Category Archives: Management/Leadership

Gibby’s Spy

Harold Gibson in his Office

[This report examines a hoax perpetrated on Chapman Pincher, one that was soon afterwards foolishly picked up by Peter Wright, and later irresponsibly echoed by John Costello and Nigel West. It concerns a deception exercise, named Operation TARANTELLA, probably managed by Joseph Stalin himself, in which a celebrated MI6 officer, Harold Gibson, was sadly misused.]

Contents:

Introduction

  1. Gibby’s Spy
  2. Harold Gibson
  3. Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae
  4. The NKVD Dossier
  5. The Nigel West Theory
  6. The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher
  7. Count Nelidov
  8. A Spy in the Kremlin?
  9. Hints of Disinformation
  10. Operation TARANTELLA
  11. Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
  12. The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters

Overall Conclusions

Introduction

In recent weeks I have been involved in energetic email discussions with Keith Ellison, an intelligence sleuth like me. Mr Ellison is, however, a genuine intelligence expert, having served in Britain’s Intelligence Corps. He has written a very penetrating study of MI6’s Section V during WWII (see https://www.academia.edu/63976327/Special_Counter_Intelligence_in_WW2_Europe_Revised_2021_ ), and discovered coldspur while he was researching wireless usage by the ‘double agents’ of MI5. Keith is engrossed with the identity of ELLI, and challenged me on one or two points of my recent analysis of Gouzenko’s testimony. (He assures me that, despite his name, he is not ‘the son of ELLI’.) Regular coldspur readers will recall that my current supposition is that ELLI was Stephen Alley, identified because of a misunderstanding by Colonel Chichaev over a former agent of George Hill’s, but my analysis is in one aspect flawed in that it does not take into account Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI’s moving ‘to the dubok method’. Such tradecraft would not have been necessary with Alley, since he enjoyed authorized contacts with Chichaev.

Naturally, there is nothing I welcome more than a spirited, well-argued exchange of ideas (unlike some of the unsupported bluster that I do receive from some quarters), and Keith and I entered the debate in a constructive and serious manner. Our discussion kicked off on the question of whether ELLI had been a GRU or an NKVD asset. Since Gouzenko worked as a cipher clerk for the GRU in Toronto, the general assumption has been that he would have had access to GRU traffic only, as the two departments were supposed to have maintained tight compartmentalization. Yet Colonel Chichaev, who reported the fact that George Hill was supposed to be running an agent inside the Kremlin, was an NKVD appointee, and reported to Lieutenant-General Pavel Fitin, head of Foreign Intelligence. The events suggested that encryption and decryption services may have been shared in Moscow by the NKGB (as the foreign sections of NKVD became in 1943) and military intelligence, the GRU. Indeed, the evidence supplied by Walter Krivitsky to MI5 reinforced the notion that sharing of intelligence took place back in Moscow, since Yezhov had been focused on combining the offices of the NKVD and the GRU’s Fourth Department. In Deadly Illusions (p 202) Costello and Tsarev echo the fact that the NKVD’s signals department collaborated with the Fourth Department.

Yet some of these contributions to the record are not precisely dated, and have to be treated cautiously. For example, did Yezhov’s integrative impulses survive his execution? The answer might appear to be ’yes’. Donald Rayfield wrote, in Stalin and His Hangmen, that Beria by 1940 ‘had completed Ezhov’s [Yezhov’s] work destroying Red Army intelligence: everyone of the rank of colonel or above had been shot’. Under those circumstances, how could an independent GRU staff have processed encrypted signals from abroad? Moreover, while Gouzenko appears to suggest that there was a strict division of responsibilities between the cipher departments of the GRU and the NKVD (a chart that he drew for his interrogators in Toronto is ambiguous), one has to question whether the Soviet authorities could afford such dispersal of their cipher teams in times of stress – especially when the units were moved from Moscow to Kuibyshev as the Germans advanced in December 1941. We continue to explore this issue.

As Keith and I delved again into the archival material, and discussed for whom ELLI worked, we agreed that it was indeed probably SOE, but could have been MI6. Guy Liddell had quickly concluded that he (or she) was in SOE, but dismissed the possibility that it could have been the known SOE employee and traitor Ormond Uren, who had been arrested, convicted, and jailed in 1943. We agreed that, as every month and then year passed, the evidential material emanating from Gouzenko for identifying ELLI sharpy deteriorated, and our focus thus turned sharply to the role of Colonel Chichaev. We decided that it was important to verify whether Chichaev did indeed handle any of the Cambridge spies (or their affiliates), to help out Gorsky and Krotov, as Genrikh Borovik claimed in The Philby Files.

And then we changed course. During our email conversations, as we discussed possible moles, Keith incidentally drew my attention to an anecdote reported by Peter Wright in Spycatcher, where the retired MI5 officer described how Anthony Blunt had responded to Wright’s accusation that deaths had occurred because of Blunt’s betrayals, and Blunt appeared to have acknowledged his responsibility in the execution of an MI6 asset behind Soviet lines. I had obviously read this passage when I first encountered Spycatcher, but its implications had not registered very deeply. I decided to investigate.

  1. Gibby’s Spy

The section runs as follows, where Wright describes his attempts to extract further information from Blunt in 1964 (p 220):

I switched tack, and began to press his conscience.

“Have you ever thought about the people who died?”

Blunt feigned ignorance.

“There were no deaths,” he said smoothly, “I never had access to that type of thing . . .”

“What about Gibby’s spy”? I flashed, referring to an agent run inside the Kremlin by an MI6 officer named Harold Gibson. ‘Gibby’s spy’ provided MI6 with Politburo documents before the war, until he was betrayed by Blunt and subsequently executed.

“He was a spy,” said Blunt harshly, momentarily dropping his guard to reveal the KGB professional. ‘He knew the game; he knew the risks.”

Blunt knew that he had been caught in a lie, and the tic started up with a vengeance.

What to make of this? The impression that Wright gives is that the knowledge of ‘Gibby’s spy’, and of his elimination, was common across MI5 and MI6, and that Blunt’s speedy acknowledgment was tantamount to the fact that he had been responsible. The anecdote also suggested a possible source for the asset in the Kremlin who had provided information that appeared in the famous ‘Imperial Council’ report that Walter Krivitsky discussed with his MI5 interrogators in 1940. But can one trust what Wright wrote as an accurate account of what happened? Certainly, he seems to be aware of a person known as ‘Gibby’s spy’, but can we accept that the challenge, and Blunt’s riposte, actually took place? For example, how did Wright know that Gibby’s spy had been executed? Did Blunt tell him??

I decided to dig around a bit. Quite extraordinarily, Nigel West’s 2009 work Triplex, which covers a broad array of documents passed on to Moscow by the Cambridge spies (many of which appeared for the first time in English, since they were translations back from the Russian transcripts of documents that have never been released by the British government) appeared to provide some strong insights and conclusions. [The translations were performed by Dina Goebbel and by a figure familiar to readers of coldspur, Geoffrey Elliott.] After introducing his readers to Blunt’s recruitment by MI5 in the summer of 1940, after Dunkirk, and his ability to gain access to the ‘famed Security Service Registry’, West lays out Blunt’s probable culpability: “Thereafter he seems to have copied whatever files he was requested to, and there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents contained in the pages that follow.”

Again, it is worth quoting West’s full text of explanation here:

The first among these documents is a summary of the NKVD’s October 1940 interrogation of Aleksandr S. Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt. When the art historian joined MI5 in May 1940, transferring from the Field Security Police after the Dunkirk debacle, he lost no time in pillaging the Registry for information that would prove his bona-fides to his NKVD controllers. One of the first items he passed on was information about a highly successful agent recruited years earlier by the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson. Although in the Registry documents a weak attempt was made to protect the source with a code name, there was sufficient collateral data for the ruthless NKVD investigators to narrow the field of suspects, and according to the file released for publication in this volume, it was at this time that they extracted a confession from Nelidov.

West then explains that SIS had ignored the implications of Nelidov’s unexpected arrest, and that Wright’s accusation of Blunt, to his face, was the first occasion on which the connection had been made. (This, in itself, is quite extraordinary. Would MI6/SIS not have undertaken an investigation when their source dried up?) Furthermore, West interprets the passage as indicating that Blunt admitted his guilt, and concludes by observing that ‘In reality, unknown to either Wright or Blunt, Nelidov committed suicide in 1942, having confessed to two decades of collaboration with SIS’. Where West derived this information is not clear. A biography of the Soviet intelligence officer Vasily Zarubin revealed it – but that was in 2015. If West learned of it from his collaborator on Triplex, Oleg Tsarev, one might have expected Tsarev to have attempted to dissuade West from his theory that Nelidov was ‘Gibby’s Spy’.

Yet West is adamant. He next introduces three long confessional statements by the hapless Nelidov. The implication from West is that Nelidov might have been the Kremlin source at the time of the ‘Imperial Council’ affair. The identity of this person – whose existence Krivitsky confirmed from a discussion with his boss, Avram Slutsky, during his last period in Moscow in April or May 1937 – has never been determined. Much analysis has focused on the identity of the mole inside the Foreign Office or MI6 who gave the information to the Soviets (as I wrote about, back in February 2019: see http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-1/ ),  but no investigation into the remarkable ability of an MI6 agent to survive in the Kremlin, and pass on intelligence to the British service, has been undertaken, so far as I know. ‘Was ‘Gibby’s Spy’ the person in question?

Yet my reaction to this farrago of nonsense in West’s prelude was utter disbelief (which I shall soon explain). Firstly, however, I set out to explore who this Harold Gibson fellow – ‘legendary’ (mythical) or real-life – was, as part of my methodology of creating a time-line, an understanding of geography and logistics, and developing an analysis of roles and motivations.

  • Harold Gibson

Not much has been written about Gibson in the places where you might expect an officer of ‘legendary’ status to be chronicled. A Wikitree entry gives the following on his early life:

            Harold Charles Lehr Gibson was born in Moscow in 1897 (other sources claim he was born in either in 1885 or 1887 which is probably incorrect). He attended primary school in Moscow from 1909 to 1913 and then completed his education at Tonbridge School. He also studied at the technical faculty of Moscow University. In March 1917 he was recruited into MI6 for his knowledge of Russian, was attached to the British Consulate General in Moscow as a clerk, was transferred to the Military Permit Office of the British Embassy in Petrograd and in March 1918 returned to the Consulate General in Moscow. He left Russia for London in October 1918 with the remnants of the British and French Missions – and probably the rest of his family.

(see also: https://elenawatson.weebly.com/gibson.html )

The primary serious source at hand was Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6, so I set out to determine what feats had transformed Mr Gibson into this figure of renown. Here follows a précis of what Jeffery wrote:

Gibson was a ‘Petrograd veteran’, like Lieutenant Commander Malcolm Maclaren, who had arrived in Odessa in early 1919, and was ‘wanted by the Bolsheviks’. Gibson’s father had managed a chemical works in Moscow, and Harold had become bilingual in English and Russian by virtue of spending so much time there, and was also a qualified interpreter in French, German and Czech. He left Russia through the south in 1919, and was posted in October of that year to the SIS station in what is now Istanbul. After three years there, he was moved to Sofia in Bulgaria in October 1922, and to Bucharest in Rumania two months later. In Istanbul Gibson had reportedly recruited networks of Russian anti-Communist agents, including one former Tsarist officer who moved with Gibson to Bucharest, although Jeffery records (without identifying the authority) that ‘it was thought likely that the OGPU had become aware of him’.

In Bucharest, Gibson assembled a sizable network of sources, including a clerk in the Sevastopol naval base, who ran sub-agents himself placed as far apart as the Ukraine and Irkutsk in Central Asia. Gibson’s intelligence was highly regarded back in London by Menzies, and he took his White Russian agent HV/109 (who had also worked for him in Istanbul) with him on his next posting. In 1931, Gibson replaced Rafael Farina as head of station in Riga, Latvia. Yet he did not stay there long, being transferred again, in February 1934, to Prague. This was a critical period, and in early 1938 Gibson was instructed to make contact with Colonel Moravec, the head of Czechoslovak Military Intelligence. From this association Gibson was able to gain valuable intelligence about German military movements in Austria. Gibson was instrumental in extracting Moravec, alongside his senior officers, and a valuable archive, out of Prague to London on March 14, 1939, and he himself escaped on March 30.

Gibson in Turkey; Gibson and friends on holiday

In 1941 Menzies appointed Gibson as head of operations in the Balkans, where, as SIS representatives withdrew in the face of the Axis advance, he turned out to be responsible not only for Turkey, ‘but also for “stations-in-exile” from Sofia, Bucharest, Budapest, Belgrade and Athens’, operating out of Istanbul. The celebrated SIS officer Frank Foley thought highly of Gibson (and his brother Archie), while commenting on the fact that the station had too many ‘second-raters’. Gibson was dismissive of the expertise and patronizing attitude of the ambassador Knatchbull-Hugessen, who tried to bring SIS under his control, but Gibson’s misgivings were justified when the CICERO spy was uncovered. A brief later experience is regretted by Jeffery, when Gibson was allowed to go into Bulgaria in September 1944 despite the fact that Gibson had apparently been blown to the Soviets as an SIS officer while he was in Istanbul. (I note from FCO 158/193, p 33, that Konstantin Volkov, during his attempted defection there in 1945, disclosed to Reed that the identity and role of Gibson were well-known to the KGB.) Jeffery does not explain the revelation or the misjudgment in any detail, simply referring to the starry-eyed visions of the Foreign Office in aspiring to ‘co-operate’ with the Communists. He also writes nothing about Gibson’s spell in Prague after the war, even though his history is supposed to record events up until 1949. And that is all Jeffery has to say.

What about other histories of MI6? Apart from some fresh insights into Gibson’s handling of the valuable Nazi informer Paul Thümmel, using the contributions of the journalist Eric Gedye (of Philby and Vienna renown), Nigel West’s MI6 has little to add – except for an explosive revelation concerning Gibson’s latter years. It is worth quoting the whole paragraph:

The prospect of long-term penetration of the Secret Intelligence Service led to a review of all the evidence for more extensive wartime and postwar betrayal. Some of the leads had been cold for a long time. Harold Gibson, for example, was one. He had returned to Prague in 1945 and had then been posted to Germany in 1949. After a two-year tour of duty in Berlin, he went back to Broadway and then went to Rome as head of station in 1955. He retired on his sixtieth birthday in 1958 and remained in the Italian capital. On 24 August 1960 he was found shot dead in his apartment at 25 Via Antonio Boso. The British and Italian investigators concluded that he had committed suicide. However, three years later, MI5 re-opened the file following defector reports that the Soviets had indeed planted ‘moles’ in SIS, and that these spies had strong Russian backgrounds or Russian connections. Certainly Harold Gibson had these basic qualifications. He had been born in Russia and had been educated there. English was a second language to him and he had married two Russians. His first wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, was the daughter of an engineer from Odessa. She had died in 1947 and the following year he had married Katarina Alfimov. Apart from the suspicious circumstances of his death, there was nothing to suggest that Gibson had been anything other than loyal.

In The Friends (1998), West’s study of MI6 after the war, the author picked up this thread of molehunts, drew attention to Gouzenko’s observation about the ‘Russian connection’, and listed some of the officers who could have been suborned in some way by Soviet Intelligence. “All the SIS White Russians, for different reasons, must have been targeted by the KGB at some time”, he wrote. “Sulakov had worked closely with Philby at the Istanbul Station; Dunderdale had managed Tokaev’s defection in 1948; Steveni had received Boris Bajanov, Stalin’s personal assistant, back in 1928; the Gibson brothers had worked for SIS throughout Eastern Europe and the Middle East.” His mentioning of Sulakov is particularly damning since, elsewhere, he writes very casually that, in 1947, Philby left ‘the management of individual agents to Roman Sulakov, the station’s long serving, White Russian assistant who had been recruiting and running spies in the region for at least two decades.’ Some assistant: some spies.

I had three major reactions to this astounding passage in MI6:

  1. It suggests strongly that an MI5 file on Gibson exists (or existed). Enough detail, including the names of his two wives, is presented to indicate that much more information on him was gathered. Yet no one appears to have delved into his post-war activities. Why is this? And why has the file not been released?
  2. The murky circumstances of his death echo the persecution of agents or perceived traitors who may have fallen foul of their KGB oppressors (e.g. Wrangel, Miller, Agabekov, Poynts, Reiss, Krivitsky, Harris?, Foote?, Skinner?, Graham?). The verdict on his death is disturbingly inconclusive. Maybe Gibson had personal demons, but the circumstances of his final hours cry out for further examination.
  3. The nature of his marriages also suggests parallels. To marry a Russian woman once is surely romantic: to repeat the performance perhaps an error of judgment. The Soviet authorities did not allow foreigners to take their brides abroad without suborning them with pressures to spy (e.g. Rudolf Peierls). Moreover, Jeffery stated that Gibson had been exposed as an SIS officer during the war. Where did he meet his second wife, and was she perhaps a loyal servant of the KGB?
Viktor Bogomolets (on left)

Michael Smith, in Six, sheds further light on Gibson and his team when discussing the system of digraphs that identified all MI6 officers and agents, telling us that ‘Victor Bogomoletz [sic] who ran intelligence operations into the Soviet Union for Gibson, was given the designator 31109, indicating that he worked to Gibson’s deputy (31100) as his ninth agent’. This number bears a very close resemblance to the anonymous HV/109 referred to by Jeffery, so it is probably safe to conclude that they are one and the same. Smith goes on to express a very ambivalent judgment about the degree to which Russian émigrés were trusted, suggesting that while some were quite reliable (Bogomolets being included in that category), ‘the Service was extremely wary of Russian émigré sources, largely as a result of the activities of the Trust and the Sidney Reilly affair’. (The Trust was a massive counter-intelligence project by the Cheka and OGPU to suggest to exiled White Russians and the western democracies in general that a vibrant counter-revolutionary organization existed in the Soviet Union.) One MI6 officer is even cited as stating that they treated ‘practically all reports from White Russian circles in the same way, namely on the assumption that they are partly, or wholly inspired by the GPU and we leave them severely alone’.

Smith also gives an account of the career of the defector Boris Bazhanov (West’s ‘Bajanov’), who did indeed work in the Kremlin, and served as secretary to the Politburo and to Stalin, and who might possibly have been a candidate for Harold Gibson’s agent. Yet Bazhanov defected in 1928, and his memoir, Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin, gives no indication that he was recruited by British Intelligence. As it happened, his escape route did take him to India, where, according to Bazhanov, the British misunderstood him, since they assumed that he wanted to reside in Britain. His goal had always been to go to Paris, where the vibrant White Russian community lived, and it was there he made his home. He could not avoid MI6, however. Jeffery describes how Bazhanov was interviewed at length by Dunderdale (who was head of station in Paris). Furthermore, Dunderdale managed to extract ‘140 pages of information from him’, and also reported (in a document that is not generally available) that Bazhanov ‘considerably exaggerated the strength of the anti-Bolsheviks and the results attained by them in their secret anti-Soviet work abroad’. Thus, while he proved to be an effective interpreter of propaganda and misinformation emanating from Soviet sources during the 1930s, he could not have been the ‘Gibby’s spy’ active during the era of the Imperial Council leakage.

‘Bazhanov and the Damnation of Stalin’

What Bazhanov did record, however, is the fact that he was able to warn the British about fake documents being handed to them. In his memoir he writes (p 203):

            Some time after my arrival in France [1928-1929], a representative of the British Intelligence Service [presumably Dunderdale] came to ask for my advice. Gaiduk (obviously a pseudonym, not his true name), OGPU representative in Riga, was selling Politburo minutes to the British who, thinking them authentic, were paying dearly for then. In actual fact Gaiduk had never seen real Politburo minutes and was fabricating them according to his own concept of them. The British knew even less than he about the subject. I had, however, written so many of them that I was able to establish beyond doubt that the British were buying fakes. They thereupon stopped doing so.

One can scarcely doubt Bazhanov’s integrity, but the actions of Gaiduk are less clear. The date is vague: it could have well been in 1931, when Gibson was installed in Riga. Was Bazhanov sure of Gaiduk’s affiliations with the OGPU? Was Gaiduk acting with full authority of his masters? If, indeed, the OGPU was encouraging the leakage of fake Politburo minutes, it would presumably have taken greater care over their apparent authenticity. Maybe this misbegotten exercise prompted Stalin to ensure that further releases were utterly credible. As for the British, whether they truly heeded Bazhanov’s advice is up for debate. It may have been lost, or not passed onto the appropriate officers. Whether his prime interrogator was Dunderdale, or (as Nigel West reported) one Major Steveni, Bazhanov’s advice should have been assimilated and acted upon. The unavailability of any of the evidence makes objective assessment impossible.

 (Tantalizingly, Bazhanov also writes about a figure called Vladimir Bogovut-Kolomiets, ‘an adventurer on a grand scale, [who] often visited the Soviet Embassies in London and Paris.’ In an Endnote, Bazhanov describes this colourful character as ‘a Russian émigré who lived, as the British put it “by his wits”. He was motivated by greed and worked secretly for the OGPU while professing anti-communism.’ A ‘known GPU agent’ Bogovout-Kolomitziev [sic] is identified on July 28, 1930 by Guy Liddell in the Agabekov archive (KV 2/2398-3, p 41). Could Bogomolets perhaps be a contraction of Bogovut-Kolomiets?)

One last puzzling account of Gibson’s activities refers to his possible involvement with the extraction of Polish ENIGMA expertise in 1939. An authoritative-sounding Web report, at http://www.alternativefinland.com/first-british-volunteer-unit-atholl-highlanders/, has him meeting ‘Lewinski’ in 1938 in Warsaw, reporting to his bosses on the offer of information on decryption, and in June 1939 assisting in his escape after Dilwyn Knox and Alan Turing of the GC&CS went to Poland to meet him and his colleagues. (The source for this story is surely  Anthony Cave-Brown’s Bodyguard of Lies.) Yet such accounts must be treated very cautiously: David Kahn’s Seizing the Enigma does not even recognize that encounter, and Hugh Sebag-Montefiore’s ENIGMA: The Battle for the Code indicates that it was Knox and Alastair Denniston who met Langer and Cięźki on July 24-25 1939 outside Warsaw. No mention is made of Gibson, who was back in the United Kingdom by then. Alan Turing did not join Bletchley Park full-time until after the start of the war. Other accounts have it that the Poles attending the meeting were Zygalski, Rejewski and Rózicki, who escaped to Bucharest after war broke out, were rebuffed there by the British Embassy, and eventually made their way to Vichy France. After Rózicki was killed the other two made it to England via Portugal. Details of the separate escape to France by Langer and Cieźki in September are murky: they were later betrayed to the Germans in 1943 as they tried to cross into Spain. Another muddle to be cleared up at some stage.

3. Gibson’s Curriculum Vitae

A main part of the puzzle – explaining where West and others had gained their information – was solved when a coldspur correspondent alerted me to a paper written in 2010. The Wikitree extract cited above appears to derive from the family archive held by the widow of Harold’s brother Archibald. The historian Hugh Seton-Watson, who had served with SOE as a translator in Egypt, had in 1983 suggested to his fellow-academic, Dennis Delettant, a historian of Romania, that he contact Archibald’s widow concerning papers she held on the two brothers. Seton-Watson introduced Delettant to Patrick Maitland, who had been a special correspondent for the Times between 1939 and 1941, covering the Balkans. In turn, Maitland, who told Delettant that Gibson’s role as Times correspondent in Romania had been a cover for his position with MI6, introduced him to his widow, Kyra.

Kyra Gibson invited Delettant to use a trunk of papers that she held in her house. Delettant then wrote a monograph in 2010, published in the SEER (Slavonic and East European Review) journal, that exploited a typed curriculum vitae that Harold had written up in October 1958, six months after his retirement from the Foreign Office. This corrects Harold’s date of birth to 1897 (he was seven years older than Archibald), and adds some details about Harold’s time in Russia, also contradicting the suggestion that he left Russia for London in October 1918:

            One month later [i.e. March 1919] he was despatched to the British Military Mission in Odessa as interpreter. In May 1919, he joined the mission of Sir Halford Mackinder to South Russia, to report on the state of the anti-Bolshevist forces led by General Denikin and in July was appointed secretary to a Foreign Office fact-finding commission in Bessarabia. In October 1919, he was sent to the MI6 station in Constantinople under cover of working at the General Headquarters of the Allied Forces of Occupation, to report ’mainly on matters relating to Russian security and refugees’. In December 1922, he was posted to Bucharest as head of station where he worked until March 1931 when he was transferred to Riga.

Delettant’s account also adds some fascinating details about Gibson’s activities in Istanbul as head of station in World War II. He worked with the Czech Military Intelligence representative Lt.-Col. Heliodor Pika, in running the famous German agent A-54 (Thümmel) until Pika’s transfer to Moscow in spring 1941. Gibson then joined the mission in Bulgaria in September 1944, but had to leave the country when all Britons were expelled from Bulgaria by the Russians ‘probably because they were aware of Harold Gibson’s senior position in MI6 and his knowledge of Russian’. Later, in Prague, disaster was to strike Pika. In 1948 Gibson was accused by the Czech authorities of involvement in a plot to undermine the state, and was expelled. But Pika was accused of spying for Britain, tried, convicted, and hanged on June 21, 1949 – in fact the first of hundreds. While he had probably consorted with Gibson, the evidence against him indicating conspiracy was obviously faked. Pika had brought trouble on himself ever since his time in Moscow, when he had openly criticized the Party’s plans for post-war control in Czechoslovakia, and had thus been marked out for punishment.

One last contribution to Gibson’s career comes from a 2015 Finnish source. When the Soviet Union invaded Finland in January 1940, there were calls from the public for intervention, and Gibson was soon appointed director of a committee called the Finnish Aid Bureau, an outwardly private initiative, but in fact an operation sponsored by the British Government. This resulted in a small volunteer force being sent to Finland, but the only way it helped Gibson was to draw the attention of the Soviet régime to Gibson’s involvement with anti-communist activism. The Finnish article also re-presents the bare details of the Bogomolets affair, and echoes the claim that Gibson was exposed only in 1945 – a clear cosmetic treatment of the facts.

In relation to the main story of ‘Gibby’s Spy’, the account of Gibson’s career has other profound implications. Gibson was never posted in Moscow (where SIS apparently had no formal station). If he had recruited his old friend, it must have been on a visit from Riga. For his pal to evade surveillance, and set up a meeting with his old school-friend, would be quite an achievement. For his friend to commit to espionage, and then be able to deliver material to someone other than Gibson, when there was no SIS presence at the Embassy, all through the horrifying period of the Great Purge, is beyond belief – unless, of course, it was a set-up, and his contact was somehow allowed to pass on disinformation that the British Secret Service swallowed. Gibson could not possibly have ‘run’ his agent inside the Kremlin from some other European capital: Wright’s claim must be nonsense.

Tea with the Czechs

Moreover, Gibson’s rather clumsy enterprises in spy-handling (apart from his clever and successful extraction of Moravec and his archives from Prague, endorsed by the General in his memoir Master of Spies) must be questioned. Was it really good tradecraft to take one’s primary asset around with him as he was transferred from capital to capital, and delegate to him the selection of agents? The enemy’s counter-espionage units would presumably track such movements. And that network of sub-agents extending to Irkutsk? Could they really be trusted? Jeffery’s study of the ‘legendary’ career of Harold Gibson is less than thorough.

  • The NKVD Dossier

And yet there exists a much fuller account of Gibson’s career. It astonishingly also appears in Triplex, and consists of a dossier compiled by the KGB in 1949 (although presented by West as the last of the ‘NKVD Reports’). It is clear that the agencies had been maintaining a file on Gibson for some time, and the dossier also intriguingly reflects the contributions of ‘British intelligence agent Vasiliev in 1945’, as well as from source PAVLOV in 1944.

First of all, it makes clear that Gibson was a true ‘enemy of the people’. The report states that he ‘hates the USSR and the People’s Democracies’, and that he even served in the Russian army in the First World War as a soldier and a junior officer. The Czechs, moreover, reported that Gibson had ‘played an active role in a plot against the Soviet regime’ in 1917. The dossier sheds some light on Gibson’s two Russian wives without explaining where they were born, or whether the government considered them Soviet citizens. The first wife is not named, but died in 1947. His second wife, Ekaterina Alfimova, was born in 1920, ‘a dancer, speaks Russian, French, Romanian and a little Turkish’. From 1941 to 1945 she ‘lived in Turkey as the wife [not legally married?] of the British journalist Morton Allen Mackintosh, the correspondent of the Daily Telegraph’, and resided in the UK from 1945 to 1947. Gibson apparently met Alfimova in Turkey in 1941, and married her in 1948.

Ekaterina Alfimova

The structure of Gibson’s Intelligence Group in southeast Europe is then laid out, featuring his brother Archibald as his assistant and secretary, with Victor Bogomolets as his assistant for agent handling. As the various stations are described, it become clear that Gibson relied very heavily on former Russian General Staff officers as his residents in Bucharest, Warsaw, Sofia and Riga. It credits Gibson with being able to infiltrate agents into Soviet territory by recruiting a variety of alienated ex-citizens, defectors, or even Soviet sailors whom the Poles had persuaded to jump ship. Why MI6 believed that such characters would volunteer to return to the Soviet Union as spies, and get away with it, is obviously not explained. One remarkable statement runs as follows:

In 1930 the British station sent to Moscow two agents who were employed in Gosplan, Volodya (a Pole) and Luka (a Ukrainian who sold newspapers in Warsaw). When they returned, they brought with them valuable information on the Soviet Five-Year Plan.

Just like that.

Most of the dossier concentrates on Gibson and his network of contacts in Czechoslovakia from 1945 to 1948. It proceeds with a stunning denouncement of the power and reach of his contacts:

In carrying out his intelligence work in Czechoslovakia, Gibson’s relied on merchants, former plant and factory owners, princes, members of the Czechoslovak diplomatic service, members of the Popular Socialist Party, Social Democrats, Fascists, White émigrés from tsarist Russia, persons owing allegiance to Germany and hostile to the USSR, newspaper correspondents, Czechs and Slovaks who spent the war in England, scientists with reactionary attitudes, heads of national side industries, staff members of the Turkish Embassy and medical workers employed in civilian and military establishments.

Gibson was obviously a very busy man, and approached his intelligence mission with Stakhanovite dedication. Truly a ‘legend’. But what is alarming is the fact that he was being surveilled with utmost Communist diligence: one fears for what happened to this mass of potential dissenters who had unwisely consorted with the MI6 head of station. Heliodor Pika was surely not the only victim who lost his life.

Lastly, a really troubling exposure. The NKVD had access to Gibson’s personal diary for the years of 1927 to 1941 (the year that Gibson met his second wife), which offers, as a possible explanation, that his first wife might have disclosed such confidences to the Soviet counter-intelligence service in a fit of jealousy. The extract shows all the cities, with frequencies, that Gibson visited during the period in question. The fact that Gibson kept such a diary, full of vital meetings, is rather scandalous – unless it were a hoax, which appears extremely unlikely, given the richness of its entries. This exercise constituted appalling tradecraft, and cannot have been encouraged by his bosses at MI6: the revelation that it existed must have come as a great shock to them, whenever it was discovered. If MI6 did indeed gain a suspicion that the OGPU/NKVD had worked out what he was up as far back as Bucharest in 1930, it is not surprising that Jeffery’s History carries a very muted account of his activities.

‘One of the last photographs of Colonel Gibson. For thirty years he had been watched by Soviet Foreign Intelligence’
  • The Nigel West Theory

To return to Nigel West’s theory about ‘Gibby’s Spy’. First of all, the text is a prime example of glib journalese, with the carefully chosen but clichéd epithets and verbs – ‘the famed Security Service Registry’, ‘pillaging the Registry’, ‘the legendary SIS professional Harold Gibson’, ‘the ruthless NKVD investigators’. The assertions are blandly made: ‘there can be little doubt that he had a direct hand in copying the four documents’, ‘Nelidov, a long-term SIS source who was probably betrayed by Anthony Blunt’. Yet West offers no supporting evidence: he does not even explain the origin of the ‘Gibby’s spy’ anecdote, with which, he assumes, his readers are familiar.

Irrespective of the fact that there could had been a spy in the Kremlin, and that his name might have been Nelidov, and Blunt might possibly have revealed details about him in a ‘pillaged’ file (West probably meant to say ‘pilfered’, as Blunt was probably not responsible for the destruction of the records in a fire at Wormwood Scrubs in November 1940), the case, as laid out by West, is absurd:

1) Blunt worked for MI5, not MI6. If there had been records of ‘Gibby’s spy’, they would have been tightly held in the MI6 Registry, famed or not, at Broadway. For a new recruit like Blunt to be able to start poking around in MI6 archives defies belief.

2) Blunt did not join MI5 until June 1940. (In Triplex, West writes that he joined in May: Blunt’s biographer indicates he started in July, but Guy Liddell, in his Diary, points to an early June recruitment.) The first segment of Nelidov’s confession is dated August 1940.  A document of that length, attached as part of the CID paper, would not have been transcribed and transmitted by wireless. It would have gone by diplomatic bag, which was a slow process. That would not have given time for even the ‘ruthless NKVD investigators’ to narrow down their search, arrest the unfortunate Nelidov, and extract a confession from him.

3) The Cambridge Five were in any case without a NKVD handler at this time. Anatoli Gorsky had been withdrawn from London in February 1940 because of concerns about the network’s being compromised, and he did not return until late in the year, meeting Blunt for the first time on December 28. Blunt had no one to pass documents to in the summer of 1940.

West seems slightly aware of the logistical and chronological objections to his account: he even acknowledges and describes the reasons for Gorsky’s absence. Moreover, in The Crown Jewels, co-authored with Oleg Tsarev, he in fact records that Blunt did not pass on his first report until early 1941! Yet while West introduces his collection by writing: ‘The documents reproduced in these pages were translated into Russian in Moscow by the NKVD and now have been translated back into English’, and carelessly highlights Blunt’s contribution by stating that he copied the four NKVD documents that West reproduces, it is clear that this confession is not a stolen document, but simply a Russian original retrieved from the KGB’s archives, a native extended statement written by Nelidov himself.

Then there is the question of whether Nelidov could possibly have been ‘Gibby’s spy’ in the Kremlin – or anyone else’s, for that matter, based on the biography he offered to his interrogators. But, before I analyze the confessions themselves, which appear to be an extraordinary mix of fact and rumour, guaranteed to discombobulate even the sharpest NKVD goon, I want to investigate where West got his ‘Gibby’s spy’ story from.

To begin with, West had first revealed his belief in the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story in 1989, when he published The Friends. He rather undermined the talents of the ‘legendary’ Harold Gibson by writing: “Apart from all the White Russian émigrés who were of dubious value, there had only been one really good agent run personally by Harold Gibson.” He continued by explaining that, in 1933, in Riga, Gibson had met an old school-friend who happened to be private secretary to Anastas Mikoyan, the Foreign Trade Commissar. While West did not say what the friend committed to do, he did state that Gibson moved to Prague to run his agent, ‘but contact was broken late in 1940 after Gibson had been evacuated to London’. (That escape actually occurred in 1938.). Again, how being resident in Prague helped the process is not explained. And then, to cap it all: “When discreet enquiries were made in Moscow, it was discovered that Gibson’s agent had been arrested and executed.” Discreet enquiries in Moscow? How were such investigations carried out? By careful conversations with the head barman at the Moscow branch of White’s Club? It is all very ridiculous.

  • The Mis-Education of Chapman Pincher

Keith Ellison pointed out to me that John Costello’s Mask of Treachery (1988) constitutes a useful pointer. If you look up ‘Gibson’ in Costello’s index, you will see one entry for ‘Biggy’ Gibson, as if he were a rapper, or possibly an associate of the Kray twins. No matter: he is our man. On page 375, the author reveals more details, and again, for the sake of a complete record, I reproduce the first paragraph in full:

The redoubtable Miss Huggins, however, did not assert her authority over the director [of B Division, Guy Liddell] fast enough to save the life of a Russian mole whom the British had run for seven years on the Politburo staff in Moscow. He was a school friend of an MI6 officer named Harold “Gibby” Gibson, who had been educated in prerevolutionary Russia. While Gibson was in Moscow in 1933 he had been able to persuade his friend, who was then working in the private office of Anastas Mikoyan, that his disenchantment with Stalin could be repaid by espionage. Shortly after Blunt’s arrival in the fall [sic] of 1940, this valuable inside source in Moscow dried up.

Costello then paraphrases what Peter Wright wrote in Spycatcher, in an attempt to seal the deal. His Notes and Sources credit Chapman Pincher for the story: “See Pincher, Treachery, pp. 112-113, for the details, which were subsequently confirmed by Wright, Spycatcher, p 220.” Now I found this a little perplexing. Why was the journalist Pincher, rather than Wright, an MI5 officer, the source of the story? And Treachery was not published until many years later. First I checked out both my editions of that book, to verify that Gibson does not appear in the Index, and that the anecdote had not been re-presented. Costello does not provide a consolidated Bibliography, but I quickly determined that the volume to which he was referring was in fact Pincher’s 1981 work Their Trade Is Treachery.

‘Their Trade is Treachery’

Indeed, on page 112 of that volume can be seen Pincher’s insights. They are a mess. Gibson is described as an MI5 officer, and Pincher reports that his friend, working in Mikoyan’s office, had been working as an MI5 source-in-place for seven years. Blunt apparently admitted that he had passed on one of his reports to ‘Henry’ (Gorsky), and, soon after, Henry told him that the source had been eliminated. It was absurd to present MI5, responsible for domestic security, as having agents in the Soviet Union, let alone the Kremlin. With the knowledge that Gorsky was out of the country all this time, one can swiftly dispense with the story as pure disinformation.

Pincher must have realized that he had been the victim of a scam, a word in his ear, no doubt, by a trusted source in MI6, since, in some embarrassment, he carefully expunged this incident from the greater bulk of his final analytical composition, Treachery. No explanation or apology followed, so far as I can see. John Costello, another student of intelligence, died unexpectedly from apparent food-poisoning on a flight from Miami to London in 1995, and thus did not survive to challenge his colleague, or revise his own work. But what is extraordinary is why Nigel West, in 1989, and then again in 2009, was taken in by the whole rigmarole, and re-presented such loose rumours as fact. He discovered the document on Nelidov, called up the flimsy story about Gibby’s Spy, and put two and two together to make seven, while trying to sound very authoritative about the whole affair. It is a disgrace.

What is astonishing is the fact that John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, in their exploitation of KGB files in Deadly Illusions (1993), echoing Costello’s former opinions, trust completely what Peter Wright wrote about Gibby’s Spy and Anthony Blunt. Having claimed that ‘NKVD records showed that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’, they fondly suggest that this person could have been Gibby’s Spy, recruited by Gibson, although they undermine their case by asserting that Gibson ‘was an undercover officer with the British Embassy’ – certainly not true. (In a section below I explore further the manner in which they trip over themselves because of their succumbing to a ‘deadly delusion’.)

I thus see three questions remaining (apart from the riddle that no one has sought to debunk this nonsense, so far as I can judge). Who was Nelidov, and does his profile match up with a possible asset for MI6? Was there a real spy inside the Kremlin who did provide some valuable information to the British in the years immediately before the war? And was Gibson’s network penetrated from the outset by OGPU/NKVD/KGB (which would account for the fact that MI6 has tried to throw a veil over his career)?

  • Count Nelidov

The confessions of Nelidov (in Triplex) are an extraordinary mélange of betrayal, naivety, and disingenuous mendacity. Count Nelidov was an obvious ‘trader’, an acquirer and seller of information without any ideological convictions who at various times served (or claimed to serve) the British, the Germans, and the Soviets. From his account, he was not an ‘agent’ employed by MI6, but actually started off his career as an officer. But we now have to face a troubling dilemma: are Nelidov’s memoirs more, or less, reliable than what the authorized history of MI6 claims? After all, we should not discount the fact that the Secret Intelligence Service might have wanted to put a different spin on its embarrassing experiences with the Russian count.

According to Jeffery, Nelidov was fired by MI6. It was Nelidov himself who claimed that he had ‘obtained a post in the Press Department of the British Secret Service’ in Constantinople as early as 1921. Of course, he may have thought it was the British Secret Service: it may have simply been the Embassy. However, Nelidov’s account of what MI6 was up to is more comprehensive than Jeffery’s, so MI6 may have been guiding their authorized historian down a path that indicated that Nelidov’s ‘offer of service’ was rejected, as they would prefer to suggest that they had washed their hands of him. In any case, Nelidov had a multitude of adventures thereafter, switching allegiances when it suited him, and trying to re-sell information he had given to one intelligence organization to its rival or enemy the next day. There is not the slightest possibility that he could ever have infiltrated his way into any of the departments of the Kremlin. He occasionally indicates that he came across Gibson in his career, but he mentions several other notable MI6 officers, such as Carr and Hill, much more frequently.

Both Walter Krivitsky and Pavel Sudoplatov (in charge of the NKVD’s Administration of Special Tasks from June 1941) had something to say about Nelidov, but, because of the circumstances and timing, admitted contrasting impressions of him. When Krivitsky was debriefed by MI5, he offered his experiences with Nelidov as evidence of the ease with which Soviet intelligence could acquire any information in Berlin in the early 1930s. Nelidov had approached Krivitsky, told him he had worked as a British agent in Constantinople, and offered to bring Krivitsky an enciphered telegram that had been just despatched by the British Legation. Since Krivitsky had access to all telegrams sent by any Embassy or Legation in Berlin, he was able to tell Nelidov, a day later, that the telegram was a forgery. The account of Krivitsky’s statement continued: “The same night he received information through a German intelligence agent that Nelidoff [sic] had offered to work for the Germans, together with Nelidoff’s account of his previous interview with Krivitsky!” The anecdote concludes with an account of how Nelidov sold a document to German Intelligence for $3,000, was confronted by them that it was a forgery, and thereupon repaid the amount – with forged money, consequently being prosecuted by the German police. Nelidov’s behaviour shows all the characteristics of Bazhanov’s ‘OGPU agent’ Gaiduk – but Nelidov surely was not working for the OGPU at this time.

Somehow (the record is not clear) Nelidov ended up working for Admiral Canaris of the Abwehr. As Pavel Sudoplatov, in Special Tasks, reports, Nelidov [actually Neledov in Jerrold Schecter’s translation] was captured by Polish counterintelligence when he was sent to Warsaw on a reconnaissance mission in August 1939. When the Soviets invaded Western Ukraine later that year, they found Nelidov in the Lvov prison, and brought him to Moscow. There he was able to impress Marshal Aleksandr Vasilievsky, later chief of the general staff, and General Filipp Golikov, director of military intelligence, with his knowledge of German war plans, including the critical information that, if the Germans were not able to make deep inroads in the first two or three months of the war, the invasion was doomed to failure.

Nelidov’s own confessions hint vaguely at this change of allegiance. He claims that, on his way to Berlin in 1933, to replace Captain Ellis (the notorious Charles Ellis, who betrayed MI6 secrets to the Abwehr), he stopped in Vienna, where he met the head of Soviet intelligence, and offered him material (which he claimed was accurate and valuable). Having arrived in Berlin, where his mission was to try to penetrate Soviet intelligence, he and Ellis concluded that ‘there was no material at all that might be used to interest Soviet intelligence’. He does not mention his encounter with Krivitsky, but the incident may have provoked that reaction. In a later confession he blandly states: “About two months after my arrival in Berlin, I left the British SIS and went to work for the Third Department of the German General Staff”, which he describes as a cover for the German Intelligence Service since the Versailles Treaty.

One significant outcome from this business was that, at the end of 1933, Nelidov was sent to London to establish a network of agents to report on Foreign Office attitudes to Germany, and claimed that his two leading agents were George Hill (now down on his luck, and short of money, having been dismissed from SIS because he had appropriated funds entrusted to him by Bruce Lockhart), and a Captain Francis, who worked at the Secret Service Registry. Hill was paid a salary of 200 pounds by the Reichswehrministerium, a fact that would no doubt turn out to be of inestimable value to the NKGB when Hill arrived in Moscow as SOE representative in December 1941. Nelidov also tracked Hill down to the consulate in Riga in July 1938, where Hill described how he gained information from the Latvian Police and the Lithuanian Foreign Ministry, and laid out details of his Russian Section team for the benefit of his ex-colleague and presumably current Abwehr handler. If all of Nelidov’s account is true, it constituted astonishingly reckless and treacherous behaviour by Hill, and reinforces how stupid the decision was to install Hill as head of the SOE Russian station.

But Nelidov was burned out. He had been seen through by the Russians, and had abandoned the British before they rumbled him, presumably. Canaris must have been really desperate to recruit a rascal such as Nelidov. Once the NKVD had bled him dry, and squeezed out all the information they could from him, he was of no more use to them, and as a ‘former person’ with a noble title, would have been despised and presumably eliminated. It is unlikely that he survived long enough to have committed suicide. (Robert Baker’s biography of Zarubin states that Lt.-General Fitin wanted to use Nelidov as an agent in Turkey, but that, when Zarubin went to brief him, found that he had killed himself. The sources of such a story need to be strictly verified.) And one function Nelidov could never have achieved was to be ‘Gibby’s Spy’ in the Kremlin.

  • A Spy in the Kremlin?

Thus I return to the question: who provided the information from the Politburo meeting that made its way into the MI6 report? To recapitulate the events: Krivitsky recalled that, on two or three occasions when he was in Moscow in 1936 and 1937, he saw printed reports of the proceedings of the Committee of Imperial Defence, as well as other confidential reports, which had been photographed by OGPU agents in London. Moreover, he described how, during his final visit to Moscow in March-April 1937, his boss at INO (the Foreign Department of OGPU), Abram Slutsky, also his friend, had drawn his attention to the latest extracts provided by the ‘Imperial Council’ source, and asked him about a report bound up with it that concerned a special meeting of the Politburo that Litvinov, the Foreign Minister, had attended. Slutsky concluded from the material in the report that British Intelligence must have a source in Narkomindel (the Soviet Foreign Office). His opinion was shared by the man who ran the English section in INO.

Abram Slutsky

Identifying this report was obviously important to MI5 and MI6. Eventually, Jane Archer showed Walter Krivitsky a copy of such a document that included a report from MI6 dated February 25th, 1937. Krivitsky immediately recognized it as the report that he had seen in Moscow in March or April of that year. Furthermore, Krivitsky mentioned that Slutsky was very concerned about identifying the source, since he was uncertain of his own position, and wondered whether Krivitsky had any ideas. One important aspect of the case is that, according to one of the minutes in the record, Krivitsky told Archer that Yezhov himself had asked him about the identity of the spy – a fact that failed to appear in Archer’s final report. But Krivitsky, witnessing the arrests and shootings carrying on at the height of the Purge, had only one thought – get out of Moscow, if he could, before he followed the other victims of Stalin’s desire to exterminate everyone who knew too much, or had been influenced by Trotskyism while abroad. He thus temporized with Slutsky, saying he would look into the matter, but never did.

Slutsky had reasons to be nervous. He had denounced his previous boss, Arthur Artuzov, when Yezhov, the new head of OGPU, started liquidating the men of his predecessor, Yagoda, a group that included Slutsky himself. Slutsky retaliated to save his own skin. Artuzov was sacked on January 11, 1937, arrested on May 13, and shot on August 21. Yet Slutsky gained only a temporary stay of execution. In December 1937, he submitted to his boss, Yezhov, a very creative report on the organization of the agents in Britain, but was killed – probably by poison, or possibly by injection after being subdued by chloroform – on March 17, 1938, in the office of the head of the GUGB, Mikhail Frinovsky. Frinovsky was himself executed the day after the same fate was delivered to his wife and son, in February 1940. Yagoda was shot on March 15, 1938: Yezhov on February 4, 1940. Krivitsky did well to get out of the Soviet Union when he did, but was killed in mysterious circumstances in Washington in January 1941.

It should not be discounted that the leak could have been deliberate, and the snippet of information passed on as something harmless to Soviet interests. If that were true, it is also possible that Slutsky had not been told what was going on. But whom can we trust on the facts behind the events? One of the leading sources is Deadly Illusions by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, the latter being at the time of publication a consultant to the Press Department of the Russian Intelligence Service. In his Acknowledgments, Costello expressed his homage to professional historians: “I am indebted to historians in academia whose rigorous scholarship sets the standard to which we non-academics – who some would dismiss as ‘airport bookstall historians’ aspire.” Yet writers who so naively swallow the whole ‘Gibby’s Spy’ farrago (as they do on page 203) must be treated very circumspectly (as indeed should ‘authorized historians’ from academia).

Their account of the leakages starts off confidently, but then drifts into confusion. Tsarev had access to the KGB Maclean files, and thus the authors write with assurance about the several occasions when Maclean passed on important Foreign Office reports, since they cite the content of such. Yet their narrative is sadly lacking in specific dates, and contains some startling errors. For instance, they write (p 200), ascribing it to an ‘Orlov memorandum, Maclean file, No 83791’:

The Centre had investigated how the Foreign Office knew about ‘mobilization of Soviet industry as recently carried out in 1932 in the Far East’, from his [Maclean’s] previous report, telling Orlov that it pointed to a British spy operating somewhere in the reaches of the Kremlin apparatus.

But Maclean did not start handling material over until January 1936: Orlov left the United Kingdom for the last time in October 1935. It seems as if the archive was being tainted with false material.

The muddle continues. They assert that items in the Foreign Office reports gave the NKVD ‘vital clues in hunting down spies [sic] who were operating undercover in the Soviet Union for the British’. Further, ‘NKVD records show that in 1936 Maclean’s reports resulted in an investigation which uncovered one of these traitors in the People’s Commissariat of Foreign Affairs’. The implications are clear: there was more than one spy (‘Gibby’s Spies?’), and the first detection occurred before the crucial minutes of the Imperial Council that took Slutsky by surprise. One has to question the authenticity of these KGB archives: to discover one spy with the capability to pass secrets to the British was remarkable, to be harbouring several traitors in that capacity is surely ridiculous. The authors show no evidence of other reports that reproduced intelligence gained from the Commissariat. Moreover, as was recounted by the defector Boris Bazhanov, who did occupy an important post in the Kremlin, and was Stalin’s secretary in the 1920s, controls on the use of documents were very strict.

Costello and Tsarev then claim that it was a report passed on by Maclean in March 1937 that helped identify an agent in the Commissariat, but then, awkwardly, they inform us that the spy had already been betrayed by Maclean, and that this Commissariat secretary had been ‘turned’ to feed false information to the British until Blunt ‘inadvertently stumbled across this double deception operation’. An endnote contradicts this statement, indicating that Mally (the NKVD’s illegal rezident at the time) sent a letter in March 1937 pointing to an as yet unidentified spy. That would be more consonant with the timing of Krivitsky’s discussion with Slutsky about an unknown leaker at Narkomindel, but it is another mess. Slutsky and his lieutenants (e.g. Krivitsky, Mally) were clearly kept in the dark about the disinformation exercise, but it would have helped Artuzov and Stalin to know that their messages were being received and taken seriously.

It is evident that Costello and Tsarev disagreed about the proliferation of such spies. In an Endnote, Costello writes: “Turning the MI6 agent was in accord with Soviet practice (this hypothesis rests on the British author’s presumption that there was only one MI6 spy).” Why Costello would say this, having outlined the existence of multiple spies, is not clear, but it appears that he was fixated on the ‘Gibby’s Spy’ story, as valid testimony of a lone operator, while Tsarev was taken in more by the doctored NKVD records. As for ‘turning’, that is of course nonsense. No ideological conversion would have taken place with a real discovered traitor. He would have been eliminated by the NKVD. But the channel to British Intelligence (a conduit that is never explained by either side) would have been supplied with further (dis)information to maintain the pretence.

Keith Ellison pointed out to me an important passage in The Crown Jewels (pp 211-212):

            Another question which interested the Centre was the information received from Cairncross, through Burgess in September 1938, on the presence of an important British agent inside the People’s Commissariat for Foreign Affairs (NKID), who was alleged to be working as ‘head of non-territorial department’ and from whom British intelligence had received three reports, the most recent dated August 1938, concerning correspondence exchanged between Stalin and Edward Benes. The Centre wanted to know what else Cairncross knew about this British source which Moscow named TEMNY(‘Obscure’).

It is difficult to fathom this. The Great Purge was on. Slutsky had been killed in March 1938. If other spies had already been seized, and presumably executed, why would any bureaucrat encourage a bullet in his head by trying to transfer such routine documents to British Intelligence? Cairncross told Gorsky that he was not sure whether the latest supplier of information was the same agent who passed on Litvinov’s report at the Politburo meeting. He was not the only one confused. Moreover, the advice that Bazhanov had given a decade before, namely that the Politburo minutes were fakes, appeared to have been lost, or ignored.

Lastly, the role of time and place is very important. If the Foreign Office documents had to be photographed, and the films smuggled out by courier to Copenhagen, and then taken to Moscow to be developed and interpreted, there must be a time-lag of weeks, probably. (This seemed to be the operating procedure when the Soviet Embassy with its diplomatic bag could not be touched.)  Thus for an MI6 report dated February 25 to have been submitted to the Foreign Office, included in the minutes of a meeting that were then published, ‘borrowed’ by Maclean (or King, or anyone else), and then routed by surface transport via Denmark and Leningrad to Moscow for processing and analysis, it is a strain to suppose that this could all have been accomplished by the end of March, when Krivitsky was in town. Yet that is what Krivitsky reported.

  • Hints of Disinformation

One can detect from some of the autobiographical records of the time an awareness that there may have been ‘special departments’ (as they were called in Stalin’s bureaucracy) that were active in disinformation schemes. After all, as Krivitsky reported, Stalin manipulated the Gestapo to provide culpatory evidence about Marshal Tukhachevsky’s possible traitoriousness. (A few years later, Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group ran the COURIERS operation, which tried to deceive the Germans by claiming the existence of an anti-Soviet faction within the Russian Orthodox Church.) The OGPU, even if it had shut down its TRUST operation against Russian émigrés in 1927 after its kidnaps and murders had been laid bare in Paris, and it had declined to delivery strategic information requested, was still trying to undermine any White Russian cabals that were still struggling along. Thus a common element in Soviet schemes at this time is the exploitation of ex-tsarist officers.

Elisabeth Poretsky

For instance, in Our Own People, Elisabeth K. Poretsky, the widow of Ignace Reiss (who had been killed in Switzerland in 1937 after sending a defiant message to Stalin), wrote that the NKVD carefully selected candidates for tasks that their conventional European agents would never have performed. Such persons were mostly recruited from the GRU, and famous among them was Elisabeth Zarubin. “These were the people in the N.K.V.D. whom Moscow relied upon for burglaries, kidnappings, and murders. They were also the ones who recruited and directed a special section of former White officers about whom nothing was known outside the N.K.V.D.”, Poretsky wrote. Zarubin (then known by her maiden name Gorskaya, until she married another celebrated agent) was feared because of the way she had seduced Jacob Bluymkin and then in 1929 led him to his death (according to Andrew and Gordievsky). Blyumkin had been partly responsible for the death of the German ambassador to Moscow Count Mirbach, and had foolishly tried to relay a message from Trotsky to Radek while he was in Constantinople.

(The activities of the Zarubins merit further investigation. Sudoplatov states that Zarubin had in fact been married to Blyumkin for some years, and betrayed him because he handed over to Trotsky money intended for illegal operations in Turkey, but references to her as ‘Gorskaya’ would tend to undermine that assertion. She was later to be known as ‘Zarubina’, or under her codename ‘Zabilina’, when she worked with her husband in the USA purloining atomic secrets. Robert K. Baker’s biography of Vasily Zarubin, Rezident, indicates that ‘Gorskaya’ had been in a relationship with Blyumkin until November 1929. Baker also records that Zarubina spent some time in London – probably in 1940 – on a mission to track down the elusive agent ATTILA.)

Poretsky added a revealing note:

            Krivitsky hints in his book that he had been told all about these activities, but neither he nor Ludwig [Reiss] nor Maly was ever officially told anything of the kind. Of course they had their suspicions, gleaned from newspaper items and hints dropped by Slutsky. But to be privy to this kind of information one had to be one of ‘theirs’, and Krivitsky, as he often told Ludwig, was not.

What Krivitsky wrote, in Stalin’s Secret Service, after witnessing Tukhachevsky’s trial, was that Stalin used fake ‘evidence’ taken from the Gestapo to frame his generals, that that evidence was fed to the OGPU [in fact the NKVD after 1934] from Czarist organizations abroad, and that he killed General Miller in order to destroy ‘the one uncontrolled source of information, apart from the Gestapo itself’, as the source of his evidence. One might question that last clause, but the implication is clear. Stalin was using disinformation to hoodwink his own counter-intelligence service so that it would persecute his enemies, and it is thus evident that some of his intrigues were kept secret from even the senior officers.

Artur Artuzov

So who knew? The architect of the TRUST, Artur Artuzov, had been in charge of counterespionage (KRO) in the OGPU until 1929, when, after Yagoda decided to get rid of Trilisser, he was appointed deputy head of the Foreign Department (INO). The semi-authoritative history (KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky) is strangely silent on Artuzov’s term in office, and ignores both his promotion to INO head in 1931, as well as his move to the GRU in 1935, after he angered Stalin at a Politburo meeting in 1934 (according to Jonathan Haslam). The authors move quickly on to the denunciation of Artuzov by Yezhov in March 1937, but rely exclusively on Krivitsky’s account. What had Artuzov been up to, and did he have Stalin’s confidence during these years? Why did Gordievsky apparently not know about Artuzov’s activities? (My anonymous intelligence colleague informs me that Gordievsky, as a political intelligence officer, would not have known anything about counter-intelligence operations.)

  1. Operation TARANTELLA

In April 2007, a story appeared in the Guardian newspaper (see: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2007/apr/03/russia.lukeharding) that described how, in 1946, Victor Bogomolets, a long-term spy for the British, recruited initially by Harold Gibson, had decided to betray his masters after being deprived of his British citizenship, and had approached the Soviets. As agent BRITT, he provided his new bosses with crucial information at the height of the Cold War. What is more, the report stated that the network of spies developed by Bogomolets within the Soviet Union were all fake, and that they supplied misinformation to the United Kingdom about the strength of the Soviet Union’s military and economic capabilities. This operation was known as TARANTELLA. Yet the story had a strange twist: Bogomolets had apparently stopped working for MI6 in 1934, when Soviet agents tried to lure him back to Moscow, but he had presumably declined, and escaped retribution, and had even resumed work for MI6 in 1944 in Portugal. That all sounded very odd.

The source for this story was a Soviet intelligence veteran, Major General Lev Sotskov, who had reportedly written a book based on newly accessed material in the Russian intelligence archives. He described Bogomolets as ‘a very big fish’, and was quoted as saying: “The only reason that the Russian émigré had not been identified before was that neither the British nor the Soviets had any incentive to unmask him.” Well, as I have shown, Bogomolets had been identified before, although perhaps not with the clarity that this disclosure claimed. But could it be trusted?

I believe the first English-language description of TARANTELLA came in 2015. That year, Professor Jonathan Haslam published a book titled Near and Distant Neighbours, subtitled A New History of Soviet Intelligence. It is rather a choppy compilation, and strewn with errors. (I had a rather difficult email exchange with Professor Haslam over his conflation of Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss into one person: he rather testily directed me to read his book more closely until I pointed out photographs of both illegals in Deadly Illusions, and he rather reluctantly conceded his error.) Yet his book also contains much fresh information, and Haslam displays an impressive familiarity with a host of arcane Soviet sources. Moreover, he has a complete sub-chapter (pp 49-53) on Operation TARANTELLA.

Haslam’s story runs as follows. After his success with the Trust, Artur Artuzov, the head of the OGPU’s International section (INO), in 1930 started a new operation to provide disinformation to British intelligence. OGPU had been tracking Victor Bogomolets, and his attempts to establish spies in the Soviet Union under Harold Gibson’s direction, for some time across Central Europe. Key to Artuzov’s plan was former tsarist general Boris Lago-Kolpakov, who had known Bogomolets since his Constantinople days. The narrative is irritatingly tangled at this point, but it seems that Lago (as I shall call him), after being recruited by the Cheka, was betrayed by Bogomolets when Lago turned up in Bucharest, and was imprisoned for several years. On his release Lago offered his services to MI6, who sent him to Vienna, yet the unprincipled trader reported to the Soviet Embassy for a full debriefing. Despite Lago’s disobeying OGPU’s instructions, and publishing memoirs in an émigré newspaper, Artuzov saw possibilities in exploiting Lago, and reinstated him. On his way to make contact with oppositional elements in Odessa, Lago briefed MI6 – on what, is not stated. On his return, he headed to Riga to brief Bogomolets and meet Gibson.

Boris Lago (A/243)

If this catalogue of hoodwinks and double-dealings fails to convince, there was more to come. In February 1934, Abram Slutsky, Artuzov’s deputy, working in the trade mission in Berlin, suggested recruiting Bogomolets to the cause. A young agent called Steinberg confronted Bogomolets with the fact that OGPU had been familiar with every operation with which Bogomolets had been involved. Game over, apparently. Yet Bogomolets resisted the blackmail, loyally told Gibson everything, and was rewarded for his pains by being sacked. Haslam, however, immediately abandons this aspect of the story, and leaves it hanging. He then switches into an account of the notorious Metro-Vickers trials (where British engineers were accused of sabotage), and abandons the whole TARANTELLA operation, and the reaction of Gibson and his bosses at MI6, as an irrelevance. Neither Gibson not Bogomolets has any later entry in the book.

It is difficult to know what to make of this. Haslam does not appear to have any strict methodology in his approach. His management of dates is haphazard. While the events described in the last paragraph are generally ascribed to West and Tsarev, and to Michael Smith (above), he offers no specific references for the sources for the critical encounters that he describes, while he otherwise appears to rely on two books in Russian by a Vadim Abramov, Evrei v KGB. Palachi i Zhertvy [Jews in the KGB: Executioners and Victims] (2005), and Kontrrazvedka. Shchit i mech protiv Abvera i Tsru. [Counterintelligence: The Shield and the Sword against the Abwehr and the CIA]. (2006) Yet, more bewilderingly, Haslam does not pay any attention to Sutskov’s book, which was published just the year after Abramov’s second title appeared, and would seem to present far more concrete evidence about Gibson’s embarrassing activities. He even failed to notice the press release that provoked the story in the Guardian in 2007. Since none of these books is easily available, or accessible to the common reader, one has to be very cautious before accepting this unlikely account of events as a reliable contribution to the development of solid intelligence historiography.

Moreover, the circumstances cry out for further analysis. If that is truly how Bogomolets reacted, one would have expected that he would have been killed by the Soviets, and that Gibson would have immediately closed down all his networks, and informed his bosses. Jeffery’s weaselly comment (in the passive voice) that Gibson and his networks may have been contaminated hints at this betrayal, but the historian utterly avoids explaining what the outcome was. The alarming possibility endures that MI6 was reluctant to give up Gibson – or his informers – completely, and his bosses may have tried to resuscitate his ‘network’ again when they thought the dust had settled. Yet the whole account clashes dramatically with the story promulgated by Sotskov, and picked up by the Guardian. Why would MI6 have picked up Bogomolets towards the end of WW2, and then deprived him of his UK citizenship?

Then, towards the end of this stage of research, a coldspur correspondent drew my attention to a remarkable article that had been published in Estonia in 1989. It essentially pre-played aspects of Haslam’s and Sotskov’s stories. Bogomolets had been an agent of the Russian rebel armies, but then had been recruited by Gibson in Turkey in 1921, and given large responsibilities for espionage against the Soviets throughout Europe. Boris Lago had a similar background, but in 1922, when in Prague, he applied to the Soviets for a visa to return home. They pressed him into performing espionage first, to prove his seriousness of purpose, but he proved to be too conspicuous in Prague and too inept in Berlin and Bucharest, in which latter city he was arrested and imprisoned in 1925, but released four years later.  Bogomolets then offered him a job with MI6, a transaction that Lago reported to the OGPU. They were not at first interested. Then a critical event occurred. After the kidnapping of General Kutepov in 1930, the General Union of Russian Soldiers (ROVS) in Paris decided they needed a propaganda coup, and set about to assassinate Stalin. Bogomolets was the man chosen for the job, and he engaged his new recruit, Lago, as one of his team. Lago again informed his real bosses, the OGPU.

It was then that Artuzov realized that they could exploit this provocation in a much-needed counter-offensive intelligence operation to convince the British that the Soviets should be taken seriously as a counter to growing Nazi strength. Operation TARANTELLA was conceived as a plan to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s military vigour. Lago travelled to Moscow in the guise of an Austrian businessman, and there was allowed to ‘recruit’ imaginary agents in the Moscow Party Committee, the National Economic Council (the location of Gibby’s Spy?), and other institutions, all of whom gave him valuable information to pass on. The British lapped it up. Stalin himself reportedly managed the whole deceit, and, after the murder of Kirov in 1934, ROVS abandoned the idea of assassinating the dictator, since Lago told the British that Stalin was now too closely guarded.

The same year, however, an NKVD agent called Matus Steinberg approached Bogomolets and suggested that he work for the Soviets. Bogomolets was outraged, told Gibson about the approach, and MI6 decided to end the Lago operation. They had learned enough: apparently Stalin had by now gained what he needed. (Though he may have been infuriated that his scheme was blown prematurely, and punished the guilty.) Lago was slowly withdrawn (so as not to arouse suspicion), and TARANTELLA was wound down. Whether Artuzov’s demise was connected with this event is unclear. Lago was apparently shot in the Purges, alongside Artuzov, The article states that Bogomolets stayed away from intelligence duties until 1945 ‘when he was still [??] recruited into Soviet intelligence’, and that the British turned to him in 1946. What Bogomolets had been up to, and for which agency he had been working, between 1934 and 1945, nevertheless remains a mystery.

Yet the fact that internal ‘secret documents’ were still being leaked in 1936-1937, and that they were being taken seriously by MI6, suggests that TARANTELLA had not in fact been wound down.

  1. Sotskov’ s ‘Operation Code – TARANTELLA’
Soltskov’s ‘Codename of Operation – ‘TARANTELLA”

What to make of all these vague and conflicting stories? I decided to acquire Sotskov’s book, published in 2007. It is a struggle to read – and not just because of my rather rusty familiarity with the language. As with all books in Russian that I have bought, it lacks an index, any endnotes or footnotes, and a bibliography. The squat Cyrillic characters do not lend themselves to rapid skimming. And yet it appears to offer some intriguing leads. It contains several photographs of Gibson and his contemporaries, including Bogomolets, Lago, Artuzov, Steinberg, and even Gibson’s second wife, Katerina Alfimova. It includes a photograph of a letter (partial envelope and handwritten text) from Gibson to Bogomolets, sent from London to Shepheard’s Hotel in Cairo on August 1946, and the contents of other letters are reproduced in the text. It also presents authentic-looking memoranda, as well as identity cards and diplomatic passes for some of the characters. It makes a strong claim that the Cheka/OGPU/NKVD/KGB had been keeping tabs on Gibson for thirty years, presumably from 1918 to 1948.

But can this book be trusted any more than those by Abramov which were issued shortly before his? The Introduction states that matters took a sharp turnaround at the end of World War II, when Bogomolets, after many years of impeccable service to his English masters, switched his allegiance to Soviet Intelligence. At that stage Operation TARANTELLA was closed down (i.e. not back in 1934), and Bogomolets assumed a new role as BRITT, a master of disinformation. Thus an immediate clash with the chronology and motivations described by Haslam in his interpretation of Abramov’s work appears. Moreover, among the more genuine-looking reproductions of correspondence and memoranda, the book includes some extended conversations between characters (such as Lago and Bogomolets) that must have been invented.

As I started to work my way through the text, it occurred to me that the narrative here might be just as unreliable as Abramov’s, so trustingly echoed by Haslam, and that engaging in a thorough translation might be an arduous yet futile exercise, as there was no reason why any assertions should be believed. I tried to contact Haslam again, to determine whether he was familiar with this alternative account, and how he interpreted it. Unfortunately, the email address I had was no longer valid, and my inquiries to Corpus Christi College, Cambridge, and the Institute for Advanced Study in Princeton (from which he recently retired) have remained unanswered. This project definitely demands an acknowledged expert in intelligence matters with a good command of the Russian language to take control, and Haslam would appear to be the best fit. (I have since written a traditional letter to Professor Haslam at his home address in Princeton, but he has declined to acknowledge, let alone respond to, my communication.)

Pending an eventual response, I set about translating some of the most obvious artifacts in the case – three letters sent by Gibson to Bogomolets in the summer of 1946. Yet, even here, disturbing questions arise. The letter photographed has clearly been sent by airmail from London, dated August 31, 1946, yet the corresponding letter reproduced in the text (which matches the manuscript visible in the photograph) indicates it was written in Prague. Perhaps this was a standard practice, to avoid the censor by putting a letter in the diplomatic bag, and having it re-sent from London. In any case, Bogomolets must have been expecting such a procedure.

As a coda, in June 2022 General Sotskov was found dead in his apartment in Moscow, apparently a suicide by gunshot.

  1. The Gibson-Bogomolets Letters

Here is my translation of the three letters:

No 1: British Embassy, Prague, July 10, 1946.

Dear Victor Vasilevich!

Forgive me for not replying earlier to your letter of June 4th, but I have been away for a whole month, and only found it on my return. I was in London, and asked about you several times. I was told that you were already in Paris, and someone even added that he had seen you in London. I am thus very puzzled over what could have happened with your visa for France, and what led to the rumours about your departure from Egypt. I immediately wrote to London, asking for matters to be accelerated, and hope that my request will be satisfied.

I was very saddened to learn that your health has deteriorated, and offer you hearty wishes for recovery, but the most important thing is that you get out of Egypt soon, as its climate clearly does not suit you.

If, before the arrival of my letter, your question still remains unanswered, then ask me again to make contact, and I shall gain a response for you. I consider it a moral obligation to help you, and therefore please do not apologize for any trouble caused.

My wife is still very ill: that is very distressing for me. But at least she is with me now, which is some consolation after the separation during wartime.

My heartfelt regards to you and yours,

Your Gibson.

No 2: Prague, July 28, 1946

Dear Victor Vasilevich!

I only just received your letter of the 18th. I very much hope that my intervention had the proper effect. Do not thank me prematurely: I just do what friendship and morality require. I understand your situation very well, and very much want to think that you will return to Paris to begin a new life and repair your health. I myself was in Paris a few weeks ago. Judging by my impressions, I fear you will find that much has changed for the worse there. Whatever we do, it is clear that it is our fate to live in a difficult world. Interesting but uneasy times.

Regards to you and your family. I thank you for your good wishes.

Your Harold Gibson.

No 3: Prague, August 27, 1946

Dear Victor Vasilievich!

I received your letter of the 20th yesterday and I am very chagrined by the fact that your affairs have become deadlocked. I shall now apply pressure through my personal connections in Paris. It is truly shocking that you and your family should have to undergo such obstacles. Yet all these things are now sent to try us – for example, I struggled for a year to obtain the freedom of my wife’s mother from one of our officials from a camp in the Soviet zone – an Austrian one. An elderly lady, whose only crime was that she happened to be of Russian origin.

I shall try to achieve all I can for you, because I feel every sympathy for you in your misfortune; indeed, besides that, I feel a moral duty in this matter. Continue to keep me informed.

There have been no special changes with me. My wife is still very sick, which causes me so much heartache.

With warm regards

Your Gibson.

I would draw three major conclusions from these letters, which appear genuine:

  • It is clear that Gibson feels that he has severely let down Bogomolets, and owes him some reparation for previous treatment. Bogomolets has probably been rendered stateless. This is dangerously sentimental behaviour on Gibson’s part, as he should have been on his guard, knowing how the OGPU/NKVD acted. He should have asked himself how Bogomolets had survived.
  • Gibson is not acting alone. He confers with his superiors in London, and uses them as an intermediary to send letters securely to Cairo. Thus it is safe to conclude that bringing Bogomolets back into the fold, and helping him and his family, was approved at higher levels.
  • The Soviet hook of threatening a family member is evident. Gibson’s mother-in-law has been stranded in Austria, and Bogomolets can presumably assist in her extraction. It is poignant that Gibson’s wife, Rachel Kalmanoviecz, is ill: she died the following year, and Gibson married his ballet-dancer friend, whom he had known for several years during the time that he and Rachel were separated, in 1948. Heaven forfend that Gibson assisted in his wife’s demise in any way. (While Keith Ellison has pointed out that, if Gibson’s first wife was separated from him during the war, it is unlikely that she would have had access to his diaries in 1941, I would counter that Gibson wrote ‘during the war’, and that, for the Soviets, the war did not start until 1941, anyway. 1941 was the year in which Gibson met Alfimova, his second wife.)

Might these tribulations have contributed to Gibson’s death in Rome in 1960? Perhaps he discovered how he himself had been betrayed, and realized the suffering he had caused in Prague, especially concerning the execution of his close ally, Heliodor Pika. Or perhaps he had been tracked down by the KGB, and punished for breaking whatever agreement he had with them, or simply because he had been an ardent ‘enemy of the people’.

I shall place these issues on the back-burner for now, hoping to receive a swell of insights from coldspur readers, and perhaps a communication from Professor Haslam.

Overall Conclusions

The anecdote of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ is an example of the saying (often wrongly attributed to Mark Twain) that ‘a lie can travel halfway round the world before the truth has got its boots on’. A mischievous aside from an MI6 officer (Dick White?) to Chapman Pincher was picked up by John Costello and exploited by Peter Wright before being endorsed by Nigel West. (According to West, Gibby’s agent in Moscow was the officer’s only worthwhile spy, and, if that theory falls apart, it does not leave the legend with much of a track-record.) Neither Tsarev nor Mitrokhin nor Vassiliev nor Gordievsky has ever referred to such a spy in the Kremlin. Christopher Andrew has not yet (so far as I know) brought his authority to the story, but this embarrassing item of disinformation has established itself well into the lore of intelligence. It is, nevertheless, obviously a myth. The British intelligence-reading public has been badly served by the academic historians (Jeffery and Haslam), the airport-bookstall historians (Pincher, Costello and West), and the MI5 fabulist (Wright).

If information was leaked from the Politburo to western eyes, as showed by the Imperial Council report, it was probably performed as an exercise in managed disinformation, and the project was apparently concealed from Slutsky and his underlings until 1937, even though he had reportedly been exposed to Bogomolets a few years earlier. The mechanism by which this information was passed to the recipients is unclear, but the Soviet agencies presumably used the courier system on which Gibson and others were relying on for their sources in the Soviet Union. MI6 believed in the success of their agents, and the NKVD was happy to reinforce the charade. The authorized history of MI6 gives the impression that the network of MI6 agents within the USSR was regarded as completely genuine.

MI6 and MI5 are surely concealing files on Harold Gibson that would reveal far more than they have let be published about this very controversial character. It is scandalous that Keith Jeffery’s authorized history of MI6 should step so awkwardly around the details of his career, in the belief, no doubt, that nothing would surface from inside Russia to embarrass them. There is a darker story to be told, no doubt, about the undermining of democratic tendencies in post-war Czechoslovakia, and the Soviet Union’s resolve to install, through the agency of the KGB, a sympathetic Communist government in Prague. MI6’s continued deployment of Gibson, even though they knew that his identity and role had been blown, was a classic error of judgment. (It is startling that the caption to one of the photographs of Gibson from Sutskov’s book asserts quite boldly that he had been watched by Soviet Foreign Intelligence for thirty years.) But how do you superannuate a competent senior officer with an apparently solid track-record?

A fresh examination of MI6 and the ‘Russian Connection’ is called for. MI5 opened a file on Gibson, and questioned his loyalties. His brother Archibald was also an MI6 officer. The Bolsheviks had a grievance against Malcolm Maclaren. Paul Dukes behaved very oddly later in life, and tried to cozy up to the Soviets. Harry Carr was born in Archangel in 1899, and returned to Russia in 1919 as an interpreter for General Ironside. Stephen Alley was a pal of Stalin’s, and was considered for a while as being ‘ELLI’. George Graham was a victim of a honey-trap, and went mad. George Hill was clearly rotten through and through, and Len Manderstam thought he was an agent of the NKVD. Manderstam himself had fought for Trotsky, and narrowly escaped execution in the Lubianka. Even Wilfred (‘Biffy’) Dunderdale, who crops up so frequently in histories of MI6 and SOE, had been born in Odessa of a Russian mother, and thus may have been subject to subornment. Charles Ellis had a White Russian wife, mixed with the White Russian community in Paris, and was suspected by MI6 of having been blackmailed by the KGB after the war. Isaiah Berlin held irregular meetings with Gorsky, the handler of the Cambridge Spies. Nigel West has written about Steveni and Sulakov. Anyone who had family in the Soviet Union was prey. This one will run and run.

The official SVR and other stories about TARANTELLA cannot automatically be trusted, given the lack of rigour in publications in the Russian language. It could perhaps be a gigantic hoax, designed by the SVR (Sluzhba Vneshney Razvedki: Foreign Intelligence Service) to boost its reputation. Several aspects of the case cast doubts: i) the bizarre notion that the discovery of a plot to kill Stalin triggered the counter-intelligence exercise; ii) the claim that the purpose of TARANTELLA was to convince the British of the Soviet Union’s economic power, which goal could have been reached by means of conventional propaganda; iii) the lack of original archival records; and iv) the fact that details about the operation were not revealed by Russian sources until 2005. Yet the overwhelming evidence of the Estonian report of 1989 citing TARANTELLA indicates that it was a genuine Soviet-era operation, probably one managed tightly by Stalin without the knowledge of the Russian Intelligence Services. (Yezhov’s apparent ignorance of a disinformation exercise, as revealed by Krivitsky, would confirm that theory.) The notion that the codename TARANTELLA was deployed as a retroactive flowery way of dressing up some conventional counter-intelligence projects is thus flawed.

Yet the dominant lesson teaches about Soviet professionalism and British amateurishness. The Soviets had a deep, long-term strategy of penetrating British institutions. They sent in ‘illegals’ who blended easily into the refugee/émigré world of western Europe/Britain. They selected agents before they had any stature or access to intelligence, and directed their careers into important institutions. Agents had to be approved by Moscow before being recruited. They were not supposed to mix socially (but of course they did). After the demise of the Great Illegals, they were handed off to professional intelligence officers, but, by then, their cover was so good, that it didn’t matter. Their cause was helped by the useful idiots and agents of influence.

And MI6? It was led in central Europe by the rather naive Harold Gibson, an overt enemy of the revolution, on whom the Soviets kept their sights for thirty years. (Philby informed his masters of MI6’s set-up, but that would not have occurred until 1942.) The notion of ‘illegals’ in Central Europe would have been absurd. Gibson was presumably supposed to handle agents himself, but delegated it to a dubious character whom he trailed round Europe with him, and to the charmer Roman Sulakov. It is doubtful whether either person had proper training. Nelidov thought he was employed by MI6: MI6 then denied that. Bogomolets was probably bogus from the start. How were agents selected? If they volunteered their services to you, that was a warning sign. Gibson and his superiors appeared to have no discipline in the process. Tim Bower (in The Red Web) and Stephen Dorrill (in MI6) have described MI6’s agent recruitment between the wars as ‘amateurish’. During the war, Gibson did not keep a low profile, but mixed socially and visibly with the Czech government-in-exile. Most of the Great Illegals were murdered on Stalin’s orders: Gibby became a ‘legend’.

In any case, enough evidence indeed exists (primarily in the Gibson dossier) to indicate that a concerted effort to exploit the frailties of British intelligence was successful in Eastern Europe from the early 1920s onwards, and continued past the well-documented TRUST operation. The fact that the myth of ‘Gibby’s Spy’ has endured so long suggests that MI6 was well and truly taken in to believe that it had effective spies working from inside the Soviet Union, and even inside the Kremlin. What exactly happened with Bogomolets remains to be determined. This must represent a significant opportunity for further research, with the inherent conflicts in the accounts of Abramov and Sotskov to be resolved. TARANTELLA should come out into the open.

(I thank Keith Ellison, and another coldspur colleague who wishes to remain anonymous, for their comments on an earlier draft of this article. The opinions in it are my own, and any errors in it are my own responsibility.)

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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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The Demise of PROSPER

Major Francis Suttill, aka ‘Prosper’
  • The Story So Far
  • Morgan and Operation COCKADE
  • COCKADE and the Historians
  • Prosper’s Torment
  • Betrayal
  • The Dangle
  • SOE’s Strategy & The Chiefs of Staff
  • The Aftermath, and Conclusions

The Story So Far

(see also http://www.coldspur.com/bridgehead-revisited-three-months-in-1943/ and http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/)

The French operations of SOE in the first half of 1943 have been beset by confusion and contradictory instructions. The Chiefs of Staff have dithered between acknowledging that a serious assault on Normandy cannot take place until 1944, while maintaining vain hopes that some minimal attack may be made in later in 1943, if only to distract German forces from the Russian front. Winston Churchill has continued to promote the cause of striking a bridgehead in Normandy. Both British and American Chiefs of Staff have lost focus on what SOE should be doing to support these muddled policies. SOE itself has received new orders which reduce France to a lesser priority than Yugoslavia and Italy, and emphasize sabotage rather than providing weapons to secret armies. Yet in the first few months of 1943, the parachuting in of weaponry to potential guerrilla forces in France has increased markedly, even while SOE officers are being warned that the important PROSPER circuit has been infiltrated by Abwehr spies. These officers are also aware that Henri Déricourt, an organizer of landing-sites in France, has been in touch with Sicherheitsdienst officers in Paris. Lt.-General Frederick Morgan, aka COSSAC (Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander, this Commander in fact not yet having been appointed), has received bizarre instructions from the Chiefs of Staff, and has started planning diversionary campaigns for Northern Europe, under the umbrella codename of COCKADE. Francis Suttill, the leader of the PROSPER circuit, makes two visits to Britain, the first at the end of May, and a second shorter one in early June. The guidance and instructions that he receives during these two visits will turn out to have tragic consequences.

In this report, I address the following research questions:

  • In what manner was the proposal for COCKADE approved?
  • What effect did its approval have on Suttill’s behaviour and eventual demise?
  • Why were the infiltrated circuits not closed down immediately German infiltration had been detected?
  • How did the decision affect SOE? Why did arms shipments to France continue to increase after the 1943 assault was called off?
  • What did the Chiefs of Staff know about the LCS/SOE rogue deception plan?

And the overarching question remains: Why has the Foreign Office behaved so obstructively in withholding information about the PROSPER case?

Morgan and Operation COCKADE

The TRIDENT Conference

While discussions between John Bevan, the Controlling Officer, and the Joint Planning Staff had been going on for some weeks, on June 3 Lt.-General Morgan completed his draft of Operation COCKADE, the deception scheme designed with a view ‘to pinning the enemy in the West, and keeping alive the expectation of large-scale cross-Channel operations in 1943’. General L. C. Hollis circulated it to the Chiefs of Staff two days later, this group having just returned from the TRIDENT conferences in Washington, D.C.  COCKADE itself consisted of three subsidiary operations, STARKEY, WADHAM and TINDALL, all of which were designed to culminate in September of 1943. STARKEY is the most relevant to this story: WADHAM was entirely a deceptive operation designed to convince the Germans of an American landing in Brittany in September, while TINDALL represented a distraction in Norway. It is thus worth reproducing STARKEY’s description here:

            An amphibious feint to force the GAF [German Air Force] to engage in intensive fighting over a period of about 14 days, by building up a threat of an imminent large-scale landing in the PAS DE CALAIS area. The culminating date should be between 8th and 14th September.

The first startling aspect of STARKEY was that it involved some real assaults, not just rumours. Morgan’s instructions had specifically called for the German Air Force to be brought into battle. Yet such ‘feints’ designed to engage the G.A.F. (‘intensive fighting’) were necessarily dangerous, since, if the latter responded to the bait, lives might have been lost, and the political backlash when the attack turned out to be half-hearted could have been disastrous. (Morgan drew attention to such ‘undesirable repercussions’ in the last paragraph of his submission, but recommended that considerations of them not influence the decision.)  The second important dimension was the location of the threatened large-scale landing, namely in the Pas de Calais area, away from the coasts of Normandy where the 1944 entry would take place, but on a heavily-defended area where the German response would be expected to be very robust.

Operation STARKEY

The proposal for STARKEY is very odd. Its objective is implicitly declared to be ‘to present a realistic picture of an imminent large-scale landing’. Morgan’s reasoning seems to be that the German Air Force would be brought to battle only ‘by the threat of an imminent invasion of the Continent’, since its forces were severely depleted. “To give our fighters the greatest advantage the threat must be mounted against the PAS DE CALAIS”, he added. Yet, since that area was so strongly defended, the operation would require heavy involvement of the Royal Navy, the RAF, as well as the US 8th Air Force, and would constitute a diversion from strategic heavy bombing efforts. Why would those forces commit so readily to something that was only a feint? If the objective had been to destroy what remained of the GAF, and it were accompanied by a high degree of confidence, Morgan’s plan might have received vigorous enthusiasm from his military colleagues. Yet he bizarrely refers merely to the chance of succeeding ‘to draw the GAF’, and that ‘14 days intensive fighting is probably the maximum that we can reasonably maintain’. Was Morgan recommending an air battle that the Allies could well lose, or was he just rather casually indicating that the threat of invasion would not be taken seriously without such a provocation?

Apart from the fact that the feint itself was an illusion, as it did include a real desire to engage the enemy, the focus on the Pas de Calais was itself very risky. Morgan himself admitted that it was a very well-defended region. Would the Germans take hints of an attack in that area seriously?  It should be recalled that they had successfully obliterated the Dieppe Raid the previous year. Yet the overall desire ‘to keep the enemy pinned throughout the summer’, as Morgan later qualified the objective, thus hoping to improve the chances of the advance on Sicily, and providing help to Stalin in the East, dominated the plan. After all, these were the express instructions issued by the Chiefs of Staff back on April 26. Moreover, part of it mysteriously suggested that, should the GAF be beaten and a rapid seizure of the Pas de Calais achieved, that would signal a possible ‘complete German collapse or withdrawal’.

Yet this naïve thinking about targets constituted a fatal flaw. The detailed text of the COCKADE plan included some puzzling sentences concerning the choice of the Pas de Calais. Having explained how heavily fortified the area was, and the most strongly defended, Morgan described the level of bombardment that would be required ‘over a limited period’ (a very unmilitary, evasive and indefinite bureaucratic phrase) to give the impression that a large-scale landing was imminent. But then, amazingly, Morgan went on to write:

            Port capacities in the PAS DE CALAIS are insufficient, even when undamaged, to supply a force of more than about nine divisions. We cannot therefore expect the GERMANS seriously to believe that invasion of the Continent is intended if we leave our deception plan to this area, and certainly we shall not contain all his reserves, if they are badly wanted elsewhere. At the same time the paucity of landing craft (actual or dummy) available in this country . . . . will make it clear to him that simultaneous cross-Channel operations in more than one sector are not feasible. We must therefore lead him to suppose that a major part of our plan is a long sea voyage ship to shore operation partly from this country but mainly from the USA.

Surprisingly, given the short timetable involved, the minutes of the War Cabinet show no further discussion of COCKADE for a while. Indeed, on June 17, Morgan moved on to the real and authentic 1944 Operation, apologizing to the Chiefs of Staff for the delay in submitting his initial plans for OVERLORD, and added they would be available on July 15. The next reference to COCKADE appears in a note by General Hollis on June 23, where he presents a response from Lieutenant General Jacob L. Devers of the US Army, and Commanding General of ETOUSA (European Theater of Operations, United States Army), in which Devers agrees generally with the conclusions of the Chiefs of Staff Committee meeting of June 21 concerning COCKADE. Then, rather incidentally, the matter of COCKADE is brought to the Prime Minister’s attention by General Hollis on June 23, where we learn obliquely that the War Cabinet has approved the operation. (Churchill would of course have been briefed on the plan before the War Cabinet set eyes on it. The official minutes for the meeting at which the approval was made do not appear in the official series.) It is in fact Louis Mountbatten, Chief of Combined Operations, who is responding to Churchill’s request for information on raids (Mountbatten’s bailiwick), whereupon Mountbatten refers to concurrent raids being undertaken as part of COCKADE. Thus the fact of the War Cabinet’s decision on COCKADE appears only as Annex 2 to Mountbatten’s note.

Yet valuable details about the negotiations can be found elsewhere. It is in the War Office archives (WO 106/4223) where a fuller account of some of the discussions that took place earlier in the month appears, and some highly important observations are evident. For example, as early as April 29, Sir Alan Brooke had voiced his disagreement that the news of the setting up of expeditionary forces ‘should be allowed to leak out through the channels at the disposal of the Controlling Officer’. Yet that recommendation does not appear in the report as listed, and must have derived from discussions. This cryptic statement presumably means that he disapproved of a policy of using ‘double agents’ through Bevan’s TWIST committee, although he did not explain why he was sceptical about that channel, nor did he offer an alternative.

Admiral of the Fleet Dudley Pound

A discussion took place at the Chiefs’ meeting on June 8, just after the return from Washington, when it was resolved to discuss the plan with Morgan while the Joint Planning Staff performed its detailed analysis, and then to meet with Morgan again. Morgan started off by stating that it might be difficult to bring the GAF into battle, and that ‘in order to provide a sufficiently convincing display of force, that battleships for bombarding the German coast artillery had been included for use in the later stage of the plan’. This worried Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, the First Sea Lord, who urged ‘very careful considerations’ before the employment of battleships in the Channel could be sanctioned. Likewise, Sir Charles Portal, Chief of the Air Staff, could not agree to a major diversion of bombers to meet Morgan’s requirements.

Air Marshall Charles Portal

Later, a discussion concerning, rather archly, ‘Control of Patriot Organisations’, followed. The meeting recognized the importance of preventing premature risings in the occupied countries ‘and it was generally agreed [not unanimously?] that all patriot organisations must be warned that there must be no general rising without our definite instructions.’ Morgan was invited to consult with S.O.E. on this matter. On these, and other topics (such as the shortage of landing-craft) the Joint Planning Staff was instructed to report.

Further doubts surfaced the following day. A significant commentary – presented anonymously, from the War Office – appears, dated June 9. The note encourages the more detailed analysis being performed by the Joint Planning Staff, but ‘ventilates’ for the preliminary discussion the following two important points: 

            Air Battle: One of the main advantages, which it is hoped to attain is a profitable air battle. Is the Chief of Staff convinced that we can be sure of obtaining this advantage?

            Political Repercussions: We shall eventually find ourselves in a position where German propaganda can represent that an attempted invasion has been repelled. Premature rising by Resistance Groups on the Continent may be difficult to avoid and their action might be detrimental to success on a later occasion.

Having received an individual invitation to do so, John Bevan, Controlling Officer of the London Controlling Section, responded to Morgan’s plan, and his memorandum was presented to the Chiefs of Staff on June 11. His opinions were strangely meek and uncritical, but then he was after all the architect of the plans, since their conception had antedated Morgan’s appointment. He appeared to approve of STARKEY and WADHAM, but pointed out that the Germans were unlikely to believe that the Allies could carry off three such operations simultaneously in September. His comments were mainly directed at TINDALL, and the chances of the Germans transferring forces hardened by cold weather to the Russian front. He completed his report by suggesting that, after the operation had been called off, it should be described as a ‘dress rehearsal’ rather than a feint, in order to protect ‘secret sources’, presumably the network of ‘double agents’ passing on intelligence about the operation to their Abwehr controllers. In his diaries, Alan Brooke records that Morgan came to see him on June 17 ‘to discuss various minor difficulties he has come up against’. What they were is not said, but Bevan presumably wanted Brooke on his side at the coming meeting.

The Chiefs of Staff took note of Bevan’s memorandum, but accepted his recommendation about publicity. In any case, on June 21, the Joint Planning Staff (JPS) issued its comprehensive Draft Report. In its introduction, it somewhat surprisingly expressed confidence in the plan’s conception, but added, rather weakly, the opinion that it ‘should succeed in pinning German forces in the west’, and that ‘it may also provoke an air battle and will provide most valuable experience’. It moved quickly over WADHAM and TINDALL and focused on STARKEY, where it boldly pointed out that:

11. The object of the plan, as stated, is to convince the enemy that a large scale landing in the Pas de Calais area is imminent and to bring the German Air Force to battle,

12. There is no intention of converting STARKEY into an actual landing if sudden German disintegration appears to be imminent. Entirely separate plans are being made for the possibility of an emergency return to the Continent.

The planning of Operation STARKEY is accordingly being limited to purely deceptive measures involving no plans for a re-entry to the Continent.

These were very significant reminders to the Chiefs of the Casablanca resolutions, and the seriousness with which they were taken is shown by the fact that the recommendation of ‘should therefore’ in the printed text has been emended to ‘is accordingly being’ in manuscript, reflecting that the Chiefs had endorsed this particular observation.

The JPS also highlighted the political repercussions, and, in consequence, a vital paragraph soon appeared in the protocols, running as follows:

            The reactions to these operations of the inhabitants of the occupied territories will require to be controlled by the issue in advance of the most careful directions. The Political Warfare and Special Operations Executives have therefore been instructed to prepare detailed plans setting out the measures which should be adopted in order to prevent any premature rising by the patriot armies.

This is also a very important statement. While the plan had explicitly excluded any role for ‘patriot armies’ in the STARKEY operation, the JPS implicitly ordains that SOE agents should in no manner encourage French resistance members to expect or support any invasion in 1943. (Given the confirmed policy that invasion could not occur until summer 1944, ‘premature’ presumably meant any time before then.) As far as the build-up of arms, and exhortations over the wireless were concerned, however, all this well-intended foresight was too little, too late, and appears to have been expressed in complete ignorance of what was happening on the ground. In France, many ‘patriot armies’ had been supplied, and were eagerly expecting the invasion.

The War Office records include the minutes of the decisive meeting that took place on June 21. There were several caveats: Mountbatten agreed with Pound on the battleship issue; Portal appeared to have succumbed half-heartedly to the demand for bomber support; Brooke raised an important point about the repercussions from bombing targets in France, and possible civilian deaths. Some awkward questions were deferred, but the plans were essentially approved.

The argument behind the whole COCKADE plan thus appeared to be:

  1. We shall launch an unserious attack on the Pas de Calais.
  2. We hope to engage the GAF, but have a slim chance of destroying it.
  3. The Pas de Calais is the best defended area of the French coastline.
  4. The area is not large enough to support an invasion-capable force.
  5. The Germans will not take this attack seriously.
  6. We hope to supplement the air attack with bombardments by battleships (if the Royal Navy agrees).
  7. We are, however, not confident that a presence of battleships will be useful.
  8. We shall thus pretend to launch an assault on Normandy as well, with an even flimsier feint.
  9. We shall augment this with the pretence of the unlikely arrival of a fleet from the USA.
  10. In this way the Germans will be convinced that a massive assault is imminent.

It does not take the brain of a military strategist to conclude that this was an absurd proposition. Why on earth would the Germans be taken in by it, especially as Allied forces were amassed in the Mediterranean in preparation for an assault on Sicily or the Balkans? Was German intelligence so bad that the Wehrmacht would take seriously the threat of a major assault across the Channel as well? Even on August 7, the Chiefs of Staff were discussing what reduction of German forces would be necessary to make a 1944 cross-Channel operation possible. Moreover, Churchill, responding to Stalin’s querulous complaint about the further deferral of the assault, wrote to him on June 18 about the futility of wasting vast numbers of military personnel:

            It would be no help to Russia if we threw away a hundred thousand men in a disastrous cross-Channel attack such as would, in my opinion, certainly occur if we tried under present conditions and with forces too weak to exploit any success that might be gained at very heavy cost.

That opinion should have put the kibosh on any notion of exploiting ‘German disintegration’.

What is more, the COCKADE plan is evasive and uncomfortable about the use of propaganda, misinformation and leakage to abet the project, especially when it relates to SOE and MI6 networks in France. Yet, at the time they considered the COCKADE plan, the Chiefs of Staff must have known about the recent increase in shipments of arms to France, and the campaigns already organized by the PWE to encourage the notion of an imminent invasion. If that activity ceased, the Nazis would conclude that the military movements were indeed a sham. But if they continued, in order to bolster the credibility of the feint, the Germans would take a very serious interest in infiltrating the networks in an effort to learn more about the date and place of the opening of the ‘Second Front’. That outcome could only be disastrous – in various ways. Therein lay the extreme moral dilemma: deceptions can exploit ambiguity about the location of a surprise attack, but they cannot dice with the actual existence or nonexistence of such events.

And the outcome of the assault could also have been catastrophic. What were the chances of success of any bridgehead, if substantial German forces were maintained in France (hardly ‘pinned’, it should be stated)? The continued presence of such strength was, after all, the objective of the Allies, and the outcome might be that a weakly supported bridgehead would have to face a vigorous backlash, and probably be destroyed or expelled. As further evidence of muddled thinking, just a week before, at the TRIDENT Conference in Washington, Sir Alan Brooke, in apparent defiance of CASABLANCA resolutions, had enigmatically stated that the ‘dispersal of German forces is just what we require for a cross-channel operation and we should do everything in our power to aggravate it’ – exactly the opposite of what was then planned. Strategic thinking was all over the place: it was a mess.

About this time the whole flimsy infrastructure fell apart. On June 24 Francis Suttill (Prosper) was arrested in Paris, and soon afterwards, he and Gilbert Norman, in a sad effort to save lives (but not their own), encouraged their networks to reveal where their weapons, smuggled in by SOE, were hidden.

COCKADE and the Historians

The coverage of the early days of COCKADE by the prominent historians has been spotty. Michael Howard, in Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, records the drawing up of COCKADE plans, but leaves its timing (June 3) to an Endnote. He then haphazardly goes on to describe how resources (‘double agents’ of B1A) were enlisted to communicate aspects of COCKADE: “From the beginning of May, a stream of messages passed through more than a dozen sources, reporting rumours, government announcements and regulations and observed troop movements.” That is a clumsy and obvious anachronism: such events may well have been going on, but they were in support of other initiatives (or put in process by premature anticipation of COCKADE, as I showed in my analysis of XX Committee minutes), and not activated as a formal response to an inchoate and unapproved COCKADE. Howard then swiftly moves on to the preparations for late summer, and reports how the Germans did not rise to the bait, the OKW failing to be deceived as to Allied intentions. Nevertheless, he relates how von Rundstedt, Commander-in-Chief West, anxiously watched air-drops to resistance movements in France. That was on August 31, however, when the mop-up of the PROSPER network had been under way for some time. Even when STARKEY had been called off, von Rundstedt reputedly feared a major landing as late as November 1943. Yet no forces were transferred to prepare for any such threat. In fact, the opposite occurred.

Roger Hesketh’s’ Fortitude’

In his insider history of FORTITUDE, Roger Hesketh gives scant attention to COCKADE. He dubs STARKEY an obvious failure, as it did not succeed in engaging the German Air Force. Moreover, he points out the fallacies in drawing the enemy’s attention to its most sensitive spot – the Pas de Calais. He drily added: “To conduct and publicise a large-scale exercise against an objective that one really intended to attack during the following year would hardly suggest a convincing grasp of the principle of surprise.” In Operation Fortitude, Joshua Levine likewise classifies COCKADE as a failure, but submits that the exercise offered useful experience for the double-cross system, and, rather weakly, that it gave the planners ‘the opportunity to consider the logistics of a cross-channel operation in advance of OVERLORD’. On the other hand, the only mention of COCKADE or STARKEY in M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France is an (unindexed) amendment he made in 2004, when he had to concede that SOE agents were exceptionally used for purposes of deception in the promotion of STARKEY. This is a very telling addition that Foot slipped past the Foreign Office censors.

Anthony Cave-Brown

It was Anthony Cave-Brown, in his monumental Bodyguard of Lies, who actually moved closest to the truth, although his rather chaotic approach to chronology and his tendency to add irrelevant detail subtract from the clarity of his thesis. As with the other authors, he mixes up pre-COCKADE planning with the events in July and August. Using American archival sources that came to light in 1972, however, he is able to show that SOE agents were used in July and August, right through to the conclusion of STARKEY on September 9, 1943, to mislead the French patriot armies about the imminent invasion – a probable source for Foot’s amendment. In this way he is able to counter the claim that Bevan’s wartime deputy Sir Ronald Wingate made in 1969 that there was no connection between the LCS and SOE. The tension is clear: the Foreign Office wanted to bury the notion that SOE had been acting contrary to official policy, but the facts had come out.

Moreover, Cave-Brown lists the exploitation of the media that occurred, mainly in August 1943, to project the certainty of a coming invasion. The United Press put out a bulletin that informed the world of a move by the Allies in Italy and France ‘within the next month’, and even the BBC, on August 17, broadcast an ambiguous message that must have been interpreted by Frenchmen and Frenchwomen to mean that they should prepare for the imminent assault. As Cave-Brown writes: “The Associated Press and Reuters picked up this broadcast and made it world news.” All this activity by SOE and the Political Warfare Executive (PWE) caused major concerns for Bevan and his team at the LCS. Such efforts were of course in defiance of the careful edict issued by the Chiefs of Staff about avoiding premature action by patriot forces. Matters were out of control.

Cave-Brown also points out that COCKADE was a failure because Hitler was convinced that the Allies were bluffing, and actually withdrew over two-thirds of his army from the West.

            Between April and December 1943, a total of twenty-seven divisions of the thirty-six in the western command were pulled out for service in Russia, Sicily, Italy and the Balkans – a compliment to A-Force’s Zeppelin operations on the Mediterranean at the expense of LCS’s Cockade operations in London.

Thus the aims of COCKADE were directly confounded by the clumsiness of the plan. Moreover, the withdrawal of these German divisions could ironically have allowed the Allies (in Cave-Brown’s opinion) to have ‘walked ashore’ in Brittany in the summer of 1943, virtually unopposed – a theory that demanded analysis in depth elsewhere. For example, Walter Scott Dunn, in Second Front Now, was one who claimed that the reduction in strength of the German Western Army in the autumn of 1943 could have permitted an Allied assault to take place if the Combined Chiefs of Staff had taken the possibility seriously.

Yet Cave-Brown massively mixes up the timetable when he moves to Prosper’s arrest, the subsequent mopping up of his networks, and the confiscation of arms, making the same mistake that others have made – that the events leading to the betrayal of Prosper were part of the COCKADE/STARKEY deception plan. As he writes (p 338: his sources are not identified, and the details are unreliable):

            Moreover, the SOE/PWE plan for Starkey made provision for deliberately misinforming F section agents in the field; even before that plan had been approved by the Chiefs of Staff and become fully operational in mid-July 1943, certain key F section agents were flown to London for “invasion” briefings, and others sent to France with instructions to carry out “pre-invasion” activities. They were to be informed, at the proper moment, that Starkey was only a rehearsal; but by then, for some of them – including Prosper – it would be too late.

While it is true that John Bevan, in early May, collaborated with Morgan on the first drafts of the COCKADE plan (as I reported in April), Bevan exploited the presence of a real (but insubstantial) attack on the Pas de Calais planned for September as an arrow in the quiver of the rogue operation that was already under way with Prosper’s network.

What everyone failed to note was that, when Suttill arrived in London in May for his briefings, the notion of an invasion in the summer of 1943 was still boiling in some quarters – and that excited him. But when he came back for the express meetings in early June, after Churchill’s return, and when Morgan had just prepared his COCKADE plans, Suttill learned how matters had changed. He was either told the truth, namely that the new programme involved a massive feint, and that he was being asked to support that activity by continuing to ready his circuits for something that had to be described as real, or he was deceived into thinking that an invasion was still on the cards, but had been deferred until September. It was almost certainly the latter, as if the authorities had set out to manipulate him and his circuits, they would not want to run the risk of his undermining the whole project. And, if they had the nurtured the evil objective of having Suttill reveal the date only under torture, the extraction of the truth under pressure would have been even more convincing. What they probably told him was thus not a total lie. In any case, he was devastated.

Prosper’s Torment

As I described in my April posting (http://www.coldspur.com/feints-and-deception-two-more-months-in-1943/) , the various accounts of Francis Suttill’s reactions to what he was told in London are all flawed because they deal inconclusively with the contradictions in his arrival and departure dates. (I presented then an original theory that Suttill made two visits to the UK, in late May and early June, a hypothesis that neatly resolves all the contradictions in the various accounts.) Thus all the hints and attributions that appear in the works of Foot, Fuller, Marshall, Cookridge, Suttill and Marnham have to be re-interpreted in the light of Visit 1 (where Suttill is encouraged to believe that a real assault is imminent) and of Visit 2 (where he is made aware of the COCKADE plan that refers to some form of attack in September, and learns of the need to restrain his forces until then).

For example: When Cookridge writes that “Suttill had also arranged at Baker Street for the pace of arms and explosive deliveries to be stepped up” (not that that was in his power), it indicates clearly that the meetings must have occurred at the end of May, when Suttill’s enthusiasm was bolstered by the increased activity, and hopes of an early invasion. Since Marshall (relying very much on what Henry Sporborg told him) imagines there was only one visit, and concentrates on the post-COCKADE briefing, he asserts that the visit was not initiated by Suttill’s request, but that he was called back to London specifically by Churchill, even though Churchill was not in London at the end of May. “Could the great network hold out until July?”, he imagines Suttill thinking before the invitation. Marnham, echoing Suttill Jr., obviously cannot explain the call from Churchill, and declares that Suttill requested the May visit himself, because he was concerned about security, and needed to talk to his bosses about it.

Further: When Marshall, in turn citing Fuller, reports that Suttill informed Jean Worms (the leader of a sub-circuit called JUGGLER) that ‘they would have to hold out until September’ (p 178), that statement confirms that the discussion must have taken after his second visit: not only that, he gives the impression that a real invasion will be occurring in that month, confirming that the STARKEY plan (or a part of it) has been explained to him. (We cannot confidently tell whether that is how the COCKADE operation was described to Suttill, or whether he decided to misrepresent reality in the cause of the greater deception.) Marshall had earlier (p 161) asserted that Suttill had been ‘knocked sideways’ by the news that the invasion would not take place until the first week of September. Again, it is not clear whether this was the impression given to Marshall by Sporborg, who would have known at that time (unlike Buckmaster) that it was untrue, but may have also represented the facts to Suttill dishonestly.

When Marnham writes (p 116) that rumours started in the Sologne at the end of May that an invasion was imminent, the author accurately echoes what Cookridge wrote, while providing an accurate date for Suttill’s first return from London. Yet, a couple of pages later, when Marnham describes Suttill as returning from London, with the belief that an invasion was imminent, and on June 13 refusing to pay heed to Culioli’s requests that parachute drops be stopped, the chronology does not allow him to point out that this occurred after the second visit, when Suttill was aware that the invasion was no longer imminent. (Marnham has recently communicated to me his agreement with my hypothesis that there were two visits.) Suttill’s actions here suggest that he was putting his whole weight behind the rogue LCS deception plan.

On the other hand, when Francis Suttill Jr, describes his father’s decision that the area behind the Normandy coast was ‘one of the areas where arms were most needed to support an invasion’, but that the drops (on June 10) took place further south because of the presence of German troops in the area (pp 176-177), the author simply reflects a total ignorance of the circumstances by which arms were still being flown in in contravention of the new COCKADE policy. Earlier (p 161), Suttill had introduced a drop near Mantes on June 16/17 where ‘some of the material was destined for the communists . . . .; the rest was hidden for the group to use in the expected invasion’, he likewise is completely tone-deaf about the political climate and machinations. He bases his dismissal of his father’s briefing by Churchill purely on the fact that Churchill was not in the UK at the end of May, and ignores the evidence of a June encounter.

It is thus impossible to determine with complete assurance what went through Suttill’s mind, whether he was given the full and accurate account of the STARKEY deception plan, and thus decided that he should be responsible for possible sacrifices to aid the deception, or whether he was misled into thinking that it would culminate in an invasion in September that could be supported by resistance forces, and was therefore justified in keeping his networks on the alert. What his cited statements do confirm, however, is that he believed an invasion was imminent when he returned at the end of May. The overwhelming evidence from the arms build-up in the spring, and the continued shipments into June and beyond after the COCKADE plan had been approved, suggests that he was a victim of the unsanctioned cowboy deception effort being masterminded by LCS, with the complicity of senior SOE officers.

Yvonne Rudellat

Irrespective of both visits, Suttill was doomed. I can add little to the story of how Pierre Culioli and Yvonne Rudellat were trapped by the Sicherheitsdienst at a checkpoint, where the Germans discovered hand-written names and addresses being carried, and crystals to be passed to wireless operators. Careless talk and casual meetings led to the inveiglement of Suttill after Norman and Borrel had been arrested. Readers can turn to the works of Foot, Marshall and Marnham to learn the details. When Gilbert Norman was shown copies of private letters that Déricourt had carried back and forth between France and the UK, he gave up. He was impersonated in his role as wireless operator, and brought to despair when London rebuked him (in fact his ghost operator) for not performing the necessary security check to indicate that he was not transmitting under duress. He and Suttill then made a deal with their captors that, in exchange for the lives of their agents and collaborators, they would reveal the locations of the arms-dumps. The deal was not honoured. Scores of resistance workers were quickly executed, as were Suttill, Norman, Borrel and others, later, in 1944.

Betrayal

Henri Frager

Suttill believed that there was at least one traitor in his midst: after all, that is why he sought the recall in late May. His colleague Henri Frager, who was being manipulated by the deceptive Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr, had been complaining about Déricourt, and these criticisms had resonated with Suttill, who recalled Déricourt’s overall casualness in his operations, as well as his unjustified interest in the private lives of his contacts and passengers. Just before he was arrested, Suttill confided these fears to Madame Balachowsky, who, with her husband, a distinguished biology professor, had organized a circuit in the Versailles area. He also mentioned to her that he believed that the Germans had an agent in Baker Street.

When the initial investigations by MI5 into Déricourt’s possible unreliability took place in November 1943, a curious flashback to July took place. In one of the Déricourt files at the National Archives (KV 2/1131, p 16) appears an extract from notes that a Miss Torr had taken on July 9, during a study of GILBERT (Déricourt) and ‘the PROSPER circuit and its connections’. It runs as follows:

            The arrests in this circuit started  . . . . .  in April (1943)  . . . .  When PROSPER went back to France at the end of May, he found the security of his circuits further compromised by two things  . . . . . secondly GILBERT (see below) had had a good deal of trouble, partly through being too well known in his former identity, partly through the indiscretions of HERVE, trained by us but sent out by the D/F section on a special mission. GILBERT went south to lie low, and for a while everything went well.

This is an extraordinary entry, as much for what it does not say as for what it reveals – and for its timing. The ellipses clearly refer to some embarrassing information. The arrests of April were of the Tambour sisters by the Gestapo: Suttill foolishly tried, through an intermediary, to pay a ransom for their release, but was shockingly hoodwinked. The first of the items excised from Torr’s report may have been the suspicions that Pierre Culioli was indulging in Black Market transactions, or it may have been the fact that Edward Wilkinson was arrested on June 6, and that subsequent German raids ‘led to the recall of Heslop a few weeks later’ (as Francis Suttill, Jr. records). In any case, there was enough serious concern about infiltration and betrayal to demand protective action.

How HERVE contributed to Déricourt’s problems is elusive. (I have not yet been able to establish who he was. Buckmaster refers to an agent Hervé in They Fought Alone.) Elsewhere in the file, it is reported that, after his return to France on May 5, Déricourt found his security endangered by the fact that his colleagues were far too careless in their social gatherings in Paris, and that his real identity was known to too many people. The note continues:

            When he was finally asked by someone at a bar if he had had a good Easter in London, he felt it was time to take steps, and therefore he went down to Marseilles, partly to see someone we wished him to exfiltrate, and partly to lie low. Here he came up against the Luftflotte, and owing to their attentions, had to go about with some of his old friends and make a show of being friendly with the people who put had put up his name to the Luftflotte.

This was an obvious lie that Déricourt used to suggest that these encounters were the first that he had with the German authorities.

The note then goes on to say that Déricourt ‘came back to Paris to help organize the June Lysander operations’, without offering any dates. Suttill’s son remarks, however, that, on the same night (June 20) that his father spoke to Madame Balachowsky about his concerns, ‘a Lysander operation organized by Déricourt failed because he did not appear, nor had he collected the two passengers who were booked to return to London, Richard Heslop and an evading RAF officer’. Using the file HS 6/440, and quoting the testimony of Jacques Weil, Suttill Jr. states that Déricourt had been arrested for a short time before Prosper’s arrest, and concludes:

            It is also possible that he may have been warned by the Germans about something that was planned that night not far from the landing grounds he was proposing to use at Pocé-sur-Cisse, near Amboise’.

A cool analysis might suggest that, with these exposures well-known, the senior officers of SOE should immediately have taken precautionary measures to inoculate against further infiltration, such as sealing off circuits, stopping meetings and the sharing of resources, terminating flights and shipments for a while, and ensuring the general quiescence of all network activity until the hubbub appeared to have subsided, and a full investigation had been completed at Baker Street. Yet, as has been made clear, nothing of the sort took place. In fact, when Déricourt sent a letter to F Section at this time, explaining his contacts with the Germans at the Luftflotte, Nicolas Bodington (Buckmaster’s number 2) on June 21 made his infamous annotation, available on Déricourt’s file: “We know he is in touch with the Germans and also how and why.” Robert Marshall crucially reported on what he was told by Harry Sporborg on March 21, 1983:

            There existed a standing instruction (though SOE tended to think of it as more of an understanding) that when it was known that one of their networks had been penetrated, then the LCS had to be informed (usually through MI5), ‘so that the network in question might be exploited as quickly as possible for deception purposes’. In this case the information had travelled in the opposite direction and the LCS was simply informing the SOE that the decision to exploit PROSPER had already been taken. Neither Colonel Buckmaster nor any of the other F Section officers was ever informed of this decision. (All The King’s Men, p 162)

After three days of intense interrogations of Suttill, Norman and Borrel, on June 28 Kieffer of the Sicherheitsdienst presented his prisoners with photocopies of correspondence carried on flights organized by Déricourt, identified as deriving from the agent known as BOE/48. The manner of their betrayal became obvious to the three.

The Dangle

From any perspective, contact by an agent of officer of SOE with a member of one of the enemy’s intelligence or security services should have been regarded as highly dangerous and irregular. Thus it is difficult to conclude that the decision to encourage or allow Déricourt to maintain his contact with Boemelburg was either innocent, or propelled by serious policies of tradecraft. Yet the possibility that Déricourt was somehow able to mislead the Sicherheitsdienst to the advantage of SOE’s objectives in landing agents and supplies has been allowed to remain in the air. When M. R. D. Foot wrote about the events, he referred with minimal commentary to Déricourt’s testimony of February 11, 1944, under interrogation:

            German intelligence services did better out of intercepted reports from the field, which they certainly saw, and saw by Déricourt’s agency. When challenged on this point, he made the evasive reply that even if he had made correspondence available to the Gestapo, it would have been worth it for the sake of conducting his air operations unhindered. (SOE in France, p 270)

This must be one of the most outrageous statements ever made about the history of SOE, implying that, for some reason, if the Sicherheitsdienst turned a blind eye to the arrivals and departures taking place under their nose, they would ignore the implications, and forget about the possible threat to the Nazi occupation of France in the form of saboteurs and secret armies. And yet, this was presumably the mindset of Buckmaster and Bodington, who repeatedly came to Déricourt’s defence, and expressed their regard for him and his work. With Buckmaster, it was out of ignorance and naivety: with Bodington, duplicity and conspiracy. (The renowned and very security-conscious SOE agent Francis Cammaerts said that Bodington ‘had created  a lot of death’ in France.) Even after MI5 and SOE learned, through interrogations in early 1945, about the purloining of courier mail, they both continued stoutly to defend Déricourt.

Thus one returns to the overarching question concerning the motives and behaviour of Boyle (responsible for Security), Gubbins (responsible for all of western Europe), Dansey (Assistant Chief of MI6), and Bevan (head of the London Controlling Section): what were they possibly thinking by allowing Déricourt to consort with the Nazis, and why on earth did they believe that the Sicherheitsdienst would be fooled by any ploy that they concocted? After all, Déricourt had been spirited out of France to Great Britain, and had soon returned under control of a British Intelligence Service. The Nazis would be naturally very suspicious, even brutal. If SOE/MI6 believed that, since they had employed him, when he was out of their sight he was controlled by them, they were under a delusion. Similarly, if they believed that Déricourt could act as a useful transmitter of disinformation to the Germans without damaging the integrity of their networks, they were similarly massively mistaken. It is very difficult to conclude other than their motivations concerning the safety and security of PROSPER and other circuits were dishonourable.

The obvious question must be asked: If the objective was to ‘pin’ German forces in NW France in September, why was Déricourt not used simply to pass on by word of mouth the date of the phony STARKEY attack? What was his role? The answer is that he was engaged well before the COCKADE operation was conceived, and thus was deployed for more devious ends. Déricourt was not told of the details of STARKEY: he was a lowly air movements officer, and would have been such an obvious plant that the Germans would not have trusted what he said, or expected him to be able to gain such secrets. It would all have been too clumsy and transparent.

On the other hand, a whole subcurrent of suggestions (for example, from Rymills) has flowed that Dansey had been trying to infiltrate the Sicherheitsdienst for a couple of years, and that Déricourt was his latest candidate. Marshall is one of those observers who suggest that Déricourt was installed in France to gain intelligence on the working of Boemelburg’s organisation, presumably to help safeguard MI6’s agents in France, but such a dangerous game would have been hardly worth the candle. In any case, given Déricourt’s background, as someone who had passed through Britain’s security apparatus, the Germans would have been very cautious before exposing any valuable information to him.

The essence was that Déricourt had not been a Vertrauensmann, sent to Britain to infiltrate British intelligence by convincing the British authorities of his loyalties, with the goal of then being sent on a mission to France. If SOE’s intentions were devious but benign, the only way that Déricourt would have been able to survive would be by claiming he was a Nazi sympathizer, after which the Sicherheitsdienst would have made demands on him that would have threatened the circuits. And that is what happened: he volunteered a level of cooperation to the Gestapo, subsequently being given his BOE/48 appellation. Boemelburg must have wondered why, if Déricourt were willing to reveal details of SOE landings and take-offs, he would behave so indiscreetly over his contacts with the Germans, which (as is clear) were being communicated back to London. They were nevertheless happy to take the obvious facts and exploit them, as the process carried no risks for them, but would have been suspicious of any more covert messages. As Rymills wrote, questioning the account of Déricourt’s actions by the Sicherheitsdienst officer Goetz:

            However intelligent or unintelligent one believes Boemelburg might have been, it does not ring true that he would have accepted Déricourt’s account of his visit to London under British Intelligence auspices without demur. Anyone who confessed to the head of an enemy’s counter-intelligence that he had been recruited and trained by British Intelligence before being parachuted back into France as their Air Movements Officer would most certainly have been subjected to a rigorous interrogation in depth lasting a considerable period of time. Apparently, he did not even spend three days in the German equivalent of the London Holding Centre. Would anyone with one iota of common sense believe a story about London seething with communists? Could it possibly have been a simple as that? If it were, Déricourt was taking a gigantic risk – literally putting his head in the lion’s mouth.

The nature of the leakage was probably more subtle. Suttill knew the date of the invasion, but would probably reveal it only under torture – which is what happened. And, as has been suggested by Frank Rymills (see http://www.coldspur.com/dericourts-double-act/ ), some of the letters that Déricourt allowed the Gestapo to photocopy may have been forged by MI6 specialists, and carried revealing messages about the circumstances of the planned invasion. Déricourt was the courier and purloiner for these deeds: the events occurred at the same time as the famous MINCEMEAT deception operation of early May 1943. The Germans were much more likely to be taken in by well-crafted forgeries than obvious disinformation. As Marshall writes (p 190):

            From all the interrogations and written material that had been gathered, Boemelburg was sufficiently confident to send a report during the third week of July to Kopkow in Berlin that stated the invasion would fall at the Pas-de-Calais during the first week of September.

In one respect, therefore, the ruse had been successful. The Sicherheitsdienst passed on the planned date of STARKEY to von Rundstedt and Army Group West.

SOE’s Strategy & the Chiefs of Staff

What was going through the minds of Hambro and Gubbins, if, indeed, they were in control of SOE’s destiny? Marshall (in the anecdote cited above) indicates that the fact that COCKADE was a deception plan, and that the decision had been made to exploit PROSPER, was communicated to SOE ‘about the time’ that Suttill met Churchill, namely in early June. Yet the TWIST Committee’s conspiracies, and the increase in shipments of arms and supplies to France, had been going on for months already. Déricourt was already some kind of ‘agent in place’, in contact with Boemelburg, All this suggests that the maverick project to promote the notion that a real assault on the North-West French coastline was planned for 1943 – probably because Churchill devoutly hoped it to be true when the Committee was set up towards the end of 1942 – was very much alive and kicking, and that the notion implicit in STARKEY that the feint could conceivably be turned into a reality allowed the TWIST activity to gain fresh wings without flying completely in the face of military strategy.

A more resolute Hambro and Gubbins could have stood up to the COCKADE presentation, and said: ‘Enough!’, especially as the details of the plan did not then allow for, or encourage, the idea of subterranean work by SOE to further the work of the deception. In principle, their circuits could have been protected until the time of the real invasion. They could have insisted that the military aspects of the plan be pursued as specified, without any hints of assistance and preparation across the Channel, or, better still, they could have advised that a poorly conceived project like COCKADE should be abandoned immediately, as it would jeopardize assets needed for OVERLORD the following year. They then should have called for a suspension of arms shipments to France.

Yet, with the pressure for COCKADE to be launched, the SOE leaders were hoist with their own petard: movements were already in place for providing weapons and ammunition to an evolving patriot army, and, if that process suddenly ground to a halt, the illusion of an assault in September would have evaporated completely. If there had been no predecessor introduction of arms, the Germans might not have been suspicious. So Hambro and Gubbins had to buckle under, and hope that the inevitable sacrifices would not be too costly.

The Chiefs of Staff must have known what was going on, even though the outward manifestations of their thinking suggest otherwise. The early minutes studiously avoid any discussion of the possibility of SOE’s defying the established rules to support patriot armies in France (no longer a top tier target country) prematurely. In his diaries, General Sir Alan Brooke very carefully stressed that, if any impulses for carrying out an invasion in 1943 were still detectable, they came from his American counterparts (Marshall and King), and he earnestly repeated his assertion that such ideas issued from those who had not studied and imbibed the Casablanca strategy that outlined why southern Europe had to be engaged first. Yet one activity must have been known to the Chiefs: the increased use of aircraft to fulfil SOE’s greater demand for drops. Given the previous fervent opposition by Air Marshall Harris to the diversion of planes from its bombing missions over Germany, and the reliable evidence of the increase in shipments in the spring of 1943, it is impossible to imagine that this change of policy was somehow kept concealed from the eyes and ears of the Chiefs of Staff.

One might conclude that, at some stage, the Chiefs came to the conclusion that the presence of substantial SOE networks in France, and their connections with armed resistance groups, instead of being a hazard that had to be controlled, could instead become the main source of rumours of the invasion, a much stronger factor than all the dummy operations in the Channel. At the end of June (as I described above), the PWE and SOE had been invited to suggest what actions they might take to forestall any premature risings. This led to some very controversial exchanges.

SOE and the PWE are on record as approving the COCKADE plan. On July 18, General Hollis introduced to the War Cabinet Chiefs of Staff Committee a paper, dated July 8, developed by PWE, with SOE’s ‘full consultation’, that outlined the plans to deal with some of the less desirable fallouts from the STARKEY Operation. The brief is given as:

  • To counter the repercussions of STARKEY upon the patriot armies in Europe,
  • To counteract the effects of the enemy’s counter-propaganda presenting the outcome of STARKEY as a failure to invade.

The report constitutes a very bizarre approach to STARKEY, as it manifestly assumes that the effort will be entirely a feint, with no references to an engagement with the GAF, or to the following-up with possible beachheads to take advantage of a German disintegration. On the contrary, the paper reminds readers that ‘the operations contemplated include no physical landings’. Thus it is a recipe for dealing with the disappointments when STARKEY is shown to be a blank.

A quick explanation of the political problem is set up, but with very woolly terminology. The anonymous author observes that ‘the expectation of early liberation is at present the main sustaining factor in resistance’, but he does not make any distinctions between groups dedicated to sabotage, and the misty ‘patriot armies’ that are supposed to be waiting in the wings. In any case, these bodies (the author states) will be in for a major disappointment as winter approaches. The argument takes a strange turn, presenting the fact that, since there will be no landings, there will be no obvious cue for uprisings that would then have to be stifled, and further states that ‘it is to our advantage’ that:

             . . . the Occupied Peoples of the West, while prepared for the intervention which the operations imply and for active co-operation in such intervention, would naturally prefer that their own countries should not be devastated by the final battles.

This seems to me to be an utterly irrelevant, illogical and unsubstantiated hypothesis. It is not clear who ‘these Occupied Peoples of the West’ are, but if pains must be taken not to subdue the enthusiasm of potential ‘patriot armies’, what were the latter expecting would happen in the ensuing invasion? That the major battles would all take place in other countries, and that the Nazis would fold? Then why were the French being supplied with so much weaponry? The author is surely delusional. Yet he goes on to say that ‘the peoples of the West’ will overcome their dismay that COCKADE was only a diversion because they will learn that HUSKY is giving encouraging results.

The paper then goes on to outline what PWE and SOE should do, namely engage in a communication and propaganda exercise to convince the patriot armies to stay their hand until they receive the order from London to start the uprising. The report includes the following startling paragraphs:

            15. It is suggested, however, that the P.W.E./S.O.E. has a positive contribution to make to the success of COCKADE itself.

            16. the object would be:

To assist the deception by producing the symptoms of underground activity, prior to D day, which the enemy would naturally look for as one preliminary of a real invasion.

It goes in to give examples of operations ‘on a scale sufficient to disturb the enemy, but would be so devised so not to provoke premature uprisings or to squander any stratagems or devices needed in connection with a real invasion ’such as printed instructions on how to use small arms, and broadcasts by ‘Western European Radio Services’ on how the civilian population could make itself into ‘useful auxiliaries’.

This seems to me to be utterly cynical. During a period immediately after the arrests of Suttill, Norman and Borrell, and the betrayal of arms and ammunitions dumps, when news of the crackdown by the Gestapo was being sent to London by multiple wireless operators (including over Norman’s hijacked transmitter), the PWE and SOE contrived to recommend coolly the creation of ‘the symptoms of underground activity’. This suggestion was made at exactly the time that SOE and MI5 were performing a careful inquiry into the penetrations and arrests. [N.B. The news was not confined to SOE.] Either the spokesperson was completely ignorant of what was going on (highly unlikely) or he was wilfully using STARKEY as an opportunity to provide an alibi for the collapse of the networks.

Furthermore, for the seven days leading up to D-day (actually the September 1943 date for STARKEY), the units suggested that leaflets should be dropped addressed to ‘the patriots’, telling them that the forthcoming activity was only a rehearsal. Astonishingly, the author then suggests that the B.B.C. should be brought in ‘as an unconscious agent of deception’, encouraging the notion that a coming assault were real until the broadcasting service, like the press, would be informed that the operations were only a rehearsal. This initiative was a gross departure from policy, since the B.B.C. had carefully protected a reputation for not indulging in black propaganda, and instead acted as a reliable source for news of the realities of war throughout Europe.

A final plea (before outlining a brief plan as to how the PWE and SOE should play a role in this deception) is made for a concerted effort to enforce the idea that patriot armies should be subject to the control of the Allied High Command, but it is worded in such an unspecific and flowery way that it should have been sent back for re-drafting:

            We should, from now on, even more systematically build up the concept of the peoples of Occupied Europe forming a series of armies subject to the strictest discipline derived from the Allied High Command in London.

Build a ‘concept’? To what avail? How would ‘peoples’ form a ‘series of armies’? How would discipline be enforced – for example, with the Communist groups, or even with de Gaulle’s loyalists? The paper seeks to maintain that, only through the communications of the Prime Minister and others to the ‘contact points’ established within western Europe, and ‘upon the evidence of the genuineness of our D day instructions, will depend the favourable or unfavourable reaction to COCKADE’.

If the Chiefs of Staff had spent any serious time reviewing this nonsense, they should have immediately cancelled the whole COCKADE operation, as its rationale and objectives were surely nullified by the probable embarrassing fallout. In any event, their concerns should have been heightened by an ancillary move that occurred soon afterwards. As Robert Marshall reported, on July 26, Stewart Menzies, the head of MI6, sent a note to the Chiefs of Staff, via Sir Charles Portal, that claimed that SOE in France was essentially out of control, and that SOE should be brought under MI6’s management. Of course, this was an utterly cynical move as well, since Dansey had been responsible for infiltrating Déricourt into the SOE organisation. But Gubbins could hardly accuse the vice-chief of MI6 of being ultimately responsible, since he would then have to admit how woefully negligent he had himself been in exercising proper security procedures in his units.

Instead, Gubbins read the note, was highly embarrassed, and tried to counter that the groups under his control ‘had not been penetrated by the enemy to any serious extent’, rather naively implying that they had of course been penetrated, and that he was confident that the degree of such was minor. He shamelessly tried to conceal the full extent of the damage from his masters, but failed to make his case.  On August 1, the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee recorded their opinion that SOE had been ‘less than frank in their reports about their situation in France’.

SOE was in trouble. Yet STARKEY was not cancelled, and the propaganda campaign continued. Gubbins ploughed on, recommending increasing aid to the French field to the maximum, and noting that ‘the suffering of heavy casualties is inevitable’. And then Hambro, Gubbins’ boss, had to respond to a negative memorandum from Portal about diverting bombers to support SOE’s operations. In a long letter to the Chiefs of Staff dated July 26, Hambro essentially cooked his own goose, since he showed that he was not familiar with official strategy, and that he was also not in control of the (largely phantom) armies whose strength he had exaggerated. He made a plea for more air support, claiming that maintenance of the effort was essential if SOE were to fulfil its mission. He added, however, two damning paragraphs highlighting relevant factors, which merit being quoted in full:

  • The recent increase in our operations has, as may be expected, resulted in an increase of enemy activities to counter them and a consequent higher wastage rate among our men in the field. The maintenance of our organisations at their present strength and day to day activity therefore requires an increase in our present effort.
  • People on the Continent are certain that the Allies will invade in 1943. This feeling will be confirmed by the recent developments in ITALY. Daily reports from the field reiterate that people of occupied countries are relying upon the Allies returning to the Continent in the Autumn of 1943.

If the Allies do not return to North-west Europe, there will be a serious fall in morale, and, consequently, in the strength of the Resistance movements, which depend very greatly for their vigour upon the existence of a morale which gives the will to resist. The only way of countering the deterioration will be by showing the people of occupied countries that the Allies have not failed them. This cannot be done by propaganda and broadcast alone, but requires to be backed up by a steady flow of greatly increased deliveries of arms and other essentials.

Hambro was not helped by the propaganda campaign behind COCKADE, but he showed an alarmingly naïve understanding of the military climate, and the realities of SOE operations. His statements about the possibility of a widespread return to the Continent in 1943 were absurd and irresponsible, given the Casablanca decisions, and what the resistance in (for example) Norway was being told.. He simplistically grouped together a large number of disparate nations and their populations (‘People on the Continent’), as if generalisations about their predicament, their hopes and expectations could sensibly be made. Every country was different – a truth with which Hambro was not familiar. He proved that his organisation could not control the aspirations and activities of the groups who were in fact dependent upon SOE, and he showed that the tail was actually wagging the dog. He tried to finesse the matter of ‘wastage rates’ in his field agents without admitting the gross penetration by the Germans that had occurred. In all, he tried to preach to the Chiefs of Staff that they should endorse policies they had already rejected. It was no surprise that he lost his job a month or so later.

The Aftermath, and Conclusions

This chapter essentially closes with the arrest of Francis Suttill (Prosper). Yet there is much more to the story. In late July, Bodington paid a surprise visit to Paris to investigate what had happened to Prosper’s network. It was an extraordinarily rash and stupid decision: he was watched by the Sicherheitsdienst, but was allowed to return home unmolested. The assault aspect of COCKADE turned out to be an abject failure, as the Wehrmacht ignored any rumours, or feints to engage the GAF. (Brooke does not mention it in his diaries.) Even the continued activity of SOE in France, designed to keep many Wehrmacht divisions ‘pinned’, did not prevent the release of troops to the Balkan and Russian Fronts. Arms drops to French resistance workers continued. The Nazis seized more arms caches, and arrested and executed more agents and resistance workers. Déricourt came under fresh suspicion in the autumn of 1943, and was eventually ordered back to the UK, and interrogated at great length. After the war, he was put on trial by a military court in Paris, but Bodington exonerated him. SOE, having been rebuked, came under the control of the military men late in 1943. OVERLORD was, of course, successful, in June 1944, and was abetted in some notable incidents by patriot armies.

I recommend readers turn to Marnham, especially, for the dénouement of Déricourt’s story. Chapter 20 of War in the Shadows, ‘Colonel Dansey’s Private War’, gives an excellent account of the self-delusion and distortion that surrounds the case of his treachery. Yet that may not be enough. I point out again that I believe that Marnham’s account is flawed because of some key misunderstandings or oversights. Déricourt was not a Sicherheitsdienst officer who was ‘turned’ at the Royal Patriotic School in Wandsworth; he was an amoral individual who ingratiated himself with the Nazis by criticizing ‘communist-ridden’ London. The shipments of weaponry in the spring of 1943 were not in early anticipation of the COCKADE plan, but the result of a rogue LCS operation that had been going on for months. COCKADE was essentially the child of Bevan, who passed it on to Morgan. Francis Suttill crucially made two visits back to the UK in late May and early June, which fact has enormous implications for the ensuing events. The SOE tried to deceive the Chiefs of Staff over the penetration of its circuits. These ‘lapses’ do not undermine the strong case that Marnham makes about the tragic manipulation by SOE & MI6 of the doomed French circuits, but it does mean his story is inadequate. And there may be more to be unravelled. At some stage I may want to return to the enormous archival material that consists of the files on Déricourt as well as those on Hugo Bleicher, and other German intelligence officers. Yet it will be an exhausting and challenging task, trying to reconcile the testimonies of so many liars and deceivers.

I believe there is a serious need for a fresh authoritative and integrative assessment of SOE’s role in the events of 1943 and 1944. Olivier Wieviorka’s 2019 work The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940-45 is a valiant contribution, but he skates over the complexities a little too easily, with the result that he comes out with summarizations such as: “The statistics confirm that, before 1944, the British authorities did not believe it useful to arm the internal resistance”, an assertion that is both frustratingly vague but also easily contradicted. (Some of the less convincing conclusions may be attributable to an unpolished translation.)

Halik Kochanski’s epic new work Resistance: The Underground War Against Hitler, 1939-1945, covers a vast expanse of territory in a integrative approach to international resistance, but it therefore cannot really do justice to every individual situation. Some of her chapters are masterpieces of synthesis, but many of her stories are re-treads of familiar material. Moreover, she relies almost exclusively on secondary sources, and treats all as equally reliable. Kochanski nevertheless offers a very competent synopsis of the downfall of the Prosper circuit, and the ripple effect it had on other networks. She mentions Déricourt’s treachery, but does not analyse it in depth, however, merely drawing attention to the contradictions in Buckmaster’s two books. She classifies All the King’s Men as ‘conspiracy theory’, and praises unduly Francis Suttill’s Shadows in the Fog, as if it were the last word on the subject. She does not appear to have read War in the Shadows, and her account lacks any inspection of the historical backdrop. Operation COCKADE does not appear in her Index. In addition, her chronology is occasionally hazy, and she is vague about the intelligence organizations. She does not distinguish between the Abwehr and the Sicherheitsdienst, and misrepresents SOE’s leadership.

David Stafford’s 1980 work Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945 is still the most thorough and scholarly account of the War Cabinet debates over the role of SOE that I have found, but it needs refreshing. His Chapter 5, ‘A Year of Troubles’ delves deeply into the various committee records, and describes well the cognitive dissonance that he frequently perceived in the musings and decisions of the Chiefs of Staff and the Joint Intelligence Committee, but the author casts his net too closely. Stafford resolutely refuses to believe that any manipulation or treachery could have taken place by SOE in the demise of the French networks, displaying too much his trust in the integrity of the leaders he admires. COCKADE is never inspected in his analysis, and STARKEY appears only in one short clause. He focuses too much on official British government sources. He has thus found no evidence to support the charges of betrayal, stating that it appears ‘a far-fetched and highly improbable notion’ because of the risks it would have involved for the 1944 landings, thus perhaps displaying a little too much reliance on the sagacity of the decision-makers. He knows nothing of the TWIST Committee. Moreover, his chronology for 1943 is all over the place, and he fails to point out the contradictions in such phenomena as Selborne insisting that the constant distribution of arms (that were not supposed to be used at the time) was necessary to maintain the morale of patriot forces.

The minutes of the War Cabinet, with their omissions and elisions, are not a reliable guide to how the Chiefs of Staff debated these thorny issues. One could easily gain the impression that the Chiefs had a short attention span, did not really understand what SOE was up to, and found the whole business of clandestine activity, double agents, subterfuge and unofficial armies all very unorthodox and unmilitary, and thus irrelevant. Yet I suspect that they did have a good idea of what was happening, but did little about it because of the sway of their leader. The whole saga has Churchill’s brushwork on it –  from the enthusiasm about SOE’s sabotage activity, through the romantic attraction of dirty tricks, to the love of haphazard tactical impulses that drove Brooke to distraction. Churchill plotted with Bevan and Dansey; Gubbins was his favourite; and the notion that he engineered the activities of the TWIST Committee behind the backs of the XX Committee is utterly plausible. His bringing Suttill back to the UK for urgent private consultations is completely in character. And the whole melodrama was driven by the fact that Churchill had made a fatal private commitment to Stalin about the ‘Second Front’, and he was absurdly in awe of the Generalissimo.

A paper-trail that comprehensively explains the events of summer 1943 will probably never be found, so we must rely instead on steadily improving hypotheses. I believe that the plotting by Claude Dansey to undermine, if not destroy, SOE coincided with Winston Churchill’s desire to show Joseph Stalin that a substantial offensive effort was to be undertaken in North-West France in 1943, and the initiatives converged in the secret processes of John Bevan’s TWIST Committee. Thereafter, the monster took on a life of its own, and was impossible to control. The real project to supply more arms to the French Resistance suddenly came face-to-face with an official Chiefs of Staff/COSSAC deception plan, which specifically forbad premature use of ‘patriot armies’. The Chiefs however then realized that the agencies of SOE could provide a more telling indication of a coming invasion than any movements of phony troops and war-craft could. The directors of SOE fell into a trap, and, knowing they had Churchill’s backing, made the impermissible mistake of trying to deceive their bosses. Churchill did not punish Dansey for his chicanery, nor Bevan for his secrecy, and he overlooked Gubbins’ appalling supervision of SOE, since he had supported the Prime Minister’s whims. Gubbins’ career was thus saved. But it was all a very dishonourable episode in the conduct of the war.

Gubbins’ embarrassment in this saga is particularly poignant. Two months ago, I explained why I thought his reputation has been grossly exaggerated. After the war, Gubbins tried to put the blame for the destruction of the PROSPER network on Dansey. As Lynne Olson reports in Last Hope Island, quoting Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of Stewart Menzies, “C”, Gubbins told William Stephenson, who had headed British Security Control in New York, that Dansey had betrayed a number of his [presumably, Gubbins’] key agents in France. This opinion was conveniently echoed by Gubbins’ deputy, Harry Sporborg, the witness who provided so much testimony to Robert Marshall:

            Make no mistake about it. MI6 would never have hesitated to use us or our agencies to advance their schemes, even if that mean the sacrifice of some of our people.

Such dissembling is highly disingenuous. (By then Dansey was dead.) Gubbins was supposed to be a tough, military man. Was he suggesting that he could be outwitted and undermined by the rather effete Claude Dansey? No, Gubbins knew exactly what was going on, and could have been forthright enough to pull the plug at any time, had he been paying attention, and taken the time to think through the implications. Whatever Dansey’s motivations and machinations were, Gubbins behaved equally as irresponsibly. The cynical treatment of the French partisans was, moreover, replicated exactly in Greece at the same time, in an attempt – a successful one, admittedly –  to convince the Germans that an attack was coming through the Balkans rather than through Sicily.

Some analysts might conclude that the sacrifice of the PROSPER network was justified if it helped Stalin’s cause, and discouraged him from making another pact with the Nazis. But that would constitute another colossal misjudgment of the dictator’s attitude and intentions: he would not have cared less about the attempts by western politicians to appease him, and considered their approaches contemptuous. He learned from his spies what their games were, and he would do exactly as he pleased to further his own ambitions for power and survival. He was able to manipulate Churchill and Roosevelt with devastating results for eastern Europe.

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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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Gubbins’ Turn

Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins

(A reappraisal of the achievements of Colin Gubbins at SOE)

Primary Books Reviewed:

Foreign Fields, by Peter Wilkinson

Setting Europe Ablaze, by Douglas Dodds-Parker

Gubbins & SOE, by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley

Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive, by A. D. B. Linderman

SOE’s Mastermind, by Brian Lett

Secondary Books Used:

SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot

The Secret History of SOE, by William Mackenzie

Secret War, by Nigel West

Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, edited by Mark Seaman

Most Secret War, by R. V. Jones

Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, by Patrick Howarth

Baker Street Irregular, by Bickham Sweet-Escott

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

Last Hope Island, by Lynne Olson

A Life in Secrets, by Sarah Helm

Setting the Med Ablaze, by Peter Dixon

Churchill & Secret Service, by David Stafford

Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, by David Stafford

All the King’s Men, by Robert Marshall

When I was an analyst at the Gartner Group in the 1990s, I frequently hosted visits by software companies, both established and embryonic, who were eager to explain their story and gain our attention. For a while, a group of vendors of object-oriented database management systems, all of whom were completely deluded about the market opportunity that awaited them, were regular supplicants. For some reason the boards of these emergent and struggling companies believed that what they needed to turn their fortunes around was seasoned management with experience in technology, and some of them would seek out IBM executives to come in and run the show for them. Apart from introducing a severe culture clash, such persons had, I discovered, little insight into the challenges they faced.

I recall very clearly one such individual, then the recently-appointed CEO, who introduced himself at the meeting by giving a little potted résumé of his career. Hoping to make an impression that he was a regular guy and a good-timer, he explained that IBM had sent him to Japan to set up a systems integration business there, and he described his achievements in the following terms: “I don’t think we got much done, but we had a lot of fun.” I interpreted that to mean that he and his colleagues must have spent a lot of time drinking in Tokyo bars. His bosses back home no doubt ascribed his lack of success to circumstances beyond his control.

‘Foreign Fields’ by Peter Wilkinson

I thought of that Big-Bluer when I was reading Peter Wilkinson’s memoir of his days with SOE, Foreign Fields. In one sense there is no comparison. SOE officers frequently demonstrated great bravery in conditions of extreme hardship, and many lost their lives in the cause. Yet I also gained the idea that some of the projects that were undertaken – and Wilkinson’s in particular – were ill-conceived from the start, with no clear objectives, and a haphazard approach to planning them. Meanwhile, wherever Wilkinson landed up, at some embassy or outstation, there always seemed to be an ample supply of liquor and wine available, since including crates of the stuff in the various shipments that went in seemed to be a high priority in keeping up morale, even if the locals were starving.

For example, Wilkinson informs us that, on August 25, 1939 (before SOE was created, of course) he left for Warsaw as a member of the MI(R) component of No.4 Military Mission, under Colin Gubbins. What happened next was that the mission underwent a tortuous journey via Marseille to Alexandria in Egypt, where they managed to gain a flight to Bucharest in Rumania, and eventually crossed over the Polish border. All was mayhem, they couldn’t answer the Poles’ questions about British commitments in the coming war, and then, after some hair-raising adventures, had to beat a hasty retreat as the Russians advanced. They managed to reach Bucharest again, where they took their solace in traipsing round the bars, getting sozzled, and enjoyed the company of some amusing girls. Never does Wilkinson explain whether the mission accomplished anything, although he does note that the War Office was not very impressed with his report on the affair.

Later on in the war, Wilkinson was appointed head of Operation Clowder, the objective of which was to gain an entry into southern Austria by engaging the help of Communist guerrillas in Croatia and Slovenia. This was another ill-advised mission, actually encouraged by the Communist spy in SOE Cairo, James Klugmann, who claimed that the Slovene partisans had links with the Austrian Freedom Front in Carinthia and Styria. Of course, Wilkinson did not know of Klugmann’s loyalties. The Operation turned out to be a disaster: the weather was dreadful; the Austrian prisoners-of-war that SOE recruited were unreliable; the Slovene partisans had territorial war-goals at odds with what the British planned; the Germans became very active, and British agents were very conspicuous; radio communications were difficult; there was a shortage of aircraft and crews to support the mission; delivering arms was hazardous as many of the local population were scared of reprisals; the spirit of resistance did not exist in Austria as it did, say, in France; etc. etc.  Moreover, since the Allies took so long to break through the Axis defences in Italy while the Red Army drove on, the confidence of the partisans in Allied competence fell rapidly.

Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard

The outcome was that Wilkinson’s close friend Major Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard, who stubbornly insisted on staying on for reasons of honour and ‘saving face’ (and should have been overruled) lost his life – probably killed by the partisans he thought he was helping. Hesketh-Prichard was a brilliant mathematician, a first-class wireless technician, and a brave but sometimes reckless officer. Little has been written about him in the SOE histories: one has to resort to such books as R.V. Jones’s Most Secret War, and Patrick Howarth’s Undercover: The Men and Women of the SOE, to learn more about his accomplishments. Wilkinson tells here how he secured Hesketh-Prichard’s employment as an instructor at one of SOE’s schools in Scotland, and then put him in charge of the Czech Section ‘which at that time consisted of one elderly officer’. He and Wilkinson were responsible for training the assassins of Heydrich, and Wilkinson describes the tests they carried out on percussion grenades at Aston House, near Stevenage, in preparation for the attack in Prague. Wilkinson presents the operation as a success without referring to its grisly aftermath of reprisals. The pair are for some reason not mentioned in Callum McDonald’s The Killing of SS Obergruppenführer Reinhard Heydrich or Captain Moravec’s Master of Spies. (The full account of their contribution can be found in HS 4/29 at Kew.) The loss of Hesketh-Prichard was a blot on SOE’s escutcheon.

Elsewhere, Wilkinson does not offer a very positive picture of SOE management. For example, he informs his readers that he was promoted to Lieutenant-Colonel, and ‘in addition to the Polish and Czech sections, I was given the Germans and Austrian section to supervise’, adding that ‘I found this embarrassing for I knew very little about Germany and nothing whatever about Austria which I had only once visited as a tourist’. Nor was he temperamentally suited to the job: “By the summer of 1942 I was feeling stale, frustrated, and fed up with Central Europe”. His boss, Colin Gubbins, who normally receives hagiographic treatment, was perhaps not the deep thinker for which he is often presented. “Colin Gubbins gave a good but somewhat superficial lecture on the principles of guerrilla warfare . . .” When Wilkinson returned to London in the spring of 1944, he noted that Gubbins (who had taken over control of SOE from Hambro the previous September) had tried to turn what was essentially a civilian institution into a military one, and Wilkinson did not find the culture changes ‘congenial’. Perhaps that was more a criticism of his own facility for boredom at a desk-job. Yes, surely it was difficult to find the right people – one thinks of the hapless Buckmaster, of whose appointment Gubbins said ‘there was no one else’ – but that constraint should have provoked some careful leadership and guidance, conditioned what exploits were attempted, and how they were executed.

Yet Wilkinson was deputized in that spring of 1944 to work with the Poles in a distinctly shabby affair, where he was pushed by Gubbins to pretend that British forces would soon be undertaking a full-scale invasion of Poland. But no one was prepared to tell the Polish Home Army the truth. Lynne Olson describes Gubbins as not being manful enough to acknowledge the facts, letting his romantic attachment to the Polish cause affect his judgment.

Wilkinson was an odd fish. One of his startling comments, apparently declared without irony is: “Rather in the same spirit of desperation, on my last visit to Naples, I had agreed to get married”, and his wife (Theresa Villiers) had to put up with quite a handful. He admitted that he was ‘the rottenest fiancé imaginable’. He writes engagingly, but loosely. His chronology is imprecise, and he is partial to the meaningless phrase ‘for the foreseeable future’. In an unindexed reference to ‘Jedburghs’ (p 128) he claims credit for coming up with the idea of teams of three inserted behind enemy lines to co-ordinate resistance work, a fact partially confirmed by Will Irwin, who, in his history The Jedburghs (2005), also gives credit to Robin Brook. Other sources indicate that it was a shared SOE/OSS notion, and that Wilkinson was responsible for coming up with the name, with Gubbins’ suggestion of’ ‘Jumpers’ being replaced.

He must have been an agreeable companion (‘someone to go tiger-shooting with’, as they used to say in the old Daily Telegraph obituaries). He makes one or two outlandish comments that he contradicts in his biography of Gubbins. All in all, he was a typical product of the inter-war public school (in his case, Rugby) – intrepid, amusing, entrepreneurial, carefree, reckless, an independent spirit, along the lines of the Fleming brothers and Fitzroy Maclean. Whether SOE should have been in the hands of such fellows is another testing question – but then so is that of whether ‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ was what most citizens of occupied Europe wanted during the long years when they were under the Nazi yoke.

Douglas Dodds-Parker was a few years older than Wilkinson, and had been educated at Winchester. For a while he followed in the footsteps of Wilkinson, who displays a certain smugness in describing his dealings with the older officer. Maybe Wilkinson had some regrets at not being sent to Winchester. He had been a pupil at Scaitliffe, considered a preparatory institution for Eton and Winchester, and its headmaster, Ronald Vickers, expressed disappointment when Wilkinson’s mother ‘on the advice of her Edinburgh physician who considered Winchester unhealthy, decided to send me to Rugby instead.’ Thus, after voicing his delight at being promoted to acting major at the age of twenty-five, Wilkinson boasts how he spent ‘three most agreeable months of the war’ in Paris, since, ‘on my major’s pay, I could live extravagantly well in Paris while keeping on my rooms in Clarges Street for my visits to London’. Dodds-Parker replaced him as GSO3 in MI(R), but Wilkinson soon sent him urgent instructions to move to the Middle East to set up a supply base in Egypt. Some time later (the dates are annoyingly vague), Wilkinson was promising Dodds-Parker, who had spent time working with Abyssinian guerrillas, that he would arrange for him to be sent back to London. I found the continual competitive race for medals and promotions between such persons rather unseemly.

‘Setting Europe Ablaze’ by Douglas Dodds-Parker

In his own memoir, Setting Europe Ablaze, Dodds-Parker turns out to be a more reflective and mature judge of the military situation, and of SOE in particular. He records Wilkinson’s introduction to him, how they discussed matters at Wilkinson’s club, and the rather brusque orders that Wilkinson gave him. Yet he gives the impression that in May 1941 it was Gubbins who summoned Peter Fleming from Greece, Wilkinson from Crete, and himself from Ethiopia, with Dodds-Parker chartered with the difficult task of organizing SOE’s air and sea transport into and out of enemy-occupied Western Europe. Thereafter, Dodds-Parker, for the remainder of the war, served under another Wykehamist, Colonel Dick Barry. Thus, while Wilkinson was struggling in his role trying to direct the Central European sections, Dodds-Parker had a chance to observe multiple aspects of SOE operations at close quarters, and engage in very sensitive negotiations with the RAF, before he was posted in late 1942 to Operations Officer for the ‘Massingham’ SOE unit in Algeria.

While recollections in tranquility, from 1983, might appear wiser than contemporaneous opinions, Dodds-Parker presents some insightful conclusions from his time at Baker Street in 1941 and 1942. He admitted how the opportunities for sabotage and subversion were soon realized as being more useful than the creation of ‘secret armies’. He explained how Communists who had engaged in the Spanish Civil War contributed considerably to the SOE handbook on guerrilla warfare. He pointed out the precariousness of the position of Gubbins, being considered too political by the military professionals, and too amateurish by the diplomats. He made the shrewd observation that the communist groups with whom SOE had been co-operating became much more aggressive in their plans for post-war political control after the Soviets expelled the Germans from Stalingrad in October 1942, and even claimed that his Polish contacts had convinced him at this time of Stalin’s imperialist ambitions for Eastern Europe after the war.

Dodds-Parker’s regard for Gubbins was exuberant: ‘a born leader of men – and women’; ‘his energy, physical and mental, was boundless’; ‘an inspiring leader, as brave as Wingate, and endowed with the additional ability to maintain an atmosphere of friendly respect and loyalty with his subordinates and superiors’; ‘among the many Allied leaders I had been privileged to observe, I came to regard him in his way, for imagination, courage and energy, as being in the highest class.’ Gubbins loyally supported him in all he did, and promoted him to full Colonel at the young age of 35. They both had strong affiliations for and links with the Poles, which may have affected their priorities with SOE. (Gubbins drew many of his conclusions about planning for guerrilla warfare in Europe from the pre-war preparations of the Poles, but they were not representative of other countries in Europe under German occupation.) Dodd-Parker’s summary of SOE’s track record in the war thus comes across as rather excessive, with the notable success of the arming of French resistance in 1944 masking the disasters in the Netherlands and France in 1943.

The precise role that Dodds-Parker played as Operations Officer for ‘Massingham’ is indistinct. As he wrote, he had ‘wide but undefined duties’, Massingham being chartered with establishing ‘a base for later operations northwards, into France and Corsica and possibly into Italy, whose secret police, the OVRA, were the most effective of any in Europe’. I am not sure what the NKVD –  or even the Gestapo –  would have thought of that assessment, but it pointed to the challenges that Dodds-Parker faced as the Allied armies made their crablike approach to Italy. He was appointed number 2 to the American Colonel Eddy of OSS, but the terms of reference that Gubbins read out to him on that occasion are not explained. Dodds-Parker turned out to be an excellent negotiator, however, which was a useful experience for his career as a Conservative politician after the war.

His final assessment of Gubbins, when SOE was dismantled after the war, and its chief ‘retired’ with no job offer, since his military career had effectively been suspended in Norway in 1940, was ambiguous, and maybe ill-judged: “Gubbins held a unique personal position, respected in private by many political and military leaders as secondary only to Churchill and Eden in helpful understanding of their difficulties. This did not endear him to some of his military colleagues, nor did politicians and diplomats always welcome his, and thus my lesser, interventions in political decisions and diplomatic exchanges.” Elevating to such a podium the vain and ineffectual Eden, whose continuous emphasis on ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union exasperated many military men, was a strange stance to take. (In fact, as Wilkinson wrote in his Introduction to his and Ashley’s biography of Gubbins – see below – Gubbins took a dislike to Eden because of his condescending manner and antipathy to SOE.) Moreover, why were such regards held ‘in private’, and how did Dodds-Parker learn about them if they were not public? Such judgments cry out for more detail, to help explain the peculiar insights that Gubbins was able to impart, but that is not Dodds-Parker’s forte.

I have three biographical books on Gubbins on one of my tables (the shelves in my library having been filled long ago.) In chronological order they are Gubbins & SOE by Peter Wilkinson and Joan Astley (1993), an American volume, Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive (2016) by A. D. B. Linderman, and SOE’s Mastermind by Brian Lett (2016). Unfortunately none of them performs a thorough job of analyzing Gubbins’ career and achievements, all authors being too much in awe of their subject.

‘Gubbins & SOE’ by Peter Wilkinson & Joan Bright Astley

Peter Wilkinson was joined by Joan Bright Astley in putting the biography together. She was a woman with whom I was not familiar, but I have learned that she was a personal assistant to Hastings Ismay, Churchill’s staff adviser, and also arranged something called the Secret Information Centre, which was apparently a necessary repository of intelligence for senior officers. She was another Gubbins enthusiast (like Ismay), and rather romantically was recorded as saying: “He had just enough of the buccaneer in him to make lesser men underrate his gifts of leadership, courage and integrity . . .  He was a man-at-arms, a campaigner, the fires banked up inside him as glowing as those round which his Celtic ancestors had gathered between forays from glen and brae.” Utter tosh, of course.

In the Acknowledgements, the authors explain disarmingly, and somewhat alarmingly, that their book ‘has no academic pretensions’, and any claims to scholarship are instantly undermined when they write, after paying homage to Michael Foot and David Stafford: “Special thanks are also owed to Christopher Woods, until recently the Foreign Office Adviser on SOE. At the time of writing the authors had no access to SOE’s secret papers; and it was only thanks to Mr Woods’ tireless research that it proved possible to recreate events which happened half a century ago.” Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. We all know now what those tireless endeavours by Foreign Office advisers tended to come up with.

Thus an eminently readable, but obviously sanitized, account of Gubbins’s career has been put together. You will find no entry for ‘Dericourt’ or ‘Suttill’ in the Index (although the ‘PROSPER’ circuit receives two brief mentions), since discussions of those two individuals would inevitably detract from the positive aura the authors wish to promote. Inevitably, the events of 1942 and 1943 are represented in much of a muddle, with erroneous dates, and dubious claims made. Gubbins is presented, at the time Mockler-Ferryman (‘still relatively inexperienced in clandestine techniques’) was introduced to set up ‘a new directorate responsible for operations in Western Europe, and for liaison with COSSAC’, as not having confidence in the professionalism of some of the individual country officers.

The fact that many circuits were believed to have been penetrated by the Germans, required, according to the authors, ‘Gubbins’ personal attention and decision’. But what the Chief of SOE Operations did about it is not stated: the record suggests he either did nothing, or was complicit in woeful mismanagement. Leo Marks recounted how Gubbins, on learning about the dire problems in the Netherlands, promised an investigation, but then stalled, and demanded that Marks say nothing to other country section heads, with the result that the Prosper disaster followed. Marks was horrified, and believed that Gubbins engaged in the cover-up since he was terrified of Dansey and MI6 learning about the security breaches and German penetration.

Moreover, the record is shockingly erratic. I pointed out earlier that Wilkinson contradicted himself across his writings. Here, he writes: “It was no secret in Baker Street that the British planners had tacitly accepted as long ago as October, 1942, that there was no prospect of undertaking a major cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Consequently SOE’s French sections were counting on at least twelve months in which to lay their plans.” Yet in his personal memoir, which appeared just four years later, he wrote: “In the autumn of 1942, our plans were based on the assumption that an invasion of the Continent would take place in the summer of 1943 and would trigger a wave of spontaneous insurgency in occupied Europe.” That is presumably what is meant by ‘lack of academic pretensions’. At this stage, the careful reader might opt to give up on the work as a serious study, and classify it as an item of Foreign Office propaganda.

Since these examples are typical of the lack of scholarship applied, it is difficult to know which are the true assessments of the authors, and what is the spin imparted by the SOE Adviser. Several muddled judgments are made, in a background of erratic chronology, and the passive voice is used too frequently. Critical paragraphs (such as on the SOE mission to Moscow) are presented with questionable logic, but without any sources given. Thus the appointment of Captain Richard Truskowski to the 1941 SOE mission is explained as reflecting Gubbins’ hope that the Soviets would allow RAF flights to Poland to refuel on Soviet territory before returning, but why Gubbins’ opinions in this matter were dominant, or in what way anyone felt the reactionary Truskowski might help the cause by his presence in Moscow, is left unexamined. It is all very unsatisfactory.

Yet what is noteworthy is that a more sceptical undercurrent, expressing some doubts about SOE’s overall mission, and Gubbins’ ability to execute it, can be detected in the text. Thus we learn that: Gubbins’ decision to move to SOE was surprising because he had little confidence in sabotage and subversion (p 76); his arrival (as a regular soldier) was regarded with disdain by the country heads (p 78); Dalton’s belief that Occupied Europe was ‘smouldering with resistance’ was false, as most people wanted to be left in peace (p 79); Gubbins aggressively promoted the use of patriot armies at a time that was premature (p 100); Gubbins was ignorant of the problems with agents in the Netherlands in early 1942, and even expressed his satisfaction with affairs (p 105); Gubbins’ sense that his organization in France was unprepared for invasion in 1942 led him to approve several ill-considered operations (p 109); the assassination of Darlan was severely mismanaged, and Gubbins had to spend too much time on the clean-up (p 118); Gubbins deemed German penetration of his networks in 1943 ‘ an acceptable risk’, but such situations required his personal involvement and decisions (without any declaration of what they were) (p 123); Gubbins found the guerrilla adventures in the Balkans more interesting than the clandestine activities in North-west Europe for which he was directly responsible, with the implicit neglect of the latter (p 133); when challenged over the Netherlands fiasco, Gubbins did not become directly involved, but sent Sporborg to sort it out (p 154); Gubbins was lax in communicating the decisions of the Chiefs of Staff to his country heads (p 203); and Gubbins spent a disproportionate amount of time on Polish and Czech affairs (p 226).

Whichever way you look at it, this was not a stellar performance.

If a reader expected at the close of the book a balanced assessment of Gubbins’ overall contribution, however, he or she would be disappointed. The authors describe how, when SOE was disbanded and handed over to MI6, Gubbins prepared a paper that tabulated SOE’s string of successes – not just in sabotage, but also in political operations, which was a dubious claim to make – and outlined a completely unrealistic set of proposals for maintaining a dormant SOE organization ‘ready to spring into action on the outbreak of the third world war’, an event that Gubbins clearly expected. Predictably enough, the new Labour government, and a more cool-headed Sir Alexander Cadogan, quickly dampened any such plans, and Gubbins was forced to retire. What final assessment of Gubbins’ contribution that was prepared had to wait for his eulogy in 1976, when Wilkinson addressed the gathering at St. Martin-in-the-Fields as follows:

. . . Of the decisive importance of Colin Gubbins’ personal contribution to the allied victory, there can be no question. His name is honoured officially in many lands. For in the dark hours it was his duty to fan the spark and keep alive the flame of freedom. It was his exertions that gave hope to thousands of patriots in occupied countries all over the world. These men and women are unlikely to forget him.

This was arguably a suitably positive encomium at his death, but surely over-the-top. Almost all those ‘patriots’ seeking freedom could never have known his name, and not all had undivided admiration for what SOE had done. A more balanced accounting was certainly called for.

‘Rediscovering Irregular Warfare’ by A. R. B. Linderman

A. D. B. Linderman’s Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of Britain’s Special Operations Executive is not that book. Based on his doctoral thesis at Texas A & M University, and published in 2016, Linderman’s work provides a useful integration of the history of guerrilla activity in the twentieth century, but greatly overstates Gubbins’ contribution to its theory and practice, and fails to address the multiple contradictions and paradoxes in his prosecution of subversive activities. The thesis was originally titled ‘Reclaiming the ungentlemanly arts: the global origins of SOE and OSS’, but either the author or his editors must have concluded that a tighter focus on Gubbins, and the personalization of the story, were more appropriate.

And, indeed, the credits do redound heavily on Gubbins. I was not encouraged when, after reading Linderman’s list of academics who had given him expert advice (are drafts of doctoral theses really passed around to members of other universities before being reviewed by the candidate’s committee?), I read that ‘this work relies heavily on the pioneering research of M. R. D. Foot and the impressive work of Peter Wilkinson and Joan Bright Astley’. This was a surprising admission, given the very exhaustive primary and secondary sources that the author lists in his Bibliography. His overall thesis is that Gubbins deployed his considerable experience in Russia (during the Revolution), in India, and in Ireland to develop a solid blueprint for how guerrilla warfare should be undertaken.

One might ask how relevant these experiences were. Foot wrote that Gubbins’ service ‘on the losing side’ in the Anglo-Irish war of 1919-21, as well as his few months’ time in Russia in 1919 caused him to be ‘impressed by the weakness of formed bodies of troops faced by a hostile population that was stiffened by a few resolute gunmen, and determined to exploit these impressions against the next enemy’. But leading an alien and probably weakly motivated expeditionary force to support the Whites against fierce Communist forces in a civil war in the expanses of northern Russia can hardly be compared with being part of a brigade trying to maintain order in a tight colonial territory, and being attacked by civilians, as was the case in County Kildare. Moreover, when it set its mind to it, the Wehrmacht, as ‘formed bodies of troops’ was occasionally able to wreak horrible destruction on a hostile population stiffened by many resolute gunmen in central France in 1944.

Yet SOE rarely engaged in managing guerrilla warfare –  or when it did, it executed it disastrously, as in the ploy to encourage uprisings in France in 1943. The main role for SOE was sabotage, an activity in which Gubbins was clearly not so interested as he was in the possibility of patriot armies supporting regular troops, which phenomenon did not become realizable until the Normandy assaults in June 1944. Moreover, other sources indicate that much of the guerrilla army playbook was derived from practitioners with experience in the Spanish Civil War, where Gubbins was not a witness. Linderman highlights Gubbins’ creation, in response to a call by J.C. F. Holland of MI(R) in May of 1939, of two short pamphlets titled ‘The Art of Guerrilla Warfare’ and the ‘Partisan Leader’s Handbook’. Linderman makes the elevated claim that these two brief items are ‘the essential links in the intellectual history of SOE’s doctrine’.

Yet he goes on to write:

For unknown reasons, Gubbins’ works are general guides and not country-specific; as a result, they are some of the broadest doctrinal statements of the war, focused not on a particular aspect or location but irregular warfare writ large.

This is, to me, a fairly withering criticism. I recall Wilkinson’s statement that Gubbins’ lectures were ‘superficial’. And the failure to create country-specific policies for sabotage and guerrilla action was probably the biggest failing of SOE, since the characteristics of each territory under the Nazis (area, terrain, distance from the UK, accommodation with the Nazis, strength of communist groups, temperament of the populace, stance of government-in-exile, etc. etc.) demanded a highly-tailored approach. The struggles with defining such would have made a far more provocative and interesting thesis, since the country heads resisted interference from their superiors, but were not necessarily adept in forging the appropriate policies. Those ‘unknown reasons’ would have been a suitable case for treatment.

Bickham Sweet-Escott

In his 1965 memoir, Baker Street Irregular, Bickham Sweet-Escott (who held a variety of jobs with SOE) pointed directly at this dilemma. “Colin Gubbins’s appointment to us was primarily to take over liaison with the secret armies which the Poles and Czechs had been preparing . . .”, he wrote, indicating that SOE’s long-term objective had to be ‘to assist or create in western Europe – in France, Belgium, Holland and Norway, and if possible elsewhere – organizations similar to the secret armies which we believed [my italics] to exist in Poland and Czechoslovakia’. So maybe these secret armies did not exist, and Poland and Czechoslovakia were out of reach by the allotted aircraft, anyway. Thus, like the drunkard looking for his keys under the lamppost, SOE switched attention to France and the Low Countries, because they were accessible, and convinced themselves of the policy that, given that the allied forces would not be returning to the continent soon, such secret armies could in the meantime ‘be used to sabotage the war effort and thereby to improve the morale of the local population’. But this was in early 1941 – over three years to hold out until D-Day.

(Incidentally, Sweet-Escott also held Gubbins’ leadership in high regard, writing:

             . . . he was man of immense energy and vitality with a quick wit, and an imagination and grasp of principle are in a professional soldier. He enjoyed life to the full; he never forgot a face or a name, and he had a gift for inspiring confidence in those working under him. He was in fact a born leader of men.

That suggest that he also came under Gubbins’ spell, and was perhaps willing to overlook his boss’s failings. Ironically, Sweet-Escott discovered that his estimation of Gubbins had been stolen from his manuscript, word for word, by Hugh Dalton in his memoir The Fateful Years.)

Thus, in his quest to apotheosize, Linderman bypasses some of the more controversial aspects of Gubbins’ leadership. He skips over the events of France in 1943 completely: no mention of PROSPER and Dericourt appears in his work. Nor does he explore Gubbins’ extraordinary wooing of the NKVD, and the PICKAXE projects, where SOE helped land Communist agents in Allied countries. The objectives of these persons were to foment Communist takeovers after the war, an activity that would have shocked the relevant governments-in-exile. Fortunately the outcomes of these exploits were normally disastrous, but the operation displayed extraordinarily bad judgment by Gubbins, who was notoriously opposed to Communism, and (as I showed earlier), was earnestly preparing for World War III when SOE was disbanded.

Some quotations support the idea that Gubbins had not developed a subtle enough perspective on how subversive elements should be managed. From his SOE Handbook:

In every community will be found certain individuals so debased that for greed or gain they will sell even their own countrymen. Against this contingency close watch must be set, and wherever proof is obtained of such perfidy, the traitor must be killed without hesitation or delay. By such justifiably ruthless actions others who might be tempted to follow suit will be finally deterred.

And Linderman adds: “To further heighten such deterrence, Gubbins advised that the local population should be convinced that the enemy would soon be expelled, at which time support for the resistance would be rewarded, but collaboration with the occupiers ‘ruthlessly punished’.” It was easy for him to impose such lofty – or heartless – conditions on a subdued populace, but the local inhabitants had to deal with the threats of reprisals and torture, and the promises that ‘the enemy would soon be expelled’ turned out to be a tragic deception in France in 1943.

Gubbins had to amend his ideas, certainly over the topic of reprisals, which became an awkward reminder of Nazi terror. He had to revise his 1939 opinion that ‘guerilla warfare was something that a regular army has most to dread’. Linderman cites W. J. M. Mackenzie’s view that ‘General Gubbins’s recollection is that this [the question of reprisals] was deliberately omitted, as a point passed by in silence’. But it was then that he countered the paradox that bedevilled the supply to secret armies: if he recognized the dangers of reprisals and premature activity (as Linderman states) how could SOE keep up morale, and how exposed would its supply of arms become? Linderman refers to this historical tension, but does not crisply dispense with it.

Gubbins became SOE chief in September 1943, after political battles had caused Hambro’s resignation. The discovery of the disasters in France, and the clandestine use of SOE resources in deception through the TWIST Committee, may have forced the issue, although Gubbins managed to avoid most of the blame. In July 1943, Stewart Menzies had attempted to undermine SOE by sending a memo to the War Cabinet that claimed that SOE had no proper control of its affairs in France. As Robert Marshall wrote, in All The King’s Men:

On 1 August, a Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee pronounced that on the basis of Memo CX108 and despite Gubbins’ protestations, they were forced to the view that SOE had been less than frank in their reports about the situation in France. Moreover, because the JIC had been obliged to learn the truth from MI6, they felt doubly disappointed with SOE, who had a responsibility to keep them and the Chiefs of Staff informed.

Hambro took the rap, and Gubbins, probably because of his close relationship with Hastings Ismay, survived. SOE then came under greater military control, a symbiosis that Gubbins had endorsed all along. In Linderman’s words: “This left Gubbins, a man who had argued since his GS(R) days that irregular forces need to be closely coordinated with regular operations, the most senior SOE officer.” In Setting the Med Ablaze, Peter Dixon reinforces this opinion, stating that Gubbins’ early experiences with the Brandon mission in North Africa in early 1943 had convinced him that ‘irregular forces must be integrated into the regular chain of command’. But then why did Gubbins then increase the shipments of arms to French ‘irregulars’ so irresponsibly for the remainder of 1943? And when Gubbins replaced Hambro, he concluded that efforts had to be more closely co-ordinated with governments-in-exile, and shifted his attention to creating more of a paramilitary organization, but it was too late by then. It was all a rather reactive strategy. After all, relations with the Belgian government-in-exile had been so acrimonious that they were broken off in 1942.

‘SOE’s Mastermind’ by Brian Lett

The title of the last book on Gubbins that I review here, SOE’s Mastermind, does not suggest that it is going to act as any corrective. And, indeed, the book is another flattering account, promoted as ‘an authorized biography of Major General Sir Colin Gubbins, KCMG, DSO, MC’, intimating that the Gubbins family was involved. Major Gordon Lett, the father of the author, Brian Lett, served in SOE, and the younger Lett approached Gubbins’ grandson, Michael, with the concern that he might be competing over a new biography. The result was that Michael happily abandoned his own plans, and co-operated with ‘an experienced author’. SOE’s Mastermind thus presents a lot of fresh information about Gubbin’s personal life, but has little new to say about his career in SOE.

The book is divided into two parts. The first section describes, in twelve chapters, Gubbins’ life and experiences before he joined SOE. As Lett puts it: “The author has endeavoured in Part 1 of this book to detail the qualities and experiences that equipped him so well for the role. Part 2 sets out to give the reader some idea of the organization that Gubbins commanded, and the contribution that he made to its success.” Lett presents some fascinating accounts of Gubbins’ military career, especially as it related to dealing with guerrilla warfare. It is pertinent that his three main exposures were on the counter-insurgency side, in Russia in 1918, against the Bolsheviks, in Ireland in 1920-1921, against the IRA, and in India, from 1923 to 1930, against the Indian Congress Party. His lessons for guerrillas were all developed from the side of suppressing them.

Each period in Gubbins’ military career is thus presented however as a positive influence, and ideas are attributed to him even though the evidence of his contribution as a ‘mastermind’ is scanty, with some lip-service made to the fact that not all these ideas were appropriate. You could not support guerrilla armies where there was no place for them to hide, for instance (such as in the Netherlands). Lett echoes the point made by others that Gubbins was not sensitive enough to the danger of reprisals when he set out how secret armies should behave under occupation.

The Wedding of John Tiltman & Tempe Monica Robinson, Simla, April 7, 1927 (Photo reproduced with the kind permission of John Tiltman’s family)

Lett also adds some useful anecdotes about Gubbins’ personality and character in his pre-WWII years. In India, he joined the Freemasons (a membership he tried to play down in conversations with M. R. D. Foot). He also developed some important relationships, one of which is overlooked by Lett. (I insert it here for the historical record.) Gubbins acted as best man at the wedding of his friend John Tiltman, the future famous cryptologist at the Government Code and Cypher School, in Simla on April 7, 1927. Brian Lett describes the two years that Gubbins spent at Simla decrypting Soviet signals, but does not refer to the close friendship he had with the very significant Tiltman. (As I noted this fact, I recalled that Bernard Montgomery had acted as best man at the wedding of St. John Philby, in Rawalpindi in September 1910. There must be other similar connections to follow up, I am sure.)

The second Part of the book constitutes mostly a series of descriptions of the most famous of SOE’s exploits, interspersed with too much of what Gubbins himself said about them, such as his delivery of a lecture to the Cambridge University Officers Training Corps in October 1962, where he oversimplified the process of building up ‘secret armies’. There is little crucial exploration of the precise contribution that Gubbins made to the success of the major projects that Lett describes at some length, such as Operation Anthropoid (the plot to kill Heydrich) and Operation Gunnerside (the plan to destroy the Germans’ heavy-water supply in Norway). These exploits have been well-described elsewhere, and Lett’s analysis brings nothing new to the table. He even presents the burden of the horrors of the reprisals that took place in Czechoslovakia as somehow enhancing Gubbins’ status, since he was strong enough to be able to ‘stand back and appreciate the whole picture’. That could be said to be an opinion that stepped just over the borderline of good taste. Lett repeats this sentiment when he concludes his analysis of the twenty-six civilian losses in Norway resulting from the sinking of the ferry carrying the heavy water.

In this scenario, there are no real failures, and, like Linderman, Lett completely ignores the Nordpol fiasco in the Netherlands, and the betrayal of the Prosper network in France. (This is a recurring oversight: the compilation edited by Mark Seaman, Special Operations Executive: a new instrument of war, published in 2006, completely ignores the operations in France, and Gubbins receives little attention overall.) SOE is represented as playing a crucial part in the victory in Italy (where Lett’s father is featured strongly as part of Mission Blundell Violet), while the more problematic episodes involving Peter Wilkinson and Alfgar Hesketh-Prichard with the partisans in Croatia and Slovenia (as described above) receive no treatment at all. The book winds down abruptly without any summarization or assessment of what justifies Gubbins’ sobriquet of ‘mastermind’, or a serious evaluation of how SOE had contributed to the Allies’ victory, the author transferring quickly into the subject’s retirement years. It all consists of a very shallow and disappointing work.

Lynne Olson has described how Gubbins in 1949 gave evidence to a commission that was investigating the Nordpol disaster, and how he dishonestly claimed that SOE in London bore no responsibility for the Abwehr’s ability to round up agents and send controlled messages back to England to encourage further personnel to be despatched. Even M. R. D. Foot admits the incompetence, the truth of which was reinforced by such as Leo Marks. Other witnesses, such as William Stephenson (to Anthony Cave-Brown), and Sporborg (to Robert Marshall) attest that Gubbins believed that his networks had been betrayed by Dansey. Yet that was a disingenuous claim by the SOE chief: all evidence suggests that Gubbins must have been aware of the whole Déricourt fiasco, and went along with the plan. The fact that he was out of the country (in Algeria) for some of the critical time in early 1943 is no excuse.

The inevitable conclusion from reading these books could be that SOE had an impossible role, and that Gubbins was under enormous political pressure to deliver. Some critics, such as John Keegan and Douglas Porch, have underlined its several disasters. Others have claimed that, for the expense and loss of life, SOE was a much more profitable undertaking than was Harris’s Bomber Command, with its deluge of raids on Germany that so frequently missed their targets, while consuming so much energy, fuel, and lives. Gubbins’ role in the execution of SOE’s mission demands a very careful analysis that has not yet been engaged upon, so far as I can judge. The thorough documentation of those daring raids needs to be complemented by critical accounts of the less reputable exploits that ended in failure.

Gubbins was probably more complex than his biographers have described him. Like many military men, he concealed his emotions. He was crushed by the death of his son in Italy in 1944, and it brought home to him how every death in war represents an almost unbearable local tragedy. Yet he could be quite ruthless: he once said, when asked about the possibly unnecessary deaths of SOE officers in Europe that they had known when they signed up what the risks were. In A Life in Secrets, Sarah Helm quotes his statement about probable losses in France:

            Strategically France is by far the most important country in the Western Theatre of War. I think therefore that SOE should regard this theatre as one in which the suffering of heavy casualties is inevitable.  But it will yield the highest possible dividends. I would therefore increase to the maximum  . . . SOE aid to the French field from now on and maintain it until D-Day.

The possibility of arrest and execution was one thing, however: the conscious betrayal by the placement of a traitor and the dissemination of false promises about an imminent invasion, which must be held at Gubbins’ door, were a completely different phenomenon. That he commanded great loyalty is true, but he could be harsh and demeaning to those who challenged him, as Leo Marks testified in Between Silk and Cyanide.  The Free French politician Emmanuel d’Astier de la Vigerie dubbed Gubbins ‘the mysterious manipulator of the initials SOE’. Patrick Howarth thought that, in a world dominated by rank, Gubbins (like Selborne and Hambro) lacked the deviousness required to achieve political goals. That straight-shooting lack of deviousness may have contributed to his blindness over the hazards of treachery and double-dealing.

M. R. D. Foot offered a flowery and unsubstantiated appraisal of Gubbins in SOE in France:

His influence soon percolated all round the SOE pyramid, affecting colleagues, staff subordinates, and agents alike. Through the months of worst disaster, through the fog of battle, through all the complexities of a large, confused, impromptu organization, he pursued steadily the course that he and Holland had dreamed of long ago in Dublin, and had worked out months before the war. He combined a Scottish highlander’s insight [eh?] with a regular officer’s tenacity, a keen brain, and much diplomatic and intelligent experience, and before SOE was two years old an incomparably well placed observer described him as a linchpin.

The reputation of SOE and Gubbins was also bolstered by General Eisenhower, who in his memoirs issued a generous appraisal of SOE’s contribution to winning the war that has been frequently quoted by the SOE champions. Yet one has to consider the overall track-record, not just the guerrilla activity that SOE arranged after the Normandy landings. SOE worried the Norwegians, upset the Belgians, betrayed the Dutch, sacrificed the French, mortified the Czechs, misled the Poles, was abused by the Soviets, and fooled by the Germans. SOE in Baker Street lost control of Yugoslavia to Cairo: Nigel West writes that far more Yugoslavs were killed with SOE weaponry than German or Italian troops. Thousands of innocent lives were overall lost. Was the human sacrifice worth the few spectacular sabotage successes?

Gubbins’ career at SOE should better be analyzed as a case-study in leadership and management. For his direct and second-level reports, he had to recruit overall trustworthy figures who were all novices at the game, while some even lacked the motivation. The selection of Buckmaster was a case in point: mustard keen, but incompetent, and hopelessly out of his depth. In that environment, according to Situational Leadership principles, careful close-handling and coaching was necessary to guide the country section leaders in strategy and operations. There is no evidence that Gubbins gave them that advice and direction: he let the ‘chaps’ get on with it, sometimes with disastrous results. He frequently delegated (e.g. to Sporborg, over the Netherlands) when he should have become directly involved. Even Wilkinson describes the events of November 1943 as ‘a major crisis which might have been thought to demand Gubbins’ instant return’.

Much more attention was paid to the training of the agents themselves, what with all the detailed classroom studies on good tradecraft, and the physical tests in the highlands of Scotland, such as at Arisaig. That is where the important lessons of security and isolation, and discipline and mental and physical toughness, were instilled. Agents should have been well-prepared for the ardours of the field, but, again, many mistakes in selection and deployment were made, such as the approval of the unsuitable Noor Inayat Khan as a wireless operator, the unauthorized contacts among cells, and the calamitous failure to acknowledge security checks in agents’ messages.

But were the lessons themselves reasonable? Gubbins’ ideas were perhaps a bit too inflexible, and sometimes out of touch, while those that were important were frequently neglected. In his pamphlet, he had insisted that traitors be executed immediately, but when Mathilde Carré (la Chatte) was arrested and then became the mistress of Abwehr Officer Bleicher, Pierre de Vomécourt, instead of killing her, tried to manipulate her as a ‘triple agent’ [erroneous term], with disastrous consequences. Gubbins had surely not anticipated that his first traitor would be a woman. Gubbins had also preached that no paper records should be carried by agents, and contacts’ names and addresses committed to memory, but that was either too much of a hurdle for many operatives, or else they merely got careless. Wireless operators stayed on-line for far too long, thus exposing themselves to radio detection-finding: the pressure of communicating volumes was too great. The insertion of agents into hostile territory, where identity and ration cards were essential for surviving was very different from the subsistence of communist partisans in their homeland, as Gubbins had witnessed in Russia.

Thus the elevation of Gubbins’ frequently half-baked ideas and occasionally disastrous supervision of events to a level of innovative heroism, no matter how inspiring a leader of men he was, represents a missed opportunity in the writing of history and biography. Gubbins was brave, inspiring, imaginative and energetic. Yet he was also two-dimensional, ruthless, evasive and sometimes irresponsible – a military man out of his depth in the complexities of subversion and dissimulation. This piece is a study of the existing literature, and does not claim to be an original analysis of all the material. A fresh approach would undoubtedly be highly desirable. I am not looking for a hatchet-job, like Richard Aldington’s biography of T. E. Lawrence, or even the ‘harsh, aggressive and uncompromising’ terms (the author’s words) of Andrew Roberts’ Eminent Churchillians. Maybe more along the lines of Geoffrey Wheatcroft’s recent study of Winston Churchill, Churchill’s Shadow, something uncluttered by Foreign Office advisers, or self-appointed champions of SOE. Our war heroes are allowed to have flaws, and to have made serious mistakes.

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

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Special Bulletin: The Airmen Who Died Twice

Operation PARAVANE

Over the past few months I have been collaborating with a researcher in the UK over a WWII mystery. Nigel Austin, who had been investigating the puzzle, found me on coldspur, and contacted me. We quickly determined that our knowledge was complementary, and that we could work together remotely. Now, having almost exhausted our research sources, we are ready to start telling our story.

The piece below serves as an introduction to our planned article, as well as a teaser. We present it here with two goals in mind: 1) to seek any insights on the operation that coldspur readers may have; and 2) to ask whether any reader has suggestions, or better still, contacts with any magazine or periodical that would be keen to publish our final piece. Please write to me at antonypercy@aol.com if you have any contributions or ideas.

‘The Airmen Who Died Twice’ by Nigel Austin and Antony Percy

On September 11, 1944, two squadrons of Lancasters, Numbers 617 and 9, left Bardney and Woodhall Spa in Lincolnshire to fly to Yagodnik airfield in the north-west of the Soviet Union, near Archangelsk. Some aircraft stopped at Lossiemouth in Scotland for refuelling. Their mission was to use Yagodnik as a staging-post, for further refuelling, and then attack the German battleship Tirpitz, berthed in Alta Fjord in northern Norway. This fresh operation, named PARAVANE, had been conceived as a way to exploit the ‘Tallboy’ bomb that had proved its efficacy against U-Boat pens along the Normandy coast, as part of the preparation for D-Day.

The closer proximity of Yagodnik to Alta Fjord, and the desire to attack from the south-east with an element of surprise, made the location doubly attractive. Despite recent spats between the Allies over the US airbase in Poltava, and Stalin’s refusal to assist the Polish Uprising, Bomber Command had gained Stalin’s agreement to the operation at short notice. The Soviet leader presumably believed that the destruction of the Tirpitz would lead to the greater safety of the Arctic convoys, but he probably also had an eye out for gathering secrets of advanced British technology.

The journey to Yagodnik was not without peril. Communications with the Soviets were fragile, because of problems with radio frequencies and callsigns. The weather was poor. The outcome was that several of the Lancasters lost their way, and crash-landed just before running out of fuel. No deaths occurred, but some of the aircraft were thus unavailable for the attack, and could not be repaired in time for the return flight to Scotland. On September 15 the raids took place. The outcome was indistinct: smoke flares meant that the target was swiftly obscured, and damage could not accurately be assessed by photographic sorties. Yet all planes managed to return safely to Yagodnik.

With a smaller number of planes available to carry home the total number of crew-members, each plane that returned to Scotland on September 16 had to take on additional passengers beyond the standard crew-number of seven. At about 5:15 pm the first group of sixteen Lancaster bombers, with a total of a hundred and thirty-one crew, took off over a two-hour period to return to the UK, over the airspace of neutral Sweden, avoiding occupied Norway. Leading the group, Wing Commander Tait confirmed his safe return to the UK at 1:39 am on September 17, after a fair-weather flight. All the other planes returned safely, except the Lancaster piloted by Frank Levy, PB416.

For some reason PB416 took a path further north and west than the defined route across neutral Sweden and the Skagerrak. At 01.21 am on September 17 an acknowledgement for a location was received at RAF Dyce Aberdeen from Frank Levy’s Lancaster. The coordinates confirmed “a fix in position 60°50’N 009°45’E”. These bearings convert to a site near the village of Oystogo in rural Etnedal, South Norway – a remote grassy valley by a river, surrounded by steeply wooded terrain. It is fifty-five miles from the mountain at Saupeset, near Nesbyen, where PB416 crashed later that night. There were no survivors. Ten casualties were recorded, marked at the crash-site by ten nails on a simple cross, and later by their ten names inscribed on a memorial panel. Identifiable solely by their ID-tags, the bodies were buried in a mass grave. They were subsequently exhumed and re-interred. Ten white grave stones stand today in Nesbyen churchyard.

“These graves tell about freedom, they tell about young men fighting for their country and Europe against the Nazi tyranny”, Wing Commander Iverson eulogized on a visit to Nesbyen in 1987. “It is still a mystery how this could have happened”. Tony Iverson’s ‘mystery’ has generated much speculation since the crash. Why was a Lancaster, from an elite RAF Squadron, without bombs, alone, three hundred and thirty miles adrift from the rest of the Squadron over occupied Norway? Was it due to mechanical problems, a lack of fuel, pilot error, or bad weather? If the plane was lost, why did it report its location without mention of any of the above issues?

The RAF Flight Loss card for PB416 from 1944 bizarrely shows nine airmen. Among those identified as casualties were Squadron Leader Wyness and Flight Lieutenant Williams, who were ‘guests’ on PB416. Yet a few weeks later, on October 7, these same two officers were brought down during a raid on the Swiss-German border, at the Kembs barrier, and summarily executed. This article analyses the mystery of the airmen who died twice, and suggests why the Royal Air Force and the War Graves Commission have attempted to cover up the facts of this embarrassing disaster for nearly eighty years.

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Peter Wright’s Agents & Double-Agents

Peter Wright

Sid said, ‘I hate conspiracy theories.’

‘It’s not a theory once it’s proved. After that, it’s just a conspiracy.’

            (from ‘Slow Horses’, by Mick Herron)

Contents:

Background and Introduction

            Guy Liddell’s Behaviour

Part 1: Peter Wright & Constantin Volkov

            Nigel West’s Molehunt

            Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s Storm Birds

            Phillip Knightley’s Master Spy

            Keith Jeffery’s Postscript

            The National Archives

            Nigel West’s Cold War Spymaster

            The Volkov Text

Part 2: Peter Wright & Double Agents

            Nigel West & Double Agents

Conclusions

Background and Introduction:

It was a year ago (WhoFramedRogerHollis?) when I presented my case that the investigation into Roger Hollis in 1963 was an elaborate set-up by Dick White and Arthur Martin. Yet I know, from communications I have received from coldspur readers, that the belief that there was an MI5 mole active in the 1950s and 1960s, that he (or she!) was known as ‘ELLI’ by the KGB, and that ELLI was probably Roger Hollis, dies hard. In this segment I return to inspect some of the symptoms of betrayal that encouraged Martin, and, more specifically, his faithful sidekick Peter Wright, to pursue their quest to unmask this sinister figure.

The prevailing ‘wisdom’ is that a traitor working at the highest levels of MI5 was responsible for the failure of multiple counter-intelligence operations of the Security Service. For example, the careful and methodological study sponsored by the FBI, ‘British Patriot or Soviet Spy? Clarifying a  Major Cold War Mystery’ (see https://fbistudies.com/wp-content/uploads/2015/04/20150417_ReportandChronologyHollis.pdf) , using ‘argument mapping’ to bring some discipline to the study, starts off by introducing the contention: ‘There was a GRU mole in MI5 between 1940 and 1945 under the codename ELLI’. It then breaks this assertion down into the various claims made by defectors, including Gouzenko and Akhmedov. But it immediately gets bogged down into a misunderstanding about what Gouzenko said, a misinterpretation of the exchange between Philby and Moscow Centre, and then introduces the distracting testimony of Christopher Andrew (who declined to attend the session) with his erratic statement that ELLI did exist, but was in fact Leo Long.

Overall, this study was far too much influenced by Chapman Pincher’s fanciful and unverified tale displayed in Treachery. Yet the project claims to be off and running on the basis that the GRU did operate a spy in MI5 alongside the KGB’s Anthony Blunt. “There is complete acceptance that, in fact, it was penetrated by both the KGB and the GRU”, the report confidently maintains. But that is not so. Even Christopher Andrew writes, in Defend the Realm (p 350): “A series of conspiracy theorists, chief among them the maverick MI5 officer Peter Wright, succeeding in convincing themselves and many of their readers that ELLI was none other than Roger Hollis, who had been working as a Soviet agent throughout the Gouzenko investigation.” But thereafter, Andrew and I part company.

As I have shown in my previous writings, the story about ELLI was probably based on a misunderstanding between the MI5 officer Stephen Alley and Colonel Chichaev, the Soviet military attaché installed in London at the same time that the SOE/MI6 mission to Moscow was established, at the end of 1941. Alley (who spoke Russian, and was thus responsible for ‘handling’ Chichaev) probably made a light-hearted remark about his old colleague George Hill, the head of the mission (who had just made a visit to London on leave) and Hill’s reacquaintance with a former agent of his from revolutionary days, whom the NKVD had attempted to plant on him. Chichaev surely felt duty-bound to report this conversation to his superiors, and word got around that Hill had a spy in Moscow, something that Gouzenko picked up in his role as a cipher clerk.

Guy Liddell’s Behaviour:

Guy Liddell’s thoughts at the time are very pertinent. As I have reported before, he even recorded in his diary the possibility that ELLI might be Alley, but then immediately discarded the notion as too preposterous – simply because he was confident of Alley’s utter loyalty. At the time, however, he was still investigating who ELLI was, and, firmly of the belief that he was an SOE asset (as other conversations made clear), started deeper research by working with the SOE Security chief, Archie Boyle. From the way the topic suddenly drops from his diary entries, we could assume that the culprit was soon identified, and the case casually dismissed, or, alternatively, that the revelations were so horrifying that he tried to place a blanket over the whole business. What is also extraordinary is the fact that Liddell interviewed Gouzenko in March 1946, yet, according to what he reported, he never brought up the question of ELLI, nor did Gouzenko volunteer any information about the spy and his cryptonym.

Yet ELLI did not die away: the Americans knew about the whole business, and resuscitated the question a few years later. Liddell’s diary entry for October 1, 1951 (when Philby had come under suspicion after the absconding of Burgess and Maclean) records that Bedell Smith (the head of the CIA) had told Stewart Menzies, the MI6 chief, after having a meeting with Liddell’s boss Percy Sillitoe ‘that he thought that MI5 were now confident that Philby was identical with the man mentioned by Gouzenko and Wolkov’ [sic: more regularly ‘Volkov’, the NKGB officer who tried to defect from Istanbul]. Liddell observes that Bedell Smith must have misunderstood what Sillitoe was telling him at their recent meeting. “This is of course far from the case”, he adds, laconically. ‘Of course’? It sounds as if the ELLI business has been sorted: ELLI’s identity was known, and it was not Philby. And, ‘of course’, Sillitoe might have got it wrong himself –  or might have intended to send Bedell Smith away with a false trail.

So what might Liddell’s studied avoidance of the ELLI business in 1946 have meant? I consider four possible explanations: Indifference; Resolution; Resignation; and Dismay. I believe that Liddell took the allegations of espionage seriously, but that his sensibilities had been softened by his experience of Blunt and Long during the war, where he probably attributed their passing on of confidential information to the Soviet Embassy to an over-zealous desire to help Stalin in the war effort. On the other hand, if he regarded the ELLI problem as resolved, and believed that the threat had been uncovered as being non-existent, and was all due to a misunderstanding, he never communicated it to those whose opinion mattered, such as the Americans. He also did not consider any investigation a waste of effort. Ever since Krivitsky, it is true, MI5 had had to deal with allegations of spies inside British government, and the fresh claims made by Gouzenko and Volkov were simply part of a pattern, which could conceivably have been of exaggeration or provocation. While there were no real leads to follow up, and the effort was time-consuming, Liddell stayed alert to the threat.

I suspect that the real reason for his silence was Dismay. The search for ELLI revealed such shocking mismanagement and exposures to British security that Liddell tried to hush up any investigative process.When he pursued the investigation into SOE, and discovered the alarming fact that a White Russian (Sergey Leontiev, aka George Graham) had been introduced as a cipher clerk into the Soviet SOE mission, and had been left unattended in Kuibyshev, he closed down the investigation, as the discovery showed a far more dangerous exposure than any ELLI might have caused.

(At another time I shall investigate the serious breaches of security that must have been occasioned by the subornation of George Graham, introductory details of which can be read at   TheStrangeLifeofGeorgeGraham. For instance, in early 1945, he was copied in on Foreign Office telegrams concerning the search for members of SOE believed to have been arrested by the Germans, some with strict instructions that the Russians not be informed of the inquiries, as some agents were born in the Soviet Union. Gordon Brook-Shepherd [see below] has correctly pointed out – without showing any understanding of the George Graham fiasco – that the Kremlin would have been aware, before the Teheran, Yalta and Potsdam summits, of what the negotiating positions of the Western Allies were.)

Thus the tensions in the investigation lie between the allegations of Gouzenko (who pointed to ELLI, but never indicated Philby), and the accusations of Volkov (who never got so far as to offer any cryptonyms such as ELLI, but who pointed to Philby). All those who have written about the case have twisted themselves into knots over the sources and the evidence.  My task in this bulletin is to inspect the sequence of events that brought the Volkov story to the attention of the British public, and the steps by which it evolved. The whole charivari constitutes an extraordinary procession of self-delusion, negligence, and deception. In it, the role of Peter Wright is critical, for the following reasons: i) the enormous popularity of Spycatcher; ii) the attempts by Her Majesty’s Government to ban it; iii) Wright’s influence on Chapman Pincher, and the latter’s persistent accusations against Roger Hollis; and iv) the highly unmethodical nature of Wright’s analysis. I thus focus on the pivotal disclosures and speculations of Wright, although the account goes backwards and forwards in time.

Peter Wright’s narratives about agents and double-agents are not the only ‘evidence’ he presents to support his case that MI5 had a mole in its upper echelons. For example, he dedicates the whole of Chapter 10 of Spycatcher to the Gordon Lonsdale/Krogers affair, and concludes that all the inconsistencies of the case pointed unmistakably to the fact that the Soviets were being informed of what was going on. Yet the obvious truth is that, if someone had been making the Russians aware of how the investigation was progressing, the KGB would surely have subtly removed Lonsdale (Konon Molody) from London, and the Krogers’ spynest in Ruislip would never have been discovered. In his whittling down of the various allegations of penetration to the ten most important (p 278), Wright lists Volkov’s ‘Acting Head’ feed, and Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI, both in September 1945, as Number One and Number Two. Having investigated the Gouzenko story in depth in earlier posts, I now concentrate on the first of these two items.

Part 1. Peter Wright & Konstantin Volkov:

Before analyzing Volkov’s major allegations about Soviet penetration that the molehunters in MI5 turned their attention on, I want to study the vexed issue of the breaking of Foreign Office ciphers. Konstantin Volkov had highlighted this security lapse in the dossier that he provided to the British Consulate in Istanbul. Volkov was an NKVD officer in Turkey who, in August and September 1945, had approached officials at the British consulate with promises of information about Soviet agents (see  http://www.coldspur.com/on-philby-gouzenko-and-elli/). At the time that Peter Wright wrote of the business in 1986, in Spycatcher, official documentary support for what Volkov told the members of the consulate was not available: much of what was written about him derived from Kim Philby’s memoir issued in 1968, My Silent War, which cannot be regarded as an overall reliable testament, and from some journalism that had incredibly been overlooked. (For those readers unfamiliar with the Volkov story, Kim Philby was the MI6 officer eventually sent out to Ankara to deal with Volkov, who had been predictably spirited away by the NKGB * by the time Philby arrived.)

[* The NKGB was created in 1943 as a separate directorate from the NKVD, but reconstituted as a ministry, the MGB, in 1946.]

‘The Philby Conspiracy’

Another narrative was available, however. In 1968, the Sunday Times Insight team of Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley had published The Philby Conspiracy, which was based on several hundred interviews with various diplomats, intelligence officers, etc. It regrettably had no sources listed (because of the Official Secrets Act), and avoidably no Index. Integrating the essence of hundreds of anonymous and unverifiable interviews, when the subjects may well have been dissembling, is not a path to good history-writing, but The Philby Conspiracy was a valiant effort to pierce through the fog. As it turned out, John Reed could have been unerringly identified as the primary source for the narrative about the Volkov affair – alongside Philby’s memoir. The Insight production could stand for a while as a reasonably accurate account of the Volkov business.

In his account of the Volkov affair, Peter Wright focused first on the cipher leak. He stated:

            During the course of the inquiry I was also able to solve one other riddle from Volkov’s visit. Volkov claimed that the Russians could read the Foreign Office ciphers in Moscow. Maclean certainly betrayed every code he had access to in the Foreign Office, but Foreign Office records showed that the Moscow Embassy used one-time pads during and just after the war, so Maclean could not have been responsible.

            Remembering my work with “the Thing” in 1951, I was sure the Russians had been using a concealed microphone system, and we eventually found two microphones buried in the plaster above the cipher room. During the war, two clerks routinely handled the Embassy one-time pad communications, one reading over the clear text message for the other to encipher. The Russians simply recorded the clear text through their microphones. By the very good work of the Building Research Laboratory we were able to establish that the probable date of the concrete embedding of the microphone was about 1942, when the Embassy was in Kuibyshev.

Now, to me, that sounds like a highly improbable method of addressing the delicate task of encrypting messages, but I shall not strenuously argue the point here. Wright went on to write, however, that ‘the Working Party Report found an extraordinary and persistent level of appalling security inside the Embassy’, which resulted in the demand that an MI5 officer should work full-time there on security matters. It is not stated what the problems were, but if the Working Party concurrently discovered the same egregious lapses in recruitment and management that Liddell came across, it would point not to mechanical intrusion by the NKVD (although that surely did occur), but more to human treachery, with the unfortunate George Graham suborned by the honey-trap, and consequently forced to hand over cipher details.

On the other hand, that procedures were not quite as Wright depicted can be learned from other sources. In his memoir of the time, George Hill wrote, of his few months in Kuibyshev (where all foreign missions had been moved at the end of 1941, owing to the German advance on Moscow):

            We, Guinea Pigs, day and night have been helping the Embassy in coding up and decoding messages, for the volume of work has increased beyond the powers of the regular staff, caused by the latest events, besides doing our own stuff. Even I am beginning to get quite fast at coding.

Not ‘one clerk reading out a clear text to another’, then. Moreover, the Embassy and SOE Mission were housed at the Kuibyshev Boy’s Gymnasium School, evacuated for the purpose, so it is not clear that the NKVD had had time to wire the premises before the arrival of the British. In addition, in his account of Volkov’s statement quoted above, Wright stressed that the Soviet electronic interception occurred in Moscow, not Kuibyshev. He makes a giant illogical leap in transferring the detection to the city 1,000 kilometres away. Yet this was his area of special expertise:  according to Nigel West, Wright’s entry to MI5 had been guaranteed by the skill he showed in detecting, in 1952, that a microphone had been inserted in a seal behind the US Ambassador’s desk in Moscow. Thus that may be a reason he concentrated on technology rather than human agency.

As I reported a few months ago, the security lapse occurred when Hill left Graham behind in Kuibyshev, where the Mission did not even own a locked safe to store the codebooks overnight. (The Chubb safe had had to be left behind in Moscow.) Thus we have a far more convincing explanation of what Volkov was referring to when he spoke of security lapses, and urged his contacts in the Istanbul consulate not to use cables in transmitting his accusations about Soviet subversion of the Foreign Office and British Intelligence, but instead pass them on in the diplomatic bag. (As readers will learn later in this piece, the officials in Istanbul did not follow this guidance punctiliously.)

Wright then moved on to the hints at London-based agents provide by Volkov. One of the controversial statements that Philby had made ran as follows:

            He [Volkov] also offered details of Soviet networks and agents operating abroad. Inter alia, he claimed to know the real names of three Soviet agents working in Britain. Two of them were in the Foreign Office; one was head of a counter-espionage organisation in London.

Philby immediately recognized himself as the organisation head, and, after a minor panic, set about extinguishing the threat. Wright then expanded on this version of events.

In describing the NKVD officer’s approach to the British Consulate, where he said that he could provide names of Soviet spies in Britain if he were paid adequately, Wright had written (p 238) that Volkov ‘gave an Embassy official a list of the departments where the spies allegedly worked’, as well as a hint to an MI6 spy in Persia. Wright then jumped (p 278) to highlighting Volkov’s claim (one of the ten ‘really important allegations’ from defectors) that one of the spies was an ‘Acting Head’, without offering any details of where that nugget derived, something he echoed on p 285. Only then did he inform his readers that Volkov’s list of spies ‘talked of seven in London, two in the Foreign Office, and five in British Intelligence’. While this version was clearly different from the Philby story, the revelation allowed him to identify Burgess as one of the pair. For some reason, however, he discounted Maclean, arguing that, since he was not in London at the time, he could not be the candidate. (This must be the sole occasion when the indivisibility of ‘Burgess and Maclean’, etched into British cultural history like ‘Marks and Spencer’ or ‘Morecambe and Wise’, has ever been challenged.) Wright ignored the fact, however, that Volkov may not have been completely up-to-date on the movements of these persons. Moreover, ‘in London’ could simply mean ‘working for a British institution’.

Wright then turned to British Intelligence:

            But what of the five spies in British Intelligence? One was Philby, another was Blunt, and a third Cairncross. Long might theoretically have been a fourth Volkov spy, but he was not in London at this time, and he could not possibly be one of the eight VENONA cryptonyms, since he was in Germany in September 1945. That still left one Volkov spy, the ‘Acting Head’ unaccounted for, as well as four VENONA cryptonyms, of which presumably the ‘Acting Head’ was one, and Volkov’s second Foreign Office spy another. As for ELLI, there was no trace of him anywhere.

This analysis is a bit of muddle, with Wright mixing up VENONA sources with Volkov’s submissions. Moreover, he overlooks candidates such as Milne, Klugmann, Uren, or even James Macgibbon, all at some time in departments of ‘British Intelligence’, whose cryptonyms may have caught Volkov’s eye. Yet the fact that there was a total of seven spies in London, of whom two were in the Foreign Office, had nevertheless taken hold.

Nigel West’s Molehunt:

‘Molehunt’

The following year, Nigel West published his Molehunt. He reminded readers that it was Philby who had first claimed in My Silent War that Volkov had mentioned ‘two Soviet agents in the Foreign Office, one head of a counter-espionage organization in London’, but West did not immediately draw attention to the discrepancy between Philby’s version and that of Wright. Had they both been reading from the same Volkov letter, one wonders? Somewhat mysteriously, West elided this paradox, but went on say that ‘a check was made on the text of the first message as received from Istanbul’, and he followed with:

It was compared with the original which had been typed by Volkov and handed in to the British Consulate before his disappearance. A slight discrepancy was noted in Volkov’s Russian original. He had mentioned a total of five agents in British Intelligence and two in the Foreign Office. However, the translation of a crucial sentence read, “I know for instance that one of these agents is fulfilling the duties of Head of a Department of British Counterintelligence.”

This statement seems to me unsatisfactory and evasive: it provides no dates; it deploys too much use of the passive voice and does not explain who was doing the comparisons, the inspections, and the translations; it provides no documentary evidence. Had West had access to MI5 files? No: his source is given as ‘Peter Wright, World in Action’, a television programme broadcast on July 16, 1984.

So why should West trust Peter Wright, and why did Wright not explain this process in Spycatcher? West draws attention to the fact that Philby interpreted the incriminating description as referring to himself, but Wright had other ideas. As West goes on to write:

            Philby’s treatment of this vital passage was interesting because his record omitted mention of the five moles in British intelligence and implied that the “Head of a Department of British Counterintelligence” was a reference to himself. Certainly, Philby was then head of Section IX, a counterintelligence department of SIS. The point was pursued by Terence Lecky and Wright, with further help from GCHQ’s Russian-speaking expert who made a new attempt to translate Volkov’s original message. The second translation altered its accepted meaning by reinterpreting the critical sentence to read. “I know for instance that one of these agents is fulfilling the duties of acting Head of a Department of the British Counterintelligence Directorate.” Wright believed that far from implicating Philby, who had served in SIS, Volkov had actually been referring to someone in MI5. The “Head of a Department in British Counterintelligence” might well be said to refer to SIS, but there could be no mistaking the author’s intention when he mentioned the “British Counterintelligence Directorate”.

This again strikes me as undisciplined. West does not question why Lecky and White were suspicious that the text may have been mistranslated, nor does he call on the letter itself to be shown as evidence. Was Philby being obtuse, trying to conceal the extent of Soviet infiltration? Was he throwing the item about two Foreign Office spies in the face of his ex-colleagues, calling them out for their feebleness in not following up on Volkov’s leads? West does not speculate. Yet he has no grounds for accepting the ‘new’ translation. He simply trusts what Wright tells him, when the actions of Lecky and Wright show all signs of regrettable a priori thinking. In fact, when Sir Burke Trend was invited to go over all the FLUENCY papers, Trend challenged Wright on the reworking of Volkov’s allegation. “Wasn’t I being finicky in altering the thrust of the allegation after having the document retranslated? He asked”, wrote Wright (p 380). ‘Finicky’? That was an odd adjective to use in the circumstance. Wright’s answer was not profound:

            “I don’t see why,” I replied. One way is to make guess about what an allegation means, and where it leads, and how seriously to take it. The other way is to adopt a scholastic approach, and analyse everything very carefully and precisely and build scientifically on that bedrock.”

Philby had appeared as a clear candidate for what was superficially an accurate job description. There was really no guesswork involved. Nevertheless, Wright then reportedly had Golitsyn check out the Russian text, and the defector agreed with the new interpretation. And that led to the ‘proof’ that there was a mole in MI5, and the investigations into Mitchell and Hollis. This was all very unsatisfactory. What was direly needed was an inspection of Volkov’s original letter. How could a simple statement have been phrased so poorly that it gave rise to such ambiguity? Yet instead of some proper archival evidence, the world gained another less than disciplined narrative.

Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s Storm Birds:

Gordon Brook-Shepherd’s’ ‘The Storm Birds’

Three years later a book with the trappings of a more authoritative account of the Volkov affair appeared on the scene. Gordon Brook-Shepherd was a former asset of MI6 who had previously published a book on early Soviet defectors, titled The Storm Petrels. In 1989 he issued a follow-up, titled The Storm Birds, which studied post-war Soviet defectors, carrying the engaging sub-title The Dramatic True Stories: 1945-1985. It is a useful but in many ways a complacent and erratic work. Not all his subjects were even defectors: for example, Penkovsky and Farewell (Vetrov, whom he does not name) were agents-in-place who were executed before they could defect, and Volkov never managed to complete his defection. The chapter on Lyalin has no sources listed.

While Brook-Shepherd’s judgment is overall sound (for example on Penkovsky and Golitysn), he frequently offers no explanation as to where his intelligence comes from, with a paucity of Footnotes to describe his sources. This is especially true of Chapter 4 (The Wrecker), where the author covers Volkov. Brook-Shepherd provides a Bibliography that reflects his opinions on many relevant works of interest, but in his Foreword introduces his distinctive qualifications for documenting his tale of defectors in the following terms:

            For the present work, I have been able to talk at length, either in America or Europe, to no fewer than eight Soviet defectors. Their accounts have been corroborated and amplified by expert sources in Europe and America.

That was not adequate, however. Volkov had been executed in 1945, and was not subject to interview, yet Brook-Shepherd had somehow been able to provide a comprehensive account of the approach by the NKVD officer to the British legation.

Nevertheless, Brook-Shepherd still suggests authoritativeness in passing on the full details of Volkov’s approach in Istanbul. He gives the names of the officials involved, describes the delays that occurred, and records the eventual dispatch of Philby to address the situation. He refers to the 314 Soviet agents in Turkey and the 250 in Britain that Volkov claimed he could name, and also cites the numbers of two spies in the Foreign Office and seven inside the British intelligence system. He identifies John Reed as the officer who acted as interpreter. Brook-Shepherd notes the critical phrase from the translation of Volkov’s letter (that one was ‘fulfilling the function of head of a section of British counterespionage in London’) with a cautious aside, namely that ‘the counterespionage official (the Russian phrase had been difficult to translate precisely) was probably Philby, although the description could have fitted Roger Hollis’. Given that Brook-Shepherd, in his Foreword, states that the evidence from the case of Colonel Penkovsky ‘destroys by itself the thesis that Sir Roger Hollis could have been a Soviet agent’, this was a somewhat equivocal attitude to adopt. He suggested, by his comment, that he was familiar with Peter Wright’s investigation into the meaning of the controversial passage, but he did not list Spycatcher in his Bibliography, merely criticizing Chapman Pincher’s books for ‘relying much too heavily on the reminiscences of one long-retired former MI5 officer, Peter Wright of Spy Catcher fame [sic]’. It is an uneven performance.

On the other hand, Brook-Shepherd did sensibly highlight the breach in ciphers, and recorded the revelation as follows:

            There was one more startling piece of information, which was to complicate fatally the transaction. For the last two and a half years, Volkov assured his listeners, the Russians had been reading all cipher traffic, both on the normal diplomatic channel and on the special intelligence ones, which had passed between the British embassy in Moscow and London. (This claim was never verified but, in view of Volkov’s service inside the Moscow Centre, was taken very seriously. It would have meant, for example, that the Kremlin had been aware, before the Teheran, Yalta, and Potsdam summits, what the western negotiating position was.)

It may be significant that Brook-Shepherd here refers to both ‘diplomatic’ and ‘special intelligence’ channels, whereas Wright had described the exposure solely as a ‘Foreign Office’ breach. Was Wright being coy, or merely forgetful? It is hard to say. Yet, as I shall show later, Brook-Shepherd’s observation about the seriousness of the response is very provocative, and needs to be challenged in the light of other evidence. He was correct in drawing attention to the seriousness of this allegation, but apparently overlooked a vital commentary.

As far as I can establish, no one appeared to question Brook-Shepherd, or show much interest in his sources. In KGB: The Inside Story, published in 1990, Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky were happy to echo Brook-Shepherd’s telling of the story, indicating in an Endnote that they believed that Brook-Shepherd’s account was the ‘most reliable’, and corrected ‘a number of inventions by Philby’. (Through this gesture they appeared to cock a snook at the Sunday Times’s journalistic venture. Brook-Shepherd and Andrew were generally dismissive of Knightley because of the errors he perpetrated in his book The Second Oldest Profession.) This statement constituted a less than subtle indication that they alone knew the full facts, and that they could therefore impart to their readers how accurate (or inaccurate) both Philby and Brook-Shepherd were, while not divulging wherefrom their wisdom derived. Under this guise, they were able to discriminate, trusting (for instance) Philby’s description of his dealings with his handler, Krotov, while dismissing part of what he wrote as fantasy. Gordievsky was surprisingly not able to provide much new insight on the affair at this stage.

And Brook-Shepherd’s authoritative-sounding story (which happened to mesh quite closely with how Philby had described the events) remained a point of orientation for the world at large for several years. It had to wait a while for another oracular statement from on high for his chapter to be granted the seal of approval, namely an Endnote in Andrew’s Defend the Realm, published two decades later. Having outlined the events in a summarization of Brook-Shepherd’s account (pp 344-345), without indicating that any intelligence archives had been inspected, Christopher Andrew echoed his previous assessment when he wrote: “The most reliable account of Volkov’s attempted defection is in Brook-Shepherd, Storm Birds, pp 40-53, which corrects a number of inventions and inaccuracies in Philby’s version of events.” This was a typically patronizing and disingenuous observation by Andrew, since he still did not deign to explain why he considered Brook-Shepherd’s account so trustworthy. I have to conclude that Andrew had been informed by his political masters that Brook-Shepherd had been guided to the appropriate archives, in the same manner by which M. R. D. Foot had been steered by the SOE Adviser. But the whole business was very shabby and unprofessional.

Phillip Knightley’s ‘The Master Spy’

Phillip Knightley’s Master Spy:

As a further manifestation of the extraordinary manner in which false trails are led, and real ones ignored, in this business, I must include the episodes involving the journalist Phillip Knightley, as a kind of parallel path to what his Insight team was doing at the Sunday Times. As early as October 1967, the London paper, which had been investigating Gouzenko’s claims about ELLI, and whether they referred to Philby, received a hint from one Leslie Nicholson, who had worked for MI6, and written a book titled Secret Agent under the name John Whitwell. Nicholson revealed to Phillip Knightley that Philby had led the service’s Soviet counter-espionage unit – a fact that impressed the newspaper team. Why Knightley and co. should have found this insight a breakthrough is itself a puzzle, as Philby had explicitly described in his memoir how he had managed to install himself as head of Section IX, which was responsible for Soviet counter-intelligence. That aside, finding the irony of a possible Soviet agent heading a British counter-intelligence unit supremely appealing, the newspaper published an article on Philby on October 1, 1967 – its first on the alleged traitor. The appearance of the piece had a rewarding outcome, however. It provoked John Reed, the interpreter at Istanbul, and currently the Sheriff of Shropshire, to write a letter to the editors. Part of it ran as follows:

            I am wondering whether next week’s issue will mention an incident which occurred in Istanbul in August 1945 and in which both Philby and I were involved. If so, and I am mentioned by name, I should be grateful for a preview of the text before it is published. The incident convinced me that Philby was either a Soviet agent or unbelievably incompetent and I took what seemed to me at the time the appropriate action.

Excited by these revelations, which enabled them ‘to crack the one aspect of the Philby story that had eluded them’, the Sunday Times journalists published Reed’s story the following week. (Strangely, The Philby Conspiracy does not carry this incident.) What was astonishing about the fresh revelations is that Reed was clearly not concerned about being identified as the ‘leaker’, and obviously felt that any doubts or remonstrations he had maintained about Philby’s loyalty had not been taken seriously. The essence of Reed’s testimony is recorded in Knightley’s book, The Master Spy, which came out in 1988. The story is essentially the same as the one that Brook-Shepherd told, yet the fact that Reed had spoken out, and that his observations as a key witness and facilitator had appeared in the national press over two decades beforehand, was ignored by Brook-Shepherd – as well as by those who came after him.

Yet Reed’s behaviour is also a bit puzzling. In his letter, he claimed that he took what seemed to him the appropriate action.  This involved a direct challenge to Philby, which resulted in the infamous statement about ‘leave arrangements’ interfering with London’s response. Philby’s account indicates he was able to manipulate Reed. He writes, of his need to ‘get Volkov away to safety’ (a horribly macabre way of putting it, incidentally):

I thought that I could string Reed along further by hinting that we were by no means satisfied that Volkov was not a provocateur. It would be most unfortunate, therefore, if his information was given currency before we could assess his authenticity. I felt that I could do no better. An expert, of course, could have driven a coach-and-four through my fabrications. But Reed was not an expert, and he might prove pliable.

But did Reed voice his concerns up the line? It is not clear. Knightley’s account runs as follows:

            Later Reed took the opportunity at a diplomatic reception to pass on his suspicion to a colleague from the American Embassy in Ankara, but this was before the CIA had been created. OSS was winding down, and Reed’s American colleagues had no intelligence contacts, so it is unlikely that the story got back to Washington in a form that could do Philby any harm. SIS itself accepted Philby’s theory about Volkov’s insistence on bag communications, so his luck held out.

It would have been highly unprofessional and irresponsible for Reed to have expressed his doubts about Philby to the Americans, but not to his own bosses at the Foreign Office, yet this testimony came from Reed himself. Had he in fact sent in a report, and was he out of sensitive political concerns covering for the Foreign Office mandarins, and maybe protecting his pension, from his retreat in Shropshire?

The historian Edward Harrison helped provide an answer. When researching his own book on Philby, he dug out a letter in the Dacre (Trevor-Roper) papers at Christ Church, Oxford that indicated that Reed had probably overstated his suspicions. Reed had written to Trevor-Roper in September and October 1968, at the time that Trevor-Roper was writing his Philby Affair, a project undertaken at the instigation of Dick White. Harrison’s extract (on page 178 of Young Philby) includes the following text:

            After Volkov’s kidnapping and the inexplicable delays and evasions of Philby’s visit to Istanbul, I became convinced that the warning given by Volkov of the presence of Soviet spies must be true, although I cannot claim to have recognised Philby as the principal culprit. I thought he was just irresponsible and incompetent  . . . in the end I decided to give the story I outline to an American colleague . . .

Reed went on to say that the story, contrary to what Knightley claimed, was indeed sent up the line, and reinforced the doubts the Americans held about Philby when serious suspicions first arose. The added irony, of course, is that Menzies also believed that the warnings given by Volkov had merit. And Philby, in Trevor-Roper’s words, was ‘the most industrious and competent man in that generally lax organisation’.

Trevor-Roper did not use the anecdote from Reed, and compiled his short summary of the Volkov affair from the writings of the Sunday Times team, Page, Leitch and Knightley, concluding his chapter The New Machiavel as follows:

            The memory of the mysterious Volkov affair then concentrated a suspicion which, otherwise, was diffuse: it formed the central and most persuasive change in the dossier which was now compiled, in M.I.5, for the interrogation of Philby.

When was that weaselly ‘now’? Trevor-Roper was unprofessionally vague. It was thus phrased to help Dick White and MI5 look sharp, of course. Indeed, some informal accounts I have received (from coldspur readers) reinforce the idea that other intelligence officers, such as Jane Archer, had their suspicions of Philby confirmed by the Volkov incidents.  Maybe some currently unreleased files, or undiscovered memoirs, would tell us more.

Keith Jeffery’s Postscript:

I have remarked beforehand on Keith Jeffery’s studious ignoring of the Gouzenko and Volkov cases in his history of MI6, which was published in 2011. In a revised paperback edition issued in 2014, however, he added a Postscript that contained fresh material on both topics. It was if he had been stung into action when critics expressed their dismay that an authorized history, declaratively taking the story of MI6 up till 1949, had been so neglectful of the Volkov business, and Philby’s shameful betrayal of the service to the Soviets. Yet Jeffery introduces his material in a bizarre way. He first concedes that the story ‘has been told in outline’ by Christopher Andrew in his history of MI5, while his own Endnote vicariously lists The Storm Birds as a primary source. And then he writes:

            No relevant documents have been found in the SIS archive, but newly unearthed Foreign Office papers now enable some telling details to be added to the narrative.

The thrust of Jeffery’s account is practically identical to Brook-Shepherd’s. So where did Jeffery imagine Brook-Shepherd had acquired his intelligence, if not from the same ‘Foreign Office papers’ that had clearly been ‘unearthed’ some twenty-five years beforehand? Moreover, Jeffery’s account refers to ‘a subsequent SIS report’, confirming that there were relevant pieces, even if this particular one had been stored in files of the Foreign and Commonwealth Office. That passive voice again (‘no relevant documents have been found’): had Jeffery really been through the SIS archives himself, or had someone performed the task for him? It is quite astonishing how seasoned and respectable academics attempt to pull the wool over the eyes of their reading public.

A few differences can be detected in the two versions, however, mainly in dates and the format of names. Brook-Shepherd has Chantry Page, the vice-consul, receiving Volkov’s letter on August 27th : Jeffery indicates it was on the 24th. Brook-Shepherd represents the name of the counsellor who took charge as ‘Alexander Knox-Helm’: to Jeffery he is merely ‘a counsellor’ and appears as ‘Knox Helm’. Yet in his description of some of the incidents Brook-Shepherd offers more detail than does Jeffery: he identifies Cyril Machray as the (ignored) MI6 representative in Istanbul, and offers the startling information that John Bennett, an assistant press counsellor at the consulate, happened to be at the airport when Volkov and his wife (‘two limp and bandaged passengers’) were removed, heavily sedated. Bennett recognized, despite the bandages, that ‘the male stretcher case was Volkov’.

Of course it is difficult to determine whether Brook-Shepherd had access to files denied to Jeffery, or whether Jeffery simply was being more selective, but one might expect that the statement of Volkov’s sedated body’s being recognized should have been recorded by Jeffery as being of considerable interest. (Jeffery merely wrote that both Volkovs were ‘heavily sedated’ and that a subsequent SIS report logged their departure from Yesilkoy airport on September 26.) That identification would have told Menzies, Cadogan and co. that Volkov was certainly not a hoax. But why should we trust the anecdote from John Bennett?

The same year (2014), Ben Macintyre applied his energetic pen to the Philby’s career in A Spy Among Friends. He covers the Volkov business, but has clearly not seen the archival material, since he compiles his tale indiscriminately from the accounts of Philby, Knightley, Brook-Shepherd, Andrew – and Jeffery’s recent Postscript. His narrative is thus not very reliable (for instance, he places the events in 1944, not 1945), and his timeline is imprecise. He also informs us that the Volkovs, when abducted on to the Soviet plane, were ‘bandaged from head to foot’, which would presumably have made identification doubly difficult.  Was that a creative flourish from Macintyre? In Deceiving the Deceivers (2004), S. J. Hamrick (who seemed not to have read Brook-Shepherd) referred to a ‘heavily bandaged’ Volkov. In Treason in the Blood (1994), Anthony-Cave-Brown, likewise not a student of Brook-Shepherd, described Volkov as being ‘unconscious and swaddled in bandages’. In The Young Kim Philby (2012), Edward Harrison (who lists The Storm Petrels but not The Storm Birds in his Bibliography) states that Volkov arrived at the airport ‘covered in bandages on a stretcher’. Trevor-Roper states merely that Volkov was ‘bundled, unconscious, on to a Russian plane’. Page, Leitch and Knightley describe the events as follows:

            A Russian military aircraft made an unscheduled and quite irregular landing at Istanbul airport. While the control tower was still trying to think of something to do a car raced out to the plane. A heavily bandaged figure on a stretcher was lifted into the aircraft which immediately took off.

So where was Mrs Volkov? And how did Bennett get such a close-up view? Did he have his binoculars at hand? Could the NKGB really have been that clumsy, parading their victims in the airport’s concourse, or making such a melodramatic whistle-stop evacuation? Would an invasion of air space have been treated quite so casually by the Turkish government? On the other hand, Brook-Shepherd wrote that the military aircraft, arriving from Bulgaria, was nearly fired on by the Turks, but did not leave until the next day, and that Bennett was perspicacious enough to be able to detect that Volkov, though heavily sedated, was still alive. Where did these journalists get their information from? So many questions. I’d love to be able to read ‘that SIS report’.

The National Archives:

And then, in October 2015, maybe prompted by Jeffery’s undeniable access, a file on Volkov (FCO 158/193) was released to the National Archives. The historians and the public could inspect the text of Volkov’s original letter, as well as John Reed’s translation of it, and the careful analyst can make a better assessment of how its contents contributed to the deliberations of Philby, Wright, Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery. It is worth tabulating here, for posterity, what can be found in the file:

i) Carey Foster’s interest in the Volkov case, dated January 13, 1950.

ii) Stewart Menzies informing P. H. Bromley of MI6’s report on the case, dated October 19, 1945.

iii) ‘The Case of Constantin Volkoff’ (the report referred to by Menzies), undated.

iv) Copy of above, dated October 19, 1945.

v) Letter from R. G. Howe to A. K. Helm, carried by H.A.R. Philby, outlining procedures to be followed, dated September 24, 1945.

vi) Draft of above letter, with ‘Cadogan’ as author replaced by ‘Howe’.

vii) Copy of above letter.

viii) Letter from Bromley in Foreign Office to Menzies, enclosing Volkov papers, dated September 19, 1945.

ix) Minute from Howe to Cadogan, reporting on Volkov approach, dated September 19.

x) Letter from Helm to Codrington in Foreign Office, referring to Helm’s letter of September 5, and enclosing both Volkov’s letter and Reed’s translation of it, dated September 14.

xi) Reed’s translation of Volkov’s letter.

xii) A copy of Reed’s translation with handwritten comments.

xiii) A cipher telegram from Helm to Codrington that makes a disguised reference to a coming letter with ‘sales catalogue’, shortly to arrive in diplomatic bag, dated September 14.

xiv) Letter from Helm to Codrington, informing him of the ‘mare’s nest’ of Volkov’s initial letter and calling-card, dated September 5.

xv) Reed’s report on his interview with Volkov, dated September 4.

xvi) The note by SFH and Page that they decided to ignore Volkov’s initial letter, dated August 24.

xvii) Volkov’s initial letter, with attached calling-card, to Page, requesting meeting that day or the next, dated August 24. (This is almost certainly a translation: the original is not included.)

xviii) Reed’s original hand-written notes of his meeting with Volkov, dated September 4.

xix) Original hand-written note by SFH, dated August 24.

xx) Image of Page’s calling- card.

xxi) Volkov’s original letter in English (with spelling ‘Istunbul’), and photograph of Volkov’s calling-card, dated August 24.

xxii) A note stating that ‘the original papers in this file have been taken over from the Permanent Under Secretary’s file 1945 U.II U.S.S.R.’, undated.

xxiii) A letter from de Wesselow of MI5 to Street in the Foreign Office, returning with thanks the enclosed document, dated October 24, 1955.

(xxiv) The Russian text of Volkov’s full statement, annotated as ‘originally retained by Security Service (P. M. Wright)’.

I offer a few observations on this file. The first very important conclusion is that its contents are not adequate enough to provide the intelligence that Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery derived. Yet it still fuels some insights that have not been made public, so far as I know. For instance, the letter in v) includes a last sentence added in manuscript, clearly inserted as an afterthought, that reads: “I would add that we have every confidence in Philby”. Why it should have been felt necessary to add such a comment about a senior MI6 officer is not clear: all it does is draw attention to the fact that others did perhaps not share that confidence. Did someone perhaps pipe up, and point out that Volkov’s description of a spy in counter-intelligence fitted Philby’s role quite precisely, with the result that his reliability had to be explicitly stated? Did Menzies ever pause for thought, when the translation of Volkov’s letter was brought to him on September 19, and wonder whether Philby should be kept off the case? Apparently not.

Some enciphered cables were obviously sent, despite the warnings that Volkov gave not to use them. Stewart Menzies reinforces this demand, and claims that it was honoured, in his report., although there is no indication that other routine cables not concerned with Volkov were suspended. (It night have been a considered a wise precaution, but, if all traffic suddenly stopped, that might have alerted any Soviet surveillance that something dubious was going on.) As another fascinating item, Menzies’ summary refers to ‘a detailed report received on October 3’ describing how Volkov and his wife had been removed at Yesilkoy airfield on September 26. That report is not on file, but its echoes meander throughout the literature on Volkov, as I have explained above.

And then there is the question of Volkov’s facility with the English language: the files state that he could not speak one word. Volkov specifically requested an English interpreter: Item 14 reveals the information that the official Russian interpreter at the Consulate was a Mr. Sudakov in the Passport Control Office (the cover for MI6).*  It is not clear, however, who prepared Volkov’s original letter, as the presentation of it does not suggest that the document was a translation, and it has the city mis-spelled as ‘Istinbul’. Menzies’ report says that the letter, addressed to Page, was unsigned, but leaves the question of language unaddressed. Did Volkov receive help?

[* The name of ‘Sudakov’ is an intriguing one.  In An SIS Officer in the Balkans (2020), John B. Sanderson and Myles Sanderson write that ‘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.’ More than fifteen years after the Volkov business, but just a coincidence?]

John Reed’s report of his meeting with Volkov on September 4 is also very provocative. He describes how Volkov arrived with the interpreter from the Passport Control Office, but the latter’s name is redacted. Since Reed’s Russian was, by his own estimation, ‘not very good’, he wanted to use the official interpreter, but Volkov (who spoke no English) insisted that they speak à deux, and the interpreter was dismissed. While Jeffery simply describes the interpreter as ‘locally employed, non-British’, without naming him, and implicitly casting doubts about his reliability, item xiv) explicitly names Sudakov as the PCO interpreter, and raises the question that Volkov may have been in contact with him beforehand. Volkov later spelled out that one of the agents he knew about worked in the British Consulate in Istanbul. If that person were Sudakov, it would not have needed Philby to alert the NKVD that Volkov was making clandestine approaches to the British Consulate. Reed also wrote that Volkov ‘had a great deal of information about the organisation of our secret service in this country and knew the names of most of our agents, Gibson, [XXXXXXX – redacted], Reed etc.’ While Reed protested vainly that he should not be on the list, the requirement for (presumably) Sudakov but not Gibson to be redacted is telling.

The most shocking feature, however, is probably the judgment of Stewart Menzies (item iii). Menzies assessed that Volkov was overall genuine, but that his intelligence was not uniformly reliable. For instance, he thought that Volkov’s figures on the numbers of agents were exaggerated, and he added an opinion about the cipher leak:

            We tend strongly to the opinion that Volkoff was mistaken (possibly honestly) in asserting that N.K.G.B. cryptographers were reading Foreign Office and S.I.S. telegrams. On the other hand, information from other sources leads us to take seriously his statement that there are two K.G.B. agents in the Foreign Office and seven in the British “Intelligence Service”.

How Menzies was able to display this confidence is indeterminable. I note here that Reed’s memorandum of September 4 stated blandly that Volkov had said that Colonel Hill’s cables ‘were particularly easy to decipher’. Menzies must by this time have been advised of the George Graham fiasco: the Moscow-based officers Hill (SOE) and Barclay (MI6) were specifically identified by Volkov. Even if those breaches had not occurred, Menzies was far too complacent about the threat.

Menzies went on to blame Volkov’s own indiscretions for his betrayal, and then he showed a lack of resolve that undermined his previous statement about taking things seriously:

            Finally, I would like to draw your attention to the fact that Volkoff’s information as to the existence of N.K.G.B. agents in official positions is so vague that it is improbable that we shall succeed in identifying them. To scrutinize the past records, and maintain observation, of all those who might possibly fill the bill would be impracticable as it would be invidious. While we, and no doubt M.I.5 as well, will do all that is possible in this respect, my own firm belief is that we shall achieve success only by offensive methods. It is in the U.S.S.R. itself, and in its diplomatic and commercial missions outside its boundaries, that the roots of this activity are to be found. If we want the information, we shall have to go and get it.

The intelligence he needed had been brought to his door by the very entity Menzies had identified as being useful. Apart from the fact that the pointer to Philby’s position could not have been more precise, the only reason that Volkov’s information was so vague was that his promised delivery of stronger intelligence pending negotiations had been dramatically shattered by Philby’s intervention. The head of MI6 was either very dim, or very scared  – or possibly both. It was a scandalous admission of failure and incompetence: ‘we know we have Soviet spies in our midst, but we are not going to do anything about it’. Volkov had pointed to a spy working for MI6 in the legation in Istanbul, whither the staff had moved from Ankara: Menzies had Machray (the station-head), Gibson and Sudakov to investigate. Yes, certainly an investigation might be ‘invidious’, since innocent officers might have to be questioned, but that should have been the cost of doing business. It was no good pussy-footing around the whole problem, and doing nothing.

Jeffery surmises that Menzies’ report must have been influenced by Philby: ‘Menzies’s summary appears to have been drawn from the dismissive and disingenuous report which Philby claims he drafted on his way home from Istanbul’. This judgment is triply speculative, however, casting doubt on whether Philby ever compiled the report (it understandably has not surfaced), but then parading the knowledge that it was ‘dismissive and disingenuous’, and lastly making a guess at the circumstances behind Menzies’ compilation of The Case of Constantin Volkoff.  It is true that Menzies reproduces such facts as the attempts to telephone Volkov after Philby’s arrival (which appear only in My Silent War, and not in FCO 158/193, so may well have been included in Philby’s report) but Menzies’ summary shows a familiarity with the dossier that does indicate that he had inspected the file himself. It would have been utterly irresponsible of Menzies to rely on Philby’s judgment exclusively, no matter how well he regarded him. Indeed, Brook-Shepherd had written that ‘Philby’s chief in London had immediately suspected some sort of leak the moment he learned that their quarry had disappeared, but the “solid evidence”, in the form of the hatchet men’s lightning mission from Moscow, was not then known.’ Unfortunately, as with many of Brook-Shepherd’s insights, the origin of this nugget is not declared.

It appears, however, that these source documents have not since been analyzed and attributed properly by any serious academics. For instance, Kevin P. Riehle’s scholarly and sober study of Soviet defectors, bearing that title (Soviet Defectors: Revelations of Renegade Intelligence Officers 1924-1945, published in 2020) cites Volkov’s claims, but uses as its source Brook-Shepherd’s book, not the archival material at Kew!  Also in 2020, Professor William Hale of the School of African and Oriental Studies at the University of London wrote an article for The Journal of Anglo-Turkish Relations titled Espionage, Double-Dealing and Mystery: Kim Philby in Turkey 1945-1948, but, while making some useful observations on chronology, he does not appear to have studied the FCO files. (If anyone has come across any work that shows proper attention to FCO 158/193, please let me know.) The nearest attempt comes from Nigel West again, in his somewhat bizarre 2018 publication, Cold War Spymaster, purportedly about the legacy of Guy Liddell. (See http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ for my review of it.) West dedicates a chapter to Volkov, one that is fascinating and potentially extremely useful, but ultimately turns out to be confused and confusing.

Nigel West’s ‘Cold War Spymaster’

Nigel West’s Cold War Spymaster:

West actually reproduces photographs of both Volkov’s letter and Reed’s translation, which is an added bonus for those who cannot get to Kew. Yet the complete translation that he offers in his text is bizarrely not Reed’s (even though West introduces it as such), and it in fact corrects some of the blunders that Reed made in attempting to convert Volkov’s diplomatic jargon into relevant English. Astoundingly, West offers no explanation for this, and does not even explicitly name the translator.  I wondered at first whether Geoffrey Elliott had been responsible, as I know he had performed translation work for West beforehand, but Elliott’s name is not listed, and I recall now that he had broken off all ties with West by this time. Yet a further search led me to discover that West had reproduced exactly the same text in his Historical Dictionary of Cold War Counterintelligence, published in 2007, where he coyly observed that ‘the actual text of Volkov’s letter remained classified for some time’. Such unnecessary fastidiousness and deceit: no doubt Brook-Shepherd shared it with him.

As an example of some necessary corrections that have been made, I refer to the Russian word ‘klichka’. Reed translates this as ‘cliché’ in one place, and ‘connection’ in another, and in both cases the sentences do not make sense. The word actually means ‘alias’ or ‘nickname’, and appears appropriately as ‘cryptonym’ in the published new translation. So perhaps there was merit in the case that Volkov’s text demanded a more strenuous attempt at translation? I shall return to that point later, but first need to inspect West’s account of the historiography.

The initial problem is that West inaccurately describes Volkov’s letter as it arrives on the desk of Sir Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, with its passage about the nine agents in London, by quoting his new, anonymous translation. He cites the phrase about one of the agents who currently ‘fulfils the duties of the chief of an otdel (department) of the English counter-intelligence Directorate in London’, and adds that ‘another works in the apparat of British consulate in Istanbul’. Yet what Cadogan would have read, in Reed’s original text, was: “I know for instance that one of the agents of the N.K.G.B. is fulfilling the functions of the head of a Section of the British Counter-Espionage Service in London and that another is working within the British Consulate in Istanbul.” At first glance, this is not significant, but is there a difference between ‘Directorate’ and ‘Service’? Neither interpretation would appear to point unfailingly to MI5 or MI6. It is nevertheless a sloppy way of introducing the material.

West then switches to Guy Liddell’s diary entry of October 5, 1945, where the chief of MI5’s counter-espionage branch recorded the fact that the Volkov case had broken down (after Philby’s alerts to his masters, and Volkov’s quick removal to the Soviet Union and eventual murder). Here appears a very important entry, of which West reproduces only the last five lines::

            The case of the renegade WOLKOFF in the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul has broken down. In accordance with instructions he was telephoned to at the Soviet consulate. The telephone was answered by the Russian Consul-General on the first occasion and on the second by a man speaking English claiming to be WOLKOFF but clearly was not. Finally, contact was made with the Russian telephone operator who said that WOLKOFF had left for Moscow. Subsequent enquiries showed that he and his wife left by plane for Russia on Sept. 26. Wolkoff had ovvered [sic: ‘offered’] to give a very considerable amount of information but much of it appeared to be in Moscow. WOLKOFF estimated that there were 9 agents in London of one of whom was said to be the ‘head of a section of the British counter-espionage service’. WOLKOFF said he could also produce a list of the known regular NKGB agents of the military and civil intelligence and of the sub-agents they employed. In the list are noted about 250 known or less well known agents of the above-mentioned services with details. Also available were copies of correspondence between London and General Hill of SOE in Moscow. WOLKOFF maintained that the Soviet authorities had been able to read all cipher messages between our F.O. and Embassy in Moscow and in addition to Hill’s messages [line redacted] the Russians had according to WOLKOFF two agents inside the F.O. and 7 inside the British Intelligence Service.

While this intelligence must have come as a ghastly confirmation to Liddell of the George Graham fiasco, it also indicates that Liddell picked up Reed’s account of the September 4 meeting that expressly stated that Volkov knew of two agents in the Foreign Office and seven working for Intelligence. Here also is the first confirmation of Volkov’s total number of nine agents – not seven, as Wright had claimed. (The Diaries were made available in 2002, and West published extracts in 2005.) Yet West immediately discredits Liddell’s testimony on two counts: the first, that Liddell had conflated the categories of ‘people known to the Soviets’ (i.e. fellow-travellers, agents of influence, etc.) with the numbers of those officially recruited by the NKVD (‘Soviet agents’), and the second, that he been creatively able to break down Volkov’s figure of nine agents. Instead of pointing out that Liddell’s total matched exactly what had appeared in Volkov’s letter, and that Liddell was merely citing what Reed had written, however, West immediately classifies this as an ‘error’, one that, according to him, would be perpetuated, and would ‘dog the intelligence community, and outside observers, for many years’.

It does not appear that West has studied FCO 158/193 carefully. Moreover, Liddell – in the full extract not reproduced by West – refers to additional details about the attempts to contact Volkov that do not appear in Menzies’ report in the file, but are indeed presented by Brook-Shepherd. This was in 1945, of course, so Liddell must have gathered those details from reading Philby’s report to Menzies, while Brook-Shepherd could have taken them from Philby’s memoir. West, however, moves swiftly on to drawing attention to Philby’s statement, which conflicts, but not in an absolutely contradictory way, with the Liddell/Volkov enumeration, and next introduces his readers to the significant figure of Gordon Brook-Shepherd, whose book The Storm Birds came out in 1989.

Having trashed Liddell’s breakdown, however, West now turns his querulousness towards Brook-Shepherd, accusing him of ‘distortion’ because not only had he misrepresented the figure of ‘250 agents in Britain’ (not a major issue, in my opinion), he had also redesignated ‘the nine agents in the Foreign Office or British Intelligence as two in the Foreign Office and seven in British Intelligence’. Yet the truth comes out: West concedes that Brook-Shepherd had been granted privileged access to some SIS files by the Foreign Secretary at the time, Douglas Hurd. So why was what Brook-Shepherd had written necessarily a distortion, especially if he was echoing exactly what Liddell had written forty-four years beforehand?

West then makes an awful meal of this observation, since he goes on to claim that Brook-Shepherd exerted an inappropriate influence on writers to come, with Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky being criticised for repeating it in KGB: The Inside Story (1990), and Andrew (again, this time with Vasili Mitrokhin) in The Mitrokhin Archive, in 1999. Lastly, in his history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (2010), Andrew repeated what West saw as a ‘spurious figure’, West complaining that ‘apparently he had not looked at any original documents, nor gone beyond Brook-Shepherd’. Yet West himself does not explain the circumstances of Brook-Shepherd’s research, nor does he explain what ‘original documents’ could have been available at that time, apart from those passed furtively on to him.

Lastly Keith Jeffery, the authorized historian of MI6, gets the full West treatment. What is extraordinary is that West then lays out the work that went behind Jeffery’s addendum:

            Professor Jeffery had the benefit of a trawl through the archives of both SIS and the Foreign Office which revealed the existence of a memorandum from John Reed, signalled straight to London and dated 4 September, to alert his superiors to the report to be entrusted to the diplomatic bag, and a summary, entitled The Case of Constantin Volkoff, dated around October 1945. In his account of the incident, Jeffery declares that in the absence of any surviving SIS documents, he had relied on previously unpublished internal Foreign Office correspondence; the Cyrillic original and the translation of Volkov’s letter; John Reed’s memorandum of 4 September and finally, the October summary which included a contribution from SIS.

In questioning Jeffery’s integrity, however, West ignores the fact that the materials in FCO 158/193, which he himself appears to rely on exclusively, might not represent the totality of the Volkov dossier. West gives no indication that he has seen these other papers, and for some reason treats them as inauthentic. One might wonder whether he has even inspected FCO 158/193, since he never gives it any attribution, either in his text or in his Endnotes, nor does he provide a source for the several pages of it that appears as plates in his book, which must have been derived from a bootleg edition, since the file was not released until 2015.

The most critical aspect of this mess, however, is the fact that a companion Volkov file to FCO 158/193 does indeed exist, namely FCO 158/194. On checking with the National Archives Directory, however, one learns that it has been ‘retained by the Foreign Office’. (see https://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C14944128). I would be prepared to bet that that file contains the details that caught the attention of Liddell, Brook-Shepherd and Jeffery –, such as more information on Sudakov, a record of the attempts to contact Volkov after Philby arrived in Istanbul, the MI6 account of the Volkovs being removed at Istanbul airport, with Konstantin being recognized, and certainly Philby’s summarization of the affair for Menzies. There is probably a lot more besides, maybe even the names of certain agents.

The Volkov Text:

I find several aspects of Nigel West’s exegesis bewildering. The first is why the author would want to discredit the testimony of Liddell and Brook-Shepherd in an apparent attempt to give the Foreign Office, MI5 and MI6 an excuse. After all, if Liddell knew about Volkov’s references to two spies in the Foreign Office, even if he only confided it in his secret diary, then every senior official in Whitehall must have known about it as well, and should have made an attempt to link the dots from Krivitsky’s allegations to those of Volkov. When VENONA revealed the betrayals of Maclean, the profile of him and Burgess as the two Foreign Office spies should have been absolutely clear. On the other hand, the fact that seven spies were thus in the Intelligence Services (as opposed to the total of nine) did not materially affect anything. The hints should have been followed up within MI5 and MI6, but Liddell apparently did not initiate any project to try to identify those other agents within the Intelligence Services. Perhaps, fresh from the realization that Anthony Blunt and Leo Long had been caught red-handed the previous year handing over secrets to Britain’s war-time Communist ally (as I described in Misdefending the Realm), Liddell thought it was all rather harmless. His counterpart in MI6 Valentine Vivian obviously did hold that opinion, as I have also reported. Yet the knowledge that the perpetrators were not casual amateurs, but had deep connections and cryptonyms within the NKVD, should have rung loud alarm bells.

The second aspect is that Liddell, as chief of Counter-Espionage in MI5, having read Volkov’s text that described the head of a counter-intelligence department, and appropriately acknowledging that he was not the agent in question, should have been able, by a process of elimination, to home in on his opposite number in MI6 fairly quickly. Liddell’s suspicions about Philby, which were articulated to Eric Roberts in 1947 when the latter was considering a post in Vienna under the dubious Andrew King (see http://www.coldspur.com/a-thanksgiving-round-up/) must have been developed (or strengthened) at this time, but what is astonishing is the fact that Menzies quashed any attempt at an investigation, and the head of MI6 must have also been able to convince Sir Alexander Cadogan, who had been the first recipient of Volkov’s letter, that it was all disinformation, and a fuss about nothing.

A third dimension that strikes me as odd is the amount of emphasis that West gives to the accuracy of the enumeration of Soviet spies instead of paying attention to some of the other shocking revelations in Volkov’s letter. For instance, Item 5 in the letter states that the defector could deliver ‘Photostats and translations from English intelligence, in particular, London’s correspondence with General Hill’, and later, from a second offering, Volkov writes:

            I can also give explanations about NKGB operations carried out against secret officials in Moscow (Hill, Barclay) and about sources of obtaining samples of English diplomatic and military ciphers in Moscow.

No comment is offered on these extraordinary disclosures. This is what Wright was referring to when he wrote that the Russians could read the Foreign Office ciphers, but the fact that this clue could have led to a case of human treachery, known by Boyle and Liddell, not mechanical interception, has been overlooked until now.

Critical Section of Volkov’s Letter

The last topic is the failure to examine the critical and controversial sentences of Volkov’s text, especially given what Wright claimed about its true meaning. My first transliteration of the key Russian phrases ran as follows:

            Sudya no klichkam, takovikh agentov v Londone naschitivaetsya – 9.

            Mne, naprimer, izvestno, chto odin iz agentov NKGB popolnyaet obyazannosti nachalnika otdela angliiskogo kontr-razvedivate, nogo Upravleniya v Londone, a drugoy rabotaet v apparate Britanskogo konsulstva v Stambule

I struggled with this task of transcription and translation. The word ‘razvedivate’ was puzzling, as the Russian word for ‘intelligence’ is normally ‘razvedka’ (and would require the genitive ‘razvedki’ in this context), while ‘razvedivata’ looks like a formation from the verb meaning ‘to reconnoitre’, obviously with the same root. One must also bear in mind that there are no definite or indefinite articles in Russian, so the interpretation of ‘a’ and ‘the’ can become problematic. Nor is there a present tense of the verb ‘to be’. The most mystifying word, however, was ‘nogo’, a form that I believe does not exist as a standalone word in Russian.  (From Nigel West’s murky bootleg version, I wrongly read the word as ‘chevo’, ‘of which’; the official version is clearer, and unmistakably displays ‘nogo’. The genitive ‘ogo’ ending is actually pronounced ‘ovo’.)

And then the penny dropped. The key word was hyphenated across lines, and two letters had been lost in the photocopying. The complete word was ‘razvedivatelnogo’ (with a soft sign after the ‘l’): the word also appears in the first paragraph of Volkov’s letter, where he describes the corresponding Soviet unit.

I would thus translate these sentences as:

            To judge by the cryptonyms, the number of such agents in London amounts to 9.

            For example, I know that one of the NKGB agents carries out the functions of the head of a department of English counter-intelligence in London, while another works in the apparat of the British consulate in Istanbul.

Readers will note here some subtle changes from the earlier texts – both Reed’s and that of West’s unidentified translator. But is this information really expressed ambiguously? What the wording suggests to me is 1) that the first agent was temporarily fulfilling the role of a department head, and was not its formally appointed chief; 2) that the close proximity of the references to exurban offices and the consulate in Istanbul suggest that they both reported to the Directorate alluded to. How Volkov would have known the first fact is a mystery (and of course no date is given for the statement’s provenance), but why would he simply not write that the agent headed a department?

Yet, no matter how that interpretation is massaged, I do not see how a careful re-inspection of the text could contribute to the confident assertion that Volkov was pointing to MI5 rather than MI6. On the contrary, we should recall that, in 1943, Philby was deputy to Felix Cowgill, the chief of MI6’s counter-intelligence Section V. The unit operated out of St. Albans, outside London, and Philby stood in for Cowgill when the latter visited the United States. At this time, Philby’s Soviet handlers were pressing him to make a bid to take over the emergent Section IX counter-intelligence department. If anything, a close re-reading of the letter would reinforce the opinion that the references were indeed directed at Philby and MI6. Andrew draws the same conclusion, writing (p 517) that Philby was the most likely candidate, since he ‘had recently been acting head of SIS Section V (counter-intelligence), whereas Hollis had been the substantive (not acting) head of F Division in MI5 for five years.’ [The ‘five years’ is an overstatement, but the essence is true.]

And Occam’s Razor should be applied. Volkov was an NKGB officer. Philby was a proven penetration agent for the organization. Volkov would thus have known about Philby, and would have wanted to unmask him. Why would he obliquely refer to another reputed spy and not describe Philby’s role? It does not make sense. In The Philby Files, Genrikh Borovik plumped for Philby without question.

As a further commentary on Volkov’s intelligence, nowhere in the letter at FCO 158/193 does he indicate that he can ‘name names’ of the British agents in London. In fact his rather clumsy words indicated that what he can offer might help the task of identification, since his list of cryptonyms will ‘provide a possibility’ to ‘establish the agent network’ (‘ustanovyat agenturu’ –  which Reed translated as ‘identify the agents’, and West’s anonymous translator, more literally as ‘establish the NKGB agents’). Thus it could be argued, according to the evidence of the quoted letter, that Wright’s claim that Volkov stated that he ‘could name spies in Britain’ was based on a mis-reading, or an erroneous recollection. Christopher Andrew and Vasili Mitrokhin, in Chapter 9 of The Mitrokhin Archive amplify this idea when they write, exploiting KGB files:

            Under interrogation in Moscow before his execution, Volkov admitted that he had asked the British for political asylum and 50,000 pounds, and confessed that he had planned to reveal the names of no fewer than 314 Soviet agents.

But was that also based on a misunderstanding? The letter indicates that Volkov had access to several cryptonyms, but did not know many (if any) of the agents’ real names. Unless, of course, the alternative scenario holds sway. In that case, the interpretations of Philby, Wright and Brook-Shepherd, who all suggested London names were known, were indeed correct, since those three had inspected the putative unreleased  –  and more dangerous – documents that have presumably been withheld, in FCO 158/194.

In summary, this whole story displays some familiarly sad characteristics: the dishonourable behaviour of British officialdom, and its reaction to disquieting news; a lack of tenacity by the ‘doyens’ of intelligence historians in tackling the evidence. Revelations from a defector are not followed up properly. Attempts are made to bury embarrassing information, but it escapes anyway. Discriminatory and unlawful leaks are made in order to try to control the narrative, as an initiative of propaganda. The muddled speculations and analysis of a maverick and disgruntled intelligence officer are accepted far too credulously. Partial archival material is released, but other files are withheld without explanation. Facts, rumours and assertions become irretrievably mixed, as authorized historians cite dubious secondary sources, thus giving them undeserved credibility, and fail to apply proper historical methodology – a phenomenon that suits the bureaucrats, as it aids their goal of keeping the public confused.

2. Peter Wright and Double Agents:

Another of Wright’s quests was to determine why many of MI5’s operations running Soviet ‘double-agents’ had failed. He introduces the topic on p 175 of Spycatcher, where he writes, after describing how several microphoning operations had gone wrong:

            Next I pulled out the files on each of the double-agent cases I had been involved with in the 1950s. There were more than twenty in all. Each one was worthless. Of course, our tradecraft and Watcher radios were mainly to blame, but the Tisler affair had left a nagging doubt in my mind.

[The Tisler affair referred to revelations from Frantisek Tisler, a cipher clerk in the Czech Embassy in Washington being run by the FBI. His friend Pribyl, when they were both in Prague on leave, had confided to him that he was running a spy in England named Linney. Tisler had to be protected.]

Wright admits that the main responsibility for failure was probably MI5’s poor execution. And, as he describes on pages 125-126 of Spycatcher, Director-General Roger Hollis believed, in 1959, that a leak existed in the ‘Watchers’ service (MI5’s A4). The Watchers were responsible for surveilling the activities of possible KGB officers working from the Embassy in London, and used traditional and technological methods of keeping track of their activities. Equipment developed by Wright enabled MI5 to discover when the Soviets were monitoring Watchers’ communications. A reactivation of the devices, after an inconclusive analysis of a possible spy operating a wireless transmitter in Clapham, provoked Wright to take printed evidence to Furnival Jones and Hollis. They were ‘visibly shocked’, but, when Wright recommended that the investigation be widened, Hollis decided to close down the Watchers service rather than follow Wright’s advice. ‘It would be bad for morale’, he claimed.

If Hollis did in fact react that way, it was probably foolish, but the problem was more with the lamentably naïve way that ‘double-agent’ operations had been attempted during the 1950s. There existed in parts of MI5 a residual belief that the famed (but exaggerated) claims made about the wartime XX Operations against the Nazis could be replicated against the Communists. There was, however, little understanding of exactly why such operations had been successful, and also of the minimal degree that agents originally hostile to the Allied cause were able to be ‘turned’ – TATE being the only one, under threat of the noose or firing-squad. Conditions were vastly different with the Communists in a time of Peace – or, at least, of Cold War.

Wright was partially aware of the change in circumstances, and it is worth reproducing what he wrote in Spycatcher (p 120):

            The head of D Branch, Graham Mitchell, was a clever man, but he was weak. His policy was to cravenly copy the wartime Double Cross techniques, recruiting as many double agents as possible, and operating extensive networks of agents in the large Russian, Polish, and Czechoslovakian émigré communities. Every time MI5 were notified of or discovered a Russian approach to a student, businessman, or scientist, the recipient was encouraged to accept the approach, so that MI5 could monitor the case. He was convinced that eventually one of these double agents would be accepted by the Russians and taken into the heart of the illegal network.

One can quickly gauge that this policy was not a recipe for success. First of all, handling a group of potential informers was not actually equivalent to ‘recruiting double agents’. Developing a ‘network’ of possible informers against a legal foreign Embassy on home turf was not exactly a high-grade counter-espionage project to be compared with the wartime Double Cross system. Moreover, that system did not lavishly recruit such persons: on the contrary, it was very cautious in selecting and approving such candidates, in order that the system not be blown. In the 1950s, if such persons were loyal to the British way of life, and antithetical to Soviet ideology, they might presumably be willing to pass information about such approaches, but would probably be very wary of starting an association with the KGB by pretending that they could be bought. In any case, few students and businessmen would have anything of value to offer those who had ‘recruited’ them. If the KGB did succeed in contacting a sympathizer who was willing to experiment in espionage, that person would presumably never inform MI5 what was going on, but would certainly tell his KGB contact that MI5 had its tentacles out gathering information about potential targets. It is true that the fact that MI5 had been in contact with such a person might well discourage him or her from performing anything illegal, but it was all rather laborious.

That is not to say that such exploits never resulted in the ‘entrapment’ of Soviet diplomats. Wright describes a case where someone named Morrow was dangled before the Soviet naval attaché, Lieutenant Commander Lulakov. Morrow was subsequently ‘arrested’ when he made his rendezvous with Lulakov. Lulakov established his credentials, and left the country soon after. But this was a successful operation to undermine the KGB in London, not the successful ‘turning’ of a hostile subversive. The charges against Morrow, states Wright, were ‘quietly dropped’. Not an experience the normal law-abiding citizen would want to go through, however.

As Wright followed up: “The double agent cases were a time-consuming charade”, and he went on to describe how the KGB gamed the system by encouraging the Watchers to track all manner of dummy drops and feints. Wright then commented:

            The truth was that the Russians used double-agent cases to play with MI5, identify our case officers, disperse our effort, and decoy us from their real operations. The standard of MI5 tradecraft was appalling. KGB monitoring of our Watcher radios certainly gave away our presence on a large number of the double-agent cases. But the D Branch case officers were just as bad, rarely employing anything other than the most rudimentary countersurveillance before meeting their agents.

Thus Wright raised a red flag over the leaks from pseudo ‘double-agent’ handling, only to demolish it by correct comparisons with the wartime situation, criticisms of the ingenuous methods of D Division, and observations that the profound exposures in British Intelligence had been caused by the recruitment of intellectuals in the 1930s. He later related how a fresh approach, by officers Michael McCaul and Arthur Martin, was able to challenge the KGB head-on, and even claims that ‘the Soviet émigré networks, undoubtedly the most penetrated of all, were rolled up’, but that is an assertion that demands closer testing rather than speedy acceptance. Ovearll, however, the KGB did not need an ally in the top echelons of MI5 to pursue their diversionary tactics in Britain.

Christopher Andrew has been very dismissive of Peter Wright’s promotion of unfounded rumours. As he wrote in Defend the Realm (p 439): “It was tragic that the lead role in interviewing Blunt was taken over by Wright, whose conspiracy theories arguably did as much damage to the Service as Blunt’s treachery.”

Nigel West and Double Agents:

Wright was not alone in listing the possible penetration of the double-agent operations to high-level betrayal. In Molehunt, Nigel West introduced his discussion of infiltration with a romantic flourish (p 28): “Given the legendary skill of the Watcher Service to conceal its activities, it seemed likely that the whole operation had been betrayed, although no one had voiced that opinion at the time.” [Was it ‘legendary’ because it was mythical? And where did the legends flourish, if the Watchers concealed their activities so well?] West then continues to put a rather different spin on the nature of the double-agent game:

            There were other reasons to believe that MI5 had been infiltrated. During the postwar era, the Security Service had made imaginative efforts to recruit and run a stable of double-agents. Most had been businessmen who had succumbed to “honey-trap” operations while on visits to Moscow. The classic scenario was that of an executive photographed in bed with a male prostitute. The blackmail victim was offered the choice of supplying useful information on his return to the West, or facing exposure when the compromising pictures were circulated to his family and the newspapers. In such cases the wretched subject would agree to the KGB’s terms and, once safely home, approach the Security Service via the police. As often as not MI5 took the opportunity to provide the victim with suitable information, thus recruiting him as a double agent in the hope of identifying a Soviet intelligence operative in London. Although the scheme seemed practical, the KGB invariably lost interest in the double agents who had been “turned” by MI5. Their skill at spotting these agents seemed uncanny, but there were those who believed there might be a mor sinister explanation: a Soviet source within MI5’s elite counterespionage branch.

It is difficult to know where to start with this fanciful nonsense. West presents this operation as a ‘scheme’, as if MI5 actually encouraged lonely businessmen with homosexual tendencies to expose themselves dangerously while staying in Moscow hotels (‘imaginative efforts’; ‘run a stable’). To think that a ready stream of such businessmen, unaware of the dangers, foolish and reckless in their social encounters in Moscow, but also having access to intelligence of a valuable nature that they could pass on to the KGB, was pouring into Soviet Russia month after month, with several falling for a homosexual honey-trap, so that they could later be used to pass disinformation to Moscow, seems to me to be pure farce. There is not a shred of evidence to support West’s thesis. It is true that honey-traps were laid: George Graham fell in love in Kuibyshev in 1942; John Vassal succumbed to a homosexual lure in 1954, but he was employed as an attaché to the British Embassy, and he did not reveal what had happened on his return to Great Britain; in 1968, the British Ambassador Sir Geoffrey Harrison was recalled after being seduced by his maid. But to elevate such incidents to a pattern of regular activity, and the consequent shenanigans in London, is surely irresponsible. The KGB probably ‘lost interest’ because they knew that such businessmen could not offer them much of value. If they did play such a random game, they did so because it was provocative, and disrupted western influence as well as counter-intelligence effort. I can find no reference to any such activity in Christopher Andrew’s authorized history of MI5. That does not mean that archival support for the theory does not exist, but it should be treated with great caution.

Conclusions:

So what is the significance of all this detailed analysis, and what are the implications? My conclusions are several:

1) The Negligence of the Historians: The public has not been well-served by the historical accounts of these events to date. The authorized professional historians have been high-handed and cavalier. Christopher Andrew dismisses any perspective that does not tally with his view of events as a ‘conspiracy theory’. Keith Jeffery is sadly no longer with us. John Ferris is irrelevant. The second-tier chroniclers, the journalists, such as Brook-Shepherd, West, Pincher, and Macintyre have overall been muddled and irresponsible.  The necessarily slipshod publication from the Sunday Times team had to be treated very cautiously.  The memoirists from intelligence (Wright and Philby) are unreliable.

2) The Integration of the George Graham and Volkov Stories: My recent research has added vital substance to the mechanisms by which the ciphers of MI6 and SOE were stolen in Moscow. Nowhere else does this analysis appear. The suborning of George Graham is a vital episode in the saga, which helps to explain the craven and frightened responses of Liddell and Menzies. The fact that the KGB were reading confidential messages in 1943 and 1944 has enormous relevance for accounts of the emergence of the Cold War.

3) The Withholding of FCO 158/194: I have proved that there are items of intelligence made available to some of the historians and journalists that are not available in FCO 158/193. The Government admits that FCO 158/194 exists, and that it has been retained by the Foreign Office. After almost eighty years, the only reason that it has been withheld must be that it contains acutely embarrassing information that would shed light on what really happened in Ankara, and after. A FOI (Freedom of Information) request should be submitted, and accepted.

4) The Lies of Kim Philby: The observers all appear to be highly sceptical of My Silent War, although they are content to cite it when it appears to suit their narrative. Without some method of cross-checking what Philby claimed about his role, it is impossible to discount or accept selectively what he wrote. The role of Sudakov, for example, is critical. Philby’s report to Menzies of the Volkov affair (discredited by Jeffery, and not released) may also be mendacious, of course. The precise series of events after Volkov’s approach must remain an open item of research.

5. The Haphazardness of Peter Wright: When I wrote about Wright and the VENONA/HASP material a few months ago, I showed how muddled his thinking was. His erratic memory, his obsessiveness over the translation of the Volkov letter, and his lack of understanding of many issues of espionage and counter-intelligence tradecraft further undermine the reliability of his story. His re-interpretation of the key Volkov sentence is absurd. Volkov pointed unerringly to Philby. Menzies acted irresponsibly.

6. Misdefending the Realm: It was negligent of MI5 and MI6 to recruit Blunt and Philby: harbouring an ELLI for so long would have been doubly so. Yet, even without a significant ELLI, gross incompetence was shown – in the disastrous appointment of George Graham, and not following up the allegations from Krivitsky and Volkov. Then ELLI became a convenient scapegoat for all manner of admitted failures, with the wilful encouragement of Dick White. The Intelligence Services imposed their own Morton’s Fork: if they failed to unearth ELLI, they were feeble. If they showed that ELLI did not exist, they were admitting a catalogue of mismanagement by not explicitly refuting Wright. That is the issue yet to be properly resolved.

I encourage all readers to contact me with further insights – or challenges.

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Feints and Deception: Two More Months in 1943

The Trident Conference
The Trident Conference

Introduction: In this segment, I continue my close analysis of the intersection of events in SOE, MI5, MI6, the XX Committee, the London Controlling Section, and the Chiefs of Staff in the first half of 1943, as they relate to SOE’s misadventures in France in the summer of that year. My original intent was to carry the story forward until the end of June, and then summarize the aftermath, but I discovered so much material concerning Suttill’s visit to the UK in late May that I decided to defer the unfortunate happenings in June to a later report. I shall take a break from PROSPER, and the run-up to FORTITUDE, for a month or two before returning to chronicle the events of June and July, and to offer a deeper analysis of what contributed to PROSPER’s capture and demise, the discovery and confiscation of stores of armaments, and the arrest of hundreds of members of the French Resistance.

If you simply want to learn about the breakthrough theory that resolves the contradictions in the accounts of Francis Suttill’s movements, scroll down to ‘A Breakthrough Theory’, and then decide whether the investigation itself is of interest to you.

Contents:

The Story So Far

1. April: The Chiefs Ponder; Déricourt’s Recall

2. May: The TRIDENT Conference

3. May-June: PROSPER is Summoned

            Buckmaster’s Stories

            Tales of Betrayal

            The Authorized History

            Robert Marshall & Fresh Challenges

            The Contribution of Suttill’s Son

            The SOE Adviser and the Register

            PROSPER in France

            A Breakthrough Theory

The Story So Far:  (see also http://www.coldspur.com/bridgehead-revisited-three-months-in-1943/)

John Bevan, the new head of the London Controlling Section, was encouraged by MI6 to set up a new deception committee, the TWIST Committee, to assist in Operation OVERTHROW in September 1942. This Committee stole some of the limelight from the joint XX Committee. The British and American Chiefs of Staff then struggled mightily with offensive priorities at the CASABLANCA Conference in January 1943, seeming to acknowledge that, after the assault in the Mediterranean had been decided upon, a re-entry to Northern France would be impossible that year. Meanwhile the dubious agent Henri Déricourt, recruited by SOE/MI6 despite his connections with German intelligence, started his operation in Northern France, arranging drops of agents in ‘safe’ landing-areas. In March, SOE received a new directive that diminished the role of France in the plans of the Chiefs of Staff, but arms drops to that country began to accelerate markedly. Churchill was still uncomfortable at the turn of events because of the personal commitments he had made to Stalin about the invasion, and the American Chiefs of Staff seemed not to have bought in completely to the ideas of Sir Alan Brooke, the British CIGS.

I also encourage readers to re-inspect my analysis of the historiography of the Prosper affair at http://www.coldspur.com/the-prosper-disaster/.

1. April: The Chiefs Ponder; Déricourt’s Recall

One might expect that the requested radical changes to Bevan’s Deception Plan would have occasioned appropriate revisions in policy and directive from the Chiefs of Staff. Having received Bevan’s stern missive of March 31, with Morgan also making some vigorous noises and presenting organization charts, the Chiefs issued a fresh edict on April 1, in the form of a Directive to the Chief of Staff to the Supreme Commander (designate). (Morgan’s appointment was not formally announced until April 13. Alan Brooke’s advice to him when he outlined the job was: “Well, there it is. It won’t work, but you must bloody well make it.”) Yet their first initiative was astonishing. It decreed:

            You will accordingly prepare plans for the following operations:-

(a) An operation in 1943 on the largest scale that resources permit with the object of testing the degree of resistance. This may find or produce a situation which may lead to

(b) A return to the Continent in the face of German disintegration at any time from now onwards with whatever force maybe available at the time.

(c) An invasion of the Continent in 1944.

This was presumably a step forward in declaring that the ‘invasion’ would not take place until 1944, but the preamble about embarking upon an operation in 1943 ‘on the largest scale that resources permit’ in order to assess the strength of German ‘resistance’ was a flagrant snub in the face of the US Chiefs of Staff. Yet the draft was sent to Washington, so that that body would have an opportunity to view it. General Morgan himself, in his memoir Overture to Overlord, states that he was authorized to proceed on the terms of the draft, assuming American approval.

Operation Bolero

At this stage, the Chiefs and their aides had probably not internalized Bevan’s Revised Plan, but the Chiefs themselves must have been aware of the messages arriving from Washington in late March about reducing BOLERO commitments (the importation of troops and material from the USA). Yet before Bevan’s new plan was formally presented, they had to deal with a different matter. The Ad Hoc Committee on Equipment for Patriot Forces presented its long-awaited report, on April 3. This Committee, chaired by two Brigadiers at the War Office (Oliver, and then Curtis, from February 24), contained a number of services men, as well as Cavendish-Bentinck of the JIC, and Grierson and Rowlandson from SOE. Its mission was to apply some structure to the challenge of providing equipment to Patriot Forces.

The scope of the report is too large to be analysed here, so I shall focus on the most relevant highlights for this story. It made distinctions between ‘Resistance Groups’ and ‘Patriot Forces’, the latter entity being realized only when such forces became active in areas liberated by Allied armies. (These ideas had already percolated into the March SOE Directive.) It provided an Appendix which, based on numbers provided by SOE, claimed a figure of almost 700,000 members of Resistance Groups in Europe in December 1942, which could rise to 1.25 million (with a number of 225,500 given for France), and thus had the potential to evolve into ‘Patriot Forces’. It laid out a very ambitious and comprehensive projection of the materials needed by such armies. And its predictable conclusion was that ‘air transport  . . . should be considerably increased’.

The Committee seemed to have been carried away, and unduly swayed by persuasive SOE gusto, since it did not pay enough attention to the vital details of how this mass of equipment would be stored and then made available before the allied armies arrived, or how isolated guerilla groups could be morphed into an effective military organization. The aspirations of this conclave would have to be dampened soon, but at this juncture the Chiefs quickly had to turn their attention back to Bevan’s revised Deception Plan, discussed on April 7.

What is extraordinary about the new paper is how little has changed. It is the result of some very careless work, maybe attributable to Bevan’s extended absence in North Africa during March. The Controller still introduces his recommendations with the comments about Germany assuming that ‘the Allies will not attempt a large-scale invasion of France and the Low Countries until the summer of 1943’. His general proposal still claims that the first (dummy) operation planned should be ‘the invasion of the Continent by means of an attack across the Channel’, when the US Chiefs of Staff had declared that such feints would be a waste of time. All the details about BOLERO, and the overstatement of Allied strength, etc. remain in the text. The only significant changes noticeable appear as an expansion of the goal of exaggerating strength in the UK, which now reads:

            7 (B) (i) Prudently exaggerate Allied strength in the U.K., both in men and material, including the rate of the build-up of BOLERO. No equipment or supplies required for actual operations will be diverted for this purpose.

And he qualifies it all with a Note, namely:

            The success of this deception plan will largely depend upon the enemy being able to obtain visual evidence of the presence of adequate numbers of ships and landing craft; however the limitations stated in 7 (b) (i) above must govern.

In other words, dead on arrival. Astonishingly, the Chiefs of Staff approved it, and circulated instructions to their Commanders-in-Chief in the Middle East and the Pacific, as well as to Eisenhower in Algiers. Were they merely inattentive? One wonders how seriously they were taking deception efforts at this stage of the war.

It does not appear that any information on the new plan reached the XX Committee, which had a placid beginning to the month. No reply to Masterman’s letter to Bevan concerning W/T cover for SPARTAN had arrived, but Bevan was abroad for most of the month. Wingate, his deputy, had to stall for time. MINCEMEAT was a hot topic, but the Committee had to reduce its potential with DAs (erroneously so-called ‘double agents’), since it was having problems maintaining the integrity of its notional agents. On April 8, it was decided that FATHER would be dispensed with, that BRUTUS should announce the capture and execution of CARELESS, that RAINBOW should be allowed to fade away, and that even TATE (a real agent) should ‘send messages indicating that he was beginning to get badly scared’. While GARBO sent his first wireless message under control at this time, the XX Committee was overall playing a muted role in deception activities.

And then, on April 14, Churchill began to show some alarm, after meeting the US General Lee, and hearing of his plans for an operation that involved some fairly drastic clearing out of the local population in parts of Devon for training purposes. Churchill wrote to ‘Pug’ Ismay, his chief staff officer, for the benefit of the Chiefs of Staff:

            Here you have these very keen men trying their utmost to mount an operation which we have all decided cannot physically take place. Far-reaching preparations are being made and money and labour wasted. We really must come to some clear-cut decision and issue the necessary orders to prevent dissipation of effort. We must reach a decision with the American Chiefs of Staff and the President.

To what was Churchill referring here? The suggestion of an operation which has been unanimously been abandoned must surely mean ROUNDUP (the full-scale re-entry, the eventual OVERLORD) rather than the opportunistic SLEDGEHAMMER (the plan for a bridgehead in the Cotentin peninsula, to take place if the Germans showed signs of disintegration). While ROUNDUP had been delayed until 1944, SLEDGEHAMMER, which had originally been an American idea, would now, with the deferred BOLERO build-up, have been able to proceed only with British troops, so the allusion to the involvement of US forces indicates that Churchill was dismayed by a proposed American contribution to a non-existent ROUNDUP plan that was not a deception exercise. Had General Lee not been indoctrinated? Churchill went on to write about ‘camouflaging’ the decision, and invited the Chiefs of Staff to ‘mark time’, or stop BOLERO altogether.

It is difficult trying to parse Churchill’s thought-processes here. One might conclude that he

was unaware of the recent deception study that recommended using such build-ups as Lee’s to promote the notion of a 1943 re-entry, but had forgotten that the Combined Chiefs of Staff had recently ruled such a deception to be a waste of time and resources. In any event he added:

            I do not propose to inform Marshal Stalin of these developments, hoping that events in VULCAN [the attack on German positions in Tunisia] and HUSKY and thereafter will show substantial results.

Yet Churchill had already informed Maisky of the delays in BOLERO. What was he thinking? Moreover, Alan Brooke recorded in his diary entry for April 13 that he had discussed with Churchill that same evening the advisability of removing all landing-craft from the UK to the Mediterranean in 1943, and indicated that he had persuaded the Prime Minister of the merits of dedicating all energies on the South, as a way of producing the greatest dispersal of German forces and ‘making the going easier for the Russians’. “Luckily PM finally agreed”, he wrote.

Churchill followed up a day later with a memorandum that would appear to confirm the hypothesis in the preceding paragraph, in which he declared that ‘no important [sic!] cross-Channel enterprise is possible this year’, indirectly suggesting that ‘unimportant’ crossings might be feasible. He added that

  It is nevertheless highly important that this fact should not become widely known, and that powerful camouflage and cover operations should continue in order to pin the enemy to the French coast and not to discourage our Russian allies.

Here, the Prime Minister appeared to be drawing distinctions between ‘money and labour wasted’ (in pursuit of vain actual operations) and ‘powerful camouflage and cover operations’ (as a mechanism of deception). Under which category did General’s Lee’s project come? It is not clear. In any case, such an edict was of course too vague to be enforceable. The Prime Minister continued, writing that he wanted BOLERO to continue, but be slowed down with a goal for 1944 re-entry. It was important that the impression be given that the American troops ‘are continuing to arrive in large numbers’. He was now getting nearer to the kernel of the deception plan, but his view of it still seems to be as a ploy to deceive the Russians more than outwit the Germans. He was so wound up by his ‘Second Front’ commitments to Stalin that he felt it more convenient to deceive him about the reality of 1943 re-entry plans than convince him of the seriousness of the project to maintain German forces in Western Europe, and keep them away from the Soviet theatre.

On April 18, he issued a more precise – and much quoted – message, in which he back-tracked from the opinion that SLEDGEHAMMER could take place in 1943, but presented his conclusion as if it were an original thought that had just occurred to him. It led with the following sentence:

            A German collapse being extremely unlikely and not to be counted upon this year, and neither American reinforcements nor landing craft being available, we cannot do “SLEDGEHAMMER” this year.

            He then gave new instructions for General Morgan’s organization to engage in ‘camouflage and pretence’ in order to ‘pin the enemy in the west by keeping alive the expectation of invasion’. Yet Churchill must have been the only person who had in April still carried the idea that SLEDGEHAMMER could have been a possibility in 1943. (Last month’s report showed how he still nurtured the idea strongly in March.) The idea had been abandoned by the Americans in 1942 (as Michael Howard reports), had again been rejected at Casablanca, the Chiefs of Staff had just approved Bevan’s plan that dismissed any operations in North West France, and Churchill himself had leaked to Stalin via Maisky the impossibility of launching any attack in 1943. SOE had been said to have acknowledged the fact since the previous year. And Churchill still seemed to have not internalized the fact that, by virtue of the strategy of helping Stalin by keeping German divisions ‘pinned’ in western Europe in 1943, any half-baked engagement such as SLEDGEHAMMER was bound to end in failure.

Churchill’s message concluded as follows, in highly perplexing terms, with words that would seem to confirm that his earlier comments were referring to ROUNDUP:

            If it gets about, as I fear it must, that any SLEDGEHAMMER is off for this year, it should be insinuated that this is part of our cover, and that the real preparations are going forward. Very large preparations should be made at the embarkation ports, and the assembly of the greatest amount of barges and invasion craft should be made culminating in July and August.

To whom were such ‘insinuations’ directed? And why ‘insinuate’? ‘Insinuation’ suggests the propagation of a lie in an underhand manner, usually with the intent to harm. Which group would have known about SLEDGEHAMMER (whether coded or not), should be prevented from learning the fact of its cancellation, but must be induced to believe that its abandonment was to conceal the idea that a real operation was going ahead?

It cannot be the Germans, as Churchill must have assumed that they were clueless about SLEDGEHAMMER and it therefore would not make sense that they would pick up news of its closing down through rumour. It could possibly be the French Resistance forces, whose confidence in a 1943 re-entry Churchill might have thought was important to their morale, and to the overall strategy for keeping German forces in Western Europe, but insinuation would have been a sordid treatment of them. It could conceivably be SOE’s French sections, having to handle the expectations of their networks, but that would surely be no way to treat some of Churchill’s darlings.

I suspect that Churchill had two groups in mind, both ‘frenemies’ of some kind. The first was the leaders of the Free French, since he and Brooke had the previous month made vague promises to Delestraint and Moulin of a ‘bridgehead’ to be made before the autumn of 1943. The second target was most surely Stalin and his gang, who were supposed not to have direct access to War Cabinet plans, but might conceivably hear about them, and would need to be disabused of their impressions. When SLEDGEHAMMER inevitably turned out to be an empty threat Churchill would be relying on VULCAN and HUSKY to ‘pull his chestnuts out of the fire’, in Stalin’s memorable phrase. Yet, for these audiences, Churchill had turned deception policy on its head: instead of dummy operations intended to indicate a proper but non-existent assault, the rumours of a cancelled operation were supposed to mask the fact that a real one was still viable!

The Chiefs did not seem to be fazed by Churchill’s insights, or want to point out how bizarre and illogical his proposals were. They simply took over the baton. On April 22, General Hollis laid out the requirements for the difficult challenge of involving the armed forces in deception exercises, couching it in terms of ‘deception must be regarded as the best means at our disposal for containing enemy forces in North-West Europe’, and implicitly abetting the ‘help the Soviet Union’ policy. On April 26, the Chiefs re-issued their final version of their directive to Morgan, accompanied by a note from General Hollis that indicated it had been ‘finally agreed by the Combined Chiefs of Staff’. Yet again, however, the balloon of a 1943 re-entry is floated. To support the ‘Object’ of defeating the Germans in North-West Europe (which was to be delivered by OVERLORD in 1944, of course, not HUSKY), the rubric set out:

            To this end the Combined Chiefs of Staff will endeavour to assemble the strongest possible forces (subject to prior commitments in other theatres) in constant readiness to re-enter the Continent if German resistance is weakened to the required extent in 1943. In the meantime the Combined Chiefs of Staff must be prepared to order such limited operations as may be practicable with the forces and material available.

SLEDGEHAMMER and its associated waffle (‘a return to the Continent in the event of German disintegration’) were well and truly alive. Then, as if to acknowledge their error, on April 30 the Chiefs of Staff submitted to the War Cabinet a report on ‘Amphibious Operations from the United Kingdom 1943-1944’ which boldly explained that there would be not enough landing-craft in the UK even for training purposes, following up with the Churchillian phrases:

            Consequently, there is no possibility of any substantial cross-Channel operation in early autumn of 1943 against organized opposition. . . . The abandonment of this operation makes it all the more necessary that there should be a vast scheme of cover and camouflage, in order to pin the enemy in the west by keeping alive the expectation of invasion.

So much for the opposition becoming ‘disorganized’. Morgan should have been mightily confused, but appeared not to be.

Though MI5 was not yet fully committed to this ‘insinuation’ business, it undeniably had the mission of ensuring that no confidential stories leaked overseas, and it had been intensifying its procedures against dubious arrivals from abroad. On April 3, Guy Liddell wrote in his diary that John Curry had written ‘a very good memo on penetration of SOE and SIS’. I do not believe that this memo has survived, but the very astute though neurotic Curry wrote expansively, in his in-house history of MI5, about measures to improve security at the London Reception Centre at this time. On February 12, a section known as B.1.D/UK had been set up to deal with British subjects who were returning to the country under circumstances similar to those of aliens, such as claiming to have escaped from prison or prison camps when they might have been suborned. The Germans liked to use them to learn more about escape routes. Such characters had to be treated carefully, since, as UK citizens, they could not be refused leave to land, but they also could be vital sources of information, and had to be interrogated gently.

Curry presents some very cogent analysis about the methods and the maintenance of the Information Index used to hold all intelligence gathered, and also comments on the co-operation of SOE, and the distinct obstructiveness of SIS, who wanted to protect information such as addresses used abroad. He wrote:

            There were several major disasters, some of which might have been avoided if S.I.S. and S.O.E. had arranged from the beginning for all the information about their organisation to be centered at one point in the L.R.C. S.I.S consistently refused to do this, but S.O.E were anxious to do it as soon as they realised the nature of the dangers and the protection which the L.R.C. could afford.

Déricourt could well have been one of the unnamed ‘major disasters’. Having wormed his way through the L.R.C. once, however, he was now an accredited agent, and did not have to be checked again.

Those latest discussions of the Chiefs of Staff did not mean that SOE received any revisions to its March Directive: the Chiefs were at this time waiting to receive Hambro’s ‘appreciation’ of it. In any case, it might not have travelled as far as Buckmaster and Section F, where projects of infiltration continued. The instructions to agents at the beginning of the month were highly provocative, expressing a hope that was not warranted. In his memoir of his father, PROSPER: Major Suttill’s French Resistance Network, Francis J. Suttill quotes the briefing that was given to Claude de Baissac on April 1 (available in HS 9/75):

            At the present stage of the war, our orders are to cause the maximum damage and confusion in the shortest possible time. This will continue to apply even if France is not the scene of actual hostilities during the next few months, since we have been and must still be successful in pinning down a large number of troops who would otherwise be available for other sectors.

            ‘Even if’? This is a vitally important document, as it offers proof that the Resistance at this time had been encouraged to believe that the early arrival of Allied forces (‘actual hostilities’) in France was highly probable. And the possible hidden sacrifice of ‘pinning troops’ (a questionable use of terminology in the circumstances) was quite clear, even though the identity of ‘other sectors’ (i.e. the Eastern Front) was not.

Déricourt undertook his second operation, a double Lysander landing in the Loire Valley, on the night of April 14/15. The occasion was marked by two sinister events, however. The first involved the presence of a Gestapo team at a nearby school, which has been explained as coincidental, but which alarmed Henri Frager, who had just arrived on the first flight. According to Foot ‘the incident gave Frager a bad opening impression of Déricourt’. The second event was more controversial. Déricourt was recalled to England, on London’s orders, and he flew back as the sole passenger on April 22/23.

Why was Déricourt recalled? Foot downplays the whole episode, discounting the agent’s own explanations, and merely notes that he had ‘a few day’s staff discussions’. Only in an Endnote does Foot raise a very provocative point: “In fact he had been summoned back to receive a reprimand from his friend Verity, for having endangered a Lysander through an ill-placed flarepath.” Hugh Verity would appear to confirm the story, reporting that Déricourt had placed the landing-flares too close to a tree, and thus caused Jimmy McCairns to damage his plane. His account is worth reproducing in full:

            The difficulty I thought must be that Déricourt was getting over-confident after a number of successful pick-up operations. He was an experienced pilot and he may have thought he knew too much about it to bother to obey the rules. To make sure he did not take chances of that sort again I decided he should be ‘torn off a strip’, i.e. informally reprimanded. I informed SOE ‘F’ Section, through the usual channels, that we would not do any more landings with Déricourt (apart from one to pick him up) until he had been back to us for refresher training. I also thought that he might have been overdoing it in France and that a short rest in England would do him good.

Hugh Verity

This does not make sense, and Verity needlessly overegged the pudding. Déricourt had undertaken only a single operation before this one, so the reference to ‘a number of successful pick-up operations’ is spurious. If in fact he had achieved several successes, the less justification there would be for hauling him back to Britain for rebukes and training. In any case, the remedial action seems excessive for such a transgression: a sharp message would surely have caused him to follow procedures more closely. Similarly, the argument that a rest-cure in England would address any problems due to Déricourt’s ‘overdoing’ things in France is absurd. He could simply have gone to ground for a while rather than engaging in two hazardous flights across the Channel.

The pilot Frank Rymills was sceptical of this account. In his memoir on Déricourt, Rymills questions McCairns’ story, and notes that Peter Vaughan-Fowler made a successful landing in the same field, thus implying that the mistake was McCairns’. Rymills also questions the details of Déricourt’s return in Verity’s plane, since it was given a unique operational name (‘Tony’) [actually ‘Tomy’: coldspur], and Déricourt was the only passenger, and he concludes:

            Someone must have considered it imperative he returned to London that Easter. I would suggest the tree incident was used as an excuse which could be used by way of an explanation to Boemelburg to cover his hurried recall to London.

One has to wonder who was fooling whom here. Did SOE/SIS really believe that the Sicherheitsdienst would be taken in by an obvious dangle of an agent, recently flown in clandestinely, who was arranging other aircraft drops, and somehow conclude that his activities were harmless, and that they would be suitably misled by the claim that he had to be recalled for training? Even Foot draws attention to the claim that Déricourt made to Jean Overton Fuller that it was only during that stay that ‘another organization in London’ (i.e. SIS not SOE) had authorized him to contact the Germans on his return to Paris. Yet the SOE historian does not consider the implications, simply debunking the assertion in favour of the reprimand story. Rymills, on the other hand, adds commentary to the effect that Boemelburg had met Déricourt in late March, had asked him about the PROSPER circuit, and that Déricourt was regularly lunching with Suttill at this time. Rymills adds a provocative and maybe too imaginative thought:

            In the third week of April, Déricourt had a further meeting with Boemelburg who warned hm to keep away from Henri Frager and his contacts because his Donkeyman network had been penetrated by the Abwehr [sic!]. Was this the information which spurred Déricourt in returning to London that Easter?

That would suggest that the return was Déricourt’s initiative, when Rymills had earlier indicated that the urgent recall had been initiated by London. We are well into the territory of the Wilderness of Mirrors now.

Karl Boemelburg

In All The King’s Men, Robert Marshall supplies further evidence of skulduggery from the oral testimonies given him. He has Déricout having another meeting with Boemelburg a few days after the March operation, when Déricourt provided the SD officer with ‘a detailed description of everyone who had travelled in on the Lysanders’. According to what Dr Götz (in charge of surveillance at the SD, who also became Déricourt’s contact) told Marshall in December 1982, Déricourt had approached Boemelburg soon after his arrival, and offered his services because he had been sickened by the ‘rampant Bolshevism’ apparent in London. The rationale and motivations of both SIS and the SD in this case merit closer analysis another time, since it seems incredible that either could take seriously the claims that Déricourt made separately to them, and build a project of robust tradecraft out of what they were told. Moreover, Marshall raises what I consider a highly dubious and supererogatory goal for Dansey’s intrigues – that Déricourt was to gain an insight into the SD’s operations, and that it would be ‘a coup comparable to deciphering their ENIGMA codes’.

Yet Marshall’s narrative does impart one intriguing insight, also bequeathed by Horst Kopkow. During the conversation that Déricourt had with Boemelburg in late March, as I recorded last month:

            Boemelburg asked him if he knew anything about PROSPER, to which Déricourt replied that he had heard it had something to do with the invasion.

Marshall adds, in his Endnotes, that ‘Boemelburg’s first priority was PROSPER and the invasion. Information about flights was secondary’. This leads to two challenging questions: How and why had Déricourt been told about a coming invasion? And why was PROSPER singled out as being connected with invasion plans, when arms drops had been increasing to all French circuits? In any case, the relationship between Déricourt and Boemelburg solidified. Déricourt was paid, and became agent BOE/48.

Charles Hambro was probably unaware of what Déricourt was up to when his rather coyly worded ‘Appreciation’ of SOE activities in 1943, responding to the March Directive and dated April 21, was distributed to the Chiefs of Staff on April 24. It gave a tour d’horizon of SOE’s capabilities and strategies around Europe. As far as France was concerned, it patted itself on the back, claiming that the ‘tide of resistance’ was mounting steadily, but then made a rather startling statement:

            Apart from sabotage groups, S.O.E. is in contact with, and assisting to organise and equip, widespread Resistance Groups who are preparing for action on a large scale when our invasion of the Continent begins.

It went on to suggest that ‘50,000 men could be brought in for guerilla warfare on invasion, granted adequate supplies could be delivered.’ Hambro’s report also indicated that the expected reductions in operations in Northern Europe would be counterbalanced by the ‘increasing demands for operations to France and the Low Countries’, and that 186 operations were planned ‘for the April moon’. The final statement regretted the ‘inadequacy of air transport’ and indicated that it would be impossible to maintain resistance at its present pitch with the resources allocated. ‘Demands exceed the means of delivery by about 200%’. In an Annex, Hambro referred to the problem of reconciling short-term and long-term objectives, and characterized the policy dilemma as follows:

            Since one of the essential characteristics of Resistance Groups is that, unless they are served sufficiently to enable them to retain their dynamic quality they tend to disintegrate, the demand for supplies is progressive and the lack of adequate transport facilities not only retards their expansion but threatens their very existence. Quite apart from this practical requirement, the degree of support afforded by air transportation is regarded by the Resistance Groups as a token of British interest in their activities and the indispensable condition of their co-operation.

Did these generalities apply to all country groups, or was the proximity of France driving the analysis? Since no invasion was planned for at least twelve months, a perspicacious and attentive reader might have wondered what the expectations of these French guerrilla groups were, and might also have questioned the degree to which the cart was dragging the horse in these matters. Why was Hambro describing the invasion in terms that suggested it would be happening soon? Was it not the responsibility of SOE to lead and control these ‘demands’? And what was that about ‘co-operation’? For whose benefit were SOE’s activities being pursued, and with what finesse, if SOE needed to gain ‘co-operation’ from those whose cause they were trying to advance, and such assistance was thrown out as a bargaining tool? Hambro was all at sea. Moreover, if questioned, the chief might have had to admit (according to Buckmaster’s testimony in his History – see last month’s report) that April had been a very productive month for shipments to France.

Still, no major dissension from the conclusions appears in the minutes. As they show (at CAB-79-27-6), attention was drawn to one paragraph, in 5(a), which the Committee, ‘after a short discussion’, judged ‘to be at variance with the policy of H.M. Government’. This controversial paragraph qualified the degree that open revolt could be triggered in Italy, suggesting that ‘less onerous peace terms’ might be gained if the Resistance there committed to overthrowing the Fascist regime. The Chiefs then kicked the ball into the long grass by delegating tougher issues to the Joint Planning Staff, ‘on the assumption that their recommendations on Future Strategy were finally accepted’, with the instructions to report on the following:

            (a) The most profitable areas for S.O.E. activity;

            (b) In view of other commitments, to what extent the additional requirements of S.O.E. should be met, indicating an order or priority by areas, and whether economies could be effected in less profitable areas;

            (c) Anything in the above appreciation at variance with the policy approved by the Chiefs of Staff, and to recommend what further instructions should be issued to S.O.E.

It was as if the Chiefs had forgotten about the priorities they had laid out in the March Directive.

Behind all this the TWIST Committee was pursuing its objectives. At the April 15 meeting of the XX Committee, Colonel ‘Tar’ Robertson graciously updated the assembly on its proceedings. The minutes read:

      Colonel Robertson reported on the functions of the Twist Committee and on the arrangements being made for putting into effect the troop movements and physically carrying out the deceptive policy agreed by that Committee. This would be under the control of the Chief of Staff who had been appointed to the Supreme Command of the West. The question of putting over traffic suggested by the latter, by means of double agents, was discussed and it was agreed that all traffic, whatever the source, should continue to be submitted to the appropriate Approving Authorities before being sent.   

Given that Morgan was to receive his final directive just two weeks later (after American approval), this statement might be said to have been jumping the gun, although Morgan had been given the authority to proceed anyway. If the TWIST Committee had really ‘agreed to’ a deception policy, whence had that policy derived? Should it perhaps have been refreshed given the urgent new events in the second half of April? And were the communications of Déricourt to be considered as part of the traffic that needed to be submitted to the Approving Authorities? It does not appear that anyone asked such questions at the time.

In fact, at this time a section known as Ops (B) was set up within COSSAC, chartered to deal with deception, and headed by Lieutenant-Colonel John Jervis Read. Roger Hesketh (who wrote the internal history of FORTITUDE) was recruited to handle the processes of ‘controlled leakage’, namely the passing of any information to the enemy. In this function Hesketh used Bevan’s TWIST Committee exclusively, and would attend its meetings to present requirements, after which the committee would determine what the most suitable method was for conveying the misinformation to the enemy. Hesketh himself reported that COCKADE was the only deception operation sponsored by COSSAC. Yet whether the TWIST Committee was intended to survive beyond the OVERTHROW operation is highly questionable: Bevan was no doubt delighted to have a new customer.

de Gaulle & Vaudreuil (Francois Thierry-Mieg)

As for Déricourt, on the last day of April, a disturbing letter from the Free French arrived on Captain Beaumont’s desk at MI5. Beaumont was E1A, responsible for Control of Aliens from France (see Déricourt’s Double Act), and must have been astonished to read a missive dated December 7, 1942, from Captain Vaudreuil, Chief of French Counter-Espionage, addressed to Major Younger, the assistant to the head of E1, Brooke-Booth. (I had erroneously stated, in my November 2021 report, that the letter had been weeded from the archive, but it can in fact be located in KV 2/1131/3, at 24b). Beaumont sent a copy of the report to Flight Lieutenant Park at SOE, with the following message:

            I enclose a copy of a report on your agent DERICOURT, which has reached us from the French. Unfortunately, there has been considerable delay in it coming to me. However, I think you should have the information, especially as the source is entirely different from the report about which I told you in my letter of 21st January 1943.

The puzzle of the delay, and of Beaumont’s reaction to it, is more bewildering when the text is studied. Vaudreuil’s text runs as follows (my translation):

            I confirm for you the information given orally to Captain Beaumont on the 5th of this month. One of his long-time friends from before the war, who met him several times in London, informs us as follows:

            Since the armistice in France, DERICOURT has started to frequent German locales in Paris. Afterwards he was often seen in Toulouse, visiting ladies of easy virtue in the pay of the Germans. DERICOURT now claims he will be returning to France in a few days on behalf of a British service, something that appears dangerous to us. On the other hand, he has asked our informant, an officer of the F.A.F.C., whether he could get hold of buttons [‘boutons’: ‘wireless knobs’?], compasses and other objects of that type, something that was of course refused him.

Park replied on May 7, simply thanking Beaumont and noting the contents of Vaudreuil’s report.

Several questions remain. What caused the delay in the delivery of the letter? Did Younger or Beaumont conceal it? Why did Beaumont not respond to the oral advice he was given? Did Beaumont explore what had caused the delay? Was the letter ‘discovered’ only because Déricourt had returned to London, and had been seen? Was Beaumont’s protestation of surprise to Park genuine? When did Beaumont learn that Déricourt was working for SOE, since on January 21 he had informed Park that the agent was leaving on a mission to America? Did Park enlighten him then? Why was Park’s reaction so cool and incurious? All is speculation.

Thus April ended in disarray. Churchill was in a world of his own, but his authority held sway. The Chiefs of Staff did not have the attention span to focus on what directives it had given to SOE, and fumbled the ball. General Morgan appeared not to be paying attention to the details, and the US Chiefs of Staff were also oddly careless. Charles Hambro surely had no idea what was happening in the bowels of SOE, especially in Section F, where Déricourt’s reliability was coming under broader inspection. And the shipments of arms to France, where the Resistance was expecting an early arrival of Allied troops, were increasing in contravention of declared strategy.

2. May: The TRIDENT Conference

Frederick Morgan & COSSAC

General Morgan started the month off by issuing a rather bizarre report to the as yet unappointed Supreme Allied Commander. He began by informing his boss that, after a meeting of his Principal Staff Officers on May 1, when an outline deception plan was discussed, ‘detailed examination of this plan is now in progress’, indirectly indicating that it was Bevan’s plan that his staff were inspecting. Yet he then makes a puzzling reference to WWI:

            Examination of that portion of my Directive which deals with the preparation for “A return to the Continent in the event of a German disintegration” shows that it is necessary to ask for certain amplification thereof.

            Recollecting the events of 1918 it is conceivable that, in the circumstances mentioned, my major object, the defeat of the German resisting [? not clear] forces, will have been in great measure achieved before the “return” from the N.W. begins. In this event the battle of the beaches [?] may be sharp and short and our forces will be available at once for the next step.

What Morgan seems to be requesting is clarification of the notorious paragraph 5 (b) about ‘German disintegration’, although he presents it in rather oblique and unmilitary language. “I suggest that it is desirable that some military objective should be designated now for attainment immediately after the cracking and penetration of the coastal thrust.” In this regard, he seems at this stage to be judging the chances of ‘German disintegration’ to be much higher than the Chiefs of Staff probably assessed them.

In his memoir Overture to Overlord Morgan carefully and tactfully dissected the dilemmas of the multiple objectives, and explained his reference to 1918, where ‘disintegration’ had occurred in a few short months. He pointed out the paradox of having as a goal ‘the defeat of German forces in north-west Europe’ alone, without indicating the objective of securing the total surrender of the Wehrmacht. He identified the challenge of not knowing what territorial goals should be set, in view of the speculation about what progress the Soviets would have made in 1944. He drew attention to the short amount of time available for any exercise, whether operational or deceptive, before the ‘invasion season’ closed in September. And he did point out that the eventuality of the disintegration (‘should the Germans begin to wilt’) ‘looked depressingly unlikely at that time’. What Morgan did not draw attention to, however, was the contradictions inherent in the objective of boosting German forces in north-west Europe in 1943 as a method of diverting them from the Russian Front, and the hypothesis about ‘disintegration’.  I cite two of his most important observations in full:

            It soon appeared that the three plans required were merely in fact three facets of the same plan. For it was of vital importance that nothing should be done in the course of diversionary operations in 1943 that should in anyway react to the detriment of the invasion plan for 1944.

            In the first place the diversionary operation for 1943, if it was to deceive anyone, must in fact culminate at a time at which cross-channel operations on a big scale would be practically possible.

The long and the short of it was that Morgan’s process was very much one of trial and error. “In the event, of course, the usual compromise was reached and the whole affair was thrashed backwards and forward many times,” he wrote. Soon, the pressures of time would impose a very tight and disciplined approach.

On the night of May 5/6, Déricourt returned to France after completing his ‘discussions’. He was ‘parachuted blind near Mer on the Loire’ (Suttill fils). Soon thereafter, he arranged for Suttill himself (PROSPER, the eponymous leader of the circuit) to be picked up and flown to England, on May 13/14. Suttill was the only passenger, but crossed with Madame Besnard, who had just undergone training, and was to become Déricourt’s courier and cut-out (i.e. third-party contact) in Paris.

What had Déricourt achieved in London, if re-training had been a cover? The only account of any substance comes from Déricourt himself, as he described it to Jean Overton Fuller, and recorded in her book Double Webs. His is not a reliable story, however: he admits that at his military trial in 1948 he lied about the timing and manner of his recruitment by the Sicherheitsdienst, and he vigorously denies that he was agent BOE.48 (who was ‘another GILBERT’). Yet his description of his time in Britain in April-May 1943 is probably accurate, since it is implicitly confirmed by the testimony of Nicolas Bodington, Maurice Buckmaster’s second-in-command. Déricourt stated that he had been authorized to maintain contact with the Germans, not by the French Section, but by ‘another organisation in London’, which can only mean SIS (MI6). Déricourt went on to say:

            It was not by the ‘French Section’ that I was authorized, but it was by London all the same. Some of my chiefs were for me, others against me. London at one moment did not trust me. I was not really authorized, for a moment, because the whole thing had got too big and too desperate. For a time I had to carry on without being really authorized, but I succeeded and then everybody was on my side.

For some reason, Fuller did not follow up on what Déricourt’s ‘success’ had been, although she did later charge him with handing over mail entrusted to him by Suttill and his assistant Gilbert Norman (ARCHAMBAULT), and thus being responsible for their arrest – a topic I shall cover in a later posting. Yet, according to his account, he carried out a project that caused ‘everybody’ to overcome their objections or hesitations. He also told Fuller several significant items. First, he claimed that that he had informed SIS that Buckmaster’s French Section F had been penetrated ‘at a very early stage’. By this he must surely have meant Bodington, who knew Boemelburg before the war, and was recruited by SOE in 1940, even before Buckmaster took over. Second, he confirmed that the nucleus of the PROSPER network had been penetrated even before Suttill arrived on the scene (referring indirectly to the contamination from the CARTE circuit). Third, he declared his respect for Colin Gubbins, pointing to the fact that he had met him, not just casually, but he also said that the ‘manœuvre’ for which he had been credited did not originate within SOE.

That Gubbins, but not Buckmaster or Vera Atkins, knew what was going on appears to be confirmed by what the two officers told Robert Marshall in the mid-1980s. In All The King’s Men, Marshall relates how Atkins, who had claimed that she was suspicious of Déricourt when she first met him, had changed her opinion. He writes:

            Vera Atkins, one of the few F Section officers who saw Déricourt during that trip, lunched with him at a little restaurant in Soho. By this time she had come round to the view Buckmaster and others had shared from the start; that Déricourt was an exceptional asset to the section. Her only reservation was that during the course of their meal she was alarmed that he spoke, with scant regard for security, about people he’d just left in Paris. Atkins cautioned him to keep his voice down, but he ignored her. Though he talked freely about PROSPER and the others, he naturally never mentioned that the network was seriously comprised and in mortal danger. Nor in any conversation with Buckmaster did he mention anything that might have given cause for concern.

One would conclude from this narrative that speaking loudly was part of Déricourt’s cover, but it is also evident that he withheld the details of his exchanges with Dansey from Buckmaster and Atkins. Thus claiming that ‘everybody was on my side’ was clearly spurious. Yet Déricourt went on to suggest to Fuller that, since the PROSPER network had already been penetrated, it was probably sacrificed ‘to keep the Germans occupied’, ‘to distract their attention’, words that eerily echo the charter recently handed down to SOE.

In the middle of May, soon after Déricourt had returned to France, some of the senior officers at SOE were told that PROSPER had been compromised. This evidence is again oral, and derives from what Gubbins’s deputy, Harry Sporborg, told Robert Marshall in March 1982. The news, so Sporborg said, came from MI6, a ‘usually reliable source’, since it had provided such information to SOE before. Apparently, it was so confidential that inside SOE only Gubbins, his deputy Sporborg, the Director of Intelligence, Archie Boyle, ‘and perhaps one or two other senior officers’ were in on the secret – the clear intimation being that no one in F Section knew about it.  Yet Marshall neglects to point out that the source was probably Déricourt himself, since the Frenchman had later declared to Fuller that the allegation was part of his report to MI6.

And then Marshall presents, without additional commentary, a very controversial statement:

            The only reason anyone in SOE was informed at all was because a decision had been taken to exploit PROSPER’s situation and this would require a certain amount of co-operation from SOE itself.

Is this not shocking? That an external decision had been taken affecting the integrity and credibility of SOE without Hambro and Gubbins being informed by their bosses, instead of which they heard it from their hostile brethren in intelligence, MI6? It is beyond belief. Sporborg must have been dissembling, although very clumsily. Hambro and Gubbins were surely in on the decision already, and it is difficult to imagine such a super-ministerial decision (i.e. across the Foreign Office and the Ministry of Economic Warfare) coming from anyone except Churchill.

The very same day on which Déricourt returned to France, May 5, Churchill and a large party, including the three Chiefs of Staff, left on the Queen Mary to go to Washington for the TRIDENT talks, described by Reynolds and Pechatnov as ‘a particularly fraught Anglo-American conference’. The parleys occupied the remainder of the month, and Brooke and Churchill, after a sojourn in Gibraltar and North Africa, did not return to the UK mainland until early June.

In a way, TRIDENT was the USA’s home fixture after they had been outwitted at Casablanca, and they were now better prepared. It was as if none of the CASABLANCA decisions (and the ensuing deception plans) had been ratified, with renewed American demands for an early re-entry into France, as well as strong promotion of a swing towards the Pacific. Brooke considered that the Americans simply did not understand what the purpose of the Allied actions in the Mediterranean was about, with King, Marshall and Leahy being particularly obtuse. Yet Churchill, with his continuous impulsive changes of mind, and willingness to appease Roosevelt and his friends, was of little help, either.  “Winston’s attitude at the White House Conference was tragic”, noted Brooke, even in the cold light of day, as his diaries were being prepared for publication.

While TRIDENT was underway, Bevan continued (in ignorance of what was going on across the ocean) to inspect the details of real operations in order to form his deception plan. He had had a meeting with Morgan on May 5, and wrote a memorandum on May 10 that highlighted the calendar challenges of the proposed attacks against the Pas de Calais and French Atlantic ports in September. September was too late, but there would not be enough landing-craft available before then. He concluded his minute:

            Though it seems impossible to advance the dates of General Morgan’s Deception Plans, I am, however, doing everything possible to convey the impression to the enemy that we intend to undertake operations against the Continent in the summer or early autumn, though I fear that there is not much hope of success in this connection until signs of preparations are actually visible to enemy air reconnaissance.

‘Doing everything possible’? What direct avenues did Bevan have outside his TWIST committee? The PWE and the BBC perhaps: Lionel Hale was a member of his Committee.

In his address in Washington on May 12, Churchill picked up the question of possible German ‘disintegration’. Even though only one United States division was so far available in England (the minutes stated), ‘. . . plans were being made for an operation to provoke an air battle, and we were standing ready to exploit a German collapse should this by any chance take place. He wished to make it absolutely clear that His Majesty’s Government earnestly desired to undertake a full-scale invasion of the Continent from the United Kingdom as soon as possible.” Yet Roosevelt appeared to dismiss any forays in 1943. While preparations for BOLERO should begin at once, “He felt that all agreed that no ‘ROUNDUP or ’SLEDGEHAMMER’ was possible of accomplishment this year, but if one or the other were to be mounted in the Spring of 1944, preparations should begin now.” He did, however, question the taking of Italy, adding, rather elliptically, and with a lack of strategic insight, that ‘the most effective way of forcing Germany to fight (and thus taking weight off Russia) was by carrying-out a cross-channel operation’. If the objective were to help Russia, how would a cross-Channel operation in 1944 contribute to that goal?

Churchill would not give up. On May 19 (at the Third Meeting), he elicited an admission from Brooke that, after a meeting of the Combined Chiefs of Staff earlier that day, ‘an agreement which provided for a build-up in England of a sufficient force to secure a bridgehead on the Continent from which further offensive operations could be carried out’. That bridgehead again – but no dates, no details, except for the fact that nine divisions would be available in the initial assault.

Had Brooke caved in under pressure? Elsewhere in the proceedings he had stated (at a Combined Chiefs of Staff meeting on May 13) that ‘only by continuing in the Mediterranean could we achieve the maximum diversion of German forces from Russia’, and added that a lodgement in Brest peninsula would not be a decisive blow, as there were not enough forces to debouch into the Continent. Implicitly and correctly contradicting Roosevelt’s assertion, he stated that now was the time when action was required to relieve the pressure on Russia, and that was through the incursions in the Mediterranean, and taking Italy out of the conflict. The minutes of the background meetings of the Combined Chiefs of Staff show admirals, generals and air marshals continually going round in circles on these matters, and at this stage Brooke more realistically pointed out that a bridgehead would probably be expelled by a concentration of Wehrmacht forces. The bewilderment was noted by William Manchester, a Churchill biographer, who wrote:

            The date agreed upon was May 1, 1944. But whether this was to be the small-scale landing, Sledgehammer, or the larger investment, Roundup, was not decided. So much confusion attached to just what exactly these code names meant that at the State Department and around Eisenhower’s headquarters, the newly proposed operation was referred to as Roundhammer. Whatever they chose to call it, it meant that yet another pledge made at Casablanca, and the most important to Stalin – to put men somewhere into France by August 1943 – would go begging for another year.

The Prime Minister was nevertheless able to express some satisfaction after this session.

            The Prime Minister indicated his pleasure that the conference was progressing as well as it was, and also that a cross-Channel operation had finally been agreed upon. He had always been in favor of such an operation and had to submit its delay in the past for reasons beyond control of the United Nations. He said that he thought Premier Stalin would be disappointed at not having an invasion of Northern France in 1943, but was certain that Mr. Stalin would be gratified by the results from ’HUSKY’ and the further events that were to take place this year.

Some magisterial and sophistical twaddle, in other words.

Roosevelt and Churchill still had to break the news to Stalin, who was still under the illusion that the ‘second front’ would be opened in 1943. May had in fact been dominated by other matters; the Nazis had discovered the mass graves of Polish officers at Katyn, and pointed clearly at Soviet responsibility. The outrage from the Polish government-in-exile prompted Stalin shabbily to break off political relations with the Poles, and Churchill and Roosevelt cravenly appeased the Soviet dictator. Yet Stalin appeared not to be too perturbed by the cessation of the Arctic convoys. After TRIDENT, on June 2, Roosevelt sent, under his and Churchill’s name, a letter (with a text drafted by General George Marshall) that coolly stated that ‘the concentration of forces and landing equipment in the British Isles should proceed at a rate to permit a full-scale invasion of the Continent to be launched at the peak of the great air offensive in the Spring of 1944.’  They then sat back and nervously awaited Stalin’s response.

Yet Stalin had already received inside information about the discussions between Churchill and Roosevelt in Washington, maybe from an ancillary meeting. The VENONA transcripts reveal that a cover-name of ‘Source No. 19.’ was reported in a KGB to Moscow message (812), dated May 29, to have participated in a private conversation about the second front. The text of the message has been only partially deciphered, but Haynes and Klehr write in Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America:

            It is clear, however, that Source No. 19 reported Churchill’s views that an Anglo-American invasion of continental Europe in 1943 was inadvisable. The message also reported that Zamestitel supported a second front and that it appeared that Roosevelt had been keeping Zamestitel in the dark about “important military decisions”.     

Neither Zamestitel [‘deputy’] nor Source No. 19 has been confidently identified. Eduard Mark made the case that Source No. 19 was probably Harry Hopkins, Roosevelt’s Special Assistant (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/02684529808432474).  Hayes and Klehr suggest he may have been British. (But a British spy temporarily in Washington would not have had quick access to his controller.)  In any case, Stalin learned about the opinions of his Allies before they constructed their written statement to him.

Thus May drew to a close. MI5 and the XX Committee were still very muted in ‘double-agent’ activities, although, on the last day of the month, Guy Liddell (who had been on sick leave with jaundice) reported a startling success with GARBO and the codes that the Abwehr had given him. John Curry, Liddell’s incisive critic of techniques for vetting dubious arrivals, had been moved over to MI6 to lead its embryonic Soviet counter-espionage section. Stalin had recently announced the dissolution of the Comintern, but Liddell & Co. treated it as an empty gesture. Arms shipments were increasing in France, and agents there were expecting an imminent invasion, but the Chiefs of Staff were still dithering over what were tentative operations, and what were feints. Churchill was still haunted by the promises he had made to Stalin.

3: May-June: PROSPER is Summoned

While these debates were going on in Washington, Francis Suttill (PROSPER) returned to London. Yet the recall of PROSPER and his eventual return to France represent one of the most problematic episodes in this story, and merit a dedicated chapter.

Major Francis Suttill, aka ‘Prosper’

Buckmaster’s Stories

The current conventional account, published by the officer’s son, Francis J. Suttill, in Prosper, and endorsed by several commentators, is that he arrived on May 14, 1943, and stayed in England for about a week. The documentary evidence for this sojourn is however scanty: no record of it appears in Suttill’s personal file at the National Archives, and we thus have to rely on a miscellany of less-than-reliable inputs – what Suttill himself said, what Maurice Buckmaster wrote and spoke, what the Foreign Office SOE Adviser fed M. R. D. Foot, what contemporaries told E. H. Cookridge and Robert Marshall, and what Suttill’s son has collated from a close inspection of air force records and his own family records. The combined story does not make sense.

One of the major conundrums is that, for almost forty years, an account that had Suttill returning on June 10 (or 12) was echoed in several publications, including the authorized history by Foot. Nobody ever challenged this assertion until Foot himself, in the 2004 edition of his SOE in France, slyly replaced his statement about a June 10 return to France with one that stated ‘late May’. He did not explain why he made this change. I thus employ my familiar methodology of working serially through the accounts in chronological order, and testing the claims against other evidence. The problems, however, are not just with the dates themselves, but with the reasons for Suttill’s recall, and how he spent his time in England.

I start with the two books by Maurice Buckmaster, Suttill’s boss, the head of F Section, who contributed much to the confusion. In Specially Employed (1952), he wrote (p 186):

            His decision was final, and, when he [Prosper] was established at the beginning of 1943, arms and munitions began to flow to the different groups in a satisfactory manner . . .

            As early as April 1943, the rumour ran like wildfire that the Allies were about to land in France. The patriotic surge of enthusiasm was dangerous. It had to be quelled. Prosper did not know whether the rumour was founded in fact or not. For reasons of security, we could not tell him by radio. We decided that we must bring Prosper back to London. . . . .

            His detailed report was extremely encouraging. It was clear that the Allies, when they landed, would be assured of magnificent support from French patriots. But the Allies were not ready to return to the Continent in the summer of 1943, as so many Frenchmen confidently hoped. The fires of enthusiasm would have to be damped down, without, however, being extinguished. Only a first-class man like Prosper could convey that message successfully. Prosper would have to return as soon as possible.

            Indeed, after a week in England, he was begging to let him pursue his mission, for he realized that each day’s delay was dangerous. Within ten days he was back in Paris, on 20 June, 1943.

The overall message from this version is clear: the details are haphazard. Contrary to Buckmaster’s own in-house History of F Section, PROSPER is correctly indicated as becoming active only at the end of 1942. The increase in arms shipments appears to coincide with PROSPER’s establishment and activity. But Buckmaster strikes a very disingenuous pose over the spread of rumours about the coming invasion, as those signals were issued to agents by Buckmaster himself. PROSPER’s new mission is described as indeed being to quash such enthusiasms, suggesting, perhaps, that the March directive to SOE about the switch in emphasis from France to the Balkans, and from patriot armies to sabotage, had reached Buckmaster. Buckmaster’s narrative suggests that it was around June 10, towards the end of his sojourn, when Suttill insisted on returning, after he had been in London for about a week, which would establish a date of, say, June 3, for his arrival. Yet that ‘within ten days’ is not precise. The following ‘moon-period’ started on June 10, so he could have left then, or soon after, and gradually made his way to Paris.

After the passage of a few years, in They Fought Alone (1958), Buckmaster wrote (pp 185-186):

            In the middle of 1943 we had a top secret message telling us that D-day might be closer than we thought. This message had been tied up with international politics on a level far above our knowledge and we, of course, had acted upon it without question. In the event, it had not come true and, as everyone knows, our friends in France – and the whole world – had to wait another year before the liberation began. Nevertheless it was from the reception of this message that a certain change in our objectives can be dated. From the middle of ’43 we were specializing much more in the planting of arms dumps and the training of a secret army than we had up till then: earlier we had concentrated on sabotage and ‘economic warfare’ – attacks on key targets in accordance with directives from the Ministry of Economic Warfare.

            Now we attempted to serve two masters, the M.E.W. to whom we were technically responsible, and Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force (SHAEF), newly come into existence, with whom we were strategically linked. The pace increased. And this increased pace was, to some extent responsible for the flurry of arrests which, in some areas, temporarily dislocated the French Section of S.O.E. It was much easier to indulge in sporadic sabotage and get away with it than it was to organize large clandestine armies without allowing a single weak link to infiltrate a section and betray his comrades. . . .

            When the time came for the change over from economic warfare to planning for D-Day, the necessary re-thinking was so sweeping that we decided the best thing would be to bring Proper over to England for his new briefing . . .  We had many conferences with Allied high-ups and then, a fortnight later, Francis returned to France . . ..

I cannot feel now that I was wrong to leave him in Paris, bitterly though I regret that I did not pull him out in that May of 1943.

Why the 180° turn? Now Buckmaster is passing on to PROSPER the mission of contributing to the coming Allied re-entry. He alludes to the increase in arms dumps in the summer of 1943, a phenomenon which was strictly in contravention of the March Directive to SOE. The vagueness about dates is, however, very telling. He states that he wishes he had pulled Suttill out in May – which must be interpreted as saying that Suttill had arrived in England in that month – and could have been kept there for the duration. ‘The middle of 1943’ is when these ‘top secret’ messages arrived (why would such messages be any more confidential than anything else?), yet by the summer, the plans for any operation in France were for deception purposes, even though the hope for a re-entry was still nurtured by Churchill, mainly, in the vain prospect of ‘German disintegration’. Certainly no change of policy had been made by the Chiefs of Staff that would warrant such instructions – unless of, course, SOE was being sucked into the deception, too.

Tales of Betrayal

What had happened was that, in the late nineteen-fifties, the books written by Jean Overton Fuller, Heinrich Bleicher and others had aired the very probable notion that the networks had been penetrated and betrayed (as Buckmaster acknowledges above, and in the lines directly after what I have quoted). So, in 1958, Buckmaster had to mask SOE’s incompetence by introducing SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Forces), and orders from high command. Yet SHAEF was not created until the end of 1943. It replaced COSSAC, which itself had hardly got started in May 1943 – the month that Buckmaster identifies as the time when he could have extracted Suttill from his doom. This date also explicitly contradicted Buckmaster’s timetable from 1952. Thus he apparently tried to blame the spate of arrests on the increased subversive activity ordered by higher government agencies. It is overall a very shabby affair.

Yet confusion remains about the exact period of Suttill’s stay in London. For a while, Buckmaster’s 1952 ambiguous assertions for early June were the baseline. In Double Webs (1958), Jean Overton Fuller confidently wrote that Suttill left for London under Déricourt’s guidance on June 10, and returned to France on June 20, to Culioli’s reception. She thus offered the first variation to Buckmaster’s story, perhaps misreading Buckmaster’s ‘within ten days’. On the other hand, E. H. Cookridge, in his Inside SOE (1966), which was published just before Foot’s authorized history, had a breathtaking alternative, presenting Suttill as arriving on May 14/15, and not returning until June 12. That would have been a long time for a recall dedicated to ‘consultative talks’, but the bookends have substance.

Cookridge described Suttill’s visit to London in terms of an opportunity for him to express to his bosses in SOE his concern that the PROSPER network had been infiltrated, and he reported several arrests that had taken place in April and May. One of the setbacks that had upset him (as recorded by Cookridge) was the arrest of Edward Wilkinson (ALEXANDRE) – but Wilkinson was not arrested until June 6, a fact that would indicate that Suttill must have expressed his concerns after that date, and was probably in London at the time. Moreover, Suttill may not have told his bosses about his efforts to bribe the Sicherheitsdienst in an attempt to rescue Germaine and Madeleine Tambour. The former had probably been betrayed by the traitor Roger Bardet, and had been arrested on April 22. Suttill was indeed instructed to try to rescue them, but he inserted himself into the affair in a reckless manner, and was eventually duped by the Germans. Also, while he was away, two members of the Abwehr, claiming to be escapees from Holland seeking the route to the UK, and impersonating known SOE agents, infiltrated themselves into Suttill’s network. Cookridge wrote (p 225)

            It cannot be verified whether Suttill suspected ‘Gilbert’ [i.e. Déricourt] of double dealing. Nor is it certain whether he was told in London that British Intelligence chiefs had knowledge of ‘Gilbert’s’ contacts with the Germans. But I know that after his return to France on 13 June 1943 Major Suttill told his friends that ‘someone who enjoyed his trust must be a double agent’. Surviving members of Suttill’s network, such as Madame Guépin, Madame Balachowsky and Armel Guerne, have confirmed my belief that this was Suttill’s feeling.

The Authorized History

In the first edition of SOE in France (1966, with second revised impression, 1968), M. R. D. Foot had Suttill sent back to Paris ‘about June 12 with an “alert” signal, warning the whole circuit to stand by’, ascribing the details to an interrogation of Cohen on October 11, 1943. (This must be Gaston Cohen, ‘WATCHMAKER’: he was being interrogated about Suttill’s participation in the mismanaged affair of the Tambour sisters.) Yet it is not clear whether Foot derived the facts about the alert and the date from Cohen, or took the date from the same source who provided Cookridge with his information. For some strange reason, Gaston Cohen’s Personal File is not listed in the National Archives, and thus the facts of his ‘interrogation’ are not verifiable. (I have asked the chief independent collector of SOE information, Dr Stephen Kippax, a stalwart of the Special Forces Club, for a transcript of the interrogation, but he has not seen it, although he said that it has probably been shown to Francis J. Suttill – only.)

For almost forty years, however, this statement lay unchallenged and unquestioned: no apparent anomalies or counterfactual evidence were presented. And yet what is remarkable is the fact that the Foreign Officer adviser, Edwin Boxshall, in the Chronology he prepared for Foot, did record Suttill’s departure as occurring on May 20. His report was released in 2006, two years after the new edition of SOE in France, but it had been prepared as far back as 1960. Why had Foot ignored or rejected this datum for so long?

In 2004 a bizarre amendment to Foot’s text appeared. In the new edition of SOE in France Foot was moved to correct the date of Suttill’s return to France to ‘late May’, but left the sentence otherwise unchanged. Foot declined to offer any reason for his alteration, yet by making no other changes he suggested that the interrogation of Cohen was still the source. That was not good scholarship. Foot had a new paragraph to insert, however, which ran as follows:

            There is a long-standing rumour that he had had a personal interview with Churchill, who gave him a misleading brief on purpose; this is baseless, as a look at the dates make clear. While Suttill was in England in May 1943, Churchill was not; they cannot have met.

Such logic is, at best, sophistical. It would appear that Foot arbitrarily changed the dates. It is true that Churchill did not return from his Washington/Mediterranean journey until June 5. Yet for decades Foot was quite happy to have his record state that Suttill was in London in early June. He credits his fresh insight in an Endnote: “I owe this simple point to Suttill’s son and namesake, properly jealous of his father’s memory.” But the point is by no means simple, and the method is devious. The fact of the date collision would have voided the story of the Churchill encounter, but would not have warranted reconstructing the timetable. The date was changed to fit the politically correct story.

Robert Marshall & Fresh Challenges

What had happened in the interim? The main event was the furore caused by the publication of Robert Marshall’s All The King’s Men in 1988. Marshall embellished the story of the Churchill encounter in his book (pp 158-164), where he actually reported that it was Bevan and the London Controlling Section that decided to recall Suttill, and that Churchill himself even requested to see Suttill personally. He added flourishing details describing how Lord Selbourne [sic] and Suttill ‘rode in the back of a large staff car down Baker Street’ to see Churchill. The meeting is not dated, but Marshall recorded an important minute by COSSAC as occurring on May 28 ‘soon after Suttill’s return to London’ – again an unforced error.

            . . . when Francis Suttill emerged from the CWR [Cabinet War Room] he was a changed man. He had been charged with what he believed was the greatest secret of the war – the date of the invasion. Unfortunately, the new rather knocked him sideways. He was told the invasion would take place at Pas-de-Calais, on the northern coast of France, sometime during the first week of September. More than three months away.

Marshall was unfortunately rather vague about dates. If indeed, the events he described were claimed to take place in May, his story falls apart. The main problem is that, as is evident, Churchill was indeed out of the country for almost all of May – alongside nearly all the top brass. As Alan Brooke wrote in his diary entry for May 5, as he travelled on the train from London to Greenock:

Our party consists of PM, Averell Harriman, Beaverbrook, Leathers, Charles Wilson, Cherwell, Wavell, Peirse, Somerville, 3 Chiefs of Staff, all Joint Planners and in addition shipping, movement, administrative, intelligence etc. staff officers from the Admiralty, WO and Air Ministry, and finally many clerks, detectives, etc.

In other words, the only significant relevant players left behind were Dansey, Bevan, Morgan, Hambro and Gubbins. As Brooke records, the major figures in the TRIDENT party arrived back in London on June 5.

Yet Marshall had an unexpected ally in Maurice Buckmaster himself, who was bold enough to express in a BBC programme, on October 31, 1985, the following startling revelation:

            Churchill told Suttill he wanted to increase the amount of sabotage operations and general unrest in the west of France so he could have some defence against Stalin’s claim we weren’t doing enough to help him. Suttill was encouraged by Churchill to run enormous risks, to forget his security training and produce violent explosions in and around the Paris area, so that Churchill could turn to Stalin and say – now, look at what we’re doing.

This was an astonishing claim, and a fresh explosion from an insider against the carefully established ‘truth’ that the PROSPER circuit had not been sacrificed on purpose by Allied high-ups.

Marshall used this evidence to show that Suttill, when he returned to France, was ‘convinced the invasion was coming in September’. But when does he place Suttill’s return? He first describes the fateful rendezvous at Capucine’s restaurant in Paris on June 9, where Agazarian set up the fake Dutch SOE agent for a meeting with some members of Prosper’s circuit, an encounter which Déricourt was able to avoid, and then informs us:

            Four days after the incident at Capucines, Francis Suttill prepared for his return to France. He was expected to return to one of Déricourt’s receptions, but instead chose to parachute to a reception in a field in the Sologne.

According to Marshall, Suttill apparently wanted to be met by Pierre Culioli, who had first welcomed him on his first flight to France, back in November 1942. On the night of June 11/12, however, a disaster had happened, when a container exploded. The Germans poured into the area the next day. Culioli tried to warn London, recommending they halt all air operations for a while, but his message never got through, and Culioli was informed that Suttill would be parachuted in on June 13/14. Suttill then briefed Culioli and his comrades about further drops, and the invasion in the autumn, and then moved to stay in Paris. Thus Marshall in fact echoed Cookridge – and Foot Mark 1 – concerning the timing of Suttill’s return to France. He was still in London in early June.

The Contribution by Suttill’s Son

Lastly, Francis J. Suttill, in Prosper (2018), published initially as Shadows in the Fog (2014), has Suttill being picked up on May 14/15 and returning five days later. As primary evidence of his father’s arrival and stay, he offers two pieces of evidence: his mother’s account of travelling up to London to see her husband, and Buckmaster’s diary entries. The arrival on May 14/15 seems solid. Hugh Verity in We Landed By Moonlight writes (albeit with some tentativeness): “We must have brought back to England one of Buckmaster’s best agents, Major Francis Suttill  . . .” , and he adds that Suttill returned by parachute on May 20/21. Francis Suttill notes that his mother visited his father in London that week, and he also cites several items from Maurice Buckmaster’s diary from May 15 until May 20, Buckmaster apparently meeting Suttill every day. His father left with France Antelme (RENAUD) on May 20.

Yet an enormous paradox still remains. Suttill also quotes Buckmaster’s BBC interview (given as occurring in 1983), in which the SOE officer revisited his claim that Churchill had seen PROSPER during the latter’s visit. Suttill Jr. repeated Buckmaster’s statement that Churchill himself had wanted to meet Suttill, and continued as follows:

            Buckmaster claimed that my father was closeted with Churchill and the Cabinet Office for a long time as Churchill explained that Stalin was bullying him into making more trouble in France. He claimed that Churchill then asked, ‘Are you prepared to risk your life in these circumstances? I want you to make as much disruption as possible. Ignore the security rules, stir things up.’ And that my father replied, Yes, sir’.

Buckmaster (as in the quotation above) naively represents Churchill’s commandment to Suttill as being one to increase sabotage activity, to please Stalin in the short term, not one to prepare the patriot armies to assist a summer invasion. Apart from a failure to point out that Stalin would not have been very impressed by the actions of a few saboteurs, or even spasmodic uprisings, Suttill’s lack of commentary is puzzling. He does not explore why he thinks Buckmaster delivered this story, and simply attempts to refute it by hammering home the point that the meeting could not have happened because of Churchill’s absence during that week. Yet, elsewhere, he ascribes Buckmaster’s misconceptions to a faulty memory. Defective memories, however, tend to distort details of actual events rather than invent Walter Mittyesque episodes completely. Moreover, if Buckmaster’s memory was impaired (and he was still in his fifties when he wrote his two books), one would think he would have considered consulting his diary to check the facts of the case before mounting his media platform. And did Suttill inspect Buckmaster’s diary for early June?

The SOE Adviser and the Register

What Suttill did have access to was the document prepared by Edwin Boxshall for M. R. D. Foot, to which I referred earlier. Unfortunately, the numbers of Suttill’s Endnotes are frequently wrong, but this is clearly what he describes as Chronicle of SOE Operations During World War II, and lists it as residing at the Imperial War Museum. The document is in fact titled Chronology of SOE Operations with the Resistance in France During World War II, and, a little alarmingly, its introduction states: ‘Originally produced in London, December 1960 by Lt. Col. E G Boxshall. Later manuscript amendments by Professor M. R. D. Foot, author of “SOE in France”’. Thus we have a highly selective compilation massaged for the benefit of the authorized historian, who himself sees fit to emend the text without leaving a paper-trail of the changes he made, and why. One of the remarkable features of this document is that Boxshall lists Suttill’s return to France as occurring on May 20/21, but a hand-written question mark – presumably one of the annotations made by Foot that the issuing civil servant acknowledged – has been added against the date. The authorized historian presumably took his intelligence from elsewhere, quixotically ignoring the advice from his Foreign Office mentor. Suttill never recognizes this anomaly, which is breathtaking.

Suttill found several mistakes in Boxshall’s text (and must have been amazed when he saw Boxshall’s original typescript), so he decided that ‘it would be wise to accept statements from this document only if they were supported by information from other sources’. And Suttill displayed considerable energy and thoroughness in examining not only the files that were eventually transferred to the National Archives, including the RAF records of flights undertaken on behalf of SOE, but also French records. His painstaking approach could have delivered a very valuable register of the air movements in 1943, but, sadly, what he has published is very confusing.

The first problem is one of nomenclature – not Suttill’s responsibility, of course, but something he does little to ameliorate. The PROSPER circuit was also known as PHYSICIAN, but leaders of a circuit were frequently identified by the network they led. Thus, when (say) ‘PHYSICIAN’ is listed, it sometimes refers to an Operation for the network (when a number follows the code), and sometimes to PHYSICIAN himself (with no suffix). If the operation was successful, the name appears in bold. Agents can be referred to by one of their many aliases. Another problem is the gaps in the record. In his book, Suttill states that the ATF Operational Instructions for May and June were missing, which would cast doubt on the reliability of the data. However, Mr. Suttill has also told me that his assertion in the book is in error, and that it is the June and July orders that are missing. How Suttill derived his register for June (the record stops on June 23/24) is not clear.

By adopting a very inconsistent method for identifying passengers, Suttill does not alleviate this confusion. His Key includes the following item: ‘1M/10C/1P = number of men, containers and packages dropped’. Apart from the fact that women were frequently among the personnel who landed, Suttill does not employ this coding consistently. For instance, for the critical INVENTOR pick-up and landing on May 14/15 (the codename for one of Déricourt’s operations), Suttill informs his readers that those who landed were ‘J. Aisner, V. Leigh, S. Jones and M. Clech’, and that F. Suttill was picked up, yet he provides no code of ‘4M’. For the operation on May 20/21, named CHESTNUT4, he lists PHYSICIAN and BRICKLAYER (France Antelme, the leader of the BRICKLAYER circuit, not identified here by Suttill: one has to go back to his original drop in November 1942 to find the equivalence) as completed, with two passengers noted (‘2M’), but he does not list who they were, the implication being that, since they both appear in bold without a suffix, they must have been the respective circuit-leaders. Yet for June 12/13, where his text indicates that WATCHMAKER (Cohen) was dropped, and he provides WATCHMAKER in bold, he merely notates ‘5C/2P’ (five containers, two packages) without listing any ‘Men’. One could imagine that Cohen might have been accompanied.

Even though Mr. Suttill has informed me that CHESTNUT4 was the flight on which his father returned, he cannot explain to me why he does not list his father’s name in this entry, nor why he does not list passengers comprehensively. His father’s name does not appear anywhere else.

PROSPER in France

Thus another avenue of research would be to trace PROSPER’s activities and movements in France during this controversial period of May 21 to June 12. The evidence is slender. Suttill introduces his ‘Disaster’ chapter, however, as follows:

            One of the first things my father did on his return from London on 21 May was to visit Trotobas in Lille 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’.

This journey has an ironic geographical aspect, as Lille is on the Belgian border, further away from Orléans, near where Suttill was dropped, than is Tangmere, the airport from which he left the previous night. He would presumably have had to catch a train to Paris, and then switch to another one for the journey to Lille, where he had to be very careful, as the region was much more heavily guarded, and he had relatives there. But PROSPER did have urgent business with Trotobas, and this witness statement seems reliable.

The second item is PROSPER’s presence in Paris. The file on WATCHMAKER, Edward Mountford Wilkinson (HS 9/1593-2), aliases ALEXANDRE or PRIVET (the name of his network), provides part of the answer. ALEXANDRE had been recruited by PROSPER, and operated out of Nantes, but frequently stayed in Paris with the Perraults (as Patrick Marnham describes in War in the Shadows). The Gestapo had visited him with questions on May 15, and on June 5 he had a meeting scheduled with Inspector Imart of the French Police, who had helped him escape after an arrest the previous year. Wilkinson was arrested the next day, and, after dreadful torture, was executed at Mauthausen in 1944.

Further evidence about WATCHMAKER comes from the interrogation on August 6, 1945, in London, of Armel Guerne (GASPARD, or TUERNE), who was suspected of having been a Gestapo agent. He was familiar with the TAMBOUR case, and his interrogation thus mirrored that of Gaston Cohen. His file (HS9-631/5) is revealing in several aspects. For instance, the report states very provocatively, in a Note: “PROSPER, during his visits [sic!] to London, left two letters to be delivered by the organization to his wife.” And one important factoid emerges when the interrogation turns to the arrest of ALEXANDRE:

            ‘ALEXANDRE’ had previously been arrested in the Unoccupied Zone but had escaped with the help of a French detective. He met PROSPER, ARCHAMBAUD [Gilbert Norman, PROSPER’s wireless operator] and GUERNE at GUERNE’s house and told them that the following day he was to meet in a French café the French detective who had helped him to escape. In spite of their warnings, ‘ALEXANDRE’ kept this appointment and was arrested by the Gestapo on a Sunday in June 1943 [actually June 6].

Thus PROSPER was clearly in Paris in early June. Yet Foot elides over the whole ALEXANDRE episode: evidence of PROSPER’s presence in Paris in early June would not fit with his initial chronology.

The last occasion, at the time when Suttill was originally reported as returning to France, is more controversial. Francis J. Suttill describes the events of June 10-13 as follows:

            He [PROSPER] must have received Culioli’s request to suspend drops in the Sologne following the explosions at Neuvy on 10/11 June just before he went to Bazémont to receive Gaston Cohen on 12/13 June, as he went straight to meet Culioli afterwards. My father refused Culioli’s request as he had already told him that he did not want to waste time, feeling that the invasion was imminent, and he was so serious about this that he gave Culioli the order to continue with receptions in writing.

Suttill notes that the son of his father’s hosts at Avaray, Alain Brossard, remembered helping set up PROSPER’s receiver so that he could listen out for BBC messages. But Suttill’s analysis is tentative: ‘he must have received Culioili’s request’; he has no evidence so support it. He describes his father’s understanding of an imminent invasion as ‘feelings’, rather than fresh intelligence and instructions that PROSPER (according to other sources) had just been given.

Indeed Cookridge wrote, in Inside SOE (p 229, as I introduced above), that it was Culioli who received PROSPER:

            On 13 June Culioli received Major Suttill, whose arrival had been announced by radio signals and in a ‘personal message’ on the BBC. Culioli expressed surprise that Suttill was dropped in the Sologne, despite his warnings; but Suttill did not offer any explanations.

Thus the WATCHMAKER/PHYSICIAN 42 flight on 12/13 June takes on a special significance, with two accounts of the same drop being in sharp contradiction. Patrick Marnham also presents the episode with the explosion as happening on June 12/13, and accompanies his analysis with some strong witness statements, and information from French archives at Blois. PROSPER could well have arrived the same night as the explosions occurred, and had his tense discussion with Culioli soon after he landed. Yet Marnham also lists Suttill’s Shadows in the Fog (the earlier edition of Prosper) as one of his sources, without drawing his readers’ attention to the clash in dates.

On closer inspection, Suttill’s account is flimsy. He makes the case that the drop with the explosions occurred on the night of June 10/11, explicitly contradicting the evidence of the abbé Guillaume by emphasizing the recollections of one Dr Segelle, who was nephew of one of the reception team. Segelle gives a superficially precise date ‘the Thursday before Pentecost, the 10th June, towards 1 a.m. in the morning’ in Suttill’s pleonastic translation: the ecclesiastical calendar is correct, but that morning would have been June 11. Suttill then embellishes his report with an assertion by Alain Bossard, with whose parents PROSPER stayed, that he helped PROSPER set up the aerial for his wireless receiver in the garden. PROSPER would not, however, have carried any wireless equipment with him; he had no reason to listen to the BBC in the middle of the night; in any case he could have used an ordinary domestic radio to tune in, had he needed to. (Suttill also has his father busily cycling to the train station ‘the next morning’ – presumably June 11.) Lastly, Suttill provides as a source for the account of the PHYSICIAN 54 explosion the file HS 8/143 at the National Archives. I have inspected the file: it contains nothing about the flights of June 1943.

In that case, Suttill’s tentative evidence that PROSPER was already in the neighbourhood could be seen as being devised to refute any account of his second return to France through the introduction of items that would appear to give verisimilitude, but that can be shown to be hollow. Mr. Suttill has declined to respond to my several questions about the facts surrounding this critical flight and PROSPER’s presence at the time of the PHYSICIAN 54 episode.

A Breakthrough Theory

So how should all this be interpreted? It occurs to this unreformed conspiracy theorist that the extension of Suttill’s spell in London until June 12 would assist the case of those who claim that he had an audience with Churchill, while the insistence on the earlier, late May, return would help the case of those who asserted that such an encounter would have been impossible. And what is still not explained is why Buckmaster, as early as 1952, when there was no pressure on him from published accounts of betrayal, would be so open and confident (and wrong) about the date of the June return to France.

The inescapable conclusion for this researcher is that Suttill crossed the English Channel four times that summer. His first sojourn was May 10 to 14/15; the second was June 10 (probably) to June 12/13. Only in this scenario can all the contradictory claims be reconciled. Foot picked up the same information as Cookridge and Marshall, and did not trust what Boxshall had written, as it contradicted what he was being told by others. Boxshall tried to guide Foot to the first return on May 14/15, probably having been instructed to bury any evidence about a second visit to meet Churchill. Yet Foot could not bring himself, out of some misguided loyalty, to declare openly what happened in the face of the fresh evidence that emerged from the archives. And then, many years later, he started receiving pressure from the Suttill camp of ‘anti-conspiracy-theorists’ (including the SOE ‘historian’, Mark Seaman) who wanted to submerge the whole notion that Suttill may have received dangerously false information from Churchill about an imminent invasion.

The evidence is rich:

i) Guerne’s file refers to multiple returns that PROSPER made to the UK in 1943.

ii) PROSPER surely accompanied Cohen on his second return to France. The report of Cohen’s interrogation has been withheld; Cohen’s personal file likewise. They are too volatile, as Cohen presumably gave evidence of his flight with PROSPER.

iii) The personal testimonies given to Cookridge and Marshall all indicate that PROSPER had a meeting with Churchill, which could not have occurred until after the Prime Minister’s return to the UK on June 5.

iv) Foot maintained for thirty-eight years that PROSPER did not return to France until June 12, based on the information from Cohen’s interrogation report.

v) PROSPER was reported to have expressed concern about Wilkinson’s arrest. That happened on June 6, so PROSPER must have spoken to his bosses at SOE after that date.

vi) The evidence for PROSPER’s initial return to France on May 14/15 is practically irrefutable. The error has been in Suttill’s and Foot’s insistence that it was his final journey to the UK.

vii) PROSPER was certainly active in France (with Trotobas, Wilkinson and Guerne) in the last week of May and the first week of June.

viii) Foot elides over this whole period, including the archival evidence on Wilkinson. (His Footnote No. 89 on page 494 of SOE in France, referring to Guerne, gives only the single digit ‘9’ as a reference.)

ix) Francis J. Suttill’s primary evidence for PROSPER’s presence in the Sologne on the night of June 10/11 is highly dubious, and contradicts the memories of other witnesses to the events (such as the abbé Guillaume), as supplied by Cookridge, Marnham, and even Suttill himself.

The theory must be accompanied by some assumptions. First of all, PROSPER must have been picked up by a flight that was ‘under the radar’. (He could conceivably have made his second passage to the UK by sea, but that would have been a long and dangerous journey, and inappropriate given the urgency.) The flight was probably not even made by 161 Squadron, which was responsible for landings, but arranged secretly by Churchill. As Marshall reported, Churchill had asked to see Suttill personally, and the Prime Minister presumably ordered the SOE officer’s recall when he found out that Suttill had been in London while he was overseas. When the Foreign Office engaged Foot to write the history, and started releasing records, they could not have been aware of the controversy that would be aroused by indications that Suttill had not returned until about June 12. Records of Suttill’s movements were surely concealed or destroyed. When former SOE members started talking to Cookridge, and Foot himself, the Foreign Office instructed Boxshall to list only Suttill’s first flight, and omit details of the second excursion. Foot questioned that account, however, knowing that Boxshall’s summary did not tell the whole story, but he was persuaded not to reveal all because of the extreme sensitivity of the revelations. In his text, however, Foot perpetuated the date of the second arrival. If the censors noticed the anomaly, they said nothing, observing that Cookridge (in particular) had arrived at a substantially correct assessment of the facts. They presumably hoped that no one would notice. They were right: Foot’s account lay unchallenged for over thirty-five years.

What I have hypothesized has the advantage of accommodating all the published facts about Suttill’s movements, except for those that understandably present minor errors in details over dates. It should receive objections only from those commentators who i) assert that Suttill’s sole visit to the UK was between May 14/15 and May 20/22; or ii) maintain that Suttill arrived on May 15 but did not depart until June 12 (or near that date). I introduced this theory to Patrick Marnham earlier this month, and he informed me that he had been thinking along similar lines. My last set of questions to Francis J. Suttill has remained unanswered, although I hinted to him the path I was pursuing. Steven Kippax has similarly gone silent. That is intelligence in itself. A full analysis of the implications of these conclusions will have to come in a later posting.

(Latest Commonplace entries can be seen here.)

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‘Bridgehead Revisited’: Three Months in 1943

Casablanca Conference

“I have nothing but documents here, but to understand history you have to overcome the documents. By themselves, documents will never be enough.” (Vladimir Naumov, from Jonathan Brett’s Inside the Stalin Archives, p 232)

“Historians make imperfect judgements about incomplete evidence, and some of what they write about (above all, human intentions) may have been intrinsically uncertain at the time.” (Noel Malcolm, in Times Literary Supplement)

“Even this is hard to explain to overseas colleagues who find it still difficult to understand why the British do not want to make public the part they played, as shown in Foot’s SOE in France, in the achievements of those years. They wish to have available histories, as complete and official as possible, to be compiled with all blemishes and failures as well as successes – to show the essential links which SOE provided between the Resistance and the outside forces of liberation.” (Douglas Dodds-Parker, in Setting Europe Ablaze)

Contents:

Introduction

1. January: Decisions at Casablanca

2. February: Churchill’s Faux Pas

3. March: SOE Receives its Directive

4. Arms Shipments to France

5. Interim Conclusions

Introduction:

As a continuation of my investigation into the PROSPER disaster, in this report I use primarily SOE records and War Cabinet and XX Committee minutes, and secondarily contemporary diaries and letters, as well as biographies and memoirs, to try to establish how high-level military strategy in the first quarter of 1943 became converted into low-level deception activity. I shall follow up with an account of the events of the second quarter next month.

The key research questions seem to me to be:

* When did SOE start to become an agency for deception as well as sabotage?

* Who authorized this change of policy?

* Why did SOE engage in activities that suggested a 1943 invasion was imminent?

* Were the officers employed in carrying out the strategy aware of the deception plan?

* Why did the perpetrators believe that the Germans would be deceived by Déricourt, such an obvious plant?

This report is largely a chronicle. I have withheld my comments of analysis and interpretation except for reasons of improving the narrative flow, and in the hope of aiding the intelligibility of the train of events. I shall undertake a deeper analysis in a couple of months or so.

The story so far:

(for a full description of the events in late 1942, see All Quiet on the Second Front?)

As the Chiefs of Staff started to think about offensive operations against the Axis powers in Europe, the agencies of deception were refreshed. John Bevan replaced Oliver Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section, and soon afterwards created the TWIST Committee to develop and execute deception plans to assist Operation OVERTHROW. MI5, largely responsible for the XX Committee, which was not judged ready for large deception exercises, casually condoned the creation of the rival unit. MI6 was in fact the impetus behind this new initiative, wanting to use its own ‘double agents’ to spread confusion. Under this scheme, Henri Déricourt was recruited and trained for the role of enabling landing-areas for SOE flights from Britain into France.

The Status of SOE:

In its two years of existence, SOE had enjoyed a chequered history. Its first minister responsible, the controversial and ebullient Hugh Dalton, had caused ripples because of his strident left-wing plans for ‘revolution’ in Europe, but had been replaced by the calmer and pragmatic Lord Selborne in February 1942. The chief of SOE, Frank Nelson, was burned out through overwork, and was replaced in May 1942 by Charles Hambro, whose geniality covered up for the fact that he was still very occupied with managing Great Western Railways.

Charles Hambro

SOE had enemies on all sides. It was resented by MI6, since its noisy exploits drew Nazi attention and interfered with intelligence-gathering. The Foreign Office objected to its political initiatives, especially when they involved de Gaulle and his Free French aspirations. The governments-in-exile frequently were disturbed by its interference in their respective countries. The Army was suspicious of its pseudo-military exploits not always under the control of proper discipline. RAF and Bomber Command saw its demands for air support as a drain on scarce resources needed elsewhere. MI5 disparaged its lax approach to security. The Chiefs of Staff never really understood what it was up to. But Prime Minister Churchill was a constant champion, and defended it from the attacks.

Moreover, the management structure of SOE was frequently inadequate, even dysfunctional. Hambro was not a full-time leader. He appointed Colin Gubbins as Director of Operations, but not all the country sections came under Gubbins’ control. Gubbins was nevertheless overworked, and brought in supposedly ‘able’ officers from outside (e.g. Brook, Dodds-Parker, Grierson, Wilkinson, Mockler-Ferryman, Stawell, Templer) but they all took time to find their feet, and perhaps never really understood what was going on. Many country sections resented being guided by military men who did not understand what they were doing (and perhaps some of those section heads lacked a full grasp of what their missions involved.) SOE in Cairo was an outlier, reporting to local Army headquarters, not SOE in London. While Gubbins had experience of sabotage, he was reportedly much more interested in the building of patriot forces to aid the eventual re-entry into North West Europe. The three biographies of Gubbins that have been written all present him as something of a hero. He was indeed a brave and intelligent officer, and an inspirational leader, but the security disasters took place under his watch, and he was not alive enough to the perils of subterfuge, the exposures that were caused by carelessness, and the misuse of intelligence. He failed to develop a flexible and nuanced strategy for dealing with resistance forces that encompassed both the shifts in military policy and the realities on the ground, where the characteristics of each country (distance, terrain, politics, culture) were markedly different.

1. January: Decisions at Casablanca

The end of 1942 had seen the London Controlling Section issue a Deception Policy Statement for the winter. It was issued on December 27 by John Bevan’s deputy, Ronald Wingate, as Bevan was in the USA, and consisted of a rather woolly policy, reflecting a still fuzzy declaration of intent from the Chiefs of Staff. Stating that the Axis ‘probably appreciates that we cannot attempt a large scale invasion of France and the Low Countries till the summer of 1943’, it stressed a short-term exaggeration of Allied strength in the United Kingdom, and for preparations for an assault on the Continent, as if an attempt could be made in the spring. It also set out an objective of forcing the Axis to withdraw land and air forces from the Russian front, indicating the pressure felt from Stalin at the time. But it was a dog’s breakfast of a deception policy: how the Axis would be misled by such a feint is not explained.

In any case, the initiative was overtaken by other happenings. The dominant event in January 1943 was the CASABLANCA Conference, held from January 14th to the 24th. Of the ‘Big Three’, only Roosevelt and Churchill attended: Stalin declined on the grounds that he had to stay in Russia to deal with the Battle of Stalingrad. Yet he always avoided travelling by airplane, leaving the Soviet Union only once during the war (to attend the Teheran Conference), and he may well have feared a palace coup if he were absent from Moscow for too long. The objectives of the Conference were to set military priorities for the rest of the war, and to discuss several diplomatic issues – presumably the type of clarity in objectives that the LCS was thirsting for.

Alan Brooke, the Chief of the Imperial General Staff, and his team were well-prepared to impress upon their American counterparts the correctness of the Mediterranean focus, the preference for invading Sicily rather than Sardinia, and the necessity of delaying any re-entry into North-West Europe until 1944. Brooke won most of his arguments, assisted by the diplomacy of his predecessor, Sir John Dill. Yet the final communiqués, simplified around the themes of the Mediterranean assault, the continuation of saturation bombing, and President Roosevelt’s bolt-from-the-blue declaration about ‘unconditional surrender’ masked some internal arguments that continued to fester.

The prime irritation was Churchill’s continued pleas for engagements that would satisfy Stalin, even though Brooke and his counterpart General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, argued for a tougher line on the Soviet leader, urging that he not be placated out of political necessity, a judgment that would later be shown to be deeply ironic. Thus Churchill raised the spectres of ROUNDUP (the original plan for a full assault on Northern France that would morph into OVERLORD) and SLEDGEHAMMER (a limited invasion), even though, given that it had been decided by then that any entry to the continent would have to be fully committed and irreversible, the two operations should have been merged into one. At the back of the planners’ minds was the notion that it made sense to maintain a hope for a decisive entry into France if the Germans showed signs of weakness or deteriorating morale. Such phrases turn up regularly in War Cabinet minutes, but the signs are never quantified, and they could be interpreted merely as a gesture towards Churchill.

The issue of how broadly the decision that the ‘re-entry’ could not occur until 1944 was communicated, and when it was seriously internalized, is vitally important. The first sentence of Roger Hesketh’s Fortitude, written in 1945, runs: ‘The decision to invade France in 1944 was taken at the Casablanca Conference in January 1943’, but the initial statements from the Chiefs of Staff did not echo such a resolute message, which was to some an inconvenient truth. At this stage, deliberate waffle and evasion seemed to be the order of the day. When Soviet Ambassador Maisky spoke to Eden at the end of the month, Eden, having read the cables from Churchill (who had travelled on to Turkey) could not shed light on any firm decision about the Second Front. Alan Brooke, in his diary entry for January 22, clearly believed that his Mediterranean strategy (and thus a deferral for NW France) had been accepted, but soon understood that the nay-sayers started working as soon as the meetings broke up.

Thus some rather equivocal resolutions were made that belied the decision to defer the assault until 1944: ‘plans for entry into continental Europe in 1943 and 1944 should be drawn up’; ‘first requirement for amphibious operations in 1943 from UK will be to appoint a British Chief of Staff, and Combined Planning Staff ‘ ; ‘amphibious operations from UK in 1943 will consist of a) raids b) operations to seize bridgehead c) return to continent to take advantage of German disintegration’. August 1 was set for (b), in the Cotentin peninsula. What would happen if the bridgehead failed, and the forces were pushed back into the sea, was not discussed. On January 29, the Chiefs of Staff instructed Bevan to prepare ‘strategic deception plans’ in light of the newly made decisions, a directive that would cause the head of the London Controlling Section to withdraw his December 6 policy statement.

Churchill also requested the creation of a paper for Stalin that would express firm intentions rather than vague promises. A wording of sorts was thus compiled, reading as follows:

We shall also concentrate in the United Kingdom the maximum American land and air forces that shipping will permit. These, combined with the British forces in the United Kingdom, will be held in constant readiness to re-enter the Continent of Europe as soon as this operation offers reasonable prospect of success.

Stalin, ploughing forces against the Germans with no regard for loss of life, would surely have found this strategy far too timid and cautious. In any case, the Joint Intelligence Committee took issue with the statement, which underwent several revisions before being transmitted to Stalin in February. Impatient for news, Stalin sent on January 30 a telegram to Roosevelt and Churchill seeking elucidation on Second Front policy.

According to Robert Marshall, Churchill, despite being embarrassed by Roosevelt’s sudden call for ‘unconditional surrender’, then made a blunder of his own, stating to the Press on January 19 that an invasion of Europe would occur within nine months. To support his claim, in All The King’s Men Robert Marshall quotes words from Charles Wighton’s Pin-Stripe Saboteur. Yet that memoir, written by Jacques Weil (number 2 in the JUGGLER network of F section) under a nom de plume, includes no such passage. The work is moreover confusing and unreliable, since it merges the characters of Worms, the network leader, and Weil into one agent known as ROBIN. If such a statement had been made, the Press and Churchill’s opposition in the House of Commons would surely not have let him forget it. Maybe this was an item of oral testimony that Marshall picked up. Yet E. H. Cookridge echoes (or is the source of) this story in his Inside SOE (p 209), where he writes, of the Prime Minister in January: “The Prime Minister spoke of an invasion of Europe within nine months.”

As far as the implications for SOE were concerned, Brooke did have a message for the group, hinting at concealed mistakes in the past, and perhaps suggesting a shake-up:

Plans must envisage making the maximum use of S.O.E. activities and that these activities must be closely coordinated with the military operations proposed. This has not always been done in the past.  

The irregularities in SOE to which Brooke was referring were not revealed. Nor was it made explicit how and when this message was communicated to the Minister responsible for SOE, Lord Selborne, to the SOE Chief, Charles Hambro or (as I suspect may have happened by now) Hambro’s successor and perhaps co-leader, Colin Gubbins. (Frank Rymills, one of SOE’s pilots, states in his memoir that Gubbins was already SOE chief in November 1942, an assertion of fact that is tantalizingly reinforced by Gubbins’ own War Record file at the National Archives.) Nevertheless, new directives were issued to SOE on January 22 which Buckmaster, the head of F Section, in his in-house history written in 1945 (HS 7/121), translated into the following objectives:

a) the sabotage of the German war effort by every means available;

b) the full support of the CARTE organisation as long as its potentialities continued to justify such support.

This was a strange interpretation, since the first objective was dangerously unqualified, and the focus on the discredited CARTE organisation was simply erratic and irresponsible. By this time, SOE management realized that the claims made about the potential of CARTE had been grossly exaggerated, and they suspected that it had been penetrated by the Germans, as indeed it had. For Buckmaster to focus on CARTE indicates either that he was entirely in the dark, or that he was being deliberately obtuse, perhaps to switch attention away from the PROSPER network, the reputation of which was much stronger at the time.

The role of Gubbins in this scenario is critical, as he would seem to be the officer at the nexus of the three nodes of operation: 1) the involvement of SOE personnel in Bevan’s deception plans; 2) the management of SOE as a sabotage organization; and 3) the close liaison with the Chiefs of Staff to ensure co-ordination with military strategy. Thus his movements and decisions are of vital importance.

Irrespective of his precise appointment in September 1942, Gubbins may well have been present at the Casablanca confabulations. In November, the SOE station known as MASSINGHAM had been established in Algiers, and Gubbins had flown out to sort out some of its problems on January 21, specifically to investigate SOE’s involvement in the assassination of Admiral Darlan. (According to Peter Wilkinson, in Gubbins & SOE, Gubbins spent six weeks in the area, yet the SOE War Diary at HS 7/286 has Gubbins attending a meeting on February 12 at the War Office to discuss overlap of responsibilities. His exact movements at this time have not been determined.) In his biography of Gubbins, SOE’s Mastermind, Brian Lett states that, around this time, Gubbins became the official SOE representative to the Chiefs of Staff, so it would have been entirely natural for him to be briefed by his close friend Brooke when he arrived. Moreover, Wilkinson writes that Gubbins had frequently attended Chiefs of Staff meeting on Nelson’s behalf, at the time when Brooke’s predecessor, Sir John Dill, was in the chair.

Thus it would appear that Gubbins, who (according to Rymills) had been given Déricourt’s curriculum vitae in November, was perfectly happy, while he was in Africa, to delegate key decisions on F Section to the Regional Controller for Western Europe, Robin Brook, and to the F section chief, Maurice Buckmaster, and allow Déricourt to perform whatever task had been set him. By then, Déricourt had been trained on procedures for handling Lysander and Hudson flights, and another pilot, Hugh Verity, who had become very friendly with the Frenchman, allowed him to take a flight in a Lysander in early January. Déricourt had in fact been prepared to be dropped into France at the end of December, but the bad weather caused a postponement for another month. In Buckmaster’s report on ‘drops and outcomes’ for this period, Déricourt is clearly identifiable as ‘One Lysander specialist’.

Lysander and Pilots

An explanation of aviation schedules is now probably appropriate. The Lysander was a small plane, with room for a single pilot only (thus no navigator), and space for three passengers (four at a squeeze). With an extra fuel-tank, it could achieve only about 500 miles on a round-trip. It had to fly at night, to avoid German attacks. It might seem counter-intuitive, but flights in the summer had to be curtailed because of the length of daylight hours, which put particular pressure on longer journeys (such as to Poland or Czechoslovakia, where Whitley bombers had to be used.) Moreover, the Lysander could carry out a mission only during the full-moon period, as the pilot needed to follow landmarks on the ground (rivers, roads, towns) to navigate: spending too many seconds looking at a map could be very dangerous. The pilot would look for flares in letter formation to confirm that the meeting-party was present and correct. Thus there was a window of only a week or so (Hugh Verity stretches it to a fortnight) each month when flights could be attempted. And heavy clouds were an obstacle that could not be overcome: an unpremeditated storm could cause havoc.

The next moon-period was on January 22, 1943, and Déricourt, now with the codename GILBERT, was flown over to France accompanied by Jean Worms, the leader of the JUGGLER circuit. Déricourt had an alias of Maurice Fabre, a name that he would soon drop, since his identity was well-known in Paris. Worms parachuted first, to be welcomed by a reception committee laid on by Francis Suttill (PROSPER), who had been in France for just under four months, and his courier, Andrée Borrel (DENISE). Rymills, their pilot that night, wrote: “Déricourt was dropped ‘blind’, that is without a reception committee and landed in a large field north of Orleans near Pithiviers.”

Most of Déricourt’s movements in January are probably not so significant: he made his way to Paris to seek out his mistress Julienne Asner, who was not at home; he caught a train to Reims, to visit his mother. The next day he returned to Paris to find Julienne at home, and then departed for Marseilles to pick up his wife. Then, soon after their return to Paris, probably at the end of January, Déricourt renewed his contact with the Sicherheitsdienst officer Karl Boemelburg.

Back in MI5, which had a mission to protect the realm against dubious entries and re-entries to the country, matters were moving slowly but steadily. Earlier in the month, in recognition of possible security exposures, Geoffrey Wethered had been appointed operational security liaison officer with SOE. By the end of the month, Wethered’s investigations had led to the discovery that Déricourt, with a questionable history, was reportedly working for SOE. As evidence of its vetting procedures, Guy Liddell had also noted, on January 13, that the W Board had decided to run Walenti (Garby-Czerniawski, another refugee from Nazi-controlled France) as double-agent BRUTUS, but not yet for deception purposes, confirming the still cautious and tentative policy with DAs.

The XX Committee, however, appeared to have been left out in the cold. In December, John Masterman, the chairman, had voiced his concerns about not receiving guidance from the LCS Controller, John Bevan, about his deception plans. Masterman nevertheless undermined his argument by again expressing the notion that deception was not the prime objective of DAs managed by his Committee – the meetings of which Bevan incidentally no longer attended, even though he was still a member. (Bevan sent his newly-appointed deputy, Major Wingate, in his place.) Four meetings of the XX Committee were held in January, but Bevan and his deception plans never received a mention. The only relevant reference appears to come on January 14, when Major Combe of MI11 says that the Inter-Service Security Board (LCS’s predecessor) has a deception order of battle which would shortly be handed over to the Controller! Masterman’s passivity is noteworthy.

Yet Bevan’s behaviour was already drawing other adverse reaction. ‘TAR’ Robertson, of B1A, as a member of Bevan’s TWIST committee, was moved to approach Guy Liddell to express his concerns about the Controller’s attitude towards deception. On January 23, Liddell wrote in his diary:

TAR is a little worried about the attitude of the Controller of Deception, who seems anxious to give directions in detail about the channels through which his information is to be passed. I said that I thought it was up to the Controller to state the nature of the information and the time when he wishes it to reach the enemy. He is entitled to know the grade of the agent who was to pass this information in order that he could assess the extent to which the information was likely to be believed. The rest of the business seemed to be a matter for us.

This seems a highly ingenuous observation by Liddell. He knew about Bevan’s rival TWIST committee, and he had downplayed the role that the XX Committee, and its DAs, could play in deception, as part of his tactic for boosting Bevan’s schemes. As he reflected on the exchange, Liddell may have missed the point – that Bevan was using MI6/SOE DAs as his medium, and Robertson was explicitly criticizing how Bevan treated them at TWIST gatherings.

2. February: Churchill’s Faux Pas

As instructed, John Bevan quickly presented his new Deception Policy for 1943, on February 2. He introduced it by declaring that it was based ‘on the SYMBOL [i.e. Casablanca] decisions’. Yet the reader might quickly conclude that Bevan had not received the major email concerning the 1944 decision, but was processing the diluted and vague directive given above, since his very arch comments on the North Western European Front ran as follows:

            Germany probably assumes that we cannot attempt a large-scale invasion of France and the Low Countries till the summer of 1943. Nevertheless she remains apprehensive, but owing to her heavy commitments elsewhere she must set upon that assumption.

Since the prime achievement of Brooke at Casablanca had been to convince the Americans that France could not be invaded until 1944, the idea that the ‘apprehensive’ Germans might not consider the invasion likely until the summer of 1943 might suggest a poor interpretation of intelligence. Yet Bevan persisted with the December assumptions: his deception plan was based around the notion that indications of enough strength to invade in July 1943 were practical, and would be adequate to convince the Germans that they should maintain considerable forces in Western Europe. He continued with the recommendations to support the ‘Object’ for the containment of enemy forces in western Europe (and I list these in full since it will be instructive to compare them with what the XX Committee later records):

            (i) Exaggerate Allied strength in the U.K., both in men and material, including the rate of the build-up of BOLERO.

            (ii) Carry out suitable dispositions of our forces to simulate invasion preparations.

            (iii) Initiate intensive invasion training.

            (iv) Accelerate our physical preparations (both real and by means of decoys and dummies) for a return to the Continent.

            (v) Indicate to the enemy that every available man and all possible resources are being mobilized for an attack across the Channel in conjunction with an assault on the south coast of France.

This design had problems. If Brooke approved it in principle (since he knew it had to be a feint), he must have had serious concerns as to how the Germans would be deceived, given the paucity of US and British troops available on mainland UK, and the lack of landing-craft. If Churchill approved it (since he still had aspirations of launching an attack on France in 1943), it would unnecessarily have alerted the German to a real operation. Moreover, the statement contained an existential paradox that colours all the proceedings of this period: if one of the goals was to keep German forces in Western Europe to help the Soviets, why would a re-entry to the Continent in 1943 ever be considered? Ignoring this dichotomy, Bevan added that the threat should be extended ‘over as wide an area as possible’, but his uncertainty was echoed in his comment on Timing:

            We should in the first instance indicate that the invasion will take place in July. This date will have to be postponed when the time comes and our activities will be continued until the end of September.

How the Germans would be taken in by this scheme is not explained. The problem was that Bevan could not devise a sturdy deception plan if he did not know what the real operational plan was. Nevertheless, according to Michael Howard, citing CAB 121/105, the Chiefs of Staff approved the plan on February 9. [The so-called ‘Minutes’ in the CAB 80 series rarely record decisions taken. As M. R. D. Foot described such a policy: ‘an admirable measure from the point of view of security, maddening though it is for historians’. In fact, decisions taken by the Chiefs of Staff are kept separate from the submitted papers and reports, and many can be found in the CAB 79/27 series.]

Churchill & Maisky

And then, the day after he returned from his Mediterranean journey, on February 8, Churchill had a meeting with Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, at which he made a major gaffe. It is not always safe to rely on Maisky’s record of such meetings, since he tended to embellish them to suit his political cause, and his standing with Stalin, but the kernel of this encounter is probably true. Churchill, probably the worse for wear from drink, lamented to Maisky the fact that the Americans would not be able to supply the divisions required for the Channel assault later that year. As David Reynolds and Vladimir Pechatnov state: 

. . . the ambassador had captured the essence of the PM’s original draft message to Stalin – which the Americans had tried to conceal. As with most of Maisky’s important cables, copies of his report – sent on the evening of 9 February – were distributed to all Politburo members. After reading it, the Soviet leadership would have had little confidence in the ‘information’ on Allied strategy for 1943 that Churchill provided later that day in the sanitized telegram.

The official telegram to Stalin (massaged by the JIC after the Casablanca offering) included the following text:

            We are also pushing operations to the limit of our resources for a cross-Channel operation in August, in which both British and US units would participate. Here again, shipping and assault-landing craft will be limiting factors. If the operation is delayed by the weather or other reasons, it will be prepared with stronger forces for September. The timing of the attack must, of course, be dependent upon the condition of German defensive possibilities across the Channel at the time.

It is almost beyond belief to think that the Joint Intelligence Committee and the Chiefs of Staff approved such a mendacious and weaselly communication. Stalin’s response was surprisingly temperate – and he did not deign to make invidious comparisons between the horrors of Russian winters and troublesome summer storms in the English Channel.

Alan Brooke

Brooke did not seem unduly alarmed about the mixed messages: maybe he had not read the detailed directives. He customarily spent most of the time he had free in fishing, shooting fowl (grouse, partridges and pheasants, depending upon the season), watching birds, and performing carpentry.  He recorded most Chiefs of Staff meetings in February as ‘dull’. Churchill was sick with pneumonia for the rest of the month, and Roosevelt had also fallen ill. But the Allied capacity for self-deception more than enemy deception was crystallized in two almost simultaneous messages – one from Roosevelt to Stalin, and the second recorded by Brooke in his diary. On February 22, Roosevelt wrote to Stalin as follows:

            I understand the importance of a military effort on the Continent of Europe at the earliest practicable date in order to reduce Axis resistance to your heroic army, and you may be sure that the American war effort will be projected on to the Continent of Europe at as an early a date subsequent to success in North Africa as transportation facilities can be provided by our maximum effort.

On February 25, Brooke posted:

            Am very worried by way in which Americans are failing to live up to our Casablanca agreements. They are entirely breaking down over promises of American divisions to arrive in this country.

This was a dismal situation that could not last. How could the American and British leaders carry on a proper plan to deceive the enemy over their operations if they had no coherent understanding of what they were embarking on themselves, and felt that they had to deceive their other Ally?

The ambiguous information from Casablanca trickled down through informal channels, as well. On February 8, Guy Liddell recorded what one McDermott told him about the conference. If this note represents the highlights, however, it does not suggest a comprehensive account:

            McDermott tells me that at the Casablanca Conference it was decided (1) that convoys should have more escort since as a rule only ships outside the convoy got caught;(2) that bombing of U-Boat bases, factories, oil installations, aircraft factories and Berlin should take priority; (3) details about plan HUSKEY [sic]. [The source was presumably Geoffrey McDermott, sometime Foreign Office Adviser to MI6.]

This was clearly not enough to guide any new activities with DAs. If Liddell had been told more, he discreetly left it out of his diary. It would take a while for the implications of the decisions taken to be made available for the Security Service.

Meanwhile, the XX Committee had started to try to re-energize its own activities, although at first without any apparent further guidance. Plan MINCEMEAT (the planting of papers on a corpse for the Spaniards/Germans to find) was discussed on February 4, and it was resolved that ‘Major Wingate should put the plan before Colonel Bevan in order to obtain approval from the D’s of P [the Directors of Plans]’. And then, on February 25, the minutes refer to a revealing correspondence with Bevan. Wingate introduced it by saying that:

            Although the general deception policy had not yet been approved by the combined Chiefs of Staff, authority had been obtained to begin the implementation of such policy in anticipation that approval would be obtained.

This was an extraordinary statement, in more than one way. There was surely no fresh policy emanating from the LCS since the February 2 document, so why would the indication be given that it was not yet approved? Was Bevan himself the ‘authority? Given the audience, timing and specificity, this was a very significant event. The text of the policy statement went on as follows:

            (i) We are to threaten the Germans and Italians on all possible fronts.

            (ii) We are to exaggerate our strength and ability to undertake major operations in all possible theatres but, in particular, in France and the Balkans.

            (iii) We are to threaten Norway, both in the Spring and, possibly, again in the Autumn and we are, where possible, to indicate that an attack will be launched from Iceland as well as from this country.

            (iv) We are to exaggerate the rate of build-up of Bolero.

            (v) We are to indicate to the enemy that every available man and every available resource are being mobilized for an attack across the channel, the actual objective to cover as wide an area as possible.

            (vi) We are to attempt to bring the German Air Force into battle.

            (vii) We are to attempt to contain U-Boats in the North Atlantic (it was suggested that this could be best achieved by the building up of Bolero.)

            (viii) The Mediterranean policy was entirely in the hands of Colonel Dudley Clarke but the probability was that its objective would be to contain troops in southern France and the Balkans.

            (ix) No indication is to be given that the Allied nations are considering any threat to neutral countries.

This directive excited the committee, who focused first on the need to exaggerate the number of troops in the country (BOLERO). But the text is quite remarkable. It contains passages from Bevan’s paper of early February (e.g. ‘every man and every available resource’), but it is clearly a re-packaging and much bolder expansion of Bevan’s original ideas. Moreover, it is a clear statement of deception without any indication of the operation that it is designed to conceal. The implicit message is: ‘we do not have enough resources to launch a major assault to the continent in 1943 but must convince the enemy otherwise’. It would be hard to interpret the instructions as indicating that the prospect of a 1943 re-entry was solid. Thus it seems unlikely that Churchill authorized it, as he at this stage was still optimistic that such an attack could become a reality – unless he himself was helping to design a major deception operation to aid the Russians. Who could possibly have engineered this, and given it the mask of ‘authority’, if the policy itself had not been approved? Either Howard was wrong about the previous approval, or this statement was considered different enough to require a separate process of sign-off. (This important anomaly can be explained by Wingate’s reference to the ‘combined Chiefs of Staff’, namely the inclusion of the USA body. This was resolved only after the passing of several weeks – as I explain below.)

Masterman himself is not of much help. In his coverage of the period in The Double-Cross System, he never refers to the Casablanca Conference, and summarises deception for 1943 in the following words: “The basic idea of the deception policy during 1943 up to the beginning of the winter was to ‘contain the maximum enemy forces in western Europe and the Mediterranean area and thus discourage their transfer to the Russian front’”, not an idea that appears in the minutes of the February 25 meeting, an event that Masterman overlooks in his book, but more suggestive of the March directive (see below). It does, however, constitute a profound retrospective echo to the major theme of deception policy at that time, although the emphasis has subtly changed from ‘forcing the Germans to transfer troops from the Russian front’ (Bevan) to ‘discouraging transfer to the Russian front’.

Masterman incidentally also inserts the correct (but in the circumstances somewhat sophistical) observation that:

            The cover or deception plan cannot be devised until the real plan is communicated at least in outline to those in control of deception, and then in turn the cover plan has to be accepted and approved.

Very true. Yet the XX Committee was working in the dark: it had to guess what the real plan was, and it was encouraged to initiate its own activities before the cover plan had been approved. It was all very irregular.

Lionel Hale

What is noteworthy, however, is that the facts of the feint were now known by all fourteen attendees of the XX Committee – and surely by the members of the TWIST Committee, including Lionel Hale of SOE. Hale had been appointed head of the Press Propaganda section at SOE in July 1942. (One might question why SOE, which was a very clandestine organisation, and worked under cover as the Inter-Services Research Bureau, even had a Press Propaganda section. It certainly engaged in ‘black’ wireless propaganda, but which print media it was able to exploit, and how, is a topic for another time.) The critical question then becomes: at what level was this information disseminated within SOE? Why would Hale have been indoctrinated into the deception campaign, but not Buckmaster?

A few commentators have used these events to suggest that some of the exploits in France were simply early manifestations of later policy. For example, Marnham, West, and Cruickshank have suggested that aspects of the COCKADE deception plan were executed early in 1943. That is, however, strictly a misrepresentation. There were common facets in the half-baked initiatives that Bevan distributed in February, and in the official COCKADE plans that were not drafted until late April and approved in June, as I shall explain next month, but the deception plan had in the interim changed. For instance, Marnham writes: “The deception plans laid by the LCS in February were now given the name COCKADE.” That cannot be strictly true. The February plan had to be revised, and the new conception was not approved until the end of March. COCKADE was based on different assumptions.

Thus granting the COCKADE moniker to any maverick initiatives in February, with their paucity of specific detail, and their obvious lack of authorization, incorrectly suggests that they had a (premature) seal of approval. And their timing suggests that they may have been prompted by some other trigger. Last but not least of all, SOE was not viewed by the Chiefs of Staff as a medium for deception at this time: it was a sabotage organization. The War Cabinet’s recognition that resistance groups might be employed as agents of deception was not formally recorded until July 18, although of course the idea may well have come from Bevan and his SOE/MI6 sponsors.

One has to consider the role of Maurice Buckmaster, the head of F Section, and how much he knew. He added a very controversial comment about these early 1943 initiatives in his in-house history. One cannot rely on this production very closely: it was written just after the end of the war, when the objective was clearly to show the activities of F Section in the best light. It contains several untruths, of which Buckmaster’s narrative about PROSPER is probably the most egregious. He claimed that PROSPER (Suttill, then known as PHYSICIAN) had been active in the spring and summer of 1942, and added that ’PHYSICIAN proved a real menace to the enemy – so much so that his elimination and the dispersal of his groups became Gestapo Task No.1.’ Yet Suttill did not land in France for the first time until October 1942. Buckmaster’s clumsy observation was presumably to suggest that Suttill’s problems had started way before the misadventures of Déricourt.

Thus one has to take Buckmaster’s assertions about what F Section knew at the time with a grain of salt. After describing a clash between CARTE (André Girard, the eponymous leader of the circuit) and LOUBA (Henri Frager), and then reporting success with sabotage, but also the treachery of Grandclément (an agent ‘turned’ by the Nazis, and later shot by the Resistance), Buckmaster wrote:

            It is important to realize that the seeds of the brilliant success of French resistance in June 1944 were sown in late 1942 – early 1943. Had we been able to increase the scale of delivery of arms and explosives, we could have set the machine in motion earlier if, on the military side, preparations had been completed earlier. In early 1943 we were, of course, working completely in the dark as to the eventual date of the return to the Continent, and. consequently, we chafed against delays and difficulties which turned out in the end not to have vitally affected the issue, because the invasion could not have been staged earlier than it was.

Note the evasive form of Buckmaster’s statement: does ‘we’ signify SOE in general, senior SOE officers, F Section officers, or the whole of F Section? And why ‘of course’ – as if being kept unilluminated was standard operating procedure? ‘Working completely in the dark’: if true (and one must question it), that was not a good atmosphere for carrying out subversion exercises that were well co-ordinated with military strategy. Yet it suggests that at some stage after those ‘early’ days in 1943, SOE had been enlightened as to the D-Day date, and its policies should therefore have been revised to reflect the new reality (see below, for March). If, as everyone else appeared to understand, the purpose of the current deception policy was to divert German forces from the Russian front, why would the Allies want to consider a re-entry to France in 1943?

Indeed, other evidence suggests that SOE’s senior management clearly understood what was going on. Peter Wilkinson (who, after all, worked there with Gubbins, supervising the Polish, German, Austrian and Czech sections) wrote in Gubbins & SOE:

            It was no secret in Baker Street that the British planners had tacitly accepted a long ago as October, 1942, that there was no prospect of undertaking a major cross-Channel invasion in 1943. Consequently SOE’s French sections were counting on at least twelve months in which to lay their plans.

This is quite extraordinary, and as an assessment of pre-Casablanca thinking, very premature, and thus rather untrustworthy. (I note that the same Peter Wilkinson, in Foreign Fields, wrote on page 127 that ‘In the autumn of 1942 our plans were based on the assumption that an invasion of the Continent would take place during the summer of 1943.’ So much for reliable memoirs.) Yet, if a colleague controlling another set of sections knew that fact, but the head of the French section was in ignorance, it points to some serious dysfunction. Moreover, ‘it was known in Baker Street’. How could Buckmaster not have learned about the delay, especially if a brother-officer had been aware of the French section’s plans?

Yet elsewhere, Wilkinson wrote, in apparent confirmation of the above chaos:

            When the Chiefs of Staff’s directives were received by CD, security demanded that their distribution should be severely restricted and their contents bowdlerized. No particular importance seems to have been attached to ensuring that these directives were brought to the notice of country section heads with the force of an imperative.

We have to recall, however, that Wilkinson’s account of the years 1943-1944 was guided by David Stafford’s book on European Resistance and by the assistance of the ‘SOE adviser’ in the Foreign Office, as the author admits he had no direct access to SOE files for this period. This is unstable ground. Wilkinson’s ‘authorized’ biography of Gubbins has only two entries for Buckmaster, and none for Suttill, Bodington or Déricourt, which is simply shocking.

It is evident that, by mid-1945, Buckmaster had been apprised of the reality of earlier invasion plans for 1944. Given the destruction of his major network, with concomitant loss of life, was he not entitled to have felt grossly betrayed if that were so? Maybe he was told to smother his despair. Moreover, his assessment of the situation is not sharp. It consists of an illogical and twisted betrayal of how subversion was supposed to be co-ordinated with, and subordinate to, military plans, and reflects confusion over the perennial problem of how scattered guerilla operatives were going to be converted into effective paramilitary units. A machine of sorts was nevertheless already in motion, and not restrained.

I shall resume the matter of Buckmaster’s equivocation later, and simply cite here what Buckmaster stated when provoked in 1958 by Dame Irene Ward’s motion tabled in the House of Commons, following the publication of the books by Jean Overton Fuller and Elizabeth Nicholas that laid bare some of the problems in F Section. Referring to Churchill’s supposed slogan of ‘Set Europe Ablaze’, Buckmaster wrote:

            But it was obvious that the conflagration must be controlled; it must be kept dormant until it could be supported and play its full part in the military operation of a return to the Continent.

Henri Déricourt was inactive in February – at least as far as flights and parachutists were concerned. But the process of arming French civilians began apace that month, although the authorised historian misrepresents the facts. After his statement that the Chiefs of Staff had approved Bevan’s plans on February 9, Howard wrote: “Then there was a long pause. No serious measures of deception could be undertaken until operations themselves had been determined, and about these operations nobody, with the exception of the Prime Minister, was enthusiastic.” (This is a bizarre presentation of events, given that Churchill was the outlier, and Howard’s logic misrepresents the relationship between operations and deception.) Yet in some areas there was no ‘long pause’. In anticipation somewhat of the coming disaster, but as a way of capturing the contemporaneous dynamics of the situation, I quote a passage from William Mackenzie’s ‘Secret History of SOE’:

            About February 1943 Antelme put de Baissac in touch with Grandclément, who claimed to have at Bordeaux 3,000 men organized by OCM. This association appeared to bear very rapid fruit. By the middle of 1943 the ‘Scientist’ circuit claimed to be able to mobilise 17,000 men, and it received 121 air supply operations between November 1942 and August 1943 – including inter alia 7,500 Stens, 300 Brens and 1,500 rifles. This was a big affair – too big in any case to survive intact until a D-Day so far distant as June 1944. The disaster came in September 1943 when Grandclément was arrested in Paris and was effectively ‘turned’ by the Gestapo: on grounds of conscience, so he claimed, because the real enemy was Communism and it could be fought effectively only with German aid. Whether sincere or not, the theory was disastrously convenient to the whole German scheme of political warfare: and its immediate consequence was the betrayal by Grandclément of the whole circuit and the loss of its rich store of arms.

Mackenzie focuses attention on Grandclément rather than the larger disaster of PROSPER, but the facts are clear. The French Resistance was preparing for an imminent invasion, and it started before Bevan’s plan had been approved by the Combined Chiefs of Staff. What needs to be established is whether anyone in SOE really thought that this mobilization exercise was a prelude to invasion, or, if not, why they continued to execute a project that was both unauthorized and inherently catastrophic. While it was true that proper deception could not take place until operations were determined, some activities seemed to be going ahead that were in contravention of what was the intended scheme. 

3. March: SOE Receives its Directive

March started off in disarray. It is difficult to detect a strategic pattern in the actions and pronouncements of the primary agents. The Chiefs of Staff appeared to be focused on the situation in Yugoslavia, and judged that SOE needed to be provided with six Halifax bombers to help supply Mihailović. They also approved an extraordinary request to release 1,800 Sten guns and 700,000 rounds of ammunition to SOE ‘for SOE’s own activities’ – which were left unspecified. At the same time, Churchill expressed concern at the potential delays in executing HUSKY, and confided to his chief staff officer, Hastings ‘Pug’ Ismay, that SLEDGEHAMMER (in 1943) and BOLERO might have to suffer instead. This may have prompted Brooke to suggest that the appointment of a Chief of Staff for Cross-Channel Operations could be deferred. Yet he was overruled, and on March 9, the Chiefs decided they needed to appoint such a Supreme Commander.

The mission for COSSAC (Chief of Staff to the Supreme Allied Commander – the latter not yet having been appointed) was, however, couched in the old language of carrying out ‘raids’ and forming ‘beachheads’, ‘bridgeheads’ and ‘lodgements’ in Northwest France, with a goal set for essaying one such venture in the Cotentin peninsula on August 1, 1943. (The problem with beachheads was that, as at Anzio, they tended to stay on the beach for too long.) The text continued: ‘and to exploit success if German morale and resources permit, then prepare for a full-scale assault in spring of 1944’. De Gaulle was also restive, provoked by the deportation of French workers to the Reich to demand immediate delivery of arms and food to the ‘French army’.

Alan Brooke consequently met with Jean Moulin and General Delestraint, head of de Gaulle’s ‘army’, who were informed of a possible bridgehead that autumn. We owe it to Patrick Marnham, who uses valuable French sources, for an account of their exchanges. Delestraint made an impassioned case for sending equipment to the ‘50,000 paratroopers on the ground’, apparently constituted from the ‘thousands of fugitives from the French police’ who had fled to the hills after the German deportation order. Marnham describes a second encounter on March 10 as follows:

            They were told that although the Allies did not intend to carry out landings in France before the end of the year, there remained ‘the possibility of establishing a bridgehead on French soil before the autumn of 1943’. Both ‘Vidal’(Delestraint) and ‘Rex’ (Moulin) took that rather vague suggestion seriously, but in doing so they were thoroughly misled.

This was somewhat cowardly behaviour from Brooke, trying to get the Frenchmen off his back. He knew by then that the strategy was to draw more German forces into France during 1943, so why would he raise hopes that a ‘bridgehead’ might not only take place, but might lead to greater things?

Yet it was Hambro himself who tried to apply a restraining hand. As Olivier Wieworka notes in his The Resistance in Western Europe, 1940-1945, Hambro wrote to Brooke on March 16, warning of the danger of uncontrolled uprisings and ‘the danger of premature outbreaks in France owing to the repressive measures taken by the Germans in connection with the relève [the program to repatriate French POWs in exchange for workers who volunteer to go to the Reich]’ adding:  “We are doing our best to persuade the Fighting French to damp down these movements as far as possible.” Many in the French Resistance had been encouraged by the invasion of North Africa to believe that France would soon be next, and the communists were applying pressure in their strategy of continuous aggression. Brooke also records a meeting with Hambro on the last day of the month, where Hambro complained to him about the degree to which the Foreign Office was interfering in SOE’s activities. The nature of the ‘interference’, and the way in which Brooke (who notoriously refused to get involved with the politicians) might intercede in such matters, is not stated. It probably did not concern de Gaulle, since both SOE and the Foreign Office had a heightened distaste for the antics of the Free French leader.

A dose of more official cold water was soon poured on capacious plans for ‘re-entry’ to Europe in 1943. At a meeting of the Chiefs of Staff on March 5, BOLERO had been pushed down the list of priorities, behind HUSKY, assistance to Turkey, and the planned re-capture of Burma. At this stage the group realized that any 1943 cross-Channel operation would have to rely entirely on British resources, and thus would massively increase the risks. On March 11, Churchill wrote to Stalin:

            With regard to the attack across the Channel, it is the earnest wish of the President and myself that our troops should be in the general battle in Europe which you are fighting with such astounding prowess. But in order to sustain the operations in North Africa, the Pacific, and India, and to carry supplies to Russia, the import programme into the United Kingdom has been cut to the bone and we have eaten, and are eating into, reserves. However, in case the enemy should weaken sufficiently we are preparing to strike earlier than August, and plans are kept alive from week to week. If he does not weaken, a premature attack with inferior and insufficient forces would merely lead to a bloody repulse.

            Bridgehead Revisited, one might say. A touch more realistic, but still a very deceitful and equivocal message about German strength and its possible deterioration, the aggregation of US and British forces, and the chances of a ‘strike’ in the summer. Not Churchill’s finest hour.

Frederick Morgan

All this rather chaotic set of events must have prompted the Chiefs of Staff to take a firm re-assessment of the situation. On March 13, the name of Lt.-Col. Frederick Morgan was approved as COSSAC, and Morgan immediately tried to bring some structure to operations. On March 20, a fresh directive for SOE was issued by the Chiefs, and at the end of the month, the special sub-committee on patriot forces (which had been established as far back as December 4, 1942, but for some reason had been dilatory in completing its work) reported its findings, attempting to bring organization to the nature and capabilities of the resistance forces.

While Morgan’s memorandum added some much needed realism by pointing out how more complex the issue of landing vast amounts of troops in France was than engaging in land battles, it is the new instructions to SOE that are of more importance here. The text, from CAB 80/68, also available in the SOE War Diaries, is included as an Appendix in David Stafford’s Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, and is significant for several reasons:

i) It for the first time regularised the definitions of ‘Resistance Groups’ and ‘Patriot Forces’, the former consisting of ‘secret armies’ and ‘sabotage groups’ working behind enemy lines, and the latter ‘any forces which may be embodied in areas liberated by our armies’.

ii) It reinforced the need for subversive activity to be tightly woven with strategy and operational plans.

iii) It reminded SOE of its need to liaise closely with the PWE (the Political Warfare Executive) and SIS in the realm of intelligence gathering.

iv) It stressed the necessary focus on sabotage, and the curtailment of any activities that did not support the January 19 and 23 strategy papers.

v) It pointed out that guerrilla activities should be aimed at diverting German pressure from Russia, and hindering the consolidation of German forces on the Eastern Front during April, May and June.

vi) As far as France was concerned, it stated that ‘with the ultimate object of invading north-west Europe, it has been decided to assemble the strongest possible forces (subject to certain prior commitments to other theatres) in the United Kingdom to be held in constant readiness to re-enter the Continent as soon as German resistance has weakened to the required extent’.

vi) It hinted at arming resistance groups by advising that ‘you should direct a special effort towards supplying the resistance groups in France with the means of enabling them to play an active part when they are required to do so in support of Allied strategy.’

vii) France was given a priority lower than that of The Italian Islands, Corsica and Crete and The Balkans, but above the rest of Europe.

I find this a confused and confusing paper. (It was signed by Portal of the RAF, Pound of the Royal Navy, and Brooke’s deputy, Nye, Brooke being sick with influenza at the time: one wonders whether Brooke would have allowed such waffle to be drafted.) In what way is it a mess? It emphasizes strategy papers dating from January, when plans for a full assault in 1943 had already been overtaken by events, requiring the cut-back in BOLERO. It thus dangerously dissembles about the level of commitment currently being made to the assembly of forces in the United Kingdom. Its acceptance of the policy that pockets of resistance groups engaged in occasional sabotage, yet individually tied to their domiciles, could be quickly be reorganized into military forces contradicts what experts were concluding elsewhere. It surely does not explain how SOE could confidently make assessments about the diversion of German forces from the Eastern Front, or why ‘guerrilla activities’ would in themselves provoke a massive transfer of such. It fails to show enough imagination to consider how the morale of guerrillas might be affected if they knew that their activities were designed to attract more Nazi attention as opposed to accelerating the arrival of Allied forces. It leaves a highly ambiguous directive about arming resistance groups in France in preparation for a military role in the event of the re-entry while also lowering France’s priority in the larger scheme of things. It reflects some serious self-delusion in transferring the notion of the role of ‘resistance’ from native French citizens to the avowedly stronger forces of the German army. Yet the overwhelming conclusion is that no instructions are given to the effect that SOE should be involved with deceptive operations in parallel with subversive activity.  As a matter of protocol, SOE was invited to ‘prepare an appreciation’ on how well it could deliver against these rather muddled objectives.

Incidentally, I believe that Robert Marshall seriously misrepresents this document, and its effect on SOE. He writes (on page 126 of All The King’s Men) that the paper

              . . .went on to say that SOE should concentrate its efforts to support the Allied strategy for the war, which as to defeat Germany in 1943  . . .   At Baker Street they began to roll up their sleeves and spit on their hands. The directive came as the clearest signal yet that 1943 would at last be the year of the return to Europe.

The document says nothing about defeating Germany in 1943, nor does it make any suggestion about a ‘return to Europe’, apart from a very explicit statement about the planned offensive action in Italy that year, in support of which SOE is instructed to provide sabotage in Corsica, and assist revolt against Italy’s fascist government. The directive implicitly ordains that SOE should be focused on sabotage and guerrilla warfare ‘rather than on preparations for future secret army uprisings’, as David Stafford sagely points out. The atmosphere at Baker Street described by Marshall is totally antithetical to that presented by Wilkinson.

Douglas Dodds-Parker

Douglas Dodds-Parker, who was responsible for flight operations at Tempsford and Tangmere until Grierson took over in the summer of 1942, was rather dismissive of such directives, writing in Setting Europe Ablaze (p 54):

            The nature of clandestine survival and supply in face of ruthless Nazi/Fascist/Communist repression was little understood by those in high authority, and only just discovered by those charged with putting the directives into practice who had to cope with the non-existence of adequate lightweight transmitters, of essential false papers, of aircraft in competition with demands from Bomber Command.

On the matter of whom exactly he had in mind, when referring to ‘those in high authority’, the Chiefs of Staff, or his own bosses in SOE, Nelson, Hambro and Gubbins, Dodds-Parker is, perhaps diplomatically, silent.

On March 6, Hambro had announced the retirement of the rather anonymous Mr. Hanbury Williams, and promoted Gubbins to be his senior deputy, declaring that Gubbins ‘in my absence will be the Acting Head of S.O.E.’, and thus intimating that Hambro himself would become even less involved in the day-to-day business of SOE. It was clearly now up to Gubbins to interpret the latest directives. At the end of the month he appointed Colonel Eric Mockler-Ferryman as head of North-Western Europe, thus introducing an additional layer of management between himself, Brook, and the country sections. (Mockler-Ferryman had been an Army intelligence officer in North Africa, and had taken the blame for an intelligence failure that was not his fault.) One would expect Gubbins to have discussed the new instructions with his subordinates, and work out the implications for the country sections. Yet what is extraordinary is the fact that Buckmaster’s in-house history declines to mention the vitally important March paper at all, suggesting, perhaps, that he was not informed of it. (Of course, he might have decided that it was politically astute to overlook it completely, but he then might have appeared very foolish if indeed some other agency or person revealed that he had known about it.)

Thus F Section proceeded with business as usual, pursuing the January objectives that the March paper had ambiguously just re-endorsed. Buckmaster’s comments for March included this text:

            Our achievement was the sending of three men and forty containers, of which ten were delivered into enemy hands because of faulty dropping. We reported at the end of March that unless during April and May we succeeded in sending stores and money in large quantities in the field as well as up-to-date directives in writing, we risked seeing the whole fabric crumble and waste away.

Buckmaster hinted at the perennial problem of maintaining the morale of the resistance groups, and concluded this section as follows:

            At 28th March, 1943, it could be said in general terms that only the lack of stores on the ground prevented our being able to carry out orders for action over a great part of France.

            These were not the words of someone who had been told that the re-entry to France would not occur until 1944, that the emphasis was on sabotage, and that France was now a lower priority than Italy and the Balkans. Yet his opinion was echoed by his colleague Bickham Sweet-Escott, who wrote of this period:

            The emphasis was now far more on helping existing guerrilla bands and building up secret armies in the countries to be liberated than on mere sabotage and the isolated clandestine operations such as Rubble [the extraction of ball-bearings from Sweden to the UK] or the purloining of ocean liners.

Is this confirmation that lower-level officers in SOE were not being told the correct story?

Buckmaster’s history was distributed, during the period of August to October 1945, to Brook (D/R, head of Low Countries and France), Major I. K. Mackenzie (Brook’s successor, not Professor William, the historian), Colonel Keswick (AD/H, head of the Mediterranean group), DCD (Gubbins), VC/D (Sporborg), AD (Colonel of the Far East group), and AD/2, his deputy. It had already been approved by Brigadier Mockler-Ferryman (AD/E – director of the London group, aka North West Europe), Col. Saunders (AD/M) and Colonel Dumbrell (M/T, probably i/c Training). Brook and Mackenzie judged it accurate: no responses were recorded from the others.  Perhaps that is not surprising. At some stage, Buckmaster must have been told about the March directive, but had been encouraged to keep quiet about it. Yet the fact that so many high-ups in SOE would let the fallacious history pass without any mention of the critical events of March 1943 is very revealing. They were either clueless, or inattentive. If they thought that the History would eventually damage the service’s reputation, they should simply have terminated it. But they did nothing.

Colonel Bevan, having been criticised by Robertson in February, had meanwhile been subject to another assault, this time by Lieutenant-Commander Ewen Montagu of Naval Intelligence, who sat on both the TWIST and the XX Committees. Thaddeus Holt, in The Deceivers, drawing upon the Naval deception file at ADM 223/794, reports that Montagu wrote a very poisonous attack on Bevan on March 1, in which he referred not only to Bevan’s personal defects in not understanding the subject, and engaging in unauthorized schemes, but also to the intellectual deficiencies of the members of LCS. Foot claimed (in his Introduction to Mackenzie’s Secret History of SOE) that Bevan did not judge SOE secure enough to ‘take part in his exceedingly secret work’, with Operation STARKEY being the only exception, but the representation of SOE on his TWIST committee would belie that. Montagu would later point to increasing friction between the XX Committee and Bevan over lack of communication, although he admitted that matters improved over time.

Ewen Montagu

Montagu’s attack may have triggered another action: according to Montagu himself, Bevan was not indoctrinated fully into the essence of ‘secret sources’ (the ISOS decrypts of ULTRA) until this month – an event which would have given him a radical new insight into the methods by which DAs were managed and verified. Holt’s stance is thus to defend Bevan, and downgrade Montagu as someone who overvalued his own abilities, and was probably jealous of Bevan, but the evidence would suggest that Montagu’s argument had some merit. In any case, his judgments were ignored.

The XX Committee discussed deception plans seriously in March, with Montagu providing constructive ideas, making requests through Wingate for Bevan to act upon. On March 4, the group covered the topic of the creation of artificial wireless traffic. The following week, a report from the Combined Planners, dealing ‘in great detail with suggestions for the deception plan based on the principle of containing enemy troops in western Europe’ was read out by Colonel Mountain of GHQ Home Forces. The Committee members were thus well indoctrinated into dummy invasion plans. Rather oddly, the meeting resolved that Bevan be apprised of Mountain’s notes on Exercise SPARTAN, as if Bevan would normally not have been in the loop, and Masterman was authorized to write a letter to Bevan requesting W/T cover. (SPARTAN was a GHQ exercise held that month in southern England to test the ability of troops to break out of a beachhead, and turned out poorly for several Canadian commanders. The XX Committee planned to use the DA known as BALLOON to pass on controlled information about SPARTAN to the Nazis.)

In any event, Masterman’s letter to Bevan was duly composed and sent, but a handwritten inscription states that no answer had been received by March 25. At the March 18 meeting, Colonel Petavel represented the LCS, and a productive discussion ensued that resulted in more recommendations for dummy wireless traffic. Wingate assured the group, at the March 25 meeting, that Bevan would reply to Masterman’s letter ‘within the next few days’. Operation MINCEMEAT (Montagu’s project) was discussed, but further progress on dummy traffic seemed to be stalled, as matters concerning W/T cover were out of the Committee’s hands. The XX Committee was thinking industriously about how it might aid deception, but was not actually contributing much.

We owe it to Guy Liddell to learn more about some SOE personnel activities at this time. On March 29, he recorded a conversation he had had with John Senter of SOE Security, who wanted to recruit Cyril Harvey for a new counter-espionage section that SOE was setting up. Liddell also had a meeting that day with Mockler-Ferryman (whom he describes merely as ‘late D.M.I. in Africa’, as if he were not aware of his recent important posting in SOE), and he was rather dismissive of Mockler-Ferryman’s understanding of counter-espionage. Gubbins apparently had a high regard for Mockler-Ferryman, whose main mission, very poignantly, was to control the guerrilla effort in Western Europe and to co-ordinate SOE activities with bombing strategies, but maybe the extra level of management helped to distance Gubbins from the misadventures that had already started.

Whoever was driving Henri Déricourt’s agenda was unswayed by any of this, and continued with the project, which had, of course, been germinating since well before Casablanca. Déricourt arranged his first operation for March 17/18, code-named TRAINER. It was a double operation, involving two flights from 161 Squadron at Tempsford, using Lysanders piloted by Peter Vaughan-Fowler and Frank Rymills. The flights were carried out apparently without incident apart from a temporary uncontrolled ignition of the engine of Vaughan-Fowler’s plane after landing – an incident that Vaughan-Fowler attributed to Déricourt’s failure to arrange a smooth landing-area. As Foot records: “Claude de Baissac, Antelme, Flower and a wireless operator left for England, and Goldsmith, Lejuene (Delphin), Dowlen and Mrs Agazarian arrived.” Marshall provides more details.

Marshall describes Déricourt’s meetings with Suttill and his network earlier in March, but also draws attention to the fact that the Frenchman had another meeting with Boemelburg shortly after the operation:

            Within days of the March operation, there was another meeting with Boemelburg – a kind of re-appraisal, with a view to formalizing the situation. At that meeting Déricourt provided Boemelburg with a detailed description of everyone who had travelled in on the Lysanders. Boemelburg asked him if he knew anything about PROSPER, to which Déricourt replied that he had heard it had something to do with the invasion.

The source for Marshall’s comments was a June 1983 interview with Horst Kopkow, head of the SD’s counter-intelligence and counter-sabotage unit in Berlin, to whom Boemelburg reported.

The anomaly of the suspended deception plan which Bevan dangled so enticingly over the XX Committee in late February can be explained by the fact that the Chiefs of Staff had to gain approval for the plan from their American counterparts. (The sequence of events can be inspected in the COCKADE archive, at WO 106/4223.) For some extraordinary reason, their feedback was not received until March 28, and they made a number of important proposals for changing the text, including a preference for not understating the perceived strength of the Wehrmacht, and a request to have the following important statement inserted: ‘No equipment or supplies required for actual operations will be diverted for this purpose’ –  the news that Brooke must have received via other sources, and recorded in his diary entry for February 25, and which Churchill was referring to in his encounter with Maisky. It is obvious that Churchill and Brooke had received early feedback from Washington about the inability of the Americans to commit to the BOLERO plans, but they had probably not shared this intelligence until the formal response from the US Chiefs of Staff arrived. (If Roosevelt and Churchill had discussed the topic on their scrambled telephone, it is possible that the Germans had also learned of it, as the Deutsches Reichspost was intercepting and deciphering their telephone communications at this time. That would add an eerie dimension to the whole deception story for COCKADE. See David Kahn’s The Codebreakers for more.)

After explaining the reasons for their recommended changes, the US Chiefs concluded their assessment with the words, which very crisply abandoned any notions of threatened assaults in North West France, whether bridgeheads, lodgements or raids:

            U.S. Chiefs of Staff do not think threat of attacks on Northern Front in conjunction with attacks on Southern France a practical deception. To threaten Southern France is, in their view, what matters. Alterations do not appear to be important and we recommend acceptance to avoid further delay.

London did not argue with Washington, and Bevan’s revised draft was made official in the War Cabinet minutes. Thus the attempt to suggest possible attacks on North Western Europe in 1943 was unceremoniously quashed by American plain speaking. The message was blunt: ‘Any such feints will be a waste of effort.’

John Bevan then had the last word for this month. He had left for Algiers on March 11, returning only on the 27th, so he had to conduct a quick analysis. On March 31, he submitted a memorandum to the Chiefs of Staff in which, after explaining the disagreements with the US Chiefs, he pointed out that ‘the possibility of carrying out a real operation against Northern France appears to have receded’, because of the BOLERO situation and the shortage of landing-craft that would be available. He thus recommended the removal of references to ‘across the Channel’, to be replaced by vaguer words of ‘against Western France’, implying that assaults in the South might still be possible. He apparently goaded the Chiefs into swift action, as will be described in next month’s bulletin. His behaviour needed to very precise since, having pre-empted the clarification of policy by announcing prematurely to the XX Committee that new deception plans had been authorized, he now attempted to gain confirmation from the Chiefs of Staff that real operations in Northern France in 1943 were off the cards. But would he inform the XX Committee of this change? And would SOE receive the new message?

4: Arms Shipments to France

As an intermission between the two quarters, I step back to record what is known about arms shipments to the French resistance during these first six months of 1943. The sources are varied, consisting of:

1) The Air Ministry’s report on its contributions to the activities of SOE (which was compiled before the loss of so many SOE papers in the post-war Baker Street fire);

2) Appendix C in Foot’s SOE in France, based on the RAF source and the in-house SOE history (HS 7/1);

3) French records, represented in different aspects by Foot and by Robert Marshall in All The King’s Men;

4) Informal statements by German army veterans; and

5) Occasional contributions in personal memoirs of participants.

The context for these arms drops goes back to May 21, 1941, when Gubbins laid out what he saw as the minimum required to equip the Secret Armies. Mackenzie presented Gubbins’ calculations for Poland, Czechoslovakia and France in the following table:

                                                Poland             Czech              France             Total

                                                (84 Bns)          (100 Bns)        (70 Bns)

Light machine guns                5,124               6,100               4,270               15,500

Sub-machine guns                  13,112             16,800             11,760             42,000

Pistols                                      43,680             52,000             36,400             132,000

Wireless sets                           1,260               1,500               980                  3,770

Containers                               10,5000           12,500             7.875               30,875

Aircraft sorties                        2,625               3,125               1,968               7,718

Mackenzie adds the following commentary, describing Gubbins’ figures as something of a ‘pipe-dream’:

            Brigadier Gubbins did not forget that there were all sorts of incalculable factors – it would be a remarkable piece of organisation (for example) if the equipment reached the Resistance with less than 25-30 per cent wastage from enemy action; abortive aircraft sorties must be allowed for: and so forth. But most of these imponderables tended to increase rather than reduce his figures: and no one could say that his scale of equipment was too high for guerrillas whose target was to be the German army, even in its decline, or that rebellions would have been worth staging with smaller forces.

Major problems were implicit in this project. The proposals resulted in a very long and controversial analysis, which essentially determined that the requested number of sorties would make intolerable demands upon bomber services, with little potential benefit if the secret armies were not going to be activated until the allied forces had arrived, and air superiority had been gained. (Both Poland and Czechoslovakia were soon largely removed from the equation.) Yet what did not appear to be discussed was how the weaponry would be kept concealed, and maintained properly. No date for re-entry to mainland Europe had been set at this time, of course, but D-Day was in fact three years out – an extraordinary period of time to keep stores of munitions secreted from the Nazis, and a potential ‘army’ in permanent readiness.

Gubbins constantly noted how concerned he was over the ability of the Secret Armies he nurtured to be ready when the professional forces arrived, and that sense of urgency often undermined what should have been a more careful policy towards the provision of arms. SOE appeared too often to be responding to ‘demands’ rather than executing its own strategy. And the separate goals of sabotage and creating secret armies constantly came into conflict. As Bickham Sweet-Escott (who in the spring of 1943 came to run the RF section alongside Buckmaster’s F Section) wrote in Baker Street Irregular (p 109):

             . . . the more we concentrated on spectacular action, the less likely we were to build up a nation-wide organization against D-Day. For the more spectacular the action, the greater the risk that the people in the field would be caught, and if they were caught there would be no secret army when the allies eventually landed. The two dilemmas faced us in all our work throughout occupied Europe.

What is perplexing is why the repeated pleas for more aircraft suddenly gained a more positive response at the end of 1942. The RAF History, citing a note of February 8, 1943, runs as follows:

            In September/October of 1942 when S.O.E.’s demands for air transport operations increased considerably, he, the Director of Plans [Group Captain Grierson, who had joined SOE in April 1942], had pointed out to the Air Ministry that S.O.E. would require more and more aircraft, and the increase in the establishment of No.138 Squadron and the use of No. 161 Squadron were to some extent the result of his verbal [sic! not ‘oral’] representations.

            Nevertheless, however capable Grierson was, and no matter how strong his relationships with the RAF top brass, and irrespective of his powers of persuasion, it is difficult to understand why the RAF would succumb to his earnest implorations at a time when SOE senior management had, according to other accounts, just learned that the re-entry into NW France would not occur for another eighteen months. Moreover, Grierson was known not to be the sharpest knife in the drawer. In his memoir Foreign Fields the SOE officer Peter Wilkinson wrote that he and Charles Villiers were ‘both a good deal quicker witted than Grierson who, unlike Dick Barry, had not had the advantage of an expensive education and spoke no foreign languages.’

I refer readers to the very useful Appendix 12 of John Grehan’s RAF and the SOE (described as ‘an official history’, although it does not appear to be authorized as such) for a comprehensive account of such operations. As interesting background material for understanding the tasks involved, I simply reproduce here a description of the loads that were dropped by the Whitley bombers, categorized as containers, packages and personnel:

            The containers were long cylindrical metal holders with a parachute stored in one end. Two types of loads were known to Bomber Command, the standard load and the special load. In the standard load, usually dropped to the F.F.I. [Forces Françaises de L’Intérieure] elements, were small arms, ammunition, hand grenades and other useful accoutrements whilst the special loads were made up of particular types of explosives and perhaps tools specifically collected for a particular set of sabotage against a known target. These containers were stored in the bomb bays of the aircraft in the same manner as a bomb. The packages were steel framed boxes more or less 2 1/2’ square and weighing an average of 100-140 lbs. A small number of these could be placed inside the fuselage and manhandled out of the dispatching hole in the fuselage floor by one of the aircrew known as the despatcher. Their contents were similar to those in the containers and they had parachutes and static lines which operated in just the same manner as for parachutists.

Whitleys were phased out in 1942, and replaced by Halifax bombers during 1943. M. R. D. Foot also has a useful chapter on this subject in Communications, from his outline history of SOE.

The RAF records are highly informative, since they provide detailed figures for total delivery by country, by year (although records before 1943 were patchy), and thus comparisons can be made about priorities – and what was operationally possible, because of distances. The first major item of data is the Tonnage Delivered 1941-1945.  France had a total of 8,455 tons, over three times as much as that as delivered to the rest of Europe (essentially Belgium, Holland, Norway and Denmark). Cross-referencing of the Appendices in the RAF book leads to the fact that a total of 6,720 containers was shipped in 1943, of which 5,299 (about 80%) went to France.

The figures quoted in the official SOE history confirm the overall total of tonnage delivered from the UK (11,141½), but would seem to overstate vastly the number of sorties attempted. The account also presents some apparently high figures for the arms and explosives delivered to France over the whole war, citing: stens 90,776; H.E. 548,506 lbs.; and brens 10,411. Marshall’s figures (below) state that 16,500 kg. (i.e. about 36,000 lb.) of high explosives was delivered in the first six months of 1943. Extrapolating from the ratio of containers sent in the remainder of 1943, and especially 1944 (when the USAAF stepped in to help the RAF), the numbers are however not unreasonable. In the second half of 1943, containers to France increased by 250% over the first six months, and the numbers for 1944 were almost ten times as much as for 1943.

Data before 1943 are very sketchy, but the RAF reports indicate that a total of 201 containers was dropped over France in the whole of 1942. For the first half of 1943 (the period under review), the figures for France were as follows:

January-March: 79 Sorties, of which 22 were successful. 20 tons were delivered, comprising 170 containers and 57 packages.

April-June: 342 sorties, of which 165 were successful. 148 tons were delivered, comprising 1,361 containers and 236 packages.

(The numbers increased markedly in the third quarter of 1943 before dropping back to second quarter quantities in the fourth quarter.)

What is noteworthy about these figures is the rapid increase in attempts to supply secret armies in the second quarter of the year, but also an increasingly high failure rate, which might suggest that the shipments were lost, damaged irretrievably, or even picked up by enemy forces.  Foot described the process as follows:

            What proportion of these stores were warlike it is no longer possible to say exactly; but the percentage was undoubtedly high, well over 80 and probably over 90. Equally it is impossible to say what proportion of them fell straight into enemy hands, or were captured before effective use could be made of them; though again, one thing is sure – the proportion was much lower. RF section for one worked on the ‘completely arbitrary and empirical’ percentage calculation that ten per cent of any month’s load would soon be in enemy hands, that ten per cent would be lost, one way or another, in transit, and that twenty per cent would be immediately absorbed in current resistance activities; leaving sixty per cent of what had been sent available for subsequent operations.

Foot echoes the RAF figures, although he lists only successful sorties (22 and 165, respectively), thus distorting for his masters (or for posterity) the effectiveness of the overall project. Yet, if we inspect Buckmaster’s figures (representing F Section, of course, and not the Free French responsibilities), we read that, in March 1943, the section had a ‘programme’ for sending out as many as 1000 containers, a goal that had to be drastically revised. For April, however, Buckmaster claimed that sabotage attacks ‘increased by leaps and bounds’, and that the section was able to send ‘as many as 183 containers’ – more than the total amount for all of France for the first quarter. May and June were also ‘record months’, although he does not provide details. Foot noted: “Several different sets of figures have been drawn up: all conflict.”

A dampening but equivocal observation also appears in the official SOE History at HS 7/1:

            The second major problem was the maintenance of the security of the Resistance organisation against penetration by the enemy. In some countries [sic!] such as in Holland penetration was so cleverly done that it passed unnoticed and men and supplies were sent straight into the hands of the enemy. Admittedly serious mistakes were made, mistakes which could have been avoided if more care had been taken but taking matters as a whole considering the large numbers of people employed in various capacities in Resistance movements and the general characteristic of Continental peoples to be insecure, it is surprising how much was achieved and how little success the enemy had.

This is the nearest SOE got to a mea culpa, but it is still an evasive and incomplete admission.

Robert Marshall’s statistics tend to endorse the trends described by Buckmaster, although he indicates a far more dramatic increase in April ‘of more than two thousand per cent’. In a footnote, Marshall describes how ‘the catalogue of materiel [sic: ’matériel’] dropped by SOE’s French Section to all the French networks was compiled from the archives of the Ministère de la Guerre at the Château de Vincennes in Paris’, giving a reference of 13P68: Materiel sur parachute et deportation). Foot quotes the same source, giving the totals for the period, for both RF and F sections of SOE. In Marshall’s table the containers are broken down by their contents:

                                  January    February  March    April     May    June

Stens                           87                    64        32        644     1006   2353

Incendiaries                 35                 74        –           1044    1877   10,790

Pistols                          24                   63        34        421       716      877   

Grenades                     36                  98        163      2508     4489     5537

High-Explosives (kg.) 88               253      162      1806    3872    10,252

Marshall adds that the PROSPER network received over 20 containers of arms in April ‘by far the lion’s share of material sent to France’. Yet this statement does not tally with either the RAF report, or with Buckmaster’s claims, either in simple numbers, or in relative significance. According to Marshall’s rough comparisons, it would suggest that only one container was dispatched in March, for instance, when Buckmaster reported that forty were sent, of which ten fell into enemy hands. (The explosives for the unsuccessful assassination attempt on Hitler in July 1944 came from SOE stocks.) It perhaps reflects a failure to understand how much material could be packed in a single container, but, overall, simply proves that a lot of these reports are inherently unreliable.

Patrick Marnham’s observations are also a trifle puzzling. In War In The Shadows (p 120), he states that ‘In France as a whole the delivery of arms to the Resistance was heavily reduced in the first part of 1943’ (presumably he means the first three months, but it is not obvious that this was a true or significant trend, as it is doubtful that substantially larger volumes had been shipped in 1942 before bad weather intervened in the winter). Next, quoting an article by Wieworka, he makes the imprecise claim that ‘throughout the month of June arms deliveries to PROSPER continued at a growing pace’, but adds that PROSPER ‘was the only exception to the general decline in deliveries’. That was surely not so, however one looks at the data provided, and the RAF records show that the July-September quarter was twice as productive as the previous quarter. Mackenzie also reported that ‘up to June 1943 the whole Suttill circuit had received 254 containers of stores, and in ten days in June it beat all records by receiving 190 more containers.

It is difficult to place any reliable structure around these datapoints. For example, if one plots a probable growth curve in containers sent to all of France from January to June, based on RAF figures for total containers, and the data from Marshall’s table, one could project a sequence of:

January – 90; February – 70; March – 10; April – 200; May – 550; June – 811. That might tally with Buckmaster’s claim of 183 containers for F Section in April, but not with his citation of 40 for F Section in March, nor with Marshall’s assertion that the PROSPER network, with 20 containers, received ‘the lion’s share’ of all that went to France in April.  In addition to that, Foot’s breakdown of the French data indicates that the Free French overall received about 52% of all supplies against F Section’s 48%, and Mackenzie claims that the PROSPER network alone jumped to 190 containers in ten days in June! It is all a mess.

What is undeniable that a considerable uptick in arms shipments occurred in the second quarter of 1943. In SOE in France, Foot reports (p 209), quoting a ‘Foreign Office file’ from 1945, as follows:

            Von Rundstedt recorded 1943 as ‘a serious turning point in the interior situation in France . . . the organized supply of arms from England to France became greater every month’, and his headquarters was given ‘an impressive picture of the increasing danger to the German troops in the territories of the West . . . Not only the murders and acts of sabotage against members of the Wehrmacht, against Wehrmacht installations, railways and supply lines were on the increase, but in certain districts organized raids of gangs in uniform and civilian clothes on transports and military units multiplied’.

SOE was clearly executing its sabotage mission very capably, but were the recipients of its supplies performing their destructive acts, and readying their weaponry, because they believed that an invasion was imminent?

Jacques Weil evidently thought so. In Pin-Stripe Saboteur he wrote (p 166):

            Preparations for the “Second Front in 1943” – which all the Resistance organizations in Northern France were certain would take place some time during the summer or autumn – were well advanced by the middle of May. The barns and the cowsheds of Northern and eastern France were indeed bursting with the guns and ammunition, the explosives and the other supplies dropped in steadily growing quantities by the increasing number of R.A.F. aircraft allocated for liaison with the Resistance.

I notice a paradox in these accounts. As I shall explain in next month’s segment, in the late spring of 1943 SOE officers made fervent appeals to the Chiefs of Staff that aircraft support was inadequate to maintain the enthusiasm and sense of purpose of the French resistance, who were hungry for arms and supplies. Yet Mackenzie’s observations lucidly point out how the increase in shipments that were made in the first six months of the year constituted a major risk, as the volumes were ‘too big to survive intact until a D-Day so far distant as June 1944’. In that contradiction lies the unresolved dilemma of SOE’s muddled policy.

5. Interim Conclusions:

I detect two histories here. First is the ‘authorized’ history, carefully managed by the SOE Adviser to the Foreign Office, which lays out how well SOE was overall led, how it operated in accordance with the requirements of the Chiefs of Staff, and how it contributed greatly to military success. Yes, mistakes were made, but such were inevitable under the conditions, and damage was well-managed.

And then there is the subterranean history, where policy was fragmented, or incompletely thought through, where maverick activities carried on without proper authorization or supervision, and needless sacrifices were made. Not enough attention was paid to security, and senior officers did not trust their subordinates with the facts, with the result that the latter became scapegoats for gross failures of judgment and unnecessary loss of life. The increase in shipping weaponry to mostly phantom ‘secret armies’ in France occurred just at the time when the Chiefs of Staff wanted to rein in the premature arming of forces that would not be useful for more than a year. Using outdated guidance, SOE was able to convince the RAF to supply extra flights to its French networks, many of which had been infiltrated by the Germans. Bevan’s London Controlling Section jumped the gun over deception plans. The Americans essentially headed off a half-baked British plan to have it both ways, but their delays in so doing meant that COSSAC was given inappropriate instructions, an incorrect new directive was issued to SOE, and news of the revisions was not properly disseminated. That SIS was behind the project to use Déricourt as a channel for disinformation to the Sicherheitsdienst is clear. Who convinced the RAF to increase the allocation of bombers to deliver on rapidly expanding container shipments is still a mystery.

(New Commonplace entries are available here.)

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All Quiet on the Second Front?

Communist Party Poster

My objective in the postings for this month and the next is to determine how and why the Chiefs of Staff, in the first half of 1943, allowed SOE to engage in a maverick operation in France that had a disastrous outcome for its networks, as well as causing a breach of trust with French Resistance forces.

It is inarguable that a large supply of arms was dropped to the French Resistance in the first half of 1943, that the Resistance believed an Allied assault on the NW French coast was imminent when in fact none was planned, that the Sicherheitsdienst and the Abwehr discovered and took possession of most of the arms caches, that dozens of SOE agents and French citizens lost their lives in the process, and that the actions of Henri Déricourt, who was working for both British and German intelligence, contributed to the disaster.

But what has not been established is why an operation of this scale was never officially named, described, or approved by the Chiefs of Staff, or who authorized an exercise that contravened SOE/Chiefs of Staff directives on arming patriot forces as well as the priorities of then-current military objectives, or why Bomber Command agreed to provide the aircraft to enable the arms drops to occur, or why the operation was not aborted when clear signals of security breaches appeared.

In this first report I analyze events up to the debatably successful execution of the OVERFLOW deception operation at the end of 1942.

But first a review of the Allied Operations for Western Europe that were considered, and sometimes executed, between 1942 and 1944. Imagine yourself a member of the Chiefs of Staff, with your epaulettes clearly visible, surrounded by aides and scribes, trying to remember and distinguish all of the projects that come up in the discussion, and hoping that you do not get any of the code names mixed up when your turn to speak arrives.

Primary Operations & Code Names (in approximate chronological order):

GYMNAST (November 1941 plan for amphibious landing in French North-west Africa)

HARDBOILED (an early 1942 notional attack on the Norwegian coast)

ROUNDUP (Eisenhower’s early 1942 plan for a Spring 1943 invasion of northern France)

TRIDENT (Roosevelt-Churchill conference in Washington, May-June 1942)

IMPERATOR (plan for a raid on, and withdrawal from, a French port in summer 1942)

RUTTER (Dieppe raid preparation, summer 1942)

JUBILEE (final Dieppe raid, August 1942)

JUPITER (1) (Churchill’s plan for assault on Norway & Finland, as alternative to OVERLORD, strongly opposed by Chiefs of Staff)

SLEDGEHAMMER (April 1942 plan for limited cross-Channel invasion in 1942/3)

TORCH (final name for invasion of French North Africa in November 1942)

– OVERTHROW (deception plan for assault on Calais/Boulogne in October 1942)

– CAVENDISH (unrealised plan for diversion for TORCH)

– SOLO (deception plan for assault in Norway as diversion for TORCH)

– KENNECOTT (a plan to allay Vichy suspicions over the TORCH convoys)

– TOWNSMAN (plan to conceal real role of Gibraltar in TORCH)

– QUICKFIRE (plan to suggest US TORCH forces were going to the Middle East)

HADRIAN (capture and retention of Cotentin peninsula)

LETHAL (capture of Channel Islands)

BRIMSTONE (operation to take Sardinia, proposed in January 1943)

SYMBOL (Casablanca Conference in January 1943)

COCKADE (June 1943 deception plan to keep German forces in the West)

– TINDALL (plan for sham landing in Norway)

– STARKEY (plan for sham amphibious invasion in Boulogne)

– WADHAM (plan for sham landing in Brest)

HUSKY (plan to invade Sicily in July 1943)

– BARCLAY (deception plan)

            – MINCEMEAT (deception plan involving corpse)

ANVIL (preliminary plan for invading Southern France in 1943)

POINTBLANK (bomber operation to cripple German air fighter production)

BOLERO (military troop build-up in UK)

            – LARKHALL (build-up of US troops)

– DUNDAS (build-up of UK troops)

– SICKLE (build-up of airpower to support BOLERO)

JAEL (London Controlling Section’s deception plan of August 1943)

CONSTELLATION (operation against Channel Islands in 1943)

HIGHBALL (bouncing bombs)

– UPKEEP (naval version of HIGHBALL)

OVERLORD (plan for assault on Northern France in 1944)

– BODYGUARD (deception plan to cover OVERLORD)

–  ZEPPELIN (deception plan to tie down Germans in Balkans and France)

– FORTITUDE (deception plan to mislead Nazis about time and place of assault)

– NEPTUNE (naval component of OVERLORD)

JUPITER (2) (July 1944 offensive in Normandy)

CROSSBOW (project to counter the V-bombs)

CASCADE (deception plan for Mediterranean theatre: replaced by WANTAGE in February 1944)

DRAGOON (landing in Southern France in August 1944, replacing ANVIL)

This is only a partial list, and of course covers only a section of the European theatre of war, while the Chiefs of Staff had to consider world-wide operations. Is it not surprising that feints and realities were sometimes confused?

Contents:

  1. Stalin and the Second Front
  2. MI5 & MI6 in Double-Cross
  3. The XX Committee and MI6
  4. The Twist Committee
  5. OVERTHROW and Rear-Admiral Godfrey
  6. SOE, the Chiefs of Staff, and Churchill
  7. War Cabinet Meetings: June-December 1942
  8. Conclusions

1. Stalin and the Second Front:

‘Chutzpah’ (a word from which, according to some imaginative etymologists, the term ‘hotspur’ is derived) could have been devised as the most appropriate noun to describe the initial Soviet representations to Britain after the Nazi invasion of Russia in June 1941. Five days after Operation Barbarossa, on June 27, Soviet Ambassador Ivan Maisky approached Lord Beaverbrook, Minister of Supply, and asked him to raise the question of the Second Front with the War Cabinet. When Major Macfarlane arrived in Moscow on June 28, as the leader of the military mission to Moscow, Foreign Minister Vyacheslav Molotov immediately ‘demanded’ of him that the British open a Second Front.

Stalin’s Call

For almost two years, the Soviet Union had been in a non-aggression pact with Nazi Germany. It had supplied Hitler with raw materials, minerals and grain which enabled Germany to wage war more effectively against Great Britain, which, after the fall of western Europe, was fighting alone with its dominions and remnants of exile armies. (The United States would not enter the war until December of 1941.) The Soviet Union had brutally invaded and occupied the Baltic States, and moved its army into Finland, exactly the types of aggression over which Britain had gone to war. The notion that the onus now fell on the embattled United Kingdom to relieve pressure on the Soviet Union, where Stalin had disparaged all intelligence reports about a forthcoming invasion, was expressed without irony by Stalin himself, by his humourless sidekick Molotov, and by his scheming and insidious ambassador in London, Maisky. It was a typical shameless ploy by Stalin to make demands and then test the resolve of his new allies to see how far they would go to challenge him.

Moreover, Stalin appeared to overlook the fact that Britain was already engaged in a bitter battle with Germany on other international fronts, primarily in the Mediterranean and North Africa. Stalin may have deprecated such operations as ‘imperialist’, as indeed they were in a sense, since they were activated as a measure to protect oil supply-lines from the Middle East, and were masterminded largely from Cairo, in Egypt. (Of course, quite unlike the Soviet Union’s imperialist annexation of the Baltic States.) Yet the presence of troops in North Africa necessarily drew in large armies of Italian and German forces: indeed, Barbarossa itself was (fatefully) delayed a few weeks because Hitler had to divert army divisions to suppress anti-Nazi revolts in the Balkans before turning his attention to the Soviet Union. ‘Second Front’ was thus a misnomer that Stalin was able to use for vital effect in his propaganda objectives. Yet it was also hypocritical: when the Germans invaded, Stalin expressed disbelief that they would wage war on a ‘second front’, thus implicitly conceding that a ‘first front’ with Britain already existed.

The last aspect was the absurdity of Britain’s attempting to stage an assault on the French coast as early as 1941. Only a year before, Hitler had abandoned his effort to subdue the United Kingdom because he knew that he could not attempt a naval landing until he had secured the skies, and destroyed the Royal Air Force. It would have been impossible for the British alone to raise an assault force that could have landed on French soil without being pushed back swiftly into the sea, with disastrous consequences for morale, and eroding future chances of success. Great Britain would have been able to muster only about six divisions, against Germany’s twenty to thirty. In addition, Churchill had immediately promised Stalin all manner of material support (tanks, ammunition, metals) which inevitably degraded the country’s ability to wage war around the world.

Yet, while staging an assault in 1941 would have been suicidal, the re-entry into Northern France (Eisenhower resisted calling it an ‘invasion’ as that term would suggest a hostile attack on alien territory) could probably have been undertaken before the eventual date of June 1944. For example, in 1980 Walter Scott Dunn Jr. published Second Front Now, subtitled An Opportunity Delayed, which made the claim that, had the Allied command seized the challenge of diverting landing-craft to the operation, an assault could have been made in 1943, when the German forces were actually weaker than they were in 1944. It consisted of a careful and in some ways an appealing thesis, but did not pay enough credit to the fact of the Allies’ unavoidably split command, or to the pluralist method of making decisions.

Sir Alan Brooke, as Commander of the Imperial General Staff, masterminded the overall strategy, which had as its objective a Mediterranean assault first, taking Italy out of the war, diverting German troops from Russia in so doing, before then making re-entry into France. Yet he was challenged on all sides: by Churchill, who made impulsive decisions, interfered continually, and was forever mindful of the personal commitment he had made to Stalin; by Portal and Harris of the RAF, who believed the war would be won by saturation bombing; by the somnolent and ineffective Admiral of the Fleet Sir Dudley Pound (who died in 1943); by Director of Naval Intelligence Admiral John Godfrey, who questioned his estimates of the strength of German forces, was a continual irritant on the Joint Intelligence Committee, and had to be eased out by its Chairman Cavendish-Bentinck in the summer of 1942; by the Americans generally, and specifically General George Marshall, who continually pressed for a cross Channel operation first, or else became diverted by needs in the Asian theatre; and, last but not least, by the ‘Second Front Now’ campaign organised by the press baron and sometimes Cabinet Minister, the boorish and dangerous Lord Beaverbrook. It all drove Brooke to distraction. One should not overlook the fact, however, that watching the two totalitarian powers attempt to destroy each other brought temporary comfort to the British military staff. What they overlooked was that, if one of the two foes eventually conquered the other, the victor would come back with a vengeance.

Field-Marshal Sir Alan Brooke

What is certain is that the Chiefs of Staff lost the propaganda war. By not countering Soviet demands resolutely enough when they were first made, the notion of the ‘gallant Soviet people’ fighting the Hun almost alone, with casualties in the millions while Britain was not resolute enough to sacrifice such armies, was promoted by the Communist Party, and by its agents of influence in government. (The Soviets lost over 3 million men between July and December 1941.) Of course, the British did not have such numbers to spare, and, if it had incurred large losses in such vain exploits, Churchill would have been thrown out of office. All this serves to explain why the tactics for taking on the Germans in Europe during 1942 and 1943 stuttered and stumbled so painfully.

Ironically, more recent research (Pechanov & Reynolds, echoed by O’Keeffe and Dimbleby) indicates that as early as the end of 1941, when the Germans were forced to retreat from Moscow, Stalin had re-assessed the resolve of his Soviet troops, and had also come to understand the impracticalities of a hasty mainland offensive by GB/USA forces in western Europe. He and Molotov then decided to play the ‘Second Front’ card in order to assume the moral high ground, and obtain concessions elsewhere. In seeking an early assault by his allies, however, it should not be overlooked that Stalin’s intentions may not have been entirely honourable. Moreover, he had the advantage over Churchill. He was receiving reports from his spies in London: Kim Philby notoriously passed on to Moscow the news that his boss, Valentine Vivian, knew that officers briefed on TORCH immediately got in touch with their Communist contacts. Irrespective of these essential facets of political intrigue, the timing and location of the re-entry into France would obsess the Chiefs of Staff over the next couple of years.

2. MI5 & MI6 in Double-Cross:

The Chiefs of Staff recognised that careful deception plans would be a necessary part of the eventual operation to make a successful assault into France. They had the experience of “A” Force in the Middle East as a model to be copied. Yet the mechanisms to deliver such capabilities took time to mature. At the urging of Dudley Clarke, who ran “A” Force, an embryonic London Controlling Section (LCS) had been set up under Oliver Stanley in October 1941 to replace the rather passive Inter-Services Security Board, but Stanley struggled with recruiting staff, and gaining the respect of the forces. This was partly due to the fact that he was Controller only part-time: he was also managing a group known as the Future Operational Planning Section (F.O.P.S.). In fact, while the departmental history at CAB 154/100 refers to the unit as the LCS from this time, it was not formally given that title until Bevan’s appointment in May 1942. In any case, Stanley neglected to build the requisite strong relationships with other government bodies, the Services, and the intelligence organizations.

The Double-Cross (XX) Committee had been established in November 1940, but it still had a very defensive focus as late as August 1942, when it cautiously came to the realisation that there were no Abwehr spies operating from the mainland of the United Kingdom of which it was unaware. And then, in the summer of 1942, factors conjoined to make serious deception planning a reality. John Bevan replaced Stanley as head of the LCS; General Wavell impressed upon the Chiefs of Staff the value of deception; the Chiefs of Staff finally had some concrete operational plans for assault that of course had to be in place for any deception game to play against. Critically, Churchill reinforced to his Chiefs of Staff the importance of robust deception plans.

It would seem that the XX Committee was at that time perfectly poised to assume a greater role in military deception plans through the use of its ‘double agents’. The matter of using DAs to ‘direct the attention of the Germans to a phoney major operation’ in France had been discussed at the W Board meeting in May 1942. Yet that did not happen. What went wrong? Was there something implicitly awry in the XX set-up?

Unfortunately, the authorized history of Strategic Deception [Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War], by Michael Howard, while representing an eloquent exposition of the main threads, is an inadequate guide to the politics and controversies. The main deficiencies of his analysis centre on his oblique coverage of the roles of SOE and MI6, and of Howard’s studious refusal even to mention the obscure units set up by Bevan, namely the OLIVER, TORY, TWIST and RACKET committees, which were established as a response to what some saw as the XX Committee’s weaknesses. (Thaddeus Holt’s The Deceivers is slightly more useful in this regard.) For the role of MI6 and SOE in handling ‘double agents’ – or as Bevan preferred to call them ‘special agents’, or ‘controlled enemy agents’ – was paradoxical and problematic. (I shall, for reasons of economy and precision – except when citing other authors and documents –  hereon refer to such persons as ‘DA’s, since that abbreviation, though regrettably inaccurate, is the one used in contemporary documents.)

In essence, the controversy lay in territorial management. MI5 was responsible for counter-espionage on imperial soil: MI6 in foreign countries. The first challenge that this division generated was the fact that agents naturally operated across such boundaries, and thus competition between the two services for ‘ownership’ arose. If a prospective DA emerged in, say, Spain, but were to travel to the United Kingdom, who would manage him or her? And who surveil him or her when he or she had to travel back to the Continent to meet his or her handler? This conflict caused a lot of friction, especially when Major Cowgill of MI6 behaved very protectively about ULTRA transcripts (produced by The Government Code and Cypher School, or GC&CS, commonly known as Bletchley Park, which reported to MI6) that relayed vital information about the meetings between the Abwehr and the agents, and Cowgill withheld such information from his MI5 counterparts.

Felix Cowgill

A more important factor, however, was the issue of operational control and security. If agents used exclusively by MI6 for deception purposes resided on foreign territory, or in countries overrun by the Nazis, how did MI6 officers know that the DAs were working loyally for them, and that they would not betray the confidential relationship to their Abwehr handlers as soon as they were out of sight? Since the XX Committee could not control their wireless messages or invisible ink letters (as MI5’s B1A unit did with domestic controlled agents), an enormous exposure existed with MI6 agents. This was highlighted, for example, by MI6’s attempt to ‘turn’ German POWs and parachute them behind enemy lines in 1944. In April, Hermann Reschke (a POW) immediately denounced his colleague Frank Chamier to the railway staff at the local station south-west of Stuttgart, as Stephen Tyas reports in his book SS-Major Horst Kopkow. Only if intercepted and deciphered wireless traffic showed that the deception was successful could an exercise be considered safe: that in turn required that the Abwehr station communicate with Berlin via wireless, not telephone, and there was still a chance that a counterbluff was being used.

Yet, while all the chroniclers refer to the fact that MI6 (and sometimes SOE) managed DAs, they hardly ever identify them – except when their cases are also managed by MI5 (such as GARBO and TRICYCLE), or they are of a very dubious quality (such as ARTIST, the Abwehr officer Jebsen). Keith Jeffery, the authorized historian of MI6, leads the way. He makes the conventional bland assertion: “As regards double agents, broadly speaking those run in the United Kingdom and from British military bases abroad were an MI5 responsibility, while those operating in foreign countries came from SIS” (p 491). He adds another vague statement on page 569: “While the running of double agents was in practice a joint SIS-MI5 responsibility (through the XX Committee), MI5 took primary charge of those operating in the United Kingdom, and SIS of those in foreign countries.” Again, the message is clear: MI6 managed its own DAs. XX Committee authority was weakened.

And how many of those SIS agents were there? Jeffery adds: “During 1944, for example, some 113 double agents were operating under Section V’s control”  – an astonishing claim, not just numerically, but in the shocking assertion that MI6’s Section V, not the XX Committee, managed them.  Admittedly, twenty-seven of those were GARBO’s notional (i.e. non-existent) sub-agents, but surely the remainder deserved some coverage? Yet Jeffery restricts himself to mentioning only ARTIST (Jebsen, a dubious case, as noted above), ECCLESIASTIC (an unidentified woman in Lisbon who had an Abwehr officer as a lover), and OUTCAST, in Stockholm, who was not really a ‘double’ at all, as he had had recruited before the war, and then penetrated the Abwehr. Earlier Jeffery had mentioned the Frenchman BLA, over whom Menzies had in May 1942 personally interfered, trying to have him run through the XX Committee, but BLA turned out to be a traitor, and was shot. Why the coyness, Professor?

Michael Howard is of even less use. He writes: “That [‘running the double agents’] was the work of MI5’s section B1A, and in certain cases overseas MI6” (p 8); “For both MI5 and MI6 their [‘the double agents’] principal value lay in the information they provided about enemy intelligence services and enemy intentions” (p 9). On page 19, Howard reports that Sir Findlater Stewart was brought in ‘to investigate the possibility of a closer co-ordination between MI5, MI6 and the Special Operations Executive [sic!] as it affects the work of the Twenty Committee’. This turned out to be embarrassing, and the head of SOE ‘agreed to forget all he heard’. Howard does not explain why SOE had a role in running ‘double agents’ at this time, or how their activities were directed and managed. It is a shocking oversight. On the other hand, on page 29, he quotes John Masterman’s justifiable claim that ‘the Security Service alone is in a position to run XX agents’, but does not explore the paradox he has revealed to his readers.

Thaddeus Holt is similarly vague. He does, indeed, cite one important document. When Oliver Stanley was appointed the first Controller of Deception, MI5 offered a carefully worded memorandum, accurately summarized by Holt as follows:  “ . . . while it had always been contemplated that the double agents would be used for deception, that should not jeopardize their fundamental counterespionage role, and [MI5] emphasized further that MI5 and MI6 [sic], not some deception officer, should be the sole judges of how they should be used.” (p 152) Otherwise, Holt’s coverage is scanty. He makes reference to another dubious MI6 DA, an Armenian businessman in Istanbul code-named INFAMOUS, and dedicates one brief clause to COBWEB and BEETLE, Norwegian DAs run by MI6 in Iceland.

John Masterman, who reputedly wrote ‘the book’ on Double-Cross operations, The Double Cross System, hints at MI6’s role, but with scarce recognition of any of their DAs, drawing attention instead to the illogical but unavoidable rule of responsibilities split by geography. Yet he cryptically introduces MI6’s involvement: “At every meeting [of the XX Committee] an account of the activities of the agents was given by the M.I.5 and M.I.6 representatives, so that all members of the Committee were apprised of what was going on in connection with the cases”. (As the Minutes will show, this is a travesty of what actually happened.) Despite his opinion quoted above, Masterman then blandly echoes the policy of the W Board (from October 1941): “The Security Service and M.I.6 remain normally the best judges as to how the machine under their control can be put into motion to the best advantage” (p 104). Some machine; some control. And Masterman, reflecting happily as to how the unnamed Cowgill’s intransigence was eventually overcome, concludes: “In particular the services, whatever their views may have been as to the share in control which belonged to the W. Board or to the Security Service, never questioned or adversely criticized the practical control and the running of the agents by M.I.5 or M.I.6.’ [Note: ‘M.I.5 or – not “and” – M.I.6.’, and omitting the fact that the XX Committee was supposed to be in charge.] Yet the only MI6 agent Masterman names is SWEETIE, an ‘MI6 double-cross agent in Lisbon’, who has otherwise been lost to history.

Another doyen of the popular set of writers on intelligence matters, Nigel West, is also vague. In his 1983 account of the agency, MI6, West asserts that the XX Committee ‘co-ordinated the activities of all the double agents based in the United Kingdom’ [my italics]. West thus by default avoids any suggestion that MI6 was supervised by the XX Committee in handling DAs on the European continent, and completely ignores the activities of MI6 DAs wherever they were supervised. West then moves smoothly on to the Thirty Committee, which managed such entities in the Middle East.

Lastly, we have the breezy work of Ben Macintyre, in Double Cross. He focusses entirely on MI5’s and B1A’s handling of the agents, frequently highlighting the rivalries between MI5 and MI6, while ignoring completely any agents whom MI6 may have been handling. He raises his readers’ interest, perhaps, when he writes of the deception projects behind FORTITUDE: “The French Resistance, Special Operations Executive agents, saboteurs and guerrilla teams, MI6, the code breakers at Bletchley, secret scientists, and camouflage engineers would each play a part on this great sprawling, multifaceted deception campaign” (p 176). Yet the precise nature of those parts is beyond his scope or understanding. No exclusively MI6 DAs appear in his Index.

So what was the exact mission of the XX Committee, and why the evasiveness over the MI6 and the SOE contribution? Why is so little written about MI6’s DAs? To try to resolve this conundrum, and understand why the TWIST committee was set up, an inspection of the XX Committee’s minutes is necessary.

3. The XX Committee & MI6:

John Masterman

The minutes of the XX Committee reinforce the message that its chairman, John Masterman, unwittingly left for posterity in his book: he was confused as to whether MI5 and MI6 jointly ran DAs who crossed their territories, or whether the Committee was overall responsible for DAs who were separately managed by each of the two services. This might appear a trivial point, and it was not entirely his fault, but I believe it is very important. Within MI5, there were mechanisms, and a section, B1A, which took the recruiting and control of DAs very seriously. There appeared to be no equivalent section within MI6: at least no records have been made available. Masterman probably did not believe that he had the clout to challenge the authority of the very difficult Felix Cowgill, who was the dominant MI6 representative during the first eighteen months of the XX Committee’s existence. Thus the joint oversight by the XX Committee did not occur properly.

In contrast, Michael Howard (p 8) makes the point that the task of the XX Committee was not to ‘run’ the double agents, adding: “That . . . was the work of MI5’s section B1A, and in certain cases overseas MI6”. By stating this, however, he opens up the question of the existence of equivalent processes in MI6. He describes the role of the Committee as a routine administrative one, for eliciting, collating, and obtaining approval for ‘traffic’ to be passed by the DAs, and to act as a point of contact between other institutions. Moreover, Howard draws attention to the anomalous reporting structure: the XX Committee’s chairman, John Masterman, was responsible to the Director-General of MI5, but at the time of its establishment, David Petrie had not been appointed. The Committee itself was a sub-committee of the W Board, but that turned out to be a less than satisfactory entity. As Christopher Andrew writes (p 255): “This elevated committee, while considering broad policy issues, inevitably lacked the time to provide the detailed, sometimes daily, operational guidelines which became necessary following the expansion of the Double-Cross System in the autumn and winter of 1940.” The XX Committee thus lay in some sort of limbo.

The ambivalence is shown in the initial memorandum that Masterman wrote, back in December 1940, appealing for the creation of this new committee to handle the management of DAs, including the greater release of information from the service departments: “Since the recognition in July, 1939, by the Directors of Intelligence of the importance of the ‘double agent’ system, M.I.5 and M.I.6 have, both independently and conjointly, built up a fairly extended ‘double agent’ system under their control”.  Perhaps in recognition of the challenge of dealing with MI6, part of Masterman’s recommendation was that the committee should report to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC). A hand-written note states, however, that the Director of Naval Intelligence, John Godfrey, ‘informed us that he would not allow the Committee to be attached to the J.I.C. and that it must be attached either to the W Committee or to the Directors of Intelligence.’ This was a typical outspoken objection by Rear-Admiral Godfrey, and would be a harbinger of later controversies. Yet it suggests a serious intent. One might wonder what the fine distinction between ‘attachment to the J.I.C’ and ‘attachment to the Directors of Intelligence’ represented, but Godfrey was very aware of the secrecy attached to the W Board, and no doubt believed that its activities would inevitably be slowed down – or even suspended – if the news on what it was doing spread too far. In this assessment Godfrey surely overlooked the fact that the XX Committee was already in contact with such bodies as the Service Departments.

The relationship with the W Board could be the subject of a completely fresh study. The W Board was an informal body, its members being the three directors of service intelligence (initially Godfrey, Davidson and Boyle), Liddell from MI5, Menzies from MI6, and Findlater Stewart as representative of the Civilian Ministries. In its postwar history (at KV 4/70), its mission was defined as ‘the general control over all deception from the U.K. to the enemy’ but its author claimed that, with the appointment of the Controlling Officer (implicitly Bevan, not Stanley, whose tenure it overall ignored), the Board ‘still maintained general control of all work of this nature through double agents’. Sadly, this assertion was not true in more than one aspect. It delegated work to the XX Committee, but failed to give it a proper charter or guidelines.

That MI6 was handling DAs ‘independently’ is soon apparent, since the records show that the constitutionally reclusive Cowgill, for most of the time the only MI6 representative on the Committee, was required to submit orally his reports on agent activity. It is not possible to determine whether the sketchy information recorded in the minutes about MI6’s DAs is due to secretarial discretion, or because Cowgill was simply reticent, but a few of his submissions can be noted. He introduces the IRONMONGER case on February 13, 1941, but two weeks later states that ‘the Germans are reported to have executed IRONMONGERY [sic]’. On March 13, POGO and his family are reported to have been arrested by the Spanish Police. A plan STIFF, involving RSS (the Radio Security Service), and a drop of a wireless set, is aired. Cowgill has a contact for Plans ATKINS & L.P.. On May 22, Cowgill refers to a Plan PEPPER involving WALDHEIM in Madrid. On June 5, Cowgill has to present his method of grading sources, perhaps suggesting some scepticism on the part of the other members of the Committee, but nothing more is said.

Yet the catalogue continues. On July 3, Cowgill is recorded as giving ‘an account of a “triple-cross” which he had called VIPER, which had been attempted in Lisbon, and which he is taking up’. The next week, he reports on PASTURES (in Lisbon) and YODELER (not further described). THISBE appears in August, and MINARET and CATKIN (active in the USA) soon after, followed by TRISTRAM. On September 18, YODELER is reported to be ‘disorganized’, but the following week, three new DAs are introduced: SCRUFFY, BASKET and O’REEVE.

It is not necessary to list all of Cowgill’s contributions: the implications are clear. MI6’s handling of DAs was a mess: it had no methodology for recruiting DAs, or detecting their true allegiance, yet no one on the Committee appeared keen to press Cowgill (or his boss, Menzies) too hard. And this situation would continue until Masterman and his allies became utterly frustrated with Cowgill’s refusal to disclose traffic from ULTRA (Most Secret Sources) that would allow those managing the messages of deception in B1A to verify that their bluffs were being accepted by the Abwehr. It all came to a head in April 1942. Findlater Stewart was invited in. Masterman wrote a careful letter to Menzies, and Menzies replied positively, thus forcing Cowgill’s caution to be curbed, with Frank Foley of MI6 also brought on to the Committee to help smooth things over. Yet Foley continued the practice, introducing new DAs without any clear background information, such as FATIMA (a male in France), SEALING WAX, SPOONER and PRIMULA.

Far too late in the day, probably by virtue of external prodding, MI6 was asked to account for itself. The minutes of the meeting on September 3, 1942, show that John Masterman, the Chairman, stated to the attendees that ‘the list of M.I.6. agents had been circulated’. Yet it was a mixed bag. Masterman then said that the list ‘included some straight double-cross cases and some where the enemy were operating captured agents’ sets, and it was felt that these latter might be brought into play in the near future.’ This is an extraordinary admission, suggesting that MI6 (and maybe SOE) was aware that the Germans had captured some of their agents, but, instead of closing down the relevant networks (when they must have been unaware of the expanse of the damage), they were keen to exploit the situation for deception purposes. The disclosure of this policy has profound implications for the study of the PROSPER network.

This is quite a remarkable state of affairs. The B1A DAs within MI5 are very well documented, with their own KV folders in the archive, and Masterman’s mostly straightforward account of how the whole scheme was managed. We can understand the cautious way that the officers had to approach their agents, to manage their communications and monitor their loyalty, and to seek out information to be passed on that could deceive the enemy without giving away sensitive secrets.  Yet about the MI6 DAs (if they really were such) we know hardly anything, and even the authorized historian has skated over the topic apparently without realising that all those codenames had surfaced in the XX Committee minutes. Why have all these names been left off the official lists? Because they were not DAs at all? Because they were an embarrassment, an exposure, a security risk? It seems that senior MI6 officers were keen to escape the nosiness of the XX Committee, and that is why they sought out an alternative mechanism.

4. The TWIST Committee:

Captain John Bevan

On May 21, 1942, the Chiefs of Staff approved Lt.-Col. John Bevan’s appointment as head of the London Controlling Section, replacing Oliver Stanley, with the announcement being made several weeks later, in August. Almost immediately, Bevan started negotiations with the Directors of Intelligence. On July 13, Guy Liddell reported in his Diary that the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Francis Davidson, wanted Bevan brought on to the W Board. On August 25, Liddell noted that the Director of Naval Intelligence, Rear-Admiral John Godfrey, believed that Bevan should be Chairman of the XX Committee: Liddell pointed out to him that Bevan was already a member of that body. (His first attendance was at the eighty-second meeting, on July 30: he had been briefed on the details of the Double-Agent scheme, a privilege not granted to his predecessor.) And then, on September 7, at the eighty-seventh meeting, Bevan made a startling announcement.

The Minutes start inauspiciously, with a note that ‘the list of M.I.6 agents was not yet available’, hinting at a fresh Committee desire for greater disclosure from MI6. Soon afterwards the following brisk statement appears:

            Colonel Bevan reported that the Chiefs of Staff had directed that he should undertake a large scale deception during the autumn and for this purpose he had formed a small sub-committee, with DMI’s approval, for putting his plans into operation. In this connection it was agreed that Major Robertson, who was a member of the sub-committee, should read all proposed traffic before it was sent for approval, in order that it should not run counter to the major deception policy. The normal approving authorities, therefore, could be satisfied that nothing would be submitted to them which would be inadmissible from the point of view of this deception.

This is a puzzling minute. It suggests that Bevan’s deception project was a singular event, and of short duration (though ‘large-scale’), and that whatever traffic it generated would be supervised by Robertson and the traditional clearing-house, as if the W Board were in charge of ‘the major deception policy’. Bevan’s statement also refers cryptically to ‘his plans’: were they plans he himself cooked up, or had they been approved by the Chiefs of Staff? It is not clear, since Bevan refers only to the DMI’s (Davidson’s) approval. Ironically, the post-war history of the W Board (cited above) asserted that the XX Committee was able to work much more freely than the Controlling Officer (Bevan), since the latter ‘had a “charter”’, and had ‘to refer matters to the Chiefs of Staff’.

On the other hand, at a ‘witness seminar’ held in London in 1994, Professor Michael Foot (the SOE historian) presented the LCS as ‘the controlling centre for deception, which so far as I can make out was the boss among the secret services because anything that it asked to get done was done’. This latter view would appear to be reinforced in a telling anecdote from Thaddeus Holt. The American Bill Baumer recalled visiting Bevan, and recorded that the Controller made a decision and started implementing it even before the Combined Chiefs of Staff had authorized the real operation. (That sounds like the pattern that COCKADE would take.) “Baumer asked him about this and asked to whom Bevan was responsible”, writes Holt. “‘To God and history,’ said Bevan.” He clearly had an ego and a sense of entitlement. Perhaps the W Board historian did not know what was going on, but it is more likely that he indulged in some retrospective wish-fulfilment.

The London Controlling Section

John Masterman, the XX Chairman, felt himself under siege. He submitted a very long memorandum to Liddell on September 5, in which he recounted the Committee’s history, stressing its role in counterespionage, while admitting that it needed greater assistance from the Services in order to boost its deception capabilities, so that it might contribute better to military deception as opposed to simply political deception. He reminded his boss of the letter which Rear-Admiral Godfrey had sent to the members of the W Board on August 22 (the letter that Liddell referred to, as described above), summarizing its message as follows:

In this he says that he has been wondering whether the activities of the Twenty Committee are under the best possible direct supervision and has come to the conclusion that the position is not satisfactory. He says that the Chairman is not in touch with the requirements of the Chiefs of Staff or the Joint Planners, and that it is impossible for him (D.N.I.) or probably for other members of the W. Board to provide the necessary day to day guidance. He therefore suggests that Colonel Bevan should be appointed Chairman of the Committee.

In light of the increasing requirements for operational (or offensive) deception, the Directors of Intelligence were presumably becoming unhappy about the devolution of authority to the XX Committee and Major Robertson of B1A (see below). Evidence of a policy clash appears. Bevan was probably under pressure from Churchill to accelerate deception efforts, and the Directors of Intelligence believed that the amateurs of the XX Committee were too far removed from the Service needs to be effective. Thus they believed that they needed to take over the XX Committee through Bevan. Yet Bevan did not want that job, and Masterman and his team resisted. Masterman added a telling, but highly confused, comment:

            It is clear from this letter that D.N.I. holds the view that the XX System is run almost exclusively for purposes of operational deception, and that he regards the agents as being under the direct control of the Twenty Committee, acting on behalf of the W. Board, and not under that of M.I.5 and M.I.6. The ‘day to day guidance’ which D.N.I speaks of, and which neither he nor others members of the W. Board can provide, is in fact provided by M.I.5 alone.

Thus Masterman blew a large hole in the role of the XX Committee, and exposed the fact that MI6 supervision of DAs was, for all intents and purposes, non-existent. He also openly regretted that a note written by Petrie, the Director-General of MI5, from August 29, that reinforced the successful role of MI5, was not distributed to the W Board.

Masterman recognized that Bevan’s sub-committee threatened the functions of the XX Committee and B1A, but fought strongly against it, suggesting that whatever problem was perceived could be addressed by encouraging better liaison between the Committee and the Service representatives. Furthermore, he observed that:

            I think that Colonel Bevan’s sub-committee will inevitably only be concerned with operational deception, and that the more effectively it works the more danger there is that the counter-espionage side of double agent work will fall into the background.

This was a false alarm: counter-espionage was correctly ‘falling into the background’. His allusion to ‘only  . . . operational deception’ betrays the lack of importance that he grants to this function. With some political astuteness, however, Masterman creatively suggested that Godfrey’s letter should be used as a stimulus to re-energize and re-define the Committee’s charter, with the approval of the W Board and the Director-General.

One puzzling aspect of this whole debate is the absence of input from MI6. One might have expected Menzies and Cowgill to have spoken up for the XX Committee, yet no indication of their opinions is apparent. One could interpret that absence as an indication that they were quietly supportive of the Bevan agenda. Liddell, on the other hand, capitulated. As I reported last December, as early as mid-August Liddell had shown his enthusiasm for Bevan’s new scheme, and I shamelessly re-present my text here [I am not paid by the word]:

            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.

Thus the TWIST Committee took off. It was neither small (contrary to how Bevan presented it), nor, as it fatally turned out, restricted to a single project that autumn. I have earlier pointed out the contradictions in the accounts of its inception. The paper passed on by Anthony Blunt to the NKVD (see Triplex by Nigel West and Oleg Tsarev, p 275) stated that the TWIST Committee was ‘organised around September 1941’. That must be wrong. Blunt is unlikely to have confused the timing around the appointment of Oliver Stanley with that of John Bevan, as he (Blunt) he was on the Committee: it must be a translation error. Roger Hesketh’s claim (in Fortitude) that TWIST was initiated in 1943 must be a distortion for political purposes. Moreover, I have discovered one reference to TWIST in the minutes of the XX Committee. It appears on April 15, 1943, and runs as follows:

            Colonel Robertson reported on the functions of the Twist Committee and on the arrangements being made for putting into effect the troop movements and physically carrying out the deceptive policy agreed by that Committee. This would be under the control of the Chief of Staff who had been appointed to the Supreme Command of the West. The question of putting over traffic suggested by the latter, by means of double agents, was discussed and it was agreed that all traffic, whatever the source, should continue to be submitted to the appropriate Approving Authorities before being sent.

I shall review the implications of that highly controversial statement in the context of April 1943 operations in next month’s report. It serves as an independent verification of the survival of the TWIST Committee beyond the OVERTHROW Operation. And I simply reiterate here the point I have made before: the initiation of the TWIST Committee occurred exactly at the time when MI6 and SOE were arranging the arrival of dubious characters to Britain. Len Beurton arrived in Poole on July 29; Henri Déricourt reached Gourock on September 8. And it was undoubtedly the role of Déricourt that caused the TWIST Committee to continue its activities after the initial project in the autumn of 1942 had been successfully concluded. That has all the manifestations of being a deceptive measure by Bevan against his own bosses.

The departmental history, however, is very attentive in emphasizing how proper co-ordination occurred, and how nothing slipped through. “Complete co-ordination between the LCS, the Strategic Planning Section and the JIC was maintained throughout the whole course of planning.” Yet the history reflects an imperfect understanding of the functions of MI5 and MI6, and also puts a spin on the exercise that is not borne out by the evidence. It stated that ‘MI5 was responsible for counter-espionage in the UK, MI6 for espionage abroad’ (a false contrast, and not something that Menzies would have agreed with), and continues by claiming that “co-ordination between the Section and the Secret Services was in this matter effected through the Twenty Committee, where the London Controlling Section representative was able to indicate the general Deception policy or any particular aspect of it which had to be put across to the enemy.”

It thus exaggerated its relationship with the XX Committee, and then minimized the role of the TWIST Committee, explaining that

            At the same time it was very necessary that the circumstantial and important messages passed directly to the enemy Intelligence staff through the Secret Service channels should not be compromised by low-level rumours or obvious propaganda emanating from us. Close similarity would raise suspicion. To ensure co-ordination, therefore, two Committees were established by the Section within itself, known as the TWIST and later the TORY Committee at which members of M.I.5., M.I.6. and S.O.E. attended.

At least the existence of the TWIST Committee was admitted, but the retrospective description grossly distorts what in fact happened.

Two last points in this section. In my previous posts, I had overlooked the contribution that Thaddeus Holt made to the TWIST topic, in The Deceivers, and I thank Keith Ellison for bringing it to my attention. Holt concedes that multiple channels for passing disinformation were involved – but only in the context of the TWIST Committee, not the XX Committee. He writes (p 201): “. . . they met weekly or fortnightly with representatives of SOE, MI5, MI6, and other offices, to make sure the themes were consistent with – but not too obviously similar to – the circumstantial messages being passed by the double agents, and to allocate misinformation assignments among the available channels”, adding, as a way of differentiating TWIST from OLIVER, TORY and RACKET: “The Twist Committee dealt with allocation of channel assignments by way of double agents.” Yet Holt stumbles over the contrast of the TWIST Committee’s media with messages passed by DAs elsewhere.

Secondly, the membership of the two Committees needs to be noted. Of the twelve attendees at the September 3, 1942 meeting of the XX Committee, no less than five (Masterman, Bevan, Montagu, Foley and Robertson) are described in the Blunt document as being permanent members of the TWIST Committee. Masterman, notably, is described as being the TWIST Committee’s secretary, so it is clear that his loyalty was acquired by being drawn inside. (For what it is worth, Bevan had been an undergraduate at Christ Church, Oxford, the college from which the don Masterman had been hired by MI5, and he had been at Eton with Stewart Menzies.)  Furthermore, MI6’s Lloyd, also a member of TWIST, occasionally sat in on the XX proceedings. Foley’s task was defined ominously as ‘the transmission of disinformation to the enemy through double agents of the Secret Intelligence Service abroad’, while Lloyd was responsible for analysing ULTRA decrypts. This overlap could be interpreted positively, indicating close collaboration between the two bodies, or negatively, since such overlap indicated a high level of redundancy and wasted effort. Yet, to me, it suggests a much more troubling outcome: how on earth did the proceedings and achievements of the TWIST Committee become reflected neither in the official histories, nor in Masterman’s own account of Double-Cross?

5. OVERTHROW and Rear-Admiral Godfrey:

So who was calling the shots? In the Directive given to Bevan by the Chiefs of Staff on June 21, 1942, Item 3 (c) carefully stated: “Watch over the execution by the Service Ministries, Commands and other organisations and departments, of approved deception plans which you have prepared.” This instruction specifically did not give Bevan the authority to establish a new unit to execute his own plans, and also required that Bevan’s deception plans be submitted for approval. Very oddly, a further instruction informed Bevan that he was ‘also to keep in close touch with the Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee, Political Warfare Executive, Special Operations Executive, S.I.S., and other Government organizations and departments’, cryptically overlooking any direct reference to MI5, the W Board or the XX Committee. Was that deliberate, or merely careless? It seems extraordinary that the Chiefs would highlight MI6 and SOE while ignoring the primary deception mechanism at their disposal.

In fact, Bevan saw a role for MI5 – but only in the promotion of domestic rumours. And that did not work out well. In a post-mortem memorandum to the War Cabinet on December 12, he wrote:

            It is realized that the spreading of false rumours in the United Kingdom is not consistent with the main functions of M.I.5., and it is therefore suggested that some other body, possibly the Ministry of Information, in co-operation with the London Controlling Section, should be responsible.

That may have been correct, but to ignore the potential of MI5’s contributing with its DAs was bizarre, to say the least. Guy Liddell had discouraged it, however. The DAs controlled by the XX Committee (and B1A) did in fact contribute to the deception plans in the summer and autumn of 1942, but then for many months took a back seat in Bevan’s conception of things. Ewen Montagu, the Royal Navy representative, wrote a memorandum highly critical of Bevan, in which he described the breach that had occurred between the LCS and the XX Committee. As Thaddeus Holt reports it:

            By Montagu’s account, there was ‘considerable friction’ between the Twenty Committee and the London Controlling Section after the North African landings and during 1943 ‘when the Twenty Committee chafed at the fact that no strategic deception went over from the U.K. between then and OVERLORD’.

This was a massive admission concerning the events of 1943.

I do note, however, that, when Bevan made his initial announcement to the XX Committee, he stated that the Chiefs of Staff had authorized him to undertake a deception plan. Yet the decision to create a new committee appeared to have been his own, and his claim that the DMI had given his approval to use his new sub-committee to execute the plan (rather than just develop it, gain approval for it, and arrange for others to execute) would appear to fly right in the face of the directives of the Chiefs of Staff. The departmental history, moreover, is very ambiguous about Bevan’s entitlement to execute plans himself, writing that the LCS ‘operated actively not only as a formulator of the main strategic deception policy and of specific deception plans to cover operations, but as the main agency through which, in so far as the United Kingdom was concerned, these plans were implemented’ [my italics]. So how did this initiative get by?

Operation Sledgehammer

According to the authorized history, the initial project went according to the books. The deception operation that had been delegated to Bevan’s new committee was indisputably OVERTHROW (a feint across the Channel), since SLEDGEHAMMER had been discarded shortly before Bevan got started. (Churchill told the Cabinet on July 6 that SLEDGEHAMMER had been abandoned for 1942, yet advised Roosevelt on July 14 that both SLEDGEHAMMER and JUPITER were still active. Was he being duplicitous, was he merely confused, or was he simply trying to simplify matters for the President? I have no idea.) Bevan thus prepared a plan for OVERTHROW by August 5, and it was approved by the Chiefs of Staff on August 18. Michael Howard then proceeds to describe smoothly how the plan was executed: “It was implemented partly through visual displays, partly through the spreading of rumours, partly through the messages passed through the ‘special means’ of B1A.” But there is no mention of TWIST – or even the oversight of the XX Committee, as it happens. Howard then goes on to describe how the Germans were taken in, with Field Marshal von Rundstedt keeping defences strengthened against the assault that never came. “Overall, Operation Overthrow must be judged a major success”, Howard concludes, since German forces were kept on the alert right up to the eve of the TORCH landings in November.

On the other hand, Anthony Cave Brown embellished the story in Bodyguard of Lies. He described a misinformation campaign of planting seeds that an invasion was imminent, that the BBC warned the French not to take up arms until they received the signal, and he even declared that ‘MI-6, SOE and the XX Committee primed their agents with similar reports’. In so doing Cave Brown carelessly reinforced the notion that the XX Committee was exclusively an MI5 affair, but also strongly indicated that MI6 and SOE were given a role outside the controls of the XX Committee. Yet Cave Brown is not a wholly reliable source: while his descriptions are florid, his chronology is frequently haphazard: many critical events are undated. He muddied the waters by making the August 17 Dieppe Raid the core event of this deception, ignoring the fact that the OVERTHROW Operation was not approved until after the Dieppe Raid took place, and lasted until November. Such are the perils of trying to pack too many events into a narrative, and listening to too much personal testimony without careful attention to timelines.

The post mortem by the Chiefs of Staff was a little more sanguine. The minutes of November 26 (CAB 80/66-1), based on Bevan’s report, record that ‘the postponement of “TORCH” to 8th November rendered “OVERTHROW” a less probable operation, while shortage of invasion craft and the decision to cancel all troop and air movements for “CAVENDISH” robbed it of much of its plausibility.’ Other factors ‘militated against the success of this deception’, and ‘the enemy was not seriously concerned with the “OVERTHROW” threat’. Furthermore, the report was very lapidary about the role of Double-Cross, referring to the implementation by LCS in these terms: “Suitable messages to indicate a threat to Northern France were prepared and passed through various channels to the enemy.” Did the Chiefs really inspect the plan? And where did Howard’s confident appraisal come from? For what it is worth, the Minutes of the XX Committee never mention OVERTHROW, but much detail has been left out of the proceedings of that body.

Moreover, other chronological anomalies can be detected. Both Bevan’s representation to the XX Committee, and Liddell’s enthusiastic endorsement of the rival Committee, which gave such a prominent role to SOE and MI6, took place on August 25. Howard reports, however, that Bevan, on September 2, ‘complained to the Chiefs of Staff of the absence of machinery to implement his ideas’. He received the brush-off, being explicitly told to work with the departments that already existed. Yet by that time he had already announced to the XX Committee the formation of the TWIST Committee, and had the support not only of Liddell, but also implicitly of the top SOE and MI6 officers. Bevan was not being straight with the Chiefs of Staff, who were either ignorant of the TWIST Committee, or were turning a blind eye to it.

Major-General Sir Colin Gubbins

Another factoid that is highly anomalous, but maybe significant, is that Colin Gubbins, according to his Service Record at HS 9 630/8, was appointed CD (i.e. Chief of SOE) in September 1942, thus nominally replacing Charles Hambro. Yet all the conventional histories assert that Hambro did not relinquish his role, with Gubbins replacing him, until he was forced to resign by Lord Selborne in September 1943. If Churchill, who continually championed Gubbins, and prevented him being transferred to regular military duties, was trying to influence more directly the activities of SOE, Gubbins’s ascent to leadership would be evidence of such, and the concealment of the fact very suggestive.

Bevan was aware of the invidious position he had been encouraged to take up, and made a very puzzling and unsatisfactory statement to the XX Committee on October 1. The minutes record:

            Colonel Bevan made a statement with regard to the directives issued by himself and with regard to the difficulties in which, in certain circumstances, he found himself. He agreed nevertheless that the Approving Authorities should be supplied with such general directives as he might issue from time to time, and would arrange for this to be done. He or his representatives would attend the meetings of the Twenty Committee in case any explanations were necessary.

The gobbledegook of this minute was inexplicably approved at the next meeting. (If Masterman had encountered such sentences in an undergraduate essay, he would surely have applied his red pencil to them.) It is difficult to know to what to make of it: to me, it suggests that Bevan was under pressure to execute something not completely above board, and beyond the ken of the Approving Authorities and the Chiefs of Staff. What ‘directives’ was he authorized to issue, for instance? That ‘nevertheless’ is telling, however, since it indicates that he felt entitled to conceal some of his enterprises from the eyes of his masters. That was the last XX Committee meeting he attended.

Rear-Admiral John Godfrey

The role of Rear-Admiral Godfrey in this charivari is very peculiar. It will be recalled that he argued strongly for Bevan’s taking over the Chairmanship of the XX Committee – a position that Bevan did not want, as he may have had other ideas by then. Liddell had had to explain to Godfrey why the XX Committee was not ready for full-scale military deception. His Diary entry of August 26 describes how he outlined to an astonished Donaldson (the Director of Military Intelligence), accompanied by Montagu, why Bevan should not be Chairman, and how the transmission of deception messages might harm the DA network. The outcome was that Donaldson collaborated with Liddell on a letter to Godfrey explaining why his idea would not work.

The next time that Godfrey appears in the Diary is on September 17, where the following entry appears:

            T.A.R. and I went over to congratulate the D.N.I. on his promotion to Vice-Admiral and to give him one of the POGO B/E notes and a clock fuse. Rather I fear with my tongue in my cheek, I thanked him for all the help that he had given us in connection with the Twenty Committee. He seemed pleased and said that he was deeply touched.

Why ‘tongue in cheek’? The comment has several overtones. As background clarification, I first cite Godfrey’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography:

            Godfrey’s insistence that intelligence must adopt a critical, sceptical and scientific approach and present its findings without fear or favour had led to early clashes with (Sir) Winston Churchill and, by mid-1942, his uncompromising and at times abrasive attitude had aroused the hostility of his colleagues on the joint intelligence committee who appealed to the Chiefs of Staff for his removal. The first sea lord, Admiral Sir Dudley Pound, although he had only recently extended Godfrey’s appointment and approved his exceptional promotion to vice-admiral on the active list (September 1942), informed him that he would be relieved as soon as a successor could be found, a decision considered by many, including the historian Stephen Roskill, to have been both ill-judged and unjust.

So what was going on here?

‘Mid-1942’ is distressingly vague, but the first conclusion might be that Godfrey’s days were already numbered by the time that John Bevan took over, and all the frantic planning for OVERTHROW began. Historians have speculated over exactly why Godfrey was fired. Michael S. Goodman, in his Official History of the JIC, relegates to an Endnote in his Conclusions chapter a statement that his colleagues on the JIC prevailed upon the Chairman Cavendish-Bentinck to have him removed, with Pound performing the deed. David O’Keefe implies in One Day in August that Godfrey had to take the rap for the disastrous Dieppe Raid in August 1942, but has privately echoed to me the Goodman thesis. Is it possible that Godfrey challenged Churchill one time too many when the irregular TWIST Committee was set up?

The idea that it was Churchill behind Godfrey’s sacking is echoed in the work of another historian, Patrick Beesly. In his 1977 study of the Admiralty’s Operational Intelligence Centre during the war, Very Special Intelligence, he describes Godfrey’s challenging the Prime Minister’s estimates of U-Boats destroyed and his assessment of future strengths of the fleet, with Churchill trying to have Godfrey (and his ally Talbot) silenced. Beesly writes (p 36):

            As for Godfrey, this was not the only brush he was to have with Winston, and may well have been one of the reasons for the astounding, not to say shameful, lack of any recognition of his immense services during the war, and omission which was, incidentally, deeply resented by every member of the Intelligence Division.

Thus the stories of Godfrey’s failure to be a team-player on the JIC may have been a canard put out to conceal the true reasons for his demise.

Liddell’s sophistical message of congratulation to Godfrey suggests to me two things: first, that he knew about the firing, and was not sorry to see Godfrey go, but also, that he may have accepted that the D.N.I. had genuinely the best interests of operational deception at heart, but did not want to recognize that openly. For it is easy to conclude that Liddell was the Villain here, and Godfrey was the serious intelligence officer who was searching for a way to convert what the XX Committee had built into a more relevant force in the military deception game. His method of doing that was to encourage Bevan to take it over: Liddell and Masterman saw that as a threat rather than as an opportunity.

The behaviour of Liddell was quite abject. He had obviously been targeted by Dansey, and maybe Menzies, and had been convinced that engaging SOE and MI6 agents and operatives in a deception game that was complementary to what the XX Committee was doing, without the disciplines of his B1A team, was a sensible strategy. He resorted to the weak argument that the XX Committee was too involved with counter-espionage (i.e. detecting other attempts by the Abwehr to insert spies into Britain) when that battle had already been won. The XX Committee was ready to take on tasks more vital to military deception, but for some reason Liddell funked it.

It is evident that he was outgunned by Menzies. At a meeting of the W Board on September 24, Menzies, with Cowgill’s assistance behind the scenes, made a play to diminish MI5’s role in deception. When Liddell stressed how his boss, Petrie, would strongly resist if the DA network were threatened by being forced to put inappropriate information through it, Menzies riposted that ‘he would put his foot down if certain action by the Twenty Committee did not meet with his approval’ (this from Liddell’s Diary entry). “It was now clear however what would happen if C’s interests and ours were in conflict”, Liddell added. Menzies tried to undermine the raison d’être of MI5’s creature, drawing attention to the fact that the ‘Twenty Committee had no charter’, also using as an excuse for his criticism the fact that Godfrey’s proposal that Bevan become chairman had been rejected. 

These journal observations are confirmed by the official minutes, where Menzies expressed some outrage that MI5 had unjustly received much more recognition than had MI6 in the setting up of the XX Committee. A handwritten annotation declares the fact of the XX Committee’s lacking a charter, and the desirability of creating one. That was a scandalous admission by Menzies; after all, he was the senior intelligence chief who had presided over the W Board for almost two years, and if anyone was responsible, it was he. Donaldson tried to smooth over the dispute, but the die was cast. The XX Committee became a unit for supervising MI5’s B1A alone from then on.

And then – as if it were an aside – a casual minute is recorded as follows:

            Col Bevan mentioned that he had instituted a sub-Committee consisting of Major Robertson, Lt. Cdr. Montagu, Major Foley, and Lionel Hale [of SOE, but not specifically identified!]  to discuss the working out of certain cover plans from the aspect of getting them over to the enemy through double agents, rumour, etc.

It was all delightfully vague, but clearly well-intentioned and honourable. The Board nodded.

A handwritten addition to the minute ran: “This appeared to raise no difficulties”.

Thus Liddell – alongside the other MI5 officers involved, such as Robertson, Masterman and Blunt (!) – severely let down the security considerations of ‘double cross’ when they allowed the TWIST Committee to operate without proper oversight. OVERTHROW may have been enabled entirely through XX Committee DAs (as Howard claimed, but not Cave Brown), but TWIST was not dismantled in December, as a ‘small committee’ focused on a single ‘large-scale operation’. Moreover, if the TRIPLEX papers can be trusted, it had as many members as the XX Committee. We know (from Robertson’s careless comments in April 1943) that it took on a life of its own after the successful OVERTHROW deception. The TWIST Committee was not dismantled until its atrocious lapses became known to the Chiefs of Staff. And those lapses primarily involved SOE.

6. SOE, the Chiefs of Staff, and Churchill:

The SOE Plaque

Since SOE was an upstart para-military organisation, while MI6 was an established intelligence-gathering unit, one might expect the Chiefs of Staff to have shown more interest in the activities of the former. One might also wonder whether their attention span was broad enough to keep up with what SOE was doing during 1942. Both these suppositions are probably true: the Chiefs of Staff were strong on strategy but negligent on tactics. As the overambitious plans for re-entry into Europe started to gel in early 1942, the Chiefs found the time to consider what SOE’s role should be, and to issue a careful directive on May 12, 1942. The document was titled S.O.E. Collaboration in Operations on the Continent, and the careful wording thus clearly excluded independent action. It should be pointed out, however, that the paper (in CAB 80/62) introduces the topic by stating that the War Cabinet ‘has approved that plans and preparations should proceed without delay for Anglo-US operations in western Europe in 1942 and 1943 [my italics]’. Thus a series of raids were planned for the summer of 1942, leading to ‘a large-scale descent [sic!] on western Europe in the spring of 1943’. Clause 3 ran as follows:

            SOE is required to conform with the general plan by organizing and co-ordinating action by patriots in the occupied countries at all stages. Particular care is to be taken to avoid premature large-scale rise of patriots.

And Clause 5 described the kinds of subversive and disruptive activities that paramilitary organisations should perform, carefully framed as planned to occur as part of the Co-operation During The Initial Assault.

The instructions themselves are very clear: the suggestion of a timetable was, however, dangerously misleading. The Chiefs of Staff were well aware of the terrible reprisals that would take place if uncoordinated acts of sabotage or assassination were undertaken, and were thus careful to issue directives that the use of militias would have to be restrained until the timing were right. Colonel Gubbins knew this: as Director of Operations for SOE, he had disseminated, as early as April 1941, the following statement:

            In conquered and occupied territories the eventual aim is to provoke an armed rising against the invader at the appropriate moment. It cannot, however, be made too clear that in total warfare a premature rising is not only foredoomed to failure, but that the reprisals engendered will be of such drastic, ferocious and all-embracing nature that the backbone of the movement will probably be broken beyond healing. A national uprising against the Axis is a card which usually can only be played once  . . . . It is thus essential not only that these subterranean movements should be supported by us, but also that they should be sufficiently under our control to ensure that they do not explode prematurely. (from HS 8/272: reproduced in Olivier Wieviorka’s The Resistance in Western Europe, pp 33-34)

‘A card that can only be played once’: very solemn and authoritative words. Gubbins would refine and reinforce this philosophy in North-West Africa in early 1943. Yet an incipient problem can be identified: if the secret militias were substantively equipped with arms in the expectation of an early assault by professional forces, what would happen if that assault were delayed – from 1942 to 1943, and then to 1944? And how and when would the suitable candidate militia-men and -women be trained and kept at the ready? The enthusiasm of the secret armies had to be maintained (maybe a manageable problem), and the cache of dropped weapons had to be concealed from the Gestapo (a far more challenging task). And it is evident from other records of SOE activity that Gubbins’s instructions did not always percolate smoothly to all departments. Charles de Gaulle was a constant thorn, demanding more arms be shipped to the French paramilitary forces, and the Communists (who constituted a large section of the secret armies) were, in receiving their instructions from Moscow, far less scrupulous over the horror of reprisals, and were encouraged to engage in murderous attacks against Nazi officials.

Sir Alan Brooke was conscious of this policy, and obviously supported it. He had been appointed Chairman of the Chiefs of Staff in March 1942, and he took an active interest in the work of SOE, meeting with Gubbins and discussing with him how subversive operations in France might support the eventual landing. (The two had a close relationship: Gubbins had been Brooke’s personal staff officer at the Military Training Directorate from 1935 to 1938.) On June 2, he issued a memorandum that reinforced SOE’s role, and rejected calls for a Common Allied Staff to deal with subversive activities, claiming that ‘the present method by which S.O.E. works in close collaboration with our planning staff, and with the Chiefs of Staff Committee, enables activities in occupied Europe to be co-ordinated with the whole war plan’, words that should have come back to haunt him. But he had a lot on his plate and was otherwise engaged during the rest of 1942: he was spending the summer resisting multilateral efforts for a premature landing in France, and the pressures on him would endure for more than a year. On the other hand, one man reportedly kept a very close interest in SOE’s operations – Winston Churchill.

Churchill had avoided working with Hugh Dalton, the minister whom he had appointed with responsibility for SOE in 1940, partly because he disliked Dalton’s socialist ambitions for Europe, but also because he resented the booming lectures that the Labour man delivered to him. Dalton was, however, replaced by Lord Selborne in February 1942. Selborne, by subtly keeping Churchill informed of SOE’s achievements, renewed the Prime Minister’s interest in the exploits of SOE agents. Churchill was also enthused by the appearance of John Steinbeck’s The Moon Is Down, an inspiring novel about resistance in Norway, which he read in late May 1942. These were exactly the type of adventurous enterprises that fired him up, although such picaresque ideas sometimes did more harm than good, as Sir Alan Brooke’s diaries constantly remind us. Selborne tried to talk him down, reminding him of the Gubbins doctrine. The Chiefs of Staff noted Selborne’s rebuff, namely that ‘scattering weapons and charges from the air for franc-tireur use  . . . would lead to reprisals, and is therefore only recommended to coincide with an Allied invasion of the Continent and to enable saboteurs to cut railway lines of communication’. Yet Churchill’s enthusiasm could not be extinguished completely.

Moreover, another stronger bond was built. In Churchill & Secret Service David Stafford emphasises that John Bevan and the Prime Minster enjoyed a very close relationship. This account is probably trustworthy, despite the fact that Stafford’s employment of the facts is occasionally a bit wayward, and his use of sources is questionable. For instance, he suggests that the LCS was set up only in 1942, and that Bevan was its first head. (This is a pardonable error, as the unit was officially named the LCS only in June 1942, as I explained earlier.) The JIC had approved the new unit, to replace the Inter-Services Security Board, on October 9, 1941, and Stanley was appointed a few days later. The Chiefs of Staff were slow to recognize the LCS, and issued their first directive to it at the same time it formally received its name.

Stafford also refers to Operations JUPITER and SLEDGEHAMMER as being the deception operations undertaken to deflect attention from TORCH, when it was in fact OVERTHROW that superseded SLEDGEHAMMER. And he uses as his source for the claim that Churchill and Bevan ‘cooked up deception plots in late-night sessions over brandy’ (the LCS offices resided in the Cabinet Office complex) to Bodyguard of Lies by Anthony Cave Brown, not always the most reliable of chroniclers. Nevertheless, it is certain that Churchill had a much more collegial relationship with Bevan than he did with Stanley, and Bevan’s appointment may not have been coincidental with Churchill’s new-found enthusiasm for SOE derring-do.

Thus Churchill, with his revivified enthusiasm for maybe violent subversive activity, and unable to forget his private commitments to Stalin, perhaps became too close to the activities of SOE. In any case, he was well primed for some intense clashes with the Chiefs of Staff in the second half of 1942.

7. War Cabinet Meetings: June-December 1942

Despite the fact that the War Cabinet had agreed on June 11 that ‘we should not attempt any major landing on the Continent this year, unless we intended to stay there’ (a motion that Churchill himself proposed), Churchill continued to push his Chiefs of Staff about SLEDGEHAMMER, ROUNDUP and JUPITER.  On June 15, he issued a memorandum on the necessity of engaging ROUNDUP with vigour. On June 21, he had a meeting with Roosevelt at the White House (with Brooke present), at which it was declared that ‘the United States and Great Britain should be prepared to act offensively [in Europe] in 1942’.

The Chiefs of Staff invited Paget (C.-in-C., Home Forces), Douglas (A.C.C.-in-C., Fighter Command, and Ramsay (C.-in.-C., Naval Command) to comment on Churchill’s memorandum of June 15. They were politely rather dismissive of their Prime Minister’s ideas, but did come up with a rather alarming conclusion about the use of ‘Patriot Forces’. It ran as follows:

            The most suitable methods of raising the patriot forces in FRANCE and making use of their great potential value are under investigation in conjunction with S.O.E, and it is too early yet to state what can be achieved. It is obvious, however, that the deeper and quicker the penetration of the main assaults the greater will be the extent and value to us of the risings. Furthermore, judicious handling of the patriots may turn the diversions considered in paragraph 11 into large scale risings which will become a serious embarrassment to the enemy. In both cases, however, arms and equipment must be supplied in large quantities if the patriots are to be of any real assistance. For rapid distribution, such stores must be brought over in motor transport, the carriage of which, as we have shown already, is a serious problem owing to the shortage of landing craft.

The trio appeared to be unaware of policy concerning patriot armies. Furthermore, there appears to have been no attempt to disabuse them of their misunderstanding. Yet, if the appeal that ‘arms and equipment must be supplied in large quantities’ was picked up, it would have contributed considerably to the later confusion. This theme was reinforced by General de Gaulle, who wrote to Churchill on July 25, stressing that, while guerrilla activity needed to be combined with military operations, it was ‘essential that arms and equipment destined for a certain number of large French formations should be stocked up in advance and, when necessary, placed at the disposal of the French High Command’.

Meanwhile, Stalin continued to pester Churchill about the lack of intentions to open a ‘second front’ – by which he always meant an assault on NW Europe, not a Mediterranean excursion. On August 13, he wrote:

            It is easy to grasp that the refusal of the British Government to open a second front in 1942 inflicts a moral blow to the whole of Soviet public opinion, which calculates on the creation of a Second Front, and that complicates the situation of the Red Army at the front and prejudices the plan of the Soviet Command.

The idea that there was such an entity as ‘Soviet public opinion’ that was constantly ruminating on such issues is of course ridiculous, but it does not appear that Churchill took the bait. It was part of a pattern of behaviour that would later assume that Stalin had pacific impulses, but had to deal with pressures from more belligerent members of the Politburo. Churchill tried to divert the challenge by indicating that TORCH was in fact the second front that Stalin needed.

Thereafter TORCH did indeed dominate the discussion. SLEDGEHAMMER and ROUNDUP were replaced by OVERTHROW and CAVENDISH. In September, SOE was given a highly focused task of sabotaging Belgian Railways; the Belgian government-in-exile complained, but the Chiefs of Staff overrode it. The references in War Cabinet minutes to offensive strategies in North-West Europe start to shift to a time-frame of late 1943 and 1944. JUPITER was challenged because of problems in exploiting Russian aerodromes in the Murmansk area. TORCH itself was postponed until late November.

This new reality was well articulated in a joint US/GB strategy paper dated October 30. It declared that only the Russian army could beat the Germans on land, and that operations in 1943 were thus conditioned by the need to help Russia [the Soviet Union]. It thus almost completely discounted any major land assault in 1943, but recognized that, as part of the assistance to the Soviet Union, both small and large raids in North-Western Europe would be necessary. It then tried to restore policy to the accepted norms, under the section on ‘Subversive Action’:

            The general factors governing the use of subversive action and of the secret patriot armies are: –

a) Fear of reprisals felt by the inhabitants of occupied countries;

b) No second opportunity of using this weapon is likely to arise, at any rate for a considerable time;

c) If the organisation is not used, it may deteriorate.

There is no prospect of setting alight these organisations in western Europe on a big scale, in the absence of an Allied invasion. Unless, therefore, some major disaster, such as imminent Russian defeat, appears likely, it will be better to adhere to a steady and gradually increasing programme of sabotage in this area.

At least there was an attempt to tackle the problem of eager patriot forces expecting a major assault that was not going to happen soon. But Churchill had been fomenting again. In a cable to Roosevelt, dated October 24, he wrote:

            I gained the impression at the Conference that ‘ROUND-UP’ was not only delayed or impinged upon by ‘TORCH” but was to be regarded as definitely off for 1943. This will be another tremendous blow for Stalin. Already Maisky is asking questions about the Spring offensive. I understood that the words of our agreement stood, namely, that all preparations should go forward in a balanced way as fast as possible. Under all circumstances it is indispensable to hold the Germans pinned on the Channel coast of France.

Churchill again showed how intimidated he was by Maisky and Stalin. Later in the message, he referred to ‘imperative’ Russian demands, a gross concession of power. “To sum up”, he concluded, “my persisting anxiety is Russia . . .”

Churchill picked up the theme again in November, reminding the Chiefs of Staff of ROUNDUP, and the ‘solemn undertaking’ that it should begin on April 1, 1943. Stalin was invoked again. “We have given Stalin to understand that the great attack on the Continent will come in 1943  . . “, and “I cannot imagine what the Russians will say when they realize it [‘that we have pulled in our horns to an almost extraordinary extent’]”. He challenged the Chiefs to come up with facts and figures that would show why ROUNDUP was not possible in 1943. They resisted: it came down to a shortage of landing-craft. They realised that the ‘invasion’ of Europe would ‘do more than anything else to help Russia’, but declared in a Strategy Paper of November 24 that

            . . . at the present time North-West Europe may be likened to a powerful fortress, which can be assaulted only after adequate artillery preparation. To make the assault before the time is ripe would be suicide for ourselves and of no assistance to Russia. Our aim must be to intensify the preliminary bombardment, for which purpose Anglo-American air forces will take the place of artillery.

Nuisance raids, and some more on the Dieppe scale, would take place, but that was it.

On November 11 in the House of Commons Churchill had had to explain to his opposition the lack of progress on the second front, where he awkwardly attributed the delays to lack of landing-craft, to an (exaggerated) estimate of the strength of German forces, and the weather. (Stalin did not have to endure such performances with any ‘opposition’, of course.) The premier rather ingenuously stated that his commitments to Stalin about the second front had in fact caused the Germans to hold extra divisions in France. He temporarily staved off the pressures, but they then resurged. He was caught in an ungainly dance in which he alternately gavotted with his political opponents, with the Americans, with Stalin, and with the Chiefs of Staff.

The strategy paper thus predictably provoked the Prime Minister, who responded on November 29, again referring to a telegram he had received from Stalin: “The paragraph [11] is a practical abandonment of any resolute effort to form a second front in 1943”, and he used the changing fortunes on the Russian Front to suggest that an attack either in the Channel or in the Bay of Biscay should be planned for August 1943. The Chiefs dug their heels in, responding the next day:

            It is certain that our resources in manpower, shipping and landing craft are wholly inadequate to build up TORCH, re-open the Mediterranean for military traffic, and carry out the operations which we contemplate in the Mediterranean next spring and summer, in addition to ROUNDUP in July, 1943.

They stated that the USA/GB force would have only 14 divisions available to fight the 40 German divisions in France, and they subtly reminded Churchill that the War Cabinet memorandum of July 24 had resolved that the commitment to TORCH had rendered ‘ROUNDUP in all probability impracticable of successful execution in 1943’.

Churchill would not give up, and the wrangle continued through December. He invoked Roosevelt’s and Marshall’s desires to see their troops in the UK used; he threatened the Chiefs with Stalin’s continued displeasure. Churchill quoted from his recent letter from Stalin that ran, in part: “I hope that this does not mean you have changed your mind with regard to your promise given in Moscow to open a second front in Western Europe in the spring of 1943. ” On December 3, the Prime Minister was forced to disclose to Sir Alan Brooke that, in Moscow, he had made a promise to Stalin about the Second Front in 1943 when Brooke was not in the room: Brooke was not impressed. Churchill had dug himself a hole: Stalin had to remind him, in another letter dated December 6, that he had not replied to his inquiry about the second front.

The Prime Minister could not get the ‘Second Front in 1943’ notion out of his head, and he laid out a new timetable that would culminate in an assault in August and September. Clark Kerr, the Ambassador in Moscow (like Stafford Cripps, too often a mouthpiece for Stalin to the UK rather than vice versa), came to Churchill’s side, warning that Stalin might seek a peace deal with Hitler if the Second Front did not occur in 1943. The Chiefs of Staff riposted, and claimed that a 1943 ROUNDUP would be a ‘new conception’ for the USA, but were then blindsided by a report that the US Chiefs of Staff now wanted to suspend TORCH in favour of ROUNDUP!

Thus the year ended in disharmony. Churchill was at loggerheads with his Chiefs of Staff, and a rift had occurred between the Chiefs of Staff in Great Britain and the United States. A final strategy paper of December 31 laid out the facts as the Chiefs saw them. The Russian war effort was still paramount. A fruitless assault on Northwest Europe would be disastrous. If an attack were planned for 1943, it would have to take place by September, but, in reality, not enough divisions would be available, and amphibious operations in the Mediterranean would have to be abandoned. On the other hand (so the Chiefs asserted), continued pressure in the Mediterranean would give Russia the relief it sought, and supplies would continue to be sent to Russia. The Chiefs did not discount completely a renewed SLEDGEHAMMER in August or September, but said that it would require clear evidence of a distinctive weakening of Axis forces and morale in order to be considered. In his last missive of the year to Stalin, dated December 29, Churchill declined to respond to the Generalissimo’s question directly, and temporized by indicating that he would discuss the issue with Roosevelt when they met in the New Year at Casablanca. Brooke noted in his diary that he thought he had at last swung his boss around to his point of view.

What the Strategy Paper did not cover was the role of patriot armies in France. Instead it hinted at the need for Increased Subversive Activities in the Balkans, Corsica and Italy. France and the expectant armies received nary a mention. Meanwhile, John Bevan, on December 6, had a paper on deception policy for 1943 approved by the Joint Staff Planners, one that gave considerable weight to a build-up of forces in the United Kingdom for an assault on France. On December 14, the Chiefs of Staff had appointed an ad hoc committee on equipment for patriot forces, ‘to review and report on the quantities of equipment required and its method of distribution’. On December 22, Colin Gubbins was promoted to Acting Major-General. Bevan, newly promoted to Colonel, had gained permission to visit the USA in order to confer with his American counterparts, and arrived in Washington on December 26. By this time, Henri Déricourt had joined SOE, and was preparing for his first drop into France in January 1943. The stage was set for the disastrous first six months of 1943.

8. Conclusions:

* The XX Committee was dysfunctional and asymmetrical. It did not have a proper charter, and its supervision of MI6’s so-called ‘double-agents’ was non-existent.

* MI6 did not understand the fundamentals of recruiting, managing and securing DAs.

* The W Board fumbled its job in several ways: failing to set up a proper charter for the XX Committee, neglecting its oversight role, and then not assuming the responsibility for supplying the channels to support deception projects as the latter moved from defensive to offensive purposes.

* MI6, in the persons of Dansey and Menzies, grabbed at the opportunity to have John Bevan of the London Controlling Section supervise its deception work.

* Liddell of MI5, who had been suborned by MI6 over the Ursula Kuczynski business, was likewise easily manipulated to support the new TWIST Committee, and ignored the security aspects of double-cross and the realities of B1A.

* The Director of Naval Intelligence, Godfrey, alone understood that the potential for deception in the XX Committee needed to be allied with stronger service connections, and lost his job for his pains.

* John Bevan, as Controller of the LCS, frustrated with the capabilities of the XX Committee, gained the support of the DCM, Davidson, to set up his pirate TWIST Committee as a mechanism for passing disinformation through SOE and MI6.

* The Twist Committee was reputedly authorized as a one-time initiative to assist the OVERTHROW deception plan, but endured beyond that project without supervision. Bevan would sometimes execute his plans before they had been approved.

* The Chiefs of Staff displayed a strong interest in the high-level objectives and strategy for SOE, but were negligent in following-up on tactics and details.

* SOE and the Chiefs of Staff agreed that insurrections by patriot armies constituted a singular opportunity to be undertaken only when supporting conventional military assault forces.

* Churchill woefully mismanaged Stalin, and his unauthorized personal commitments to the dictator permanently soured and undermined his relationships with the Chiefs of Staff.

* Churchill’s personal interest in SOE probably influenced its operations unduly, contrary to the instructions given it by the Chiefs of Staff. He may have engineered Gubbins’s advancement to SOE Chief.

* The XX Committee, the future poster-child for D-Day deception, was relegated to a minor role in military deception planning at the end of 1942.

* The acquiescence in the activities of the TWIST Committee, and subsequent silence over them, reflects badly on Masterman, Robertson, and their senior officers in MI5.

* The studied avoidance by the authorized historians (Jeffery, Andrew, Howard, Hesketh) of discussing these issues is shameful but utterly in character. 

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