II, and that his son married an Englishwoman – who bizarrely remains anonymous, even on the author’s own website. Rogoyska is described as a British writer ‘of Polish origin’, although why the matrilineal side of her ancestry should be diminished in favour of the surname she carries is not clear. Moreover, while she studied Modern Languages at Cambridge, we learn that she did not learn Polish until adulthood, which fact makes her close analysis of so much Polish and Russian archival material even more remarkable. Her career has been in film, with no evident experience or training in writing history therefore evident.

Yet her account is utterly painstaking, methodical and carefully dispassionate. She lets the facts speak for themselves, and is sure of judgment when the obvious speculations have to be made. For the lesson of Katyn are still having to be re-learned. Despite the acknowledgment of the responsibility for the massacres, and subsequent cover-up, made by Putin himself, when he attended a memorial event for the victims in 2010, he has been clamping down on the Pamyat (‘Memory’) organization that tries to keep the records of Soviet atrocities alive and available, and has been promoting a twisted image of Stalin as a symbol of a Russia of greater days.

I wrote about Katyn in my post from this summer (http://www.coldspur.com/summer-2022-round-up/), when I reviewed Jozef Czapski’s Inhuman Land, and thus refer readers to it for a brief synopsis of what happened. Rogoyska weaves Czapski’s story into her account, focusing very sharply on the few reminiscences of those who were exempted, or allowed to escape, from the three camps where the Poles were incarcerated. While the outcome is clear, the struggles of the survivors to discover how thousands of their comrades could have disappeared without trace is poignant and wrenching. Yet Beria, the head of the NKVD, himself gave a colossal hint when he admitted in October 1940 to General Sygmunt Berlinger, a Polish communist sympathizer, and others, who had been invited to discuss the possible organization of a Polish division to fight the Germans, that ‘we made a big mistake’.

The reason for that characterization of the massacre is not clear, and perhaps never will be so. After all, the deaths of a few thousand Poles were not remarkable numerically, given that Stalin’s security organizations had been killing ‘enemies of the people’, and anyone who even potentially opposed Communist orthodoxy, in their millions. Prisoners of war received abominable treatment – both by the Soviets and the Germans, but these Poles were sequestered in more comfortable conditions than regular captives. Thus Beria’s brief admission could have meant several things: 1) we should never have killed so many Polish intelligentsia and officers, as we were bound to be found out eventually; 2) we should not have killed persons who might have been useful in the fight against Hitler when the inevitable invasion of the Soviet Union occurred (remember, Germany and the Soviet Union were allies when the massacres took place): 3) we should have performed a much better job of concealing the graves, so that they would never be discovered by any invading army. Astoundingly, when the Poles were held at the three camps of Kozelsk, Starobelsk and Ostashkov, two of these contingents were moved in a westward direction to their places of execution – towards Poland and Germany – rather than being transported to the depths of Siberia where the evidence of their demise might have been better concealed.

The fact that Beria was ruthless, and may have recommended the decision to execute the Poles to Stalin, rather than being encouraged or instructed by the dictator to pursue it, and that he made this statement to a Pole, suggests to me that explanation number 2 is the most likely. Yet the evolution of the cover-up indicates that he and his associates believed that it was absolutely essential to blame the Germans for the killings, to falsify the evidence in the graves to suggest the misdeeds were performed later, and to exploit the known reputation of the Nazis for mass executions to present themselves as innocent. (I would point out that, over the course of two days in September, 1941, the Germans, assisted by Ukrainian collaborators, murdered 33,771 Jews at the ravine of Babi Yar, outside Kyiv.) And it worked. The German Minister of Propaganda, Joseph Goebbels, had to admit that he had been outwitted. And the Soviet propaganda machine single-mindedly continued to promote the lie for decades afterwards.

What fascinates and appalls me is the craven response of Churchill, Eden, and other politicians, and the way that the Polish government-in-exile was treated with disdain while Stalin was appeased. One can perhaps understand a certain caution and reticence to push the point home in 1943, when the war still had to be won, and Stalin’s full support to turn the Germans back was essential. The subsequent avoidance of the issue, however, symptomatic of the policy of appeasement of Stalin that the Foreign Office pursued, in the belief that if he were treated like an English gentleman he would start to behave like one, is utterly reprehensible. One notable member of the Foreign Office, Sir Owen O’Malley, who was British ambassador to the Polish government-in-exile, was critical of such subservience and neglect of the truth, but his voice was suppressed and overruled.

All this (or most of this) Rogoyska covers with clarity and style. I do not believe she has any spectacular new revelations in her story, but it is important that the whole saga is encapsulated in one book. Moreover, I learned much in a domain close to my interests – namely the vicious retribution that the Soviet machine exacted on those who might embarrass it. Several of the Poles who escaped changed their names, and went into hiding. One Soviet witness of the executions, Ivan Krivovertsov, who had cooperated with the German investigation, feared for his life, and managed to escape to England, assuming the pseudonym Mikhail Loboda. (A photograph of him being interviewed by the Red Cross representatives in 1943 appears in the book.) He was found hanged in Somerset in 1947. As Rogoyska cautiously writes: “It is possible, although not verifiable, that the ‘suicide’ was the work of the KGB.”

In the past decade, President Putin has severely regressed from his earlier dignified stance. Rogoyska could have referred to incidents in the forest of Sandarmokh, in Karelia, near the Finnish border, where a local citizen, Yuri Dmitrev, has been persecuted for discovering burial mounds of political prisoners executed by Stalin’s secret police. A group sponsored by the Military Historical Society, ‘a state-funded organization notorious for its nationalist take on Russian history’ (as the New York Times characterized it in an article dated April 27, 2020) interfered with the excavations to make it seem that some of the victims were Soviet soldiers executed by the Finns in World War II. Anatoli Razumov, director of the Center for Recovered Names in St. Petersburg, was quoted as saying: “The same tactics are being used to muddle the history of Russia’s most infamous killing-ground. Katyn Forest. . . .”. Dmitrev was convicted of a false paedophilia charge, and resides in jail: the curator of the local museum, who had supported Dmitrev, was arrested on a similar charge, and soon after died in prison hospital ‘from an unspecified illness’. Stalinism lives.

In conclusion, I have just read an article in the December issue of The Atlantic, ‘How Germany Remembers the Holocaust’, by Clint Smith. It is a thoughtful and moving account of how modern Germans come to terms with the atrocities, and Smith makes analogies with the persecution of Native Americans, with the enslavement of Africans, and with the German genocide in Namibia. Not once, however, does he make any reference to the mass murders of Communism, of the tyrannies of Stalin, Mao and Pol Pot. Maybe he regards the category of victim, or the level of complicity by the people, or the factor of geography, differently; maybe he has simply ‘forgotten’ the Liquidation of the Kulaks, the Holodomor, the Great Terror and the Gulags: one cannot discern. His article concludes: “It is the very act of attempting to remember that becomes the most powerful memorial of all.” Indeed: it is Pamyat, ‘Memory’, that Putin is attempting to destroy.

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The Quiet Don

A Tribute to Ronald Hingley

Contents:

Peter Davison: In Memoriam

Introduction

The Joint Services School for Linguists

Ronald Hingley

The Tsar of All the Russias

Hingley and Chekhov

Martin Clay

Humour in Chekhov

Hingley and Translation

Comparisons

Tarara-boom-de-ay!

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Peter Davison: In Memoriam

Before I move to the main tribute in this month’s piece, I want to pay homage to a great George Orwell scholar, Peter Davison, who died in late August. (See, for sample obituaries, https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/peter-davison-obituary-lcnzwlfh0, https://www.theguardian.com/books/2022/sep/04/peter-davison-orwell-scholar-obituary, and https://www.nytimes.com/2005/01/01/books/peter-davison-poet-literary-editor-and-memoirist-dies-at-76.html.) I had the pleasure of visiting Peter and his wife, Sheila, at their house in Marlborough, Wiltshire, a couple of times during the 2000 decade, and he was one of the most modest and engaging persons I have ever met.

What brought me to him was my own enthusiasm for the writings of George Orwell. When I retired, and before I took up the serious study of intelligence matters, I set about reading the complete four-volume Penguin Collected Essays, Journalism and Letters, edited by Sonia Orwell and Ian Angus. As I did so, I was fascinated by the various misremembered quotations that Orwell recorded, as an activity of his jackdaw mind, and started delving into their origins, and recording the latter. The exercise also prompted me to suggest a fresh explanation for Orwell’s character and psychology, which eventually resulted in the unpublished article Orwell’s Clock (see http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/orwells-clock/), that itself anticipated a more authoritative analysis by Professor Michael FitzGerald.

I wrote to Mr. Davison, submitting the fruits of my researches, and he replied enthusiastically. He eventually used much of my work in his 2006 publication The Lost Orwell, which was a supplement to the massive twenty-volume Complete Works that appeared under his editorship in 1998. (I have most of the volumes in a special bookcase.) Among other fascinating pieces, The Lost Orwell contains Orwell’s controversial list of Crypto-Communists and Fellow-Travellers that he sent to the Foreign Office’s Information Research Department in May 1949. In his Foreword, Davison wrote:

      Mr Antony Percy sent many pages identifying passages to which Orwell referred. He had worked from the four-volume Collected Journalism, Essays and Letters and had not then seen the twenty-volume edition which did identify many of these passages. However, there were many that were unknown to me and I am grateful to him, as I am to all those who wrote with suggestions.

I am proud of my contribution to Orwell scholarship, and it was an honour and a great pleasure meeting and working with Mr. Davison.

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Introduction

When the first volume of Mikhail Sholokhov’s novel Tikhy Don came out in translation in the 1930s, it bore the title And Quiet Flows the Don. The publishers presumably thought that prospective readers might think that a book given a literally translated title of The Quiet Don would be about a shy Oxford academic, or even a recalcitrant Spanish nobleman, rather than an emblematic Russian river that quietly went about its business as the Cossacks became engaged with the rustic brouhaha of the Russian Revolution beyond its banks. I dedicate this article to Professor Ronald Hingley, an apparently reclusive academic, who taught me so much about Russian history and literature, about good essay-writing, and about the art of translation.

Ronald Hingley

This Quiet Don was my primary Russian tutor at Oxford, and had a stellar career as a student of Russian history and literature, and, in particular of Anton Chekhov. Surprisingly, he died with little recognition in 2010. Only recently has a Wikipedia entry been created for him, and it is remarkably thin. The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has no entry for him. Yet his influence and achievements are great, if only for his unreserved opposition to the monstrous Communist regime of the Soviet Union. He fell into great disfavour with the Soviet authorities, because of his merciless descriptions of the horrors they defended, and was thus presumably an exasperating ‘noise’ in their ears.

While his career appears to have been largely ignored, I suspect that those who were taught by him will recall his contributions and presence very acutely. He always appeared as a very intense, but restrained, figure in the tutorials and classes that he led at Oxford when a fellow at St Antony’s. He had a goatee beard, and pince-nez spectacles, I recall, that gave him the mien of his literary hero – an effect surely intended. He stood out as the leading academic in Russian at Oxford. Professor Fennell was a respected name, but I don’t believe he taught undergraduates, and his specialty was early Russia. I recall attending just one of his lectures. I did have tutorials with Mark Everitt, a priest at Merton College, attended lectures by T. J. Binyon, and probably some by Paul Foote. I also underwent some conversational sessions with a Mrs. Willets – who turns out to have been a Pole married to the historian E. T. Willets. She was a lovely lady, but now I understand why she was a bit puzzled about some Russian constructions, since it was not her first language. If there were other Russian dons, they must have avoided me.

The Joint Services School for Linguists

‘Secret Classrooms’

Geoffrey Elliott wrote about Hingley in Secret Classrooms, the brilliant book he co-authored with Harold Shukman about the Joint Services School for Linguists (JSSL) that operated from 1951 to 1960, training students to become fluent in Russian, as part of their National Service. The blurb on the back describes it as ‘the enthralling and previously untold story of this one-of-a-kind British accomplishment, a heady mix of a high-powered college and a Chekhov play’. That was perhaps not entirely fortuitous, and a rare photograph of the first JSSL course administrator in London, Ronald Hingley, appears in the book. The list of alumni is an illustrious one, containing names such as Michael Frayn, Alan Bennett, Gervase Cowell, Ian Harvey-Jones, D. M. Thomas, Paul Foote, and Dennis Potter.

One famous name overlooked in Secret Classrooms, but hinted at obliquely, is that of Tom Springfield (born Dionysius O’Brien), the songwriter and founder of the Springfields, sister of Dusty, who died this last August. He attended the JSSL school in Coulsdon, and was responsible for compiling a volume called The Samovar Songbook, which is mentioned on page 110 of the book. It is worth presenting the commentary of Elliott and Shukman, delivered with true Hingleyesque verve:

First introduced at Coulsdon, and edited by the kursanty with staff help, it ran to two editions and included folk melodies, and melancholy and passionate pre-Revolutionary gypsy cabaret songs of the sort that aroused Rasputin to priapic ecstasy. There were Ukrainian nonsense songs, the Russian equivalents of Christmas carols, songs sung by wagon-drivers on the steppes, boot-stamping Cossack choruses and more doleful chants of prisoners and Tsarist army conscripts, as well as some of the basso-profundo lyrics popularized in the post-war years by the Red Army Choir when they were not busy crushing East European uprisings.

One can almost imagine Chekhov singing along on his trek across Siberia to Sakhalin, and Springfield’s contribution is almost a let-down. He simply based the award-winning song The Carnival Is Over (recorded by the Seekers) on a nineteenth-century Russian tune known as Stenka Razin, after the seventeenth-century Cossack rebel. Some carnival.

Yet Elliott’s first task was to differentiate Chekhovian Cambridge from the more industrious London. The first two schools were set up in Coulsdon, Surrey (the town where I lived until 1956, but the school was way over the other side of the valley, behind ‘The Fox’ public house, near Caterham Barracks), and in Bodmin, Cornwall. When the pupils had passed their tests in these establishments they were sent on to one of two university schools, in Cambridge and in London. Professor Elizabeth Hill led the course at Cambridge, and Ronald Hingley that in London. There was considerable strife between the two, as Hingley believed that he had taught Hill about the best use of pedagogical techniques, while Hill looked down on Hingley because he was merely a lecturer in the School of Slavonic Studies.

‘The Fox’ on Coulsdon Common

Hill had an exotic background: she was the daughter of ‘a once prosperous Scots-Russian merchant family in St. Petersburg’, and was also the niece of General Miller, who had commanded the anti-Bolshevik White Army in Northern Russia, and in 1936 was kidnapped in Paris and killed by the NKVD. The fact that British intelligence officers were learning Russian at the School of Slavonic Studies in London came to the notice of the NKVD illegal rezident Alexander Orlov, who put Guy Burgess on to investigating what was going on. The leak probably issued from Professor Haldane. Elliot and Shukman reveal some fascinating glimpses into the intelligence exploits of Hill’s extended family (although George Hill, of SOE’s Moscow mission, was not one; Guy Burgess mixed him up with George E. Hill).

Elliott and Shukman wrote that ‘learning advanced Russian under Liza and her team at Salisbury Villas was rather like being at a high-intensity crammer run by a distinctly odd extended Chekhovian family’, and they contrasted the atmosphere in Cambridge with that in London as follows:

If Cambridge was Chekhovian, London’s tone, set less by the shadowy George Bolsover than by its first director Ronald Hingley, might best be called ‘Stakhanovite’, if anyone now remembers that persistently overachieving worker who became a propaganda item of the Soviet era. But it was far from grim, and it achieved results.

In his Introduction to Secret Classrooms, the poet, playwright and translator D. M. Thomas echoed this idea, by recalling how his class at Cambridge was told by Liza Hill to ‘rabotat’, rabotat’, rabotat’ – work, work, work’, ‘and if we did, we would fall in love with ourselves’, which echoes Irina in Three Sisters, committing to work as a relief from her suffering, or Voynitsky in Uncle Vanya, encouraging Sonya that they must ‘work, work’, before they both sit down at the table to check some ledgers – certainly not the type of toil extolled by their Communist successors.

Ronald Hingley

While Hingley might not have appreciated his approach being dubbed ‘Stakhanovite’, his own dedication and commitment to excellence were unrivalled. Moreover, it was here that his opposition to Stalinism became more public, thus incurring the wrath of the Soviet Union. He was particularly scathing about the founder of the British Communist Party Andrew Rothstein, who had greatly influenced the culture at the School of Slavonic Studies, and Hingley characterized the School, in recognizable Hingleyesque style *, as ‘a nest of poisonous Kremlin-fanciers’. It was Rothstein who recruited Melita Norwood, the atom spy whose exploits have been publicized in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-op, a book that Hingley would have derided for its obvious ‘padding’ (a feature of essay-writing that, in my tutorials with him, he strongly advised me to eschew.)

Andrew Rothstein

[* In Misdefending the Realm (p 220) I quote Hingley from his book, The Russian Secret Police: “On 19th December 1967 the same newspaper [Izvestia] published an article Hello, Comrade Philby, quoting the veteran master-spy in praise of Dzerzhinsky as a ‘great humanist’ – the formula commonly applied in Soviet parlance to successful sponsors of mass killings.” (p 249)]

The authors add some important facts about Hingley’s career. He had joined the School in 1947 as a lecturer ‘after a war which included service with the 21st Army Group, SOE and a brief spell at Bletchley Park, where, he was told, he was the first to break a Soviet code; he declined an invitation from one of its leading lights, John Tiltman, to work there.’ I knew about the spell in SOE, since I had discovered Hingley’s name in the archives of the Russian Section, but Bletchley Park surprised me. The reference explicitly states Bletchley Park, not the establishment at Berkeley Street in London under Alastair Denniston that processed diplomatic and Comintern traffic after 1942. The sequence of these duties suggests, however, that Hingley moved to Bletchley Park after his time at SOE. The Russian section of SOE was not established until after Barbarossa (June 1941), while the Bletchley Park project on Soviet ciphers was reportedly terminated in December 1941, but in fact secretly handed over to a Polish group (according to what Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith claim in The Bletchley Park Codebreakers). Perhaps that is further evidence that, contrary to what Harry Hinsley claimed about Churchill’s order that no more work on the decrypting of Soviet traffic should continue after Barbarossa, it did indeed carry on with some British contribution.

The Tsar of All the Russias

I thought of Hingley when I was speaking to Anatol Shmelev (of the Hoover Institution) this last June. At some event, whether during a private tutorial or at his class in Soviet prose translation, I recalled clearly when Hingley had declared that the famous phrase ‘tsar of all the Russias’ (which appears in many history-books and encyclopaedias) was a misnomer. The source (he claimed) was not the imagined original Russian wording ‘tsar vsey Rossiy’ (genitive plural of ‘Rossia’) but ‘tsar vsekh Rossii’ (the tsar of everyone of Russia, genitive singular), which perhaps made more sense, as, apart from White Russia and Little Russia, what other Russias were there in the Russian Empire?

This conundrum has occupied my mind occasionally over the years, but I did not know whom to turn to. Yet it endured, like two other linguistic traps that I have encountered from time to time, both in German: ‘The Old Contemptibles’ and ‘Deutschland Über Alles’. Kaiser Wilhelm II was supposed to have referred to General French’s regular British Army in 1914 as ‘a contemptible little army’, but in fact what he wrote was ‘a contemptibly little army’, where the adverb qualifies the adjective. A letter to the Times in July 1974 explained that what the Kaiser wrote was ‘eine verächtlich kleine Armee’, not ‘eine verächtliche kleine Armee’. As for ‘Deutschland Über Alles’, several observers have interpreted the German anthem as expressing a desire that ‘Germany should be over everything’ (thus implying imperial domination), when in fact it means ‘Above all, Germany’, using the accusative case, not the dative, implying the slightly more subtle message that Germany should have precedence over any other loyalty. ‘Germany over everything’ would be ‘Deutschland Über Allem.’

Thus, when I encountered Anatol Shmelev, born of Russian parents in the USA, and a keen student of tsarist history, I decided to ask him. His first response was that he would look up Hingley’s book The Tsars, but he also dug out a fragment about Ivan the Terrible, presumably in Old Russian or Old Church Slavonic, which represents that Ivan was known as the tsar ‘vseia Russii’. Page 29 of Hingley’s book appears to echo that assertion, stating that Ivan the Terrible ‘made a practice of calling himself ruler ‘“of all Russia”’. That surprised me as a third variant: why would any dictator have to describe himself in those terms, as if there were a possibility that his domain did not extend throughout the entirety of Russia, whatever its geographical boundaries? And what happened to Hingley’s lecturette to his pupils about ‘everyone of Russia’?

I have just started reading Antony Beevor’s book on the Russian Revolution (Russia: Revolution and Civil War, 1917-1921), and I notice that, in describing the Tsar’s unconstitutional abdication in favour of his brother, Archduke Michael, Beevor writes: “The first thing the reluctant Tsar insisted on dropping was the standard formula: ‘We by God’s mercy, Mikhail II, Emperor and Autocrat of all the Russias’”. Beevor vaguely notes Donald Crawford and Richard Pipes as his sources. The mystery remains unsolved.

Hingley and Chekhov

No matter. I reflected further on Hingley. I remember his telling me that he had been educated at Kingswood School, in Bath, and that he was a contemporary of C. W. C. (‘Bill’) Edge, who was a history teacher at Whitgift throughout my time there. (They both left Kingswood in 1937: Hingley won an open scholarship to Corpus Christi College, Oxford.) I happened to think that Edge was an appalling history master, but I know that my friend Nigel Platts (who studied History at Oriel College, and went up to Oxford a year before me), thought highly of him. Many teachers at Whitgift were very effective in leading small, well-motivated classes, but often struggled with a larger, diverse set of pupils, and Edge was perhaps one of those. Hingley’s reputation as an historian and translator was secure, however. He edited the standard edition of Chekhov’s works known as The Oxford Chekhov, and it is those editions that I want to turn to next in this bulletin.

Olga Knipper & Anton Chekhov

I had coincidentally been re-reading Hingley’s translations of Chekhov’s plays, in the Oxford University Press paperback editions, earlier this year, perhaps triggered by my reading of Paustovsky, who covered the same era in Ukraine and Crimea about which Chekhov wrote. And I had been thinking how these dramas were presented to us callow schoolboys in the early 1960s. (I was not aware at the time that Chekhov’s wife, the actress Olga Knipper, had died in 1959, only a couple of years before I started learning Russian, fifty-five years after her husband. She had acted the role of Masha in Three Sisters: moreover, Masha was based on the character of Chekhov’s sister, Masha, who died in 1957. Quite extraordinary.) The translations we used at school had been the Penguin editions by Elisabeta Fen, and I recall being rather surprised that they were described by the playwright as ‘comedies’, as I did not at the time find much humour in them. Was that a fault in Chekhov’s conception, a failing in the translator, a misunderstanding by directors of his plays, a deficiency in the schoolmaster who guided us through them, Martin Clay, or was it due to an immaturity in the heads of us fifteen- and sixteen-year-olds?

When I re-read, as a seventy-five-year-old, the Hingley versions of The Seagull, Uncle Vanya, Three Sisters and The Cherry Orchard (which I had read in 1967, since they still hold my pencilled annotations), I decided that all except the first explanation were true. I had seen a few productions of the plays in London during those late 1960s and early 1970s which tended to reinforce the notion that there were not many laughs to be found in Chekhov’s drama. I believe this misunderstanding had several roots: the plays were ‘classics’, after all, and ‘classics’ were supposed to be serious, earnest. And there existed the mythology about the Russians – they were a gloomy people, with a mystical and mysterious soul, and oppressed by all manner of existential and religious demons. Russia in the 1890s was not a period for comedy.

This mythology has endured. William Boyd, writing about the novelist William Gerhardie in The Spectator World of August 2022, refers to Gerhardie’s ‘Chekhovian outlook’ that reflects his conception of the ‘humorous tragedy’ of the human condition, and Boyd takes time to remind his readers that Chekhov ‘famously subtitled The Cherry Orchard “a comedy”’, as if the playwright’s intentions had been deceptive and subversive. Yet I doubt whether Chekhov would have acknowledged that his plays were about ‘the human condition’, whatever that meant. He would have found it all frightfully pompous.

William Gerhardie

(I went back to Gerhardie’s book on Chekhov, written in 1923 as an outgrowth of his B. Litt. thesis at Oxford. It spends much more time on Chekhov’s stories, and his notebook, than it does on the plays. I found it insightful, but a bit too flowery and abstract for me – which it probably was for Hingley, too. I recall Hingley talking disparagingly about critics who try to generalize their opinions by referring presumptuously to the manner in which ‘we’ react, and it could well have been Gerhardie he had in mind, since he makes many such declarations. While I detected much metaphysical nonsense in Gerhardie’s work, also, it does contain some choice phrases, such as: “But if pressed to do so, I would rather say that Chekhov’s outlook in a nutshell was that he thoroughly distrusted nutshells.”)

Hingley himself offered an explanation of the comedic aspect in his Introduction to his translations (The Oxford Chekhov, Volume 3), when he wrote:

The fact is that you find as much humour in Chekhov’s plays as you are qualified by your own sense of humour, or assisted by skilled interpretation, to find. The plays, like many of the stories, are built on tension between the humorous and the serious, so that it is not really possible to assess the extent to which they are serious – quite apart from the fact that ‘humorous’ and ‘serious’ are not concepts which necessarily exclude each other.

Martin Clay

I do not think that Martin Clay, who taught us Russian and German, really understood this distinction. He was a forbidding and strict individual. That discipline was reasonably effective when he was teaching Russian grammar, although his techniques sometimes left something to be desired. When pushing his pupils on translation, he would sometimes urge them to make a stab at some elusive word: ‘Save Your Life!’ was a frequent invitation for inspiration. When one of my classmates struggled with the word ‘ploog’ (meaning ‘plough’), and, when forced to save his life with a guess, came up with ‘plug’, he was immediately humiliated by being told ‘Don’t make stupid guesses!’. His life was presumably not spared. Thus were adolescents encouraged to learn in 1961.

And Clay’s querulousness let him down in more subtle environments. I recall composing a short story, in Russian, on a journey into space – a theme he had set us – and I decided to place my narrative in some future time when space travel was so routine that the craft was able to alight on the wrong planet, to the relative dismay of the crew, as if, on a day-trip, they had landed up in Eastbourne instead of Brighton. I was quite pleased with my confection, but when the stories were returned in class, Clay accused me of being ‘frivolous’, and reamed me out, as if I had personally insulted him. I am not sure what the punishment would have been, but, fortunately, he decided to pass my work by his colleague Tom Savage, like him a graduate of the JSSL, for a second opinion. Clay then had to back down, since Savage (who I knew disliked me) found the theme quite amusing and inventive.

Whitgift School (with cricket pavilion at lower right)

It was not that Clay could not enjoy any jokes, but you had to be careful not to smirk at any of his more extreme utterances. When he arrived at Whitgift to teach us Russian in 1961, he was not immediately allocated a permanent classroom, and we had to walk down to the cricket pavilion for our lessons with him. On one memorable occasion he reported to us on the lack of progress towards a regular and durable home: “Space has not yet materialized”, a paradoxical and highly philosophical observation that I found supremely amusing. I had to suppress my smile, as Clay would not have relished the explanation for my mirth. I didn’t think of it at the time, but it occurs to me now that it was something that Solyony in The Three Sisters might have said.

Humour in Chekhov

I privately found some of the situations and lines in Uncle Vanya (our set A-Level text) quite amusing. When, in Act Four, Marina informs the audience, with a sigh, that ‘I haven’t tasted noodles for ages, old sinner that I am’, the juxtaposition of sinning with such a bland food as noodles (not that I knew what they were in 1961) made me laugh out loud, and I recall regaling the members of the Percy family with the anecdote at dinner-time that day – to be met with rather an awkward silence. But perhaps I was not supposed to find that funny, and it was my sense of humour that was at fault. These were fin de siècle Russians, after all, and Sin, and the role of noodles in their diet, what with all those strange Orthodox Church practices, was perhaps part of a ritual that I did not understand.

Moreover, much of the plots of Chekhov’s plays revolve around jealousy, unhappy marriages, adultery, infidelity, and thwarted passion. This was not a subject for humour for many schoolmasters, who would have found it difficult to discuss such matters with adolescents. (I have written beforehand about the embarrassing details of Gretchen’s seduction by Faust in Goethe’s great work, and how John Chester was very uncomfortable talking about the circumstances and outcomes.) Poor Martin Clay was betrayed (like the schoolmaster Kulygin in Three Sisters) when his wife ran off with another master, and thus tensions between spouses might have been something he wanted to avoid discussing in class.

And what did we youngsters know about such things? How could we possibly write essays about these dramatic situations, given our inexperience? When Vanya declares his love for Helen Serebryakov, the Professor’s wife, I probably imagined that was how Russians actually behaved all the time – rather like the French, I suppose – while we English would behave much more staidly. Our view of romantic affairs would be sustained more by the very suppressed passions of Brief Encounter, or the later image of Lady Antonia Fraser being captivated by Harold Pinter at a party, and mildly requesting of him ‘Must you go?’. Thus there was a tendency to interpret all the ambiguous statements of the cast in Uncle Vanya as serious reflections of the Russian character, and not as symptoms of comedic conflict.

Antonia Fraser & Harold Pinter

The critical emphasis that Clay encouraged consequently focused on those great Russian themes: ‘the superfluous man’ (lishny chelovek), as in Lermontov and Turgenev; ‘laughter through tears’ (smekh skvyoz slyezi), as in Gogol; ‘the tortured Russian soul’, as in Dostoevsky; ‘the sweep of historical fate’, as in Tolstoy, since the landowning class awaits the apocalypse; the untranslatable concept of ‘poshlost’ (a mixture of smugness and condescending vulgarity); or even on what was supposed to be Chekhov’s unique contribution, the creation of mood (nastroyenie), via such devices as distant breaking strings that may have been indicative of untold mining disasters. This was presumably what the examiners wanted their entrants to be taught about, and that is therefore what we learned to regurgitate. (I suspect that today Astrov’s plea for preserving the forests would be adopted as an early Save the Planet campaign.) Such interpretations were consonant with some early stagings of the dramas. Chekhov was distraught when he discovered that the director Stanislavsky had decided, in his absence, that his last play, The Cherry Orchard, should be presented as a tragedy.

It was Ronald Hingley who drew my attention to all the humour in the plays, and, when I recently re-read them after more than a fifty-year gap, I found fresh evidence. Chekhov was a doctor, but it does not stop him being satirical about his profession. This characteristic derived from his own career as a doctor: in 1886 he wrote a letter describing a wedding where he was going to be best man: ‘a doctor is marrying a priest’s daughter – a combination of killer and undertaker’. And he occasionally betrayed the fact that he was not averse to the occasional quack remedy himself, as when he advised his sister, Masha, in 1898, in response to her recurring headaches ‘to abstain from alcohol, tobacco, fish, to take aspirin, then subcutaneous arsenic, potassium iodate and electric shocks, and if that doesn’t help, then wait for old age, when all this will pass and new diseases will start’ (Rayfield, p 464). The evidently durable Masha survived afflictions far worse through the Revolution, the Civil War, the Purges, World War II, and the generic horrors of Communism.

In the first minute of Uncle Vanya we are introduced to Astrov, clearly identified as a doctor by Marina, and the second thing he says is: ‘No, it’s not every day I drink vodka’ – the vodka-doctor presumably being the Russian equivalent of Graham Greene’s whisky priest. Dr Dorn, in The Seagull, a womanizer but a sympathetic character, casually suggests valerian drops as a remedy for any ailment that his friends undergo. In Three Sisters, Chebutykin confesses that ‘they think I’m a doctor and can cure diseases, but I know absolutely nothing’. He had been responsible for the death of a patient a few days before, and now copies out remedies from a newspaper article. Donald Rayfield wrote that The Cherry Orchard ‘is the progenitor of modern drama from Artaud to Pinter’. The plays also reveal a road that leads to ‘Doc’ Morrissey of Sunshine Desserts in The Fall and Rise of Reginald Perrin.

Reginald Perrin and Doc Morrisey

Another classic is the exchange between Chebutykin and Solyony in Act 2 of Three Sisters, where they have a pointless debate about the essence of two Caucasian dishes (a dialogue that raises some interesting aspects of translation, as I shall explain below). They talk at utter cross-purposes, apparently because of a misunderstanding over similar-sounding words. But the tenor and effect are exactly like Monty Python’s Argument Clinic. And I offer another example: the masterly transition from the end of Act 1 to the start of Act 2 in Three Sisters, where the beguiling and adored Natasha suddenly appears as an exploitative termagant, is hilarious.

I could cite more but the point is that the plays are strewn with self-absorbed characters who simply do not listen to what others are saying to them. Chekhov loves to show the delusional facets of mediocre people who try to convince themselves that they are original or interesting, in order to provide themselves some sense of self-worth. These characters frequently display eternal facets of behaviour that are instantly recognizable in any era or location: the passive/aggressive emotional manipulation by Arkadina of her son, Konstantin, in The Seagull; the grouchy victimhood of the indulged Professor Serebryakov and the vanity and frustrated ambitions of Voinitsky in Uncle Vanya. On reading Donald Rayfield’s outstanding 1997 biography of Chekhov, I realized how much of such behaviour had originated from Chekhov’s observation of his close family and friends, especially his self-pitying father, Pavel, and his selfish oldest brother, Aleksandr.

One would not be able to detect what a bohemian, even bawdy, life the young Chekhov led from his more restrained publications, and for a long time the seamier aspects of his life were withheld, thus contributing to the notion that the writer was a sober and earnest gentleman who needed to be taken very seriously. (What is remarkable is that the four great plays were written when Chekhov suffered regularly from haemorrhaging of the lungs, the symptoms of tuberculosis that he knew would kill him before long. It is breathtaking to consider the equanimity and humour with which he endured the last few years of his life.) For example, when I first encountered Voinitsky’s declaration that he ‘could have been a Schopenhauer, a Dostoevsky’ I took it all rather literally, deeming his presumptions legitimate: it needed a few more years for me to perceive the absurdity of such claims. After all, Chekhov might have thought that Schopenhauer was a frightful charlatan or a windbag, and who would have wanted to live the life of Dostoevsky, what with that mock execution, and those gambling obsessions?

I believe part of the problem with Chekhov’s stage humour is that the rest of the cast does not seem to be encouraged to break out into guffaws when the more absurd speeches are made, and the lack of reaction tends to diminish the level of humour in the audience’s eyes and ears. That is one reason why actors have complained that the dramas do not lend themselves to proper ensemble acting. (Gerhardie wrote: “The company on the stage, as indeed in life, is to all purposes an ensemble of solitary souls.”) The cast members must wonder what what they should be doing when (for instance) Gayev makes his speech honouring the bookcase in The Cherry Orchard. At my first reading I must have thought to myself: ‘That is what Russians do. They address inanimate objects in emotional terms’. But even in rural Russia in 1900, any normal acquaintances of Gayev would have interrupted the fellow after a few words in the hope of being spared any further embarrassments, or at least rolled their eyes, shaken their heads, thrown their hands up in the air, or gesticulated to him to stop.

Hingley and Translation

Hingley set much store in the art of translation, a topic that still fascinates me. He took a class in Russian prose, and we used his book Soviet Prose, which included some rather dire extracts from ‘socialist realist’ writers. Tackling these pieces presented the familiar challenge of trying to find the correct English words to represent characteristics and events that were relatively contemporaneous, but still far removed from familiar 1960s Britain. Yet, with Chekhov’s settings, the problem was far more intense. How faithful should a translator be to the original? What manner of the English vernacular should be applied to the speeches of a variety of Russians in the 1890s? Should a translator try to be very faithful to the idioms and references of the time and place? Should the leading characters perhaps talk like Galsworthian land-owners and gentlefolk? Or should the exchanges be packaged up – a little distorted, possibly – for a modern audience?

Hingley explained his approach in his Introduction to Volume 3. He set out to produce versions for the stage – a goal that might appear to be obvious – but added that his versions were intended for reading as well as acting. Yet, since his opinion was that the best stage version ‘must automatically be the best version for reading purposes as well’, his distinction could be seen as superfluous. He went on to write:

An attempt has been made to use modern English which is lively without being slangy. Above all, an effort has been made to avoid the kind of unthinking ‘translationese ’ which has so often in the past imparted to translated Russian a distinctive, somehow ‘doughy’ style of its own with little relation to anything present in the original Russian.

Now I might challenge Hingley a bit on his terminology. It puts me off a bit that the two key words in this second sentence are both encapsulated in inverted commas, as if they are not real terms. Why are there not proper English words to describe what he wants to communicate, and, if they are not proper English words, how is the reader supposed to interpret them? The word ‘translationese’ does not appear in my Chambers Dictionary, but on-line dictionaries define it ‘as an over-literal approach to translation’ and state that the term originated in the early 20th century, so Hingley could presumably have used it without quotation marks. And, admittedly, he gives examples: the Russian verb ‘filosoftsvovat’’ is used much more freely and vaguely than a native English speaker would deploy ‘to philosophize’ (perhaps ‘shoot the breeze’?), and Hingley does not always translate ‘dusha’ as soul, given that the word (according to his estimation) ‘is now almost confined to theological contexts’. One could confidently conclude that Hingley was not a fan of Arthur Conley.

Arthur Conley & Sweet Soul Music

But ‘doughy’? The word means ‘pallid’ or ‘pasty’, but I would assume that Hingley was suggesting more ‘lumpy’, or ‘indigestible’ even. I think I know what he meant – where the language neither reflects an accurate rendering of the original, nor sounds like the idiom or register of what any normal person would naturally express. And this is a very important point. He goes on to explain how Chekhov uses French forms of address ‘to create an antipathetic, vulgar, “genteel” [those quotation marks again!] (or one might wish to say “pseudo-genteel” effect), a system that will not work in an English setting.’ He follows up with:

It would be a mistake for an actress to pronounce these French sentences with a good Parisian accent. On the English stage they would probably sound best spoken in some suburban English accent, which, however, like everything else with Chekhov, should not be overdone.

And here we meet the challenge of ‘modernity’. What made sense in 1964 might not be appropriate in 2022. What, after all, is a ‘suburban’ accent today, when estuarine vowels and consonants can be heard all day on the BBC World News? (Come back, Alvar Lidell.) There is a risk of all the prejudices about ‘Received Pronunciation’ coming to the surface. Yet Hingley overall does an excellent job of rendering Chekhov’s lines in a natural and colloquial idiom that has lasted well the past sixty years. And his pupil, Michael Frayn, produced translations for all the plays in the 1980s that appeared to have goals similar to Hingley’s. In his Introduction to The Cherry Orchard (commissioned for Peter Hall’s production), Frayn wrote:

I have tried to observe two basic principles. The first is that a proper line of dialogue is what that particular character would have said at that particular moment if he had been a native English-speaker; this sometimes involves a quite different construction. The other is that, in a text intended for production, like this one, every line must be as immediately comprehensible in English as it was in the original; there are no footnotes on the stage.

Michael Frayn

But one might well ask: “What is a native English-speaker in this context?”. Frayn’s translation of Three Sisters was also commissioned, by Caspar Wrede, for production in Manchester, and his principles thus still applied, but what native English-speakers declare their passionate yearnings for returning to Moscow?

I do want to record two important statements made by Hingley and Frayn about the art of translating Chekhov. Hingley wrote:

A tendency to repeat words or phrases is a feature of conversational Russian shared by English, but not to the same extent. Thus, Chekhov’s characters, in moments of frustration, often say Я не могу, не могу [ya ne mogu, ne mogu] (literally, ‘I cannot, I cannot’). Once again the mechanical reproduction in English of a feature of the Russian is not necessarily always consistent with the spirit of the original though there are of course occasions when it is. For example, the above phrase is probably better rendered as something like ‘I can’t stand it, I tell you, rather than by ‘I can’t stand it, I can’t stand it’.

And Frayn:

Another considerable problem for the translator is finding consistent equivalents for the many recurring words and phrases. The hardest – and most ubiquitous – is vsyo ravno and its variants, which I have rendered as ‘It doesn’t matter’. ‘It’s all the same’ would be closer, but is less capable of being adapted to all the different situations in which it occurs. The effect of repetition must, I think, in a play where it is used so consciously, take precedence over exactitude.

(I immediately thought of Gilda Radner, and her trope of ‘Never mind’, on Saturday Night Live. Does it take a certain generation – and domicile – to appreciate that?)

Comparisons

It is instructive to compare the translations of Fen (1954), Hingley (1964), and Frayn (1987). This could be the subject of a thesis, but I shall cite a couple of examples. In the first scene of Uncle Vanya, where Astrov is complaining about his life, he speaks of the eccentricities of people around him:

(Fen) “This sort of life drags you down. You’re surrounded by queer people – they’re a queer lot, all of them, and after you’ve lived with them for a year or two, you gradually become queer yourself, without noticing it.”

(Hingley) “It gets you down, this life does. You’re surrounded by the oddest people, because that’s what they all are – odd. Spend a couple of years among them, and you gradually turn into a freak yourself, and don’t even notice it.”

(Frayn) “It drags its feet, this life of ours. You’re surrounded by cranks and crackbrains – there’s something odd about the lot of them. Live with them for a few years and gradually, without noticing it, you start getting a bit odd yourself.”

First, it is obvious that Hingley and Frayn wanted to move away from the associations of ‘queer’, the meaning of which had taken a new departure. Hingley also transforms the formal prose of Fen into a more colloquial format, as does Frayn, but then they both introduce sharper slants on the notion of ‘oddness’ – Hingley deploying ‘freak’ (which is surely a bit of an exaggeration), and Frayn using two more extreme nouns, ‘crank’, and ‘crackbrain’, both of which seem inappropriate to me. A ‘crank’ is normally someone with distorted and irrational opinions, while ‘crackbrain’ which goes back to the sixteenth century, suggests insanity. Chekhov was merely suggesting eccentricity, I believe: ‘crackpot’ might be better than ‘crackbrain’. These versions may not be ‘doughy’, but I do not believe they are faithful to the original. Ironically, in Act 2, when Astrov declares that there is not anything odd about him, Fen uses ‘crank’, Hingley deploys ‘freak’, and Frayn returns to simply ‘oddness’. Amazingly, Frayn omits completely some passages that present linguistic challenges, such as the speech impediments of Astrov’s assistant. Hingley is the obvious winner, to me.

Another testing passage appears in Act II of Three Sisters, where Chebutykin and Solyony debate the relative merits of Caucasian food. The joke revolves around the supposed similarities between the words ‘chehartma’ (a meat dish) and ‘cheremsha’ (a kind of onion). It is not a very elegant exchange: Chebutykin is made to spell out for the audience what chehartma is, while it is difficult to see how Solyony could mishear what Chebutykin says (unless he is being deliberately obtuse). But it is a prime example of Chekhov characters speaking at cross-purposes.

Fen is faithful to the original, using the Russian terms. Hingley tries to anglicize the exchange by replacing the foods with ‘escalope’ and ‘shallot’, which is a fairly clever transposition of meat and onions (but might ‘scallions’ have been a better fit?). Frayn reverts to the native Russian of ‘chehartmá’ and ‘cheremshá’, and adds for our benefit the fact that the latter is known as ‘ramson’, which appears to be botanically accurate, but is an extraneous and unnatural insertion that draws the translator into a tangled metaverse. Why would a Russian character translate the native Russian word into English, even if he was supposed to be ‘a native English speaker’? If that is the principle the translator is heeding, the Hingley approach of attempted naturalisation, and not trying to explain too much, is preferable.

One aspect of this process which may have been overlooked is that, in the attempt to render the complete playscript colloquial, the translators do not pay enough attention to the unique registers of each individual speaker (a technique I have complimented John le Carré on). The speech mannerisms of the minor characters in Chekhov are well-defined, but the major characters tend to be more homogeneous – at least in translation. I have not studied the Russian text closely enough to determine whether Chekhov invested much effort into providing distinct speech patterns. For instance, the language of the upstart peasant businessman Lopakhin, in The Cherry Orchard, sounds just like that of his landowning colleagues. (One might have expected him perhaps to have had a ‘suburban’ accent –  ‘Del Boy’ Lopakhin, perhaps.) Whether it is truly so in the original, I cannot yet say.

Tarara-boom-de-ay!

Ta! Ra! Ra! Boom De Ay!

Lastly, the intriguing matter of ‘Ta-ra-ra Boom-de-ay’, the refrain sung by Chebutykin in Three Sisters, as a mere mannerism, or perhaps as a gentle commentary on the absurdity of what is going on. The song, with its suggestive lyrics, dates from 1891, and became popular throughout Europe, even in Russia, but the American originally published version presents the famous line solely as a refrain, with no balancing lyrics.

Constance Garnett leaves the refrain unimproved. Fen represents it as follows: “Tarara-boom-di-ay . . . . I’m sitting on a tomb-di-ay. . . .”, with a rather morbid reference. Hingley, however, introduces a completely different idea: “Tararaboomdeay, let’s have a tune today”, while Frayn presents it as “Ta-ra . . . ra . . . boom-de-ay. . . . Sit in my room all day. . .” Lastly, at the conclusion of his book, Gerhardie describes the scene as follows:

Only a few minutes earlier the old army doctor has been singing softly to himself the well-worn refrain, ‘Ta-ra-ra-boom-de-ay; this is our washing day’ – a trashy tune; which only throws into relief the mood of the three sisters, the most searching of which the human heart is capable.  

[Eh?? Hingley would have red-pencilled that last clause.]

So what is going on here? How can these experts be all over the place so haphazardly?

What Chekhov wrote was: “ Tara…ra…bumbia. . . Cizhu na tumbe ya . . . “, but it is not clear whether that is his invention, or whether the song became Russified that way. The second part means, literally, ‘I sit on a bollard’ (i.e. not a ‘tomb’, which is how Elizabeth Fen chose to translate ‘toomba’: she must have fallen in love with the rhyme. Martin Clay would presumably have rebuked her for making a stupid guess.) But where the others get their ideas from is not clear – and how could they claim that their versions were faithful to the original?

I suspect that several parodies, or imitations, were going round over the decades. I recall Martin Clay reciting to us that the second part of the refrain went: ‘I washed my socks today’, which sounds like some barrack-room jingle dreamed up by overworked JSSL pupils at Caterham-on-the-Hill perhaps, although it echoes Gerhardie’s creation from the 1920s. But why not come up with something that resembles the original? My mind went immediately to George Formby and Leaning on a Lamp-post, since perhaps Chekhov’s idea was perhaps that boulevardiers would sit on a bollard and watch all the girls go by.

Yet Chekhov might have wanted to suggest that it was the singing of the refrain by an alluring woman that fascinated him. The fact that it had a connotation of the original sexual attraction for him is shown by a letter he wrote to Leontiev Shcheglov in December 1896, after Shcheglov had advised him to get married. Chekhov specified that his future wife should be ‘a blue-eyed actress singing Tara-ra-boom-de-ay’ (Rayfield, p 410). The writer was apparently irresistible to women, with his quizzical, humorous and ambiguous manner, but he led a dissolute bachelor life, and treated all his admirers very badly. He was eventually tamed and charmed by Olga Knipper (who reportedly had ‘small eyes and a large jowl’), and married her. I thus look out eagerly for a new translation that does justice to the matter. But where are you, Ronald Hingley, when we need you and your insights?

(New Commonplace entries viewable here.)

Postscript: November 20, 2022

I have since read Donald Rayfield’s ‘Understanding Chekhov’, and find that he writes (on page 214, in his chapter on ‘Three Sisters’) the following:

“The third English (or American) element which had already served Chekhov as a leitmotiv in the story ‘Big Volodia and Little Volodia’ was the music-hall song ‘Tarara-boom-deay’, which spread from America in 1891 to all Europe in countless variations. In English (and in French) its verses were sung by a louche schoolgirl (‘Not too shy and not too bold, Just the sort for sport I’m told’), while an enthusiastic male chorus sings ‘Tarara-boom-deay’. In Chekhov’s work the refrain became a euphemism for sexual intercourse. In Russian versions the text was sadder. The main verse might be the story of a man fallen into depravity and the chorus a bitter lament. The song, however, was orchestrated and became an artillery regimental march. Undoubtedly, the officers of Chekhov’s fictional battery, as they leave the northern town where they have enchanted, and disenchanted, the three sisters, march out to the tune of ‘Tarara-boom-deay’, the very song that Dr Chebutykin sings (as all Chekhovian males sing songs) to heighten the distress of the heroine to whom it applies.” Rayfield points out that Chebutykin sings the refrain at the death of Tuzenbach from a duel, thus increasing Irina’s distress.

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Summer 2022 Round-Up

The Ultimate Fridge Magnet

I ♥ Coldspur Fridge Magnet

I received the above item in the mail a few weeks ago – completely out of the blue. It arrived from Greece, and the envelope included a packing-slip that informed me that the item had been bought from Mundus Souvenirs on Amazon Marketplace, and that the buyer’s name was ‘David’. The condition of the item was described as ‘New’, so I was happy that I was not the beneficiary of a re-tread. But who could the semi-anonymous donor be?

I know of only three ‘Davids’ who are aware of coldspur, and also have my home address. None of them is renowned for wearing his heart on his sleeve, but maybe each does adorn it on his refrigerator. It was a superbly innovative and generous gesture, and I determined to get to the bottom of it.

Maybe coincidentally, I happened to hear from David Puttock soon after. David lives in Hamilton, Ontario. We go back a long way: we studied together in the Sixth Modern at Whitgift, and we both went on to read German and Russian at Oxford, David at New College, I at Christ Church. We have met only once since 1968 – at a Gartner Group conference in Toronto ca. 1990, but have maintained a sporadic email correspondence, and the exchange of Christmas cards (heathen that I am), since his retirement. And, indeed, when I asked him about the magnet, he admitted that he was the benefactor.

David told me that he found the item by googling ‘coldspur’, and that the amazon link appeared on the first page of the selection. When I performed that function, however, amazon was nowhere to be seen, but my site gratifyingly appeared before the township of Coldspur, Kansas. The magnet was probably intended for the good citizens of that community, who may think they have stumbled into an alternative universe if they mistakenly look up www.coldspur.com. In any case, those coldspur enthusiasts who feel an urge to have their ardour more durably expressed know where to go. I vaguely thought of buying a stock of magnets, and making an arrangement with Mundus to send them out to well-deserving readers of coldspur, those who post congratulatory or innovative posts in response to my bulletins, but it all sounded a bit too complicated. For about $8.00, you can buy your own. (The SKU is mgnaplilo103600_1, in case you have difficulty. See
https://www.amazon.com/dp/B08RZBNVJ3?ref_=cm_sw_r_ud_dp_F2MAMV1SC49R799FBKWJ
.) Lastly, I am of course delighted with the magnet, as my enthusiasm for coldspur is boundless. But what about David? Did he purchase one for himself at the same time, for proud display to his friends on the Puttock refrigerator? I hope so.

Contents:

Introduction

Sonia and The Professor

Operation PARAVANE

The Coldspur Archive

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

An Update on Paul Dukes

The PROSPER Disaster

2022 Reading:

            General

            Spy Fiction

            ‘The Art of Resistance’

            ‘The Inhuman Land’

            ‘Secret Service in the Cold War’

            ‘A Woman of No Importance’

Language Corner

Bridge Corner

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

Introduction

Since I spent two weeks in Los Altos, California, in June, staying with our son and his family (whom we had not seen for two-and-a half-years), my research has been somewhat lagging. So I thought for my July bulletin I would perform a mid-year round-up instead. Not that there is much new material to report, but I usually find a few points of interest when I carry out this exercise. Moreover, the exercise of writing it all up helps to clarify my opinions on these research topics, and acts as a kind of journal and memoir should posterity (i.e. my grand-daughters) ever want to track down what was really going on.

I suppose that I must record a certain disappointment that my research in the first half of the year has resulted in a resounding tinkle. I would have thought that the disclosures that Henri Déricourt had definitely been recruited before he arrived on British shores in 1942, that SOE was harbouring a dangerously vulnerable cipher officer in George Graham when it set up its mission in Moscow and Kuibyshev in 1941 and 1942, and that Graham was later driven to madness, that M. R. D. Foot’s history of SOE in France is evasive and unscholarly, since Francis Suttill almost certainly made two visits to the United Kingdom in the months of May and June of 1943, shortly before he was arrested, that Peter Wright behaved in a scandalously irresponsible and mendacious manner when he claimed that Volkov’s hints in 1945 pointed to Hollis rather than to Philby, and that Colin Gubbins was not the innovative hero that his biographers have made him out to be, might have provoked some rapt attention in the world of spy-watching and intelligence connoisseurship. While I have received several private messages of support and approval, I have seen no public recognition – nor any challenge to my theories expressed. If I cannot receive due publicity for my pains, I would rather have someone step up and protest that my theories are hogwash, so that I could at least engage in a serious discussion about these outstanding puzzles.

If I were resident in the United Kingdom, I would eagerly take up any invitation offered to me to speak at any historical society that showed an interest in my subjects of study. I have undertaken a few such activities in the United States, but the good citizens of Brunswick County, while listening politely, are overall not particularly interested in predominantly British spy exploits of the 1940-1970 era.

Sonia and The Professor

Flyer for On-Line Talk by Glees & Marnham

Thus it was with considerable excitement that I heard from Professor Glees a few months ago that he had agreed to speak to an historical interest group in Oxfordshire (the Soldiers of Oxfordshire Museum) about Agent Sonya (or Sonia), as I imagined this would generate some interest in coldspur. When I looked at the promotional material, however, I was slightly perturbed by the rather two-edged endorsement of my research. While Professor Glees spoke glowingly of my investigations, his overall message was that I was in reality a side-show to his own endeavours. “This is not just my story, it is his.” Considering that, according to my analysis, Glees has not written a word about Ursula Kuczynski since his book in 1986, I considered this observation rather troublesome. I was further dismayed when I listened to and watched the recording of his presentation. Coldspur gained only one mumbled acknowledgment. While the promotional material for the talk highlighted Ben Macintyre’s biography Agent Sonya as a teaser, Glees ignored completely my careful review of the book, which demolishes most of the falsehoods that Macintyre promulgated about his subject.

Furthermore, I believe that Glees grossly misrepresented my researches, and dug himself a hole when attempting to answer a question as to whether Sonya had been a ‘double agent’. Glees seems to be under the impression that it is he alone who has revealed that Sonya had been ‘recruited’ by MI6, but that her intentions may not have been entirely honourable. (“I made it very clear that the archival research aka ‘the trees’ was yours, not mine, & the thought that Sonya was an SIS agent aka ‘the wood’ was mine,” he wrote to me afterwards.) He appeared to be unaware of what I had published on coldspur back in 2017, when I showed that MI6 had been fooled by Sonya when she agreed to their terms in order to be exfiltrated from Switzerland, and her life effectively saved. She had no intention at all of serving British Intelligence loyally, and would have had to contact her Moscow masters in order to gain approval for the scheme of her marriage to Beurton, the resultant adoption of UK citizenship, and her subsequent escape to England. The fact that she then became a courier for Klaus Fuchs proves that she never intended to be of any useful service for Menzies and his pals, who were grossly hoodwinked. I do not know where Glees derived the illusion that it was he who prised out these discoveries.

When I gently protested to Glees about his misrepresentations, and his failure to give credit to my discoveries and analysis on coldspur, he was very patronising and dismissive, exaggerating his own ability to see ‘the woods’, and suggesting that I had been concentrating on ‘the trees’, while at the same time he compounded his forgetfulness (or inattention) over what I had written. In a responding email he wrote: “As I explained the release of KV 6/41 a few years ago, found by you, dissected by you, and read by me, thanks to you and esp[ecially] the Farrell letter which I ‘decoded’ to you, if you recall, & was imo [in my opinion] key to solving the riddle. You’ll remember that I put this to you, along with the notion that the simple fact this file from 1941 existed, showed that MI5 were aware of Sonya’s existence in Oxford.”  

But that is absurd. Glees did not ‘decode’ the letter for me. My researches in 2017 showed quite clearly that MI5 was aware of Sonya’s presence in Oxford at that time. Glees’s ignorance is dumbfounding. I did indeed introduce him to the file KV 6/41, which Glees appears to believe constitutes an exclusive exposure of Sonya’s activities. But it stands out because it is the only digitized file on the Kuczynskis: I had inspected the others at Kew several years ago, and published my analysis of them. I tried to explain to Glees that these other files revealed much of her goings-on in Oxfordshire, but he did not want to listen. I am confident that he has not looked at these files (although I have shared my notes on them with him).

And his claim that he alone can see the ‘big picture’ (he is a ‘woodsman’, while I am only a ‘trees’ man’) is insulting and patently absurd. His distinction between different aspects of the forest was nevertheless exceedingly murky: in his talk he made some bizarre assertions that Sonya must have developed some useful contacts within the Oxford intelligentsia, without offering a shred of evidence (‘the trees’, about which matters he was punctilious when he was my doctoral supervisor).

He then accused me of behaving like M. R. D. Foot (the historian of SOE) wanting to stake proprietary claims about a sphere of research, and trying to prohibit anyone else from stepping on his turf. After saying that “No one will want to engage with someone who fires off furious emails at the drop of a hat”, he wrote:

You know I’m one of the biggest admirers of your work & have always made others aware of it. It’s easy to be cross & resentful, as MRD Foot, for example, excelled in being (an academic version of ‘outraged of Tonbridge Wells’) but much better to be charitable, particularly where you ought to be as here. You’re really way off beam here. Few people have done more to bring your work to the attention of others but at the end of the day it was I, and not you, who were giving this talk.

I graciously accept the compliment inherent in this, but on this public occasion Glees did all he could not to bring my work to the attention of others. Second, my email was not ‘furious’: it was regretful and calm, and tried to discuss real issues  – which Glees side-stepped. (I could make the email available to anyone who is interested.) His reaction merely points to his own prickliness and egotism. Moreover, I am not sure where ‘charity’ comes in. Am I really supposed to be grateful for Glees for mangling my research. and failing to give me proper credit? And perhaps I should be pleased to be compared with M. R. D. Foot, a famous ‘authorized’ historian?Yet I could really not harbour any such protective ambition, as I was communicating through a solitary private email from 4,000 miles away! And then Glees tripped himself up over the absurd ‘double agent’ business. It appears that the professor has not bothered to read my research carefully, and does not understand the distinctions between penetration agents, traitors, and double agents. I have thus ignored his lectures to me. Some woodsman; some lumber.

It is all rather sad. I do not understand why an academic of Glees’s reputation would want to engage in such petty practices, and try to distort my researches in such a non-collegial manner. (I have indeed helped him on several matters when he has sought my advice.) Yet, in a way, I do understand. I have seen enough of the goings-on at the University of Buckingham to be able to write a David Lodge-type novel about the pettiness and jealousies of provincial English university life. I have described some of those exploits on coldspur already: I shall refrain from writing up the whole absurd business until another time (I would hardly want to lower myself precipitately to that level, would I?), as I presently have more important fish to fry. When I have run out of other research matters, I may return to the shenanigans at the University of Buckingham.

Yes, I admit this is all rather petty on my part, too. It was just the Soldiers of Oxfordshire museum, not an invitation on In Our Time with Melvyn Bragg. But, if ‘one of my biggest admirers’ can get things so wrong, what is he doing the rest of the time? I wanted to set the record straight. Besides, it is quite fun to bring the Prof down a peg or two.

And then, by one of those extraordinary coincidences that crop up more frequently than they should, I read these words in the July Literary Review, by the biographer Frances Wilson: 

. . . . most memoirs, if not loaded guns, are written for the purpose of retribution and revenge. This is by no means a criticism: retribution and revenge are strong reasons for writing a book. You want to put the record straight, to tell your side of things, to correct a wrong. Even the mildest-mannered memoirs have reprisal at their hearts.

Thank you, Ms. Wilson.

Operation PARAVANE

I have not yet received anything substantial on the piece compiled by Nigel Austin and me, The Airmen Who Died Twice. That does not surprise me much, as the PARAVANE operation is a little-known episode, a side road to the main WW2 excursion. Yet the posting of my bulletin on June 3 placed an important marker for the story, and immediately made a synopsis available worldwide as a reference point for anyone who might be trawling on the Web for information on PARAVANE.

I shall not reveal here the astonishing denouement of this extraordinary series of incidents, but one aspect of the exploit merits some attention. And that is the uncharacteristically cooperative behaviour of the Soviet Air Force. It was only at the end of August 1944 that RAF Bomber Command concluded that an attempt to use the new ‘Tallboy’ bomb in a direct raid from Scotland was not feasible because of fuel capacity, and considered using a base in the northern Soviet Union, near Murmansk, as an intermediate destination after the raid at Alta Fjord. That Air Marshall Harris could take for granted at this late stage that the Soviets would agree to such an initiative indicates that negotiations for such must have been in place for some time, as the Russians were extremely wary of allowing foreigners on Soviet soil. Any such move would have had to be approved by Stalin, and recent events at Poltava and Warsaw had indicated that the Soviet military command was keen to obstruct any such cooperative operations.

For the relationships between the Western Allies and the Soviet Union were indeed at their lowest ebb at this time. (See http://www.coldspur.com/war-in-1944-howards-folly ) Stalin, having encouraged the Warsaw Uprising over the radio, then refused permission for air support operations by the western Allies to the Poles to be launched from Soviet territory, the missions having to be directed from the UK, and from Brindisi in Italy, and back. It was at the end of August, when the PARAVANE operation was being planned, that Churchill pleaded with Stalin to allow Soviet airfields to be used to support the Warsaw rebels, but Stalin was obdurate, and Roosevelt would not join Churchill in his appeal. Soviet forces waited the other side of the Vistula river until the uprising was quashed by the Nazis, at enormous loss of life.

Moreover, a precedent for the use of Soviet airbases had recently occurred in Operation FRANTIC, where the Soviets granted rights to the USA Air Force to conduct bombing-raids on German territory between June and September 1944. I have recently read books by Glenn Infield (The Poltava Affair) and Sergii Plokhy (Forgotten Bastards of the Eastern Front) which tell the sad story of how the Americans were misused by the Soviets, especially when, on June 21, Soviet air defences failed to prevent a highly destructive raid at Poltava by German airplanes, all of which escaped intact. By then, in any case, with the Soviet land forces moving close to Germany, the value of the base had sharply diminished.

Thus when Bomber Command had a further change of plan, and was apparently able to decide, on September 4, without further consultations with the Soviet Air Force, that the aircraft of the PARAVANE operation would better land in Soviet territory, and preferably at an airfield further away from German airbases than Murmansk, and thus less likely to be strafed, it was extraordinary (in my opinion) how smoothly and quickly the negotiations continued. In a matter of days, Yagodnik had been identified as suitable, and made available, but a week later, an even bolder version was aired. The new plan – to have the squadrons fly directly to the Archangel area, and rest and refuel, before launching the attack on the Tirpitz, and then return to that airbase – was likewise immediately approved by the Soviets. I believe that the groundwork must have been prepared some time before, and that the Number 30 Military Mission to Moscow (Air Section), which had been boosted in the summer of 1944, must have presented a case for the usage of airfields well before early September.

The fact is that Stalin was extremely wary of any Soviet citizens’ being exposed to foreign influences, and the NKGB and SMERSH were trained to consider all such persons on their soil as spies. While the cause of protecting convoys to Murmansk was no doubt genuine, it was becoming less important by this stage of the war, and Stalin must have had ulterior motives (such as the acquisition of the latest military technology) in granting such rights to the British squadrons. The Foreign Office, in its misguided belief that ‘cooperation’ with the Soviet Union would lead to harmonious relationships when the war ended (an echo of the attitude taken by President Roosevelt and his sidekick Harry Hopkins), was quick to see this offer as a sign of Soviet goodwill – a ridiculous mistake. I have started to investigate the 30 Mission records for further clues, as the RAF records are disappointingly vague.

I was able to make email contact with Professor Plokhy, and asked him whether he had any insights into the complementary PARAVANE operation. Unfortunately he did not, but he directed me to someone who, he thought, would be able to help, a Liudmila Novikova, in St. Petersburg, an expert (so Plokhy said) on British units in the Soviet Union. I was unable to gain any response from her; perhaps I went straight into her spam folder, or maybe she has uprooted because of the recent turmoil. Does anyone know her?

Lastly, one correspondent, having read the PARAVANE piece, drew my attention to another mysterious aircraft accident of 1944, in Newquay, Cornwall, the details of which have ever since lain in obscurity. The informant was Mark Cimperman, the son of the FBI’s wartime representative in London during the war, Frank Cimperman (who appears frequently in Guy Liddell’s Diaries). I tracked down the event at http://wartimeheritage.com/storyarchive2/storymysteryflight.htm , and was astonished at the eerie characteristics that patterned those concerning the crash at Nesbyen a few months later. Mark told me that the researcher for the story, David Fowkes, had written to the Cimpermans, believing that Frank might have known something about the accident. Sadly, Cimperman had died of cancer in 1968 at the age of sixty.

The Coldspur Archive

As part of my project to preserve the coldspur archive, I made contact in early May with the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in Palo Alto, and eventually received a very courteous response from Dr. Anatol Shmelev, a research fellow and Robert Conquest curator of the Russia and Eurasia Collection. Over email, he had advised me to seek out a smaller university as a destination for my book collection, as he believed there would be too many overlaps with what the Institution held for Hoover to be an appropriate donee. I have thus since attempted to contact the Librarians at a couple of other universities, but have received no response to my approaches. I arranged, however, to have a meeting with Dr. Shmelev, during my visit to the area, and it turned out that he and his family live a few minutes away from our son in Los Altos.

On June 11 I thus enjoyed a very pleasant lunch with Anatol and his wife, Julia, who was born in St. Petersburg, and who acted as research assistant to Robert Conquest in the latter years of his life. Robert Conquest was someone I admired greatly (another significant writer whose hand I hoped to shake, but he was too infirm by the time I wrote to him just before his death): his Great Terror and Harvest of Sorrow made a deep impression on me, as they must have done on many students of Russian history. He was also a close friend of Kingsley Amis and Philip Larkin, two more of my enthusiasms, although their private correspondence betrays opinions that are highly inappropriate in today’s sensitive times. It was a privilege, nevertheless, to meet two academics who had worked so closely with Conquest.

Anatol gave me some further tips about finding a home for my books, suggesting that I seek the support of members of the history faculties at such universities rather than the librarians/archivists themselves. We had a lively and fascinating discussion about many topics of Russian literature and history, and intelligence matters, as well as regretting the obvious fact that many book collections are simply pulped when the cream has been skimmed off them. I would hate to see that happen to mine, but that is presumably what everyone says. I did also immediately order Shmelev’s recent book, on Russia’s path immediately after the Revolution, In the Wake of Empire. I expected it to be a fascinating companion to Antony Beevor’s volume Russia, Revolution, and Civil War, 1917-1921, which has received excellent reviews in the British press already, but will not be available in the USA until September.

‘In the Wake of Empire’ by Anatol Shmelev

Indeed, Shmelev’s book was absorbing – quite brilliant. The author had access to a large trove of correspondence between the exiled Russian diplomats and their military counterparts, such as Admiral Kolchak and General Denikin, and has exploited them to show the futility of a fractured opposition to the Bolsheviks. I had not understood all the dimensions of the conflict, what with outlying nations of the old Russia straining for independence, the struggles between those wanting to restore the old land-owning aristocracy, or even an emperor, and those who accepted that land reforms and a more democratic constitution were absolutely essential in order to give credibility and authority to any future regime. The challenge for pluralist political entities to counter effectively a determined and single-minded dictatorial force was brought home to me by the fact that not only did the Whites disagree among themselves, the Allies all had diverse interests, as did the borderland national territories of old Imperial Russia, and, even within one nation’s administration, the British War Office disagreed with the Foreign Office on policy, and within the Foreign Office itself, factions had sharply divided views on what the representation and constitution of the future Russian governing body should be. Eventually, Communist Might meant Right. Shmelev’s judgments are sure – authoritative without being dogmatic – and shed much light on the tortured dynamics of the civil war. I shall defer a full discussion until later, when I have read Beevor’s book.

Incidentally, Dr. Shmelev also wrote a book on Russian émigrés, titled Tracking a Diaspora:
Émigrés from Russia and Eastern Europe in the Repositories
, and I believe that the story of Serge Leontiev (aka George Graham) and his forbears, friends, and associates will be of interest to him.

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

This book, by Jan-Willem van den Braak, is now available – both in the UK and the USA – and I encourage coldspur readers to acquire it. It constitutes a very valuable addition to the chronicle of the Abwehr spies sent to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1940, its subject, ter Braak, managing mysteriously to remain undetected for several months before committing suicide, or so the story goes. (I did supply an Afterword for the book, which I would not have done had I not thought that the author had carried out a stellar piece of research. In that piece I voice an alternative theory about the spy’s demise.) I have not seen any reviews of the work yet, but I know these things take time.

An Update on Paul Dukes

In my piece on George Graham, I had expressed some puzzlement over the behaviour of Paul Dukes in the 1930s, finding the official biographical records somewhat wanting. And then, while I was researching the Volkov business, I discovered that Keith Jeffery, in his Postscript for the new paperback edition of his history of MI6, had inserted some new analysis of Dukes’s activity at this time.

The essence of the account is that MI6 did attempt to exploit Dukes’s plans, in May 1934, to take a predominantly Russian troupe of ballet-dancers to Eastern Europe and to the Soviet Union. When Admiral Sinclair, the head of MI6, heard about this, he sent Harold Gibson to Vienna to discuss how Dukes might help develop intelligence sources in the U.S.S.R., since MI6’s sources there were practically non-existent (if, indeed, there were any at all). Yet the project soon foundered. Illness and disappointing box-office returns meant that the company never reached further than Italy, and, twelve months later, Dukes was in such bad favour that Sinclair told Monty Chidson, head of station in Bucharest (who asserted that Dukes was involved in arms dealing with Sofia) that he was to have nothing to do with Dukes.

MI6 belatedly realized that Dukes was a faded product: he had mixed too closely with White Russian emigrants (very true), and he would now constitute quite a security risk. Valentine Vivian issued him some advice before Dukes left London in August 1934, warning him to minimize his risks, but then minuted that the characteristics that had helped him become a valuable agent in 1919 would work against him now. Later, MI5 apparently took an interest in him, for Vivian posted another memorandum in February 1940, where he was forced to concede that Dukes’s finances were considered to be ‘catastrophic’, and that his sense of balance was considered by some to be ‘deficient’. Perhaps that was intelligence-speak that he was losing his marbles. Vivian went on to write: “His temperament is essentially artistic, and while his knowledge of things and people is encyclopaedic, his tastes rather run towards the eccentric and he would not be acceptable to those who look for a uniform service mentality”. In other words, no bohemians wanted.

The evidence I collected for my piece suggests that Dukes was trying to rehabilitate himself for a foray into the Soviet Union after these setbacks (John Stonehouse-like faked death, pro-Soviet writings), but it is not clear why anyone would have been sponsoring his intelligence-gathering aspirations. And, if he did now have an official assessment as being a loony and a spendthrift, why would anyone have listened to him when he came to recommend Serge Leontiev/George Graham as cipher-clerk for George’s Hill’s mission to Moscow? Sinclair was dead by then, but what was Valentine Vivian thinking? It is all very odd.

And then I alighted on another odd reference to Dukes while checking something in Michael Smith’s Station X (about Bletchley Park). While discussing the imaginary British spy Boniface (who was used as an alibi for Enigma decryption sources) Smith quotes R. V. Jones, who reported something he had been told:

            Gilbert Frankau, the novelist, who held a wartime post in intelligence, told me that he had deduced that the agent who could so effectively get into German headquarters must be Sir Paul Dukes, the legendary agent who had penetrated the Red Army so successfully after the Russian Revolution.

This statement does not appear in Most Secret War, so probably comes from an article that Jones supplied to the journal Intelligence and National Security in 1994. I note that appalling use of ‘legendary’ again, presumably not meaning that Dukes was a mythical being, but that many tales were told about his exploits, and that a good proportion of them were tall. The irony here was that, instead of Dukes being able to infiltrate the Nazi command, he had, through his recommendation of George Graham, unwittingly enabled the Soviets to break into the supposedly clandestine exchanges of MI6 and the Foreign Office.

The PROSPER Disaster

As I was starting to write this piece, the thickness of the fog that surrounds the relationship between the Allies in the UK and French resistance during World War II was brought home to me. I was reading a review of Graham Robb’s France: An Adventure History in the Wall Street Journal when I encountered the following sentence: “Rather, he notes the Allies’ fatally tepid support of the Resistance and turns a sad gaze on the reprisals that tainted every corner of the mountains with ‘some ineradicable act of cruelty’.” The impression – and I suppose that it is Robb’s, but one endorsed by the reviewer –  is that a potentially decisive opportunity was lost by the Allied armies (or SOE and OSS) in not supporting an extensive secret army that was simply waiting in the wings for a chance to make vigorous assaults on the German occupiers. Yet the story in fact played out on the following lines: initial experimental attempts to infiltrate agents; some vastly exaggerated claims about the size of secret armies; struggles to get the RAF to ship arms and equipment; betrayals to the Germans; stepped up shipments with the false promise of an early Allied assault; disillusionment and multiple arrests; a recalibration in the months before the Normandy landings; some vicious attacks and reprisals by the Gestapo and the Wehrmacht; a few spectacular successes in support of the Allied armies. And then de Gaulle attacked anyone who had co-operated with the Allies and tried to perpetuate the myth that the French exclusively had liberated themselves. Thus the representation of Allied strategy as being a failure to support the Resistance is both a distortion and an oversimplification of what actually happened.

I have still to post the concluding segment to my analysis of the betrayal of the PROSPER circuit. This will involve a close inspection of the minutes of the War Cabinet and Chiefs of Staff in June and July of 1943, as well as a closer study of the Bodington and Déricourt files. I do not intend to reproduce simply what has been published before, but I believe the current accounts are deficient in different ways. Robert Marshall’s All The King’s Men is on the money, but it is a little too hectic, and relies too much on oral testimony that cannot be verified. M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France is packed with detail, but is fatally flawed by the constraints laid upon him and is still rooted in a 1960s perspective, which means that he evades the strategic issues. His Chapter XIV, Strategic Balance Sheet, completely ignores the premature attempts in 1943 to arm resistance forces with promises of an imminent arrival of Allied forces. (Moreover, the text of that summarization remained unchanged in 2004, nearly forty years after it first appeared – an extraordinary gesture of disdain towards all who had written about SOE in the interim.) Francis Suttill’s Prosper is driven by a need to track down all the details of his father’s circuit, but it is error-strewn, and he ignores the evidence in front of him in his eagerness to discount any conspiracy behind his father’s demise. Patrick Marnham’s War in the Shadows is very sound overall, but choppy: Marnham misrepresents some of the key events of 1942 and 1943, in my opinion, and weakens his case by introducing the Jean Moulin side-plot.

I therefore judge that my account of the saga needs a tidy conclusion, and I suspect that the evidence from the archives will embellish the assertion confidently made by Marnham and Marshall that the French Resistance was willfully misled as to the imminence of an Allied re-entry to the French mainland in the summer of 1943. I believe that my hypothesis that Suttill made two trips to England in May and June 1943 (see http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/) contributes to a clearer picture of his motivations and disappointments. My next report on this saga will appear at the end of August.

It is a continuing research question of mine: what strategy was SOE executing when it tried to ship weapons to sometimes unidentifiable teams of resistance members in 1942 and 1943? According to their own records, at least 50% of arms were lost or fell into the hands of the Nazis. The submissions of SOE to the Chiefs of Staff about the potential of ‘secret armies’ showed that they had been completely misled by the claims of some of their agents. Furthermore, they showed a dismal lack of understanding of what would be required to store and maintain weaponry in good condition, and to train guerrilla forces in how to deploy it. Supplemented by some further reading of memoirs and biographies, such as in my study of Colin Gubbins last month, and the new biography of Virginia Hall (see below), I plan to provide soon a more detailed exposition of the controversial events of the spring and summer of 1943. Moreover, I have ordered a copy of Halik Kochanski’s Resistance: The Underground War in Europe, 1939-1945, in the hope that its 932 pages may reveal some fresh insights on the events of 1943 that the primary histories (including Olivier Wieworka’s recent The Resistance in Western Europe: 1940-1945) have in my opinion severely mismanaged.

P.S. As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece, I came across the following sentences in The Quiet Americans: Four CIA Spies at the Dawn of the Cold War (2020), by Scott Anderson (p 294):

            In most Nazi-occupied countries of Western Europe, whatever partisan formations existed only became a factor on the battlefield when the arrival of Allied armies was imminent. Nowhere was this truer than with that most vaunted of partisan forces, the French Resistance. Despite the popular notion of a France united in undermining the rule of their German conquerors, in reality, the Resistance was little more than an intermittent and low-grade pest to the Nazis until their numbers suddenly swelled in June 1944.

Precisely! This was the colossal mess that Gubbins presided over, and which M. R. D. Foot, either through lack of imagination, or by intimidation, failed to reveal in SOE in France.

2022 Reading

As I peruse the Times Literary Supplement, the London Review of Books, and the New York Review of Books, I am constantly reminded of the earnest volumes that are issued by the University Presses. Should I be reading The Kingdom of Rye: A Brief History of Russian Food, or Legacies of the Drunken Master: Politics of the Body in Hong Kong Fu Comedy Films, or Harry Potter and the Other: Race, Justice and Difference in the Wizarding World (all titles advertised in the June 17 issue of the TLS)? Probably not: life is too short. And sometimes I can’t help feeling that my speculative second book, The Unauthorized but Authoritative History of MI5 (affectionately known as TUBA), might have a better chance of commercial success than some of these rather dire works. And then the reviewers! Most of them are able to boast what their last published book is, but occasionally one is signalled by such phrases as ‘she is currently working on a collection of essays’. It all sounds rather drear, like those American waitpersons who approach you to ask whether you have ‘finished working on your meal’ so that they might take the plate away. But my work is fun (mostly). And I don’t have to consider the dreadful chore of dealing with publishers and editors: I just post my current essay on coldspur, and move on to the next one.

On reviewing my spreadsheet of Books Read for the year so far, I note that it consists mainly of volumes related to my researches, of which more later. Yet I do try to relax with lighter works in between. I started reading the fiction of Elizabeth Taylor: I was not very impressed with the short stories in You’ll Enjoy it When You Get There or the somewhat clumsy A Game of Hide and Seek, but enjoyed Mrs Palfrey at the Claremont, and the well-drawn A View of the Harbour. And I am a keen reader of memoirs and biographies, The new edition of Konstantin Paustovsky’s Story of a Life, in a fluid and sparkling translation by Douglas Smith, gained some excellent reviews: I had let this work pass me by when it came out many decades ago. The reviews were merited: it is a beautifully written memoir of a vanished world, Paustovsky showing an ability to recall smells, sights, sounds, persons, conversations and situations without becoming over-lyrical or extravagant. As a picture of life before the revolution in eastern Europe (mainly in Ukraine), it is probably unmatched. For the short time about which he writes after the revolution, as in the escape from Odessa (Odesa), it lacks the irony and incisiveness of Teffi (Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), whose Memories I read last year, but gives a very insightful picture of the rapid disillusionment that followed the drama and expectations of 1917.  Paustovsky was a survivor in Stalin’s prison-camp: when many of his contemporaries were oppressed or even murdered, he managed to outlive the dictator (1892-1968), so must have had to compromise to be allowed to continue writing and avoid persecution.

Spy Fiction

I have also dabbled in a genre that is called ‘spy fiction’, and has received much media attention of late. I read Gard Sveen’s The Last Pilgrim because it is a book about the Norwegian resistance, and includes in its cast a real person, Kai Holst, who was of interest to me because of his strange death in 1945 soon after the Swedes received secret cipher material from the Abwehr. Holst was a Norwegian resistance fighter, resident in Stockholm, who died in mysterious circumstances in June 1945. Some writers have suggested that he was murdered because he knew too much about Operation Claw, a venture whereby the Americans and the Swedes gained vital intelligence material on Soviet ciphers from the Germans, something that would have embarrassed the Swedish government because of its claimed neutrality. The file at Kew, FO 371/48073 (https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C2805368) was supposed to be released under the 75-year rule in 2020, but is still marked as being retained by the Foreign Office. As for the book, it won several awards, but I found it rather laborious and repetitive, and the mixing of real and fictitious persons and events irritating.

And then there was Mick Herron. I read a few reviews of his Slow Horses, and decided that I ought to give him a try, and have since also read Dead Lions, Real Tigers, and Spook Street, volumes in his series concerning Slough House, an imagined dumping-ground for MI5 officers and personnel who committed some career-breaking faux pas during the cause of duty, and have been exiled to this dumpy office in London. The books are hilarious. Slough House is managed by a very sharp but foul-mannered slob, Jackson Lamb, who makes Horace Rumpole look like Jacob Rees-Mogg. Herron captures the essence of his characters with wickedly humorous speech patterns and dialogue, and his prose has a Wodehousian creativity and zaniness about it. I found the larger-scale plots a bit absurd (for instance, could there really have been a colony of communist sleeper agents of influence in the British countryside in the 1990s?), but they were not damaging enough to spoil the rollicking fun. I see that a TV series has been made of Slow Horses: I have not seen it yet, but Aunt Edna would probably not approve of the language (although these days, of course, Aunt Edna probably swears like a trooper).

One important point occurred to me as I read Herron’s books. The plots of spy fiction these days have to be dependent upon, and coherent with, the technology of its time, yet that technology is constantly changing. I vaguely recall reading a thriller by Charles Cummings a decade or so ago, sprinkled with Nokia mobile phones, VCRs, payphones, and SCART connections, all of which immediately date it, but also drove the plot. (I am constantly amused that my 2011 edition of Chambers Dictionary includes an entry for ActiveX.) Between the time an author starts writing his text and the date of the book’s publication, much of the technology must change radically. Herron sensibly does not identify many products so specifically, but such features as Google, (which was there in Cummings’ world of 2010), YouTube, and the dark web are prominent in his plot, and Twitter appears in Spook Street. Yet there must still be risks: I was astonished how Herron allows so many mobile phone-calls between different members of MI5 to be carried on in unencrypted mode. Was nobody listening? And how come no one seems to use their phone-camera? Pinpointing current technologies, and lavishly exploiting them, give verisimilitude  – but also raise questions of accuracy and authenticity. And future novels involving flashbacks will have to be very precise about the technical context of the time. (‘Snapchat was not around in 2010!’) That was not a problem faced by Arthur Conan Doyle, or Eric Ambler – or even John le Carré.

I also picked up, on an impulse, An Unlikely Spy by Rebecca Starford, who is described as ‘the publishing director and cofounder of Kill Your Darlings, and, more alarmingly, as having ‘a PhD in creating writing from the University of Queensland’. I am not sure how Fyodor Dostoyevsky or Charles Dickens managed to be successful without some degree in Creative Writing, but then I am an old fuddy-duddy. The plot sounded intriguing, however: “In 1939, with an Oxford degree in hand and war looming, Evelyn finds herself recruited into an elite MI5 counterintelligence unit” (as opposed to those non-elite Slough House-type backwaters, I suppose).

I soon discovered that the book was originally published in Australia with the title The Imitator, so I suppose the reworked version was superior, as I doubt whether my eye would have been caught by the rather drab earlier headliner. And it turned out to be well-written, although it did carry that annoying post-modern trick of jumping around in chronology all the time, rather than approaching events in an orderly serial manner. (Is that what your Doctors of Creative Writing tell you to do? Do you get extra credits for displaying this habit?) I thus quickly entered the spirit of the plot, and started to acclimatize myself to the carefully placed markers of London in 1940, and the offices of MI5 at Wormwood Scrubs, as Evelyn Varley is recruited to help out with deciphering work.

A flicker of recognition then slowly dawned upon me, however. Evelyn Varley was a thinly-veiled representation of Joan Miller, author of One Woman’s War; Bennett White, her boss, was clearly the MI5 officer Maxwell Knight; Nina Ivanov was undoubtedly Anna Wolkoff. The whole story was a re-play of the Tyler Kent story, where the American cipher clerk stole copies of documents from the US Embassy in order to have them passed to the Germans. It reminded me of another clumsy effort at faction, Kate Atkinson’s Transcription, about which I wrote a few years ago. I really do not see the point of these ‘novels’: the authors take some characters from history, and then massage events and names to make it appear as if they have created a convincing psychological study. I quickly lost interest.

Ms. Starford admits her ruse in her ‘Reading Group Guide’, where she is also vain enough to offer some ‘Questions for Discussion’. She proudly describes her research activities (including a generous acknowledgment of Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5), and how she decided to ‘create’ Evelyn from the scraps of Miller’s memoir, and even manages to bring in ‘Brexit, the rise of far-right populism in Australia and abroad, and the ascent of Trump’ as a relevant backdrop to her writing, and even claiming that the fear and anxiety that those phenomena provoked found its way into her characters. What nonsense! And how pretentious to offer a review of her own book as collateral!

Moreover, she also offers an ‘Author’s Note’ to explain her deceptions, writing that she ‘tried to remain as faithful as possible to the history of these events’, but then declares that she had to make some ‘adjustments’ in order to provide a convincing story. She then lists a catalogue of her chronological changes to events that explicitly undermines the integrity of her story. All utterly unnecessary and distracting. In sum, I do not know why such works are attempted or encouraged. Either perform some innovative research to uncover the true facts about events, or use your imagination to create a convincing artificial world. These factional books are not for me.

The only interesting item I derived from the book is the statement from Stanford that Joan Miller ‘died in a mysterious car crash in the 1980s not long after she had published a memoir about her time in MI5’. Readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall my analysis of why MI5 tried to get her book banned, but this was the first I had heard about a suspicious car-crash. Sounds like an echo of the demise of Tomás Harris, or the accident involving George Graham’s son.

The Art of Resistance

‘The Art of Resistance’ by Justus Rosenberg

I have also read some remarkable books peripheral to my main course of research. Justus Rosenberg published his memoir The Art of Resistance in 2020, and in an epilogue wrote:

I will not write here of my extensive travels in the Soviet Union and its satellites during the Cold War, in Cuba just after the revolution, in the People’s Republic of China, of my visit with the Sandinistas in Nicaragua, or of the interesting material I found about me in my FBI file under the Freedom of Information Act. Nor will I explore my years of teaching at Swarthmore, the New School for Social Research, and Bard College. I hope to deal with all these things in future memoirs.

The main problem with this plan was that Rosenberg was ninety-seven years old when he completed his memoir, and died in September 2021 at the age of 100. If his follow-up had been as action-packed and insightful as The Art of Resistance, it would have constituted another extraordinary work. Rosenberg’ s life was of interest to me mainly because of his experiences with the French Resistance in World War II. Born in Danzig in a secular Jewish family, Rosenberg managed to conceal his ‘race’ from the Germans when he escaped to France, where he eventually linked up with the American Varian Fry. After the latter had to return to the United States in some disgrace in 1941, Rosenberg worked in various roles for the French Resistance, achieved a miraculous escape from a prison hospital by simulating the symptoms of peritonitis (although I wondered whether he had in fact swallowed those special SOE pills that triggered the symptoms of typhoid), and ended the war by joining the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration. He then gained a visa to the United States, where he enjoyed a distinguished career as a professor of literature.

I found Rosenberg an exceptionally level-headed and unmelodramatic chronicler, as well as a brave man. He was clearly a very smart and practical thinker, and was not caught up with the rhetoric of any ideology or religion. He has some illuminating things to say about Varian Fry (whose contribution to the escape of many European intellectuals has been over-romanticized), and scatters his memoir with many incisive vignettes and anecdotes. On two elements, I question him. He is one of those many who errantly contrast Soviet communism and ‘American capitalism’ as rival ideologies, when (as I pointed out in Misdefending the Realm) that it is a false contrast, since capitalism is neither a totalitarian ideology nor a political system, but an approach to the creation of wealth, and the comparison should be made between totalitarian communism and various forms of constitutional, pluralist democracy, whether presidential or parliamentary.

And I found him very loose on the practices of armed French resistance. He lists various categories: ‘partisans’, ‘freedom fighters’, ‘maquisards’, ‘guerrillas’, ‘underground armies’, ‘resistance fighters’, ‘saboteurs’, without explaining what characterized each. He recognizes the differences required in occasional guerrilla raids and the full engagement of an occupying army, and describes the rigorous training that was required to bring a raggle-taggle band up to proper military strength. Yet he also relates how ‘the French Underground Army’, described as ‘Resistance fighters waiting to join the Allied forces’ suffered a catastrophic defeat in the Vercors mountains, when a large section was annihilated by a glider-led force of 12,000 SS paratroopers. This vexed issue of the remote management of insurrectionist forces is a perennial interest of mine, as I believe that proper justice has not been performed to the topic in the writings about SOE and OSS in France. A book titled The Art of Resistance disappoints when it covers authoritatively such matters as the practices of secrecy, clandestine communications, and the isolation of networks, but does not explore what the implications of providing weapons to ‘secret armies’ were, and how such tasks should have been executed.

The Inhuman Land

‘The Inhuman Land’ by Jozef Czapski

Another valuable work was Jozef Czapski’s The Inhuman Land. I found that I had a copy of the 1951 edition on my bookshelf – a volume that I had never got round to reading. It has recently been resuscitated by New York Review Books, with an introduction by Timothy Snyder, but my edition (according to the price on abebooks) is now something of a rarity. Czapski’s book is vital, since, with the post-war knowledge that the NKVD had in the spring of 1940 slaughtered twenty-thousand Polish officers (of whom 4,421 were executed in the Katyn Forest near Smolensk), the author, who had managed to avoid the killings, described his attempts to discover what had happened as he worked as propaganda minister for General Anders’ emerging Polish Army, gathered in the Soviet Union.

The evil of the NKVD’s massacre was compounded when the Soviet Union tried to transfer the blame to the Nazis, who had themselves uncovered the graves in April 1943. When the Polish government-in-exile requested that the International Red Cross investigate the incident, Stalin broke off relations with the Poles. What made the whole business even more sordid was the fact that Churchill and Roosevelt, while privately acknowledging the Soviet guilt, did not dare challenge Stalin on the matter, fearful that they might lose his support, and that he might even abandon them in some fresh deal with the Germans. It was an abject display of appeasement.

What is remarkable about Czapski’s work is the fact that he was essentially allowed a free hand, from inside the Soviet Union, to investigate what had happened to so many of Poland’s elite force, who appeared to have disappeared from the face of the earth. He maintained a file of all missing officers, and was allowed even to make inquiries of the NKVD, when a careless and grudging admission that ‘mistakes were made’ led him first to conclude the awful truth. The other side of this effort was that he also learned at first hand a lot about the hideous cruelty of Communism from all manner of oppressed tribal people, forcibly migrated national groups, common citizens who had been split apart from lost family members, or dispossessed because of dekulakization, or who had simply witnessed the barbaric cruelty of the Soviet organs. And that he was able to commit it all to memory, or write and conceal encrypted notes, which allowed him to tell the whole grisly story after the war. The Inhuman Land was first published in French in 1949.

Amazingly, Czapski, born in 1896, died as late as 1993. I regret coming round to his work so late in life. One of the many whose hand I should simply like to have shaken before they died. Like Gregor van Rezzori (1914-1998), or Robert Conquest (1917-2015), or the recently encountered Justus Rosenberg, all long-lived witnesses to such chaotic times, who wrote about them so poignantly.

Secret Service in the Cold War

‘Secret Service in the Cold War’ by John and Myles Sanderson

Readers may recall that I noted, in my recent study of the Volkov affair, the existence of the interpreter Sudakov at the Ankara consulate in 1945. “The name of ‘Sudakov’ is an intriguing one.  In An SIS Officer in the Balkans (2020), John B. Sanderson and Myles Sanderson write: “The First Secretary of the Soviet Embassy in Ankara was a Brigadier General Sudin, in charge of “illegal residents” (spies), within Turkey, some of whom were Bulgarians. Penkovsky was a friend of Sudakov’s (Sudin’s alias) and would have passed over to his SIS handlers useful intelligence on Bulgarian espionage in Turkey, picked up in conversation with his high-ranking friend.”

From the sources given by Myles Sanderson, it did not appear that any fresh light would be shed on the character of Sudakov, but I acquired the book, of which the full title is Secret Service in the Cold War: An SIS Officer in the Balkans. It is a compilation by the subject’s son, using unpublished memoirs of his father, and supplemented by some lengthy description of Cold War politics. It is an unusual, and overall praiseworthy study, as it tries to provide a thorough political background to all the espionage and counter-intelligence activities going on throughout John B. Sanderson’ s career. Yet, as time marches on, the contribution that Sanderson Senior made to counter-intelligence activity becomes very thin and strained, and thus the focus of the book likewise becomes very fuzzy.

The good points: as a general compendium of significant historical events, and the intelligence activity behind them, the book is probably unmatched, as many of the reviews posted on amazon confirm. Nearly all general histories of the winding-down of WWII, and the onset of the Cold War, do not do justice to the contribution made by Stalin’s agents to the ability of the Soviet Union to manipulate and outwit the democracies, especially Great Britain and the United States. Studies of intelligence and espionage are normally so wound up in the intricacies of spycraft and treachery that they do not pay enough attention to the political results of such activities. The second major quality of the book is the insight that it gives on the exploits of John B. Sanderson in his early career, culminating in a valiant role at the battle of Sangshak in Burma in 1944. He then served as a military intelligence officer in Eastern Europe, primarily in Bulgaria (Bulgarian being a language he had learned), when the show trials were held.

Yet the lack of discrimination in using sources drags the book down. Myles Sanderson (who seems not to be a qualified historian) has assimilated a vast number of books – many of which were new to me – but uses them in a completely unselective way. If Peter Wright (for example) states something he thinks might be relevant, he quotes it, and that goes for countless other references. Thus a large number of misunderstandings and errors have crept into his text, such as an endorsement of Wright’s fresh interpretation of Volkov’s letter, a reference to the perpetuation of SOE beyond 1946, the claim that Britain had a crew of agents working inside the Kremlin, and a simplification of GCHQ’s successes in ‘finally cracking the Soviet ciphers’ in 1976.

And a major question must revolve around the fact of whether Sanderson was an MI6 officer or not. His son even claims that his father was about to replace Philby as liaison officer with the CIA in Washington, and could even have risen to be chief of the Secret Intelligence Service – quite an astonishing assertion. Yet Sanderson pêre was a military attaché, and there is no clear evidence that he was ever strictly employed by MI6, as opposed to being someone who provided them with intelligence occasionally. Stephen Dorrill (who wrote a long, unauthorized history of MI6) expressed strenuous doubts about Sanderson’s affiliation in a brief review in 2019, and I had a similar reaction, based on the evidence shown in this book.

Sanderson was a military attaché in the key years after WWII, and that role itself induces some degree of amazement from me. What on earth would a military attaché be doing in a capital such as Sofia, except trying to gain intelligence about Bulgarian and Soviet intentions clandestinely? Such figures seemed to spend a lot of time at cocktail parties, where they would mingle with their counterparts from other western countries, and even banter with the opposition. Sanderson relates an incident where Sanderson suggests to a Soviet officer that he ‘come over to our side’, and the latter indicates that, despite his obvious criticism of communism, his life is too comfortable to be disrupted. And then, during that second tour of Sofia in 1961, Sanderson is caught photographing aircraft at an airfield outside Sofia. After claiming diplomatic immunity, he makes a quick escape across country so that he can evade the indignity of being expelled, something that he suspects would have damaged his career irretrievably. Astonishingly, he receives no reprimand on his file for behaving so stupidly. But maybe that was because it was not a surprise? Did his bosses expect him to gain such intelligence by using a camera himself, or should he have tried to use an agent? If he blew it, then he blew it, and should have been rebuked. On the other hand, might expulsion have been a point of pride in a Foreign Office career? The episode is all rather absurd.

In summary, Secret Service in the Cold War will be a rattling good educational read for the novice who is rather confused about the significance of various espionage stories during the post-war years, and how they related to each other, but will be somewhat irritating compilation for the more sophisticated reader, who will demand greater discipline, and an evident methodology in the exploitation of all the rich sources that Myles Sanderson has mined.

Lastly, I was going through the War Diaries of the 30 (Military) Mission to Moscow for 1943 and 1944 (to be found at WO 178/27 at Kew) when my eye alighted on the entry for June 8, 1943:

            General Martel [head of the Mission] and Colonel Turner met General Dubinin and Colonel Sudakov, who appears to be Dubinin’s P.A. for the present discussions.

Could it be the same man? A promotion from Colonel to Brigadier by 1945 makes sense.

A Woman of No Importance

‘A Woman of No Importance’ by Sonia Purnell

Sonia Purnell’s 2019 biography of the SOE-OSS agent Virginia Hall, A Woman of No Importance (which I read in the 2020 Penguin edition) arrived with an impressive set of blurbs from such as Clare Mulley and Sarah Helm, as well as a number of prestigious media outlets, even selected as ‘Best Book of the Year’ by the Spectator, the Times, and others. Were such encomia merited? I was keen to investigate.

Notwithstanding its bizarre title, the book is indeed very well written, and reflects a thorough exploration of many obscure sources on Hall’s life. It offers a very sympathetic – even hagiographic – version of the life and career of the American socialite who transformed herself (even with a partially amputated leg) into an effective recruiter and in some ways leader of guerrilla groups in southern France, working initially for SOE and then, in 1944, for the American OSS. Purnell has collected some startling information about the odious Abbé Alesch, who infiltrated F Section’s circuits on behalf of the Abwehr (and was executed in 1949), that I do not believe has been published before. (Alesch has no entry in M. R. D. Foot’s Index to SOE in France.) She describes the escape at Mauzac (engineered by Hall), and the maquisard attacks at Le Puy with great verve. The account of Hall’s escape across the Pyrenees is breathtaking. Purnell has a fascinating light to show on the relationship of Nicolas Bodington (familiar to readers of this site because of his dealings with Déricourt) with Hall. He in fact recruited her, and thus followed her progress with great interest, which must cause a re-assessment of Bodington to be made. She offers some tantalizing suggestions that the Germans may have been tipped off about Sicily (cf. Operation Mincemeat!) and about the Dieppe Raid, both stories that I need to investigate more deeply. All in all, a biography of Hall was earnestly required, and this work will fulfill that function – to some degree.

But is it a wholly reliable account? I have several reservations. I could not detect any methodology behind Purnell’s analysis of sources: she is a bit too keen to trust anything that she reads in official archives, and is caught out particularly when she quotes Maurice Buckmaster, both from his memoir and from his in-house history, which works reflect a lot of wish-fulfillment and outright deceit. It is as if the book had been compiled from a cuttings library of anything that mentioned ‘Virginia Hall’, and was then transformed into a Ben Macintyre-like adventure. The author treats SOE very superficially, neglecting even to identify officers when there is no enigma behind their identity. She overlooks the tensions between MI5, MI6 and SOE – maybe not the book she wanted to write – but in that way she drastically oversimplifies the politics that were driving subversive activities in France. She dismisses Britain’s Intelligent Services generally as being populated by ‘posh boys’ – far from the truth. She continually misuses the term ‘double agents’ when she intends to describe traitorous spies in the pay of the Germans, infiltrators, or penetration agents. She has swallowed verbatim too much mythology about German radio-detection techniques, and recounts some bizarre stories about guerrilla teams intercepting Nazi wireless messages – an assertion that cries out for stronger evidence. Her coverage of Hall’s activity under OSS, and the manner in which OSS exploited SOE resources, when SOE make remarks about her performance, is muddled. She breezes past the destruction of the Prosper circuit without any indication that she understands the way it was betrayed.

Furthermore, her narrative reflects a lot of contradictions. Even though Purnell describes Hall as continually ‘recruiting, training and arming’ guerrilla groups, it is not clear what expertise she really had. She did not go through comprehensive SOE training, and seemed to derive her expertise solely from reading the SOE Handbook, so it is unlikely that teams of raw recruits would be able to become proper saboteurs under her direction, especially given her gender. Indeed, elsewhere, Purnell reports Hall as waiting intently for experienced SOE trainers to supplement her meager knowledge. In some places, she insists that guerrilla groups had to work in isolation: at others, she indicates that they should have been more coordinated. Moreover, M. R. D. Foot plays down her role in direct operations, representing her more as a liaison officer, a role that involved a lot of travelling, but nothing too arduous or dangerous. He claims that her cover remained intact, ‘mainly because friends at Lyons police station took care not to inquire too closely into her doings’.

The coverage of the supply of arms is bewildering. Purnell observes that, as early as late 1942, the secret armies were being provided with the munitions for the Allied assault – but D-Day did not happen until almost two years later. By then, according to her, some arms had started to rot, and were frequently discarded, or even thrown into rivers in despair, contradicting the blithe statements from Buckmaster that Purnell cites. She encapsulates the activity in early 1943 in a weakly casual way (“Parachute drops of arms and explosives were generally being stepped up when clear skies and light winds permitted”), showing that she has not internalized the complexities of the situation. This topic cries out for a more close-grained analysis. Purnell moreover never resolves the ongoing question as to how closely sabotage activities were directed by SOE in London. Hall herself was admittedly undisciplined, frequently made her own decisions without approval from Baker Street, and herself complained about the wastage and unauthorized sabotage that was frequently undertaken. Foot writes that she had ‘an imperturbable temper’.

Purnell scatters her text with multiple examples of shoddy tradecraft, from ruinous meetings like that at the Villa des Bois and excessively prolonged wireless time on air, through careless and disastrous carrying of papers that revealed names and addresses of contacts, the casual mixing of circuits against instructions, the issuance of false banknotes with consecutive serial numbers, to the failure to deal with traitors ruthlessly. These patterns receive no analysis from the author, who also provocatively claims that Hall’s name was given to the Gestapo by MI6, but does not explore the implications and reasons for such a dramatic and severely troublesome move. The source for this story is probably a mysterious footnote 68 to Chapter XI of Foot’s SOE in France, where he archly reports, on Hall’s second mission in 1944: “It was not known in SOE that her real name and her role on her first mission had been communicated to the Germans late in 1943 in the course of a wireless game played by another British secret service.” (Foot chose not to identify MI6, even in 2004, unless he was simply lazy: the footnote remained unchanged after forty years.) Foot gives the impression that Hall had been re-accepted by SOE as a wireless operator at this time, since they had disqualified her as a courier, but he seems to be unaware that it was OSS who had signed her up for the second mission.

Perhaps Alesch was a figure in this dastardly MI6 plot, the details of which are probably hidden in some dusty file, and cry out for further investigation. (Was Bodington perhaps a common element in this sickly charade?) Hall herself was fooled by Alesch, even though he was reported to have come from an MI6 cell, and had not been vetted. He caused immense harm: Hall was identified, and could have been arrested by the Abwehr. The unit held off, hoping to entrap more members of the Resistance, and Hall narrowly escaped the Gestapo entry into Lyon, and consequently made her escape over the Pyrenees. Many arms-drops were carelessly carried out and equipment lost; money was handed out indiscriminately to groups who were fighting rival resistance groups as much as the Germans. Too many loose ends and unsubstantiated claims.

On one important event Purnell appears to venture a challenging opinion. When Paul Vomécourt (Lucas) discovered, in January 1942, that his wireless operator Mathilde Carré (‘La Chatte’) had become the lover of the Abwehr officer Hugo Bleicher, and betrayed dozens of her comrades, Vomécourt decided to try to play her back in the hope of deceiving the Germans. Purnell writes: “At this point, Lucas should have eliminated la Chatte, gone into hiding, and immediately contacted Virginia to let her know she was at best compromised, at worst about to be arrested.” Such an action would have reflected Gubbins’ rules (as I explained last month), and sealed the circuit from any further contamination. It is not immediately clear how Purnell derived this standpoint other than reflecting proper SOE policy.

But, of course, SOE policies were not carried out in a disciplined fashion. And Bernard Cowburn, who was an integral member of the ensuing deception concluded after the war that the attempted ‘triple-agent’ play had been successful. He considered (in his 1960 memoir No Cloak, No Dagger) that the ruse had prevented the Germans from exercising a ‘North Pole’ scheme against the French, in the manner they had exploited the Dutch, and wrote that he thought that Lucas had handled the situation in the ‘best possible way’. Cowburn met Bleicher after the war, and recorded:

            He then looked at me almost pleadingly, and suddenly asked, ‘Tell me, I beg of you  . . . La Chatte  . . . is it true she was double-crossing me?’ This proved beyond a doubt that our manœuvre had succeeded and that for once the Germans had been properly fooled.

Yet I believe that is naïve. For Bleicher to have imagined that his mistress’s act against him was a double-cross without considering the nature of the deaths that she had incurred beforehand, was simply vain and amoral. He was probably more concerned about the shallowness of their affair. Cowburn, moreover, appeared not be aware of the more drastic ramifications of Carré’s treachery.

I think Purnell’s judgment is spot-on, although she probably derived her response from what M. R. D. Foot wrote about the incident: “The correct course for him to take was to vanish at once, not even pausing to assassinate her if her death was going to complicate her escape.” When Vomécourt eventually escaped to England, he had to be rebuked by Gubbins when he suggested that he and Carré return to France, to rescue what was left of the circuit, and also assassinate Bleicher. Gubbins put his foot down, and forbad such exploits: Carré was incarcerated for the rest of the war, then sent to Paris, where she was tried, sentenced to death, and then reprieved. She died in 2007, at the age of ninety-eight. A case-study in treachery: all a very messy business, with several lessons on how to deal with traitors, and on the perils of playing with such in the guise of thinking they can be ‘turned’ at will.

None of this sub-plot detracts from the bravery of Hall, but it does undermine the hyperbolic claims made about the contribution to the overall war success of Purnell’s subject, described in the book’s blurb as ‘the American Spy Who Changed the Course of the War’, a completely unwarranted assertion. Purnell is relentless in promoting Hall’s skills and achievements, but a less breathless assessment is called for. It appears that the author had too many sous-chefs, who may not have been rigorous practitioners themselves, assisting her researches. To write with depth and authority in this realm, you have to immerse yourself, work close to the coalface, get your hands dirty, and not rely on too many intermediaries. I do not believe that Purnell has done that.

Lastly, I note that a movie on Hall’s life is now under way, perhaps to accompany a hypothetical one on Agent Sonya, ‘the Soviet Spy Who Changed the Course of the Cold War.’ Oh, lackaday! ‘A Woman of No Importance’ is a significant contribution to the history of French resistance in WWII, but it should not be regarded as a definitive account, and needs to be integrated with and checked against more serious histories.

P.S. I should have made room to discuss Stephen Tyas’s SS-Major Horst Kopkow. I have read some clunkers on intelligence matters over the past couple of years, but this book, about the notorious Gestapo officer who engineered the sham deal with Suttill and Norman, and provided testimony that sent Kieffer to the gallows, is excellent. A must-read.

Language Corner

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my high sensitivity to incorrect spelling and grammar, especially when such solecisms are committed by professional writers and broadcasters. My biggest gripe is with those who cannot deploy ‘I’, ‘me’ and ‘myself’ properly, and end up with such monstrosities as ‘between you and I’, and ‘he gave it to my wife and I’. I almost threw Anthony Powell’s Dance to the Music of Time (all twelve volumes) across the room because of his clumsy and excessive use of the reflexive ‘myself’ when he couldn’t work out whether he should have been using ‘I’ or ‘me’. I decry the decline of the subjunctive in conditional clauses, and, as a devoted student of German verb conjugation, get annoyed by any evident confusion over lie/lay/lain and lay/laid/laid.

Some of my objections are directed at the careless use of vocabulary that reflects lazy thinking, or politically correct viewpoints, such as Nobel Prize winning economists who use ‘plutocrat’ when they mean ‘rich people’ (Yes, Krugman P. at the back there, I am talking to you!), or the New York Times journalists who describe some region as ‘impoverished’, when they simply mean ‘poor’. (‘Impoverished’ implies that the region was at some time wealthy, but then was denuded by some oppressor, which is presumably the sub-marxist impression that the writers want to bequeath.)

My continuous and long-standing beef, however, is with the New York Times, and its inability to instruct its journalists to understand and use properly singular and plural forms of Latin words, even though the correct usage appears in its Style Guide. (I have been told as much.) This defect is shown mostly in the use of ‘bacterium ’and ‘bacteria’: dozens of articles over the years have deployed ‘bacteria’ with a singular verb, and I have collected the messages that I have sent to the editors in a single document, inspectable at NYTBacteria. I have surely not captured all the incidences during this period, since I must have overlooked many, and some I ignored because I forgot to write, but I believe the collection is rich enough. And now it is on-line, and the editors at the paper can use it as a teaching-tool. Bravo! (I would get out more, but my piles of books on intelligence are blocking the exit-doors.)

Bridge Corner 

With the COVID epidemic ebbing, I have resumed playing face-to-face duplicate bridge, and normally play three times a week. It is an absorbing pastime, where the rewards are finding out how well you and you partner handle deals that will be played by all the other pairs of the same orientation during the session. Thus all the East-Wests compete against each other, as do all the North-Souths. The goal is to get a ‘top’ score on each hand, and minimize the disasters. One recent hand has absorbed me recently. I picked up as East:

(Spades):  ♠ A K 10 9 6

(Hearts) ♥ A 6 3 2

(Diamonds) ♦ 8 3

(Clubs) ♣ 9 4

My partner, West, opened the bidding with 1 D; I responded 1 S; the opposition was silent; he replied 2S (showing 4 spades and regular opening values); and I jumped to 4S (a game contract that delivers extra points if made during the play), as I had 5 excellent Spades, and an outside Ace.

South led the King of Hearts, and West laid done his hand as Dummy, showing me the following cards:

♠ Q J 5 4

♥ 8

♦ K J 6 5

♣ A K 6 5

This was fine, but then every other pair would probably bid game, and thus face the same challenge. It looks fairly straightforward, as there is no side-suit that can be developed after trumps are drawn: win the Ace of H, draw trumps, hoping they split 2-2, take the Club winners, and trump Clubs and Hearts in both hands leaving a Heart loser, and the Diamonds to guess. (Who has the Ace? Who has the Queen?)

I thought I saw a superior play that would ‘guarantee’ 11 tricks, and maybe make 12, by exploiting my higher-value trumps, and get rid of that last pesky Heart loser, if Spades did indeed split 2-2. (And, if they don’t, I would at least match the less enterprising pairs). Thus I imagined 11 tricks: 2 Clubs, 1 Heart, 3 Spades in dummy, and 5 in hand, with a Diamond still to come as a possible twelfth. Win the Ace of Hearts, and trump a Heart. Play the Ace, then the King of Clubs, and trump the 5 of Clubs with the 9 of Spades (in case Clubs split 5-2), trump another Heart, play the last Club and trump with the 10, and lead the last Heart, trumping with the Queen. Lead the last spade to the Ace, and hope to draw the last two trumps with the King. Then see what the opponents do when I have to break Diamonds. I’ll hold on to my last trump just in case the owner of the Ace leads a Club or a Heart. (Defenders do not always keep count of the number of cards played in each suit.) South probably has two Diamonds and a Heart left, but probably not the Ace of Diamonds, as he or she might have bid over my 1 Spade with all those Hearts and the Ace of Diamonds. North probably holds two Diamonds and a Club: if he or she has Ace and Queen of Diamonds, it doesn’t matter, and just 11 tricks make (and all the ’conventional’ pairs will make only ten tricks). If South has the Ace of Diamonds, he or she will probably go up with it on the Diamond lead, and I am home and dry. If not, I have to play the Jack from dummy, losing to the Ace. I then make 12 tricks.

But I never got there! The Spades did indeed split 2-2, but the Clubs split 6-1, and South was able to trump the King of Clubs before I got going. Thus I had to guess the Diamonds properly in order to even make the game (10 tricks). Seven of the other pairs all made 11 tricks the obvious way (presumably), and must all have guessed the Diamonds correctly. Thus my partner and I received only 1 point, while seven pairs got 5 points each. A certain ‘Top’ was converted to a near ‘Bottom’ in an instant. The ninth pair made only nine tricks: presumably their East (a good player), played the same line as I chose, but mis-guessed the Diamonds. So much for enterprise and imagination. Those cursed computer-arranged hands!

The full deal:

                                                            North

                                                            ♠ 8 3

                                                            ♥ 7 5 4

                                                            ♦ A 4

                                                            ♣ Q J 10 8 3 2

West    ♠ Q J 5 4                                                                      East     ♠ A K 10 9 6

♥ 8                                                                                           ♥ A 6 3 2

♦ K J 6 5                                                                                  ♦ 8 3

♣ A K 6 5                                                                                ♣ 9 4

                                                            South                          

                                                            ♠ 7 2

                                                            ♥ K Q J 10 9

                                                            ♦ Q 10 9 7 2

                                                            ♣ 7

Such is the endless fascination (and frustration) of bridge. (‘A Bridge Too Far’? Do not worry: this column will not be repeated unless I receive overwhelming demand.)

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The Strange Life of George Graham

Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat, George Graham’s Aunt

Before I present this month’s main course, on George Graham, I want to comment on a few other items:

When I published the 2021 Year-end Round-up last month, I was either tempting fate, or articulating a very sensible long-term strategy. Three days afterwards, on January 3, I suffered a heart attack, was rushed to hospital (after which I lay in a corridor for four hours), and the next day was moved to another hospital where I had a stent inserted in the artery that had undergone the big blockage. I was discharged on January 5, at mid-day, but was back in the Emergency Room at 1:30 the next morning, suffering from fever, wheezing, and chronic shortage of breath. I imagined such symptoms might be what serious COVID patients experienced, but I was fully vaccinated, and had had a negative test the day before. It turned out that I had pulmonary edema, a build-up of fluid in the lungs, caused by the somewhat erratic behaviour of the heart trying to re-adjust the system after the assault. Oxygen pumps and powerful diuretics soon stabilized me. I was discharged four days later.

In order to explain my lethargy in concurrent email exchanges, I have described the events to those of my communicants with whom I was in active contact at the time, but thought that I should post a notice here, even if it will be Too Much Information for many, and there is nothing more boring than an Old Fogey rabbiting on about his medical problems. I expect this event will mean some operational changes (although I have been very attentive to diet in the past few years). My heart is, fortunately, overall in good health – and has always been in the right place, of course – and I do not believe the pace of my research activities will have to be slowed down at all. Indeed, I should have more time available for cerebral pursuits since such activities as tree-felling, bush-hogging and yard work will clearly be proscribed by the doctor. No more for me the Reaganite removal of brush and repairing of boundary fences on the ranch. I most cordially thank all of you who have passed on your messages of goodwill.

With a new regimen of medicines to be taken, I told my wife that I felt like one of those old persons who cannot read the small print on the vials, and have to have instructions laid out to be sure of taking the correct purple oblong pill after breakfast. I now realize that I am officially one of those persons.

When I was discharged, I was earnestly encouraged to sign up for a Cardio Rehab course in a week or two, to handle with my fellow-sufferers such items as appropriate exercise and strategies for handling stress. I am very wary of such collegial activities: you will not see me standing in a pool with other rehabilitants, waving my hands in the air. I know best, because of the scar tissue from multiple back surgeries, and resultant neuropathy, what exercise I must avoid in order not to irritate further the heel (where the stabbing occurs). Moreover, several sessions on stress avoidance will be offered. Yet there has been no stress in my life in recent years (apart from the tribulations of dealing with local service contractors of any kind, and reading laudatory reviews of Agent Sonya), and nothing would be more stressful to me than having to listen to a lecture on ‘Mindfulness’ when I could be spending my time more fruitfully among the archives.

Thus it was with some chagrin that, when I picked up my copy of the January 6 issue of London Review of Books on my return home, I found a review of Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya by someone called Malcom Gaskill, described as an ‘emeritus professor at UEA’. His webpage at the University of East Anglia records the following as his ‘Areas of Expertise’: “Social and cultural history of Britain and America 1550-1750; history of crime, witchcraft, magic and spiritualism.” So one might naturally wonder why he was selected to review the book, so late in the day, unless he had some alarming new theory about Sonya’s dabbling in the black arts, or the story of her reincarnation. I accordingly wrote a letter to the Editor, as follows:

            I was both astonished and dismayed by Malcolm Gaskill’s review of Ben Macintyre’s ‘Agent Sonya’ in the LRB (January 6). Astonished, since, while your description informs us that the book was published in September 2021, it was actually issued a year beforehand. It is difficult for me to imagine how you judged that a review after all that time was justified. Dismayed, since Gaskill, while producing a very competent and readable synopsis of Macintyre’s work, appears to bring no external knowledge or expertise to his analysis, and has been taken in by many of Macintyre’s fictions in the same way that Macintyre was hoodwinked by Ursula Kuczynski’s GRU-driven memoir, and his conversations with her offspring.

I have a special interest in a corrective to the mostly laudatory reviews of the book, and my review of it appeared in the on-line version of The Journal of Intelligence and National Security as far back as December 2020, under the title of ‘Courier, Traitor, Bigamist, Fabulist: Behind the Mythology of a Superspy’. (Please see: http://www.coldspur.com/wp-content/uploads/2020/12/Courier-traitor-bigamist-fabulist-behind-the-mythology-of-a-superspy.pdf ) I have received multiple congratulatory messages on this piece, thanking me for setting the record straight, and for pointing out Macintyre’s errors and flights of fancy. I am surprised that Professor Gaskill did not come across it in his researches or, if he did, why he ignored its conclusions.

Professor Gaskill touches lightly on the major enigma of Sonya when he writes: “A puzzle emerges from Macintyre’s telling of Kuczynski’s life: how did she not get caught?” Yet a predecessor question, just as important, would be: “Why did MI6 facilitate a bigamous marriage for Sonya, a known Communist subversive, in Switzerland, and then facilitate her passage to the United Kingdom at a time when the Soviet Union was in a pact with Nazi Germany, and providing materiel to support the German war effort against Great Britain?” I would refer your readers to my observations, and the sources listed in my review, so that they may learn about the machinations of Claude Dansey and other MI6 officers, abetted by their counterparts in MI5, to deceive lower-level counter-espionage officers in MI5, such as Milicent Bagot, and deter them from doing their job.

I would be the first to praise Ben Macintyre’s superb story-telling expertise, but would challenge his boasts of commitment to factual history-telling (as expressed in conversations with John le Carré before the latter’s death). The bare bones of Sonya’s life and career are no doubt true, but Macintyre has greatly exaggerated her role as a ‘spy’, misrepresented her ability to escape detection, and studiously ignored the evidence of collusion by British Intelligence over her survival. Bland and uninformed reviews by such as Professor Gaskill sadly reinforce the mythology instead of taking a critical eye to one of the most astounding mis-steps by British Intelligence in World War II.

To my letter I attached a postscript – not intended for publication, which ran as follows:

I attach a highly relevant letter that I sent to Mary-Kay Wilmers a few months before Macintyre’s book was published. I never received any acknowledgment or reply. The London Review of Books could have accomplished a scoop of considerable proportions.

And here is the text of this earlier letter, sent on April 9, 2020:

Dear Ms. Wilmers,

I should like you to consider an article for publication. I am approaching you, exclusively, since I believe that you may have a personal interest in the story, that the LRB is the best vehicle for getting a piece like this out quickly, and that it would be of compelling interest to your readers.

In essence, it a scoop about a woman who has been called the ‘greatest woman spy in the twentieth century’, Ursula Hamburger/Beurton, née Kuczynski, aka ‘Sonia’ (or ‘Sonya’). Ben MacIntyre will be publishing his book on her in September of this year. MacIntyre claims access to privileged sources in Russia, Germany and the UK, but I strongly doubt whether he has investigated her life with the depth that I have.

I gained my doctorate in Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham in 2015, and my book based on it, Misdefending the Realm, was published in 2017. Since then, I have been delivering further research on Sonia on my personal website, www.coldspur.com.

My main claim is that SIS (MI6) tried, with the connivance of MI5’s senior management, to manipulate Sonia in World War II. It facilitated her marriage to Len Beurton in Switzerland in 1940, an event that allowed her to gain a British passport, and then contributed to her safe passage to Britain. This was presumably an attempt to get Sonia to lead them to her networks, to pass disinformation through her, and to gain access to Soviet codes and ciphers. When Len Beurton, who was a communist and had fought with the International Brigades in Spain, was also aided in getting to Britain through a faked passport in the summer of 1942, MI5’s anticommunist section woke up, but was essentially stifled.

Yet the exercise went horribly wrong when Sonia managed to act as courier for Klaus Fuchs and Melita Norwood, right under the noses of SIS and MI5, while her husband, Len, transmitted clandestinely on her behalf. The intelligence services have never been able to admit their mistake.

What makes this story especially newsworthy is the analysis of an overlooked document in the Kuczysnki/Beurton files at Kew. It is a letter from Victor Farrell, the Passport Control Officer in Geneva, to Len Beurton, written as if from a private address. It offers incontrovertible proof that, early in 1943, SIS in Switzerland tried to encourage the communist Len Beurton to communicate with them by wireless, betraying that they had some kind of agreement with him. Beurton would inevitably have passed that information on to his wife, Sonia. Thus she would have known for certain that SIS and MI5 were surveilling her.

I attach the version of the story that I have been preparing for my website. As you will see, it is a work in process, and continually evolving. It assumes readers will be familiar with my earlier research, and I look to them to provide information and tips. I know the piece would require some fundamental rework for publication as an LRB article, to set the context properly, remove detailed comments, and provide a more definitive conclusion. I can do that quickly. The main story is very solid.

I do ask you to read at least the introductory few paragraphs, and the latter sections headlined ‘Analysis’ and ‘Conclusions’. Please let me know if this sparks your interest in publishing a revision of the piece. And, if you decide that it is not suitable, I shall simply proceed with posting it on my own website.

If you need to have a second opinion, my doctoral supervisor, Emeritus Professor Anthony Glees, is very supportive of my research and findings, and has agreed to act as a reference. He can be contacted at xxxxxx@xxxxxx.

Thank you for reading this far.

The very next day, I received an email from the Editor, saying that they were considering my letter for publication (as well they should have). Yet it did not appear in the issue of January 27. Maybe there is a natural delay. Maybe Mary-Kay Wilmers (who retired last year, but is still around as ‘consultant editor’) would prefer the story to be buried. I shall keep an eye out for the next issue. If nothing appears, it is not exactly censorship, but it is irresponsible. The guardians of officialdom (Ben Macintyre at the Times, Mark Seaman and Nigel Perrin at the Times Literary Supplement, and Mary-Kay Wilmers at London Review of Books) keep the contrarians at bay. I am not saying that they are acting conspiratorially, of course. It just looks like it.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

And now to this month’s main story:

The Strange Life of George Graham

1. Introduction

2. Leontievs in exile

3. Alexander Shidlovsky

4. Paul Dukes

5. Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat

6. Dukes in the 1930s

7. WWII – Dealing with the NKVD

8. George Graham – marriage and SOE

9. Post-War Tragedy

10. Summing-Up

*

  1. Introduction:

For someone of my generation, the name ‘George Graham’ summons up the rather lugubrious figure of the Arsenal football player, and later manager, perhaps accompanied by grainy video of Chelsea’s Ron ‘Chopper’ Harris taking down Graham’s team-mate Charlie George on the edge of the penalty-box. ‘George Graham’ is a decidedly Scottish appellation, neither common nor rare, and has a pleasing solidity to it.  At some time, however, this same moniker was chosen to signal the new identity of one Serge Leontiev, a Russian émigré who was recruited for a dangerous mission with the Special Operations Executive (SOE) in Moscow in 1941. This report outlines what I have so far been able to discover about his life, and explores how a callow and inexperienced young man was carelessly plunged into the cauldron of espionage on Stalin’s home turf.

I reproduce first the brief snippet from Guy Liddell’s Diaries that brought my attention to him. The entry occurs soon after the defection of the Soviet cipher-clerk Igor Gouzenko in Canada in September 1945. After receiving hints about a possible spy named ELLI, Liddell started to investigate possible security leakages in the Moscow SOE station, led by George Hill. He had a meeting with Alexander Boyle, the chief security office for SOE (the wartime sabotage unit which would shortly be disbanded and absorbed into MI6). The date is November 16, 1945, and the text runs as follows:

            I went to see Archie Boyle about the ELLI case and discussed with him at length SOE’s set-up in Russia. He again expressed to me confidentially his grave suspicions about George Hill, and also about one George Graham whose real name is Serge LEONTIEFF, a White Russian. The two are very closely tied and one always backs up the other.

I have written before about the highly dubious decision to employ a tsarist émigré for intelligence work in the Soviet Union (a phenomenon that does not appear to have fazed Liddell) and shall recapitulate it later in this bulletin. My primary objective in this report is to tread back to Mr. Leontiev’s early years (the transcription of his name that I shall primarily use, even though many of the documents favour the alternative spelling) to his arrival in the United Kingdom, and to his exposure to new influences. All information given here (unless I indicate otherwise) has been derived from records publicly available in the United Kingdom.

2. Leontievs in exile:

The Peterhof Palace

Serge was born on August 18, 1910, in Peterhof, the palace in St. Petersburg built by Peter the Great, modelled on Versailles, thus implying fairly grand connections. His father was Alexander Ivanovitch Leontiev, described as a musician: his mother Olga Leontiev, née Briger, was born on January 2, 1892, the daughter of Alexander Briger, a Lieutenant-General in the Russian Navy. (In a Gilbertian touch, Olga’s sister wrote that her father ‘was an officer in the Russian navy, but at no time that I remember was he actually at sea’.) Olga and Alexander Leontiev had been married on April 26, 1909, and escaped at some unspecified time during the turmoils of the Revolution.

Yet the marriage appeared to have broken down relatively early: Mrs. Leontiev had been living separately from her husband for several years when Serge made his request for UK naturalization on June 20, 1933. She divorced her husband on November 4, 1929, on account of ‘desertion’, and then married her second Alexander, surnamed Shidlovsky (described as a bank-clerk), on November 23 of that year. In his naturalization request, Serge gave his address as 31 Longridge Road, Earl’s Court, in London: his father lived nearby, in 46 Colet Gardens, London W.14. He had a brother, Dimitri, younger than him, born on May 2, 1915, who lived at 3 Ridge Close, Hendon, London NW 14, and who died on November 27, 1938, aged 23. Olga’s address was given in the naturalization papers as 5 Ridge Close, next door. This will be seen later to be a slight error.

Dimitri, whose profession was given as ‘journalist’ on his death certificate, died at home of cancer of the bile-duct – which must surely have been rare in someone aged only 23. The informant, present at the death, was his father-in-law. Maybe his mother was too distraught, but his father’s continued absence from the scene is puzzling. His body was cremated (according to the cemetery records on March 3, 1938, which must be wrong) and his ashes reinterred at the Kent and Sussex Cemetery in Tunbridge Wells on March 17, 1977. Tunbridge Wells, the home of so many disenchanted letter-writers to the Daily Telegraph, will come to play an increasingly important role in this story.

Serge likewise had lived with his mother for most of the time he had been in England. After their escape from Russia the family had arrived –  according to Serge’s statement –  in Malta in the summer of 1918, where they spent nine months before moving on to Rome. After ten months there, they arrived in England on January 17, 1921. (The dates do not compute, however: nineteen months back from January 1921 would take them back to June 1919.) As a minor, Serge presumably did not need separate identification papers, but he was granted a certificate of identity T. C. 4761, issued by the Home Office on September 20, 1926, which was due to expire on August 30, 1933. Strangely, he could not produce a birth certificate, something one would imagine his mother would have maintained a close eye on: indeed, when his step-father was naturalized, on July 31, 1931, the record states that documentary proof of the births of both sons was seen.

Serge provided some rich details about his career in England. He attended St Paul’s School, in Baron’s Court, and Heath Mont School, in Hampstead until the age of 16, whereupon (so he claimed) he studied in France for a year (1926-1927?), and then was hired as a clerk with E. W. Tate and Company. After a few months, Serge left for a similar position with M.D. Aminoff, carpet merchants, where he worked for two years. What is provocative is his asserting in his 1933 naturalization application that he in 1930 took the name ‘George Graham’ for journalistic purposes, as he was publishing articles for The Skating Times. (He was also described as a ‘BBC artist’.) The minutes to his naturalization papers rather enigmatically state: “When he becomes a [subject?] he will be at liberty to use any name he pleases, and S. of S. [Secretary of State] does not propose to take any action regarding his past use of the name ‘George Graham’.” Why this might have been controversial is not made clear. Yet, around 1929, his life had been significantly changed by his relationship with a prominent intelligence officer, as I shall explain.

The pattern of Serge’s movements will be shown to have some special significance. When he listed in detail his periods of residency – in His Majesty’s dominions – in order to complete his naturalization request, he gave ‘Malta’ for the period April 1919 to January, 1920, and then skipped over the time in Rome to an address of 94 Kensington Park Road, where he had arrived on January 17, 1921, and stayed for five months. Thereafter he recorded a rather peripatetic existence (three months in Quainton, Bucks.; seven months back at Kensington Court; one year and eleven months at Northway, N.W. 11; five months in Kilburn; a month in Southend-on-Sea in August-September 1924 – which sounds like a holiday; three years at Gloucester Walk, W8; three years and nine months at 3 Ridge Close in Hendon; and finally one year and nine months at 46 Colet Gardens, the address he was living at when he made his submission, the home of the  Russian School of Ballet. (The last claim is a little puzzling: one sheet in his application states that his permanent address has changed to 31 Longridge Road, in Earl’s Court, while another indicates that he was ‘temporarily’ residing at 294 Earl’s Court Road.) He totalled that up as living in the United Kingdom for eleven years, seven months, with nine months spent in the dominions (Malta). The year in France seems to have been conveniently overlooked: elsewhere in his naturalization application, he described a two-month absence in France undertaken to recover from pneumonia.

Little appears to be recorded about Serge’s father, mainly because he never applied for naturalization. A newspaper report (in the Winnipeg Tribune) shows that ‘Alexander Leontieff, a former Colonel of the Imperial Guard, led the Old Moscow Balalaika Orchestra at a concert in London on May 30, 1931’. On Serge’s marriage certificate, he is described as ‘Colonel Retired’. And when he died at Middlesex Hospital, on August 28, 1957, his profession was given as ‘musician’. Serge was listed as the informant, with the given name of ‘George Graham’, and an annotation on the death certificate provocatively states: ‘Son’s name changed by War Office instructions’ – presumably referring to the occasion of his original new appellation rather than an interference in the procedures of the registrar, with George having to explain why, as a son, he carried a different surname. Thus the story about Serge’s already having assumed that name for his journalism appears to look rather suspect. Alexander Leontiev was buried in Hendon, and his gravestone is clearly marked.

3. Alexander Shidlovsky:

In fact the naturalization papers of Serge’s step-father, Alexander Shidlovsky, shed much more light on Serge’s background. Shidlovsky was born in Voronezh on June 25, 1896, was educated at the University of Petrograd [sic], and was a member of the Imperial Page Corps in that city. He had joined the Russian Army on June 1, 1915, serving as lieutenant until the end of 1917, when he was discharged due to ill-health. He then joined the White Russian volunteer army, and in April 1919 arrived at St. George’s Barracks, Malta, where he resided until September 1919. (Thus Serge’s arrival in Malta coincided exactly with that of Shidlovsky.) The record then indicates that Shidlovsky served in General Denikin’s Army in 1919-1920, and next obtained a position as an interpreter with the British Military Mission in South Russia, with which he was engaged for a month or so before the complete withdrawal of the expeditionary force. If the statements made by Olga and her second husband are true, there would not appear to be any overlap in their presences in Malta, but since Olga’s declaration about the Mediterranean movements does not hang together, one might conclude that there was an attempt to muddy the waters in this respect.

Moreover, Shidlovsky’s statement of residential addresses almost directly mimics those of Serge, detailed above. He arrived in the United Kingdom on March 27, 1921, and hied immediately to Kensington Park Road on that same day, where Olga and sons were presumably awaiting him, moved with them to Quainton, and then returned en quatre to Kensington Park Road. Shidlovsky then accompanied Olga and family to Northway, although he described the location as Hampstead Garden Suburb, not Hendon, and moved with them all to Brondesbury Villas in Kilburn, in March 1924. Likewise, he shared the holiday in Southend with Olga and her sons, and spent the following two years at Gloucester Walk. His statement breaks off at this point, but the address provided on his application (of July 2, 1931) is his marital home at 3 Ridge Close, Holders Hill Avenue, NW 4. Thus Olga and Shidlovsky had been living together quite openly for more than a decade, and the question of her husband’s ‘desertion’ must be highly questionable (unless he abandoned her in Malta). Yet they all came to England, Alexander Shidlovsky making a definitive choice of coming to the UK to follow Olga when his relatives primarily opted for France or Estonia as their place of exile.

The list of referees for Shidlovsky’s naturalization application includes one or two distinguished names. Sir Bernard Pares, then lecturer at the School of Slavonic Studies at University College, London, claimed that he had known the applicant for over twenty years, having been friends with his father. Retired Vice-Admiral Aubrey Smith testified to his good character and loyalty, and likewise dated his friendship as lasting over twenty years, when he (Smith) had been British Naval Attaché in Russia between 1908 and 1912. Yet Sir Aubrey wrote a more cautionary letter in responding to a communication from ‘Sir John’, suggesting that the application may have been made to further his career at the Ottoman Bank, and that his case was perhaps not of the highest priority.

Sergey Shidlovsky

A quick search on the Web brings more facts about Alexander’s lineage to the table. When he married Olga Leontiev, he gave his father’s ‘rank or profession’ simply as ‘Russian nobleman’, He did indeed come from an illustrious aristocratic background, his father being a prominent member of the Duma (see https://prabook.com/web/sergei_iliodorovich.shidlovsky/3775124). This page indicates that Alexander ‘finished the Page Corps, worked as poruchik [‘lieutenant’] in horse artillery lifeguard’ before migrating to England. He, his brother, and his father all appear to have been educated at the Tsarskoe Selo Lyceum, while Nikolay Shidlovsky (1843-1907), who chaired the 1905 Commission named after him, was probably a semi-distant relative. Alexander’s mother, still alive in Paris when he applied for naturalization, was named Alexandra, née Saburov. (I shall leave further exploration and explication of the Shidlovsky family to other genealogists who may chance upon coldspur.)

Thus, at first glance, the story of the Leontievs-Shidlovskies would appear to be like many other accounts of exiled White Russian aristocrats: déraciné, nomadic, slightly louche, mixing with their fellow-sufferers, perhaps vainly hoping that tsardom would somehow be restored in their native land and that they would be able to recover their lost estates. Yet this clan is somehow different: they do not seem to be short of money, and they go about their business with confidence. No humble careers of taxi-driving or washing dishes (in the way that so many Russian aristocrats ended up in Paris) for them: Serge was sent to good schools, and could afford to spend a year in France. Shidlovsky settled down to a solid job as a ‘bank clerk’, which may understate his role: elsewhere he is described as a ‘bank official’. There seem to have been no furtive counter-revolutionary gatherings, with risks of infiltration by Soviet spies, as happened so frequently in Paris. Yet they were definitely ‘former people’, with counter-revolutionary tendencies, and to be watched by Soviet intelligence. In addition, there was one common figure behind much of their life-events. And his name was Sir Paul Dukes.

Paul Dukes

4. Paul Dukes:

The archives supporting George Graham show three key events where the name of Paul Dukes appears. Chronologically, Dukes’s name first appears in the marriage certificate for Olga and Alexander, dated November 23, 1929, since he and N. Nicolaeva-Legat are listed as witnesses to the event. It next comes up in Serge’s statement about his employment, made within his naturalization request in June 1933. After the period with Aminoff, Serge’s application states that he became secretary to Sir Paul Dukes, Chairman of British Continental Press Ltd., probably in 1930. Dukes acted as referee for Serge’s naturalization request, and described Serge as ‘an upright and conscientious young man’. And these connections present a whole new dimension to the fortunes of George Graham and his extended clan, and their links to British Intelligence, since Dukes networked with British military personnel with experience in Russia after the revolution, intelligence officers in MI5 and MI6 in World War II, and an influential Russian émigré community in between. Serge Leontiev’s career appeared to take on a dramatically new – and superficially positive – turn after he met Paul Dukes in 1929, and began his metamorphosis into George Graham.

Dukes’s career has to be viewed in two dimensions: one, as a prominent musician and conductor; two, as an informant to the Foreign Office and recruit to MI6. His life is infused with much mystery: he was not granted any DNB entry until 2004, despite an illustrious early career, and what has been published (written by Michael Hughes) is a very sparse and vague affair that does not exploit any archival material. Dukes’s Wikipedia entry (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Paul_Dukes) is likewise imprecise on dates, and erratic in its facts. Much of the information about him derives from his own memoirs: Red Dusk and the Morrow (1922); The Story of ‘ST 25’ (1938): and An Epic of the Gestapo (1940), a source genus that is frequently unreliable. Some snippets of information have percolated into the writings of Christopher Andrew, Keith Jeffery, and Michael Smith, with the latter alone providing identifiable archival sources to support his account. Thus contradictions in the timing of events have to be resolved in order to present a cohesive story.

The musical side of things is relatively simple. In 1908, he took up a teaching position in Riga, Latvia, and the following year moved on to St. Petersburg, where he was accepted at the Petrograd Conservatoire. He was encouraged by Albert Coates, who was the Principal Conductor of the Russian Imperial Opera at the Mariinsky Theatre, and also served as English tutor at the Naval College. In 1913 he graduated from the Conservatoire, and Coates hired him to assist in the training of soloists in their operatic parts. It is highly unlikely that he would have been recruited by Mansfield Cumming of MI1c at this time, although he probably did act as an informant to the Foreign Office, ‘ostensibly as a King’s Messenger’, as Jeffery writes. The milieu, however, allowed him to be introduced to several illustrious names in the world of dance, and guided his introduction to eastern mysticism.

The war caused his artistic plans to stumble, and he was co-opted to the Anglo-Russian Commission in early 1915, where he worked under the leadership of the novelist Hugh Walpole, and was given the task of tracking the Russian press across the whole country. This Commission, according to Phillip Knightley, was an office of the British Department of Information established in 1915 that was involved in arranging war supplies from the United Kingdom to Russia, although more sober descriptions suggest it was much more a propaganda outlet, that it struggled with its task, and was dissolved in March 1918, after the revolution. Hughes indicates that Dukes did return to London during this time, so his importance and reputation were surely further recognized. In a provocative aside in The Story of ‘ST 25’ (a gripping memoir of life evading the Cheka, which merits being re-issued), Dukes wrote: “In the summer of 1916 a lady who was a great personal friend of mine and had much influence on my life at the time confided in me her secret thought of making away with the infamous ‘Monk’ [Rasputin]’ Who was the mystery lady?

The focus now shifts to his espionage role. Michael Smith informs us that Dukes next joined a relief mission in the South of Russia, one funded by the American YMCA, but was soon recalled to the United Kingdom that summer, suggesting that the Foreign Office was keeping close tabs on him. It was then that Mansfield Cumming, the head of MI1c, the emerging MI6, recruited him as agent ST/25, with a mission to help finance and accelerate the plans of the National Centre for insurrections in Petrograd and Moscow. The National Centre was an underground counterrevolutionary movement: as the Great Soviet Encyclopedia recorded: “Between July and November 1919, the VChK [Cheka] eliminated the Petrograd branch of the National Center, which was headed by Shteiniger, as well as the espionage network directed by the head of British intelligence in Russia, Paul Dukes, who was in contact with Shteiniger’s group.”

Paul Dukes: ‘The Man With a Hundred Faces’

For Dukes had succeeded in smuggling out intelligence to MI1c in Finland, which guided the celebrated raids by Augustus Agar on the Kronstadt naval base in June 1919. Dukes was in great danger, but could not easily be exfiltrated: despite gaining a reputation for being a master of disguise (‘the Man with a Hundred Faces’), he was outwitted by the Cheka, and had to make a desperate flight through Latvia back to the United Kingdom. He escaped with the help of Alessandro Gavrishenko, a former Imperial naval commander and member of United Great Russia. Dukes just avoided execution, but Gavrishenko and other allies were shot. Dukes was a marked man. He later admitted, when arriving with his new bride in Paris on January 22, 1923 that the Bolsheviks had ‘put a price on his head for the last three years’. He was more explicit when he published The Story of “ST 25” in 1938. Scandinavian newspapers had printed an interview with him while he was still in Latvia, and given his real name. He wrote: “ . . . long before I reached London I realized that Red Russia was closed to me, perhaps for ever. Moscow, enraged at my escape, was broadcasting denunciatory fulminations to the four corners of the globe and a price was set on my head if I ever returned.”

Dukes’s reputation back home was secured, and he had brought much acclaim to MI6 in political circles. Early in 1920, Agar earned a Victoria Cross, and Dukes was knighted. At this time, he met again by chance Alexander Briger, whom he had known well in St. Petersburg. He was soon employed on secret missions again. In May 1920, he went to Poland, with Rex Leeper, of the Foreign Office’s Political Information Department, masquerading as the latter’s ‘secretary’, and submitting intelligence reports. He toured eastern Europe with Sidney Reilly and Vladimir Orlov, recruiting agents, and, as Jeffery reports, nursed ambitions of returning to Russia as an agent himself. Yet his ensuing activities, lecturing and writing, his contacts with unreliable White Russians, and the attendant Bolshevik interest in his movements effectively disqualified any further exploits. In 1919 he had also joined a cabal of other MI6 officers in becoming members of the Bolshevik (or ‘Bolo’) Liquidation Club, an entity dreamed up by our friend Stephen Alley. That was not a move designed to endear him to the Kremlin. And it would be a significant consideration when I pick up his story in the late 1930s.

Moreover, Dukes could not stop talking about his exploits. As Michael Smith writes: “Paul Dukes wrote a long series of highly-publicised articles in the Times, thus eliminating the possibility of his being used for secret service missions again.”  Jeffery dubbed him ‘an inveterate self-publicist’. Hughes refers, in addition, to the possibility that the establishment was ‘uneasy about Dukes’s somewhat eccentric interest in various forms of eastern mysticism’. He also promoted himself in the USA, and his career took on a new-agey turn in that country. Hughes again: “About 1922 he joined a tantric community at Nyack, 15 miles from New York, led by Dr Pierre Arnold Bernard (known as the ‘Omnipotent Oom’)”. While living there, Dukes married Margaret Rutherfurd (whom he would divorce in 1929): she was the former wife of Ogden Livingston-Mills, the U.S. Secretary of the Treasury, and the daughter of Anne Harriman, the second wife of William Vanderbilt. Rutherfurds, Harrimans, Vanderbilts, capped with the Omnipotent Oom: it was all a heady mixture.


Lady Dukes
The Omnipotent Oom

But before I move forward to the intelligence plots of the late thirties and early forties, an investigation into his partner at the Olga Leontiev-Alexander Schidlovsky wedding in November 1929 is called for. Who was N. Nicolaeva-Legat?

5. Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat:

Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat (as her name is more commonly spelled) was born Nadezhda Briger in 1895, the daughter of Alexander Briger (1861-1931), a Lieutenant-General in the Russian Navy (see above), and the sister of Olga, Xenia and Vladimir. She became a dancer with the Imperial Russian ballet, and married another dancer, Nicolas Legat (1869-1937), as his second – or possibly, third – wife, probably around 1915-1916. He was notably almost twenty-seven years older than she: she describes him in her memoir as ‘principal soloist to his Majesty the Tsar of Russia, Ballet master and Professor at the Imperial School of St. Petersburg’. According to the Wikipedia entry of her husband, she rose to become the Prima Ballerina of the Imperial State theatres of Moscow and St. Petersburg. Because of the age difference between the couple, and parental disapproval, they had to elope. During World War I, they performed in Paris and even in London, at the Palace Theatre, in The Passing Show, before returning by minesweeper to their parents’ home in St. Petersburg, with Nadine now pregnant.

Nicolas Legat and Nadine

The Legats were separated from the family at the Naval College after the revolution, and arrests and shootings dominated their lives. In a somewhat cryptic passage in her memoir [see below], Nadine indicates that Rose, her loyal dresser, was a Bolshevik, and might have been able to obtain a pass for her. Yet her sister Olga was designated to try to reach the family and possibly arrange for their escape. (“My sister, Olga, pointed out that it was better that she should go, for she was married to a wealthy Guards officer with an estate in Kiev and her own position was open to question.”) Indeed, Olga did engineer the escape of the parents and sister Xenia to Kiev, although Xenia had by then lost her husband in the fighting. Olga’s trials were nevertheless not over: she and her husband were threatened with shooting by the Communists in Odessa, and only intervention by the French Commandant, and an exchange of twenty Bolshevik prisoners for the lives of Nadine’s father and brother-in-law (Serge’s father), allowed them to gain a ship to Constantinople. King George V himself intervened to offer the refugees hospitality in Malta. Since Alexander Briger was a Director of the Anglo-Baltic Shipping Company, he was able to take advantage of a job offer by the company in London, and moved there with his wife, with Xenia, and with the daughters of Xenia and Nadine.

After the revolution, however, Nicolas and Nadine were celebrated enough to put on balletic exhibitions around what was then the Russian Soviet Republic. According to Nadine, their plans for reforming the Moscow State Ballet School were met with approval, and in 1922 they were eventually able to gain permission to go abroad for six months, partly because Lunachatsky [sic, actually Lunacharsky], the highly influential Superintendent of Education, was a family friend. They then toured Europe for several years. They travelled to Berlin, where Nadine encountered her brother, Vladimir, and learned that her family was safe in London, although her father had struggled with finding a regular job after the Anglo-Baltic Company had been dissolved. They landed up in the United Kingdom in 1923, but after a couple of years, left to spent several seasons touring in Europe, primarily with Dhiagilev. In 1928 they returned for good, to teach the Legat System of Ballet, at 46 Colet Gardens. They thereby fostered such prominent stars as Anton Dolin, Margot Fonteyn, Andre Eglevsky, Moira Shearer and Nathalie Krassovska. The Russian Ballet Association was formally registered in 1938.

A member of the Briger family in Australia let me know about Dukes’s relationship with Nadine. The Australian side of the Briger family has been well documented. Nadine’s nephew, Andrew (born in Berlin in 1920), the son of her brother Vladimir (1885-1971), travelled between Paris and London, and occasionally helped run the ballet school while he was studying architecture at the Regent Street Polytechnic. Because of his connections with the famous ballerina, when he emigrated to Australia, he was introduced to Elizabeth Mackerras, who was the sister of the famous conductor Sir Charles Mackerras, and he and the family found common interests in opera and the Russian heritage. Andrew and Elizabeth married in 1957. My contact described Dukes in these terms: “I knew Sir Paul Dukes quite well – he was a very distinguished man in his day, knighted for his work – ended up travelling the world (including Australia) teaching yoga and I have his yoga book. Apparently he was also Madame Legat’s lover for a while, certainly gave the school a lot of money, for no particular reason.”

Thus, if Dukes was squiring Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat in November 1929 (and openly enough to be companions at a prominent marriage ceremony, and official witnesses to the event), it is perhaps no surprise that he had been divorced from Margaret Rutherfurd that year. The New York Times announced, on January 20, 1929, that Lady Dukes had been awarded a divorce in Paris on the grounds of her husband’s desertion, and added, provocatively, that ‘among her friends, there have been persistent rumors that she intends to marry Prince Charles Murat’. (The Prince’s desires in this arrangement are not recorded, but it appears that the determined Margaret Rutherfurd gained her objective.) The fact of Dukes’s generosity to the Ballet School should be noted also, as the behaviour would point to a certain carelessness with money.

Margaret Rutherfurd marrying Prince Murat

Yet there was another aspect of this relationship. While it is not central to my story, the matrilineal line of Nadine and her brother, Vladimir, has an incidental fascination all of its own. Vladimir’s cousin, Prince Felix Youssoupoff, had led the group that assassinated the Russian court lothario Rasputin. That would, in turn, link the family to Stephen Alley who, though without definitive proof, has been noted (for example, in Douglas Smith’s biography of Rasputin) as having been involved in Rasputin’s murder while working for the British Control Office in Saint Petersburg. What is more interesting is the appearance of other family members in the photographic record.

Memorial in Tunbridge Wells

Nadine died in 1971, and the memorial at her grave in Tunbridge Wells (above) is an informative artefact. It memorializes Alexander Briger (her father), Ludmilla Briger (probably her mother, 1861-1954), Vladimer de Briger – in an alternative Frenchified form of the name (her brother), Zenaida de Briger (Vladimir’s first wife, fully Zenaida Pavlovna Sumarokov-Elston, 1886-1954) and her husband, Nikolay [Nicolas] Gustavovich Legat. The person who surely arranged for this memorial to be set up was her sister, Olga, mother of Serge aka George Graham, and widow of Alexander Shidlovsky who had died, also in Tunbridge Wells, in 1969. Olga died in the same town on December 14, 1975.

In 2021 Nadine’s memoir The Legat Story was published by Cadmus Publishing. It is an appealing but slender offering, dedicated to showing her devotion to her husband and an admiration for his legacy. But it is also deceptive. She has little to say about her sister Olga (about whom she appears a little jealous), restricting her observations to a few comments such as ‘my sister Olga always asserted that a man without a uniform was scarcely a man at all’. She.maintains the fiction that Olga and her first husband were living together in London (“Later Olga and her husband also came to England and found a house in Golders Green where they could all be together”), and writes nothing about Serge and Dimitri. It is almost as if she disapproved of her sister’s liaison, although she was, of course, the prime witness at Olga’s marriage to Shidlovsky.

‘The Legat Story’

Nadine also reveals more about Paul Dukes, although she is silent on any question of an affair. She met him again in Paris, and they discovered a shared interest in yoga, vegetarianism, and the teachings of Gurdjieff and Ouspensky. She must have found in Dukes a soulmate, since Nicolas was very dismissive of her spiritualist enthusiasms. And then Dukes started to realize one of his own ambitions, taking ballet classes from Nicolas and Nadine. She considered him ‘an unusually apt pupil’ and even started partnering him, billed as ‘Paul Dukaine’, in such dances as Le Jardin Exotique, for which Dukes created a new score. While on tour (unaccompanied by Nicolas) they ‘argued’ far into the night; Dukes’s role was not well publicized until they reached Hull in May 1930, and he was unmasked.  Soon after, Dukes was invited on a speaking tour in America, and the professional partnership was broken up. But they must have enjoyed their period of intimacy.

Paul Dukes, dancer & yoga enthusiast

6. Dukes in the Thirties:

A possible sequence of events emerges. Having concluded his world tours in the late 1920s, including the conducting of his own musical compositions for the Ballet Moderne in New York, Dukes returned to London. His exploits in the ballet, and his relationship with Nadine, passed unnoticed by the world at large (and indeed his ODNB entry is silent on the accomplishments of Paul Dukaine). Here Dukes struck up again his acquaintances with the Brigers and other exiles from the musical world of pre-war St. Petersburg, most notably Nicolas and Nadine Legat. Since his divorce for desertion came through in early in 1929, his misconduct must have become public some time before that (as Nadine’s account of their balletic exploits would tend to confirm), and Nadine was courageous enough to be seen as her lover’s companion when they both witnessed the marriage ceremony of her sister and Shidlovsky in November 1929. Meanwhile, Nicolas’s heath was fading. He was taken ill with pneumonia, and then pleurisy, and eventually died on January 24, 1937.

The occasion of Olga’s second marriage makes perfect sense as the time when Dukes would have been introduced to her nineteen-year old son. The following year, Dukes was appointed chairman of the British Continental Press, and gave his protégé an opportunity by appointing him his secretary. It would not be capricious to suggest that Dukes at this time decided to groom the young Leontiev for a role that he could no longer perform himself. He managed to have Serge (and his father) installed with the Legats at 46 Colet Gardens, where their Dance School was housed.

Dukes’s relationship with Nicolas Legat appears on the surface to have been cordial still. In 1932 the firm published Legat’s The Story of the Russian School, a volume that had been translated from the Russian by Dukes, who also provided a Foreword. Other books on dance appeared, such as Lincoln Kerstein’s study of Fokine, in 1934. It is difficult to imagine that the Press thrived on such a limited range of works, and, as the decade progressed, Dukes was perhaps feeling a lust for further adventure. He gave up his chairmanship of the Press in 1937, according to his New York Times obituary. In any event, some very bizarre press releases were suddenly issued indicating the demise of Sir Paul, perhaps designed to ward off any Soviet persecutors who might still be wanting to have him eliminated.

On May 20, 1935, the Perth Daily News (of Western Australia) published a report from Paris that ‘the death occurred here today of Sir Paul Dukes, K.B.E., the English composer and author, aged 46’. This was echoed in the Melbourne Herald the same day. Yet I can find no trace of the story being reported anywhere else in the world. Dukes certainly had an interested audience in Australia, but why he (or his bosses) would try to channel the message of his demise so clumsily is a mystery. To mount a comprehensive disinformation campaign is one thing: but to launch a half-hearted one, and then not disappear from this earth, so that the opposition would be wised up that some deception was planned, was simply amateurish.

What might Dukes have been thinking? The only possible clue that I have detected is the factoid that I cited in an earlier report. A short piece (in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) announced that on November 10, 1934, Alexey Leontieff, a former colonel in the Czarist Army, and manager of a local machine supply office, faced a firing-squad in Novosibirsk, for failing to provide proper machinery to a nearby collective farm. Out of all the possible events, why on earth would the NKVD release such a gobbet, when so many millions were being murdered during Stalin’s purges? Was Alexey a brother of Alexander? Was the announcement provocation? Did the NKVD intend to lure ‘the Man with a Hundred Faces’, its Public Enemy Number 1, to the Soviet Union? Was Dukes asked by the Leontiev family to help rescue a relative? I have no answers.

In 1938 he published his memoir The Story of “ST 25”, which was essentially a richer version of Red Dusk and the Morrow. To this he added a bizarre and equivocal Epilogue where he appeared to have been hoodwinked by Stalin’s new constitution of 1937, and, despite the turbulence of the Show Trials, suggested that the Soviet Union was making moves towards democracy, and was supporting capitalist impulses. One can interpret this only as his attempt perhaps to get back into Stalin’s good graces (not that he would ever have been in them) so that he might visit the country again, but all he achieved was to ruin his reputation as a sworn enemy of totalitarianism, and undermine his position as a reliable analyst of the Soviet Union. (In a report written by Elena Modrzhinskaya, Head of Department 1, Third Section, of the First Directorate of the NKVD, in April 1943, cited in Nigel West’s Triplex, p 319, appear the following sentences, which would appear to confirm Dukes’s intentions: “A senior British intelligence officer, Paul Dukes, is involved in training intelligence personnel on Soviet matters. Before the war he spent some time in Berlin, where he is said to have been linked with Goebbels; in 1939 he attempted to re-enter the USSR, citing his ‘pro-Soviet’ views.”)

The record is disappointingly thin about his exploits after leaving the Press. The ODNB entry states: “On the eve of the Second World War he was asked by some acquaintances to visit Germany in order to trace the whereabouts of a wealthy Czech businessman who had fled from house arrest following his imprisonment by the Nazis.” He wrote up those exploits in his 1940 book An Epic of the Gestapo, which describes his confrontations with the Gestapo in the summer of 1939. Yet here he renewed his expressions of antipathy to both fascism and communism, drawing the attention of any watching NKVD officer, and had thus abandoned any attempt at subterfuge. In his Introduction, he wrote:

Despite the antagonism that existed between the Nazi and Bolshevist leaders until August, 1939, I was struck from the outset of the Hitlerian regime by the remarkable similarity of its methods to those of Moscow. In the spring of 1939 I began a study of these resemblances. Somewhat paradoxically, I conducted negotiations at the same time for the publication in Germany of my Russian memoirs in which I strongly criticized the Moscow administration, and assistance was spontaneously offered me in this by the hardy diplomat, Richard von Kuhlmann, who played a prominent part on the German side in the framing of the treaty of Brest-Litovsk with the Soviet in 1918. Furthermore, at the suggestion of the Japanese Ambassador in London, M. Shigemitsu, I had a number of conversations with General Oshima, the Japanese Ambassador in Berlin, on the subject of the Anti-Comintern Pact, of which he was one of the authors.

Paul Dukes had arisen from the dead. Meanwhile, after the death of her husband in 1937, Nadine Nikolaeva-Legat was left to run the studio classes alone. When war broke out, she sought an alternative location, first in Mersea Island, near Colchester, Essex, and then in Beaconsfield, Buckinghamshire. At the end of the war she moved her Russian School of Ballet to the town of Tunbridge Wells, in Sussex, and later to larger premises at Finchcocks Manor, in Goudhurst, Kent.

Finchcocks Manor (the ‘Peterhof of the Weald’)

7. WWII – Dealing with the NKVD:

After his mission in Germany, Dukes joined British Ambassador Sir Nevile Henderson on the last plane to leave Berlin before Britain declared war on Germany, on September 3rd 1939. Obviously wanting to assist the war effort, he looked around for appointments. His ODNB entry merely states: “In the Second World War, Dukes lectured on behalf of the Ministry of Information, and served as a director of companies involved in aircraft production.”  Certainly, in his final paragraphs of An Epic of the Gestapo, he predicted that, despite the short-term accommodations, the autocracies of Germany and Soviet Russia, even though they had so much in common, would come to blows eventually. “Where Nazi Germany and Bolshevist Russia must eventually come into conflict is in the contradiction between the hypernationalistic ideals of Hitler and the neo-imperialistic and ultimately world-revolutionary aims of Stalin. Here clash is inevitable.”

Thus, like other Tory grandees opposed to both forms of totalitarianism (e.g. Sir Robert Vansittart), Dukes, with his expressed anathema to Communism, was probably taken aback by Churchill’s over-expansive embrace of the Soviet Union when Hitler invaded it in June 1941. Yet he would have swiftly realized that some accommodation with Stalin’s regime was necessary to defeat the Nazi foe. And the overtures towards some intelligence-sharing with the Soviets came quickly. Hugh Dalton, the Minister responsible for the Political Warfare Executive (and SOE) came to an agreement with Menzies, the head of MI6, that approaches should be made to Moscow. George Hill, the veteran agent from 1918 in Russia, was appointed head of an emergent Russian Section of SOE in August 1941.

The SOE-NKVD agreement was a strange one. While the Foreign Office was very sensitive to the opinions of the (mostly conservative and aristocratic) governments-in-exile, SOE was notoriously gung-ho about co-operating with leftist elements, and thought that native communists in western Europe would be a valuable source of subversion and sabotage. Hugh Dalton had, ever since his push to be appointed SOE’s minister, seen the agency as a mechanism for introducing socialism to western Europe after the war, while MI6 was institutionally nervous about having anything to do with the Reds. For their part, the Soviets were desperate to use the British to help replace their sources of intelligence in Western Europe. Their Rote Kapelle network was being mopped up, and their courier-lines were broken. Their aircraft could not travel far enough to drop spies in western Europe, and make the return home. Yet, if the Soviet objective was primarily to gain information about German military strength and deployment, the mission did not harmonise well with what was the business of SOE, namely sabotage. Fortunately (for the health of the accord, anyway), the NKVD appeared not to discriminate between MI6 and SOE: the agencies were both seen as ‘British Intelligence’, and whoever arrived on Russian soil to operate would necessarily be regarded as a spy, since espionage was what Soviet citizens abroad were required to do, and hence such activity was automatically ascribed to imperialistic foreigners who were admitted to the Soviet Union.

As the heads of MI6 and SOE strategized about the mission to Moscow, it might appear that Paul Dukes carried clout beyond his current authority. Yet the influential figures in intelligence were all familiar with his WWI role. Churchill himself, who frequently directed SOE’s business behind the back of his War Cabinet, had urged intervention in Russia in 1919. Desmond Morton, Churchill’s intelligence adviser, had in 1919 been head of MI6’s Section V, spurring anti-Bolshevism efforts. Colin Gubbins, director of operations for SOE, had served on General Ironside’s staff in Murmansk in the summer of 1919. And then there were Dukes’s old colleagues: Robin Bruce Lockhart, imprisoned for his role in the ‘Lockhart Plot’ (which Dukes claimed was not a ‘Lockhart’ plot at all, but a scheme engineered by Sidney Reilly), was head of the Political Warfare Executive; his 1920 partner in Poland, Reginald Leeper, was again head of the Foreign Office’s Political Information Department; George Hill was the head of the new SOE Russian Section; and Stephen Alley in MI5 was guarding any challenge to British interests from intruders from the Baltic States.

Stewart Menzies thus saw the Anglo-Soviet agreement of September 1941 as an opening to build some espionage capability in the Soviet Union. As I have written elsewhere, George Hill effectively reported to Stewart Menzies, not Colin Gubbins, during his time in Moscow and Kuibyshev. And it was through the exploitation of his reputation, and his long-established relationships, that Dukes was able to introduce George Graham to the SOE mission to Moscow.

8. George Graham – Marriage & SOE:

The Anglo-Soviet agreement between SOE and the NKVD was not signed until September 30, 1941. Yet Hill, on HMS Leda, and his staff members Truskowski and Graham (on another ship in the convoy) left the Clyde on September 20, clearly anticipating the formality. Thus Graham’s preparation as a cipher clerk must have begun a long time beforehand. In his memoir, George Hill claimed that he had selected Graham himself out of the Intelligence Corps. Yet the official historian of the Intelligence Corps has informed me that there is no record of his service in that distinguished cadre.

But first, Graham himself entered marriage. Whether this event was arranged for him, in order to boost the solidity of his curriculum vitae, or whether it was a true love-match, cannot be easily determined. On June 30, 1941, the Register Office in Amersham, Buckinghamshire, solemnized the marriage between Serge Leontieff, bachelor, of First House, Seer Green, and Edith Manley Axten, four years older at 34, spinster, of Twitchell’s End Gardens, in Beaconsfield. Serge’s mother and step-father were the witnesses. Graham gave his rank as Private 10850488, in Intelligence, and declared his father as Alexander Leontieff. Another marriage certificate was created, however. In the second version (which clearly describes the same event, as the names, date, and addresses are otherwise identical), Graham/Leontiev gives his parents’ names as Philippe Leontieff and Anna Grigorieva. Presumably, with obvious capabilities as a native Russian speaker, any identity as ‘George Graham’ would not have fooled the Soviet authorities, so he had to have a lineage invented to distance himself from the aristocratic Leontievs. Maybe the NKVD, when vetting Hill and the members of his team, demanded to see some supporting documentation.

There may not be much significance in the timing of this late June marriage, so soon after Churchill’s announcement of support for the Soviet Union, yet, two days earlier, Mason Macfarlane’s advance guard of 30 Mission had arrived in Moscow and started passing on veiled ULTRA secrets to the Soviets. If a role had already been identified for George Graham, the final steps in the procedure were being out in place.

[I shall now re-present what I wrote in my May 2021 bulletin about Graham’s time in the Soviet Union.]

About Graham, Hill said little, only that the Lieutenant was in the Intelligence Corps, and that Hill had selected him as his A.D.C.  Nevertheless, he relied upon him extensively. One of the items that the Hill party took with them to Moscow was a heavy Chubb safe in which to lock the codes and ciphers each night, but when the embassy was evacuated to Kuibyshev, soon after their arrival, because of the proximity of Hitler’s army, the safe had to be left behind. When an apartment had been found for the SOE office in Kuibyshev, Hill wrote in his diary: “We take care never to leave the flat alone; poor Graham is practically chained to it. Our files and codes are kept under lock and key when not in use. Not in a safe, deary – we ain’t got one – but in our largest suitcase, which is nailed to the floor.” [Much of Hill’s memoir derives from letters that he sent his wife.]

Yet a few months later, Graham and Hill were separated. When it was safe, after a few months, to return to Moscow, Ossipov went first, followed by Hill in early February. But Hill had to leave ‘Trusco’ and Graham behind, much to Hill’s chagrin. “I don’t like being separated from Graham, though, especially on account of coding,” he wrote. Trusco was scheduled to return to England in mid-February, so Graham would have sole responsibility for the flat. Before Hill left (by train), he had to write out orders for Graham, ‘covering every likely eventuality’. “Codes and cash we deposited with the Embassy, otherwise poor Graham would have been tied to the flat for keeps: he will do his coding at the Embassy”, he continued.

Hill’s chronology is annoyingly vague (and not much helped by Peter Day in Trotsky’s Favourite Spy), but it seems that Hill did not see Graham again until he returned to Kuibyshev in about July 1942, to renew his passport, as he had been recalled to London for discussions. Even (or especially) in wartime, strict diplomatic protocols had to be obeyed. Thus Graham had been left for several months without any kind of formal supervision. As a member of the Intelligence Corps, his credentials were presumably considered impeccable.

I add a few annotations. In his memoirs, entrusted to his daughter, Truskowski made fleeting mentions of Hill and Graham. “My little mission was composed of a swashbuckler called Hill, a rather dim type. There was an equivocal type who spoke excellent Russian called Graham; he was not what he purported to be but he really was dim.” And in 1988, in a letter to Mark Seaman (the ‘SOE historian’), Truskowski wrote: “As for Graham, he was rather a colourless type, no match for his boss.” On what aspect of his personality Graham let himself down it is not clear, but it must certainly have been dangerous to have left him alone under the surveillance of the NKVD.

Truskowski’s Report

And then there appears more damaging suggestions. My informant in the Briger family (who had been told by relatives that Graham ‘had been a spy for the English in Russia’) wrote to me with the following tidbit about Graham: “He also fell in love while spying in Russia, which made it so difficult and worse. A real spy story.” Yet foreigners in the Soviet Union did not simply ‘fall in love’ after chance meetings. Any encounter would have been arranged by the NKVD, as a ‘honey-trap’, and the amoureuse would have been selected, instructed, and then been required to report in full to the secret police. Clandestine photography would have been employed, in the fashion that the British Ambassador to Moscow, Sir Geoffrey Harrison, was blackmailed by the KGB in 1968. Thus Graham would have been threatened with disclosure if he did not reveal information – probably his codes there and then, and surely further secrets when he returned to the United Kingdom.

One has to assume that all communications between London and Moscow at this time were intercepted and decrypted by the NKVD. If one inspects file HS 4/334 at the National Archives, for instance, one can find dozens of cables discussing SOE activity in eastern Europe (such as incursions into the Baltic States) that were laid open for the Soviets to interpret, and change their negotiation tactics. These matters deserve a completely independent study which could be dramatic enough to cause the history of the onset of the Cold War to be re-written.

Graham’s time in the Soviet Union was undeniably a disaster. He was ill-prepared, an obvious plant, and utterly unsuited to the position that required a high degree of maturity and attention to security procedures. Archie Boyle’s comment to Guy Liddell that Hill and Graham were ‘very closely tied and one always backs up the other’ takes on a new significance. Hill very openly took up with his mistress, Luba Polik, the hotelier, and would have defended his aide and cipher clerk if security breaches occurred because of the latter’s carelessness or romantic dalliances.It is no wonder that Guy Liddell dropped any further reference to him when he discovered the gory details. And the experience would lead to serious problems with Graham’s mental health.

9. Post-War Tragedy:

The Grahams had two children, one born during the war, after Graham’s return on leave, and the second after he had been demobilized. Again, the official records are a little troubling. On www. ancestry.com, the primary indicator of the birthdate of Christopher Graham is given as March, 1945. Thus Serge should have been in the UK in June 1944: indeed the archives of the Russian section of SOE show that Graham (D/P 103) arrived in London on leave on May 4, 1944.  According to HS 4/331, on April 19, Hill had cabled London to suggest that Graham could accompany two Pickaxe agents [NKVD agents to be parachuted behind German lines by the RAF] to Bari before proceeding on to the United Kingdom: he had been in the Soviet Union for fifteen months without a break. Hill requested that Graham be returned after four weeks’ leave, something that was not fulfilled. Graham did, however, soon leave Moscow, unaccompanied.

His leave must have been extended while SOE discussed the future of the troubled Moscow Mission, where co-operation with the NKVD was steadily breaking down. A very enigmatic and incomplete telegram from Hill to London, dated October 30, 1944 (in HS 4/334) suggests that, while Captain Maclaughlin (D/P 106) was currently in Moscow, the NKVD would prefer to have Captain Graham (D/P 103) return to his post. Graham (recently promoted to Major) was reported to be with Hill at the latter’s farewell dinner in Moscow in May 1945, and had apparently returned from another visit to London with him in March. The father could therefore have been present at the birth.

Yet the actual birth certificate shows that Christopher John Graham was born on January 10, 1945. That would have required George to be in the United Kingdom in April 1944, which appears not to have been possible. [I plan to develop a stronger chronology for Hill’s and Graham’s movements after studying further files in the HS/4 series.] Irrespective of such irregularities, the birth of Jane Ann Graham followed after George’s demobilization in July 3, 1946, by which time George was described merely as ‘Journalist’. His skills as a Russian speaker meant that he eventually found a position with the BBC. Bush House records indicate that he worked as Assistant Programme Organiser in the Russian Section of the Eastern European Service of the BBC from 29 December 1947 to 31 October 1949. Yet no reference points to any particular contribution he made: it appears that the Russian Section had problems attracting suitable staff, and the issue of what tone talks should take in the climate of the intensifying Cold War must have been contentious.

And then the Grahams’ life was shattered by an unspeakable personal tragedy. The Buckingham Free Press reported on December 2, 1949 (a Wednesday):

            When the offside rear tyre of an articulated lorry burst at Dashwood Hill, near High Wycombe, on Sunday afternoon, the lip of the wheel disintegrated, flew across the road and struck four-years old Christopher John Graham, who was walking on the footpath with his mother, his small sister, and another child.

            Christopher, who lived at 8, King-street, Piddington, was seriously injured about the face and neck and died on arrival at High Wycombe War Memorial Hospital.

This must have been a devastating event for George and Edith. Yet stresses had already begun to appear. According to the news item, Mrs Graham had attended the inquest to identify the body, and stated that her husband ‘was formerly head of the Eastern European broadcast service of the B.B.C. at Bush House, London, but had not been working for some time because he was suffering from a nervous breakdown’, adding that he was ‘at present living at Tunbridge Wells’. This assertion was obviously not quite accurate: Edith exaggerated her husband’s role in the service, and did not point out that his official termination had occurred between the date of the accident and the inquest itself. Maybe George did not tell her the full story of his work at Bush House.

A further coroner’s report was issued a week later, adding some bizarre touches:

            Mr. R. E. M. Proust, a superintendent of Colonial police, of 5 Albert Mews, N.W.1, said he was driving a car overtaking the lorry, which was going at five to seven miles per hour, when there was a loud bang and he heard a child screaming. He had noticed nothing unusual about the rear of the lorry.

            Police-sergeant E. Smith said the lorry was loaded with aluminum ingots which were evenly spaced, and the load was well within the legal limits.

Should these reports be taken at face value? What were the chances of such a freak accident? How was it that a police officer happened to be overtaking the lorry at the exact time of the accident? And why would Proust trouble himself to have taken a look at the rear of the lorry if it was merely a routine encounter? What with the timing, and the precision, one has to consider that some devilish attempt had been made to scare (or punish) the Grahams, but the circumstances are beyond analysis.

Yet Graham’s nervous breakdown showed that he was probably being threatened. My Briger informant again: “When he retired he lived at the Legat School in Tunbridge Well for a while and went mad as he thought everyone was trying to kill him. He used to come out only at night and run from tree to tree in case he was spotted. Ending up paranoid, he didn’t know if he was Russian or English or which language he was speaking.” This speaks of justifiable terror, but, if the family lore is reliable, also provocatively indicates that George believed that his oppressors were not just the Russians, who were presumably dissatisfied with his performance after he returned to the United Kingdom. Did his erstwhile employees in SOE/MI6 likewise want him silenced, since he knew too much about the security breaches in Moscow and Kuibyshev?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the marriage broke up. On August 16, 1955, George re-married, in Willesden. George may have been rehabilitated somewhat by then, as his residence at the time of the marriage is given as 5 Greenhurst Road, N.W.2. His bride, who lived in Edgware, was Valentina Ivanov, at the age of fifty-four ten years older, whose previous marriage had also been dissolved. She was described as ‘Cook-manageress’, the daughter of Constantin Kikin, a Russian army general. She had studied in Belgrade in the 1920s and then worked in Yugoslavia as a teacher, where she married and had a daughter. She was deported to Germany during the war (and must surely have suffered there) before making it to the United Kingdom. At some stage George and Valentina returned to the support mechanisms of the Legat institution. Their home from May 1964 (at least) was 17 Sutherland Road, Tunbridge Wells, by which time Valentina was working as a needlework teacher at the Legat School, and as an art and craft teacher at Rosemead School in Tunbridge Wells. The official witnesses at the ceremony had not included George’s mother: they were his loyal aunt, Nadine, and his step-father, Alexander Shidlovsky.

Of the extended family, George’s father died first, in 1957. Next was George himself, of hepatic cirrhosis on February 8, 1968, at the house in Tunbridge Wells. Alexander Shidlovsky followed him on March 26, 1969, succumbing to coronary thrombosis and arteriosclerosis, nearby in Tunbridge Wells. Nadine died in 1971, and her sister Olga followed her on November 14, 1975, with cardiovascular degeneration given as the cause. Edith Graham died at her daughter’s house in Horsham, Sussex, on November 2, 1980, with cause of death given as myocardial infarction and coronary thrombosis and atheroma.

Paul Dukes (1948)
Paul Dukes in 1948

Paul Dukes did not enjoy a happy ending, either. The photograph used in his ODNB entry, taken in 1948, shows a man seemingly beset by a world of worry. He married his second wife, Diana Fitzgerald, in 1959, and died in Cape Town, South Africa, on August 27, 1967. In a local obituary notice, Lady Dukes was reported as saying that her husband’s death ‘was a direct result of serious injuries he suffered in a car accident in England last year’. The notice added: “They had come to South Africa hoping the climate would help him recover.” Was it a suspicious road accident, like that which took the life of former MI5 officer Tomás Harris in Majorca in 1964? In any case, there was no Omnipotent Oom around to save Paul Dukes. He left £374 in probate.

Diana Fitzgerald

10. Summing-Up:

This is a story of exploitation, stupidity and secretiveness. It points to a massive breach of security that would have put any putative ‘ELLI’ problem in London in the shade. MI6 and MI5 later recognized that their premises in Moscow had been electronically bugged, but an admittance that the Soviets had had access to their ciphers and code-books would have knocked such goings-on into a cocked hat. Yet it is difficult to come to any other conclusion.

Serge Leontiev was exploited – by Paul Dukes, who seemed to have selected Serge as a surrogate for his own thwarted ambitions, and by the officers in MI6 and SOE (and maybe politicians, too) who connived with the misbegotten plan to send him into Soviet Russia without a serious thought of the consequences. The inevitable devilry by the NKVD occurred, and George Graham (as he now was) was left hanging high and dry.

The naivety shown by the officers of MI6 and SOE (surely Menzies, Dansey, Gubbins, Boyle and Hambro) over the NKVD’s methods, and how they would treat an obvious White Russian inserted into the Moscow mission, is breathtaking. Any perceived lack of acuity in poor George Graham was dwarfed by that displayed by those giants of ‘Intelligence’. The failure to consider essential security procedures and techniques reflects an amateurism that equals the appalling carelessness over German Funkspiele against SOE networks, primarily in the Netherlands and France, during the war.

If Guy Liddell had not made that single entry in his Diary, or if the censor had been careful enough to redact the name of Graham/Leontiev, presumably none of this story would have emerged. And SOE and MI6 were sensible in stifling the details, as the revelations would have caused damage far beyond their own province. Relevant papers were surely destroyed, and it is possible that all the ‘SOE advisers’ at the Foreign Office were shielded from these events. Thus the secrecy behind them is no conventional cover-up: it just represents one of probably many intelligence mis-steps that were capably buried at the time. Yet the story I have laid out above proves that the final word on any incident can never be written. I direct that message specifically at you, Mr. Mark Seaman.

New Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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2021 Year-end Roundup

Joyous New Year Wishes to all coldspur readers from the entire Editorial Team!

Contents:

1. The Future of coldspur

2. On the Archives

3. The Biography of Ter Braak

4. George Graham & “The Spies’ Spy”

5. Paperback Editions

6. The Non-Communicants

7. Guy Liddell’s Diaries: TWIST and Scout

8. In Memoriam: Geoffrey Elliott (1939-2021)

9. Philbymania

10. Letters to the Editor

1. The Future of coldspur

In headlining this section, I am not raising questions about the future of coldspur the blogger, but coldspur the website. Having just achieved my seventy-fifth birthday, I believe that I shall remain in control of my faculties for a few more years before I prepare to join the ranks of the great conspiracy theorists in the sky. Moreover, I have plenty of material to keep me occupied at least through 2022, and am looking forward to several more years of doughty research and spirited writing. And the publishing model will not change. Readers will not be asked for donations; coldspur will not carry advertisements; I shall not be moving coldspur to Substack. This is my hobby, and I shall carry on my practice of publishing monthly bulletins on intelligence matters, with the occasional self-indulgent foray into personal memoir, without worrying about revenues, popularity ratings, or commentary in the Twittersphere.

Yet what will happen to www.coldspur.com? I know that there are mechanisms on the Internet that store all content in some dark place, but I should like the coldspur archive to be available for future researchers even if I am not around to husband it. As new files are released to Kew, and younger students assume a role in reconsidering MI5’s history, I should like them to be able to tap in to my hypotheses and conclusions, which will presumably not be published anywhere else. To begin with, it presumably means that the domain name has to be maintained, through annual payments to GoDaddy. For the url to be active, it has to have a paid-up agreement with a hosting site, as I have arranged with a company down the road in Ocean Isle. That sounds minimally satisfactory, even if I make testatory arrangements for payments to continue for a number of years. I would much prefer some respectable institution to take coldspur under its wing, and make it available via its native directories, such as the Hoover Institution Library and Archives at Stanford University, or the Bodleian, or Churchill College, Cambridge. Does any reader have experience with any such arrangements, and would he or she be able to advise me?

And then there all my personal files – and my library. I am no longer confident that the Ethel Hays Memorial Library at the University of Eastern Montana in Billings (see http://www.coldspur.com/homo-sovieticus ) will be a suitable repository for my collection, and it would probably be too far off the beaten track for all but the most intrepid researchers. I have files of electronic correspondence, notes taken from hundreds of books, chronologies, etc. etc. which I am not keen to share without constraints while I am still active but should, I believe, be most useful to posterity. Added to that are numerous articles and clippings that I have collected, in paper format, as well as a library of about 7,500 books, primarily on intelligence matters, general history, and biography, but also comprising a rich set of rare titles in poetry, literature, humour, language and reference. I would guess that the section on intelligence matters is unmatched in any private – or even institutional – collection. I should hate to see it split up and dispersed. My obvious choice would be to donate it to the University of North Carolina in Wilmington, NC (about thirty-five miles away), since that institution has connections with the CIA, and I have used its facilities over the past twenty years. I understand that I would have to set up an endowment to house and maintain the library. I started to approach the University on this topic a few years ago, but my contact moved on. I shall retry in 2022, conscious of the following: “  . . . no one cares about a library collection as much as the person who has assembled it  . . . one man’s passion project would be nothing but a burden to whom the responsibility of curation was passed on.” (Andrew Pettegree and Arthur der Weduwen, in The Library)

Meanwhile, I am considering a number of projects for 2022. I have several more episodes in the Déricourt saga to unroll. I need to report on my discoveries concerning the life and career of the SOE officer George Graham, aka Serge Leontiev. I hear the call to follow-up on my investigations into ELLI, and explore the indications of treachery in MI5 that so excited Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher, and later Nigel West. I still have to study the records concerning the post-war activities of Roger Hollis, how close he was to the functions of counter-intelligence against the Soviets, and how MI5 evolved its organization during those years. I want to return to Alexander Foote, the peculiar interest he showed in the Gouzenko trial, and the links between Canada and Switzerland in passing money to the Rote Drei. There is further research to be performed on Claude Dansey and his attempt to make contact with anti-Hitler factions in the Wehrmacht and the Sicherheitsdienst. I recall numerous loose ends such as my investigation into Donald Maclean and his photographer, and the matter of Peter Wright and HASP (and my communications with the Swedish Professor Agrell). I have to study the Petrov files in depth. There remains more to be told about the struggles of RSS during and after the war, and its role in tracking illicit wireless usage. I am interested in studying in detail the records concerning the evolution of SOE in France, and how the authorities succeeded in stifling accurate analysis for decades. I want to investigate more deeply the phenomenon of disinformation through controlled (or ‘probably controlled’) agents, and what the legacy of the Double-Cross System was. Lastly, in collaboration with another remote coldspur contact, I am engaged in a highly secret project involving the RAF, SOE and the NKVD in World War II.

So what is my objective in all this? I am not seeking any fame or awards – or even an invitation to tea by Christopher Andrew. I should indeed like greater recognition of my efforts, but I am not sure where such a statement would derive, and the overall unimaginative (as I see it) state of intelligence scholarship in the UK is reinforced by a mutual admiration society of persons not willing to take risks and challenge the establishment. What continues to drive me is frustration over the secretive policies of government institutions, not willing to release archival material that has long passed its expiry date under the guise of a probably imaginary security exposure, and despair over the arrogant attitudes of bureaucrats who believe that the public should not be trusted with information that may show less than perfect credit on the way the intelligence services executed their mission. I am also in a perpetual philosophical tussle with the ‘authorized’ historians, and those who seem to accept that, since an official historian has covered a topic or department, there cannot be anything else to be said about the topic. And I get very irritated by the appearance of lazy or deceptive books on intelligence matters that get absurdly hyped in the media by critics who should know better.

(Given my recent diatribes over the shenanigans of the authorised historians and Foreign Office advisers concerning SOE, I was amused – and saddened – to read the following item from Guy Liddell’s Diaries, entered after a Joint Intelligence Committee meeting on January 2, 1946: “We also took the paper about the publication of information relating to SOE. The Deputy Chiefs of Staff had reversed the decision of the JIC and had ordered that a revised version of the SOE memo should be given to the press. They thought that if some official publication went out it would damp down some unauthorised publications. I confined myself to saying that it would be almost impossible to prosecute under the Official Secrets Act if an official release was made, and I suggested that when making the handout something might perhaps be said to the press to the effect that the Official release did not authorise them to publish all sorts of stories that they might have already got written up in their lockers.”

I was also dismayed to learn, from a letter published in History Today of November 2021, that the historian E. P. Thompson had been cruelly frustrated in his attempts to discover more about the SOE mission of his brother Frank, who had been executed for working with Bulgarian partisans in 1944. Thompson went to consult the records in 1974, believing that they would be declassified under the thirty-year rule, but was peremptorily advised that the records had been reclassified for fifty years. He died in 1993, just before his planned return to the archives. I note that the file, HS 9/1463, was made available on February 18, 2003.)

I should like to recognize here all readers of coldspur who have got in touch with me – a group that I shall resolutely refuse to call ‘the coldspur community’. I have no idea how many regular readers of coldspur there are, but each year there are dozens of persons with whom I communicate solely because of something they have read on the site, none of whom I have ever met. (I have spoken to a few on the telephone, and some have warned me that I should be using something called ‘WhatsApp’ or ‘Skype’, but I have resisted, as no one really needs to see my face, and I am comfortable working my PC while the speakerphone is on.) I thank you all for your interest, hints, and advice, and earnestly encourage anyone to email me, or post a comment on the website, if he or she has a comment or question. I respond to every message, as promptly as I can, and, while I know I have not followed up religiously on all tips and leads, I hope that I have tidied up each thread of correspondence politely and adequately. (I admit that I occasionally overlook aspects of an earlier exchange with a correspondent.) Thank goodness for the software on WordPress that traps nearly all junk posts: at the last count I had a total of 6,437,245 messages rejected, which means that I don’t have to go and inspect and delete more than a handful each day (which task I did have to perform in the early days before the special software was introduced). If you have tried to post a comment, and have been ignored, please use my personal email address instead. And do stay in touch.

2. On the Archives

For the past three or four years, I have performed my research exclusively from my home in the North Carolina boondocks, supplied constantly by the invaluable services of abebooks, and my chief photographer in London, Dr Kevin Jones. Yet I have missed visiting the archives, and the excitement of leafing through original documents, and encountering unexpected clues. Most of my time amongst the repositories has been spent at Kew, but I have also visited The Bodleian Library, and Balliol College Library, in Oxford, as well as the excellent resource at Churchill College in Cambridge. Many years ago I visited the Stanford University Library in Palo Alto, but that was when I was researching the life of Gordon Kaufmann, architect, for my ODNB entry, and I have not visited any other home of archives in the United States. The University of North Carolina in nearby Wilmington does not even carry a useful subscription to JSTOR material. Since I am not a faculty member, I cannot, moreover, access any material (such as the ODNB) on-line from home.

I have, however, occasionally requested digital information from such institutions. Many years ago I acquired photocopies of some of David Dallin’s papers on Alexander Foote from the New York Public Library – and wish now that I had ordered far more than I did. I did commission some marginally useful photographs of the E. H. Cookridge files on Guy Liddell from McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Earlier this year I requested information on Stephen Alley’s biography from Glasgow University, but Covid had prevented any action, and I shall try again in the New Year. I never heard back from St. Edmund Hall in Oxford about information on the mysterious Mr. Snelling who featured in the Portland Spy case (see ‘Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away’ at http://www.coldspur.com/year-end-wrap-up-2020 ). Dr. Chris Smith (see below) introduced me to some material from the John Cairncross archive at the Special Collections Department of Cambridge University Library.

Hoover Institution Library & Archive

A visit to the Hoover Institution at Stanford University in California would be very rewarding, what with the archives of such as George Hill, Kenneth de Courcy, Robert Conquest, and many more available for inspection. The Library is located just down the road from where our son and his family live, in Los Altos, and in theory should be the most convenient facility to visit when next we voyage out west. Yet, after two years of separation, I can hardly see myself happily absenting myself from son, daughter-in-law and grand-daughters for days at a time, however fruitful such a visit might be. I would prefer to have a round of golf with Sylvia, James and Ashley (now 10, and very keen on the game) instead. There will not be many more such opportunities.

Yet I did recently bring part of a fascinating archive to my home. This summer I acquired, via an on-line auction, a portion of the papers of Donald McCormick, aka Richard Deacon, who wrote several books on intelligence (such as the notorious British Connection). It comprises a mixed set of letters to McCormick (but none written by him) from such luminaries in the intelligence world as Natalie Wraga, Arden Winch, Isaiah Berlin, Nigel West, and Steven Dedijer, as well as a copy of Lord Inverchapel’s last Will and Testament, and a typed statement by Alexander Foote, complaining about the quality of his interrogation by MI5 officers. Perhaps the most unusual of the items is a long handwritten letter, in German, by Karl Friedman to his sister Lizzy (Kim Philby’s first wife), written to her from the Afikim kibbutz in December 1967. It is accompanied by a few photographs, including one of Lizzy herself (below). I have no idea how these pieces arrived in McCormick’s hands, but the whole package cries out for comprehensive analysis and reproduction at some time.

Lizzy, Karl, Rina, Denny (Rifikim, 1967)

3. The Biography of Ter Braak

I wrote about my communications with Jan-Willem van den Braak in February 2019, when I indicated that his biography of the Abwehr spy, Willem Ter Braak, whose real name was Engelbertus Fukken, was going to be translated from the Dutch, and published soon thereafter in English. Well, that did not happen, but I believe a much better outcome has now been arranged. Mr. van den Braak and I had several fruitful discussions, and he embarked upon a project of deeper research that resulted in considerable changes and extensions to the original text.

I became very excited about Mr van den Braak’s discoveries, and the outcome was that I very happily agreed to part-underwrite the translation exercise. Jan-Willem worked very diligently on delving further into the sources of Ter Braak’s life, and the events leading up to his being parachuted into the English countryside in October 1940. Consequently, the new edition of his book will be available in the spring of 1922, published by Pen and Sword.  I believe that he has performed some brilliant research, and done an outstanding job in explaining the complex environment in which the spy was brought up, and how he was eventually recruited by the Abwehr. What is more, the author invited me to contribute an Afterword to his book: in it I express my great enthusiasm about his account while reserving the admission that he and I may draw slightly different conclusions from the circumstances of Ter Braak’s apparent suicide. Moreover, I was also able to review the translation, and offer my own idiosyncratic comments on the text. The translator selected, while showing great skill with the English language, was not a native English speaker, and I thought that showed on occasions. I was happy to apply my own standards of English style, grammar and composition (hidebound and antiquated as they may be) in order to prepare a story that, in my opinion anyway, would provide a more fluid narrative.

The Dutch book, which appeared in 2017, was titled Spion tegen Churchill (‘Spy against Churchill’), and I pointed out to Jan-Willem that I did not think it was a very accurate, or even compelling, choice. After all, every Abwehr spy sent to the United Kingdom clearly had a mission of undermining Churchill’s campaign, and the case that Ter Braak might have been sent on a mission to assassinate the Prime Minister was tenuous at best. Spies did not normally engage in such violent acts, which might have had unexpected consequences. About a year ago, we agreed that The Spy Who Died Out in the Cold (which Jan-Willem had selected from a newspaper headline) was a more accurate and engaging title, and would provide a scenario that succinctly described Ter Braak’s unique fate – dying alone on a cold winter night in an air-raid shelter in Cambridge.

‘Hitler’s Spy Against Churchill’

Yet the publisher unfortunately has decided otherwise – as the picture shows. She overruled our submission, based on some ‘market research’, that Pen and Sword had undertaken, where the word ‘Churchill’ is believed to be a big draw in attracting prospective buyers to a book. What it means is that the cover of the book is in my opinion a little cluttered, as the preferred title has been included as a nominal subtitle. The density of information is increased by the fact that Jan-Willem generously requested that ‘with an afterword by Antony Percy’ appear on the cover as well. That slogan does not have the appeal of a ‘Nigel West’ endorsement, but I am happy to receive a little publicity. On the other hand, the style editor at Pen and Sword was mercifully quite impressed with the fluency and drive of the text, which means that, apart from such whims that may arise from the application of the corporate ‘house style’, we should not expect too many unpleasant surprises when the book is eventually released. (It seems nearly ready to go, but I have not found an announcement on the company’s website, even though over 250 books ‘coming soon’ are listed for publication up to August 2023. We received the proofs from the publisher as I was putting this month’s coldspur to bed, with my editorial team generously giving up some of their holidays to accomplish the task.) I shall post further news of the book’s availability as soon as I receive it. It has been a great pleasure working with Mr van den Braak, who has made a major contribution to the history of espionage.

4. George Graham & “The Spies’ Spy”

I recently wrote about the strange case of George Graham, the SOE officer deputed to accompany George Hill as his cipher-clerk when Hill was sent out to Moscow in November 1941 to set up the SOE mission. The diaries of Guy Liddell had revealed that Archie Boyle, the SOE Security Officer, had informed the head of MI5’s B Division, during the investigation into the Gouzenko disclosures in October 1945, and the quest for ‘ELLI’, that Graham’s real name was Serge Leontiev. That news had in turn provoked Liddell to carry out a thorough investigation into the man’s background, and to determine what security exposures might have been raised.

I expressed my amazement that any intelligence officer worth his salt would have recommended the son of a White Russian officer for such a sensitive post in the nest of the NKVD. The Soviet intelligence service would surely have wanted to find out the man’s background and credentials, and whether he had any relatives living in the Soviet Union, and, even if they had not closely tracked the Leontiev family, would have been prompted by the man’s native speaking of Russian to take a very close interest. And, in my initial investigation into Graham’s immigration, naturalisation and matrimonial records, I discovered some rather challenging anomalies.

Since then, I have engaged a couple of London-based researchers to perform a much deeper inspection of Graham’s life and career, one from a general genealogical and biographical perspective, the other approaching the topic from more of an intelligence and military angle. That exercise is now almost concluded, and I am ready to present a startling account of Leontiev’s rise and fall in the United Kingdom, which starts with a connection to Sir Paul Dukes, and ends with a stumbling post-war role with BBC Foreign Broadcasts. I also succeeded in making contact with the family of George Graham’s uncle, Alexander Briger, whose grandson of the same name is an illustrious Australian conductor, and they have shared some remarkable reminiscences about George. I shall dedicate my January 2022 coldspur bulletin to his story.

At the same time that I wrote about Graham, I mentioned the fact that Stephen Alley (an officer in MI5, and a possible candidate for ‘ELLI’) had made a claim that he was fired from MI6 because he refused to assassinate Joseph Stalin, an assertion that appears in Michael Smith’s Six. The source of this statement lay in his archive deposited at Glasgow University, but, because of Covid, the librarians there had not been able to access the records for me. I was just considering inquiring again when I received my package from the McCormick archive, and I was bowled over to find a confirmation of the story within.

It appeared in a letter written by Arden Winch, dated June 7, 1979. Now Arden Winch (1928-1991) was not a name I knew, but I have discovered that he was a prominent writer and director of crime and intelligence TV series, such as ‘Cold Warrior’, in the 1970s and 1980s. Having just read McCormick’s (Deacon’s) history of the British Secret Service, Winch wrote to offer a couple of anecdotes. He had been performing research for a film on Sidney Reilly, which project never came to fruition, and after mentioning George Hill and Robin Bruce Lockhart, he came to Stephen Alley. The next paragraph runs as follows:

Anyway, I eventually met Stephen Alley, then retired to Bray. All the previous agents I had met had been in awe of Alley obviously the spies’ spy. I don’t know if you knew him. He was, in appearance, the classic retired gentleman. He treated his wife with splendid old-world courtesy, which, in a way is a pity in that he carefully avoided telling her much about his work, partly because it would be dangerous for her, partly because he believed that you didn’t involve the Fair Sex in these sordid matters. He remarked that he had never risen far in the Service as he should have done. I happened to know his position, and there wasn’t much further he could have gone, and asked, why. I didn’t always obey orders, he explained. What sort of orders? He glanced, to make sure his wife couldn’t overhear, then said, “Well, it’s a little confidential. But like the time I was ordered to murder Stalin. Never liked the chap much, but he regarded me as a friend, and the idea of walking into his office and killing him no, I said, I wouldn’t do it.” Then he lowered his voice still further. “Anyway, I wasn’t at all satisfied with the arrangements for getting out afterwards.”

Stephen Alley

The lessons from this anecdote must be 1) that spies indeed are not reliable assassins, and 2) that, if you want a long and successful marriage, you should never tell your spouse that you were once ordered to kill a foreign despot. (Although she might, of course, rebuke you for not sacrificing yourself for the greater good of humanity, and then remind you to take out the garbage.) But I liked that bit about the Exit Strategy. And, even if an admission of ‘not liking much’ someone who was responsible for the deaths of millions of his own citizens is a troubling example of British litotes (and, after all, Churchill did go on about how much he liked Stalin), it all throws some revealing light on the Mystery that Stephen Alley became. You will not read about that in Jeffery.

5. Paperback Editions

An exercise that always intrigues me is checking what changes have been made in the paperback (or any second) edition of any book on intelligence. As I have documented before, it is well-nigh impossible to release a book on this subject that contains no errors, but the implications of fixing them are highly problematic. Of course, if egregious mistakes are discovered when it is too late to change the galley-proofs, errata slips can be inserted, but that can be very messy, and just draw attention to the oversights and misrepresentations. I made a few stupid errors in compiling Misdefending the Realm, but, in my own defence, I was editor, fact-checker and proof-reader, and one can read one’s own outpourings for only so long before succumbing to ennui and somnolence. And it is unlikely that a second edition will come out, although, for a few months a couple of years ago, an editor at the company that took over the University of Buckingham Press did express to me interest in bringing out a new edition. Nothing came of it, however.

One of the challenges is that any dramatic change to the text – apart from the correction of minor facts – will probably require changes to the Index, and that is not a task to be assumed lightly. I notice that the 1968 version of M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France managed to maintain the same Index from the 1966 first edition verbatim. The changes demanded by the threat of lawsuits were able to be accommodated by replacing paragraphs with new text of the same length. When Patrick Marnham informed me of the upcoming paperback version of War in the Shadows, I became temporarily excited at the prospect of a radically new account of Henri Déricourt’s recruitment, based on my discussions with him. Yet, while Marnham was able to provide a fascinating new Afterword (which did not affect the Index), the text appears to be completely unchanged from that of the original hardback version.

I understand that substantial changes to a text conventionally require a new edition to be identified, and a new ISBN to be allocated. In 1968, there were no ISBNs, and SOE in France was presented as a ‘second impression with amendments’, while the reader had to work out him- or her-self exactly what had changed. By virtue of allowing more text on each page of his Preface, Foot was able to add commentary that summarized his changes, including the need to ‘modify a number of passages which gave some quite unintended personal offense’, and to respond to reviewers’ critiques. In 2002, with a wholesale re-drafting, Foot was able to supplement his 1968 Preface with a couple more pages of explanation for changes made to what the Publishers vaguely identify as ‘this edition’. It does have an ISBN now, of course, but, again, exactly what textual amendments have been made can only be determined by painstaking analysis that I have not yet undertaken. Moreover, it is astounding, to me, that, after all that passage of time, Foot did not make wholesale changes to his narrative. Yet there were surely political reasons for that.

Patrick Marnham’s paperback edition of War in the Shadows is described purely as that – ‘the paperback edition’ of the 2020 hardback version, with no obvious indication that the Postscript is new. I am grateful for it, since it refers to coldspur, and my joint research with Professor Glees, but the Postscript is undated. Nevertheless, a new ISBN has been granted: 978-0-86154-058-7, as opposed to 978-1-78607-809-4, which strikes me as an odd system, with a completely fresh set of numbers, while the ebook ISBN (978-1-78607-810-0) remains unchanged. What does that mean? That the Postscript does not appear in the current e-book version? I have no idea. What is going on here? Perhaps someone can enlighten me.

And then there is Andrew Lownie’s Stalin’s Englishman. Again, perceptive and dedicated readers will recall that, a few years ago, I had to rebuke Mr. Lownie strongly in person when, after I had supplied corrections to his first edition of the book, he incorporated the changes without giving me any credit at all. The publication of these two editions presents further paradoxes. (Both were British versions: the republication of such works in the USA, often with different titles and Americanization of spelling, is a topic that I shall not venture to explore here.) The original (2015) edition came in three formats: the hardback (ISBN 978 1 473 62736 9); the Trade paperback (978 1 473 62737 6); and ebook (978 1 473 62739 0). The 2016 paperback edition is described blandly as ‘first published in paperback in 2016’, and is given an ISBN of 978 1 473 62738 3, with the fact that a ‘trade paperback’ has already been issued apparently irrelevant. The wording does not indicate that any textual amendments have taken place. Lownie, however, made some substantive additions to his text, starting in Chapter 29, which means that the ensuing chapters start on higher page numbers, and the Index has had to be re-drafted. Some very subtle adjustments to the very lengthy Acknowledgements have been made, but without including my name (which was what really galled me!). Apart from the reproduction of extracts from some very flattering reviews, inserted as a Frontispiece, Lownie gives no indication, however, that his text has changed. That strikes me as irresponsible. It is all very strange.

Dr. Chris Smith, on the other hand, behaved impeccably. In 2019 he published The Last Cambridge Spy, a biography of John Cairncross. I tactfully pointed out to him a few chronological and logical errors concerning Arthur Martin’s visit to the USA, and Cairncross’s ‘confession’ there. Smith was very professional and thorough in his replies: we both understand the challenges of working through what can be very deceptive memoirs or archives, and he thought my published criticisms were fair. He committed to incorporating some changes for the paperback edition, but, when we were last in contact in May of this year, Dr. Smith expressed uncertainty as to whether the publisher was going ahead with the paperback edition.

This all leads up to Trevor Barnes and Helen Fry. I purchased Helen Fry’s Spymaster: The Secret Life of Kendrick, her biography of Thomas Kendrick, in 2014, the year in which Marranos Press published it. Its ISBN-13 is given as 978-1500418830. I recall it as an amateurish production, strewn with errors, and delivering little new of any substance. When the book was re-issued this summer, as Spymaster: The Man Who Saved MI6, I expressed mild interest, with no real desire to re-inspect it, but was persuaded by one or two correspondents to acquire it, as it reportedly has a brand new chapter on Kim Philby (see below). Thus I now possess a volume with a totally new identifier: ISBN 978-0-300-25595-9. Yet neither the frontispiece nor the author gives any indication that this is a new edition of a previously published book, or what changes have been incorporated. It is not clear whether the blurbs refer to this new edition, or the original. It is all highly irregular and deceptive, in my opinion. Andrew Lownie is Fry’s agent, and presumably managed the whole affair.

Helen Fry’s ‘Spymaster’

As for Trevor Barnes’s Dead Doubles, I own it in the First U.S. Edition (978–0-06-285699-9). I had submitted a number of comments (and corrections) to the author after reading the book a couple of years ago (see http://www.coldspur.com/five-books-on-espionage-intelligence ). I enjoyed, for a while, a productive exchange with Barnes, from which I gathered that he was overall in sympathy with my observations. And then he suddenly closed up, perhaps after I publicized on coldspur revelations that tended to overshadow his rather coy attempt to keep an identity a secret. Ever since then, I have been waiting for the new paperback edition to come out, in order to discover whether he incorporated any of my recommendations – and gave me credit! Well I read recently that it has been published, but I really do not want to have to purchase it just to verify those facts. Does anyone out there in coldspur-land have a copy, and have you managed to notice what changes and acknowledgments have been made? Please let me know if you have. (But I suspect most readers are not very concerned about these details. . . . )

6. The Non-Communicants

I do not intend to discuss here those persons who have declined to participate in the rites of the Church, but instead to indulge in some curmudgeonly and unseasonal complaints about those members of academia and journalism who maintain a stand-offish stance when approached on matters of intelligence. I have enjoyed mixed success in trying to engage prominent ‘experts’ in the field – some very fruitful, not the least of which must be the warm and detailed response from Professor Glees when I wrote to him about Isaiah Berlin and Jenifer Hart many years ago, an exchange that brought me down this long path of research. Yet I have experienced several blank responses, of which the behaviours of Christopher Murphy and Dónal O’Sullivan were the most egregious in 2021.

Earlier this year, I underwent an extraordinary series of experiences with The Journal of Intelligence and National Security. After my review of Agent Sonya was published (incidentally nominated as ‘Book Review of the Year’ by Lady Gaga), I thought that I would not offer my services again. It is a rewarding exercise if one needs the publicity, or feels a charitable need to enlighten the world, but it is very time-consuming. The Journal does not pay reviewers, it works very slowly, and makes strenuous demands on the identification of sources (a practice I heartily endorse). Thus, if I have something to say, I can more speedily distribute any commentary or critique on coldspur. Moreover, it is not as if the Journal enjoys broad readership: the institution resolutely shows that it targets it product at universities, and it is supremely expensive for an independent or retired researcher to acquire individual reports that it publishes.  Its owner Taylor & Francis also publishes enhanced extracts from intelligence files at the National Archives (see http://www.secretintelligencefiles.com/unauthenticated). Professor Glees himself promotes the collection by writing here that “Few resources can be of greater use to the student of 20th century history than easy access to the original documentary evidence of how Britain’s foreign policy was shaped by secret intelligence”. But it is hardly ‘easy’ if a student is not a member of a subscribing library.

Earlier this year, however, the Journal (through the University of Aberystwyth) approached me to inquire whether I might want to review David Burke’s Family Betrayal: Agent Sonya, MI5 and the Kuczynski Network? If there was one subject that could grab my attention, this was it, and I wondered what new material Burke (who wrote The Lawn Road Flats, and The Spy Who Came in from the Co-Op, about Melita Norwood) had managed to dig up. I thus agreed – on the basis that the publisher would supply me with a hard copy, as I do not review e-books – to deliver a review for the periodical. I then waited, and waited, for the book to arrive. After about six weeks, nothing had happened, so I emailed my contact at Aberystwyth, and he promised to harass the History Press. A week or so later the book arrived, and I set to work.

I was not very much impressed. Burke did not have much new to say, repeated some erroneous claims from Co-Op, padded out his story with much familiar material, and elided even the yarns that Ben Macintyre had spun. So I wrote up my review, but, before performing the task of adding all the references required, thought I should pass my 1600-word offering by the editors in order to verify that it met their needs. But I never heard back – not even an acknowledgment. That was in August. A couple of weeks ago, however, another copy of Family Betrayal arrived in my mail-box – presumably the original dispatch, although I could not espy a date anywhere. So now I have two copies of the book, and an unpublished critique that I can surely use when I next decide to have a set of book reviews as a coldspur offering. And that will definitely be my last venture with The Journal of Intelligence and National Security.

Another academic whom I tried to contact was Calder Walton. I had rather enjoyed his 2013 book, Empire of Secrets, and noticed that he had taken up a position as Assistant Director of the Belfer Center’s Applied History Project and Intelligence Project at the Harvard Kennedy School in Boston (see https://www.belfercenter.org/person/calder-walton). Walton’s bio indicates his association with Christopher Andrew, and ‘for six years, privileged access to the archives of MI5’, a provocative claim in its own right. But what really grabbed my attention was the following: “Calder is currently undertaking two major research projects: he is general editor of the multi-volume Cambridge History of Espionage and Intelligence to be published by Cambridge University Press. Over three volumes, with ninety chapters by leading scholars, this project will be a landmark study of intelligence, exploring its use and abuse in statecraft and warfare from the ancient world to the present day.”

It occurred to me that Dr. Walton (with his very WASPish-sounding name: it is said that you can tell a true WASP if, by transposing Christian name and surname, no noticeable jarring occurs, such as with Winthrop Rutherfurd or Hudson Swafford) might not be familiar with Misdefending the Realm, or with my subsequent work on coldspur, and that the Cambridge History might be needlessly impoverished without someone in authority taking stock of some of the latest research. I thus wrote a very warm email to him, welcoming him to New England (where I used to live), and encouraging him to read a few essays on coldspur, highlighting the one concerning Dick White,that I thought would be of particular interest. And I never heard back. I notice now that I also sent him a flattering message, accompanied by a series of questions, back in 2014 after I had read Empire of Secrets, and did not receive any response then. Walton Calder – another of the Great Non-Communicants.

7.  Guy Liddell’s Diaries: TWIST and Scout

I have been revisiting the full digitized version of Guy Liddell’s Diaries, this time with the objective of picking up everything he wrote about GILBERT (Henri Déricourt), Nicolas Bodington, and SOE in general. Each time I return to the journals I discover something new, since, in previous projects, I have been focused on other persons and operations, and have had to close my mind to much of the wealth of information that resides there. What I may have overlooked as insignificant when I first passed through them can appear highly important on a later project: for example, I have just discovered several nuggets involving (primarily) Liddell, Frost, Maltby and Gambier-Parry on the severe deficiencies of RSS in 1942. I wish I had used in The Mystery of the Undetected Radios this gem from September 24, 1942, when Liddell is trying to convince his boss, Petrie, about the need for more efficient mobile units to track down new spies arriving. It confirms my analysis precisely (and Liddell does not even mention the fact that the operator might move his or her location):

If he transmitted three times a week for about 10 minutes or quarter of an hour at a time we might reasonably expect to pick him up in due course. We should then have an area of some 60 miles in which to operate the M.U.s. These units were not however particularly satisfactory since unless we happen to be fairly near at the time of transmission and searching on the direct frequency we should not pick up the transmission. If the man only came up occasionally on the call sign and changed his frequency and time it was on the whole improbable that we should pick him up at all. The technical tool was not therefore a particularly efficient one. If we were called upon to operate on the Second Front we should find ourselves singularly ill-equipped.

Moreover, a major item that I had completely ignored beforehand now seems to be a pointer to the creation of the highly secret TWIST Committee (see http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-lets-twist-again/). On August 15, 1942, Liddell wrote: “I saw Archie Boyle with T.A.R. [Robertson], Senter and Lionel Hale. We agreed that on matters of deception it was desirable to persuade the Controller to set up a small committee consisting of T.A.R., Lionel Hale for S.O.E., Montagu for the services and someone from S.I.S.  T.A.R. will take this up with Bevan.” What I find remarkable about this observation is the fact that SOE, which was of course responsible for sabotage, appeared to be driving the intensified deception plans. Liddell does not explain in this entry why the London Controlling Section was not itself adequate for this role, or why the XX Committee was also considered inappropriate. Soon afterwards, however, he took pains to explain to Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence (who wanted Bevan to chair the XX Committee) that that Committee’s prime role was viewed at that time as counter-espionage, not deception, a claim that is borne out by other evidence.  In addition, I suspect that the group wanted a more private cabal away from the prying eyes of the LCS’s American partner (the Joint Security Control). The timing from this record looks far more accurate than the two claims that have appeared in print.

The document passed on to the Soviets by Anthony Blunt (reproduced in Nigel West’s Triplex) claimed that the Committee was set up in September 1941: that seems improbably early, as Bevan was not appointed as Controller (replacing Stanley) until May 1942. On the other hand, Roger Hesketh placed its creation as late as April 1943, which would now appear to be a deliberate ploy to minimize its operation and influence by representing it as a short-lived phenomenon taking place after the controversial events. Moreover, August 15, 1942 happened to be the exact day on which Déricourt and Doulet escaped from southern France on the trawler Tarana, which would mean that the small meeting convened by Liddell constituted a timely intervention to authorize the role of SIS/SOE in managing agents in the cause of deception. The essential members are the same as listed in the Blunt document, which makes clear that the scope and opportunities for sowing disinformation transcended the functions of the so-called ‘double agents’ working under MI5’s B1A. What is also intriguing is that Liddell describes Hale as representing SOE: Hale in fact joined SOE as Press Adviser that very same month, but it sounds as if he had a more important role if he was already having meetings with the head of MI5’s Counter-Espionage section. It also shows that Liddell was quite au fait with what was going on, and knew about SOE’s strong presence behind the scenes. In essence, this brief episode represents another shocking and important lead to follow up, with its strong evidence that the TWIST sub-committee constituted the true deception agency before the XX Committee had matured, and provided authorization for SOE’s plots. The disastrous results all originated in this initiative.

[I plan to return to this business in February 2022. I have recently read Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s excellent Churchill’s Shadow, which is predictably scathing about Churchill’s ventures with SOE, but offers little detail. More interesting is David Stafford’s Churchill & Secret Service, from which I took copious notes several years ago. At that time, however, I paid little attention to what he wrote about the Déricourt period. I shall include consideration of his treatment in my coming analysis.]

But back to the Diaries in general. They are, in my opinion, an immensely rich and largely untapped source for the study of World War II and its aftermath. Liddell reveals an extraordinary capacity for tracking any number of complex events around the world, and combines an excellent memory with attention to detail. Yet, at the same time, they disclose the weaknesses of the man, both in the way he spent his time, and in the confessional way he entrusted his true opinions to the apparently temporary secrecy of his regular record. For he must certainly have expected that they would see the light of day some time.

Nigel West’s publication of portions of the Diaries, in two volumes, is useful up to a point. Eunan O’Halpin has written a cool and incisive criticism of West’s rather erratic approach to the selection and editorial process in Volume 1 (1939-1942) – see Intelligence and National Security (2005), “The Liddell Diaries and British Intelligence History” – and I shall not try to embellish his observations here. Moreover, the published version presents extracts only from the years 1939 to 1945 – less than half of the total coverage – and many of the most controversial episodes in MI5 counter-intelligence and counter-espionage occurred in the post-war years up to Liddell’s retirement in 1953. It is a shame that nobody has commissioned a highly capable expert to edit and publish the lot: they are replete with all manner of abbreviations, acronyms, nicknames, and operations and projects apparently unnamed elsewhere that require some deep knowledge and even powerful imagination to work out. Liddell will refer to such as ‘Buster’, ‘RJ’, ‘Anthony’ in quick succession, while mostly referring to subordinates by their surnames. Many names are usually redacted (such as Jane Archer and Kim Philby), although both have escaped the censor’s blue pencil on occasions. Whole entries and paragraphs have been blanked out. Overall the Diaries range from the ordinariness of Mrs. Dale’s Diary (“I am a bit worried about J.C. [Curry]” to the high politics of the Maisky or Lord Alanbrooke Diaries. And that is one reason why they are so compelling.

What perpetually astonishes me is the amount of time that Liddell spent dictating his record, with accounts of long meetings that have taken place, or summaries of reports that he has read, or discussions he has had with civil servants, other intelligence officers (especially those in MI6, such as Menzies and Vivian and Philby), military men, or politicians, as well, of course with the regular meetings he has with his boss Petrie and with his subordinates such as Dick White, ‘Tar’ Robertson, Herbert Hart, Anthony Blunt, John Curry, Stephen Alley, etc., etc. And then there are the numerous lunches, the dinners at his club with, say, visitors from the USA such as William Stephenson, and the parties he attends that are held for departing FBI or OSS officers, or even the Soviet NKVD contingent. Moreover, MI5 officers seem to be regularly going on leave, as well as taking lengthy time off for colds and ‘flu. One would hardly conclude there was a war on, given the way that social life went on, and leave arrangements were considered sacrosanct. (see also: http://www.coldspur.com/the-diary-of-a-counter-espionage-officer/) I have been reminded that their equivalents in SOE worked seven-day weeks, and sixteen-hour days. It does not sound just.

And that time usage gets reflected in Liddell’s effectiveness. He did not manage B Division well. He admitted, in the run-up to the succession question as Petrie spun out his day of retirement, that he was not a good administrator, not a solid delegator, and allowed a very flat organization to operate that resulted in a good deal of confusion. Moreover, he was not a strong champion and salesman of ideas, reluctant to take an issue by the throat. His diary entries are liberally scattered with the expression ‘I personally think’, as if his private being and his professional role, and how they tackled the urgent matters of policy and practice, could be separated, and in that way he betrayed the fact that he was not forthright and persuasive enough to promote and defend what he thought should happen. It is no surprise to me that he was not seriously considered for the Director-General job –  twice.

In addition, he was a poor judge of character. He was quick to criticize those in other agencies who, out of incompetence or malevolence, frustrated him, such as Vivian, Cowgill, Gambier-Parry and Maltby, but was hoodwinked, like so many others, by Philby. Yet he surrounded himself with shady characters and hollow men like Hart, Rothschild, Blunt, and Hollis – even Guy Burgess, who crops up frequently in his journals although he was not directly employed by MI5. Capel-Dunn, the model for Anthony Powell’s ghastly Widmerpool, makes some brief appearances. Meanwhile, a cast of solid, dependable characters moves around in the background – Sclater, Moreton-Evans, Cimperman, Mills, ‘Tar’ Robertson, Brooman-White, Bagot, Jane Archer and Loxley (tragically killed in an aircraft accident on his way to Yalta). Lurking continuously is the ambiguous figure of Dick White, who would outmanœuvre his boss on the path to the Director-Generalship. The whole saga would make an excellent TV series – ‘MI5 at War’, first at war with the Nazis, then with MI6, next with the Soviets, and lastly with itself. Just an idea.

So we are left with the rich insights of a highly intelligent but flawed individual, too cerebral, and not tough or political enough even for his job as Director of Counter-Espionage, let alone MI5 Director-General. Dick White outwitted him with his sharp elbows, and cool manner. Yet MI5 was betrayed overall by a ponderous government bureaucracy, and continually had to deal with the competitive wiles of MI6, which appeared to have more clout through its relationships with the Foreign Office, and through Menzies’ direct contact with Churchill. It astonishes me how, in the midst of war, so much time and energy was spent by so many persons considering the overlap of counter-intelligence activity in MI5 and MI6, and whether amalgamation of the two services should occur. Throughout the war, the debate about combining the two services, or parts of them, is ponderously engaged upon, and in the last year Findlater Stewart’s ‘terms of reference’ for investigating the two services are a constant theme.

Liddell, moreover, never came to grips with the Communist threat, always assuming that the only subversive risk would come from the Communist Party. His trust of characters like Anthony Blunt (who appears regularly in the Diaries), is quite remarkable. An article, or coldspur bulletin, on the Liddell-Blunt relationship and exchanges alone could be framed quite easily. This month I picked out a few observations from 1944 that I had overlooked before. On June 28 he wrote: “For example at the moment at any rate Russian espionage could not possibly be carried out except in the background of the CPGB”. On October 21 he cited his friend Peter Loxley, who had just returned from a discussion with Kim Philby: “Peter said he thought that Section IX were perhaps going a bit wide. He had had a talk with Kim about this. Anything in the nature of pursuing prominent communists all over the world was, he thought, a waste of time. The sort of thing should be done on a more selective basis. In other words in areas where the Soviet Govt. had vital interests.” Quite so. Thank you, Kim. Lastly, on November 27, Blunt tried to take control of Soviet counter-espionage: “Anthony came to see me about the possibility of getting assistance from Shillito. He thought the latter might bring his Russian espionage up to London and do part time in B1B. I am rather doubtful as to whether this would be a satisfactory arrangement, but I will have a talk with Roger.” Hollis would no doubt have some firm ideas.

8. In Memoriam: Geoffrey Elliott (1939-2021)

Apart from a brief conversation with Mark Seaman at Lancaster House, I believe I have ever met or corresponded with only two acknowledged alumni of MI6 (or MI5). The senior of the two was Geoffrey Elliott, who died in Bermuda earlier this year. The reason that I may have gained an entrée was that he had been taught by my father, at Whitgift School (the same institution that I attended), after the war. I gathered from reading his memoir about his father, Kavan, who was an SOE agent dropped into Czechoslovakia, that his memories of the school were not wholly negative – an impression that surprised me a little, given his exotic background and later enterprises. I thus got in touch with him through St. Antony’s College, Oxford, and we spoke once or twice by telephone, and communicated more by email. He turned out to be a very helpful supplier of insights to me during the time I was researching my thesis, and maintained a caustic and engaging sense of humour in the confidences he shared with me.

His memoir, I Spy; The Secret Life of a British Agent is perhaps his best book. He wrote another fascinating study (Secret Classrooms), co-authored with Harold Shukman, of the Joint Services School for Linguists, where he learned Russian, and he also collaborated with Igor Damaskin on a valuable biography of Donald Maclean’s mistress, Kitty Harris: The Spy With Seventeen Names. His brief profile of ‘Tar’ Robertson, Gentleman Spymaster, is no doubt his weakest book, as he admitted to me, full of anecdotal information, much of which is irrelevant to the story. He was also a very busy translator. He is listed as the translator of Rufina Philby’s Private Life of Kim Philby, and is also credited, by Nigel West, in his Acknowledgements to Triplex, as the co-translator (alongside Didna Goebbel) of the Russian documents that the NKVD itself translated from English sources when they were passed on by such as Anthony Blunt and Kim Philby. This achievement has a singular historical significance, as the British Government has not seen fit to release the English originals (if they still exist, of course). We owe it to Soviet espionage to be able to inspect valuable historical records that should be part of our documentary heritage.

When I heard about Geoffrey’s death, I sought out his other family memoir, From Siberia, With Love, published in 2004, which tells of the adventures of his grandparents’ (on his mother’s side), and which I had completely overlooked beforehand. They brought him up in London when his father was on some of his many absences. Having once escaped from Irkutsk to the United Kingdom in 1907, they somewhat improbably returned to the area, only having to flee again when the Bolsheviks took over, thus proving life’s contingency on very slender threads. I was somewhat startled to read a sentence in Elliott’s book which directly echoes (or anticipates) what I wrote in my piece A Rootless Cosmopolitan:

            There is really no comparison between my grandparents’ iron-spiked experiences and my marshmallow life. They could never go back to where they were born. I can; though when I do, I feel ever more disconnected, déraciné, what Stalin called a ‘rootless cosmopolitan’, while at the same time till the day I die I shall be seen as a foreigner in the place I now regard as home.

Of all the books I have read in 2021 this is the one I have enjoyed the most. It is well-researched (although it includes a certain amount of speculation concerning his grandfather’s experiences), rich in its description of life in Odessa and in Siberia – and in London – at the beginning of the last century, and occasionally very amusing. Elliott shows a very dry wit, and a deep sense of history. I regret that I never made the hop over to Bermuda to shake his hand. St. Antony’s College offers him a tribute at https://www.sant.ox.ac.uk/about/news/geoffrey-elliott-22-april-1939-%E2%80%93-1-may-2021.

9. Philbymania

Nikolay Dolgopolov’s ‘Kim Philby’

I am astonished by the number of books on Kim Philby that continue to be published. I have been gathering some volumes on intelligence by the Russian Nikolay Dolgopolov, including a biography of Philby. It is a rather unsatisfactory composition, lacking an index or any kind of sources (indexes and footnotes are so bourgeois, don’t you agree?), with the Contents placed at the back, in the conventional Russian manner. I was hoping to find some original inclusion of documents that Philby had passed on to his masters, but they do not seem to be there. No telegrams from the period between June 1941 and May 1948 are reproduced. Instead, I read some extraneous padding in chapters dedicated to each of his comrades in the Cambridge 5, and one dedicated to possible members beyond the Five. It seems that Dolgopolov does not even mention ELLI, and dismisses the idea of Hollis’s guilt with a snort. But I shall persevere with the text in the hope of gleaning something new.

Then there is Helen Fry’s book. I have not yet read it cover to cover, but the chapter on Philby seems to suggest that Philby and Hugh Gaitskell may have been working unofficially for MI6 when they were in Vienna in 1933 and 1934, a hypothesis provoked by the fact that Kendrick did not call Philby out for his aid to the communists. It sounds a bit unlikely to me (Would Philby really have taken all those risks, including marrying Litzi Friedman? What about Maurice Dobb, and his advice to Philby? What was all that subterfuge with the Anglo-German Friendship Society for? And how come Kendrick was The Man Who Saved MI6 if he was hoodwinked by Philby?), but I shall have to read the whole work, and come to some carefully considered judgment. [Postscript, December 30: I have now read the book. Much of it is practically unreadable: the author has no analytical sense, writes clunky prose, and makes all manner of unverifiable assertions, dismal errors of fact, and sophomoric observations about the war and intelligence. I am amazed that Yale University Press has put its name to it. Maybe I shall return to it at some other time.]

This summer saw the appearance of two more volumes, Kim and Jim, by Michael Holzman, which explores the linkage and conflict between Philby and James Angleton, his counterpart at the CIA, who was (according to Holzman) heavily influenced by the MI6 officer in World War 2, and then Love and Deception, by James Hanning, which analyses Philby’s time in Beirut, and the circumstances leading up to his escape to Moscow in January 1963. I have affectionately dubbed this book Kim and Tim, after his longstanding friend from Westminster School, Tim Milne, who features prominently.

I have been in contact with both authors over time, and I even get a mention in the Acknowledgments of Hanning’s work, but what I say should come as no surprise to either of them. While there may be aspects of Philby’s life on which new light can be directed (such as his journalism, as Holzman claims), I wonder whether it is worth anyone’s time packaging such insights into a new publication where so much familiar material has to be trotted out to pad the story.

Michael Holzman’s book makes much of the influence that Philby was assumed to have exerted on Angleton during World War II, but this evidence is tenuous. The intersection of their careers, moreover, appears to be focused on double-cross operations, and in this arena Holzman seems to be unfortunately at sea, since he continually misrepresents the dynamics of what ‘double agents’ involve, and their role in disinformation campaigns. Thus his book relates some very familiar accounts of Philby’s activities, complemented by a large amount of material of some historical interest that is irrelevant to the main thread. Holzman appears not to have read or internalised what I have written in Misdefending the Realm, or on coldspur, and acknowledges no references to my researches. Moreover, the book has been compiled in a bizarre way: the chapters are unnumbered, and the sources are even more inscrutable than in most such works, with no easy indication to which passages the references relate. What Holzman has shown, however, is an enterprising inspection of the work of Dolgopolov.

Likewise, Hanning (who, I know, has seen my pieces on Blunt) does not appear to have read Misdefending the Realm, and does not consider any of my evidence about Blunt’s culpability. (I am relegated to a minor footnote, with an inaccurate url, on page 299, where I have to share space with that erratic potboiler, Roland Perry, which is not very comforting.) Hanning’s highly speculative book does admittedly contain some mildly absorbing details about Lebanese politics, but they really reveal no fresh insights on the enigma of Philby’s tip-off. The enthusiastic blurbs that bedeck the cover do not seem justified to me. His text appears to consist of a long series of rhetorical questions about Philby’s motivations and behaviour, and his discoveries (such as they are) do not shed much fresh light on his subject. Inexplicably, the author William Boyd selected it as his Book of the Year in the Times Literary Supplement.

Yet the spate of books on Philby continues, all claiming to display a new angle on the enigmatic personality of the traitor. I select here a gamut of titles exploiting Philbymania that I have spotted in the publishers’ lists for 2022:

Barbara Pym

Kim and Pym: The whimsical novelist Barbara Pym met Kim at an Anglo-German Friendship dinner in 1937, and was instantly smitten. Her passion was not fully reciprocated, but the couple carried on a brief tempestuous relationship, and the trove of their correspondence was discovered –  and then authenticated –  by Hugh Trevor-Roper shortly before the patrician historian’s death. Kim and Pym analyzes what was one of the most intriguing romances of the twentieth century. Philby has been declared by some to be the model for Francis Cleveland in Pym’s Crampton Hodnet. Others say: ‘No way’.

The Brothers Grimm

Kim and Grimm: Philby accompanied his friend Tim Milne on a trip to Germany in 1933, about which we know little. In his book Stalin’s Agent, Boris Volodarsky reveals the existence of agent GRIMM, hitherto unidentified, who was recruited by Arnold Deutsch in Berlin, and became active in London in 1934. This book closes the circle, explaining Philby’s recruitment much earlier than has been supposed to date, and describing how the master-spy was given the cryptonym of the Nazis’ favourite folk-tale authors, whose work was compulsory reading in schools. It also had a serious influence on Philby’s internal tussles with Good and Evil.

Kim Il-Sung

Kim and Kim: In the early days of his premiership, the North Korean leader Kim Il-Sung was considering breaking away from Soviet hegemony, but his advisers convinced him to engage Philby as a consultant, to remind him of the righteousness of the communist cause. Kim1 persuaded Kim2 not to ‘go wobbly’, and millions of North Koreans have subsequently had reason to thank the Westminster School Old Boy for their country’s happy development, celebrating their hero’s birthday every January 1 with fireworks, singing of the school song, and fan-dancing.

Cardinal Richelieu & Inspector Dim

Kim and Dim: The inspiration for Monty Python’s Inspector Dim (who exposed Ron Higgins as a professional Cardinal Richelieu impersonator) was none other than MI5’s Roger Hollis, who was known not to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. Yet he had a more subtle side. Kim and Dim exposes the ploys that Philby and Hollis engineered to subvert British intelligence, including the mythology of ELLI that confused their colleagues so much, and brought much fame and fortune to Chapman Pincher.

Wim Duisenberg

Kim and Wim: When bouffant-haired Dutch Labour Party minister Wim Duisenberg retired suddenly from politics in 1978, no one suspected that he was being groomed to be President of the Central Bank. This was a scheme contrived by the KGB and Philby to undermine Dutch finances, and Kim and Wim had several furtive meetings on neutral territory to prepare for the coup. With a Foreword by Margrethe Vestager.

Slim Whitman

Kim and Slim: One of Kim’s private passions was a love of country-music, and listening to the Greatest Hits of Slim Whitman in the evenings with a bottle or two of brandy gave him much solace in those bleak last days in Beirut. Yet, when he escaped to Moscow, and tried to have Whitman invited on a concert-tour, the Soviet authorities refused to grant a visa to the Smilin’ Starduster, thus contributing largely to Kim’s growing malaise in the Workers’ Paradise.

Alastair Sim

Kim and Sim: Philby was a keen aficionado of stage and screen, and had been very impressed by the performances of Alastair Sim. The oyster-eyed thespian from Edinburgh was introduced to him, and then educated him in how to control the stage. Thus Philby was able to take the entourage of reporters for a dance when he denied his role as the ‘Third Man’ at his mother’s flat in 1955. Judi Dench, citing the assessment of that performance by her husband, Michael Williams, has described it as ‘a complete lesson in acting’.

The ZIm12

Kim and Zim: When Philby arrived in Moscow in 1963, one of his first requests was to be given a ZIM-12 limousine as a mark of his membership of the nomenklatura. He was immediately rebuked as a dangerous ‘capitalist-roadster’, since the ZIM, named after the sometime Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov, had been rebranded after Molotov’s fall from favour in 1957. The two forged a bond from this episode, and Kim and ‘Stonearse’ would regularly get together to drink Molotov cocktails, listen to Slim Whitman, and read the Grimm Brothers’ Kinder- und Hausmärchen to each other until Molotov’s death in 1986.

Vyacheslav Molotov

Kim and Nym: [That’s enough ‘Kim’ books. Ed.]

10. Letters to the Editor

One of these days, when I am behind in my research, I shall fill my monthly column with a selection of (mostly unpublished) Letters to the Editor of various publications. I am frequently provoked to spend the time on such exercises when I am troubled by some error, occasionally a matter of simple fact, but more frequently the expression of a misguided opinion by someone who ought to know better. One of my pet peeves is the attribution of purposefulness to the process of evolution, and I noticed that Anna Katharina Schaffner, described as Professor of Cultural History at the University of Kent and Director of Perspectiva’s Emerge project (don’t ask) had committed this error in her review of Charles Foster’s Being a Human in the Times Literary Supplement of October 15. I was thus happy that the periodical printed my letter on November 12. It read as follows:

Could Professor Schaffner be a bit more precise about her categories (review of Being a Human, October 15)? She states that ‘our woes started in the Neolithic period’, and that ‘we traded awe for convenience and control’. But then she goes on to write: “How can we ever truly understand people whose sense of self was so different from our own?” If the Professor is evidently so confused about who ‘we’ are, it does not help the rest of us in sorting out these vexing questions. Furthermore, she appears to misunderstand how evolution works, writing that our ancestors’ “brains grew in size to help them navigate ever more complex relationships”. Such relationships would have foundered irretrievably by the time such changes occurred, and, if evolution were driven by need, waiters and mothers would presumably have acquired two pairs of hands by now.

Professor Schaffner displayed that annoying manner of the preachy journalist, namely using the term ‘we’ when it is not clear whether the writer means ‘you and I’, ‘all right-thinking persons’, ‘the whole of the human race’ or any entity in between. Thus we may read of what ‘we’ have to do to achieve certain goals (e.g. ‘saving the planet’, ‘eradicating world poverty’, ‘delivering racial justice’, ‘shutting out Greta Thunberg’) without having any idea as to what the plan of action is. I noticed that Martin Vander Weyer, the financial correspondent for the Spectator, had written a book titled The Good, the Bad and the Greedy: Why We’ve Lost Faith in Capitalism. Since I regarded him as a champion of free enterprise, I wrote to ask him in what way he belonged to the ‘We’ of the title, wondering, perhaps, whether he was planning to move to North Korea. He replied: “You’ll find the book is in fact a vigorous defence of the good aspects of capitalism”, which is encouraging, I suppose, but merely shows that the choice of title was supremely silly and misleading.

On a slightly less serious note, Literary Review runs a series of modest cartoons titled ‘Illustrations to Unwritten Books’, and the example given in the October edition was ‘How Green Was My Valet’, showing a manservant suffering from severe dyspepsia. Now I very clearly recalled Kenneth Williams treating Richard Llewellyn’s 1939 classic in a similar fashion in a segment of Beyond our Ken on the BBC Light Programme about sixty years ago, only on this occasion the ’greenness’ that the valet displayed was a tint of envy rather than of biliousness. I was gratified to see that the magazine printed my correction.

I suppose this response was unique. After all, one had to be old enough to be a radio-listener from those days, one had to be an avid Kenneth Horne fan, one had to remember the episode clearly, one had to be a contemporary Literary Review reader, and one had to be eccentric enough to believe that it was worth spending a few minutes writing up the observation.  Step forward, coldspur! My brother Michael came closest, reminding me of the following: “That was an excerpt from How Green Was My Valley, another in our series of a film worth remembering, which is more than can be said for the next half-hooouur”, but for some inexplicable reason he is not a Literary Review subscriber.

Christmas Cards from ‘Prospect’: 2020 & 2021

Lastly, those Christmas cards from Prospect magazine. I gave the Editor, Tom Clark, a very hard time a year ago for signing a card to me that included the horrible phrase ‘Myself and the whole team wish you a very happy Christmas’. Well, someone must have taken notice, as the curse of coldspur fell upon him, and he is no longer Editor. I see that Clark has been appointed a Fellow at the Joseph Rowntree Foundation: I am not sure what these chaps do at such institutions, but I hope he learns to write good English there, and gets lots of free chocolate. In his final editorial at Prospect, Clark stated that he would now ‘pass the reins to the legendary former Guardian editor, Alan Rusbridger’. Now I had long imagined that Rusbridger was not a mythical being, however, but a real person, and my suspicions were confirmed when I received a Christmas card from the piano-playing ex-principal of Lady Margaret Hall, this time addressed to ‘Mr Percy’, not ‘Richard’. As you can see, Mr. R has improved the syntax, although it appears that Guardian journalists are still not quite sure that ‘the team and I’ (or ‘the team, including me’) would be an appropriate way of identifying themselves. Or perhaps, simply ‘we all’, like the Gang I introduced at the beginning of this post?

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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The ‘Prosper’ Disaster

Major Francis Suttill, aka ‘Prosper’

1. Introduction

2. The Historiography

3. The Authorised History

4. ‘SOE in France’

5. ‘All The King’s Men’

6. Mark Seaman’s ‘Glass Half Full’

7. The Foot-Suttill Collaboration

8. ‘PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network’

9. Mark Seaman’s Final Judgment

10. Conclusions

Introduction

(For explanatory background to this report, please refer to my previous posts on the betrayal of French SOE circuits: ‘Claude Dansey’s Mischief’, and ‘Special Bulletin: Let’s TWIST Again’.)

When I dipped my toe into the waters of the Henri Déricourt affair, I was not aware that I was going to be grappling with one of the most controversial topics of 20th-century British intelligence. Almost eighty years after the events of 1943, when the leader of an SOE F Section network was captured by the Germans, alongside his wireless operator, the analysts who have written about the incident fall into two sharply opposed camps. On the one side, supported by the tradition of authorised historians and tacitly encouraged by government institutions, are those who downplay the significance of Déricourt’s evident treachery in the betrayal of Francis Suttill (the eponymous Prosper) and Gilbert Norman, ascribing their downfall to poor security procedures and bad luck. They describe the other camp, who claim that malign and misguided deception policies deriving from SOE, MI6 and, vicariously, the Chiefs of Staff, were responsible for Déricourt’s ability to provide the Sicherheitsdienst (SD) in Paris with revealing information about the Prosper network, as ‘conspiracy theorists’, a term that carries implicit abuse for the first camp, but in fact accurately describes what the second camp is properly trying to investigate – a conspiracy.

What astonishes me is how vitriolic the dispute has become. I have received email messages, and have noticed comments on chat group sites, that are utterly intemperate and equally misinformed about the arguments made by those writers who question the official story that maintains that no betrayal of the circuit, nor any cover-up, occurred.  Such commentators (for example) use partial errors in such analysis to discredit completely all aspects of the work they criticise. This phenomenon encouraged me to dig much deeper, in an effort to understand how the whole business could have grown so divisive. In this report, therefore, I plan to describe how the controversy evolved, and review the major events and publications that gave rise to the dispute over the betrayal of the Prosper network. I shall then offer a detailed analysis of the current ‘establishment’ case, as made by Francis Suttill’s son, and endorsed by the nearest person we have to a current ‘authorised’ historian of SOE, Mark Seaman. In further bulletins I shall relate what I have learned from a detailed study of the Déricourt archive, an exercise that I believe sheds dramatic new light on the affair, as well as explore the 1943 decisions and directives of the War Cabinet that led to activities that were later regretted.

Henri Dericourt

Both camps would probably agree on the basic facts. Déricourt, a French aviator who had had pre-war contacts with the Germans, managed, in August 1942, to gain a place on the MI9 escape-line from Vichy France through Gibraltar to Scotland. At some stage during his interrogations he was recruited by SOE, and trained as an Air Movements Officer to plot and execute the landing of F Section agents in occupied France. Between February and July 1943 he successfully carried out this role, although the head of the growing Prosper network, Francis Suttill, expressed fears that his network had been penetrated. Indeed, Déricourt had been in touch with the Gestapo, and had provided them with mail destined for England that they were able to copy. In June 1943, Suttill and Norman were betrayed and arrested, along with hundreds of resistance operators, and many arms caches discovered. Henri Frager, another network leader, voiced his doubts about Déricourt to his SOE bosses, and Déricourt was recalled in February 1944. The investigation was inconclusive, but Déricourt did not work for SOE again. After the war, he went on trial in France for assisting the enemy, but the assistant head of F Section, Nicolas Bodington, in an extraordinary statement to the military court, declared that Déricourt had been working under SOE direction, and the latter left the court a free man.

Yet several strands have to be unravelled. The Prosper network was definitely betrayed, but was its demise attributable to bad practices, such as careless meeting or talk, or undisciplined use of wireless? Was it infiltrated by agents working for the German Abwehr or Sicherheitsdienst? To what degree were Déricourt’s actions responsible? And was SOE in London merely negligent, in tolerating or encouraging poor spycraft, and not paying enough attention to wireless security techniques, or was it more seriously culpable in allowing the network to be sacrificed for broader deception goals?

The Historiography

[The following two sections are largely reliant on the following sources: the Introduction to Nigel West’s Secret War; the Preface, Acknowledgments and Appendices to E. H. Cookridge’s Inside S.O.E; David Stafford’s Introduction to M. R. D. Foot’s SOE 1940-1946; M. R. D. Foot’s Preface to his SOE in France; Bickham Sweet-Escott’s Foreword to his Baker Street Irregular; M. R. D. Foot’s Foreword to William Mackenzie’s Secret History of SOE 1940-1945; The Origins of SOE in France, by Christopher J. Murphy, published in the Historical Journal (2003); and A Glass Half Full – Some Thoughts on the Evolution of the Study of the Special Operations Executive by Mark Seaman, published in Intelligence and National Security (2005).The analysis is augmented by my own interpretation of events, and by my reading of most of the source books mentioned.]

Ever since SOE’s functioning was revealed after the war, a hint of betrayal was aired. The controversy started when memoirs and biographies of SOE agents began to be published in the 1950s. Bickham Sweet-Escott had tried to gain approval for his memoir Baker Street Irregular in 1954, but was sharply rebuked by the War Office, and had to wait a further eleven years before being allowed to publish it. E. H. Cookridge, whose Inside SOE appeared in 1966, in particular identified Jean Overton Fuller’s Double Webs, and Elizabeth Nicholas’s Death Be Not Proud, which were both published in 1958, as drawing attention to the fact that all was not as well as perhaps claimed in the administration of undercover work in France in World War II. Nigel West also highlighted those two works. Yet (as West also points out) Maurice Buckmaster, who led the British-controlled F section of SOE (as opposed to the Fighting French section RF that consisted of native Frenchpersons, and liaised closely with de Gaulle’s intelligence and sabotage apparatus, the Bureau Central de Renseignements et d’Action – BCRA) had published a memoir in 1952 that recorded some tragic deaths – especially of women agents – and referred obliquely to penetration by informers of their networks.

‘Specially Employed’ by Maurice Buckmaster

Buckmaster’s memoir, titled Specially Employed, was a very coy work. He had surely been encouraged by the War Office, or by the Foreign Office, to publish his book as an item of propaganda, to counter the growing message that the deliverance of countries overrun by the Nazis had largely been abetted by Communist partisans. Yet he did not identify the unit he worked for, the Special Operations Executive (even though Colin Gubbins had revealed its name in a lecture in 1948), describing it as ‘a secret organization in the War Office’ (p 15), but then later as part of the Ministry of Economic Warfare (p 66). Moreover, he was rather cavalier with the facts – even admitting so, in his Foreword – including some egregious and embarrassing errors, such as the claim that the unidentified Prosper and Denise (the codename of Andrée Borrel) were both shot in 1945. He did draw attention to the risk posed by informers, and that such revelations must have caused many agents to be arrested and later killed, but he completely avoided any notion of errors on the part of the ‘Western European Directorate’. While naming both Park (his ‘Cerberus’ at the flat near Oxford Street where agents were briefed), and his personal assistant ‘Vera’ (Atkins), he failed to include his deputy Nicolas Bodington in his narrative.

The author must have believed that his untruths and misrepresentations would not be found out. Yet he would have to adjust his story because of two primary phenomena – not so much the over-dramatised and unreliable memoirs and biographies that appeared, but a) the individual sleuthing of enterprising individuals who had friends who had been killed, and b) memoirs from abroad, notably by members of the German intelligence services, which of course the British authorities could not control or censor. And some of the statements that Buckmaster made in his book would turn out to be very incriminating, as I shall show later.

‘Madeleine’ by Jean Overton Fuller

In the same year in which Buckmaster’s first book appeared (1952), Jean Overton Fuller had published Madeleine, about the SOE wireless operator Noor Inayat Khan, who had been a friend of hers. Noor had been flown into France, alongside Diana Rowden and Cecily Defort, in June 1943, where they were met by Déricourt, to support the Prosper network, but she had been captured in October, and was executed at Dachau in September 1944. In 1953, H. J. Giskes, the German officer who had managed the infamous Englandspiel deception game with captured British wireless apparatus in the Netherlands, published London Calling North Pole, which unveiled how SOE in London had been duped for over a year, and had consequently sent further agents to their doom. And in 1954, Hugo Bleicher, who had been an Abwehr officer in Paris, and through dissimulation had encouraged the Prosper network member Roger Bardet to transfer his allegiances to the Germans, with disastrous results for several SOE agents, published Colonel Henri’s Story.

Thus Fuller, one of the prime investigators into the deaths of agents that were insensitively not openly recognised by the British authorities, had a lot of material to work with. Fuller was an enigmatic character. After Madeleine, she wrote several books about France and the SOE: The Starr Affair (1954), Double Webs (1958), Double Agent? (1961 – described by the author as ‘the expanded and revised edition of Double Webs’), Horoscope for a Double Agent (1961), The German Penetration of SOE (1975), and Déricourt: The Chequered Spy (1989), as well as a compilation of Déricourt’s writings, Espionage as a Fine Art (2002). What is extraordinary is the fact that her later books have become very rare and expensive: only a single copy of Déricourt: The Chequered Spy can be seen as available on abebooks, at a price of over $2,000. It is as if the Foreign Office had bought up as many of the extant copies it could afford, because it found its revelations too damaging. (There have been precedents for such behaviour. Nonetheless, Patrick Marnham, who borrows the volume from the London Library, informs me there appears to be nothing especially damaging or subversive in it.) Another troublesome aspect of Fuller’s work is that she tended to move too close to the persons she wrote about. Double Webs has her reading Déricourt’s palms, devising his horoscope, and discussing theosophy with him. As her obituary in the Guardian put it: “Yet her judgment could suffer from a tendency to become emotionally attached to her subjects.”

Jean Overton Fuller

Her book on John Starr shows such tendencies. Nigel West describes Starr in the following terms: “ . . . an SOE turncoat who had given the Germans his parole in 1943 following his second ill-fated mission to France”, and West compliments Fuller’s Double Webs for revealing that captured British agents were greeted at the SD headquarters in the Avenue Foch by Starr, ‘a genial British officer’. West goes on to write that Starr ‘after the war narrowly escaped prosecution for treason and went to live in Paris’. Yet Fuller’s book on Starr (published in the USA as No. 13, Bob) characterised him as ‘a man of honor and a considerable largeness of heart’ who was let down by the Foreign Office when it had tried to stifle his revelations about German use of SOE radio sets. In a move to absolve Starr, she concluded her book with the following equivocal and clumsy assessment: “Naïveté which may leave one at the mercy of unscrupulous persons is perhaps a failing, especially on the part of those holding respectable positions; but failure to recognize decency, and equivocation when the greater safety would lie in frankness can, even from a practical point of view, be equally a blunder.”

Double Webs, on the other hand, shows Fuller’s pertinacity as a sleuth. It is remarkable in that it offers a comprehensive analysis of Déricourt’s recruitment and operation without ever naming him. She had been introduced to the betrayal of Suttill and Norman through her study of Noor Inayat Khan, and relentlessly tracked down members of SOE (both F and RF sections), members of the Abwehr and the SD, and relatives of the dead. Among the German contingent was a highly important Abwehr officer, Richard Christmann, who had impersonated a Dutch SOE agent, and infected the SOE networks around Paris. The problem, however, with carrying out such extensive interviews with such shady characters, who for various reasons had much to conceal, is that they are probably lying half the time, and it is very difficult to determine which part of their testimony is reliable. Fuller also dug out the proceedings of Déricourt’s trial in Croydon in April, 1946, after he had been arrested for smuggling, and unveiled the personal and voluntary plea that Nicolas Bodington had made on Déricourt’s behalf.

‘Double Webs’ by Jean Overton Fuller

Fuller interviewed Déricourt at length, and was clearly seduced by his charm. (He was a very Philbyesque figure.) Thus, while pointing clearly to Déricourt’s involvement with the SD, she ended up very confused about his role, and the extent to which it was condoned by the British authorities. Nigel West credits her with ‘unearthing the appalling truth’ that Déricourt ‘had worked as a double-agent for the Sicherheitsdienst’. Yet she floundered around on the vexed issue of ‘double-agents’ (as indeed does West: it is a paradoxical matter to which I shall return in depth next month), and she was thus unable to come to a clear statement about her subject’s guilt. Indeed, she allowed Déricourt to review her manuscript, and to provide a paragraph at the end of her work that allowed him to ‘approve’ of nearly all she wrote. “I can sleep at peace because I know that I was not responsible for the arrest of ‘Prosper’, ’Archambault’, or any others”, he wrote.

In many ways, Fuller did a sterling job, having no access to any archival material, and having to deal with the fog of disinformation that descended when she tried to push behind the scenes. She laid out many important facts about the life of SOE’s agents in France, and the problems of administration, covered up by Buckmaster and others, that had contributed to the penetration of the networks. Her work has rightly been cited in many accounts – although rather sparsely by Foot in his authorised history – and she has been recognised, alongside Elizabeth Nicholas, for enabling the prodding of questions in Parliament that led to the project to authorise an ‘official’ history of SOE.

‘Death Be Not Proud’ by Elizabeth Nicholas

Elizabeth Nicholas was also spurred to action by a friendship with one of the deceased, namely Diana Rowden, and her book is a memorial to seven courageous women who lost their lives working for SOE. Death Be Not Proud is a very impassioned, but still calm, exploration into why seven women who worked for SOE were murdered in concentration camps. She did not take a ‘feminist’ line by arguing that the women were treated especially badly by the organisation that recruited them, but she was scathing about the insensitivity shown by the British authorities after their deaths, by not being straight with their relatives, or acknowledging what actually happened. Like Fuller, she painstakingly uncovered an armoury of facts about their demise, travelled far and wide, met and interviewed scores of people, and wrote several hundred letters. One of those whom she interviewed was Hugo Bleicher, and she concluded that all the women ‘were linked with the webs spun by Hugo Bleicher, with Prosper, and Henri Frager and Roger Bardet, and with the radio sets that had, week after week, sent false messages to London’.

Thus Nicholas added another strong arrow to the bow that Dame Irene Ward, the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tynemouth, took with her to Question Time on February 22, 1956 (i.e. before Nicholas’s book came out) in the House of Commons, pleading for the relevant files to be made open. Those files had been formally closed after Fuller published her Starr Affair in 1954. The Joint Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs (Lord John Hope) nevertheless riposted that ‘the grant of access on the occasion in November 1947  . . . was subsequently considered to have been ill advised in respect of precedent, and for reasons of security no further access has been or can be allowed’. Lt.-Col. Cordeaux (whom Nigel West identified, in the context of December 1958, as an MI6 officer who actually investigated the Nordpol disaster in the Netherlands) supported the decision, drawing attention to the harm caused by ‘amateur authors rushing into print and cashing in on two years’ wartime experience in some of our secret services’. For a couple of years the cover-up was allowed to remain in place.

Yet one of the establishment’s own echoed his earlier deed as an ‘amateur author’ by bringing out a picaresque account of SOE’s activities in France, Maurice Buckmaster himself. In the same year that Double Webs and Death Be Not Proud appeared, Buckmaster was allowed to publish They Fought Alone, a highly misguided endeavour to bring some glamour to the exploits of some of SOE’s more adventurous agents. By this time, Buckmaster was confident enough to be able to identify his wartime employer as the Special Operations Executive, and name its address as 64 Baker Street.  He declared that he had led the French section, and explained how he was somewhat hampered because he could recruit only British subjects, the Free French section having a monopoly over French citizens. He named the man who recruited him in 1941 as Sir Charles Hambro, and indicated that the SOE reported to the Ministry of Economic Warfare. It was thus a step in the right direction towards greater openness.

‘They Fought Alone’ by Maurice Buckmaster

Yet his book is a mendacious work, sowing the seeds of the author’s subsequent bluster, drawing attention to the highly valorous and dangerous missions of some of those he recruited for work in France, but staying silent over any broad wireless deception games, or any serious strategic errors made by Baker Street. Yes, mistakes were made, some agents underwent horrible deaths, but it was almost entirely due (in Buckmaster’s narrative) to informers and to underhand and vile practices by the Abwehr. Neither Bodington nor Déricourt ever gets a mention in this highly readable but essentially fallacious tale of derring-do. There are crass errors in it (such as Gilbert Norman’s being landed in France some time after he had been arrested), but also some very subtle but careless historical flaws, over which Buckmaster has apparently never been challenged. The most egregious of these relates to the military instructions that SOE and Buckmaster received in the summer of 1943, and these are so critical that I shall return to them later in this posting.

The Authorised History

What this commotion eventually led to was the appearance of M. R. D. Foot’s authorised history of SOE in France. I do not intend to re-present the full trajectory of this exercise, but do want to highlight some important episodes in its delivery. Pressure was applied by Dame Irene Ward for a public account; there were discussions in the House of Commons; MI6 vicariously objected; retrospective justifications of the project, as a counter to Soviet propaganda, were voiced; Harold Macmillan, the Prime Minister, eventually agreed; Professor Mackenzie (who had written an unpublished in-house history of SOE) gave advice on treatment and possible authors; the decision to move forward, despite continuing objections from the Cabinet Office, was made on May 18, 1960; Foot accepted the invitation in early November, and set to work immediately.

Dame Irene Ward, M.P.

My first point is the indication that the exercise might have been very embarrassing, as revealed in the long parliamentary motion tabled by Dame Irene Ward in the House of Commons on November 13, 1958, which is reproduced in an Endnote in West’s Secret War, as well as in Appendix A of E. H. Cookridge’s Inside SOE. While Ward drew attention to Double Webs and Death Be Not Proud, and cautiously undermined the accounts of SOE given by Buckmaster, her motion including the following clauses:

             . . . that had the Official Secrets Act been adequately enforced by authority and proper care exercised to protect in Great Britain and France the reputations of those who became the unwilling victims of Nazi German success, much painful recrimination would have been avoided, but that under the circumstances the question of whether the Air Movements Officer of the Special Operations Executive, the central figure in the book Double Webs, was a German agent working in a British organization, must be cleared up; that although the disclosure of German penetration of the Dutch Sector of Special Operations Executive was the subject of an international inquiry, the fact of this penetration extended from Holland to a vitally important area in France, causing the arrest of many men and women, has been deliberately concealed, has led to disclosures damaging to our security and to our relationships with those friends in France in the years of danger going unchallenged and without official factual comment; this House therefore urges Her Majesty’s Government to publish a book giving an authoritative account of the successes and failures of the Special Operations Executive.

This is a very convoluted statement that contains its own paradoxes: for example, how, if the fact of penetration had been concealed, did it lead to exposures damaging to security? Had Ward bitten off slightly less, and presented her motion in somewhat simpler language, she might perhaps have gained more attention. It was nevertheless still a menacing submission. As it unsurprisingly turned out, the Motion was never called out by the Speaker, and she had to work behind the scenes. Yet she dramatically gave unmissable clues concerning the unnamed Déricourt, the ‘Air Movements Officer’ (described in great depth by Fuller, but of course also never identified) as a ‘German agent’, and threw the gauntlet down to Buckmaster, in whose book published that same year no mention of that officer had been made. Those who knew the full story must have had qualms.

Secondly, a revealing observation was made by the Foreign Secretary, John Selwyn Lloyd, in a letter drafted for Dame Irene some time in May 1960. (It may not have been sent: Christopher J. Murphy, who cites it in his article, does not say.) Lloyd expressed great caution:

            But I have to think of the national interest; and I have to think in terms of the present and future than of the past  . . . Some of our activities, moreover, although justifiable in war, could cause us a lot of embarrassment if publicly admitted now. Then I have to consider the effect of our relations with our wartime allies, and whether the inevitable revival of old controversies and re-opening of old wounds would not do more harm than good.

Selwyn Lloyd did not have to ruminate on these questions for long: he was transferred to the Chancellorship of the Exchequer two months later, to be replaced by the very laid-back Alec Douglas-Home, who may have been confused by the whole business. But to what dark deeds was Selwyn Lloyd referring, justifiable in war, but potentially embarrassing? Surely nothing as monstrous as the massacres at Lidice, Oradour, Monte Sole, or Telavåg, or the concentration camps, or the cold killing of British commandos, as ordered by Hitler? This was SOE, after all, not Bomber Command. The assassination of Heydrich was surely not an issue: the reprisals were horrific, but no revelations would have caused embarrassment with British wartime allies in 1960. Yet Selwyn Lloyd gave the impression that malefactions had been perpetrated, and done so as part of a conscious but possibly misguided strategy, albeit with good intentions. The reference to ‘allies’ must surely mean the French, since the rumours about British maltreatment of French resistance fighters had been a recurring element in stories across the Channel. Was Selwyn Lloyd referring to those scars hinted at in Ward’s paper? In any case, his words do serve to counter the claim that Foot made in his Preface: “Nor is it true that irresponsible staff officers made such fearful errors that there is a whole discreditable story to be hushed up.”

Selwyn LLoyd

The third aspect I wish to bring up is Foot’s terms of reference, and the guidance given to him. In his Preface and Acknowledgements to Inside SOE (apparently written in 1966, after Foot’s book appeared in May of that year, while Cookridge’s book was about to be published), the author wrote that “Mr Foot stated that at one stage during his research he had been ‘forbidden’ to make personal contacts with former SOE officers, and had to rely on official archives only.” Cookridge added: “He wrote: ‘SOE’s own archives are of course in many respects sadly incomplete.’” Now those phrases cannot be found in my 2004 edition of SOE in France, which – presumably faithfully – reproduces Foot’s original Preface. That Preface, however, is dated September 1967, and we know, from Foot’s own testimony, that, after circulating the galley-proofs to interested parties, he had to make a number of changes, as he had offended some veterans of SOE.

Mark Seaman expands on these tribulations in his essay A Glass Half Full, where he records that Buckmaster himself was ‘utterly horrified’ and ‘amazed by the number of mistakes’ that appeared in the galley-proof, and offered thirty-five pages of corrections. Yet, even though Foot was able to rectify most of those errors, the publication still provoked controversy, even lawsuits, with substantial damages being settled out of court, the events leading to a second impression. “Foot’s uncompromising and profoundly iconoclastic approached veered on occasion into some ill-judged observations”, wrote Seaman. And Seaman was not impressed with how the 2004 edition worked out, given the passage of time and the fresh information that had emerged: “A classic history has been little improved by slight tinkering with the text, and expanded bibliography and some additional footnotes”, he wrote. But the great iconoclast had not been willing to tilt at the windmills of Foreign Office sensitivity.

In 2004, Foot made it clear, however, that, since the original edition, he had been able to speak with former SOE officers, and others. He wrote as follows:

Since this book first appeared in April 1966 I have had further help, for which I am much indebted, from various former members of SOE and of the forces of French resistance, particularly from Colonel Dewavrin. Their aid has enabled me, in the little time I have had available for work on the book, to improve it in several minor respects and to revise the account of the arrangements made in London for calling resistance into activity at the time of the invasion of Normandy.

This suggests to me two important conclusions. It was not until after Cookridge’s book appeared, compiled without any access to SOE Archives, since the Under-Secretary of State at the Foreign Office, John Profumo, had denied Cookridge such access ‘for security reasons’, that the authorities had second thoughts, seeing what a rich story Cookridge was able to tell by inspecting foreign archives in which many of SOE’s records had been stored, and interviewing scores of people. (Intriguingly, Patrick Marnham informs me that Foot suspected that Cookridge was being fed information by MI5 that was denied to him.) On the other hand, Foot explicitly had to rely on non-archival sources (or have what constrained interpretation he had been able to make from the official records enhanced by figures who supposedly knew more) for his account of the vital period in the war when the D-Day preparations were being made. And that is highly dubious and ahistorical in its own right.

Patrick Marnham has been able to provide some valuable insights into Foot’s process (see War in the Shadows, pages 167-172). He makes the points that Foot was rarely allowed to quote from the archive itself, and was reportedly not allowed to mention ‘the existence of his most important unpublished source, which was The Secret History of SOE by William Mackenzie’, let alone meet the author. In a footnote, Marnham states that Mackenzie’s work was not published until 2000, after Mackenzie’s death: the Sources in Foot’s 2004 edition lists Mackenzie’s History – which he edited – as ‘completed 1948; graded secret until 1988; a gold-mine’. (Foot claimed, in 2000, in his Introduction to Mackenzie’s work, that he had been forbidden from consulting William Mackenzie personally, while admitting that he had had access to the Secret History text itself. In his blurb promoting the Secret History, however, he also had the effrontery to pretend that the book had ‘been kept secret for over fifty years’, and that ‘many books now need to be re-written’.)  And later in his book (pp 237-238) Marnham again introduces some highly interesting observations that shed light on how Foot was required to change his story in the light of public information.

Marnham’s major claim is that Foot was brought in to put to rest ‘the allegation that in the interests of strategic deception the British authorities had “sold” a French Resistance network run by SOE to the Gestapo’, and he cites Mackenzie’s own testimony that SOE possessed ‘unique facilities for deception’, but that, owing to the risk of deceiving the Resistance forces as well as the Germans, ‘SOE took no more than a subsidiary part [in] Operation Starkey’ [that feature of the COCKADE deception plan that involved a landing in Northern France]. To prove how Foot had ignored this hint in Mackenzie’s compilation, Marnham wrote that Foot, in his 1966 Introduction to SOE in France, referred to the ‘Starkey-Prosper’ connection as ‘the conspiracy’ theory, and, in the main text followed up with: ‘It is undoubtedly the case that no use was made of SOE’s work in France for any purposes of deception then [i.e. June 1943] or later: no one trusted the agents enough for such delicate tasks.” (p 308) In other words, Foot completely discounted any Starkey involvement. According to Marnham, Foot had a letter published in the Observer on May 11, 1986 which echoed his claim about the non-use of SOE for deception purposes. Fuller wrote that this letter was provoked by the BBC TIMEWATCH programme (see below): Robert Marshall recalls that it was written in response to an article on the front page of the newspaper, supplied by Anthony Howard under Marshall’s guidance.

Yet that statement about the Starkey-Prosper connection and the conspiracy theory does not appear in the revised Introduction published in 2004. On the other hand, as Marnham has explained, the latter sentence about SOE’s use of deception (on p 274 in the 2004 edition) has a brief phrase, namely ‘STARKEY apart’ inserted after ‘the case that’, suggesting that information that came to light afterwards had had to be taken into account. (Marnham presents this information, but cites the wording as ‘except in the case of Starkey’: he was using the French translation.) Foot does not explain this anomaly, however: there is no entry for STARKEY in his Index. Maybe Foot believed he could evade any responsibility for performing justice to this controversial matter, but, with the Mackenzie volume now no longer secret, had to make a token gesture in the direction of the STARKEY deception element.

Foot’s observation in his Foreword to Mackenzie’s book runs: “Colonel Bevan, who came to head the deception service [London Controlling Section] did not think SOE secure enough to take part in his exceedingly secret work, and hardly ever used it to achieve his devious ends; Operation ‘Starkey’, ill-fated as it was, in the summer of 1943 provided the only exception, apart from a single sharp stroke in Belgium in the summer crisis of 1944.” Yet there is no mention of Colonel Bevan or COCKADE in Mackenzie’s book – merely a brief mention of STARKEY, in terms of an innocuously-sounding project that SOE ‘should somewhat increase its encouragement to Resistance’ and broadcast bogus coded messages just before the invasion of September 1943 that was never going to happen (p 615, as noted by Marnham). By referring to an unexplained ‘ill-fated’ operation, however, something quite out of proportion to what Mackenzie described, Foot merely drew attention to a probable cover-up. (Describing an otherwise unexplained event as ‘ill-fated’ is not a recommended practice for a professional historian.) Marnham also writes that ‘quite a lot more was known about Operation Starkey at this time’. He is referring to Michael Howard’s Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, and Hesketh’s Fortitude, but both works cover STARKEY very superficially, and no connection between STARKEY, Bevan and SOE can be seen in either.

M R D Foot

Foot’s History thus has to be approached as a volume with perspectives that evolved over time – rather like Goethe’s Faust. It is beyond my capabilities (since I have direct access solely to the 2004 version) to perform a detailed exegesis of the book’s evolution, but I can offer glimpses into the stresses that were forcing Foot to present the travails of SOE French section in a less damaging light. For example, in between the first edition and the so-called ‘revised’ edition of 2004, Robert Marshall published in 1988 All the King’s Men, a searing exposé of the damage caused by Déricourt, to whom the author ascribes the collapse of the Prosper network, stage-managed by Claude Dansey of MI6 (which I shall analyse later on in this piece). It was based on some thorough research that had fuelled a BBC TIMEWATCH television program. No matter how dubiously Foot considered Marshall’s sources, or how strongly he disagreed with his conclusions, Foot should have at least taken into account the details of Déricourt’s career that Marshall revealed.

Yet Foot could find no room in his Sources even to list All The King’s Men: in his Introduction to the books he does list, he wrote: “No useful purpose is served by putting into a book list books which confuse the issue, instead of widening knowledge, I have therefore left out several titles, some of them only too well known: their evidential value is nil. They testify to zeal, but do not spread wisdom.”  One has to conclude that Marshall’s book fell into that category. It is a sad reflection on Foot’s historical judgment that he dismissed so pompously and so casually a vital contribution to the debate, and refused to engage with the very serious questions and hypotheses raised by Marshall and his team.

Such unprofessional behaviour is even more shocking when one is reminded of Foot’s involvement with the BBC. Robert Marshall has recently informed me that, when the BBC started working on its series on SOE in 1980, Foot was engaged as an historical adviser to the series. Marshall was told by a colleague that Foot had declared that there were two areas that the research team could not touch: SOE in the Far East, and Déricourt. Of course that statement had the opposite effect, setting off the researchers hot-foot to investigate the Déricourt story. However, when Marshall came to work on the TV program All The King’s Men in 1983, and interviewed Foot, the latter let slip some statements about Déricourt’s recruitment by Bodington (and, vicariously, MI6), and the claim that Suttill may have met Churchill during his return to the UK in May 1943, that he later came to regret. When Marshall and Foot lunched together, at the time Marshall started working on his book, in 1987, Foot recounted to Marshall all the restrictions that had been placed on him, and, in Marshall’s words ‘he had changed his views about Déricourt and insisted there had been no link with MI6’. Foot had clearly been nobbled.

‘SOE in France’

‘SOE in France’ by M. R. D. Foot

I base my analysis of SOE in France on the 2004 text. Chapter Ten is titled ‘A Run of Errors: 1943-1944’. Foot starts off with a bold judgment: “The connected series [of slips] arose from a single injudicious posting: the head of the FARRIER circuit, whose only task was to organize clandestine air landings for F in northern France, was after the war described by SD officers under interrogation as perhaps the best agent they had had.” Foot goes on to opine that Déricourt’s ‘only unswerving loyalty was to himself’. [FARRIER was designed as being subsidiary to PROSPER, but grew to extend beyond it.]

Foot then offers a lengthy and fairly conventional account of Déricourt’s progress, sanitized and distorted in some places by Déricourt’s own misleading version of events, with a full story about the many successful landings he arranged in occupied France. Yet Foot dances somewhat around the issue of Déricourt’s recruitment by the SD, and whether the pressure applied to him was inevitable, and how Frager (an F section agent) had learned of Déricourt’s treachery from the Abwehr officer, Henri Bleicher. Nor does he analyze why Déricourt, or those of his bosses at Baker Street who knew about the collaboration (Bodington, certainly, and probably Boyle, too), would have interpreted the obvious signals from the SD about not interfering with the airdrops as an indication of long-term goodwill, or why the release of agents’ correspondence to them was a necessary quid pro quo. He explains that Bodington’s presence at Déricourt’s military trial in Paris in June 1948 was in an unofficial role, as a civilian, yet it enabled Déricourt to leave the stage a free man.

And then Foot feels the obligation to debunk the suggestion that the network was betrayed by the British. He uses the Hinsleyesque evasive reference to rumour without explaining it properly: “It is said to be widely believed in France that Suttill’s circuit was deliberately betrayed by the British to the Germans; even ‘directly by wireless to the Avenue Foch’”. Yet such a statement is both arrogant and sophistical. He does not inform readers of the source of the rumours, apart from a ridiculous reference to wireless to the Avenue Foch (where the Gestapo headquarters resided). If one looks up the source of this particular item, it reads as ‘private information, 3 August 1961’. So why would Foot waste time on such an unreliable leak as that instead of examining the more serious critiques? This gambit is a familiar and much-loved technique of the establishment camp: Marshall’s All The King’s Men has been trashed by them since it includes an assertion about a meeting between Suttill and Churchill (revealed by Buckmaster, as it happens) that could not have taken place since the Premier was reportedly out of the country at the time. They then use this error to try to discredit the whole work.

Yet (as Patrick Marnham has reminded me), Foot himself contributed to this deceit. As Marnham writes (War in the Shadows, p 245): “Furthermore, the legend of Suttill’s meeting with Churchill did not spring from ‘something that first appeared in a novel published in 1985’ [as Suttill & Foot claimed in their joint article: see below. Coldspur]. It emerged from an error that first appeared in an official history. This rumour had sprung up because Professor Foot in SOE in France had mistakenly given Suttill’s return date as ‘about 12 June’ (after Churchill’s return to London) when it was in fact 20 May.” Foot was either being very sloppy, or very devious. Moreover, Robert Marshall has recently explained to me that, at the time of his TIMEWATCH research, Churchill’s appointment diary for that period had unaccountably been lost. This vital part of the story must therefore be judged unresolved.

Immediately thereafter, Foot does introduce, perhaps reluctantly, the only ‘conceivable object’ of British strategy that could have been served by a conscious decision to betray Prosper – an elaborate deception plan to draw the Germans’ attention away from the invasion of Sicily. (This is the section where the insertion of ‘STARKEY apart’ appears.) He describes the plan as an operation to ‘send a few SOE agents into France armed with rumours that France was going to be invaded in 1943, on the off chance that some of them would fall into German hands’. This casual aside concerning the fate of loyal agents embarking on a dangerous mission is simply astounding. He then adds: “In fact of course [‘of course’ – that weaselly donnish insertion to indicate how foolish anyone would be to disagree with him] PROSPER’s troubles had no impact whatsoever on the decision about when the invasion should take place, which was made on other and weightier grounds.”

The assertions made in this paragraph are simply absurd. It was not the goal of the war planners to threaten landings in France as a diversion from Sicily, as they knew the Germans would not take such a threat seriously. The decision had already been made by May 1943 that no wholesale invasion of France was possible until 1944. The main goal of COCKADE was to keep German troops in France, away from the Eastern Front, as a gesture to Stalin. The rumours about an imminent invasion were (according to Buckmaster in one of his accounts, anyway) already rampant in the spring of 1943, and Buckmaster wanted to quash them, not foster them, even though Suttill demurred. If a serious plan to suggest landings were imminent had existed, it would have been reflected in massive shipments of arms and ammunition – which is exactly what did happen – not by agents just talking the topic up. Of course [!] Prosper’s troubles had no impact on the decision about the invasion. That is a total non sequitur. What was going on in SOE circuits (which was at a level the Chiefs of Staff did not concern themselves, and did not really understand) had no influence at all on the decision, which was based on the unavailability of landing-craft, and the necessity for massive movements of troops and supplies from the USA to the United Kingdom before any serious assault on the northern French coastline could be attempted.

Foot then digs a deeper hole by citing Buckmaster’s revelation in They Fought Alone that SOE had received, in the middle of 1943, a ‘top-secret message’ telling them that D-Day might be closer than they thought. In a much later communication to the Foreign Office, in 1964 (when he might have been invited to explain himself), Buckmaster claimed that his orders had been to accelerate preparations to support an invasion, in case fortunes changed, and it proved possible to mount the landings. Giving an obscure authority, Foot then indicates that Suttill was sent back from London to Paris in late May with an ‘alert’ signal, which Foot then attributes (without indicating whose judgment this is) might have arisen because of a misunderstanding about the probability of an early major landing.  “Only a few people, in the innermost circles of Westminster and Washington, then knew how small the chances of making such a landing were; and Suttill returned to clandestine duty in the belief that an invasion was probably imminent”, concludes Foot. Moreover, Buckmaster told Fuller (as she recounts in Madeleine) that, as late as September 1943, ‘so great was the military [sic!] interest in her [Noor Inayat Khan’s] remaining’ in France, that he accepted her wish to stay there.

Apart from the manifest unlikelihood of miscommunications over such a straightforward matter occurring, Buckmaster had contradicted this testimony in his earlier work Specially Employed. There (p 85), he had written: “The Chiefs of Staff were naturally enough unwilling to allow us to know more than was essential of their long-term plans. Apart from every other consideration, any foreknowledge of military secrets imparted to an agent constitutes an intolerable burden to him.” Thus, no ‘top-secret ’messages would have been received. He went on to write (p 186) that rumours of the invasion ‘spread like wildfire’ in France as early as April 1943, and that Suttill had to be recalled for discussions on how to quell them, as the ‘patriotic surge of enthusiasm was dangerous’. (One might ask where these rumours might have originated, apart from SOE and MI6? I had discounted the BBC, as the idea seemed too absurd, and it went against all sound policy, but Marnham has reminded me (War in the Shadows, p 248) of a letter from Eric Siepmann, a British intelligence officer, who described the damaging broadcasts from the BBC French service in the summer of 1943 ‘driving people to death’. Further research is necessary to determine who in the Political Warfare Executive authorised these broadcasts.) In any event, while Suttill promised ‘magnificent support’ when the invasion occurred, Buckmaster noted (p 187) that the ‘Allies were not ready to return to the Continent in the summer of 1943’. Thus a) he claimed that he knew then that the invasion was deferred, and b) he presumably was able to pass that message on to Suttill. So how could Suttill have got the message so drastically wrong?

Buckmaster perpetrates other untruths. In They Fought Alone, he said that he and Suttill had many conferences about D-Day planning (what was there to discuss?), and that Suttill returned to France a fortnight later. He was in fact in Britain for only five days, arriving on Saturday May 15th, and returning the following Thursday.  Buckmaster also wrote that, from the middle of 1943, SOE shifted from sabotage to the planting of arms dumps, and the training of the secret army. Yet in Specially Employed he reported that the whole of Paris was short of arms, and that ‘at the beginning of 1943, arms and ammunition began to flow to the different groups’. That fact is borne out by the record of arms shipments made by SOE in the spring of 1943, as recorded by Marshall and others. The truth is that Buckmaster was a devious and unreliable witness, and Foot did not bring any serious analysis to bear on what he wrote and said, or internalize the sequence of events that was driving the strategies of the Chiefs of Staff in London.

The outcome was that Foot fell into the more comfortable conclusion that the demise of the Prosper network was ‘brought on by its agents’ own incompetence and insecurity’. In this analysis, he is no doubt correct that the circuits had been infected by cross-movement and interaction of agents from different sectors, by the borrowing of wireless-operators in a period of real dearth, and by some careless approaches to setting up meetings and rendezvous. But he grossly underplays the naivety by which agents were inveigled into Bleicher’s net by that Abwehr officer’s claims that he was a Nazi sympathetic to the Allied cause, and he remains stubbornly uncritical of the treacherous role that Déricourt played, or why SOE persevered with him. He also does not perform enough justice to the insidious effect that the impersonations of the Dutch Abwehr agents Christmann and Boden played in the affair. And he carefully forgets his own testimony about agents being casually sacrificed in the belief that they might talk.

The matter of the betrayal of the Prosper circuit is largely orthogonal to the issue of whether the Chiefs of Staff decided to exploit its exposures in the cause of deception. Prosper might have collapsed anyway. Déricourt’s malfeasance might have undermined it even if his contacts with the Gestapo were not known by his SOE bosses. SOE should surely have withdrawn its agents (as Buckmaster actually discussed) when its suspicions about betrayal were confirmed. If the London Controlling Station did use F Section for deception purposes, it probably accelerated and expanded the list of those who were in any event betrayed and destroyed. But what any self-respecting historian must not do is steer clear of investigating any possible relationship between military strategy and the destruction of resistance forces simply because it is politically embarrassing to do so.

‘All The King’s Men’

‘All The King’s Men’ by Robert Marshall

Robert Marshall’s book thus appeared, in 1988, as an asynchronous contribution sandwiched directly between the two versions of the authorised hjstory, in 1966 and 2004. It projects a very bold assertion, as it is subtitled ‘The Truth Behind SOE’s Greatest Wartime Disaster’, and the flyleaf proclaims: “It is the story of two men; Claude Dansey, deputy head of MI6, and Henri Déricourt, double agent extraordinaire, who was planted within the rival wartime secret service – SOE – at Dansey’s instructions, and from there began a terrifying twelve-month trail of destruction and betrayal that led to the loss of over four hundred British and French agents.” The reader is exposed to two highly controversial notions, one, that Dansey was responsible for the undoubtedly questionable recruitment of Déricourt by SOE, and two, that it was policy of deception and betrayal that led to the destruction of the Prosper circuit. Marshall dangled the notion of ‘double agent’ before his readers without specifying whether Déricourt was a Nazi agent who was turned by the British, or vice versa.

One of the major strengths of Marshall’s book is that he carried out his research when some of the participants were still alive, and he thus had direct access to many of them (‘interviews with over fifty veterans and survivors of the secret war’). One of its weaknesses is that he sometimes relied too heavily on what these persons told him, when many had reasons for dissimulating. (The archives were of course not available to him.) Maurice Buckmaster was one such unreliable witness, and critics have pounced on Marshall’s description that Churchill had requested an interview with Suttill when he returned to England at the end of May 1943, and at that meeting (which Buckmaster did not attend) Suttill was informed that the invasion at the Pas-de-Calais would take place during the first week of September. Research performed by Suttill’s son has shown that Churchill was out of the country at the time, and thus the meeting could not have taken place [but see below for further commentary]. He and his supporters thus feebly designate Marshall’s work overall as ‘fiction’.

Yet there may be some truth in Suttill’s being briefed by some officers with authority. Buckmaster, in They Fought Alone, wrote (p 186): “We had many conferences with Allied high-ups and then, a fortnight later, Francis returned to France.”  Moreover, Buckmaster used the Churchill fiction to reinforce the instructions to Suttill when briefing other historians. In his 1988 work F Section SOE: The Story of the Buckmaster Network, Marcel Ruby quotes a letter that Buckmaster wrote to him on October 17, 1984, where Buckmaster stated that Churchill had asked Suttill to step up the networks’ activities even if this meant disregarding the agents’ personal security. Churchill, he wrote had added: “I must be able to show Stalin that we are doing our best to make the German divisions return from the East.” This was a monstrous lie, Buckmaster clearly trying to blame on Churchill a decision that had been taken lower down. But he presumably believed he could get away with it. Such are the problems in trying to dispel the fog of misinformation concerning SOE activities.

All The King’s Men is not without unique archival leads, however. For example, when Déricourt arrived in Scotland on September 7, 1942, he immediately declared that he had [sic, not the pluperfect ‘had had’] contacts with German intelligence, a claim he made at his trial a few years later.  In an important footnote, Marshal reports that this fact was confirmed in 1958 by Lord Lansdowne, a junior Minister from the Foreign Office. The Foreign Officer, however, in a communication with Marshall, retracted this statement, declaring the Lansdowne was ‘incorrectly briefed’. Marshall gained corroboration of Déricourt’s claim from other sources, and identifies a series of files concerned with his arrival that were listed at the (then) Public Records Office, namely Z 7300, Z 9571 and Z 9958. On August 6, 1986 the Foreign Office told Marshall that the files had been destroyed some time ago. Verily, the records at TNA concerning Déricourt’s arrival in Gourock are sparse, as I shall report on next month.

Other interviewees, such as Harry Sporborg, who was deputy to Colin Gubbins when the latter was head of SOE Operations, and then SOE itself, come across as much more dependable, and Sporborg is quoted with some statements that must have caused tremors within MI6. For example: “Make no mistake about it, MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if it meant the sacrifice of some of our people,” and “It is the modus operandi of all double agents to provide thin material to begin with, coupled with an undertaking to deliver the earth tomorrow.” Marshall is insightful over such matters as the influence the London Controlling Section had over SOE, and a contrast between Oliver Stanley, who was replaced as its head by the more ruthless John Bevan. According to Marshall, Stanley resigned after the Dieppe raid. “The particular principle over which he [Oliver Stanley] felt so strongly was a suggestion that the SOE should be asked to deliberately misinform its agents in France to expect an imminent invasion. It was the kind of deception for which Stanley had no stomach,” he writes. It is insights like these which make his book so compelling.

The reasons for the replacement of Stanley are not clear-cut, however. Patrick Marnham initially questioned Marshall’s conclusion, since Stanley was ‘promoted’ to Secretary of State for the Colonies, having in May 1942 requested the Prime Minister for a return to conventional politics. Yet two years beforehand Stanley had declined exactly the same role (not a wise choice, one would imagine), and he was not actually confirmed in his new appointment until November, which suggests that the changeover occurred under some pressure. He had become very frustrated in his very clandestine role, and, temperamentally, he may have been a bit too upright and orthodox for the job. He was not informed about ‘double agents’, for instance, as Michael Howard informs us (p 23). Why so? Moreover, his wife died after a long illness in 1942, so he must have been emotionally shattered, and that might explain the long sabbatical in the summer of 1942. Marnham now agrees that Stanley was probably unsuited to the post, and that Churchill needed someone tougher.

I cannot do justice to the richness of Marshall’s narrative here, but simply recommend it as compulsive reading for anyone interested in the Déricourt saga. He uncovers Déricourt’s pre-war history, and his friendship with Nicolas Bodington (whom Dansey placed in SOE), and Karl Boemelburg, who later became a Gestapo officer in Paris. He skilfully outlines all the complex relationships of the F Section networks in France, how the Germans infiltrated them, and how suspicions about Déricourt were eventually communicated to London by Henri Frager. He concludes his story by giving a detailed account of the extraordinary trial of Déricourt at Reuilly Barracks, near Paris, in May 1948, where Bodington made his dramatic statement, saying the ‘he had total trust in Déricourt and recommended he maintain his contacts with the Germans’, probably thereby saving his friend from the gallows.

Marshall does not cleanly tidy up, however, the enigma of Dansey’s involvement. Was he merely naïve in believing that Déricourt might reveal useful information about the structure of the SD in Paris? Did he sincerely believe that Déricourt was already an agent of the Gestapo when he was recruited in London, but successfully ‘turned’? Did he really want to destroy much of the SOE F Section because it interfered with MI6 intelligence-gathering, or because Charles de Gaulle believed it was an intolerable insult to the latter’s Free French ambitions? Was he wickedly working behind the scenes with Bevan and the TWIST committee to betray the Prosper network for what he thought was a good cause, even though the Chiefs of Staff had given contrary instructions? And in what way was Marshall categorizing Déricourt as a ‘double agent’ – under control of which authority, and doubling for whom?

I have discussed some of these questions – especially the last – with Marshall himself, and we agree that, without a confirmation of exactly when Déricourt was given the codename B.048 (as Boemelburg’s 48th agent) it is impossible to determine who officially recruited the agent first – MI6 or SOE or the SD. He was more probably an amoral individual, trying to exploit anybody he could, and then trying to survive, and I shall explore that issue in my coldspur posting next month. I plan also, soon afterwards, to return to the many intriguing points that Marshall offers about COSSAC, the Chiefs of Staff and the London Controlling Section as they planned real and deceptive operations in May 1943. But what is intolerable is that Marshall’s valuable research should have been totally ignored by Foot, and the intrinsically vital issues disclosed in it left uninspected. And that is why it is so important that Patrick Marnham has picked up the baton with War in the Shadows.

Mark Seaman’s ‘Glass Half Full’

Mark Seaman

Seaman’s paper (cited above in the discussion of the release of SOE in France) merits a brief analysis, as much for what it does not say as much as what it does express. The precise role of Seaman in the government intelligence ‘machinery’ is something of a puzzle to me. He is variously described as an ‘historian’ attached to the War Office, or the Imperial War Museum, and now the Cabinet Office. He has written a few books on SOE and related matters, and contributed several article and chapters to books. Yet I have not been able to determine his academic credentials, or who actually employs him. He and Nigel Perrin appear to be used exclusively by the Times Literary Supplement to review books on intelligence, which means they have a dominant influence over discussions of questions concerning SOE.

I must declare an interest. It was Seaman who reviewed my Misdefending the Realm in the TLS. Alert readers may recall that I had to order a copy of my own book from amazon.uk and have it sent to Seaman’s address in Streatham, since my publisher had left for a holiday in India without telling me, and without leaving anyone to mind the store. (I do not believe Andrew Roberts has that problem.) Seaman performed a workmanlike job, although I doubt whether he read the whole book, as he completely missed its main points. But I hold no grudge, as I was delighted to gain any coverage at all. I thus treat him as an insider who has access to a lot of material, while I lay on him large responsibilities as some kind of ‘official’ historian.

I am not sure why Seaman wrote this piece: its conclusion is that ‘there is some cause for considering that the glass is half full rather than half empty’, which is not an insight likely to excite anyone. He provides a useful history of the evolution of SOE studies, rather in the manner in which I set out, although with broader coverage of SOE beyond France, in some areas providing detail that I have omitted, in others offering much thinner gruel. He has some informative observations on the role of the ‘SOE Adviser’, and how the first incumbent treated the job as a function more of obstruction (‘inhibiting research’) more than disclosure. Yet he utterly disappoints in his failure to fulfil the charter he set out in his Introduction: “The question has to be asked whether access to the records has inspired a radical improvement in the study of the subject”.

Is this a veiled insult to Foot? Not overtly, as he generally praises Foot. What is astonishing is the superficiality with which he treats the controversy over the disasters in France. He introduces the Foreign Office desire for ‘a more authoritative voice on SOE matters’ by referring to the allegations made in the media (books and press) in the 1950s and early 1960s that ‘activities in France had been mishandled’, and goes on to write that ‘the most persistent and resonant topics concerned the fate of captured F Section women agent, the activities of double agents and the alleged incompetence of SOE staff officers in London’. Yet he lists none of them, instead directing readers to a chapter he wrote in a rather obscure book of essays dedicated to M. R. D. Foot. His contribution is titled Good Thrillers, but Bad History: a Review of Published Books on the Special Operations Executive Work in France During the Second World War, a generalisation that might suggest that Foot was good, all the rest bad. It is in fact an unbalanced and inconsequential essay that makes a fleeting reference to All The King’s Men, but studiously avoids inspecting any of the serious matters with which Marshall’s book engages, such as the controversial role of Déricourt.

In Glass Half Full, Seaman makes a brief reference to Jean Overton Fuller, but lists only her first work, Madeleine. He has no room for Nicholas, or Fuller’s more challenging publications about Déricourt. Even more startling is the fact that he pays only symbolic homage to BBC’s TIMEWATCH: ‘The BBC ‘Timewatch’ programme has paid several visits to SOE . . .’ He refers neither to the original All The King’s Men episode, nor to Robert Marshall’s subsequent book of the same name. Thereafter he fades away with some brief references, including a rather dismissive dispatch of Leo Marks’ Between Silk and Cyanide. Those allegations he described earlier are simply forgotten, and he concludes his very professorial and condescending survey. ‘There is much work to do’, he writes, but it is not Seaman who is going to perform any of it. I shall re-examine this bizarre attitude in a later section.

The Foot-Suttill Collaboration

Major Francis Suttill’s son, also called Francis, in 2014 published Shadows in the Fog, a book dedicated to explaining the truth behind his father’s betrayal. It was re-issued as an updated and revised work as PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network in 2018. A few years beforehand, Suttill had developed a close relationship with the authorised SOE historian, M. R. D. Foot, and later worked with the so-called ‘SOE historian’ Mark Seaman, and it is these somewhat bizarre alliances that consume my interest in these last sections.

In February 2011, Francis J. Suttill co-authored with M. R. D. Foot, shortly before the latter’s death, an article in Intelligence and National Security titled SOE’s ‘Prosper’ Disaster of 1943. It is a strange piece: it defines its objective as seeking ‘to clear up what went wrong’ in the German mopping-up of the ‘Prosper’ circuit, yet describes the mystery as lying in French press speculation from the mid-1940s that PROSPER himself was responsible, as if no other analysis had been published since. Moreover, this claim assuredly misrepresents the target of French resentment after the war, which was the British Intelligence authorities rather than Suttill himself. This article asserts that fresh insights can be derived from ‘previously unused material in SOE and air ministry archives’, but represents a very narrow and selective trawling of the records.

The authors recapitulate the activities of Prosper in building his network, drawing attention to the careless practices of some of his agents (Gilbert Norman, Andrée Borrell and the Agazarians) in meeting in Montmartre to play poker, and also to the fact that confusion between Norman and the officer bearing the codename GILBERT (Henri Déricourt) often occurred. This gives Foot and Suttill an opening to place ‘the now notorious’ Déricourt in context, asserting that he was working for himself, neither the Germans nor the Allies. While that may be true, confirming the illusory power of the ‘double-agent’, their analysis becomes more suspect when they blandly declare that ‘he showed the Germans all the mail that passed through his hands’, with the result that ‘they thus secured a big advantage in interrogations’. Why such a treacherous act had become necessary for Déricourt’s survival, or the degree to which it contributed to the demise of Prosper, is not explored.

Yet it is their coverage of the role of the Prosper network in the STARKEY deception operation that is the most provocative section. Here the authors attempt to debunk the ‘legend’ that Suttill’s circuit was deliberately betrayed by the British, and Foot may have been looking for a last chance to absolve himself of his own deception over the affair. All the article says about STARKEY is that it ‘was mounted in too much of a hurry in summer 1943 to mis-persuade the Germans that an invasion of France was imminent and would take place in early September’, and that SOE played a minor role in the operation without realizing it. Their evidence for this claim is that the Mauritian Antelme returned to France in May ‘to organize food supplies and finances for a landing force’. The idea that a single SOE officer, working from the Paris area, could in some way contribute so effectively to the logistics for a multi-divisional assault in the Boulogne-Calais area is simply absurd.

Foot’s and Suttill’s exercise would have benefited from an examination of War Cabinet records, since they show a common confusion about the timing of the STARKEY deception plan. The initial plan for STARKEY (as a prong in the COCKADE deception plan) was not presented by General Morgan to the Chiefs of Staff until June 3. (In following Patrick Marnham’s references to Michael Howard’s account of deception at this time, I wondered whether Howard had misread the War Cabinet minutes of January/February 1943 when coming to his assessment of the early approval – that is, pre-STARKEY – by the Chiefs of Staff of such plans for a 1943 assault on northern France, but I realise now that I need to inspect other London Controlling Section records that Howard had accessed, and shall therefore return to this topic in a later posting.) Thus any initiative in May must have been sanctioned outside that operation. The authors also state that both men (i.e. Suttill and Antelme) ‘assumed that there would be a major landing in 1943’, and that ‘F Section did not know till July that it was to be postponed unto 1944’. If this is true (and it may not be appropriate to treat Section F as a monolith), Suttill and Antelme were being cruelly deceived. The decision not to stage an assault on France before 1944 had been taken some months before, and, as I have shown, Maurice Buckmaster was disgracefully equivocal about what he knew, and what he had told Suttill, when he wrote his memoirs.

More fascinating still is what Foot and Suttill write about STARKEY. Sir Michael Howard told Foot in February 2004 (i.e. just before the revised version of SOE in France came out) that John Bevan, the head of the London Controlling Section responsible for deception, had in turn told Howard that he had been ‘deeply unhappy about the unintended consequences of the operation for the resistance movements’. This statement is again left unexamined. I managed to ask Suttill what the implications of it were, and he wrote me a rather confusing reply that I shall pick up when I analyse his book. It points, however, to a rather startling conclusion, namely that Bevan may have been carrying out a rogue deception exercise, retrospectively gathered under the STARKEY umbrella, that did indeed involve SOE in France, and severely damaged the resistance infrastructure.

The article peters out after these highly controversial disclosures. The authors move to place most of the blame on the unfortunate Norman, who is claimed to be the sole author of the infamous pact that Suttill and Norman were supposed to have signed with the Sicherheitsdienst and the Gestapo that, if the subordinate agents handed over their arms, and led the Germans to the arms dumps, they latter would be spared the death penalty, which would still be meted out to the circuit’s leaders. They conclude: “It is irresistible to conclude that Norman made it up, as a cover for his own co-operation with the Germans.” Thus the point of the piece seems to be to absolve Suttill himself at the expense of his fellow-officer, while ignoring the implications of the more complex issues, and thus hoping they will go away. It is all a shabby epitaph to Foot’s less than honourable work.

Yet Foot might have tried to leave some subtle clues to redeem himself. In 1995, the Oxford Companion to World War II appeared, for which Foot was Consultant Editor to the General Editor, I. C. B. Dear. Foot provided entries for Maurice Buckmaster, Colin Gubbins, and Claude Dansey, while Dear himself provided that for Henri Déricourt, On Buckmaster, Foot wrote: “He was occasionally outwitted by the Gestapo”. A sentence on Gubbins starts as follows: “Although he was sometimes outmanoeuvred by Dansey, he showed unexpected gifts of diplomacy in his dealings with governments-in-exile  . . .”. Dansey is characterized in these terms: “Although he had a great gift for rubbing other secret staff officers up the wrong way, he had several successes in persuading the governments-in-exile to provide him with spies for Europe”. Yet Déricourt’s entry is the most shocking and startling of all: “French airman, pre-war *V-man for the Nazi security service, the Sicherheitsdienst. He may then have been recruited by MI6, which knew of his SD connection, brought to London in September 1942 to join SOE’s French section  . . .”

[* A cross reference to the entry on ‘V-man’ leads to a definition that a Vertrauensmann (trusted man) was an agent recruited by the Abwehr and the Nazi security service. It continues, citing a Sicherheitsdienst instruction issued in 1937, that such persons were to be recruited ‘among those having as little culture, common sense, objectivity, and logic as possible’, but then, astonishingly, again highlights Henri Déricourt as an example of how the rule was often ignored.]

Why would Foot, who provides lengthy entries on Deception, and SOE, as well as a brief item on Double-agents, delegate the task of compiling the somewhat speculative entry on Déricourt to Dear when he (Foot) was the expert on F Section of SOE? Moreover, the significance give to Déricourt seems totally out of proportion. Neither General Morgan, nor John Bevan, nor London Controlling Section – nor of course the Twist Committee – was awarded separate entries, and one has to delve into COSSAC before finding any reference to COCKADE. Neither the SOE entry, nor the long essay on France (by Roderick Kedward) helps to explain what significance Déricourt carried in the conduct and outcome of the war. It is all delightfully – and maybe deliberately – vague, although the overall picture at which Foot hints is highly provocative.

‘PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network’

‘Prosper’ by Francis J. Suttill

In his book dedicated to the memory of his father, Francis Suttill has painstakingly compiled a valuable record of the build-up of the Prosper network. Yet a large part of his work is really of little relevance to the central point of its betrayal, recording in detail the succession of drops, landings and infiltrations into France in the last few months of 1942 and the first half of 1943. The overwhelming feature of vital importance, however, is the continued emphasis on the beliefs of Prosper and his team that an invasion was imminent when Suttill returned to France from London on May 21. This story has its origins in instructions to SOE as far back as November 1942, when it was hinted that it was ‘unlikely that invasion could be undertaken until the early spring of 1943’ [sic]. Yet all this happened before the Casablanca Conference that took place between January 14 and 24, 1943, when the Allies (without Stalin’s presence, although Suttill has the Generalissimo attending) made firm decisions to shift emphasis on assault plans to Italy and defer any entry to northern France until 1944 – with some vague provisos given for reviewing plans if the Germans unpredictably collapsed. Thus, at some level, SOE (and especially Section F) was being willfully deceived by the Chiefs of Staff.

Thus Suttill writes (p 191) that his father visited Trotobas in Lille when he arrived in France to pass on instructions: “These confirmed that everyone was still anticipating an imminent invasion as the instructions are remembered as ‘Attack in June, July, August, as quickly as possible in view of the events which can take place at any moment.’”  (The source is a Frenchman, L’Heureux.) On June 13 (or soon afterwards) Suttill instructed Culioli to continue arranging receptions, as he felt that the invasion was imminent. What it meant was that an increasing number of SOE officers and agents, and their associates in the resistance movement, were caught up in clandestine importation of weaponry just as the Germans were exploiting the security holes that had been allowed to appear because of faulty tradecraft, the treachery of Déricourt, and the dissimulations of Bleicher in the Abwehr that had managed to suborn Roger Bardet.

I shall skip over Suttill’s account of the arrests, and move to his intriguing Chapter ‘Theories and Lies’, where he sets out to debunk the ‘conspiracy theories’ that inevitably develop ‘in the absence of the truth’.  Suttill introduces the COCKADE plan (but does not date it), and then provides a brief history of relevant contributors, from the head of COSSAC, General Morgan himself, through Buckmaster and Fuller, as well as some much romanticized narratives by Barry Wynne and Charles Wighton (the pen-name of Jacques Weil). Suttill then moves on to Foot’s History, but prefers to cite the 1966 edition that denied any use of SOE in deception, and he next confirms Morgan’s recommendation that resistance groups not be encouraged to adopt any greater activity, as it would be counter-productive.  Suttill identifies memoranda from June 16, July 18, and July 22 that show how the Chiefs of Staff approved this policy. He then observed: “It was only after this date (a month after the arrest of my father) that Buckmaster, and the other SOE country chiefs, were told that the invasion had been put off to 1944.”

Yet Suttill somehow tries to exploit the obvious fact that SOE was misled before the COCKADE plan was revealed to try to show that undue activity by resistance groups could never have happened. He dismisses Anthony Cave-Brown’s claims that Prosper and his agents were deliberately misled: he expresses his very positive first reactions to All the King’s Men, but then quotes Foot’s comment that it was ‘an imaginative fiction, an ingenious story, but not a true one’, discounting it because it relied too much on private information, such as in the story that Boemelburg, Déricourt and Bodington knew each other before the war. Again, his conclusion is that SOE was justifiably used in the spring of 1943 since the decisions of the Casablanca Conference were not translated into an action plan until April 1943. “  . . . So the existing deception strategy had to be continued to protect the value of the double agents passing false information and to keep the Germans constantly confused,” he writes. But his father did not think he was part of a ‘deception strategy’: he was told that the real thing was imminent. Furthermore, Suttill provides no sources for the execution of this strategy, with its unnamed double-agents. Was this the TWIST Committee?

Another area where Suttill falls down is in his analysis of the outcome from the Casablanca Conference. He makes the claim that the sacrifice of the French resistance would have been pointless, and a deception exercise to convince the Russians of ‘Second-Front’ resolve nugatory, since ‘the postponement had already been agreed at Casablanca by Churchill, Roosevelt, and Stalin in January 1943’. Stalin did not attend Casablanca, however, and the War Cabinet Minutes reinforce the fact that Churchill, throughout the first half of 1943, was desperate to lead Stalin to believe that an assault on Northern France would occur in 1943. Stalin surely picked up what was really going on from his multiple spies in various government ministries, but that is another story.

Lastly, Suttill brings up the matter that the arrests may have been the ‘unintended consequences’ of the deception plan, and mentions that the ‘exponential increase in drops to the circuit in June was set to continue in July’. Yet he does not examine why all this hectic activity of weapons-dropping had been allowed to continue unless it had been a deliberate part of a deception plan. His weak explanation runs as follows: “Some visible increase in resistance activity in the northern half of France was compatible with what the deception planners wanted and so the fact that an increase was already happening meant that there was no need for them to become involved with SOE to arrange such an increase.” The logic is astounding: SOE was importing arms (with the help of Bomber Command, who was loth to supply planes for such purposes) in the belief that invasion was imminent, even though the Chiefs of Staff disapproved of such activity; Bevan’s team allowed this to happen since it contributed clandestinely to the overall deception goals, even though the deception plan had not yet been approved; SOE chiefs, while knowing that the invasion had been called off, and that the Prosper circuit had been penetrated, did nothing to arrest the arrival of weaponry.

Suttill cites what Bevan told Howard shortly before his death, namely that he ‘still had feelings of guilt about it [the collapse of the Prosper organization] as he considered that this collapse had resulted from pressure on the circuit to increase their activities for what they thought would be an imminent invasion.” (The ‘their’ clearly refers to the members of the circuit, Bevan excluded.) He added that he thought the risk would have been acceptable if there really had been a landing planned in 1943, implying, therefore, that it was unacceptable since SOE had been deceived. Moreover, Suttill compliments Bevan on his hindsight that the collapse of the circuit had been counterproductive to both STARKEY and the overall strategy. I found this an extraordinary conclusion: Suttill seemed to be reinforcing the claim that Prosper had been sacrificed, even if it was made more by a lesser charge of thoughtlessness and callousness than through malevolent betrayal.

I asked Suttill (via email) how he interpreted the ‘unintended consequences’ of the operation, and what the ‘intended consequences’ of it had been. After partially disowning the article he co-authored with Foot, indicating that he made a few adjustments to Foot’s text (even though his name appears before Foot’s as author), he finessed my question by merely paraphrasing the statement he had made in his book, and gave me a rather rambling answer: “Briefly, as the French Section was not told until the end of July 1943 that the plan for an invasion that year had been deferred, they were still working on the assumption that it was imminent. The deception planners, knowing that SOE was therefore planning to continue increasing drops to France, thought this would be useful as part of their plan but the deception planners had not asked SOE to do this as a deliberate part of their plan and it became irrelevant anyway at the end of June with the collapse of the Prosper circuit.”

I showed this message to Patrick Marnham, and we agree that Suttill is reluctant to face up to the truth. The French Section could not work on ‘assumptions’: it received clear indications during May and June that the invasion was imminent, and could not have worked independently without considerable RAF support. Suttill claims here that Bevan had not asked SOE to continue with their airdrops, yet he asserted in his book that Bevan told Howard that the Prosper circuit had indeed been put under pressure to increase its activities (p 285). SOE did not take its orders from ‘deception planners’ in any case (unless a cowboy operation was taking place behind the scenes). SOE received direct instructions from the Chiefs of Staff, but knew that Déricourt had been in communications with the Sicherheitsdienst. As Marnham put it to me in an email: “The Resistance and F Section were encouraged to put their head in a noose”. For some strange reason, Suttill appears to believe that his account dispels any possible accusation that his father’s circuit was betrayed by domestic ill deeds as much as by German counter-intelligence.

Mark Seaman’s Final Judgment

While Suttill hooked in M. R. D. Foot at the beginning of his project, he succeeded in reeling in Mark Seaman at its conclusion. The latter has provided a flattering Foreword to Prosper. In this he signs himself as ‘SOE Historian’: it is not clear what his qualifications are, whether this is an official title, or whether he prefers to describe himself in that way above his other interests, or whether he merely considers himself an SOE historian like all the rest of us who dabble in this sphere. As Katrina Gulliver wrote recently in the Spectator: “You’d be surprised by the number of ‘historians’ whose qualification seems to be liking books about Napoleon – and who get quite shirty if you suggest someone with a PhD in the field might have more claim to the title.” Mr Seaman was awarded the MBE in the Queen’s Birthday List of 2014 for ‘services to the history of espionage’: it is not clear to me whether he received this award for simply doing his job (since he has is currently described as ‘an historian with the Cabinet Office’, who previously held a similar job with the Imperial War Museum). His publications have been meager, and one can only wonder what he does is his official capacity if he does not write history.

In this Foreword Seaman gives the inappropriate impression that he wants to close down historical inquiry into this matter. Moreover, he offers a very unprofessional account of what went on, and of his assessment of Suttill’s work. I present a few examples:

i) “As speculation grew on both sides of the Channel that an Allied invasion was imminent, the increased recruitment of local personnel and the delivery of stores by the RAF’s supply drops began to turn PROSPER into a veritable army.” No explanation is given of the causes for the speculation, no indication of why the RAF was increasing supply drops, no dates, and he presents the great hyperbole in categorising a penetrated network as a substantial military force. As reputable historians (e.g. Stafford, Wieviorka) have pointed out, the value of an untrained and immobile secret army, lacking heavy equipment and facing the regular formations of a professional military force, was accepted by the Chiefs of Staff and Colin Gubbins as being almost negligible.

ii) “In the 1970s a series of revelations began to emerge about intelligence in the Second World War and, in particular, the British exploitation of deception stratagems. Speculation began to be voiced that PROSPER had been sacrificed on the altar of operations BODYGUARD and FORTITUDE, the schemes devised to mislead the Germans of the time and location of the Allied invasion of the Continent.” More vagueness, and excessive use of the passive voice. Seaman does not identify these ‘revelations’ (were they official, and accurate?). He does not identify who voiced the speculation, while his comments about BODYGUARD and FORTITUDE are massively anachronistic, since those operations were not conceived until after Suttill was arrested. The plan for BODYGUARD was not presented to the Chiefs of Staff until December 25, 1943 (Hesketh’s FORTITUDE, p 17): if Prosper had been sacrificed, it was on the altar of COCKADE and STARKEY.

iii) “While others might have drifted into speculation about what personalities might have thought or said, the story has an exemplary grounding in fact derived from a mass of documentary evidence and the oral testimonies of survivors.” Who are those others? And did they drift into speculation, or not? Why is their evidence assumed to be valueless? Suttill indeed shows that he has delved into many archives thoroughly, but he ignored many that were pertinent, such as Déricourt’s MI5 files, and War Cabinet records. Oral testimonies contain their own dangers, as Maurice Buckmaster has taught us. Seaman fails to note that Suttill’s account is not universally ‘grounded in fact’, since it places Stalin at Casablanca.

iv) “This book will surely be the definitive account of Francis Suttill and the tragic story of his PROSPER circuit.” No, it will not. Promoting ‘definitive accounts’ should be the bane of the professional historian, as further evidence will always come to light. What about the TWIST Committee, Mr Seaman? Suttill’s account is so partial, so selective, and so problematical, while at the same time encouraging further researches by the obvious self-contradictory statements that he makes about deception operations, that the story will have to be revised.

v) “The mistakes and failings of the British agents and their French colleagues are generally characterised as human weaknesses not treachery, although such a word still seems applicable to the double agent Henri Déricourt.” More use of the passive voice: by whom are these characterisations ‘generally’ made? And given Déricourt’s dominant role in the whole affair, if he was a ‘double agent’ (an idea that Seaman does not explore, leaving his readers to decide whether he was a ‘double-agent’ for the Germans or the British), the disposal of the ‘treachery’ phenomenon would seem to be a trifle hasty.

vi) “Secondly, it finally puts to rest a 70-year-old debate and, one hopes, will stifle the persistent, indiscriminate conspiracy theories that have continued to besmirch the memories of a group of brave, volunteer secret agents who risked their lives for the liberation of France from Nazi tyranny.” Of course it does no such thing, despite Seaman’s lofty pronouncements from his bully pulpit. Trying to banish ‘conspiracy theories’, as if they were inherently evil, when large traces of conspiracy and deception are admitted by Suttill himself, is the behaviour of a charlatan. Such investigations, moreover, are not intended to, and do not in practice, ‘besmirch’ any of the SOE heroes, but are simply vehicles for reducing the fog of disinformation that Seaman’s employers have tried to deploy over some dedicated and objective researchers.

Duncan Stuart, the last ‘SOE Adviser’ added his endorsement of what Seaman wrote. But Seaman’s text is an item of propaganda, not history.

Conclusions

This article has referred to a set of minimally explained phenomena, namely: Selwyn Lloyd’s admission of misdeeds by SOE; the obstructiveness of SOE adviser Boxshall; the unorthodox recruitment of Déricourt by SOE or MI6; SOE’s tolerance of Déricourt’s contacts with the Sicherheitsdienst; the numerous descriptions of Déricourt as a ‘double agent’ that unavoidably cast questions over which intelligence force he was ‘doubling’ for; an apparent maverick deception operation by Bevan of the London Controlling Section; Bevan’s subsequent regrets over the ‘unintended consequences’ of the STARKEY exercise; the secret proceedings of the TWIST committee, which was stated to have manipulated ‘double agents’ in the cause of deception; the testimony of SOE officer Harry Sporborg, who investigated the Déricourt business at the time;  the equivocal comments by Mackenzie and Foot about SOE’s contributions to the deceptions of Operation STARKEY, including Foot’s assertion that agents may have been casually sacrificed in the cause of disinformation; Foot’s clumsy reference to Suttill’s meeting with Churchill; Suttill’s acknowledged belief in May 1943 that an assault on northern France was imminent; the BBC’s broadcasts to France that encouraged the same idea; SOE’s premature supply of arms to the French Resistance in contradiction of instructions from the Chiefs of Staff; the lack of a decision to withdraw members of the Prosper network when SOE knew it had been penetrated; Bodington’s flamboyant rescue of Déricourt at his trial;  the restrictions placed on the authorised historian, Foot, and his subsequent disclosures in the Oxford material; and the duplicity of Buckmaster in his memoirs and statements. One might add to this list the summary execution of Kieffer of the Sicherheitsdienst and the timely accidental death of Boemelburg of the Gestapo, the elimination of these key characters preventing their giving witness at Dricourt’s trial.

Their interpretation of these events divides the establishment (Suttill, Perrin, Seaman) from the conspiracy-theorists (Marshall, Marnham, Percy), while Foot somewhat straddles the two camps. The establishment believes that any possible theory about SOE manipulation of Resistance forces is a cruel hoax, and somehow besmirches the reputation of those who lost their lives, as if it were more honourable for Prosper and his colleagues to have perished because of their carelessness and poor tradecraft than by the machinations of remote deception units. They thus regard all attempts to explain the mysteries as ‘fiction’. The conspiracy-theorists attempt to explain what is assuredly a conspiracy of sorts by analysing closely the remaining evidence, looking for a pattern of clues that might shed light on some bizarre and disturbing actions. They are dogged and patient, accepting that archival evidence is vital in moving their case forward, but strongly affirming their belief that ‘the last word’ on any historical event can never be written.

The archives can still reveal startling new facts that challenge the old orthodoxies. In War in the Shadows, Patrick Marnham revealed how an apparently inconsequential handwritten note by ‘Tar’ Robertson indicated his close familiarity with Henri Déricourt. In next month’s posting, I shall explain how a careful analysis of Déricourt’s MI5 files displays some breathtaking new information about his recruitment and status.

(I thank Patrick Marnham and Robert Marshall for providing me with feedback on earlier versions of this article. As I was making finishing touches to it, I gratefully received from Mr. Marnham the paperback edition of War in the Shadows, just published, which includes a vital new Postscript containing references to research on coldspur, as well as to information coming from other readers that reinforces the theory of SIS-led deception. I urge those of you who have not bought the hardback edition to acquire this item.)

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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A-Rovin’ with Greensleeves

Dene Farm, Chipstead. September 24, 1976.

I take a break from intelligence matters this month to celebrate Sylvia’s and my forty-fifth wedding anniversary, and to exploit the occasion by indulging in some mostly reliable reminiscences and reflecting upon them.

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On occasions, when conversing with Americans at social gatherings, I am asked at which ‘school’ (= ‘college’) I was educated. When I reply ‘Christ Church, Oxford’, a beatific smile sometimes takes over the face of my interlocutor, as if he (or she) believed that Christ Church was the British equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and they start thinking about whether they should invite me to be one of their lay preachers or readers at the local Methodist or Episcopalian Church. I am always quick to ward them off any such idea, as I do not believe I would delight their congregation, and it normally turns out that, when I start explaining the peculiar history of Christ Church (the ‘House’ – Aedes Christi, and never referred to as ’Christ Church College’), and its role as an independent college in the Oxford University framework, their eyes start to glaze over, and they look instead for someone they can discuss the football with.

1952-1956

But there was a time! I happened recently to retrieve from my archives my Report Cards from my years at St. Anne’s Preparatory School in Coulsdon, Surrey, for the years 1952 to 1956. In my Kindergarten report of Summer 1952, Mrs. Early’s assessment for ‘Scripture’ runs: ‘Listens to Bible Stories with interest’. Was this true absorption? Or a well-managed bluff? Or a view of astonishment? I cannot recall. A year later, I was third in the exams, although I dropped to sixth by Christmas. The following summer, there was apparently no exam, but it was recorded that I ‘attended morning assembly regularly’. I suspect I did not have a choice, but maybe others did? By Summer 1955, ‘Scripture’ had been replaced by ‘Divinity’, and I achieved a creditable second place in the exams, followed by more excellent results. But then, in my last term, in Summer 1956, I dropped to 18th in the standings, from a class of 27. ‘Very fair’, was the comment, which is English-teacher speak for ‘pretty awful’. What had happened? Obviously a crisis of faith had occurred. And it happened because of a convergence of music and history.

I had been intrigued by the History lessons, where we learned about Cavemen, and the Stone Age, and perhaps I found these a more plausible account of the Birth of Man than the rather saccharine Bible Stories. At about the same time, I recall we had music and singing lessons, where we were encouraged to trill lustily some English (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh) folksongs. Apart from such standbys as ‘Bobbie Shaftoe’, I particularly remember two songs: the first one that I had for long imagined was by Rabbie Burns – ‘A-Rovin’’, the second, ‘Greensleeves’. Looking the former up today, I see that its title is ‘The Maid of Amsterdam’, and is a traditional sea shanty that first appeared in London, in 1608, in a play by Robert Heywood. The chorus went as follows:

            A-rovin’, a -rovin’, since rovin’s been my ru-i-in

            I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you – fair – maid.

I can recall to this day the atmosphere in the classroom as we took up the refrain, with the smell of cabbage and dirty socks wafting in from other rooms, and my seat, bottom left, where I was always trying to catch the teacher’s attention.

But isn’t that extraordinary – that a prim preparatory school in postwar England would encourage its eight-year-olds to sing about ‘roving’? Assuredly we did not sing the whole song, as I note that the third verse runs as follows:

I put my hand upon her thigh
Mark well what I do say
I put my hand upon her thigh
She said: “Young man you’re rather high!”
I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you fair maid

Needless to say, we did not get further than the first verse, but I think I was already enthused enough to think that this roving business was something I needed to investigate. I now wonder whether I already had at that time enough imagination to reflect that wasn’t it more likely that the Fair Maid would face Ruin than the Rover would? I was certainly not looking for ruination at that age, but I was very keen to learn more about this frightening prospect, and how beautiful maidens could indeed be the cause of the complete collapse into desolation or penury of innocent young lads like me.

But where to find ‘fair maids’? My father owned a handsome, tall, glass-lined – but locked – bookcase, and I could inspect the titles there through the panes. One title was The Fair Maid of Perth, which sounded promising. Perhaps Perth was a fertile location for the incipient Rover? So I looked up ‘Perth’ in the atlas: it seemed a bit far away. Requiring quite a substantial rove, in fact. My absence might have been noted, and I would have been pushed to get back in time for my favourite baked-beans-on-toast supper, so I abandoned that plan. Another potential source was Roy Race, of Melchester Rovers, who featured in Tiger magazine, but I soon saw that his adventures did not involve exploits with girls but instead such feats as rescuing the Rovers’ French import, Pierre Dupont, from a lighthouse where he had been kidnapped, so that they could get him back in time for kick-off. (“Who’d play the Rovers with Pierre on our wing ?” Tra-la-la.) All stirring stuff, of course, but not really relevant to the Quest.

Rossetti’s ‘Greensleeves’

And then there was Greensleeves. That glorious tune, and the illustrations, at the back of some encyclopædia or annual that I possessed, that showed a comely young girl, draped in muslin or something similar, sitting on a bough of a tree in some medieval forest. Was Greensleeves one of those maids who could ruin you? She didn’t look as if she were someone who could cause permanent damage. At the same time, I couldn’t see myself taking her home to meet Mum and Dad. (“Sit down, dear, and have a cup of tea. But why is your frock all green? Have you been frolicking in the grass?”) Nevertheless, maybe it would have been safe to do a little roving with her, to see what it was like, without getting into trouble.

Another permanent memory is attending Sunday School. I would inwardly seethe at being sent off, on an afternoon when playing outside beckoned far more energetically, to the church at the top of the hill in Coulsdon, Surrey. (It was St. Andrew’s, where my parents were married in August 1940, as the bombs started falling.) It was utterly boring, and prominent among the tedious exercises that we had to carry out was the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, which, even then, I regarded as the most ridiculous mumbo-jumbo I had ever heard. (This was especially so with the St. James version in use then, that contained ‘the Holy Ghost’, ‘hell’, and ‘the quick and the dead’, making it particularly opaque.) It was never explained to us what these statements meant, how they were derived, or why they were important. We were just indoctrinated: “I believe in . . .”.  I fail consistently to understand how any inquisitive child would not rebel against such nonsense, and the way it was drilled into us. But eight-year-olds in my world did not ask questions. We did what we were told. Moreover, the girls at Sunday School were all very soppy and outwardly very pious. Not a single green sleeve to be found among the lot of them.

But to return to school. At the end of one of the lessons, probably in the spring of 1956, I went up to speak to Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder, who for some reason were both present during the session. Mr. Robinson was a kindly, Pickwickian figure, who blinked at us, and always wore a three-piece-suit with a fob watch in his waistcoat. He taught us English and History. Mr. Wilder was much younger, tall and athletic, half-French. He taught Arithmetic, French, and sport, and impressed me and other pupils once when he said he could think in French. I had two questions for the pair of them: Who wrote ‘Greensleeves’? And which account of Man’s origins was right – the Garden of Eden or the Story of the Cavemen?

Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder looked at each other awkwardly. The Greensleeves question they were able to dispense with fairly quickly: ‘traditional’, ‘no known composer’, but the other one was challenging. I am not sure exactly what they said: they may have used the word ‘allegory’, but probably not, but I do recall having the impression that I should not take those Bible stories all very literally. And I think that did it for me, as far as religion was concerned. They confirmed for me that it was all bogus. I had sorted out something significant, and from that day on, I knew what I wanted to do. When cringe-making friends of my parents patted me on the head, and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an ‘influencer’, and would seek to monetise my content-creation as soon as I could. (That quickly shut them up.) Unfortunately it took sixty-five years for that idea to take off.

‘Born 1820: Still Going Strong’

Now, I have to say that I was a very literal-minded little boy at that stage. I had great problems differentiating between fiction and reality, and no one had yet introduced me to William Empson and his Seven Types of Ambiguity. For example, I recall seeing the advertisement for Johnny Walker whisky on the front page of the Illustrated London News, where the slogan declared: ‘Born 1820. Still going strong!’, and it displayed a regency gentleman, in red jacket, shiny black boots, and a golden top-hat breezily striding somewhere. 1954 minus 1820 was 134. How could a man live to be that long, I asked myself, and where could I meet him?

‘The Blue Lamp’

And then there were the movies (pictures). We went to see The Blue Lamp, where Jack Warner played P.C. Dixon, and was eventually shot by the Dirk Bogarde character. (It came out in 1950. Did I really see it that early?) I was distraught. The very likable policeman was dead, definitely not ‘still going strong’, and it must have been ages before it was explained to me that it was all illusory. About that time we must also have seen a trailer for King Kong (children would not have been allowed to watch the full movie), and I had nightmares for months, since I believed that great apes could actually grow to that size and might terrorize our neighbourhood. And I know I was puzzled about ‘The Dark Ages’, concluding that for hundreds of years the sun did not come out, and people must have groped around in the murkiness until the light returned.

I recall, also, my bewilderment over my father’s occupation during the day. He would set off on his bicycle to school each day (a journey of about five miles along the busy Brighton Road), but I could not work out why a man of his age was still attending school. My sister eventually explained to me that he was not a pupil there, but a teacher. Somehow, even though I saw men of his age teaching at St. Anne’s, I had never made the connection.

Yet that summer of 1956 must have been very important. I remember being introduced to the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword, and solving my first clue. (The answer was ‘OSCAR’.) I discovered – and delighted in – nonsense verse. I recall being fascinated by my father’s meagre store of one-liners, such as ‘She was a good cook, as cooks go, but, as cooks go, she went’, and was exceedingly happy to sort out why the linguistic twist worked, and why it made me laugh. I suddenly started to appreciate allusion, metaphor, irony, bathos, and paradox. The real world was far more subtle and multi-layered than I had ever imagined. At the same time, I felt a distinct disdain for the mythical and the mystical, a distaste that has never gone away. (The Greek Myths left me cold, as did C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Though I loved Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.) But not the mysterious: mystery was captivating. And Greensleeves lay in the field of mystery.

1956-1965

Geoffrey Marlar

In September 1956 I started at Whitgift School in Croydon. Like many such independent schools, it had a charitable foundation, and the assumption seemed to be that all the pupils should be trained to be solid Christian gentlemen. That was assuredly something that the Headmaster, Geoffrey Marlar (who had ridden with the cavalry in WWI) believed. Coincident with my arrival at the school, our family had moved house – to more spacious accommodation rented from the school Foundation, on the playing-fields, about four hundred yards from the Headmaster’s house. If, on a Sunday, my brother and I played any ball-game that caused us to stray far from Haling Park Cottage, and Marlar espied us while gardening, he would shake a fist at us for breaking the Sabbath, and our father would get a roasting from him the next day.  I found this all very strange, and the arrival of Cavaliers cricket on Sundays soon afterwards must have dismayed Marlar. (He retired in 1961.)

I had to attend daily Assembly, careful to be carrying my hymnbook for inspection. (For one week when I had mislaid that item, I recall taking in a pocket dictionary, and not being spotted.) I would never even have thought of getting exempted as a pagan, but then I learned that there was a category of boys called ‘Jews’ who were allowed to sit it out. This seemed to me grossly unfair. I couldn’t tell why these characters were any different from the motley crew of youngsters from all quarters of Europe, both friendly and inimical, that I had to deal with, and thus could not work out why they were allowed to escape all the mumbo-jumbo. Later I would learn that there were atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews, and Protestant and Catholic Jews, and Jews for Jesus, and non-Jews who had converted for marital reasons, but it all seemed to me like an Enormous Category Mistake at the time, even though I had not worked out why. Much later, after looking into the matter, I decided that dividing the world into Jews and Gentiles was patently absurd, and I was encouraged to learn that Schlomo Sands (in The Invention of the Jewish People) gave historical authority to my doubts and inclinations.

Then I got recruited to the Choir. Not because I liked singing, but because I apparently had a decent voice, and obedient boys did not challenge what their elders and betters decreed. The only trouble was that the times for Choir Practice and Rugby Practice collided, and it was an easy decision for me to pick the activity I preferred. Thus, when the first performance of Iolanthe was staged, in December 1957 (I think), one Fairy who had missed out on the rehearsals was able to give a startling innovative and true-to-life interpretation of the first chorus ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’, something which my classmates were quick to point out to me the following morning. Mortification came easily.

‘Tripping Hither’ (not the Whitgift School performance)

Hymn- and carol-singing was, however, quite enjoyable, and even the less devout masters joined in lustily (with my father notoriously singing out of tune, another embarrassing fact that was swiftly communicated to me by one of his colleagues). But it was important not to study the words too closely. I do not know how many of us inquisitive ten- and eleven-year-olds worked out, when singing the stirring Adeste Fideles, what ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ meant, but it was a line that Frederick Oakeley (if indeed it was he) should have stifled at birth when he faced the challenge of translating

Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine,
gestant puellae viscera
Deum verum, genitum non factum
.

What was extraordinary to me then, and remains so, is how many of the school staff, presumably intelligent and well-educated persons who were supposed to be encouraging their pupils to think critically, swallowed up such nonsense unquestioningly.

In fact my sister confided in me an awful truth, in about 1959. She told me that our father (not Our Father, I hasten to add, since His views on the matter are for ever indeterminable) did not believe in the Apostles’ Creed. What a shock! I was like: ‘Hallo!’, and in my best Holden Caulfield style responded that surely no one believed in that stuff any more. Why Daddy had vouchsafed this truth to my sister, and not to me, was a mystery, but I concluded that, in my resolve not to accompany the rest of the family to church, something they did only at Christmas and Easter, I had perhaps been working my ‘Influencer’ magic on him for the good. (Those who knew my father will know how unlikely a story that is.)

But back to the choir. After a while, my voice broke, of course, and I became an alto. Something was wrong, however, and I was jolted out of my complacency when a fellow chorister – name of Balcomb (where is he now?) – pointed out loudly, to no one in particular, that ‘Percy just sang the treble part one octave lower’. Apparently I was supposed to sight-read the alto part from the hymnal, and thus harmonise with the basses and tenors. But I couldn’t do that! No one had told me what to do, or taught me how to sight-read. Another colleague informed me that most of the choir actually sang at their church, where they learned such tricks, but that his main objective in joining the church had been ‘to meet girls’. So maybe that was the route to take! But there was no way that I was going to sacrifice my irreligious principles for a bit of skirt-chasing (‘that’s not who I am’), so the hunt for Greensleeves was temporarily abandoned, and the choir permanently discarded.

Yet my teenage years were filled with things that I really did not want to do. I had joined a local Scout group, because a new master at the school had a son my age who was keen, and my parents thought it was ‘a good idea’ for me to join. I was made by my unmusical parents to take up piano-playing, something I was not adept at. I hated practising, and dreaded the weekly lesson, dearly hoping that the scheduled time would clash with an away cricket match. Later came the Combined Cadet Force, much harder to avoid, as the alternative was the Boy Scouts, but Monday night, preparing my uniform for CCF day, was the most dismal evening of the week.

This all left very little time for roving. I attended the Yates-Williams School of Ballroom Dancing, at the Orchid Ballroom in Purely, but that was all rather chaotic, and dancing was not my shtick, either. No time for careful wooing of Greensleeves. And glimpses of such a life were few and far between. When we studied Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, I recall Henry Axton trying to make the play a little more spicy for us (I was fourteen at the time), by suggesting, in the scene where M. Jourdain meets Dorimène, that he was probably trying to look down her cleavage. This was unbearably saucy for my liking, but indicated that Mr. Axton probably knew a bit about roving. I did not seek him out after the class, however, to quiz him on the details.

Thus, by the time the Sixth Form Socials arrived, where the girls from the local high schools were invited, I was hopelessly disadvantaged. (Well, there had been a few romantic roving episodes – none of Turgenevian proportions, I should add –  but I must stay silent about them, as any account would be too shy-making.) I bet all those blighters sporting ‘Crusader’ badges were winning the roving spoils. And, bewilderingly, the Religious Knowledge classes continued into the Lower Sixth Form, where a dreary three-quarters of an hour was wasted each week in studying some Bible extract, and poor Don Rose was brought into relative despair in trying to fire evangelical enthusiasm in the few obvious non-believers in the class. On the other hand, John Chester, our Sixth Modern form-master, as a dedicated Count Bernadotte internationalist, was perplexed at any admission of atheism, seeing it as a symptom of Communism. Presumably the same impulse that provoked the US Congress to adopt ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto in 1956.

There were not many women at Whitgift. In the early years, we had Miss Scott in the Art Room, and the Headmaster’s secretariat contained two ladies, a very pleasant person called Mrs. Haynes, and her rather dour assistant whom we nicknamed ‘Olga’, as she looked as if she had just stepped out of a Chekhov play. In a sincere attempt to bring more joy to their lives, I posted the following clerihew on the Poetry Wall in the Prefects’ Room:

Mrs Haynes

Goes jiving in Staines,

While Olga

Dances the polga.

I do not know whether Life imitated Art in this particular case, but such musings formed a creative break from our cheerless studies.

The themes from the German literature we were given as set books were too frequently beyond the ken of secluded and protected sixteen-year-olds like me. Thus Gretchen’s passion and torment in Goethe’s Urfaust were rather bewildering (‘abhorrence of a virgin’s womb’? Mr. Chester would never have discussed sex or pregnancy with us), although the role of Mephistopheles in introducing Faust to Roving was unmistakably evil. (Was Gretchen’s  “Meine Ruh’ ist hin” a ghostly echo of  “my ru-i-in”?) And Goethe’s development of the ending, where Gretchen’s Old Testament fate (“ist gerichtet” – “judged”) evolved eventually to one of New Testament salvation (“ist gerettet” – “saved”) cut no ice with me. On the other hand, the Cambridge Examiners, in their fashionable wisdom, set the Communist Bertolt Brecht’s turgid Leben des Galilei as the second set book. Definitely no cleavages on view there. The last book, Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Prinz von Homburg, was an extraordinarily modern psychological study, Shakespearean in its combination of historical drama with study of period-independent human failings. It was thus for me the most accessible of the three set texts. Kleist died in a joint suicide with his Greensleeves, the mortally ill Henriette Vogel, in 1811. No more a-rovin’ for you, Heinrich old chap. But your work lives on: ‘Born 1777 – Still Going Strong’.

Heinrich von Kleist

Thus a rather confused and hesitant candidate applied for entrance to Oxford University.

1965-1976

Christ Church, Oxford

It was a strange business, landing up at Christ Church, of all places, the home of the Oxford Cathedral, and alma mater of countless Prime Ministers. My acceptance was surely not because of my scholastic record or potential, and I can only assume that they must have picked me for one of three reasons:

            1) They thought I was a fairly close relative of the Duke of Northumberland, they hadn’t had many Percys enrolled in recent years, and imagined I might be a useful addition to the beagling set;

            2) They hadn’t filled their quota of infidels for the year, and needed to take some immediate affirmative action to balance the numbers;

            3) They needed a versatile rugby three-quarter, who could play fly-half, centre, or full-back, and preferably someone who could bowl a bit as well.

In fact, I may have been admitted through a misunderstanding. When I had my interview, one of the dons suddenly asked me: “Have you done any roving?”, to which I immediately piped up, replying: “Not much, but I certainly expect to take it up enthusiastically if I am accepted!”.  One or two heads nodded at this, which was quite encouraging. It was not until a few hours later that it occurred to me that the distinguished academic had perhaps been impressed with my strapping 6’ 4” physique, and that the question might have been: “Have you done any rowing?”.  I must have disappointed the Senior Common Room when I did not take my place on the boats.

Yet it was a bit of a culture shock. The cathedral was obviously a dominant presence, and there was a fairly vigorous Church Militant group from such places as Wellington and Marlborough.  I was not even like the agnostic worshipper at the Cathedral quoted in Peter Snow’s Oxford Observed: “I am conscious of communicating if not with Christ then with the whole of English history and tradition.” And I soon found that I, as an obvious non-cathedral-service attendee, was to be excluded from some of the key social events – such as the Chaplain’s sherry parties. (Such discrimination would not be allowed in 2021, where chaplains, now probably called Spiritual Care and Outreach Officers, presumably have to administer to everyone, including Buddhists, Rosicrucians and atheists, and to attend to their emotional needs when they are offended by the presence of statues of benefactors of less than stellar integrity. And I notice that Harvard University recently appointed an atheist as its Head Chaplain.) One of my few god-fearing friends did however encourage me to gatecrash one of those parties, but I was sent away with a flea in my ear – not what I considered very charitable behaviour. Yet I learned one thing: One did not go to the Chaplain’s sherry parties to meet Greensleeves. No sirree.

But the theologians! I could not believe how many canons and readers and students of Theology there were. What on earth was ‘Theology’ and how could one pursue a course of study in it? The study of ‘God’ or of ‘gods’? Even today, when I pick up a recent copy of Christ Church Matters, the House magazine, I find that most of the books by Christ Church alumni that receive reviews are on matters of religion (e.g. ‘Theologically Engaged Anthropology’, ‘The Study of Ministry’, ‘Theology and Religion: Why It [sic] Matters’; ‘Interfaith Worship and Prayer: We Must Pray Together’;  etc. What is going on? How can such superstition occupy so many serious minds for so much of their time? I find it astounding. And then there are the editorials from the Dean, written in language that has no meaning at all for persons like me.

This lesson was brought home to me recently when I read an article in Prospect, titled ‘How to Build a New Beveridge’. It was written by someone called Justin Welby, who I assumed was perhaps the offspring of Marcus Welby, M. D., until the footnote informed me that he apparently occupied a role described as ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Welby started his article as follows: “An apocryphal riddle for theology students goes thus: ‘Could God create a rock so heavy that God couldn’t lift it?’ The problem, of course, is that if God can’t, then he’s not omnipotent. If God can, he can’t lift it, and so he’s not omnipotent.” (The rest of the essay was a depressing parade of preachy homilies, worthy of Private Eye’s J. C. Flannel.)

Apocryphal, eh? We all know about the Apocrypha, don’t we, and how they relate to truly genuine canonical texts. So that is what theology students were doing to earn their degree, discussing nonsensical questions like that, while I was slaving away, doing really useful stuff, such as trying to make sense of the High German Consonant Shift, and exploring the use of symbols in Chekhov’s plays! It reminded me of that other no doubt apocryphal essay question on the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) finals paper at Oxford: “Is this a question?”. One candidate was inspired enough to write simply: “If it is a question, this is an answer”, and was awarded a First on account of it. That is presumably how the Church, the Cabinet, and the Foreign Office were staffed – with people who could so ably tackle such urgent questions, and such achievements led them on to believe that they could ‘solve’ the pressing problems of their time, like ‘the problem of social welfare.’ Harrumph.

J. I. M. Stewart & ‘Michael Innes’

‘But enough of politics, what about your social life?’, I hear you cry. Well, a little roving went on. I’d like to report that, as in Philip Larkin’s imaginings with the women he encountered in books, ‘I broke them up like meringues’, but that would not be strictly true, and the National Profiterole and Meringue Authority might have had something to say about such a micro-aggression. Yet I shall necessarily have to draw a veil over such activities. More engaging for a mature audience, perhaps, might be some of my other social encounters. When I was a member of the Nondescripts, the Christ Church sporting club, I recall attending a cocktail party hosted or attended by J. I. M. Stewart, the English literature don who had rooms on my staircase in Meadows 3. Now, not all of you may know that Stewart wrote detective novels under the name of Michael Innes, so I thought I would be very clever, showing off how familiar I was with his œuvre, and I thus asked him something about the plot of Landscape with Dead Dons. He paused, looked at me rather quizzically, and observed: “Forgive me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t that work written by Robert Robinson?”. I suddenly felt very small, and wanted to hide behind the sofa.

Christ Church JCR Officers with the Senior Censor

Now it has all changed. The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, received last month, celebrates ‘Forty Years of Women at the House’, and a wonderful milestone it is, indeed. The magazine is dedicated completely to women, with a very impressive Introduction by the Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, who informs us that ‘Unlike Catherine Dammartin, whose corpse was temporarily buried in a dung heap in 1557 for daring to live within the confines of Christ Church despite being the wife of a Regius professor, today’s women know that they belong at the House, front and centre.’ And indeed they do, as all the little darlings [Is this usage wise? It sounds very patronising and 1970s  . . . Ed.] can be seen in a wide range of glittering photographs, in their blue stockings, green sleeves, and black gowns, alongside the senior members of faculty, and all those in the Cathedral, Steward’s Office, Hall, Lodge, Library, etc. etc. who make the place hum. Completely unexpected in 1965, when I arrived and was matriculated.

Staff and Students at Christ Church, June 2021

And then came a passage to the real world: teacher training, with a term at Bognor Regis Comprehensive School (where I was sent on an emergency mission to teach Russian and German, since the previous incumbent had turned out to be far too energetic a rover with one of his pupils), and then a move away from academia to business, and IBM. After a while, I met my Greensleeves, as I have described in http://www.coldspur.com/my-experience-with-opioids/. It all started because, during my extended stay in hospital (four months, in fact), I saw the invitation outside the hospital window: ‘Please Help Our Nurses’ Home’, and somehow failed to notice the apostrophe. That was in the summer of 1973, and Sylvia and I were married in September of 1976.

1980-2021

We have lived more than half our lives in the United States, and nearly half of that period in Southport, North Carolina – far longer than I have ever lived in one place. My accent still seems to be a source of fascination to many, and I am accustomed to being asked by the check-out personnel in the supermarket, even when I have explained that I have lived here for twenty years: ‘Do you like it here?’.

Bill Bryson & ‘The Road to Little Dribbling’

In The Road to Little Dribbling Bill Bryson lists some of the features of his adopted country that he likes: Boxing Day; Country pubs; Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration; Jam roly-poly with custard; Ordnance Survey maps; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; Cream teas; the 20p piece; June evenings, about 8 p.m.; Smelling the sea before you see it; Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop. I could quickly add a few from my own collection of favourite UK phenomena, namely Stonehenge; the Listener crossword puzzle; Promenade Concerts; Jeeves; sheepdog trials; clerihews and limericks; the Wisden cricketers’ almanack; the Bluebell Railway. Yet if I had to come up with a list of similar Americana, it would run: Thanksgiving, the Grand Canyon  . . . and, er, that’s it.

Thus, while the USA has been an overall very positive experience for us, it does not contain many truly endearing features. And several things about the country and its habits and customs sometimes drive Sylvia and me to distraction. But, if they came to be really unbearable and unavoidable, we presumably would move elsewhere – but whither? In our seventies, an upheaval moving to some remote island, like my wife’s St. Vincent, or Maui, or Mauritius, or the Isle of Wight, does not seem very appealing It would be a hard adjustment: moreover, once you have kids who really have not lived anywhere else, and then the grandchildren arrive, that effectively seals the deal. So we live with all the oddities and frustrations of the USA, and its Bible Belt.

It is a droll irony that, while the Protestant Church in the United Kingdom is established (i.e. recognised as the official church, in law, and supported by civil authority), but the level of public unbelief is distinctly high, in the United States, there is supposed to be a constitutional separation between Church and State, while Christian fervour is an unavoidable presence in the public sphere. A few years ago, the local electricity company, Brunswick County Public Utilities, decided to have ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on all its support vehicles. Lord knows how devolving everything to a deity would help in the reliable delivery of power to the local citizenry, and I found this an unnecessarily divisive and pointless initiative, at an unjustifiable expense. It was my Micro-Aggression of the month. (I was effectively told to clam up, and was referred to the minutes of the council meeting where the majority decision had been made.)

When we first moved to Southport, one of the first questions our neighbours asked us was: ‘What Church do you belong to?’, something that would still be considered horribly crass in the UK, I imagine, as what one’s friends believed in, or what they worshipped, was none of anyone’s business, but the interrogation seemed perfectly natural to Americans who did not even know us. I think they got the message when we held our first dinner party, and did not offer a prayer of ‘Grace’ before the meal, a ceremony that can be seen quite frequently in public restaurants, with participants holding hands around the table. In Brunswick County can be found churches of practically every conceivable Christian denomination: Pentecostal, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Unitarian, Mormon, Apostolic, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. I have no idea what doctrinal differences separate these institutions, and have no wish to find out.

We attended the memorial service for a neighbour at the Episcopal Church in Southport a few months ago. I was astonished at how high-church it was. Swinging censers, the ritual of the eucharist, and the congregation all declaiming earnestly their belief in the Apostles’ Creed, and especially Eternal Life. When obituaries in the local paper state that the deceased (who normally has not ’died’, but ’passed’) has ‘gone to be with Jesus’, or ‘taken by the angels’, those who mourn him or her mean it quite literally. The after-life is ‘a better place’. But I can’t help but feel that if such people accepted that this life on earth is the only one they are going to have, they might value it rather more than they do. Ascribing disasters and premature or avoidable deaths to ‘God’s will’, or to His ‘Plan’, in the belief that everything will be well when we are all re-united, is a deeply depressing philosophy, in my opinion. It suggests that life is merely some dire metaphysical project akin to the Communist Experiment. And it is also a little hypocritical. When survivors of a tornado are pulled from the wreckage of their houses, their first statement is frequently: ‘The Lord saved me’, the implication being that the person down the street who did not survive was unworthy of such grace.

And yet. The charity . . . . The organisation of food-pantries when disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes strike  . . . The helping hands offered to neighbours and strangers. All very splendid and admirable, but not a little perplexing.

Someone (Meister Eckhart, C. S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman?) once said that one believes in this rigmarole purely because it is utterly irrational and inexplicable, which seems to me an argument for anything, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. And that line can take you into the Paul Johnson school of theology, namely that ‘because Christianity inspired great art, it must be true’. What is astonishing to me is that if otherwise smart persons are taken in by such nonsense, are they not likely to be taken in by a lot of other absurd theories that circulate – especially on the Web? Why should the particular mythology that was instilled into them at primary school have any greater significance and durability than any other? And what happens – heaven forbid! – when politicians take some disastrous course of action to which they say they were divinely inspired? Or fundamentalist Christians (or those claiming to be so) resort to quoting the Bible to avoid having to be vaccinated against Covid-19?

Bishop John Spong

As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece I read, in the New York Times, an obituary of John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931. His mother was a strict Calvinist ‘who refused to sing hymns because they were not the word of God’, and it was apparently such fundamentalism that prompted Spong’s subsequent rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Thus Spong called on his flock to reject ‘sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth’ (no questions of womb-abhorrence for Spong, then) and ‘the existence of heaven and hell’, and in 2013 he preached that several of the apostles were ‘mythological’, also claiming that the notion that Jesus’ blood had washed away the sins of Christians was ‘barbaric theology’. But why stop there? If you start dismantling the whole edifice as superstition, there will not be much left. I was not surprised to read that the Bishop of Brisbane had barred Spong from speaking in his diocese.

God granted episcopant Spong

A life that was wondrously long;

This in spite of the breach

When Spong started to preach

“What the Bible reveals is all Wrong!”

Still, not much else I can do about it all, especially if some insiders have woken up to the truth. And it is not as if we atheists get together in pressure-groups, or go on marches. No point in having meetings to discuss policy: “Still no God, then?”; “So who brought the donuts?”; “Same time next month?”.  I do occasionally venture out into the public sphere, however. Several years ago, the local paper printed a letter from a local citizen who had become angered that Walmart had replaced its ‘Happy Christmas’ welcome sign with one saying ‘Happy Holidays’. I was moved to respond, and the State Port Pilot published my letter, which ran as follows:

May I respond to Mr Livingston’s letter (‘Xmas’) with a few anecdotes?

In the country where I was born, the UK, where there remains an established church, the religious aspects of the Christmas festival had long been melded with pagan traditions. And to me, the beautiful Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College, Cambridge, was as much a cultural event as a religious ceremony. Thirty years ago, there was no awkwardness about calling the period ’Christmas’, although today the members of the European Union are divided as to the degree to which they should acknowledge their Christian heritage.

When I came to the US, in 1980, I was quickly reminded how socially inept it was to send a Christmas card to friends who were Jewish, no matter how loosely religious they were. And a few years later, the new (Jewish) wife of an old friend of mine stormed out of the room when I – a non-believer  ̶  put on some ‘Christmas’ music. (And it wasn’t Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer). But how was I supposed to know? And wasn’t that a bit of an overreaction?

When I came to Southport a few years ago, I was astonished that a Christian prayer was said at a secular business meeting, and I am still surprised that your columnists refer to ‘our Lord’, as if the Pilot were a parish magazine. But it does not surprise me that Walmart should have decided that it wanted to post a message of seasonal goodwill to all its customers, whether they be Jews, Sikhs, Moslems, Buddhists – or even atheists – as well as the dominant sects of Christianity. Mr Livingston can continue to enjoy making his personal celebrations in his church.

Finally, Happy Holidays to you and all your readers!

In conclusion, this extended anecdote is really a celebration: I did not find God, but I found my Greensleeves. I look back on my life of almost seventy-five years, with many important decisions made and a good number of lucky breaks accepted, of which meeting Sylvia was the best. My thanks to my beautiful and adorable wife for supporting me for so long.

James (son), Coldspur, Sylvia, Julia (daughter), with Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley (granddaughters): St. James Marina, 2018

Greensleeves was my delight,
Greensleeves my heart of gold
Greensleeves was my heart of joy
And who but my lady Greensleeves.

(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

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Filed under Geography, Literature/Academia, Personal, Philosophy, Travel, Uncategorized

Four Books on MI5

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

Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy

Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas

How Spies Think by David Omand

In fact three of the books reviewed this month are about MI5. The fourth relates more to general intelligence, but it is a noteworthy addition, and marginally concerns MI5, and I wanted to keep the title of the piece simple. ‘Three Books About MI5 – and One Not’ didn’t seem very catchy.

Regular readers will recognize that the main focus of my research into intelligence agencies has been MI5, with occasional ventures into MI6, GCHQ, and SOE. If ever I were to attempt a second book, it would be called The Authoritative But Unauthorised History of MI5 (hereafter referred to as TABU). Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is a monumental work, very readable, and a valuable companion, but I have consistently maintained that it is too ambitious in its scope, flawed in its methodology, unscholarly in its references to sources, and far too delicate in its avoidance of controversy. That last aspect may have been forced upon its author, but then he should not have succumbed to such pressures if he wanted to preserve his academic prestige.

Above all, there is a wealth of information that needs to be incorporated in any comprehensive history of MI5, with hundreds of files released to the National Archives that require a concentrated and disciplined amount of cross-referencing, a process that would then shed much light on the activities of MI5 officers. I could start TABU with my research into Fuchs, Peierls, Pontecorvo, Philby, Maclean, Blunt, Ursula Kuczynski, Gouzenko, etc. etc. and package the stories into a book on its own. Then there are the figures who have not been properly covered: for example, Alexander Foote, Oliver Green, Dave Springhall, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Jane Archer.

A more serious approach would carve MI5’s history up into more manageable sections. Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas attempted something similar in their three-volume ‘Unofficial History of MI5’, titled Spooks (2009-2011), but their compilation inexplicably lacks an index, which is a fatal flaw. It provides a measure of useful chronicling, but contains numerous errors, and is overall unusable. Another project is required, perhaps covering separately the era of each MI5 director-general. Thus Volume 1 would take us to 1940 with Kell (1909-1940), with perhaps a chapter on Harker’s interregnum, Volume 2 with Petrie (1940 to 1946), Volume 3 with Sillitoe (1946 to 1953), Volume 4 with White (1953-1956), Volume 5 with Hollis (1956-1965), and Volume 6 with Furnival-Jones (1965-1972) – furnished perhaps with an appendix on Hanley’s molehunts, while the remaining Volumes would await further release of archival material. Whoever is charged with managing this enterprise, I hope that he or she has access to the TABU sources available on coldspur.

Meanwhile, some potentially valuable books exploring lesser-known aspects of MI5’s history continue to appear – some absurdly priced – and it is my allotted task this month to analyse what I found in them.

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

This hefty volume is described in the following terms:  “[It] is concerned with the powers, activities, and accountability of MI5 principally in the period from 1945 to 1964. It was a body without statutory authority, with no statutory powers, and with no obvious forms of statutory accountability. It was established as a counter-espionage agency, yet was beset by espionage scandals on a frequency that suggested if not high levels of incompetence, then high levels of distraction and the squandering of resources.”

This is all very stirring stuff, in the tradition (it would appear) of that overlooked classic of counter-intelligence analysis, Misdefending the Realm, which the authors unaccountably do not list in their Bibliography, while giving ample recognition to those renowned chroniclers of the truth, Chapman Pincher, Kim Philby and Peter Wright. Since my attention was focussed on the period 1939-1941, with some projection into 1949 and 1950 on account of the Klaus Fuchs case, one might expect a smooth transition from MTR into the post-war challenges posed by Gouzenko, Nunn May, Fuchs and Pontecorvo, followed by the growing controversies surrounding Burgess and Maclean up to Philby’s disappearance in 1963.

Yet this is not a conventional study. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta are lawyers – and their book is therefore a ‘lawyerly’ approach to the mission of MI5, with an emphasis on rights, and discrimination and surveillance. Readers should thus not be surprised when they encounter sentences such as: “That said, it must also be recognized that the consequence of vetting was to discriminate against individuals, either on grounds of their political affiliations or beliefs, or on the ground of their lifestyle.” (p 303)

To an audience in 2021, ‘discrimination’ is clearly a highly negative term. After all, MI5 recently put out a press release stating that ‘in the interests of diversity’, and ‘to ensure that our personnel accurately reflect the community they serve’, the agency would ‘begin a recruiting campaign to hire all manner of riff-raff, ne’er-do-wells, losers, and subversives to its counter-intelligence staff’. [That was intended as a joke. I do not believe any such statement has been made – yet.] In 1950, however, such a policy of ‘discrimination’ should have been seen as eminently sensible, as it should be now. Why on earth should a government department, or a company with governmental contracts engaged on secret work, not discriminate against persons whose avowed objective was to destroy the whole liberal democracy? For we are talking about Communists (Party members), and communists (fellow-travellers), here.

Be that as it may, the authors start off by providing a very useful and detailed inspection of the movements between the electoral success of Clement Attlee in July 1945, flushed with the recent victory between the western allies and their counterpart, the Soviet Union, and Attlee’s recognition, a few years later, after detection of spies and warlike impulses from Stalin, that communist influence in government needed to be stamped out. Attlee was suddenly not beholden to his Left Wing any more. This period was well summarized by Christopher Andrew in Defend the Realm (pp 382-386), and Ewing and Co. exploit the rich archival sources now available to track the important contributions of civil servants like Findlater Stewart and Edward Bridges (neither of whom appear in Andrew’s book), and the efforts by MI5 to resist any controls over its independence.

The focus of the authors is very much on the constitutional authority of MI5, and especially its involvement in ‘surveillance’. Indeed, the word ‘Surveillance’ appears in six of the fifteen chapters’ headings, and is a dominant theme throughout. This expressed dislike of ‘surveillance’ concerns these lawyers the most. It even leads them into some unfortunate misconceptions. As early as page 7, in the Introduction, they write: “Yet we too had a secret police . . .” While MI5 operated secretly, however, it was not a police force with powers of arrest and prosecution, and suggestions that it was somehow akin to the Gestapo and the NKVD are irresponsible. The motif is picked up later, on page 51, where the following interpretation appears: “Quite apart from the form of words used, further evidence that MI5 was being authorized to act as a secret political police force rather than a counter-espionage agency is to be found  . . .”.

These lawyers admit to sympathies for ‘progressive’ views. “Lawyers had no immunity from MI5 surveillance during the Cold War, and progressive lawyers had even less”, they write (p 168). They hail ‘the progressive National Unemployed Workers Movement “ (p 11). They lament how certain presumably ‘advanced’ members of parliament were treated: “In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds.” (p 150)

Now, I am not certain what distinguishes a ‘progressive’ lawyer from a ‘regressive’ one (after all, should they not simply be interpreting the law?), but if they are borrowing from the world of economics and politics, they are entering dangerous ground. I could just about accept that ‘progressive’ taxation has an accepted definition concerning the increasing confiscation of wealth from those who either earn a lot or possess substantial assets, but the idea of a ‘progressive’ politician (as espoused by the New York Times and its Nobelist idol of American academia, Paul Krugman) in fact indicates someone on the loony Left who wants the government to pay for free childcare, fund reparations for slavery, forgive all student loans, distribute a universal minimum wage, offer free healthcare, community college tuition, etc. etc. with monies that it does not have, and will never have a chance of collecting.

I do not believe that historians or lawyers should ever start classifying people as ‘progressives’, as they end up sounding like a Pravda editorial, or a functionary from the Politburo. For example, here is Molotov speaking on the new Soviet constitution in 1937, quoting Stalin: “We are entirely on the side of those who have at heart the interests of ‘the whole of advanced and progressive humanity’”. Thus one has to question exactly what sort of world Ewing, Mahoney, and Moretta are progressing towards when they champion the protection of subversive elements whom the government is funding, and analyze the poorly-named ‘Purge’ Procedures. With some apparent sense of regret, they write (p 248): “Although in practice most civil servants at the time [1948] enjoyed secure tenure and relatively good conditions of service, they could nevertheless be hired and fired at will, with no remedy in the event of a transfer or termination on security grounds”. This is a commentary on Attlee’s statement to the Cabinet of March 25, where he essentially expressed exactly that policy. (And Attlee went so far as to include the shocking statement: ‘Even promotion does not come of right’. The injustice! The iniquity!)  If it was good enough for the socialist Attlee in 1948, why question it now?

The authors are on much stronger ground when they analyze MI5’s policies being carried out in practice against the broader public. I have commented before on the colossal waste of time, and the occupation of yards and yards of filing space, that was driven by MI5’s vague and all-encompassing policy of ‘keeping an eye on’ possibly disruptive elements. Literally hundreds of intellectuals, academics, union leaders and CP members were at large, spreading falsehoods about the phenomenon of Soviet Russia, and denigrating what they viewed as the oppressive, exploitative nature of western democratic society. There was thus a continuous hum that abetted Soviet propaganda, and apologists for the relatively free and enlightened United Kingdom struggled to find the right voice and outlet. The ‘scandal’ that erupted when Encounter magazine was found to have been funded by the CIA was typical of this: why on earth should a government organisation not assist a publication that promoted western values?

Nearly all these dubious characters were never going to be caught in any illegal act, such as bomb-throwing, or passing state secrets to a Soviet contact. Dave Springhall was a notable exception, and his arrest caused alarm and dismay in Moscow. As the authors point out, the most dangerous activity was taking place under the noses of MI5’s and MI6’s senior officers, by traitors who had concealed their ideological loyalties. Thus most of the surveillance energy was a wasted effort. As the authors conclude (p 424): “True, we have become accustomed to MI5 – a counter-espionage agency – being over-obsessed with fears of subversion and ill-informed about espionage threats, going back to Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and of course to ‘Sonya’.” (‘Of course’?)

On more prosecutorial issues, Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta proceed painstakingly through the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit with some confusing jumping around in time, explaining in detail the ramifications of such overlooked but much cherished phenomena as The Radcliffe Report on Positive Vetting, the Maxwell Fyffe Directive and the George Wigg Codicil. With their published concern about the fashionable leftist bogey of ‘witch hunts’, they offer a barbed criticism of Lord Denning as the Grand Inquisitor, but cover the Vassall case well, and are very incisive and accurate in their criticism of the government’s performance in the Profumo case. One probably long-forgotten grievance they document is the case of one John Lang, a solicitor with ICI who had lost the confidence of its board because he had, in 1951, married a woman who had been a member of the Communist Party, and has thus appeared on MI5’s radar trail. The authors fail to make any comparison with the romantic affairs of Dick White, the director-general of MI5 a couple of years later, who had himself married a communist at the end of the war.

One highly useful component of the volume is the Appendix on the Post-War Structure of MI5. (This was the feature that introduced me to the book, when I was conducting a Google search.) The neglect by Christopher Andrew of this important facet of MI5’s operations is one of the severest failings of Defend the Realm, and I had been strenuously trying to establish (for instance) exactly the extent to which Roger Hollis was working in Soviet counter-espionage after the war. His rump Division F became reconstituted into the new B Division at the end of 1946, after which Hollis headed B1 for a couple of years. The preliminary conclusions from this narrative indicate that Hollis became Director of C Division in December 1948, and was for some years involved in relatively inconsequential vetting procedures away from the main spy-fighting unit when the Fuchs and Pontecorvo cases were rumbling, a fact that I have since confirmed from a closer inspection of Liddell’s Diaries. The authors’ analysis of the records that source their inquiry (KV 4/162 and KV 4/166, primarily) is close and detailed, but patchy and error-prone. I have ordered photocopies of the relevant material, and plan to provide a fuller account on coldspur at some time, as a follow-up to my piece from November 2018, B2B or Not B2B?.

The standard of copy-editing in this book from the venerated Oxford University Press is sadly lamentable. Thus we read of ‘invetigations’, ‘a corrigenda’, and ‘enior judiciary’. One sub-chapter is headed ‘The Expulcation of MI5’. Persons’ names are mis-spelled: ‘Gielgud’ appears as ‘Gilguid’; ‘Beurton’ as ‘Buerton’; on a single page (219) Evelyn McBarnet appears as ‘McBarnet’ and ‘Barnet’. Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend is introduced as ‘Sir Burke’ on page 302 (without a respective index entry), and referred to thereafter as ‘Sir Burke’.  One or two incomprehensible sentences obtrude, such as the verbless creature on p 369: “It is disappointing, nevertheless, that the official trade union structures co-operative in both the development of the Radcliffe exclusion policy and its extension and implementation.” Percy Sillitoe is described as being the director-general of MI5 in September 1945 (p 236), when he did not accede to the position until the following April. A similar mistake is made over Roger Hollis, when he is presented as being the director-general in November 1952 (p 320). The authors make several mistakes about Soviet espionage, such as asserting that Dave Springhall ran the Cambridge Five (p 233), and a puzzling judgment about the need for secrecy at GCHQ (p 352). They claim that the trials of Nunn May and Fuchs were both held in camera, when in fact both were public.

In conclusion, this is a bit of a clunker; a useful compendium for the earnest scholar of constitutional law, with hundreds of valuable references to archival material that might otherwise have been overlooked, but a bit laborious in its repeated plaints about MI5 as a secret police force, and its obvious bias in favour of (disputable) rights and entitlements for the left-wing cause. Nevertheless, it properly raises some important points about the constitutional and legal basis on which MI5’s surveillance powers are based, which never go away.

Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)

I had to make a further raid on my wife’s gardening budget to acquire this volume, which had somehow lain undetected by me since its release fifteen years ago. I cannot recall where I encountered it, but its title beckoned unavoidably, since earlier this year I was earnestly trying to hunt down information on the decision to send the enigmatic George Graham (né Leontieff) to Moscow as George Hill’s special assistant and cipher-clerk in 1941. Murphy is described as ‘an independent scholar . . . formerly Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research’. I was not familiar with that institution, which is apparently celebrating its centenary this year. Unfortunately, its resources seem designed for research libraries and universities through a subscription service, and, like Taylor and Francis, offers no flexible subscription package for a retiree like me.

The book arrived, and I re-inspected the blurb: “The first comprehensive account of the work of the Security Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War,  . . .”, and Richard Thurlow, of the University of Sheffield, added his commendation: “Security and Special Operations is a significant addition to the burgeoning literature of the history of the Special Operations Executive.” Thurlow, I see, wrote a book titled The Secret State, published in 1994, that I should perhaps read. So I turned eagerly to the Contents and Index, to discover what Murphy had written about the Russian Section of SOE in his ‘comprehensive’ account.

The answer was – not one word. That was a colossal disappointment. How could this be a ‘comprehensive’ account if it neglected to cover the most controversial of all of SOE’s undertakings – its attempt to ‘co-operate’ with the NKVD, the most suspicious, unyielding, aggressive and demanding ‘intelligence’ organisation in the world? And how did Murphy’s sponsors (“The archival research on which this book is based was made possible by a Leverhulme Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for British History at the Institute of Historical Research”) not supervise adequately Murphy’s project to ensure that it delivered the goods? Leaving the Russian Section out was like recounting the tale of Harry Potter without mentioning Voldemort. [Is this correct, Thelma? I was going to write ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, but I wanted an analogy that today’s readers would understand  . . .  Please emend as necessary. Tony].

What is notable is the fact that Murphy also thanks one Duncan Stuart (‘former SOE Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’) for his help, ‘pointing me in the right direction with a single sheet of paper’. Is it not strange that the F&CO would need an ‘adviser’ for a unit that was dissolved in January 1946? Was he perhaps appointed in 1943, and kept his position for several decades, forgotten and untroubled? His status sounds rather like that of Peter Simple’s Dr. Heinz Kiosk, ‘chief psychiatric adviser to the National Meringue and Profiterole Authority’. Yet it is an important position, and was in fact designed to ‘help’ historians, not the Foreign Office itself.  E. G. Boxshall was the first appointee, in 1959, but for much of the period my record is bare. Christopher Woods occupied the post from 1983 to 1988, and Gervase Cowell (of Oleg Penkovsky/Greville Wynne fame) followed him until 1996, with Duncan Stuart, the last Adviser, succeeding him, and retiring in 2002. Thus to Dr. Murphy I would say: ‘I am sure Stuart did indeed orient you, squire, and pointed you away from the files on the Russian Section, which you were not capable of finding by yourself.’ The last thing an SOE Adviser would want is someone digging around in files he did not understand, whose revelations might be embarrassing, and which the Adviser was trying to get withdrawn, in any case . . .

Despite its obvious oversights, I of course read the book. As the image above shows, the cover displays the determined visage of the ‘double agent’ Henri Déricourt, taken in November 1946. When I read the volume several months ago, I had only a very hazy idea of who Déricourt was, but, now that I have become involved with Patrick Marnham and War in the Shadows, he is a subject of immense interest to me. Murphy dedicates ten dense pages to the aspects of the Déricourt affair which intrigue him, but it is symptomatic of his methods that he completely misses the point, starting his investigation only with the events of November 1943, when all the damage had been done in the preceding twelve months. I shall return to this analysis later.

Murphy has clearly applied some serious delving into the archives to put a story together. He lists an impressive Bibliography, but his detailed and very useful Endnotes are almost exclusively from files at the National Archives, and they thus for some reason ignore the published sources. Concerning the establishment of the Security Section of SOE – a unit that was much resented by the Country Sections – Murphy painstakingly explains the struggles that Air Commodore Archie Boyle experienced after he was appointed Director of Intelligence and Security in July 1941. There was ‘physical’ security (maintaining the secrecy of what went on in SOE’s various establishments), and ‘esoteric’ security, which former SOE security officer Peter Lee described as work ‘including the double cross system, running double agents [and] the very high grade interrogation of people coming out of occupied territories.’ The latter were the functions that the country sections resented, as they felt their judgments were being questioned, and the bureaucrats were putting obstacles in the way of their achieving results.

While Murphy understands well the question of how relationships between SOE and MI5 (what he calls, in the familiar jargon of our time, ‘adequate liaison machinery’) should work, he is somewhat ponderous in explaining its ramifications. He really gets going with the MI5 connections only in Chapter 4, when Geoffrey Wethered was appointed in early 1943 as the SOE Liaison Officer. The need for such had intensified. As Murphy writes: “MI5 had good reason to be concerned over the security of SOE agents in the field. Fears about the extent of undetected German penetration of SOE networks in Belgium, raised during the winter of 1942-1943, were compounded by the ‘increasing number of cases’ of agents returning to the UK having been captured by the German and ‘turned’, a staged escape preceding their return to the UK with a German mission’” In other words, MI5 had every reason to be petrified about the influx of such persons, and their not being vetted stringently enough as they passed through the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, and how secrets about the Double-Cross Operation might be inadvertently revealed.

Yet Murphy struggles to discriminate clearly between the insignificant and the important episodes. His narrative attempts to pick up every detail of who said what to whom, and how Wethered groped through his difficult task, and the responses by SOE security officer John Senter to Wethered’s recommendations and intrusions. Murphy describes the tensions as the two organisations grappled. The Country Sections continued to act in a blasé fashion. MI5 warned SOE about its ‘shockingly irresponsible’ conduct in sending a dubious character, Barry Knight, to France, and the dispute almost reached the level of Lord Selborne, the minister responsible for SOE, but Duff Cooper backed off. Guy Liddell wanted a softer approach, by talking with Senter’s boss, Archie Boyle.

Thus Murphy introduces the Déricourt story only with the investigations in late 1943, when allegations were made against him, by Jacques Frager (another SOE agent), that he was working for the Germans. Murphy painstakingly goes through the records of the discussions over Déricourt, logging the testimonies of various witness, and the plans to bring Déricourt back to the United Kingdom for interrogation. He thereby ignores all the fracas about Déricourt going back to 1942, when he had been snapped up by Dansey’s henchman, Bodington, in SOE and bypassed all the recommended investigations into his biography that MI5 tried to insist upon. His shady past was suspected then and confirmed in early 1943: Murphy misses all the nuances and sub-plots of this investigation.  As with nearly all other historians of this period, he also does not seem to be familiar with the TWIST committee, and the way that MI6 was managing SOE’s ’double agents’ for them. That is understandable (given that the revelations on TWIST appeared only in 2009), but Murphy displays a lack of imagination in not providing the well-documented background material to Déricourt that did exist at the time, and not putting the events of 1946 and after into context.

There is more, on the Double Cross System and the plans for OVERLORD, which the enterprising reader may wish to follow up him- or herself, but overall my judgment is that this book was an opportunity missed. Too much of ‘what one clerk said to another’, in the immortal words of A. J. P. Taylor, and not enough imaginative synthesizing investigation. No risks were taken in the creation of this work, and no endangered species harmed. Murphy draws no integrative conclusions from his study, and the book ends very abruptly, with a Chapter he titles ‘Unfinished Business’. He covers some of the post-mortems, especially the ‘Nordpol’ operation in the Netherlands, and a fruitless interrogation of Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr at Camp 020, in an attempt to learn more about Déricourt, but his only conclusion is to suggest that MI5’s interest in SOE soon waned after the war, ‘as the new security priorities of the Cold War emerged’.

I suspect the reality is more complex than that. For example, the failure to even consider the Russian Section is unpardonable, in my opinion. I of course wrote to Murphy about this oversight, and then, failing to gain any response from his email address, tried to call him on the telephone, leaving him a message on his answering machine. He never responded, and I thus add him to my list of appalling academics who advertise an email address, but never want to engage with any of the public who read their books. As Ko-Ko might have sung:

The reclusive annalist, I’ve got him on my list.         
I don’t think he’d be missed! I’m sure he’d not be missed!

[What do you think, Thelma? Will my readers recognise The Mikado?]

Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas (Manchester University Press, 2017)

I do not think it is a sensible idea to introduce a question in the title of a serious book on intelligence: it makes it sound like a conference presentation where you want to keep your audience in suspense. But, if you haven’t made up your mind by the time you have completed writing its 250-plus pages, you have probably chosen the wrong topic. It is not as if the eager reading public is walking around thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder whether the relationship between Intelligence and Security during Attlee’s premiership was uncomfortable in any way, and I wish some capable academic would sort it all out for me’, partly because ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security’ are merely abstract nouns, and do not have relationships with governments, and I do not believe that anyone has made the claim that the Attlee administration was exceptional in that dimension. So not a good start. Yet, according to his biographical profile at Salford, Lomas’s book was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for first academic monograph.

Dr. Lomas is described as Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, and an early warning signal is communicated in the second sentence of his ‘Acknowledgements’, where he thanks his colleague, Dr. Christopher J. Murphy, of renown in this parish above, for ‘his cherished advice and support’ throughout his research. And here is another academic who manages to gain sponsorship from a charitable institution – this time the Arts and Humanities Research Council. How do these guys do it? All that money flowing around, simply to spend some hours in the dusty archives? Moreover, he lists a whole stream of eminent persons who gave him ‘valuable advice’, such as Countess Attlee, Professor Richard Aldrich, Dr Gill Bennett, Tom Bower, Professor Keith Jeffery, Dr Christopher Moran, Professor the Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, etc. etc. (I did not see David Hare, John le Carré or Ben Macintyre on the list.) What did they tell him?: ‘Go West, young man’? ‘Don’t forget to floss’? And how does one handle all that advice, and what happens if their advice clashes? To whom would one turn? It beats me. Perhaps Lomas would have won that Whitfield Prize if he had used fewer advisers.

In fact the book starts out promisingly, with an Introduction that offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the state of play in historiography of the Labour Party and MI5 and MI6. He suggests that the phenomenon of ‘the missing dimension’, first formulated by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, is still at work in writings about political history, although he lets off certain biographers (including one of his advisers) because they did not have access to relevant archival material at the time. He crisply describes the effect of the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, and how its good intentions are often hindered by bureaucratic trudgery. And he sensibly reminds his readers of the large number of other sources, including private papers, that need to be mined to cover the era properly. He provides a rich bibliography, comprising a wide array of papers from various Ministries, as well as MI5 records, although his ‘primary’ source documents are dominated by possibly dubious memoirs from notable participants, with presumably more objective accounts from eminent (and not so eminent) historians relegated to ‘secondary’ level.

He then provides a brief history of the British Labour party’s relationship with ‘intelligence’, in which he unfortunately deploys the 21st-century cliché of ‘the intelligence community’, as well as that misplaced metaphor of ‘the machinery’.  (If historians want to refer to ‘intelligence agencies’, they should do so: classifying them, alongside GCHQ, as a ‘community’ distorts the battles and rivalries that flourished then, and still do, just as with the FBI and the CIA. If they were a ‘community’, they would not be separate units.) Lomas highlights the background to the Labour Party’s electoral victory in 1945, and the historical reasons why socialist politicians might have had cause to be suspicious of more ‘reactionary’ intelligence organisations, going back to the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924, a fake stage-managed by the Tory Joseph Ball. Yet his conclusion is tentative: “The legacy of the Zinoviev Latter meant that relations between ministers and the intelligence community may have suffered during the initial stages of the second MacDonald government, elected in June 129.” That ‘may’ demands a lot more analysis.

Yet Lomas effectively destroys his straw man at the outset. The concluding clause of this section runs:  “ . . . the legacy of Zinoviev was not as damaging as popularly [by whom?] suggested, showing that Labour-intelligent relations were on the mend”. His synopsis of Chapter 1 reinforces this idea by stating that, since Labour ministers in Churchill’s coalition government had access to, and use of, intelligence, ‘the experience ended any lingering animosity that remained from the Zinoviev Letter affair.” So the notion of debunking the rumour of ‘an uneasy relationship’ quickly appears to be an artificial one. And, if the reader jumps forward to Lomas’s conclusion, one reads: “Rather than intelligence novices, many senior figures in the Attlee government were experienced intelligence committee consumers, having used intelligence products in office.” (p 259). So what was the whole controversy about?

Another example of how Lomas attempts to present his argument as innovative is in his treatment of Attlee. “While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union”, he writes, “the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations.” But of course he was kept informed. There is no conflict there. Moreover, Lomas introduces his Chapter 6 (‘Defending the Realm: Labour Ministers, vetting and subversion’) with a quote from Attlee expressed as early as 1940: “The Communists have no right to the name of socialists or Communists. They are Stalinists. Whatever Stalin says is right for them . . .” The antithesis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-communism’ is a false one. Attlee saw through Stalin from the start, as did his Foreign Minister, Bevin. It would have been more interesting if Lomas had focused on why the Edenic Tory policy of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union had been forged in the first place, and if he had explored why a Labour administration had had to undo the appeasement strategies of Attlee’s Conservative predecessors.

Thus what Lomas has compiled is a very readable, well-sourced, integrative study of the fascinating few post-war years where any illusions about Stalin were quickly dispelled. It is overall well-edited (although the U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes appears several times in Chapter 5 as ‘Brynes’, and is not indexed). If the reader is new to this subject, he or she can gain a well-written and widely-sourced account of the Gouzenko affair, the Soviet threats with the atomic bomb, the espionage of Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo, the Foreign Office’s propaganda offensive, the disastrous operations against Albania, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth, Attlee’s policy of ‘positive vetting’, and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean. Lomas has gathered many fascinating accounts of politicians and intelligence, such as Christopher Mayhew’s discussions with Attlee about setting a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. Topics like these could well have been extended into a novel analysis, but immediately an opportunity seems to appear to develop an innovative study, the text returns to the more platitudinous generalisations. The author tries to wrap it all in a message that is simply not invigorating or imaginative.

Thus for any reader who has performed even only occasional study of these topics, there will be little new to be found here, apart from some incidental minutes and observations from ministers and diplomats, and Lomas misses many of the darker undercurrents that affected the surface appearance of many events. Another example: if the relationship between ministers and MI6 was so good, how was it that Attlee, Bevin and Strang approved the calamitous incursions into Albania? Lomas simply concludes: “The results were far from positive”, and reports that Bevin and Strang then decided to suspend any such activities. These episodes could have provided a stirring stretch of useful analysis, but Lomas simply moves on. At the Conclusion, one reads: “It [this book] has shown that, contrary to existing views of the relationship, ministers enjoyed what could be described as an excellent working relationship with the intelligence community  . . .”. Not much of a breakthrough, that, and not really true, anyway.

It is not that the subject of his ‘monograph’ is unworthy of study. Attlee and his period certainly deserve attention, as he was probably the finest British premier of the century, skilled in both management and leadership. The reality otherwise was that ministers came and went, and some were good, and some were duds, while civil servants and the intelligence services went on for ever (with the exception of SOE, of course, which was absorbed by MI6). The intelligence ‘community’ had its rivalries, just as the individual agencies had their internal plots, conspiracies, and competition. Their bosses sometimes lied to their political masters, and intelligence was frequently concealed from those who should have received it – both outside and within the service, such as frequently happened with MI5, where senior officers withheld vital information from the grunts. Lomas seems to want us to believe that everything was hunky-dory, and that the Whitehall ‘machinery’ acted according to well-oiled routines, with politicians and intelligence officers all executing their roles in an exemplary manner. But that was not the case. Unfortunately, his book reads very much as if it had been written by a committee, and maybe that court of advisers helped bring about that result.

The bland monographist, I’ve got him on my list.

He never will be missed! He never will be missed!

How Spies Think by David Omand (Penguin Viking, 2020)

When I first saw this title, I imagined that it might sit handily on my shelf next to the SOE handbook How To Become a Spy, and that I could learn more about what made Anthony Blunt and Richard Sorge tick. Yet it all seemed a little unlikely that a book could be written about such a subject: would not spies be simply concentrating on the topic of ‘How can I get this document to my controller without being spotted?’ But then, inspecting further, I discovered that the book is not really about Spies at all. The subtitle is Ten Lessons in Intelligence: the PR boys must have got hold of it, and told their bosses that the author would never get invitations to the late-night TV shows unless they sexed up the title a bit.

For the author is the distinguished Former Director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and more recently ‘the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible for the professional health of the intelligence community [yes, that dread word again], national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security”’. (Why that last phrase appears in inverted commas, I have no idea.) And Omand’s book focuses on how seasoned intelligence analysts think, how they sort out fact from fiction, and thus build a reliable picture of the world. Espionage (or ‘Spying) may play a part in that process, but the fact that GCHQ has traditionally picked up electronic signals from the ether that have been transmitted with the awareness that adversaries will intercept them, and attempt to decrypt them, is not indicative that spying went on. Intercepting citizens’ private telephone calls or email messages without legal authority would be another matter, however.

How Spies Think turns out to be a very practical, and riveting, tutorial in how (good) intelligence analysts process information, and the author presents his analysis as a guide to how the rules for sound decision-making can be applied to everyday life. He outlines a four-step process, the SEES model, as a method for developing confident judgments about uncertain intelligence that may be arriving in a variety of forms. It consists of the following levels (and I quote directly):

* Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.

* Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.

* Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.

* Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.

All his explanations are liberally illustrated with examples from military and intelligence history, such as the D-Day landings, the Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Cuban Missile Crisis.

I must confess a personal fascination with these ideas. I spent the most important part of my career as an analyst at the Gartner Group, where we were charged with assessing the situation in our area of interest and expertise, and presenting forecasts for a five-year time period based on our analysis of trends, technologies, vendor capabilities, market dynamics, and buyer preferences and profiles. (The acid test of such processes occurred when a five-year cycle was completed, and one’s forecasts from the past were dredged up for review.) I was always intrigued as to why so many smart persons would have contrary opinions as to what outcomes would be, and it turned out that a certain hard-headedness, even cynicism, and a good dose of practical experience in the field, were required to cut through much of the idealistic waffle that attached itself to many technological initiatives. Thus the analysts who believed they could change the world, or who imagined vendors to operate against their own interests (as opposed to the emissaries they sent to industry consortia), who were simplistically influenced by the more skillful of the vendor marketing campaigns, or who ignored the dynamics of buyer politics, were essentially lost. The most serious defect they displayed was viewing the world as they hoped it could be rather than as it was.

Furthermore, my last job, as VP of Strategy for a small software company, showed me how even skilled executives can ignore intelligence if it gets in the way of their personal agenda and use of power. As part of the strategic planning process, I developed a simple scheme for separating Facts about the market and technology from Assumptions about such matters as competitive threats and future innovations, and started to determine why different executives in the company sometimes maintained conflicting ideas about the unknowns we were addressing. It turned out that the CEO was really not enthusiastic about a formal strategy, as she regarded it as possibly inhibiting her desire to act spontaneously and whimsically: moreover, she paid too much attention to Wall Street, where the analysts looked to her to be a ‘deal-maker” (i.e. engage in precarious acquisition strategies), as it would enhance her reputation (and maybe the stock-price in the short run). The VP of Research and Development (who worked 1500 miles away from Head Office) believed, as creator of the product, that she had a unique insight into what features the product needed, but would change the schedule according to which large customer walked into her office. The VP of Sales did not want his creative energies to be limited by being told what market segments he should pursue to make his numbers. Thus cool assessments can always be undermined by personality traits and private ambitions.

But back to Omand. His text is studded with accurate and useful observations. He offers a clear-headed analysis of how Bayesian approaches of conditional probability can help develop alternative hypotheses to explain events, and how new evidence thus enables new situational awareness, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He presents some cogent insights on topics relevant to historians as well as intelligence analysts, such as the following, on the reliability of a source: “Like the historian who discovers a previously unknown manuscript describing some famous event in a new way, the intelligence officer has to ask searching questions about who wrote the report and when, and whether they did from first-hand knowledge, or from a sub-source, or even from a sub-sub-source with potential uncertainty, malicious motives or exaggeration being introduced at every step of the chain.” (p 27) He offers a provocative section on ‘Reluctance to act on intelligence warnings’, although he fails to delineate a clear linkage about general intelligence about inhuman crimes (e.g. genocide in Bosnia: ‘something has to be done’), and how that intelligence is converted into political action. He laments the communal ‘magical thinking’ at the time of the Falklands crisis that prevented anticipatory action in time – a clear echo of my point about self-delusion over realities.

Since the four SEES items comprise Lessons 1-4, the rest of the book covers Lessons 5-10. Again, Omand offers a very lively lecture, almost impossible to simplify. I thus recapitulate these Lessons for the eager reader, the first three grouped under the heading of ‘Checking our Reasonimg’:

5. It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us

6. We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind

7. Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking

The final three are characterized under ‘Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence’:

8. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side

9. Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships

10. Subversion and sedition are now digital.

This section includes several insightful passages, such as his coverage of conspiracy theories, where he cites Peter Wright as noted delusionist. He provides (on pages 142-143) a useful checklist of memes that characterize a conspiracy narrative, and admits that today’s world of social media makes it much more difficult to debunk or dismantle such theories. He adds, somewhat beguilingly, that his experience ‘is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin’. He recommends a number of steps that an analytic team should perform to check their models in the light of new information, since even such disciplined teams can fall in love with their own theories. I found all this accurate and hard-hitting advice.

I thought, however, that Omand’s arguments became a little slack, the further on he went, and even presented some contradictions. For instance, I considered a phenomenon of Number 8 that Omand does not cover: the appeasement of Stalin in the belief that he would behave like a decent English gentleman after sitting in meetings with the likes of Anthony Eden, and the completely misguided strategy of ‘co-operation’ that the Foreign Office tried to forge as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies fought together against the common enemy. It was the inability to imagine that Stalin was an irredeemably ruthless individual, an autocrat who did not have to listen to ‘the hard men in the Kremlin’ (or even to his own people, as he claimed) that resulted in a disastrous misjudgment of his intentions.

And, as for 8 and 9, whom should one trust? Should the USA and Great Britain really have sat down at the conference table with the amorphous and undisciplined Taliban, for instance, knowing that that body was utterly untrustworthy? Would one of Omand’s ‘negotiated agreements’ have meant anything? On Lesson 9, Omand concentrates on ‘trust’ between natural affiliated allies, such as the USA and Great Britain, and the long-term value that such strategic alliances can bring. But how enduring are they? Are they institutional, or too dependent on personalities? Can President Trump, or a Brexit, disrupt them in both directions? Do the FBI and the CIA, or MI5 and MI6 trust each other? Do members of NATO trust each other over controversial issues like Afghanistan? Does the public trust the government? It is in this section that Omand’s advice tends to become a bit preachy and idealistic, and I should have liked to read more on when and why the process of intelligence analysis fails.

Moreover, even if the analytical process is correct, the problem will be one of political will, made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone and his sister will be out there on a public platform criticising policy, or recommending populist change. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning out to be disastrous: one expert stated on television that the USA had given the Afghan government the materials, the training, and the intelligence, but that it lacked the political will to resist. Yet an assessment of the integrity and fortitude of the Afghan administration should have been one of the factors in intelligence-gathering before planning the withdrawal. (Bayesian reasoning does not appear to have helped here.) On the other hand, from intelligence gained, China’s intentions regarding territorial expansion and authoritarian control seem evident enough, what with the suppression of the Uighurs, the closing down of democracy in Hong Kong, and its claims on Taiwan, but does President Xi’s policy represent an existential threat to the West, and how can it be resisted given how economies are interlocked?

Omand’s argument disappointingly starts to get mushier in lesson 10 (‘Subversion and sedition are now digital’), where, after covering the dangers from cyber-crime and -espionage, he tries to summarise: “Finally, in Part Three I have wanted to persuade you that to manage our future sensibly we all need effective partnerships based on trust and the ability to establish constructive relationships with those with whom we have to deal.” Who is that ‘we’? – the familiar plea of the journalist with his or her heart on the sleeve, appealing to an undefined audience. And a page later, he follows with: “We are on notice that there are further developments in information warfare capabilities over the horizon that will further damage us, unless we start to prepare now.” All very vague and unspecific, more like an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury: not a useful call to action.

In a more puzzling denouement, Omand appears to discard his own Lessons in his final chapter 11: ‘A final lesson in optimism’. It is as if his Editors told him that he had to leave his readers with some hope among the chaos. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the rules of today’s digital byways, and the author then rather fancifully projects forward to ‘a warm spring day in Trafalgar Square in 2028’. After welcoming a return to representative democracy, Omand attributes the success to three schemes. The first was a major five-year programme in schools to teach critical thinking for the digital world; the second was ‘a marked reduction in the vulnerability of the public to online manipulation and disinformation’. He illustrates it as follows: “There was praise for the leadership of the new US President in calling a 2025 global conference on internet norms that had brought together democratic governments, civil society groups, the major internet companies and the global advertising industry.” (p 291) This is pure Kumbaya wish-fulfilment: maybe Osman’s own demons trying to mislead him, his own ‘magical thinking’. The third scheme was a stronger defence against cyber-coercion. However realistic that third plank may be, the chapter constitutes a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.

As a coda, I offer this suggestion. In a recent LRB review of Scott Anderson’s book on the CIA, The Quiet Americans, Charles Glass presented a long list of US intelligence failures, including many of Omand’s examples, from the Soviet atom bomb to 9/11, which he tantalisingly attributed to a ‘neglect of intelligence gathering’, rather than to a failure of analysis. So perhaps a broader study is required: how ‘spies’ collect information, whether they all cogitate over it according to Omandian principles, what happens when they disagree, and what occurs when they present their conclusions to their political masters. ‘How Politicians Think’ would be a valuable follow-up. All politicians who set out to ‘change the world’ should be interrogated to determine why they think they know best what ‘the world’ needs, and why their enterprises will necessarily make it better, not worse.

Finally, I noted a few questionable assessments in the text overall.

P 139   “The paranoia even crossed the Atlantic. Under the charismatic influence of Angleton, a small group of MI5 officers in London led by Peter Wright caught the obsession with long-term Soviet penetration. Angleton sent the defector Golitsyn to London to brief them and help them uncover the Soviet weevils presumed also to be burrowing away within the British intelligence agencies.” They did? What ‘weevils’ were those? ‘Presumed’ or ‘real’? If ‘uncovered’, presumably the latter. But who? I think we should be told.

P 141   “We now know that he [Hollis] was cleared by high-level British government inquiries, confirmed by evidence from later KGB defectors.” Well, actually not quite true. And who are ‘we’, again? The question was very much left open: Gordievsky may have pooh-poohed the idea, but his and Christopher Andrew’s explanations about ELLI muddied the waters. If it were only that simple.

P 174   “The Cabinet Secretary would have been all too aware that the incoming Prime Minister [Wilson] had been, as we saw in the previous chapter, the subject of unofficial inquiries by a clique of MI5 officers in response to the CIA’s Angleton into whether Wilson was a KGB agent of influence.” A clique? Who, in particular? Is that intelligence or rumour? That claim deserved greater detail. Was it an example of ‘How Spies Think’?

P 175   “Eric Hobsbawm knew he had been discriminated against  . . .” Of course, Hobsbawm should have been discriminated against! See my comments under MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law, above.

P 215   “That led to the uncovering of the Russian spies Donald Maclean  . . . and Klaus Fuchs.” Maclean and Fuchs were British citizens, but Soviet spies.

P 243   “We all carry, for example, unconscious fear about others who appear different. This instinctive xenophobia is the result of our evolutionary history as a species.” This is a very risky and debatable generalization, a dangerous step into the domains of anthropology and biology.

P 275   “The individual Western citizen is thus already, and will be for the foreseeable future, the recipient of digital information of all kinds  . . .” Both a statement of the obvious, as well as a feeble prediction: ‘the foreseeable future’ (like ‘only time will tell’) represents a vague prognostication that should NEVER be used by any reputable intelligence analyst, let alone an officer of Omand’s stature. The period could be five minutes or fifty years.  I forbad my team at Gartner Group to use either of the two phrases.

But definitely the best book of the four. The ‘wise cryptanalyst’ is not on my list.

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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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 (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24803131), 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), although.in 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 https://spartacus-educational.com/SSmartin.htm, 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 https://www.mi5.gov.uk/mi5-in-world-war-ii ), 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.

Summary:

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.

Conclusions:

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 http://www.coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/ 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’ (http://www.coldspur.com/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 https://fbistudies.com/2015/04/27/was-roger-hollis-a-british-patriot-or-soviet-spy/ ), 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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