Category Archives: Management/Leadership

The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

[In Part 1 of this segment, I analysed the way in which Rudolf Peierls tried to frame his life and career. He almost managed to conceal a murky connection with the  Soviet authorities, but a study of archives, letters and memoirs strongly suggested a hold that Moscow exerted over him and his wife. In Part 2, I investigate how the network of physicists in Britain in the 1930s helped to enable Peierls’s close friend and protégé Klaus Fuchs to thrive, and explore how Peierls tried to explain away Fuchs’s ability to spy under his watch.]

Rudolf Peierls

When those UK public servants who aided or abetted the espionage of Klaus Fuchs were judged, whether they were in academia, government, or intelligence, the investigation essentially boiled down to four questions: 1) Were they incompetent? (‘I never knew he was a Communist’); 2) Were they negligent? (‘I knew he was a Communist, but didn’t think it mattered’); 3) Were they timid? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and was concerned, but didn’t want to rock the boat’); or 4) Were they culpable? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and that is why I recruited/approved him’). The actions of each were highly dependent upon roles and timing: supporting a communist scientist in the 1930s would have been almost de rigueur in physicist circles; in 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was so desperate to beat Hitler that it admitted it had no qualms about recruiting a communist; after Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, and Nunn May’s sentencing, any communist links began to be treated as dangerous; in 1951 Sillitoe and White of MI5 lied to Prime Minster Attlee about Fuchs’s communism in order to save the institution’s skin. In comparison, in 1944 the OSS recruited Jürgen Kuczynski (Sonia’s brother, who introduced Fuchs to a member of Soviet military intelligence) because he was a communist. But the post mortems of the Cold War suggested that warning signals should have been made at every stage of the spy’s advancement to positions where he had access to highly confidential information.

Moreover, Fuchs is often presented in contrasting styles. On the one hand appears the superb master of tradecraft, who effortlessly insinuated himself into Britain’s academic elite, convinced the authorities of his skills and commitment, took up UK nationality, and then, with his keen knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques was able to pass on atomic secrets to his handler, Sonia, and later, in 1949, to give away no clues when he was being watched, being betrayed solely because of the VENONA decrypts, and the tenacity of those who followed the leads. On the other hand we see the clumsy communist, who made no effort to conceal his true affiliations, escaped undetected only because of the incompetence of MI5, but carelessly provided possible clues by visiting his sister in Boston, and contacting a known Communist (Johanna Klopstech) on his return to the UK in 1946. Moreover, he drank ‘like a fish’, according to Genia Peierls. When questioned, he was foolish enough to confess to espionage when anyone else would have brazened it out, with the result that his Soviet spymasters were disgusted with him.

Would it not have made more sense for Fuchs to soften his communist stance, thus avoiding a complete volte-face and loss of credibility with his leftist peers in England, but suggesting he was more of a vague theoretician than a firm believer in the Stalinist paradise? In this respect the relationship to Fuchs of Rudolph Peierls, as his mentor and recruiter, is especially poignant. In this article, I examine what is known about Peierls’s and other scientists’ awareness of Fuchs’s true political commitment, and how Peierls danced around the issue in the years after Fuchs’s prison sentencing, and later, when Fuchs was released, and left the UK for the German Democratic Republic. I expand my analysis by using the statements and testimony of other scientists who dealt with the pair.

I wrote about Peierls in Misdefending the Realm, and it might be useful to re-present here a few sections from my book that focused on my assessment of Peierls’s role in recruiting Fuchs to the Tube Alloys project, from Chapter 8:

Peierls’s account of what happened next is deceptive. In his autobiography he claimed that, several months after Fuchs’s release, when thinking about technical help he himself needed in the spring of 1941, he thought of Fuchs. “I knew and liked his papers, and I had met him”, he wrote, dismissing the relationship as fairly remote. Yet he had never written about Fuchs beforehand, and he does not describe the circumstances in which he had met him. His autobiographical contribution is undermined, however, by what he had told MI5. When he was interviewed by Commander Burt in February, 1950, shortly before Fuchs’s trial, he said that he had first met Fuchs “in about 1934, probably at some scientific conference”, but also stated that “he did not know him very well until Born recommended him”. Fuchs was later to confirm that he had met Peierls at a scientific conference “immediately before the war”. An MI5 report of November 23, 1949, states that “Peierls had met Fuchs at a Physics Conference in Bristol, when Peierls had first suggested that Fuchs should work under him at Birmingham”. That occasion was clearly before the war: Peierls and Fuchs had achieved more than merely discuss issues of joint interest, and Peierls clearly misrepresented the closeness of their relationship when speaking to Burt.

Without explaining how he had learned that Fuchs had been released from internment, and had returned to Edinburgh, Peierls stated that he wrote to Fuchs asking him whether he wanted to work with him, even before he (Peierls) had gained permission to do so. He next asked for official clearance, but was instructed “to tell him as little as possible”. “In due course he [Fuchs] got a full clearance, and he started work in May 1941.” One might conclude that the impression Peierls wanted to give is that it was a fortuitous accident that Fuchs’s availability, and his own need, coincided: he conveniently forgot the previous job offer. Moreover, the “and” in Peierls’s account is troublesome, suggesting a sequence of events that did not in fact happen that way. Fuchs had not received ‘full clearance’ by that time: in another item of correspondence, Peierls admitted that he had to wait. The process was to drag on for several months, and some MI5 personnel were later to express horror that the relevant government ministries had proceeded so carelessly in advancing Fuchs’s career without concluding the formal checks. For example, in June 1940, Peierls had taken Fuchs with him to Cambridge to meet the Austrian expert in heavy water, Dr. Hans Halban, who was a member of the exclusive five-man Tube Alloys Technical Committee: Fuchs’s training was assuredly not being held back.

Moreover, Peierls’s account does not correspond with other records. It is clear from his file at the National Archives that Fuchs was recommended for release from internment in Canada as early as October 14, 1940 (i.e. shortly after the meeting of the Maud Technical Sub-Committee), and that the termination of his internment (to return to Edinburgh) was officially approved a few weeks later. This followed an inquiry by the Royal Society as early as July 1940, since an MI5 memorandum states that “the Royal Society included Fuchs on list of scientists they wanted urgently released soon after Fuchs sailed on Ettrick on July 3, 1940.” An ‘exceptional case’ was made on October 17, and the Home Office gave Fuchs’s name to the High Commissioner for Canada. These requests would later appear very provocative, as a defined role for Fuchs appeared to have been described very early in the cycle. Yet, after his arrival in Liverpool in January 1941, the Immigration Officer specified very clearly to the Superintendent of the Register of Aliens that Fuchs would not be able to “engage in any kind of employment without the consent of the Ministry of Labour”.

It would at first glance be quite reasonable to suppose that Peierls had initiated this action, especially given the curious testimony of Fuchs’s supervisor at Edinburgh, Max Born. In a letter dated May 29, 1940, Born had written (to whom is not clear) that, despite Fuchs’s being “in the small top group of theoretical physicists in this country”, he and the others should not be freed from internment. Furthermore, Born wrote that “there are strict regulations that prohibit any liberated internees to return to the ‘protected area’ where they live”. “Even if they would be released they could not join my department again”, he added. Either this was a deliberate deception by Born, to provide a cover-story, or he had a quick change of heart, or he was sincere, but was overruled, the British government wishing to maintain the fiction that everything happened later than supposed. The third alternative can probably be discounted, as Born soon after began writing to influential persons, trying to gain Fuchs’s release, immediately after his arrest, and himself vigorously tried to find Fuchs remunerative employment as soon as he learned about Fuchs’s release from internment. In any case, the earlier statement represented an unnecessarily severe judgment, made just over two weeks after Fuchs’s interrogation and arrest, and its only purpose can have been to smooth the path of Fuchs’s employment elsewhere after his eventual release.  [pp 217-218]

And:

In fact, correspondence between Peierls and the pacifist-minded Born suggests that the two collaborated to find Fuchs employment very soon after his release from internment was approved. It appears the two scientists knew each other well. In the summer of 1936, Born (whose position at Cambridge had come to an end) had received an invitation from Kapitza to work for him in Moscow. The fact that Kapitza appeared then to be an unreformed Stalinist, writing in his letter of invitation: “Now, Born, is the time to make your decision whether you will be on the right or the wrong side in the coming political struggle”, did not deter Born.  He considered it so seriously that he started taking Russian lessons from Peierls’s wife, Eugenia, but instead assumed the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University in October 1936. Laucht’s study of Frisch and Peierls refers to letters exchanged between Peierls and Born in November, 1940, where they explored opportunities for placing Fuchs successfully. This correspondence continued during the spring of 1941, with Peierls expressing extreme dedication towards bringing Fuchs into his camp. “Although it looked initially as if Fuchs would not make the move to the University of Birmingham, Peierls remained tireless in his effort to find a job for the talented physicist at his university. In the end, he succeeded and offered Fuchs a temporary position,” wrote Laucht. Thus Peierls’s version of the recruitment process can be interpreted as another self-serving memoir attempting to distance the author from a traitor. All this was known by MI5: they had gained Home Office Warrants to read the correspondence.

Max Born, moreover, was far from innocent in helping Fuchs on his mission. In his two items of autobiography, he relentlessly reminds his readers that he had no competence in nuclear physics, a convenient pretence for his attitude of non-participation and pacifism. Yet in his later, more comprehensive volume he related the episode of a visit to Cambridge in the summer of 1939, where he met the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and how, on his return, he shared with Fuchs Szilard’s conviction that an atom bomb could be made. He was then unequivocal that Fuchs knew that the nature of the work he would have to be engaged in was nuclear weapons research, with the goal of defeating Hitler, as he claimed he tried to talk Fuchs out of it. Just as Peierls did in his own memoir, Born concealed the fact of the correspondence between the two exiled scientists at the end of 1940, supporting the lie that it was Peierls’s sudden request for Fuchs in May of 1941 that occasioned the latter’s transfer from Edinburgh to Birmingham. [pp 220-21]

What new material can shed further light on this story? In some ways, the sources have become sparser. In recent years, previously available files concerning atomic weapons and energy research, including vital files on Klaus Fuchs, have been ‘retained’ by UK government departments for unspecified reasons. (see, for example:
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/research-brought-halt-national-archives/
and

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/british-nuclear-archive-files-withdrawn-without-explanation ) Very recently, some of the files on Sonia’s family have been inexplicably withdrawn (’closed while access is under review’). In his 1997 biography of Professor Chadwick (the head of the British mission to assist in the Manhattan Project), Andrew Brown wrote: “Some of the wartime letters between Chadwick and Peierls that have never been released in England were available at the National Archives, but possibly as a result of the Gulf War, they were recently recensored by the US authorities”  –  an extraordinary admission of foreign interference. The Cleveland Cram archive of CIA material at Georgetown University has been withdrawn, at the CIA’s request (see: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/25/how-the-cia-writes-history/). Sabine Lee’s publication of the Letters of Rudolf Peierls has usefully extracted a number of communications between the scientist and his colleagues and contacts, but the emphasis is very much on technical matters, most of the letters appear in the original German, and the volume is very expensive.

On the other hand, a careful examination of the archival material of fringe figures (such as the enigmatic Herbert Skinner), and the articles, book reviews, memoirs and biographies of scientists who engaged with Peierls and Fuchs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s can reveal a host of subsidiary detail that helps to shed light on the process by which Fuchs was allowed to be adopted by Peierls, and approved for work on Tube Alloys.

The Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

The saga started at the University of Bristol, where a fascinating group of future luminaries was assembled in the 1930s. Klaus Fuchs arrived there, in October 1933, and was introduced to Professor Nevill Mott by Ronald Gunn, who was a director of Imperial Tobacco, was described by many as a Quaker, but was also a strong communist sympathiser. Gunn had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, had met Fuchs in Paris in 1933, and had sponsored his move to Bristol. The university admissions board accepted Fuchs as a doctoral student of Mott, who held the Melville Wills Chair of Theoretical Physics. Mott and Gunn were both alumni of Clifton College, as, indeed, was Roger Hollis, the controversial future chief of MI5. Mott had taken up his new position only in the autumn of 1933, at the young age of twenty-six, and one of his new colleagues was Herbert Skinner, to whom he was indebted for helping focus his research. Professor Tyndall’s history of the Physics Department also credits Skinner with endorsing the selection of Mott.

Skinner was later to become Fuchs’s boss at AERE Harwell, where Fuchs was to conduct an affair with Skinner’s ‘Austrian-born’ wife, Erna, described as ’glamorous’ in one memoir. Skinner had been appointed a Henry Herbert Will Research Fellow at Bristol in 1927, and was given a more permanent position as Lecturer in Spectroscopy in June 1931, which he held until 1946. In October 1934, Rudolph Peierls’s long-time friend, colleague and correspondent Hans Bethe arrived, but he stayed only four months before leaving for the United States to take up a chair at Cornell University. Soon after that, however, Herbert Fröhlich was added to the faculty. (I wrote about his miraculous escape from the Soviet Union in Part 1 of this analysis.) Fröhlich was appointed Lecturer in 1944, and Reader in 1946. He stayed until 1948, when he was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Ronald Gurney was another Soviet sympathiser, a member of the local Communist Party, working as a George Wills research associate from 1933 to 1939, and contributing, alongside Fröhlich, to Mott’s research on semiconductors and crystals. (Ironically, Fuchs would later tell the FBI that Gurney was ‘a security risk’ because he and his wife had at Bristol both been members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.) Alan Nunn May, the other famed ‘atom spy’ was one of those scientists from King’s College, London, evacuated to Bristol at the start of the war.

Other German-speaking physicists were recruited, and were later, like Fuchs, to undergo internment during the ‘fifth column’ scare of 1940. Christopher Laucht writes, in Elemental Germans: “Other German-speaking émigré physicists who were interned included Walter Kohn and Hans Kronberger, as well as eight members of the physics department at Bristol University: Walter Heitler and his brother Hans, Herbert Fröhlich, Kurt Hoselitz, Phillip Gross and Heinz London, and two of their students Robert Arno Sack and G. Eichholz.” (p 27) Yet it is primarily the exposures of Mott, Born, Skinner, Gurney and Fröhlich to Klaus Fuchs, supplemented by the careers of two other important figures, Rotblat and Plazcek, that concern me here.

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott was ambivalent in his assessment of Fuchs. Mott was some kind of fellow-traveller himself: in his memoir, A Life in Science, he describes how in 1934 he enthusiastically paid a visit to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to attend a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mendeleyev. The scientist who invited him, Yakov Frenkel, was the same person who had invited Peierls to Odessa in 1931. Mott had the good (or bad) fortune to be accompanied on the Soviet boat by Sidney Webb. He recorded part of his experiences as follows: “To me, from England at the height of the depression, Russia appeared as a country without unemployment. At any rate, I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of the half million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now that this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.”

Mott could be described as the perfect embodiment of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’. Admittedly, far greater persons posed the same question. Winston Churchill also asked Stalin about the kulaks, in 1942, although it was a foolish impulse, as the Prime Minister must have known full well by then what the nature and scale of the massacres, deportations and enforced famine had been, and, if he was not prepared to challenge the Soviet dictator on the matter, his question would turn out to be a political victory for Stalin. Mott was naive enough to admit his gullibility, at least: Peierls remained silent after his more tortured visit.

Yet Mott was a little evasive about Fuchs. In a memoir Bristol Physics in the 1930s, he wrote that Fuchs’s ‘views, as we all knew, were very left wing, and at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, so were those of many of the young physicists’. In A Life in Science, however, Mott’s awkwardness shines through. First he introduces Fuchs as ‘a political refugee, with communist sympathies’, not explaining how he knew that. He next writes that Fuchs was ‘was shy and reserved and I do not remember discussing politics with him’. But then he relates the famous incident of the meeting of the local branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which he and Fuchs – and maybe others – attended. The description ironically does not comment on those aspects of ‘cultural relations’ that Mott judged worthy of nurturing.

“In Bristol in the 1930s, we had a branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. It met from time to time in a studio in Park Street, which disappeared in 1940 in the first big raid on Bristol, (during which I remember walking home from a meeting, with incendiaries falling in the street). We used to dramatize translations of the Soviet treason trials, but which Stalin appears to have got rid of most of his possible rivals. They were accused of sabotage in the interests of the Germans. But my most vivid recollection is of Fuchs in the role of Vishinsky, the prosecutor, accusing the defendents [sic] with a cold venom that I would never have suspected from so quiet and unassuming a young man.” The mystery is a) why Fuchs would go out of his way to express his political sympathies, and b) why Bristol academia would not consider his behaviour outrageous.

Eventually, Fuchs moved on – to Edinburgh University, under Professor Max Born. The record here is again ambiguous. Mott described the action as follows: “After four years I arranged for him to go to the former leader of the Göttingen theorists, Max Born, by then Professor in Edinburgh. Born, in his autobiography, writes that I wanted to get rid of him because he was a communist, but that was not so; we had many refugees in Bristol and needed to think about permanent posts for some of them, and we hadn’t the resources to provide for all.”

Max Born

Max Born

Max Born had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after taking a position at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was in 1936 appointed to the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. In an essay in his My Life and Views, Born wrote: “Next, Klaus Fuchs, a highly gifted man who never concealed the fact that he was a communist; after the outbreak of the war and a short internment as an enemy alien, he joined the British team investigating nuclear fission. I think he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.” Apart from the disingenuous claim that ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘honest conviction’ are opposite motivators in the field of espionage, Born makes it quite clear that he knew about Fuchs’s loyalties, writing in My Life about recently arrived scientists at Edinburgh: “One of the first of these was Klaus Fuchs, later so well known through the spy affair in which he was involved,’ as if The Spy Who Changed the World (Michael Rossiter’s clumsy title for his first-class biography, flawed only by its lack of specific references) had been a bit-player in some distasteful society scandal.

This controversy was intensified, however, when the first biography of Fuchs, by Norman Moss, titled Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb, was reviewed by M. F. Perutz in the 25 June, 1987 issue of the London Review of Books. Fuchs had taught Perutz the principles of theoretical physics when both were interned in Canada in the summer of 1940. In his review, Perutz referred to the claim made by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons that there had been no evidence that Fuchs had ever been a Communist, and commented: “When I mentioned this to a veteran physicist friend of mine recently, he interjected: ‘But Fuchs and I were in the same Communist cell when we were students at Bristol.’ Max Born, Fuchs’s former chief at Edinburgh, wrote about Fuchs: ‘He never concealed that he was a convinced communist. During the Russo-Finnish war everyone’s sympathies in our department were with the Finns, while Fuchs was passionately pro-Russian.’ On the other hand, Peierls had no idea that Fuchs was a Communist.”

Norman Moss explained more, in a response published by the LRB: “In his autobiography My Life, Max Born, who took on Fuchs as a young researcher, said Sir Nevill Mott told him he sent him away from Bristol University because ‘he spread Communist propaganda among the undergraduates.’ But there is a footnote containing a comment by Sir Nevill to the effect that Born must have misunderstood something he said, because he does not remember his doing any such thing. “In fact, none of Fuchs’s close friends knew he had been an active Communist in Germany. Fuchs did once defend Russia’s attack on Finland in 1939 in an argument with Born, as Professor Perutz says in his review and as I said in my book.”

While this sheds light on the Born-Mott misunderstanding, the final sentences would seem to be a non sequitur. It is worth examining Born’s text more closely. In fact he admitted surprise at the written reasons Mott gave for passing Fuchs on to him, which stressed Mott’s desire to learn more about Born’s ‘special methods’. Born felt that Mott understood such methods very well, and could have thus passed them on to Fuchs himself. The message that Mott later denied was delivered orally at a meeting in London. According to Born: “I enjoyed working with Fuchs so much that I wondered why Mott had sent him away. This was explained when I encountered Mott at a meeting in London. He asked me how I was getting on with Fuchs, and when I answered ‘splendidly’, and praised his talent, Mott said ‘What a pity I had to get rid of him. He spread communist propaganda among the undergraduates’. Mott told me that he had arranged for his own contribution to the general refugee fund to be directed to Fuchs, a generous gesture which possibly also showed how much he was afraid of communist propaganda.”

Does that last statement indicate that Mott was trying to buy Fuchs off? What did it mean that Mott (or Bristol) could not afford to pay Fuchs, but could cover his expenses at Edinburgh? It does not appear to make much sense. In any case, Mott apparently had a chance to review Born’s script before publication, as he was allowed to comment, in the footnote cited by Moss, as follows: “I must have made a remark which Born misunderstood or took more seriously than I intended. I do not remember believing that Fuchs spread communist propaganda among the students, and at a time when Hitler was the enemy I could not have worried unduly if he had. What happened was this. In Bristol we had research funds from the generous gifts of the Wills family, and with these and help from the Academic Assistance Council we built up a very strong group of physicists who had left Germany in 1933. Some we wished to keep; but established positions then as now were few and far between and for others we helped as we could to find jobs elsewhere. This is how we acted about Fuchs.”

A strong measure of truth may have accompanied that last claim, but how come Born could not have been apprised of it from the outset? Why did Mott beat about the bush? And why did he so carelessly misrepresent Nazi Germany’s status as of 1937, when Fuchs moved to Edinburgh? At that time, Hitler may have been a grossly unpleasant threat to leftist scientists like Mott, but he was no more ‘the enemy’ than Stalin was. It was a typically disingenuous footnote by Mott.

Many witnesses seem to be behaving economically with the truth here, including, of course, Clement Attlee, who had been lied to outrageously by Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5. Yet the most startling item of evidence is the statement by Perutz’s ‘veteran physicist friend’, who talks about membership of communist cells as casually as a British diplomat might refer to his house at Marlborough or Wellington. Who was this friend? And why would Perutz treat his friend’s confession so lightly?

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

The friend cannot have been Skinner, as Skinner had died while attending a conference in Geneva in 1960.  Ronald Gurney had been a member of the CPGB, but he had left for the United States, where he died in 1953. If we are looking for a prominent physicist, of suspected communist affiliation, present at Bristol between 1934 and 1937, still alive in 1987, and a probable friend of Max Perutz, it would be Herbert Fröhlich. And the communist cell may not have been a unit of the Communist Party of Great Britain: it was much more likely to have been the German branch (the KPD). Fuchs regarded himself still as a member of the KPD when in the United Kingdom, and he had made contact with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother, who had arrived in London in 1933, and re-energised the KPD through the front of the Free German League of Culture. Jürgen became head of the KPD in Britain, and was in contact with the GRU representative in London, Simon Kremer.

You will not find a reference to Fröhlich in the biographies of Fuchs by Moss, Edwards, Rossiter or Close. Christopher Laucht, in Elemental Germans, records the contribution to the Maud Committee that Fröhlich made with Walter Heitner, in the field of spontaneous fission in uranium. Yet he glides smoothly over Fröhlich’s time in the Soviet Union, remarking solely that he experienced problems in getting his visa renewed. Laucht does note, however, that Fröhlich also lodged with the Peierlses, and that Peierls managed to gain funding for Fröhlich from the Academic Assistance Council.

G.J. Hyland’s biography of Fröhlich (A Physicist Ahead of His Time, published in 2015) provides the details on Frohlich’s experiences in the Soviet Union, whither he had also been invited by the ever-present Frenkel. Yet Hyland is comparatively bland on the physicist’s career after that, providing a text that is very much directed at the specialist. He does not mention any Maud work, although he does record that Fröhlich, after being released from internment in September 1940, returned to Bristol, but was prohibited from working on nuclear fission – an intriguing contrast to how Fuchs was sought out and approved. During the remainder of the war, Fröhlich ‘was occupied in part-time research for the Ministry of Supply, working initially on an image converter instrument for use on tanks to extend night vision’. Fröhlich was not naturalised until August 1946, but was then offered the position of Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell. “He declined this offer, however, not wanting to be involved with any work that might further nuclear warfare,” writes Hyland, adding: “Klaus Fuchs was appointed in his place!”

(I welcome any other suggestions as to who Perutz’s communist friend might have been.)

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

The most mysterious figure in this whole farrago is Herbert Skinner, since he owned an unmatched intimacy and longevity in his relationship with Klaus Fuchs, but his career is the least well documented of all. While his presence at Bristol University in the 1930s has been clearly described, his period in the war years has been sparsely addressed. His biographical memoir as a Fellow of the Royal Society indicates that, from 1939, he performed very valuable work on the detection of submarines by microwave radar, and after experiments in the Shetlands pursued the deployment of the technology at the Telecommunication Research Establishment at Malvern. (Ironically, this type of work was so secret, and so critical to the defence of the nation, that Skinner’s German-born colleagues were prohibited from working on it.) Skinner was then recruited, in 1943, to work as Oliphant’s deputy in California. Mike Rossiter simply notes that Skinner had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Berkeley ‘on electromagnetic separation with Lawrence’, and Frank Close similarly – but not strictly correctly – writes that ‘Herbert Skinner had also spent the war in the Berkeley team, which had studied separation of isotopes and investigated the physics of plutonium’. Skinner merits only one mention in Volume 1, 1939-1945) of Margaret Gowing’s history of Britain and Atomic Energy, when she refers to a Harwell planning meeting he attended in Washington in November 1944. Skinner does not appear in Graham Farmelow’s Churchill’s Bomb.

Skinner came to life again on his appointment at Harwell after the war as head of the General Physics Department. He was also John Cockcroft’s deputy, and in the first half of 1946 selected staff and guided the construction, while Cockcroft was still in Canada. Fuchs was one of those appointments, arriving at Harwell in June 1946. Before the sordid business in the late forties, however, when Fuchs conducted his affair with Erna Skinner, a liaison closely surveilled by MI5 and Special Branch, Skinner appeared with Fuchs in a very strange episode in New York. I introduced this event in my Letter to Frank Close, but it merits deeper coverage here.

The two of them had travelled to Washington in November 1947, in order to attend a declassification conference (November 14-16) where the implications of the McMahon Act on release of information on atomic weaponry and energy were to be discussed. Evidence supplied in 1950 to the FBI is so bizarre that I decided to transcribe here the main section of the report. (I do not believe it has been reproduced anywhere before this. See https://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/klaus-fuchs/klaus-fuchs-part-05-of/view  .) On February 4, 1950, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit * informed the FBI that Dr. Karl Cohen, who was head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and thus Fuchs’s counterpart in the Atomic Energy Program, had described to him how Fuchs, after meeting Cohen at a restaurant, had later called his counterpart, asking him to pick up a hat he had left at the restaurant and return it to the person from whom he had borrowed it on West 111th Street.

[* Goudsmit had been the head of the Alsos project, which set out to determine how close the Nazis were getting to the creation of an atomic bomb. After the war, he appears to have been a regular contributor to the FBI, the CIA and SIS. His name comes up as an informant in the Pontecorvo archive.]

The FBI interviewed Cohen on February 9, 1950.  He described his encounters with Fuchs at Columbia University and in Los Alamos, and then went on to explain that he had no further meeting with Fuchs until the declassification conference. His testimony is presented as follows:

“Cohen was told by Dr. Willard Libby of the Atomic Energy Commission that he should discuss with Fuchs the declassification of a certain document and make his recommendations to the conference. Cohen received a phone call from a woman who explained that she was a good friend of Fuchs, that Fuchs was staying either at the Henry Hudson Hotel or Park Central Hotel, and that Fuchs wanted to see Cohen. Thereafter Cohen called Fuchs and invited him to his home, which invitation Fuchs declined. He and Fuchs, however, had dinner at a restaurant of Cohen’s choosing, during which time they discussed the declassification of the document, Cohen recommending that it be declassified and Fuchs opposing. Cohen stated that some time after leaving the restaurant, Fuchs realized he had left a hat in the restaurant, which had belonged to the person with whom he had been staying. He asked Cohen to pick it up and return it since he, Fuchs, was leaving town. Cohen said that he regarded this request out of line, but agreed to call the people and tell them where they could obtain the hat. He did this, but the woman declined to retrieve the hat and consequently, a few days later, Cohen obtained it and returned it. It was Cohen’s recollection that Fuchs’ contact was a Dr. Cooper or Dr. Skinner, attached to the British Delegation that was in the United States for the Declassification Conference and who was staying with his wife and her father on West 111th Street. He said that when he returned the hat he met the scientist’s wife and her father. He described the wife as being typically English, but stated that her father was of European extraction and spoke with an accent. He said that on the bell to the apartment house there was the name Cooper or Skinner, as well as the name of the father-in-law. He commented that he would have forgotten this incident had it not been for the recent publicity on Fuchs.” The FBI later confirmed that the names on the bell of 536 West 111th Street appeared as Skinner, Hoffman and Kirsch, and that the apartment was owned by Mrs. Skinner ‘who is presently living in Connecticut’. The report added that ‘she had rented out this apartment to various roomers for the past six years’.

What is one to make of this extraordinary tale? Why was there such a performance around a simple hat? Was there any significance in Erna’s accompanying her husband to New York at that time? What was the role of her father, named Wurmbrand? (Her father was Moishe Michael Wurmbrand, who was born in Sadhora, a suburb of Czernowitz, in 1883 and died in New York in 1952. The claim that Erna was ‘Austrian’, as represented at the National Archives, may have been a convenient fiction, but Bukovina was governed by the Austrian Empire until 1918, after which it lay under Romanian rule until 1940. Skinner’s Wikipedia entry gives her maiden name as ‘Abrahamson’.) Why did Fuchs have to borrow a hat, and why could the Skinners not have picked it up themselves?

A former intelligence officer tells me that he regards the whole episode as an example of complex tradecraft, but, given Cohen’s sure innocence (else he would not have alerted the authorities), it seems a very clumsy effort by Fuchs that risked exposing contacts to the FBI. As I pointed out earlier, when speaking to the FBI, Fuchs identified the property as belonging to Mrs. Skinner, overlooking her husband’s presence. (I believe I misjudged the knowledge of the FBI about Cohen, and his role, in my earlier piece. And the FBI surely was aware of the joint mission of Fuchs and Skinner, although the report, rather dimly, states that ‘it would appear probable that Mrs. Skinner is the wife of Dr. W. H. B. Skinner . . . who was one of the members attending the Declassification Conference  . . .’) Perhaps Cohen was used, as an unwitting and innocent accomplice, to send a message about a completed project from the restaurant to the Skinners – or Erna’s father. Fuchs may have left a message at the restaurant chosen by Cohen, but wanted confirmation of its receipt to be delivered to Erna and her father by an unimpeachable medium. In any case, the incident shows that all the biographers of Fuchs have failed to exploit the considerable information about him in the FBI Vault.

How much did Herbert Skinner himself know what was going on? Why would he not have mentioned this incident to MI5 himself, given the suspicions he later claimed to have had about Fuchs? And why would the FBI not have made some connection? I have found no evidence of it in the obvious places. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere came to London with Hugh Clegg in May 1950, after Fuchs’s conviction, to interview the spy, and extracted from him the photographic recognition of his contact Harry Gold. Lamphere reports that Clegg, who was not familiar with the case, brought a copy of the whole Fuchs file with him, and read it on the plane. But Lamphere does not even mention Skinner in his book, The FBI-KGB Wars.

Skinner comes across as a very complex character. Rudolf Peierls has this to say about him, in Bird of Passage: “His [Cockcroft’s] second-in-command was Herbert Skinner, a well-known experimental physicist, whom we had known since the thirties. He was more forceful in conversation than Cockcroft; he tended to hold strong opinions, often more conservative than those of most physicists, and was never reluctant to make them known. His lively personal contacts with the staff at Harwell made up for Cockcroft’s detachment.” Cockcroft presented him as somewhat self-important, with a tendency to regard himself and his family as specially entitled. Others have described the Skinners’ boisterous parties at Harwell, which were less inhibited than those of the Cockcrofts.  Close describes him as follows: “A lean man with tousled hair, he and his wife Erna shared a bohemian outlook. She had grown up in Berlin between the wars. Both were socialists, like many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb programme, but they also had a cosmopolitan circle of friends in London, all of which interested MI5.”

‘Bohemian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ – dangerous epithets in the world of security. Yet how are the contrary ideas of ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ explained? Was Skinner a dissembler, working perhaps for some other organisation himself, and playing Philbyesque roles of communist one day, fascist sympathiser the next? Rossiter describes the two occasions, in December 1947 and February 1949, where Skinner confided to Fuchs that he had seen two separate reports from MI6 that indicated that German nuclear scientists had been detected working on a Soviet nuclear bomb at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast, immediately putting Fuchs on his guard. Why and how would MI6 (SIS) have introduced such reports to a socialist like Skinner? Why would they not have gone to Cockcroft, and why did Skinner think it was suitable to show them to Fuchs, given the suspicions he admittedly harboured about him? Is there another narrative, with Skinner involved as some secret channel by SIS, to be uncovered here? So many questions, still.

It is true that MI5 did maintain a file on Herbert and Erna (see KV 2/2080, 2/2081 & 2/2082 at The National Archives). Yet it was not opened until the end of 1949, when the Fuchs affair was brewing, and MI5 noticed that Erna was associating ‘with a proven Soviet spy’ as well as ‘with persons who are potential spies’. (It was not unknown for MI5 to maintain files on MI6 operatives about whom they were not told anything.) Input from the FBI would have been very appropriate at that time, and it was careless of MI5 not to have recalled the 1947 visit to New York. It would also have been odd if Robert Lamphere did not mention the incident while he was in England. (Maybe he did, of course, but nothing was recorded.) One would think that any possible link that had an aspect of subterfuge should have been followed up. That was what ‘intelligence-sharing’ was about.

In any case, MI5 had by then demanded that Commander Henry Arnold, the Security Officer at Harwell, warn Skinner about such undesirable contacts. The Skinners admitted that they had communist friends, and MI5 considered that it would be safer to move Skinner to Liverpool, thus indicating that MI5’s discomfort over him anteceded Cohen’s revelations. (I shall investigate the whole story about the role of Liverpool University as a rest-home for distressed spies, and how MI5 misrepresented the project to Prime Minister Attlee, in a future article.)

On June 28, 1950, William Skardon interviewed Skinner at Liverpool, and elicited an extraordinary statement from him: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946.” One might ask what Skinner had done about this, in the fraught post-war world of 1946, with the Cold War under way, and Nunn May having been sentenced a few months before. Skinner was surely responsible for making the key appointments at Harwell. Skardon did in fact ask him, as his report shows: “Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Skinner echoed this opinion in a review of Alan Moorehead’s Traitors in The Atomic Scientists’ News : “We should not take on another Pontecorvo, who had never lived in England, or another Fuchs, whom we knew to have been a communist in Germany and who all through the 8 years of his stay in Britain until his employment on the project, had continually consorted with extreme left-wing groups without any attempt to disguise the fact.”  This was a remarkably naïve position for Skinner to take, given his prominence in atomic affairs, and his leading role at Harwell. More alarming, perhaps, was a Liverpool police report from May 10, 1951, sent to Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, that the Chief Constable had received information, from ‘a hitherto most reliable and trustworthy source’, that the Skinners were attending Communist Party meetings. Were they working under cover?

Skinner died in 1960, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, at a conference in Geneva. Was there anything suspicious about his death? None appears to have been raised. But he was a very paradoxical character, and I do not believe the last word has been uttered on exactly what his role in atomic espionage – either abetting it, or trying to prevent it – had been.

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat never served on the faculty at Bristol, but his career is so interwoven with that of Peierls and the other émigré scientists that he merits a section here. His life was scarred by an unspeakable tragedy, but he came under suspicion by the FBI when he was posted to Los Alamos.

Rotblat was born in 1908 in Poland. He left Warsaw for Great Britain in 1939, travelling to Liverpool to learn more about the cyclotron being constructed there under James Chadwick’s direction. Chadwick soon awarded Rotblat a fellowship, which now meant that he could afford to bring Ewa, his wife, to the U.K. With the prospect of war looming, he returned to Poland in order to pick up Ewa. She was ill with appendicitis, however, so he reluctantly returned without her. Strenuous efforts to bring her out after the outbreak of war failed. She was killed at Belzec concentration camp, although Rotblat was not to learn this for several years.

Rotblat worked on the Tube Alloys project, although he had never became naturalised. He was nevertheless still allowed to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos in January 1944, after a waiver had been granted. Committed to the project out of fear that the Germans would acquire the atomic bomb, Rotblat asked to be released when it seemed that the Germans would fail: he reputedly heard from General Groves that the Soviets were now the potential enemy, and his pro-Soviet sympathies rebelled at this prospect.

By this time he had come under suspicion. When he told Chadwick of his desire to return to the UK, Chadwick contacted General Groves, who showed him the contents of the FBI file on him, now available on-line. Exactly what happened cannot be determined from the file, as so many retractions and denials concerning its content occurred later. But Rotblat’s name was later found in Fuchs’s address book, which led to renewed investigations. Rotblat had met in the course of his year at Los Alamos a lady friend from England, in love with Rotblat, who at first indicated to the FBI that Rotblat had had communist sympathies, and wanted to train with the RAF so that he could parachute into Soviet-occupied Poland. That would have been unthinkable, given what he knew. The lady later retracted some of her testimony, and Rotblat apparently managed to convince the authorities that the accusations were baseless.

One final twist on the story is that Rotblat, leaving Los Alamos on Christmas Eve 1944 on a train to Washington and New York, packed a large box with all his personal records in it. After staying with Chadwick in Washington, he discovered in New York that the box was missing. Yet Martin Underwood, in an article for Science and Engineering Ethics in 2013 (‘Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb, and Anomalies for his Archive’) points out that highly confidential papers concerning critical developments at Los Alamos turned up in Rotblat’s archive at Churchill College in Cambridge, showing that Rotblat probably did engage in important work (despite his claim that he was bored and underutilised), and that thus not all his papers were in that mysterious lost box.

Rotblat was a complex character, and his work for the Pugwash Conference led him to a Nobel Prize. He worked closely with Peierls, who had been instrumental in setting up the Soviet-friendly British Association of Atomic Scientists in the early postwar years. Moreover, he was one of those scientists involved in the musical chairs at Liverpool. In 1946 he took up British citizenship, and was appointed acting director of nuclear physics at Liverpool. After Chadwick moved on to become Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1949, and Skinner was appointed his replacement, Rotblat, against Chadwick’s stern advice, left Liverpool to become Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. By then he had learned that Ewa was dead. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995.

George Placzek

George Plazcek

George Placzek deserves a mention because he was a close collaborator with Peierls. As a resident scientist in Kharkov, working with Landau, he also attended the fateful 1937 conference in Moscow [but see below: the evidence is contradictory]. Yet he is distinctive mainly because he retained a fiercely critical opinion of the Stalinist oppression of scientists, and was outspoken about it when he returned to the West. Placzek was born in 1902 in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after working in Prague and Vienna, joined Lev Landau’s circle in Kharkov in 1937. There he witnessed some of the persecutions of scientists by Stalin, such as Houtermans, Ruhemann, Weisskopf, and Landau himself. Blessed with a sardonic wit, and a sense of humour, Placzek got himself into trouble. (As a fascinating but irrelevant sidenote in this whole saga of intelligence, Plazcek was to marry Els, the first wife of Hans Halban, the Austrian physicist: Isaiah Berlin married Halban’s second wife. For details, please read Isaiah in Love. Placzek was also involved in performing a security check on Pontecorvo at the time the latter was recruited, on Halban’s recommendation, in Montreal: correspondence from British Security Coordination in Washington was sent to him in March 1943.)

In the book he edited about the travails of scientists in the Soviet Union, Physics in a Mad World, Mikhail Shifman relates an anecdote about Placzek where his subject, having been offered a permanent chair in Kharkov, named five conditions that would have to be fulfilled for him to accept it. The last was that ‘the Khozyain must go’, with a scarcely veiled reference to the Boss, Stalin himself. While most of the small gathering that heard his playful speech were amused, the incident was reported by Ruhemann’s wife, Barbara, to the local Communist Party chief. It thus got back to Stalin, who immediately dubbed him as a Trotskyist. Plazcek managed to get away, unlike some of his colleagues, but he was a marked man.

The difference was that, when Placzek returned to the West, he ruthlessly warned his colleague of the dangers of Stalinism, unlike, for example, Ruhemann, who immediately joined the Communist Party, or Peierls, who maintained an undignified silence. As Shifman writes in Love and Physics: “In England, Fuchs could have discussed the situation with David Shoenberg, professor at the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge, who spent a year in Moscow (from September 1937 to September 1938) and had witnessed the arrest of Landau and hundreds of other innocent scientists and the onset of the Great Terror. Also, he could have spoken with George Placzek, who returned from Kharkov in early 1937; before his departure for the US in 1938 he stayed some time in Copenhagen, London, and Paris to explain the consequences of the communist ideology to the left-leaning colleagues he was in contact with.”

What is especially poignant is the fact that Placzek made several appeals to Peierls to intervene in the cases of incarcerated scientists in the Soviet Union. On September 4, 1938, he wrote to him from Pasadena: “Zunächst möchte ich Sie fragen, was mich der seelige Bucharin fragte, als ich ihn einmal sozusagen im Namen der internationalen Wissenschaft bat, sich dafür einzusetzen, dass Landau ab und zu ins Ausland gelassen werde, nämlich: Ist Ihre Demarche offiziell, offiziös, oder inoffiziell?” (My translation: “I would next like to ask you the question that the late Bukharin asked me, when once, in the name of international science I begged him to stand up for Landau’s being allowed to travel abroad occasionally, namely: Is your initiative official, semi-official, or unofficial?” In his biography of Plazcek, Shifman translates the passage as follows: “First of all, may I ask you, as blessed Bukharin asked me (when once I, so to say, personally represented international science and solicited for Landau, trying to convince Bukharin that they should now and then let him travel abroad), namely: is your démarche official, officious, or unofficial?”)  And, with a little more desperation, from Paris on October 17, 1938: “Ich höre dass der Schönberg jetzt in Cambridge sein soll, wissen Sie etwas authentisches über Dau???” (“I hear that Shoenberg is supposed to be in Cambridge by now, do you know anything authoritative about Landau???”)

Peierls’s response from Birmingham on October 22 was lapidary and vague. “Shoenberg habe ich gesprochen. Ueber Dau hatte er nicht mehr zu berichten, als wir schon wussten (oder jedenfalls befürcheteten). In dieselbe Gruppe gehören auch Rumer und Hellman. Hier in England läuft der Zehden herum, der via Berlin hierher vorgedrungen ist, aber seine russische Frau mit Kind in M. zurücklassen musste, und seit Monaten nicht mehr mit ihr korrespondiert. Es ist eine schöne Welt.” (In Shifman’s translation, from his biography of Placzek: “I spoke to Shoenberg. On Landau, he had nothing more to report than we already knew (or feared). Rumer and Hellman belong to the same group. [Walter] Zehden is running around here in England; he got here via Berlin, but had to leave his Russian wife and child in M[oscow], and hasn’t corresponded with her for months. What a world we live in.” Indeed, Sir Rudolf. [Shifman notes that Hellman, a German-born quantum scientist, had worked at the Karpov Institute in Moscow, was arrested on charges of espionage in March 1938, and shot in May 1938.] Later in the same letter, Peierls says: “I’d rather not write about the political situation. It’s just too annoying. [‘ . . .man ärgert sich doch zu sehr.’]”  That was an understatement, but a revealing one. Hitler’s persecutions and Stalin’s purges – a very tiresome business.

Plazcek also worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. Later, in 1947, he tried to inject a dose of reality into the attempts to gain agreement with the Soviets over mutual inspection of installations working on nuclear weaponry, pouring cold water on the statement, expressed by Gromyko, that foreign inspectors would be allowed to pry around on Soviet territory. It appears he trusted Peierls to the end. And what was his end? He met a premature death in a hotel in Zürich in 1955, at the comparatively young age of fifty. His biographers Gottwald and Shifman ascribe his death to suicide, but was the long arm of Soviet intelligence behind his demise? Did they recall his heretical comments from 1937, and were waiting to pounce? Like Skinner, an unexplained death, far from home, in a Swiss hotel.

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

It thus seems inconceivable that Peierls could have not been aware of Fuchs’s communist allegiance. He worked with him closely, Fuchs lodged with him, they were friends. Frank Close describes Fuchs as ‘like a son’ to Peierls. So how did Peierls explain the situation? I analyse a few of his statements:

  1. “I can believe now that he may have had so much self control as to deceive all those who believed to be his friends. I asked him whether he really believed in the superiority of the Soviet system. His reply was, ‘You must remember what I went through under the Nazis’. I said I quite understood this but I was surprised he still believed in all this at the time we were in America.” (from letter to Commander Burt, received February 6, 1950)
  • “If one takes these statements as genuine, and it is very hard to believe anything else, he has lived all these years hiding his real allegiance, yet at the same time acquiring a genuine and almost passionate interest for his job and building up personal relationships and friendships which were kept quite separate from his secret contacts. One can believe that a man should hold political views of such strong, almost religious, conviction that he should let them override all other considerations, but it is incredible that, at the same time, a man who had never thought for himself and was always ready to go to enormous lengths in the interest of others, should allow himself to become so attached to the people and to allow other people to become so attached to him without seeing what he was doing for them.” (from letter to Niels Bohr, February 14, 1950)
  • “I knew he had left Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis and I respected him for this. I knew of his connection with left-wing student organizations in Germany since at that time the communist controlled organizations were the only ones putting up any active opposition . . .

During all these years we saw much of him. Shy and retiring at first he made many friends and in many conversations politics was, of course, a frequent topic. His views seemed perhaps a little to the left of ours, but he seemed to share the attitude to Communism – and to any kind of dictatorship – of most of his friends. I remember an occasion when he talked to a young man who was in sympathy with communism and in the argument Fuchs was very scornful of the other’s dogmatic views.

When I heard of his arrest I regarded it as quite incredible that anyone should have hidden his real beliefs so well. Looking back it seems that at first he shared in the life of his colleagues and pretended to share their views and attitude only in order to hide his own convictions. But gradually he must have come to believe what was at first only pretence. There must have been a time when he shared one attitude with his colleagues and friends and another with the agents to whom he then still transmitted information, and when he was himself in doubt which of the two was conviction and which was pretence. I do not want to enter into speculations about the state of his mind during all this time. Some have described it as a superb piece of acting, but either way it was certainly quite exceptional.

In the case of Fuchs, they would have had to probe very deeply to disclose his continued adherence to the communist cause and that would have required a depth of human insight that is very hard to achieve.” (from memorandum ‘The Lesson of the Fuchs Case’, March 1950)

  • “The main point was Fuchs had then, although he had changed his mind and allegedly or at least claimed not to be pro-Communist anymore, he still out of a sense of chivalry was refusing to name his contacts and so on, and they thought this was foolish and they expected I would think it foolish too, and they wanted me to urge him to do that – which I tried. I don’t know whether this was a success. Anyway, in the course of this conversation, Commander Burt of Scotland Yard, asked me what sort of man Fuchs had appeared to be and whether we realized what his views were. I said, ‘No, he didn’t say much on political things, but he gave the impression of agreeing with everybody else, being perhaps a little to the left of most of us but not drastically.’ Of course, I knew that as a young man he had been mixed up with a Communist student organization in Germany, but that was understandable and this was very common with young people.” (from interview with Charles Weiner, 1969)
  • “But I needed regular help – someone with whom I would be able to discuss the theoretical technicalities. I looked around for a suitable person, and thought of Klaus Fuchs. He was a German, who as a student had been politically active as a member of a socialist student group (which was essentially communist) and had to flee for his life from the Nazis. He came to England, where he worked with Neville Mott in Bristol, completed his Ph. D., and did some excellent work in the electron theory of metals and other aspects of the theory of solids. I knew and liked his papers, and had met him.

He also asked me whether Fuchs’s pro-communist views had been evident. ‘No’, I said, ‘he never talked much about his political views, but gave the impression he shared our general views. I knew, of course, that he had been strongly left-wing as a student, but that is very common with young people.

I formed the impression that his conversion from communism was genuine. His communist friends in Germany must have instilled in him a rather unfavourable picture of Britain, which life in Bristol and Edinburgh, where he perhaps still associated with left-wing friends, did not dispel.

Perhaps the process of understanding took so long because in our intellectual circles we are curiously shy about saying what we believe. Our style is not to use any words with capital letters. We don’t mind talking about what is wrong and what we want to fight, but we find it much harder to talk about moral principles and about what is right. Our behavior follows quite firm rules, but somehow we feel it is bad taste to spell them out, and they have to be discovered by observing how we act.” (from Bird of Passage, 1985)

It is instructive to examine the probable evolution of Peierls’s thoughts.

At the time of A) he knows that he is under suspicion as well (telephone taps have revealed Genia’s fears). He deems it appropriate to show some initiative with Commander Burt of Special Branch, knowing that the policeman will probably not be familiar with the background of Nazi and Soviet oppression of opposition elements. Peierls no doubt believes that Fuchs’s blatant demonstrations of pro-Soviet views may be forever concealed, so he confidently ascribes Fuchs’s deception of his friends to superlative self-control, thus absolving Peierls (who after all, is a very bright man) of any responsibility for not seeing through his subterfuge. In expressing sympathy for what Fuchs went through Peierls conveniently overlooks what his wife’s family, and the physicists who were murdered by Stalin, underwent, which dwarfed the actual sufferings of Klaus Fuchs.

A little later, in B), he is more reflective. Fuchs’s confession of January 27 made a claim that the spy was subject to a ‘controlling schizophrenia’ which allowed his life to be strictly compartmentalized. This is Fuchs’s excuse for letting down his friends. So Peierls can jump on this self-assessment to his own advantage, while at the same time expressing some sympathy for Fuchs’s commitment and earnestness. Yet the suggestion, to a fellow ‘peace-loving’ scientist, Bohr, that Fuchs possessed some kind of saintly altruism and selflessness is disturbing and irresponsible. It is not surprising that Peierls apparently did not share this confidence with anyone else.

A few weeks later, a more measured statement is required, in C). As an astute political watcher, Peierls has to show a greater awareness of the facts of life, and a slippery equivalence of ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’ is even admitted. He has to admit that he and Fuchs talked politics: after all, the Peierls household saw such lodgers as Bethe, Fröhlich, Frisch, G. E. Brown, even the recently deceased Freeman Dyson, as well as Fuchs, so it would have been difficult to steer the conversation away from politics. Now he indulges in some very fine distinctions: Fuchs’s views are ‘a little left’ from those of the Peierlses, but, in an unlikely aside, Peierls indicates that Fuchs was ‘very scornful’ of a dogmatic communist. In this, he directly contradicts Born’s evidence. Significantly, the episode is undated: in the thirties, through the Spanish Civil War, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, it would have been very appropriate in intellectual circles for enthusiasm for Communism as the ‘bulwark against Fascism’ to be expressed.

So what were Fuchs’s ‘real beliefs’ that he hid so well from Peierls? A loyalty to Stalin instead of an honest commitment to principles of the Bolshevik revolution? This reflection allows Peierls to make an artificial distinction between ‘his colleagues and friends’ and ‘the agents to whom he still transmitted information’, when Peierls must have known that there would not have been much time for idle political chit-chat during the encounters when Fuchs passed on his secrets, and was aware that he still mingled with  communist sympathisers, and had promoted his views unrestrainedly, such as at Bristol and Edinburgh universities, and in the internment camp in Canada. Thus he creates a cover for himself, suggesting that the authorities would have had to be very tenacious to detect Fuchs’s adherence to the communist cause when a relatively simple investigation would have revealed his political cause.

By the time of D), the crisis has blown over.  The complete text of the interview shows that Weiner was a very persistent interrogator, but he was not well-prepared on the Fuchs case. Peierls can dispose of Fuchs’s communism as a student entanglement, and represents the state of being ‘strongly left-wing’ as an affectation of young people, predominantly, calmly overlooking the fact that, in the 1930s, it was almost a required disposition of the intellectually ‘progressive’ academic body. In contrast to his statement of almost twenty years before (when politics was a ‘frequent topic of conversation’) Peierls now minimizes the time he and Fuchs talked politics, since Fuchs ‘didn’t say much on political things’. Moreover, he can diminish Fuchs’s involvement with the communist organisation in Germany, describing Fuchs’s role as being ‘mixed up’ with it, as if he were a respectable youth who had, ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’, and become a delinquent, as one occasionally reads in the words of regretful parents. Yet such persons are part of the crowd, and are thus responsible.

This strain continues in Peierls’s autobiography in E), written sixteen years later. Moreover, Peierls can now afford to be cavalier with the chronology. His comment about looking around for ‘a suitable person’ overlooks the fact that Fuchs had been identified for early deportation from Canada in the summer of 1940, that Peierls and Born had discussed his recruitment, and that Fuchs knew, as early as January 1941, when he first met Simon Kremer, that he would have access to important information on nuclear physics. On the other hand, it is true that Peierls met Fuchs at Bristol, and collaborated with him. A letter from Nevill Mott to Peierls, dated December 4, 1936, invites Peierls to add his name to a paper produced primarily by Fuchs. Peierls declines.

And Peierls reinforces the illusion of political discussions, let alone articulation of extreme views. He echoes the notion that strong left-wing views are primarily the province of young people, and gives the impression that the young firebrand had mellowed, and shared the opinions of Peierls’s circle –  ‘our general views’. But again, he provides no date, and Peierls had gained a reputation for encouraging and harbouring communists at Birmingham University. He continues the lazy distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’, but then indulges in some very complacent pipe-dreaming. Peierls is by now part of the establishment, the academic elite: he is an English gentleman. Thus he romantically starts to refer to ‘our intellectual circles’ –  the senior common-room at New College, Oxford, in the 1970s, presumably –  as if it were indistinguishable from the 1930s hothouses of Bristol, Cambridge, or Birmingham. That delicate English sensitivity in refraining from hard ideologies now provides cover for his group’s not quickly winkling out Fuchs’s traitorous impulses.  Peierls is now safe.

Thus Peierls, in the multiple roles of his public, private and secret lives, experienced all four of the traits I listed above. He had to present to the outside world the notion that he was not aware that Fuchs was a Communist. He had to convince the authorities selecting the Tube Alloys team that any suspicions of Fuchs’s ultra left-wing views did not present a danger, or reason for disqualification. He had to recoil from any exposure of Fuchs’s activities because of the threats that the Soviet regime made on Genia’s family. He had to conceal his own very real preferences for recruiting communist sympathisers to his team.

Peierls’s Naturalization

The last, highly important item, in the case against Peierls is his failure to tell the truth in his application for British citizenship. I pointed out, in Chapter 1 of this report, how a 1989 letter of his, to L. I. Volodarskaya, admitted that he had travelled to the Soviet Union several times in the 1930s. These visits had probably been concealed by dint of their being inserted into extended journeys to Copenhagen, to see Bohr and Placzek. In his statement (undated, viewable at KV 2/1658-1, but certainly accompanying his May 17, 1938 application for naturalisation), Peierls records the visits he made abroad between 1933 and 1938. The list includes a ‘holiday trip to the Caucases’ [sic] in 1934, and attendance at a Conference on Nuclear Physics in Moscow in 1937. He had much to hide.

It is worthwhile trying to define the sequence of events that led to his naturalization. For some reason, in Bird of Passage, Peierls does not describe the application. He writes of it only: “Our position improved further, quiet unexpectedly, when in February 1940 my naturalisation papers came through.” Yet in a letter to Professor Appleton, dated September 13, 1939 (written thus by a German subject after the outbreak of war), he explains that he first made his application in May 1938. We should recall that that date was immediately after his return from a holiday in Copenhagen, where an observant customs officer noticed the 1937 Soviet stamp in his German passport, and Peierls had been very evasive over the reason for his visit. He had got away with it, but perhaps that was an alarm call. Maybe Moscow had told him to acquire UK citizenship. Peierls never explained why or when he made the decision.

One might imagine that the idea of reprisals governed the timing. While Genia’s family was evidently undergoing threats in the Soviet Union, Rudolf’s father, Heinrich, and second wife, Else, were still resident in Nazi Germany in 1938. A too precipitous rejection of German citizenship might have caused repercussions for Heinrich and Else. Yet, according to Sabine Lee, Rudolf’s father and step-mother did not get permission to leave Germany, and be admitted to the UK, until early 1939. Peierls wrote that his father had been reluctant to leave Germany, because of his age, health, and lack of other languages, but that ‘in 1938, he finally decided to leave’. It does not seem as if it was as simple as that, but Heinrich and Else were able to join Heinrich’s brother, Siegfried, in New York in 1940.

The processing of the application took an inordinately long time. Peierls clearly believed that he would have to record the 1937 visit in his outline of foreign travel, and thus more boldly described the conference in Moscow about which he had been so sheepish a month before. He would have had, at some stage, to submit his German passport (which was to expire on May 17, 1939) to the UK authorities, but that apparently did not happen for some while, as the record from the Letters indicates he paid at least two more visits to Copenhagen that year. Peierls himself twice states, in his memoir, that he paid ‘several visits to Copenhagen’ in 1938). Yet, if his own admission elsewhere is correct about other undocumented visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they must have been undertaken with a forged Soviet passport in order to leave and return to Copenhagen. (One wonders, also, whether an alien in the process of applying for citizenship would have been allowed to leave the country at all.)

The archive is very sketchy about what happened next, and some of the few documents that have survived have been redacted. One letter of December 8, 1938, reporting to the Chief Constable of Cambridge, lays out the positive outcome of an inquiry into Peierls’s credentials. Page 2 of a chronology laying out the processing of the request appears, and runs as follows (enigmatically, Page 1 is missing):

19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport

13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s referees

31.8.39 Application from Peierls for permit to join in A. R. P. (Air Raid Precaution) work

10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

2.4.40 Naturalization granted

On July 18, 1939, Peierls wrote to the German Embassy, asking whether he could renounce his German citizenship before his naturalization papers came through, but received a dampening reply that he could only do that if he submitted birth certificates, which were, of course, already in the hands of the British authorities. And then, a remarkable revelation appears: on August 31, Peierls wrote to the Home Office, with some obvious – but subdued – frustration, trying to determine where his application stood. (This is presumably what the item above refers to.) “I am therefore writing now to ask whether there is any way of obtaining a statement to the effect that my application for naturalization is being considered, or some other statement which might make it possible for me to enroll [in any ARP service]”, he wrote. Was it really possible that, after fifteen months, Peierls had received no acknowledgment that his application was even being considered? Peierls does not record these events, either.

Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn from this saga is that there existed a strong reluctance to naturalize German scientists until war was imminent, or even under way. Yet a period between May 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 for sitting on an application, with neither a rejection nor an approval, seems very odd. Were there some witnesses who made objections, aware perhaps of his connections and sympathies – even of his unadmitted travel to the Soviet Union? After all, someone decided to place the customs officer’s report on file –  a highly selective but broad hint from the authorities to us researchers, perhaps. Peierls again is very coy: he does not comment on the long period of waiting, or even suggest to Appleton that the delay is unreasonable. He must have been anxious not to appear peevish or querulous, as any more detailed inquiry might have upset the applecart. As it was, his collaboration with Frisch, and Appleton’s important role as Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and awareness of what he and Frisch were doing, saved him.

In their book A Matter of Intelligence, MI5 and the Surveillance of anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-1950, Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove sum up the episode as follows: “Peierls’ perceived importance in British atomic research can be measured by his successful application for British naturalisation. His work was considered so valuable to the war effort that he was granted British citizenship as early as [sic!] March 1940: a rare distinction, since naturalisation had been formally suspended for the duration of the war and was permitted only in exceptional circumstances.” Given what we know now (but which Peierls himself did not reveal), we might ask instead: ‘What took them so long?’

Conclusions

What was it that drew so many scientists to the communist cause? Winston Churchill spoke of the Nazis’ use of ‘perverted science’ in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, but at that time the observation could more appropriately have been directed at Joseph Stalin. It was as if the slogan ‘the communist experiment’, in which millions of human beings were treated like laboratory rats in the quest to build Soviet man took on a respectability that merited the endorsement of the western scientific world. Yet an initiative to exploit their naivety was surely undertaken.

If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to point out some alarming coincidences in the events that led to Fuchs’s betrayal of his naturalised allegiance, and his passing on of atomic secrets to the Soviets. I would refer to Ronald Gunn’s predecessor visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, and his sponsorship of Fuchs’s establishment in the UK. I would allude to the fact that Yakov Frenkel invited Peierls, Mott and Fröhlich to the conference in Odessa in 1934. I would point out that some unusual circumstances allowed all three to be installed in influential academic positions that they might otherwise not have achieved. Peierls was able to use the funding released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union to gain his position at the Cavendish Laboratory. Mott was appointed professor, at a very young age, for a position for which he had to receive technical guidance from Skinner at Bristol, because of the influence of his schoolfriend, Ronald Gunn, and the encouragement of Skinner himself. Peierls helped locate funding for Fröhlich to work under Mott after Fröhlich’s extraordinary escape from the Soviet Union. And then Gunn introduced Fuchs to Mott, who protected him, and then arranged his transfer to Edinburgh, again using special funding.

Rudolf Peierls was thus caught up in this maelstrom. True, he made some personal questionable decisions (as well as some good ones), but he was also inveigled into a conspiracy not of his direct choosing. This resulted, I believe, in his living a lie, and I know that he wrote a very dishonest memoir. I suspect the internal pressure on him may have been even greater than that on Fuchs, who, despite some superficial softening in his exposure to a liberal democracy, remained a hardened communist. Yet Peierls’s career, for all its achievement, was essentially dishonourable.

I received several notes of appreciation after I published Part 1 of this report on Peierls. I did not receive – even confidentially – any complaints over, or criticisms of, my conclusions about the probable explanation for the strange behavior of Rudolf and Genia. That may have been, of course, because no one who might challenge my thesis actually read the piece. Or it might mean that they read it, but did not want to draw any undesirable attention to it. (I suspect that Frank Close and Sabine Lee have read it, and even introduced it to the Peierls offspring. But maybe not.) My intention has not been to single Peierls out, and malign him, for the sake of rabble-rousing, and I have expressed a measure of sympathy for his probable plight. My goal, however, has been to stir up the complacent and lazy official and authorised historians, and the fawning biographers, and the custodians of MI5’s official memory. I want to encourage them to reach beyond the obvious, and question the very misleading memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies to their biographers made by such as Peierls, Berlin, White, Jebb, Philby, Foote, Sillitoe, Wright, etc. etc., instead of treating them as reliable archival material. I want them to amend their incomplete and erroneous accounts of how the realm was let down by a very shoddy security and counter-espionage system, and that continuing to try to conceal the facts performs a gross disservice to the historiography of British Intelligence. But not just that – to the history of the United Kingdom itself.


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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios – Part VII

[An imagined conversation between Stewart Menzies, SIS Chief, and Richard Gambier-Parry, head of Section VIII, the Communications Unit in SIS, in early March 1941. Both attended Eton College, although Gambier-Parry was there for only one ‘half’ (i.e. ‘term’): Menzies is four years older than Gambier-Parry. Menzies replaced Admiral Sinclair as chief of SIS in November 1939, on the latter’s death. Sinclair had recruited Gambier-Parry from industry in April 1938. At this stage of the war, Menzies and Gambier-Parry were both Colonels.]

Stewart Menzies
Richard Gambier-Parry

SM: Hallo, Richard. Take a pew.

RG-P: Thank you, sir.

SM: I expect you are wondering why I called you in.

RG-P: Mine not to reason why, sir. Hope I’m not in trouble.

SM: Dammit, man. Of course not. Some news to impart.

RG-P: Good news, I trust.

SM: Fact is, our man has gone over to the enemy.

RG-P: The enemy, sir? Who?

SM: [chuckles] Our Regional Controller in the Middle East. Petrie. He’s agreed to become D-G of MI5.

RG-P: Very droll, sir! But that wasn’t a surprise, was it?

SM: Well, Swinton always wanted him. Petrie went through the motions of performing a study of ‘5’ first, but there was no doubt he would take the job.

RG-P: I see. So how does that affect us, sir?

SM: First of all, it will make it a lot easier for us to work with MI5. No longer that clown Harker pretending to be in charge . . .

RG-P: Indeed. But I suppose Swinton and the Security Executive are still in place?

SM: For a while, yes. But there are other implications, Richard. [pauses] How is Section VIII coming along?

RG-P: Fairly well, sir. We had a tough few months in 1940 learning about the struggles of working behind enemy lines, but our training efforts are starting to pay off, and our ciphers are more secure. Moving the research and manufacturing show from Barnes to Whaddon has worked well, and it is humming along. As you know, the first Special Signals Units are already distributing Ultra.

SM: Yes, that seems to have developed well. Swinton signed off on Section VIII’s readiness a few weeks ago. [pauses] How would you like to take over the RSS?

RG-P: What? The whole shooting-match?

SM: Indeed. ‘Lock, stock and barrel’, as Petrie put it. The War Office wants to rid itself of it, and MI5 feels it doesn’t have the skills or attention span to handle it. Swinton and Petrie want us to take it over.

RG-P: Dare I say that this has always been part of your plan, sir? Fits in well with GC&CS?

SG: Pretty shrewd, old boy! I must say I have been greasing the wheels behind the scenes . . .  Couldn’t appear to push things too hard, though.

RG-P: Indeed, sir. I quite understand.

SG: But back to organisation. Petrie has a very high opinion of your outfit.

RG-P: Very gratifying, sir. But forgive me: isn’t RSS’s charter to intercept illicit wireless on the mainland, sir? Not our territory at all?

SM: You’re right, but the latest reports indicate that the German threat is practically non-existent. We’ve mopped up all the agents Hitler has sent in, whether by parachute or boat. The beacon threat has turned out to be a chimera, as the Jerries were using guidance from transmitters in Germany for their bombers, and our boffins have worked out how to crack it. The really interesting business is picking up Abwehr transmissions on the Continent. Therefore right up our street.

RG-P: I see. That changes things.

SM: And it would mean a much closer liaison with Bletchley. Denniston and his crew at GC&CS will of course decrypt all the messages we pick up. Dansey’s very much in favour of the move – which always helps.

RG-P: Yes, we always want Uncle Claude on our side. I had wondered what he had been doing after his organisation in Europe was mopped up . . .

SM: You can never be sure with Colonel Z! He’s got some shindig underway looking into clandestine Russian traffic. He’s just arranged to have a Soviet wireless operator from Switzerland arrive here, and wants to keep an eye on her. He’ll be happy to have RSS close by on the ranch.

RG-P: Fascinating, sir. Should I speak to him about it?

SM: Yes, go ahead. I know he’ll agree that the move makes a lot of sense. Learning what the enemy is up to is a natural complement to designing our own systems.

RG-P: Agreed, sir . . .  But isn’t RSS in a bit of a mess? All those Voluntary Interceptors, and all that work farmed out to the Post Office? And didn’t MI8 want MI5 to take it over?

SM: Yes, they did. So did Military Intelligence. But once Simpson left, MI5 lost any drive it had.

RG-P: Ah, Simpson. The ‘Beacon’ man. I spoke to him about the problem back in ‘39.

SM: Yes, he went overboard a bit on the beacons and criticized the GPO a bit too forcefully. He wanted to smother the country with interceptors, and set up a completely new organisation with MI5 at the helm. MI5 had enough problems, and wouldn’t buy it. Simpson gave up in frustration, and went out East.

RG-P: So what does Military Intelligence think?

SM: As you probably know, Davidson took over in December, so he’s still learning.

RG-P: Of course! I do recall that now. But what happened to Beaumont-Nesbitt? He’s a friend of yours, is he not?

SM: Yes, we were in Impey’s together. Good man, but a bit of a . . .what?  . . . a boulevardier, you might say. I worked with him on the Wireless Telegraphy Committee a year ago. He seemed to get on fine with Godfrey then, but maybe Godfrey saw us as ganging up on him.

RG-P: Godfrey wanted your job originally, didn’t he?

SM: Indeed he did. And, as the top Navy man, he had Winston’s backing. I managed to ward him off. But later things turned sour.

RG-P: So what happened?

SM: Unfortunately, old B-N made a hash of an invasion forecast back in September, and the balloon went up. Put the whole country on alert for no reason. Godfrey pounced, and he and Cavendish-Bentinck used Freddie’s guts for garters. The PM was not happy. Freddie had to go.

RG-P: Well, that’s a shame. And what about Davidson?

SM: Between you and me, Richard, Davidson’s not the sharpest knife in the drawer. I don’t think he understands this wireless business very well.

RG-P: I see. What did he say?

SM: Not a lot. He was initially very sceptical about the transfer. Didn’t think we had the skills, but wasn’t specific. He’s probably still seething about Venlo.

RG-P: Is Venlo still a problem, sir?

SM: Always will be, Richard. Always will be. But it damaged Dansey more than me. Partly why I am here, I suppose. And it makes Bletchley – and RSS – that more important.

RG-P: Access to the PM?

SM: Precisely. Ever since he set up those blasted cowboys in SOE, it has become more important. They’ll go barging in on their sabotage missions, raising Cain, and make our job of intelligence-gathering more difficult. I see Winston daily now, which helps.

RG-P: I see. And Gubbins is starting to make demands on our wireless crew. Should I slow him down a bit?

SM: I didn’t hear you say that, Richard  . . . 

RG-P: Very good, sir. But I interrupted you.

SM: Where was I?

RG-P: With Davidson, sir.

SM: Yes, of course. He did come up with a number of better questions about the proposed set-up a few weeks ago, so maybe he’s learning. He’s probably been listening to Butler in MI8. And I think he’s come around. Swinton has been working on him, and I don’t think he wants to upset the apple-cart. But you should try to make an ally of him. I don’t trust him completely.

RG-P: Very well, sir. I wouldn’t want the Indians shooting arrows at me all the time. And, apart from Petrie, is MI5 fully behind the move?

SM: Very much so. Liddell is all for it. They still have this BBC chappie Frost making a nuisance of himself. His appointment as head of the Interception Committee went to his head, I think. I gather he has upset a few people, and even Swinton – who brought him in in the first place – is getting fed up with him.

RG-P: I think I can handle Frost. I knew him at the BBC. I agree: he needs to be brought down a peg or two. But he has enough enemies in ‘5’ now, doesn’t he?

SM: So I understand. Wants to build his own empire: Liddell and co. will take care of him. Your main challenges will be elsewhere.

RG-P: Agreed. The RSS staff will need some close attention.

SM: Yes, it will entail a bit of a clean-up. Augean stables, and all that, don’t you know. That is why I am asking you to take it over . . .

RG-P: Well, I’ve got a lot on my plate, sir, but I am flattered. How could I say ‘No’?

SM: That’s the spirit, man! I knew I could rely on you.

RG-P: I may need to bring in some fresh blood . . .

SM: Of course! We’ll need our best chaps to beat the Hun at the bally radio game. And you’ll need to speak to Cowgill. The W Board has just set up a new committee to handle the double-agents, run by a fellow named Masterman. One of those deuced eggheads that ‘5’ likes to hire, I regret. But there it is. Cowgill is our man on the committee.

RG-P: Very good, sir. What about the current RSS management?

SM: Good question. Those fellows Worlledge and Gill are a bit dubious. Worlledge is something of a loose cannon, and I hear the two of them have been arguing against an SIS takeover.

RG-P: Yes, I had a chat with Worlledge a few weeks ago. He asked some damn fool questions. But I didn’t take them too seriously, as I didn’t think we were in the running.

SM: Well, he was obviously testing you out. Quite frankly, he doesn’t believe that you, er, we  . . . have the relevant expertise. Not sure I understand it all, but I have confidence in you, Richard.

RG-P: Very pleased to hear it, sir. Anyway, I think Worlledge’s reputation is shot after that shambles over the Gill-Roper decryptions.

SM: Oh, you mean when Gill and Trevor-Roper started treading on the cipher-wallahs’ turf at Bletchley with the Abwehr messages?

RG-P: Not just that, which was more a matter for Denniston. Worlledge then blabbed about the show to the whole world and his wife, including the GPO.

SM: Yes, of course. Cowgill blew a fuse over it, I recall.

RG-P: Worlledge clearly doesn’t understand the need for secrecy. I can’t see Felix putting up with him in SIS.

SM: You are probably right, Richard. He’d be a liability. But what about Gill?

RG-P: Can’t really work him out, sir. He definitely knows his onions, but he doesn’t seem to take us all very seriously. Bit flippant, you might say.

SM: H’mmm. Doesn’t sound good. We’ll need proper discipline in the unit. But if you have problems, Cowgill will help you out. Felix used to work for Petrie in India, y’know. Now that he has taken over from Vivian as head of Section V, Felix is also our point man on dealing with ‘5’. He won’t stand any nonsense.

RG-P: Will do, sir.

SP: What about young Trevor-Roper? Will he be a problem, too?

G-P: I don’t think so. He got a carpeting from Denniston after the deciphering business with Gill, and I think he’s learned his lesson.

SP: Cowgill told me he wanted him court-martialled  . . .

G-P:  . . . but I intervened to stop it. He’s a chum of sorts. Rides with us at the Whaddon. Or rather falls with us!

SP: Ho! Ho! A huntin’ man, eh? One of us!

G-P: He’s mustard keen, but a bit short-sighted. We have to pick him out of ditches now and then. I think I can deal with him.

SP: Excellent! But you and Cowgill should set up a meeting with Frost, White and Liddell fairly soon. Make sure Butler is involved. They will want to know what you are going to do with the VIs. They have been losing good people to other Y services. 

RG-P: Very good, sir. (pauses) I think Worlledge and Gill will have to go.

SP: Up to you, Richard. Do you have anyone in mind to lead the section?

RG-P: H’mmm. I think I have the chap we need. My Number Two, Maltby. He was at the School as well, and he has been in the sparks game ever since then. He’s a good scout. Utterly loyal.

SP: Maltby, eh? Wasn’t there some problem with the army?

RG-P: Yes, his pater’s syndicate at Lloyd’s collapsed, and he had to resign his commission. But he bounced back. I got to know him again after he helped the Navy with some transmission problems.

SP: And what about that business in Latvia? Didn’t we send him out there?

RG-P: Yes, he reviewed operations in Riga in the summer of ‘39. And it’s true we never received any intelligible messages from them. But I don’t think it was Maltby’s fault. Nicholson and Benton didn’t understand the ciphers.

SP: I see. So what is he doing now?

RG-P: He’s running the Foreign Office radio station at Hanslope Park. I know I shall be able to count on him to do the job. He also rides with the Whaddon.

SM: Capital! Have a chat with him, Richard, and let me know. All hush-hush, of course, until we make the announcement in a week or two.

RG-P: Aye-aye, sir. Is that all?

SM: That’s it for now. We’ll discuss details later. Floreat Etona, what, what?

RG-P: Floreat Etona, sir.

Edward Maltby

 “Maltby, who seemed to have started his military career as a colonel – one has to begin somewhere – was also an Etonian, but from a less assured background, and he clearly modelled himself, externally at least, on his patron. But he was at best the poor man’s Gambier, larger and louder than his master, whose boots he licked with obsequious relish. Of intelligence matters he understood nothing. ‘Scholars’, he would say, ‘are two a penny: it’s the man of vision who counts’; and that great red face would swivel round, like an illuminated Chinese lantern, beaming with self-satisfaction. But he enjoyed his status and perquisites of his accidental promotion, and obeyed his orders punctually, explaining that any dissenter would be (in his own favourite phrase) ‘shat on from a great height’. I am afraid that the new ‘Controller RSS’ was regarded, in the intelligence world, as something of a joke –  a joke in dubious taste. But he was so happily constituted that he was unaware of this.” (Hugh Trevor-Roper, quoted by Edward Harrison in The Secret World, p 6)

“Peter Reid considers Gambier-Parry, Maltby & Frost as bluffers, and to some extent charlatans.” (from Guy Liddell’s diary entry for June 9, 1943)

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

In preparation for this month’s segment, I was organizing my notes on the Radio Security Service over the holiday in California, when I discovered that a history of the RSS, entitled Radio Wars, had recently been published by Fonthill Media Limited, the author being one David Abrutat. I thus immediately ordered it via amazon, as it seemed to me that it must be an indispensable part of my library. I looked forward to reading it when I returned to North Carolina on January 2.

For some years, I have been making the case on coldspur that a serious history of this much under- and mis-represented unit needed to be written, and hoped that my contributions – especially in the saga of ‘The Undetected Radios’ – might provide useful fodder for such an enterprise. Indeed, a highly respected academic even suggested, a few weeks ago, that I undertake such a task. This gentleman, now retired, is the unofficial representative of a group of wireless enthusiasts, ex-Voluntary Interceptors, and champions of the RSS mission who have been very active in keeping the flame alive. He was presumably impressed enough with my research to write: “The old stagers of the RSS over here would be delighted if you were to write a history of the RSS.”

I told him that I was flattered, but did not think that I was the right candidate for the task. My understanding of radio matters is rudimentary, I have no desire to go again through the painful process of trying to get a book published, and, to perform the job properly, I would have to travel to several libraries and research institutions in the United Kingdom, a prospect that does not excite me at my age. Yet, unbeknownst to my colleague (but apparently not to some of the ‘old stagers’, since Abrutat interviewed many of them), a project to deliver such a history was obviously complete at that time. My initial reaction was one of enthusiasm about the prospect of reading a proper story of RSS, and possibly communicating with the author.

The book arrived on January 4, and I took a quick look at it. I was then amazed to read, in the brief bio on the inside flap, the following text: “David Abrutat is a former Royal Marine commando, RAF officer, and zoologist: he is currently a lecturer in international relations and security studies in the Department of Economics at the University of Buckingham. He has long had a passionate interest in military history.” How was it possible that an academic at the institution where I had completed my doctorate was utterly unknown to me, and how was it that we had never been introduced to each other, given our shared interests, his research agenda, and the record of my investigations on coldspur?

What was more, the book came with a very positive endorsement from Sir Iain Lobban, Director of GCHQ from 2008-2014. He referred, moreover, to the author as ‘Dr Abrutat’, and finished his Foreword by writing: ‘I commend Radio War to all students of the strategic, operational, and tactical difference that intelligence can make in conflict and what passes for peacetime’. My interest heightened, I flipped through the book quickly, but then decided I needed to know more about the author.

His Wikipedia entry is inactive, or incomplete. I then discovered his personal website, at https://www.abrutat.com/. This confirmed his biography, but added the factoid that he also held the post of’ ‘Associate Fellow’ at Buckingham University. So I then sought out the Buckingham University website, but was puzzled to find that he was not listed among the faculty staff. Was the information perhaps out of date? I noticed that in 2018 Abrutat had delivered a seminar at Prebend House (the location where I had delivered my seminar on Isaiah Berlin), but I could not find any confirmation that he was a permanent member of the faculty. I thus posted a friendly message under the ‘Contact’ tab on his website, explained my background and interests, introduced him to coldspur, and indicated how much I looked forward to collaborating with him.

While I was waiting for his response, I reached out to Professor Anthony Glees, as well as to Professor Julian Richards, who now leads the Security and Intelligence practice (BUCSIS) after the retirement of Glees (my doctoral supervisor) last summer. Indeed, Professor Glees’s initial reaction was that Abrutat must have been signed up after his retirement, as he knew nothing of the engagement. I very gently pointed out to Richards the anomalies in the record, and stated how keen I was to know more about the doctor whose research interests so closely overlapped with mine. I also contacted my academic friend, whose ‘RSS’ colleagues appeared to have contributed much of the personal reminiscences that are featured in Abrutat’s book.

What happened next was rather shocking. Professor Richards admitted that Abrutat has been recruited as an occasional lecturer, but was not a member of the faculty. He insisted that Abrutat’s bona fides were solid, however, encouraging me to contact Abrutat himself to learn more about his qualifications, including the nature of his doctorate. After an initial warm response, Abrutat declined to respond further when I asked him about his background. Yet he did indicate that he had been appointed ‘Departmental Historian’ at GCHQ, a fact that was confirmed to me by another contact, who said that Arbutat was replacing Tony Comer in that role. An inquiry at GCHQ, however, drew a highly secure blank.

Thus I had been left out in the cold. But the information gained was puzzling. How was it that Abrutat had been engaged as some kind of contract lecturer without Professor Glees being in the know? And why would Abrutat claim now that he was a member of the faculty when he had indicated to me that his lecturing days were in the past? Why would the University not challenge Abrutat’s claims, and request that he correct the impression he had been leaving on his website and in his book that he was a qualified member of the faculty? And why would he give the impression that he had a doctorate in a relevant subject?

A few days later, I was just about to send a further message to Richards, when I received another email from Abrutat, in which he said that he had indeed been involved in some ad hoc engagements as a lecture at Buckingham, but had insisted on secrecy and anonymity because he was working for British Intelligence at the time. Now, such an explanation might just be plausible, except that, if Richard was hired in 2018, after his guest seminar at Prebend House in March, he was at exactly the same period publicising his relationship with the University to the world beyond. His website page declaring the affiliation was written in 2018, as it refers to a coming book publication date in May 2109, and one can find several pages on the Web, where, in 2018 and 2019, Abrutat promotes another book of his (Vanguard, about D-Day), exploiting his claimed position on the faculty of Buckingham University. So much for obscurity and anonymity! Moreover, the blurb for Radio Wars describes his current role as a lecturer ‘in the Department of Economics’ at Buckingham, even though Abrutat implied to me that even the informal contract was all in the past.

I thus replied to Abrutat, pointing out these anomalies, and suggesting that he and Professor Richards (who had taken five days to work out this explanation) might care to think again. Having heard nothing in reply, on January 13 I compiled a long email for Richards, expressing my dismay and puzzlement, informing him of my intentions to take the matter up the line, and inviting him thereby to consult with his superiors to forestall any other approach, and thus giving him the opportunity to take corrective action. My final observation to Richards ran as follows: “It occurs to me that what we might have here is what the business terms a ‘Reverse Fuchs-Pontecorvo’. When the scientists at AERE Harwell were suspected of spying for the Soviet Union, MI5 endeavoured, out of concern for adverse publicity, and in the belief that the miscreants might perform less harm there, to have them transferred to Liverpool University. The University of Buckingham might want to disencumber itself from Abrutat by facilitating his installation at GCHQ.”

After more than a week, I had heard nothing, so on January 21 I wrote to the Dean of the Humanities School, Professor Nicholas Rees, explaining the problem, and attaching the letter I had sent to Richards. A few days later, I received a very gracious response from Professor Rees, who assured me he would look into the problem.

On January 29, I received the following message from David Watson, the Solicitor and Compliance Manager at Buckingham:

“Dear Dr Percy

I refer to your email to Professor Rees of 21st January, which has been referred to me for response. I advise that Dr Abrutat, who has recently been appointed the official historian at GCHQ, is an Honorary Associate Fellow of the University of Buckingham (“the University”) and he does occasionally lecture at the University. The University intends for this relationship to continue and does not consider Dr Abrutat to have made any representations regarding his relationship with the University that would be harmful to the University’s reputation. In the circumstances, the University does not intend to take this matter any further.

As an alumni [sic!] of the University, as well as having been a student in the BUCSIS Centre, we would like to maintain close contacts and good relations with you.  As in all matters academic, there are some matters of academic judgement involved, and is important to respect the views of those with whom we might not always agree. 

I note your comment to the effect that you will “have to change your tactics” if the University does not act upon your concerns. Whilst it is not clear what you mean by this, I trust  that you do not propose to engage in any activities, which might be considered defamatory to the University and would request that you refrain from making any statements that go beyond the realm of reasonable academic discourse and which could potentially damage the University’s reputation (this includes ad hominem attacks on the University’s academic staff and/or associates).

I trust that the University’s position has now been made clear and advise that the University does not propose to enter into any further communications with yourself on this matter.

Yours sincerely 

David Watson”

I leave it at that. I have presented most of the facts, though not all.

Lastly, I have now read Abrutat’s Radio War. I decided that I needed to see what the author had to say, and the method he used to tell his story, before concluding my investigation of his relationship with Buckingham University. The experience was not good: it is a mess. I have, however, not addressed the book thoroughly, or taken notes – yet. I wanted to keep this segment exclusively dependent on my own research, and I shall defer a proper analysis of Abrutat’s contribution to the story of RSS for another time.

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

This segment of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’ is something of an aberration, designed to amplify statements and conclusions I made some time ago. It has been provoked by my access to a large number of National Archives files, non-digitised, and thus not acquirable on-line. This inspection was enabled by the efforts of my researcher Dr. Kevin Jones, photographing the documents at Kew, and sending them to me. I wish I had discovered Dr. Jones, and been able to us these files, earlier in the cycle, as this analysis would have found a better home in earlier chapters, especially Chapter 1 and Chapter 2 of the saga, and it should probably be integrated properly later. Readers may want to refresh their memories of my earlier research by returning to those segments, or reading the amalgamated story at ‘The Undetected Radios’. There will be some repetition of material, since I believe it contributes to greater clarity in the narrative that follows. It covers events up to the end of 1943.

The following is a list of the files that I relied on extensively for my previous research: WO/208/5096-5098, HW 34/18, HW 43/6, CAB 301/77, ADM 223/793, and FO 1093/484

For this segment, I have exploited the following files: DSIR 36/2220, FO 1093/308, FO 1093/145, FO 1093/484, HO 255/987, HW 34/18, HW 34/19, HW 34/30, HW 40/190, HW 62/21/17, KV 3/7,  KV 3/96, KV 3/97, KV 4/27, KV 4/33, KV 4/61, KV 4/62, KV 4/97, KV 4/98, KV 4/213, KV 4/214, MEPO 2/3558, WO 208/5095, WO 208/5099, WO 208/5101, WO 208/5102, and WO 208/5105.

This list is not complete. In my spreadsheet that identifies hundreds of files relevant to my broader inquiries, I have recorded several concerning RSS and wireless interception that my researcher/photographer in London has not yet captured. At the same time, Abrutat lists in his Bibliography many of the files that I have inspected, as well as a few that I did not know about, or had considered irrelevant. I have added them to my spreadsheet, and shall investigate those that relate to my period. (I have spent little time studying RSS’s story after the D-Day invasion, and have steered clear of its activities overseas.) On the other hand, I note several files used by me that have apparently escaped Abrutat’s attention. Thus some further process of synthesis will at some future stage be desirable.

One of the files (FO 1093/308) I received only at the end of January, just in time for me to include a brief analysis. This file, in turn, leads to a whole new series, the transactions of the Wireless Telegraphy Board (the DEFE 59 series), which should provide a thorough explanation of how the organisational decisions made on Wireless Telegraphy (‘Y’ services) in early 1940 affected wartime policy. That will have to wait for a later analysis.

I should also mention that E. D.R. Harrison’s article, British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-43, published in the English Historical Review, Vol. CXXIV No 506 (2009) continues to serve as a generally excellent guide to the conflicts between MI5 and SIS, although it concentrates primarily on the control over ISOS material, and does not (in my opinion) do justice to the larger issue of Signals Security that caused rifts between MI5 and RSS. I note, however, that Harrison lists some important files (e.g. HW 19/331) that I have not yet inspected.

I have organized the material into seven sections: ‘Tensions Between MI5 and RSS, Part 1’ (1940-41); ‘Tensions Between MI5 and RSS, Part 2’(1942-43); ‘The Year of Signals Security’;  ‘Mobile Direction-Finding’; ‘The Management of RSS’; ‘The Double-Cross Operation’, and ‘Conclusions’.

Tensions between MI5 & RSS, Part 1 (1940-41)

The overall impression given by various histories is that the transfer of control of RSS from MI8 to SIS in the spring of 1941 all occurred very smoothly. This tradition was echoed in the Diaries of Guy Liddell, who was initially very enthusiastic about the change of responsibility, since he knew that the Security Service was hopelessly overburdened with the challenges of sorting out possible illegal aliens and ‘Fifth Columnists’ at a time when the fear of invasion was very real. MI5 was deficient in management skills and structure, and Liddell initially had great confidence in the capabilities of Gambier-Parry and his organisation. It is true that, as the war progressed, Liddell voiced doubts as to whether SIS’s Section VIII was performing its job properly, but his complaints were generally very muted.

An early indication of MI5’s exclusion from the debates can be observed in the early wartime deliberations (January and February, 1940) of the Wireless Telegraphy Board, chaired by Commander Denniston of GC&CS (visible at FO 1093/308). Maurice Hankey, Minister without Portfolio in Chamberlain’s Cabinet, called together a task force consisting of the Directors of Intelligence of the three armed forces, namely Rear-Admiral Godfrey (Admiralty), Major-General Beaumont-Nesbitt (War Office), and Group-Captain Blandy (acting, for Air Ministry), Colonel Stewart Menzies, the SIS chief, and the Zelig-like young Foreign Office civil servant, Gladwyn Jebb. The group recommended a full-time chairman for a task that had changed in nature since war broke out, what with such issues of beacons, domestic illicit wireless use, and German broadcasting complicating the agenda. Yet what was remarkable was that the Group seemed to be unaware that Y services were being undertaken outside the armed forces. Moreover, there was no room for MI5 in this discussion, even though Lt.-Colonel Simpson was carrying on an energetic campaign to set up a unified force to handle the challenge of beacons and illicit domestic transmissions. Amazingly, the Board appeared to be completely unaware of what was going on inside MI5, or the negotiations it was having with MI8.

MI5 was in danger of losing its ability to influence policy. A year later the transfer of RSS took place, despite the fact that influential figures had challenged SIS’s overall competence. Major-General Francis Davidson, who had replaced Beaumont-Nesbitt as Director of Military Intelligence in December 1940, in February 1941 first questioned Swinton’s authority to make the decision to place RSS under Section VIII. (Beaumont-Nesbitt, who held the position for only eighteen months, was probably removed because he was notoriously wrong about a predicted German invasion, in a paper written on September 7, 1940. Noel Annan indicated that Admiral Godfrey did not rate ‘less gifted colleagues’ such as him highly, and in Changing Enemies  Annan witheringly described him as ‘the charming courtier and guardsman’.) Davidson apparently knew more about MI5’s needs than did his predecessor, and, as WO 288/5095 shows, he subsequently expressed major concerns about SIS’s ability to understand and manage the interception of signals, and to deal with the Post Office. He regretted that Petrie had apparently not yet spoken to Worlledge, or to Butler in MI8. (Handwritten notes on the letters suggest that Davidson was getting tutored by Butler.) Davidson’s preference echoed Simpson’s ‘unified control,’ but he was perhaps revealing his naivety and novelty in the job when he stated that MI5 (‘our original suggestion’) was the home he preferred for RSS, being unaware of MI5’s deep reluctance to take it on. He nevertheless accepted Swinton’s decision.

Colonel Butler had been particularly scathing about Gambier-Parry’s understanding of wireless interception issues. Before the decision was made, he stated (WO 208/5105) that Gambier-Parry had ‘little or no experience of this type of work’, and on March 23 reported Gambier-Parry as saying that, if RSS were under his control in the event of an invasion, he could not be held responsible for the detection of illicit wireless within the Army Zone, and had suggested a new organisation under GHQ Home Forces. “Colonel Gambier-Parry refers to operational agents and static agents but I do not know how one can differentiate between the two when heard on a wireless set,” wrote Butler. Both Butler and Worlledge thought that Petrie did not have full knowledge of the facts – a justifiable complaint, it would seem.

Worlledge had written a very sternly worded memorandum on February 14, 1941, where he stated: “It is not clear to me that anything would be gained by the transfer of R.S.S. ‘lock, stock, and barrel’ to any other branch unless that branch is in a position to re-organize R.S.S. completely on a proper military basis. In my opinion, R.S.S. should be organized as one unit, preferably a purely military unit though I would not exclude the possibility of a mixed military and civilian unit.” He was chafing more at the frustrations of dealing with the Post Office rather than the reliance on a crew of civilian interceptors, and his concerns were far more with the threat of soldiers in uniform invading the country, bearing illicit radio transmitters, than with the possibility of German agents roaming around the country. His voice articulated the broader issue of Signals Security that would rear its head again when the circumstances of war had changed.

And in April, 1941 (after the decision on the transfer was made, but before the formal announcement) when the threat of invasion was still looming, Butler had to take the bull by the horns, and inform the General Staff that RSS was incapable of providing the mechanisms for locating possible illicit wireless agents operating in the area of active operations, and that military staff should take on that responsibility, using some RSS equipment. Butler showed a good insight into the problem: “Apart from actual interception, the above involves a number of minor commitments such as the control of some wireless stations erected by our Allies in this country, monitoring of stations in foreign Legations in London, checking numerous reports of suspected transmissions and advising the Wireless Board and G.P.O on the control of the sale of radio components.” Fortunately, the threat of invasion was now receding, and Operation Barbarossa on June 22 confirmed it. The problem of ‘embedded’ agents was deferred, and the General Staff relaxed.

A valuable perspective on the challenges of the time was provided by one R. L. Hughes. In 1946, Hughes, then of MI5’s B4 section, submitted a history of the unit he had previously occupied, B3B, which had been a section in Malcom Frost’s group (see KV 4/27), and had played a large role in the exchanges of the time. What was B3B, and what was its mission? The exact structure of B3 between the years 1941 (after Frost’s W division was dissolved, and B3 created), and 1943 (when Frost left MI5, in January, according to Curry, in December according to Liddell!) is elusive, but Curry’s confusing organisation chart for April 1943, and his slightly contradictory text (p 259), still show Frost in charge of B3A (Censorship Issues, R. E. Bird), B3D (Liaison with Censorship, A. Grogan), B3B (Illicit Wireless Interception: Liaison with RSS, R. L. Hughes), B3C (Lights and Pigeons, Flight-Lieutenant R. M. Walker) and B3E (Signals Security, Lt. Colonel Sclater).

The confusion arises because Curry added elsewhere that Frost had taken on ‘Signals Security’ himself, and B3E was created only when Frost departed ‘in January 1943’. The creation and role of B3E needs to be defined clearly. B3E does not appear in the April 1943 organisation chart which Curry represented, and Frost did not depart until the end of November 1943. As for Sclater, the Signals Security expert, Colonel Worlledge had appointed him several years before as his ‘adjutant’ (according to Nigel West) at MI8c, and he thus may have been a victim of the ‘purge’ after Gambier-Parry took over. But a valid conclusion might be that Frost was unaware of how Sclater was being brought into MI5 to replace him, and saw his presence as a threat, even though Signals Security was nominally under his control. That Sclater would effectively replace Frost was surely Liddell’s intention, as Signals Security once again became a major focus of MI5’s attention.

Thus Hughes was right in the middle of what was going on, liaising with RSS, and he adds some useful vignettes to the tensions of 1940 and 1941, echoing what Lt.-Colonel Simpson had articulated about the importance of Signals Security. For example: “Colonel Simpson reported on the 15th September, 1939 on the condition of affairs at that time. He considered it quite unsatisfactory and suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxxx should be sought. It is interesting to note that he stressed the importance of Signals Security and recommended that there should be a monitoring service studying our own Service transmissions. He also stressed the importance of the closest possible collaboration between the Intelligence Organisation, M.I.5. and the technical organisation, R.S.S. He drew a diagram which pictured a wireless technical organisation in close liaison with the Services, G.C.& C.S., M.I.5., R.S.S. (then known as M.I.1.g.) and, through Section VIII, with M.I.6. M.I.5.was to provide the link with police and G.P.O. It may be noted that during the latter part of the war the organisation approximated to this, as Section V of M.I.6. established a branch working with R.S.S. under the name of the Radio Intelligence Section (R.I.S.)  . . .”

Why the name of the Colonel had to be redacted is not clear. As I have written before, it was probably Gambier-Parry himself, as the names of all SIS personnel were discreetly obscured in the records, and Curry in a memorandum indicated that Simpson had indicated that the Colonel was in MI6 (SIS). Gambier-Parry was not known for his shrewd understanding of signals matters, however, and at this stage Simpson would more probably have been invoking support from his true military colleagues. In any case, it is salutary that Simpson was so early drawing attention to the failings of security procedures within the armed forces, as this would be an issue of major concern later in the war, in which Frost would take a keen interest. Simpson’s message of ‘Unified Control’ is clear, and Hughes states that this issue caused a breakdown in negotiations between MI5 (then represented by Simpson) and RSS/MI8c. He goes on, moreover,  to describe how Malcolm Frost had responded to Walter Gill’s memorandum describing the functions of RSS by making a bid to manage the whole operation. This was a somewhat audacious move, as Frost had been recruited from the BBC to investigate foreign broadcasts, and he had nothing like the stature or reputation of Simpson.

Malcolm Frost is one of the most interesting characters in this saga, as his role has been vastly underrepresented. He may be one of those public servants whose contributions were sometimes diminished by jealousy, or personal dislike – perhaps like Felix Cowgill in SIS, or Jasper Harker of MI5 – and whose reputations have suffered because they were not invited to tell their side of the story. He was certainly a favourite of Lord Swinton for a while, as Swinton appointed him from the BBC, where he had been Director of Overseas Intelligence, to chair the important Home Defence Security Intelligence Committee, which included wireless interception. This promotion apparently went to his head a bit, and his ambitions and manœuverings quickly got under the skin of Liddell – and eventually Swinton himself. Yet, even though Swinton was recorded as saying, at the end of 1940, that Frost’s days at MI5 were numbered, Frost was a survivor, and proved to be an important thorn in the flesh of Gambier-Parry and RSS for the next couple of years. He seemed to be a quick learner, an analytical thinker, and a painstaking recorder of conversations, an operation that may have been designed to cover himself should his enemies turn against him more volubly. And indeed he had many enemies, probably because he behaved so antagonistically when trying to work through differences of opinion with anyone.

Ironically, however, the primary challenge to RSS’s governance in mid-1940 had come from the Post Office. What might have pushed Simpson over the edge was the GPO’s insistence that it had a charter to provide personnel and materials to MI8c, granted by the War Office, and approved by the Cabinet. When it was challenged on the quality of such, and on its sluggish bureaucracy, however, its representative dug his heels in, and reminded MI8c and MI5 that it was exclusively responsible for the detection of illicit wireless transmitters and would pursue that mission on its own terms. That charter was a legacy of peacetime operations, when it needed to track down pirate operators who might have been interfering with critical factory operations, or public broadcasting. Yet it was an argument doomed to failure.

Yet the GPO was not the only fly in the ointment. As the military threat increased, and Swinton soured on MI5’s capabilities, competent critics sighed over the apparent muddle. Before the SIS takeover, RSS had set up regional officers at exactly the same time (June 1940) that MI5 had established its own Regional Security Liaison Officers (RSLOs), leading to conflicts in searches and reporting. Both the military and the police were confused as to who exactly was in charge. And while the responsibility was more clearly defined with the transfer to SIS, several observers expressed their doubts about Gambier-Parry’s understanding of the true problem. As I have showed, the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General Francis Davidson, newly appointed to the post, expressed his strong concerns to Swinton in January 1941, before the official decision was announced. Swinton tried to assuage him, but he was still expressing doubts in May 1941.

At the same time, Worlledge, having had a meeting with Gambier-Parry, also thought that the future new owner of the unit did not understand the technical issues well. Likewise, Colonel Butler of MI8c concluded that Gambier-Parry had ‘little or no experience’, and pointed out that Gambier-Parry had told him that he did not think that RSS would be responsible for any detection of illicit wireless in the event of an invasion – an appalling misjudgment. (At this stage of the war, there was a deathly fear of the possibility of German wireless agents working on English soil, assisting the invaders, with their traffic inextricably entwined with military communications.) But Butler was not to last long: he was feuding with Gordon Welchman of GC&CS at the time, and was let go in June 1941, perhaps another victim of Gambier-Parry’s purge.

What is fascinating is that Frost, despite his being logically discarded by his sponsor, Lord Swinton, in December 1940, evolved to be the main agent pestering Gambier-Parry over his inadequate machinery for tracking illicit transmitters in the UK – the core mission of RSS. KV 4/97 and KV 4/98 show how, after the year of acquaintanceship in 1941, when committees were setup, and procedures defined, the distrust began to establish itself in 1942. Liddell had already clashed with Gambier-Parry in May 1941 over possible undetected transmissions, Gambier-Parry holding on to the Gillean line that they would have to be two-way, and using this argument to deny that any could exist. (He was probably politically correct, but technically wrong, but at that stage of the war, a German invasion had not been excluded from consideration.) Trevor-Roper, performing brilliant work in developing schemata of the Abwehr’s operations, but now forced to work formally under Cowgill, was by now chafing at his boss’s obsession about control, as Cowgill was unwilling to distribute Trevor-Roper’s notes to MI5 or even to GC&CS, and a series of meetings attempted to resolve the impasse.

Frost was in the meantime becoming too inquisitive. On September 9, 1941, another meeting was held between Liddell, Frost, Gambier-Parry and Maltby to define Frost’s charter. A document was approved, although Liddell noted in his diary that it contained ‘a good deal of eyewash’. At an important meeting on October 3, Frost kept up the attack. Liddell reported that RSS was now intercepting 216 stations, and that there had been a steady rise in decoded traffic. Yet Frost voiced concerns about RSS’s energies being directed too much at group (i.e. Abwehr) traffic, and that a gap between RSS & Army Signals continued to exist. Liddell deemed that nobody was responsible for parachutists and the Fifth Column (if, of course, there was one: in truth, it remained a creation of another group in MI5 at the time.) In November, Cowgill was still expressing horror at the distribution of ISOS material, and effectively preventing MI5 from gaining feedback on the activities of its double agents.

Then, on November 19, Frost made a very puzzling comment to Liddell, informing him that ‘Gambier-Parry & Maltby deprecated his departure to the B.B.C.’ It would appear from this item that Frost was at this stage on the way out, and it might partly explain why Curry (who had moved on to a position as Petrie’s aide in October 1941) later wrote in his ‘History’ that Frost left MI5 in January of 1943, which was admittedly over a year later, but still a long time before Frost’s eventual departure. This show of remorse was certainly one of crocodile tears from Gambier-Parry and Maltby, and maybe Frost, under attack on all sides, was making a plea to Liddell that his talents were still needed. By this time, Liddell, who was beginning to get frustrated by illicit wireless transmissions (mostly from foreign embassies), may have concluded that, while he continued to complain to Vivian at SIS of the problem, he needed a dedicated pair of hands working below decks, and, with Frost having had his ambitious wings clipped, the BBC-man gained a stay of execution. Indeed, Liddell did later plan to liquidate Frost’s division: on February 9, 1943, however, he wrote that that move had been shelved, and Frost was not to leave until the end of November of that year. Liddell was probably already looking for a replacement.

Tensions between MI5 & RSS, Part 2 (1942-43)

Thus, despite the efforts to move him out, Frost survived, and 1942 was his most significant year in MI5. KV 4/97 shows a fascinating account of his perpetual tussles with Gambier-Parry and Maltby. In December 1941 and January 1942 he harangued Maltby over the problems and responsibilities of the mobile units, and argued with Morton Evans over transferring receivers to them. He asked questions about the distribution and equipment of personnel and equipment, which caused Morton Evans to rebuke him for being nosy. He became involved with the abortive exercise to exchange details of codes and frequencies with Soviet intelligence, and asked Maltby to disclose SIS secrets. Gambier-Parry had to lecture him that everything was under control. He wrote a detailed report on the state-of-the-art of interception, again suggesting that RSS did not really understand it. On September 20, he submitted a report to Liddell that criticised the clumsiness of current mobile detection devices, and his text indicates that at this stage MI5 was performing some experimental work of its own. A meeting was set up with Liddell and Maltby just over a week later, and soon afterwards Maltby was forced to admit that current coverage in the UK was inadequate. Frost pointed out problems with Elmes, one of Maltby’s sidekicks, and had to inform Liddell that the minutes of one RSS meeting needed to be corrected to include the mission of identifying illicit wireless in the British Isles – the perpetual blind spot of Gambier-Parry’s team.

All this resulted in a spirited defence by Major Morton Evans, who submitted a carefully argued paper on March 3, 1942 about the conflicts between the demands of watching and recording the undeniably real traffic of the enemy, and the need to uncover any wireless agents on the mainland (the ‘General Search’ function), concluding that a necessary balance was maintained that could not ensure both goals were perfectly met. He introduced the challenge of domestic illicit interception by writing: “By working at full pressure it is only possible to take about one hundred effective bearings a day, which means that only a very small percentage of the signals heard can be D/F’d, since the number of transmissions taking place throughout the day is in the order of tens of thousands. It therefore becomes necessary to narrow the field of those signals which are to be put up for bearings, and this means that the signal has to be heard more than once before it can be established that it is unidentified and therefore suspicious. The D/F stations are therefore employed largely by taking bearings on signals which have been marked down for special investigation, and when this is not a full time job the remainder of their time is spent on taking bearings of all suspicious signals which may be put up at random.”

This is a highly important report which shows the stresses that were placed on the Discrimination Unit that passed out instructions to the VIs, and how ineffective the Mobile Units would have been if they had to wait for multiple suspected transmissions, and then organize themselves to drive maybe hundreds of miles in the hope of catching the pirate transmitting again from the same location. It is also presents a provocative introduction to the claims made by Chapman Pincher about what Morton Evans told him about the traffic suspected as being generated by Sonia, and what Morton Evans was supposed to have done with it. As I shall show in a later piece, Morton Evans’s career makes Pincher’s testimony look highly dubious.

All this pestering by Frost, however, must have caused immense irritation to Gambier-Parry, Maltby and Cowgill, and may well have contributed to SIS’s suggestion (made through Vivian) that the RSS Committee be abolished. At a meeting on December 2, all except Maltby and Cowgill voted that the committee should not be discontinued, however, and a useful compromise, whereby the committee was split into two, a high-level and a low-level group, was eventually worked out. But, by now, the planning emphasis was much more on signals protection and detection of ‘stay-behind’ agents on the Continent when the inevitable Allied invasion of Europe took place, and Frost’s attention to domestic mobile units was beginning to sound wearisome.

In 1943, Frost took up the cudgels again, as KV 4/98 shows. A note by Frost to Liddell, dated January 27, 1943, indicates that Frost has now immersed himself into the techniques of broader signals security, and violently disagrees with Vivian and Gambier-Parry. Frost wrote: “He [Vivian] appears to presume that Gambier-Parry and S.C.U.3 are responsible for all functions which can be included under the heading ‘Radio Security’. This is false. Radio security involves not only the technical interception of suspected enemy signals, which is the function of R.S.S., but the planning of our own and Allied radio security measures and the investigation of illicit wireless activities from an intelligence angle. Parry frequently implies that he is responsible for all these activities. In fact, many bodies other than R.S.S. and the Security Service are engaged on radio security work under one heading or another, including the British Joint Communications Board, the Wireless Telegraphy Board, the Censorship, and the Signals Department of the Three Services.”  Thus Gambier-Parry was accused of two crimes: ineffectiveness in illicit wireless detection, a function he denied having, and misunderstanding the scope of Signals Security, a responsibility he thought he owned.

Frost goes on to mention Gambier-Parry’s excuse that he needs more funding: Frost asserts that Gambier-Parry has plenty of money for his own pet projects. Two weeks later, Frost is making demands to be on the high-level committee, and that Gambier-Parry should be removed – a bold initiative, indeed. This echoes the statement that Liddell had made to Petrie in December 1942, that ‘the plumbers (i.e. Gambier-Parry and Maltby) were directing intelligence, rather than the other way around’. Yet there was a further problem: while Vivian may have been declaring Gambier-Parry’s overall responsibility, Gambier-Parry was becoming a reluctant warrior on the broader issue of civil and military signals security. Gambier-Parry’s chief interest was in technology, in apparatus and codes, and some of the more complex and political aspects of radio security eluded him.

By now Frost was being eased out. Vivian’s proposal to Liddell on participants on the low-level committee excludes Frost, with Dick White and Hubert Hart suggested as members instead. Liddell and Vivian argue, about Frost and the Chairmanship, as well. Even Petrie agrees that MI5’s radio interests are not being adequately represented. The record here goes silent after that, but an extraordinary report in KV 4/33 (‘Report on the Operations of B3E in Connection with Signals Security & Wireless Transmission during the War 1939-1945’), written in May/June 1945 (i.e. as Overlord was under way) suggests that MI5 thereafter effectively took control of signals security through the efforts of Lt.-Colonel Sclater, a probable reject from Maltby’s unit at Hanslope, who at some stage led the Signals Security Unit within MI5.

The Year of Signals Security

A close reading of Liddell’s Diaries gives a better insight into the machinations of this period than does anything that I have discovered at Kew. 1943 was the Year of Signals Security, and the matter had several dimensions. The overall consideration was that, as the project to invade Europe (‘Overlord’) developed, the security of wireless communications would have to become a lot tighter in order to prevent the Nazis learning of the Allies’ battle plans. The unknown quantity of dealing with possible ‘leave-behind’ Abwehr wireless agents in France would require RSS to turn its attention to direction-finding across the Channel. Moreover, there were military, civil, and diplomatic aspects. While the Navy and the Air Force had adopted solid procedures for keeping their traffic secret, the Army was notoriously lax, as the General Staff had learned from decrypted ULTRA messages. * Much government use of wireless was also sloppy, with the Railways particularly negligent. When troops started to move, details about train schedules and volumes of personnel could have caused dangerous exposures. Governments-in-exile, and allied administrations, were now starting to use wireless more intensively. The JIC welcomed the intelligence that was gained by intercepting such exchanges, but if RSS and GC&CS could understand these dialogues, why should not the Germans, also?

[* The frequently made claim that naval ciphers were secure has been undermined by recent analysis. See, for example, Christian Jennings’s The Third Reich is Listening]

These issues came up at the meetings of the high-level Radio Security Committee. Yet, as Liddell reported in March 1943, Gambier-Parry was very unwilling to take the lead. He refused to take responsibility for signals security (suggesting, perhaps, that he had now taken Frost’s lesson to heart), and used delaying tactics, which provoked Frost and Liddell. Liddell believed that the JIC and the Chiefs of Staff should be alerted to both the exposures caused by lax wireless discipline and Gambier-Parry’s reluctance to do anything. As Liddell recorded on April 12: “G-P has replied to the D.G. on the question of Signals Security. His letter is not particularly satisfactory and we propose to raise the matter on the Radio Security Committee. Parry is evidently afraid that it may fall to the lot of R.S.S. to look after Signals Security. He is therefore reluctant to have it brought to the notice of the Chiefs of Staff that the Germans are acquiring a considerable knowledge about the disposition of our units in this country and elsewhere through signals leakages.” What is perplexing, however, is that Liddell does not refer in his Diaries to the April 1943 report put out by Sclater [see below], which presumably must have been issued before Sclater was officially hired to MI5.

Another trigger for action (May 31) was the discovery that agent GARBO had been given a new cipher, and that he had been given instructions to use the British Army’s procedure (callsigns, sequences) in transmitting messages. While this news was encouraging in the confidence that the Abwehr still held in GARBO, it was alarming on two counts. It indicated that the Germans were successfully interpreting army traffic, and it indicated that it would be a safe procedure as RSS had not been able to distinguish real army messages from fake ones. (Astute readers may recall that agent SONIA received similar instructions: the Soviets probably learned about it from Blunt.) This was of urgent concern to MI5, since, if RSS could not discriminate such messages, unknown Abwehr agents (i.e. some not under control of the XX Operation) might also be transmitting undetected. Even before this, the Chiefs of Staff realised that special measures need to be taken. In classic Whitehall fashion, they appointed a committee, the Intelligence Board, to look into the question. But in this case, they selected a very canny individual to chair the committee – one Peter Reid, who was a close friend (and maybe even a relative) of Guy Liddell.

On June 9, Liddell had a long chat with Reid, and informed him of the details of Garbo’s new cipher. Reid was characteristically blunt: “Reid considers G-P, Maltby & Frost as bluffers, and to some extent charlatans”, wrote Liddell. Reid thought that the Army ciphers and operations had to be fixed first: fortunately the Army staff now recognised the problem. A couple of weeks later, Reid was telling Liddell that MI5 should ‘logically control RSS’. He thought Frost was not up to the mark, technically inadequate, and probably recommended at this stage an outsider for Liddell to bring in, which might explain the eventual recruitment of Sclater. Reid’s committee also inspected RSS’s operation itself: Frost told Liddell that Reid might be looking into the communications of SIS and SOE, which had been Gambier-Parry’s exclusive bailiwick, and of which the head of Section VIII was particularly proprietary. Reid is much of a mystery: where he came from, and what his expertise was, are not clear. It is difficult to determine whether he is offering strong opinions based on deep knowledge of the subject, or energetic fresh views deriving from relative ignorance. (He was not the P.R. Reid who escaped from Colditz, and wrote of his exploits.) On August 20, Liddell recorded that Reid was ‘almost violent about the stupidity in handling intercept material’.

While Gambier-Parry was becoming increasingly under siege, Frost also appeared to have received the message that a career move was imminent. He told Liddell on August 7 that he was investigating a job with the Wireless Board. He was unhappy with his salary, and said ‘he should give another organisation the benefit of his services’, an observation that defines well his pomposity and high level of self-regard. Soon after this, one finds the first references to Sclater in Liddell’s Diaries. Yet Sclater is talking to Liddell ‘in the strictest confidence’ on August 26, which suggests that his appointment has not yet been regularized. It suggests that Sclater was frustrated with working at RSS (as any man of his calibre reporting to Maltby must surely have been): similarly, one can never see him accepting a job under Frost, to endure the same insufferable management style.

A few paragraphs in Sclater’s post-war History of the unit, submitted to Curry, gives a hint of how Sclater’s influence started. He claims that MI5’s initiative, in raising questions about possible leaks from civilian authorities, such as the Police and Railway Lines, resulted in the collection of ‘all possible details from other departments thought to be using radio communications’. MI5 then requisitioned the services of some RSS mobile units to monitor them. But the outcome was not good. “The results of monitoring some Police and Railway communications indicated a deplorable lack of security knowledge and some examples were included in a report which eventually reached the Inter-Department W/T Security Committee.” MI5 then succeeded in expanding the scope of the committee to include civilian use, the Committee having its name changed to ‘W/T Security’. This new Committee then issued the report that appeared on April 28, under Sclater’s name. Thus it is probably safe to assume that Sclater was at this time on secondment, since he did not appear in Curry’s organisation chart of April 1943, and would hardly have been nominated to criticize RSS from within the unit. Frost, however, should be credited with keeping the matter alive, even if he did not show mastery over the subject, or display tact when pursuing his investigations. (Harrison states that Sclater was not officially recruited by MI5 until January 1944.)

Liddell here records some shocking details of Sclater’s conclusions about RSS: “He told me in the strictest confidence that they had 3 M.U.s [mobile units] which had been carrying out exercises under McIntosh. He does not however think that the latter is a suitable person to conduct a search. He also told me that RSS in d.f.ing [direction-finding] an alleged beacon near Lincoln had given an area of several hundred square miles in which the search would have to be made. Their methods in d.f.ing continental stations were improving but they reckon on an error of 1% per hundred miles. This would mean a transmitter could only be located within an area of some 400 sq. miles. He also told me confidentially that he believed RSS were attempting to d.f. certain stations in France which only came up for testing periodically since they are believed to be those which will be left behind in time of invasion. RSS have said nothing to us about this officially. All this of course will have to come out when we get down to I.B. [Intelligence Board] planning.”

This exchange shows the high degree of confidence that Sclater had in Liddell and MI5 assuming the responsibility for Signals Security, but also his disillusion with Gambier-Parry. (A few weeks later, Gambier-Parry was to suggest that mobile units should not be taken across the Channel until the RSS had detected an illicit transmitter. A rather feeble interpretation of ‘mobility’  .  . .  Gambier-Parry certainly did not understand the problem of mobile illicit wireless use.) Yet Sclater’s willingness to criticize the RSS’s direction-finding capabilities implicitly suggests that the acknowledged expert on direction-finding, Major Keen, who also reported to Maltby, was not being used properly. Did Keen perhaps have something to do with Sclater’s move away from RSS?

Sclater’s arrival must have boosted Liddell’s knowledge – and confidence. An entry in his diary from September 10 is worth citing in full. The first significant observation is that he records that Vivian appeared not to be aware of RSS’s mission in detecting illicit wireless from the UK, thus providing solid reinforcement of the signals that Gambier-Parry had been issuing. In the only chapters of substance covering RSS (that I have found, before Abrutat), namely in Nigel West’s Sigint Secrets, suggests that RSS’s straying into counteroffensive operations at the expense of defensive moves was a result of Guy Liddell’s success, and that he himself initiated it (p 154). Since West mistakenly informs us that RSS was in fact created by MI5, and given the identity of MI8c ‘as a security precaution’, one has to remain sceptical of the author’s conclusions, while understanding how he might have contributed to the confusion about RSS

Newly emboldened, Liddell then wrote: “The other question to be decided is the security of the communications of allied Govts. This can be divided into three parts: allied forces, allied diplomatic and allied secret service. Vivian takes up a rather non possumus attitude on this question by saying that monitoring of the services of allied forces can easily be evaded by the transfer of the traffic to diplomatic channels. If this possibility exists, and obviously it does, we should monitor the diplomatic channels. All we are really asking is a clear statement of the facts. The services are supposed to be responsible for the security of the signals of allied services. What in fact are they doing about it? The Secret Service communications of allied Govts’ are supposed to be the responsibility of SIS. Have they the cyphers? Do they know the contents of the messages? If the cyphers are insecure what steps have been taken to warn the governments concerned? Do SIS ever take it upon themselves to refuse to send certain communications? If so is it open to government concerned to have them sent either through military or diplomatic channels? Our sole locus standi in this matter is that when a leak occurs we may well be looking all over the country for a body whereas in fact the information is going out over the air.” He followed up with a trenchant analysis of the R.S.C.  committee meeting on September 14, encouraging the RSS to deal with the Reid committee directly.

Realising that Frost was not a good ambassador for MI5, Liddell at this point tried to harness his  involvement with the Reid Committee until his new position was confirmed. “It was agreed at that meeting that RSS should monitor the civil establishments as and when they were able and turn in the results to the Reid Committee on which are represented Min. of Supply, MAP, GPO, Railways, and Police. All these bodies are on occasions co-opted to the Reid Committee. The reason why I did not press this matter at the meeting at Kinnaird House was that I did not want to build Frost up in a new job where he would again be at logger-heads with everybody. Had he not been there I should have pressed hard for our taking over the educational side and urged that RSS as our technical tool should monitor from time to time and turn in the products to us”, he recorded on November 12. The next day, Reid told Liddell that Frost had accepted a job with the BBC in connection with broadcasting from the Second Front. Frost’s swansong was to try to ‘liquidate’ the whole Barnet operation, and told his staff, before he left, of that drastic action. But, after his departure, Sclater was able to take on his role in B3E officially, and consider more humane ways of dealing with the problems at RSS. By then, with Frost gone, Maltby was sending out conciliatory signals to Sclater and Liddell about wanting to cooperate.

The relevant files on B3E (KV 4/33) can thus now be interpreted in context. The unit was stationed close to RSS’s Barnet headquarters, an outpost of MI5 in RSS territory, and Sclater maintained close contacts with parties involved with wireless, including the GPO Radio Branch, the Telecommunications Dept., responsible for Licenses, the Inspector of Wireless Telegraphy (Coast Stations), the Wireless Telegraphy Board, as well as the RSIC, the low-level RSS committee. Sclater’s main point was that the lessons of listening to the Abwehr, with their lack of discipline to names, identities, repeated messages, en clair transmissions, etc. were not being applied to British military or civilian communications in 1942. He pointed out that MI5 also had no official knowledge of all the many organisations that were using transmitters legally, which must have inhibited the effectiveness of any interception programme, whoever owned it. He identified appalling lapses of security, especially in the Police and Railways. The outcome was the report published on April 28, 1943, which made some urgent recommendations. Yet it must be recalled that B3E was apparently not established until after Frost left in December 1943, so Sclater’s account is not strictly accurate in its self-representation as an MI5 document.

This report therefore (with some allowances, perhaps, for the author’s vainglory) makes the claim that MI5 effectively took over control of RSS, ‘rooting out undisciplined use’, especially in the Home Guard. RSS was given strict instructions on how to deploy resources to cover Civil or Service traffic ‘as shall appear to the Security Service desirable’. MI5 was now represented on all bodies to do with radio interception, and exerted an influence on the JIC and SHAEF. MI5 co-authored with the Home Office instructions to all civil units, which were copied to the RSS. This file contains a fascinating array of other information, including examples of flagrant breaches of security, and it demands further attention. Signals Security had come full circle from Simpson to Sclater in five years. The ascent of Sclater marked the demise of Frost. Can it all be trusted? I don’t know. You will not find any reference to ‘Sclater’ or B3E’ in Christopher Andrew’s Defence of the Realm, but that fact will perhaps not surprise anybody.

Mobile Direction-Finding

The course of mobile direction-finding (and, implicitly, location-finding) during the war was not smooth. It was partly one of technology (miniaturizing the equipment to a degree that vans, or even pedestrians, could pick up signals reliably), and partly one of resources and logistics (to what extent was the dedication of personnel to the task justifiable when the threat seemed to diminish). Thus the years 1941-1943 can be seen in the following terms: a year of sustained concern about the threat of an invasion (1941); a year of relative quiet, and thus reflection, on the mainland, while the outcome of the war generally looked dire (1942); and a year of earnest preparation for the Allied invasion of Europe, when security of radio traffic, and the threat of illicit broadcasts, again rose in importance (1943).

The GPO had begun serious experiments as early as 1935, as is shown in DSIR 36/2220. The fact that a problem of ‘illicit radio transmissions’ in rural districts was considered a threat at this stage, even before Hitler had occupied the Rhineland, is breathtaking. Hampshire was chosen as the locality, and the exercise led to some dramatic conclusions. Negotiating country roads, and relying primarily on 1” scale maps (since cars had no built-in compasses) required much visual indication, and constant changing of direction to take fresh bearings. It was estimated that forty minutes of transmitting-time were required for any successful pursuit. Market-day interfered with the activity, and night operations required stationary observations at main road crossings, ‘as these are the most easily identifiable landmarks’. This was, for 1935, a remarkably imaginative exploit by the Post Office, and showed some important lessons to be built on.

By 1938, the War Office and the GPO, assuming war was imminent, were bringing the role of mobile operations to the forefront. Colonel Ellsdale of the Royal Engineer and Signals Board submitted a very detailed report (WO 208/5102, pp 68-74) of the perceived threat from agents operating in Britain, even ascribing to them a degree of mobility that was far beyond capabilities at the time. In March 1939, the War Office agreed to a considerable investment in Illicit Wireless Interception, including significant investment in mobile stations (see HW 62/21/17). Yet the focus by November 1939 had very quickly switched to beacon-finding, in the erroneous belief that Nazi sympathisers or German agents in Britain would be using such signals to help direct bombers to their targets. Thus the GPO’s annual expenditure in detection was planned to rise from £27,058 in 1939 to £343, 437 in 1940, and capital expenditures to increase from £13,425 to £211,325. A rapid-response squad was envisaged, with up to one hundred vans operating, and identifying the target in a period of between thirty and ninety minutes.

Fortunately, this investment was quickly shelved, as interrogations of prisoners-of-war indicated that there were no beacons operating from British territory. The direction of flights was maintained by tail bearings in Germany. Despite the generic concern about illicit transmissions, and MI5’s lack of knowledge of what licit transmissions were occurring, Beaumont-Nesbitt, the Director of Military Intelligence, called for a slowdown because of the costs. The GPO continued to make investments, but drew criticism from other quarters because of its inefficiencies and bureaucracy. By October 14, 1939, a meeting revealed that the GP had 200 mobile units in operation, but Simpson complained that the staff operating them were not competent. It was this background which prompted Colonel Simpson’s energetic response, but, since he was the individual most closely associated with the Beacon Scare, his voice was not always attended to seriously enough. In all probability, the units were disbanded, the staff was moved elsewhere, and the equipment was put in storage.

After the transfer of RSS to SIS in May 1941, MI5 actually started cooperating with the GPO on the creation of its own mobile units. In a history of B3B written by a Captain Swann (and introduced by R. L. Hughes of B3B – see KV 4/27), can be found the following statement: “Two mobile D/F and interception units were designed and constructed in co-operation with the G.P.O. Radio Branch, for use in special investigations outside the scope of the R.S.S. units. [What this means is not clear.] These cars were provided with comprehensive monitoring and recording facilities, and proved very useful in connection with the special monitoring assignments involved in the campaign to improve the Signals Security of the country’s internal services.”  A laboratory and workshop were set up, using contents of a private laboratory placed at the section’s disposal by one of the MI5 officers. The author said that it was cost-effective, supplemented by GPO apparatus. Hughes comments that this enterprise was a mistake, as it competed with RSS, and earned their enmity. (RSS obviously learned about it.) But ‘it filled the gap that RSS declined to stop’. Units and laboratories were supplied and equipped by the GPO: they were not handed over to RSS until March 1944. Thus another revealing detail about how RSS was seen to be unresponsive to MI5’s needs has come to light.

I shall consider Maltby’s approach to the problems of the mobile units later, when I analyse the minutes of his meetings. Malcolm Frost, meanwhile, was making constant representations to Liddell about the failings of the operation, and how it was having a deleterious affect on RSS-MI5 relationships (see KV 4/97). He reported on October 18, 1942, on a meeting with Gambier-Parry, which resulted in a commitment to provide greater local detection capabilities, but still using equipment and research facilities from the GPO. A few days later, Maltby, Elmes and Frost discussed moving MU bases from Leatherhead and Darlington to Bristol and Newcastle respectively. This was the period (as I discussed above), where Maltby was reluctantly admitting that little had been done with the units since RSS took them over from the GPO in the summer of 1941. The record is important, since it shows that Frost was capable of making some very insightful comments about the state-of-the-art of wireless interception. On September 8, 1942, he submitted a long report to Guy Liddell on the implications of signals security in the event of an allied invasion.

Moreover, policy in the area of follow-up remained confusing. Frost was also energetic in ensuring that local police forces did not act prematurely when illicit transmissions were detected – presumably to safeguard the sanctioned traffic of the double-agents around the country, and to ensure they were not arrested and unmasked. Regulations that MI5 had to be consulted in all cases had been set up on August 9, 1941, but they were not being obeyed faithfully. HO 255/987 describes some of the incidents where Frost had to remind the authorities of the law. “The Home Office has instructed Police that they may not enter houses of people suspected of possession of illicit wireless transmitters, without prior reference to MI5.” The exception was the case of suspected mobile illicit transmitters, since all double agents were stationary. Though even this policy had its bizarre aspects, as another memorandum notes: “An Individual apparatus is not enough for impounding; there have to be sufficient components to form a complete transmitter.” And Frost sometimes received his rewards. One notorious case (the Kuhn incident, wherein an employee of the Ministry of Supply was discovered using a radio illegally in Caldy, Cheshire) resulted in Frost’s receiving an obsequious letter of apology by a Post Office official.

Lastly, a section of the report on B3E gives a glimpse of how MI5 was at some stage strengthened by the arrival of personnel from RSS. In a report titled ‘Liaison with R.S.S. Mobile Units’, the author confirms that MI5 was deploying a parallel organisation. “For this purpose,’ the report runs, ‘in addition to the main D/F stations belonging to R.S.S., there was a Mobile Unit Organisation with 4 bases, namely Barnet, Bristol, Gateshead and Belfast. At each base were station cars fitted with direction-finding apparatus for the search after the fixed D/F Stations had defined the approximate area in which it was thought the agent’s transmitter was situated. It was the duty of B.3.E. to co-operate with R.S.S. Mobile Unit Section at all times and, if necessary, supply an officer to accompany the units on any operation which might take place in the U.K.” Such cases came two ways: through RSS interception, and from MI5 evidence. The MI5 officers on whom liaison duty evolved were all ex-RSS employees.

This is a strange account, for, if B3E was indeed not established until January 1944 (as Harrison asserts), the threat of detection of domestic illicit wireless agents (the ‘purpose’ referred to above) was at that time negligible. Is this another example of grandstanding, in this instance by Sclater? By now, the primary and consuming focus was to on the challenges of mobile units in Europe, on ‘the Second Front’, as Liddell and all irritatingly continued to call it, echoing Stalin’s propaganda. Illegal transmissions would continue to be an irritant, as HW 34/18 displays, but they would occur when the war was virtually over, and then won, such as in foreign embassies. One entry from December 20, 1945 even states that ‘Much useful information was passed on to Discrimination as a result of further transmissions from the Soviet Embassy, only 100 yards from Colonel Sclater’s home, from where the MU detachment worked.’ The fact that those who are entrusted with the task of writing the history may distort it to their own benefit is once again a possibility.

The Management of RSS

Was Maltby unfairly maligned by Trevor-Roper? The historian’s experiences in dealing with the Controller of the RSS are, it appears, a rare impression. Trevor-Roper’s waspish comments about members of the military whom he encountered during the war may not be entirely fair: he accused Gambier-Parry of ‘maintaining a fleet of Packards’ at Whaddon , without indicating that it had been acquired in order to provide mobile units equipped with wireless to accompany the major command headquarters of the Army with capabilities for Ultra intelligence to be distributed. It is true that the seventy or so 1940 Packard Coupes included three that Gambier-Parry reserved for himself, Maltby and Lord Sandhurst, as Geoffrey Pidgeon’s Secret Wireless War informs us. When the first models were shipped out to North Africa, they were however found to be unsuitable for off-road use, and in 1943 the equipment was installed in existing army vehicles instead. This perhaps echoed the unfortunate experiences of wireless equipment that could not survive parachute jumps.

An equipped RSS Packard in Alexandria

Yet Pidgeon’s fascinating compendium does provide some other hints to Maltby’s character and prowess. He was apparently not the sharpest technical officer, and relied largely on Bob Hornby: the episode of his travelling to Latvia to coach embassy staff (cited by Nigel West in GCHQ) is confirmed by Philip J. Davies, in MI6 and the Machinery of Spying, but does not reflect well on his technical competence.  Davies states that Maltby made a ‘cameo appearance’ in the memoir by Leslie Nicholson, the Passport Control Officer (cover for SIS) in Riga, which was confirmed by Kenneth Benton, Nicholson’s deputy. Pidgeon describes how the ace technician, Arthur ‘Spuggy’ Newton, made several trips to Europe before and during the war to install two-way wireless links. Between 1938 and the end of 1941 he was constantly travelling, and one of these assignments involved Nuremberg, Prague, Warsaw, Tallinn, Helsinki and Stockholm. It is probable that Riga was another capital he visited, although one John Darwin was also involved. Maltby may have toured Europe after Newton, checking on the field networks. Pat Hawker recorded how Maltby was more ‘in his element’ showing VIPS around the premises at Whaddon, and Pidgeon claims that Arkley (the headquarters of RSS), ‘although nominally under Maltby, was actually run on a daily basis by Kenneth Morton-Evans’, his deputy.

Maltby was generally not popular. At one stage there were three candidates in the running for the position as Gambier-Parry’s second-in-command, Maltby, Micky Jourdain, and John Darwin. On June 6, 1939, Darwin wrote that he took Maltby out to lunch, writing: “I think we will get on well together but if I am to be Gambier’s second-in-command, it is going to be a trifle difficult.” Pidgeon states that harmony between all three deputies did not last.  Squabbling between Gambier-Parry’s wife and Mrs. Jourdain broke out openly, with the result that Jourdain had to be transferred.  Darwin was in fact mortally ill, and had to leave the unit in January 1940, so Maltby rose by default to his post as Gambier-Parry’s deputy.

After Maltby’s appointment as chief of RSS, Lord Sandhurst, who had been responsible for assembling the troupe of Voluntary Interceptors, indicated he disapproved of Maltby’s appointment as Controller of RSS. Pat Hawker, one of the VIs, wrote the following: “‘Sandy’ was no longer in a position directly to influence RSS policy; indeed both he and particularly his wife had little affection for [Colonel] Ted Maltby who had been made Controller, RSS by Gambier-Parry. Unlike most of the original Section VIII senior personnel, Maltby had not come from Philco (GB) but had been chief salesman to a leading London hi-fi and recording firm well used to ingratiating himself with his customers and superiors.” It is perhaps surprising how the wives were integral to the career prospects of such officers, and there may be some disdain for commerce behind these opinions, but the indications are that Maltby was better at public relations than he was in intelligence matters or leadership.

He left a remarkable legacy, however. The National Archives file at HW 34/30 offers a record of all Maltby’s staff meetings from 1941 to 1944. The first noteworthy aspect of this is that the minutes exist – that a highly secret unit would perform the bureaucratic task of recording discussions and decisions made. The second is the manner in which Maltby went about it. He was clearly a lover of protocol, and believed that his primary job was recording decisions made in order to improve communications, and the understanding of responsibilities by his staff. Moreover, each meeting is numbered, so the record can be seen to be complete. (No meetings were held in 1944 until after D-Day, which is a solid signal that security was tightened up everywhere.)

The first meeting of the Senior Officers’ Conference was held on September 29, 1941, and sessions were held each Tuesday in Maltby’s office at Barnet. The initial intent was to hold meetings weekly: this apparently turned out to be excessive, and the frequency diminished, with intervals of up to several weeks, on occasion, but each meeting was still numbered sequentially. Maltby’s obsession with recording every detail shows an organizing mind, but also betrays that he really did not distinguish between the highly important and the trivial: thus the ordering of gumboots for the mobile unit personnel in Thurso, Scotland, the construction of womens’ lavatories, the ordering of photocopying equipment, and the precise renaming of Trevor-Roper’s unit as 3/V/w/ are given exactly the same prominence as the major problem of trying to make the Post Office deliver the secure lines required for communication between Hanslope and Whaddon. Maltby is not one who can make things happen behind the scenes: he likes to delegate, but does not intervene when tasks cannot be accomplished on time, which probably frustrated many of his team. Lord Sandhurst, for instance, was an active participant for the first few months, but left to take up a senior post elsewhere in SIS by the end of 1941.

The authorised historian (whoever that will be) will do proper justice to these minutes, and maybe they will be transcribed and published one day. I here simply extract and analyse a few items that touch the question of the detection of illicit wireless in the United Kingdom, and shed light on Maltby’s management style. One sees glimpses of the recognition that a more disciplined approach to classifying suspicious traffic was needed. Hence a meeting of November 9, 1941 focuses on the matter of General Search, ‘to ensure that any new and unidentified signal shall be heard and reported’. The VI, ‘having found a new transmission he should continue to watch it whenever heard, until his initial report has been returned with instructions.’ ‘Normally signals such as (i) a known R.S.S. Service. (ii) Army, Navy and Airforce traffic of all nations. (iii) known commercial stations. (iv) transmissions previously reported but identified as unwanted by R.S.S. are not suspicious. But the V.I. should bear in mind that an illicit signal might be an imitation of (i) or (iii).’ The effort is considered tedious, but very important. Yet the issue is left dangling, and it was behaviour like that which must have frustrated Frost and Liddell in MI5. (This analysis was picked up by Morton Evans in the report mentioned earlier.)

What puzzles me is that a complete register of known approved and official transmitters of wireless messages, with their schedules, callsigns, frequencies, patterns, etc., was not compiled at the outset. (This was a problem that Sclater had identified, noting in his report that at the beginning of the war, ‘MI5 had no official knowledge of many organisations using transmitters: Experimental Stations of the Ministry of Supply, Ministry of Aircraft Production, Police, Fire Brigade, Railways, in addition to all the G.P.O. and Cable and Wireless Stations.’ Sclater estimated a thousand transmitters in operation, excluding the supply ministries and the services.) A forceful leader would have overcome the security objections that would no doubt have been raised, and accomplished such a project, thus making it much easier to detect signals that were not covered by the register. And if an earlier motion had been made in demanding the improvement of Army Signals Security, the troublesome matter of alien transmissions imitating Army procedures could have been forestalled. Indolence in that area led to the departure of Sclater to work on the problem for the Intelligence Board, and then MI5.

Another example involves Major Keen, the acknowledged worldwide expert on direction-finding.  At a meeting on October 7, 1942 (Number 26), under the line item ‘VHF – DF Equipment’, it is recorded: “Major Keen reported that he had been in touch with Marconis regarding the delivery of this equipment, and had found that the holdup was not due to non-availability of vibrator units but to the fact that Marconis were prone to concentrate on the orders of those who badgered them most.” The Controller (always identified as such) responded in less than helpful terms: “The Controller suggested that Major Keen should apply pressure to expedite delivery and that, if necessary, he would himself call and see Admiral Grant. It was decided that he would not do this until Major Keen had made further efforts to expedite delivery.” Major Keen was not suited to such work, and it was inefficient to make further demands on him in this role: the matter should have been sorted out at the Gambier-Parry level.

The file is replete with such gems. My conclusion is that Trevor-Roper was probably justified in describing Maltby as he did. He was unsuitable in the post, and resembled an Evelyn Waugh figure from Men at Arms, promoted above his due by the fortunes of war, and the fact that Gambier-Parry seemingly found his company congenial. Moreover, I can find no reference to Major Sclater, Worlledge’s adjutant. The minutes of the first few meetings include the ‘Deputy Controller’ as one of the attendees, and since most of them were Majors, one might expect Sclater to have been on the team in that function. Yet the indication is that Lt.-Colonel Lacey filled that role, as his name appears in the minutes, but he is not identified separately as attending. (In 1942, Major Morton Evans would become Deputy Controller: after the war, he joined MI5, and would work in B Division, as his name appears as ‘B2B’ in the Foote archive. At some stage, in 1950 or later, he was appointed Security Adviser to the Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell, since Nigel West states that, when Liddell retired, he replaced Morton Evans in that role.) As former adjutant, Sclater may have been listed as ‘C/ i/c Administration’, with access to the minutes, but not invited to the conference. Further investigations may show us the facts, but, in any case, one cannot see Sclater lasting long under Maltby’s leadership. Worlledge had resigned, or been forced to move out, in the summer of 1941, and maybe Sclater soon followed him.

The Double-Cross Operation

A few important activities have come to light in a perusal of KV 3/96 and 3/97, HW 40/90, KV 4/213 and KV 3/27.

A decryption of Abwehr traffic from August 13, 1940, made on September 20, indicated that General Feldmarschall Milch had reported that thirty spies were then in training to be sent to the United Kingdom. Soon afterwards, Vivian of SIS informed Dick White (assistant director of B Division) that the Germans claimed to have efficient agents in many British harbour towns who were supplying information on shipping movements. This advice may have alarmed White, but it was probably unreliable. Vivian was able to provide much more useful information in December, when an agent in Budapest telegraphed that the Germans were planning to insert several Sudetenland Germans into the country under the guise of being Czech refugees. This confirmed the German policy of not sending German nationals as part of the LENA spies, as their cover stories would not hold up so well, and the Nazis may have judged non-German natives might well escape the direst prosecution of ‘working for the enemy’.

Another item shows that DMI Davidson was learning – slowly.  KV 4/213 provides great insights into MI5’s thoughts as to how the double agents should be most effectively used, and indicates that after the threat of invasion had passed, and plans for using them for deception proposes to support OVERLORD were not yet relevant, there was much discussion as how they might be sued for propaganda purposes. (It was not until July 1942 that operational plans were advanced enough for the double-agents to be considered suitable for deception purposes.) After one meeting in mid-February, 1941, when Masterman had been educating members of government about the project, he added a fascinating observation to his memorandum to his boss: “D.M.I. asked me after the meeting whether R.S.S. picked up the messages of our agents. He made the point that, if they did not, it was an alarming criticism of their efficiency and utility. If, however, they did, it was equally alarming, because our messages would then be known to a large number of people, including many of the voluntary interceptors.”

Davidson was groping towards an important truth. As Masterman pointed out to him (although the record shows that Masterman himself was not really familiar with the details, since he admitted that he was not sure how often RSS picked up their messages). ‘it would be difficult for the voluntary interceptors to decode the messages.’ In fact it would have been impossible, owing to skills and time pressures, but, the major point was that, if RSS could pick them up, then certainly German Intelligence Services would have been able to. That was the perpetual dilemma that MI5 had to deal with throughout the war.

Lastly, KV 4/27, outlining the achievements of B3B, contains some rich accounts both of Illicit Wireless activity investigated by MI5 from 1939-1945, as well as the duties that the unit assumed in liaising with B1A in controlling double agents, based on interceptions reported from RSS. The former report is worthy of deeper analysis another time, but the author reported that about 2,400 incidents were investigated during the course of the war, and some were of B1A double-agents whose activity had raised suspicions by housewives, window-cleaners, etc. R. L. Hughes, B4 in August 1946, included the following paragraphs, when describing how he kept RSS informed of what B1A’s agents were doing: “B.3.B maintained records of no less than 14 agents who came into this category. The work involved reporting back to B.1.A.the results of R.S.S. monitoring of any suspicious stations noted and was undoubtedly of value to both parties. Full details of these cases concerned will be found in the B.1.A. records referring to ZIGZAG, TATE, ROVER, SNIPER, BRUTUS, FATHER, MUTT & JEFF, SPRINGBOK, TRICYCLE, DRAGONFLY, MORIBUND, GARBO, IMMORTAL and MOONBEAM.” Rather mournfully, he added: “The B.3.B. papers concerning these activities have been destroyed.” The list is fascinating, as little is known about ROVER or MOONBEAM (apparently based in Canada), and I have not come across IMMORTAL or MORIBUND before.

Conclusions

In January, 1946, Sir Samuel Findlater Stewart wrote a report on the achievements of RSS, with recommendations for its future disposition (see FO 1093/484). His DNB entry states that, during the war he had been ‘chairman of the Home Defence Executive and chief civil staff officer (designate) to the commander-in-chief, Home Forces. He was also appointed chairman of the Anglo-American co-ordinating committee set up to deal with the logistic problems of the establishment of the United States forces in Britain, and ‘played a significant part during this period in dealing with the problems of security’. Findlater Stewart also had to approve the information to be passed on by the double agents of the XX Operation. He was thus in all ways in an excellent position to assess the mission and contribution of RSS. I shall return to Findlater Stewart’s report in my final chapter, and merely highlight a few of his observations here.

The report is drafted with typical civil servant vagueness, with heavy use of the passive voice. The author does, however, indicate that it had originally (when?) been intended (by whom?) that the RSS should report to Menzies’s Communications Section, because of the natural affinity between the latter’s establishment of secret radio communications, and the RSS’s need to detect them, but that Swinton wanted to wait until Section VIII had matured. Findlater Stewart then went on to write: “The new system attempted a much greater precision. It started from the proposition that the basis of an efficient service must be as complete an identification of all the traffic capable of being received in this country. When this had been done the task of identifying illicit transmission would be simplified, because almost automatically the suspect station would be thrown up as one which did not fit into the pattern of licit transmissions the Service had drawn.”

This is, to me, an astonishing misrepresentation of the problem and the response. Apart from crediting too much to the level of systematization achieved, the emphasis on reception in the UK, rather than transmission from it, betrays a lack of understanding of the challenge. To assert that all traffic from around the world that was perceptible by monitoring stations in the UK could be catalogued, and sorted into licit and illicit transmissions is ridiculous: the volume was constantly changing, and the notions of ‘licit’ and ‘illicit’ have no meaning on international airwaves. Moreover, many of the UK’s interception (Y) stations were overseas. What might have been possible was the creation of a register of all licit transmitting stations in the UK, so that apparently unapproved stations – once it could be shown that they were operating from UK soil, which almost exclusively required detection of the groundwave – could be investigated. Maybe that was what Findlater Stewart meant, but on this occasion ‘his sound practical judgment of men and things; his capacity to delegate; his economy of the written word’ (DNB) let him down. And even if we grant him license for the occasional muddling of his thoughts, he greatly overstated the discipline of any such system. What he hinted at would have made obvious sense, and it may have been what he was told at Security Executive meetings, but it definitely did not happen that way.

Thus, as the story so far covers events up until the end of 1943, I would make the following conclusions:

  1. Military Intelligence wanted to cast off RSS (MI8c), because of a) the problems of managing civilian staff, b) the struggles in dealing with the General Post Office, and c) the responsibility of a mission for civilian protection. Yet it neglected its responsibility of wireless security in the military. Worlledge and Sclater were champions of the latter, but lost out. Worlledge’s pressing for MI5 after Simpson left, however, was foolish. If Military Intelligence couldn’t solve the GPO supply problem, why did it think MI5 or SIS could do so?
  2. Y (interception) services were surpassingly scattered, among the GPO, RSS (professional stations as well as Voluntary Interceptors), the Army, Navy and Air Force, Marconi’s Wireless Telegraph Company, and even GCHQ itself. This was probably not an efficient method of organizing the collection of potentially harmful messages and valuable enemy traffic. Simpson’s energies within MI5 and the efforts of the high-level Y investigation in 1940 appeared to proceed in parallel, without any cross-fertilisation. The new Y Committee, set up in 1941, was not an effective force. The VIs were allowed to drift into concentrating more on Abwehr signals, and the domestic threat was not approached in a disciplined fashion. Gambier-Parry’s and Vivian’s repeated denials of responsibility for interception are very provocative in their disingenuousness. (Even such an accomplished historian as David Kenyon has been swept into this misconception: in his 2019 book, Bletchley Park and D-Day, he describes RSS as ‘a body tasked with the interception of Abwehr wireless traffic’.)
  3. RSS was weakly led, but it did not receive much direction –  not from Maltby, not from Gambier-Parry (whose preferences were more in design of equipment), not from Menzies (who, according to JIC chairman Cavendish-Bentinck, would not have survived for more than a year had it not been for GC&CS), not from the JIC, not from the General Staff, and certainly not from the Foreign Office or the Home Office. Findlater Stewart of the Security Executive was confused, as was Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence.
  4. Gambier-Parry’s Section VIII did some things very well (the secure distribution of ULTRA), but others not so well (manufacturing of equipment for SIS and SOE agents, and providing mobile units to accompany the army).
  5. Signals Security did not appear to be the responsibility of Section VIII or RSS, but it took an ex-RSS adjutant, working independently for the Intelligence Board, and then for MI5, to get matters straightened out. A History of Signals Security needs to be written: not just RSS (but other Y), not just GC&CS, not just SIS (where Jeffery fails). It would analyse MI5, SIS, including RSS & GC&CS, the armed forces, the GPO, the BBC, the JIC, the General Staff and Military Intelligence, the Foreign Office and Governments-in-exile.
  6. The practice of domestic illicit wireless was never tackled properly, especially when it came to a disciplined approach of tracking it down. What mobile units were supposed to achieve was never defined, and they remained a gesture of competence, frequently inventive, but too sparse and too remote to be a rapid task-force. Fortunately, they were never really required.
  7. MI5 was caught in a Morton’s Fork over its double agents, but got away with it. It desperately did not want them to be casually discovered, and the whole secret to come out in public. It wanted RSS to be able to detect their transmissions, even when they were masked as official military signals, as it was important that MI5 became aware of any unknown German agents who had infiltrated the country’s defences, and were transmitting back to Germany. Yet, if RSS did indeed pick up and discern these transmissions, it meant that the Germans might in turn be expected to wonder why its agents were so remarkably able to broadcast for so long undetected.
  8. There was a tendency, once the war was won, to praise every section enthusiastically. The RSS VIs did well, and so did GCHQ, but SIS and Section VIII had a very mixed track-record, and the Double Cross operation was exaggeratedly praised. A remarkable number of persons and officers were unsuited to their jobs, and, despite the coolness with which the authorised histories describe events, the conventional array of jealousies, feuds, ambitions, rivalries and even blunders exerted a large influence on proceedings.

The last chapter of the saga will describe the events of the first six months of 1944, when the FORTITUDE deception campaign led to the successful invasion of Normandy.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Border Crossings: Coldspur & Stalin

NIHIL ARCANUM MIHI ALIENUM EST

Immigration Problems

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Illegal Immigration

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

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

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

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

. . . and Healthcare

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

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

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

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

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

The Kremlin Letters

‘The Kremlin Letters’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

David Low’s Cartoon on the Nazi-Soviet Pact

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

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

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

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Guy Liddell: A Re-Assessment

Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell’s ‘Guardian’ – Nigel West

I have met Nigel West, the pen name adopted by Rupert Allason, the undisputed doyen of British writers on intelligence matters, on three occasions, as I have recorded in previous blogs. I met him first at a conference on wartime Governments-in-Exile at Lancaster House several years back, and he kindly agreed to come and listen to the seminar on Isaiah Berlin that I was giving at the University of Buckingham the following week. We exchanged emails occasionally: he has always been an informative and encouraging advisor to researchers into the world of espionage and counter-espionage, like me. A couple of years ago, I visited him at his house outside Canterbury, where I enjoyed a very congenial lunch.

Nigel West

Shortly before Misdefending the Realm appeared, my publisher and I decided to send Mr. West a review copy, in the hope that he might provide a blurb to help promote the book. Unfortunately, Mr. West was so perturbed by the errors in the text that he recommended that we withdraw it in order to correct them. This was not a tactic that either of us was in favour of, and I resorted to quoting Robin Winks to cloak my embarrassment: “If intelligence officers dislike a book, for its tone, revelations, or simply because the find that one or two facts in it may prove compromising (for which, also read embarrassing), they may let it be known that the book is ‘riddled with errors,’ customarily pointing out a few. Any book on intelligence will contain errors, given the nature and origin of the documentation, and these errors may then be used to discredit quite valid judgments and conclusions which do not turn on the facts in question.”  (Robin W. Winks, in Cloak & Gown: Scholars in the Secret War, 1939-1961, p 479) Since then, therefore, I have not dared to approach Mr. West on questions of intelligence where I might otherwise have sought his opinion.

I would still describe myself as being on friendly terms with Mr. West, though would not describe us as ‘friends’.  (No collector like Denis Healey or Michael Caine am I.  I count my friends in this world as a few dozen: most of them live in England, however, which makes maintenance of the relationship somewhat difficult. On my infrequent returns to the UK, however, I pick up with them as if I had last seen them only the previous week. What they say about the matter is probably better left unrecorded.) And I remain an enthusiastic reader of Mr. West’s books. I have about twenty-five of his publication on my shelves, which I frequently consult. I have to say that they are not uniformly reliable, but I suspect that Mr. West might say the same thing himself.

His latest work, Cold War Spymaster, subtitled The Legacy of Guy Liddell, Deputy Director of MI5, is a puzzling creation, as I shall soon explain. Two of Mr. West’s works on my bookshelf are his editions of Guy Liddell’s Diaries – Volume 1, 1939-1942, and Volume 2, 1942-1945. In a way, these items are superfluous to my research needs, as I have the full set of Liddell’s Diaries on my desktop, downloaded from the National Archives website. Mr. West told me that he would have dearly liked to publish more of Liddell’s chronicle, but it was not considered economically viable. Yet I still find it useful to consult his editions since he frequently provides valuable guides to identities of redacted names, or cryptonyms used: it is also important for me to know what appears in print (which is the record that most historians exploit), as opposed to the largely untapped resource that the original diaries represent. Cold War Spymaster seems to reflect a desire to fill in the overlooked years in the Liddell chronicle.

Guy Liddell, the Diaries and MI5

As West [I shall, with no lack of respect, drop the ‘Mr.’ hereon] points out, Liddell’s Diaries consist an extraordinary record of MI5’s activities during the war, and afterwards, and I do not believe they have been adequately exploited by historians. It is true that a certain amount of caution is always required when treating such testimony: I have been amazed, for example, at the attention that Andrew Roberts’s recent biography of Churchill has received owing to the claim that the recent publication of the Maisky Diaries has required some revisionist assessment. The Soviet ambassador was a mendacious and manipulative individual, and I do not believe that half the things that Maisky ascribed to Churchill and Anthony Eden were ever said by those two politicians. Thus (for example), Churchill’s opinions on the Soviet Union’s ‘rights’ to control the Baltic States have become distorted. Similarly, though to a lesser degree, Stephen Kotkin takes the claims of Maisky far too seriously in Volume 2 of his biography of Stalin.

Diaries, it is true, have the advantage of immediacy over memoirs, but one still has to bear in mind for whose benefit they are written. Liddell locked his away each night, and probably never expected them to be published, believing (as West states) that only the senior management in MI5 would have the privilege of reading them. Yet a careful reading of the text shows some embarrassments, contradictions, and attempts to cover up unpleasantries. Even in 2002, fifty years later, when they were declassified, multiple passages were redacted because some events were still considered too sensitive. Overall, however, Liddell’s record provides unmatched insights into the mission of MI5 and indeed the prosecution of the war. I used them extensively when researching my thesis, and made copious notes, but now, each time I go back to them on some new intelligence topic, I discover new gems, the significance of which I had overlooked on earlier passes.

Describing Liddell’s roles during the time of his Diaries (1939-1952) is important in assessing his record. When war broke out, he was Assistant-Director, under Jasper Harker, of B Division, responsible for counter-intelligence and counter-espionage. B Division included the somewhat maverick section led by Maxwell Knight, B1F, which was responsible for planting agents within subversive organisations such as the Communist Party and Oswald Mosley’s British Union of Fascists. When Churchill sacked the Director-General, Vernon Kell, in May 1940, and introduced the layer of the Security Executive under Lord Swinton to manage domestic intelligence, Liddell was promoted to Director of B Division, although he had to share the office with an inappropriate political insertion, William Crocker, for some months. As chaos mounted during 1940, and Harker was judged to be ill-equipped for leadership, David Petrie was brought in to head the organisation, and in July 1941 he instituted a new structure in which counter-intelligence against communist subversion was hived off into a new F Division, initially under John Curry. Thus Liddell, while maintaining an interest, was not nominally responsible for handling Soviet espionage during most of the war.

David Petrie

Petrie, an effective administrator appointed to produce order, and a clear definition of roles, was considered a success, and respected by those who worked for him. He retired (in somewhat mysterious circumstances) in 1946, and was replaced by another outsider whose credentials were superficially less impressive, the ex-policeman, Percy Sillitoe – an appointment that Liddell resented on two counts. Petrie was a solid administrator and planner: he had been in his position about a year-and-a-half when he produced, in November 1942, a paper that outlined his ideas about the future of MI5, how it should report, and what the ideal characteristics of officers and the Director-General should be. His recommendations were a little eccentric, stressing that an ideal D-G should come from the Services or Police, and have much experience overseas. Thus Liddell, who probably did not see the report, would have been chagrined at the way that career intelligence officers would have been overlooked. In the same file at Kew (KV 4/448) can be seen Liddell’s pleas for improving career-paths for officers, including the establishment of a permanent civilian intelligence corps in the services.

Petrie was reported to have kept a diary during his years in office, but destroyed it. The authorised historian, Christopher Andrew, glides over his retirement. In a very provocative sentence in his ODNB entry for Petrie, Jason Tomes writes: “In retrospect, this triumph [the double cross system] had to be set alongside a serious failure: inadequate surveillance of Soviet spies. Petrie sensed that the Russian espionage which MI5 uncovered was the tip of an iceberg, but the Foreign Office urged restraint and MI5 had itself been penetrated (by Anthony Blunt).” What Soviet espionage had MI5 uncovered by 1945? Green, Uren and Springhall were convicted in 1942, 1943 and 1944, respectively, but it is not clear why Petrie suspected an ‘iceberg’ of Communist penetration, or what sources Tomes is relying on when he claims that Petrie had evidence of it, and that he and the Foreign Office had a major disagreement over policy, and how the Director-General was overruled. Did he resign over it? That would be a major addition to the history of MI5. The defector Gouzenko led the British authorities to Nunn May, but he was not arrested until March 1946. Could Petrie have been disgusted by the discovery of Leo Long and his accomplice Blunt in 1944? See Misdefending the Realm for more details. I have attempted to contact Tomes through his publisher, the History Press, but he has not responded.

Like several other officers, including Dick White, who considered resigning over the intrusion, Liddell did not think the Labour Party’s appointing of a policeman showed good judgment. Sillitoe had worked in East Africa as a young man, but since 1923 as a domestic police officer, so he hardly met Petrie’s criteria, either.  Astonishingly, Petrie’s entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography asserts that Petrie had recommended Liddell for the post, but had been overruled by Attlee – an item of advice that would have been a complete volte-face in light of his memorandum three years earlier. On the other hand, it might be said that Sillitoe could have well riposted to his critics, after the Fuchs affair, that the established officers in MI5 did not understand counter-intelligence either. And in another of those enigmatic twists that bedevil attempts to work out what really happened here, Richard Deacon (whose role I shall inspect later in this piece), wrote about Sillitoe in The Greatest Treason: “The picture which has most unfortunately been portrayed since Sillitoe’s departure from MI5 has been that of a policeman totally out of place in a service which called for highly intellectual talents. This is total balderdash: someone like Sillitoe was desperately needed to put MI5 on the right track and to get rid of the devious amateurs who held power.” One might ask: was that not what Petrie had been doing for the past five years?

Percy Sillitoe

In any case, Liddell also thought that he deserved the job himself. Yet he did receive some recognition, and moved nearer to the seat of leadership. In October 1946 he replaced Harker as Deputy Director-General, and frequently stood in for his new boss, who had a rough time trying to deal with ‘subversive’ MI5 officers, and reportedly liked to travel to get away from the frustrations of the office climate.  What is puzzling, however, about the post-war period is that, despite the fact that the Nazi threat was over, and that a Labour government was (initially) far more sympathetic to the Soviet cause, B Division did not immediately take back control of communist subversion. A strong leader would have made this case immediately.

The histories of MI5 (by Christopher Andrew, and West himself) are deplorably vague about responsibilities in the post-war years. We can rely on John Curry’s internal history, written in 1945, for the clear evidence that, after Petrie’s reorganization in the summer of 1941, F Division was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’ (F2, under Hollis), which was in turn split into F2A (Policy Activities of CPGB in UK), under Mr Clarke, F2B (Comintern Activities generally, including Communist Refugees), and F2C (Russian Intelligence), under Mr. Pilkington. Petrie had followed Lord Swinton’s advice in splitting up B Division, which was evidently now focused on Nazi Espionage (B1A through B1H). Dick White has been placed in charge of a small section simply named ‘Espionage’, with the mission of B4A described as ‘Suspected cases of Espionage by Individuals domiciled in United Kingdom’, and ‘Review of Espionage cases’. Presumably that allowed Liddell and White to keep their hand in with communist subversion and the machinations of the Comintern.

Yet that agreement (if indeed it was one) is undermined by the organisation chart for August 1943, where White has been promoted to Deputy Director to Liddell, and B4A has been set a new mission of ‘Escaped Prisoners of War and Evaders’. F Division, now under the promoted Roger Hollis, since Curry has been moved into a ‘Research’ position under Petrie, still maintains F2, with the same structure, although Mr Shillito is now responsible for F2B and F2C. With the Soviet Union now an ally, the intensity of concerns about Communist espionage appears to have diminished even more. (In 1943, Stalin announced the dissolution of the Comintern, although that gesture was a fraudulent one.) One might have expected that the conclusion of hostilities, and the awareness within MI5, and even the Foreign Office, that the Soviet Union was now the major threat (again), would provoke a reallocation of forces and a new mission. And, indeed, this appears to be what happened – but in a quiet, unannounced fashion, perhaps because it took a while for Attlee to be able to stand up to the Bevanite and Crippsian influences in his Party. A close inspection of certain archives (in this case, the Pieck files) shows that in September 1946, Michael Serpell identified himself as F2C, but by the following January was known as B1C. This is an important indicator that White’s B Division was taking back some responsibility for Soviet espionage in the light of the new threat, and especially the Gouzenko revelations of 1945. Yet who made the decision, and exactly what happened, seems to be unrecorded.

According to Andrew, after the war, B Division was highly focused on Zionist revolts in Palestine, for which the United Kingdom still held the mandate. Yet he (like West) has nothing to say about F Division between Petrie’s resignation in 1946 and Dick White’s reorganisation in 1953. The whole of the Sillitoe era is a blank. Thus we have to conclude that, from 1947 onwards, Hollis’s F Division was restricted to covering overt subversive organisations (such as the Communist Party), while B Division assumed its traditional role in counter-espionage activities, such as the tracking of Klaus Fuchs and Nunn May, the case of Alexander Foote, and the interpretation of the VENONA transcripts. The artificial split again betrayed the traditional weaknesses in MI5 policies, namely its age-old belief that communist subversion could come only through the agencies of the CPGB, and that domestically-educated ‘intellectual’ communists would still have loyalty to Great Britain. White held on to this thesis for far too long. Gouzenko’s warnings – and the resumption of the Pieck inquiry – had aroused a recognition that an ‘illegal’ network of subversion needed to be investigated. Yet it was not until the Communist takeover in Czechoslovakia, with the subsequent executions, and the Soviet blockade of Berlin in 1948, that Attlee’s policy toward the Soviets hardened, and B Division’s new charter was accepted.

I return to West and Liddell. On the inside cover of each volume of the published Diaries appear the following words: “Although reclusive, and dependent on a small circle of trusted friends, he (Liddell) was unquestionably one of the most remarkable and accomplished professionals of his generation, and a legend within his own organisation.” Even making allowances for the rhetorical flourish of granting Liddell a ‘mythical’ status, I have always been a little sceptical of this judgment. Was this not the same Liddell who recruited Anthony Blunt and Victor Rothschild into his organisation, and then wanted to bring in Guy Burgess, only being talked out of it by John Curry? Was this the same officer who had allowed Fuchs to be accepted into atomic weapons research, despite his known track-record as a CP member, and who allowed SONIA to carry on untouched in her Oxfordshire hideaway? Was this the same officer whom John Costello, David Mure, Goronwy Rees, Richard Deacon and SIS chief Maurice Oldfield all * thought so poorly of that they named him as a probable Soviet mole? Moreover, in his 1987 book, Molehunt, even West had described Liddell as ‘unquestionably a very odd character’. Can these two assessments comfortably co-exist?

* John Costello in Mask of Treachery (1988); David Mure in Master of Deception (1980); Goronwy Rees in the Observer (1980); Richard Deacon in The Greatest Treason (1989); Maurice Oldfield in The Age, and to US intelligence, quoted by Costello.

To balance this catalogue of errors, Liddell surely had some achievements to his credit. He was overall responsible for conceiving the Double-Cross Operation (despite White’s claims to his biographer of his taking the leading role himself, and ‘Tar’ Robertson receiving acclaim from some as being the mastermind of the operation), and basked in the glory that this strategic deception was said to have played in ensuring the success of OVERLORD, the invasion of France. He supervised Maxwell Knight’s infiltration of the Right Club, which led to the arrest and incarceration of Anna Wolkoff and Tyler Kent. He somehow kept B Division together during the turmoil of 1940 and the ‘Fifth Column’ scare. His Diaries reveal a sharp and inquiring mind that was capable of keeping track of myriads of projects across the whole of the British Empire. Thus I opened Cold War Spymaster in the hope that I might find a detailed re-assessment of this somewhat sad figure.

‘Cold War Spymaster’

First, the title. Why West chose this, I have no idea, as he normally claims to be so precise about functions and organisation. (He upbraided me for getting ‘Branches’ and ‘Divisions’ mixed up in Misdefending the Realm, although Christopher Andrew informs us that the terms were used practically interchangeably: it was a mess.) When Geoffrey Elliott wrote about Tommy (‘Tar’) Robertson in Gentleman Spymaster, he was somewhat justified, because Robertson’s main claim to fame was the handling of the German double-agents in World War II. When Martin Pearce chose Spymaster for his biography of Maurice Oldfield, he had right on his side because Oldfield headed SIS, which is primarily an espionage organisation. Helen Fry used it for her profile of the SIS officer, Charles Kendrick, and Charles Whiting wrote a book titled Spymasters for his account of GCHQ’s manipulation of the Germans. But Liddell headed a counter-espionage and counter-intelligence unit: he was not a master of spies.

Second, the subject. Subtitled The Legacy of Guy Liddell, Deputy Director of MI5, the book ‘is intended to examine Liddell’s involvement in some important counter-espionage cases’. Thus some enticing-looking chapters appear on The Duke of Windsor, CORBY (Gouzenko), Klaus Fuchs, Konstantin Volkov (the would-be defector from Turkey who almost unveiled Philby), BARCLAY and CURZON (in fact, Burgess and Maclean, but why not name them so? : BARCLAY does not appear until the final page of a ninety-page chapter), PEACH (the codename given to the investigation of Philby from 1951), and Exposure. One might therefore look forward to a fresh analysis of some of the most intriguing cases of the post-war period.

Third, the sources. Like any decent self-respecting author of average vanity, the first thing I did on opening the book was to search for my name in the Acknowledgments or Sources. But no mention. I might have thought that my analysis, in Misdefending the Realm, of Liddell’s flaws in not taking the warnings of Krivitsky seriously enough, in not insisting on a follow-up to the hint of the ‘Imperial Council’ source, worthy of inclusion. I saw such characters as Tommy Robertson, Dick White, Anthony Blunt, John Cairncross, Yuri Modin and even Jürgen Kuczynski listed there, which did not fill my bosom with excitement, as I thought their contributions would have been exhausted and stale by now. The Bibliography is largely a familiar list of books of various repute, going back to the 1950s, with an occasional entry of something newer, such as the unavoidable and inevitable Ben Macintyre, from more recent years. It also, not very usefully, includes Richard Deacon’s British Connection, a volume that was withdrawn and pulped for legal reasons, and is thus not generally available  So what was this all about?

It turns out that the content of the book is about 80% reproduction of public documents, either excerpts from Liddell’s Diaries from the time 1945 to his resignation in 1953, or from files available at the National Archives. (It is very difficult to distinguish quickly what is commentary and what is quoted sources, as all appear in the same typeface, with many excerpts continuing on for several pages, even though such citations are indented.  And not all his authoritative statements are sourced.) The story West tells is not new, and can be largely gleaned from other places. Moreover, he offers very little fresh or penetrating analysis. Thus it appears that West, his project on publishing excerpts from the Diaries forced to a premature halt, decided to resuscitate the endeavour under a new cover.

So what is Liddell’s ‘legacy’? The author comes to the less than startling conclusion that ‘with the benefit of hindsight, access to recently declassified documents and a more relaxed attitude to the publication of memoirs [what does this mean? Ed.], we can now see how Liddell was betrayed by Burgess, Blunt and Philby.’ Is that news? And does West intend to imply that it was not Liddell’s fault? He offers no analysis of exactly how this happened, and it is a strain to pretend that Liddell, whose object in life was to guard against the threats from such lowlifes, somehow maintained his professional reputation while at the same time failing calamitously to protect himself or the Realm. What caused the fall from grace of ‘unquestionably one of the most remarkable and accomplished professionals of his generation’? Moreover, the exploration of such a betrayal could constitute a poignant counterpoint to the sometime fashionable notion – espoused by Lord Annan and others –  that Goronwy Rees had been the greater sinner by betraying, through his criticisms of Burgess and Maclean in his People articles, the higher cause of friendship. Cold War Spymaster thus represents a massive opportunity missed, avoided, or perhaps deferred.

Expert, Administrator or Leader?

In Misdefending the Realm, my analysis of Liddell concluded that he was an essentially decent man who was not tough enough for the climate and position he was in. Maybe someone will soon attempt a proper biography of him, as he deserves. His earlier years with Special Branch and the formative years in the 1930s are not really significant, I think. West starts his Chronology with January 1940, when Krivitsky was interrogated, and I agree that that period (which coincides closely with the start of the period studied in Misdefending the Realm) is the appropriate place to begin.

I have always been puzzled by the treatment of Jane Archer, whom Liddell essentially started to move out at the end of 1939. Why he would want to banish his sharpest counter-espionage officer, and replace her with the second-rate Roger Hollis – not the move of a ‘remarkable and accomplished professional’ – is something that defies logic. Yet the circumstances of Archer’s demise are puzzling. We have it solely on Liddell’s word that Archer was fired, in November 1940, at Jasper Harker’s behest, because she had reputedly mocked the rather pompous Deputy Director-General once too much. (She did not leave the intelligence world, but moved to SIS, so her behaviour cannot have been that subversive.  Incidentally, a scan of various memoranda and reports written by Harker, scattered around MI5 files, shows a rather shrewd and pragmatic intelligence officer: I suspect that he may have received a poor press.) I should not be surprised to discover that there was more going on: I am so disappointed that no one appears to have tried to interview this gallant woman before her death in 1982.

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

It would be naïve to imagine that MI5 would be different from any other organisation and be immune from the complications of office politics – and office romance. If I were writing a fictionalized account of this period, I would have Guy Liddell showing an interest in the highly personable, intelligent, humorous and attractive Jane Sissmore (as she was until September 1939). Liddell’s marriage had fallen on rocky ground: in Molehunt, Nigel West stated that his wife Calypso née Baring (the daughter of the third Baron Revelstoke) had left him before the start of the war.  John Costello, in Mask of Treachery, related, having interviewed Liddell himself, that Calypso had absconded as early as 1938, and that Liddell had travelled to Miami in December of that year, and surprisingly won a successful custody battle. Yet contemporary newspapers prove that Calypso had left her husband, taking their children to Florida as early as July 1935, in the company of her half-brother, an association that raised some eyebrows as well as questions in court. Liddell followed them there, and was able, by the peculiarities of British Chancery Law, to make the children wards of court in August. In December, Calypso publicly called her husband ‘an unmitigated snob’ (something the Revelstokes would have known about, I imagine), but agreed to return to England with the offspring, at least temporarily. At the outbreak of war, however, Calypso had managed to overturn the decision because of the dangers of the Blitz, and eventually spirited their children away again. West informs us that, ‘for the first year of the war Liddell’s daughters lived with his widowed cousin Mary Wollaston in Winchester, and Peter at his prep school in Surrey, and then they moved to live with their mother in California’. (Advice to ambitious intelligence officers: do not marry a girl named ‘Calypso’ or ‘Clothilde’.)

The day before war broke out, Jane Sissmore married another MI5 officer, Joe Archer. In those days, it would have been civil service policy for a female employee getting married to have to resign for the sake of childbearing and home, but maybe the exigences of war encouraged a more tolerant approach. Perhaps the Archers even delayed their wedding for that reason. In any case, relationships in the office must have changed. There is not a shred of evidence behind my hypothesis that Liddell might have wooed Sissmore in the first part of 1939, but then there is not a shred of evidence that he maintained a contact in Soviet intelligence to whom he passed secrets, as has been the implication by such as Costello. Yet it would have been very strange if, his marriage irretrievably broken, he had been unappreciative of Sissmore’s qualities, and not perhaps sought a closer relationship with her. It might also explain why Liddell felt uncomfortable having Jane continue to work directly for him. Despite her solid performance on the Krivitsky case, she was appointed supremo of the Regional Security Liaison Officers organisation in April 1940. In this role she quickly gained respect from the hard-boiled intelligence officers, solicitors, stockbrokers and former King’s Messengers who worked for her, until she and Liddell in late October 1940 had another clash (as I reported in the Mystery of the Undetected Radios: Part 3). She was fired shortly after.

Liddell’s life was complicated by the insertion, in August 1940, of William Crocker as his co-director of B Division, at Lord Swinton’s insistence, and no doubt with the advice of Sir Joseph Ball. It is not clear what the exact sequence of events was, but Crocker, who was a solicitor, and Ball’s personal one to boot, had acted for Liddell in trying to maintain custody of the three children he had with Calypso. While the initial attempt had been successful, it was evidently overturned in 1939, and Liddell and his wife were legally separated in 1943. Crocker did not last long in MI5, and he resigned in September of 1940. While David Petrie brought some structure and discipline to the whole service by mid-1941, Liddell had buried himself in his work (and in the task of writing up his Diaries each night), and had found social company in circles that were not quite appropriate for his position. The personal stress in his life, alone and separated from his four children, must have been enormous.

Such contacts would come back to haunt Liddell. When Petrie retired from the Director-Generalship of MI5 in 1946, Liddell was overlooked as replacement, some accounts suggesting that a word in Attlee’s ear by the leftwing firebrand, ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, had doomed his chances. The most recent description of this initiative appears in Michael Jago’s 2014 work, Clement Attlee: The Inevitable Prime Minister, where he describes Liddell’s rejection despite the support for him from within MI5. Wilkinson had apparently told her lover, Herbert Morrison, who was Home Secretary in the postwar Labour administration, that Liddell had in 1940 betrayed the communist propagandist Willi Münzenberg, who had entered Stalin’s hitlist and been assassinated in France.

Several aspects of such an assertion are extremely illogical, however. It is true that the suspicions that Attlee and his ministers had about the anti-socialist tendencies of MI5 coloured the Prime Minister’s perspectives on security matters, but this narrative does not bear up to examination. First, for a leftist agitator like Wilkinson (who had also been the lover of Münzenberg’s henchman, Otto Katz) to confirm her close association with Münzenberg, and take up Münzenberg’s cause against Stalin, was quixotic, to say the least, even if her convictions about the communist cause had softened. Second, for her to believe that the democratically-minded Attlee would look upon Münzenberg’s demise as a cause for outrage reflected a serious misjudgment. He would not have been surprised that MI5, and Liddell in particular, would have taken such a stance against Communist subversion, especially when he (Attlee) learned about the activities of the Comintern a decade before. Third, for Wilkinson to think that Attlee could be persuaded that Liddell had abetted the NKVD in eliminating Münzenberg, showed some remarkable imagination. Fourth, if Attlee had really listened carefully to her, and found her arguments persuasive, he would hardly have allowed Liddell to continue on in MI5 without even an investigation, and to be promoted to Deputy Director-General as some kind of designate. (Churchill was back in power when Sillitoe resigned.) Thus Wilkinson’s personification of Liddell as an agent of Stalinism has the ring of black comedy.

Donald McCormick (aka Richard Deacon)

I have discussed this with the very congenial Mr. Jago, who, it turns out, was at Oxford University at exactly the same time as I, and like me, relocated to the USA in 1980. (We worked out that we must have played cricket against each other in opposing school teams in 1958.) He identifies his source for the Wilkinson anecdote as that figure with whom readers of this column are now very familiar, the rather problematical Richard Deacon. Indeed, in The Greatest Treason, Deacon outlined Wilkinson’s machinations behind the scenes, attributing her reservations about Liddell to what Münzenberg had personally told her about his ‘enemy in British counter-espionage’ before he was killed. Deacon had first introduced this theory in his 1982 memoir With My Little Eye, attributing the source of the story to the suffragette Lady Rhondda, who had apparently written to Deacon about the matter before she died in 1958, also suggesting that Liddell ‘was trying to trap Arthur Koestler’. Yet Deacon qualified his report in The Greatest Treason: “Whether Ellen Wilkinson linked the Münzenberg comments with Guy Liddell is not clear, but she certainly remembered Münzenberg’s warning and as a result expressed her doubts about him. Morrison concurred and it was then that Attlee decided to bring an outsider in as chief of MI5.” I rest my case: in 1940, with Nazi Germany an ally of Soviet Russia, Liddell should have done all he could to stifle such menaces as Münzenberg. Of course Münzenberg would have ‘an enemy in MI5’. I cannot see Attlee falling for it, and this particular urban legend should be buried until stronger independent evidence emerges.

The rumour probably first appeared in David Mure’s extraordinary Last Temptation, a faux memoir in which he uses the Guy/Alice Liddell connection to concoct a veiled dramatization of Liddell’s life and career. This work, published in 1980, which I have analysed in depth in Misdefending the Realm, exploits a parade of characters from Alice in Wonderland to depict the intrigues of MI5 and MI6, and specifically the transgressions of Guy Liddell. If anyone comes to write a proper biography of Liddell, that person will have to unravel the clues that Mure left behind in this ‘novel of treason’ in order to determine what Mure’s sources were, and how reliable they were. Mure describes his informant for the Ellen Wilkinson story as an old friend of Liddell’s mother’s, ‘the widow of a food controller in the First World War’, which does not quite fit the profile of Sir Humphrey Mackworth, whom Viscountess Rhondda had divorced in 1922. A task for some researcher: to discover whether Mure and Deacon shared the same source, and what that person’s relationship with Ellen Wilkinson was.

‘The Greatest Treason’

Regardless of these intrigues, Nigel West suggested, in A Matter of Trust, his history of MI5 between 1945 and 1972, quite reasonably that an ‘insider’ appointment would have been impossible in the political climate of 1945-1946, what with a rampant Labour Party in power, harbouring resentment about the role that MI5 had played in anti-socialist endeavours going back to the Zinoviev Letter incident of 1924. Yet West, while choosing to list some of Liddell’s drawbacks (see below) at this stage of the narrative, still judged that Liddell could well have been selected for the post had Churchill won the election. The fact was that Churchill returned, and Liddell again lost.

Another Chance

When Sillitoe’s time was over in 1953, Liddell still considered himself a candidate for Director-General, and faced the Appointments Board in the Cabinet Office on April 14. (West reproduces his Diary entry from that evening.) It appears that our hero had not prepared himself well for the ordeal. Perhaps he should have been alarmed that a selection process was under way, rather than a simple appointment, and that one of his subordinates was also being encouraged to present himself. When the Chairman, Sir Edward Bridges, asked him what qualifications he thought were appropriate for the directorship, Liddell recorded: “I said while this was a little difficult to answer, I felt strongly somebody was need who had a fairly intimate knowledge of the workings of the machine.” That was the tentative response of an Administrator, not a Leader. Later: “Bridges asked me at the end whether I had any other points which had not been covered, and on reflection I rather regret that I did not say something about the morale of the staff and the importance of making people feel that it was possible for them to rise to the top.” He regretted not saying other things, but his half hour was up. He had blown his opportunity to impress.

Even his latest sally probably misread how his officers thought. Few of them nursed such ambitions, I imagine, but no doubt wanted some better reward for doing a job they loved well. For example, Michael Jago (the same) in his biography of John Bingham, The Spy Who Was George Smiley, relates how Maxwell Knight tried to convince Bingham to replace him as head of the agent-runners. Jago writes: “He strenuously resisted promotion, pointing out that his skills lay as an agent runner, not as a manager of agent runners. The administrative nature of such a job did not appeal to him; his agents were loyal to him and he reciprocated that loyalty.” This is the dilemma of the Expert that can be found in any business, and is one I encountered myself: should he or she take on managerial duties in order to gain promotion and higher pay, or can the mature expert, with his specialist skills more usefully employed, enjoy the same status as those elevated to management roles?

Dick White

Liddell was devastated when he did not get the job, especially since his underling, Dick White, whom he had trained, was indeed appointed, thus contradicting the fact of White’s ‘despondent’ mood after his interview, which he had communicated to Liddell. The authorised historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, reported the judgment of the selection committee, which acknowledged that Liddell had ‘unrivalled experience of the type of intelligence dealt with in MI5, knowledge of contemporary Communist mentality and tactics and an intuitive capacity to handle the difficult problems involved’. But ‘It has been said [‘by whom?’: coldspur] that he is not a good organiser and lacks forcefulness. And doubts have been expressed as to whether he would be successful in dealing with Ministers, with heads of department and with delegates of other countries.’ This was a rather damning – though bureaucratically anonymous – indictment, which classified Liddell as not only an unsuitable Leader, but as a poor Administrator/Manager as well, which would tend to belie the claim that he had much support from within MI5’s ranks.

(Incidentally, Andrew’s chronology is at fault: he bizarrely has Liddell retiring in 1952, White replacing him as Deputy Director-General and then jousting with Sillitoe, before the above-described interviews in May 1953. The introduction to the Diaries on the National Archives repeats the error of Liddell’s ‘finally retiring’ in 1952. West repeats this mistake on p 185 of A Matter of Trust, as well as in Molehunt, on pp 35-36, but corrects it in the latter on p 123. Tom Bower presents exactly the same self-contradiction in his 1995 The Perfect English Spy. West’s ODNB entry for Liddell states that “  . . . , in 1953, embarrassed by the defection of his friend Guy Burgess, he took early retirement to become security officer to the Atomic Energy Authority”, thus completely ignoring the competition for promotion. It is a puzzling and alarming pattern, as if all authors had been reading off the same faulty press release, one that attempted to conceal Liddell’s embarrassing finale. In his 2005 Introduction to the published Diaries, West likewise presents the date of Liddell’s retirement correctly, but does not discuss his failed interview with the Appointments Board. The Introduction otherwise serves as an excellent survey of the counter-intelligence dynamics of the Liddell period, and their aftermath.)

Liddell’s being overlooked in 1946 cannot have helped his cause, either. West wrote, of the competition for D-G that year, that Liddell’s intelligence and war record had been ‘exceptional’, and continued: “He was without question a brilliant intelligence officer, and he had recruited a number of outstanding brains into the office during his first twelve months of the war. But he had a regrettable choice in friends and was known to prefer the company of homosexuals, although he himself was not one. [This was written in 1982!] Long after the war he invariably spent Friday evenings at the Chelsea Palace, a well-known haunt of homosexuals.” West updated his account for 1953, stating that Liddell ‘might have at first glance have seemed the most likely candidate for the post, but he had already been passed over by Attlee and was known to have counted Anthony Blunt and Guy Burgess amongst his friends.’ In the light of Burgess’s recent decampment with Maclean, that observation strikes an inappropriate chord, as if Burgess’s homosexuality rather than his involvement in Soviet espionage had been the aspect that tarnished Liddell’s judgment, and that Liddell’s now recognized professional failings were somehow not relevant. After all, Burgess’s homosexuality was known to every government officer who ever recruited him.

Moreover, if associating with the Bentinck Street crowd that assembled at Victor Rothschild’s place cast a cloud over Liddell’s reputation, Dick White may have been as much at fault as was Liddell. It is somewhat difficult to find hard evidence of how close the associations at the Rothschild flat were, and exactly what went on. Certainly, Rothschild rented it to Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Goronwy Rees’ posthumous evidence, as retold by Andrew Boyle, was melodramatic. The Observer article of Sunday, January 20, 1980 was titled ‘The Brotherhood of Bentinck Street’, with Rees explaining how ‘Burgess and Blunt entangled top MI5 man Guy Liddell in their treachery’. Rees went on to say that Liddell was one of Burgess’s ‘predatory conquests’, and that Burgess’s ‘main source’ must have been Liddell. Rees certainly overstated the degree of sordidness that could be discovered there. White, meanwhile, still a bachelor, was reported, according to his biographer, Tom Bower, to attend wartime parties in Chesterfield Street, Mayfair, hosted by Tomas ‘Tommy’ Harris, where he mixed with such as Blunt, Philby, Burgess, Rothschild, Rees and Liddell himself. White, however, was not a ‘confirmed bachelor’ and married the communist novelist Kate Bellamy in November 1945.

Yet none of this would have been known about in 1953, or, if it had, would have been considered quite harmless. After all, the top brass in Whitehall was unaware at this time of Blunt’s treachery (although I contend that White and Liddell, and maybe Petrie, knew about it), and Burgess had mixed and worked with all manner of prominent persons – all of whom rapidly tried to distance themselves from any possible contamination by the renegade and rake. Moreover, Liddell had not recruited Burgess to MI5, even though he had wanted to, but been talked out of it by John Curry. John Costello, in his multipage assault on Liddell in Mask of Treachery, lists a number of ‘errors’ in Liddell’s behavior that raise ‘serious questions about Liddell’s competency, bad luck, or treachery’, but most of these would not have been known by the members of the Appointments Board, and the obvious mistakes (such as oversights in vetting for Klaus Fuchs) were not the responsibility of Liddell alone. He simply was not strong enough to have acted independently in protecting such persons.

Thus it is safe to assume that Liddell was rightly overlooked in 1953 because he was not leadership material, not because of his questionable associations. White was, on the other hand, a smoother operator. He had enjoyed a more enterprising career, having been posted to SHAEF at the end of 1944, and spent the best part of eighteen months in counter-intelligence in Germany, under General Eisenhower and Major-General Kenneth Strong, before touring the Commonwealth. (Strong was in fact another candidate for the MI5 leadership: White told his biographer that he noted Strong’s lack of interest in non-military intelligence.) He knew how to handle the mandarins, and sold himself well. As Bower wrote, in his biography of White, The Perfect English Spy: “The qualities required of an intelligence chief were evident: balance, clarity, judgment, credibility, honesty, cool management in the face of crisis, and the ability to convey to his political superiors in a relaxed manner the facts which demonstrated the importance of intelligence.” Malcolm Muggeridge was less impressed: “Dear old Dick White”, he said to Andrew Boyle, “‘the schoolmaster’. I just can’t believe it.”

White was thus able to bury the embarrassments of two years before, when he and Liddell had convinced Sillitoe to lie to Premier Attlee over the Fuchs fiasco, and he had also somehow persuaded the Appointments Committee that he was not to blame for the Burgess/Maclean disaster. This was an astounding performance, as only eighteen months earlier, in a very detailed memorandum, White had called for the Philby inquiry to be called off, only to face a strong criticism from Sir William Strang, the permanent under-secretary at the Foreign Office since 1949, who was also on the Selection Committee. Yet White had previously clashed with Strang when the latter held back secret personal files. They shared similar convictions of misplaced institutional loyalty: Strang could not believe that there could be spies in the Diplomatic Service, while White refused to accept that there could be such among the officers of the intelligence corps.

White had also benefitted from Liddell’s promotion. He had returned from abroad in early 1946, and had been appointed head of B Division, since Liddell had been promoted to Deputy Director-General under Sillitoe, with Harker pushed into early retirement. Thus White took over centre-stage as the Cold War intensified, and was in obvious control of the meetings about Fuchs (1949-50), and then Burgess and Maclean (1951), with Liddell left somewhat out of the main picture. White was then able to manipulate the mandarins to suggest that the obvious mistakes had either not occurred on his watch, or had else been unavoidable, while Liddell was left in a relatively powerless no-man’s-land. It would appear that White out-manoeuvred his boss: how genuine was his display of ‘despondency’ to Liddell after the interview, one wonders?

White was probably also a better Leader than a Manager. He was somewhat bland, and smoothness was well-received in Whitehall: he had the annoying habit of agreeing with the last person who made a case to him – a feature that I came across frequently in business. There can be nothing more annoying than going in to see a senior manager, and making a well-prepared argument, and see a head nodding vigorously the other side of the desk, with its owner not challenging any of your conclusions or recommendations. Yet nothing happens, because the next person who has won an audience may put forward a completely different set of ideas, and still gain the nodding head. That is a sign of lack of backbone. R. A. (later Lord) Butler ascribed the same deficiency to his boss, Lord Halifax, and Franklin Roosevelt was said to exhibit the same tendency, preferring to manipulate people through his personal agencies and contacts, and commit little in writing. But White dealt well with the politicians, who considered him a ‘safe pair of hands’, and his career thrived after that.

Re-Assessing Liddell

When Kim Philby was being investigated as the possible ‘Third Man’ in the latter part of 1951, George Carey-Foster, the Security Officer in the Foreign Office, wrote to Dick White about their suspect’s possible escape: “Are you at any stage proposing to warn the ports, because even that may leak and bring in the Foreign Office? For these reasons as well as for those referred to in my previous letter I think we ought to know how we are to act before we are overtaken by events.” That was one of the main failings of Liddell’s that I identified in Misdefending the Realm: “Liddell was very reactive: he did not appear to prepare his team for any eventuality that came along” (p 284). How should MI5 respond if its recommendations over vetting were overruled? What policies were in place should a defector like Gouzenko or Volkov turn up? How should MI5 proceed if it came about that one of its officers was indeed a Soviet spy, yet the evidence came through secret channels? Who should conduct interrogations? Under what circumstances could a prosecution take place? There was no procedure in place. Events were allowed to overtake MI5.

The task of a regular counter-espionage officer was quite straightforward. It required some native intelligence, patience and attention to detail, stubbornness, curiosity, empathy, a knowledge of law and psychology, unflappability (the attributes of George Smiley, in fact). As it happens, I compiled this list before reading how Vernon Kell, the first Director of MI5 had described the ideal characteristics of a Defence Security Officer: ‘Freedom from strong personal or political prejudices or interest; an accurate and sympathetic judgment of human character, motives and psychology, and of the relative significance, importance and urgency of current events and duties in their bearing on major British interests’. They still make sense. Yet, if an officer performed his job of surveillance industriously, and identified a subversive, not much more could be recommended than ‘keeping an eye on him (or her)’. MI5 had no powers of arrest, so it just had to wait until the suspect was caught red-handed planting the bomb in the factory or handing over the papers before Special Branch could be called in. That process would sometimes require handling ‘agents’ who would penetrate such institutions as the Communist Party HQ, for example Olga Gray and her work leading to the capture and prosecution of Percy Glading. That was a function that Maxwell Knight was excellent at handling.

With the various ‘illegals’ and other aliens floating around, however, officers were often left powerless. They had to deal with busybody politicians interfering in immigration bans and detention orders, civil servant poohbahs overriding recommendations on non-employment, cautious ministers worried about the unions, inefficient security processes at sea- and air-ports, leaders cowed by their political masters, Foreign Office diplomats nervous about upsetting Uncle Joe Stalin in the cause of ‘cooperation’, or simple laziness and inattention in other departments – even absurd personnel policies. Thus Brandes and Maly and Pieck were allowed to escape the country, Krivitsky’s hints were allowed to fade away, Fuchs was recruited by Tube Alloys, and Burgess and Maclean were not fired from their positions in the Foreign Office but instead moved around or given sick leave, and then allowed to escape as the interrogation process ground into motion. These were problems of management and of leadership.

If a new manager asks his or her boss: “What do I have to do to perform a good job?”, and the boss responds: “Keep out of trouble, don’t rock the boat, and send your status reports in on time”, the manager will wisely not ruffle feathers, but concentrate on good recruitment, training, and skills development, following the procedures, and getting the job done. The problem will however arise that, after a while when the ship is running smoothly, the manager may be seen as superfluous to requirements, while his or her technical skills may have fallen by the wayside. That may lead to a loss of job (in the competitive commercial world anyway: probably not in government institutions.) If, however, the boss says: “I want you to reshape this unit, and set a few things on fire”, the candidate may have to develop some sharp elbows, lead some perhaps reluctant underlings into an uncertain future, and probably upset other departments along the way. That implies taking risks, putting one’s head above the parapet, and maybe getting metaphorically shot at. In a very political organisation – especially where one’s mentor/boss may not be very secure – that rough-and-tumble could be equally disastrous for a career. I am familiar with both of these situations from experience.

So where does that leave ‘probably the single most influential British intelligence officer of his era’ (West)? We have to evaluate him in terms of the various roles expected of him. He was indubitably a smart and intelligent man, imaginative and insightful. But what were his achievements, again following what West lists? ‘His knowledge of Communist influence dated back to the Sidney Street siege of January 1911’ – but that did not stop him recruiting Anthony Blunt, and allowing Communists to be inserted into important positions during his watch. ‘He had been on the scene when the Arcos headquarters in Moorgate had been raided’, but that operation was something of a shambles. ‘He had personally debriefed the GRU illegal rezident Walter Krivitsky in January 1940’, but that had been only an occasional involvement, he stifled Jane Archer’s enterprise, and he did not put in place a methodological follow-up. ‘He was the genius behind the introduction of the now famous wartime Double Cross system which effectively took control of the enemy’s networks in Great Britain’, but that was a claim that White also made, the effort was managed by ‘Tar’ Robertson, and the skill of its execution is now seriously in question. As indicated above, West alludes to Liddell’s rapid recruitment of ‘brains’ in 1940, but Liddell failed to provide the structure or training to make the most of them. These ‘achievements’ are more ‘experiences’: Liddell’s Diaries contain many instances of decisions being made, but it is not clear that they had his personal stamp on them.

Regrettably, the cause of accuracy is not furthered by West’s entry for Liddell in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Again, vaguely referring to his subject’s ‘supervision’ of projects, and ‘key role’ in recruiting such as White and Blunt, West goes on to make the following extraordinary claim: “Thus Liddell was closely associated with two of MI5’s most spectacular accomplishments, the interception and decryption of German intelligence signals by the Radio Security Service, and the famed ‘double cross system’. The Radio Security Service had grown, under Liddell’s supervision, from an inter-service liaison committee known as the Wireless Board into a sophisticated cryptographic organisation that operated in tandem with Bletchley Park, concentrating on Abwehr communications, and enabling MI5 case officers to monitor the progress made by their double agents through the reports submitted by their enemy controllers to Berlin.” Yet this is a travesty of what occurred. As I showed in an earlier posting, the Radio Security Service (RSS) was a separate unit, part of MI8. MI5 rejected taking it over, with the result that it found its home within SIS. It had nothing organisationally to do with the Wireless Board, which was a cross-departmental group, set up in January 1941, that supervised the work of the XX Committee. RSS was an interception service, not a cryptological one. It was the lack of any MI5 control that partly contributed to what historian John Curry called the eventual ‘tragedy’. Thus West founds a large part of what he characterizes as a ‘remarkable’ career on a misunderstanding: Liddell’s lifework was one dominated by missed opportunities.

Moreover, West cites one of his sources for his bibliographic entry on Liddell as Richard Deacon’s Greatest Treason. This seems to me an error of judgment on at least three counts, and raises some serious questions of scholarship. While Deacon’s work contains the most complete account of Liddell’s earlier life, it is largely a potboiler, having as its central thesis the claim that Liddell was an agent of Soviet espionage, and may even have been the elusive ELLI over whose identity many commentators have puzzled. (The lesser-known subtitle of Deacon’s book is The Bizarre Story of Hollis, Liddell and Mountbatten.) Yet this is a position with which West is clearly not in sympathy, as is shown by his repeated encomia to Liddell’s performance. The Editors at the ODNB should have shown much more caution in allowing such a book to be listed as an authoritative source without qualification. Lastly, a fact that Deacon did not acknowledge when his book was published in 1989, West had himself been a researcher for Richard Deacon, as West explains in a short chapter in Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, edited by Robert Leeson, and published in 2018. Here he declares that Deacon was ‘exceptionally well-informed’, but he finesses the controversy over Liddell completely. Somewhere, he should have explained in more detail what lay behind his research role, and surely should have done more to clarify how his source contributed to his summarization of Liddell’s life, and why and where he, West, diverged from Deacon’s conclusions.

Something else with which West does not deal is Liddell’s supposed relationship with one of the first women members of the Communist Party of Great Britain. Joyce Whyte. David Mure, in The Last Temptation, had hinted at this lady’s identity, but not named her, giving her the codename ‘Alice’. In With My Little Eye, however, Richard Deacon went much further, providing us with the following insight (which can be found in a pagenote on p 194 of Misdefending the Realm): “In the early 1920s, when Liddell was working at Scotland Yard, supposed to be keeping a watch on communists, his mistress was Miss Joyce Wallace Whyte of Trinity College, Cambridge, and at that time one of the first women members of the Cambridge Communist Party. In 1927 she married Sir Cuthbert Ackroyd, who later became Lord Mayor of London.” For what it is worth, Deacon has Whyte’s family living in Chislehurst, Kent: Mure indicates that the influential lady lived nearby, in Sidcup.

It is not as if Liddell were outshone by his colleagues, however. To an extent, he was unlucky: unfortunate that there was another ‘able’ candidate available in White when a preference for an insider existed, and perhaps unfairly done by, from a historical standpoint, when the even less impressive Hollis succeeded White later. A survey of other candidates and successes does not depict a parade of standouts. Jasper Harker was regarded by all (maybe unjustly) as ineffectual, but was allowed to languish as Deputy Director-General for years. Dick White was not intellectually sharper than Liddell, but was likewise impressionable, and equally bamboozled. He managed the politics better, however, had broader experience, and was more decisive. Hollis was certainly less distinguished than Liddell in every way. Petrie was an excellent administrator, and occasionally showed signs of imaginative leadership, sharpening up MI5’s mission, but he was not a career intelligence officer. Sillitoe did not earn the respect of his subordinates, and had a hazy idea of what counter-intelligence was. Liddell’s equivalent in SIS, Valentine Vivian, comes across as something of a buffoon, clueless about the tasks that were confronting him, and how he should go about them, and Vivian’s arch-enemy within SIS, Claude Dansey (whose highly unusual behavior may perhaps be partially explained by his being involved, in 1893, in a scandalous affair with Oscar Wilde, Lord Alfred Douglas, and Robbie Ross), was regarded as poisonous by most who encountered him. Kim Philby outwitted them all. (If his head had been screwed on the right way, he would have made an excellent Director-General.) So, with a track-record of being only a mediocre man-manager, it should come as no surprise that the very decent and intellectually curious Liddell should have been rejected for the task of leading Britain’s Security Service. The tragedy was that MI5 had no process for identifying and developing interior talent.

When Liddell resigned, he was appointed security adviser to the Atomic Energy Commission, an irony in that AERE Harwell was the place where Fuchs had worked until his investigation by Henry Arnold, the adviser at the time. The introduction to Liddell’s Diaries at the National Archives suggests that he was in fact quite fortunate to gain this post, considering his links to Burgess, Rothschild and Philby. (The inclusion of Rothschild in these dubious links is quite impish on the behalf of the authorities.) Liddell died five years later. The verdict on him should be that he was an honest, intelligent and imaginative officer who did not have the guts or insight to come to grips with the real challenges of ‘Defending the Realm’, or to promote a vision of his own. He was betrayed – by Calypso, by Blunt, Burgess and Philby, by White, and maybe by Petrie. In a way, he was betrayed by his bosses, who did not give him the guidance or tutoring for him to execute a stronger mandate. But he was also soft – and thus open to manipulation. Not a real leader of men, nor an effective manager. By no means a ‘Spymaster’, but certainly not a Soviet supermole either.

What it boils down to is that, as with so many of these intelligence matters, you cannot trust the authorised histories. You cannot trust the memoirists. You cannot trust the experts. You cannot always trust the archives. And you cannot even trust the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which is sometimes less reliable than Wikipedia. All you can trust is coldspur, whose ‘relentless curiosity and Smileyesque doggedness blow away the clouds of obfuscation that bedevil the world of intelligence’ [Clive James, attrib.].

In summary, we are left with the following paradoxical chain of events:

  • During the 1970s and 1980s, Nigel West performs research for Richard Deacon.
  • In 1987, West publishes Molehunt, where he describes Liddell as ‘a brilliantly intuitive intelligence officer’.
  • In 1989, Deacon publishes The Greatest Treason, which claims Guy Liddell was a Soviet mole.
  • In 2004, West writes a biographical entry for Liddell in the ODNB, which praises him, but carelessly misrepresents his achievements, and lists The Greatest Treason as one of the few sources.
  • In 2005, West edits the Liddell Diaries, and provides a glowing Introduction for his subject.
  • In 2015, West provides a chapter to a book on Hayek, praises Deacon for his knowledge, but debunks him for relying on two dubious sources. He does not mention Liddell.
  • In 2018, West writes a new book on Liddell, which generally endorses the writer’s previous positive opinion of him, but rejects the opportunity to provide a re-assessment of Liddell’s career, merely concluding that Liddell, despite being’ the consummate professional’, had been ‘betrayed’ by Burgess, Blunt and Philby. West lists in his bibliography two other books by Deacon (including the pulped British Connection), but ignores The Greatest Treason.

So, Nigel, my friend, where do you stand? Why would you claim, on the one hand, that Liddell was a brilliant counter-espionage officer while on the other pointing your readers towards Richard Deacon, who thought he was a communist mole?  What do you say next?

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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