I recently heard the sad news that Denis Lenihan had died of Covid-19 on December 29 in London.
I never met Denis: we started corresponding in September 2019, after I tracked him down from an article of his that I had read. Yet we soon realised that, in our interest in intelligence matters, we had a common enthusiasm for treating ‘official’ history with a quizzical eye, for patiently inspecting archival records, for reading broadly and deeply, and for recording what we found as honestly and plainly as we could. Denis became an eager supporter of coldspur, contributed a few pieces, and always very calmly challenged my conclusions when he judged they were not watertight.
We enjoyed a very fruitful email correspondence over fifteen months. He was still doggedly going through the Petrov archives when he was taken ill, and, in his last message to me before Christmas, when he was about to be admitted to hospital, he told me how much he was looking forward to picking up the Molehunt research in the New Year.
I shall miss him greatly, and offer my sincerest condolences to his family. If I learn more about Denis’s career and life, I shall post them here. I hope all coldspur readers stay healthy in these dark times.
Update on January 20
I heard more from Denis’s daughter, Siobhan, who provided me with a bio of Denis, and details of his funeral service.
He was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, in 1937, and moved to London, the residence of his second wife, Bridget, in 2009. I cite two paragraphs verbatim:
“Except for a little while at the start and at the end of his career, Denis was a Commonwealth public servant (that is, a person working for the Australian Government). He worked in education, with some of the earliest international university students; immigration, including a wonderful period as Counsellor (Migration), Scandinavia, when he and his family lived in Stockholm as diplomats (harder work than you might think, but rewarding and the experience of a lifetime); and on various royal commissions and other bodies investigating organised crime. He was the founding CEO of the National Crime Authority. Somewhere in here lies the seed of his consuming interest in espionage and its practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.
He was kind, funny, clever, gregarious, ethical, devout, generous and modest. He enjoyed people, books, newspapers, travelling, golf, rugby union, food, wine and cognac, cryptic crosswords and bridge. He read non-stop. (Both his wives marvelled at how he could spend ‘all day’ reading the newspaper.) Faith, vocation, family and accident combined gave him NZ, Australian and Irish loyalties, strongly reflected in his interests and reading. He took to the internet as a duck to water, relishing the communication and information it afforded and keeping in contact with a wide international circle of family and friends. He became a researcher later in life, exercising his interest in solving puzzles in a different way and making a new group of friends and contacts. He loved his family and we loved him and will miss him for ever.”
While I cannot match Denis in moral qualities, the list of his interests mirrors mine almost exactly. We discussed golf and rugby, but for some reason never touched bridge or cryptic crosswords. What a distinguished life he led, and I am sorry I never had the pleasure of meeting him.
At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?
The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
The John le Carré I Never Knew
The Dead Ends of HASP
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Bandwidth versus Frequency
‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
Puzzles at Kew
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/agent-sonya-ben-macintyre.html?searchResultPosition=1) I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:
Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’
Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.
Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.
A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.
She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.
Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.
Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.
A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.
It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.
As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.
The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.
Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.
His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.
The John le Carré I Never Knew
I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.
In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”
I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-le-carre-the-spy-who-was-my-friend-svr8tgv82 ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.
And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.
Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”
Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?
It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.
I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.
On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)
I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.
“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead? Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”
But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”
I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.
(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)
The Dead Ends of HASP
I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.
Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.
The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.
In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.
I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.
One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.
It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.
It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.
The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.
This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.
The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.
The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home. In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):
“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’ (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)
“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)
“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)
“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)
The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.
With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.
In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)
Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.
Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:
“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”
The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:
“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”
That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.
For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.
So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.
Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.
Bandwidth versus Frequency
My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:
Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:
“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”
This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain. The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz. On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz). Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.
By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide. As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!
So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency. It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength. And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).
You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.
In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.
An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely. The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.
Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.
Puzzles at Kew
I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.
My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)
A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.
Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”
This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.
Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.
My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.
On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.” But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?
Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:
‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’
Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.
This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.
Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.
Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’
Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’
The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?
I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.
And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.
So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:
“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.
Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’
Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.
Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”
Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.” Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team . .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?
I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.
Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?
Let us go then, you and me,
When the evening is spread out above the sea
But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.
It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.
Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”
I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.
I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.
On December 8, the Journal of Intelligence and National Security published on-line my review of Ben Macintyre’s ‘Agent Sonya’, and it may be seen at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=fint20. Those readers who have institutional access to the Journal may read the whole article there: for others, since the terms of the Agreement entitle me to re-publish the review on my personal website, I present it here.
Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)
Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]
I return this month to reviewing some recently published books on espionage and intelligence, and thank Denis Lenihan, coldspur’s Commissioner for Antipodean Affairs, for making a lively and insightful contribution. Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya did not arrive in time to meet the Editor’s deadline, but, in any case, I have been engaged to write a review of it for an external publication, so I shall have to hold off for a while. (My review was submitted on October 19, has been accepted, and will be published soon.) I considered two other books that, from their titles, might have been considered worthy of consideration for a review, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services, by Simon Ball (2020), and Radio War: The Secret Espionage War of the Radio Security Service 1938-1946 by David Abrutat (2019). Then, a few weeks ago, I came across the following comment from one of my least favourite economists, Joseph Stiglitz, in a book review in The New York Times: “As a matter of policy, I typically decline to review books that deserve to be panned. You only make enemies.”
On reflection, this seemed a tendentious and somewhat irresponsible line to take. Assuming that experts like Stiglitz are commissioned to write reviews of books, how will they know whether such volumes deserve to be panned or not until they have read them – unless they make a prejudgment based on their understanding of the author’s politics or opinions, and in ignorance of how well the book may have been written? It would be a bit late to accept the commission, read the book, decide it was dreadful, and back out of the contract. But maybe that is why book reviews are overall positive: the publisher of the review wants to encourage readers, not warn them off undeniable clunkers.
Well, I am not worried about making enemies. Heaven knows, I must have upset enough prominent historians and journalists through my writings on coldspur, and the ones who were too elevated to engage with me were never going to change anyway, so that is not a worry that concerns me. And, since I am not in this for the money, I can choose to review what I want. But the two books named above, which would seem, potentially, to play a valuable role in the history of intelligence activities were in their different ways so poor in my opinion that I decided not to waste any further time on them. Incidentally, as I revealed a few months ago, Abrutat has recently been confirmed as the new GCHQ departmental historian.
Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes
The 1960-61 case of the Portland Spy Ring is, I assume, fairly well known by enthusiasts of espionage lore. A very public trial took place, and a government inquiry followed. Paul Tietjen, a Daily Mail reporter, wrote a very competent account, Soviet Spy Ring, in 1961, and a movie based on the case, Ring of Spies, appeared in 1964. References are sprinkled round various books, and the several million who read Peter Wright’s Spycatcher will have learned of some of the electronic wizardry that went on in preparation for the arrests. Late in 2019, the National Archives released a batch of files relating to the five subjects in the case, and Trevor Barnes has worked fast and diligently to produce a comprehensive account of what happened, in his recently released Dead Doubles. The title is a little unfortunate: it refers to the Soviet practice of stealing identities of children who died soon after birth, such as Konon Molody was permitted to do with Gordon Lonsdale. Yet it is not the essence of the story, and does not perform justice to the other actors in it.
In 1959, the CIA received a warning from a Polish intelligence officer who was close to defecting, Michael Goleniewski, that secrets were leaking from a top-secret naval research establishment in Portland, Dorset. When MI5 was informed, suspicion soon fell upon Harry Houghton, who maintained a relationship with Ethel Gee, an employee who had access to documents concerning development of underwater weapons technology. Houghton was trailed to London, where he had assignations with an enigmatic character called Gordon Lonsdale. By inspecting Lonsdale’s possessions, and eavesdropping on his apartment, MI5 and GCHQ were able to ascertain that Lonsdale listened to coded messages from Moscow on his wireless, and also owned one-time pads (OTPs) that were necessary for decryption – and probable encryption – of messages. He was in turn followed to a bungalow in Ruislip, where two ostensible New Zealanders, Peter and Helen Kroger, the latter a second-hand book-dealer, were living. As the KGB moved closer on Goleniewski, MI5 had to act quickly, and arrested all five miscreants, soon discovering a hidden wireless apparatus in the Ruislip basement. All five were jailed: Gordon Lonsdale turned out to be one Konon Molody, while the Krogers’ real identities were Morris and Lona Cohen, known to the FBI as dangerous Soviet agents, but lost track of. Molody and the Cohens were soon released in spy swaps.
Barnes’s story does not start well. He supplies a map – an excellent device, since maps give substance to the dimension of space in the same way that a proper chronology provides a reliable framework for time. In his first sentence, however, he refers to ‘Fitzrovia’ in order to provide a location for ‘Great Portland Street’. But ‘Fitzrovia’ is a literary construct, not an administrative district, and his map betrays the confusion, as Fitzrovia is clumsily packed close to Marylebone, and, to make matters worse, mis-spelled as ‘FIZROVIA’. Moreover, on page 2, Barnes describes a journey from Great Portland Street to the ‘secret MI5 laboratory two miles to the west’. But this establishment does not appear on the map, and it was located two miles to the east, not to the west. Thereafter, some other important places do not appear on the map, such as the CIA’s London Office at 71 Grosvenor Street, referred to on page 15.
After this, Barnes quickly gets into his stride. He has performed all the necessary research to give the story the political and intelligence context it needs, exploiting American and Russian sources, the obvious archives at Kew, as well as the unpublished diaries of Charles Elwell, the MI5 officer on the case, and the papers of Morris Cohen at the Imperial War Museum. He understands the technological issues well, and re-presents them in a highly accessible and comprehensible way. He very rarely gives the impression of bluffing his way through a thorny controversy, although he may be a bit too trusting of that rogue, Peter Wright. (Barnes refers to Wright’s ‘Radio Operations Committee’, when the Spycatcher author wrote of a ‘Radiations Operations Committee’. I can find no trace of such an entity.) The story moves at a smooth pace, although the chronology darts around a little too much for this highly-serial reader, with the result that relevant details of some events are scattered around the text. An irritating structure of Parts and Chapters, a very sparsely populated Index, and – the bane of all inquisitive reference-followers – Endnotes that refer to Parts, but do not describe the relevant chapter or page ranges at the top of their own pages, made close analysis more difficult than it could have been. A master index of National Archives files used would have been useful, rather than having them scattered around the Endnotes. Overall, however, Dead Doubles is unmistakably an indispensable and highly valuable contribution to espionage literature.
And yet. (Coldspur regulars will know there is always an ‘and yet’.) While every aspect of the investigation, arrest and prosecution is fleshed out in gripping detail, I was looking for a deeper analysis of some of the more troubling dimensions of the case. For example, it does not help me to know that, a week before Houghton and Gee were trailed to London on the day of their arrest, the Beatles had given ‘a sensational performance in the ballroom of Litherland Hall’, or that The Avengers serial began on television the same day (January 7, 1961). What I would have liked to read, for example, was a more insightful analysis of why Houghton’s drunkenness and violent behaviour while working for the British Embassy in Warsaw resulted in his being sent home but then transferred to Portland’s Port Auxiliary Unit in 1951, rather than being fired.
It reminded me of the scandalous behaviour of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who benefitted from a series of indulgent job changes, instead of being despatched to earn their living elsewhere. What is it about the British Civil Service that causes it to think that a recruit has a job (and pension) for life? Barnes reveals some fresh information on the way that The Admiralty and MI5 had ignored a damaging report on Houghton provided in 1956 by his abused wife, which was buried, or diminished, and he concentrates on this new archival evidence, but at a cost of overlooking a more dramatic scoop.
For the charges went back farther than that. In his book, Tietjen had recorded, back in 1961, that the British Embassy in Warsaw had declared, when they sent Houghton home in October 1952, that he was ‘a security risk’. If that were true, the whole exposure could have been quashed at birth. (We must remember that Tietjen was not aware of the Goleniewski revelations, or Mrs Johnson’s testimony, when he wrote his book. Moreover, as is clear from his notations, his book was published before the Romer Report on security at Portland came out in June 1961.) It is not clear where Tietjen gained his information about the ‘security risk’ report, but it was obviously official, as Tietjen annotates his awareness of it with a Footnote: “Whether Houghton was ever reported to the Admiralty by Captain Austen as a ‘security risk’ is a matter still under investigation by a specially convened Government committee.”
Yet Barnes does not mention this report in his book: he records an interview (undated, but probably in late May 1960) that MI5 officer George Leggett and MI6’s Harold Shergold had with Captain Nigel Austen, for whom Houghton had worked in Poland, but Barnes does not cite Austen as referring to his own ‘security risk’ report on Houghton. On the contrary, Austen used the opportunity to minimise Houghton’s failings, and bolster his own image: Yes, Houghton had been drinking heavily, but Austen was quick to get rid of him; yes, Houghton did make money on the black market, but then no more than any other Embassy official; Houghton’s wife was as much to blame (‘a colourless, drab individual who disliked being in Warsaw and no doubt was partly responsible for Houghton’s conduct’) for her husband’s behaviour. And when Leggett asked Austen whether he thought Houghton was a spy, Austen suggested that Houghton’s actions never indicated any betrayal of secrets to the Poles. (p 19)
It appears as if Austen had been nobbled by this stage, and instructed that, if he wanted to keep his pension (he had retired in January 1960), he should downplay Houghton’s behaviour, and never mention the ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty had already started digging its hole. As Barnes writes: “The Admiralty had forwarded this report [UDE to Admiralty in 1956, concerning claims made by his ex-wife, now Mrs. Johnson] to MI5 with a covering note, which disclosed that Houghton had been sent home from Poland because he had become very drunk on one occasion, and ‘it was thought he might break out again and involve himself in trouble with the Poles.” (p 10)
‘On one occasion’? As Barnes adds: “According to Mrs Johnson, while in Warsaw Houghton was ‘frequently the worse for drink in public, and apt to talk loudly and indiscreetly about his work. On . . . occasions, at official parties at the embassy, Captain Austen was obliged to send Houghton home by car, he having become incapable of standing up.’” Moreover, when the MI5 officer James Craggs, ‘a sociable bachelor in his late thirties’, went into the Admiralty on May 5, 1960 to inspect the Houghton files, he apparently learned a lot. “A picture of Houghton’s life began to emerge. In December 1951 Austen had cautioned the navy clerk for heavy drinking, and the following May Austen wrote again to say that Houghton was still drinking excessively. Houghton was sent home later that year, and on his return to the UK he was posted to the UDE at Portland.” (p 12) The Admiralty was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of MI5. Certainly not just ‘one occasion’.
So where did Tietjen get his information? Did officer Craggs find out about the ‘security risk’ in his session at the Admiralty, and leak it to Tietjen? The claims that the Admiralty made were evidently untrue, according to Mrs Johnson’s testimony, but also from the Admiralty files that they must have forgotten to weed. But Craggs surely knew. And the whole problem of suitable behaviour at foreign embassies was brushed under the rug when Lord Carrington addressed the House of Commons on the Romer Report. On June 13 he spoke as follows, as Hansard reports: “1. No criticism can be made of Houghton’s appointment in 1951 as Clerk to the Naval Attaché in Warsaw. Nor can any criticism be made of want of action by the Naval Attaché or the Admiralty in the events leading up to his recall to London, before the expiration of his appointment, on account of his drinking habits. 2. Given the security criteria of the time no legitimate criticism can be made of Houghton’s subsequent appointment in 1952 to a post in the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland which did not in itself involve access to secret material. It is regrettable however that the authorities at Portland were not informed about the reason for Houghton’s recall from Warsaw.”
So that’s all right, then. Getting continually sloshed is a hazard of working in dull Embassies behind the Iron Curtain. Black market dealings are not mentioned. Nothing is said about the lost ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty’s own evidence contradicts this smooth elision of what happened. Did Tietjen speak up after the Romer Report was issued, possibly incriminating Craggs, and was he then sworn to silence? Moreover, a further disturbing complication has to be addressed. In an endnote, Barnes informs us that ‘Craggs’ was not the MI5 officer’s real name (it had been redacted in the archives), and Barnes, though he discovered the real name, had to conceal it, at the request of MI5, because of ‘potential distress to his family’. (Note 8, p 290)
Apart from questioning why Barnes was negotiating with MI5 during this research, I have to ask: what could Craggs possibly have done that would require his name to be concealed after sixty years have passed! This must be an epic scandal if today’s cadre of MI5 officers have to be warned about it. Was Craggs perhaps punished severely for leaking information from the Admiralty files to a Daily Mail journalist? Craggs’s inspection of Admiralty records, Tietjen’s knowledge of Austen’s report, Austen’s clumsy interview, the Admiralty’s claim that the report was lost, Cragg’s humiliation and excision from the record: they all point to a dishonourable leakage of information. I believe that Barnes could, and should, have paid more attention to this mystery. By highlighting the fact of his own diligent sleuthing, namely that he had discovered who the anonymous officer was, but then showing no interest in what the scandal was about, Barnes has simply drawn attention to the shenanigans. (I have communicated my thoughts to him, but he has not replied to my latest analysis.)
A related story worthy of deeper investigation is the lamentable security at the Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) at Portland. On May 11, 1961, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commissioned Lord Radcliffe to investigate security across all the public services, and the Romer Committee (which was inquiring into Houghton and Gee) delivered its own findings to the Cabinet Secretary on May 30. The Romer report described the lack of security-consciousness at UDE, and criticised the head of the establishment, Captain Pollock, but the outcome was feeble. As Barnes writes: “Although the Portland security officer was dismissed from his post, as a temporary civil servant his pension was not cut; and the head of UDE in 1956, Captain Pollock, who retired in 1958, submitted a robust defence. Almost a year after the Portland trial, the Admiralty decided there were simply no grounds for disciplinary action against him.” What incentive can there be for doing a job properly if the incumbent knows that the institution will always take care of its own? The analysis of the Radcliffe report warrants only two short sentences in Dead Doubles: no doubt Barnes felt it was outside his remit, but this is a subject crying out for greater analysis.
This account presents an absorbing case-study in historiography. Barnes has clearly benefitted from the support and encouragement of his mentor, Christopher Andrew (‘the godfather to this book’), and cites Andrew’s coverage of the case in his 2009 history of MI5, Defending the Realm (pp 484-488). Andrew had offered one line about the failure of MI5 to follow up on the clues provided by Houghton’s ex-wife. But Andrew was characteristically oblique in his sources, listing solely his traditional ‘Security Service Archives’, some conversations with MI5 officers, and some selective – and thus, highly questionable – references to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. (which Andrew shamelessly lists in his Bibliography). The only specific source was an obscure article in Police Journal by Charles Elwell, one of Barnes’s key witnesses, written under the pseudonym ‘Elton’. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032258X7104400203 . (I do not believe Barnes cites this, but it may have been inserted into the recently released files.)
Yet a useful file was available at the National Archives at that time. In his 2012 work, The Art of Betrayal, Gordon Corera also wrote about the Portland Spy Ring at length, and dedicated a paragraph (p 234) to the fact that Houghton’s ex-wife believed that he was in touch with Communist agents. Corera quotes the response from MI5 that her accusations were ‘nothing more than the outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’, citing the file ADM 1/30088, which was the text of the Romer Inquiry. One can ascertain from the Kew Catalogue that this file is accompanied by ADM 116/6295-6297: they appear to have been stored for access in the 1960s, and updated with various items since. Yet these files (which Andrew could have named) are not referred to by Barnes. Instead, he uses the more comprehensive version of the Romer Inquiry issued in 2017, at CAB 301/248. I have not been able to compare the two, but it is important to recognize that the facts about MI5’s oversights in not checking out Houghton have been known for almost sixty years.
Furthermore, Chapman Pincher claimed, at the same time, that Macmillan ‘declined to publish Romer’s findings’, and that they were not published until 2007, when the Cabinet Office yielded to a Freedom of Information request from Dr Michael Goodman. That presumably relates, however, to Cabinet Office files, not Admiralty records. (Infuriatingly, the Catalogue entry for ADM 1/30088 does not give a release date.) Naturally, Pincher places all the blame on Roger Hollis, and that his ‘minimalist policy’ had allowed Houghton to continue his espionage untroubled. That was more an indictment of incompetence rather than of treachery. If Hollis had really wanted the Portland Spy Ring to remain a secret, he would surely have arranged things so that Lonsdale left town at the first available opportunity.
I believe Barnes might have plunged in more boldly on some other intelligence aspects of the case, and I highlight six here:
Lonsdale’s One-Time Pads: One of the key discoveries made when Lonsdale’s safe-deposit box was opened by MI5 was a set of three one-time pads (OTPs), vital for the decryption of incoming and outgoing messages. It seems that Helen Kroger keyed in all of Lonsdale’s messages, both the confidential ones (encyphered and typed on his typewriter), and the family ones (in manuscript) that were found in HK’s bag. One of the pads evidently referred to encyphered messages received on Lonsdale’s general-purpose wireless set, and MI5 & GCHQ were able to detect the frequency of personalized transmissions by inspecting the use of the pad. Thus the second of the three OTPs found in Lonsdale’s box must have been used for the encypherment of transmissions. Why did GCHQ/MI5 not notice or comment on how pages in this OTP had been used up, as they did with his receiver OTP? And what was the third OTP used for? Barnes does not comment.
Lonsdale in Ruislip: The reason that the Krogers were able to be arrested was because Lonsdale had unwittingly led his surveillance officers to their bungalow. But why did Lonsdale have to visit them? It sounds to me like very dangerous tradecraft. He should surely have met Helen or Peter at a neutral location to pass over his documents. After all, when Lonsdale was extradited to Berlin in the swap with Greville Wynne, he told MI5 officers, as they went through Ruislip, that they had chosen that location because of the US air traffic that would mask their transmissions, so why would the three of them endangered that ruse by the possibility of Lonsdale’s leading surveillance officers to the secret place?
Flash Mode: Barnes comments that the Krogers had been issued with a ‘novel’ wireless apparatus (the R-350-M) that operated in ‘flash’ mode, namely allowing keyed messages to be stored on tape, and then sent at ultra-high speeds to Moscow to avoid interception and direction-finding. If the Krogers had been using flash mode from the start, why would they have been concerned about direction-finding? The operation would have been over before GCHQ could even contact a van, if they had been able to pick up the signal (which Arthur Bonsall of GCHQ said was impossible, anyway.) Barnes refers to their previous equipment as the ‘Astra’ box, but does not describe it fully, or explain whether it was also capable of ’flash’ operation. His reference to ‘novel’ suggests that the previous box did not have flash capabilities. This characteristic is important in the story of interception.
Interception and Direction-Finding: Astonishingly, the status of GCHQ’s ability to intercept and locate illicit transmissions in 1960 appears to be markedly weaker than it was in World War II, as is shown by the testimony from Bonsall that Barnes cites. Coldspur readers will recall that Peter Wright claimed that GCHQ said that it would have been impossible for Agent Sonia to have operated undetected in the years 1941 to 1945. Yet by 1959 GCHQ admits defeat in its ability to pick up clandestine traffic targeted towards Moscow, and needs MI5 to tip it off about the places to watch! There is an untold story here about the reality and deterioration of the capabilities of the RSS (after the war The Diplomatic Wireless Service). (I have my own theories on this, which I shall explain in my culminating chapter on Sonia and Wireless Detection.)
Soviet Stable of Spies: Barnes makes some highly provocative claims about the presence of unnamed Soviet spies and illegals, assertions that are dropped into the text – almost carelessly. He writes that, at the time of the arrests, GCHQ was aware of ‘radio signals transmitted by KGB illegals in the UK’. So how did they know of the existence of such? Elsewhere he refers to the ‘stable of spies’ which had issued burst signals similar to those transmitted by the Krogers? Who were these people? He also states that MI5 had no practical experience of KGB illegals. Apart from the fact that they were aware of Soviet illegals in the 1930s (Mally & co.), if GCHQ knew of them, MI5 must surely have known them, too. This is a puzzle that I do not understand, and I am anxious to know Barnes’s sources.
Lonsdale’s Death: Lastly, the demise of Lonsdale. I have a particular interest in the dozens of cases of unexplained or early deaths of those who incurred the wrath of the KGB, and whom Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group may have pursued and annihilated. Barnes recounts Lonsdale’s death from a heart-attack in Moscow while mushroom-picking (a notoriously dangerous Russian pastime, by the way). Was this a straightforward medical incident? After all (as Barnes relates) he received death warnings, feared being shot on his return, was openly critical of Soviet society, and was given multiple injections shortly before he died. Is it not possible that his appalling tradecraft incurred the ire of KGB high-ups?
The good news is that I have presented this set of questions to Mr. Barnes himself, and he has accepted them as appropriate and thought-provoking. He has promised to inspect them more closely when he is not so busy. He must be much in demand with the attention over his book, as he well deserves to be. I look forward avidly to Barnes’s eventual response. His discomfort with Peter Wright comes through in his narrative, where he is sensibly cautious in accepting some of Wright’s claims about GCHQ’s interceptions of related messages. That is the perennial challenge for Barnes, and Andrew, and anyone else who chooses to cite Wright’s recollections from Spycatcher. Why do you accept some assertions, but discount others, and what does the inclusion of the book in your Bibliography mean?
I also wish Barnes had pushed his comprehensive reportage a bit further into analysis, and not withdrawn because of pressure from MI5, but I still encourage you to read Dead Doubles. And please send me your thoughts on the issues I have listed. In order to ensure the confidentiality of our correspondence, I do remind you all not to re-use your one-time pads (as some of you have been doing), and to ensure that your indicator groups appear in your message after my name, not before it. And, if you run out of one-time pads, we use Wisden’s Almanac, 2016 edition (not 2015!) as our reference book. Got that? It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?
Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)
Does the world need another biography of Klaus Fuchs? I have on my shelf those by Norman Ross, Robert Chadwell Williams, and Eric Rossiter, as well as last year’s epic composition by Frank Close. Evidently, the publishers at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, thought so, even though Close’s Trinity was published by Allen Lane, also an imprint of Penguin Random House. Presumably Ms. Greenspan knew about Frank Close’s concurrent work, and she indeed lists it in her biography. So one might expect a novel interpretation of the life of the atomic spy with divergent loyalties. The sub-title is ‘The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs’. Dark – as in ‘previously undisclosed’? Or as in ‘sinister’?
And what are Ms. Greenspan’s qualifications for writing about Fuchs, and what is her approach? It is not clear. She is recorded as having collaborated with her late husband, Stanley, on works of child psychiatry, and she published a book on the Life and Science of Max Born a decade ago, but I can find no record of her academic credentials. Moreover, she appeared to require large doses of help in compiling her work – not just the predictable interviews with a large range of offspring of friends and associates of Fuchs, but availing herself of an impressive list of persons who ‘agreed to interviews, tours, meetings, teas, and lunches and in every way were supportive’, from Charles and Nicola Perrin to the inevitable Nigel West and the elusive Alexander Vassiliev. How very unlike the solitary drudgery in which coldspur finds himself performing his researches! I should add, however, that while I shall probably not breakfast in Aberystwyth again, I did have a very pleasant lunch with Nigel West a few years ago, but am still awaiting Sir Christopher Andrew’s invitation to tea.
Ms. Greenspan lists a highly impressive set of international archival references, which point to a broad and deep study of the available material. Moreover, one noticeable feature of Greenspan’s detailed endnotes is the fact that she appears to have had access to some of the Fuchs files that have been withheld at Kew, such as the AB/1 series, which has been closed for access for most human beings. Her ability to inspect Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence, for instance, represents a highly controversial feather in her cap, which demands a more open explanation. Why would the relevant ministries allow an American writer to inspect such files, and why does she not explain her tactics in achieving such a coup? I was immediately intrigued to know whether her access to papers that the authorities have, in their wisdom, deemed too confidential to be exploited by the common historian, enabled her to construct some piercing breakthroughs in analysing Fuchs’s relationship with his political masters in the United Kingdom. When researching this matter with an on-line colleague, however, I was informed that she (and Frank Close) both probably benefitted from the availability of papers before the decision to withdraw them – primarily the AB 1/572-577 series of Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence. From a study of her endnotes, and those of Close (which are, incidentally, a treasure trove in their own right, which teaches more on each subsequent inspection), it would appear that Greenspan delved more widely in these particular arcana than did Close. What prompted the sudden secrecy by units of the British government over atomic research in the 1940s remains an enigma.
Greenspan’s methodical coverage of the sources is, however, not reflected in the originality of her text. Atomic Spy is overall disappointing, and does not add much to our understanding of Fuchs’s motivations and behaviour. Nevertheless, in four aspects, I thought Greenspan provided some fresh value worth noting. She dedicates four excellent chapters on Fuchs’s experiences in Kiel and Berlin in 1932 and 1933 – a period compressed to just two pages in Close’s account – describing vividly the terrors that the Nazis imposed on opposition groups, but especially the German Communist Party. At the age of twenty-one, Klaus had taken over from his brother, Gerhard, the leadership of the Free Socialist Student Group (a cover name) in Kiel. Gerhard had escaped to Berlin, but Klaus was now a hunted man, under sentence of death. On February 28, 1933, Klaus himself escaped from Kiel, when he was number one on the list to be arrested, and moved to Berlin. Very recklessly, when Gerhard had had to go into hiding, Klaus continued to try to recruit students to the communist cause, when it was clearly a hopeless venture. The Nazis were leaving mangled bodies of communists on the streets. In mid-July, Klaus boarded a train for Aachen, Paris, and eventually Bristol.
Greenspan also sheds fresh light on the horrors of internment that Fuchs and others experienced on the S. S. Ettrick on the voyage to Canada in July 1940, the brutal way that the prisoners were treated by their guards, and the vile conditions that existed on the ship, with thirteen hundred refugees crowded into a hold with the portholes shut in conditions of unbelievable squalor. According to Fuchs, the communists did most of the work in cleaning up the vomit and excrement that swamped the place. While they were at sea, they heard that U-boats had torpedoed the sister ship, the Arandora Star. Dry land in Canada may have been a relief after ten days on the Atlantic Ocean, but conditions in the camp were also grim to start with, a freezing winter making life desperately uncomfortable. The prisoners successfully petitioned for improved conditions, and by December Fuchs was a member of one of the first lists of internees to be sent back to Britain. One can forgive him for harbouring a grudge against the treatment they received, and the frequent accusations and insults that they heard from guards and civilians that he and his fellow internees were ‘Nazis’ simply because they were Germans.
The third area where I believe that Greenspan is more perceptive than other biographers is her coverage of the conversations between Henry Arnold, the security officer at Harwell, and Klaus, in late 1949. A possible defence that Fuchs could have used at his trial was that he had been ‘induced’ by Arnold, and John Cockcroft, the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, into confessing his espionage a spart of a deal. The concern that Fuchs’s confession might not have been truly voluntary brought MI5 to questioning whether the prosecution might fail on that account. Moreover, he had not been cautioned appropriately. Thus the written confession that he provided became extremely important. MI5’s attorney, B. A. Hill, was comfortable, however, with the sequence of events, and moved to advise the prosecuting lawyer, Christmas Humphreys. Yet Fuchs’s decision to say nothing at his initial hearing (on February 10, 1950), and the reluctance of Derek Curtis-Bennett, who represented Fuchs at the trial that took place on March 1, to challenge the Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, on what Greenspan describes as ‘the now open secret of inducement’ is puzzling and disturbing. Curtis-Bennett, perhaps under instructions, made a very disjointed plea in Fuchs’s defence, but Fuchs had little to say when invited by Lord Goddard to speak.
Lastly, Greenspan adds some useful information about Fuchs from his time in East Germany, where he did not get the heroes’ welcome that he expected, maybe naively. The Soviets wanted no suggestion that they had acquired the atomic bomb other than from their own research and imagination. The author writes: “No celebrations and accolades welcomed him. The Russians wanted no reference to his passing them information. According to them, they had discovered the atomic secrets themselves. Russia’s denial of any connection to him made his past taboo. Even his nephew Klaus had felt the long arm of the KGB. When he applied for admission to Leipzig University in 1956, he included that his uncle had spied for Russia. University officials accused him of lying. Russia didn’t have spies. They forced him to delete the information.” But what is surprising is that Greenspan does not include the passage from the Vassilievsky Notebooks, where Sonia (Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski) was quick to tell the authorities how ashamed she was of Fuchs’s conduct in confessing, and how, if she had been given the chance to give him a firm talking-to, the whole messy business of arrest and trial could have been avoided.
Yet the reader has to trudge through some familiar territory, well-ploughed by Close, to glean these insights. And Greenspan leaves behind a number of errors in her wake, mainly because she appears to have spent little time in the British Isles. She characterizes MI6 as ‘the military division of foreign intelligence’, represents the British intelligence establishment as ‘dominated by toffs’ from Eton or Harrow, which was certainly not the case, and introduces Edinburgh (where Fuchs returned to work under Max Born) in the following terms: “Januarys in Edinburgh are blustery and gray. The cold, raw air from the English Channel blankets the city of stone and seeps into the bones”, an observation bound to raise the hackles of even the most indulgent Caledonian. She hazards a guess that Sonia might have been in contact with Fuchs in 1949 because of ‘the proximity of Harwell to Great Rollright’, when Sonia had in fact lived closer to Harwell beforehand, and there is no evidence that she and Fuchs got together again in the UK after 1943. I would have thought that one of her many advisory readers would have shown a greater familiarity with British geography and institutions. Like many chroniclers, Greenspan is also a bit too trusting of ‘Sonya’s Report’.
The final judgments that emanate from all this teamwork are drearily mundane and misguided. She phrases her final verdict thus: “Fuchs’s actions left most people confused, but what they didn’t see was that his life, circumscribed from within, was consistent and constant to his unwavering set of ideals, he sought the betterment of mankind that transcended national boundaries. His goal became to balance world power and to prevent nuclear blackmail. As he saw it, science was his weapon in a war to protect humanity.” If this is what ‘Dark Lives’ consists of, it is very feeble, and represents the tired refrain that a traitor like Fuchs, who, like Sonia, took advantage of British citizenship, and then betrayed his adopted home, should somehow be forgiven because he was ‘sincere’. (Shortly before she died, Lorna Arnold, the official historian at AERE Harwell, gave Frank Close a similar testimony.) ‘An unwavering set of ideals’ – much the same could be said of Lenin, and Stalin, all the way to their grisly imitators such as Pol Pot, all laced with the vague narcissistic illusion that the hero of our tale had it in his hands the ability ‘to balance world power’. It is a shoddy ending to a weakly-conceived and ill-timed book.
Ms. Greenspan needed some help with her writing, as she acknowledges no less than sixteen persons who read ‘most or some of the manuscript’, a handful who helped her with German and Russian translations, another twelve who made suggestions or who provided introductions, and archivists from thirty or so libraries who pointed her in the right direction, as well as her team of agents, editors, project managers, an endnote compiler, and a copy editor. As an author who had to perform my own copy-editing with no benefit of outside readers, and was obliged to reconstruct my own text after an ‘experimental’ editor mangled my words and punctuation, who had to create all the footnotes and endnotes, create the Affinity Charts and Biographical Index, select and organize the illustrations, undertake the laborious task of constructing an index, recruit my own PR agency, and then, when a copy of Misdefending the Realm was requested for review purposes by the Times Literary Supplement, had to order a copy from amazon for the reviewer since my editor had taken off for India for a month without informing me, I was both overwhelmed and disenchanted. It is rather like comparing two expeditions to the Hindu Kush. The Zoological Society would take hampers of chutney, chocolate and champagne with them, and recruit a posse of porters and ponies to carry their provisions, while Eric Newby or Eric Shipton would go alone, with a rucksack on their backs. But it is the solo explorers who bring back the more intriguing stories.
An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)
The only major feature wrong with this book is its title. If a spy were truly ‘impeccable’, he (or she) would be infiltrated silently into a target institution, would extract vital secrets and deliver them to his controllers without ever being detected, his achievements would never be lauded and publicized, and he would die in obscurity, his name and cryptonym forever a secret. No doubt there have been persons like that. But there would be no material to write biographies of them.
Richard Sorge (the subject of Owen Matthews’ book) was far from that model. He behaved ostentatiously, drawing attention to himself, he was caught by the Japanese, he confessed his crimes, and was eventually hanged. Up until the last day he believed that Stalin would rescue him in some exchange deal because of his dedication, and the value he had brought to his bosses. Yet that was not the way Stalin thought. Sorge was a failure because he had got himself caught. And maybe Sorge knew at heart that a return to Moscow might mean death at the hands of his employers. After all, in Stalin’s eyes, Sorge had lived too long abroad, would clearly have been subject to non-communist influences, and might disapprove of how Stalin had distorted the Bolshevik impulse. Moreover, he was half-German. Let him swing.
Biographers of spies have to spice up their stories to attract attention, admittedly. ‘The Most Dangerous Spy in History’ (Fuchs, according to Frank Close); ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’ (Fuchs, according to Mike Rossiter); ‘Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy’ (Sonia, according to Ben Macintyre), ‘The Spy Who Changed History’ (Shumovsky, according to Lokhova), etc. etc. Matthews appears to have taken his inspiration from Kim Philby, perhaps a dubious authority in this métier. Philby is quoted on the dust-jacket as stating that Sorge’s ‘work was impeccable’, John le Carré, for good measure, classifies Sorge as ‘the best spy of all time’, and Ian Fleming is recorded on the cover as claiming that Sorge was ‘the most formidable spy in history’, all reflecting an enthusiasm for bohemianism and extravagance rather than patience and discretion.
Sorge’s life was a rambunctious and exhilarating one. He was born in 1895 in Baku, in the Russian Empire, of a German father and Russian mother. He served on the Western Front, where he became a communist. After the Russian revolution, he moved to Moscow, where he was recruited by the Comintern, and roamed around Europe on various missions, including a short stay in the United Kingdom in 1929. Shortly after that, he was instructed to join the Nazi party with cover as a journalist, and sent to Shanghai, China in 1930, to join a motley international group of ne’er-do-wells, conspirators, saboteurs, spies and activists, and among his sexual conquests were Agnes Smedley and Ursula Hamburger (Sonia). (In Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre has written: “Exactly when Ursula Hamburger and Richard Sorge became lovers is still a matter of debate.” That may be so in London, but in the circles in which I move, the precise date of that tempestuous event has never been a topic of conversation.) On a return to Moscow in 1933, where Sorge got married, he received fresh instructions to go to Japan and organize an intelligence network, since Stalin was more concerned about the threat from the East than he was of the Nazi menace. He went there via Germany, where he was able to build links with the Nazi Party, and thereafter led a stressful double life of hobnobbing with Nazi officials while building contacts with the Japanese government, and recruiting Max Clausen to send his reports to Vladivostok by wireless. He provided much valuable information to Stalin – although some of it is overrated – but the Japanese penetrated his ring, and he was arrested on October 18, 1941, interrogated and tortured. He then confessed, and was hanged on November 7, 1944.
I was familiar with Owen Matthews from an earlier work of his, Stalin’s Children (2008), which was not literally about the Dictator’s own offspring, but consisted of an uneasy combination of private memoir and serious history. It was an affecting and occasionally moving composition, uncovering the stories of Matthews’ maternal Russian grandparents (his grandfather was killed in the purges of 1937, and his grandmother lost her mind in the Gulag), and the love-affair of his own parents. (The granting of his mother’s visa to leave for Britain was part of the deal to free the Krogers, noted above.) Yet I found it flawed, owing to some mystical nonsense about ‘blood memory’, a lot of speculation about his grandfather’s thoughts and intentions, the insertion of many now familiar stories of the Ukrainian famine and the Purges, too much shy-making information on the author’s own love-life, and an irritatingly but no doubt fashionably erratic approach to the chronology of his story. The book was 50% longer than it needed to be.
Matthews, who spoke Russian before he learned English, studied Modern History at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, and then pursued a career as a journalist, working in Moscow from 1997. His account of Sorge’s life is methodical, and sensibly cautious about many of the rumours that surrounded Sorge’s career in the muddle of Shanghai and wartime Japan. (I must confess that I have not read any other of the Sorge biographies, so cannot compare.) He has had access to American, German, Russian and Japanese archival sources, with necessary assistance in translation, and professes a large and learned bibliography. There is little of the Pincherite speculation about assignments and recruitment (e.g. ‘Hollis’s position at BAT would have been of interest to the GRU’ and ‘Sorge could have encountered Hollis there [at the YMCA]’: Treachery, page 46).
Matthews does comment on the Hollis case, however, although mainly in an endnote (of which there are many rich examples). On pages 367 and 368 he spends perhaps too much space on a topic that is not germane to the Sorge story, echoing the line of the Pincherite-Wrightean clique of faux-historians. He states that ‘there is evidence that Luise Rimm [the wife of a GRU operator] had a love affair with Roger Hollis that lasted three years’, and he accuses Hollis of being deceptive about his movements in China and Moscow. He is firmly of the belief that Hollis alone was able to shield Sonia from investigation, concluding, rather lamely: “The record is clear that Hollis was that protective hand, for reasons that make no apparent sense unless he was the agent ‘Elli’ and was working, like Sonja, for the GRU”. It would have been better for Matthews to have stepped back from this particular controversy.
I found a few mistakes about personalities and organisation. Matthews introduces Peter Wright as ‘the Australian-born head of MI5 counter-intelligence’, which is wrong on two counts. And he gets a bit carried away about Shanghai in the 1920s. One sentence stands out, on pp 57-58: “In the 1920s Shanghai hosted many of the great Soviet illegals of the age – Arnold Deutsch (who went on to recruit Kim Philby), Theodore Maly (later controller of the Cambridge Five), Alexander Rado (one of the many agents who would later warn Stalin of Nazi plans to invade the Soviet Union), Otto Katz (one of the most effective recruiters of fellow-travellers to the Soviet cause from Paris to Hollywood), Leopold Trepper (founder of the Rote Kapelle spy ring inside Germany before the Second World War), as well as legendary Fourth Department illegals Ignace Poretsky and Walter Krivitsky, Ruth Werner [Sonia] and Wilhelm Pieck.” No matter that this was the decade before Sorge arrived, that not all of these characters were ’illegals’, and that none of them was mythical. Sonia did not arrive there until 1930, and Agnes Smedley would have been very upset to have been omitted from this list of desperadoes. How a lot of problems would have been forestalled if this crew had been mopped up at the time and locked away where they could do no damage!
The account of Sorge’s eventual entrapment and arrest is very dramatic, and Matthews tells it well. I was particularly interested, because of my research into Sonia’s activities, in the attempts to determine the location of Clausen’s transmitter, as one would think that the Japanese would have been ruthless and efficient in tracking down illicit transmissions. Matthews reports: “Thanks to their own radio monitoring, and after a tip-off from the military government in Korea, the Japanese authorities knew that a powerful illegal transmitter was regularly operating from various sites in the Tokyo area. An all-points bulletin was sent out to all municipal police stations, including Toriizaka, to try to spot the source of the signals. But the Japanese were never able to successfully triangulate Clausen’s radio. And happily for Sorge, the Russian military code he used proved unbreakable – though the messages were faithfully monitored and transcribed by the Japanese in an ever-thickening file of unintelligible strings of number groups.” It seems to me that because of the wavelengths that Clausen would have been using, and the peculiar shape of Japan, and its mountains, that detecting the exact location of Clausen’s transmissions (and he did sensibly move around) turned out to be impossible.
Matthews’s final judgment endorses the view that Sorge was impeccable because he was ‘brave, brilliant and relentless’, and he laments the Soviet Union’s overall indifference to him, and the fact that it engaged in ‘the ultimate betrayal of its greatest spy.’ “It was Sorge’s tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests of the country that he laid down his life to serve” is the last sentence in Mathews’ book. Well, that is one way of looking at it. But you could also say that he was just like every other Stalinist dupe: he was consumed by a dopey ideology, believed that he was one of the charmed saviours of humanity, and completely overlooked the evidence that pointed to the fact that Stalin was a monster who would show no compassion or mercy when his underlings were no longer of use to him. One of Matthews’ excellent commentaries contains the following chilling fact (p 179): Soviet military intelligence had six different heads between 1937 and 1939, five of whom would be executed. The Hall of Fame consists of the following:
Jan Berzin, 1924-April 1935
Semyon Uritsky, April 1935-July 1937
Jan Berzin, July 1937-August 1937
Alexander Nikonov, August 1937-August 1937
Semyon Gendin, September 1937-October 1938
Alexander Orlov, October 1938-April 1939
Ivan Proskurov, April 1939-July 1940
Filipp Golikov, July 1940-October 1941
Alexei Panfilov, October 1941-November 1942
Not a career to be undertaken lightly. One might wonder why Jan Berzin, the second time round, didn’t reflect on the opportunity, and select a quieter and less hazardous occupation, such as deep-sea diving. But you couldn’t do that with Stalin. Once you were in the maw, you had no control. And the same for Sorge. Despite its occasional missteps, I recommend this book highly.
Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)
Most readers will probably recall Peter Fleming as the elder brother of Ian Fleming, or the husband of Celia Johnson, whose controlled performance of thwarted passion made Brief Encounter such an iconic film. That story of how Sonia (Celia Johnson) met Klaus Fuchs (Trevor Howard) at Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station, and then how the couple had to subdue their romance for the cause of delivering atomic secrets safely to the Soviet Embassy [are you sure this is correct? Ed.], was a box-office hit in 1945, and notable for the cameo performance by Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot [sic! Milicent’s sister?], an MI5 officer under cover as the restaurant owner. Perhaps more authentically, I remember being introduced to Fleming in his travel-book, Brazilian Adventure (1933) about a poorly-organized search for Percy Fawcett, which entertained me because the author appeared to parody himself. I thus keenly consumed his One’s Company (1934) and News from Tartary (1936), in which his cover as a journalist allowed him to perform some intelligence-gathering on behalf of MI6. (There is no evidence that he had an affair with Sonia while he was in Manchukuo, and Sonia wisely decided to omit all references to any such liaison in her memoir.) His account of Hitler’s plans after the invasion of Britain, Invasion 1940, was of great historical interest to me. Finally, I enjoyed Duff Hart-Davis’s biography of Fleming, published in 1974.
Thus I jumped at the opportunity to learn more when Alan Ogden’s Master of Deception appeared last year, especially since it carried a warm endorsement from Professor Glees on the back cover. Alan Ogden was not a name I knew, but, since he has written several books about the Special Operations Executive, especially concerning activities in a region of the world that I find utterly absorbing – Transylvania, Romania, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – I thought that it was an omission that I should quickly remedy. Ogden has set himself the task of documenting Fleming’s war experiences in the Military Intelligence Directorate (MIR) and then in what Ogden calls the ‘mysterious’ D. Division, which was responsible for deception in the Far East.
Part of the problem of recording faithfully what went on in military intelligence circles is the tendency to be overwhelmed with acronyms, liaison officers, operational code-names, and a host of minor figures, the Biffies, Jumboes and Tigers who populated this realm. (Ogden recognises part of this challenge in his Preface, where he declares his aim to reduce the ‘alphabet soup’. Yet he provides no glossary of acronyms, and his Index is very weak.) Thus it requires a large amount of concentration and patience to keep up with the stream of codewords and rapidly changing military units that evolved as the war changed its shape. Another hurdle for the author to overcome, however, is more paradoxical, and more serious. Even though Fleming is characterised as the ‘Master of Deception’, his schemes and campaigns were essentially failures – not because of his lack of inventiveness, but because the enemy refused to bite, or because the battle was lost for external reasons. A campaign record of Norway, Greece, the Pacific and Burma is not the most illustrious showcase for how deception operations won the day.
I have recently studied the deception campaign supporting the Normandy landings (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-8/ ), and it was informative to discover that much of the investment that the Allies put into the movements of dummy armies was wasted because the Germans did not have the capacity nor the imagination to interpret all the fake signals and equipment that were constructed to convince them of the existence of FUSAG. The Nazis were nowhere near to building a picture of the organisation and order of battle of the Allies to match what British and American intelligence had constructed concerning Nazi forces. Thus Germany came to be completely reliant on its crew of agents, who had either been ‘turned’ or had signed up for the Abwehr originally with the intention of working for the opposition. And British intelligence was able to manipulate the Abwehr and its successors simply because they wanted to be misled.
Whereas deception, under Lt.-Colonel Dudley Clarke’s ‘A’ Force, had been successful in Africa, it was a struggle in the war in Burma and the frontiers of Japanese-controlled territory. As Fleming himself wrote in a report: “There can be no question that the Japanese Intelligence was greatly inferior in all respects to the German and even the Italian Intelligence. The successful deception practiced on the Axis military machine in Europe was made possible by the fact that the enemy’s Intelligence staffs and services were, though gullible, well organized and reasonably influential.” As Ogden concludes, D. Division’s plans were too sophisticated: Philip Mason, head of the Conference Secretariat (SEAC), echoed Fleming’s judgment: “Deceiving the Germans had been very different; they wanted to know our plans and expected us to try and deceive them. That had been like playing chess with someone not quite as good as oneself.; with the Japanese, it was like setting up the chessboard against an adversary whose one idea was to punch you on the nose.”
Fleming was to explain failure in other ways, such as a lack of knowledge with the deception planners as to what military strategies actually were in a chaotic and dispersed region – very different from what existed in the European theatre. But a naivety about deception, and maybe an overestimation of achievement, and a lack of understanding of how controlling agents was supposed to work, were evident in other activities. Ogden reports how, in March 1943, our old coldspur friend John Marriott was sent to India to advise on how a new section should be formed to handle double-agents (a formulation that immediately highlights a problem, as you cannot be sure you have ‘double-agents’ until you have trained them, and brought them strictly under your control). Ogden reports: “Marriott’s credentials were impeccable save in one respect. He had never been to India, and knew next to nothing about its peculiarities, impediments and handicaps.” Marriott was very critical of the set-up in India, and Fleming appeared to have been rather disdainful of Marriott’s practical experience. For where were these double-agents going to come from? Who arrested them, interrogated them, and who was to ‘turn’ them, and ensure that they were loyal to you? Moreover, Fleming frequently upset the military brass with his unconventionality. One judgment recorded by Ogden is that of Colonel Bill Magan, one of the officers in the Delhi Intelligence Bureau. He found Fleming ‘an irresponsible, ambitious and irrational man who was always trying to persuade us to pass messages which we believed would “blow” the channel.’
Ogden has clearly done his homework, as is shown by the hundred or so files from the National Archives that he lists in his Sources, and whose contents are faithfully reflected in his text. But it becomes a bit of a trudge working through his story to find the nuggets. Too many multi-page reports are embedded, when they should preferably have been summarized, and the complete versions relegated to Appendices. Much detail about operations, which is surely of considerable value to the dedicated military historian, could have been left out in order to focus more tightly on the author’s main thrust, and Fleming sometimes gets lost in the caravanserai.
Yet nuggets there certainly are. I was delighted to add the following assessment to my dossier on Roger Hollis. In August 1939, Fleming was invited to submit his recommendations as to who, among associates he had known, might be useful to the war effort, and offered, among his testimonies, that Hollis ‘Did several years in China with BAT’, adding: “Though he has not been there recently, his judgement of Far Eastern affairs has always impressed me as unusually realistic. His cooperation, or even his comments, might be valuable at an early stage, particularly as he is available in London.” Nothing appeared to come from this, but the outwardly rather dim Hollis had impressed someone who knew what he was talking about, and gained a fan of note. (My dossier has also been enriched this month by one of the more memorable phrases in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya: “He [Hollis] was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the imaginative flair of an omelet.”)
Another gem consists of a paper that Fleming wrote in Chungking in 1942, titled ‘Total Intelligence’, which, by using the fictitious example of Ruritania in 1939, outlined how a diverse set of intelligence sources could be harnessed without consolidating the gatherers of intelligence into one massive organisation. The paper takes almost ten pages of text, and should thus likewise have been a candidate for appendicisation, but it deserves broader exposure, and is well worth reading. I was a bit puzzled, however, by Ogden’s brief commentary on this report, where he indicates that, addressing Fleming’s criticism, SOE went out of his way to recruit business men and bankers to assist them in undermining the enemy. But SOE was a sabotage organisation, not an intelligence-gathering unit (although intelligence came its way by way of its destructive exploits), and I should have liked Ogden to explore this dilemma – one so keenly understood by MI6 – in a little more depth.
So what is the verdict on Fleming? Ogden’s assessment is a little surprising. He writes (p 274): “As the new world order unfurled, with his knowledge of and experience in dealing with Russia and China, he was eminently well qualified for a top post in either SIS or MI5.” That seems to me an errant call. Fleming had no insider reputation in the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, and his sudden appointment would surely have provoked resentment. Moreover, I believe he was temperamentally unsuited for roles that required tact, patience, and an ability to negotiate with Whitehall. He was an adventurer, a maverick, and would have bridled at all the protocols and formalities of communicating with career civil servants – something that Dick White was famously good at. It is not surprising that Fleming took early retirement as a gentleman farmer.
‘Master of Deception’ he may have been, but the targets of his deception frequently failed to act like English gentlemen, or perform as they were supposed to, not having installed the obvious British-like institutions. In one important passage, Fleming’s frustrations come through. As Ogden writes, of one multi-year operation that had minimal impact, the HICCOUGHS project, which planted a network of notional agents in Burma, and somehow caused them to send messages back to Delhi (p 228): “For two years, Fleming and the HICCOUGHS case attached little importance to this rather tiresome routine commitment since it was transparently flawed. ‘Why,’ asked Fleming, ‘if our agents could communicate with us by W/T, could we not communicate with them by the same means? Why, if we were forced to broadcast messages to them, did we continue to use a low-grade cipher? How was it that they were all (apparently) able to listen in twice daily at fixed times to receive a message when in most cases it affected only one of them? How was it that the Japanese Radio Security Service never obtained the slightest clue to the places and times at which they transmitted their lengthy and invaluable reports? Why, after all this talk about sabotage and subversion, did nothing ever happen?’”
This was perhaps an admission that ingenuity alone was not enough. It needed comprehensive understanding and support from the military organisation, and it required, even more, a proper assessment of the psychology of the enemy, insights into how its intelligence units thought, and a clear idea of what behavioural changes the operation was trying to achieve. Causing confusion was not enough.
Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]
Even taking into account the generation gap, there are some remarkable similarities between Brian Toohey (born 1944) and Harry Chapman Pincher (1914-2014). Both began their journalistic careers in conventional fields, Toohey in finance, although the Australian Financial Review when he joined it in the 1970s had perhaps a somewhat broader range than now. Pincher’s field was initially defence and science on the Daily Express in the Beaverbrook days after the war. Both had the gift or the knack of attracting confidences, so that senior figures in government leaked material which they wished to see released, for varying reasons. The historian E P Thompson described Pincher as
“a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”
Pincher’s sources went beyond that group, taking in those who went fishing or pheasant or grouse shooting in season – cabinet ministers, industrialists, well-informed nobles – when some on Pincher’s account became much more willing to divulge secrets, or at least matters which were classified as secrets. It was not a difference that they or Pincher always recognised. Toohey’s only overseas posting was to Washington, and his social circle was more restricted; and if there were any grouse shooters among his sources, he has been careful to protect them.
While Pincher will be well-known to readers of coldspur.com some further information on Toohey might be helpful. He has written about national security policy since 1973 and is the author or co-author of four books, including Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (1989). After part of the manuscript came into the Australian (Labor) Government’s possession, it took court action which resulted in the book effectively being vetted by the Government. A sensible approach saw only one major deletion, the name of a public relations firm, an omission remedied soon after the book’s publication by another journalist who published not in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne).
Pincher became interested in spies in 1950 when he covered the trial of Klaus Fuchs, the atomic spy. Pincher informed his editor that a spy named Fuchs had been arrested, and the editor said ‘Marvellous! I’ve always wanted to get that word into a headline.’ As noted, Toohey has written about national security matters since 1973, while he was still at the AFR, perhaps more so later when he moved to the late-lamented National Times. Both believed in lunch as a setting where people talked; French was Pincher’s cuisine of choice, habitually at A L’Ecu de France in Jermyn St Piccadilly. His footnotes show that Toohey followed suit on at least one occasion, at La Bagatelle in Washington, but in New York he went to the Union Club (founded 1836), the cuisine in which was unlikely to have been French. No Canberra restaurant is mentioned. Perhaps Toohey was wise to move about. After A L’Ecu closed in the 1990s, Pincher was told by the senior director that MI5 had bugged the banquettes, including the one favoured by Pincher. A later development of the story had it that when MI5 went to remove the bugs, it found another set – put there by the KGB. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant: it’s a great story. Pincher evidently had a very good memory and drank little. After lunch he would return to his office and dictate the story without reference to documents. ‘…I have always had a golden rule’, he recorded in 2013,’ that I would never touch or look at any classified documents’. (Foreword to Christopher Moran: Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (2013)). Toohey seems to have got documents frequently but after writing his story he would very sensibly destroy them, thus putting himself beyond the reach of his official pursuers who often took him to court.
Reading along and between the lines in Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State (2019) suggests that most of his sources were public servants. As with Pincher, much public money was spent on attempting to find out who they were, evidently without success. Both lived or have lived long enough to be able to see from government files released to archives the attempts made to identify their sources. After Pincher had published in 1959 details of a cabinet decision two days after it had been made, Harold Macmillan was moved to exclaim: ‘Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher’. Pincher’s books contain the explanation for many of the characteristics of Australian government which Toohey rightly complains about: unwarranted secrecy and lies, particularly by security agencies. The UK system of government has for decades prized secrecy, very often in circumstances where it was later shown to be unnecessary and even harmful. In Treachery, Pincher is able to show that time and again MI5 in particular lied to ministers and even the Prime Minister, to the extent of being publicly reproved. In 1963 Harold Macmillan criticised Sir Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, in the House of Commons for keeping from him critical information during the Profumo affair.
As time goes by, more and more ludicrous examples emerge. In 1940 Neville Chamberlain while still Prime Minister commissioned Lord Hankey to investigate the efficiency of the intelligence services. His report has never been released in the United Kingdom, which had prompted much speculation about its contents. The spy John Cairncross had at the time slipped a copy to Moscow and in 2009, in its well-known role of assisting scholarship, the Soviet archives released it. Fallen upon by scholars eager to find its secrets, it turned out to be in the words of one reader ‘mostly pedestrian and superficial’.
That tradition of too much secrecy and too many lies was bequeathed to Australia and the other colonies and continues to bedevil them, as Toohey shows. He became the bete noire of Sir Arthur Tange, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, whose ‘demands to find the leakers chewed up the time of senior officials who had more important things to do than pursue often inept and always futile investigations’. Tange might usefully have followed the precedent of his UK counterpart, Sir Richard Powell, who advised his minister in 1958 with regard to Pincher that
“I believe that we must live with this man and make the best of it. We can console ourselves that his writings, although embarrassing at times to Whitehall, disclose nothing that Russian intelligence does not already know.”
Toohey’s jousts with the establishment make for enjoyable reading, and on most issues (nuclear bomb testing in Australia, ‘the depravity of nuclear war planning’ etc) he is on the side of the angels, even if sometimes he does not quote prominent supporters such as the Pope who give weight to his causes. Given that most of the Pope’s clergy and his flock do not at least in public echo his views on the bomb, Toohey’s omission is forgivable.
When he strays outside his area of expertise, however, as he does when arguing that out of the thirteen wars Australia has fought, only one (the Pacific theatre of World War II) was ‘a war of necessity for Australia’, Toohey stumbles. Some of the thirteen pre-dated the establishment of Australia in 1900, and while his argument might be true looking backwards, there was no prospect in say 1914 that Australia would not join in the defence of what was then called the mother country, especially when all her other white daughters enrolled. Toohey must also be one of the very few Australian commentators to have written about the Japanese and World War II and who have failed to mention the bombing of Darwin and the invasion of Sydney Harbour by midget submarines, both in 1942.
All this makes it very disappointing that Toohey should be so far off the mark in the very first chapter of his book (there are 60 chapters, some of them very short), which deals with ‘The Security Scandal that the US Hid from the Newborn ASIO’, as the chapter heading has it. The scandal concerned the Venona material, messages which passed between Moscow and its embassies in a number of countries, including Australia, in the 1940s, many of which were intercepted by the US or its allies (or by neutral countries such as Sweden) and some of which were able to be decoded or deciphered. On Toohey’s account, an NSA employee, William Weisband, was a KGB spy and told Moscow in 1948 about the interceptions and the encryption methods were then changed. Again on Toohey’s account, ASIO was never told about this betrayal. All these assertions are worth examining in some detail, together with Toohey’s account of what the Australian Venona material revealed.
Toohey begins by claiming that ‘the highly classified material handed over by the Australian spies was of no consequence’, in particular the two top-secret UK planning papers passed over in 1946 which showed ‘banal, often erroneous predictions’; further, the predictions were ‘fatuous’ while the other papers passed over were ‘trite’. That some of the predictions turned out to be wrong, and that some of the other material seemed to be unimportant, are hardly sufficient to dismiss them altogether. Given some indication by the Soviet Embassy in Canberra of the contents of the two top-secret reports, Moscow asked that they be sent immediately by telegram, which is a good indication of what it thought of them at the time. A more objective account of the Canberra Venona is to be found in Nigel West’s Venona (1999), where he describes one of these two documents as being ‘of immense significance’, and says that for it to have fallen into Soviet hands at that time was ‘devastating’.
In any event, Toohey fails to mention that in the estimation of the US National Security Agency which released the Venona material in the 1990s ‘More than 200 messages were decrypted and translated, these representing a fraction of the messages sent and received by the Canberra KGB residency.’ (NSA website). It is idle to suppose that those not intercepted contained no important classified material.
Toohey also misrepresents the messages sent by Moscow to the senior MI5 officer in Canberra, Semyon Makarov: ‘Moscow told Makarov not to let [Clayton, the Communist Party member who was the contact man for the spies in External Affairs] recruit new agents, not to send any document that was more than a year old, not to be overeager to achieve success and to stop obtaining information of little importance.’ What Moscow in fact said to Makarov was‘…if possible do not take any steps in the way of bringing in new agents without a decision from us’ (message of 6 October 1945); ‘you should not receive from [Clayton] and transmit by telegraph textual intelligence information that is a year old’ the implication being that it might be sent by bag (message of 17 October 1945); and that [Nosov, the TASS correspondent in Sydney] should be brought into the work ‘but do not be over-eager to achieve success to the detriment of security and maximum caution’ (message of 20 October 1945). This kind of close supervision by Moscow was not unusual, as West’s book shows.
Individual members of the External Affairs spy ring are declared to be innocent. Ric Throssell is described thus: ‘After interviewing him in 1953, ASIO concluded that he “is a loyal subject and is not a security risk in the department in which is employed” ‘. Quite true, but incomplete. After Petrov’s defection in 1954, ASIO formed the view that Throssell could not be given a security clearance for classified material, and he never was. Frances Garratt (nee Bernie) is described by Toohey as ‘working mainly on political party issues as a young secretary/typist in the Sydney office of the External Affairs minister, Bert Evatt..She insisted that she thought she was simply giving the local Communist Party some political information.’ Again, incomplete. As Robert Manne noted in The Petrov Affair (1987), the Royal Commission on Espionage found that
“While Frances Bernie had certainly broken the law – in passing official documents to Walter Clayton without authorisation – she had only admitted to doing so having been granted an immunity from prosecution.”
And according to the late Professor Des Ball, ‘In 2008, Bernie admitted that she had given Walter Seddon Clayton (code-named KLOD or CLAUDE), the organiser and co-ordinator of the KGB network, much more important information than she had previously confessed’. (‘The moles at the very heart of government’, The Australian, April 16, 2011)
The scandal referred to in the chapter heading is this. As noted, on Toohey’s account the Venona secret was betrayed to Moscow by William Weisband, a Soviet spy employed by the National Security Agency, and in 1948 the Soviet encryption systems were changed. Toohey takes up the story:
“I asked ASIO when the US informed it (or its predecessor) that Weisband had told the Soviets that Venona was able to read its messages; ASIO replied in an email on 30 June 2017: ‘The information you refer to is not drawn from ASIO records.’ ASIO also told the National Archives of Australia (NAA) that it does not hold any open period records (i.e.up to 1993) about the US notifying it that Weisband told the Soviets about Venona. The US should also have told the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate, or ASD). When I asked ASD, via Defence, it declined to answer.”
It is worth noting here that entering ‘William Weisband’ and ‘National Security Agency’ into the Australian Archives website yields only references to public material about the Agency. Entering ‘William Weisband’ into the website of the UK National Archives yields no result; while the only two results for ‘National Security Agency’ are for files from the Prime Minister’s Office concerning the publication of material about the Agency. Toohey would presumably not argue on the basis of these results that the Agency did not tell the UK security authorities about Weisband. The strongest argument against Toohey’s claim is that entering Weisband’s name into the website of the US National Archives and Records Administration yields only scraps, and nothing connected directly to the NSA. Clearly NSA guards its records zealously, as one would expect. It was at one time so secret that its initials were said to mean ‘No Such Agency’.
In any event, ASIO did not come into existence until 1949, and on Horner’s account in Volume 1 of the history of ASIO – The Spycatchers – he and his research team ‘found files that ASIO did not even know they had.’ Relying on ASIO records, especially from the early days, is thus a chancy business.
I recall, back in the early 1960s, seeing advertisements in the Daily Telegraph for a charity identifying itself as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. They showed an elderly couple, a rather tweedy gentleman of military bearing, and his elegant wife, who probably had worn pearls at some stage, but could no longer afford them. (The image I show above is a similar exhibit.) These were presumably persons of good ‘breeding’ who had fallen on undeserved hard times. The organization asked the readership to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of such persons.
I found these appeals
rather quaint, even then, and asked myself why ‘gentlefolk’ should have been
singled out as especially worthy of any handouts. After all, such terminology
had a vaguely mid-Victorian ring: I must have been thinking of Turgenev’s ‘Nest
of Gentry’, which I had recently read. Moreover, were there not more
meritorious examples of the struggling poor? Perhaps I had Ralph MacTell’s
‘Streets of London’ ringing in my head [No. It was not released until 1969.
Ed.], although I was never able to work out why, if the bag-lady celebrated
by this noted troubadour (who, like me, grew up in Croydon in the 1950s) was
lonely, ‘she’s no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking’. Was she
perhaps fed up with being accosted in the street by long-haired minstrels
But I digress. It was more probable that I had been influenced by the lunch monitor at my school dining-table, the much-loved and now much-missed John Knightly, who would later become Captain of the School. I recall how he, with Crusader badge pinned smartly on his lapel, would admonish those of us who struggled to complete our rather gristly stew by reminding us of ‘the starving millions in China’. I felt like telling him that he could take the remnants of the lunch of one particular Distressed Fourth-Former and send them off to Chairman Mao, but somehow the moment passed without my recommendation being made.
I thought about that
institution as I was preparing this piece. I have warned readers of coldspur
that I would eventually be offering an analysis of the phenomenon of
Liverpool University as the Home for Distressed Spies, and here it is. It
analyses the predicament that MI5 and the civil authorities found themselves in
when they had clear evidence that Soviet spies were in their midst, but,
because of the nature of the evidence, believed that they could not prosecute
without a confession.
accounts of the interviews, interrogations and suspicions surrounding some of
the atom scientists (Pontecorvo, Peierls, Fuchs, Skinner, Skyrme, Davison) in
Britain after the war display a puzzled approach to policy by the officers at the
AERE (Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell) and at MI5. If such
suspects were believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, they could not be encouraged,
on account of the knowledge they possessed about atomic power and weaponry, to
consider escaping to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it would have been
difficult to prosecute those whose guilt was hardly in doubt (i.e. Fuchs and
Pontecorvo), as it would require gaining a confession from them, and, on the
other, the sensitivity of the sources (the VENONA decrypts, and a lost item of
intelligence, respectively) would prohibit such evidence being used in a trial.
In Fuchs’s case, some senior figures in MI5 (Percy Sillitoe, the
Director-General, and Dick White, head of counter-espionage) were keen on
trying to gain a confession, and prosecuting. Liddell of MI5 (Sillitoe’s
deputy), in conjunction with Harwell’s chief, John Cockcroft, and Henry Arnold,
the security officer, wanted to shift Fuchs and Pontecorvo quietly off to a
regional university. Liverpool University loomed largest in this scenario.
have decided to work backwards generally in this account, before advancing to
the connection between the controversial role of Herbert Skinner, and how he
eventually exerted an influence on the removal of the mysterious Boris Davison.
I believe it will be more revealing to display gradually the undeclared knowledge
that affected the decisions, misleading briefings and reports that emanated
from Guy Liddell and his brother-officers at MI5, and from other civil servants
at Harwell, and at the Ministry of Supply, to which AERE reported.
Dramatis Personae(primarily in 1950, when most of the
the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:
director; Head of Theoretical Physics division
Men from the Ministries:
Controller of Production, Atomic Energy, at the Ministry
Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research
Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office
Secretary to the Treasury, and Head of Civil Service
Secretary, Ministry of Supply
Cherwell Paymaster-General (1953)
of B Division (counter-espionage)
Mitchell B1E (Hollis’s deputy)
J. C. Head of B2
T. A. R. B3 (retired in 1948)
of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
at Birmingham University
at Birmingham University
Massey Professor at University College, London
Rotblat Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London
at Liverpool University
Frisch Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge
Flowers Researcher at Birmingham University
Pryce Professor at Clarendon Laboratories
Pincher Daily Express
Stubbs-Walker Daily Mail
Moorehead Daily Express
Rodin Sunday Express
Maule Empire News
West New York Times
De Courcy Intelligence Digest
wives, mistresses, girl-friends and spear-carriers
Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Machinations at Liverpool
Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
Boris Davison – after Attlee
Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Bruno Pontecorvo’s journey to Harwell was an unusual one. An Italian who worked with Joliot-Curie in Paris, he had escaped from France with his Swedish wife and their son in July 1940, in the nick of time before the Nazis overran the country. After some strenuous efforts visiting consulates and embassies to gain the necessary papers, he and his family gained a sea passage to the USA on the strength of a job offer from his Italian colleague Emilio Segrè in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
the autumn of 1942, Pontecorvo was invited by Hans Halban to interview for a
position with the British nuclear physics team working in Montreal. He was
approved in December 1942, and was inducted into Tube Alloys, the British
atomic weapons project, in New York, the following month. He was a success in
Canada, and, after Halban’s demotion and subsequent return to Europe, worked
closely with Nunn May on the Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP) project. Yet,
as the war came to a close, Pontecorvo began to feel the anti-communist climate
in Canada and the United States oppressive to him. In late 1945, with Igor Gouzenko
and Elizabeth Bentley revealing the breadth and depth of the Soviet espionage network,
he was happy to receive an informal job offer from John Cockcroft, who had been
appointed head of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, which
was to open on January 1, 1946. Chadwick, who had led the British mission to
the Manhattan Project from Washington, had imposed travel restrictions on Pontecorvo,
but the Italian was able to negotiate a satisfactory deal by the end of January
1946. Despite competitive offers from several prestigious US companies, he made
his decision to join Harwell.
very strangely, Pontecorvo did not start work for three more years, continuing
to operate in Montreal, and even travelling to Europe in the interim. In
February 1948, he became a British citizen, to assuage government concerns
about aliens working on sensitive projects. On January 24, 1949, he left Chalk
River in Ontario for the last time, and officially started work at Harwell on
February 1. An entry in his file at The National Archives, however, indicates
that he was, rather late in the day, ‘nominated for a position at Harwell’, on
July 7 of that year. Astonishingly, the record indicates that Pontecorvo was
‘confirmed in his appointment as S.P.S.O. [Senior Principal Scientific Officer]
and established’ only on January 2, 1950! (KV 2/1888-2, s.n. 97c.)
was not until October 1950, when Pontecorvo disappeared with his family during
a holiday on the Continent, that Liddell made his first diary entry – at least,
of those that have survived redactions – concerning Pontecorvo. As the record
for October 21 states: “On
information that had been received xxxxxxxxx in March of this year, intimating
that PONTECORVO and his wife were avowed Communists, a decision was reached,
after an interrogation of PONTECORVO by Henry Arnold, when the former admitted
to having Communist relations – to get rid of him and find some employment for
him at Liverpool University.” Yet Liddell thus implies that he (or MI5) learned
of Pontecorvo’s unreliability only in March 1950, and his memorandum reinforces
the notion that it was primarily the security officer Arnold’s idea to
accommodate Pontecorvo at Liverpool University, even though the news had apparently
come as a surprise to Arnold back in March.
was being deliberately deceptive. As early as December 15, 1949, (see KV
2/1288, s.n. 97A, as Frank Close reports in Half-Life, his biography of Pontecorvo),
the FBI sent a report to MI5, dated December 15, that identified Pontecorvo’s
links to Communism. As Close writes: ‘MI5 took note. Someone highlighted the
above paragraph in Pontecorvo’s file’, but Close then asserts that MI5 did
nothing, as they were consumed with the Fuchs case at the time. On February 10, 1950, however, another clearer
warning arrived, when Robert Thornton of the US Atomic Energy Commission, on a
visit to a Harwell conference, informed John Cockcroft that Pontecorvo and his
family were Communists, repeating specifically the formal report from December.
A vital conclusion must be that, if this visitor from the USA had not been
invited to the conference, Cockcroft might never have learned about the project
already in place to remove Pontecorvo.
had in fact left behind him a trail of hints concerning his political
allegiances. He had joined the French Communist Party on August 23, 1939, the
day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. In July 1940, MI5 knew enough about him to
judge him as ‘mildly unsuitable’ for acceptance as an escapee to Britain. In
September, 1942, FBI agents had inspected his house in Tulsa (while Pontecorvo
was away), and discovered communist literature there. After Pontecorvo’s
application to join Tube Alloys, the FBI had exchanged correspondence with
British Security Control (which represented MI5 and MI6 in the United States),
concerning Pontecorvo’s loyalties. The FBI was able to confirm, after
Pontecorvo’s flight, that it had sent letters to BSC on March 2, 16, and 19
but, inexplicably, BSC had issued him a security clearance on March 3, and had failed
to follow up.
by Thornton’s warning (having been kept in the dark by his own security officer
and MI5), Cockcroft instructed Arnold to look into the matter. Arnold accordingly
spoke to Pontecorvo, elicited information from him, and was able to inform MI5,
by telephone call on March 1, that Pontecorvo was ‘an active communist’. (On
the same day, Collard of C2A reported that Arnold’s conversation with
Pontecorvo was ‘recent’: KV 2/1887, s.n. 20A.) Yet Arnold added more. He told
MI5 that Pontecorvo had recently before been offered a job at the University of
Liverpool, and that Pontecorvo’s acceptance of that offer would rid Harwell of
a security risk. Again, this news goes unrecorded in Liddell’s diaries at the
is this not extraordinary? What does ‘recently’ mean? If Arnold learned of the
Liverpool job offer from Pontecorvo himself, when had it been arranged? And was
this not extremely early for Pontecorvo to be seeking employment elsewhere?
Given the long gestation period preceding the confirmation of Pontecorvo’s post
at Harwell, would this not have provoked some high-level discussion? After all,
Pontecorvo had been ‘established’ a couple of weeks after the original
warning from the FBI. And who would have made the offer? Liverpool University
is associated in the archives most closely with Herbert Skinner, but, as will be
shown, Skinner was not yet established in a position of authority and influence
at Liverpool. He had been formally appointed, but was not yet working full-time,
as he was still executing his job as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell. Some senior
academic figures should surely have been involved in the decision, especially
the Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Mountford.
aspect of the case has been strangely overlooked by Pontecorvo’s biographers,
Frank Close, and Simone Turchetti. Both mention the fact that Pontecorvo had
first indicated the fact of the Liverpool offer to Arnold on March 1, but do
not follow up why it would have been made so early in the cycle, or investigate
the earlier sequence of events, or even ask why Pontecorvo was informing Arnold
of the fact. Had someone revealed to Pontecorvo that incriminating stories were
floating around about his political beliefs, and had officers at Liverpool
University come to some sort of unofficial agreement with the authorities at
the Ministry of Supply and MI5 – but not Arnold or Cockcroft – since December? It
is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario. Thus it is much more likely
that MI5 did act in December, when they first received the report, but
made no record of the fact.
does in fact report that, in January 1950, i.e. well before the
Arnold-Cockcroft exchanges, Herbert Skinner ‘asked Pontecorvo to join him at
Liverpool, believing that he was the ideal candidate to lead experimental
activities’, as if this would be a normal and smooth career progression. (I
shall explore Skinner’s split role between Harwell and Liverpool later.) Turchetti does not, however, follow up on the
implications of these early negotiations. For, as I suggested earlier, this
would have been a very sudden transfer, given Pontecorvo’s official
confirmation on the Harwell post earlier that month. Moreover, this item does
not appear in the files at the National Archives. It comes from a statement
made by the Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool, Sir James Mountford, which seriously
undermines MI5’s claim that it was not aware of the seriousness of the exposure
until February 1950. Pontecorvo, incidentally, also had the
chutzpah around this time to request a promotion at Harwell, which was promptly
I acquired a copy of Mountford’s statement from Liverpool University. [By courtesy of the Liverpool University Library: 255/6/5/5/6 – Notes on Bruno Pontecorvo by James Mountford.]
was sent by the Vice-Chancellor to Professor Tilley, in September 1978.
Mountford explains that, after Sir James Chadwick in the spring of 1948 vacated
the physics chair to accept the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College,
Cambridge, the university was faced with the problem of finding a suitable
candidate to replace him, with the added sensitivity that, if the right person
were not selected, the nuclear project might be transferred to Glasgow. The
challenge required some diligent networking by the experts in this field.
first choice for Chadwick’s replacement was Sir Harrie Massey, the Australian Professor
of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, who had had a
distinguished war record, working lastly on isotope separation for the
Manhattan Project at the University of California. (Mountford indicated that Massey was
Professor of Physics, but he was in fact not appointed Quain Professor of
Physics until 1950.) Massey ‘reluctantly’ declined the offer, so the team from
Liverpool had a meeting on January 26, 1949, with Professor Oliphant of
Birmingham (to whom Massey had reported at Berkeley), Chadwick, and Sir Edward
Appleton, the Secretary of the Department for Scientific and Industrial
Research (DSIR). They decided upon W. H. B. Skinner of Harwell. Herbert Skinner
headed the physics section there: he also had experience on the Manhattan
Project, as he had worked with Massey on isotope separation at Berkeley.
is, oddly, no discussion by the team of Skinner’s merits, nor even the
suggestion of a process for interviewing Skinner, or asking him about his plans
and objectives, or whether he even wanted the job. Cockcroft does not seem to
have been consulted on his willingness to release his second-in-command so soon
after the latter’s appointment. This must be considered as highly provocative
and controversial, given Skinner’s role as Cockcroft’s deputy, and what Mountford
wrote about the importance of the position, and I shall explore the rationale
in detail later in this article. The note merely states: “He accepted and took
up duties formally in Oct. 1949.” Moreover,
Andrew Brown, in his biography of Joseph Rotblat, states that Rotblat had been
appointed joint acting head of the physics department at Liverpool in October
1948, before resigning in March 1949. That happened to be just after the speedy
decision in favour of Skinner, but Skinner does not even merit a mention in
Brown’s book. * Did Rotblat perhaps think that his close friend Chadwick should
have championed his cause instead of Skinner’s? Maybe he simply regarded the
prospect of working under Skinner intolerable. Or perhaps he was asked to move
aside to make room for a Harwell transferee?
Rotblat obtained a Ph.D., his second, from Liverpool in 1950. It seems that the
Ph.D. was awarded after he moved to London.]
to what Mountford claimed, Rotblat moved to St. Bartholomew’s Medical School
not out of pique at Skinner’s appointment, but because of his dislike of
military applications of nuclear science. Again, Mountford’s judgment (or
memory) should be challenged. Rotblat had voiced his objections to the military
uses of the science back in 1944, when it became apparent that the Germans
would not be successful in building such a bomb. He had moved to Liverpool,
which was constructing a cyclotron to aid applications for energy, was
appointed Director of Research for Nuclear Physics at the university, and was
Chairman of the Cyclotron Panel of the UK Nuclear Physics Committee from 1946
to 1950. He had thus had several years to have considered any objections to
of the exact circumstances concerning Rotblat’s departure, and whether he felt
rebuffed, Skinner, on taking up his duties, raised the question of replacing
Rotblat, and ‘the idea emerged’ of a second chair in Experimental Physics. Turchetti
indicates, more boldly, that Skinner ‘dictated’ that the Faculty of Sciences
agree to establish a professorship, as this would be the status that Pontecorvo
demanded. Yet it is not clear where Turchetti gathered this insight, and it is
not precisely dated. Mountford gives October 1949 as the time Skinner assumed
his duties. Even if one considers it unlikely that a recruit not yet
established would be able to make demands of that nature, if Skinner did indeed
identify and recommend Pontecorvo that early, two months before the
disclosures ofDecember 1949, it would have very serious implications,
suggesting that MI5 and the Ministry already had reservations about the
naturalised Italian. And, even in December 1949-January 1950, Skinner’s approaching
Pontecorvo without informing his boss, Cockcroft, would have been highly
irregular. Mountford may have been putting a positive gloss on the affair, but
it now sounds as if undisclosed pressure was being applied from other quarters.
any case (again, according to Mountford) the Faculty responded by agreeing, in
principle, to approve the chair ‘if a satisfactory person were available’. The
outcome was that Mountford lunched with Skinner and Pontecorvo on January 18,
1950, i.e. a month before the fateful visit of the American Thornton. Pontecorvo,
according to Turchetti, was, however, not very impressed with Liverpool. (And
his highly strung Swedish wife, Marianne, would have been very uncomfortable
there: the wife of one of my on-line colleagues, a woman who hails from
Sheffield, asserts that there was not much to choose between Moscow and
Liverpool at that time.) Alan Moorehead wrote that Mrs. Pontecorvo visited the
city, but was ‘worried about the cold in the north’ – so unlike her native
Stockholm, one imagines. The Chairs Committee then spent three months or so
collecting information about the candidate. Mountford had meanwhile spoken to
Chadwick, who had doubts whether Pontecorvo could stand up to Skinner’s
‘forceful personality’. A formal interview with Pontecorvo eventually took
place, but not until June 6, 1950. He did not overall impress, however, partly
because of his poor English. Yet the committee overcame its reservations, and
Pontecorvo would later accept the position, with January 1951 set as the date
on which he would assume duties.
description of events as a smooth series is a travesty of what was really going
on. Given what happened between January and June, Pontecorvo’s apparent freedom
to accept or reject the offer in June was an unlikely outcome. First of all, in
March, Pontecorvo had given Arnold the impression he had already received a
firm offer, a claim belied by Mountford’s account. At this stage, Pontecorvo apparently
did not respond to it, however vague and undocumented. Later that month,
however, further damaging evidence against him came from Sweden via MI6 (a
communication that was surely not passed on to Mountford). A letter from MI6 to
the famous Sonia-watcher J.H. Marriott, in B2, dated March 2, 1950, describes
Pontecorvo and his wife as ‘avowed Communists’. This revelation applied more pressure
on MI5 and the Ministry of Supply to remove Pontecorvo from Harwell. The
outcome was that, on April 6 (KV/2 -1887, s.n. 26) Arnold was again
recommending that ‘it would be a good thing if he were able to obtain a post at
one of the British universities’, even boosting the suggestion that ‘we might
continue to avail ourselves of his undoubted ability as consultant in limited
fields.’ The naivety displayed is amazing: Klaus Fuchs had just been sentenced to
fourteen years for espionage activities.
Arnold added that Pontecorvo, after denying that he was a Communist, but admitting
that he was assuredly a man of the Left, ‘has already toyed with the idea of an
appointment in Rome University, and is at present turning over in his mind an
offer which has come to him from America.’ The latter must have been an
enormous bluff: given the FBI report, the United States would have been the
last place to admit him for employment. This truth of his allegiance was soon
confirmed, with matters became more embarrassing in July. Geoffrey Patterson in
Washington then wrote to Sillitoe informing him that the FBI had learned of
Pontecorvo’s working at Harwell, and had indicated that they had sent messages
to Washington (and maybe London) on three occasions in 1943 describing
Pontecorvo’s communist affiliations. The messages may have been destroyed,
among the files of British Security Co-ordination, after the war. In
Washington, as MI6’s representative, Kim Philby (of all people) could not trace
them – or so he said. MI5 apparently had no record of them.
the dons at Liverpool had been briefed on all that had happened, they
presumably would have been even more reluctant to take Pontecorvo on. Yet, the
more dangerous Pontecorvo seemed to be, the more MI5 wanted to plant him at
Liverpool. Using FO 371/84837 and correspondence held in the Liverpool
University Library, as well as the Pontecorvo papers at Churchill College, (none
of which I have personally inspected), Turchetti writes: “From the spring of
1950, Skinner used his recent security investigations to put pressure on his
colleague to accept the new position. He also convinced the university’s
administrators of Pontecorvo’s suitability without making them aware of the
ongoing inquiry.” In addition, with ammunition from Roger Makins from the
Ministry of Supply, Skinner had to wear down objections from university
administrators that Pontecorvo was improperly qualified to teach. Skinner was
clearly receiving instructions from his political masters.
and Cockcroft acted as referees for Pontecorvo, but they could hardly be
assessed as objective, given their involvement in the plot. Chadwick pondered
over whether he should confide in Mountford with the awful facts, and wrote to
him that he would discuss the university’s concerns with Cockcroft, but he did
not follow up. And then, when the final offer was reluctantly made on June 6,
Pontecorvo vacillated, requesting another month to consider. On July 24, the
day before he left on holiday, never to return, he wrote to Mountford,
accepting the offer, and stating that he expected to start work after
Christmas, when he would leave Harwell.
October 23, 1950, Liddell had an interview with Prime Minister Attlee. He
glossed over the FBI/BSC issue without giving it a date, and referred solely to
the Swedish source of March 2 as evidence of Pontecorvo’s communism,
conveniently overlooking both the events of December 1949 and February 1950.
All this is confirmed by his memorandum of the meeting on file (KV 2/1887, s.n.
63A). MI5 had been attempting a reconstruction of
Pontecorvo’s activities (KV 2/1288, s.n. 87C), which presumably fed Liddell’s
intelligence. This account (undated, but probably in July or August 1950) omits
both the warning from the FBI in December 1949 (which is confirmed elsewhere in
the file), as well as the information given to Cockcroft at the beginning of
March 1950. It does concentrate, however, on the information from Sweden,
reporting on the discussions that occurred in the following terms: “D.
At. En. [Perrin, at Department of Atomic Energy] decided not to grant
PONTECORVO’s request for promotion and to encourage him to take up the post
offered him at Liverpool by Professor Skinner. This was arranged only after
considerable discussion.” Pontecorvo was thus allowed to leave on vacation in
July without submitting his resignation or formally being taken off Harwell’s
books. And he never returned.
his whole saga eerily echoes what had happened in a collapsed time-frame with
Fuchs at Harwell
Fuchs’s path to Harwell was slightly less erratic, but also controversial. He had been recruited to Tube Alloys, the British codename for atomic weapons research, in 1941, and had moved to the USA at the end of 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. In June 1946 he was summoned from Los Alamos to head the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell, working under Herbert Skinner. Skinner had been the first divisional head appointed at Harwell. Fuchs was appointed chairman of the Power Steering Committee at Harwell, and Pontecorvo joined the committee later.
What is extraordinary about Fuchs’s return to the UK is that the first that MI5 learned about it was when Arnold, the security officer, wrote to MI5, in October 1946, about his suspicions that Fuchs might be a communist. He might well have gained his intelligence from Skinner himself, who had known Fuchs from the time they both worked at Bristol University in the 1930s. The political climate by this stage meant that embryonic ‘purge’ procedures (which were solidified in May 1947) would have to be applied to such figures working in sensitive posts. Frank Close, in Trinity, covers very thoroughly these remarkable few months at the end of 1946, when MI5 officers openly voiced their concerns that Fuchs might be a spy. Michael Serpell and Joe Archer (Jane Archer’s husband) were most energetic in advising that Fuchs should be kept away from any work on atomic energy or weapons research. Rudolf Peierls came under suspicion, too, but Roger Hollis countered with a strong statement that it was highly unlikely that the two were engaged in espionage, and gained support in his judgment from Dick White and Graham Mitchell.
next three years were thus a very nervous time for MI5 and Arnold, as they kept
a watch on Fuchs’s movements and associations. Yet Fuchs was placed on ‘permanent
establishment’ in August 1948, and Arnold was later to claim, deceitfully, that
Fuchs came under suspicion only in that year, when he was observed speaking
intently to a known communist at a conference. The matter came to a head,
however, in 1949, when the decipherment of VENONA transcripts led the
Washington analysts to narrow down the identity of the spy CHARLES to either
Fuchs or Peierls. Guy Liddell indicates that fact as early as August 9: at the
end of August, the FBI formally told MI5 of its belief that the leak pointed to
Fuchs (because of the visit to his sister in Boston).
immediately started making connections. It alerted MI6 to the Fuchs case, and to
his Communist brother, Gerhard. (Maurice Oldfield had told Kim Philby of the
discovery before the latter left London for Washington in September 1949.) MI5
identified the close relationship between the Skinners and Fuchs. A report by
J. C. Robertson (B2A) of September 9 (after a meeting between Arnold, Collard,
Skardon and Robertson) runs as follows: “Although FUCHS’ address has until
recently been Lacies Court, Abingdon, he has in fact rarely lived there, but
has chosen to sleep more often than not with his close friends the SKINNERS at
Harwell. He is on more than usually intimate terms with Mrs. SKINNER. The
SKINNERS will be leaving in about six months for Liverpool, where SKINNER
himself is to take up the chair about to be vacated [sic!] by Sir James
Chadwick. At present, SKINNER devotes his time about half and half to Liverpool
went on to write that Professor Peierls was also a regular visitor at the
Skinners, and that Fuchs was in addition very friendly with Otto Frisch of
Cambridge University. (Frisch, the co-author, with Rudolf Peierls, of the
famous memorandum that showed the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon, had
moved to Liverpool from Birmingham, where Peierls worked, and had been
responsible for the development of the cyclotron developed there. Yet, after
the war, he had taken up work at Harwell as head of the Nuclear Physics
Division, before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947.) At Harwell, Arnold
alone was in on the investigation: Cockcroft was not to be told yet of what was
is an intriguing document, by virtue of what it hints at, and what it gets
wrong. The suggestion that Fuchs is having an affair with Erna Skinner is very
strong, and the mention of Herbert’s long absences in Liverpool indicates the
opportunities for Fuchs and Erna to carry on their liaison. Yet the transition
of the Liverpool chair remains confusing: Chadwick had moved to Cambridge in
1948; Mountford noted that Skinner had taken up his duties in October 1949, but
also referred (well in retrospect) that there had been an interregnum in the
Physics position for a year, from March 1948 to March 1949. Robertson indicates
that the Skinners will not be moving until about March 1950. Skinner’s own file
at the National Archives informs us that he did not resign from Harwell until
April 14, 1950, which was a very late decision, suggesting perhaps that his preferences
had lain with staying at Harwell as long as possible, and that he might even
have had aspirations of restoring his career there. The files suggest that his
duties at Harwell remained substantial well into 1950. A report by J. C.
Robertson of B2A, dated March 9, 1950, describes Skinner as follows: ’. . .
deputy to Sir John Cockcroft and who has temporarily taken over Fuchs’ post as
head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell’. Skinner then continued to
work in a consultative capacity at Harwell: he wrote to the incarcerated Fuchs
as late as December 20, 1950 that ‘we are definitely at Liverpool but go on
visits to Harwell quite often.’ How could Skinner perform that job if he was
spending so much his time in Liverpool? In any case, it was an exceedingly long
and drawn-out period of dual responsibilities for Skinner.
Armed with their confidential VENONA intelligence, MI5 prepared for the interrogation of Fuchs, but were not initially hopeful of gaining a successful confession. Thus the thorny question of what they could collectively do to ‘eliminate’ him (in their clumsy expression) quickly arose. Fuchs might decide to flee the country, which would be disastrous, as his Moscow bosses would be able to pick his brains without any restrictions. Liddell continued the theme, showing his enthusiasm for a softer approach against his boss’s more prosecutorial instincts. Liddell doubted that interrogations would be successful in eliciting a confession from Fuchs, and, as early as October 31, 1949, he was suggesting ‘alternative employment’, though being overruled by Sillitoe. At this stage, Peierls and Fuchs were both under investigation, but Liddell was gaining confidence that Fuchs was ‘their man’. (Peierls had come under suspicion in August since he also had a sister in the United States, but he was soon eliminated from the inquiry.)
November 28, Liddell noted that he was still thinking in terms of finding
another job for Fuchs, and on December 5, he tried to convince Perrin that the
chances of a conviction were remote, saying that ‘efforts should be made to
explore the ground for alternative work’. At a meeting to discuss Fuchs on
December 15, 1949 (see Close, p 255), Perrin ‘commented that Herbert Skinner
was about to move to Liverpool University, and that a transfer of Fuchs to
Liverpool might be arranged through Skinner, who would probably welcome Fuchs’
presence there.’ (Perrin was presumably unaware then of the Erna Skinner-Klaus
Fuchs liaison.) It seems that the notion of parking Fuchs specifically at Liverpool
University was first aired at this time. (Note that this is exactly the same date when
MI5 learned about Pontecorvo from the FBI.) When Jim Skardon managed to get
Fuchs to make a partial confession on December 21, Liddell was still considering finding him ‘some job at some
University compatible with his qualifications’.
After another interrogation of Fuchs, on
December 30, Liddell met the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on January 2,
1950, and informed him of MI5’s resolve to complete the interrogations. Even
Lord Portal (head of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply) was in general harmony,
although reportedly bearing the more cautious opinion that ‘the security risk
of maintaining FUCHS at Harwell could not be accepted, and that some post
should be found for him at one of the Universities’. Attlee seemed ready to
accept Portal’s recommendation. Yet two important players had yet to be brough
into the plot: Cockcroft and Skinner.
Cockcroft became involved, matters took an alarmingly different turn. Cockcroft
asked Skinner, on January 4, whether he could find a place for Fuchs at
Liverpool. This would suggest that, unless a deep feint was being played,
Skinner was not aware of the clandestine efforts to dispose of Fuchs, as his
depositions to Liverpool had hitherto been made with Pontecorvo in mind.
Skinner must surely have been bemused, and must have asked why such a step was
being considered. Cockcroft probably said more than he should have. (Cockcroft
had the irritating habit of concealing his opinions in meetings with his
subordinates, and then showing disappointment when his intentions were not
read, but then talking too much in one-on-one conversations.) On January 10, Cockcroft met with Fuchs and
Skinner, separately. Cockcroft told Fuchs ‘that he would help him find a
university post and suggested that Professor Skinner might be able to take
Fuchs on at Liverpool’. It also reinforces the fact that Cockcroft had not been
brought into the Pontecorvo affair. Astonishingly, all the time up until March
1, Skinner was negotiating with Pontecorvo and Mountford behind Cockcroft’s
back, while Cockcroft was pressing Skinner (up until Fuchs’s confession on
January 24) to place Fuchs at Liverpool without bringing Skinner into the full
Whether Skinner learned about Cockcroft’s offer
to Fuchs from Cockcroft or Erna is not clear, but MI5 reported that Skinner
learned ‘considerably more about the Fuchs affair than he is authorized to know’,
and (as Close writes), ‘in consequence decided to take steps to ensure that
Fuchs stayed at Harwell’. Given the circumstances, this was not surprising.
Skinner already had been promoting Pontecorvo’s case, and because of Erna,
would surely have preferred that Fuchs stayed at Harwell. So much for Skinner
as the enabler of graceful retirement, but he had been placed in an impossible
position. He had been thrust into the middle of these
negotiations, perhaps reluctantly. In the course of one month (January 1950),
Cockcroft applied pressure on him to accept Fuchs at Liverpool, Skinner next
privately tried to talk Fuchs out of the move, and then, even before Fuchs made
his confession, Skinner met with Mountford and Pontecorvo to consider a
position for Pontecorvo at the University. It did not appear that his bosses at
Harwell and the Ministry of Supply were behaving very sensitively to his own
needs. At the same time, they were very anxious to make sure that Skinner kept
to himself anything he may have learned about the predicament that Fuchs – and
the authorities – were in.
also occurred the highly questionable incident of ‘inducement’, highlighted by Nancy
Thorndike Greenspan in her recent biography of Fuchs, whereby Cockcroft
essentially offered Fuchs a free pass if he co-operated, stressing that the
recent appointment of Fuchs’s father to a position in East Germany made Klaus’s
employment at Harwell untenable. Cockcroft also famously suggested that
Adelaide University might be an alternative home, a suggestion which left Dick
White and Percy Sillitoe aghast. Adelaide University happened to be the alma
mater of Mark Oliphant, who had been a colleague of Peierls at Birmingham, and
had also worked on isotope separation at Berkeley. (These connections go deep.)
Oliphant’s biographical record suggests that he returned to Australia after the
war, yet he is recorded by Mountford as attending the fateful meeting in
January 1949 to decide on Skinner as Chadwick’s successor. No ground appeared
to have been prepared for this idea, and the incident, while suggesting Cockcroft’s
political naivety, also hints that Oliphant had been brought into the
discussions some time before. MI5 struggled with the challenge of trying to
coordinate the roles of Arnold, Skinner and Cockcroft, all with different
needs, perspectives, and all being granted only a partial side of the story.
January 11, Liverpool University decided to recommend the establishment of a
second chair in Physics: perhaps Mountford was not yet aware that he was about
to face two candidates for one position. On January 18, Skinner brought
Pontecorvo up for a meeting with Mountford. Then some of the pressure was
relieved. On January 24, Fuchs made a full confession to Jim Skardon, in the
fourth interrogation. He was arrested on February 2, sent to trial, and
sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on March 1. For a while, Liverpool
University was saved the embarrassment of being forced to accept one dangerous
communist spy in its faculty. What Adelaide University thought about all this (if
they were indeed consulted) is probably unrecorded.
Skinner at Harwell
I wrote about Skinner’s enigmatic career in the second installment of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. He had enjoyed a distinguished war record, both in Britain in the USA, and merited his appointment as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell, where he was apparently a very hard and productive worker. Yet he had some facets to his character and lifestyle that raised security questions – not least the fact that he had married Erna, an Austrian born in Czernowitz, who socialized with openly communist friends. (The unconventional lives and habits of the Skinners assuredly deserve some special study of their own.) Despite their background, it appears (unless some files have been withheld) that MI5 began keeping record on the pair only towards the end of 1949, even though Erna had for a while maintained frequent social contact with her Red friends, including Tatiana Malleson. The statements that Skinner made, when later questioned by MI5, that protested innocence, could be interpreted as the honest claims of a loyal civil servant, or the obvious cover of a collaborator in subversion. (That is the Moura Budberg ploy with H. G. Wells, who, when asked by ‘Aitchgee’ whether she was a spy, told him that, whether she were a spy or not, she would have to answer ‘No.’)
Erna was carrying on an affair with Fuchs, taking advantage of Herbert’s
frequent absences when he was splitting his time between Liverpool and Harwell,
but also acting brazenly when her husband was around. In the last months of 1949, the Erna-Klaus
relationship was allowed to thrive. As Close writes (Trinity, p 244):
“Because Erna’s husband, Herbert, was in the process of transferring from
Harwell to take up a professorship at the University of Liverpool, he was
frequently away from the laboratory, so there were many empty hours for Erna,
which she would pass with Fuchs.” If they were not aware of it before, MI5
could not avoid the evidence when they started applying phone-taps to Fuchs’s
and the Skinners’ telephones. Skinner was thus a security risk himself.
who had known Fuchs since their Bristol days, also made some bizarre and
contradictory statements about Fuchs’s allegiances, at one time, in 1952,
admitting that he had known that Fuchs was an ardent communist when at Bristol,
but did not think it significant ‘when he found Fuchs at Harwell’, having
earlier criticised MI5 for allowing Fuchs to be recruited at the Department of
Atomic Energy. On June 28, 1950, when Skardon interviewed Skinner about Fuchs,
the ex-Special Branch officer reported his response as following: “Dr. Skinner
was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to
be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first
met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a
particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell
when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946. Of course I asked Skinner
whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic
and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their
objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this
that response was perhaps a bit too pat, rather like Philby’s memoranda to London
from Washington, where he brought attention to Burgess’s spying paraphernalia,
and later to Maclean’s possible identity as the Foreign Office spy, as a ploy
to distract attention from himself. Fuchs ‘clearly a Communist’ – that should perhaps have provoked a stronger
reaction, especially with Skinner’s assumed patriotism. But his claim was
certainly fallacious: Skinner’s Royal Society biography makes it clear
that he was busy supervising construction at Harwell in the first half of 1946,
substituting for Cockcroft, who did not arrive until June. Fuchs did not arrive
until August, and Skinner must have known about his coming arrival, and even
addition, early in 1951, after Skinner had moved full-time to Liverpool, Director-General
Sillitoe wrote to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, asking him to keep an eye
on the Skinners. A Liverpool Police Report was sent to MI5 on May 10,
indicating that the Skinners had been active members of the local Communist
Party ‘since they arrived in Liverpool from Harwell almost two years ago’. (The
timing is awry.) Faulty record-keeping? The wrong targets? A mean-spirited slur
by a rival who resented Skinner’s appointment? A reliable report on some
foolish behaviour by the new Professor? Another mystery, but a pattern of
duplicity and subterfuge on his part.
actions are frequently hard to explain. In my recent bulletin on Peierls, I
reported at length on the mysterious meetings that Skinner held with Fuchs in
New York in 1947, when they were attending the Disarmament Conference. This
episode was described at length by the FBI, but appears to have been overlooked
(if available) by all five of Fuchs’s biographers: Moss (1987), Williams
(1987), Rossiter (2014), Close (2019), and Greenspan (2020). More mysteriously,
Skinner’s conversations with Fuchs suggested that he had a confidential contact
at MI6. Was Skinner perhaps working under cover, gathering information on
it is not surprising that Skinner might not have embraced the prospect of
Fuchs’s joining him (and Erna) at Liverpool once his assignments at Harwell had
been cleared up. Could he not get that ‘young pup’ out of his life and his
marriage? The record clearly shows that, after Skinner had been instructed by
Cockcroft to show no curiosity in what was going on with the Fuchs
investigation, Fuchs admitted his espionage to Erna on January 17, after which
she told her husband. By January 27, Robertson is pointing out that Skinner has
been told too much by Cockcroft (who was not good at handling conflict), and
that Skinner has been trying to persuade Fuchs to stay at Harwell. This
particular crisis was held off by the fact that Fuchs had, shortly beforehand,
made his full confession to Skardon, and the strategy favoured by White and
Sillitoe of proceeding to trial began to take firm shape.
files on the Skinners at the National Archives (KV 2/2080, 2081 & 2082) reveal
yet more twists, however, indicating that there were questions about Skinner
much earlier, and also showing a remarkable exchange a couple of years after
the Pontecorvo and Fuchs incidents, when Skinner naively exposed, to an
American publication, the hollowness of the government’s policy.
We have to face the possibility that Skinner’s move away from Harwell had been planned a long time before. One remarkable minute from J. C. Robertson (B2A), dated July 20, 1950, is written in response to concerns expressed from various quarters about the Skinners’ Communist friends, and includes the following statement: “We agreed that since the SKINNER’s [sic], on their own admission, have Communist friends, they may share these friends [sic] views, and that Professor SKINNER’s removal from Harwell to Liverpool University should not therefore be a ground for the Security Service ceasing to pay them attention.” ‘Removal’ is a highly pejorative term for the process of Skinner’s being appointed to replace the highly-regarded Chadwick. Was this a misunderstanding on Robertson’s part as to why Skinner was leaving? Was it simply a careless choice of words? Or did it truly reflect that the authorities had decided that Skinner was a liability two years before?
suggestion that Skinner was ‘removed’ might cause us to reflect on the
possibility that Chadwick was encouraged to take up the appointment at
Cambridge in order to make room for Skinner. What is the evidence? Chadwick was
assuredly an honourable and effective leader of the Tube Alloys contingent in
the USA and Canada. He forged an effective partnership with the formidable
General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, but who was very wary of
foreign participation in the exercise. Yet Chadwick became stressed with his
role, conscience-strung by the enormity of what was being created, and not
always being tough enough with potential traitors.
had made some political slip-ups on the way. He had been criticised by Mark
Oliphant for not being energetic enough in the USA, he had provided a reference for Alan Nunn May
for a position at King’s College London
just before Nunn May was arrested, and, in a statement that perturbed many, he
would later openly express his approval of Nunn May’s motives, while saying he
did not support what his friend did. He had also given support to the
questionable Rotblat when the latter announced his bizarre plan to parachute
into Poland. He had appointed another scientist with a questionable background,
Herbert Fröhlich, just before his departure from Liverpool. Moreover, while he
had openly supported Cockcroft’s appointment, he was not overall happy with the
separation of R & D from production of nuclear energy. He and Cockcroft
were both building cyclotrons, and thus rivals, but Cockcroft was gaining more
funding. Rotblat told Chadwick that Harwell was offering larger salaries. The
feud over budgets simmered in the two short years (1946-1948) while Chadwick
was at Liverpool.
was reluctant to leave Liverpool, Mountford reported, even though he was admittedly
an exhausted figure by then. His staff did not want him to leave, either, and
he maintained excellent relations with Mountford himself. By 1948, Perrin – who
reported to the strict and disciplined Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply – and
MI5 were following through Prime Minster Attlee’s instructions to tighten up on
communist infiltration, as the Soviet Union’s intentions in Eastern Europe
became more threatening. Thus installing Cockcroft’s number two at Liverpool
would have allowed the removal of a competent leader who had made an
embarrassing choice of wife, place an ally of Cockcroft’s at the rival
institution, and set up a function that could assimilate unwanted leftists from
Harwell. Overall, Cockcroft trusted Skinner, who had worked for him very
effectively on radar testing in the Orkneys at the beginning of the war, but he
had to be made to understand that Skinner’s wife’s friends were a problem.
if Chadwick was pushed out to make room for Skinner, what finally prompted the
authorities to eject him? It looks as if Liddell, White and Perrin were pulling
the strings, not Cockcroft. Arnold, the security officer, stated in October
1951 that Fuchs’s close relationship with Erna Skinner had started at the end
of 1947. November 1947 was the month that the three of them were in New York. The
injurious FBI report may have been sent to MI5, but subsequently buried. Thus MI5
officers, already concerned about Fuchs’s reliability, might in early 1948 have
seen Skinner as a liability as well, arranged the deal with Perrin and
Oliphant, convinced Chadwick (who had, of course, moved on by then) of Skinner’s
superior claim over Rotblat and Fröhlich, and set the slow train in motion. It
was probably never explained to Cockcroft what exactly what was going on.
is possible that MI5 had seen the problem of disposing of possible Soviet
agents coming some time before. Chapman Pincher had announced, in the Daily
Express in March 1948, that the British counter-espionage service had been
investigating three communist scientists at Harwell. This triad did not include
Fuchs or Pontecorvo, however, since two months later Pincher reported that all
three had been fired. In a memo written in August 1953, when Skinner was in
some trouble over a magazine article [see next section], R. H. Morton of
C2A in MI5, having sought advice from one of MI5’s solicitors, ‘S.L.B.’
(actually B. A. Hill of Lincoln’s Inn), stated that ‘The Ministry of Supply
should be asked whether Skinner was ever in a position to know during the Fuchs
investigation that although we knew Fuchs was a spy, he was allowed to continue
at Harwell for a time’.
is an irritatingly vague declaration, since ‘for a time’ could mean ‘for a few
weeks’ or ‘for a few years’, or anything in between. Yet it specifically states ‘was a spy’, not
‘was under suspicion because he was a communist’. According to the released
archives, that recognition did not occur until September 1949. If the solicitor
and the officer were aware of the rules of the game, and the impossibility of immediate
removal or prosecution, they might have been carelessly hinting at earlier
undisclosed events, and that the Ministry of Supply had initiated
stables-cleaning moves that took an inordinate amount of time to complete.
Skinner’s Venturesinto Journalism
Herbert Skinner later drew a lot of unwelcome attention to himself in two articles that he wrote for publication. In August 1952, John Cockcroft invited him to review Alan Moorehead’s book, TheTraitors (a volume issued as a public relations exercise by MI5) for a periodical identified as Atomic Scientists’ News (in fact, more probably the American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And in June 1953, Skinner published an article in the same Bulletin, titled ‘Atomic Energy in Post-War Britain’. In both pieces he betrayed knowledge that was embarrassing to MI5.
was sagacious enough to send a draft of his book review to Henry Arnold on
September 18, 1952, in particular seeking confirmation of the fact that Fuchs’s
confession to Skardon occurred in two stages, and to verify his impression that
the information that came from Sweden in March of 1950 applied only to Mrs.
Pontecorvo. He wrote: “But I know K confessed to Erna about the Diff. Plant a
day or two prior to Jan. 19th (the date when he was considered for
the Royal Society. This is confidential but did you know it?)” Skinner felt
that Moorehead’s account had been telescoped, and wanted to correct it. As for
the communication from Sweden, Skinner based his recollection on what Cockcroft
had told him, expressing the opinion that, since Pontecorvo had spent so little
time in Stockholm, it was unlikely that data had been gathered about him.
initial response from MI5 was remarkably light. Skardon (B2A) cast doubt on the
earlier January 17 confession, and suggested that the claim should be followed
up with Mrs. Skinner. His boss, J. C. Robertson, was however a bit more
demanding, requesting, in a reply to Arnold dated September 24, that an entire
paragraph, about Fuchs’s confessions, and the pointers to a leakage arriving
from the USA, be removed. [The complete text of the draft review is available in
KV 2/2080.] He added: “I understand that you will yourself be pointing out to
SKINNER the undesirability of making any reference to the report from Stockholm
which he quotes at the bottom of Page 9 of his manuscript.”
latter observation was a bit rich and ingenuous. All that Skinner did was
attempt to clarify a statement made by Moorehead about the Swedish report, and
Moorehead had obviously been fed that information by MI5. Moorehead’s text (pp
184-185) runs as follows: “Indeed Pontecorvo was not persona grata any
longer, for early in March a report upon him had arrived from Sweden and this
report made it clear that not only Pontecorvo but Marianne as well was a
Communist.” Moorehead went on to write that ‘there was nothing to support this
in England or Canada [or the USA?], but it was evident that he would
have to be closely watched’. Here was an implicit admission that MI5 had blown
its cover by allowing Moorehead to see this information. MI5 wanted to bury all
the intelligence about Pontecorvo that had come in from the USA, and Robertson
clearly wanted to distract attention away from Sweden, too. The Ministry of
Supply also issued a sharp admonition that the item about Sweden in Moorehead’s
book should never have passed censorship. One wonders what Clement Attlee
thought about this anomaly.
outcome was that Skinner had to make a weird admission of error. First of all,
he agreed that he found Moorehead’s mentioning of the Swedish reference ‘unfortunate’,
but insisted that he was not in error over Erna’s distress call to him on the 17th,
after Fuchs had confessed to her. This prompted Arnold to raise his game, and
try to talk Skinner out of submitting the review entirely, as he was using
personal information from his role at Harwell, and it would raise ‘a hornet’s
nest’ of publicity. He even suggested to Skinner, after lunching with him and
Erna, that his memory of dates must be at fault. Even though no statement to
that effect is on file, Robertson noted on October 30 that Skinner ‘has now
admitted that he may have been mistaken’. (But recall Robertson’s statement of
January 27, described above, which indicated that Skinner had already tried to
convince Fuchs to stay at Harwell.) Robertson added that ‘we have never been
very happy about Mrs. SKINNER, who was of course FUCHS’ mistress’, but
announced that MI5 no longer need to interview her about the matter. Robertson
alluded to the fact that MI5’s own records pointed to the absence of any
evidence of any ‘confession’ by Fuchs to Mrs. Skinner, but how such an event
would even have been known about, let alone recorded, was not explained.
appears that, after this kerfuffle, the review was not in fact published, but
Cockcroft and Skinner did not learn any lessons from the exercise. In the June
1953 issue of the Bulletin appeared a piece titled ‘Atomic Energy in
Postwar Britain’. The article started, rather dangerously, with the words: “I
think that I, who was a Deputy Director at Harwell from 1946 to 1950, am by now
sufficiently detached to write my own ideas without these being confused with
the British official point of view.” Skinner went on to lament the decline in
cooperation between the USA and Great Britain, although he openly attributed
part of the blame to the Nunn May and Fuchs cases. But he then made an
extraordinarily ingenuous and provocative statement: “It is true that we have
had on our hands more than our fair share of dangerous agents who have been
caught (or who are known).”
could he have been thinking? Sure enough, the Daily Mail Science
Correspondent J. Stubbs Walker picked up Skinner’s sentence in a short piece
describing how Britain was attempting to convince Washington that its security
measures were at least as good as America’s. Equally predictably, the MI5
solicitor B. A. Hill was rapidly introduced to the case, and, naturally, drew
the conclusion that Skinner’s words implied that there were other agents known,
but not yet prosecuted, at Harwell. He thus asked Arnold, in a meeting with
Squadron Leader Morton (C2A), whether Skinner had read Kenneth de Courcy’s Intelligence
Digest, since de Courcy (a notorious rabble-rouser who was a constant thorn
in MI5’s flesh) had made a similar statement in the Digest of the
preceding March that ‘there were still two professors employed at Harwell who
were sending Top Secret information to the Soviet Union’.
for his cause, Skinner had written to the Daily Mail to explain what he
wrote, and how it should have been interpreted. (He assumed that Stubbs Walker must
have picked up his statement from the UK publication, the Atomic Scientists’
News, which published the same text in July, but, while the archive
contains all the pages of the issue of the American periodical, it does not
otherwise refer to the UK publication.) “The parenthesis was simply put in to
cover the case of Pontecorvo,” he wrote, “and I would like to make it clear
that I have no knowledge whatever of any other agents not convicted.” It was a
clumsy attempt at exculpation: the syntax of the phase ‘who are known’ clearly
indicates a plurality.
what was more extraordinary is that, again, Skinner had written the article at
the request of the hapless Cockcroft, ‘who read the article before it was
despatched’. Moreover, a copy also was sent to Lord Cherwell’s office, and an
acknowledgment indicated that ‘Lord Cherwell had read the majority of the
article’. Perhaps Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, and in
1953 Paymaster-General, now responsible for atomic matters, should have read
the article from beginning to end. Perhaps he read all he was given, because
Skinner was able to produce a letter from Cherwell at the end of August,
indicating that he had no comments. Yet what was sent to Cherwell was a ‘draft
of the first half of the paper’. The offending phrase did indeed appear near
the beginning of the article: Skinner was given a slap on the wrists, and sent
away. Whether Cockcroft was rebuked is unknown. A revealing note in Skinner’s
file, dated June 12, 1953, reports that Cockcroft would probably be leaving
Harwell soon, to replace Sir Lawrence Bragg as head of the Clarendon
Laboratory. Morton notes: “Rumours
indicate Skinner in the running to replace him. Arnold considers this most
undesirable ‘for obvious reasons’.” But it is an indication that Skinner still
regarded his sojourn at Liverpool as temporary, and wanted to return to replace
MI5 solicitor made an unusual error of judgment himself, however. In that
initial memorandum of August 12, when he had evidently discussed the matter
with some MI5 officers, he included the following: “On the other hand it was
not generally thought [note the bureaucratic passive voice] that when he
wrote the article he was in fact quoting DE COURCY, but rather that he had in
mind cases such as Boris DAVIDSON, and what he really meant to say was that
there were persons at Harwell who were suspected of being enemy agents but had
not yet been prosecuted, though they were suspected of acting as enemy agents.”
That was an unlawyerly and clumsy construction – and it should have been
DAVISON, not DAVIDSON – but the implication is undeniable. ‘Cases such as Boris
DAVIDSON’ clearly indicates a nest of infiltrators. And I shall complete this
analysis with a study of the Davison case.
Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
The files on Boris Davison at the National Archives comprise nine chunky folders (KV 2/2579-1, -2 and -3, and KV 2/2580 to KV 2/2585), stretching from 1943 to 1954. They constitute an extraordinary untapped historical asset, and merit an article on their own. (Equally astonishing is that Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 has only a short paragraph – but no Index entry – on Davison, and nothing about him appears in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, when Pincher himself was responsible, at the time, for revealing uncomfortable information on Davison’s removal in the Daily Express.) I shall therefore just sum up the story here, concentrating on the aspects of his case that relate to espionage and British universities, and how his convoluted story relates to the problems of dealing with questionable employees in confidential government work.
pilgrimage to Harwell is even more picaresque than that of Fuchs or Pontecorvo.
Boris’s great-grandfather, who was English, had gone to Russia, accompanied by
his Scottish wife, in Czarist times to work as a train-driver in Leningrad.
They returned to Rugby for the birth of Boris’s grandfather, James (the birth
certificate alarmingly states that he was born ‘at Rugby Station’), who was
taken back to Russia at the age of two months, in 1851. James married a
Russian, and their child Boris was born in Gorki as a British subject, in 1885.
The older Boris married a Russian, and the younger Boris was born in 1908. He
studied Mathematics at Leningrad University, and graduated in 1930 with an
equivalent B.SC. degree.
thereupon worked for the State Hydrological Institute, but, in trying to renew
his British passport, he was threatened by the NKVD. Unwilling to give up his
nationality, he applied to leave for the United Kingdom in 1938, and was
granted a visa. He made his journey to the UK, and succeeded, through his
acquaintance with Rear-Admiral Claxton (whom he had met in the Crimea), to gain
employment in 1939 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working
on wind-tunnel calculations. A spell of tuberculosis in 1941 forced his
departure from RAE, but, after a year or so in a sanatorium, Rudolf Peierls
adopted him for his Tube Alloys project at Birmingham, working for the
Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. (Avid conspiracy theorists, a
group of which I am certainly not a member, might point out that Roger Hollis
was also in a sanatorium during the summer of 1942, being treated for
tuberculosis.) Davison joined Plazcek at Chalk River in Canada, alongside Nunn
May and Pontecorvo early in 1945, and, on his return to Britain in September
1947, worked under Fuchs at Harwell, as Senior Principal Scientific Officer.
suspicions of, and subsequent inquiries into, Fuchs and Pontecorvo provoked
similar questions about Davison’s loyalties, and he was placed under intense
scrutiny in 1951, after Pontecorvo’s defection. In a letter to A. H. Wilson of
Birmingham University, written from an unidentifiable location (probably the
British mission in New York) on May 3, 1944, Rudolf Peierls had written that
Davison’s ‘best place would be at Y [almost certainly Los Alamos]
provided he would be acceptable there, of which I am not yet sure.’ Davison’s
records at Kew state that he was sent to Los Alamos for a short while at the beginning
of 1945, but indicate that the New Mexico air had not been suitable for
Davison’s tubercular condition, and he had to return to Montreal. It is more
probable that Davison’s origins and career would have been regarded negatively
by the Americans. (Mountain air was at that time
considered beneficial for consumptives.) In his memoir, Peierls also
claimed that ‘Placzek wanted Boris to accompany him to Los Alamos,
but the doctors doubted whether Boris’s health would stand the altitude. He
went there on a trial basis, but after a few weeks had to return to Montreal.’
any case, Davison was considered a very valuable asset, especially by Cockcroft,
who declared that Davison ‘knew more about the mathematical theory behind the
Atomic Bomb than any other scientist outside America.’ Nevertheless, or
possibly because of that fact, MI5’s senior officers recommended in the winter
of 1950-1951 that he should be transferred ‘to a university’. They were
overruled, however, by Prime Minster Clement Attlee, who decreed that he should
be allow to stay in place. MI5 continued to watch Davison carefully, but when a
Conservative administration returned to power in October 1951, questions were
asked more vigorously, and Davison was eventually forced to leave Harwell,
after some very embarrassing leaks to the Press, and some unwelcome questions
from the US Embassy. Hearing about the investigations, they would no doubt have
been alarmed that Davison was another who had slipped through security
procedures: the Los Alamos visit becomes more relevant. Davison joined
Birmingham University in September 1953, and a year later found a position in Canada,
whither his wife, Olga (whom he had met and married in Canada), wanted to
return. He died in 1961.
barebones outline (derived from various records in the Davison archive)
conceals a number of twists, and raises some searching questions. I have been
poring over the reports, letters and memoranda in the archive, and discovered
some surprising anomalies and missteps. My conclusion is that MI5’s approach to
Davison was highly flawed, and I break it down as follows:
Lack of rigour in tracking Davison’s establishment in the UK: MI5 never investigated
how he passed through immigration, how he provided for himself in the months
after he arrived in 1938, how he was able to apply successfully for a sensitive
position with the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, how he was allowed to join
Peierls’s project supporting Tube Alloys at Birmingham without any vetting, or
how he was allowed to join the Manhattan Project in America. He was teased at the RAE because of his poor
English, and nicknamed ‘Russki’. An occasional question was posed about these
unresolved questions, but it appears that the mere holding of a British
passport was an adequate qualification for the authorities.
Failure to join the dots: When Peierls was viewed as a possible suspect
alongside Fuchs in the autumn of 1949, MI5 might have pursued the
Peierls-Davison connection. Peierls claimed in his autobiography Bird of
Passage that Davison’s name had been sent to him from ‘the central
register’ after Davison completed his spell in a sanatorium, although the event
is undated. Peierls then recruited Davison. I can find no record of any such
communication. There is no evidence that Peierls was ever interviewed over
Davison’s entry to the Tube Alloys project, or that MI5 explored potential
commonalities in the experiences of Genia Peierls and Davison in dealing with
the Soviet authorities. In Bird of Passage, Peierls completely
misrepresented the authorities’ inquiry into Davison’s reliability, suggesting
that it did not get under way until 1953.
Ignorance of Stalin’s Methods: MI5 displayed a shocking naivety about the
methods of the NKVD. Davison was a distinguished scientist, as the authorised
historian of atomic energy, Margaret Gowing, and John Cockcroft both declared.
Rather than allow such a person on specious ‘nationalist’ grounds to leave the
country to abet the ideological enemy, Stalin would have probably confiscated
his UK passport, and forced him to work for the Communist cause. MI5 had failed
to listen to Krivitsky, or gather information on the experiences of other
scientists ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. Instead they trusted Davison’s
account of his ‘refusal’ to take Soviet citizenship, even though he gave
conflicting accounts of what happened.
Naivety over NKVD Aggression: One of the experiences related by Davison to
MI5 was that, when his passport problem came up, he was asked by his NKVD
interrogators to spy on his colleagues at Leningrad University. He declined on
the grounds that he was too clumsy to conceal such behaviour, a response that
provoked the wrath of his interrogator. Such disobedience would normally have resulted
in execution or, at least, exile to Siberia. Yet Davison was ‘rewarded’ by such
non-compliance by being allowed to emigrate to his grandfather’s native land,
and spread the news. That sequence should have aroused MI5’s suspicions.
Delayed recognition of the threats of
‘blackmail’: A refrain in the archived proceedings is
that Moscow would have been alerted to Davison’s presence at Harwell by
Pontecorvo’s defection in the autumn of 1950, and that only then would Davison
have been possibly subject to threats. For that reason, his correspondence with
his parents in the Crimea (itself a noteworthy phenomenon from the censorship
angle) was studiously inspected for coded messages and secret writing. MI5
failed to recognize that the threats to his family would probably have been
initiated before Davison was sent on his mission, in the manner that the
Peierlses were threatened. (That is an enduring technique: it is reported as
being used today by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Since MI5 and
the Harwell management realised that Communists had been installed at Harwell
for a while, it was probable that the fact of Davison’s recruitment would have
reached Soviet ears already. They ignored the fact that his working closely with Fuchs,
Pontecorvo and Nunn May meant he would not have needed a separate courier, but they
expressed little curiosity in how he would have communicated with Moscow after
of the role of subterfuge: MI5 spent an enormous amount of
time and effort exploring Davison’s contacts and political leanings, looking
for a trace of sympathy for communism that might point to his being a security
risk. They even, rather improbably, cited the testimony of Klaus Fuchs from gaol,
Fuchs vouching for Davison’s reliability, and quoted this item of evidence to
the Americans! Yet, if Davison had been a communist, he would probably have
preferred to stay in the Soviet Union, helping its cause, rather than taking on
a role in provoking the revolution overseas, something for which his temperament
was highly unsuited. Even if the lives of his parents had not been threatened,
his most effective disguise would have been to steer clear of any communist
groups or associations.
handling of their target: MI5 and Harwell – and, especially,
John Cockcroft – showed a dismal lack of
imagination and tact in dealing with Davison. Cockcroft was weak, wanted to
hang on to Davison because of his skills, and avoided awkward confrontational
situations. They failed to develop an effective strategy in guiding Davison’s
behaviour, and Cockcroft, when trying to encourage Davison to leave Harwell,
even suggested that he was entitled to have a government job back after his
one-year ‘sabbatical’, because of his civil servant status. Between them,
Harwell and MI5 deluded themselves as to how the account of a Russian-born
scientist expelled from Harwell would manage not to be re-ignited, through idle
gossip, or careless bravado (as turned out to be the case).
views of loyalty: MI5’s perennial problem was that it did
not trust ‘foreigners’, and had no mechanism for separating the loyal and
dedicated alien from the possibly dangerous subversive, or taking seriously the
possible disloyalty of a well-bred native Briton. Davison fitted in to no
established category, and thus puzzled them. In his letter to Prime Minster
Attlee of January 12, 1951, as Attlee was just about to make his decision as to
whether Davison should remain in place, or be banished to a university, Percy
Sillitoe wrote that ‘an
alien or a person of alien origin has not necessarily enjoyed the upbringing
which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, normally ensures the loyalty
of a British subject’, a sentiment that Attlee echoed a week
later. Four months later, Burgess and Maclean defected.
were not happy with Attlee’s decision, wanting Davison safely transferred to
academia. They were worried stiff that, if any action were taken, Davison
‘might do a Pontecorvo on us’, and that in that case closer cooperation with
the Americans – an objective keenly sought at the time – would be killed by the
Congressional committee. They thus hoped that matters would quieten down, and
that Davison would behave himself. Yet a meeting held in February 1951 with the
Prime Minister provoked the following minute: “Rowlands, Sillitoe and Bridges
agreed there should be discussion on the proposition that Davison should be
asked what his reactions would be if the Russians brought pressure on him
through his parents. If approach were made, Davison would mark it as a mark of
confidence in his own reliability.” What the outcome of this strange decision
was is not recorded, but the threat to MI5’s peace of mind would turn out to
come from friendlier quarters.
Davison – after Attlee
Attlee made his decision on February 20, 1951. Sillitoe requested a watch be kept on the Skinners in Liverpool. Meanwhile, MI5 officers had a short time to reflect on Davison’s background. Dick White wondered who the other ‘Britishers’ who were deported at the same time as Davison were, and what had happened to them. (Whether this important lead was followed up is not known: the results might have been so uncomfortable that the outcome was buried.) Yet Reed was later imaginative enough to wonder how Davison ‘was able to survive the purges and outbreaks of xenophobia’, suggesting perhaps that further lessons had been learned. “What services were rendered in exchange for immunity?”, he asked, but there the inquiry ended, for 1951 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the Security Service, as the uncovering of the Burgess & Maclean scandal showed the authorities that espionage and treachery were not simply a virus introduced by foreigners. For a while it distracted attention from the quandary of suspicions persons in place at Harwell.
that time, however, a series of events began that showed the Law of Unintended
Consequences at work. In February, Chapman Pincher had written a provocative
article about Pontecorvo in the Daily Express, and on March 4 Rebecca
West had published an article about Fuchs, critical of Attlee, in the New
York Times. Perrin and Sillitoe agreed that a counterthrust in public
relations was required, and conceived the idea of engaging the journalist Alan
Moorehead to write a book that would reflect better on MI5’s performance. After
some stumbles in negotiation, Moorehead was authorized to inspect some
confidential information on September 24, and started work.
year 1952 progressed relatively quietly. John Cockcroft had revealed to Skinner
in early 1951 that he was considering recommending the South African Basil Schonland
as his successor, and was perhaps surprised to be told by Skinner that
Schonland was not up to the job. This was surely another indication that
Skinner felt himself the better candidate, and wanted to return to Harwell now
that Fuchs and Pontecorvo were disposed of. A possible opening for Cockcroft
appeared in March 1952 at St. John’s College, Oxford, but nothing came of it.
On July 29, Sillitoe announced he would retire at the end of the year. In
August, Davison indicated for the first time that he wanted to leave Harwell.
And in September, as I described earlier, Skinner’s controversial review of
Moorehead’s finished work The Traitors came to the attention of Arnold
the Moorehead incident was smoothed over relatively safely, Skinner’s energies
as a literary critic had more serious after-effects in 1953. First of all, Nunn
May had been released in January, an event that brough fresh attention to the
phenomenon of ‘atom spies’. As Guy Liddell reported on January 13, Foreign
Secretary Anthony Eden wanted Nunn May settled into useful employment, but the
scientist was blacklisted by the universities. (After working for a scientific
instruments company for a few years, Nunn May moved to the University of Ghana
in 1961.) Skinner’s observation about other spies being left in place,
unpunished, was a far more serious blow to MI5’s reputation, and his weak
explanation that he was referring solely to Pontecorvo was not convincing.
Privately, he admitted that he had indeed been referring to Davison.
was not revealed at the time was the fact that other such agents had been named
in internal documents. One of the Boris Davison files at the National Archives
(KV 2/2579-1, s.n.184A) shows us that Dick White, as early as January 25, 1951,
wrote that there were eighteen known employees at Harwell ‘who have some sort
of a Communist suspicion attaching to them’.
Of these, five were serious. He continued: “Two of the five, SHULMAN and
RIGG are being transferred from Harwell on our recommendation. In the case of a
third, DARLINGTON, we may recommend transfer and so this will almost certainly
be agreed. The remaining two, PAIGE and CHARLESBY, are under active
investigation and if additional information tends to confirm that they have
Communist sympathies we may have to recommend their transfer likewise.”
is an extraordinary admission. I have not discovered anything elsewhere on
these characters, although I notice that the first three are cited in the Kew
Index as working at Harwell, as authors or co-authors of papers, in AB 15/73,
AB 15/2383, AB 15/566, AB 15/586, AB 15/1661 and AB 15/1386 (N. Shulman), AB 15/1254
(M. Rigg), AB 15/5531 (M. E. Darlington). Astonishingly, all three papers are
currently closed, pending review. [Moreover, during the few days in which I
investigated these items, they were being maintained and their descriptions
changed. The author of AB 15/24, original given as ‘Rigg’, is now given as
‘Oscar Bunnemann’ [sic], which, in the light of revelations below, poses
a whole new set of questions. Can any reader shed any light on these men?]
Yet it proves that Skinner was correct, and knew too much. And one another link
has come to light. As early as July 12, 1948 T. A. R. Robertson had discovered
that Davison and one Eltenton were in Leningrad at the same time, noting that
Eltenton was already up for an ‘interview’. (The word ‘interrogated’ has been
replaced with a handwritten ‘interviewed’ in the memorandum.) The story of
George Eltenton, who brought some bad publicity to MI5 through his involvement
in the Robert Oppenheimer case in the USA, will have to wait for another day.
denouement was swift. Skinner was let off with a warning, but his goose was
essentially cooked. On August 8, 1952, he thanked Arnold for his support, adding
casually that Chapman Pincher had invited him to lunch. A few weeks later, on
August 26, Pincher published his article on Davison in the Daily Express,
and two days later Henry Maule’s piece in the Empire News reported how
‘poor old Boris’ had been banished to the backwaters of Birmingham University,
implicitly indicating that Davison was rejoining his prior mentor and supporter
MI5’s embarrassments were not over. On December 14, 1952, a brief column by
Sidney Rodin in the Sunday Express claimed that Churchill had intervened
in the decision to replace Fuchs at Harwell, and explained that Davison had
been rejected because of his background, and that six others had been passed
over because they were foreign-born. In place (the piece continued), the
28-year-old Brian Flowers had been appointed, and ‘for months his background
was checked.’ This announcement was doubly ironic, since it turned out that the
leaker to Rodin was Professor Maurice Pryce of the Clarendon Laboratories,
Acting Head of the Theoretical Division at Harwell alongside Rudolf Peierls. He
had admitted planting the story as a way of ’distracting attention away from
the “undesirable background of the Buneman case”’. Indeed. For Flowers had for
a while been having an affair with Mary, the wife of Oscar Buneman, who had
been working under Fuchs at Harwell. The future Baron Flowers, who also held a
post at Birmingham University, had married his paramour in 1951, and was now
presumably respectable. Like Fuchs, Buneman had been imprisoned by the Gestapo,
escaped to Britain, and been interned in Canada. Maybe MI5 and Arnold
overlooked this rather seedy side to Flowers’ background: the episode showed at
best a discreditable muddle and at worst appalling hypocrisy at work.
was thus Birmingham, not Liverpool, that became the home of a distressed
scientist, one who may never have acquired the status of an official spy, but
who was perhaps a communicator of secret information under duress. A cabal of
Liddell, White and Perrin had plotted, and made moves, without consulting
Cockcroft or Arnold. Skinner never quite realised what was going on, failing to
consider that his wife’s liaisons were a liability, and harboured unfulfillable
designs about returning to Harwell to replace Cockcroft. Skinner would remain
at Liverpool, unwanted by Harwell, and remaining under suspicion. The loose
cannon Cockcroft did not understand why Skinner had been banished, but
considered him a useful ally at Liverpool, and naively encouraged him in his
literary exploits. Fuchs was in gaol:
Pontecorvo in Moscow. By the time Davison had transferred to Birmingham, in
September 1953, Liddell had resigned from MI5, bitterly disappointed at being
outmanoeuvred by his protégé, Dick White, for the director-generalship, and had
taken up a new post – as director of security at AERE Harwell. MI5 still
considered Davison on a temporary transfer ‘outhoused’ to Birmingham, but did
their best to ease his relocation to Canada, perhaps masking his medical problems.
Davison died in Toronto in 1961, at the young age of 52, the year after
Skinner’s death. I do not know whether foul play was ever suspected.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Peierls had his vitally significant correspondence with Lord Portal in April 1951, where he responded to accusations about him, and revealed the links with the Soviet Security organs that he had kept concealed for so long. (See The Mysterious Affair at Peierls, Part 1). Had Peierls perhaps discussed the shared matter of NKVD threats to family with his protégé, and ventured to inform MI5 and the Ministry of the predicament that Davison been in? Or, more probably, had Davison confessed to MI5 about how he himself had been threatened, and, as a possible source of ‘the accusations’, drawn Peierls in? Readers should recall that the decision to interview Davison, to ask him about possible threats to his parents, in the belief that such a dialogue might increase Davison’s confidence in them, was projected to have taken place just before then. The timing is perfect: Davison might well have told his interviewers the full story, and brought Peierls into his narrative.
many loose ends in the story are left because of the selective process of
compiling the archive. In 1954, Reed of MI5 referred darkly to a confidential
source who was keeping them informed of Davison’s negotiations with Canada: likewise,
it could well have been Peierls. We shall probably never know exactly what
happened in that 1951 spring, but Portal, previously Air Chief Marshal, was no
doubt shocked by the whole business. He resigned his position at the Ministry
of Supply soon afterwards: Perrin left at the same time. And if Moscow had
discovered that their threats had been unmasked, or that any of their assets
had behaved disloyally, Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks squad would have been
ready to move.
What should a liberal democracy do when it discovers spies, or potential spies, working within scientific institutions carrying out highly sensitive work? Is the process of removing them quietly to an academic institution a sensible attempt at resolving an apparently intractable problem, given that trials, however open or closed, are a necessary part of the judicial procedure? Torture or oppressive measures cannot be applied to the targets, backed up by other cruel or mortal threats, as was the feature of Stalin’s Show Trials. Perhaps moving awkward employees to a quiet backwater was the most sensible practice to protect the realm without causing undue publicity?
named Purge Procedure was provoked by the Nunn May conviction, and a Cabinet
Committee on Subversive Activities was set up in May 1947. The topic of the
Procedure, which was established in March 1948, and how it was applied, has
been covered by Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm, pp 382-393. Yet
I find this exposition starkly inadequate: it concentrates on the discovery of
communists within the Civil Service, but barely touches the highly sensitive
issue of possibly disloyal scientists working at a secret institution like AERE
Harwell. For reasons of space and time, a proper analysis will have to be
deferred until another report, and I only skim the issue here.
Professor Glees has
informed me that, during an interview that Dick White gave him in the 1980s
(White died in 1993), the ex-chief of MI5 and MI6 impressed upon him ‘the importance of keeping
people away from where they could do harm’, and that the execution of such a
policy was a key MI5 tool. As a counterbalance, the journalist Richard Deacon
informed us that, in the early 1950s, ‘gone to Ag and Fish’ (the Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) meant that an intelligence operative had ‘gone
to ground’. That ministry was the destination for the MI6 agent Alexander Foote
after he had been interrogated. Perhaps he worked alongside civil servants with
communist leanings who had also been parked there.
I find that statement of policy a little disingenuous on White’s
part. For it is one thing to take a discovered Communist off the fast track in
some other Ministry and transfer him out to grass sorting out cod quotas with
Iceland before he does any damage. And it is quite another
to take a known or highly suspected spy from a secret institution like AERE
Harwell, remove him completely from sensitive work, and transfer him to a
university a hundred and fifty miles away. Multiple issues come into play: the
processes of university councils, the creation of posts, preferential treatment
over other candidates, funding, the candidates’ suitability for teaching, language
problems, relocation concerns, even a wife’s preferences – and the inevitable
chatter that accompanies such a disruption.
So what should the
authorities have done in such cases? Civil servants were entitled to a certain
measure of employment protection, and could not be fired without due cause. Being
a communist was not one of those causes, and Attlee was nervous about left-wing
backlash. The primary challenge to taking drastic action in the case of spies
(who were frequently not open communists) thus consisted in the suitability of
the evidence of guilt, however conclusive. Unless the suspect had been caught
red-handed (as was Dave Springhall, although he was not an academic), or he or
she could quickly be convinced to confess (as was Nunn May), the prosecution
probably relied on confidential sources. In the case of Fuchs, the source was
VENONA transcripts: the project was considered far too sensitive to bring up in
court, and its validity as hard evidence might have been sorely tested. Even
with a confession, there were risks associated. A defendant might bring up
uncomfortable truths. With little imagination required, Fuchs could surely have
brought up the matter of his inducement by Skardon/Cockcroft, and he could have
honestly described how he had been encouraged to spy on the Americans while
furthering British objectives.
public trials would draw attention to a security service’s defects:
counter-intelligence units are not praised when they haul in spies, but severely
criticised for allowing them to operate in the first place. And if the suspects
were British citizens, and were threatened to the extent that they felt
uncomfortable, or could not maintain a living, they could not be prevented from
fleeing abroad at any time (‘doing a Pontecorvo’), and had therefore to be
encouraged to feel safe in the country. Thus sending such candidates to a functional
Siberia, in the hope that they would become stale and valueless, yet behave
properly, came to represent a popular option with the mandarins in MI5 and the
Ministries. (On Khrushchev’s accession to power, Molotov was sent to be
Ambassador in Mongolia, while Malenkov was despatched to run a power station in
Kazakhstan. I have not been able to verify the claim that the Russians have a
phrase for this – ‘being sent to Liverpool’.)
Yet it was an
essentially dishonourable and shoddy business. First of all, unless the
authorities were simply scared about what might happen, it rewarded criminal
behaviour. It discriminated unjustly between those who did not confess and
those who did (Springhall, Nunn May, Fuchs, Blake): we recall that Nunn May was
blacklisted by British universities after his release, while Fuchs, with a
little more resolve, might have spent a few calm years considering where he
might be more content, continuing his liaison with Erna Skinner in Liverpool,
or renewing his acquaintance with Grete Keilson in East Germany. The Purge
Procedure allowed suspected civil servants to leave with some measure of
dignity, but the method of transferring suspects to important positions at
universities represented a deceitful, and possibly illegal, exploitation of
academic institutions, and consisted in a disservice to undergraduates
potentially taught by these characters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that such
a move would have put the lid on the betrayal of secrets. The Soviets might try
to extradite a suspect (Moscow thought Liverpool was useless as a home for
Pontecorvo), which, if successful, would have raised even more questions.
Overall, the policy was
conceived in the belief that the suspect would behave like a proper English
gentleman, but that was no certainty, and there were sometimes wives to
consider (such as Mrs. Pontecorvo.) Latent hypocrisy existed, in (for example)
Cockcroft’s hope that Fuchs and Davison might still help the government’s cause.
It was an attempt at back-stairs fixing, and the fact that it was covered-up
indicated government embarrassment at the process. They displayed naivety in
believing that the story would not come out. It was bound to happen, as indeed
it did with Davison, although Skinner’s ‘removal’ appears to have been
(I should also note that
a similar process was applied to Kim Philby. He was dismissed from MI6, and
made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but allowed to pursue a journalistic
career, again in the belief that his utility to his bosses in Moscow would
rapidly disintegrate. Yet he had loyal friends still in the Service, and became
an embarrassment. Some historians claim that Dick White allowed him to escape from
Beirut as the least embarrassing option.)
final lessons can be learned? The experiences with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and
Davison (and to a lesser extent, Skinner) reinforce that fact that MI5 was
hopelessly unprepared for the challenge of vetting for highly sensitive
projects. Awarding scientists citizenship does not guarantee loyalty: the
Official Secrets and Treachery Acts will not deter the committed spy. Stricter
checks at recruitment should have been essential, although they might not have
eliminated the expert dissimulator. Vetting procedures should have been
defended and executed sternly, with no exceptions. Yet MI5 also showed a
bewilderingly disappointing lack of insight into how the Soviet Union, and
especially the NKVD/KGB, worked, which meant that they were clueless when it
came to assessing an ‘émigré’ like Davison, who fitted into no known category.
Until the Burgess-Maclean debacle, they continued to believe in the essential
loyalty of well-educated Britons. They continued to ignore Krivitsky’s warnings
and advice, and failed to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s domestic
policies, and strategies for espionage abroad. It should instead have built up
a comprehensive dossier of intelligence on the structure and methods of its
ideological adversary, as did Hugh Trevor-Roper with the Abwehr, and
promoted a strong message of prevention to its political masters and
colleagues. That opportunity had faded when its sharpest counter-espionage
officer, Jane Archer, was sidelined, and then fired, in 1940.
events surrounding these scientists should surely provide material for a major
novel or Fraynian dramatic work. The line
between inducement and threats, on the one hand, and careful psychological
pressure, on the other, could have had vastly different outcomes, and could
perhaps be compared to the treatment of the homosexuals Burgess and Turing, and
how the former managed to get away with scandalous behaviour, while the latter
was driven to suicide. Perhaps whatever strategy was tried was flawed, as it
was too late by then, but dumping on universities was undistinguished and
hypocritical. Demotion, removal from critical secret work, and removal of
oxygen sent a signal that might have been successful with a more timid
character like Davison, but it would not have worked with a showman like
business of counter-intelligence is tough: MI5 was not a disciplined and
ruthless machine, but simply another institution with its rivalries, ambitions,
flaws, and politics to handle. It was poor at learning from experience, however,
and sluggish in setting up policies to deal with the unexpected, instead
spending vast amounts of fruitless time and effort in watching people, and
opening correspondence. It thus muddled along, and found itself having to cover
up for its missteps, and choosing to deceive the government and the public. For
a long time, the ruse appeared to be successful. Seventy years have passed. A
close and integrative, horizontal rather than vertical, inspection of the
released archives, however, complemented by a careful analysis of biographical
records, has allowed a more accurate account of the goings-on of 1950 to be
Archives files on Pontecorvo, Fuchs, the Skinners, Davison: the Guy Liddell
Mountford memoir at Liverpool University
and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing
by Frank Close
Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti
Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss
Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams
Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter
by Frank Close
by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan
Germans by Christopher Laucht
Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde
Spies by Paul Broda
of Passage by Rudolf Peierls
Rudolf Peierls, Correspondence, Volume 1 edited by Sabine Lee
and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone
Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown
Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown
Ever since I started exploring the KV 6/41 file at the National Archives in greater depth, and published my findings in a special bulletin at the end of April (see here), Professor Glees and I have been pondering over its implications. We quickly agreed that the letter sent by Victor Farrell to Len Beurton in March 1943 was conclusive proof that MI6 was using Len and his wife, Ursula (agent SONIA), as some kind of asset, and this finding sealed the somewhat speculative story I had outlined in ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Professor Glees was able to use his contacts at the Mail on Sunday to excite their interest, and the story that appears today is the result.
We are very pleased with the outcome. Of course, there are items which we might have expressed differently ourselves (and Professor Glees and I still enjoy differences of opinion on how some of the evidence should be interpreted), but we agree that a compelling account of the story of treachery and self-delusion has been laid out. We think it has shed dramatic light on an intelligence puzzle that has foiled the experts for decades.
The story is unavoidably very complex, and in compressing into a single article an international series of events involving multiple intelligence agencies, it is inevitable that some oversimplifications occur. The details of World War II, and the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany during the Battle of Britain, may not be familiar to many readers. A new generation will not be aware, necessarily, of who Klaus Fuchs was, and why secrets of atomic weaponry were so critical in the years following the war. Thus some of the nuances of politics in the 1940s have had to be skated over, as have some of the details of the career, movements, and activities of Ursula and Len Beurton.
Those readers who want to pursue in more depth the story of SONIA’s career, her activities in Switzerland, her arranged marriage, and her escape to the United Kingdom, are encouraged to read the full story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, viewable here. And if any reader wishes to send a serious question about the Mail on Sunday piece, or anything that I have written about on coldspur, he or she is encouraged to post a comment after this bulletin, or to send me an email at email@example.com. I shall post questions and responses here.
Lastly, look out for a fresh report at this website, an analysis of the description by Peter Wright (‘Spycatcher’) of the wireless messages that convinced him both of Sonia’s activity, and of Roger Hollis’s culpability, on Tuesday, July 1.
Update No. 1 (June 28)
Last night I received my first item of feedback, from a US resident. It ran as follows: “Utter nonsense. Sorry to hear that you bought into a ridiculous idea. Embarrassing for you that it has been published.”
My reactions are many. First of all, I know this correspondent (whom I shall call ‘Horace’) to be a smart fellow, who has contributed originally to intelligence research. But I also know him as a notorious skimmer of my work (like Frank Close, perhaps). After my Round-up last month, Horace wrote to me, enclosing a link to Ben Macintyre’s website, and the reference to the book on Sonia, at which I had to point out to him that I had already cited it in the same report, and pointed out a gross error. And, since, this Mail on Sunday feature is a highly logical extension of all that I have been writing in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ and since, Horace must have failed to follow the plot. He has occasionally stated that he does not agree with my conclusions, but has never provided a shred of evidence to challenge them. Moreover, Horace must be temperamentally unsuited to this business: so many mysteries exist that it is absurd to dismiss a serious attempt to explain them as ‘nonsense’. Alternatively, Horace must have a theory of his own to explain the multitude of accommodations that MI6 and MI5 made for Sonia – one he has never articulated.
I am far from ’embarrassed’. This feature is excellent publicity for coldspur. As for ‘buying into a ridiculous idea’, I find that amusing. No one ‘sold’ it to Professor Glees and me. We developed it.
Horace is not Ben Macintyre, by the way. I asked Horace whether I could quote his comments on coldspur. He never replied.
Update No. 2 (June 29)
have now received many responses to the Mail on Sunday piece, for which
I thank everyone. They were, with one exception already reported on, overall very
positive, but I understand that the appearance of the information in this
format did confuse some of you.
Let me recap first. Back in early May, I had been trying to find a media outlet for my latest conclusions about Sonia, in order to forerun the arrival of Ben Macintyre’s book on the Soviet spy. Having failed with the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, I was encouraged by Professor Glees to work with him on approaching the Mail on Sunday, where he had a solid contact. I jumped at the opportunity, but also had some concerns, as I was not sure how I would remain in control of the project. Things went fairly well, a story was put together (based on my material on coldspur, largely by Professor Glees, who was more familiar with the house style), and we in fact expected the story to be placed on May 31.
matters became difficult. For four successive weeks, the decision to publish
was deferred, since apparently more pressing stories demanded priority. This
was an extremely frustrating time for me, as I was obviously embargoed from
writing any more on the subject that might weaken the freshness of the Mail
on Sunday feature. We had no contract, but our contact implored us to be
patient. I was about to pull the plug on the whole project, and either start with
a new media outlet (which could have caused a repeat of the whole drawn-out business)
or simply reverse to my own publishing model, where I can issue what I want,
when I want, in my own voice, and without any editors looming over me, but
where the readership and the publicity are indisputably small. I wanted very
much a) a story in the national media about Sonia, and b) publicity for coldspur,
so that I could continue my writings with the confidence that they were gaining
thus extended our offer for one more week, and the Mail on Sunday came
through. Unfortunately, it did not refer to coldspur (at least not in
the on-line version), which I believed had been part of the agreement. That is a
great disappointment to me, but I imagine those readers really interested will
track coldspur down. Has it drawn Ben Macintyre out of the undergrowth?
Not yet, it seems, but that will probably take a little longer. I must believe
that ‘his attention will be drawn’ by experts, agents, editors, and colleagues
at the Times to the Mail on Sunday story, and he may start to
regret not having responded to my overtures a couple of years ago. I am predictably
very keen on learning what his particular angle on Sonia (how Chapman Pincher spelled
her) or Sonya (Macintyre’s choice, and the form in her translated memoir) will
for the story itself, some of you were confused, for which I apologise. You
found the narrative unconvincing, and looked for more substance – such as that
which you normally find on coldspur. Some asked whether I agreed with
all the statements ascribed to Professor Glees! I should mention that all the
quotations offered to the paper were presented as joint submissions, but in
their intensity, and maybe for space reasons, the journalists attributed nearly
all to the Professor, and I was left with only a single, somewhat fractured
one. Never mind. I am very grateful to Professor Glees for the academic and
professional authority he brought to the project, and the proof of the pudding
will remain in my researches on coldspur.
Thus I acknowledge that a slightly less ‘melodramatic’ version of the analysis would be useful – nay, essential – to many of my readers. You have submitted questions that demand scholarly and cool answers. Nevertheless, rather than address them during the month one by one here, I have decided to devote next month’s bulletin (to be published July 31) to an exposition of the full case of the MI6/MI5 collusion regarding Sonia, list all the evidence that led the Professor and me to our conclusions, and also describe the conundrums and unanswered questions that remain.
In the meantime, keep those comments coming, and do not forget to look out for new analysis on Peter Wright and Spycatcher tomorrow.
Update No. 3 (July 7)
The dust has settled a bit. I have received some further very positive feedback. Unfortunately the Google News feature that Professor Glees uses, which provides alerts on activities of his like the publication of this article, appears to have been de-activated. Many of his contacts may therefore not have noticed the feature. The editors at the Mail on Sunday are similarly perplexed. It looks as if some undefinable body, upset by the revelations, has the power to interfere with such mechanisms. How can that be?
Professor Glees and I have both been in cordial contact with Ben Macintyre. He claimed, in his message to Professor Glees, that his book would obviously be making references to coldspur. I await the arrival of his book (which he promised to send me via the US publisher) with great eagerness, so that I may verify that assertion. He apologised to me for the fact that my 2018 message to him via his publisher had gone astray, and told me that he had corrected the errors on his websites. Yet, as I look at them again today, they all appear to be unchanged.
Meanwhile, I have started working on a fuller and less hectic version of the Sonia/MI6 story for publication here on July 31. I also sent an email to the GCHQ Press Office, alerting it to my post on Spycatcher and HASP, and providing the link, on July 1. I have yet to receive any acknowledgment. I am sure my report has been the cause of much merriment in Cheltenham.
I interrupt this bulletin to note the deaths of two significant persons related to the world of intelligence that have been recorded in NYT obituaries in the past ten days, reminders of the feverish days of World War II.
April 2, Walentyna Janta-Polczynska died in Queens, New York. She was appointed
personal secretary to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the
Polish government-in-exile, in 1939. She translated and prepared reports by Jan
Karski, who brought the first eyewitness accounts of atrocities against the
Jews in Warsaw. In 1943 she assisted in Sikorski’s funeral arrangements after
his plane crashed after takeoff from Gibraltar. She was born in Lemberg (Lvov,
now Lviv): her father ‘hailed from an English family that had initiated oil
exploration in eastern Poland’. Ms. Janta-Polcynska was 107.
April 7, Henry Graff, historian, died in Greenwich, Connecticut, aged 98. In
November 1943 [date probably wrong], he translated part of a message
sent by Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin who had regular
discussions with Hitler, and passed on encrypted summaries of what he learned.
In this case, Oshima described German plans for countering the expected D-Day
invasion. Nine months later [sic], shortly after Hiroshima, Graff
translated a message from Japan to the Soviet Union, for some reason directed
at Bern in Switzerland, asking for help extricating Japan from the war. [I
informed the ‘New York Times’ of these anomalies, but have not received a
reply, and, as yet, the publisher has not issued a Correction.].
Next, four anecdotes . . .
Soon after we retired to Southport, North Carolina, at the beginning of August 2001, I made a trip into Wilmington, a town about thirty-five miles away, a port city on the Cape Fear River. I wanted to explore it, to familiarize myself with its layout, find out where the libraries and bookshops were, and, while I was about it, to get a haircut. I found a barber’s shop in a quiet street, went in, and sat down, waiting for my turn. I was then horrified when I heard the man I believed to be the owner, snipping away at a customer’s hair, say: “Of course the blacks were much happier when they were slaves.”
had come across some casual racism in my time in the United States, mainly in
the South, but not exclusively there, and had even experienced some ‘ethnic’
hatred directed at me, but I had never heard such a blatant example of stupid,
ugly, patronizing, disgusting, ignorant speech before. How dare this redneck
put himself in the minds of his fellow citizens, and make a facile conclusion
about them and their ancestors of almost two centuries ago? I would not call it
‘prejudice’, because this insect had clearly thought about the matter before
coming up with his well-exercised opinion. And the fact that he was ready to
speak up openly about it, in the presence of a stranger, made the expression of
his opinion even more frightful and alarming than it would otherwise have
been. Was this a common feeling among
felt like standing up and biffing the perpetrator on the nose, but thought that
causing an affray so soon after my arrival in South-Eastern North Carolina
might not be a good idea. The barber might claim that I had misheard him, after
all, or that it was a joke taken out of context. But I knew it was not. I
simply stood up and walked out of his establishment, and found a proper
hairdresser in the centre of town. Maybe that was a shabby exit, not
confronting evil when it pushes its voice into your face, but it was all a bit
overwhelming at the time.
I have since discovered that sentiments like the barber’s are not that uncommon, and that even though Wilmington has overall become more civilized by the arrival of Yankees and others in its population, and joining its media outlets, etc. (much of it resented by some locals, I should add), a combination of resentment that the Civil War was lost, and regret over the decline of ‘white’ supremacy, can still be found in many pockets of New Hanover County and its surrounding rural areas.
2. Early in 2000, about eighteen months before we left Connecticut for good (we have not been back in almost twenty years), I read in the New York Times about a photographic exhibition being held at a small gallery in New York City. It concerned records of lynchings that has been carried out in the United States in the twentieth century, with some of the photographs taken after I was born (in 1946). These had apparently not been shown before. I had reason to make a business trip to New York – about an hour away by train – so I decided to make time to visit this gallery. I am not somebody who chases down the grisly out of some perverse pleasure, but I believed that this might be a once-only opportunity to become educated about a horrific aspect of American history about which I had only vague understandings.
was an experience both moving and horrifying. I had read about the British
soldiers who discovered Belsen, and were so shocked by what they found that it
made them physically sick. I had a similar reaction – not quite so physical,
but creating that roiling in the stomach. To see a ‘black’ man strung up on a
tree, and ‘white’ families celebrating as if it were a public holiday (which is
how they probably treated it), was nauseating. What made it even worse – although this is a specious argument – was
that it had taken place in my lifetime. One thinks of ‘medieval’ practices, but
all this happened frequently in the first part of the twentieth century, in a
country that made all manner of claims about human liberty, and ‘making the
world safe for democracy’.
After all, this was not Stalin’s Gulag, where in fact the horrors were far worse in number. I have just read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, covering a largely contemporaneous period (1937-51) when Shalamov spent most of his incarceration working as a slave in or around the notorious goldmines of Kolyma. The death rate there was truly monstrous, and dwarfed the assaults on humanity represented by the lynchings. Yet the photographic record of Kolyma is scanty: the world knows little about the broken bodies, the mutilations and executions. Shalamov’s vignettes provoke similar feelings of disgust, but the Gulag reflected a different kind of cruelty – the abomination of State-run terror run amok. Prisoners were sentenced to ten years in Kolyma for being members of the Esperanto Society, for expressing a hope for the return of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for praising the exiled poet Ivan Bunin, for complaining about the length of the queue for soap, or on the false denunciation of a neighbour, and few would survive. The lynchings were private vigilante operations, and took place in a supposedly democratic society run by the rule of law. How can one compare them? A few hundred lynchings in twentieth-century America, six million dead in the Holocaust, over a million in Kolyma alone? Every brutal death was an individual calamity.
(Amazingly, I was able to dig out, on the afternoon after I wrote the above two paragraphs, my clippings file on the exhibition, and related topics. I had forgotten that I had composed a brief memorandum immediately afterwards, which I present here, in its unimproved form. As is evident, one or two of the references are incomplete, but I believe it sums up well my immediate disgust. I recall now that the main reference I left unfinished was the final passage of Emanuel Litvinoff’s searing Faces of Terror trilogy, where Peter Pyatkov is taken down to the cellars of the Lubianka:
‘Cold metal against the nape of his
neck. His moment.
“Who am – ? . . .’
also reproduce in this page some clippings from The New York Times of
that time. A warning: they are discomforting to look at.)
It was at that time that I understood there was something much darker and more pervasive going on. I had rather naively imagined that the absurd colour barriers and divisiveness had broken down in the ‘Great Society’ of the 1960s. I knew that it had been illegal in North Carolina, up until 1965, for a marriage between a ‘white ‘ person and a ‘black’ one to take place (which would have meant that Sylvia and I could not have wed), but thought that these absurd racial categories were gradually being eroded. Other political trends, however, were in fact re-emphasising this false science.
3. A few years after we moved down her, Sylvia, Julia and I made a visit to the Orton Plantation. This was one of the few private estates that are open to visitors in this neck of the woods – or even across the whole of the country. It is attached to the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site, half-way between Southport and Wilmington, on the west side of the Cape Fear River. Brunswick Town was a port that was destroyed by the British in 1776, but never rebuilt, while Fort Anderson was constructed on the ruins, as a fort in the Civil War. There is not much to see there, especially for those familiar with the variety of castles that can be inspected in Great Britain, but it is of great historic interest, and a compulsory target for any tourist or resident of the area.
the historical site lies the Orton Planation, of which the jewel is the
antebellum country house, considered to be one of the best of its kind. It has
apparently been used in many movies and TV shows (none of which I profess to
have seen: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood somehow escaped my
attention), as the following link explains (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton_Plantation)
. We were able to walk around the park, and survey what had been the rice
plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves, that led down to the Cape Fear
River. We were reminded of how many of England’s fine country houses were
constructed with the wealth derived from the exploitation of slaves, only in
their case not in their back yard, but mostly thousands of miles overseas, such
as in St. Vincent, where Sylvia was born.
The house itself was not open to the public, but as we walked near it, an elderly gentleman saw us, and approached us, and, perhaps after learning where we were from, invited us to take a look round. I don’t recall much of the details (there was a billiard-table in good condition), but it was charming house, and we considered ourselves very fortunate. The gentleman gave his name as ‘Sprunt’: I worked out later that he was probably Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, whose name appears in the Wikipedia entry. In 2010, the Sprunts sold the whole property to Louis Moore Bacon, a hedge fund manager, and descendant of the house’s original owner and builder, Roger Moore. The grounds have not yet been re-opened.
4. Earlier this month, Sylvia and I filled out the US 2020 Census forms, on-line this time. It was quite a simple operation: we were asked for birthdate information for the three of us, and whether we rented or owned the house, and whether we had any mortgage. What business was it of theirs, we asked ourselves? And then we came to the bulk of the form, which was about ‘ethnicity’. The first part required us to state whether we were ‘Hispanic’ or not – and did not allow this binary question to be ignored! At the same time, it reminded us that ‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’ could be of any race.
How in heaven’s name were they going to use this information? Deciding what federal aid should be given to each State, I suppose, but how could they verify whether anybody really understood the question, or could even be relied upon to tell the truth on the form? And how would such information affect the government’s decisions? I thought of a root of my maternal-grandfather’s family, the Robinis, who were Huguenots escaping via Guernsey, and suddenly felt a surge of Italianate fervour. And then there was my unexplained partiality to Neapolitan ice-cream and pizza margherita. Were such features part of my ‘identity’? H’mm. But there was no way out. We decided to say ‘No’, and move on.
The last section concerned ‘race’, and in this area the Census Bureau believed they were on firmer ground. The first option was ‘White’, but if you rejected that, it offered a whole host of exotic categories to choose from, including ‘Pacific Islander’ (about which I have written before here). Why it believed that, in 2020, American citizens would universally want to define themselves in such terms is absolutely beyond me, but it keeps many Census Bureau people in employment, and helps to foment those minor distinctions that can breed resentment, and feelings of entitlement, and which accompany the notions of ‘identity’ which the sociological professors get so excited about. Fortunately, the very last option was to tick off ‘Other’, and Sylvia and I happily entered ‘Human’ in the box, and were gratified that our submission was not rejected. But should we expect a visit from the Census Police, to verify that we are indeed so?
* * * * * * * * * *
shall get round to ‘Wilmington’s Lie’ soon, but I need to digress over some
science, and some definitions. As readers may have noticed, in this text I have
used ‘black’ and ‘white’ in quotation marks. Since all reputable scientists
have concluded that ‘race’ is a sociological construct, and that the genetic
differences between human beings of different pigmentation are smaller than
those found within any one particular ‘ethnic group’, I struggle with what
language to use in this discussion. American institutions have for a long time
advised us that anyone born with a drop of ‘black’ blood should be defined as
‘black’, which is obviously nonsense. Yet using some term is inescapable in
this discussion. Selecting the term ‘Negro’ is disdained these days; ‘colo(u)red’
is a ridiculous hangover from South African categorisations, although it
endures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
‘African-American’ is simply inaccurate (what about Egyptians?), and some
famous Americans, such as Colin Powell, have objected to it (his parents came
from Jamaica), since they do not regard themselves as having ‘roots’ in the
remind readers of the stubbornness of some sectors of government and the academic
world to recognize the facts about race, I present the following paragraphs. I
picked them out of a book review from the Listener of 13 November, 1935.
For some reason, I had acquired a few years ago a bound copy of the issues of
that magazine from September to December 1935: they present a fascinating
perspective of the world seen from a variety of educated viewpoints as the
totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia started to exert an eerie
hold over the democracies’ attentions. The review is titled Racial Problems
in Europe, and it comprises a critique of We Europeans, by Julian
Huxley, A. C. Haddon, and A. M. Carr-Saunders, written by A. S. Russell.
a scientific age’, say the authors, ‘prejudice and passions seek to clothe
themselves in a garb of scientific respectability; and when they cannot find
support from true science, they invent a pseudo-science to justify themselves’.
There is today a pseudo-science of ‘racial biology’ which has been erected to
justify political ambitions, economic ends, social grudges, and class
prejudices. ‘Race’ and ‘racialism’ are regarded by the authors as almost
blasphemous terms, and it is against the fallacies associated with these vague
and mischievous ideas that the principal part of the book is directed.
who talk about pure races nowadays do not know what they are talking of. You
cannot judge a man’s race accurately from externals. You can be certain of a
man’s racial purity only when you know his ‘genetical constitution’. The
discovery of the gene, thousands of which go to the physical make-up of an
individual, has revealed how immensely more complex inheritance in the physical
sense is than was thought of in old days, when the characteristics of a child
were considered to be a mere blending of those of the parents. It was convenient at one time to make a rough
classification of Europeans into the Nordic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean
‘races’; the first exemplified in the tall, ‘long-headed’, fair-haired Swede;
the second in the ‘round-headed’ Russian peasant of medium height; the third in
the dark, ‘long-headed’, small inhabitant of southern Italy. Actually these
types, like every other in Europe, are just different mixtures; they aren’t in
any sense pure races. Everybody in Europe is of mixed race as evidenced by his
or her ‘genetical constitution’. And the reason for this is plain. For tens of thousands of years man has been
on the move in every part of the world inter-breeding and inter-breeding. There
might have been pure races at one time; sections of mankind might have got
isolated geographically from the rest for thousands and thousands of years and
evolved so as to become adapted to their climactic environment; but those days
are long past and it is in the highest degree unlikely they will ever recur.”
One might observe that even Wallace didn’t quite get it, what with his references to ‘racial purity’ and ‘inter-breeding’. Yet the challenge to the monstrous racial theories of Hitler is clear. Nevertheless, in what could be considered a provocative commentary on Hitler’s dogma, later in the review, Wallace questions the authors’ application of their research into the identity of the Jews (“ . . . the authors assert the Jews are of mixed origin and no more different from the mass of Europeans than ourselves or the Germans” – a judgment that would anticipate what Schlomo Sand wrote recently in his engrossing and controversial Invention of the Jewish People). Wallace concludes by accepting that nations of ‘inter-marriage’ are based purely on sentiment and tradition. I could point to dozens of articles that I have read over the years that would reinforce the assertions of Huxley and co. They got it right eight-five years ago, but too many people still resist those notions. For example, I marvel at the unscientific way that certain liberal arts critics misrepresent how genetics works. My latest offering: “Whether they have been hard-wired into a Jewish genetic make-up after centuries of the singular Jewish experience it’s impossible to prove, but Lebrecht’s passion is persuasive”, from Mark Glanville’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, in the TLS of February 28.
And now to Wilmington’s
Lie. I had been vaguely aware of the murky secret that the city of
Wilmington had tried to hide. I have another clipping, from the New York
Times of December 19, 2005, showing a report by John DeSantis headed ‘North
Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes’. His second
paragraph sums up the event very succinctly: “Only scant mention is made,
however, of the bloody rioting more than a century ago during which black
residents were killed and survivors banished by white supremacists, who seized
control of the city government in what historians say is the only successful
overthrow of a local government in United States history.”
What prompted the attention
then to the happenings of November 10, 1898 was the release of a draft of a
500-page report ordered by the state legislature. In what may come as a
surprise to many European readers, after the Civil War, the government of
Wilmington, which had been ruled by the Democratic Party, was replaced by a coalition
that was dominated by Republicans, and contained many ‘blacks’. (It was the
Republican Abraham Lincoln who had resisted the Southern States’ rights to
continue slavery, and the switch of party allegiances around civil rights and
white supremacism would come much later.) The growing power and influence of
those persons whom reactionary Democrats considered as inferior to them, and
responsible for diminishing their prosperity, caused a mass of resentment that
broke out murderously before Election Day of November 9, 1898. A mob of white
vigilantes invaded ‘black’ businesses, most notably the printing-press of The
Daily Record, and shot ‘black’ men in the streets of Wilmington. The report
estimated that up to a hundred ‘black’ deaths were recorded, and hundreds fled
from the city.
I regret not getting hold of the full report, which, according to de Santis, was to be delivered the following year. There was some controversy over its release, as many felt that the ‘mistakes’ of over a hundred years ago should be buried. In 2008, however, a Memorial Park was opened in Wilmington, although the City still seems very ambivalent about promoting and describing it. A link on the City’s webpage, indicating the website of the memorial, leads to a Facebook Page: a full description can be seen at https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/842/. I have visited the memorial, and was moved by it, but was sorry it had been placed somewhat off the beaten track, and found the symbology puzzling. The monument itself consists of six 16-feet tall paddles, which, according to a plaque nearby, refer to the role of water in ‘the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent’. Why the memorialists would want to generalise all the religions of the African continent in that stereotypical way, especially when almost universally those who suffered at the time of the events (and those who come to honour them today) were and are devout Christians is one of those weird dimensions of ‘identity’ and ‘heritage’ that dominate discussions of such topics today.
And then, earlier this
year, David Zucchino’s account of the incidents, Wilmington’s Lie: The
Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, was published.
Zucchino gained his Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing in The Philadelphia
Inquirer in 1989: he has also published Thunder Run and The Myth
of the Welfare Queen. His book provides a very thorough history of the
events that led up to what he characterises as the 1898 ‘coup’: the action was,
however, not so much the directing ousting of a governing body as the
terroristic oppression of those citizens who would democratically elect that
group, but the result was the same. Zucchino uses the official report
(available at https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p249901coll22/id/5842, released on May 31, 2006,
which I have not read), as well as an account by LeRae Umfleet, the principal
researcher on the project, A Day of Blood, which I have also not looked
at. So I regret I cannot compare Zucchino’s account with Umfleet’s. Zucchino
has also trawled through an impressive list of books, unpublished memoirs and
diaries, articles, theses, dissertations, and government publications and
Zucchino takes his readers painstakingly through the background that led to the vigilantism of 1898. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina, and freed slaves flocked to it for the opportunities in trade and exports that it provided. In the author’s words, ‘it was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, policemen and magistrates.’ The Ku Klux Klan had made an attempt to roll back Reconstruction in 1868, but had been driven out of town. Abraham Galloway (of ‘mixed race’) had been the vigorous senator who had encouraged the locals to defend their right, and when he died in 1870, the cause was taken up by Alexander Manly, the publisher of the Daily Record. “Manly”, Zucchino writes, “could easily have passed as white, the preferred option of so many so-called mulattoes.” Manly spoke up for Negro rights, and pointed out the hypocrisy that occurred when ‘white’ supremacists spoke up for the virtue of their women intermingling with ‘black’ males, while they themselves had affairs with ‘black’ women. He thus became the prime target of the frustrated Democrats.
In 1897, several
lynchings occurred in Georgia. ‘White’ leaders could not imagine that a sexual
act between a ‘white’ woman and a ’black’ man could be consensual, and
vigilante justice was frequently the outcome. After a Mrs. Felton defended the
practice of lynching, Manly wrote an editorial that pointed out the hypocrisy,
and ridiculed the insecurity and self-delusion that lay at the heart of the
hatred of Southern ‘white’ men. Thus the office of the Daily Record
became the prime target of the rebels. Two days after voting took place for the
state legislature on November 8, 1898, over two thousand Red Shirts (as they
were called), heavily armed, piled into Wilmington looking for victims.
Buildings were burned, and at least sixty ‘black’ men were killed in the
Zucchino reports how
the Wilmington Messenger published the lyrics to ‘Rise Ye Sons of
Carolina’ on November 8, 1898.
“Proud Caucasians one
and all . . .
Hear your wives and
daughters call . . .
Rise, defend their
With your strong and
manly arms . . .
Rise and drive this
Black despoiler from your state.”
It is a message that
anticipates Hitler. A shocking and nauseating refrain, blatantly ignoring the
fact that the forbears of these ‘black despoilers’ had been brought to those
shores against their will, in utterly cruel conditions, when, if they had
survived, they were forced into slavery. What demagogues, preachers or teachers
had embedded this sort of thinking? How could anyone today not denounce such
I shall not relay all
the details of the coup. Readers can pick up the book. Zucchino has performed
an absolutely vital task of chronicling the details of this ghastly event, one
that remained buried for so long. Yet Wilmington’s Lie is not very easy
reading: not because of the grisly subject-matter, but because the author lacks
a good narrative sweep, and moves around without a clear chronology. Events
outside Wilmington are sketched very thinly, so we do not gain a good
understanding of, for example, why federal or state officials were so reluctant
to intervene. He leaves the meatier issues for the Epilogue, almost as an
afterthought, such as the way that Wilmington became an example for ‘white’
supremacists in other states to pick up on voter suppression, and vicious
attacks on ‘blacks’. He has nothing to say about the culture and political
battles that encouraged such cruelty, or how the fundamentalist Josiah Nott,
who had Gobineau’s dangerous writings on the Aryan race translated, exerted such
a swift and penetrative effect on the Southern states and the rise of the Ku
Klux Klan. Where did they learn about ‘Caucasians’? This, for me, was an
Moreover, Zucchino makes no references to the expulsion of indigenous Americans of a couple of generations before, which these horrors echoed, or even the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, which applied different racial principles to the treatment of indigenous American tribes. The author makes a link between the events of 1898 and current attempts to implement voter ID laws: such initiatives may or may not be stirred by similar impulses, but Zucchino does not examine the case. He skims over in one paragraph the bouleversement in Party allegiances (when minority rights became a Democratic plank of policy) that was caused by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, noting that in 1972 North Carolina elected its first Republican US senator for seventy-four years – the notorious Jesse Helms. And lastly, he appears to be a prisoner of his own cultural milieu – talking about ‘white blood’ and ‘black blood’ as if they were realities, and never analysing seriously the pseudo-science behind these notions. (As I was completing this piece, I encountered the following quotation from the NYT obituary of Abigail Thernstrom, a stolid opponent of affirmative action, a woman who had grown up in a communist household: “Race is the American dilemma. It is race that, you know, keeps this country in agony. It is our most serious domestic problem. And therefore, we want to think specially hard about anything that involves sorting people out on the basis of one drop of blood of this or that.”)
I noticed one poignant
aspect. The captain general of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1868 was a
Colonel Moore, who led the attempt to terrorize ‘blacks’ in April 1868, was
then repulsed, and was left licking his wounds inside Thalian Hall. Thirty
years later, no longer Klan leader, he was still active in Wilmington, and had
been elected to the County Board of Commissioners in the corrupt elections of
1898. Yet he was outsmarted by another political rival, Colonel Alfred Waddell,
who led the attack on Manly’s newspaper offices. After the killings of November
10, one of the businessmen who tried to persuade Waddell to allow the ‘blacks’
who had been chased out of town, since he needed them for loading the seven
steamships backed up at the port, was a James Sprunt. Sprunt ‘told a reporter
he was confident that the city’s blacks would be reassured by Mayor Waddell’s
public declarations of equal treatment for both races’. He had been born in
Glasgow, was British vice-consul, and later became renowned for his
philanthropic work in Wilmington, and his dedication to local history.
Colonel Roger Moore
was a descendant of Roger Moore, a brother of Maurice. Maurice Moore sold the
Orton Planation to Roger when the latter moved into the area from South
Carolina, in 1725, and together they founded Brunswick Town. Roger Moore had to
deal with unfriendly native Americans, who destroyed his first house, but then
set up the rice plantation with slave labour. The gentleman whom we met at the
Orton Plantation, Murchison Sprunt, was a grandson of James Laurence Sprunt,
who, with his wife, Luola, purchased the property in 1904, on the death of his
father-in-law, Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, a Confederate military
officer. In May 2010, as I described earlier, the Sprunt family sold the
Plantation to Louis Moore Bacon, who informs us that he is a direct descendant
of the first Roger Moore. (How he might be related to the notorious Klansman
Roger Moore, I do not know.)
Thus are the fortunes
and careers of North Carolinians – like those of everyone, I suppose –intertwined.
Allowing for about ten generations since 1725, Louis Moore Bacon could also
claim that he was the direct descendant of about one thousand other people. Yet,
like many others, he favours a single lineage with a name that endured, and a
known family history. Likewise, there are probably thousands of other persons
who could claim ‘direct descendancy’ from Roger Moore, but who did not have the
money, the genealogical insights, or the personal interest, to want to bid for
the Orton Plantation, and invest in it. That is the way the world works.
Back to today’s
Wilmington. It is easy for someone like me to sit back, and proclaim that all
these racial categories are absurd, when such loftiness in fact could show an
insensitivity to the realities of the stories of humiliation passed down, and
the daily insults that continue. Whenever I walk around in Wilmington, I am
especially careful, say, to open the door for any ‘black’ person coming into
the Post Office, and offer them a friendly ‘Take your time, sir!’, or ‘Have a
good day, madam!’, perhaps to balance the affronts or rudenesses they may have
encountered from persons who share my skin pigmentation, and I deliver such politesses
a little more enthusiastically than I might do to anyone else. Maybe it is
condescending behaviour, but I trust it helps. Because I can hope for the day
when these categories will be meaningless (and I think of our beautiful Anglo-Irish-Italian-French-German-West
Indian-Vietnamese grand-daughters – ignoring, for now, the Persky branch from
Minsk), but have to accept that reality is different. So long as census-takers, white supremacists, affirmative
action lawyers, ethnic studies professors, fundamentalist preachers, racial
activists, identity politicians, Dixie whistlers, sociologists, psephologists,
pseudo-historians, eugenicist neo-confederates, Marxist academics, cultural
appropriation specialists, self-appointed ‘community’ spokespersons, and general
grudge-grinding journalists have a job to hold on to, the distinctions will
continue. And, after all, if the New York Times says that a ‘Latinx’
community exists, it must be so, right?
My gestures are a kind of reparation,
I suppose. And thereby lies one final dilemma, as the irrepressible and
overexposed Ta-Nehisi Coates has promoted, urging that ‘blacks’ should receive
money for the injustices performed against them (or their forebears). Yet not
all those who would have to pay are guilty, nor are all those who would be
remunerated necessarily victims. None of us automatically inherits the sins or
the virtues of our forebears, and each us should be free to reject the
indoctrination of parents, school or religious institution.
I made light of this at my seventieth birthday party a few years ago, attended by a few dozen of my closest friends, at which I made a speech (see Taking the Cake). At one point, I took out a piece of paper from my jacket pocket, and told the assembled diners that it was a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. I proceeded to read it: “Dear Mr. Percy . . . blah, blah, blah, . . . We have to inform you that, according to recent legislation, you, as a descendant of colonialist oppressors, are hereby ordered to make the following reparations payments to victims of such injustices. (Pause.) Mr. Tiger Woods: $5,000. Mrs. Sylvia Percy: $10,000. And to Mr. Douglas Hamilton (not his real name, but a prosperous ‘black’ friend of mine sitting at Table 4): $50,000!”
Yet so long as that barber, and
persons like him, are around, it is no laughing matter.
(Recent Commonplace entries can be found here. This month’s collection includes a special not-to-be-missed feature on Gavin Ewart and light verse.)
was reading, in the Times Literary Supplement of January 17, a review of
a book titled The French Revolutionary Tradition in Russian and Soviet
Politics, Political Thought, and Culture. The author of the book was one
Jay Bergman, the writer of the review Daniel Beer, described as Reader in
Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. I came across
the following sentences: “The Bolsheviks could never admit that Marxism was a
failed ideology or that they had actually seized power in defiance of it. Their
difficulties, they argued, were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the
Party and traitors in their midst.”
seemed to me an impossibly quaint way of describing the purges of Stalin’s
Russia. Whom were these Bolsheviks trying to convince in their ‘arguments’, and
where did they make them? Were they perhaps published on the Letters page of
the Pravda Literary Supplement or as articles in The Moscow Review of
Books? Or were they presented at conferences held at the elegant Romanov
House, famed for its stately rooms and its careful rules of debate? I was so
taken aback by the suggestion that the (unidentified) Bolsheviks had engaged in
some kind of serious discussions on policy, as if they were an Eastern variant
of the British Tory Party, working through items on the agenda at some seaside
resort like Scarborough, and perhaps coming up with a resolution on the lines
of tightening up on immigration, that I was minded to write a letter to the
Editor. It was short, and ran as follows:
“So who were these
Bolsheviks who argued that ‘their difficulties were rather the work of enemies
arrayed against the Party and traitors in its midst’? Were they perhaps those
‘hardliners in the Politburo’ whom Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden imagined were
exerting a malign influence on the genial Uncle Joe Stalin, but whose existence
turned out to be illusory? Or were they such as Trotsky, Kirov, Radek, Kamenev,
Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc. etc., most of whom Stalin had murdered simply because
they were ‘old Bolsheviks’, and knew too much? I think we should be told.”
Now the Editor did not
see fit to publish my offering. Perhaps he felt that, since he had used a letter
of mine about the highly confused Professor Paul Collier in the December 2019
issue, my quota was up for the season. I can think of no other conceivable
reason why my submission was considered of less interest than those which he
Regular readers of coldspur
will be familiar with my observations about the asymmetry of Allied
relationships with the Soviet Union in World War II. See, for instance, http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/,
where I analysed such disequilibrium by the categories of Moral Equivalency,
Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism, Espionage, Culture, and Warfare. The
misunderstanding about the nature of Stalin’s autocracy can be viewed in two
dimensions: the role of the Russian people, and that of Stalin himself.
During the war, much
genuine and well-deserved sympathy was shown in Britain towards the
long-suffering Russian people, but the cause was often distorted by Soviet
propaganda, either directly from such as ambassador Maisky and his cronies, or
by agents installed in institutions such as the Ministry of Information. The
misconceptions arose from thinking that the Russians were really similar to
British citizens, with some control over their lives, where they worked, the
selection of those who governed them, what they could choose to read, how they
were allowed to congregate and discuss politics, and the manner in which they
thus influenced their leaders, but had unfortunately allowed themselves to sign
a pact with the Nazis and then been treacherously invaded by them. Their
bravery in defending their country against the assault, with losses in the
millions, was much admired.
Yet the catastrophe of
Barbarossa was entirely Stalin’s fault: as he once said to his Politburo, using
a vulgar epithet, ‘we’ had screwed up everything that Lenin had founded and
passed on. And he was ruthless in using the citizenry as cannon fodder, just as
he had been ruthless in sending innocent victims to execution, famine, exile, or
the Gulag. For example, in the Battle of Stalingrad, 10,000 Soviet soldiers
were executed by Beria’s NKVD for desertion or cowardice in the face of battle.
10,000! It is difficult to imagine that number, but I think of the total number
of pupils at my secondary school, just over 800, filling Big School, and multiplying
it by 12. If anything along those lines had occurred with British forces,
Churchill would have been thrown out in minutes. Yet morale was not universally
sound with the Allies, either. Antony Beevor reports that in May 1944 ‘nearly
30,000 men had deserted or were absent without leave from British units in
Italy’ – an astonishing statistic. The British Army had even had a mutiny on
its hands at Salerno in 1943, but the few death sentences passed were quickly
commuted. (Stalin’s opinions on such a lily-livered approach to discipline
appear not to have been recorded.) As a reminder of the relative casualties, the
total number of British deaths in the military (including POWs) in World War II
was 326,000, with 62,000 civilians lost. The numbers for the Soviet Union were
13,600,000 and 7,000,000, respectively.
As my letter suggested,
Western leaders were often perplexed by how Stalin’s occasionally genial
personality, and his expressed desire for ‘co-operation’, were frequently
darkened by influences that they could not discern. They spoke (as The
Kremlin Letters reminds us) of Stalin’s need to listen to public opinion,
or deal with the unions, or heed those hard-liners on the Politburo, who were
all holding him back from making more peaceful overtures over Poland, or Italy,
or the Baltic States. During negotiations, Molotov was frequently presented as
the ‘hard man’, with Stalin then countering with a less demanding offer, thus
causing the Western powers to think they had gained something. This was all
nonsense, of course, but Stalin played along, and manipulated Churchill and
Roosevelt, pretending that he was not the despot making all the decisions
Thus Daniel Beer’s
portrayal of those Bolsheviks ‘arguing’ about the subversive threat holds a
tragi-comic aspect in my book. Because those selfsame Bolsheviks who had
rallied under Lenin to forge the Revolution were the very same persons whom
Stalin himself identified as a threat to him, and he had them shot, almost
every one. The few that survived did so because they were absolutely loyal to
Stalin, and not to the principles (if they can be called that) of the Bolshevik
I was reminded of this distortion of history when reading Professor Sir Michael Howard’s memoir, Captain Professor. I had read Howard’s obituary in December 2019, and noted from it that he had apparently encountered Guy Burgess when at Oxford. The only work of Howard’s that I had read was his Volume 5 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he covered Strategic Deception. (The publication of this book had been delayed by Margaret Thatcher, and its impact had thus been diminished by the time it was issued in 1999. I analysed it in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’. It is a very competent but inevitably flawed analysis of some complex material.) With my interest in Burgess’s movements, and his possible involvement in setting up the ‘Oxford Ring’ of spies, I wanted to learn more about the timing of this meeting, and what Burgess was up to, so I acquired a copy of Howard’s memoir.
The paragraph on Burgess
was not very informative, but I obviously came to learn more about Howard, this
acknowledged expert in the history of warfare. He has received several plaudits
since his death. In the January issue of History Today, the editor Paul
Lay wrote an encomium to him, which included a quotation from the historian’s
essay ‘Military Experience in European Literature’. It ran as follows: “In
European literature the military experience has, when it has been properly
understood and interpreted, immeasurably enriched that understanding of
mankind, of its powers and limitations, of its splendours and its miseries, and
not least of its relationship to God, which must lie at the root of all societies
that can lay any claim to civilization.”
Now what on earth does that
mean? I was not impressed by such metaphysical waffle. If I had submitted a
sentence like that in an undergraduate essay, I would not have been surprised
to see it returned with a circle of red ink. Yet its tone echoed a remark by
Howard, in Captain Professor, that I had included in my December 2019
Commonplace file: “I had written a little about this in a small book TheInventionofPeace,
a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the
secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the
beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years
and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached
climax with the two world wars.” (p 218) Hallo, Professor! ‘Beliefs and habits
that had held European society together for a thousand years’? What about all
those wars? Revolutions? Religious persecution? Specifically, what about the
Inquisition and the Thirty Years War? What was this ‘European society’ that cohered
so closely, and which the Professor held in such regard? I wondered whether the
expression of these somewhat eccentric ideas was a reason why the sometime
Regius Professor of History at Oxford University had not been invited to
contribute to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, or the Oxford
Illustrated History of World War II.
Apparently, all this has to do with the concept
of ‘War and Society’, with which Howard is associated. Another quote from Captain
Professor: “The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the
operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies. Only
by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought
about and why they fought in the way they did. Further, the fact that they did
so fight had a reciprocal impact on their social structure. I had to learn not
only to think about war in a different way, but also to think about history
itself in a different way. I would certainly not claim to have invented the
concept of ‘War and Society’, but I think I did something to popularize it.” Note
the contradiction that, if these ‘societies and cultures’ were fighting each
other, they could hardly be said to have ‘held together for a thousand years’. I
am also not sure that the Soviet soldiers in WII, conscripted and harassed by
the NKVD, shot at the first blink of cowardice or retreat, thought much about
how the way they fought had a reciprocal impact on Soviet culture (whatever
that was), but maybe Howard was not thinking of the Red Army. In some sense I
could see what he was getting at (e.g. the lowering of some social barriers
after World War II in the United Kingdom, because of the absurd ‘officers’ and
‘men’ distinctions: no one told me at the time why the Officers’ Training Corps
had morphed into the Combined Cadet Force). Nevertheless, it seemed a bizarre
And then I came on the following passage,
describing Howard’s experiences in Italy: “In September 1944, believing that
the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for
the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications
throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte
Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not
come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely
destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the
communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately
planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the
Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the
Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an
outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they
smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was
there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were
there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might
have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must
have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been
sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”
My initial reaction was of astonishment, rather like Howard’s first expression of outrage, I imagine. How could the betrayal of the Poles by the halted Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula, in the process of ‘liberating’ a country that they had raped in 1939, now an ally, be compared with the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, trying to expel the Germans, while liberating a country that had been an enemy during the war? What had the one to do with the other? And why would it have been controversial for the Allies to have wanted to weaken the Communist movement? But perhaps I was missing something. What had caused Howard to change his mind? I needed to look into it.
The poignant aspect of this anecdote was that
Howard had been wounded at Monte Sole, only in December 1944, some two months
after the Monte Sole massacre. Howard had been commanding a platoon, and had
been sent on a reconnaissance mission with ‘poor Terry’ (an alias). Returning
from the front line, they had become disoriented, and stumbled into an ambush,
where Terry was mortally wounded by a mine, and Howard, having been shot in the
leg, managed to escape. He was mortified by the fact that he had chosen to
leave Terry to die, and felt his Military Cross was not really deserved. He had
fought courageously for the cause of ridding Italy of fascism, yet the fact
that he had not known at the time of the Massacre of Monte Sole (sometimes
known as the Marzobotto Massacre) was perplexing to me.
These two closely contemporaneous events – the
Warsaw Uprising, and the Monte Sole Massacre – were linked in a way that Howard
does not describe, as I shall show later. They could be summarised as follows:
The Warsaw Uprising
As the Red Army approached Warsaw at the end of July of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London decided that it needed to install its own administration before the Communist Committee of National Liberation, established by the Soviets as the Lublin Committee on July 22, could take over leadership. Using its wireless communications, it encouraged the illegal Polish military government in Warsaw to call on the citizenry to build fortifications. On July 29, the London leader, Mikolajczyk, went to Moscow, whereupon Moscow Radio urged the Polish Resistance to rise up against the invader. A few days later, Stalin promised Mikołajczyk that he would assist the Warsaw Uprising with arms and ammunition. On August 1, Bor-Komorowski, the Warsaw leader, issued the proclamation for the uprising. In a few days, the Poles were in control of most of Warsaw, but the introduction of the ruthless SS, under the leadership of von dem Bach-Zelewski, crushed the rebellion with brutal force. Meanwhile, the Soviets waited on the other side of the Vistula. Stalin told Churchill that the uprising was a stupid adventure, and refused to allow British and American planes dropping supplies from as far away as Italy to land on Soviet territory to refuel. The resistance forces capitulated on October 2, with about 200,000 Polish dead.
The Monte Sole Massacre
In the summer of 1944, British and American forces were making slow progress against the ‘Gothic Line’, the German defensive wall that ran along the Apennines. Italy was at that time practically in a stage of civil war: Mussolini had been ousted in the summer of 1943, and Marshall Badoglio, having signed an armistice with the Allies, was appointed Prime Minister on September 3. Mussolini’s RSI (the Italian Social Republic) governed the North, as a puppet for the Germans, while Badoglio led the south. Apart from the general goal of pushing the Germans out of Italy, the strategic objective had been to keep enough Nazi troops held up to allow the D-Day invasion of Normandy to take place successfully. In late June, General Alexander appealed to the Italian partisans to intensify a policy of sabotage and murder against the German forces. The Germans already had a track-record of fierce reprisals, such as the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in March 1944, when 320 civilians had been killed following the murder of 32 German soldiers. The worst of these atrocities occurred at Monte Sole on September 29-30, where the SS killed 1830 local villagers at Marzabotto. Shortly after that, Alexander called upon the partisans to hold back their assaults because of the approach of winter.
Now, there are some obvious common threads woven
into these narratives (‘partisans’, ‘reprisals’, ‘invasions’, ‘encouragement’,
‘SS brutality’, ‘betrayal’), but was there more than met the eye, and was Howard
pointing at something more sinister on the part of the Western Allies, and
something more pardonable in the actions of the Soviets? I needed some
structure in which to shape my research, if I were to understand Howard’s
weakly presented case. Thus I drew up five categories by which I could analyse
Military Operation: What
was the nature of the overall military strategy, and how was it evolving across
Political Goals: What
were the occupier’s (‘liberator’s’) goals for political infrastructure in the
territories controlled, and by what means did they plan to achieve them?
Make-up, role and goals
of partisans: How were the partisan forces constituted, and what drove their
activities? How did the respective Allied forces communicate with, and behave
towards, the partisan forces?
Offensive strategy: What
was the offensive strategy of the armed forces in approaching their target? How successful was the local operation in
contributing to overall military goals?
The Aftermath, political
outcomes and historical assessment: What was the long-term result of the
operation on the country’s political architecture? How are the events assessed
seventy-five years later?
The Red Army and Warsaw
The most important
resolution from the Tehran Conference, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and
Stalin on December 1, 1943, was a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the
planned D-Day operation (‘Overlord’) would be complemented by assaults
elsewhere. Such cooperation would prevent German forces being withdrawn to
defend the Allies in eastern France. Thus an operation in the South of France
(‘Anvil’) was to take place at the same time that Stalin would launch a major
offensive in the East (‘Bagration’). At that time Overlord was planned to occur
in late May; operational problems, and poor weather meant that it did not take
place until June 6, 1944.
Stalin’s goal was to
reach Berlin, and conquer as much territory as he could before the Western
Allies reached it. Ever since his strategy of creating ‘buffer states’ in the
shape of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and western Ukraine after the
Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 had been shown to be an embarrassing calamity
(although not recognized by Churchill at the time), he realised that more
vigorously extending the Soviet Empire was a necessity for spreading the cause
of Bolshevism, and protecting the Soviet Union against another assault from
Germany. When a strong defensive border (the ‘Stalin Line’) had been partially
dismantled to create a weaker set of fortifications along the new borders with
Nazi Germany’s extended territories (the ‘Molotov Line’), it had fearfully
exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces, and Hitler had invaded with
appalling loss of life and material for the Soviet Union.
In 1944, therefore, the
imperative was to move forward ruthlessly, capturing the key capital cities
that Hitler prized so highly, and pile in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of
troops. When the Red Army encountered German forces, it almost always
outnumbered them, but the quality of its leadership and personnel were
inferior, with conscripts often picked up from the territories gained, poorly
trained, but used as cannon fodder. Casualties as a percentage of personnel
were considerably higher than that which the Germans underwent. The Soviet
Union had produced superior tanks, but repair facilities, communications, and
supply lines were constantly being stretched too far.
On June 22, Operation
‘Bagration’ began. Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front crossed the River Bug,
which was significantly on the Polish side of the ‘Curzon Line’, the border
defined (and then modified by Lewis Namier) in 1919, but well inside the
expanded territories of Poland that the latter had occupied and owned between
the two World Wars. On July 7, Soviet troops entered Vilna to the north, a
highly symbolic city in Poland’s history. On July 27, they entered Bialystok
and Lvov. By July 31, they had approached within twenty-five miles of the
Vistula, the river that runs through Warsaw, and four days later, had actually
crossed the waterway 120 miles south of Warsaw. At this stage, exhausted and
depleted, they met fiercer opposition from German forces. Exactly what happened
thereafter is a little murky.
The Soviets’ message was
one of ‘liberation’, although exactly from what the strife-worn populations of
the countries being ‘liberated’ were escaping from was controversial. The
Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) had suffered, particularly, from the
Soviet annexation of 1940, which meant persecution and murder of intellectuals
and professionals, through the invasion by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941,
which meant persecution and murder of Jews and Communists, to the re-invasion
of the Soviets in 1944, which meant persecution and murder of anyone suspected
of fascist tendencies or sympathies. Yet the British Foreign Office had
practically written off the Baltic States as a lost cause: Poland was of far
greater concern, since it was on her behalf that Great Britain had declared war
on Germany in September 1939.
The institution favoured by the British government to lead Poland after the war was the government-in-exile, led, after the death in a plane crash of General Sikorski in June 1943, by Stanisław Mikałojczyk. It maintained wireless communications with underground forces in Poland, but retained somewhat unreasonable goals for the reconstitution of Poland after the war, attaching high importance to the original pre-war boundaries, and especially to the cities of Vilna and Lvov. The London Poles had been infuriated by Stalin’s cover-up of the Katyn massacres, and by Churchill’s apparent compliance, the British prime Minster harbouring a desire to maintain harmonious relations with Stalin. Mikałojczyk continuously applied pressure on Winston Churchill to represent the interests of a free and independent Poland to Stalin, who, like Roosevelt, had outwardly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter that gave the right of self-determination to ‘peoples’. Mikałojczyk was adamant on two matters: the recognition of its traditional eastern borders, and its right to form a non-communist government. Stalin was equally obdurate on countering both initiatives, and his language on a ‘free and independent Poland’ started taking on clauses that contained a requirement that any Polish government would have to be ‘friendly’ towards the Soviet Union.
On July 23, the city of
Lublin was liberated by the Russians, and Stalin announced that a Polish
Committee of National Liberation (the PCNL, a communist puppet) had been set up
in Chelm the day before. Churchill was in a bind: he realised which way the
wind was blowing, and how Soviet might would determine the outcomes in Poland.
He desperately did not want to let down Mikałojczyk, and preferred, foolishly,
to trust in Stalin’s benevolence and reasonableness. Churchill had been
pressing for Mikałojczyk to meet with Stalin, as he was beginning to become
frustrated by the Poles’ insistence and romantic demands. Stalin told Churchill
that Mikałojczyk should confer with the PCNL.
When Stalin made an
ominously worded declaration on July 28, where he ‘welcomed unification of
Poles friendly disposed to all three Allies’ (which made even Anthony Eden
recoil in horror), Churchill convinced Mikałojczyk to visit Moscow, where
Stalin agreed to see him. On July 29, Moscow Radio urged the workers of the
Polish Resistance to rise up against the German invader. Had Mikałojczyk
perhaps been successful in negotiating with Stalin?
On July 31, the Polish underground, encouraged
by messages from the Polish Home Army in London, ordered a general uprising in
Warsaw. It had also succeeded in letting a delegate escape to the USA and
convince the US administration that it could ally with Soviet forces in freeing
Warsaw. (It is a possibility that this person, Tatar, was a Soviet agent:
something hinted at, but not explicitly claimed, by Norman Davies.) It was,
however, not as if there was much to unite the partisans, outside a hatred of
the Fascist occupying forces. The Home Army (AK) was threatened by various splinter
groups, namely the People’s Army (AL), which professed vague left-wing
political opinions (i.e. a removal of the landowning class, and more property
rights for small farmers and peasants), the PAL, which was communist-dominated,
and thus highly sympathetic to the Soviet advance, and the Nationalist Armed
Forces (NSZ), which Alan Clark described as ‘an extreme
right-wing force, against any compromise with Russian power’. Like any partisan
group in Europe at the time, it was thus driven by a mixture of motivations.
Yet for a few short weeks
they unified in working on fortifications and attacking the Nazis. They mostly
took their orders from London, but for a short while it seemed that Moscow was
supporting them. According to Alexander Werth (who was in Warsaw at the time),
there was talk in Moscow that Rokossovsky would shortly be capturing Warsaw,
and Churchill was even spurred to remind the House of Commons on August 2 of
the pledge to Polish independence. On August 3, Stalin was reported by
Mikałojczyk to have promised to assist the Uprising by providing arms and
ammunition – although the transcripts of their discussions do not really
indicate this. By August 6, the Poles were said (by Alan Clark) to be in
control of most of Warsaw.
The Home Army was also
considerably assisted by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had
succeeded in landing hundreds of agents in Warsaw and surrounding districts,
with RAF flights bringing food, medical supplies and wireless equipment. This
was an exercise that had started in February 1941, with flights originating
both from Britain and, latterly, from southern Italy. By the summer of 1944, a
majority of the military and civilian leadership in Warsaw had been brought in
by SOE. Colonel Gubbins, who had been appointed SOE chief in September 1943,
was an eager champion of the Polish cause, but the group’s energies may have pointed
to a difference in policy between SOE’s sabotage programme, and Britain’s
diplomatic initiatives, a subject that has probably not received the attention
the Rising all very quickly turned sour. The Nazis, recognizing the symbolic
value of losing an important capital city like Warsaw, responded with power.
The Hermann Goering division was rushed from Italy to Warsaw on August 3. Five
days later the SS, led by von dem Bach-Zelewski, was introduced to bring in a
campaign of terror against the citizenry. After a desperate appeal for help by
the beleaguered Poles to the Allies, thirteen British aircraft were despatched
from southern Italy to drop supplies: five failed to return. The Chiefs of
Staff called off the missions, but a few Polish planes carried on the effort.
Further desperate calls for help arrived, and on August 14 Stalin was asked to
allow British and American planes, based in the UK, to refuel behind the Soviet
lines to allow them more time to focus on airdrops. He refused.
now, however, Stalin was openly dismissing the foolish adventurism of the
Warsaw Uprising, lecturing Churchill so on August 16, and, despite Churchill’s
continuing implorations, upgraded his accusations, on August 23, to a claim
that the partisans were ‘criminals’. On August 19, the NKVD had shot several
dozen members of the Home Army near the Byelorussian border, carrying out an
order from Stalin that they should be killed if they did not cooperate. Antony
Beevor states that the Warsaw Poles heard about that outrage, but, in any case,
by now the Poles in London were incensed to the degree that they considered
Mikałojczyk not ‘anti-Soviet’ enough. Roosevelt began to tire of Churchill’s
persistence, since he was much more interested in building the new world order
with Uncle Joe than he was in sorting out irritating rebel movements. By
September 5, the Germans were in total control of Warsaw again, and several
thousand Poles were shot. On September 9, the War Cabinet had reluctantly
concluded that any further airdrops could not be justified. The Uprising was
essentially over: more than 300,000 Poles lost their lives.
Accounts differ as to how close the Soviet forces were to Warsaw, and how much they were repulsed by fresh German attacks. Alexander Werth interviewed General Rokossovsky on August 26, 1944, the latter claiming that his forces were driven back after August 1 by about 65 miles. Stalin told Churchill in October, when they met in Moscow, of Rokossovsky’s tribulations with fresh German attacks. Yet that does not appear to tally with Moscow’s expectations for the capture of Warsaw, and it was a surprising acknowledgement of weakness on Rokossovsky’s part if it were true. Soviet histories inform us that the thrust was exhausted by August 1, but, in fact, the First Belorussian Front was close to the suburb of Praga by then, approaching from the south-east. (The Vistula was narrower than the Thames in London. I was about to draw an analogy of the geography when I discovered that Norman Davies had beaten me to it, using almost the exact wording that I had thought suitable: “Londoners would have grasped what was happening if told that everyone was being systematically deported from districts north of the Thames, whilst across the river to Battersea, Lambeth, and Southwark nothing moved, no one intervened,” from Rising ’44, page 433). Rokossovsky told Werth that the Rising was a bad mistake, and that it should have waited until the Soviets were close. On the other hand, the Polish General Anders, very familiar with Stalin’s ways, and then operating under Alexander in Italy, thought the Uprising was a dangerous mistake.
all that really misses the point. It was far easier for Stalin to have the
Germans exterminate the opposition, even if it contained some communist
sympathisers. (Norman Davies hypothesizes that the radio message inciting the
partisans to rebel may have been directed at the Communists only, but it is
hard to see how an AL-only uprising would have been able to succeed: such a
claim sounds like retrospective disinformation.) Stalin’s forces would
eventually have taken over Warsaw, and he would have conducted any purge he
felt was suitable. He had shamelessly manipulated Home Army partisans when
capturing Polish cities to the east of Warsaw (such as Lvov), and disposed of
them when they had delivered for him. Thus sitting back and waiting was a
cynical, but reasonable, strategy for Stalin, who by now was confident enough
of his ability to execute – and was also being informed by his spies of the
strategies of his democratic Allies in their plans for Europe. Donald Maclean’s
first despatch from the Washington Embassy, betraying communications between
Churchill and Roosevelt, was dated August 2/3, as revealed in the VENONA
last aspect of the Soviet attack concerns the role of the Poles in the Red
Army. When the captured Polish officers who avoided the Katyn massacres were
freed in 1942, they had a choice: to join Allied forces overseas, or to join
the Red Army. General Zygmunt Berling had agreed to cooperate after his release
from prison, and had recommended the creation of a Polish People’s Army in May
1943. He became commander of the first unit, and eventually was promoted to
General of the Polish Army under Rokossovsky. But it was not until August 14
that he was entrusted to support the Warsaw Uprising, crossing the Vistula and
entering Praga the following day – which suggests that the river was not quite
the natural barrier others have made it out to be. He was repulsed, however, and
had to withdraw eight days later. The failed attempt, with many casualties,
resulted in his dismissal soon afterwards. Perhaps Stalin felt that Polish
communists, because they were Poles, could be sacrificed: Berling may not have
received approval for his venture.
Warsaw untaken, the National Council of Poland declared Lublin as the national
capital, on August 18, and on September 9, a formal agreement was signed
between the Polish communists and the Kremlin. In Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski,
perhaps now concluding that war crimes trials might be hanging over him,
relented the pressure somewhat, and even parleyed with the survivors. He tried
to convince them that the threat from Bolshevism was far more dangerous than the
continuance of Fascism, even suggesting that the menace from the East ‘‘might
very well bring about the downfall of Western culture’ (Clark). It was not
certain what aspects of Western culture he believed the Nazi regime had
enhanced. (Maybe Professor Howard could have provided some insights.)
Lublin administration had to wait a while as the ‘government-in-waiting’, as
Warsaw was not captured by the Red Army until January 17, 1945. By that time,
imaginative voices in the Foreign Office had begun to point out the
ruthlessness and menace of the tide of Soviet communism in eastern Europe, and
Churchill’s – and even more, Roosevelt’s – beliefs that they could cooperate
with the man in the Kremlin were looking very weary. By the time of the Yalta
conference in February 1945, any hopes that a democratically elected government
would take power in Poland had been abandoned.
Stalin had masterfully manipulated his allies, and claimed, through the
blood spent by the millions who pushed back the Nazi forces, that he merited
control of the territories that became part of the Soviet Empire. There was
nothing that Churchill (or then Attlee), or Roosevelt, rapidly fading (and then
Truman) could do.
historical assessment is one of a Great Betrayal – which it surely was, in the
sense that the Poles were misled by the promises of Churchill and Roosevelt,
and in the self-delusion that the two leaders had that, because Stalin was
fighting Hitler alongside them, he was actually one of the team, a man they
could cooperate with, and someone who had tamed his oppressive and murderous
instincts that were so evident from before the war. But whether the ‘Soviet
armies’ deserved sympathy for their halt on the Vistula is quite another
question. It was probable that most of the Ivans in the Soviet armed forces
were heartily sick of Communism, and the havoc it had brought to their homes
and families, but were instead conscripted and forced to fight out of fear for
what might happen if they resisted. By then, fighting for Mother Russia, and
out of hatred for the Germans because of the devastation the latter had wrought
on their homeland, they were brought to a halt before Warsaw to avoid a clash
that may have been premature. But they were Communists by identification, not
by conviction. Stalin was the sole man in charge. He was ruthless: he was going
to eliminate the Home Army anyway: why not let the Germans do the job?
Clark’s summing-up ran as follows: “The story of the Warsaw uprising
illustrates many features of the later history of World War II. The alternating
perfidy and impotence of the western Allies; the alternating brutality and
sail-trimming of the SS; the constancy of Soviet power and ambition. Above all,
perhaps, it shows the quality of the people for whom nominally, and originally,
the war had been fought and how the two dictatorships could still find common
ground in the need to suppress them.”
The Allies in Italy
The invasion of Italy (starting with Operation ‘Husky’, the invasion of Sicily) had always been Churchill’s favoured project, since he regarded it as an easier way to repel the Germans and occupy central Europe before Stalin reached it. It was the western Allies’ first foray into Axis-controlled territory, and had been endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943. Under General Alexander, British and American troops had landed in Sicily in July 1943, and on the mainland, at Salerno, two months later. Yet it was always something of a maverick operation: the Teheran Agreement made no mention of it as a diversionary initiative, and thereafter the assault was regularly liable to having troops withdrawn for the more official invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil, modified to Dragoon). This strategy rebounded in a perhaps predictable way: Hitler maintained troops in Italy to ward off the offensive, thus contributing to Overlord’s success, but the resistance that Alexander’s Army encountered meant that the progress in liberating Italy occurred much more slowly than its architects had forecast.
Enthusiasm for the
Italian venture had initially been shared by the Americans and the British, and
was confirmed at the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943. At this
stage, the British Chiefs of Staff hoped to conclude the war in a year’s time,
believing that a march up Italy would be achieved practically unopposed, with
the goal of reaching the ‘Ljubljana Gap’ (which was probably a more durable
obstacle than the ‘Watford’, or even the ‘Cumberland’ Gap) and striking at the
southern portions of Hitler’s Empire before the Soviets arrived there. Yet, as
plans advanced, the British brio was tempered by American scepticism. After the
Sicilian campaign, the Allied forces were thwarted by issues of terrain, a
surprising German resurgence, and a lack of coordination of American and
British divisions. In essence, clear strategic goals had not been set, nor
processes by which they might be achieved.
Matters were complicated
in September 1943 by the ouster of Mussolini, the escape of King Emanuel and
General Badoglio to Brindisi, to lead a non-fascist government in the south,
and the rescue of Mussolini by Nazi paratroopers so that he could be installed
as head of a puppet government in Salò in the North. An armistice between the
southern Italians and the Allies was announced (September 3) the day before
troops landed at Salerno. The invading forces were now faced with an uncertain
ally in the south, not fully trusted because of its past associations with
Mussolini’s government, and a revitalized foe in the north. Hitler was
determined to defend the territory, had moved sixteen divisions into Italy, and
started a reign of terror against both the civilian population and the remnants
of the Italian army, thousands of whom were extracted to Germany to work as
slaves or be incarcerated.
The period between the
armistice and D-Day was thus a perpetual struggle. As the demands for
landing-craft and troops to support Overlord increased, morale in Alexander’s
Army declined, and progress was tortuously slow, as evidenced by the highly
controversial capture of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, where the
Polish Army sustained 6,000 casualties. The British Chiefs of Staff continually
challenged the agreement made in Quebec that the Anvil attack was of the
highest priority (and even received support from Eisenhower for a while). Moreover,
the Allies did not handle the civilian populace very shrewdly, with widescale
bombing undermining the suggestion that they had arrived as ’liberators’. With
a valiant push, Rome was captured on June 4, by American forces, but a rivalry
between the vain and glory-seeking General Clark and the sometimes timid
General Alexander meant that the advantage was not hammered home. The dispute
over Anvil had to be settled by Roosevelt himself in June. In the summer of
1944, the Allies faced another major defensive obstacle, the Gothic Line, which
ran along the Apennines from Spezia to Pesari. Bologna, the city at the center
of this discussion, lay about forty miles north of this redoubt. And there the
Allied forces stalled.
The Allies were
unanimous that they wanted to install a democratic, non-fascist government in
Italy at the conclusion of the war, but did not really define what shape it
should take, or understand who among the various factions claiming ideological
leadership might contribute. Certainly, the British feared an infusion of
Communism into the mix. ‘Anti-fascism’ had a durable odour of ‘communism’ about
it, and there was no doubt that strong communist organisations existed both in
the industrial towns and in the resistance groups that had escaped to the
mountains or the countryside. (After the armistice, a multi-party political
committee had been formed with the name of the ‘Committee of National
Liberation’, a name that was exactly echoed a few months later by the Soviets’
puppets in Chelm, Poland.) Moreover, while the Foreign Office, epitomised by
the vain and ineffectual Anthony Eden, who still harboured a grudge with
Mussolini over the Ethiopian wars, expressed a general disdain about the
Italians, the Americans were less interested in the fate of individual European
nations. Roosevelt’s main focus was on ‘getting his boys home’, and then concentrating
on building World Peace with Stalin through the United Nations. The OSS,
however, modelled on Britain’s SOE, had more overt communist sympathies.
Yet there existed also
rivalry between the USA and Great Britain about post-war goals. The British
were looking to control the Mediterranean to protect its colonial routes: the
Americans generally tried to undermine such imperial pretensions, and were looking
out for their own commercial advantages when hostilities ceased. At this time,
Roosevelt and Churchill were starting to disagree more about tactics, and the
fate of individual nations, as the debate over Poland, and Roosevelt’s secret
parleys with Stalin, showed. Churchill was much more suspicious of Soviet
intrigues at this time, although it did not stop him groveling to Stalin, or singing
his praises in more sentimental moments.
The result was a high
degree of mutual distrust between the Allies and its new partners, the southern
Italians, and those resisting Nazi oppression in the north. As Caroline Moorehead
aptly puts it, in her very recent House in the Mountains: “Now the cold
wariness of the British liberating troops puzzled them. It was, noted Harold
Macmillan, ‘one vast headache, with all give and no take’. How much money would
have to be spent in order to prevent ‘disease and unrest’? How much aid was
going to be necessary to make the Italians militarily useful in the campaign
for liberation? And what was the right approach to take towards a country which
was at once a defeated enemy and a co-belligerent which expected to be treated
as an ally?”
The partisans in
northern Italy, like almost all such groups in occupied Europe, were of very
mixed origins, holding multitudinous objectives. But here they were especially
motley, containing absconders from the domestic Italian Army, resisting
deportation by the Nazis, escaped prisoners-of-war, trying to find a way back
to Allied lines, non-Germans conscripted by the Wehrmacht, who had escaped but
were uncertain where to turn next, refugees from armies that had fought in the
east, earnest civilians distraught over missing loved ones, Jews suddenly
threatened by Mussolini’s support of Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, the
ideologically dedicated, as well as young adventurists, bandits, thieves and
terrorists. As a report from Alexander’s staff said: “Bands exist of every
degree, down to gangs of thugs who don a partisan cloak of respectability to
conceal the nakedness of their brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in
their back gardens and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera
uniforms when the first Allied troops arrive.” It was thus challenging to find a way to deal
consistently with such groups, scattered broadly around the mountainous
The British generally
disapproved of irregular armies, and preferred the partisans to continue the important
work of helping POWs escape to Switzerland, where they were able to pass on
valuable information to the SIS and OSS offices there. As Richard Lamb wrote: “However,
the Allies wanted the partisan activities to be confined to sabotage,
facilitating the escape of POWs, and gathering intelligence about the
Germans.” Sabotage was encouraged,
because its perpetrators could not easily be identified, and it helped the war
effort, while direct attacks on German forces could result in fearful reprisals
– a phenomenon that took on increasing significance. Hitler had given
instructions to the highly experienced General Kesselring that any such
assaults should be responded to with ruthless killing of hostages.
the political agitators in the partisans were dominated by communists – who
continuously quarreled with the non-communists. The British did not want a
repeat of what had happened in Yugoslavia and Greece, where irredentists had
established separate control. The CLN had set up a Northern Italian section
(the CLNAI) in January 1944, and had made overt claims for political control of
some remote areas, seeing itself as the third leg of government. Thus the
British were suspicious, and held off infiltrating SOE liaison officers, and
parachuting in weapons and supplies, with the first delivery not occurring
until December 1943. This encouraged the partisans to think that the Allies
were not interested in widespread resistance, and were fearful of communism –
which was largely (but not absolutely) true. Tellingly, on July 27, 1944, in the
light of Soviet’s expansive colonial intentions, Chief of the Imperial General
Staff Alan Brooke first voiced the opinion that Britain might need to view
Germany as a future ally against the Soviets.
expressed outwardly hostile opinions on the partisans in a speech to the House
of Commons on February 22, 1944, and his support for Badoglio (and, indirectly,
the monarchy) laid him open to the same criticisms of anti-democratic spirit
that would bedevil his attitude towards Greece. Ironically, it was the arrival
of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti from Moscow in March 1944, and his
subsequent decision to join Badoglio’s government, that helped to repair some
of the discord. In May, many more OSS and SOE officers were flown in, and acts
of sabotage increased. This interrupted the German war effort considerably, as
Kesselring admitted a few years later. Thus, as summer drew on, the partisans
had expectations of a big push to defeat and expel the Germans. By June, all Italian partisan forces were co-ordinated
into a collective command structure. They were told by their SOE liaison
officers that a break through the Gothic Line would take place in September.
the confusion in the British camp had become intense. Churchill dithered with
his Chiefs of Staff about the competing demands of Italy and France. General
Maitland Wilson, who had replaced Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander in the
Mediterranean in January 1944, was in June forecasting the entry into Trieste
and Ljubljana by September, apparently unaware of the Anvil plans. He was
brought back to earth by Eisenhower. At the beginning of August 1944,
Alexander’s forces were reduced from 250,000 to 153,000 men, because of the
needs in France. Yet Churchill continued to place demands on Alexander, and
privately railed over the Anvil decision. Badoglio
was replaced by Bonomi, to Churchill’s disappointment. Alexander said his
troops were demoralized. There was discord between SOE and the OSS, as well as
between SOE and the Foreign Office. It was at this juncture that the controversy
On June 7, Alexander had made a radio appeal to the partisans, encouraging sabotage. As Iris Origo reported it in, in War in Val D’orcia (written soon after the events, in 1947): “General Alexander issues a broadcast to the Italian patriots, telling them that the hour of their rising has come at last. They are to cut the German Army communications wherever possible, by destroying roads, bridges, railways, telegraph-wires. They are to form ambushes and cut off retreating Germans – and to give shelter to Volksdeutsche who have deserted from the German Army. Workmen are urged to sabotage, soldiers and police to desert, ‘collaborators of fascism’ to take this last chance of showing their patriotism and helping the cause of their country’s deliverance. United, we shall attain victory.”
was an enormously significant proclamation, given what Alexander must have
known about the proposed reduction in forces, and what his intelligence sources
must have told him about Nazi reprisals. They were surely not words Alexander
had crafted himself. One can conclude that it was perhaps part of the general
propaganda campaign, current with the D-Day landings, to focus the attention of
Nazi forces around Europe on the local threats. Indeed the Political Warfare
Executive made a proposal to Eisenhower intended to ‘stimulate . . . strikes,
guerilla action and armed uprisings behind the enemy lines’. Historians have
accepted that such an initiative would have endangered many civilian lives. The
exact follow-up to this recommendation, and how it was manifested in BBC
broadcasts in different languages, is outside my current scope, but Origo’s
diary entry shows how eagerly the broadcasts from London were followed.
What is highly significant is that General Alexander, in the summer of 1944, was involved in an auxiliary deception operation codenamed ‘Otrington’, which was designed to lead the Germans to think that an attack was going to take place on the Nazi flanks in Genoa and Rimini, as opposed to the south of France, and also as a feint for Alexander’s planned attack through the central Apennines north of Florence. (This was all part of the grander ‘Bodyguard’ deception plan for Overlord.) Yet in August 1944, such plans were changed when General Sir Oliver Leese, now commanding the Eighth Army, persuaded Alexander to move his forces away from the central Apennines over to the Adriatic sector, for an attack on August 25. The Germans were misled to the extent that they had moved forces to the Adriatic, thus confusing Leese’s initiative. Moreover, the historian on whom we rely for this exposition was Professor Sir Michael Howard himself – in his Chapter 7 of Volume 5 of the British Intelligence history. Yet the author makes no reference here to Alexander’s communications to the partisans, or how such signals related to the deception exercise, merely laconically noting: “The attack, after its initial success, was gradually brought to a halt [by Kesselring], and Allied operations in Italy bogged down for another winter.”
not surprisingly, the message provoked even further animosity from the Germans
when Alexander made three separate broadcasts through the BBC, on June 19, 20
and 27, where he encouraged Italian partisans to ‘shoot Germans in the back’. The
response from Kesselring, who of course heard the open declaration, was
instantaneous. He issued an order on June 20 that read, partially, as follows:
“Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a
proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the
event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be
informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village, the village
will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.”
outcome of this was that a horrible series of massacres occurred during August
and September, leading to the worst of all, that at Marzabotto, on September 29
and 30. A more specific order by the German 5 Corps was issued on August 9,
with instructions as to how local populations would be assembled to witness the
shootings. Yet this was not a new phenomenon: fascist troops had been killing
partisan bands and their abettors for the past year in the North. The
requirement for Mussolini’s neo-fascist government to recruit young men for its
military and police forces prompted thousands to run for the mountains and join
the partisans. Italy was now engaged in a civil war, and in the north Italians
had been killing other Italians. One of the most infamous of the massacres had
occurred in Rome, in March 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves. A Communist Patriotic
Action Group had killed 33 German soldiers in the Via Rasella, and ten times
that many hostages were killed the next day as a form of reprisal. The summer
of 1944 was the bitterest time for executions of Italians: 7500 civilians were
killed between March 1944 and April 1945, and 5000 of these met their deaths in
the summer months of 1944.
records show that support for the partisans had been consistent up until
September, although demands had sharply risen. “In July 1944 SOE was operating 16 radio stations
behind enemy lines, and its missions rose from 23 in August to 33 in September;
meanwhile the OSS had 12 in place, plus another 6 ready to leave. Contacts
between Allied teams and partisan formations made large-scale airdrops of
supplies possible. In May 1944, 152 tons were dropped; 361 tons were delivered
in June, 446 tons in July, 227 tons in August, and 252 tons in September.”
(Battistelli and Crociani) Yet those authors offer up another explanation:
Operation ‘Olive’ which began on August 25, at the Adriatic end of the Gothic
Line, provoked a severe response against partisans in the north-west. The
fierce German reprisals that then took place (on partisans and civilians,
including the Marzobotto massacre) by the SS Panzer Green Division Reichsführer
contributed to the demoralization of the partisan forces, and 47,000 handed
themselves in after an amnesty offer by the RSI on October 28.
is not clear is why the partisans continued to engage in such desperate actions.
Had they become desperadoes? As Battistelli and Crociani write, a period of
crisis had arrived: “In mid-September 1944 the partisans’ war was, for all practical
purposes, at a standstill. The influx of would-be recruits made it impossible
for the Allies to arm them all; many of the premature ‘free zones’ were being
retaken by the Germans; true insurgency was not possible without direct Allied
support; and, despite attacks by the US Fifth and British Eighth Armies against
the Gothic Line from 12 September, progress would be slow and mainly up the
Adriatic flank. Against the advice of Allied liaison officers, the partisan
reaction was, inexplicably, to declare more ‘free zones’.” Things appeared to
be out of control. Battistelli and Crociani further analyse it as
follows: “The summer of 1944 thus represented a turning-point in partisan
activity, after which sabotage and attacks against communications decreased in
favour of first looting and then attacks against Axis troops, both being
necessary to obtain food and weapons to enable large formations to carry on
their war.” And it thus led to the deadliest massacre at Marzabotto, south of
Bologna, where the SS, under Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, shot about 770 men,
women, and children.
The wholesale deaths
even provoked Mussolini to beg the SS to back off. On November 13 Alexander
issued a belated communiqué encouraging the partisans to disarm for the winter,
as the campaign was effectively coming to a halt. Alexander’s advice was
largely ignored: the partisans viewed it a political move executed out of
disdain for communism. The Germans viewed it as a sign of weakness, and it
deterred any thoughts of immediate surrender. Thus the activity of the
partisans continued, but less vigorously, as air support in the way of supplies
had already begun to dwindle. And another significant factor was at work.
Before he left Moscow, Togliatti, the newly arrived Communist leader, had made
an appeal to the Italian resistance movement to take up arms against the
Fascists. Yet when he arrived in Italy in March 1944, Togliatti had submerged
the militant aspects of his PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in the cause of
unity and democracy, and had the Garibaldi (Communist) brigades disarmed.
Moorehead points out that the Northern partisans were effectively stunned and
weakened by Togliatti’s strategic move to make the Communists appear less
harmful as the country prepared for postwar government.
In addition, roles
changed. Not just the arrival of General Leese, and his disruption of careful
deception plans. General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, took the view
that Italy was ‘an expensive sideshow’ (Brian Holden Reid). In December,
Alexander had to tried to breathe fresh life into the plan to assault the
Ljubljana Gap, but after the Yalta
Conference of February 1945, Alexander, now Supreme Commander in the
Mediterranean, was instructed simply to ensure that the maximum number of
German divisions were held down, thus allowing the progress by Allied troops in
France and Germany to be maintained. Bologna was not taken until April 1945, after
which the reprisals against fascists began. Perhaps three thousand were killed there
by the partisans.
The massacres of
September and October 1944 have not been forgotten, but their circumstances
have tended to be overlooked in the histories. It is difficult to find a sharp
and incisive analysis of British strategy and communications at this time. Norman
Davies writes about the parallel activities in Poland and Italy in the summer
of 1944 in No Simple Victory, but I would suggest that he does not do
justice to the situation. He blames General Alexander for ‘opening the
floodgates for a second wave of German revenge’ when he publicly announced that
there would be no winter offensive in 1944-45, but it was highly unlikely that
that ‘unoriginal thinker’ (Oxford Companion to Word War II) would have
been allowed to come up with such a message without guidance and approval.
Davies points to ‘differences of opinion between British and American
strategists’, which allowed German commanders to be given a free hand to take
ruthless action against the partisans’. So why were the differences not
resolved by Eisenhower? Moreover, while oppression against the partisans did
intensify, the worst reprisals against civilians that Davies refers to were
over by then.
Had Alexander severely
misled the partisans in his encouragement that their ‘hour of rising’ had come
at last? What was intended by his open bloodthirsty call to kill Nazis in the
back? Did the partisans really pursue such aggressive attacks because of
Alexander’s provocative words, or, did they engage in them in full knowledge of
the carnage it would cause, trying to prove, perhaps, that a fierce and
autocratic form of government was the only method of eliminating fascism? Were
the local SOE officers responsible for encouraging attacks on German troops in
order to secure weapons and food? Why could Togliatti not maintain any control
over the communists? And what was Alexander’s intention in calling the forces
to hold up for the winter, knowing that the Germans would pick up that message?
Whatever the reality, it was not a very honourable episode in the British war
effort. Too many organisations arguing amongst themselves, no doubt. Churchill
had many things on his mind, but it was another example of where he wavered on
strategy, then became too involved in details, or followed his buccaneering
instincts, and afterwards turned sentimental at inappropriate times. Yet
Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, and clearly had problems in enforcing a
disciplined approach to strategy.
At least the horrendous reprisals
ceased. Maybe, as in Warsaw, the SS realised that the war was going to be lost,
and that war crimes tribunals would investigate the legality of the massacre of
innocent civilians. Yet a few grisly murders continued. Internecine feuds
continued among the partisans during the winter of 1944-45, with fears of
collaborators and spies in the midst, and frequently individuals who opposed
communism were persecuted and killed. It is beyond the scope of this article to
describe the events of this winter in the north (see Moorehead for more
details), but a few statements need to be made. The number of partisans did
decline sharply to begin with, but then ascended in the spring. More supplies
were dropped by SOE, but the latter’s anti-communist message intensified, and
the organisation tried to direct weaponry to non-communist units. Savage
reprisals by the fascists did take place, but not on the scale of the September
massacres. In the end, the communists managed to emerge from World War II with
a large amount of prestige, because they ensured that they were present to
liberate finally the cities of Turin, Milan, and Bologna in concert with the
Allied forces that eventually broke through, even though they were merciless
with fascists who had remained loyal to Mussolini and the Nazis. As with Spain,
the memories of civil war and different allegiances stayed and festered for a long
And the communists
actually survived and thrived, as Howard’s encounter forty years later proved – a dramatic difference from the possibility of
independent democratic organisations in Warsaw enduring after the war, for
example. Moreover, they obviously held a grudge. Yet history continues to be
distorted. Views contrary to the betrayal of such ‘liberating’ communists have
been expressed. In his book The Pursuit of Italy David Gilmour writes: “At the
entrance of the town hall of Bologna photographs are still displayed of
partisans liberating the city without giving a hint that Allied forces had
helped them to do so.” He goes on to point out that, after the massacre of the
Ardeatine Caves, many Italians were of the opinion that those responsible (Communists)
should have given them up for execution instead. Others claim that the murders
of the German soldiers were not actually communists: Moorhead claims they were
mainly ‘students’. It all gets very murky. I leave the epitaph to Nicola
fact is that brutalization was a much part of the Italian wars as of any other,
even if it was these same wars which made possible the birth of the first true
democracy the country had known.”
Reassessment of Howard’s
Professor Howard seemed
to be drawing an equivalence between, on the one hand, the desire for the Red
Army to have the Nazis perform their dirty work for them by eliminating a
nominal ally but a social enemy (the Home Army), and thus disengage from an attack
on Warsaw, and, on the other, a strained Allied Army, with its resources
strategically depleted, reneging on commitments to provide material support to
a scattered force of anti-fascist sympathisers, some of whom it regarded as
dangerous for the long-term health of the invading country, as well as that of the
nation it was attempting to liberate. This is highly unbalanced, as the Home
Army had few choices, whereas the Italian partisans had time and territory on
their side. They did not have to engage in bloody attacks that would provoke
reprisals of innocents. The Allies in Italy were trying to liberate a country
that had waged warfare against them: the Soviet Army refused to assist
insurgents who were supposedly fighting the same enemy. The British, certainly,
were determined to weaken the Communists: why was Howard surprised by this? And,
if he had a case to make, he could have criticised the British Army and its
propagandists back in London for obvious lapses in communications rather than switching
his attention to expressing sympathy for the communists outside Warsaw. Was he
loath to analyse what Alexander had done simply because he had served under
It is informative to
parse carefully the phrases Howard uses in his outburst. I present the text
again here, for ease of reference:
“In September 1944,
believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had
issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German
communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on
and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The
Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North
Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna,
where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had
been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist
movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and
then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts
that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we
could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered
about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have
done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast
supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must
have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been
sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”
‘In September 1944, believing
that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command . . ’
Did the incitement
actually happen in September, as opposed to June? What was the source, and who
actually issued the order? What did that ‘in sight’ mean? It is a woolly,
evasive term. Who actually believed that the war would end shortly? Were these
orders issued over public radio (for the Germans to hear), or privately, to SOE
and OSS representatives?
‘ . . had issued orders
to unmask themselves’.
What does that mean?
Take off their camouflage and engage in open warfare? The Allied High Command
could in fact not ‘order’ the partisans to do anything, but why would an
‘order’ be issued to do that? I can find no evidence for it in the transcripts.
‘ . . .and attack German
An incitement to
sabotage was fine, and consistent, but the communication specifically did not
encourage murder of fascist forces, whether Italian or German. Alexander admittedly
did so in June, but Howard does not cite those broadcasts.
‘The Germans reacted
with predictable savagery.’
The Germans engaged in
savage reprisals primarily in August, before the supposed order that
Howard quotes. The reprisals took place because of partisan murders of soldiers,
and in response to Operation ‘Olive’, not simply because of attacks on
communications, as Howard suggests here. Moreover, the massacre at Marzabotto
occurred at the end of September, when Kesselring had mollified his
instructions, after Mussolini’s intervention.
‘Allied armies did not
come to their help’.
But was anything more
than parachuting in supplies expected? Over an area of more than 30,000 square
miles, behind enemy lines? Bologna only? Where is the evidence – beyond the
June message quoted by Origo? What did the SOE officers say? (I have not yet
read Joe Maioli’s Mission Accomplished: SOE in Italy 1943-45, although
its title suggests success, not failure.)
‘The partisan movement
in northern Italy was largely destroyed’.
This was not true, as
numerous memoirs and histories indicate. Admittedly, activity sharply decreased
after September, because of the Nazi attacks, and the reduction in supplies. It
thus suffered in the short term, but the movement became highly active again in
the spring of 1945. On what did Howard base his conclusion? And why did he not
mention that it was the Communist Togliatti who had been as much responsible
for any weakening in the autumn of 1944? Or that Italian neo-fascists had been
determinedly hunting down partisans all year?
‘It was still believed . . .’
Why the passive voice? Who? When? Why? Of course the communists in Bologna would say that.
‘ . . .deliberately
planned to weaken the communist movement’.
Richard Lamb wrote that
Field Marshal Harding, Alexander’s Chief of Staff, had told him that the
controversial Proclama Alexander, interpreted by some Italian historians
as an anti-communist move, had been designed to protect the partisans. But that
proclamation was made in November, and it encouraged partisans to
suspend hostilities. In any case, weakening the communist movement was not a dishonourable
goal, considering what was happening elsewhere in Europe.
‘. . . much as the Soviets
had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans
Did the Bologna
communists really make this analogy, condemning the actions of communists in
Poland as if they were akin to the actions of the Allies? Expressing sympathy
for the class enemies of the Polish Home Army would have been heresy. Why could
Howard not refute it at the time, or point out the contradictions in this
‘ . . .was there really nothing that we could have done to help?’
Aren’t you the one supposed to be answering the questions, Professor, not asking them?
‘. . . huge cumbrous
armies with their vast supply-lines’
Why had Howard forgotten
about the depletion of resources in Italy, the decision to hold ground, and
what he wrote about in Strategic Deception? Did he really think that
Alexander would have been able to ignore Eisenhower’s directives? And why
’cumbrous’ – unwieldy? inflexible?
‘Someone must have known
what was going on’.
Indeed. And shouldn’t it have been Howard’s
responsibility to find out?
‘Ever since then I have
been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies’
Where? In print? In
conversations? What has one got to do with the other? Why should an implicit
criticism of the Allied Command be converted into sympathy for Stalin?
The irony is that the
Allied Command, perhaps guided by the Political Warfare Executive, did
probably woefully mismanage expectations, and encourage attacks on German
troops that resulted in the murder of innocent civilians. But Howard does not
make this case. Those events happened primarily in the June through August
period, while Howard bases his argument on a September proclamation. He was
very quick to accept the Bologna communists’ claim that the alleged
‘destruction’ of the partisans was all the Allies’ fault, when the partisans
themselves, northern Italian fascists, the SS troops, Togliatti, and even the
Pope, held some responsibility. If Howard had other evidence, he should have
Why was Howard not aware
of the Monte Sole massacre at the time? Why did he not perform research before
walking into the meeting in Bologna? What did the communists there tell him
that convinced him that they had been hard done by? Did they blame the British
for the SS reprisals? Why was he taken in by the relentless propagandizing of
the Communists? Why did he not explain what he thought the parallels were
between Alexander’s actions and those of Rokossovsky? The episode offered an
intriguing opportunity to investigate Allied strategy in Italy and Poland in
the approach to D-Day and afterwards, but Howard fumbled it, and an enormous
amount is thus missing from his casual observations. He could have illustrated
how the attempts by the Western Allies to protect the incursions into Europe
had unintended consequences, and shown the result of the competition between
western intelligence and Togliatti for the allegiance of the Italian partisans.
Instead the illustrious historian never did his homework. He obfuscated rather
than illuminated, indulging in vague speculation, shaky chronology, ineffectual
hand-wringing, and unsupported conclusions.
Perhaps a pertinent
epitaph is what Howard himself wrote, in his volume of Strategic Deception,
about the campaign in India (p 221): “The real problem which
confronted the British deception staff in India, however, was that created by
its own side; the continuing uncertainty as to what Allied strategic intentions
really were. In default of any actual plans the best that the deceivers could
do as one of them ruefully put it, was to ensure that the enemy remained as
confused as they were themselves.” He had an excellent opportunity to inspect
the Italian campaign as a case study for the same phenomenon, but for some
reason avoided it.
This has been a fascinating
and educational, though ultimately sterile, exercise for me. It certainly did not
help me understand why Howard is held in such regard as a historian. ‘Why are
eminent figures allowed to get away with such feeble analysis?’, I asked
myself. Is it because they are distinguished, and an aura of authority has
descended upon them? Or am I completely out to lunch? No doubt I should read
more of Howard’s works. But ars longa, vita brevis . . .
in Italy 1943-1945, A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb
at War1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth
Second World War by Antony Beevor
in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo
Professor by Michael Howard
House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead
World War II Partisan
Warfare in Italy by Pier Paola Battistelli & Piero Crociani
The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour
Between Giants by Prit Buttar
Winston Churchill: Road
to Victory 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert
Rising ’47 by Norman Davies
No Simple Victory by Norman Davies
The Oxford Companion to
World War II edited by Ian Dear and M. R. E. Foot
The Oxford Illustrated
History of World War II edited by Paul Overy
British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, Strategic Deception by Michael Howard
[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.]
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
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
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
RG-P: So what does Military Intelligence think?
SM: As you probably know, Davidson took over in December, so he’s
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
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,
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
“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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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
Tensions between MI5 & RSS, Part
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
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
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.
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
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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
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
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.
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.)
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
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.
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:
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?
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’.)
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.
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).
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
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.
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.
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
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.
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’.
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
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
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
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
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.)
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.
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
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
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.
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.
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.’”
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.