Category Archives: Personal

Special Bulletin: A Letter to Frank Close

Professor Frank Close

Almost two years ago, I contacted the particle physicist Professor Frank Close by email. I had just read his biography of the Soviet atom spy, Bruno Pontecorvo, titled ‘Half Life’, and had some questions about Rudolf Peierls. Peierls had been the mentor of the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, and, in ‘Misdefending the Realm’, I had suggested that Peierls, while not a spy himself, had probably abetted Fuchs in his endeavours, and that the conventionally described career of his wife, Genia, whom he had married in the Soviet Union, was highly questionable. Close had worked under Peierls, and I believed he might have some insights.

What followed was a very thorough, productive, and detailed exchange, lasting several months. Close and I shared a similar doggedness in working through the archives, and were similarly puzzled by the conflicting stories thrown up by the records, and by the memoirs of the participants. Close was researching a book on Fuchs: he was not familiar with my book (which devotes two chapters to Fuchs), so I introduced it to him. I think we both learned from each other, although we had different methods for interpreting the evidence.

Our communications suddenly stopped – outwardly because of Close’s deadlines, but in fact, as I learn now, for reasons that I am not at liberty to divulge. Thus I looked forward to the arrival of his book on Fuchs, ‘Trinity’, with great expectations. When it came out this summer, I sent a message to Close, congratulating him on the event of publication, but he did not respond. I started reading the book with enthusiasm, but, as I progressed, I began to experience disappointment, as the letter below explains. I felt that Close had stepped away from engaging with some of the remaining problematic aspects of Fuchs’s espionage, aspects that I and others (e.g. Mike Rossiter) had explored.

I thus compiled the following message for Close. He responded quickly, and we have since commented creatively on many of the points that I brought up. He is, however, very busy because of the success of his book (lucky man!), and said he could not respond fully for a month or more. I thus let him know about my intention to publish my message on Coldspur, and invited him to offer a placeholder response if he wanted to. I am not sure what the best forum for pursuing these ideas is: Coldspur is all I know. (Any other medium simply takes too long, and has too many hurdles.) At some stage I want to publicise Close’s responses to my questions, and summarise our dialogue, but I shall not post verbatim his messages to me without his permission.

For some reason, Close appears to want to discourage any further discussion on Peierls. I believe the message he wants to leave is what he wrote to me: ‘You perceive some deep mystery or conspiracy and will not take yes for an answer. That is your affair not mine.’ While I hold a very high regard for Close’s dedication and skills, and believe we continue to enjoy a very cordial relationship, I find that an odd response for any historian/biographer who presumably should retain a natural curiosity about his area of interest. In this business, no issue is completely settled. Moreover, I do not see my mission as having to convince Close of anything. I plan to return to the Mysterious Affair at Peierls in a future edition of Coldspur. Meanwhile, here is the unexpurgated text of my message.

(We patiently await the arrival of Dorian. We are sitting it out, hoping that it will not leave us without power as long as Florence did last year.)

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Dear Frank,

I have just read your epic ‘Trinity’. It is an astonishing work, showing very patient and broad research into archival material, well-written, and unique because of the expert knowledge of atomic science that you bring to the table. I congratulate you on it.

I was obviously delighted about the credit that you gave to our electronic discussions, for including ‘Misdefending the Realm’ in your Bibliography, and for the three (as far as I could see) references to my book in your Endnotes. Thank you very much.

In the spirit of historical curiosity, however, I have to add that I was disappointed in some of your interpretations, and alarmed by some of your conclusions. I should have liked to see perhaps less detail on (say) the overheard conversations of Fuchs, the Skinners and the Peierls, and more analysis of what it all meant. It led me to ponder on how you would describe your methodology.  I recall that you wrote to me once that, as a physicist accustomed to the scientific method, you were very reliant on documentary evidence, and reluctant to hypothesize. (“Being trained as a research physicist and not a historian has mixed blessings. It makes me focus obsessively on facts and only give a judgment when the conclusion is beyond doubt. In physics I can do that; in history I prefer to assemble everything I can find first hand and then leave it to the reader to decide what to do with it.” : November 6, 2017)

Have you changed your opinion since then about what your role as scientist/biographer should be? What is your methodology for determining which ‘facts’ are reliable, and which are not? How do you deal with uncertainties? Are the books listed in your Bibliography to be considered utterly dependable? Do you believe that all other biographers of Fuchs would agree with you on the dependability of the documentary evidence? In any case, I do not think you should be surprised if one of your readers takes up the gauntlet of ‘deciding what to do with it’, or if, having presented conclusions yourself that you consider ‘beyond doubt’, you might be challenged by readers who do not share your degree of confidence. The contradictions and paradoxes of evidence in this sphere do not go away simply by being ignored.

I would aver that the archives of the world of ‘intelligence’ are inevitably deceptive, and sometimes deceitful, that ‘facts’ are frequently highly dubious, and that historians have to develop theories of what actually happened from incomplete or conflicting information. If one abandons interpretation to the reader, one ends up being just a chronicler – and maybe a selective one at that – and allowing all manner of theories to flourish. Moreover, in ‘Misdefending the Realm,’ I presented evidence on several subjects that I think is critical to understanding the Fuchs case (e.g. on Rudolf and Genia Peierls, on Radomysler, on Moorehead) that you appear to have overlooked or forgotten. I wonder why that is? My conclusion would be that the ‘definitive’ story about Fuchs (and his mentor Peierls, who is so vital to the analysis), still remains to be written.

So what should be the forum for developing these discussions? I noticed that, on page 458, you write: “Although somewhat peripheral to our primary purpose. I record this in the hope that subsequent investigations might shed light on this episode [Jane Sissmore/Archer’s return to MI5], and Jane Sissmore’s career in general”, indicating a curiosity to extend the research process. I clearly share your interest in Jane, as well as your desire for the exchange of ideas. But I have been frustrated in my attempts to find a mechanism for such explorations to be shared (see my account at ‘Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist’ at http://www.coldspur.com/confessions-of-a-conspiracy-theorist/ ), and I do not believe that the Royal Historical Society will come to our rescue. I have thus continued to try to bring www.coldspur.com to a broader audience, and am gratified to receive comments on the subjects I raise from readers (professional and amateur historians, intelligence officers, journalists, enthusiasts) around the world.

In that spirit of continuous discovery, I therefore present a number of topics which I believe are still controversial, and do not appears to have been settled by your study. There is no particular order to these, but I do analyse what I consider the most important first.

  1. The Overall Judgment on Fuchs: I am clearly not competent to express opinions on the matters of Fuchs’s technical expertise. I admit, however, that I was a little puzzled over the paradox that ‘the Most Dangerous Spy in History’, who knew more about the conception and construction of the atom bomb ‘than anyone in the UK’ was really only outstanding in solving mathematical equations. And how did his contribution rank alongside that of Melita Norwood, whom recent evidence indicates was very highly regarded by the KGB? I notice there is no mention of Norwood in your book. I was confused as to how you wanted to define his legacy.

You rightly highlight his ‘treachery’ in the subtitle of ‘Trinity’, but then, on page  418, you refer to the testimony of Lorna Arnold (who, you state, inspired you to perform your research into Fuchs) as follows: “She insisted that he [Fuchs] had not been understood, and that he was an honourable man who stuck by his principles; people might disagree violently with those principles, but there are many who shared them, and to decree what is ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ is a profound question of moral philosophy where the line of neutrality itself moves with the era. For Lorna, Fuchs was man who had yet to receive a fair trial. I hope to have contributed to that.” Were you aware that Lorna Arnold, who was not a physicist, contributed greatly to Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, which relied for much of the coverage of Fuchs on Alan Moorehead’s mendacious work of public relations commissioned by MI5, The Traitors, instead of inspecting source materials? See ‘Officially Unreliable’ at http://www.coldspur.com/officially-unreliable/ . Do Arnold’s close association with Peierls and his political aims, and her controversial statements about loyalty and morality, perhaps make her not an entirely objective muse?

While a case could be made that Fuchs’s legal trial was fixed, and the procedures sadly broken, the fact that you seem to want to present evidence in his defence rather counters the notion of the ‘treachery’ of ‘this most dangerous spy in History’ that your title embraces. A further clue might be what you record, without commentary, on page 321: “The answer [to Peierls], which the detective overheard, was that he felt ‘knowledge of atomic research should not be the private property of any one country, but, instead, shared with the world for the benefit of mankind.’” I am not sure what ‘principles’ drive that admission. Fuchs did not share his knowledge of atomic research with the world: he gave it to the Soviet Union, whose mission was to destroy the western liberal world in what it saw as the inevitable clash between capitalism and communism (as Lenin and his adherents erroneously characterized the conflict.) Fuchs, who betrayed his adopted country, and broke the Official Secrets Act, an honourable man? I do not think so.

2. The Timing of Fuchs’s Espionage:  I was a little surprised to read, in Jay Elwes’s review of ‘Trinity’ in The Spectator, that ‘Close suggests that he [Fuchs] offered his services to Moscow even while it was still aligned with Nazi Germany’, as my reaction was that you remained equivocal on this point. Moreover, that was a claim that I had first made in ‘Misdefending the Realm’, one which you rejected in our correspondence (“You write as if it’s established that Fuchs was active during the Soviet-Nazi pact, which is tantalisingly possible as I mentioned in my first email but I have not been able to establish that”: November 11, 2017). I cannot find anything stronger in your text than: “This is, however, an example of Fuchs crafty setting of false trails, as he was in fact spying by the summer of 1941, and possibly even earlier. The date is of more than scholastic concern, for if he began to spy soon after he joined Peierls that would have been in the period when the Soviet Union still had a non-aggression pact with Germany, and was by implication an enemy of the United Kingdom.” (page 63) On page 287, however, you do offer a Note: “It seems that Fuchs was deliberately hiding his 1941 espionage, probably because his initial contacts were made dangerously near to the time when the USSR was allied to Germany – up until June 1941.” I am not sure what ‘dangerously near’ implies, because the issue is surely binary: he either passed on information before Barbarossa on June 22, 1941, or he did not. The fact that Fuchs continually lied about the dates, changing his testimony from ‘1942’ to ‘late 1941’, when the VENONA transcripts prove he was already active by August, and had met with Jürgen Kuczynski (whom he had known earlier) soon after he was recruited by Peierls in April, suggested to me that he passed on to fellow-Communists all he knew about his assignment as soon as possible. As we both agree, it was in the interests of everybody (British, Soviets, Fuchs) to pretend that the betrayal did not happen while the Soviet Union was sharing its pact with Germany. Since there is no ‘proof’, and no unquestionable ‘fact’ for you to rely on, I imagine you would abstain from any judgment, which rather undermines Elwes’s observation. Have you protested it?

3. The Role of Rudolf Peierls: I believe that Peierls, as Fuchs’s mentor and recruiter, is very central to the story. I was thus astonished at the almost hagiographical treatment that you gave him. You make him out to be a victim of the ‘communist witch-hunt’ until 1954 (page 399), and then skate over the Deacon lawsuit, which we discussed at length a couple of years ago. Yet, as ‘Misdefending the Realm’ explains, there is so much more to the Peierls story. I wrote to you then: “I believe there are simply too many incriminating actions or words to conclude that Peierls was innocent of abetting the Soviets. Like most agents of influence, he was very careful not to leave any obvious trails behind (such as purloined documents, or meetings with intermediaries), but a whole list of incidents and anecdotes indicate his guilt.

1) Pressure on him and Genia from OGPU. There was no way a Soviet citizen would be allowed to leave the country, especially marrying a foreigner, without his/her committing to espionage. This was not really blackmail, but threatening the safety of family members unless the person obeyed instructions.

2) Relationship with Gamow. I take it you have read my piece on Wilfred Mann, and Genia’s relationship with him, and Gamow’s deviousness [at  http://www.coldspur.com/mann-overboard/ ].

3) Peierls’ lies over his return visit to the Soviet Union.

4) Peierls’ deceptive correspondence with Born.

5) Peierls’ pretence that the idea of Fuchs working for him came only when Fuchs had returned from internment, when he had worked with Born to get him released.

6) Genia’s response when Fuchs was arrested.

7) Peierls’ relationship with Kapitsa and the chair at Cambridge.

8) Peierls’ exaggerated response to Deacon (but I may be wrong on this).”

These were just the primary examples. I wonder, have you read Nigel West’s ‘Mortal Crimes’, which develops this theme? I notice it is not in your Bibliography. You also did not refer to the intriguing MI5 file on the service’s suspicions of espionage surrounding Fuchs and Peierls, which was suddenly withdrawn. You informed me that you looked into the Deacon lawsuit in some detail, but omit any analysis in the book: you do not mention Alexander Foote, and what Deacon claimed Foote told him.  I shall say no more about this now, but I think the whole question of Peierls’ possible knowledge of what Fuchs was up to deserves some very detailed analysis.

4. The Role of Genia Peierls: Genia is even more controversial, I believe. I recall that you were sceptical about my claims that the OGPU would have applied pressure to any Soviet citizen allowed to marry a foreigner and escape to the West. That is nevertheless the undeniable fact about how they operated. Yet your account oddly chooses to finesse the whole question of Genia’s marriage, and her background in the Soviet Union. On page 318, when describing Genia’s reaction to Fuchs’s arrest, you write, again without comment: “In Russia, members of Genia’s family had been incarcerated on the whims of the authorities (see chapter 1). News of Fuchs’ arrest renewed nightmares, which now made her afraid that the same might be possible in Britain.” And later you cite the extraordinary statement of Freeman Dyson (page 415) – perhaps not an objective observer:  “For Genia with her long experience of living in fear of the Soviet police, the key to survival was to have friends that one could trust, and the unforgivable sin was betrayal of that trust”.

But Genia did not have a long experience of ‘living in fear of the Soviet police’! She married Rudolf at the age of 22, having lived a protected life as a physicist assistant to the Nobelist Lev Landau, and occasionally frolicking on the knee of George Gamow, another scientist who made a miraculous escape from Soviet Russia. It is true that she may have been put in a very invidious position, with threats concerning her extended family made if she did not meet OGPU’s demands, but misrepresenting her experience, and not giving ‘credit’ to the known and widely repeated practices of Stalin’s intelligence organs, does not perform justice to her story. And her supposed suggestion that Britain’s authorities were about to engage upon ‘whimsical incarcerations’ in the manner of the KGB is simply ridiculous. Was it not the civility of life in the UK that eventually impressed Fuchs? What could Genia have intended with those absurd comments?

And then there is her highly suspicious reaction to the news of Fuchs’s arrest on charges of espionage. If an innocent person, unaware of a friend’s possible treachery, had heard of such an event, my belief would be that that person might exclaim: “How can that be true?” Yet Genia’s first response, as you report on page 318, was: “Good God in Heaven. Who could have done this?”, as if her stupefaction was over who could possibly have shopped Fuchs, not whether he was guilty or not. Her comments to her husband afterwards (that a similar fate might overcome him), and their careful conversations in Russian, suggest an awkwardness that indicates another explanation. In this light, Fuchs’s regretful musings in prison over the betrayal of their friendship could take on another whole meaning. The FBI file on Genia Peierls shows a committed communist: I believe this is another dimension to the story that needs to be studied in more detail.

5. Fuchs’s Confessions to Communism: In a Note on p 41, you write: “The myth that Fuchs announced his communism at the Aliens’ Tribunal in 1941 appears to have been a creation of the writer Rebecca West in 1950 with no basis in fact. Contrary to a widely held misconception, there is no evidence that Fuchs ever admitted to membership or support of the Communist Party, at least in any publicly available document.” I believe this statement is contestable, but, on the other hand, it may not perhaps matter much. For example, as you write on page 284: “Picking up from his tête-à-tête with Arnold, Fuchs talked [to Skardon] about his work for the Communist underground in Germany, and his fight against the Nazis . . .” In addition, the FBI report on the Second Confession (issued October 10, 2014 by the Los Alamos Laboratory) cites that ‘Fuchs stated that he joined the Communist Party of Germany while he was attending the University of Kiel.’ Furthermore, “Fuchs said that he was  considered to be a member of this section of the German Communist Party, and  probably had filled out a biography concerning himself and furnished it to  officials of the German Communist Party sometime after his arrival in England,  because of the fear of the Party that they might be infiltrated by Nazis. Fuchs also said that he was aware that Jürgen Kuczynski was regarded as the head of the underground section of the German Communist Party during this period. Thus there is no doubt that he did not deny his communist beliefs.” Maybe Fuchs made no admission before his arrest, but that is not what you claimed.

What is perhaps more surprising, and worthy of inspection, is why, given his understanding of the value of proper espionage tradecraft (which his contact Harry Gold was not aware of), Fuchs did not conceal his associations with communists and ‘anti-fascist’ activity during his time in Bristol and Birmingham, as this should surely have drawn the attention of the authorities. Max Born and others were clearly aware of it.  But that question leads into the whole discussion of how woolly MI5 was at the time over communist subversion, and the belief it held that dangerous activity would originate only from persons who were actually members of the Communist Party. Fuchs’s leftist persuasions never got in the way of his recruitment to Tube Alloys, and official policy even drifted into that netherworld where he was regarded as a loyal servant because he was a communist.

6. The FBI and McCarthyism: I was disappointed that you fell into the habit of inseparably linking ‘McCarthyist’ with ‘witch-hunts’ in your text, a tired trope of the left. However one may regret the extent that Senator McCarthy pushed his agenda, and disapprove of his personal habits, the fact is that it was the House of Representatives’ Committee on Unamerican Activities that took up the cause, a cause that the State Department tried to stymie. Moreover, while there never was such an entity as ‘witches’, there was a group of communist infiltrators in US government who were loyal to Joseph Stalin. That the hunt was justified is hardly deniable now, especially since the VENONA transcripts have identified many of the traitors for us. (For more analysis, please see http://www.coldspur.com/soviet-espionage-transatlantic-connections/ )

I was also shocked at the parallels that you implied between the FBI and the NKVD/OGPU/KGB. On page 212 you write: “The Cold War provided a perfect backdrop, even while Hoover’s spying on American citizens was often indistinguishable from the totalitarian regimes he despised.” Really? The Soviet Secret Police exercised a terror on citizens, with powers of immediate arrest without cause, followed by secret shooting, or staged trials followed by ‘judicial’ execution or despatch to the Gulag. Stalin had millions of his own citizens murdered – and was ready to murder his own atomic scientists if the Soviet bomb project failed. How on earth were the actions of Hoover’s FBI ‘indistinguishable’ from those of the Soviet Secret Police? I find your comparison very unfortunate.

7. Herbert and Erna Skinner: This couple remains somewhat of a mystery to me. Is there more to be told about Herbert’s activities? He was ‘of the left’: did he have similar political beliefs as Blackett and Bernal, for example? I was in communication with a distinguished alumnus of Liverpool University last year who told me that the official historian of the University knew nothing about the shenanigans at Harwell: he (the alumnus) was in disbelief when I told him that Fuchs and Erna had been having an affair. And Herbert’s death in Geneva at the comparatively young age of 60 – has that ever been investigated? Rossiter also tells us that Skinner informed Fuchs that someone in MI6 had told him about the Soviet atomic research taking place in Odessa. How was it that Skinner was informed of this? Was this an official briefing – or a leak? Was he alone in receiving this information, and, if so, why? Do you have any opinions?

Another aspect that intrigues me is Fuchs’s revelations to the FBI about the Skinners. In the FBI report that I referenced earlier, this remark about Fuchs, concerning his stay in New York in 1947, appears: “He recalled 111th Street in view of the fact that he remembered that Mrs. H. W. B. Skinner was residing in an apartment on that street.” Later, when Fuchs describes meeting Dr. Cohen, he introduces a seemingly irrelevant detail about a lost hat. “Fuchs said that he left his hat in the restaurant and later requested Cohen pick up the hat and return it to the home of Mrs. [?] Skinner, West 111th Street, in New York City. Fuchs said that this incident did not have anything to do with his espionage activities.”  Erna Skinner was presumably in New York, staying with her father-in-law, since Herbert accompanied Klaus to Washington. (Rossiter states that it was here that Fuchs became more acquainted with Herbert and Erna.) Was the fact that Fuchs identified Erna Skinner as the contact not extraordinary? And, in any case, why would Fuchs gratuitously introduce their names to the FBI at a time when the organisation was strenuously looking for leads on further spies? Would anyone really trust what Fuchs said was connected to his spying activities? It is all very strange. Have you considered this anecdote?

8. Halperin’s Diary: In an endnote to page 376, you refer to my claims about the possible concealment of the evidence from Halperin’s diary, in which the appearance of Fuchs’s name led the FBI to him. Note 14: “MI5 records imply that they first learned of these documents only on 4 October 1949, TNA KV 2/1247, s. 230c. In his critique of MI5, Antony Percy, Misdefending the Realm . . . suggested on page 255 that early references to Halperin were removed from Fuchs’ file and ‘the record edited to make it appear that the FBI had only recently (October 1949] informed MI5 of the discoveries in Halperin’s diary,’ He offers no direct evidence to support this.”

The evidence I used was the letter from Geoffrey Patterson, the MI5 representative in Washington, to Arthur Martin of MI5. I wrote: “The British Embassy letter, dated October 4, 1949, is from a G. T. D. Patterson, addressed to A. S. Martin, Esq., and begins: “With reference to previous correspondence about FUCHS and HEINEMAN I have just received from the FBI some further information about their activities in this country. Much of it you already know, but some is new and I think you will agree of considerable interest.”[i] The next paragraph has been redacted: the letter then starts describing (repeating?) the evidence of Halperin’s address book when he was arrested in February 1946, and it later cites the captured German document compiled in 1941. Paragraph 18, which appears after Patterson’s suggestion that Fuchs and his father are “key GPU and NKVD agents” has also been redacted. The inference is clear: the majority of the information had been given to MI5 some time before. This evidence is conclusive that Archer, Robertson and Serpell were basing their claim on the revelations from Washington in 1946 – intelligence that White and Hollis did not want to accept as valid.”

In our correspondence, I also wrote the following: “In Amy Knight’s ‘How The Cold War Began’, she says that the RCMP told the FBI that they had made the Halperin evidence available to the British. She offers the following reference for the paragraph: NARA, S.3437. Fuchs Case, 882012-359-383. I performed a search on this, but came up with nothing.”

Now this may not meet the requirements of the strictest scientific investigation, but I continue to assert that Patterson’s reference to ‘previous correspondence’ which is not to be found on file is extremely provocative, and should not be dismissed lightly.’

9. MI5 Suspicions of Sonia/Sonya: On page 421, you refer to the fact that MI5 apparently overlooked Sonia as a candidate for espionage. “Sonya – interviewed by Skardon and Serpell in 1947, overlooked by everyone in 1950, and only identified after she had escaped to East Germany.” On page 57, you state that ‘this manoeuvre’ (her acquisition of a passport) was ‘noticed by MI5’. What is your explanation for the inactivity of the Security Service, given the circumstances?

As I believe I have fairly convincingly shown in my on-line articles titled ‘Sonia’s Radio’ (see http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio/ ), senior officers in both MI5 and MI6 were very aware of Sonia’s activity, facilitating her bigamous marriage in Switzerland, her application for a British passport, and her eventual return to the United Kingdom, where they probably kept an eye on her, hoping to surveille her wireless transmissions. Yet lower-level officers were not confided in, and eventually left hanging. Michael Serpell and Hugh Shillito were two officers who doggedly tracked such malfeasants as Sonia and her husband, the Soviet spy Oliver Green, and Fuchs himself. For example, on November 13, 1946, Serpell demanded that the Fuchs case be followed up, and he was the officer who interrogated Alexander Foote in July 1947, before the interview with Sonia. Shillito, in November 1942, had recommended that the Beurtons be prosecuted, and in 1943 he was responsible for the Green case, and wanted him prosecuted. Yet their efforts were quashed – even, I suspect, to the chagrin of David Petrie himself, to whom Serpell was close. I believe this was an internal tension that should not be overlooked.

In addition, I should mention that in two places (pages 57 and 382), you describe Sonia as ‘head of the GRU network’, or ‘GRU station chief”. That is not true. As you accurately state on page 92, she was the leading GRU ‘illegal’ in the country.

10. The Gouzenko Case: On page 376, you remark, in connection with the follow-up to Gouzenko’s disclosures, and Peter Dwyer’s declining to take the Halperin information from the FBI: “ . . . nor, if the FBI account is correct, does it explain why MI6 had failed to act. Whatever the reasons, MI5 was unaware of these aspects of Fuchs’ history.” Yet I believe that there lies another fascinating anomaly in this story. The Gouzenko affair took place on Canadian soil, which was the province of MI5, not MI6. Dwyer was the MI6 representative in Washington, but he took over the case on behalf on MI5 because Cyril Mills, the MI5 Security Liaison Officer for the Service (who had been GARBO’s handler before Tomàs Harris in WWII) was on his way back to the UK – temporarily, according to one account by Nigel West, permanently because of demobilization, as the same author wrote elsewhere. Yet, when Dwyer’s report was sent in to the Foreign Office, it was routed, on September 9, 1945, not to Liddell and Sillitoe in MI5, but to Menzies, the head of MI6, who gave it to Philby to look at. As his Diaries inform us, Liddell learned of the matter from Philby on September 11. Astonishingly, Liddell does not express any protest to Philby that the matter was not the latter’s responsibility, and most written accounts echo the account that Philby was able to manipulate the whole event by not having Jane Archer sent over to investigate, but the pliable Roger Hollis (who did of course work for MI5.) On whose authority was Dwyer acting, if he did indeed decline the FBI’s help, and why was MI5 so timid in this exchange? Why did MI5 have no representative of its own in Washington between August 1945 and February 1948 (when Thistlethwaite arrived)? It is all very puzzling.

11. ‘TAR’ Robertson’s Role: On page 173, when describing Fuchs’s unexpected and (by MI5) unknown return to the United Kingdom in October 1946, you state that Robertson was head of Soviet Counter-Espionage, at B4. I do not think that is true. Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is of no use on post-war organisation, but Nigel West, in his account of MI5, states that Robertson was so disgusted with the appointment of Sillitoe (official on May 1) that he immediately resigned. That is clearly not true, as the memoranda signed by Robertson prove. But he was surely not in charge of Soviet counter-espionage, in which he had no expertise. In his biography of Robertson, ‘Gentleman Spymaster’, Geffrey Elliott informs us that, when Dick White returned from Europe to take over B Division, Robertson was put in charge of ‘Production and Coordination of Aids to Investigation, etc.’. In October 1947, it seems that Sillitoe gave him the responsibility for tackling ‘Russian and Russian Satellite Espionage’. Robertson fell out with Sillitoe, however, and in 1948 was given a menial post, as B3, with some responsibility for liaising with Overseas Stations. Robertson retired on August 31, 1948.

12. Philby as Double-Agent: I have spent some considerable time trying to classify properly the notions of spies and double-agents (see ‘Double-Crossing the Soviets’ at http://www.coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/ ). I do not expect my terminology to gain widespread adoption (although no one has yet challenged me on it), but I do believe my claim that a person with inimical convictions who signs up for his or her national intelligence service with an intent to betray that service, and the national interest, to a foreign power is not a ‘double-agent’. He is a traitor. A double-agent is an enemy agent who has been arrested and ‘turned’ – either ideologically or through some kind of threat, or via a mechanism of controlling his or her communications apparatus. In several places, you refer to Philby as a ‘notorious double-agent’ (e.g. page 78), and on page 247 you even describe him as ‘the notorious double-traitor’. I do not know what that last term means, but I would continue to suggest that it is inaccurate to call Philby a ‘double-agent’.

13. Liddell’s Marriage and Career: I thought you might be interested to read what I have uncovered about Guy Liddell’s fortunes, inspectable at ‘Guy Liddell: A Reassessment’ (http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/) . Thus what you write about the departure of his wife, Calypso, and the subsequent lawsuit, should be updated.

14. Enemy Status: Maybe I share with you some confusion about how British politicians and lawmakers consider how Britain’s ‘enemies’ should be defined. In the quotation I used earlier, you wrote (page 63): “The date is of more than scholastic concern, for if he began to spy soon after he joined Peierls that would have been in the period when the Soviet Union still had a non-aggression pact with Germany, and was by implication an enemy of the United Kingdom.” And on a Note to page 338, you write: “Russia was at no stage an enemy of the United Kingdom during Fuchs’ Birmingham period but had become so by 1950. Fuchs’ espionage at Harwell, which was on the charge sheet, is consistent with Perrin’s description. [‘potential enemy’]”

Is this not critical to the legal case against Fuchs? If the Soviet Union was ’by implication’ an enemy of the United Kingdom by virtue of its non-aggression pact with Germany, would that have affected the treachery charge? As Fuchs was not yet a citizen, what did that mean? (MI5 had problems during the war because of the inability of current laws to address ‘treachery’ by foreign agents, not part of a military organisation, who had entered Britain illegally, and thus had no predefined loyalty to the country.) But was Russia (the Soviet Union) truly an ‘enemy’ in 1950? War had not been declared (apart from the Cold War, I suppose!), but what validity did ‘potential enemy’ on the charge sheet have? Was giving secrets to any foreign power – which was essentially what the McMahon Act defined – merely enough? 

15. US & UK Espionage: I was intrigued by what you wrote on page 315: “Fuchs was a ’very eminent scientist in his own right’, Souers pointed out, and might have information about the state of British atomic science.’” That suggests that the USA, having recently banned any sharing of atomic research with even its allies, was still interested in staying up-to-date with what its former partner was doing. The corollary of that, of course, is the claim, made by Mike Rossiter and others, that Fuchs was actually spying on the USA on Britain’s behalf. Rossiter writes in his book, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, that the documents concerning the latter had been suspiciously removed from the National Archives after he had previously successfully inspected them. If it had been true, I would be surprised that Fuchs did not bring that up with his defence lawyer. Is this something you looked at?

16. Photograph of Sonia: I noticed that the photograph you used came from your ‘personal collection’. May I ask where you acquired this? I scanned the same photograph from my copy of the English version of Sonia’s memoir, and posted it on my website, where it is searchable by Google. Indeed, the editors of two separate biographies of Richard Sorge approached me asking where I had found it, as they wanted to use it in their authors’ books. I have not checked them out yet, but the publisher of Sonia’s memoir came up a blank, and I recommended approaching Sonia’s son.

Thank you for reading this far. I hope you will agree that stepping into what Christopher Andrew calls the ‘Secret World’ involves a lot of murkiness, where matters are not black and white. Most months I write about various unresolved aspects of espionage, counter-espionage and intelligence on my website, and open myself up to questions, criticisms and challenges all the time. I welcome it, as it is an inevitable part of the task of trying to establish the truth. Thus I hope you will accept what I have written in the same spirit.

Very best wishes, Tony.


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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

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A Rootless Cosmopolitan

A few weeks ago, at the bridge table at St. James, I was chatting between rounds, and my opponent happened to say, in response to some light-heated comment I made: ‘Touché!’  Now that immediately made me think of the famous James Thurber cartoon from the New Yorker, and I was surprised to learn that my friend (who has now become my bridge partner at a game elsewhere) was not familiar with this iconic drawing. And then, a few days ago, while at the chiropractor’s premises, I happened to mention to one of the assistants that one of the leg-stretching pieces of equipment looked like something by Rube Goldberg. (For British readers, Goldberg is the American equivalent of W. Heath Robinson.) The assistant looked at me blankly: she had never heard of Goldberg.

James Thurber’s 1932 Cartoon

I recalled being introduced to Goldberg soon after I arrived in this country. But ‘Touché’ took me back much further. It set me thinking: how had I been introduced to this classic example of American culture? Thurber was overall a really poor draughtsman, but this particular creation, published in the New Yorker in 1932, is cleanly made, and its impossibly unrealistic cruelty did not shock the youngster who must have first encountered it in the late 1950s. A magazine would probably not get away with publishing it these days: it would be deprecated (perhaps like Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes) as a depiction of gratuitous violence, likely to cause offence to persons of a sensitive disposition, and also surely deemed to be ‘an insult to the entire worldwide fencing community’.

Was it my father who showed it to me? Freddie Percy was one of the most serious of persons, but he did have a partiality for subversive wit and humour, especially when it entered the realm of nonsense, so long as it did not involve long hair, illicit substances, or sexual innuendo. I recall he was fan of the Marx Brothers, and the songs of Tom Lehrer, though how I knew this is not certain, as we had no television in those days, and he never took us to see a Marx Brothers movie. Had he perhaps heard Tom Lehrer on the radio? He also enjoyed the antics of Victor Borge (rather hammy slapstick, as far as I can remember) as well as those of Jacques Tati, and our parents took my brother, sister and me to see the films of Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – from a Thurber story – and Hans Christian Andersen), both of which, I must confess, failed to bowl me over.

Freddie and Mollie Percy (ca. 2004)

What was it with these Jewish performers? The Marx Brothers, Lehrer, Borge (né Rosenbaum) and Kaye (né Kaminsky)? Was the shtick my father told us about the Dukes of Northumberland all a fraud, and was his father (who in the 1920s worked in the clothes trade, selling school uniforms that he commissioned from East London Jewish tailors) perhaps an émigré from Minsk whose original name was Persky? And what happened to my grandfather’s Freemason paraphernalia, which my father kept in a trunk in the attic for so long after his death? It is too late to ask him about any of this, sadly. These questions do not come up at the right time.

I may have learned about Thurber from my brother. He was a fan of Thurber’s books, also – volumes that I never explored deeply, for some reason. Yet the reminiscence set me thinking about the American cultural influences at play in Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they corresponded to local traditions.

Movies and television did not play a large part in my childhood: we did not have television installed until about 1965, so my teenage watching was limited to occasional visits to friends, where I might be exposed to Bonanza or Wagon Train, or even to the enigmatic Sergeant Bilko. I felt culturally and socially deprived, as my schoolmates would gleefully discuss Hancock’s Half Hour, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I had no idea what they were talking about. (It has taken a lifetime for me to recover from this feeling of cultural inferiority.) I did not attend cinemas very often during the 1950s, although I do recall the Norman Wisdom escapades, and the Doctor in the House series featuring Dirk Bogarde (the dislike of whom my father would not shrink from expressing) and James Robertson Justice. Apart from those mentioned above, I do not recall many American films, although later The Searchers made a big impression, anything with Audrey Hepburn in it was magical, and I rather unpredictably enjoyed the musicals from that era, such as Seven Brides for Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I.

It was perhaps fortunate that I did not at that stage inform my father that I had suddenly discovered my calling in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of the crowd, as the old meshugennah might have thrown me out of Haling Park Cottage on my ear before you could say ‘Jack Rubenstein’. In fact, the theatre had no durable hold on me, although the escapist musical attraction did lead me into an absorption with American popular music, which I always thought more polished and more stimulating than most of the British pap that was produced. (I exclude the Zombies, Lesley Duncan, Sandy Denny, and a few others from my wholesale dismissal.) Perhaps seeing Sonny and Cher perform I Got You Babe, or the Ronettes imploring me to Be My Baby, on Top of the Pops, led me to believe that there was a more exciting life beyond my dreary damp November suburban existence in Croydon, Surrey: California Dreaming reflected that thwarted ambition.

We left the UK in 1980, and, despite my frequent returns while I was working, and during my retirement, primarily for research purposes, my picture of Britain is frozen in a time warp of that period. Derek Underwood is wheeling away from the Pavilion End, a round of beers can be bought for a pound, the Two Ronnies are on TV, the Rolling Stones are just about to start a world tour, and George Formby is performing down the road at the Brixton Essoldo. [Is this correct? Ed.] I try to stay current with what is going on in the UK through my subscriptions to Punch (though, as I think about it, I haven’t received an issue for quite a while), Private Eye (continuous since 1965), the Spectator (since 1982), and Prospect (a few years old), but, as each year goes by, a little more is lost on me.

We are just about to enter our fortieth year living in the USA. As I wrote, we ‘uprooted’ in 1980, although at the time we considered that the relocation would be for just a few years, to gain some work experience, and see the country, before we returned to the UK. My wife, Sylvia, and I now joke that, once we have settled in, we shall explore the country properly. We retired to Southport, North Carolina, in 2001, and have thus lived here longer than in any other residence. Yet we have not even visited famous Charleston, a few hours down the road in South Carolina, let alone the Tennessee border, which is about seven hours’ drive away. (The area of North Carolina is just a tad smaller than that of England.) We (and our daughter) are not fond of long journeys in the car, which seems to us a colossal waste of time overall, and I have to admit there is a sameness about many American destinations. And this part of the world is very flat – like Norfolk without the windmills. You do not drive for the scenery.

Do I belong here? Many years ago we took up US citizenship. (I thus have two passports, retaining my UK affiliation, but had to declare primary loyalty to the USA.) My accent is a giveaway. Whereas my friends, when I return to the UK, ask me why I have acquired that mid-Atlantic twang, nearly everyone I meet over here comments that ‘they like my accent’ – even though some have been known to ask whether it is Australian or South African. (Hallo! Do I sound like Crocodile Dundee?) Sometimes their curiosity is phrased in the quintessential American phrase: ‘Where are you from?’, which most Americans can quickly respond to with the name of the city where they grew up. They may have moved around the country – or even worked abroad – but their family hometown is where they are ‘from’.

So what do I answer? ‘The UK’ simplifies things, but is a bit dull. To jolly up the proceedings, I sometimes say: ‘Well, we are all out of Africa, aren’t we?’, but that may unfortunately not go down well with everyone, especially in this neck of the woods. Facetiousness mixed with literal truth may be a bit heady for some people. So I may get a bit of a laugh if I respond ‘Brooklyn’, or even ‘Connecticut’, which is the state we moved to in 1980, and the state we retired from in 2001 (and whither we have not been back since.)

What they really want to know is where my roots lie. Now, I believe that if one is going to acknowledge ‘roots’, they had better be a bit romantic. My old schoolfriend Nigel Platts is wont to declare that he has his roots in Cumbria (wild borderlands, like the tribal lands of Pakistan, Lakeland poets: A-), while another old friend, Chris Jenkins, claims his are in Devon (seafarers, pirates, boggy moors: B+). My wife can outdo them both, since she was born in St. Vincent (tropical island, volcano, banana plantations: A+). But what do I say? I grew up in Purley, Coulsdon, and South Croydon, in Surrey: (C-). No one has roots in Purley, except for the wife of the Terry Jones character in the famous Monty Python ‘Nudge Nudge’ sketch. So I normally leave it as ‘Surrey’, as if I had grown up in the remote and largely unexplored Chipstead Valley, or in the shadow of Box Hill, stalking the Surrey Puma, which sounds a bit more exotic than spending my teenage years watching, from a house opposite the AGIP service station, the buses stream along the Brighton Road in South Croydon.

Do I carry British (or English) culture with me? I am a bit skeptical about these notions of ‘national culture’. One might summarise English culture by such a catalogue as the Lord’s test-match, sheepdog trials, pantomime, fish and chips, The Last Night of the Proms, the National Trust, etc. etc., but then one ends up either with some devilish discriminations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture or with a list of everything that goes on in the country, which makes the whole exercise pointless. And what about ‘European’ culture? Is there such a thing, apart from the obvious shared heritage and cross-influences of music, art and literature? Bullfights as well as foxhunting? Bierfests alongside pub quizzes? The Eurovision Song Contest? Moreover, all too often, national ‘culture’ ends up as quaint customs and costumes put on for the benefit of the tourists.

Similarly, one could try to describe American culture: the Superbowl, revivalist rallies, Fourth of July parades, rodeos, NASCAR, Thanksgiving turkey. But where does the NRA, or the Mormon Church (sorry, newly branded as the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-Day Saints), fit in? Perhaps the USA is too large, and too new, to have a ‘national culture’. Some historians have claimed that the USA is actually made up of several ‘nations’. Colin Woodard subtitled his book American Nations ‘A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America’, and drew on their colonial heritages to explain some mostly political inclinations. Somewhat of an oversimplification, of course, as immigration and relocation have blurred the lines and identities, but still a useful pointer to the cultural shock that can occur when an employee is transplanted from one locality to another, say from Boston to Dallas. Here, in south-eastern North Carolina, retirees from Yankeedom frequently write letters to the newspaper expressing their bewilderment and frustration that local drivers never seem to use their indicators before turning, and habitually drive below maximum speed in the fast lane of the highway. The locals respond, saying: “If you don’t like how we do things down here, go back to where you came from!”.

And then is the apparent obsession in some places about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’. The New York Times, leading the ‘progressive’ (dread word!) media, is notorious on this matter, lavishly publishing streams of Op-Ed articles and editorial columns about ‘racial’ identities and ‘ethnic’ exploitation. Some of this originates from the absurdities of the U.S. Census Bureau, with its desperate attempts to categorise everybody in some racial pigeonhole. What they might do with such information, I have no idea. Shortly after I came to this country, I was sent on a management training course, where I was solemnly informed that I was not allowed to ask any prospective job candidate what his or her ‘race’ was. Ten minutes later, I was told that Human Resource departments had to track every employee’s race so that they could meet Equal Employment Opportunity Commission guidelines. So it all depended on how a new employee decided to identify him- or her-self, and the bureaucrats got to work. I might have picked ‘Pacific Islander’, and no-one could have questioned it. (Sorry! I meant ‘Atlantic Islander’ . . .) Crazy stuff.

A few weeks ago, I had to fill out one of those interminable forms that accompany the delivery of healthcare in the USA. It was a requirement of the March 2010 Affordable Care Act, and I had to answer three questions. “The Government does not allow for unanswered questions. If you choose not to disclose the requested information, you must answer REFUSED to ensure compliance with the law”, the form sternly informed me. (I did not bother to inquire what would happen to me if I left the questions unanswered.) The first two questions ran as follows:

1. Circle the one that best describes your RACE:

  1. American Indian or Alaska native
  2. Asian
  3. Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
  4. Black or African American
  5. White
  6. Hispanic
  7. Other Race
  8. REFUSED

2. Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:

            a. Hispanic or Latin

            b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin

            c. REFUSED

What fresh nonsense is this? To think that a panel of experts actually sat down around a table for several meetings and came up with this tomfoolery is almost beyond belief. (You will notice that the forms did not ask me whether the patient was an illegal immigrant.) But this must be one of the reasons why so many are desperate to enter the country – to have the opportunity to respond to those wonderful life-enhancing questionnaires created by our government.

This sociological aberration leaks into ‘identity’, the great hoax of the 21st century. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial in which it, without a trace of irony, announced that some political candidate in New York had recently identified herself as ‘queer Latina’, as if that settled the suitability of her election. The newspaper’s letter pages are sprinkled with earnest and vapid statements from subscribers who start off their communications on the following lines: “As a bald progressive Polish-American dentist, I believe that  . . . .”, as if somehow their views were not free, and arrived at after careful reflection, but conditioned by their genetic material, their parents, their chosen career, and their ideological group membership, and that their status somehow gave them a superior entitlement to voice their opinions on the subject of their choice.  (I believe the name for this is ‘essentialism’.) But all that is irrelevant to the fact of whether they have anything of value to say.

The trouble is that, if we read about the views of one bald progressive Polish-American dentist, the next time we meet one of his or her kind, we shall say: “Ah! You’re one of them!”, and assume that that person holds the same opinions as the previously encountered self-appointed representative of the bald progressive Polish-American dentist community. And we end up with clumsy stereotypes, which of course are a Bad Thing.

Identity should be about uniqueness, not groupthink or unscientific notions of ethnicity, and cannot be defined by a series of labels. No habits or practices are inherited: they are all acquired culturally. That doesn’t mean they are necessarily bad for that reason, but people need to recognize that they were not born on predestinate grooves to become Baptists or Muslims, to worship cows, to practice female circumcision, or to engage in strange activities such as shooting small birds in great numbers, or watching motor vehicles circle an oval track at dangerous speeds for hours on end, in the hope that they will at some time collide, or descending, and occasionally falling down on, snowy mountainsides with their feet buckled to wooden planks, while doing their best to avoid trees and boulders. It is not ‘in their blood’, or ‘in their DNA’.

Social workers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to seek foster-parents for adoption cases that match the subject’s ‘ethnicity’, so as to provide an appropriate cultural background for them, such as a ‘native American’ way of life. Wistful and new-agey adults, perhaps suffering from some disappointment in career or life, sometimes seek out the birthplace of a grandparent, in the belief that the exposure may reveal some vital part of their ‘identity’. All absolute nonsense, of course.

For instance, I might claim that cricket is ‘in my DNA’, but I would not be able to tell you in what epoch that genetic mutation occurred, or why the gene has atrophied in our rascally son, James, who was brought to these shores as a ten month-old, and has since refused to show any interest whatsoever in the great game. On the other hand, did the young Andrew Strauss dream, on the banks of the blue Danube, of opening the batting for England? Did Michael Kasprowicz learn to bowl outswingers in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains? 

Yet this practice of pigeon-holing and stereotyping leads to deeper problems. We now have to deal with the newly discovered injustice of ‘cultural appropriation’. I read the other day that student union officials at the University of East Anglia had banned the distribution of sombreros to students, as stallholders were forbidden from handing out ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’. Well, I can understand why Ku Klux Klan hoods, and Nazi regalia, would necessarily be regarded as offensive, but sunhats? Were sombreros introduced by the Spanish on reluctant Aztecan populations, and are they thus a symbol of Spanish imperialism? Who is actually at risk here? What about solar topis? Would they be banned, too?

We mustn’t stop there, of course. Is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala is now viewed by some as a national British dish an insult to the subcontinent of India, or a marvellous statement of homage to its wonderful cuisine? Should South Koreans be playing golf, which, as we know, is an ethnic pastime of the Scots? Should non-Maori members of the New Zealand rugby team be dancing the haka? English bands playing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Should Irving Berlin have written ‘White Christmas’?

The blight has even started to affect the world of imaginative fiction. I recently read, in the Times Literary Supplement, in an article on John Updike, the following: “Is self-absorbed fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male? What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?” (‘Autofiction’ was a new one on me, but it apparently means that you can invent things while pretending to write a memoir, and get away with it. Since most autobiographies I have read are a pack of lies planned to glorify the accomplishments of the writer, and paper over all those embarrassing unpleasantnesses, I doubt whether we need a new term here. Reminiscences handed down in old age should more accurately be called ‘oublioirs’.)

The writer, Claire Lowdon, almost nails it, but falls into a pit of her own making. ‘Socio-cultural sphere’? What is that supposed to mean? Is that a category anointed by some policepersons from a Literary Council, like the Soviet Glavlit, or is it a classification, like ‘Pacific Islander’, that the author can provide him- or her-self, as with ‘gay Latina’? Should Tolstoy’s maleness, and his ‘socio-cultural sphere’, have prevented him from imagining the torments of Anna Karenina, or portraying the peasant Karatayev as a source of wisdom? The defenders of culture against ‘misappropriation’ are hoist with the petard of their own stereotypes. (And please don’t ask me who Karl Ove Knausgaard and Rachel Cusk are. Just because I know who John Updike, James Thurber and Rube Goldberg are, but fall short with these two, does not automatically make me nekulturny, and totally un-cool.)

The whole point of this piece is to emphasise the strengths and importance of pluralism, and diminish the notion of multiculturalism. As I so urbanely wrote in Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere.”   

Thus, while tracing some allegiance to the cultures of both the UK and the USA, I do not have to admit to interest in any of their characteristic practices (opera, horse-racing, NASCAR, American football, Game of Thrones, etc. etc.) but can just quietly go about my business following my legal pursuits, and rejoice in the variety and richness of it all.

It was thus refreshing, however, to find elsewhere, in the same issue of the TLS, the following statement  –  about cricket. An Indian politician, Shashi Tharoor, wrote: “And yet, this match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes, tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms that there is more that unites us than divides us.”

Well, up to a point, Lord Ram. That claim might be a slight exaggeration and simplification, avoiding those tetchy issues about Hindu-based nationalism, but no matter. Cricket is a sport that was enthusiastically picked up – not appropriated – in places all around the world. I cannot be the only fan who was delighted with Afghanistan’s appearance in the recent World Cup, and so desperately wanted the team to win at least one game. I have so many good memories of playing cricket against teams from all backgrounds (the Free Foresters, the Brixton West Indians, even the Old Alleynians), never questioning which ‘socio-cultural sphere’ they came from (okay, occasionally, as those readers familiar with my Richie Benaud experience will attest), but simply sharing in the lore and traditions of cricket with those who love the game, the game in which, as A. G. McDonnell reminded us in England Their England, the squire and the blacksmith contested without class warfare getting in the way. Lenin was said to have despaired when he read that policemen and striking miners in Scotland took time off from their feuding to play soccer. He then remarked that revolution would never happen in the UK.

For a while, I considered myself part of that very wholesome tradition. I was looking forward, perhaps, to explaining one day to my grandchildren that I had watched Cowdrey and May at the Oval (‘Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago  . . .’), and that I could clearly recall an evening in late July 1956 where I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him whether he had heard that ‘Laker took all ten’. But Ashley, and the twins Alexis and Alyssa (one of their maternal great-grandfathers looked just like Ho Chi Minh, but was a very gentle man with no discernible cricket gene in his make-up) would surely give me a quizzical look, as if it were all very boring, and ask me instead to tell them again the story of how I single-handedly tracked down the Surrey Puma . . .

Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley reacting to the story of Jim Laker’s 10-53 at Old Trafford

Uprooted and rootless I thus remain. My cosmopolitan days are largely over, too. Even though I have never set my eyes on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand (or Minsk), I was fortunate enough to visit all five continents on my business travels. I may still make the occasional return to the United Kingdom: otherwise my voyages to major metropolitan centres are restricted to visits to Wilmington for appointments with the chiropractor, and cross-country journeys to Los Altos, California to see James and his family.

So where does that leave me, and the ‘common cultural mosaic that binds us together’? A civilized culture should acknowledge some common heritage and shared customs, while allowing for a large amount of differences. Individuals may have an adversarial relationship in such an environment, but it should be based on roles that are temporary, not essentials. Shared custom should prevent the differences becoming destructive. Yet putting too many new stresses on the social fabric too quickly will cause it to fray. For example, returning to the UK has often been a strange experience, revealing gradual changes in common civilities. I recall, a few years ago, walking into the branch of my bank in South Croydon, where I have held an account since 1965. (The bank manager famously gave me what I interpreted as a masonic handshake in 1971, when I was seeking a loan to ease my entry into the ‘property-owning classes’.)  The first thing I saw was a sign on the wall that warned customers something along these lines: “Abuse of the service staff in this bank will not be tolerated! Offenders will be strictly prosecuted.”

My, oh my, I thought – does this bank have a problem! What a dreadful first impression! Did they really resent their customers so much that they had to welcome them with such a hostile message? Was the emotional well-being of their service staff that fragile? Did the bank’s executives not realise that customer service requires a thick skin? And perhaps behind all that lay a deeper problem – that their customer service, and attentiveness to customers’ needs, were so bad that customers too often were provoked into ire? Why would they otherwise advertise that fact to everyone who walked in?

I can’t see that happening in a bank in the United States, where I am more likely to receive the well-intentioned but cringe-making farewell of ‘Have a blessed day!’ when I have completed my transaction. That must be the American equivalent of the masonic handshake. (No, I don’t do all my bank business via my cell-phone.) Some edginess and lack of trust appear to have crept in to the domain of suburban Surrey – and maybe beyond. Brexit must have intensified those tensions.

Another example: In North Carolina, when walking along the street, we residents are in the habit of engaging with strangers as we pass them, with a smile, and a ‘Good Day!’, or ’How are you doin’?’, just as a measure of reinforcing our common civility and good humour. When I last tried that, walking around in South Croydon, where my roots are supposed to be, it did not work out well. I got a scared look from an astonished local, as if to say: ‘Who’s that weird geezer! He clearly doesn’t belong here’. And he would be right.

In conclusion: a list. As a retired Anglo-American slightly Aspergerish atheist ex-database administrator, I love lists, as all persons with the above description predictably do. My choice below catalogues fifty cultural figures (including one pair) who have influenced me, or for whom I hold some enthusiasm, a relationship occasionally enhanced by a personal encounter that contained something special. (I should point out, however, that I was brought up in a milieu that stressed the avoidance of showing excessive enthusiasm: ‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle!’. Somehow I survived American business without being ‘passionate’ about anything.) That does not mean that these persons are idols, heroes, icons, or role-models – they simply reflect my enthusiasms and tastes. But they give an idea of how scattered and chaotic any one person’s cultural interests can be in a pluralist society. Think of them as my cosmopolitan roots. Rachel Cusk did not make the list, but she would probably have beaten out J. R. R. Tolkien and Eric Hobsbawm.

Kingsley Amis

Jane Archer

John Arlott

Correlli Barnett

Raymond Chandler

Anton Chekhov

John Cleese

Robert Conquest

Peter Cook

Peter Davison

Theodor Fontane

Milton Friedman

Alan Furst

Peter and Rosemary Grant

Robert Graves

Emmylou Harris

Friedrich Hayek

Audrey Hepburn

Ronald Hingley

Clive James

Paul Jennings

Gordon Kaufmann

Hugh Kingsmill

Heinrich von Kleist

Arthur Koestler

Osbert Lancaster

Philip Larkin

Stephen Leacock

Fitzroy Maclean

D. S. Macnutt

René Magritte

Nadezhda Mandelstam

John Martin

Peter Medawar

H. L. Mencken

Christian Morgenstern

George Orwell

Arvo Pärt

Sergey Rachmaninov

Joseph Roth

Peter Sellers

Eric Shipton

Posy Simmons

Joe Simpson

Wilfred Thesiger

Alan Turing

Immanuel Velikovsky

Carolyn Wells

Michael Wharton

P. G. Wodehouse

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Filed under General History, Geography, Literature/Academia, Personal, Philosophy, Uncategorized

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 5)

News update: A few weeks ago, one of my on-line research colleagues contacted me on some topic, adding incidentally: “You probably know that Ursula Beurton [i.e. SONIA] is the title of Ben Macintyre’s next book.” Well, I did not know that, but was able to verify the information at https://www.thebookseller.com/news/macintyre-reveals-20th-centurys-greatest-woman-spy-viking-979556. I thought it appropriate and timely to record the fact that I had tried to contact Macintyre towards the end of last year, sending the following message to his agent at Penguin/Random House, and asking her to forward it to the author:

“Dear Mr Macintyre, 

I have just finished reading ‘The Spy and the Traitor’, which I enjoyed as much as your previous books on espionage and sabotage (all of which I own). 

I wondered whether you were searching around for a topic for your next project. If you consider that extra-judicial execution of a German spy by the British authorities in World War II might be an attention-getting subject, may I suggest that you look at my latest monthly blog at www.coldspur.com? This is a fascinating case that has not received the attention it merits. Alternatively, you might want to pursue a highly credible explanation for the failure by Britain’s Radio Security Service to detect Soviet agent SONIA’s radio transmissions a little later on. The full saga can be seen at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio/.

I am a serious historian. My book ‘Misdefending the Realm’, about the communist subversion of Britain’s security during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, published a year ago, was based on my doctoral thesis at the University of Buckingham. I clearly have some copyright interest in what I have written on my website, but I am keen to encourage an author like you to pick up my research, and collaborate with me on broader publication. 

I thank you for your time, and look forward to hearing from you. 

Sincerely,

Antony Percy (Southport, NC)”

I did not receive the favour of a reply, not even an acknowledgment, but that is sadly not an unusual experience. I am intrigued to know what secret sources Mr. Macintyre has been able to lay his hands on, but I would have thought that ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and ‘Sonia and the Quebec Agreement’ would have provided him with some valuable research fodder. After all, if he came up with similar conclusions to mine, that would be quite noteworthy. On the other hand, if he did not, it would mean that he had missed an opportunity. Just sayin’. (And of course he may come up with some spectacular evidence that counters everything I have written.)

So I thought I should lay this marker on the ground, just in case.

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

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part 5

“S.I.S. foresee no difficulties in the provision of W/T sets on the scale we understand the S.O.2. require, but the extension of this form of communication will raise demands for an increase in the W/T frequencies and the number of skilled wireless operators allotted to the S.I.S., or to S.O.2. if an independent organisation is set up under their direction. As the whole plan will depend on successful communications, and their establishment must necessarily form a commitment in the early stages, we feel that favourable consideration should be given to these demands.” (from ‘Special Operations Executive’, Report by the Joint Planning Staff, 9 August 1941)

The previous chapter in this saga concluded with an analysis of the military situation in Europe of June 1941. Hitler’s war machine had recently invaded the Soviet Union, prompting the latter’s agents back in Germany to be urgently re-activated by Moscow Centre. In Britain, the Radio Security Service had found its permanent home within SIS, and David Petrie, the new Director-General of MI5, was implementing the organisation he had envisioned before he accepted the job, which allowed B Division to concentrate exclusively on anti-Axis counter-espionage and counter-sabotage activity. The Nazi invasion of Great Britain had been (temporarily) called off, but the Abwehr believed it maintained a few residual spies from the Lena operation in place, to keep it informed of morale, weather conditions, and military plans. A year after its foundation, the Special Operations Executive was still groping its way in search of an effective and secure model for building a sabotage network in Nazi-occupied Europe. The acquisition of new territories brought more flexible and more powerful wireless detection capabilities to the Reich’s defence and intelligence organisations, but presented fresh challenges in scope, geography, communications and the management of hostile populations.

France – Occupied Zone & Free Zone

I had originally intended, in this installment, to take the story up to the end of 1943, but the volume of material forced me to be more conservative. Instead, this chapter covers the period up to the autumn of 1942 – a similarly critical turning-point in the conduct of the war. Fortunes for the Allies were probably at their lowest in 1942. Even though the USA had now joined the conflict, Great Britain was being battered on all fronts, and the Soviet Union was trying desperately to repel the Nazi advance. Stalin and his minions were applying pressure on the UK and the USA to open a ‘Second Front’, yet Churchill did not impress upon the dictator the impossibility of launching a successful invasion of Europe so soon. Nevertheless, plans were already underway for the deception campaign deemed necessary for the eventual assault on the European mainland, and the unit responsible, the London Controlling Section, acquired new leadership. The XX Committee nursed some doubts: whether their most established agent, TATE, was trusted by the Abwehr, and whether their opponents saw through the whole deception exercise. Attempts to cooperate with the Soviets on wireless and cypher matters (some officers hoped that the Soviets would share with them their codes, and thus eliminate decryption needs!) also started to break down at the end of 1942.

Meanwhile, the Abwehr, now joined by the Gestapo, was starting to mop up the Rote Kapelle (Red Orchestra), the spy network controlled by the Soviets. Schulze-Boysen was arrested on August 30, 1942, and Germany had by then started to apply to the operations of SOE and SIS what it had learned in radio detection and infiltration of Soviet enemy cells. The invasion of North Africa prompted Germany, in November 1942, to take over control of Vichy France, putting a severe dent in the efforts of French resistance movements that had been operating with relative freedom there. In Britain, the Soviet Union’s spies were able to take advantage of the pusillanimity displayed by British politicians, anxious not to upset Stalin. SONIA was active, and had been joined by her husband: Fuchs had recently adopted British citizenship. Despite Petrie’s concerns, the communist spy Oliver Green was not prosecuted. And the RSS appeared to ignore many illicit wireless transmissions that were being made from British soil.

I should make clear that it is not my intention to provide a comprehensive summary of all aspects of these resistance movements, and the various attempts at espionage and sabotage. My goal has been to show patterns of wireless usage among the various agencies, the techniques that led to both success and failure, and reveal how the advances in expertise and technology in radio-detection and location-finding contributed to the fortunes of the secret radio-operators, and thus to the outcome of the war.

Countering the Red Orchestra

Plans for increased wireless activity from Soviet spies in Germany had begun before Barbarossa. At the beginning of May 1941, for example, Berlin station had asked for more, and improved, radio-sets for the Harnack group. Thus it was only a few days after Barbarossa, on June 26, that German monitoring-stations intercepted the first of the transmissions from the network that the Nazis would come to call the ‘Rote Kapelle’. It was the Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, in its interception station at Cranz, that picked up the callsign ‘KLK from PTX’. As Heinz Höhne wrote, in Codeword Direktor: “By 8 July 1941 the intercept service had seventy-eight Comintern transmitters on its books and by October there were a further ten. (By July 1942 there were 325 clandestine Soviet sets working in German-occupied Europe, the majority admittedly on the Eastern Front.)”

Organisation of German Radio Counterintelligence (Praun)

The Funkabwehr (Wireless Defence, which was not subordinate to the Abwehr) had been approved by Hitler as the authority for radio monitoring in June 1941. Competing intelligence groups had tried to take responsibility for the interception of illicit broadcasting, but both the Abwehr and the Ordnungspolizei (the Orpo, or regular police) had failed. The Orpo, which at the start of the war was responsible for locating unlicensed transmitters, had tried to develop its own interception capabilities, and, after setting up in Norway and the Netherlands, extended its reach into France, Poland and Russia, hoping to be able to work independently.  Yet it was overwhelmed by sheer volumes. The Funkabwehr was stronger, bolstered by the transfer of expertise and men from the army interception service, with five companies formed to cover Europe from Norway to the Balkans. Yet, at this stage, the equipment used by the Funkabwehr was inferior to, say, that of the Luftwaffe. It possessed only short-range direction-finders, and its mobile units were too bulky and obvious. It might have come as a surprise to the British authorities (who, it will be remembered, were at the time concerned that transmissions from their double-agents might be accurately located by the Abwehr) to learn that the FuIII (the shortened version of the very Teutonic name for the radio section, OKW/WNV/FuIII) as late as September was still trying to establish whether the transmitter with the PTX callsign was working in North Germany, Belgium, Holland or northern France – that is an area as large as England itself.

In fact FuIII discovered, through ground-wave detection,  three illicit transmitters on its doorstep, in Berlin, and by October 1941 was ready to pounce. The operation was bungled, however, and an observer was able to warn Schulz-Boysen of the impending raid, after which the transmitters (who had deployed solid security practices) were shut down on October 22, and not reactivated until February 1942. FuIII had thus to return its attention to PTX, and, with improved direction-finding techniques, was soon confident that its operator was working in Belgium, probably in Bruges. FuIII then engaged the assistance of the local Abwehr office. A few weeks later, on November 17, Berlin confidently informed the local team that Brussels was now the source. Captain Piepe flew over the city with direction-finding equipment, and aided by improved short-range detection gear (as well as by disastrously long broadcasts by the radio operators), a successful raid was conducted on the night of December 13/14. The agent KENT’s set had been disabled, and the chief, Trepper, had to flee to France.

German Direction-Finding Operation (Praun)

The Rote Kapelle in Germany was eventually mopped up quite speedily. Hitler, provoked by the insult of hostile wireless operators continuing to transmit, ordered its destruction in early 1942, and brought the Gestapo in to assist. The exercise was a rare example of the German intelligence agencies cooperating. As Hugh Trevor-Roper wrote in his report on the Abwehr: “Liaison at the centre for the most part consisted of little more than the transmission of reports between departments, though some large-scale cases, such as the Rote Kapelle, appear to have been centrally controlled by co-operation between different organisations.” The counter-espionage operation was thus aided by the secret police’s merciless interrogation and torture of agents they had arrested, as well as by some absurdly irresponsible behavior by the wireless operators. The papers seized in Brussels had given Germany’s decryption agency insights into the codes used, and this experience was parlayed into more aggressive pursuit of the members of the network in 1942. Yet as early as October 10, 1941, a fateful message had been sent from Brussels that revealed the addresses of the major spies in Berlin, Schulze-Boysen, Harnack and Kuckhoff, and when that message was deciphered in July 1942, it allowed the traitors to be tracked down quickly, and eventually executed.

For some time more, the Rote Kapelle operated outside the boundaries of Germany: the Brussels cell was effectively moved to Paris, while the unit in Switzerland, first detected in September 1942, would remain a thorn in the Funkabwehr’s flesh until late in 1943. The Abwehr learned, however, several lessons from the successful exercise in Brussels and Berlin. More accurate long-range direction-finding was necessary, but it would always have to be complemented by more discrete, miniaturised, and concealable local equipment. Gaining access to codebooks, and torturing spies to betray secrets, made up for slow and lengthy decryption capabilities. Given the rivalries that were endemic to German intelligence, a degree of cooperation between the Gestapo, the Orpo, and the Abwehr (who all had different agendas) turned out to be an important contributor to success. Moreover, the experiences that shortly followed in the Netherlands and Belgium proved that an efficient machine could, with some patience, ‘turn’ radio networks into an efficient vehicle for arresting further agents before they even started broadcasting. The improved techniques in location-finding would eventually, some time in 1943, be consolidated in the Gestapo’s headquarters on the Avenue Foch in Paris.

The Abwehr and the ‘Englandspiel’

The Abwehr was then able to apply some its lessons learned to confounding the attempts of the SOE to install sabotage agents into Nazi-occupied Europe. The Netherlands was one of the busiest countries, and, from the German standpoint, had one if its most ingenious teams working on the problem of illicit wireless. With its territory expanded, the RSHA was able to deploy more accurate direction-finding techniques, and Section IX of the Abwehr in the Netherlands had been informed, in the summer of 1941, of what sounded like classical agent activity (call-signs, irregular times of communications, short traffic-periods, etc.) in the country, in a triangle with a base of about twelve miles between Utrecht and Amersfoort. Another transmitter was indicated in an equilateral triangle of about twenty miles between Gouda, Delft and Noordwijk. An intense campaign of close-range tracking was initiated.

Issues of territorial ownership had to be resolved, however. If the groups responsible were working independently of London, it would fall to the Orpo (which, predictably, had its own Radio Observation Office, known as FuB) to investigate and prosecute. In the Abwehr’s mind, the Orpo would enter the project bull-headedly, quick to trumpet its success and punish the offenders: Himmler’s Security Police (Sicherheitspolizei, or Sipo), of which the secret police, the Geheime Staatspolizei (Gestapo), was a part, alongside the criminal police (Kriminalpolizei, or Kripo), would be even more aggressive. The Abwehr, on the other hand, had longer-term goals of undermining the network, learning more, and inveigling further indiscretions. Hermann Giskes of the Abwehr had been able to gain the cooperation of the Orpo and the Sipo, and was then informed that the Funkabwehr had been able to prove that the stations were communicating with contacts in England. (A few months later, the station communicating with PTX had been localised to ‘North of London’ – still not a very precise estimate.)

The transmitter with the callsign UBX was caught red-handed by the Sipo, but the opportunity to play the agent back dissolved, as Sipo insisted on performing the interrogation, and the codes used turned out to be hard to crack. Another failure occurred in the Hague, where the local direction-finder, disguised as a meter-reader, was too obvious. Even though the operator with callsign TBO was localised to a single block of flats, the operator got away. These failures, and the corresponding decline in illicit transmissions, meant that the Wehrmacht direction-finding detachment was withdrawn from the Netherlands at the end of September, showing that, at this time, such units were something of a luxury that had to be deployed sparsely. Yet, early in 1942 the FuB had discovered a new transmitter with the call-sign RLS, located only as ‘somewhere in South Holland’. Close-range direction-finding was able to ‘pinpoint’ (a perhaps overused term in this sphere of discourse) to a modern block of flats in the Farhenheitsstraat in the Hague. The Sipo was able to conduct a successful raid on March 6, and haul in one Lauwers, who was to play a major role in allowing the Germans to run the SOE network in the famed ‘Englandspiel’, by which the Abwehr controlled almost all the SOE’s network in the Netherlands..

When Giskes wrote his book about the operation (London Calling North Pole), he described how incompetent and poorly trained the SOE wireless operators had been. “Without doubt, lack of experience and gullibility played an important part on the other side. The agents were really amateurs, despite their training in England, and they had no opportunity to work up through practice to the standard required for their immensely difficult task.” Yet the main fault lay with their contacts in England, who overlooked the omission of security signals that would have indicated that the agents were not operating under duress. Giskes rightly criticised the total radio organisation of British Intelligence for its sloppy approach to security, which allowed a small team of Orpo men to hoodwink the Baker Street setup, going on to write: “The carelessness of the enemy is illustrated by the fact that more than fourteen different radio links were established with London for longer or shorter periods during the Nordpol operation, and these fourteen were operated by six ORPO men!” He also showed that both parties were in total ignorance of the enemy’s direction-finding techniques, grossly overestimating the comparative capability of the other. Giskes said that the Abwehr assumed that the British would be taking bearings on the wireless locations of their agents, just as B1a in MI5 took pains to ensure that agents like TATE did actually transmit from where they were supposed to be.

The successful deception would carry on until March 1944, when Giskes recommended to the RSHA of putting a stop to it, sending a message of disdain and triumph to the British when he did so. The whole exercise was a coup for the Germans, and a tactical disaster for the British. Certainly, Giskes and his team showed as much flair and imagination as the members of the Double-Cross operation, and the British SOE Netherlands group was woefully naïve and gullible about what was going on (and later tried to cover up its mistakes). Yet the impact on the war’s outcome was meagre: many gallant lives were lost (the Germans executed most of the wireless operators, despite the Gestapo making promises to Giskes to the contrary), but sabotage in the Netherlands was not a critical component of the conflict, while deception of Allied invasion plans most assuredly was.

I shall study the infrastructure that the Funkabwehr supposedly deployed from the Gestapo headquarters in Paris in the next instalment. It represents an impressive achievement – if it can be entirely believed. Hugh Trevor-Roper, who wrote a very informative account of the detection and location methods deployed by the Orpo and the Funkabwehr, which can be seen in the HW 34/2 folder at Kew, encouraged a certain degree of caution. After describing the technical means by which a transmitting station could be precisely located within half an hour, he went on to write: “The greater amount and reliability of information which has become available since the end of the war has shown that the picture presented by these reports was very far from accurate. In point of fact there is no real evidence that the size of the Funkabwehr was in any way remarkable nor that it possessed greater technical efficiency than might have been expected. This throws an interesting light on the origin of these reports which came from apparently quite distinct sources but which were yet mutually confirmatory. In the light of this it is impossible to avoid the conclusion that they were the result of exaggerated information deliberately put out by the German authorities to discourage the Allies from the use of illicit wireless. In this case they may in effect have been a form of preventive weapons used by the Funkabwehr itself whose effectiveness may have been feared by its own chiefs or by other security services to be very different from what these reports suggested.” That judgment would echo a familiar theme – that the Germans exaggerated their direction-finding abilities in order to deter operators and instill fear.

German Radio Counterintelligence Operations (Praun)

Lastly, the Germans admitted that ‘cooperation’ was a technique forced upon them by confused organizational structure. In his report on German Radio Intelligence given to the Americans in March 1950, General Praun wrote that this structure: “ . . .  in which the authority of the counterintelligence agencies, the civilian police, the Central Office of National Security, and the like overlapped constantly –  –  led to a waste of effort and constant jurisdictional conflicts. As a result many an enemy radio agent was able to escape, although his whereabouts had been definitely established by D/F.”  Maybe there is an element of buck-passing in General Praun’s account, but the reputation for ruthless efficiency over wireless matters enjoyed by the Nazi counter-intelligence machine received another buffeting.

SOE Strikes for Independence

In the previous instalment, in which I concentrated on SOE in France, I showed how histories of SOE have tended to overstate the efficiencies of Nazi radio-detection and location-finding techniques in the first couple of years of its existence, as an honourable but incorrect method of covering up its own operational failures, primarily in the area of training and security. Thus the experience in the Netherlands constitutes a more useful representation of how the Germans made advances in their defensive techniques, taking advantage of geography (a smaller, adjacent area, with flatter terrain, which made concealment difficult, and radio-wave distortion less likely). The Netherlands was also a crowded theatre in terms of the overall conduct of the war: the obvious sea-based entry towards Germany from the British Isles, and the territory that bombers on their way to the German heartland had to cross. For those two reasons it was stoutly defended. I now turn to analyzing the Allied perspective of SOE’s accomplishments in the Low Countries.

Whereas British Intelligence was able to compose (primarily through interpretation of ULTRA intercepts) a highly accurate picture of the organisation of their Nazi counterparts – insights that amazed officers interrogated after the war – the Germans had only a hazy idea of the structure of their adversaries’ intelligence units. M.R.D. Foot has written about how the SS and the Abwehr did not understand the distinctions between SOE and SIS, were slow to conclude that they had separate missions (sabotage and intelligence-gathering, respectively), and even thought that the SAS was a uniformed wing of SOE. Yet SIS and SOE were at daggers drawn, in a rivalry that matched any of the internecine battles of the Nazi hierarchies. From the outset, Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, had regarded SOE, set up under the civilian control of Hugh Dalton, as an irresponsible upstart unit whose destructive sabotage activities would interfere with SIS’s mission of intelligence-gathering. While jealously protecting his ULTRA information sources, since the Government Code and Cypher School reported to him, Menzies had also been given control of RSS, and had established a wireless section (Section VIII) under Richard Gambier-Parry.

The problem was that SOE was scorned by SIS, interfered with by the Foreign Office, and excluded from the military planning mechanism in the War Office, all of which led Frank Nelson to threaten to resign in November 1941. Hugh Dalton does not even mention SIS or Menzies in his diaries (primarily for reasons of secrecy), but they were a thorn in his flesh, and it was not until after Dalton was relieved of his post in February 1942 that SOE was able to take better control over its own communications. For SOE had to go begging, not only for airplanes that it had to plead for against the priorities of the Air Ministry, but also for wireless equipment and ciphers. As Foot wrote: “ . . . all SOE’s W/T equipment and ciphers were handed out by SIS, of which the home station handled all the traffic – with no increase in the cipher staff. This naturally caused delays, which in turn caused friction.” Thus the dry, bureaucratic minute with which I introduced this segment does not do justice to the struggle that evolved between SOE and SIS. SOE’s requirements had by far surpassed what SIS could provide. The matter would not be resolved until June 1942. Professor Hinsley, who in Volume 2 of his History of British Intelligence in World War II overall revealed a rather hazy and misleading understanding of how MI8 morphed into RSS, recorded how SOE, in March 1942, ‘acquired its own codes and wireless organisations and no longer depended on those of the SIS’.

Moreover, Menzies, and his sidekick Dansey controlled the information coming back from SOE agents. Claude Dansey – – an even more committed enemy of SOE than Menzies – was the latter’s liaison at Baker Street, the headquarters of the SOE, and was responsible for ensuring that, under an agreement made as early as September 15, 1940, any intelligence gathered by SOE agents had to be passed to Menzies even before SOE officers and managers had a chance to see it. (I was intrigued to read in the London Review of Books, May 9, 2019, an extract from an unpublished memoir by Kenneth Cohen, shared by his son, in which Cohen, who had worked for Dansey in the highly clandestine ‘Z’ unit, reported that ‘the SIS organisation was at its worst, partly because it made no serious attempt to pool varied intelligence sources on France: diplomatic (even Vichy); Free French; SOE, and our own counter-espionage were all operating uncoordinated.’ Neglect of SOE was no surprise, but Menzies was clearly in love with ULTRA, and derived his power and prestige from his role as communicator to Churchill of the output of the project.)

Thus the setbacks which SOE experienced in the Low Countries have to be reviewed in the light of the challenges imposed upon them by SIS. Several mishaps were reported in the attempts to land agents in the Netherlands in the summer of 1941. Radio equipment frequently failed, as it had been wired improperly (or so was the claim by SOE alumni). A lone agent, J. J. Zomer, was parachuted in in mid-June, and the first successful pair (Homburg and Sporre) arrived by the same means on September 7, which time happened to coincide with an increase in sabotage, probably caused by Dutch communists who had now changed sides. In any case, Arthur Seyss-Inquart, who had been appointed Reichskommissar over the Netherlands in May 1940, was ordered to clamp down. As Giskes reported in detail, none of the agents survived long undetected. Zomer was discovered near Utrecht on August 31, by direction-finding equipment: his capture turned out to be a colossal liability, as ‘the text of about a hundred messages that he had exchanged with London since his arrival in mid-June, both in cipher and in clear’ (Foot), was captured with him. On the night of November 7/8, Taconis and Lauwers were sent into Holland to find out what had happened to Homburg and Sporre. Lauwers’s set would not work, and he had to get it repaired by a student. It was not until early January that Lauwers was able to make his first transmission, a delay in operation that some at Baker Street thought suspicious, only this time his silence had been an accident.

By now, the Abwehr knew about planned aircraft arrivals, with stores or further agents. Lauwers was arrested on March 6, and was turned just quickly enough to meet his transmission schedule. When a junior employee in N Section of SOE pointed out that Lauwers’s next message did not contain any security checks, he was told ‘not to worry about trivia, at the start of great events’. Foot indicates that security checks were regarded as an annoying fad of Menzies’s, but in this case, Gambier-Parry and his team were correct. It took a long while for Baker Street to come to the conclusion that its network had been suborned: since running a successful agent was what defined the career of the home officers, they were reluctant (as were the Abwehr espionage officers) to believe the evidence they had been trained to suspect. At the end of April, Gubbins, responsible for operations, expressed to Hambro the uncertainty felt by the Dutch authorities about which groups in the Netherlands should be regarded as intact. Yet the network was not closed down, and further agents were needlessly sacrificed.

SOE was undone more by its own incompetence in Belgium: it seemed to experience special trouble in recruiting appropriate persons. If no subversion of the networks on the lines of the Dutch fiasco occurred, enough missteps were made for ‘T’ Section of SOE effectively to shoot itself in the foot. Parachute drops started in May 1941, but the navigator on the first run forgot to press the switch to release the container of the wireless, with the result that it actually landed in Germany. Training was frequently rushed. The wireless operator Leblicq died horribly after making a bad exit from a plane. Agents were frequently dropped miles beyond their designated dropping-zone. One Courtin foolishly strung up his set immediately he had booked himself into a hotel: the casual curiosity of the local police resulted in his aerial being spotted, and his wireless set discovered under his jacket. (That is at least an indication that less clumsy and bulky apparatus was in use at the time.) Another, called Campion, started transmitting on December 1, but he was quickly captured, and his set turned, allowing the Germans to confirm new arrivals, and be waiting for them. Agents frequently fell out with their wireless operators, whom they regarded as feckless, careless or idle. One named van Impe plugged his AC-adapted set into a DC socket, and burned it out. Brion and van Horen stayed on the air for over an hour, and were caught by direction-finding: Van Horen had to watch while an Orpo sergeant played his set back. Fonck always transmitted from the same place – his mother’s home, and was caught on May 2, 1942. In June 1942, ‘Lynx’ could not make his wireless work.

Such maladroitness was compounded by the nervousness of the local population. Belgium was a small country, and it was difficult to hide. It was perhaps understandable that scared members of the population, doing all they could to survive the war, brought such illicit goings-on to the attention of the authorities. Thus Foot’s conclusion is not wholly surprising: “London normally put these arrests of wireless operators down to efficient German direction-finding. D/F was in fact often the cause; but so was careless talk, and so sometimes – as Campion’s example shows – was treachery. It suited the Germans to have the British believing in D/F, rather than realizing how widespread were the Germans’ informers, conscious and unconscious, in resistance circles. One contemporary account put down denunciation as responsible for 98 per cent of the arrests in Belgium.” It was much more Secret Army than ‘Allo ‘Allo.

And I unashamedly quote Foot again, at length, with his final judgment on the Belgian operation.

“By late October 1942 T had dispatched forty-five agents to Belgium, of whom thirty-two had fallen into enemy hands, ten of them – including three killed in enemy action – on their dropping zones. Besides Leblicq, who had never landed, eighteen of these forty-five were wireless operators. Among these, Verhafen had returned safely, Vergucht had no set, and all the rest were already dead or in enemy hands: in most cases, unknown to T. It may help the reader to have these unhappy results set out in the table on the following page; which adds two relevant agents from DF and one from the NKVD to T’s tally.”

“The Germans were both ingenious and assiduous in playing back their captured sets; T’s war diary is full of imaginary tales of minor acts of sabotage, with a few major ones – undetectable from the air – thrown in; T dutifully reported all this to higher authorities, and it was generally understood in the secret world in Whitehall that Belgian resistance showed great promise. This was all illusion: T had so far achieved very little.” The sense of failure was crystallized in the fact that, in August 1942, SOE and the Belgian government-in-exile came to break off relations in a dispute over objectives.

The timing of Foot’s analysis (and what I reported in January) shows that SOE’s move to independence from SIS brought results only slowly, and that the lessons of security were not quickly learned by Gubbins himself. The switch occurred in June 1942, and SOE took control of wireless, as well as the deployment of codes and ciphers. It constructed its own sets, and developed a training centre at Thame Park in Oxfordshire. It established two transmitting-receiving statins at Grendon Underwood and Poundon, on the Oxfordshire-Buckinghamshire border. Later, Passy, of de Gaulle’s government-in-exile, was to claim that SOE professionalism in wireless operation greatly improved after this, but the service was still hindered by the abilities of those it could hire, and the struggle to complement solid, reliable and more concealable equipment with safe transmission practices.

SIS in Europe

While most of the attention in the media has focused on SOE, SIS had a valuable role to fill in providing intelligence from Nazi-occupied Europe. The networks had to be re-built almost from scratch, however, as the Venlo incident (whereby two SIS agents had been captured by the Germans, and identities of SIS networks betrayed), and the rapid overrun of European territories by the German war machine had left SIS without active agents or wireless capabilities to communicate back to the United Kingdom. The history of this attempt at reconstruction is choppy: much of it relies on individual testimonies that have frequently been romanticized to emphasise the heroic. Keith Jeffery, in The Secret History of MI6, provided some fragmented accounts of the challenges and successes, but there is no dedicated ‘authorised’ history of SIS espionage in Europe to draw on. Hinsley’s history reminds us that SOE was accused by SIS of recruiting some of its agents, and then invading its turf by using them to transmit intelligence when its mission was one of sabotage.

Claude Dansey’s Z organisation had moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war, but the wireless set in Geneva could be used only for receiving messages, because of local regulations. Despite friction between SIS and the Dutch government-in-exile, SIS was able to send in fifteen agents into the Netherlands between June 1940 and the end of 1941, but eleven of these lost their lives. Operations in Belgium were a little more successful: Gambier-Parry learned a lesson from early mishaps that trying to train an agent with no signalling experience into reliable wireless practices was a lost cause. (He apparently did not pass this insight on to his dependent ‘colleagues’ in SOE; moreover, it was a hopelessly utopian principle, given the recruitment pool to which the subversive organisations had access.) Thus a successful network called ‘Cleveland’, later ‘Service Clarence’, under Dewé operated fruitfully until Dewé was captured and shot in 1944. ‘Cleveland’ was joined by three other networks at the end of 1941, although Jeffrey writes that their effectiveness as a source of intelligence was jeopardized by their use of a courier service for British service personnel trying to escape home via Spain. By 1942, however, with new, properly-trained wireless operators in place, the Air Ministry and the War Office were complimenting the SIS networks in Belgium for their valuable intelligence on German troop movements, night fighter organisations, and railway activity.

The theatre of France differed in many ways. What it offered in the way of terrain – large and spacious, offering scope for concealment – was offset by some intractable political problems, very representative of the fact that, while all the governments-in-exile were bitterly opposed to Hitler, they frequently nourished vastly differing visions of what should replace the Nazi tyranny when the war was won. France had a strong Communist contingent, which was muted during the Nazi-Soviet Pact, but took on new breakaway life after Barbarossa. SIS’s strongest contacts had been with men who continued to serve under the Vichy regime, a faction that was strongly opposed by de Gaulle’s Free Frenchmen. Thus, as Jeffery points out, the split was reflected within SIS where Wilfred (‘Biffy’ *) Dunderdale headed Section A.4, in contact with the Vichy French, reporting directly to Menzies, while Kenneth Cohen, who had served under Dansey in the Z Organisation in Paris, continued to report to Dansey as head of A.5, dealing with the Free French.

[* It is one thing for Wodehousian or Boy’s Own Paper -type nicknames, such as ‘Biffy’, ‘Jumbo’, ‘Bobbety’, ‘Buster’, and ‘Sinbad’, to be used by their colleagues, but a regrettable aspect of this mannerism is that all too frequently the sobriquets leak into the authorised histories, sometimes perpetuating a character belied by the evidence.]

The War Office applied pressure on SIS to infiltrate France immediately after the country’s fall. For the first year, efforts were tentative, and successes meagre. The professionalism of agents sent in was sub-standard, and attention to security was weak. Far too many persons knew the names of other agents in a network, and the networks were too big. One of the most prominent networks, Navarre’s ‘Kul’ organisation, had successfully penetrated much of Northern France, as well as the unoccupied zone, but Navarre was arrested in July 1941. The network was then taken over by Marie-Madelene Fourcade, as ‘Alliance’, and the latter has received a large amount of attention in histories and biographies. Cohen was able to report a high degree of success in many exploits, including the information gained by the Confrérie de Notre Dame about Saint-Bruneval that led to the successful raid on the radar station in February 1942, but the losses, especially of wireless operators, caused a constant drain on efforts to get information back to London.

Alliance was largely undone by the recruitment of one Blanchet who, immediately after Navarre’s incarceration, was sent out by London with a new type of transmitter, and a mission to train agents in its operation, and in cyphers. At about the same time, communist resistance fighters took up a more aggressive campaign of assassinating German officers, which provoked sterner measures on all in the movement. The Metro Barbès assassination of August 21, 1941 led to fierce reprisals culminating in the execution of forty-eight hostages at Chateaubriant on October 22. In turn, fierce debates took place between the governments-in-exile and the more radical leadership of SOE, again spotlighting the contrary aims of sabotage and intelligence-gathering.

SIS benefitted from some relaxation. In the spring of 1942, for example, the British Ambassador in Spain cancelled his ban on the deployment of clandestine wireless sets. SIS thus continued with its mission, but in much of France and the Low Countries the atmosphere had been contaminated by carelessness and civilian fear. For a while, a burst of productivity allowed reports to be sent to London from six French cities, but then disasters started to occur. Agents in Pau were betrayed by the head of Alliance in the Dordogne, who had been having an affair with the daughter of a policeman. Blanchet turned out to be a Nazi informer: he was eventually executed by Alliance officers in November 1942. David Stafford informs us of another major disaster: “In November 1942 the names of 200 of its [Carte’s] important members fell into the hands of the Abwehr when a courier fell asleep on a train and a German agent walked off with his briefcase . . .” While the intensity of requests from London for information increased every week, the networks were becoming under more and more stress.

A significant fact about this period is that radio direction-finding, at least until the summer of 1942, did not play a large role in the dissolution of the networks, which were undermined by traitors and poor security procedures. Yet the Nazi RSHA was impatient at the progress that the Abwehr had been making in eliminating all illicit wireless activity. On April 18, 1942, the ardent pro-Nazi Pierre Laval became head of the Vichy government, and collaborated in a much harsher policy. Laval gave his approval for the SS to transport into the South nearly three hundred agents from the SS and the Abwehr, accompanied by a fleet of cars and vans with the latest direction-finding equipment. Alliance tried to adapt by giving instructions to operators to move around more, and restrict their broadcasts, but the attempt was largely futile. On November 11, the so-called ‘Free Zone’ was invaded by several divisions of the Wehrmacht: the period of intense and accurate surveillance, so familiar from the war movies, started at this time. As Hinsley records:  “  . . .operation Torch led to a further setback for the SIS by precipitating the German occupation of Vichy France, where its own and Polish and the Free French networks suffered heavy casualties and widespread arrests, and Bertrand [who had developed productive connections both in Vichy and Paris] forced to retreat to the Italian-occupied zone in the south, lost most of his remaining contacts.”

The Double-Cross Operation

Back in Great Britain, as the threat of imminent invasion wore off, MI5 started to prepare its double-agents for the inevitable deception operation that would be required when Allied forces would cross the Channel into Europe. Some had had to be discarded, because their credible sell-by date had elapsed, or they had turned out to be untrustworthy (e.g. Reysen (GOOSE), ter Braak, Caroli (SUMMER), and Owens (SNOW) – all incarcerated or dead. TATE (Wulf Schmidt) appeared to have the most potential, but he had to be given a credible cover-story to explain his survival. While the investments that MI5 made in his equipment eventually provided him with a reliable transmitting capability, the need for him to find permanent employment put restrictions on his mobility, and he was thus prevented from answering much of the questionnaires sent to him by his handlers. But first, his ability to maintain reliable communications with the Abwehr had to be developed.

Coverage of Great Britain by German agents (from KV 3/77)
Guide to German agent activity – October 1940 (from KV 3/77)

TATE experienced an extensive number of teething-problems when his communications were tested out in the latter half of 1941. He had been given frequencies that were too close to a commercial station, and thus needed an alternative crystal. But when Karel Richter flew in with a replacement, in May 1941, Reed of B1A later discovered that it would not work on TATE’s apparatus. His transmitter was unstable, his receiver was too weak; modifications had to be made to his aerial. His handlers failed to pick up messages on his alternative wavelength (which made MI5 question how efficient the German equivalent of the RSS was). He was having problems with corroded parts, but received poor technical advice from the Germans on replacements. The apparatus was too large and conspicuous, and thus could not be moved around the country easily.

The experiments and tinkering went on into March 1942, when it appears that MI5 had almost given up. RSS was constantly monitoring TATE’s attempts to make contact (and the responses from the Abwehr). One irony from this exercise was the arrived conclusion that any double-agent working in the UK would be at great risk from direction-finding. As Reed wrote on March 16, 1942: “It is quite apparent from this that as soon as any agent here starts to send more than one or two messages at a time the possibility of his station being intercepted and located by means of direction finding is very great. TATE for example can usually get through his traffic in about ten or twelve minutes, but operating is spread over a period of an hour to an hour and a half, the danger to the agent is great . . .” Reed therefore made efforts to reduce the radiation output from the set, so that groundwave detection would be more difficult.

At last, in the spring of 1942, regular communications were achieved, and TATE’s wireless traffic was of high standard, and being picked up. RSS was able to monitor the fact that TATE’s organisational control was based in Hamburg, and that there were regular exchanges between Hamburg and Paris about his messages. The state of the art of remote direction-finding can be assessed by the fact that Reed was able to report that bearings indicated that the replying station was probably located ‘some twenty miles south of Paris’. By this time, however, TATE had been set up with a new legend: having been called up for military service, he had found notional employment on a farm, in September 1941. His apparatus had been in actuality been established in Letchmore Heath, east of Watford, which was presumably near enough to agricultural land to convince the German direction-finders, if they were indeed similarly acute in such calculations, that his new occupation was genuine. TATE’s opportunities for secret communications, however, were small, what with his long farming hours. He kept his transmissions short, and infrequent, just at the time that the pressures for increasing the information he could send were intensifying. But by the end of 1942, MI5 was confident that the enemy trusted its prime radio performer.

While the London Controlling Section, given the mission of masterminding the deception campaign, had been set up in April 1941, it was slow finding its feet, and acquiring the appropriate leadership. And MI5 struggled to expand its array of agents with wireless capabilities: it is astonishing how much information at this time was still relayed through invisible ink to poste restante letter boxes in neutral countries. John Moe (MUTT) and Tor Glad (JEFF) had arrived in April 1941, in Scotland, but their behavior was often troublesome, and JEFF had to be interned in September 1941. It was not until February1943 that MUTT received a new workable wireless set, parachuted in near Aberdeen. One agent who eventually turned out to be the most productive, Garby-Czerniawski (BRUTUS), arrived in Gibraltar in October 1942, after making a deal with the Nazis, who had arrested him, but he did not disclose his full story and hand over his wireless crystal until November 1942, so his story belongs to the next episode. Likewise, Natalie Sergueiew (TREASURE), who had even been trained in wireless operation and tradecraft in Berlin in 1942, and who would turn out to be a valuable (but temperamental) contributor, was in May 1942 taught how to use invisible ink. After moving to Madrid that summer, she had to remind her handler, in November 1942, that she had had wireless training, and needed to be equipped with a proper apparatus. Thus her story will appear in the next instalment, also. Dusko Popov (TRICYCLE) did not bring back a wireless set from Lisbon until September 1943.

Perhaps the most famous of the XX agents was Jan Pujol (GARBO), who will turn out to be the most controversial of all those who broadcast before D-Day, and whose wireless habits are critical to the story. Not only did he himself (or, more accurately, his MI5 wireless operator) provide some of the most important messages concerning invasion plans, but he also ‘recruited’ a complex network of imaginary sub-agents who were able to report from around the country. Yet GARBO’s ability to use wireless was also delayed: he had arrived in London in April 1942, and Reed had quickly acquired a transmitter for him and his network to use. Yet it was not until August of that year that his handlers in Lisbon gave him permission to use it, and in fact it took until March 1943 before his first transmission was sent.

On May 21, 1942, the Chiefs of Staff had approved John Bevan to replace Stanley as head of the London Controlling Section. He would turn out to be a great success: calm, forceful, inspiring, and insightful. Thus the pressures on MI5 and the XX Operation increased. At that time, MI5 confidently told the LCS that it controlled ‘80% of the German espionage network’, which was a surprising assertion, in many ways. How did it know who the remaining 20% were? And what efforts was it making to unveil them? Yet it was probably very sure that it controlled all the wireless agents, as it had an effective RSS on its side; indeed, Masterman wrote to the W Board in July, 1942, claiming all such agents were under his control. Yet some eerie fears set in. On August 8, one of Robertson’s officers, John Marriott, voiced the concern that the Germans might be suspicious of TATE. In his diary entry for August 13, Guy Liddell expressed a general scare that the Abwehr must realise that its ciphers had been broken, and its messages were being read. And how effectively was RSS operating in picking up illicit traffic?

The Radio Security Service

(I have already written quite deeply about the activities of RSS, and interception of illicit Soviet and Russian traffic  – the two not necessarily being synonymous, of course – in the 1941-1943 period,  at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-ix//.  Rather than my repeating that analysis, I would suggest that readers might like to refresh their memories by inspecting the latter part of that instalment. I summarise here the findings, and add a few observations gained from research since, with the contributions of a former RSS interceptor, Bob King, especially poignant and relevant.)

Unlike the USA, which enforced a ban on any non-governmental wireless traffic when it entered the war on December 7, 1941, Great Britain had a more complicated set-up to deal with. It had granted permission to the Polish and Czechoslovakian governments-in-exile to have their own telecommunications facilities. Thus official bans became difficult to enforce, especially since SIS was trying to gain foreign government approval for its own clandestine wireless usage overseas (such as in Switzerland). Moreover, with the Soviet entry into the war, a more testing challenge reared its head, what with the Russians seeking permission for similar facilities – and if not gaining permission, going ahead anyway. In the United States, the FBI had its claws clipped on April 2, 1942, when it had to agree not to move against any clandestine transmitters without service approval, suggesting that some illicit operators were working under military control.

In Britain, the coyness of the early part of the war disappeared. The National Archives (HW 34/1) report that RSS in 1942 busily started monitoring the communications of the foreign governments-in-exile – ‘mainly [sic] Polish, Czech, Yugoslav, French, Russian’, thus proving that spying on allies was viewed as a necessary ploy. Guy Liddell and Richard Gambier-Parry, the head of SIS’s Section VIII (which controlled RSS) had frequent disagreements about illicit transmissions. Early in 1942, Liddell noted in his diary that he was being let down by RSS, as it had failed to detect transmissions from the Soviet consulate, and (maybe more alarmingly) from German agents in Croydon and Blackpool. Gambier-Parry was not interested, enigmatically insisting that he had everything under control with the Russians. “They are well watched”, he dismissively told Malcom Frost on March 6, 1942, when Frost wrote to complain about illicit transmissions detected at 3, Rosary Gardens in London, effectively telling the MI5 officer to mind his own business. Gambier-Parry would later have to review his casualness.

RSS grew under its new control, SIS. One report indicates that, at its peak, it had a staff of 2094, of which 98 were officers, 1317 operators, 83 engineers and 471 administrative personnel, as well as 125 civilian clerks. That team was complemented by over 1200 Voluntary Interceptors in the UK, as well as units abroad. And, while it eventually had to concede some of its control of equipment and codes to the SOE, it took ownership of more location-finding capabilities. In the autumn of 1941, SIS terminated its contract with the General Post Office for mobile direction-finding units. The GPO had developed quite an extensive fleet of such vans, but they were judged (by one RSS insider) as being too obvious, too slow, and their operators not disciplined enough. Yet, by this time, the prevailing wisdom was that, since all extant enemy wireless operators were under MI5, no remaining operators, however illicit, could harm the national war effort.

What spurred all this research, as will be known to those who are familiar with ‘Sonia’s Radio’, is the question of how such an efficient RSS organisation could have overlooked the transmissions of Sonia. I reproduce here an extraordinary artefact from December 1941 that was passed to me by Bob King, a veteran of RSS. As is clear, it is a log sheet of Mr. King’s as a ‘watcher’ in the Oxford area, where Sonia Kuczynski operated. In an email message to me last summer, Mr. King wrote: “The RSS knew of her [Sonia’s] presence, with over 2,000 widely spread operators listening for any unidentified signals we could hardly miss her. But as she was not Abwehr we didn’t follow her up. I expect someone else did.” He later added: “I can say the tests and good evidence shows that it is unlikely that any illicit transmission within the UK during the war years escaped our notice. If it was not our assignment we dropped it. Whether the information (call sign, frequency, time and procedure, if any) was passed to some other organisation I cannot say. I was informed by one RSS operator that Sonia (he later discovered it was she) was copied and told ‘Not wanted’”, and then: “But it is certain that no Abwehr traffic escaped our notice including the movements of all spies/agents (with the exception of Ter Braak).”

I was overwhelmed by being able to exchange information with a survivor from the war who had operated before I (now a 72 year-old) was born, and intrigued by Mr. King’s revelations. I followed up with other questions, asking, for instance, how his unit knew that the operator, was Sonia, even that she was a woman. Mr. King replied: “I am sorry but I have no further information.  We identified the Abwehr by several means: procedure, tying in with other Abwehr (already known) and such things as operator recognition, note of transmitter and an experienced knowledge hard to describe. It was an operator (I forget who) who wrote to me long after the war saying that he had copied Sonia (this was sometime after 1946 I believe) when I left RSS and had no connection with it at all. Surveillance of short waves continued post-war I understand and exercises demonstrated that transmitters could not go undetected for long. Pre-war a rogue transmission was located by the GPO in many cases, it was their job to catch unlicensed transmitters and post war radio amateurs as well to report a station sending coded messages which in peace time was strictly forbidden.  This is why I maintain that Sonia could not have been undetected at any time since.  What the authorities did about it I am not in a position to say.” Mr. King also told me that the Interceptors were instructed to log everything, indiscriminately, on the wavelengths they were responsible for. They could not make independent decisions, say, on listening for overseas transmitters.

RSS Logsheet from December 1941

When commenting on one of my posts on Sonia, Mr. King summed up his experiences and opinions: “I am convinced that no illicit, or other, transmission audible in the UK could escape detection for long.  The whole high frequency spectrum was divided into sections (the size dependent on frequency) and searched regularly by several thousand skilled listeners.  All signals, recognised or not, by the operator, were passed to Arkley unless directed otherwise.  If not identified by us as Abwehr we either asked for a ‘Watch please’ or ‘Not wanted’. We had several VIs in or near Oxford (I was one in 1941) and I visited a full time one in Somerton so Sonia’s signals must have been reported. In my nearly 5 years at Arkley reading logged reports I may well have stamped ‘Not Wanted’ on a Sonia transmission.  There were some inquisitive attempts to discover the ownership of strange signals but I know no more or where information that we had was dealt with. Embassy traffic also I am sure was monitored.”

Like all members of RSS who were sworn to secrecy about what they did in the war, Mr. King obeyed the interdiction, but was then taken aback by the sudden revelations in the 1980s and 1990s, with books like The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay being published, and he warns about the possibility of faux memoirs among such publications. (I have written about the inventions recited in the periodical After the Battle, and how they have been promulgated by careless writers.) Mr. King’s goal is only to keep the memory of the dedicated persons who worked for RSS alive, and to ensure that the truth is told. He is very confident about the watertight coverage of illicit transmissions that occurred, and added the following: “We were always concerned that an enemy agent may have slipped our notice and put the XX system in danger.  It transpired after the war from our records and those of the Abwehr that no operational agent went undetected.  Several times spoof transmissions were arranged by us to test the RSS intercept capabilities.  They always appeared on our operators’ logs.  The longest delay was only about 5 to 6 weeks but usually much quicker.   This is hardly surprising with a least 2,000 people listening (about 500 on 24 hour watch) distributed over the UK.”

Yet there was a darker story behind the energies of RSS, an account that the rather sunny analysis in Hinsley’s official history overlooks. The archive at KV 4/97 (itself frequently redacted, which is alarming) shows a prolonged struggle between the forces of MI5, pressing for stricter interception of illicit wireless, and the more relaxed, but obviously arrogant, leaders of RSS, who were driven by other priorities. The main protagonist was the maverick Malcolm Frost, the ex-Post Office man who had so excited Guy Liddell early on in his career with MI5, but then antagonised so many by his own power-seeking and arrogance. From the time that SIS took over RSS up until the end of 1942, Frost ceaselessly prodded RSS to be more communicative on its ‘discrimination’ practices (i.e. selection of wavelengths and messages to pursue), and to bolster up the defective mobile units that the RSS had inherited from the General Post Office. This thrust, gradually taken up more enthusiastically by Guy Liddell himself, evolved from two drivers: the increasing knowledge that the airwaves in the UK were being illegally exploited by various agents, including suspicious Russian traffic, and the developing recognition that such interception apparatus and skills would be required after the eventual invasion of Europe in order to handle all the wireless-using agents that the Nazis were expected to leave behind as they retreated from the Allied attack.

Maltby in RSS at last grudgingly agreed with much of Frost’s argument: that the RSS Engineering staff had been dedicated to other work, and had not invested anything in the ‘deplorable’ state of the mobile units they had taken over (a fact they had concealed from Liddell). The apparatus was bulky, and required too many operators probably visible to the subject under scrutiny. They had made poor personnel choices, the incompetent Elmes heading up the teams being a prime example, and morale in the detection squads was low. RSS reputation for arrogance and poor leadership went before it: potential candidates for detection squads were refusing to join it. The mobile units themselves were too sparse, and too slow to move in on their prey. (A note by Guy Liddell in October 1942 states, for instance, that ‘the existing Mobile Unit bases at Leatherhead and Darlington should be transferred to Bristol and Newcastle respectively’, with Newcastle having to cover an area from Edinburgh to Leeds, and Bristol required to cover Wales. That is not a rapid-response organisation.)

Frost continued to probe and pester. In September 1942, he had reported that it could take three weeks for a unit to move in on suspect premises. Communications were slow and insecure, via telephone, when radio contact was essential. For such a search operation to be successful, of course, the illicit transmitter would have to keep on operating at the same location – highly likely if the culprit was an operator at a foreign embassy in London, but less probable if the transgressor was a trained Abwehr agent or Soviet spy looking out for detector vans. On October 23, 1942, Frost requested a correction/insertion to the minutes of the recent RSS Committee meeting: meeting: “Major Frost said in his experience it was unlikely that d/f bearings taken from this country could possibly give an clearer indication of the location of an illicit transmitter than a minimum area of 100 square miles, and he did not consider that this would be of much material assistance in making an arrest.” This observation matched what an expert such as Frank Birch wrote in his Official History of British Signals Intelligence. The fact that Frost had to make this observation would suggest that RSS was probably making exaggerated claims about the power of remote direction-finding techniques when mobile units tracking groundwaves were essential to trap offenders.

What all this meant was an expressed desire by Frost and Liddell to bring back the GPO, and Dollis Hill as a research establishment, and have MI5 put in charge of the mobile units. Liddell, somewhat belatedly complained, in September 1942, that ‘for eighteen months, RSS had done nothing to provide a solution to the problem which was of vital interest to the Security Services’. (He even told Maltby that MI5 had been undertaking its own research into better apparatus, which rather shocked the RSS man.) Yet RSS was overall obdurate, claiming territorial ownership. The foolish Vivian had endorsed the breaking up of the joint RSS-MI5 committee, being pushed by Gambier-Parry without knowing the facts, and then had to climb down. Maltby had to admit that his unit was really only interested in technical matters, and did not want to deal with the messy details of liaising with the Police, for instance. Gambier-Parry was clearly impossible to negotiate with, condescending and obstinate: he did not want his operation run by any committee, and he was evidently just very single-minded and parochial, or simply taking his orders from someone behind the scenes. Thus matters between RSS and MI5 (not purely involving intercepts) came to a head at the end of 1942, when new committees were set up, and an improvement in operations occurred.

Conclusion

The rapid progress that the German intelligence machinery made in detection techniques and apparatus during 1942 contrasted sharply with the relaxed and inefficient way that the British infrastructure dealt with the challenge. First of all, the Weimar Republic’s prohibition of private radio traffic, an order provoked by the fear of illicit Communist communications, ironically deprived it of a pool of capable amateur interceptors. The Germans were faced with a real and growing threat as their Reich expanded, and they complemented their improvements in technology with an uncharacteristic degree of cooperation between rival agencies, as well as a ruthless approach to interrogation and torture. It was a necessary survival technique – or so they believed. The various forces working subversively helped to soak up valuable German effort and resources, and both their intelligence and sabotage ingredients contributed much to the success of OVERLORD. Whether the carpet bombing of Germany or the thrust of SOE – so often at apparent loggerheads in the demand for resources – was a more effective factor in the prosecution of the war is still debated by historians. But the Germans took SOE and SIS very seriously – and probably exaggerated their detection capabilities as a deterrent.

The British, on the other hand, got lulled into a false sense of security by virtue of their isolation and relative impregnability, by their confidence that they had turned all existing wireless agents of the Abwehr, and probably by the notion that their decryption of the ULTRA traffic was really the key to winning the war. Unlike the Germans, they had a very gifted set of ‘amateurs’ in their Voluntary Interceptors: the Germans recognized the diligent way that the ‘Radio Amateur Association’ (as General Praun called the Radio Society of Great Britain) had selected and managed its members. On the other hand, the overall organisation and management of RSS was flawed. (Of course, it helped the cause of the Double-Cross Operation if the Germans gained the impression that British location-finding was weak!)  The British were not helped by a more bureaucratic approach to decision-making, a greater respect for the law, and a more humane approach in handling offenders. Yet there was also a failure of will, a slowness to respond to political conflicts, and a lack of clear leadership from the top. One can detect an absence of resolve in such subjects as how important the actions of SOE were, and how the organisation should be helped, how firm a line should be taken with such a dubious ally as the Soviet Union, and what actions should be taken with obstinate leaders such as ‘Bomber’ Harris  or Richard Gambier-Parry, and how the weaknesses of Stewart Menzies’s organisation was protected by his custodianship of the ULTRA secret. Certainly SOE suffered especially from some very poor management and preparation of agents. Yet overall there endured a cultural respect for rival personalities and institutions, a feature entirely lacking in their adversaries, which helped them surmount the various crises.

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The Importance of Chronology (with special reference to Liddell & Philby)

I had been hoping to deliver the next chapter in The Mystery of the Undetected Radios this month, but I have been thwarted by circumstances. Towards the end of March, I suffered a recurrence of tendinitis caused by whiplash to my neck in a traffic accident thirty-five years ago, and started undergoing a three-month treatment of spinal decompression. This process fixed the problem last time I had it seven years ago, but I must have been negligent on maintenance, and the complaint suddenly returned with a vengeance, with acute stabbing pain in my neck and shoulder. Yet, when my doctor gave me cortisone and lidocaine injections, they did not seem to be having an effect. Moreover, he also prescribed painkillers and a muscle relaxant, which likewise did not ease my condition. After a very painful and sleep-deprived weekend at the beginning of April, I saw the doctor again, and he very quickly identified the culprit as shingles. This was puzzling, as only last summer I had undertaken the course of anti-shingles vaccine. My doctor had not encountered a case of a vaccinated person catching the disease. Could the GRU or MI5 have been involved? No explanation has been excluded.

What it means is that for several weeks I could not work at my desktop for more than 5-10 minutes at a time, which made the task of researching files, checking my notes, and compiling fresh text impossible. I also realized that there were at least three more books I needed to read to cover the 1941-1942 period adequately: M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in the Low Countries, Hermann Giskes’s London Calling North Pole, and a volume that came out only a few weeks ago, Lynne Olson’s Madame Fourcade’s Secret Army. I have also read from cover to cover David Stafford’s Britain and European Resistance 1940-1945, a work that I have owned for a long time, but only dipped into beforehand. I have acquired the other three, and read all four now, but have only recently been able to transcribe my notes, and enter items in my chronology.

For the issue dated April 18, the London Review of Books commissioned from a ‘writer’ with the improbable name of Colm Tóibín – an Hibernian, I would wager – an article of some 9,000 words that described his experiences with testicular cancer. I am deeply sorry about the gentleman’s condition, but this self-indulgent piece was of such relentless tediousness that I can only conclude that the editrix of the LRB, Mary-Kay Wilmers (she with the Eitingon connections), presented it as an effort to win some obscure journalistic contest. While judging myself capable of similar medical discourse, I can assure coldspur readers that I shall not burden them with comparable distressing details of my complaints. During my disability (which has now mercifully abated), I was able, however, to create instead fresh text in relative comfort on my iPad, and hence present a report for April on an important intelligence-related subject that did not require close, integrative research.  Restored almost to tip-top form, I was able to resume work on my PC towards the end of the month, and thus I also present some updates to the Liddell affair, which, I hope, will fascinate my readers as much as they fascinated me. This bulletin, which started out as a reasonably modest report, took on a vigorous new life in the last week of the month. It could probably merit a post on its own, but, having invested some thought in putting this methodological introduction together, I decided to remain with it as the lead. Moreover, the analysis of Liddell and Philby represents an outstanding example of why attention to chronology is important.

The Importance of Chronology

For me, one of the most annoying aspects of any historical book, or volume of biography, is inattention to chronology. I read a few pages, unanchored precisely by date, and then suddenly come across a phrase like ‘the following spring’. What year are we talking about? I suspect that the author him- or her-self has only a hazy idea of what is happening when he or she [I refuse to use the fashionable ‘they’ in this situation] carelessly lays out events out of sequence, and thereby does not provide solid references in the calendar for many critical happenings.

I am under no delusions about causes and seriality. The proximity of an event to another does not necessarily indicate that the earlier one influenced the second, but it is very important to place events in their proper sequence, and tether them precisely. (What is undeniable, pace J. B. Priestley, is that events with a verifiable date cannot have exerted any influence on events proven to have occurred earlier.) Very rarely do original sources lack a date attached to them, and they should be echoed in any text that exploits them. Moreover, for the historian, organization of dates coming from disparate sources can show new patterns of discovery that might not otherwise have been apparent. I think, for example, of my locating the row over authority between Jane Archer and Guy Liddell that was not covered properly in the latter’s Diaries when he described the circumstances of her sacking.

Accordingly, the creation and maintenance of a detailed chronology have been integral to my research methodology ever since I set out on what evolved to become my doctoral thesis. I maintain a Word document of over three hundred pages, covering military and political, but chiefly intelligence and counter-intelligence, events for four decades in the twentieth century. There are almost 300 pages of pure timeline, with 13 pages of references, constituting about 500 different sources, including 30 from the National Archives. I try to maintain every entry to a single line. The years 1936 to 1950 are particularly densely covered: for example, the year 1940 has over 2400 entries. Each entry has at least one source appended to it. (See sample page)

A typical page from my Chronology

The Preamble to the document reads as follows:

Chronology: WWII – Prelude & Aftermath

This chronology is constructed to provide a guide to the history of intelligence and counter-intelligence in Britain and the US between 1917 and 1956, and focuses on key dates relating to:

a) the recruitment and establishment of Soviet agents in British intelligence, and their subsequent deeds and movements;

b) the actions by Soviet intelligence agencies to subvert British institutions:

c) the plot by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin to go to Moscow in the summer of 1940;

d) attempts by MI5 (and its predecessor, the Metropolitan Police’s Special Branch) to counter subversion and Fifth Columns; 

e) the various reorganisations of British Intelligence;

f) the WWII rivalry between the Ministry of Information and the Foreign Office for controlling propaganda, especially in the USA;

g) the purging of OGPU/NKVD agents by Stalin, with special reference to the revelations, and death, of Walter Krivitsky;

h) activities involving Eduard Beneš of Czechoslovakia, and his contacts in the UK and the Soviet Union;

i) the stealing of US/GB atomic power secrets by the Soviet Union, with special reference to Stalin’s manipulation of the Jewish Anti-Fascist Committee, and the espionage activities of Klaus Fuchs;

j) revelations about the massacre of Jews by the Nazis;

k) pre-war negotiations between Zionists and the UK government, and subsequent actions to further or delay the establishment of the Israeli state in 1948;

l) the evolution (and decline) of communistic/anti-fascist thought among British intellectuals;

m) attitudes of British politicians towards the Soviet Union between the Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact and Barbarossa;

n) Walter Krivitsky’s revelations about Stalin’s negotiations with Germany and his supply of arms to the Republicans in the Spanish Civil War;

o) the growing awareness by the US and GB of the coming postwar threat posed by the Soviet Union as WWII proceeded, and its effect on intelligence sharing;

p) activities associated with the detection and decryption of illicit radio transmissions in WWII, and decryption of enemy (including Soviet) communications, especially involving disagreements between SIS and MI5;

q) the Nazis’ successes in unmasking members of the Soviet spy network, the ‘Red Orchestra’, especially as it relates to Alexander Foote and the ‘Rote Drei’ in Switzerland;

r) the activities of British communists in the International Brigades in Spain;

s) the effect of the failure to follow up Krivitsky’s warnings on Allied negotiations for postwar security, and the onset of the Cold War;

t) the activities of US-based, and Canada-based, Soviet spies with British links;

u) the management of the Double-Cross operation, and its effect on other disinformation campaigns;

v) the Abwehr’s management of spies sent to Britain for intelligence or sabotage purposes, and Britain’s responses.

(The somewhat erratic structure of this list, which I have not re-ordered through time, shows the evolution of my research focus.)

Readers can probably now understand how critical a part of my methodology the chronology is. It gives me the following benefits:

a) On looking up an event, I can quickly identify its source, and go back to my notes on each book listed (taking notes after the conclusion of reading a book is an equally important part of the methodology). Dates are a vital part of the notes: page numbers are listed, and I can go back to the original text, if necessary. (I own an overwhelming majority of the books.)

b) I can immediately spot anomalies in dates, such as occasions where different authors represent the same event differently. This allows me to verify sources, and give some indication of reliability. Dubious unconfirmed events are marked with a ‘?’.

c) I can examine the authority of references. Authenticity is not automatically guaranteed simply because multiple historians or journalists quote an identical date. They may all be using the same defective source, such as Professor Hinsley’s dubious claim about Churchill’s ordering interception of Soviet messages to cease. Weight does not necessarily indicate quality.

d) Insights can be gained by the adjacency of apparently unrelated themes, and common names appearing in discrete threads. They allow new hypotheses to be explored, and fresh analysis of subject-matter to take place (such as the progress in Radio direction-finding across different countries and zones).

e) Word’s Search capability allows me to highlight the occurrence of any name within the whole Chronology, thus simplifying the tracking of the career or activities of any prominent figure.

It all leads me to a vital principle of my methodology: A chronology will never be able to write the story by itself, but the creation of a proper narrative will be impossible without a rigorous chronology. The maintenance and exploitation of this document are thus my ‘Crown Jewels’, my ‘secret sauce’. One day I may make it universally acceptable (or even have it published as a book?). I have shared extracts of it with other historians, but no one else has seen the complete artefact.

Another aspect of chronology that intrigues me is the relationship of publications to the dates of release of official material, or the issuance of authorised histories. As far as British counterintelligence is concerned, one can identify seminal events that changed the historiography of espionage (e.g. Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, Fuchs’s confession in 1950, the escape of Burgess and Maclean in 1951) and can map also critical government-sponsored or -approved publications, such as the admission of the Double-cross system (in 1972), the disclosures about the Ultra Secret (in 1974), or the Official Histories of British Intelligence in WWII (starting in 1979), which freed many others to talk. Yet in the background one can detect a vast amount of noise – memoirs and off-the-record briefings from intelligence officers who felt that the real story was not being told, or wanting to influence the history to show themselves in better light.

When reading any book that claims insights into these events, one has therefore to ask: ‘Where did the author derive his/her information?’; ‘Why was the Official Secrets Act not applied?’; ‘Should some of these exercises be treated as government-controlled disinformation’? One thinks of the slew of romanticized and frequently erroneous accounts of espionage and counter-espionage that came out in the decade following WWII, often brazenly declaring the help the authors gained from government departments such as the War Office. Of course, the perpetrators never imagined that official archive material would be released at some time to contradict the errors of their analyses. But that did not matter, as all the authors would be dead by then. Yet books still come out that cite some of these flights of fancy as if they contained relevant facts.

To complete the story, one would also have to list all the critical archival material that has been made available in the past twenty years. I have not done that here, as my Chronology focuses on the first 60 years after the outbreak of WWII. Here follows a personal, and highly selective, account of dates (in years, only), which the general reader may find useful in tracking the history of intelligence matters affecting the UK since WWII, and putting accounts of it into proper perspective. I encourage readers to send me additions to the list that would help clarify the dynamics.

Key events in Espionage History (MI5, and to lesser extent SIS)

1939 Nazi-Soviet Pact

1940 Krivitsky’s revelations to MI5 & SIS

1940 Blunt & Rothschild recruited by MI5

1940 Double-Cross System set up

1941 Krivitsky murdered

1941 Germany invades the Soviet Union

1941 USA enters the war

1942-43 German Englandspiel turns Dutch SOE network

1943 Comintern ‘dismantled’

1943 VENONA project of decryption of Soviet cables starts

1944 Leo Long detected spying in MI14

1945 Gouzenko defects in Canada

1945 Volkov (would-be defector from Ankara) betrayed by Philby

1947 Cookridge publishes ‘Secrets of the British Secret Services’

1949 Foote’s ‘Handbook for Spies’ published (ghost-written by MI5)

1950 Fuchs convicted

1951 Burgess & Maclean abscond

1952 Cairncross’s first ‘confession’

1953 Giskes reveals Englandspiel (control of Dutch SOE)

1954 Petrov defects in Australia: confirms careers of Burgess and Maclean

1956 Gaitskell dies, with suspicions of Soviet poisoning

1956 Goronwy Rees’s disclosures about Burgess in ‘People’

1962 Golitsyn’s defection confirms treachery of Philby: ‘the five’

1963 Philby defects

1963 Straight betrays Blunt

1964 Cairncross confesses to MI5

1966 Publication of ‘SOE in France’ & AJP Taylor’s ‘History 1914-1945’

1967 Philby’s ‘My Silent War’ published

1967 Phillip Knightley’s exposé of Philby in the ‘Sunday Times’

1968 Trevor-Roper reveals decryption of Abwehr messages in Canaris essay

1972 ‘The XX System’ by John Masterman appears

1972 Ritter publishes ‘Deckname Dr. Rantzau’

1973 Malcolm Muggeridge publishes ‘Chronicles of Wasted Time’

1973 Seale and McConville hint at VENONA programme in book on Philby

1974 Winterbotham reveals ULTRA secret

1978 David Kahn publishes ‘Hitler’s Spies’

1979 Andrew Boyle’s ‘Climate of Treason’ published: Blunt outed

1979 Thatcher announces Blunt’s pardon

1979 Penrose outs Cairncross

1979 Rees’s deathbed revelations

1979 Volume 1 of Hinsley’s History appears

1980 David Martin’s ‘Wilderness of Mirrors’ identifies VENONA

1981 Nigel West publishes ‘MI5’ (with information from disenchanted White)

1981 Volume 2 of Hinsley’s History appears

1981 Harold Macmillan publicly denounces Michael Howard for irresponsibility

1982 Existence of VENONA starts to leak out

1983 Nigel West publishes ‘MI6’

1984 Pincher’s ‘Too Secret Too Long’ accuses Hollis

1984 Volume 3 of Hinsley’s History appears

1985 Gordievsky escapes to UK

1986 Nigel West publishes ‘GCHQ’

1986 Joan Miller publishes ‘One Girl’s War’

1986 Lamphere publishes ‘FBI-KGB War’

1987 Peter Wright publishes ‘Spycatcher’

1989 Government recognizes MI5

1990 Volume 4 of Hinsley’s History appears

1990 Volume 5 of History (Howard) appears

1991 Nigel West writes about VENONA in ‘7 Spies . . .’

1991 End of Communist regime in Russia

1992 Mitrokhin brings his Archive to the UK

1992 Queen recognizes SIS in speech to parliament

1993 Primakov identifies threat from NATO

1994 Intelligence Services Act: Existence of SIS & GCHQ acknowledged

1994 Weinstein given access to KGB files

1994 Aldrich Ames convicted

1996 USA declassifies VENONA materials

1999 Nigel West publishes book on VENONA

1999 Haynes & Klehr publish book on VENONA

2000 Weinstein’s ‘Haunted Wood’ published

2009 History of MI5 appears

2010 History of SIS appears

2014 First volume of History of JIC appears

2017 History of GCHQ commissioned

This litany of publication shows a number of developing themes and tensions, namely:

i) the overall desire of government organizations to maintain a veil of secrecy over intelligence operations;

ii) the eagerness of journalists and (some) agents and officers involved in intelligence to reveal clandestine operations to the public;

iii) the expressed need by the security services to assist public relations efforts by selective breach of the Official Secrets Act, and granting controlled access to certified materials, or leaking certain information;

iv) simultaneous prosecution of authors trying to breach the OSA when the authorities believe such disclosures might harm the reputation of the intelligence services, on the pretext that national security is at risk;

v) unofficial leaking of information to journalists and historians by insiders frustrated by prolonged secrecy, and perhaps anxious to establish their own legacy;

vi) a recognition by the authorities that information may be revealed from other countries (e.g. the USA, Germany and Russia), a process they cannot control, while that information may or may not be any more reliable than domestic archives;

vii) with the fading-away of uncontrollable ‘amateurs’ successfully telling their stories of war-time exploits, the new professional heads of intelligence agencies attempt to re-tighten the screws of security (this is a point made by Hugh Trevor-Roper in a 1981 letter to Lord Annan);

viii) an eventual, though sometimes reluctant, admission by the authorities that it is now acceptable for an ‘authorised’ or ‘official’ history to be told, and the commissioning of respectable and reliable scholars to perform exclusive research on security organizations;

ix) the appearance of authoritative-sounding such histories, which are incomplete, unverifiable, and frequently cite questionable facts or conclusions from works published in the controversial period;

x) the fostering of the belief that, now such an official history has been written, it can be viewed as reliable, and need not be examined or contested;

xi) the incorporation of such lore, both from official histories and semi-historical accounts, into such presumed reliable references as the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography;

xii) the declassification of archival material which, if inspected closely and properly synthesized, sheds doubts on some of the main assertions of the histories;

xiii) the tendency for new history-writing to drill down into horizontal cases of personal appeal rather than attempt to integrate more complex cross-disciplinary topics;

xiv) a mutually reinforcing admiration process between the experts and the authorised historians, who are reluctant to have their reputations spoiled by any admission of errors;

xv) a state of confusion, where the reading public is faced with a mixture of fact and fiction, finding it difficult to find bearings in a world of circular regurgitation of dubious reportage, conspiracy theories, fake news, and the chaotic aggregation of information on the Web.

xvi) the gradual disappearance of capable and affordable professionals chartered with acting as gatekeepers to maintain integrity in the historiography of Intelligence matters.

And I suppose that’s a good way of reminding myself why Coldspur exists.

Finally, I want to expand on this matter of ‘gatekeepers’. Shortly before I left Gartner Group in 1999, a case was made for opening up all of the company’s research on the Web, as ‘everybody was doing it’. I strongly resisted this, saying that anything given away for free would essentially be seen as valueless, and no better than anything else published there. It would have reduced Gartner’s business to a conference and consulting affair, rather than a leveraged product. To this day, I support strongly those on-line publishers who are subscription-based, and who presumably believe they can command decent fees through a commitment to excellence. On the other hand, I never make a charitable donation to any free site (such as the undisciplined and unreliable Wikipedia), since the outfit does not have a business model that drives quality, and I have no wish to encourage such unscholarliness.

Yet there are challenges in trying to compete with an advertising model. For example, in the Intelligence world, Taylor and Francis has acquired prominent publishers, and offers access to their on-line journals through subscriptions. These publications are in many ways essential reading for the serious analyst, but the fees are penal for the individual researcher not affiliated with an academic institution. (It was a long struggle to get hold of critical articles even when I was affiliated with the University of Buckingham.) I have suggested alternative plans to T & F (who also offer enhanced packages of National Archives material): the company has acknowledged the problem, but is inflexible.

I have an especial interest in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, which also offers a subscription service. Several years ago, I was commissioned to create an entry for the architect Gordon Kaufmann. (see http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/10.1093/ref:odnb/9780198614128.001.0001/odnb-9780198614128-e-98440) This exercise involved much self-education, the acquisition of a few books on architecture, some fee-based exploration of genealogy sites, visits to libraries in Palo Alto and London, and to a house in Sussex, email exchanges with historians of California, and some patient detective work. I was proud of the final result, which was well annotated, and closely inspected by the ODNB editor. The entry was used as a showcase sample to promote the new on-line version of the ODNB. I was paid a modest amount for my work, and offered a 50% reduction in fees for a year’s access to the electronic version of the Dictionary.

I had no complaints about this. I was very happy to perform the work, believing that it is becoming for those who have benefitted from the education system at Oxford (for example) to contribute to scholarship in what ways they can, even if the beneficiary is a commercial enterprise. That is one of the many ways the public (‘the little platoons’) assists in the continuity of Britain’s cultural heritage. I did not become a regular subscriber, however: I can drive thirty-five miles to the University of North Carolina library in Wilmington to inspect the on-line edition.

This, when I went, a few weeks ago, to look up the entry for Guy Liddell (see last month’s post), I was shocked and disgusted. The piece was riddled with errors, and looked as if had been composed in a couple of hours, without any editorial supervision. It debases the whole value principle of the ODNB. It would have been better not to have published any entry at all instead of this shoddy compilation. I have brought my dismay to the attention of my contact there, and received, a couple of weeks ago, an acknowledgment of my message. Since then – nothing. I await the next step with interest, and shall report what happens on coldspur.

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Guy Liddell, Eric Roberts and Kim Philby

The Cookridge Archive

Perspicacious readers will recall that in February of this year, I made the following observation concerning the irritatingly vague references given by the author of The Climate of Treason, Andrew Boyle:

“While I have not performed a cross-reference, I would hazard that most of the correspondence with these persons is to be found in the Boyle Archive, where individual letter-writers are clearly identified. Of this period, Boyle writes, for example (p 455, Note 15): “Confidential information to the author as attested in E. H. Cookridge’s notes from Guy Liddell of MI5.” One might react: What on earth was Liddell doing speaking to Cookridge? Did Cookridge (who died on January 1, 1979) ever publish an account of these confidences? Did Boyle consider, now that Liddell and Cookridge were both dead, that he could safely write about these secrets, or did he still fear the Wrath of White? I hope that a study of the correspondence with Cookridge will clear some of this up.”

E. H. Cookridge (born Ernest Philo)

I inquired of the Cambridge University Library about the availability of selections from the Boyle archive, and, at considerable expense, ordered a sample of photographs of items of Boyle’s correspondence, namely his exchanges with Isaiah Berlin, Malcolm Muggeridge and E. H. Cookridge. These arrived at the beginning of April, but were largely disappointing. I was, however, able to determine in what circumstances Cookridge had consulted Guy Liddell, and to establish what Liddell said to him (or, at least, what Cookridge claimed he said). Unfortunately, Boyle and Cookridge converse somewhat at cross-purposes, and the loose ends from their correspondence are never neatly tied up. Two questions that Boyle posed to Cookridge, on August 30, 1977, run as follows:

“3) Was the substance, or even outline, of the Krivitsky testimony ever made known? If not, why do people refer to it as though they were familiar with it?

4) In stating ‘I believe that originally Philby was introduced by Springall to Leonid Tolokovisky [sic]’, what is your evidence – or is this merely a hunch?”

Cookridge’s answers, given on September 5, were:

“3) Krivitsky referred to it in his book ‘I Was Stalin’s Agent’ (Hamish Hamilton, 1939) and I believe Elsa Poretsky mentions something about it when dealing with some detail with Krivitsky’s activities. I recall to have seen something of interest in Krivitsky’s testimony published in the House Reports of the Un-American Activities Committee. That was many years after his death.

4) No, it’s not just a hunch. But unfortunately the people who had good evidence are dead. One was Guy Maynard Liddell. He was Deputy Director of M.I.5 to Sir David Petrie, later head of B-division under Sir Percy Sillitoe from 1945 to about 1952. He later became Director of Security for the Atomic Energy Authority. In 1955 when the ‘Third Man’ business bust, he was asked to go to Washington and investigate Philby’s activities. He also knew – from the secret investigations conducted about Philby’s past – all about Philby. About a year or two before Liddell’s death (in 1960) I had a talk with him on a quite different subject. I intended to write about the suspected betrayal of the Arnhem operation. Liddell (with a captain of Mil. Intell. named Wall) interrogated the suspected Dutch traitor Christiaan Lindemans in November 1944 in Holland and then at a London ‘cage’ (020). I wanted to learn from what he got out of Lindemans and he did tell me a lot. In the course of our conversation we got to Philby (who had by then, of course, gone to Beirut). I told him that I knew Philby in Vienna and he told me that he knew Philby was recruited in London or Cambridge by a Russian agent of the Cagan [Cahan? : coldspur] team. I can’t remember whether he mentioned Tolokonsky (NOT Tolokovisky) and Aslakov. I was then not yet concerned with the Philby story. Much later I learned from Derek Mark, editor of the Daily Express (who had initiated the big hunt after Philby) that several of his reporters, particularly John Mather, found out that the controller of Philby was Tolokonsky. I believe the Daily Express did publish it there.”

The answer to ‘3’ famously misses the point. Boyle was assuredly referring to Krivitsky’s testimony given to his MI5 & SIS interrogators in January 1940, not what he declared to US Senate inquiries before he made his visit to the United Kingdom. This is remarkably obtuse of Cookridge, unless he seriously did not know about Krivitsky’s exploits with Jane Archer and company. As for Douglas ‘Dave’ Springhall, the communist spy jailed in 1943, I have no idea why Philby would ever have dealt with him, although some books do still claim, as did Cookridge, that it was Springhall who recruited Philby in 1933, acting as an intermediary for Tolokonsky and Cahan.

Yet it is Cookridge’s reference to Liddell’s visit to Washington that primarily intrigued me. Allowing for Cookridge’s mistakes over Liddell’s roles under Petrie and Liddell before he left MI5, as well as the date of Liddell’s death (1958), it is unlikely that he would have confused Liddell’s visit to Washington on March 14, 1946 (which is confirmed by USA archives) with a post-retirement voyage in 1955. It would have been unusual for Liddell to have been brought out of his retirement from MI5 to consult with Washington, unless Dick White (who was Director-General until 1956) believed that under cover, and because of previous relationships, it would be preferable to send out on a special assignment Guy Liddell than, say – ahem –  White’s deputy and successor, Roger Hollis.

The Philby Inquiry

This was a difficult year for the Philby inquiry. By then, MI5 leaders were convinced that he was the ‘Third Man’, but SIS was defending him. In August 1954, Vladimir Petrov had defected in Australia, and brought confirmation that Burgess and Maclean had been tipped off. Yet defining what action to take was a hazardous project. Moreover, the new head of SIS, John ‘Sinbad’ Sinclair, who had replaced Stewart Menzies in 1953, came to Philby’s defence, writing to Dick White on July 20, 1955 that the interrogation of Philby by Helenus Milmo had been biased, and that Philby was being unfairly treated. The story of Petrov’s defection broke on September 18, 1955, when the Royal Commission in Australia published its report, but Philby was given a soft interrogation by SIS on October 7, which infuriated Dick White.

Meanwhile, J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, who was convinced of Philby’s guilt, expressed similar frustration at Philby’s continuing to live scot-free and unchallenged. As Ben Macintyre reports in A Spy Among Friends, on Sunday, October 23, the New York Sunday News ran a story naming Philby as the Third Man. This publication led to the famous questions by Marcus Lipton in the House of Commons, Harold Macmillan’s feeble denial, and Philby’s eventual manipulation of the Press to convince them of his innocence. In his 1968 book The Third Man, Cookridge states that a journalist showed Lipton the story from the Sunday News, but says that the story was written by the paper’s London correspondent, ‘an American, known for his associations with the C.I.A.’  That could have been a blind, although the FBI agent Robert Lamphere, in his book The FBI-KGB War, tells us that the informant was his friend, the CIA’s Bill Harvey. Perhaps Liddell had been sent out as an emissary to Hoover to help stoke the fires, and fight the battle on White’s behalf without drawing SIS’s attention? Given the timing and the circumstances, it is difficult to project any other rationale, and this would follow a pattern (as I explain later). Liddell must have been very flattered.

The next question that must be posed is: was Liddell indeed the major source for Cookridge’s assertions in The Third Man? Describing Lipton’s question in the House of Commons, Cookridge informs us that Lipton remarked that he had further information but could not disclose it because it concerned ‘secret agents’, and that this observation was understood as meaning that it came from somebody in M.I.5.  Cookridge then laconically adds: “It is not for me to interpret Colonel Lipton’s remark, but we know now that he had good reason to believe his information was correct, thought whether it emanated from Dick White or the New York Sunday News must remain a matter of speculation.” In other words, in the vernacular of House of Cards: “You might say that, but I couldn’t possibly comment”.

Cookridge’s comments to Andrew Boyle suggest very strongly that Liddell was his source. In his Preface to The Third Man, Cookridge rather disingenuously attributes his ability to get a scoop to his work as a political journalist. Intriguingly, he says he started the book that very same year, 1955. “At that time (and for eleven years) I was the political correspondent of a British newspaper. Through my work in the Lobby of the House of Commons I had access to sources of information not available to the public. But because of the confidential nature of much of this information  . . .  I was compelled to put away the Philby manuscript.” Yet his confidence to Andrew Boyle twenty-two years later, when he probably suspected all had blown over, reveals an apparently critical role that Liddell played in disclosing MI5’s substantial evidence against Philby.

Who Recruited Philby?

This leads directly into another aspect that intrigued me, namely the reference to Cahan, and possibly Tolokonsky. A search of books that cite the fact that Philby was originally recruited by Cahan and Tolokonsky leads normally to Andrew Boyle as the source, and we can now see that Boyle relied on Cookridge, and Cookridge apparently on Liddell. In The Third Man Cookridge reported that Springhall, early in 1933 at a house in Rosary Gardens in London, introduced Kim Philby ‘to his new masters, Leonid Tolokonski [sic] and George Aslakoff, and there he received his initial briefing.’ The Soviet officers then (according to Cookridge) directed Philby to go to Vienna, to work as a courier ‘maintaining communications between the outlawed leaders of the Austrian Communists and GB agents in Vienna and the ‘foreign bureaus’ of the Comintern which functioned without interference in Prague’.

So why, the incident recollected in tranquillity, did Cookridge misrepresent what happened? When he wrote to Boyle that he could not recall whether Liddell mentioned Tolokonsky or Aslakoff, did he not have a copy of his book at hand? Perhaps when he wrote his book he was relying on the supposed publication of the ‘facts’ by the Daily Express rather than his briefing by Liddell. (I cannot find any Daily Express reference to Cahan on www.newspapers.com, but, of course, that does not mean that one did not exist.) It is thus impossible to ascertain whether the Daily Express received its information likewise from Liddell, who may have been on a mission to enlighten Fleet Street in MI5’s campaign against SIS.

Yet how did Liddell, if he was indeed aware of Philby’s recruitment, learn about it? There are no files for ‘Samuel Cahan’, ‘Tolokonsky’ or ‘Aslakoff’ at the National Archives. Christopher Andrew’s authorized history contains no reference to any of them. Nor do their names appear in the PEACH materials, as recently displayed in Cold War Spymaster (see last month’s blog). Anthony Cave-Brown does not refer to them in Treason in the Blood. Even that exhaustive and prodigious chronicler of Stalin’s espionage, Boris Volodarsky, in Stalin’s Agent, has only a fleeting sentence on Tolokonsky, recording his murder in Siberia in 1936. All of these phenomena are very puzzling, even disturbing. Is it possible that Liddell alone knew about the recruitment? After all, Cookridge told Boyle that ‘he’ (Liddell) knew about it, not that MI5 knew about it. Was that not an odd way for Liddell, and then Cookridge, to represent the lesson? It would appear that, if MI5’s senior officers were aware of the story, they managed to throw a wrap over it, and suppress any information that they held on the KGB or GRU officers in London. But why would they do that?

(The only other reference to Tolokonsky that I have found is in a novel based around Kim Philby and his Russian handler, given the name Orloff, titled A Spy In Winter, by one Michael Hastings, published in 1984. ‘Michael Hastings’ is a pseudonym of Michael Ben-Zohar, an Israeli historian born in Bulgaria, and the author has Orloff declare: “Until I came into the open, the British secret services believed that Maly and Tolokonsky had recruited and run Philby.” Whatever his sources were, Ben-Zohar’s text suggests that there was some substance behind the Tolokonsky claim. Of course, he may simply have used what he read in The Climate of Treason or The Third Man as a useful aid to authenticity. I have attempted to contact Ben-Zohar via his publisher, but, as so often happens in such cases, I have not even received an acknowledgment of my inquiry.)

If Liddell had exclusive knowledge, therefore, it could not have come from shared sources, such as Gouzenko or Petrov, unless he had private conversations with them. And there is no evidence of that. Candidates, therefore would have to include Krivitsky (with whom Liddell did have one-on-one discussions, the details of which were reacted from his Diaries) or maybe Douglas Springhall. Another candidate might be Fred Copeman, who was a close comrade of Springhall’s in 1933, but later turned respectable, and may have been an informer for MI5.

Krivitsky seems highly unlikely. I believe no mention of the triad of Cahan, Tolokovsky or Aslakoff appears in the transcripts of his interrogations. And 1940 would be very early for Liddell to receive a tip on Philby and do nothing about it. Moreover, Krivitsky had shown himself unwilling to reveal Philby’s identity as the journalist sent to Franco’s Spain under cover. Springhall is problematical. On my desktop computer, I have twenty-seven bulky PDFs from his files at the National Archives, which I have not yet inspected properly. They provide a fairly exhaustive account of his movements, but Special Branch did not appear to track him having a meeting with members of the Soviet Embassy in 1933. (Springhall did make a request to visit Cambridge in March of that year, however.) I suppose it is possible that Liddell had an interview with the communist activist at the time of his conviction in 1943, but it is improbable that a record of such a conversation has lain undiscovered. Somewhere in that archive (according to Springhall’s Wikipedia entry) is a suggestion that Springhall was working for the GRU from 1932 onwards, but locating that record is a task that will have to wait – unless any alert reader is already familiar with the whole of KV 2/2063-2065 & KV 2/1594-1598 . . .

Liddell and Eric Roberts

All this links to the third leg of this particular inquiry, which casts dramatic new light on the compelling question of whether British intelligence nourished stronger suspicions about the activities of the Cambridge Five well before they admitted so to the public. “It has been brought to my attention” (as Sir Edward Heath was accustomed to start his letters of complaint to the Spectator, presumably being too busy or too important to read the magazine himself), that, in other records recently declassified and released to the National Archives, Guy Liddell pointed out as early as 1947 that a spy existed in SIS.  This astonishing story concerns the MI5 officer, Eric Roberts, and the germ of it can be found on the MI5 website at https://www.mi5.gov.uk/eric-roberts-undercover-work-in-world-war-ii. A more detailed explanation can be seen in a BBC article posted back in 2015, where Christopher Andrew is quoted commenting on an extraordinary testimony that Eric Roberts left behind. The story can be inspected at https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358, and contains the dramatic statement: “In 1947 Roberts was seconded to Vienna to work with MI6, the Secret Intelligence Service. Before Roberts went, he spoke to Liddell. According to Roberts, Liddell warned him ‘there was a traitor operating at the highest level’ of the SIS.”

Before I analyse this vital claim, I need to step back and critique the way this story has been presented, as I think the whole issue of the ‘Fifth Column’ has been distorted., and that the MI5 bulletin contributes to the muddle. As you will see, the piece starts: “In the early part of WWII  . . .”, and goes on: “It was hoped by this means to ‘surface’ others of a similar pro-Nazi persuasion who might be capable of forming a fascist 5th Column – still a major source of anxiety for MI5 so long as invasion remained a threat.” Yet the narrative suddenly jumps to ‘early 1942’, when Eric Roberts’s role was decided, namely almost halfway through the war. Hitler had in fact called off the invasion by September 1940, and, though Britain had to prepare for it still throughout much of 1941, by the end of that year, the conditions of engagement had changed considerably. Both the Soviet Union and the United States had joined the Allies, and the focus was then on the question of when a so-called ‘Second Front’ (a misleading Soviet-inspired term, as Britain was already fighting the Germans on several fronts) would be opened, and a European invasion begun. Thus, with the Abwehr’s network of agents already controlled by the Double-Cross system, the manipulation of a rather tawdry set of Nazi sympathisers, in the belief that MI5 was warding off a dangerous threat, seems a somewhat quixotic and perhaps a merely futile exercise. This was no ‘Fifth Column’, since the Wehrmacht surely was unaware that any of these persons were active on its behalf, and the MI5 piece rightly suggests that they could probably not have been prosecuted because of the ‘spectre of provocation’.

The records of Eric Roberts and this adventure can be inspected at KV 2/3783 & 2/3784 in the National Archives. The latter is downloadable at no charge, and contains the myriad conversations between Roberts and his Nazi sympathisers that were recorded. Unfortunately, the former, which must contain the more interesting articles described in the BBC story, has not been digitized, and I have thus not yet been able to inspect it. (As I was completing this story for my press deadline, I heard from my researcher in London that the 14-page testimonial is not in the archive, but presumably owned by the Roberts family. Given the publicity on the MI5 and BBC sites, including Christopher Andrew’s provocative comments that appear below, it would seem that the family is seeking greater attention to Eric Roberts’s claims, so I am hopeful of gaining access via the BBC.) It also occurs to me that Kate Atkinson, whose novel Transcription I reviewed on this site a few months ago, exploits these recordings, and Henry Hemming, whose biography of Maxwell Knight, MI5’s Greatest Spymaster, I read when it came out in 2017, also describes the activities of Roberts. I should probably annotate my review of Atkinson’s work, although I think her timetable becomes even messier, given the period at which the events occurred. Hemming, whose approach to chronology is also a little wayward, in his concentration on Maxwell Knight, appears not to have exploited this mine of information.

Additionally, it was with some amusement that I read the MI5 comment: “For a variety of reasons, until very recently the story of her [Marita Perigoe’s] group and Eric Roberts’ achievements had gone largely unseen by MI5 historians and accordingly the significance of these events was unnoticed.” MI5 ‘historians’? Who might they be, I wonder? Since Andrew’s authorised history came out some six years before these files were released, did MI5 for some reason forget to draw the historian’s attention to their existence when our intrepid researcher was being walked round the archives? Would the MI5 spokesperson be prepared to explain what the ‘variety of reasons’ was? Was MI5 perhaps embarrassed at some of the revelations that came forth from the 14-page document that Andrew is quoted as describing in the following terms: “It’s the most extraordinary intelligence document I’ve ever seen. It’s 14 pages long – it will keep conspiracy theorists going for another 14 years”? Well, here is one professional conspiracy theorist who can’t wait to get his hands on it. If it is going to keep us busy, we have to see the document.

Yet it is Roberts’s friendship with Guy Liddell that is for me the most compelling aspect of the story. In 1947, before his secondment to Vienna, we learn that Eric Roberts was warned by his friend that ‘there was a traitor operating at the highest level of the SIS’. Roberts thus credited Liddell with helping him in an awkward situation, but, when he returned to London in 1949, and asked his friend whether the traitor had been identified, Liddell ‘evaded the question’. That is surely evidence that he was not alone in his suspicions, but had been told to clam up. If we inspect my Chronology above, it is clear that the predecessor event that might have convinced Liddell of the guilt of a senior officer in SIS would clearly have been the hapless attempt to defect from Istanbul, Turkey by Konstantin Volkov, on August 16, 1945. We now know of Philby’s manoeuvres to have the informant captured, with the result that Volkov was drugged and executed by Moscow before London could work out what was going on.  (This was before the notorious episode of Teddy Kollek, who had witnessed what Philby was up to in Vienna in 1934, being shocked by spotting Philby in a diplomatic role in Washington in 1949.) Did Liddell rumble Philby then? The reason that this question is so important is that conventional accounts of the ‘Third Man’ scandal have focused on the identification of Philby as a possible traitor only after the abscondment of Burgess and Maclean in 1951.

I present Liddell’s relevant Diary entry for October 5, 1945 in its entirety: “The case of the renegade WOLKOFF in the Soviet Embassy in Istanbul has broken down. In accordance with instructions he was telephoned to at the Soviet consulate. The telephone was answered by the Russian Consul-General on the first occasion and on the second by a man speaking English claiming to be WOLKOFF but clearly was not. Finally, contact was made with the Russian telephone operator who said that WOLKOFF had left for Moscow. Subsequent enquiries showed that he and his wife left by plane for Russia on Sept.26. Wolkoff had ovvered [sic: ‘offered’] to give a very considerable amount of information but much of it appeared to be in Moscow. WOLKOFF estimated that there were 9 agents in London of one of whom was said to be the ‘head of a section of the British counter-espionage service’. WOLKOFF said he could also produce a list of the known regular NKGB agents of the military and civil intelligence and of the sub-agents they employed. In the list are noted about 250 known or less well known agents of the above-mentioned services with details. Also available were copies of correspondence between London and General Hill of SOE in Moscow. WOLKOFF maintained that the Soviet authorities had been able to read all cypher messages between our F.O. and Embassy in Moscow and in addition to Hill’s messages [line redacted] the Russians had according to WOLKOFF two agents inside the F.O. and 7 inside the British Intelligence Service.”

Does this indicate that he believed that Philby was the guilty party? Maybe he was already starting to question why such a valuable potential operation had suddenly turned so sour. We should also recall that Jane Archer, the author of the Krivitsky report, had returned to MI5, probably at the beginning of 1946, from working for Philby in Section V of SIS. It seems inconceivable that she and Liddell would not have discussed her previous boss, the Volkov incident, and maybe started to look more closely at Philby’s career. Archer would have been fascinated by the information revealed in Liddell’s diary entry, and Philby, who wrote of her knowledge of the ‘journalist in Spain’ in My Silent War, might have been alarmed by her return to MI5. Did Liddell also discuss the affair with Dick White? Not so certainly, but White (who was by now taking charge of MI5, as I explained in last month’s report, and moving to squeeze out his mentor at the top) may have cautioned him to silence, unaware that Liddell had shared his suspicions with Roberts. With Blunt (as I confidently assert) recently unmasked in MI5, and Philby a strong suspect in SIS, White may have felt that they could control the poison – and preserve the reputation of the service. As we see, Liddell was going to have to suppress his suspicions when his friend Roberts returned from Vienna, suggesting that he was not alone in harbouring serious doubts about Philby’s loyalties, but that pressure was being applied not to rock the boat. That was not the behavior of a Soviet mole, but of a weak and frightened man.

Confusion in Washington

Moreover, my overseas informant (who wishes to remain anonymous) has pointed out to me a dramatic new twist to the story. In the 1967 Sunday Times article that broke the Philby story, there appears a provocative statement concerning Philby after the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean in May 1951. It runs as follows: “The weekend after the defection, a four-man team, led by G. A. Carey-Foster, the head of Q-Branch in the Foreign Office, flew to Washington and questioned Philby. Almost immediately afterwards Philby was withdrawn from his post as CIA/SIS liaison officer: apart from any suspicions the British had, the Americans were no longer prepared to deal with him.” If this were true, the team presumably flew out to forestall any attempt by Philby to defect, which must have meant that MI5 and the Foreign Office harboured deep suspicions about Philby’s loyalties, and were very quick to adopt a ‘Third Man’ theory. So what happened to this story? The cavalcade of events constitutes an excellent example of the importance of Chronology.

Surprisingly, the claim does not appear in the 1968 book that followed the Sunday Times article – The Philby Conspiracy, by the Sunday Times journalists Bruce Page, David Leitch and Phillip Knightley. In fact, the only publication where I have been able to find the story duplicated is in that now familiar compendium, E. H. Cookridge’s The Third Man, where he wrote (p 208): “What followed was a world sensation. Sir Percy Sillitoe flew to Washington six days after the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean; he was preceded by a team, led by Mr. Carey-Foster, sent to interrogate Philby.” This account, if only partially true (Sillitoe did not fly out until two weeks after the spies’ absence was noticed), would tend to confirm the preparedness of British security organs to spring into action. But where did Cookridge get his information from? The Sunday Times? Or the same source who provided it to the newspaper? It is not clear, and, unless the Cookridge archive can shed light on the matter, we shall probably never know.

The circumstances of Philby’s departure from the USA at that time are represented inconsistently in the literature. Perhaps the most detailed account of the goings-on is S. J. Hamrick’s 2004 opus Deceiving the Deceivers. Hamrick was a former US intelligence officer who believed that MI5 and the Foreign Office had deceived the British public – and the CIA – about their investigation into Maclean and Philby. Unfortunately, Hamrick, who compiled a detailed chronicle of the events leading up to Burgess and Maclean’s disappearance, spun a yarn that had Dick White and the RAF trying to use Philby in an extravagant operation to feed false information on atomic weapons to the Soviets. This fantasy was deftly dissected and trashed by Nigel West himself, in a review titled ‘Who’s Fooling Who?’, which appeared in the International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence in 2006. (Yet West lists the work as a source in Cold War Spymaster, without any explanation why a work that he has panned elsewhere has suddenly become worthy of being recommended to his readership. A very bizarre practice, which must be condemned.) The account of Philby’s departure is quite clear, however: he received a telegram recalling him to London before Sillitoe and Martin flew out, and arrived the day they left London.

As I delved more deeply into the various accounts of Philby’s recall in early June 1951 (I have made notes from about twenty), I realized that the whole saga is more complicated, more puzzling, and more disturbing than I ever imagined. I cannot possibly do justice do it in this report, and shall have to dedicate a whole future instalment of coldspur to the full exploration of the inconsistencies. It may not surprise readers to learn that one of the latest renderings, Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, Defend the Realm (2009), despite having all the records at the author’s disposal, seems to me to have got the timetable dramatically wrong. (Chronology again!) On the other hand, the supposed visit to Washington by Carey Foster and his team may be purely mythical – and may not matter much. So I shall here simply outline my main findings and conclusions.

First, let us step back a bit. Just before Kim Philby was posted to Washington in September 1949, as the liaison for British intelligence with the US government, he was briefed by Maurice Oldfield, deputy head of counter-intelligence in SIS, about the VENONA project. This programme, by which certain wartime cables between Moscow and outlying embassies had been (partially) decrypted by US and GB teams, had by then thrown up the cryptonym HOMER as an important source of highly sensitive information passed on to the Soviets. It was Philby’s job to assist the FBI in identifying possible suspects. Given that the ‘Foreign Office’ spy (namely Maclean) had been identified, but not named, by Krivitsky, it took an unconscionably long time for British intelligence to whittle down the candidates for this breach to Maclean himself. MI5 would later claim that only in April 1951 could HOMER’s identity be firmly nailed on to Maclean, after which the bumbling investigation (hindered by the Foreign Office) sputtered along so ineptly that it allowed Burgess and Maclean to escape on May 25.

The whole point of the investigation was to delay and prevaricate. Yet, when the story broke to the astounded FBI and CIA, MI5 had to act fast to try to restore confidence. The records point dominantly to the fact that Percy Sillitoe, the Director-General of MI5, accompanied by one of his junior officers, Arthur Martin, flew out to Washington the same day that Philby, who had been recalled, flew into Heathrow (June 12). (Philby had given the impression to his friends, such as James Angleton, that he would be returning.) Yet the files at the National Archives in Kew show that this goodwill trip had been planned before Burgess and Maclean escaped, as part of the charm offensive that MI5 knew it would have to undertake when Maclean was brought in for questioning. The days June 12/13 had already been chosen, at the planning meeting for the interrogation of Maclean, on May 23, as the dates to speak to Hoover. The records show that Sillitoe intended to inform Hoover of the name of the ‘principle suspect’.

In the changed circumstances, however, with the renegades escaping under MI5’s noses, a different strategy was required. Arthur Martin brought a sharp seven-point memorandum with him, which he apologetically shared with his FBI contact Robert Lamphere, while his chief had a meeting with his counterpart, Edgar Hoover. This report listed some major damning reasons why Philby was seen as a security risk, and clearly would be interpreted as putting an end to his career with SIS. Lamphere documented them (in The FBI-KGB War) as follows:

  1. Maclean, Burgess and Philby had all been communists at Cambridge
  2. Philby had become pro-German to build his cover story
  3. Philby had married the communist Litzi Friedman
  4. Krivitsky had pointed to a journalist in Spain (who was in fact Philby)
  5. Philby was involved in the Volkov affair
  6. Philby was involved in infiltrating Georgian agents into Armenia
  7. Philby was suspected in assisting in the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean.

It had presumably not been the plan to open up so blatantly when preparations for the visit were originally made. Yet Sillitoe did not take this memorandum to Hoover.

The CIA Takes Charge?

When Bedell Smith, the head of the CIA, heard of the Burgess-Maclean fiasco, he apparently asked his lieutenants to write up reports on what they knew about Philby. Even though there had been no deep briefing of the CIA by Sillitoe and Martin, one of Smith’s officers, Bill Harvey, responsible for countering Soviet espionage, used information which was uncannily similar to that supplied by Martin to give meat to his account. James Angleton, the other prominent agent, wrote more about the rude behavior of Burgess in Washington, but was overall more forgiving of Philby. Bedell Smith then wrote to Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, insisting that Philby never represent the British government again – as if he had been unaware of the Martin submission. What is most critical for this story, however, is the fact that Harvey’s report was dated June 18, the day Sillitoe and Martin returned to London after their conversations with their counterparts in the FBI. Philby was already out of the country.

It is important to note a few important aspects of Philby’s recall. The first concerns the fact that Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, very quickly sent a recall message to Philby after his friends had fled. That would suggest that Menzies, who was later to become a stout defender of this high-flying officer, at the time had doubts about him – perhaps because some analysts were suggesting that Philby was ‘STANLEY’ in the VENONA decrypts – and recognized that Philby was a security risk. Yet a disturbing part of the recall was the unusual behavior of Menzies, in that he first sent a letter to Philby, in which he warned him that an official telegram would soon be arriving. Some interpreters of this (e.g. Hamrick) have suggested that this was an alert for Philby to indicate that he should fly the coop if he wanted to. It is difficult to imagine Menzies taking advice on this matter from anyone else.

As Genrikh Borovik recorded in The Philby Files (1994) (and confirmable in KV 6/143 at Kew) Philby was also asked by MI5, by telegram, to contribute an opinion on the Burgess and Maclean affair before the letter from Menzies came through. He sent two messages back, of which the second, dated June 6,is on file, and danced a cautiously informative line, dropping hints about the pair’s possible association and friendship, and identifying possibly incriminating property (a sun-lamp, a camera, books by Stalin) in Burgess’s possession. It was crafted to provide just enough awareness to show a degree of observation, but not enough to have implicated himself.

Hamrick reports that the letter-carrier was one John Drew, who ‘happened to be leaving for Washington on official business’, and that the letter had been written at Menzies’ request. “The purpose was to warn Philby of the coming cable recalling him to London so he could quickly pack up and hustle out of town before Percy Sillitoe arrived for his talks with J. Edgar Hoover. MI6 wanted to make sure Philby was beyond Hoover’s grasp and unavailable for FBI interrogation.” That sounds fraudulent and unlikely to me: why on earth would Philby, as an SIS employee, have to submit to interrogation by the FBI? If accurate, however, it also shows that Menzies was aware of the planned Sillitoe visit: Patrick Reilly, identified as ‘SIS Foreign Office Adviser’, attended the vital planning meeting on May 24 at which the timetable was laid out. Reilly had also been Menzies’s private secretary during the war, so Menzies would quickly have learned all that was going on. Reilly (who was the gentleman selected to prepare, a few years later, the lie to the House of Commons about Burgess’s career with the Foreign Office) could have also been called ‘Foreign Office SIS Adviser’.

Another significant fact is that Philby maintained cordial relations with his contacts in the CIA (for example, James Angleton) right up to his departure. That would indicate that the CIA did not connect any dots until after he had left, for whatever reason, and that Bill Harvey’s work on building a case against Philby did not occur until Sillitoe and Martin had arrived in Washington. No record of Harvey’s report to Bedell Smith, which has received so much attention in the various accounts of this period, exists. Gordon Corera, in The Art of Betrayal (2012) informs us that he made repeated requests through the Freedom of Information Act, but came up with nothing. (Corera, by the way, is another historian who ignores the chronology: he has ‘Washington’ insisting that Philby leave.)

Moreover, Corera also has Harvey sending his memorandum not to Smith, but to Allen Dulles, who was Deputy-Director of Plans at that time. Yet this was assuredly a different memorandum. The Cleveland Cram Archive at George Washington University reveals that Harvey and Angleton probably submitted two separate memoranda: when Jack Easton of SIS returned to Washington in July, he pointed out that Sillitoe had been given these memoranda by the CIA, and that the one written by Harvey claimed that Philby was ‘ELLI’. That assertion was not part of the Martin-Lamphere-Harvey communication, and it would appear clear that Harvey had been instructed not to let the Director-General of MI5 see the infamous memorandum with the seven points. In addition, the missive to Dulles was dated June 15, while that to Smith was written two days earlier, immediately after Lamphere’s meeting with Martin.

Christopher Andrew is another of those observers who assert that Philby was recalled because of Bedell Smith’s ‘prompt’ action in demanding Philby’s recall, and that such a demand then required Sillitoe to travel to Washington to mollify Bedell Smith! Moreover, Andrew makes no reference to the seven-point memorandum which Lamphere clearly described in his book, published as early as 1986. Even Anthony Cave Brown, not regarded as the most reliable of historians, reflected the Martin disclosures, in his 1994 epic Treason in the Blood, although he suggested that the dossier on Philby was created by Martin in a rush, when he inspected the records on Philby only after Burgess and Maclean were shown to have flown (May 28) –  a highly improbable scenario. While a fresh decision was no doubt made to communicate its contents to Lamphere, the dossier had surely been compiled beforehand. Nigel West, in his recent Coldwar Spymaster (see last month’s report) quotes Liddell’s diary entry of June 18, when he shares Sillitoe’s statement of regret that the FBI had not been shown the shortlist, but otherwise does not explain the circumstances by which this memorandum was created and passed on.

The comments in Liddell’s diary indicate a highly significant and devious plot, however.  On June 14, he reports that Sillitoe has sent in a telegram, ‘saying that the CIA are already conducting enquiries about Philby, whom they regard as persona non grata, and that the FBI may take up the running before long. He [Sillitoe] thinks, however, that we should disclose to the FBI now that Kim’s first wife was a Communist’. Liddell was doubtful about providing this information, and recorded that the decision should be left to Sillitoe: “.  . .  he should make it clear that no proper assessment of Philby’s position has so far been possible.” Apart from the absurdity of the Director-General of MI5 having to telegram home for instructions (I cannot see J. Edgar Hoover calling back from Topeka, Kansas to ask his subordinates ‘What should I do?’), Liddell’s state of ignorance would seem to be confirmed.

Given that Martin had just informed Lamphere of the fact of Philby’s first marriage, as one of the seven points, it would appear to prove that (unless Liddell had been creating fake entries for posterity) i) Liddell himself knew nothing of Martin and his seven points; ii) Sillitoe knew nothing of the seven points, and iii) Lamphere could be trusted not to have shared what he was told with his colleagues at the FBI. The only person who could have managed this whole exercise was Dick White. As it turned out, Sillitoe went on to have a meeting with Bedell Smith, but since he had been deliberately kept in the dark about the mission of his sidekick Martin, it is safe to assume that he could have told Bedell Smith nothing about MI5’s dossier on Philby. Ironically, as late as June 27, Liddell records in his diary that White ‘has agreed a memorandum with SIS on the subject of Kim Philby, which is to go to the FBI’. Dick White must have struggled to keep a straight face.

The American side of the story is equally bizarre, with the CIA’s Bill Harvey clearly trying to steal the thunder, claiming he had come to his conclusions about Philby while stuck in traffic on the way to work. (In his 2001 Secret History of the CIA Joseph J. Trento relates an alternative version which Harvey used to tell his team in Berlin, where he was posted in 1953 – that the breakthrough occurred while he was sitting in the barber’s chair: maybe he had trouble remembering his legend.) Harvey was an unusual character, in that he had been recruited from the FBI in 1950 after he had effectively been fired from Hoover’s organisation, probably because a hangover caused him to miss an appointment. Trento, citing William R. Corson, offers a more dramatic explanation – that Hoover set up the incident, so that he could infiltrate Harvey into the CIA as a mole. Whether that is true or not, Harvey had also been enraged when Guy Burgess drew an unflattering caricature of his wife at a party hosted by the Philbys. The story of his epiphany comes from the very influential, but woolly and unreliable 1980 book, Wilderness of Mirrors, by the journalist David Martin, who echoed the claim that Bedell Smith gathered Angleton’s and Harvey’s reports, and let Menzies know that Philby was no longer welcome in Washington. Martin went on to write, in blissful ignorance of what his namesake Arthur had provided, that MI5, ‘working from Harvey’s premise’ then compiled a dossier against Philby that included the seven points of light. “I have toted [sic] up the ledger and the debits outnumber the assets’, he had the head of MI5 (i.e. not Menzies, but Sillitoe) then informing the CIA in response. Wilderness of Mirrors builds up a paean to Harvey as ‘the man who unmasked Philby’ and upstaged his rival James Angleton, the start of a lifelong reputation that was then reinforced by everyone who read Martin’s book: it was all a sham.

In his profile of Philby, The Master Spy (1982), Phillip Knightley (who interviewed his subject in Moscow) manages to record both anecdotes in the space of two pages – Harvey’s extraordinary insight, and the fact that Lamphere was informed by Arthur Martin of the seven points – without recognizing the paradox. Moreover, he also echoes David Martin’s absurd claim that White then endorsed the Bedell Smith report by compiling its own dossier on Philby.  As a weird adjunct to his written testimony, Lamphere then informed Knightley that Martin was accompanied by White himself in a visit to Washington after the Bedell submission, and thereby convinced him of Philby’s guilt! Knightley’s account is typical of this genre in showing an utterly undisciplined approach to chronology, an impressionability to unreliable sources, and a lack of rigorous methodology to sort out conflicts.

Lamphere thus seemed to contradict himself, sealing the fact of his complicity in the plot. As further evidence, Lamphere, who documented the Arthur Martin revelations in 1986, appeared not to object to this flagrant distortion of the truth when Burton Hersh, in The Old Boys (1992) regurgitated this story that appeared in the more definitive history of the CIA, John Ranelagh’s The Agency (1986). The CIA and the FBI were fierce rivals, and culturally very different. Why would he not call out his vainglorious counterpart, and correct the record? (Questioning the possible motives of participants is another aspect of my methodology.) Probably because Harvey was his friend and ally, and they agreed that it was the best way of getting rid of the odious Philby.

Dick White’s Plot

My theory about this is, therefore, that Lamphere knew that a wily plot was under way, and went along with it to enhance the CIA’s reputation. I suspect that Dick White, alerted by Liddell (and maybe by the very astute Maurice Oldfield, an SIS officer who had come to similar conclusions about Philby, but was not yet influential enough to challenge Menzies) crafted the policy of leaking a dossier on Philby to the CIA via Lamphere, so that the CIA could challenge SIS on it, thus deflecting the source of the attack away from MI5. Since Harvey was an ex-FBI man, he had a special relationship with his former colleague: he and Lamphere were old friends. The CIA had been depressed by its recent failed exploits in Albania, with which Philby had been involved, and MI5 was in no shape to make any open criticisms of SIS, what with the Fuchs fiasco fresh in its collective minds. What better way for MI5 of raising its esteem in the opinion of the CIA, and diverting attention to the misfortunes of SIS, than enabling the passing on to the CIA secret information with which it could assail SIS, and secure Philby’s demise?

Thus Lamphere became a willing participant in the scheme, and remained silent. In his book, he very smoothly elides over Harvey’s ‘breakthrough’: “In the summer of 1951, in my in-service lectures to FBI field agents, I was discussing Philby as a major spy; simultaneously, over at the CIA, Bill Harvey and Jim Angleton had no doubts about Philby’s perfidy.” He says nothing about Harvey’s ‘Aha!’ moment when stuck in traffic. He subdued his ego for the greater cause. By 1986, however, he no doubt felt that it was safe to explain what really happened. Yet no one picked him up: instead we read all these stories, no doubt encouraged by the CIA, of MI5 responding to the shrewd insights of its operatives by compiling its dossier on Philby in response to the CIA’s breakthroughs.

MI5 was thus clearly trying to play a very cagey game, no doubt inspired by Dick White rather than the bemused Sillitoe or the cautious Liddell, playing off the Foreign Office and SIS, and attempting to curry favour with the CIA, minimizing MI5’s culpability in the sluggish investigation into HOMER. The service surely had compiled a dossier on Philby much earlier (as the Roberts-Liddell exchanges will probably confirm), and many commentators, such as Hamrick, imply that the study of the VENONA texts had led White and co. to Maclean much earlier than MI5 later claimed. SIS’s passivity in the whole affair is a bit surprising, unless Menzies and White (acting on behalf of the confused Sillitoe) had done a deal whereby they would quietly ‘bury’ Philby in the same way that White and Liddell had smothered any disclosures about Anthony Blunt and Leo Long. Yet the fact that Menzies sent his emissary Jack Easton out to Washington in July to explain to Bedell Smith that Philby’s only identified transgression so far had been to board Guy Burgess in his Washington home indicated that SIS was probably not aware of the beans that had been spilled by Arthur Martin earlier.

As for Liddell, it was surprising that he was not sent on the mission with Sillitoe – after all, he was Sillitoe’s deputy, was nominally in charge of the investigation, and knew as much as anybody about Soviet espionage – but maybe he was considered not devious enough, and might have betrayed the fact that he had harboured suspicions about Philby for some years already. White may have therefore manoeuvered Martin into the assignment, as a less imaginative spokesperson. Yet Tom Bower’s biography of White, The Perfect English Spy, offers a different explanation. The account of these weeks is a chronological disaster, as White clearly wanted to deceive his interlocutor. The future head of MI5 and SIS gave his biographer a complete tissue of lies, not only massively confusing the timetable of events, but omitting some vital aspects of the story. Again, this episode merits a report of its own, and I need to interweave the claimed chronology with my previous account of Liddell’s meetings with Rees and Blunt (see http://www.coldspur.com/donald-macleans-handiwork ), so I shall just highlight the main travesties here.

Among the distortions, Bower has White approaching John Sinclair, the deputy-director of SIS, after Sillitoe’s return from the USA, requesting that Philby be brought back to England for questioning, while indicating that Philby was not under suspicion at that time. He makes no mention of the detailed plans for visiting Washington that Kew has now disclosed, most significantly overlooking the dossier that Arthur Martin shared with Lamphere, instead saying that Martin’s conversations with Lamphere ‘were focused on Burgess’. Instead, White has himself and Martin compiling the dossier after the request to Philby went out. Moreover, he repeats the story of the letter of warning to Philby before the telegram, but again, being sent after Sillitoe and Martin had returned. It is apparent, also, that White told Bower that he wanted Liddell out of the investigation because of Liddell’s associations with Burgess and his injudicious meeting with Blunt, and Liddell’s foolish request to Blunt to open Burgess’s flat to look for clues and correspondence.

White hints broadly to his biographer that Liddell came under suspicion as a Soviet spy, yet on January 2, 1980, he would declare (as reported by the Canberra Times) that “Any suggestion that Liddell was a Russian agent is the most awful, rotten nonsense. I knew him well and never had the slightest doubt about his good faith.” What is also remarkable is the evidence, in the Cleveland Cram files, that, when White came over to Washington in January 1952, he admitted to Scott, Dulles and Wisner in the CIA that Philby had been spying for the Soviets up until 1945, but had then ‘probably stopped’ his activities. That was an extraordinarily reckless statement to make, especially in view of the fact that MI5 had not elicited a confession from Philby, and that Harold Macmillan would go on to clear him, to the House of Commons, in 1955. It was overall a very slippery, mendacious performance by White in trying to put a positive seal on his legacy, concealing the bulk of the facts, and shifting the blame to Liddell when he, White, was just as responsible as his mentor. After all, if, as I claim is true, Blunt and Leo Long were discovered spying in 1944, White and Liddell should both have steered very clear of Blunt in 1951. ‘Dick White – A Re-assessment’ is urgently required.

But why MI5 thought that it had to bow to Foreign Office pressure, and could get away honourably, and without detection, with showing Lamphere the seven-point memorandum while concealing it from Hoover remains a puzzlement. It is all very amateurish, suggesting perhaps that the Foreign Office, which in May had been insistent that Martin not tell the FBI that Maclean was a suspect, was in on the ruse, perhaps believing that it would move attention away from Maclean to Philby. The whole saga demands further analysis.

Conclusion (for now)

In conclusion, therefore, it would appear that the judgments made against Philby by Liddell in 1947 were indeed shared, but suppressed. If there is one continuous theme to my research, it is the fact that awareness of the Cambridge Five’s treachery existed well before the authorities admitted it: Burgess with the Comintern in 1940, Blunt in 1944, Philby by 1947, Cairncross in 1952, and Maclean in 1949 – or even earlier. We also have new dimensions to Liddell’s career – an insider who guessed too much too soon in 1947, a senior officer, during the vital Philby inquiry in 1951, being pushed aside and outwitted by someone who would vanquish him in the competition for Director-General a year later, and then a possible secret assignment for the same erstwhile colleague in 1955, after his retirement from MI5. And was he perhaps an articulate and expert source to favoured journalists, trying to get the hidden facts revealed in some way without his fingerprints detectable on the medium?

The irony is that E. H. Cookridge, of all observers, because of his first-hand knowledge of Philby’s activities in Vienna, should be the one to learn from Liddell of Philby’s recruitment before he set out for Austria. The conversation must have been two-way: no doubt Cookridge helped fill in the background to Philby’s communist agitation for Liddell. In 1968, however, with Liddell dead, Cookridge still felt he could not identify his source when he wrote The Third Man, but no doubt sensed the sands of time were running out when he communicated with Andrew Boyle in 1977. There is work to do: trying to inspect travel records for 1955, having a look at the  photographs of KV 2/3783, applying to the BBC for access to Roberts’s testimonial, wading through the voluminous Springhall files myself, tracking down those CIA memoranda, reading Bayard Stockton’s biography of Bill Harvey, Flawed Patriot, applying some more rigorous structure to the events of May and June 1951 (including re-inspecting KV 6/143, and attempting to integrate Dick White’s erroneous chronology), and, maybe most significant of all, gaining access to the Cookridge archive at McMaster University in Hamilton, Ontario. Is there anyone out there who can help with that last task?

Oh, and by the way, is there anyone in MI5 or SIS keeping tabs on coldspur? If such a person has any questions – or any tips – you know how to get hold of me.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Personal, Politics

Guy Liddell: A Re-Assessment

Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell’s ‘Guardian’ – Nigel West

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

Nigel West

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

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

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

Guy Liddell, the Diaries and MI5

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

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

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

David Petrie

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

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

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

Percy Sillitoe

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Cold War Spymaster’

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

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

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

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

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

Expert, Administrator or Leader?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Donald McCormick (aka Richard Deacon)

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

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

‘The Greatest Treason’

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

Another Chance

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

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

Dick White

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Re-Assessing Liddell

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Special Bulletin: In Search of Henry Hardy

Regular readers will know that Isaiah Berlin has featured prominently in my research. His planned trip to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1940 was what triggered the course of study leading to my doctoral thesis; my article in History Today, ‘The Undercover Egghead’, analysed his role in intelligence; his study of Marx and Marxism plays a pivotal role in Misdefending the Realm, where I also record his wartime activities, including his somewhat shady dealings with the Soviet agent Gorsky; I have written about his private life in ‘Isaiah in Love’, and in ‘Some Diplomatic Incidents’, both posted on this website.

Isaiah Berlin

Throughout this time Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor, and the man largely responsible for bringing Berlin’s writings to orderly publication, and a broader audience, has been very helpful to me, providing me with unpublished source material, and answering my questions. He attended the seminar on Berlin that I held at the University of Buckingham, and I had the pleasure of travelling to the Wirral to visit him a few years ago. Yet Henry has, quite naturally, been a little suspicious of my motives, thinking that I was perhaps a ‘conspiracy theorist’ (true, in a way), and he has probably not agreed with all my conclusions about the qualities of Berlin’s thought, or the judiciousness of some of his actions. I believe I can confidently state, however, that he respects the seriousness of my methods, and my commitment to scholarship.

Henry Hardy

Last year, Henry published a book titled In Search of Isaiah Berlin, in which he describes his decades-long relationship with Berlin, and his struggles (as they must surely be called) to bring Berlin’s papers to a state ready for publication and see them into print. (He had already kindly sent me some of these works that I had not already acquired.) A philosopher himself, Henry also records the exchanges he had with Berlin in trying to understand exactly what lay behind the ideas his mentor espoused, attempting to resolve what appeared to him to be contradictions.

The book recently became available in the USA, and I have now read it. While enjoying the saga of Henry’s activities as an editor, I must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the essence and outcome of the philosophical debate. (I am probably a little jealous, too, that Henry’s book has received far more attention in the press than has Misdefending the Realm, but that must be due both to Henry’s energies and the fact that Berlin is still regarded as a national treasure.)

‘In Search of Isaiah Berlin’ by Henry Hardy

Henry’s reflections concern some of Berlin’s more controversial assertions, especially those about the universality of human nature, and the nature of pluralism. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a deep discussion in the second part of Henry’s book, the paradoxes arising from Berlin’s writings that particularly interested me could be stated as follows:

  1. Are human values in some way universal, and thus shared? If so, whence do they derive? And should we treat behavior that appears essentially as ’evil’ as still ‘human’?
  2. How does a pluralist outlook relate to the national culture to which it belongs, and how should it treat dogmas that ruthlessly reject such a compromising worldview?
  3. Can pluralism function as a remedy against relativism, namely the view that values have no standing outside the society or person who espouses them?

Berlin appeared to cherish some thoughts about the objectivity of such a common core of values across humanity, but provided little evidence, and Henry’s earnest and well-framed questions frequently drew no convincing response from Berlin. I was somewhat alarmed at the fuzziness of all of this, and accordingly organised some thoughts to send to Henry, to which he generously replied. That exchange comprises this Special Bulletin. Henry’s comments appear in bold in the passage below.

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Dear Henry,

Congratulations on the publication of In Search of Isaiah Berlin. I enjoyed the story of your quest. I wonder: will we soon read a parody by David Taylor in Private EyeHope springs eternal …

I was prompted by the intensity of your debate, and my own exposure to IB’s writings, to record a few reactions, not exactly random, but not comprehensive or fully-formed, either. (I have not studied what sociologists have no doubt written about these issues.)

The dominant thought that occupied me was that, if the great thinker’s ideas needed to be explained by his amanuensis, and yet that interpreter could not find any consistency or coherence in them That’s an exaggeration: my difficulties are local, and I believe resolvable, though not, it seems, by IB at that stage of his life, when his mind had begun to rigidify, then perhaps the ideas were not that outstanding in the first place. Some critics have called out IB for humbuggery, but, now having read your book, I am more convinced that IB accepted that he was not a great or original thinker, and was indeed surprised by the attention, acclaim, and awards that he received. Yes, I think he meant it, though he was not too keen when one agreed too readily.

What also struck me was a disappointing vagueness in the terminology used in the discourse. That point is well taken, and indeed I make it myself in the book (e.g. p. 207). But to some extent vagueness goes with the territory: ‘Out of the vague timber of humanity no precise thing was ever made’, one might say. This point was made by Aristotle: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.’ Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1094b.24. IB himself is aware of this point: I could look for the references if you wanted them. But the main message is that human affairs do not lend themselves to the same precision as the sciences. You may recall that, in Misdefending the Realm, I wrote of IB’s book on Marx: “In his method and style, Berlin echoes much of Marx’s verbosity, and displays an unexpected lack of precision in his references to such concepts as ‘civilisation’, ‘class’, ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘community’, ‘people’, ‘group’, ‘culture’, ‘age’, ‘epoch’, ‘milieu’, ‘country’, ‘generation’, ‘ideology’, ‘social order’, and ‘outlook’, which terms all run off the page without being clearly defined or differentiated.” I am not sure that watertight definitions of these terms are possible; but of course one should use them with all due care. (I also asserted that the book was ‘erudite, but not really scholarly’ – an opinion with which Professor Clarke of All Souls and the University of Buckingham agreed. I agree too. Did you really find it ‘brilliant’ (p 61)? Yes, in the sense that he gets inside Marx’s skin and understands what makes him tick: far more important, in my opinion, than getting the references right. Sadly, I saw this pattern repeated in many of the exchanges you had with IB. What does it mean, for example, to wish that humanity could have ‘moral or metaphysical unity’ My phrase not IB’s: I meant living in a shared moral and conceptual world (p 251)? Who are ‘normal human beings’ (p 177)? That is the $64,000 question, to which chunks of this book, and all of the next one, are/will be devoted. It was also one of IB’s recurring themes, of course, but it is not an easy one: he appeals to ‘A general sense of what human beings are like – which may well not merely have gaps but be seriously mistaken in places – but that cannot be helped: all vast generalisations of this kind are neither avoidable nor demonstrable’ (p. 189).

 I also found the debate all very abstract. That may be a valid criticism. My own default methodological rule is to give at least one concrete example of every abstract point, but I expect I fail to do this reliably in the book. However, part of the problem is that IB and I have a more philosophical temperament than you do, as a historian. That’s why I invited unphilosophical readers to skip chapters 9–11. Do you not agree that it could have benefitted from more real-world examples? Probably (see above). Perhaps some references to research being performed in more scientific disciplines than philosophy, such as anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, or even history, and the dreaded sociology? Perhaps, but a leading burden of IB’s song is that human studies are generically different from scientific ones, and this means that there is a limit to how far the latter can throw light on the former. Some disciplines are partly hybrids between the two, including those IB mentions on p. 189; and he always insisted that science should be used to the maximum extent possible. I, however, am too ignorant to summarise the current state of science. (IB tends to support this point of exposure on p 189.) As I write, I have in front of me the March 1 issue of the Times Literary Supplement. In one review, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham is quoted as identifying ‘coalitionary proactive aggression’ as a drive that launched human ancestors toward full humanity. I read that review too, and found it enormously suggestive. A few pages later, Michael Stanislawski draws our attention to Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a Genocide (which I have read, and have referred to on my website), which describes how members of a friendly community suddenly turned mercilessly on each other under the experience of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. What do such pieces tell us about any consistent ‘human nature’, and how could other such experts contribute to the debate? Good questions, which again I am not competent to answer. But there are connections between them and my suggestion that IB underrates evil.

I believe that one of the problems is that, if we talk about ‘human nature’ in a vacuum, we enter the world of mysticism, akin to that of religion. Ignorance rather than mysticism, in my case: I am dead against mysticism. Where does human nature reside? In human biology, history and society. How is it passed on genetically by DNA, or modified by culture and education? IB (p 184) indicates that he thinks that religion is ‘hard-wired’ into human nature: if this were true, how and when did this occur? Who knows? We can only examine ourselves as we are now, and such records of the past as we have, and speculate. And when did the wiring fail I don’t regard its absence as any kind of failure, but as a (sometimes hard-won) strength for those of us who do not require that facet in our lives? And how do such religious instincts get wired into those who would practice, say, honour killings, under the guise of religion by culture, again, which can be a malign force? Does human nature thus not end up being simply those traits that we enlightened beings consider desirable? We must avoid that risk: it should be those traits that are actually beneficial, which is a different matter. Or is human nature just another name for something that is mere tradition, and thus differs in separate countries and times, like the practice of suttee or female circumcision? No: that’s exactly what the term is not supposed to refer to. (Would their adherents say it was ’tradition’ it’s mistaken tradition, in my opinion or ‘human nature’?) And what do we do with a monster like Eric Hobsbawm, who was feted for his historical accomplishments, but to his dying day refused to deny that the murder of millions on behalf of the Communist cause had been a mistake? Was he human? Or was he simply ‘malign’, a ‘pinpusher’, as IB might describe those who fall outside the morally acceptable? Was he ‘evil, without qualification’ (p 194)? Not quite, perhaps; but he was what IB describes as ‘wickedly wrong’ (p. 261).

P.S. I noticed that, in the next issue of the TLS, dated March 8, David Kynaston offers a review of Richard J. Evans’s biography of Hobsbawm, subtitled ‘a national treasure whose politics provoked endless bitterness’. What can one say about a ‘culture’ that promotes a worm like Hobsbawm to such status? It is all here, including the notorious ‘Desert Islands Discs’ programme where Hobsbawm openly approved the slaughter of millions in the communist cause. As John Gross is recorded here as saying, such apologists would have been the first to be lined up against the wall to be shot.

On religion, I was surprised by your rather weak defence of atheism, as if we needed a new term to define somebody who simply ‘doesn’t understand’. I think we do, for the reasons given; but this doesn’t make one a weak(er) opponent of religion, as my book surely shows. If I am faced with all the verbal paraphernalia of, say, Christianity, with the ideas of God, angels, saints, sin, salvation, heaven, hell, Holy Spirit, saviour, resurrection, eternal life, soul, immaculate conception, transubstantiation, prayer, etc. etc., it is quite easy to take the line that this is all mumbo-jumbo, and no more worthy of discussion than the existence of the Tooth Fairy. It would be easier for me to have conversation about beginnings and ends with an atheist from Turkmenistan than with my fundamentalist Baptist neighbour, who is presumably of the same ‘culture’ or ‘society’ that I find myself in. I share your alienation from that terminology, but to call it mere mumbo-jumbo underestimates its allegorical/metaphorical significance for many believers, something IB accepts (up to a point).

It is no doubt fashionable to talk about ‘cultures’, and the pluralist bogeyman of ‘multiculturalism’, but I believe the concept is much more fluid (and evasive) than your debate suggests. I would maintain that we have to inspect ‘culture’ in at least three dimensions – temporal, geographical, and social, and determine how it relates to the concept of a nation (is there a national ‘culture’ yes, to a greater or lesser extent is specific cases; how does it relate to that country’s rule of law closely?). For example, British (or English!) culture has changed over the centuries: we no longer accept bear-baiting, hanging, slavery, child labour, or duelling, but are currently torn over fox-hunting, and largely indulgent of fishing for sport. Our mores over divorce and homosexuality have gradually evolved in recent decades. We extend the geography to talk about ‘European’ culture, which in its most lofty forms presumably means such features as a free press, scientific inquiry, French cuisine, the Prado, and the Eurovision Song Contest, but have to make exceptions for such localised cultural activities as eating horseflesh, bull-fighting, euthanasia, and lax regulations concerning gun-ownership. (European culture also produced the horrors of Nazism and Communism.) Within a certain country, there may be differences between (and I hesitate to use the terms) ‘high’ culture, such as opera, fox-hunting and polo, and ‘low’ culture, such as fishing, greyhound racing, grunge rock, or trainspotting (p 223)! I might consider myself a ‘cultured’ person without indulging in any of those activities. Thus I find it very difficult to identify something that is a clear and constant ‘culture’ among all these behaviours. Fair enough. One can certainly try to be more careful in one’s use of terms such as ‘culture’. But everyone knows what one means by something being characteristically British, German, Japanese etc.

 So what is the pluralist culture that IB defends? He says (p 194) that he is ‘wedded to his own culture’ – but what is that? Englishness, mainly. He writes about a ‘dominant culture’ in every society, and asserts that the ‘society’ has a right to protect itself against ‘religious or ethnic persuasions which are not compatible with it’ (p 199). But what standing does this have in law? Culture doesn’t operate only by legal means; but law can help support the dominant culture. Enlightened people should stand up against ‘grooming’ and bigamy, presumably of course, but who decides what is compatible and what is incompatible outside the processes of legislation? Everyone, by consensus. What allowances are made for religious observance? I wish it were none, but can’t persuade myself to defend such an extreme position. Should parents be allowed to indoctrinate their own children in some faiths, but not others? Not in any faith, say I: all children should be educated in the plurality of faiths, in the hope (for me) that this will help inoculate them against faith as such. Are they allowed to reject certain socially beneficial practices, such as vaccination? I say no. Don’t tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses! What would IB have said about wearing the niqab in public places? He was probably in favour of allowing it: some Jews, after all, wear skullcaps in public; some Christians crosses. It makes my own flesh creep, but I can’t agree that it should be totally banned. The best test of one’s tolerance is when it is most severely tried.

While I was groping with the elusiveness of what ‘a culture’ means, I read further in the March TLS. It was fascinating. I read pieces about Jews in Belarus, and Circassians in Palestine, and reflected how sad it was that individuals should try to solve their problems of ‘identity’ by searching for the odd habits and practices of one of their grandfathers. Quite so. (I would not expect my grandchildren to do this, since they have a mixture of Vietnamese, West Indian and typically complex British grandparents: is that because we are privileged, or merely sensible?) And then I encountered a marvellous essay by Hanif Kureishi, ‘Touching the Untouchable’, where he looks back at the Satanic Verses scandal. He quotes (disapprovingly) some remarkably silly statements by John le Carré and Roald Dahl, which run as follows:

“My position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions may be insulted with impunity” (le Carré), and

“In a civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship to our own work why? in order to reinforce this principle of free speech” (Dahl), and then goes on to state:

“The message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods, revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no monopoly – but universal ones.”, and closes with:

“Notions of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these, even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.”

I think making that equivalence of ‘a culture’ with ‘pluralism’ is spot on bravo, although I think Kureishi is being too optimistic yes: what he should have said is that they should be universal values when claiming these are ‘universal values’, as apparently even members of the intellectual elite do not share them with him, let alone Islamicists = Islamists/Moslems?. And of course, Britain is still part of Europe, with or without Brexit, so the distinction between ‘British’ values and ‘European’ values is somewhat specious, but also telling.

 In summary, I find all the talk about a ‘common core’ of human values, an inherent ‘human nature’, and a definable ‘culture’ all very unconvincing. ‘The crooked timber of humanity’ is indeed that: human beings are very unpredictable, and display very different traits over time and space. Human culture, including religious belief, is not genetically wired in any way, but passed on through the agencies of family, school, friends, church, etc. (For example, I hear so many Americans say that ‘hunting is in everybody’s blood, because once “we” were hunters’: but I have never had any desire to hunt, although if I were starving, I might rediscover the skill. cf. my remarks in the book about militarism, e.g. p. 333) There is no biological basis for ethnicity I think this an exaggeration, given the generalisations of physical anthropology, or the notion of practices inherited through it. Geneticists still do not understand exactly how evolutionary adaptation works. Morality is the sphere of the personal: expansive social actions claiming broader virtue frequently fall foul of the Law of Unexpected Consequences a point IB regularly makes. What governs cultural activity is partly the rule of law, which operates at the level of the nation-state, whose actions themselves should be controlled through democratic processes. The preferred ‘culture’ should simply be pluralism. There is also room for culturally specific ingredients like the Japanese tea ceremony, which are neither required nor prohibited by law, but maintained by tradition for as long as they last. (And, in my implementation, Hobsbawm would not be persecuted, but he would not be invited to appear on Desert Island Discs.)

In Misdefending the Realm I attempted to draw my own picture of how this dynamic operates in a liberal, pluralist society. ‘Forgive me’ (as you are wont to say to your mentor) for including a paragraph here: “In a pluralist society, opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group), and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere. So long as the laws are equally applied to all citizens, individuals can adopt multiple roles. The historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has featured so largely in this book, was a major contributor to this notion of the ‘incommensurability of values’, although he did not confidently project it into political discourse why do you say this? I don’t say it in the cited article?.[i] Moreover, a highly important distinction needs to be made: pluralism is very distinct from ‘multiculturalism’, which attempts to reduce the notion of individual identity by grouping citizens into ‘communities’, giving them stereotyped attributes, and having their (assumed) interests represented collectively outside the normal political structure and processes.”

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Henry and I could probably debate further, but I think we are of a very similar mind, and the differences are minor. I did add to him that I thought that philosophers (and others) have to be very careful when they use analogies from the sciences in describing human behaviour (e.g. ‘hard-wired’, ‘in our DNA’), because the usage is dangerous as a metaphor, and inaccurate if meant literally. I also don’t deny the succour that religion has brought to many people (the Paul Johnson theory that because it is beautiful and beneficial, it must be true), but it doesn’t alter my belief that it should be called out for what is, and mumbo-jumbo conveys exactly the right spirit for me. I hope this exchange encourages readers to seek out Henry’s book – and, of course, Misdefending the Realm, for those who have still resisted my entreaties. I look forward to the next publication he promises us.

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Two Cambridge Spies: Dutch Connections (1)

I use this bulletin to update my story of two Cambridge Spies – Donald Maclean, one of the notorious set of 1930s communists, and Willem ter Braak, a member of the Abwehr’s LENA group who underwent a mysterious death in Cambridge in April, 1941. Because of its size, and the distinct subject areas it addresses, I have decided to split this report into two sections, even though there are areas of overlap. Part 2 can be seen here.

Donald Maclean

First, a recap. In ‘Donald Maclean’s Handiwork’ (coldspur, December 2018), I analysed the peculiar and provocative indications that Andrew Boyle and Goronwy Rees had left behind concerning the possible stronger clues that MI5 may have received to the identity of the Foreign Office employee identified (but not named) by Walter Krivitsky as a Soviet spy. Krivitsky had named (John) King as a spy in the Foreign Office, but only hinted at the person who was the ‘Imperial Council’ spy. Two strong hints appeared: the first was Rees’s belated identification of a photographer called ‘Barbara’, who had testified to Maclean’s abilities with a camera, and Rees’s suggestion that Krivitsky had recognized Maclean’s handiwork when he (the GRU officer) had last been in Moscow in 1937. The second was an enigmatic reference to a diplomat called ‘de Gallienne’ in a note in Boyle’s ‘Climate of Treason’, which attributed to him an early reference to Krivitsky and the latter’s description of the persona of Maclean.

At the time, I questioned the reliability of Rees’s deathbed testimony. Rees had historically been a highly dubious witness, and the posthumous account of the conversation he had had with Boyle, which appeared in the ‘Observer’, was a typical mixture of half-truth, downright lies, and questionable accusations. It sounded as if ‘Barbara’ was an inspired invention. As for ‘de Gallienne’, the name was probably wrong. I had discovered a diplomat called ‘Gallienne’, who was chargé d’affaires, and then Consul, in Tallinn in Estonia at the time, but it seemed a stretch to connect this official with Krivitsky and the information that the defector provided to the FBI or to his interrogators from MI5 and SIS in London.

And then – a possible breakthrough. I thus pick up the story and analyse the following aspects of ‘Donald Maclean’s Handiwork’:

  1. The identity of ‘Barbara’, and her relationship with Maclean;
  2. The investigations by MI5 and MI6 into Henri Pieck’s exact involvement in handling Foreign Office spies;
  3. The missing file in King’s folder, and how it relates to anomalies in the story;
  4. The Foreign Office’s obstinacy in the face of Krivitsky’s testimony; 
  5. The possible contribution of Wilfred Gallienne, diplomat, to the investigation; and
  6. Boyle’s apparent reliance on Edward Cookridge and Guy Liddell for information.

‘Barbara’

Barbara Key-Seymer

As I recorded soon after I posted the December story, the author of the recent biography of Donald Maclean, Roland Philipps, suggested that ‘Barbara’ could well be Barbara Key-Seymer, a well-known society photographer of the 1930s. Astonishingly, I had read of this woman only a week beforehand, in Hilary Spurling’s biography of Anthony Powell, Dancing to the Music of Time, where, on page 108, she describes Powell’s friend in the following terms: “As observant as he was himself, she was well on the way to becoming one of London’s most up-to-date photographers  . . .”. Yet the Barbara-photographer connection with the Rees testimony had eluded me. A quick search on ‘Key-Seymer & Donald Maclean’, however, had led me to a portfolio of her photographs at the Tate. The gallery contains an impressive set of artistic names from the 1930s, and on the album page 12 at https://www.tate.org.uk/art/archive/items/tga-974-5-5/ker-seymer-photograph-album/14, alongside Cyril Connolly, can be seen a photograph of Donald Maclean, in Toulon, probably in the summer of 1936. Yet in the annotations provided by the Tate, a question mark appears next to Maclean’s name.

Other communists appear in the album. On page 19, Goronwy Rees can be seen at the 1937 May Day march, and on page 25 two photographs of ‘Derek Blakie’ appear. The editor has not seen fit to correct the script here, but the person is certainly Derek Blaikie, who accompanied Guy Burgess to Moscow in 1934. Blaikie had been born Kahn, attended Balliol College, Oxford, and become a friend of Isaiah Berlin, who suggested in a letter to Stephen Spender that he was a rather dangerous Marxist. Kahn changed his surname to Blaikie in 1933. According to Stewart Purvis & Jeff Hulbert in The Spy Who Knew Everyone, Blaikie’s primary claim to fame was to write a letter to the Daily Worker, just before Burgess’s introductory talk on the BBC in December 1935, in which he explained that Burgess was ‘a renegade from the C.P. of which he was a member while at Cambridge’. This letter, suggesting that Burgess’s conversion to the far right was a ruse, was intercepted by MI5, and entered in Blaikie’s file, but then apparently forgotten. Significantly, Helenus (‘Buster’) Milmo, the QC who interrogated Philby in December 1951, had access to this letter. In his following report Milmo quoted another passage, which ran as follows: “In “going over to the enemy” Burgess followed the example of his closest friend among the Party students at Cambridge who abandoned Communism in order successfully to enter the Diplomatic Service.” A massive tip was not followed up.

I asked Mr Philipps about the collection. I was amazed to learn that he was not aware of its existence and availability. Furthermore, when I followed up about a week later, he told me that he had not yet inspected the display, even though, for reasons he would prefer I not disclose, the albums contained several photographs that would have been of intense interest to him. I was a bit puzzled by the fact that the author of A Spy Named Orphan, which is promoted as ‘the first full biography of one of the twentieth century’s most notorious spies, drawing on a wealth of previously classified files and unseen family papers’ would show such a lack of curiosity in his subject. He then added: “  . . . I also don’t think that the man in that one is DM.  He doesn’t seem tall enough or have quite the face and hair.  Also, I didn’t find him mixing in that society much – he didn’t care for Burgess and I don’t know of any records of his connections with Rees and his rather more social circle.”

Is that not remarkable? That a biographer, without inspecting the photograph personally, instead relying on the on-line image, would distrust the evidence that the photographer herself had recorded? How the figure’s height can be determined when he is squatting, or how his hair could confidently be judged as unrecognizable some eighty years on, strikes me as inexplicable. The evidence for Philipps’s conclusion about Maclean’s social activity is sparse: if we consult his biography, we can find only a few examples of the spy’s life in this period. We learn that ‘wearing the regulation white tie and tails, with his silk-lined opera cloak draped around his tall figure, he escorted Asquith’s granddaughters Laura and Cressida to dances . . .’, and that he was Tony Rumbold’s best man in 1937. Yet Maclean also mixed in bohemian circles – especially after he moved to Paris in 1938. E. H. Cookridge wrote, in The Third Man, that Maclean ‘became a regular visitor to Chester Street’ (Guy Burgess’s residence), and that it was at such parties that he became a habitual drinker. (Cookridge’s anecdotes are, however, unsourced. For some reason he did not consider that Maclean was a Comintern agent at this time.) Nevertheless, no matter how well (or poorly) Maclean and Burgess got on, it would have been considered poor spycraft for them to have gathered together too frequently.  As Philipps himself writes: “Acting on Deutsch’s instructions, Maclean never mentioned Burgess or Philby or spoke to them on the rare occasions when their paths crossed at parties.” Moreover, Maclean became a close friend of the louche Philip Toynbee. Thus I find Philipps’s instant dismissal of Key-Seymer’s evidence, and lack of interest in pursuing the lead, astonishing – mysterious even.

As for Rees, his (and Blaikie’s) presence in the album only reinforces the fact that the Ker-Seymer circle included leftist enthusiasts.  Philipps has told me that Ker-Seymer ‘adored Rees, but was wary of him’, while a letter to the Independent in 1993, after an obituary of Ker-Seymer was published, recalled Barbara with her ‘old friend Goronwy Rees sitting on a banquette during World War II’. Yet the connection sadly does not advance the investigation very far. The inveterate liar Rees may have bequeathed us all a truth when he declared that he and Maclean did indeed have a mutual friend Barbara, who was a photographer, but his testimony does not show that her studio was used by her, or by Maclean, as a location to take photographs of purloined Foreign Office documents. And her studio was not in Pimlico. So why would he bring the subject up? The quest continues.

Henri Pieck and Krivitsky

The career of Henri Christian Pieck, the Dutchman who recruited John King, and then handled him until his operation was suspected by British Intelligence, merits closer analysis. Ever since MI5 and SIS learned from Krivitsky that there was a second spy in the Foreign Office (the ‘Imperial Council’ source), they speculated whether Henri Pieck may himself have run both agents. This investigation picked up after Krivitsky was murdered in Washington in February 1941, especially since Pieck had made a bizarre attempt to leave Holland and work as a cartoonist for the Daily Herald in early 1940. Nothing came out of this venture, but, after the war, when MI5 betook itself to reinspect the vexing case of the Imperial Council spy, with new minds on the case, the evidence was re-examined for the purpose of verifying whether there were physical and logical links between Pieck and the unidentified traitor.

One might ask why Krivitsky, if he was so unwilling (or unable) to offer his interrogators the identity of the Imperial Council spy, but had readily provided them with the name of John King (a mercenary), was so forthcoming about Pieck (a dedicated communist, who had worked for Krivitsky in the Hague). The most probable explanation is that Krivitsky believed that Pieck was no longer working for the Soviets. Pieck had had to withdraw from handling King in early 1936, and to retire to Holland, although he did make one or two discreet visits back to the UK in 1937. Yet Krivitsky did suggest that, if Maly were still alive (of course, he was not), because of the good relationship that existed between Maly and Pieck, there was a possibility that Pieck could be resuscitated at some stage. Telling the British authorities about his role would surely have scotched that: it was not as if Pieck were a shadowy character without a public presence.

Hans Christian Pieck (from TNA file)

A certain amount of animosity existed between the two, however, which might explain Krivitsky’s diminished loyalty. Krivitsky considered Pieck’s expense account for the entertainment and bribing of his agents and friends in the cipher department of the Foreign Office, and others, lavish. When Krivitsky had gained an ideologically committed spy in the Foreign Office (Maclean), he told Pieck, who had had to leave London soon after Maclean was recruited because his ‘safe’ house was no longer secure, that he now had a much cheaper and more effective source. Pieck’s replacement as King’s handler, Maly, then recruited a further Foreign Office source, John Cairncross, before he was recalled to Moscow in the summer of 1937. King’s role thus became markedly redundant, and he was abandoned. Krivitsky may have taken pleasure in that. He was also critical of Pieck’s ingenuousness about the approach in Holland by the ex-SIS operative Hooper (who had ostensibly been fired), saying that it might well be a plan to infiltrate the GRU. He considered Pieck ostentatious and indiscreet: his spycraft was poor.

From his side, Pieck much later told MI5 that Krivitsky’s account of the attempt to acquire arms for the Spanish Republicans in the autumn of 1936 was false, even though Krivitsky’s presentation probably shows Pieck’s performance in better light than what in fact occurred. Krivitsky had described Pieck’s role to his interrogators without naming him, and had not specifically identified the ‘Eastern European capital’ in which the transaction was attempted as Athens. Perhaps trying to boost his own track-record, Krivitsky did not explain that the attempt made  – when Pieck was accompanied by the Englishman William Fitzgerald – was a total failure. (The exchange was also reported back to Menzies, the head of SIS, by the local ambassador.)  Yet one can also not trust Pieck’s account of his dealings with Krivitsky. He claimed that Krivitsky ordered him to kill Reiss: that is unlikely. Like Philby with Franco, he would not have made a reliable hitman, as the NKVD files attest on both of them. Finally, Pieck told his interrogators that he disliked Krivitsky and his wife, so there was clearly no love lost between them. Thus it seems safe to conclude that Krivitsky felt free in giving to MI5 and SIS a name to whom he owed no particular loyalty, and whom he felt they could pursue without any further exposure.

It did not seem to occur to MI5 that, if Pieck had indeed handled both spies, it would have been unlikely that Krivitsky would have talked so freely about him, as Pieck might have been able to reveal information which Krivitsky was clearly reluctant to share. But MI5 and SIS (the latter becoming involved because the breach occurred in the Foreign Office, and was being controlled from overseas), showed a track-record of sluggishness in following up the leads. They were constantly one step behind, and never resolute about what to do next. For example, the SIS renegade Jack Hooper knew, by January 1936, through Pieck’s business associate Conrad Parlanti, of the meeting-place in Buckingham Gate, and even told Pieck, at a house-warming party held by the latter in the Hague later that month, that MI5 knew he was a Communist and that he had been under surveillance in Britain. MI5 and Special Branch had supposedly been trailing Pieck all year. By then, of course, Maly had already replaced Pieck as King’s handler/courier, as Pieck no longer had legitimate reasons for staying in London, and it was taking too long for material to get to Moscow when Pieck had to take it with him to the Hague each time. Just as with Maly shortly afterwards, MI5 and Special Branch would let Pieck slip through their fingers.

What is remarkable about this period, and highlights how unprepared MI5 and SIS were when they were faced with the evidence of an ‘Imperial Council’ spy, is the mess that Valentine Vivian (of SIS) and Jane Sissmore (of MI5, who became Jane Archer when she later married, on the day before war was declared) made of the Pieck investigation when they picked it up again in 1938. 

Vivian and Sissmore Move In

Two years after Pieck supposedly had left the country for good, Vivian was exchanging memoranda with Sissmore about Pieck’s role in Soviet espionage. It appears that Sissmore was taking stock of the situation after the successful, but highly time-consuming, prosecution of Percy Glading, who had been passing on secrets from Woolwich Arsenal to his Soviet contacts. She had played a key role in preparing the case, and Glading was sentenced on March 14, 1938. Glading’s diary had triggered some valuable leads, including one that led MI5 to Edith Tudor-Hart. Pieck was another piece in the puzzle, but his exact role was still a mystery. We should remain aware that, through the agency of Hooper in early 1936, the Intelligence Services had learned of Pieck’s Buckingham Gate location, and what it had been used for, and the fact that Foreign Office documents had been ‘borrowed’ for photographing. The process was a mirror of the Glading exercise. Moreover, MI5 and SIS knew that Pieck had met Foreign Office clerks in Geneva in the early 1930s, and it could trace who those individuals were.

Given the later painstaking process that the CIA and MI5 undertook, in late 1949 and early 1950, to try to discover who in the Washington Embassy had access to the report that finally gave Maclean away, it is surprising that a similar procedure was not initiated on the important report that the ‘Imperial Conference’ spy had passed on. In fact, as her conversations with Krivitsky in early 1940 show, Jane Archer identified it as a secret SIS report, which had been distributed to several Foreign Office contacts by MI5. The exchange is vivid, as her report to Vivian in early February 1940 informs us: “In accordance with your instructions I took Thomas [Krivitsky] yesterday the photographed copy of the cover of the C.I.D. Imperial Conference document No 98., the last page and the portion dealing with the U.S.S.R.  As soon as I showed it to him Thomas said ‘Yes, I have seen this cover several times in Moscow, in white on black form, in the office of the man who receives the material.’ Yet when Krivitsky read the text about the Soviet Union, it was unfamiliar to him.

Archer then tried something else. “I then showed him part of the very secret S.I.S. document of 25.2.37, particularly the paragraph on Page 2 marked (1). He read the first few lines and then said ‘this is the document’.” Archer did not provide a precise pointer to the document in question, but we can learn more about it from elsewhere in the Krivitsky file, at KV 2/405-1, a passage that is worth quoting in full. We find that, much later, on May 1, 1951, A. S. Martin, B2B, wrote: “Xxxxxxx xx [redacted] S.I.S showed me on 28.4.51 extracts from a file held by Colonel Vivian from which it was clear that in 1940 SIS had identified document which K had seen in Moscow. Its title was ‘Soviet Foreign Policy During 1936’; its reference was Mo.8 dated 25.2.37. It had been circulated by S.I.S to FO Northern Department, FO Mr. Leigh, War Office (M.I.2.b, M.I.3.a, M.I.3.b, M.I.5 and the Admiralty. Xxxxxxx told me that he had been unable to trace the document in the S.I.S.  registry and he presumed that it had been destroyed. Xxxxxxx had passed the description of this document to Mr. Carey Foster of the Foreign Office. I subsequently found that the M.I.5 copy of this document was filed at 1a on SF. 420/Gen/1.’ (from). A handwritten note indicates that the document was in ‘K Volume 1’. If K means ‘King’, that was a file that was destroyed (by fire? – see below).  Thus the investigation fizzled, and, as each year passed, the trail became colder.

Valentine Vivian

In any case, Vivian’s insights on Pieck were seriously wrong, out of inattention or laziness. In his letter to Sissmore of March 25, 1938, he wrote: “Pieck has filled much the same position in this country as the ‘PETERS’ (Maly) and ‘STEVENS’ of the recent GLADING case. . . . If his statements are to be believed, he had established himself with certain Foreign Office contacts by the end of 1935 or beginning of 1936, and was able to get the regular loan of documents, which were photographed with a Leica camera and apparatus at an office, which he had taken in, or in the vicinity of, Buckingham Gate.” The ‘has filled’ is deplorably vague, suggesting that Pieck has recently played a role similar to that of Maly and was probably still active, and one of Britain’s most senior counter-intelligence officers appears to think that the purloining of state secrets is an act akin to the borrowing of library books. Should Vivian, moreover, have perhaps developed a mechanism by which he would first distrust the declarations of Soviet agents? Why would they tell the truth? He then shows his disconnectedness by representing the time when Pieck was withdrawn as the time that he started his conspiratorial work with the Foreign Office clerks.

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

What is even more surprising, given Sissmore’s sharpness and Vivian’s relative dullness, is her not correcting Vivian. MI5 had apparently done nothing in the interim: it must surely have informed Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, some time back, because he refers to the leakages in his diary. Yet no suspects had been interviewed, security procedures had not been tightened, and, for all that MI5 knew, the extractions of secret documents could still have been going on. Just because Pieck had also told Hooper that he was out of the espionage game, why should MI5 believe him, as SIS apparently did? Should they not have attempted to verify? Had they been tracking his movements? After all, they had also learned that Pieck had made his unsuccessful bid to acquire arms for the Republicans in Spain when he and Fitzgerald approached the Greek government in the summer of 1936, as the British Embassy in Athens had reported the encounter to SIS. Pieck was thus still clearly active in the Soviet Union’s cause.

Archer wanted to bring Pieck over from Holland to talk, so she and Vivian must have regarded his commitment to Communism as weakening, and considered that he might now be willing to help his erstwhile target.  This thought was balanced by a strange request from the Dutch Government.  Vivian told Sissmore that his agent in Holland had learned from the Dutch police that Pieck ‘travelled frequently between Holland and England in 1937 and is believed by them to have had the confidence of a high official of Scotland Yard’. Yet his permission had now been withdrawn: they wanted to know why. Vivian could not add much, explaining that they had not been in touch with Hooper since 1935, but did not appear nonplussed by the Scotland Yard linkage. Did he perhaps think that was normal practice for Soviet agents? Moreover, he made an obvious error, as Hooper had had the significant meeting at Pieck’s apartment in January 1936. Was Pieck also stringing the Dutch police along?

Moreover, if that assertion about Pieck’s travel habits was true, how on earth had he managed to fly or steam in to England under the noses of MI5 without being detected? Why did Vivian not express surprise at this revelation? After all, this was a man whom Special Branch had been watching assiduously in 1935, although they never spotted anything untoward. Sissmore had written to Vivian in April 1935 that they could not detect anything suspicious about his visits, but had noted that Pieck should be watched ‘if he ever came over again’. One might expect at least that all ports of entry were being watched. Sissmore next made an inquiry to Inspector Canning of Special Branch on September 2, 1938, and her words are worth quoting verbatim: “It is reported that Pieck is an espionage agent working on behalf of the Soviet Union, and is believed to have at one time filled the place of Paul Hardt (Maly) in the Glading espionage group in this country. He has paid frequent visits to England in the past, but is at present in Holland.”

This is an extraordinarily tentative and detached statement by Sissmore, in its vagueness about dates and use of the passive voice: one explanation might be that she had been unduly influenced by Vivian. Yet her letters to him do not indicate that she was in awe of him: she treats him very much as an equal, and he responds likewise. After all, who was authorized to perform the reporting, and articulating beliefs, if not Sissmore herself? And how could she get the timetable of events so direly wrong, indicating that Pieck had replaced Hardt (Maly), when she knew that Maly, who in fact had replaced Pieck, had left the United Kingdom for good in June 1937, barely escaping capture by Special Branch, and that Pieck’s most frequent visits to Britain had occurred in 1935? (She also unaccountably records this year incorrectly in her report on Krivitsky.) Did she really believe that Pieck had started up his subversive activities again in 1937, simply because of what the Dutch authorities said? And should she not have been a bit more careful in approaching the Metropolitan Police, if Pieck was claiming he had some kind of protection on high at Scotland Yard? Was she simply all at sea? It is an untypically undisciplined performance by MI5’s star counter-espionage officer. One could perhaps surmise that she was being directed to hold back. It is almost as if she were sending a coded message in her reports: ‘This is not my true voice’.

Deputy Assistant Commissioner Canning (and Colonel Hinchley-Cooke) (from Stanley Firmin’s ‘They Came to Spy’)

Inspector Canning was then able to inform Sissmore that Pieck had made two visits to England, via Harwich and Folkestone, towards the end of 1937, but these passages had gone completely unnoticed by MI5. What is more, their log showed that Pieck made fifteen visits to the UK in 1935, making his final departure for a while on February 14, 1936, not returning until October 14, 1937. The last trip was a lightning event, since he arrived on February 13 at Dover, and left from Harwich the following day, probably hoping that the change of ports would avoid immediate suspicions. So what did Vivian mean when he said that Pieck established contact at the end of 1935, or early in 1936, if the suspect then disappeared for twenty months? It appears that no detailed chronology – a sine qua non of successful detective work – had been created. The archival record is disappointingly blank after this – until the stories start to appear from Krivitsky and Levine a year later. Perhaps Sissmore and Vivian realized they had severely mishandled the job.

For those who relish intrigue and conspiracy theory, they might find an explanation for Vivian’s enigmatic behavior elsewhere. A Dutchman, F. A. C. Kluiters, has written an article that suggests that Jack Hooper was a double-agent for the Abwehr and the NKVD, and was probably being used by Claude Dansey to pass on disinformation to the Germans. The article can be seen at:
https://www.nisa-intelligence.nl/PDF-bestanden/Kluiters_Hooper2XV_voorwebsite.pdf
   I do not recommend it lightly, as it is so convoluted that it makes a typical chapter of Sonia’s Radio seem like Noddy Goes to School. One day I may attempt to analyze this particular tale, but all I say now is that, if this scheme actually had any substance, and was indeed the creation of Claude Dansey, his arch-rival Valentine Vivian would have been the last person in British Intelligence to know what was going on. Vivian and Dansey were at daggers drawn on many issues, not least of which was the treachery of Jack Hooper, and his subsequent re-engagement after being fired. Vivian may well have been set up to perform a mea culpa over Hooper’s betraying to the Abwehr a spy named Dr. Krueger, who had been providing the British with details of German naval construction for some years.

Yet such theories of double-dealing should not be abandoned as irrelevant to this quest. In the authorised history of MI5, Christopher Andrew (who mentions Pieck on a couple of pages, but does not grace him with an Index entry) states that SIS was dangerously misled by Hooper, who, ‘it was later discovered, was in reality the only MI5 employee who had previously worked for both Soviet and German intelligence (as well as SIS)’. Sadly, and conventionally, Andrew does not provide detailed references for his sources from the Security Service archive, ascribing proof of King’s guilt to interrogations of German prisoners after the war, but he indicates that SIS made a poor decision in re-hiring Hooper in October 1939, after he had worked with the Abwehr in 1938-39. What is remarkable is that Keith Jeffery, in the authorized history of SIS, has only one line about Hooper, stressing instead the treachery of a Dutchman recruited by the SIS office in the Hague, Fokkert de Koutrik. I suspect Hooper’s role in the King/Pieck story has not been fully told. It is not often one comes across an agent with such multiple allegiances – especially one who survived. (Another is the mysterious Vera Eriksen, who landed alongside Druecke and Walti in Scotland on September 30, 1940, but escaped the death penalty.  A book on her is about to be published.) This one will clearly run and run. Is anyone out there, apart from Mr. Kluiters, researching his story? (I notice that four files on Hooper were released by the National Archives in November 2017: they must form a valuable trove, and I look forward to inspecting them some time.)

A Fresh Look

The story moves forward to 1940, to the Krivitsky interrogations, and beyond. As readers of Misdefending the Realm will recall, Jane Archer was already being eased out of her job as MI5’s leading officer in communist counter-intelligence when she compiled her report on Krivitsky in March of 1940, and she was replaced by her subordinate, the unremarkable Roger Hollis. 1940 was a difficult year for MI5: the transition from Chamberlain’s administration to Churchill’s, the sacking of its Director-General, Vernon Kell, the imposition of the Security Executive layer of management, the insertion of unqualified supervisors, and the fear of invasion accompanied by the ‘Fifth Column’ panic, with the stresses of making thousands of internment decisions. Little attention was paid to concealed communists, with Hollis’s activities directed more at the possible unreliability of communists in the factories, and Guy Burgess doing a skillful job of directing energies away from his conspirators in government. During 1940, there were occasional communications about Krivitsky between Vivian and Cowgill of SIS, Harker, White, Liddell and Archer of MI5, and even the occasional guest appearance from the sacked supremo Kell. Krivitsky was in Canada for most of the year, and attempts were even made to contact him directly. Yet no apparent effort was made to pick up the unresolved matter of the ‘Imperial Council’ spy.

Unsurprisingly, we cannot read any reaction within MI5 to the announcement of Krivitsky’s death. Even Guy Liddell could not stretch to recognizing the event in his diaries: true, an item in his February 11, 1941 page has been redacted, but there is no corresponding entry for ‘Krivitsky’ in his Index. A half-hearted attempt was made, however, to investigate the Pieck case in the light of the disturbing murder set up to look like a suicide. In the same month, Pilkington in B4C tried to track down Pieck’s architect friend, Stuart Cameron Kirby, who had accompanied Parlanti in 1934 to see Pieck in Paris. In April, Pilkington eventually interviewed Kirby in Cambridge, where he had secured an impressive-sounding sinecure as ‘Home Office Assistant Regional Technical Advisor’, but nothing came of it. Two years later, Shillito of F2B (i.e. in Hollis’s new Division, split off from Liddell’s B) was requested to confirm that Pieck was still on the ‘Black List’ of dangerous communists. All thoughts of identifying the ‘Imperial Council’ spy appear to have been dispelled, however. The Soviet Union had become an ally, and all energies were directed towards the Nazis.

After the War

By the end of the war, however, the Soviet Union was accepted as the dominant threat to the nation’s security. But perhaps not by Alexander Cadogan, still Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office. Cadogan, who had been so distressed about the spies in his domain in 1939, had apparently forgotten about their existence by the autumn of 1945. Konstantin Volkov, the Soviet Vice-Consul to Turkey, approached the British Embassy in Istanbul in August of that year, offering to name nine agents who were ‘employees of the British intelligence organs and Ministry of Foreign Affairs of Great Britain’, as well as one who currently ‘fulfils the duties of the chief of a department of the English counter-intelligence Directorate in London’. As Nigel West reminds us in his new book Cold War Spymaster, Volkov’s follow-up letter was translated and sent to Cadogan himself. Rather than sounding alarm-bells in the Permanent Under-Secretary’s mind, the arrival of the message prompted an instruction simply to pass the document on to the Chief of SIS, Stewart Menzies. Likewise unable to fathom that perhaps a degree of caution was required in the circumstances, Menzies delegated the task to the head of Section IX, the group responsible for Soviet affairs, Kim Philby. Volkov was soon afterwards spirited back to Moscow and executed, and Maclean and Philby survived another shock.

Sir Alexander Cadogan

A few months afterwards, in apparent ignorance of the Volkov affair (although Guy Liddell was very familiar with the incident), the possibility of a Pieck/Imperial Council spy connection was resuscitated. By then, stories had arrived about Pieck’s survival from Buchenwald. On September 13, 1946, Michael Serpell (F2C) issued a long report titled ‘The Possibility that Pieck was in Touch with the Source of the “Imperial Council” Leakage’. Serpell had quickly immersed himself in investigating Soviet espionage, and would soon become a notable player in the studies of Soviet spies. He was one of the officers who analysed the papers of Henri Robinson, the ‘Red Orchestra’ agent, that had been captured from the Gestapo in Paris after the war, and he would soon gain himself a reputation for dogged criticism of the handling of the Fuchs and Sonia cases. He was the officer who accompanied Jim Skardon to interview Sonia in Oxford in September 1947. He also interrogated Alexander Foote, recommending that he not be prosecuted for desertion, and then wrote the report on him that was distributed to such agencies as the CIA. His status was such that he was selected as the officer who accompanied the director-general of MI5, Percy Sillitoe, to Canada in March 1951.

In the case of the Imperial Council source Serpell’s instincts and objectives were correct, but his analysis wrong. He suggested that Pieck may have recruited an agent ‘at a much higher level than King’ when in Geneva, and that his large budget would have allowed for such a recruitment. Yet he slipped up badly on chronology, noting that the Imperial Council source (according to Krivitsky) had begun to become active in 1936. He assumed that the same camera at Buckingham Gate was probably used by this agent, but failed to note that Pieck had fled the country by then. He could hardly have ‘run’ the spy from Holland. In mid-stream, Serpell catches the contradiction, backtracking to claim that Pieck could have handled early examples of the photographic material. He admits that the main plank against his theory is that King described how he was abandoned after Maly’s departure in summer 1937, although he has been made aware of Pieck’s brief return to the UK in November 1937.

Serpell’s report rambles somewhat, and it is probably not worth any further inspection. Furthermore, what inevitably tainted his investigation was the fact that he and Roger Hollis had to communicate with SIS to gain information about what was going on in Holland. The officer they had to deal with was Kim Philby, who, while pretending to offer substantive support for Serpell’s inquiries, would surely have encouraged Serpell in his mistaken pursuit of Pieck as the handler of Maclean. To begin with, John Marriott of B2c was energised by Serpell’s research, especially since he provocatively admitted, in a letter to Commander Burt of Special Branch on December 12, 1946, that the idea that Pieck might have recruited other agents ‘is lent some support by our knowledge from more than one source that Government information has been communicated to the Russians since King’s retirement.’ After a meeting between the three of them, however, Marriott disagreed with Serpell. As the dispute carried on into 1947, Serpell’s arguments looked increasingly weaker: one might wonder whether he, as a tenderfoot, had been put on a false trail to give the impression of earnest endeavour. Marriott recommended dropping the investigation even though Serpell (now moved from F Division closer to Marriott as B1C) continued to disagree.  Meanwhile, the prospect arose of MI5 actually being able to interview Pieck himself.

Dick White, now director of B Division, is the officer whose name appears as heading plans to bring Pieck to Britain, in the early months of 1950. After Pieck had been released from Buchenwald, the British had apparently been in touch with the Dutch authorities, and reminded them that Pieck had been a Soviet spy. It seems that a private security organisation had got in touch with Pieck, who declared that he was surprised by the Krivitsky revelations. But he also said that he was very short of money, and might be prepared to talk. After some local negotiation, however, he agreed to MI5’s terms for the interrogation, which involved no payments, but some protection from prosecution, and some conditions concerning confidentiality, and arrived in London on April 12. What is extraordinary is that, in November 1949, Pieck had made a visit to London, in a search for help with his embryonic exposition business, without MI5’s knowing about it.

Pieck and Vansittart

Another mysterious dimension to Pieck’s relationships with British officials needs to be explained, however. Before the war, Pieck had made puzzling references to his association with Sir Robert Vansittart, a very prominent figure in the Foreign Office. Vansittart had been the Permanent Under-Secretary until 1938, when his continued vigorous opposition to Germany’s aggressions resulted in his being ‘kicked upstairs’ to the purely symbolic post of Chief Diplomatic Advisor. At the time, British intelligence officers had interpreted Pieck’s references to Vansittart as a code for his acquaintance with John King, attributing the deception as a clumsy method of confusing them. Yet, after the war, Pieck indicated that he looked forward to meeting Vansittart again, and it transpired that in May 1940, with the Germans about to invade Holland, Pieck had expressed an urgent desire to flee to England, where he expected his friends in high places to welcome him. This was bizarre – or very brazen – behavior from a Soviet spy who knew that the British authorities had rumbled him.

Sir Robert (later Baron) Vansittart

Yet when it came to bringing Pieck over, and interrogating him, the MI5 officers, led by Dick White, made no attempt to question him about the Vansittart connection – or, if they did, the redacted record conceals the fact. Certainly, the consequent report does not mention him. The oversight might seem simply careless, or an admission that the reference was jocular, and thus not worth pursuing. Other evidence, however, points to more complicated entanglements. In a Diary entry for January 5, 1945, Guy Liddell had written: “Kim [Philby] came to see me about xxxxxxx, who had been taken on in his section. Jane [Archer] when introduced to him recollected that he was one of the people who might possibly have been identical with the individual described by KREVITSKY [sic] as acting as a Soviet agent before the war, and as being employed in an important government office. [sentences redacted]  Kim was very anxious to get at the old records of the KING case in order to satisfy himself that he was on sound ground. I have put him in touch with Roger.”

As can be seen, the identity of this possible recruit has been redacted. Yet, when publishing his selections from the Diaries in 2005, Nigel West very blandly, and without comment, inserted the name of ‘Colville Barclay’ in the place of the redacted name. In his 2014 biography of ‘Klop’ Ustinov (the father of Peter), Klop, Peter Day went further. He claimed that Barclay had come under suspicion by Jane Archer and Guy Liddell when they interrogated Krivitsky, as Barclay fitted the profile of the ‘Imperial Council’ spy as described by the defector – aristocratic, artistic, Scottish, and educated at Eton and Oxford. Unfortunately, Day does not provide a precise reference for this claim. In the published version of the MI5 Debriefing (edited by the scrupulous Gary Kern), which faithfully reproduces the text from the archival Krivitsky file, no mention of Barclay can be found. But we should be able to rely on Liddell’s gratuitous recalling of what Jane Archer told him about Barclay’s coming under suspicion.

Sir Colville Barclay

So what has this to do with Vansittart? In 1931, Vansittart married Sarita, Barclay’s mother, who had recently been widowed. Thus Colville Barclay became Sir Robert’s stepson. Moreover, in another memorandum that did not make the final Krivitsky report, Jane Archer did allude to Sir Robert. As the interrogations progressed, Archer would send a daily summary to Vivian in SIS, and this correspondence can be seen at the National Archives in KV 2/804. In the item dated February 5, 1940, Archer wrote: “The C.I.D. case was the first discussed with Mr. Thomas [Krivitsky]. He said that the Soviet authorities had a great regard for Sir Robert Vansittart and followed his activities with great interest. None of the information regarding Sir Robert, however came through the source which furnished them with the C.I.D. documents. In further attempts to identify the person who procured the C. I. D. information Mr. Thomas was asked whether any mention had been made of this man being the stepson of some highly paced official. The word ‘step-son’ certainly aroused some memories in Mr. Thomas’s mind.”

This is all I have found. It does not offer anything conclusive about Barclay or Vansittart, but begs for some kind of follow-up. Why did the Soviets track Vansittart’s activities with such interest? If not the ‘Imperial Council’ spy, who was it who provided them with information? John Cairncross? Why was the stepson’ reference not pursued? (Was Krivitsky being devious again, confusing the issue of orphans, sons and stepsons?) Peter Day reports that Barclay did not know that he had become a suspect: he told Day in 2003 that he had never been questioned. One might have expected some reflection of this conversation to have appeared in Archer’s final report, but, either she felt that it was not so important, or her superiors instructed her to omit any such potentially embarrassing details.

Any closer inspection of this web of intrigue will of necessity require a plunge into the murky waters described by Kluiters above, and I am not yet ready to do this. It would not be surprising, however, to see a relationship between Pieck and Vansittart confirmed. Vansittart came from an originally Dutch family; he was a fierce anti-fascist (and might have mistaken the objectives of Pieck: Vansittart was equally opposed to communism); he maintained a private intelligence group, and he apparently received information from both Putlitz in the German Embassy (according to Norman Rose), as well as from Soviet agents (according to Charles Higham). Thus we should not discount the fact that Pieck may have played a very cagey game, and skillfully exploited Vansittart.

Be that as it may, if Pieck’s interrogators expected to hear more about the Imperial Council source when Pieck arrived for questioning, they were disappointed. Pieck confirmed that he had started to photograph documents at the Grosvenor Hotel in 1935, but then switched to use his apparatus at Buckingham Gate. He stated, however, that he had never controlled a second source at the Foreign Office, although he had heard of one from Krivitsky. “Krivitsky told him they could get the same material from another man at a tenth of the price”, the report ran, and went on: “Pieck was unable to throw any light on the other facts about a Foreign Office source which do not fit into the King case: – a burglary from the Foreign Office, the disused ‘kitchen’ in the Foreign Office alleged to have been used by an agent for photographing documents, and the renting of a special house. Pieck did not train King in photography, nor did he give him a Leica.” MI5 reluctantly concluded Pieck was telling the truth, but admitted they could not be sure until the Imperial Source were identified.

But the sleuths were getting closer. The VENONA transcripts had helped identify Klaus Fuchs, who was sentenced on March 1 to fourteen years’ imprisonment. Sonia had escaped to East Germany two days before. Since 1949, MI5 and the FBI had been whittling down the names of possibilities for the agent with the cryptonym HOMER, as revealed by VENONA, and in April 1951 they were able to point quite confidently to Donald Maclean, because of the visits he made from Washington to New York to visit his wife. The defection of Burgess and Maclean in May 1951 would give MI5 the name of the ‘Imperial Council’ source they had not very vigorously been pursuing since 1939.

A Missing File, and other Embarrasments

One of the last enigmas of the case is the destruction of the first volume of the John King archive. In this, one might have expected to find such items as the complete correspondence between Washington (Mallet) and the Foreign Office (Jebb) concerning the information that Levine was passing on. If you look up the files on John Herbert King at the National Archives (e.g. http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C11050136 ), you will find under both KV 2/815 & KV 2/816 a note that says ‘Vol 1 destroyed’. You will have to delve elsewhere to learn more. For example, in the Pieck files (KV 2/809-814), you can find at least three references to the destruction, which say, variously that the file was ‘destroyed’, ‘destroyed by fire’ and ‘destroyed by enemy action.’

While all three statements could be interpreted as communicating the same truth, this strikes me as more than a little suspicious. It seems to this particular observer that an enemy attack would have to be particularly selective to destroy completely just one of the King files, but leave the others completely unscathed. We do know that MI5’s offices at Wormwood Scrubs were bombed in September 1940, and several records burned, but the histories tell us that they had all been photographed beforehand, and that nothing was lost. Is it possible that this event could have been used as a convenient alibi for the removal of material that was potentially embarrassing?

The process of copying individual records into files to which they were related means that some of the items have been preserved, and one can tell from their Serial numbers that their source was the missing file. For instance, the interrogation of Oake, a colleague of King’s, that took place on September 26, 1939, receives the following handwritten comment: ‘(Original in PF 48713 KING, 50A Volume 1 destroyed in fire)’. Yet all such comments are made in the 1946-1947 time-frame: the Pieck records from 1941 never refer to the destruction of any files, by fire or any other agency. Unfortunately, the salvaged records that I have managed to identify and inspect do not offer anything spectacular: maybe another sleuth can come up with more dramatic examples.

One awkward fact that Jebb and the Foreign Office may have wanted suppressed was King’s connection with Mallet himself. Michael Serpell believed that some of the missing records could have referred to Special Branch’s search of King’s property. In a summary of the tripartite meeting with Inspector Rogers, John Marriott and him that took place on January 6, 1947 can be found the following astonishing statement: “Rogers handled King, and elicited his confession. He does not believe King told the whole truth and suggests King may have been shielding friends such as Quarry, Oake and Harvey. King claimed he left his wife because she became mistress of Victor Mallet who was until recently the British Ambassador to Spain (or maybe Mallet’s brother.)”

Victor Mallet was indeed the chargé d’affaires in Washington who had been dealing directly with Krivitsky’s agent, Isaac Don Levine, and communicating with Jebb, in September 1939. It is not clear where Serpell derived this fact of King’s wife’s affair, or when King actually admitted it, unless Rogers himself had just divulged it: it was not until March 7, 1947 that Serpell recorded an interview with the ailing King, who had just been released from prison. (During this interview, it was revealed that King’s son lodged in Pimlico, and that King himself had lived there during 1935-36! Pimlico – the district that Goronwy Rees mentioned!) Yet this disclosure, if it were in fact true, must have been highly embarrassing. Mallet would surely have had to own up to Jebb about the connection, as the truth would surely come out in any investigation, and it would presumably have damaged his career. (If he had a brother, he appears to have sunk without trace.)  From Washington, however, Victor moved to Sweden as Envoy during the war, and was appointed Ambassador to Spain in 1946. He did not suffer.

Thus one can only speculate what else might have been lost in the destroyed file – including the source SIS report which Krivitsky saw, as detailed above. Certainly we are missing the full set of exchanges between Washington and London. It is thus impossible to build a reliable chronology of exactly who informed whom. One of the earliest accounts is actually Valentine Vivian himself, who wrote a report titled ‘Leakage from the Communications Department, Foreign Office’, dated October 30, 1939, which appears in full as the second King file, KV 2/816. Vivian is very open about the failure of SIS to take seriously the evidence of ‘Agent X’ (Hooper), who was treated ‘with coldness, even derision’ when he tried to pass on what Pieck had told him two years earlier, and had ‘remained forgotten, and in abeyance’ until Conrad Parlanti came forward on September 15, 1939. Vivian then reflects the current Foreign Office thinking (see below) when he dismisses Krivitsky – testimony that he would presumably have preferred buried when the defector came over a few months later. “We had, therefore, the bare word of KRIVITSKI – at the best a person of very doubtful genuineness and one, moreover, whose ability to speak on such a matter with authority was even more doubtful – to incriminate Captain J. H. King of the Communications Department, whose record appeared on the surface to be quite impeccable.” Peter Cook would have been quite proud of that performance.

Yet a strange anomaly appears. In his report, Vivian says that, after the identification of King was received on September 4, he was instructed to go on leave until September 25, but was to be kept under surveillance. Oake was interrogated on the 25th, and King the following day, after which King tripped up by visiting his mistress Helen Wilkie, and was thus charged the same day. But Alexander Cadogan, Permanent Under-Secretary in the Foreign Office, wrote – in an unpublished part of his diary dated September 15 – that King was currently being interrogated. Is it possible that, because of the Mallet connection, the Foreign Office decided to undertake its own investigation without informing MI5 or SIS? Or, perhaps Vivian did know about it, but was encouraged to portray another series of events, and to record it in some haste? Is the fact that Cadogan’s estate prohibited Professor Dilks from including this item in the published Diaries an indication of this subterfuge? (I have contacted Professor Dilks, but he can shed no light in the matter, as the sources I refer to were not available when he edited the Cadogan Diaries fifty years ago.)

Further indication that the Foreign Office was unduly embarrassed by the King affair was its determination to keep the conviction secret. Nothing appeared in the press, and Levine even stated, in November 1948, that the disgraced cypher clerk had been executed. (He had in fact been released by then.) It was not until 1956 that the British Government was forced to admit the whole account, after Levine offered the same testimony to a Senate investigation committee. The Foreign Office initially denied that there had even been a spy named King, but, when faced with the prospect of awkward questions in the House of Commons, then had to reveal that King had been tried under the Emergency Powers Regulations, and sentenced on October 18, 1939. One might understand the coyness as war approached, but the desire to cover up when the convict had already been released seems simply obtuse.

Lastly, how did the Foreign Office regard the evidence of Krivitsky? It was exposed to the first of the Saturday Evening Post articles in May 1939, and was immediately dismissive. Such comments as ‘mostly twaddle’, ‘Don’t want the rest’, ‘a few grains of sense in this rigmarole’, ‘General’s “revelations” not worth taking seriously”, are scattered among the hand-written annotations of the file as it gets passed around, including from the pen of the head of the Northern Department, Laurence Collier. The degree to which this official was clued into current events – and the responsibilities of his own section  –  is shown by a plaintive note he sent to Gladwyn Jebb on May 24: “Do we know anything about Genl. Krivitski?”. At the end of May, Collier rather reluctantly sent the cutting, with a letter, to the Embassy in Moscow, writing: “On the whole we do not consider that these would-be hair-raising revelations of Stalin’s alleged desire for a rapprochement with Germany etc. are worth taking seriously  . . .”. Collier must have been a bit chastened to hear back from his colleagues in Moscow a few weeks later that the articles ‘have excited considerable interest’, and that ‘the consensus of opinion is that they may well be genuine’. He still opined that Krivitsky was ‘talking nonsense’ but agreed that Washington should be asked for the complete series, which arrived at the end of July. (He did not know that Jane Sissmore had had copies of the articles in her possession since they came out.)

What is extraordinary about this exchange is the apparent awareness in Moscow of German-Soviet negotiations, while London was still vaguely planning for a British agreement with the Soviets. The mission to forge such a compact, led by the improbably named Admiral the Hon. Sir Reginald Aylmer Ranfurly Plunkett-Ernle-Erle-Drax, left from Tilbury on August 15, and was thus doomed from the start, whether Chamberlain was in earnest or not. (Marshal Voroshilov is said to have inquired of our gallant emissary: “You are not one of the Somerset Ernle-Erle-Draxes, by any chance?”) Collier and his minions continued to pooh-pooh the contributions of the Soviet defector, but then the record goes eerily silent. The next item recorded is not until November, two months after Ribbentrop and Molotov had signed the Nazi-Soviet Pact. On December 27, an official notes that ‘Stalin is expert at reconciling the apparently irreconcilable, as recent events have shown’, to which Collier adds that ‘he will find this particular reconciliation harder than most’.  Collier would also survive to see the ‘Imperial Source’ unmasked, but I have not discovered any record of what his reaction was.

The Elusive Gallienne

And what of ‘Wilfrid de Gallienne’, the diplomat whom Andrew Boyle credited with the information about Krivitsky? The British consul in Tallinn, Estonia, during 1939 was indeed Wilfrid Gallienne (sic), and he was deeply involved in discussions about the protection of the borders of the Baltic States, including Estonia of course, in any future negotiations between the Soviet Union and Great Britain. His main claim to fame, however, appears to be the disagreement he had with a British lecturer in the Estonian capital, Ronald Seth, who was providing information to the Foreign Office while bypassing the local resident diplomat. In his reports to his superiors in London, Gallienne justifiably complained about this irregular back-channel, and admitted that he had had to rebuke the nosy academic. (For readers who want to learn more about the extraordinary adventures of Seth, who was later parachuted into Estonia as an ill-equipped SOE agent, but survived, I recommend Operation Blunderhead, a 2105 account by David Gordon Kirby.)

Yet, despite the imaginative endeavours of my researcher in London, I have not yet been able to find any minute or memorandum from Gallienne that touches on Krivitsky. My next step is to explore the Andrew Boyle archive, and, as I write this in mid-February, I am waiting to hear from the Cambridge University Library whether it can send me photographs of the relevant papers. Rather than starting with what are presumably voluminous documents that concern the creation of A Climate of Treason, I have made a more modest request to inspect Boyle’s correspondence with E. H. Cookridge, Malcolm Muggeridge and Isaiah Berlin, as I suspect these smaller packets may provide me with a glimpse of the way that Boyle nurtured his sources.

Cookridge is a fascinating case. He was born Edward Spiro, in Vienna in 1908, and knew Kim Philby well from the spy’s subversive work with communists there in 1934. His Third Man (1968) is thus a most useful guide to Philby’s early days. While claiming in his Preface to that book that he had access to secret sources (“Through my work in the Lobby of the House of Commons I had access to sources of information not available to the public”), it is clear that he was used by the government as a method of public relations as far back as 1947. He published in that year a book titled Secrets of the British Secret Service, in which he openly acknowledged the help that he had received from the War Office and the Foreign Office. One must therefore remain wary that, while being given access to certain documents, Cookridge would have been shown what the authorities wanted him to see.

His relevance lies in the attributions that Boyle grants him in his Notes to A Climate of Treason. Much of Boyle’s information comes from named sources, and most of them are actually identified, rather than being cloaked in the annoying garment of ‘confidentiality’. While I have not performed a cross-reference, I would hazard that most of the correspondence with these persons is to be found in the Boyle Archive, where individual letter-writers are clearly identified. Of this period, Boyle writes, for example (p 455, Note 15): “Confidential information to the author as attested in E. H. Cookridge’s notes from Guy Liddell of MI5.” One might react: What on earth was Liddell doing speaking to Cookridge? Did Cookridge (who died on January 1, 1979) ever publish an account of these confidences? Did Boyle consider, now that Liddell and Cookridge were both dead, that he could safely write about these secrets, or did he still fear the Wrath of White? I hope that a study of the correspondence with Cookridge will clear some of this up. If anyone reading this lives in the Cambridge area, and is interested in inspecting the Boyle papers in a more leisurely, more efficient and less expensive manner, I should be very grateful if he or she could get in touch with me. Similarly, I should love to hear from anyone who can shed light on the Gallienne puzzle.

Conclusion

Unfortunately, all this evidence does not bring us much closer to determining how and when MI5 and SIS might have learned more about the identity of the Imperial Council spy, and thus have been able to apprehend Maclean before he did any more damage. Yet the fruits of the research do show that Andrew Boyle’s claims may have some truth behind them, and that the assertions of the rascal Goronwy Rees may indeed have some substance. Moreover, the multiple anomalies in the archival record suggest that some persons had a vested interest in muddying the waters, and even using the written documents to start a bewildering paper-chase that might distract analysts from the real quarry. If one considers such events as the following:

  • The reluctance of Krivitsky’s interrogators to apply pressure on him;
  • Pieck’s enigmatic claim to have protectors at the Special Branch;
  • Pieck’s professed desire to escape to England as the Nazis approached in May 1940;
  • Pieck’s carelessness in confessing to Hooper his illicit activities in London;
  • The reluctance of SIS to listen to anything that Hooper told them for two years;
  • Vivian’s obvious discomfort and confusion about the facts of the King case;
  • The contradictions in the chronology shown up by Vivian and Cadogan;
  • King’s alarming claim about Mallet’s affair with his wife;
  • The coyness of the British Government in admitting the facts about the King trial and sentencing;
  • The barely credible account of a single King file being destroyed by enemy action;
  • The apparent destruction of the copy of the SIS report that Krivitsky recognized during his interrogation by Jane Archer;
  • Jane Archer’s uncharacteristically unprofessional and detached approach to the investigation;
  • Pieck’s ability to re-enter Britain unnoticed after a watch had been put on him;
  • The official historian’s laconic but undeveloped comment about Jack Hooper’s having worked for MI5, SIS, the Abwehr and the NKVD;
  • The enigma of Pieck’s exact relationship with Sir Robert Vansittart;
  • The failure to follow up on the clue of the stepson, Colville Barclay;
  • The dogged efforts to try to put together a case that Pieck controlled the Imperial Council spy as well; and, overall,
  • The remarkably unenergetic efforts, over a period of twelve years, of MI5, SIS and the Foreign Office to try to unveil an important spy in the corridors of power;

one does not have to be a rabid conspiracy theorist to conclude that there was another narrative being stifled that would tell a completely different story. If I were forced, before this programme of research were over, to identify one theory that might explain the anomalies in the story of Sonia, the Undetected Radios, and the Imperial Council spy, I would doubtless point to the delusional belief of Claude Dansey that his wiles, accompanied by the fearsome reputation of British Intelligence, could somehow control all the agents of hostile espionage organisations on this planet, and probably some on galaxies as yet undiscovered.

Thus we have a double Dutch Connection to be pursued: Jack Hooper, the half-Dutch disgraced SIS officer, who apparently worked for both the Abwehr and the NKVD, and is a pivotal figure in the Krivitsky-King-Maclean case; and Willem ter Braak, who has been claimed to be both a Nazi fanatic in the Abwehr, and a well-disguised NKVD spy. Could Claude Dansey possibly have been behind all this, pulling the strings? I shall have to put my best men and women on the job.

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

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Two Cambridge Spies: Dutch Connections (2)

I use this bulletin to update my story of two Cambridge Spies – Donald Maclean, one of the notorious set of 1930s communists, and Willem ter Braak, a member of the Abwehr’s LENA group who underwent a mysterious death in Cambridge in April, 1941. Because of its size, and the distinct subject areas it addresses, I have decided to split this report into two sections, even though there are areas of overlap. Part 1 can be seen here.

Ter Braak

I was delighted, towards the end of last month, to receive a message from a Mr. Jan-Willem van den Braak, who had discovered coldspur, and my article on ter Braak. His was a name I knew, since a colleague had drawn my attention to a biography of his pseudonymous namesake that Mr. van den Braak had published in Dutch, in 2017. It was titled Spion tegen Churchill; leven en dood van Jan Willem ter Braak (Spy against Churchill: the life and death of Jan Willem ter Braak), issued by the WalburgPers. Not knowing any Dutch, I was unable to use Mr. van den Braak’s work in my research, but I am now happy to report that it is being translated into English, and should be available later this year. Curious readers who use Wikipedia will find that a richer entry on ter Braak now appears at  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Jan_Willem_Ter_Braak. It was written, largely, by Mr. van den Braak himself. It does, however, not explore any of the prevailing theories about ter Braak’s demise, including my analysis at coldspur.

Mr. van den Braak has been very generous in explaining to me how he came upon Engelbertus Fukken (the real name of ter Braak), and I do not want to steal his thunder by outlining his lines of research, and the sources he has used, or his conclusions. Let me just say that I think he has been very diligent in tracking down details about ter Braak’s background in the archives and libraries of The Hague and elsewhere, as well as exploiting the records about ter Braak to be found at the National Archives at Kew. I think I can mention that the title of the book appears to suggest the author’s focus on the repeated claim that ter Braak was sent over specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and I look forward to seeing the evidence he presents, and reading about how he covers that theory.

Yet, through the medium of email, Mr. van den Braak and I have explored some of the thornier questions of the published sources of information on ter Braak, and have discovered some new facts (or misinformation) that should be recorded as soon as possible. Much of this debate revolves around the role that two well-known writers on matters of espionage and counter-espionage have played in promoting the ter Braak story, namely E. H. Cookridge and Richard Deacon. I have already mentioned Cookridge in the first part of this month’s bulletin, but Deacon may not be so familiar. His real name was Donald McCormick, and he compiled a number of popular books on intelligence matters between the early 1960s and the mid-90s. As his Wikipedia entry states, however, he was ‘attracted to controversial topics on which verifiable evidence was scarce’, and this would lead him to make some wild claims that have to be treated with scepticism.

Donald McCormick aka Richard Deacon

What is interesting is that Mr. van den Braak was introduced to the character known as ter Braak by a letter that Deacon published (under his real name) in Het Parool in January 1978, which invited readers who knew anything about ter Braak to contact him at his home in Beckenham, Kent. Mr. van den Braak saw that request, but did not start his research until 2014. He had by then read Deacon’s History of the British Secret Service, but he had not inspected (for reasons that will soon become clear) Deacon’s British Connection, to which I drew his attention. I scanned for him several pages that included the text of the letter that Deacon wrote in 1978, and his theories about ter Braak, which included the provocative claim that ter Braak ‘was a Soviet spy masquerading as a refugee from Nazi-controlled Holland’, and that ‘he was murdered by an NKVD agent to stop him talking in the event of an arrest.’ I think it fair to say that Mr. van den Braak, while he knew about this theory from other sources, was astonished by these passages. I found the chapter quite incoherent, and regard it as quite absurd to think that ter Braak had been a Soviet spy, but I shall leave it to Mr. van den Braak’s book to explore this idea comprehensively.

The main reason that Mr. van den Braak was taken aback was that The British Connection had been withdrawn immediately after publication in 1979. Mr. van den Braak was under the impression that the recall had taken place because Deacon had named the Cambridge academic Professor Arthur Pigou as a Soviet spy, and that his relatives had objected. This assertion was related to the statement Deacon made in his book that Pigou and ter Braak had been seen together in Cambridge. I responded that I was sure that the reason the book had been withdrawn by the publisher was that Deacon had stated that Professor Rudolf Peierls had come under suspicion in connection with the Fuchs case. (The Pigou story is one energetically promoted in a very bizarre volume titled Hayek: A Collaborative Biography, Part III, edited by Robert Leeson, and published in 2015, which grants Deacon an importance far greater than he ever merited, and then proceeds to humiliate him. The book also includes an odd and equivocal chapter by Nigel West, who worked for Deacon as a researcher in his younger days.)

The problem was that Deacon, when making his accusation, thought Peierls was dead, and declared him such, feeling free to state his opinion without fear of rebuttal. (Pigou was indeed dead in 1979, and thus no longer protected by any libel laws.) But Peierls, on the other hand, was very much alive and kicking, and took the slur on his character very much to heart. The book had to be pulped. I must have acquired my copy via abebooks: it is stamped ‘Withdrawn from Bradford Archives, and Information Libraries’, so the Municipality of Bradford must not have received the message, or chose to ignore it. The irony was that Peierls had indeed come under suspicion, and had been questioned by Special Branch, and I am not the only historian who thinks he was probably guilty in abetting Fuchs’s insertion into the atomic weapons projects, knowing his true allegiance. You can read about the whole saga (if you have for some unaccountable reason not already done so) in Misdefending the Realm.

E. H. Cookridge aka Peter Leighton

A second area where I was able to help Mr. van den Braak was in a significant article about ter Braak that he had come across in his researches. It had originally been published in Reynolds News in 1946, and had then been translated into the Dutch. This piece (according to Mr. van den Braak) suggested that ter Braak had been sent into the United Kingdom specifically to assassinate Winston Churchill, and had shot himself after learning that Special Branch officers were close on his tail. (I had not read this piece when I wrote my analysis of ter Braak’s ‘suicide’ back in September 2018.) I was able to locate another manifestation of this item, published in the Vancouver Sun of January 18, 1947. With the heading of ‘Secrets of the Secret Service’, it has a by-line ‘Himmler’s Ace Agent Planned to Kill Churchill’, written by Peter Leighton. Indeed, the article claims that Dr. [sic] ter Braak was shot after he discovered that espionage apparatus had been found in his rooms in Cambridge, indicating that it was a self-inflicted wound. This was a story that was picked up in an issue of After the Battle to which I referred in September.

Leighton’s (Cookridge’s) Article in the Vancouver Sun

So who was Peter Leighton? It was one of the pseudonyms of our friend the journalist E. H. Cookridge, born Edward Spiro.  Moreover, under his assumed name of Cookridge, in 1947 he published a book titled Secrets of the British Secret Service (note the echo in the Vancouver Sun article). I own this volume, also.  In Chapter 18 (‘Murder Unlimited’), Cookridge reproduced the story about ter Braak, again emphasizing the Churchill mission, and the suicide of the agent after he has been discovered. Cookridge shows enough detail to indicate that he has accurate insider information (ter Braak’s forged identity-card, for example), but also a few details that show that he wanted to embroider the story (such as the fact that ter Braak had ‘a Luger pistol gripped tightly in his right hand’ – something belied by the photograph.) Mr. van den Braak has also very shrewdly pointed out to me that Cookridge, in his account of ter Braak’s parachute being found, writes that it was in a field near Amersham, when in fact it happened near Haversham. Amersham is a large well-known town, while Haversham is only a village, which all suggests that Cookridge acquired his knowledge aurally.

Another dimension to Cookridge’s drama exists, however. His section on ter Braak concludes a chapter where he explains that the Nazis’ track-record of murder outside the judicial process actually follows in the old tradition of the Vehmgericht, a centuries-old institution of sentencing and execution by private associations – a kind of ‘vigilante’ justice. (I had learned of these tribunals when reading Goethe’s Götz von Berlichingen at school in 1964.) Cookridge follows this up in the following chapter, where he suggests that the spies Waelti and Druecke had been sent out to kill Rudolf Hess, and that Richter was on a mission to assassinate the exiled Czech President Beneš. I shall not debunk these theories any further than by noting that Druecke and Waelti (and their unmentioned comrade, Vera Eriksen, who escaped the death penalty) arrived in Scotland on September 30, 1940, while Hess did not make his bizarre flight to Scotland until May 10, 1941. This is perhaps the most egregious of Cookridge’s many errors.

So what is going on here? Since, in his Preface, Cookridge thanks ‘the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Home Office and the Lord Chief Justice’s Office for their assistance’, one has therefore to ask: Did these agencies of government all conspire to help put out false stories about ter Braak and others in order to improve their reputation in the public’s eye, showing how Britain’s doughty Security Service and Special Branch saved the lives of politicians? Or is there a measure of truth in what was leaked in a controlled fashion through Cookridge? Certainly the National Archives reveal none of this melodrama. If the government agencies wanted to promote a story that boosted MI5’s and Special Branch’s effective safeguarding of the Prime Minister’s life, would they not have created a more solid paper-trail that confirmed the account? We still do not know where the Churchill assassination story (which was faithfully reproduced in After The Battle), comes from.

1947 was a good year for government-inspired falsehoods to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. That same year one Stanley Firmin, who described himself as ‘Correspondent of the Daily Telegraph accredited to Scotland Yard’ wrote a wildly inaccurate book on the exploits of British espionage and counter-espionage titled They Came to Spy. His work is graced with a Foreword by Read-Admiral G. P. Thomson, C.B., C.B.E,, who was formerly Britain’s Chief Press Censor. He provided an enthusiastic endorsement of the truths that he knew Firmin was relating. One of Firmin’s revelations is the story of the discovery of a body in a Cambridge air-raid shelter. But who was he? “Records were searched, every line of inquiry possible was followed. Military Intelligence had, however, to confess themselves completely baffled,” wrote Firmin. It was one thing for maverick agents to compose romanticized and veiled accounts of their wartime exploits, but the government’s role in such PR exercises has not been examined deeply enough.

Cookridge and Deacon were in many ways birds of a feather –  journalists with an intelligence background, boasting of solid connections in the secret world, dedicated to digging around in mysterious cases, but not very disciplined with their sources, a bit too credulous of stories that may have been planted on them, and not beyond adding a bit of spice to help their books sell. So we can never be sure when they are a) mavericks telling us the true facts, b) tools of the intelligence services, consciously feeding us disinformation, c) dupes susceptible to theories placed elsewhere, or d) fantasists out to exploit the public. The fact that Deacon claims that ter Braak was a Communist out to steal secrets from the Dollis Hill Research Station, and that Cookridge believes he was a true Nazi agent on a mission to assassinate Churchill, might suggest that my more mundane theory, that he became a victim of a misguided and mismanaged MI5 project to keep him under surveillance for a while, may be a more accurate conclusion.

Mr. van den Braak has read my analysis, and I believe respects it while not agreeing with it. I am equally keen on reading his explanation, and I applaud his professionalism and dedication. There are no certainties in this business, there is no room for dogmatism. One has to remain constantly curious and open. And in our discussions, he and I have discovered some fresh anomalies. To begin with, in my analysis, I had stressed the coroner’s report, which stated that a bullet had entered ter Braak’s cranium above the left ear. Mr. van den Braak, quite correctly, points out that in the photograph the blood oozing from his temple appears to be on the right side of his face. Of course, this does not solve anything, but makes our belated autopsy even more problematic. Was the negative reversed? Could a bullet enter the left side of the head, but cause more damage as it exited the right? Did the coroner ever inspect the corpse? I would suggest that this case cries out for more expert forensic attention – including the matter of the type of weapon used. Cookridge also said it was a Luger: ter Braak’s file states that it was a Browning. MI5 were very keen to point out that the makes of ter Braak’s pistol and that of Richter’s were the same. (Jakobs had a Mauser.) And, of course, the same questions about ter Braak’s being able to stuff himself under a bench after killing himself, and the contradictory information about the presence of the gun itself (which I highlighted in September), are still unresolved.

Liddell Trips Up

Thirdly, there is the issue of the Liddell Diaries, which have played such a significant role in my researches. I recently encountered an item from September 5, 1945 that I had overlooked before. (It does not appear in the published edition of the Diaries edited by Nigel West, which are very selective, and in any case conclude on June 1, 1945. The entry can be inspected at KV 4/466 at the National Archives, a file that has been digitized, so it can be acquired and downloaded.) It runs as follows: “A Major Friedrich BUSCH who joined the Abwehr in August 1939 and worked in the air section operating against Gt. Britain, knows a considerable amount about the agents which the Abwehr were running to Gt. Britain and the USA. He mentions first a Sudetenlander who was trained in Holland and was working in Einz Wi. * He thought this man was of poor quality and ill-instructed. He was dropped but never established communication. Busch learned later from the British Press that he had been picked up. This may be ter Braak.”

[* Note: Einz Wi indicates the Wirtschaftliche (Economic) section of Abwehr 1 (Eins: Foreign Intelligence.]

Now this is a very troubling and provocative statement. Liddell must have been very familiar with the ter Braak case: he has mentioned it in his Diary beforehand, and the circumstances of a LENA agent who remained undetected for several months should have been a very searing experience for him. Yet he associates the ‘Sudetenlander’ with ter Braak, when it was well understood that ter Braak was a Dutchman, and that Richter was a Sudetenlander who had parachuted in some weeks after ter Braak’s death. Furthermore, there was no notice in the British press that he had been ‘picked up’. A local story in the Cambridge press to the effect that a suicide had been found was quickly stifled. The Guardian of December 11, 1941, reported on Richter’s execution, but it was not until four years after ter Braak’s death that the first story about him appeared, in the Daily Sketch, on September 8, 1945. That brief article said he had committed suicide, not that he had been ‘picked up’. So why was Liddell deluding himself – and posterity?

We can read the record of Major Busch’s interrogation at KV 2/229-2. Moreover, this examination took place on August 7, 1945, so it was impossible that Busch could have picked up the news of ter Braak from the Daily Sketch. Busch appears to have made disparate impressions upon his interrogators: one called him ‘intelligent and extremely cooperative’; another wrote of his ‘complete unreliability’. In 1940 he had been assigned to Abwehr Intelligenz-Luft, first with Referat England, later with Referat Amerika. He had a somewhat jaundiced view of espionage operations. Captain J. C. Hales wrote of his account: “It is the story of a man trying to bring to the notice of his superiors many inconsistencies in the reports of agents reported to be very reliable, and whom he believed to be under control. At each step in his fight he is surrounded by incompetence or knavery. In the end he is accused of defeatism, fails to secure promotion, and retires in disgust. . . . He states that he wishes eventually to write a book on: ‘How to lose a war by running controlled agents’.”

Busch wanted to volunteer information to the allies about German agents in the UK, and, on his contributions on the LENA spies, he was judged as being a useful witness. Comments are recorded, both typed and in hand-written annotations from B1A and B1B of MI5, pointing out minor corrections to his testimony, mostly concerning the career of TATE. What are critical for the analysis are the handwritten notes that explain some of the names behind Busch’s rather vague identities, as it is important to establish whether these were comments made at the time, or at some stage later, when other intelligence may have come to light. For example, Busch is described in the report as ‘a Fishmonger by trade, yet very shrewd’, but someone has clarified his profession: ‘Director of wholesale firm’, and underlined the ‘yet’, adding with an exclamation mark, to emphasize the fact that he was a successful businessman, that his shrewdness should come as no surprise. This sounds like a very contemporaneous clarification.

Thus, when Busch refers to an unidentified ‘Sudetenlander’, someone has written in ‘probably Richter’, and made a cross-reference to an MI5 file on Praetorius. Likewise, when Busch describes TATE by the cryptonym that he used (actually redacted, but followed by ‘alias LENA(SI)’), the editor has written in ‘TATE’ in place, for guidance, with his file number given as 53776.  Busch offered the following startling opinion that TATE was under the control of the British: the report runs: “Oberstltn. Von Dewitz, referat for England at the Luftwaffe Führungstab . . .. also agreed (with Busch) that TATE was controlled, but despite that view deliberately vouched for him, on the principle that it was better to have a working agent than none at all.” And, when this section completes with the statement ‘the other agents were probably all Germans with the exception of one Dutchman”, someone has written in ‘ter Braak?’. The conclusion is clear: MI5 was very aware of these identities when the interrogation report was read.

In this context, Liddell’s response is astonishing. He very selectively uses this report: he is keen to have the story of ter Braak tidily taken care of. We do not know, of course, in exactly what form the report came to him, yet, despite having a reminder about a Sudetenlander and a Dutchman right in front of him, he confuses the two, and comes to a completely different conclusion from that at which his subordinate officers arrived. What is more, he completely ignores Busch’s comments that TATE was suspected of being a double-agent, and that Busch wanted to write a book on the way that the war was lost by relying on spies who had been turned. It is as if he wanted to help leave a record for posterity that ter Braak was just another run-of-the-mill LENA spy who was quickly captured, and of course Liddell would not want the success story of the Double-Cross Operation to be tarnished by any suggestion that the Abwehr had seen through it all.

I happen to think that this overlooked episode makes my case that ter Braak was poorly manipulated by MI5, and constituted an embarrassing story that MI5 wanted to bury, even stronger. Moreover, it introduces a fascinating new twist to the ‘Mystery of the Undetected Radios’. The research continues, and I look forward to including Mr. van den Braak’s discoveries into the pot. I am also now trying to track down some of the sources – for both Krivitsky and ter Braak – in the papers that Deacon left behind. And that is another hunt of a very individual kind.

A Forgery?

Lastly, we have a previously unrevealed artefact to display and discuss. This month, Mr. van den Braak very enterprisingly approached McMaster University, in Hamilton, Ontario, which is the custodian of the E. H. Cookridge Archive, about items relating to ter Braak. The Librarian not only responded promptly, but actually enclosed a PDF containing a document from the archive (see below). This could be a remarkable find, as it appears to be the transcription of a wireless message, originally sent by ter Braak in the winter of 1940-41, and then forwarded to Berlin by the Abwehr station in Hamburg. Then follows another intercepted message from Hamburg to Berlin at the end of January, reporting what the agent has told them. Might they perhaps confirm that the agent had succeeded in contacting his controllers in Hamburg, and tell us something about his activities?

Transcriptions of Abwehr messages (from William Read Division of Archives and Research Collections, McMaster University Library, Hamilton, Ontario, Canada)

[A rough translation:

Message no 18 from L502, November 1, 1940 at 10 pm. 2200

{crossed out} “I am now installed in my new accommodation to the south of Cambridge. Have expended much money on costs of sickness and living.” To OKW Abwehr I

“Between the street and the railway south of Stapleford stand light flak- and detection-equipment. Large groups of troops to be found around here, also the Somerset Light Infantry Camp closely guarded by Bren gun posts.”

Ast. (Abwehrstelle) Hamburg B Nr. 2887/40

January 27, 1941 to KW Abw. from Lena 502 (3719)

“Lena 502 has to interrupt work for a while, for reasons of concealment. Equipment has been secured via 3554.” Ast. Hamburg 247/41]

We thus have to try to verify both the genuineness of the article (i.e. whether the creator of this item was indeed the person qualified and authorized to issue it), and its authenticity (i.e. does its content represent a true account of the circumstances it purports to describe). And we immediately are faced with problems. The text appears to have been written by a native German, yet it contains multiple errors. The character ‘ß’ (EsZett) is not used consistently (‘große’, but ‘Strasse’); the ‘1s’ and ‘7s’ are not continental; ‘Horch’ is spelled ‘Horrch’; ‘Gerät’ has an umlaut in one place, but not in another; ‘jetzt’ appears to have been spelled with an ‘s’, not a ‘z’; ‘augeblick’ is missing an ‘n’, etc. And why did ‘Flak’ originally appear as ‘Flack’? Is this not a clumsy giveaway, and is it perhaps a very premature use of this WWII abbreviation (from Flieger-Abwehr-Kanone)?

The handwriting in this document is indubitably Cookridge’s: it matches his other notes in the archive. But was he inventing or copying? Maybe this was a literal transcription of the coded message: after all, ter Braak was a Dutchman, not a German, and may have made mistakes that the transcriber faithfully replicated. Was another transcriber also the translator? The script at the top, in English, is in the same hand as the body. But we should also remember that Cookridge had been born in Austria, as Edward Philo, so he would have been immersed in German script, and would not have been likely to forget the habits drilled into him. So perhaps the items were falsified by a third party, and passed on to Cookridge, who wrote them out in his own hand? It certainly looks as if these messages are authentic, as their format matches known transmissions published elsewhere, such as in John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose. (I have not yet inspected raw decrypts held at Kew.)

The content, however, is also shady. The story of ter Braak that was published in ‘After the Battle’ gives the date of arrival as October 3, this date appearing to originate in Cookridge’s (‘Leighton’s’) article in the Vancouver Sun, while the National Archives files clearly indicate that he did not land until the end of October. Cookridge may have misunderstood the time of arrival, and embroidered his story. If we can believe what the archive tells us, it would have been impossible for ter Braak to have acquired new accommodation, and already spent that much money, if he had been in the country for only a day or two. So the message looks like a pure invention, probably created by Cookridge himself, with the lesser likelihood that an intermediary who had received the same wrong information about ter Braak’s arrival, and tried to embellish the story with some realistic-looking observations, had passed it on to Cookridge. The second date, January 27, occurs just before the day that ter Braak informed the authorities, under stress, about his new ration-card. It thus sounds as if Cookridge’s informer knew some aspects of the case, and Cookridge received a garbled account of what actually happened.

It is all very strange. Why would anybody bother to create these items, if they were never used? Were they simply produced to ‘prove’ that ter Braak had successfully deployed his wireless equipment? In which case, if the messages were intercepted and decrypted, why did the location-finders and the Special Branch not start combing the rental properties in southern Cambridge? Moreover, when I asked a wise ex-RSS officer this month about the trustworthiness of these messages, he simply replied that ter Braak’s equipment would never have worked, as a reputedly competent engineer’s report had shown. But is that what my contact was told, to fob him off? The archive tells a very different story, with contributions by other ‘competent engineers’. If ter Braak’s equipment never worked, why would he have hauled it around in the suitcase, and concealed it in a left-luggage office? 

Yet Mr. van den Braak and I now think that (part of) the mystery is easily explained. While Cookridge interpreted this message as being sent by ter Braak, it is actually one transmitted (under control of the XX Committee) by Gösta Caroli, aka SUMMER. SUMMER was indeed Agent 3719, the identification given. The timetable fits: SUMMER had attempted suicide on October 11, 1940, and was kept under close supervision in Hinxton, Cambridgeshire. On January 13, 1941, he assaulted (and nearly killed) his guard, and tried to escape. He was re-captured, but his role as a double-agent was over, and he had to be eliminated. Leonard Mosley claimed he was hanged in early February. (See Part 3 of ‘Undetected Radios’ for more details.) So the second message here represents the confirmation that Hamburg received from SUMMER (actually from the operator of his wireless set, as part of the Double-Cross deception) that he had to go underground, and that Agent 3554 (in fact the MI5 plant Sam McCarthy) has concealed his equipment.

What is perplexing about this whole episode is that the rest of the Cookridge Archive (something to be analysed here another day) proves that the government in 1945 wanted to open up to the press the proceedings of the trials, in order to boost the reputation of Britain’s intelligence services. Cookridge (and others, such as Stanley Firmin, Donald Stokes, and Bernard Newman) must have been briefed on the now well-known cases held in camera, but also on ter Braak, who was of course never put on trial. Among the information the journalists may have been given were some genuine transcripts of messages, but also some really imaginative, fake accounts of agents’ missions, such as the assassination of Hess, Beneš and Churchill. Much of that passed on into the lore of WWII history, but has now slowly been dismantled owing to the releases of the MI5 files concerning the agents themselves. Lastly, whether Cookridge received his transcripts from official government outlets, or from a secret contact within GC&CS (GCHQ), we face the astounding truth that he had in his hands a very early indication of the Double-Cross system at work. The secret was strenuously protected, and not publicly revealed until 1972. And the precise mission of ter Braak, and whether he successfully made any transmissions, remains an unsolved puzzle.

Thus we have a double Dutch Connection to be pursued: Jack Hooper, the half-Dutch disgraced SIS officer, who apparently worked for both the Abwehr and the NKVD, and is a pivotal figure in the Krivitsky-King-Maclean case; and Willem ter Braak, who has been claimed to be both a Nazi fanatic in the Abwehr, and a well-disguised NKVD spy. Could Claude Dansey possibly have been behind all this, pulling the strings? I shall have to put my best men and women on the job.

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

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Four More Books on Espionage

Seasonal greetings to all my readers – especially those who joined the group this year! Among new contacts is one former officer of an intelligence service, who very kindly wrote, about ‘Sonia’s Radio’: “It’s the most impressive counter intelligence research/historiography I’ve read – the web of known and suspected affiliations is masterly.”

And now you can help spread the word! In a survey of a thousand households of recent retirees across the European Union, commissioned by the Coldspur Appreciation Society, residents were asked to list the Top Ten Items on their Bucket List. Here are the consolidated results (after some flattening of rankings according to the Ogden-Zeiss method of Flawed Preference Detection): ‘Reading “Sonia’s Radio”’ was pipped out of first place by ‘Visiting Machu Picchu’, but pushed ‘Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef’ into third position. A great outcome!

Machu Picchu
(First Place)

‘Sonia’s Radio’
(Second Place)

Snorkelling on the Great Barrier Reef
(Third Place)

So all you have to do, laid out in five easy steps:

And you will immediately have made another close friend or relative very happy!

 

And now to those books  . . .

The Spy and the Traitor by Ben Macintyre (Crown New York, 2018)

Traitor Lodger German Spy by Tony Rowland (APS Publications, 2018)

Transcription by Kate Atkinson (Little Brown & Co., 2018)

The Secret World by Christopher Andrew (Yale University Press, 2018)

The Spy and the Traitor

How well do you know your Communist defectors? For instance, can you clearly distinguish and differentiate Igor Gouzenko, Anatoly Golitsyn, Michael Goleniewski and Oleg Gordievsky?  (In the spirit of 1066 and All That, the use of protractors is encouraged.) No? Well, here’s a thumbnail sketch to help you prepare for that pub quiz. Gouzenko was the cipher clerk who worked for the GRU in Ottawa, and whose revelations in 1945 led to the unmasking of the atom spies. Golitsyn defected in 1961, and provided information that led to the confirmation of Kim Philby’s treachery. Goleniewski was a Pole, reputedly a triple agent, who helped identify George Blake as a spy within SIS. And Gordievsky was the KGB officer who turned against his employers after the invasion of Czechoslovakia, and in 1985 was spirited out of the Soviet Union in a daring escape organised by SIS.

The highly successful journalist Ben Macintyre, author of five gripping books about espionage and sabotage, has now turned his hand to the story of Gordievsky. The tale is not new: Gordievsky wrote a memoir titled Next Stop Execution, which gives almost as much detail about his career with the KGB, as well as the climax of the book, the enterprising escape plan, and how it was executed. (In recommending The Spy and the Traitor as one of his Books of the Year, Peter Frankopan wrote recently in the Spectator: “As with his other books, Macintyre seems not only able to find amazing new material, but to write perfectly paced prose that reads like a thriller.” I agree with the second part of the statement, but not the first.)

Ben Macintyre

Shortly after being posted to London in early 1985, Gordievsky, who had made his desires and loyalties clear when an officer in Copenhagen, and had later provided much valuable information to help Margaret Thatcher negotiate with Gorbachev, was recalled to Moscow, ostensibly for some kind of confirmation process for his recent promotion to rezident. Instead he was immediately interrogated and put under surveillance on suspicion of being a spy. Fortunately for him, Soviet Intelligence was at that time taking a more formal approach to the determination of guilt. Taking advantage of a scheme devised by SIS long before, Gordievsky was able to signal to British Embassy officials that he was in danger, and made his plans for escape. He took a train to Leningrad, and hitched a ride to a place near the Finnish border, where he was picked up and hidden in the boot (trunk) of a car being driven by members of the embassy. He was then smuggled into Finland – an adventure which must surely lead to a movie before long. Macintyre has complemented that account by virtue of his being able to discuss the case freely with Gordievsky’s handlers in SIS (MI6) – a disturbing venture in its own right, given the implications of the Official Secrets Act, and one that raises some troubling questions about the reliability of Macintyre’s judgments.

First of all – that title. The Spy. And the Traitor. Is Gordievsky supposed to be both? Probably not. The traitor is probably meant to indicate Aldrich Ames, the CIA agent who was, somewhat remarkably, given his personality and drinking habits, the Soviet and East European Division’s chief of counter-intelligence, which allowed him to realise that an anonymous high-grade informer was being handled by the British. In order to deliver his high-expense wife the luxuries she demanded, Ames offered his services to the KGB, and was able to provide enough hints to Gordievsky’s background and movements that the Soviets concluded that the pattern of activity and geography cast a strong suspicion that Gordievsky might be the source of the leaks. Yet we should not forget that both men were traitors. I would probably be the last man to propose ‘moral equivalence’ in the actions and motivations of the two (see Misdefending the Realm, p 280, for example), but it is a matter of fact that both men were traitors to the nation they served. This is a vital point, because Gordievsky is still under a death sentence: Putin is reported to be livid with his former colleague’s treachery. An attempt has been made on Gordievsky’s life already, and he has to live in seclusion in darkest Surrey somewhere. (I know Surrey is still ‘leafy’. But do ‘dark’ portions of that county still exist?

What Macintyre does well, he does very well. He has a journalist’s eye for the telling detail, weaves the relevant background material into his ripping yarn very smoothly, and keeps the suspense up extremely capably. Yet his judgment is fallible: he gets a little too close to his subject and the SIS officers who guide him through the story, and lacks the temperament and resolve to stand back coolly from the whole operation. Gordievsky has collaborated with Christopher Andrew on a couple of books since his defection, and, as I noted in last month’s blog, these were not received with the critical acclaim that the author appears to assume. I repeat Macintyre’s assertion: “He gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre echoes Gordievsky’s claim that the spy ELLI was Leo Long, Gordievsky having claimed to have found that detail in the KGB archives. Remarkably, Christopher Andrew used Gordievsky’s statement to voice the same opinion in his authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm, as well as in other books he has written about the KGB, a mistake that has been criticised by historians ever since. (Andrew has declined to appear in forums to discuss this very controversial judgment, but Macintyre should have known about the problem.) It has been rumoured in some quarters that Gordievsky was encouraged by SIS to make the equivalence of ELLI and Long to distract attention from molehunts after more likely candidates  . . .  Again, Macintyre, in his enthusiasm, is reluctant to consider such matters worthy of discussion.

Then there is the case of Michael Foot. Macintyre repeats Gordievsky’s claim that the leader of the Labour Party had been a paid Soviet agent with the cryptonym BOOT (again showing the Soviet bureaucrats’ highly subtle choice of monikers to conceal the identity of their contacts). Macintyre accepts unquestioningly everything that Gordievsky says about Foot, how he was served with raw Soviet propaganda, and how he provided valuable information about Western political strategies from the Korean War onward. In recent weeks, the fortnightly magazine Private Eye has taken the cudgels up against Macintyre, coming to Foot’s defence, showing how his Tribune articles constantly criticised the Soviet Union, and thus showed that he was no friend of the Soviets. I think Private Eye may be jumping too quickly into the fray, too (Michael’s nephew, the late diehard Socialist Paul Foot, is still a much-revered figure at Gnome House). It is possible that Michael Foot conveyed an anti-Soviet stance in Tribune to cover his activities as an agent of influence, but the magazine has showed that Macintyre has tied himself in knots over the chronology of Gordievsky’s awareness of Foot’s activities. However, both Macintyre and Private Eye fail to use the diaries of Anatoly Chernyaev, the Kremlin’s liaison with the Labour Party, which have been translated and are available at the National Security Archive (see https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu/NSAEBB/NSAEBB192/index.htm ), and would appear to confirm Foot’s foolishness, if not malfeasance. ‘This one will run and run’, in the words of one of Private Eye’s favourite slogans.

And was Macintyre being used by his SIS friends? He carefully explains (in his Acknowledgments) that his work is not an authorised biography, and takes pains to explain that he has had ‘no access to the files of the intelligence service, which remain classified’. Yet he is naïve enough to state that the book was not aided by SIS, having shortly before expressed his huge gratitude to ‘every MI6 officer involved in the case’. If that is not ‘aid’, what is? On page 79, he writes that ‘the correspondence between SUNBEAM and C remains in the MI6 archives, proof of the personal touch on which successful spying depends.” If that is some ‘proof’ to which Macintyre can attest, has he actually inspected it? Even to know that the correspondence exists seems to me an outrageous liberty granted by SIS to the journalist. I do not understand how, given the constraints of the Official Secrets Act, SIS officers were allowed selectively to pass on confidential material to a chosen writer, and get away with it.

But perhaps I do. Macintyre is careful to conceal his contacts under aliases. Gordievsky’s main handler in London is identified as ‘James Spooner’, but Christopher Andrew, in The Secret World (see below) has identified ‘Spooner’ as John Scarlett, who later became chief of SIS. So we must interpret this joint venture between SIS and Macintyre as another in a line of valiant PR exercises by the intelligence services, which started with Alan Moorhead’s The Traitors in 1952. So long as there is a positive story to tell, which shows up the imagination and dedication of the Secret Intelligence Service in a good light, SIS will arrange for a reliable journalist/historian to tell the tale, and break its own rules in so doing. The Spy and the Traitor will be immensely successful, and like other popular retreads of Macintyre’s, will no doubt be enjoyed by millions, but his books should not be regarded as serious history, as they constitute a potpourri of fascinating facts and unreliable information. Moreover, if there is a serious reappraisal of Anglo-Soviet relations to be undertaken, it should not be at the whim of John Scarlett, allowing selective disclosure by the triumvirate of Andrew, Gordievsky and Macintyre. The material on which their statements are based should be made generally available to historians at large.

Traitor Lodger German Spy

Tony Rowland (a nom de plume, as the author wishes to stay anonymous) has chosen, for his crafting of a novel about the mysterious German agent, broadly the same archival documents on ter Braak that I used in my September analysis (see TheMysteryoftheUndetectedRadiosPart3). ‘Based on a true story’, the back cover boasts, but, as readers who have studied my explanation would probably agree, exactly what the true story was is open to a large amount of controversy. Mr. Rowland has overall ingeniously translated the fragments available at the National Archives on Engelbertus Fukken (ter Braak’s real name) into a gripping tale of treachery and murder, but, since the bare threads of the Abwehr agent’s life evading capture have been embellished by the insertion of a completely artificial and unconvincing personage of a Cambridge Professor who is (as far as I can judge) nowhere to be found in the archival records, the story unnecessarily loses its grip with reality.

That is not to say that the fiction is unenjoyable. Rowland has done his homework: he portrays Cambridge in 1940 in very convincing fashion, he is good with dialogue, he represents police procedures with authority, he understands well the political issues at home as well as the sensitive dynamics of the Abwehr, and the subversive mentality of its leaders. He presents the complex issues of wireless telegraphy soundly, and realistically brings in both Bletchley Park and the Cavendish Laboratory as possible targets of ter Braak’s mission. He very sensibly questions the denials by Abwehr officers that they could identify ter Braak, as well as the repeated claims that the arrival of the parachutist Josef Jakobs had nothing to do with ter Braak’s plight. He has done an excellent job of bringing life into the two-dimensional characters who largely people the documents released by MI5. It may be that the person-in-the-street, unfamiliar with what appears in the archives, will find Traitor Lodger German Spy an engrossing spy story and not be concerned about where the author’s imagination has run away with him.

The primary problem, as I see it, is that Rowland presents MI5 as ‘moving heaven and earth’ to find ter Braak, when it is clear from the archives, and from the way Rowland faithfully reflects that part of the story, that the Security Service attempted no such thing. Thus his fiction fails to take on with any resolve the paradox central to ter Braak’s status as a fugitive. How could an escaped German parachutist, at a time when a small densely populated country was on alert for any alien presence, and when enemy agents had been swiftly captured elsewhere, survive for so long, living among apparently unsuspicious civilians and officials? And why would he dabble with the Cambridge netherworld so dangerously, and thus draw attention to himself? Moreover, the background, personality, activities and discoveries of the person that really drives the plot, the Professor (about whom I shall write no more detail, as it would spoil the reader’s enjoyment), were to me so unconvincing as to pull the story out of its realistic framework.

Perhaps my experience in trying to analyse what the ‘true story’ about ter Braak was make me an unsuitable critic of Mr. Rowland’s experiment. To me, the questions naturally surrounding what went on in those hectic months of the winter of 1940-41 are fascinating enough without bringing in in any deus ex machina. In an email exchange, Mr. Rowland told me that he had ‘made no attempt to stick with the recorded facts, or indeed cold logic, where they don’t fit with the plot.’ That struck me as an odd argument to make: if the plot drove everything, why attempt to promote the book as being based on a true story, while emphasizing the process of researching the story in ‘the files of the National Archives at Kew, the Cambridge Archives . . .’?  (Rowland appears to have overlooked the very considerable facts about ter Braak uncovered in the articles in After the Battle magazine.) He does credit, however, two writers with a significant interest in the story, a Dutch writer Jan-Willem van den Braak, and Giselle Jakobs, the granddaughter of Josef Jakobs (who was executed later in 1941) with assisting him with the results of his research. I have not read the contributions of either (apart from blogs posted on the latter’s website), but why would the author go out of his way to incorporate information from them, only to dismiss certain facts as inconvenient for his plot?

In an imagined world of fiction, the plot should derive from the convincing but probably flawed characteristics of the participants, and not be a mechanism of its own that relies on artificiality and unexplainable events. Rowland has the skills to have made this a more convincing tale. I am very supportive of efforts to bring the strange history of ter Braak into the public eye, but the bare facts as revealed by the archives provide enough opportunity for weaving an engrossing story about a brave but misguided man during a fascinating winter in history, without the introduction of unconvincing melodrama.

Transcription

I do not read much fiction these days, but this title caught my eye. Kate Atkinson was not a name I knew, but her latest work was suddenly being reviewed everywhere, she was being interviewed by the New York Times, and Transcription quickly made its way into the NYT best-seller list. More relevantly, it was a novel about a period that I know fairly well – the spring and summer of 1940 when Britain came under a ‘Fifth Column’ scare. So I thought I should acquire the book, and see what was going on.

The story concerns a young lady, an orphan, who is recruited by MI5 to assist in a surveillance operation against Fascist sympathisers. After working as a transcriber of the recorded conversations that the potential traitors engage in, innocently believing they are having an exchange with a Gestapo officer under cover in Dolphin Square, Juliet Armstrong is asked to take part in a more aggressive project to entrap one of the ladies who is facilitating the illicit passing of information from the American Embassy. This leads to further complications, both romantic and political – including a murder carried out and concealed by MI5 – and an estrangement from the MI5 agent who was responsible for carrying out the deception. After the war, she is called on again to provide a safe house for a fleeing scientist from behind the Iron Curtain, and things go wrong, which lead to her being persecuted. The narrative starts with her death when hit by a car in London in 1981, and flashes back to 1940 and 1950, when she was working for the BBC.

My first, highly distracting, impression was that Ms. Atkinson overloaded her reach for historical authenticity by including too many reasonably well-known historical figures masquerading under invented names. Thus Peregrine Gibbons, the handler of agents who works from his residence in Dolphin Square, is incontrovertibly the nature-lover of ambiguous sexuality, Maxwell Knight, who, like Juliet, moves over to the BBC to work after the war. Godfrey Toby, who mysteriously ‘cuts’ Juliet after the war, is Eric Roberts, working for Knight, who pretended to be a representative of the Gestapo in encouraging the Fascist ladies. Oliver Alleyne, who is Gibbons’ boss, and who also recruits Juliet for special tasks, is presumably Guy Liddell: the name Alleyne is perhaps a deliberate echo of John Le Carré’s Percy Alleline. Miles Merton, ‘the intellectual communist’, must be based on Anthony Blunt. I glimpsed Olga Gray, and saw traces of Joan Miller (author of One Girl’s War) in Juliet. The American spy Chester Vanderkamp is indubitably the author’s name for Tyler Kent, and his partner in crime Mrs. Scaife is Anna Wolkoff of the Russian Tea Room. The introduction of a dog named Cyril who is withheld from his owner, a double-agent, clearly comes from the case-history of Anna Sergueiew. Etc. etc.

But why all the distortions? The author gets dates wrong, for instance, misrepresenting Knight’s career. She greatly overstates the function of the perceived Nazi sympathisers, a set of chattering ladies, as a ‘Fifth Column’, when it bore none of the characteristics of a force ready to take up arms in the event of an invasion. Even though Maxwell Knight’s official report on the operation (written much later) called it that, the Fifth Column menace did not rear its head until the Low Countries and France succumbed to Nazi invasion, and then blew over in a couple of months. Victor Rothschild and Anthony Blunt did not join MI5 until May of 1940. Roger Hollis was not yet a prominent officer of MI5. Ms. Atkinson anticipates the execution of German spies by about a year. The Sergueiew incident did not occur until 1943. Some of this may be deliberate – an attempt to show that the experts in counter-espionage were as deceived as anybody as to what was going on. As another MI5 officer (Hartley, who also wants to use Juliet as ‘his girl’ on a project) says: “Storm in a teacup, all that stuff about the fifth column. Bunch of frustrated housewifes, most of them. Gibbons was obsessed with them. Anyway, you were looking at the wrong people – you should have been looking at the communists, they were always the real threat.”

Kate Atkinson

So what we find here is more playing fast-and-loose with historical figures. And then I found that the author is quite candid about such games. In her ‘Author’s Note’, she admits that she ‘got a lot of it wrong, on purpose’, and ‘invented what she felt like’. Her sources show all the familiar titles (although she appears not to have used Henry Hemming’s recent biography of Maxwell Knight), and she has plucked from these the anecdotes and characters that suited her. But why? What she ends up with is neither authentic documentary nor imaginative fiction. She describes the process as ‘a wrenching apart of history followed by an imaginative reconstruction.’ No, madam: this is no Wolf Hall. And the plot is no stellar composition to compensate: the character of Juliet (who is mildly interesting to begin with, although this reviewer, appropriately sensitised by the #MeToo movement, found her urgent desires to be seduced by one or more of her mentors a trifle unsavoury) dissolves into a blur. Her involvement in a murder, and MI5’s disposal of the body, is simply melodramatic. Juliet never shows the aptitude or inclination to be a spy, and simply becomes a creature of apparently unexplained events. If there were subtle hints of her eventual political convictions to be found in earlier scenes, they certainly escaped me. I had lost interest in her before the twist in her career became clear.

Is there a deeper message here? Does ‘Transcription’ have something to do with ‘Deception’ or ‘Distortion’? Are the struggles and delusions of the Security Service an allegory of some post-imperial hangover? Does the ‘transcription’ carry a genetic metaphor, reflecting some process of DNA copying?  “Search me, guv!”, as Harold Pinter responded when an enthusiastic devotee asked him for confirmation as to what one of his plays meant. One critic of this ‘superb story of wartime espionage’ (Gerry Kimber, in the Times Literary Supplement) declared that ‘readers will eventually learn that nothing they encounter here can be taken at face value: in this novel the dividing line between truth and lies is only smoke and mirrors.’ But thriving on smoke and mirrors can lead to intellectual sloppiness, and allow the writer to get away with all manner of carelessness. This novel has many moments of humour, and insights into the world of 1940 Britain and 1950 BBC that I found convincing and familiar, even, but Juliet’s arch asides became tiresome after a while, and I was not convinced by the actions and motivations of anybody.

As readers of my critiques will now have concluded, I am not a fan of ‘novels’ which attempt to compensate for their lack of creativity in credible plot and characterisation by drawing on historical sources in a highly selective manner. And I do not think I am alone, as the recent controversy over the distortion of facts by Heather Morris in her best-selling The Tattooist of Auschwitz shows. The author’s editor at Harper Collins was quoted as saying: “It’s a novel so it didn’t need to be fact-checked, though a novel needs to have verisimilitude.” But then it should not emphasise the ‘true story’ aspect if it plays around with the facts, as the alert reader will question everything else. I happened to turn next for my bedtime reading to an often neglected book by John le Carré that truly covers the ‘smoke and mirrors’ theme: The Looking-Glass War (1964). In his Foreword, le Carré writes: “None of the characters, clubs, institutions nor intelligence organisations I have described here or elsewhere exists, or has existed to my knowledge in real life.”  That’s more like it, guv! (Though he had to say that, as they obviously did. But that’s a story for another day.)

The Secret World

For any collector of books on intelligence, Christopher Andrew’s latest work must be a necessary addition, probably to join other serious companions on the shelf of authorised histories. Yet, if such bibliophiles are like me, there will no spare space on any of their shelves, and it will have to take its place on one of the piles on the bridge-table, or heaped on the grand piano, unless I consider reclaiming shelf-space from some valuable but less solemn volumes that will be relegated to the annex. On reflection, I do not think the last option is likely. For all its 760 pages of Text, 58 pages of Sources, and 55 pages of Notes, I doubt whether I shall be referring to The Secret World often. Weighing in at three-and-a-half-pounds, however, it will undoubtedly bust many blocks. (And maybe block a few busts on top of the piano.)

So what is it about? Its subtitle runs ‘A History of Intelligence’, but the flyleaf claims that it is ‘the first global history of espionage ever written’, which is not the same thing at all. Espionage, counter-espionage, information-gathering, propaganda, deception: all those I might include under ‘Intelligence’, but I would certainly not consider state-arranged murder of its own citizens, or covert assassinations of foreign politicians, as part of that domain. Yet, in his Introduction, Andrew provocatively claims that they are. Thus, while it may be illuminating to make comparisons between the Spanish Inquisition and Stalin’s Great Terror of 1938, I question whether the classification of mass murder of innocent persons as a matter of ‘intelligence’ reflects a solid humanitarian judgment. Simply because the institution that carried out the executions was also responsible for spying on the populace, that fact does not contribute valuably to the study of the suitable deployment of ‘intelligence’ in domestic or foreign affairs. Andrew reinforces this unhappy theme by relating, in the concluding chapter, the worldwide assassination exploits of the Israeli intelligence organisation, Mossad, and controversially appears to approve such aggression as a winning strategy of ‘the most recent of the world’s most successful intelligence agencies’ in protecting the country. While ‘intelligence’ must be largely secret, however, not all that is secret counts as intelligence. These are shifting and controversial territories to be working in, and some moral compass is required.

Andrew’s dominant message is that a professional unawareness of how intelligence has been successfully (and unsuccessfully) deployed leads to repeated mistakes. Yet, as he explains in his Introduction, the excessive secrecy that attends to its role leads to delayed recognition of such awareness and to an uninformed populace. Records are not released, and histories are written with incomplete information or concealed knowledge (e.g. by such leading lights as A. J. P. Taylor and Winston Churchill respectively), with the result that whole generations are brought up on inadequate or distorted accounts of what primarily influenced outcomes. As he says, the public was protected from knowing about Ultra and the Double-Cross system decades after the events. But he does not analyse (as an outsider) or explain (as an insider) why secrets are maintained for so long. The Double-Cross system was never going to be exploited successfully against the Soviet adversary, no matter that some had delusions that it could be. Germany was never going to gain a revanchist advantage from learning how its Enigma messages had been decrypted, and the science of cryptology moved on. The VENONA secret was maintained for fifty years, but the Soviets knew about it from their spies anyway, and had fixed any procedural problems that the project would have revealed. (Moscow frequently knew much more than Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee about what was really going on in the UK’s Secret World, a point that Andrew does not explore in depth.)

At the end of the book, Andrew returns to this important question of secrecy, dedicating a few pages to Wikileaks, making the claim that not much damage was in fact performed through this breach, and that government secrets have been betrayed for centuries. But, in that case, why has the US Government granted the highest-level security clearance to one-and-a-half million employees and consultants? How could it possibly monitor and maintain a system that pretended that it could vet and trust so many persons, and that the exposure of the secrets that had been entrusted to them would cause ‘exceptionally grave damage’? And why do MI5 and SIS display such a possessive and secret attitude to files that can have no possible bearing on today’s security challenges, and refuse to release folders that have by far outlived their shelf-life? This is the obverse of Andrew’s assertion, which he does not inspect at all. (Yet it was one that came through very clearly in his 1984 collaborative work with David Dilks, The Missing Dimension.)

Sir Christopher Andrew

The bulk of the book consists of a walk through intelligence history over the millennia, but it lacks much of a roadmap. One looks, therefore, to the final chapter for perhaps a thematic summing-up. This chapter is not titled ‘Conclusions’, however, but ‘Conclusion: Twenty-First Century Intelligence in Long-Term Perspective’. Rather than neatly integrating the lessons from the past, the section disappointingly rambles all over the place, introduces much new material, and ends with the rather plodding assertion: “The more that is discovered about the long-term history of intelligence, the more difficult it will be for both policymakers and practitioners to ignore past experiences”, as if the publication of this book will suddenly make ministers, intelligence chiefs, and watchdogs around the world all suddenly perk up when Andrew had presumably not been able to convince them beforehand of the errors of their ways. Well, maybe. Old habits die hard. And if the ‘Yoda’ (see FourBooksonEspionage) of intelligence studies cannot improve matters, who will be able to? But that is what you are paying for.

To reach that conclusion, the reader will have waded through a rich cavalcade of histories of espionage and deceit through the ages. The early parts had a little too much religion and mythology for my liking, much of the story having an anecdotal and unreliable aspect that may not bear much rigorous examination. (His narrative also served to remind me how the interminable feuds between Catholics and Protestants disproportionately influenced state policies, and how calamitous such futile religious commitments were for the peace of Europe.) Thereafter, the reader can pick up some of the lessons that recur over the centuries: the analogies between Ivan the Terrible and Stalin, for instance; the fact that despots want to be told what they have already preconceived (the difficulty of telling ‘Truth-to-Power’), disdaining intermediary intelligence-analysing bodies; and the requirement for governments to avoid proving an allegation against a foreign power by disclosing the clandestine channel through which they acquired it. (Though the existence of those hidden cameras in the Saudi Arabian embassy in Ankara had to be revealed for the greater good.)

But it would have been useful for Andrew to have identified up-front some themes that were important to the use of intelligence in strategy, and relate them to the epochs he studies. For example, how relevant today are lessons from the Second Punic War as opposed to those from WWII? What technological developments in the past fifty years have caused strategic assessment to change? In the final chapter he tries to recapitulate, by making some highly important points about the necessity for imagination when assessing the motivations and practices of the foe: these indeed point to some enduring patterns. Thus he shows how important open-ended questions for agents assessing German weapons programmes in WWII were, a lesson forgotten by the CIA sixty years later when it sought intelligence on Iraq. And he reminds us that both Stalin’s and Hitler’s obsessions, at different times of the war (Stalin’s determination to assassinate Trotsky, Hitler’s pursuit of the Final Solution) were completely misread by intelligence analysts in the West. Yet only in the last sentence of the penultimate chapter does he introduce his theory of Historical Attention-Span Deficit Disorder (HASDD), which he had briefly introduced in his Introduction. Why so late? Moreover, this is a global study: is misuse of intelligence cancelled out if it is perpetrated by adversaries, such as the West on the one side and Russia or China on the other? It is as if he (rightly) feels uncomfortable about giving advice to regimes for whose goals he does not bear any sympathy, but this matter is never explored.

By dint of this rather strange structure, Andrew does not really perform justice to the richness of lessons to be learned. Would it not have been educational, for instance, to make some comparisons between surveillance and containment activities undertaken by totalitarian regimes to further their control over perceived enemies, and those pursued in constitutional democracies? How should policies differ in peace and war, and how should they change in that time when the former drifts into the latter? What lessons should we take from the successes of state-sponsored assassination – that it works for some democracies, but not others, and is not justifiable when committed by more authoritarian states (Israel, yes, but not Russia or North Korea, perhaps)? It would have been enlightening if he had offered an analysis of how many of Israel’s 2700 targeted killings were a) strategically beneficial, and b) justifiable. Such passages really shocked this reader, who looked for more context and analysis.

It would also have been useful for him to have explored the question of political organisation of intelligence. For example, should leaders’ recognition of the strategic value of intelligence be translated into close contact with intelligence heads, or should it concentrate instead on the building of the appropriate processes and structures, and the recruitment of the right people (not potential traitors!), including enough individuals with appropriate language skills, and giving them training and a proper budget?  (The former could indicate the latter has been ignored, of course. Executive politicians come and go: institutions endure.) He could have inspected successful patterns for developing mechanisms for sharing intelligence across different groups of the armed forces, and encouraging objective assessment. He could have explored cases where intelligence personnel showed imagination in not assuming that the enemy worked and thought as themselves. Britain, in the Chamberlain era, ignored nearly all these rules, and it took Churchill to make amends, such as giving the Joint Intelligence Centre some real teeth and focus, but policy towards the Soviet Union in World War II was marred by the Foreign Office’s belief that, if handled nicely, Stalin would behave like a typical English gentleman, rather than the Georgian gangster he always was. Readers will learn much more about such matters from, say, Ralph Bennett’s Behind the Battle (a work not appearing in Andrew’s Bibliography, but one which he could profitably have read) than they will from The Secret World.

Andrew’s judgments are largely unsurprising and sometimes questionable, I think, and he steps back from exploring really important topical matters, such as the use of modern technology (e.g. encryption, social media) in both subversion and counter-subversion. Neither Apple nor Facebook appears in the Index. He offers a few pages on Islamic fundamentalism, but does not discuss the critical subject of taqiyya, Islamic propaganda with a devious religious spin, or recommend how it should be countered. He represents 9/11 as a failure to combine the preparation for a threat originating on foreign soil with delivery inside the nation’s boundaries, when the plotters were in fact able to pass undetected because of woeful lack of communication and collaboration by the country’s intelligence agencies. He comes up with a knee-jerk assessment of McCarthyism that contains all the fashionably correct codewords: “The outrageous exaggerations and inventions of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s self-serving anti-Communist witch-hunt in the early 1950s made liberal opinion skeptical for the remainder of the Cold War of the reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive”, as if McCarthy had been responsible for the concealment of communists undertaken by such as the State Department. If there was a ‘reality of the Soviet intelligence offensive’, how should it have been revealed when it had already succeeded in its infiltration? Why was ‘liberal opinion’ so appeasingly indulged? How would experience have helped? Andrew ventures no opinion. He spends an enormous amount of print on Pearl Harbor, but barely scrapes the surface of the Soviet Union’s Red Orchestra and spy network in World War II, and how it affected critical negotiations between the Big Three towards the end of the conflict.

What it boils down to is that repeated patterns of activity are not really that interesting, while integrating growing knowledge of intelligence into historiography is endlessly so. That is why rewriting WWII history in the light of revealed secrets about Ultra, for example, is an ongoing task: even histories written in the 1990s were not able to take advantage of the raw decrypts that have now been released to the National Archives. He mentions this in his Introduction, but does not follow through. Instead, in order to provide some linkage with the present, Andrew has chosen to develop some leitmotifs that are entertaining, though not always revelatory. It is worth quoting a few:

“Scot was the first, and so far the only, British intelligence chief executed for treason.” (p 231)

“Before he [James II] could escape, however, he was caught by fishermen looking for fleeing Catholic priests, and suffered the humiliation of becoming the only British monarch ever to be strip-searched.” (P 250)

“Wallis was the first, and so far the only, British codebreaker to receive an award from a foreign ruler.” (P 253)

“Among the most reluctant witnesses to give evidence in the Lords against Atterbury was Edward Willes, the only codebreaker ever to appear before Parliament.” (p 274)

“His [Swift’s] Gulliver’s Travels contains the first (and so far the only) satire of codebreaking by a major British writer.” (p 275)

“So far as is known, following the failure of the Cadoudal conspiracy [1804], no British government or government agency approved another plot to assassinate a foreign leader until the Second World War.” (P 338)

“The identity of ‘Michel’ was discovered from the handwriting and he became probably the only Russian spy ever to be sent to the guillotine.” (P 355)

“After the Bolshevik Revolution, Stalin placed all the volumes in his personal archive and brooded over them for many years, making extensive annotations and occasional doodles. So far as is known, no other world leader has ever spent so much time brooding over the intelligence record of his past life.” (P 441)

“Apis and three fellow officers were shot by firing squad. He thus became the first intelligence chief [of Serbia] of the twentieth century to be executed.” (P 448)

“Thanks to the failure of the Cheka to provide security, Lenin became the first, and so far the only, head of government to be the victim of a carjack.” (P 574)

“He [Kalugin] became the first (and possibly the last) KGB officer to serve on the Columbia University Student Council.” (P 685)

Does this pattern represent a nervous tic, or does it show innovative scholarship? I leave the reader to decide. But it must be passages like this that prompted Ben Macintyre to assert, in an interview in the New York Times Book Review, that The Secret World is ‘easy to dip into’ and ‘surprisingly funny’. I did not laugh much – but then I was not dipping.

While this critic was sometimes overwhelmed by the panorama of historical figures, many of whom I had not encountered before, I must credit the tremendous scholarship that has gone into this publication. Did Andrew really compose it all himself? Can any single scholar have read all those works listed? He thanks dozens of academics in his Acknowledgements, many of whom ‘notably extended my grasp of intelligence by allowing me to supervise their PhD theses’. Yet those theses are not listed separately, and only four such writers (Gioe, Gustafson, Larsen and Lokhova, whose contribution is actually an MPhil dissertation) have their theses listed in the Bibliography. On the other hand I did notice references to Cambridge University theses by authors whose names do not appear in the Acknowledgments. Were projects delegated to different scholars? I ask simply because I do not know how the process worked, although I have read that Andrew, who said that his writing of Defend the Realm was for him a part-time occupation, did on that project have junior academics performing primary research for him in the MI5 archives.

Irrespective of how the project functioned, or whether everyone has received the credit due to them, any seams are overall well concealed, and Andrew’s copy-editor has performed a solid job in providing stylistic consistency. Some deep textual analysis might show multiple authors at work: I spotted ‘different to’ on page 346, and ‘different from’ on page 490, which would be an unusual syntactic habit by an established academic with a competency for polished prose. Occasionally, errors occur: repeated textual descriptions and references (even in the same chapter) come up quite regularly, suggesting a text that has undergone homogenization without complete cross-checking.  An individual map appears twice. ‘Bagration’ (from the Index) appears as ‘Bagratian’ (in the text). Rear-Admiral Macintire appears as ‘Macintyre’ in the same line (p 633). Colonel House appears sometimes as ‘Colonel’ House, as if it were a nickname. (The author invites readers to contact him with notices of errors, but does not indicate how.)

As for sources, Andrew quotes his own works a little too much for my liking, and I found it bizarre that he, as the authorised historian of MI5, would cite Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross as a source. He stresses the importance of the American journalists Woodward and Bernstein, but fails to mention anything that Chapman Pincher wrote, or the contribution that Pincher made to drawing attention to murky secrets. On the other hand, Andrew is a bit too eager to mention his acolyte Svetlana Lokhova (see FourBooksonEspionage), who even gains credit for her entrepreneurship: “The investigation of the Kremlin plot, whose voluminous files have recently been discovered by Svetlana Lokhova, revealed a security shambles on an even larger scale.” It was not as if Ms. Lokhova had been tramping intrepidly through the Amazon jungle in search of a lost tribe: she would not have been able to ‘discover’ those voluminous files without some high-up permission and guidance. Yet Andrew has no room for Lokhova’s profile of Shumovsky, The Spy Who Changed History, which essentially glorified the Soviet Union’s purloining of American scientific secrets. Is Andrew suggesting that the lessons of HASDD be applied consistently by potential global adversaries? It is all rather uneven, and reflects very indeterminate principles.

In conclusion, I should have liked Andrew to explore this notion of HASDD in more detail, and how it relates to the defence of the constitutional democracies. After all, we should assume that his lessons are for the ‘good guys’ (the liberal democracies) rather than for the ‘bad guys’ (authoritarian or totalitarian states, or transnational terrorist organisations). Andrew does not make this explicit: he describes China’s efforts to erase any memories of Tiananmen Square, but does not offer us an opinion of whether this initiative to improve state security is commendable, or to be deplored. (Is a stable but authoritarian and expansive China better for the West than a China that starts to fragment or crumble?) Nor does he encompass the possibility, as we are frequently told these days, that the democracies may well be at risk more from the imitation of illiberal democracies, or from the sway of undemocratic superstates, than they are from ideological would-be territorial invaders, such as the Nazis and the Communists. That former warning is, presumably, the moral message he is leaving with us, rather than a sermon on how an inattention to historical precedent sometimes inhibits China’s new imperialism, or Iran’s regional ambitions.

Does this HASDD syndrome reflect a problem of structure, personnel, process, or skills? Is it the fault of the intelligence services, the politicians, (in Britain) the Joint Intelligence Committee, or some other agency? Is this a uniquely British/American condition? And, if he considers that the lore of successful spycraft is not properly understood and applied, why is he surprised, given that the security services (in the UK) were not admitted to exist until the 1990s, that the authorised history of SIS stops in 1949, that both MI5 and SIS have engaged in cover-ups to conceal their mistakes, and that they have selectively broken the Official Secrets Act by allowing journalists access to secret files in order to write publications that would act as public relations exercises? After all, the authorised histories avoid the really contentious issues that might provide learning examples for HASDD. It is no wonder that there exists a substantial amount of suspicion about the effectiveness of both institutions.

Coming closer to home (well, my spiritual home, I suppose, but I suspect I have more readers in the UK than in the USA), what needs to be done to improve British intelligence? In response to Andrew’s examples from more recent times, were the close links between Sir Richard Dearlove (head of SIS) and Anthony Blair that the author highlighted a sign of greater ministerial awareness, or of dangerous cronyism? Clement Attlee, as he points out, had frequent meetings with Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, but what Andrew does not say is that it did not help Attlee, since Sillitoe lied to his PM over the Fuchs case, in order to save the Service. How actively should the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee monitor MI5? Shouldn’t there be a vigorous filter between intelligence collection and executive action – the JIC? Andrew supports the establishment of centres for study into intelligence and security matters, but are those who teach there going to be unrestrained by pledges of secrecy? Would research carried on under their auspices address the HASDD problem? And does each faculty then become part of that inescapable irritatingly-named entity ‘the intelligence community’? Is it good or bad that members of this group might have different views on intelligence matters? If it is indeed a ‘community’, should MI5 and SIS be combined, since the Empire no longer exists, and many threats to security do not recognize national boundaries?  Do retired heads of MI5 and SIS, voicing their opinions on national security on public platforms, help or hinder the task of guiding policy? These are some of the questions that it would have been useful for Andrew to address.

And, as a final thought – perhaps intelligence is sometimes overrated. In life we learn that the predatory behavior of a bully is best resisted as early as possible, as the malefactor will otherwise assume that his aggression works for him, and will repeat it. At the time of Hitler’s militarization of the Rhineland in 1936, and Stalin’s claims for possession of the Baltic States in 1941, both bullies were relatively weak, and yet they were not challenged. Is it the same with President Xi, and his demands on Taiwan, and the construction of artificial islands in the China Sea? No furtive gathering of information was necessary to divine what was happening in either of the two historical instances, yet the fear of ‘provocation’ overrode the political conviction that what deters bullies best is a quick biff on the nose – or, at least, its diplomatic equivalent. And autocrats are more transparent in that they don’t have to avoid decisions that might lose them the next election (unlike Stanley Baldwin). We can perhaps get too caught up in the fog of intelligence, and forget some simple psychological lessons.

I suppose part of the problem in taking on a task of this magnitude is the truth that Andrew has become part of the official intelligence apparatus. That leads to a paradox – a Morton’s Fork. If Andrew is indeed that firmly embedded, it must be impossible for him to analyse objectively the infrastructure to which he belongs. Yet, if he were an outsider, he would not be privy to much of the knowledge of how the apparatus works, because it is so secret, although sometimes unnecessarily so. An insider knows too much, an outsider too little. Moreover, it is difficult to write a volume that serves as both objective history as well as a tutorial on intelligence and spycraft. The Secret World is thus a compromise: a monumental and educational undertaking of great academic quality, testimony to some impressive research, but lacking a clear charter, and failing to explore ruthlessly enough the patterns of failure and success in governments’ deployment of intelligence. There is a book to be written about that latter topic, but Andrew’s is not it.

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

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Confessions of a Conspiracy Theorist

And an update on ter Braak . . .

Some Famous Conspiracy Theorists (Nos 17-20 in a series of 50)

Titus Oates

Maximilien Robespierre

Joseph Stalin

Tony Percy

A Lesson from Salisbury

As most readers familiar with the Skryalin affair will know, recently two GRU officers masquerading as tourists with an enthusiasm for Early English architecture were shown, through the means of a surveillance camera, sauntering through Salisbury. Soon after those pictures were published, I was interested to read the following statement in the New York Times: “Matthew Dean, the head of Salisbury’s City Council and owner of a local pub, the Duke of York, said he hoped it would put to rest conspiracy theories circulating about the crime.” The implied hope behind Mr. Dean’s statement was that a more convincing theory, one backed up by more solid evidence, would oust alternative explanations that lacked any real factual basis, and that tended to exploit hidden fears and motivations.

I do not know to which other theories Mr. Dean was referring (poison planted by British intelligence? release of a germ from Porton Down by a disgruntled employee?), but the obvious implication was that all ‘conspiracy theories’ are inherently false and deceptive. ‘Conspiracy theory’ is a pejorative term. Yet MI5, in trying to work out what had happened, and conjecturing that the attack was probably engineered by some part of Russian ‘intelligence’, would have had to create some kind of theory about how Novichok found its way to the back-streets of Salisbury. Whether the action of a single deranged agent (which in truth by definition could not be a conspiracy), or a deed plotted deeply in the conference-rooms of the Lubianka, any hypothesis would presumably come under the category of ‘conspiracy theory’. Yet the strong evidence that the perpetrators had been identified would in fact make this particular ‘conspiracy theory’ a winner over inferior versions. With the GRU now nailed, the conspiracy is almost certainly proven: the ‘theoretical’ aspect of it is retired. What happened next, however, was that the established facts became a conspiracy theory of their own: Marcello Foa, the new chairman of Italy’s state broadcaster RAI, was reported in the New York Times on September 28 as saying that he doubted the evidence that Moscow’s operatives poisoned Skryalin, as it was ‘too obvious’.

You can read an informative article about conspiracy theories at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Conspiracy_theory. Such theories not based on any tangible evidence are mostly the dreamchildren of the ambitious but frustrated, the third-rate who cannot gain the influence or power they think they deserve, and thus have to attribute their failure to some malign cabal. In authoritarian regimes many despots, who are classical conspiracy theorists, are paranoiac about challenges to their power, as they realise their grip on it is artificial and resented.  In liberal democracies, a mistrust of the ‘authorities’ – often governmental institutions who have forgotten their sense of accountability to the public – and their apparent determination to protect institutions or persons, frequently leads to scepticism about the official line, and gullible members of the citizenry may become susceptible to dubious theories enthusiastically promoted. Fantasy drives facts, and an emotional appeal is made to baser instincts than reason. The Internet has reinforced the presence of such theories, as it is neutral, undiluted and universal.

Conspiracy and the Historians

This is especially true in the domain of intelligence and counter-intelligence, since the appeal to ‘national security’ may be overused in the process of concealing the facts. The curious public might justifiably wonder why certain information is withheld. Yet, if there is an obvious mismatch between the evidence and the outcome, the discretion will provide a void that activists will cheerfully fill. This was the point I made in my August blog, where I thought it naive of Christopher-Davenport Hines to attack the media for investigating obvious loopholes in the official stories of dubious goings-on when the intelligence services had shown such an obvious disdain for coming clean and admitting their mistakes in their accounts to the public. Thus the conspiracies entered by officers in government services, whereby they agree to keep uncomfortable facts hidden from the public, in fact exert an influence of provoking further conspiracy theories.

This dynamic can lead to tensions between the authorities and those serious analysts who, while not wanting to put the nation’s security at risk, believe a more open approach to disclosure of information is desirable. In his Introduction to Seven Spies who Changed the World (1991), Nigel West wrote: “Whilst there are plenty of conspiracy theorists perhaps a little too willing to advocate global schemes of labyrinthine complexity, often constructed on foundations of dubious evidence, there is plenty of room in our culture for due recognition to be given to what might be termed ‘the secret world’.” (That, incidentally, is the title of Sir Christopher Andrew’s recent history of intelligence.) West’s not very precisely articulated point (who was supposed to be granting the ‘due recognition’ that was not happening?) was presumably that while the public should make allowances that some degree of secrecy is needed to protect policies, practices and personnel from public scrutiny, the curious media should be encouraged to speculate. He preceded the above remarks by pointing out a quantum of double standards in the approach to historiography, some sentences that I believe are worth quoting in full.

Nigel West

“Security considerations are entirely valid as motives for omitting certain aspects of history from publication, but the historians who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves can hardly blame the public for seeking to learn more about episodes and incidents that have previously been consigned, for the sake of discretion, to locked vaults. However, for them to deride those historiographers who overcome the obstacles and gain access to an ‘airport-bookstall school of history’ betrays an intellectual arrogance of breathtaking proportions.” (This is akin to the Davenport-Hines defence of ‘experts’, I believe.) He clearly moves part of the blame to those historians who have performed some sort of compromise with ‘the secret world’. But to whom could West have been referring?

He wrote this in 1991, and somewhat bizarrely, given the timing, also observed that Professors Hinsley and Howard ‘have been commissioned by the government to write official accounts of the parts played by British intelligence services during World War II’. (The first volume had appeared in 1979, and the last in 1990.) Perhaps West had not yet studied them:  his criticisms seem to have been directed elsewhere. As the author of a history of MI5 (1981) that presumably fell into that ‘airport-bookstall’ school, a serious, very useful, but inevitably flawed book, West was of course not aware that Professor Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 would be appearing at the end of the following decade. Yet he still had a barb for Andrew, who may have fallen into that set ‘who have either submitted to censorship or imposed it upon themselves’. In a Note on this section of his Introduction he singles out Professors Cameron Watt and Andrew as the culprits who have unjustly scorned the popular historiographers, and gets his own back by panning Andrew’s recent Inside the KGB (1990): “The latter [Andrew] himself fell foul of his academic colleagues when he published Inside the KGB with Oleg Gordievsky without supporting documentation. It was noted that the book contained virtually no new research and depended heavily on either secondary sources or a single source without verification.” Touché! I am sure West was referring to the review by Tennant Bagley, former Deputy Chief of the CIA’s Soviet Division, who wrote in the Wall Street Journal that Andrew had ‘taken shortcuts in the historian’s disciplines that diminish the book’s authority’. Further: “He often leans on a single source, while overlooking more reliable ones, and by trusting earlier writers who got their information second-hand, so he has perpetuated mistakes that any knowledgeable reader will spot.” ‘Officially Unreliable’, in other words.

Sir Christopher Andrew

But this feud between the confidants on the inside and the sceptics on the outside continues. Gordievsky is very much in the news again now, because of Ben Macintyre’s controversial new biography of the KGB defector, The Spy and the Traitor, to which I shall return in a future blog. On page 319 of this work Macintyre writes, seemingly oblivious to the criticisms addressed to Andrew and Gordievsky: “He [Gordievsky] gave lectures, listened to music, and wrote books with the historian Christopher Andrew, works of detailed scholarship [sic] that still stand as the most comprehensive accounts of Soviet intelligence to date.” Macintyre appears a little too trusting of what Gordievsky and the SIS insiders who minded him chose to tell the author. Is this simply a Mutual Admiration Society, the gathering around the ‘Yoda’ of intelligence history (see my August blog), in other words a relatively benign form of conspiracy, or is it something more dangerous? The point is that the balance of secrecy has been weighted too far on the side of government bodies, and certain historians, by colluding with them, exacerbate the problem.

Ben Macintyre

I believe that what West hints at concerning self-censorship is a very serious matter. For example, if a historian signs the Official Secrets Act, in my opinion he or she is compromised as a serious analyst. If an authority essentially imposes silence on certain topics as the cost of gaining secret insider information, that academic is in practice prohibited from writing or teaching authoritatively about any subject, as he or she may have to ignore evidence that could be critical to the study of that topic.  (I suspect that such a person is also barred from admitting that he or she has even signed the Act.) I do not understand why any academic would consent to such a restriction, except out of gratitude that one is considered important enough to be confided in secrets that the broader world does not know about, or as a necessary preliminary in a consulting assignment. The result of such flattery is that the academic can presumably be trusted by the government authority to put a vague positive spin on the activities of the contracting department, but the inevitable outcome is that he or she becomes part of a ‘conspiracy of silence’.

And mysteries persist. Thus, when the facts appear not to match the official story, or ‘insiders’ leak accounts that contradict it, the serious objective historian, without special access to official sources (whom one should not trust, anyway), and sharing the open archives with everyone else, has to develop his or her hypotheses in an attempt to explain why the authorities would not want the details of a particular event or exploit not to become public. And I believe a serious academic fist can be made of such research without the author’s becoming a member of the ‘airport-bookstall’ school. (Oh, if only Misdefending the Realm appeared alongside Ben Macintyre’s oeuvre on airport bookstalls!)  It simply requires a solid methodology, hard work, and a strong regard for chronology – laced with a careful amount of imagination.  Of necessity, the theories that emanate from such work will involve the actions of multiple persons – hence a ‘conspiracy’.

My Experience

I have very direct experience of this process myself. When writing my thesis on communist subversion in WWII, one episode constantly niggled at me: Why would the Foreign Office have condoned a visit by Guy Burgess and Isaiah Berlin to Moscow at a time (July 1940) when the Soviet Union was helping Nazi Germany in the war effort? I developed a hypothesis that it must have been planned as some kind of back-channel from Churchill’s administration to Stalin, but could not pinpoint why. I even ran the idea up the tentative flagpole in my original History Today article on The Undercover Egghead (see https://www.historytoday.com/antony-percy/isaiah-berlin-undercover-egghead ), but gained no shred of feedback to either encourage or squelch the notion. Given the conspiracy of silence that obnubilated Burgess and all those who were hoodwinked by him, it was very difficult to find any documentary evidence to support my idea.

It turned out that the argument of my thesis rested very heavily on this event: it was the pivot. However, as I developed the case, from a very detailed study of the chronology, and of the actions of dozens of parties at the time, it seemed to me that Churchill, in June and July 1940, at a very critical time of the war, was taking on a very cagey tactic in trying to play Hitler off Stalin while not encouraging the two dictators to gang up on the British Empire. Britain was that summer still facing an imminent invasion – long before the USA entered the hostilities – and Churchill had to use every feint, including the pretence that a peace faction still held considerable sway, to discourage Hitler from making a naval assault when the country’s defences were still weak. Yet he had to deter Stalin from concluding that Britain was finished.

When I wrote this up, my supervisor, Professor Glees, was rightly very critical and interrogatory. I had no primary evidence that this is what was happening, and I suppose my thesis was at that juncture in jeopardy. And then, a sudden bulletin from a contact in the UK arrived: the National Archives had just released (October 2015) a new file on Burgess that confirmed that he had been sent to Moscow in July 1940 to convince the Comintern to abandon its pact with Nazi Germany and join the allies (p 81 of Misdefending the Realm). In other words, Churchill had indeed intended to remind Stalin of Britain’s resolve, and to convince him to ignore rumours of the burgeoning peace movement. In the light of Burgess’s treachery revealed later, politicians and civil servants who knew about his employment by the Foreign Office at that time had covered up the facts when reporting to a sceptical House of Commons on the flight of Burgess and Maclean to the Soviet Union – a conspiracy. When I showed this to Professor Glees, he was convinced, and I could move on.

One of the warnings that Professor Glees constantly gave me was not to ‘chase hares’. While I understand what he meant by this, I disagreed with the advice to the extent that a curious historian has to ‘chase hares’, else he or she will never catch anything of interest at all. Otherwise you end up with the kind of dry-as-dust history that A. J. P. Taylor characterised as ‘what one clerk said to another’, in a famous London Review of Books review in 1982 (see https://www.lrb.co.uk/v04/n03/ajp-taylor/what-one-clerk-said-to-another ). The key is not to get obsessed with any particular lagomorph, and to call off the hunt when the prey in question begins to look like a minor species of unicorn. Burgess in Moscow (which he never reached until he fled in 1951, by the way) was one thing. On the other hand, I remember trying to pin down whether Sedlacek and Roessler, the shadowy figures in the Swiss espionage ring in WWII, were actually one and the same person (for reasons that I shall explore another time), before concluding that the evidence was too flimsy, and that I had to move on. The point is that creating ‘conspiracy theories’ that either turn out to have substance, or have to be abandoned for lack of evidence, is the meat and potatoes of historical research.

One reason why I decided to write this piece is that, in the last few years, I have been privately called out by at least two very respectable academics as being a ‘conspiracy theorist’. This happened because, in the course of email exchanges about historical figures, I had suggested that perhaps things were not as they seemed, and started to explore possible alternative explanations. I believe both persons, whose judgments I overall respect very highly, were perhaps a little too attached to the institution or personage to which or to whom they had dedicated a significant part of their professional life, and became very defensive. And I politely told them so, and said that I thought they were overreacting to private, provocative questions from a curious mind, one trying to seek the truth (or at least, the facts). They were both very reliant on the ‘authorised histories’ for their information, and, when I pointed out that these were very unreliable sources of what actually happened, one of these academics very sensibly responded: ‘But that is all we have’.

And that is the nub of what I see as a major problem. Now that the official or authorised histories have been written about MI5, SIS (although only up to 1949), Intelligence in WWII, and the Joint Intelligence Committee (Volume 1, to 1956), with one on GCHQ scheduled for next year, it leaves many observers perhaps concluding that the deed is done, that there will shortly be no more to be said. But that would be a travesty. A large volume of files is continually being released at Kew that will cause a dramatic re-assessment of what actually occurred. The preamble to the Government Official History series boasts that the aim of the volumes is ‘to produce major histories in their own right, compiled by historians eminent in the field, who are afforded free access to all relevant material in the official archives’. One of the works listed is SOE in France, by M. R. D. Foot, which was written in 1966, when he assuredly did not enjoy ‘free access’ to all the archives. Yet the work had to be revised and updated in 2006, and Professor Foot was fortunately around to perform the job. *  It covers only one country, however: the others remain without an official history. Why? Similar exercises will be needed with the other histories – especially that of MI5, with which I am most familiar.

M R D Foot

[* Attentive readers will recall that I read SOE in France during the passage of Hurricane Florence. I had borrowed this volume from the University Library in Wilmington, but afterwards thought that I should read the 2004 updated edition, which I had to buy via Abebooks. In an extended Preface, Foot admits the embargo put upon him four decades ago on even mentioning SIS, and informs us that “I have been able to be more straightforward about a service from part of which part of SOE derived.”. So are there important new revelations to be made here? There is no entry for SIS, or Gambier-Parry, or Menzies, or Section VIII in the Index, and I thus have to trawl through the text looking for fresh insights. The pages have been reset: the Notes are now at the back. What a drag.]

In Search of a Forum

Thus my objectives in writing about these issues are twofold: first, to gain greater scrutiny on the more dubious claims that have established themselves in the authorised histories, and second, to create a mechanism where they may be examined in detail, and perhaps overturned, or at least clarified. How can these goals be achieved?  For some time I have been looking for a forum where reputable historians and experts could discuss and explore some of the remaining conundrums of British intelligence, espionage, and counter-espionage over the past eighty years or so. I do not believe the conventional media work. The specialty intelligence journals are too exclusive and expensive, and move too slowly. History Today is very cautious about stepping into recent history, with all its controversies of interpretation. There appears to be a lack of drive in the conference business. For example, a few years ago, I was privileged to be invited to a conference on Governments-in-Exile in World War II, hosted at Lancaster House by SIS under the guise of the Foreign Office. It was an excellent event built around a fascinating, underexposed subject, with many impressive speakers from a variety of European countries. The organisers promised that proceedings of the event would be published – but nothing happened.

The Internet should provide part of the answer, but it is too chaotic, too frenzied, and too undisciplined. There are many vitally useful sites for gaining information not available elsewhere (though they need to be processed carefully), but no place where issues can be moderated and discussed seriously without a free-for-all, and insults and . . .  ahem . . . a surfeit of conspiracy theories. In the broader world, cliques and mutual admiration societies exist: cults of personality grow, such as the idolizing that surrounds Sir Christopher Andrew (as I pointed out in August.). The Official Secrets Act exerts its baleful influence. Moreover, it is not always certain that historians possess a sincere desire to discover the facts. I believe that too many experts maintain entrenched positions, sometime forgetting that, since they have been fed certain lines by insiders who may have had a message to get across, the experience may not count as reliable sourcing. Some academics do not like being challenged on any published position they have held, and thus do not encourage an open, egalitarian approach to the discipline, an example of which I offer in the following anecdote.

I occasionally try to contact authors of books on intelligence that I have read, especially when I want to follow up on a point of contention. It also now serves as a way of drawing attention to coldspur and Misdefending the Realm. Sometimes I have to track such persons down through their agents. I am always careful to be polite and deferential, saying how much I enjoyed the book (even if I didn’t), as I know how tough this business of writing is, and how easily mistakes slip in. When one academic published a book on Soviet spycraft a few years ago, I wrote to ask clarification over a matter of identity, as the writer seemed to have conflated the names of two ‘illegal’ Soviet agents into one – namely Ignaty Reif and Ignace Reiss. The response was sharp, patronising, and dismissive. I was instructed to read his text more carefully. I persevered. In the end, I had to resort to pointing out the photographs of the two characters in Deadly Illusions, the book about Alexander Orlov by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev, and to asking the historian whether he thought they were the same person. I could imagine the gulp at the other end of the line. The author rather grudgingly admitted that I was right, and said he would correct the error (which would not have been a simple task) in the second edition of his book. At least he responded. Not everyone does.

The perennial problem is that so many loose end and unresolved mysteries exist in the world of intelligence, and so many untruths are perpetuated by careless assimilation that a process for bringing some order to the chaos is highly desirable. Ever since I first published my blog on Officially Unreliable, I have imagined putting on a colloquium around that theme, where assembled experts would present papers that would then be discussed. These matters are complex. Competence in intelligence matters needs to be complemented by expertise in civil and constitutional law, in wireless telegraphy, and in political and military history – even in psychology. I understand that some academics would be hesitant to display their knowledge of a subject in the company of rivals, but I still thought such a forum would be of immense interest to many who study security and intelligence affairs. I thus suggested such an event to the faculty at the University of Buckingham, compiling a sample agenda with speakers, as I thought it would show thought-leadership, and add to the prestige of the department. Unfortunately, after some initial enthusiasm, the idea went nowhere, and likewise a plan for a conference in partnership with another entity also foundered.

Trouble in Aberystwyth

Gregynog Hall, Aberystwyth

With this background, in mid-August Professor Glees happened to wonder whether I would be interested in presenting at a conference on intelligence that the University of Aberystwyth is holding this November. I jumped at the opportunity: it would be a chance to get myself in front of an audience, and I could perhaps combine the trip to the UK with some opportunities with other institutions to talk about my book. I checked out the website, noticed that submissions for papers had to be in by August 25, and thus compiled a description based on some of my recent research into wireless transmission and interception that I thought would be of lively interest. (The Conference did not specify any real agenda at that time.) After a few days, I received a brief message acknowledging my submission, and requesting me to fill out a registration form (with payment).

Well, of course I was not going to register until I knew my submission had been accepted. I had explained in my covering letter the logistics problems: Aberystwyth knew where I lived, and what was involved. So I waited. And waited. About a month later, I checked the website again. The expiration date for submissions was now September 25, but there was still nothing published about conference tracks, themes, committed outside speakers, etc. I had notionally given up on the idea as a waste of time, when Professor Glees, in a solicitous email about Hurricane Florence, happened to ask me whether I would be attending the conference. I replied immediately, telling the Professor what had happened, and saying that I thought that the whole thing was a disaster.

Then a couple of days later, I received a very brief email from Aberystwyth from someone who just signed his name as ‘Gerry’, with no indication of his role at the university, saying merely: “Your paper has been accepted.  Please proceed with your registration”, again providing a link to the sign-up url. My guess was that Professor Glees probably knew the people there, and had intervened on my behalf, and his contacting them had provoked this message. So I very warmly thanked ‘Gerry’, but explained again the logistics of the situation, and that I was not going to commit to attending the conference until I knew a lot more about its substance, the requirements for submitting papers, the main speakers, etc. etc. – quite natural requests by any active participant, I would have thought. I replied the same day (September 21), and immediately started contacting other institutions in the UK at which I thought I might also speak, admitting that it was very short notice, but explaining the dilemma I was in.

Two of these institutions responded immediately – enthusiastically but cautiously, given the lack of time to prepare. Six weeks later, I am still awaiting a proper response from Aberystwyth. (I received a brief acknowledgment from an administrator on October 5, who wrote that Gerry would get back to me ‘as soon as possible’. ‘You mean when he has recovered from the Eisteddfod?’ Have I walked into a David Lodge novel?) I have therefore told my other contacts that I shall not be going ahead with my visit. I know a fair amount about the conference business, having worked for Gartner Group for over twelve years, and I can confidently say that the University of Aberystwyth is the biggest shambles I have yet encountered. All they really wanted was my money – and they seem utterly unaware that I don’t even get out of bed for less than £10,000.  It is all very unprofessional and discourteous, and I do not understand why anyone would attend one of its conferences unless he or she were ordered to.

Some of my friends were alarmed by my resolve. “Don’t you realise, Tony, that you’ll never eat lunch in Aberystwyth again!”, and “Won’t that scotch your chances of ever being invited to join Sir Christopher Andrew’s Cambridge Security Initiative?” And I shrugged my shoulders, saying: “If those are the sacrifices that have to be made when calling out rank incompetence, then so be it.” And I quoted to them what the great T. H. Huxley said: “Those who elect to be free in thought and deed must not hanker after the rewards, if they are to be so called, which the world offers to those who put up with its fetters.” (That would be a good watchword for historians with an eye on awards and gongs.) The conference for the Centre for Intelligence and International Security Studies (see https://www.aber.ac.uk/en/interpol/research/research-centres-and-institutes/ciiss/ciissconference2018/: still no agenda, as I write on October 31, for an event to be held in two weeks’ time) will have to go on without me. (Is there a conspiracy afoot?)

One last initiative I made to help publicise my cause was to write to the Press just before I published my recent piece on the faked suicide of ter Braak. I fondly imagined that, with the continued public interest in matters of espionage, occasionally highlighted by the release of new materials at the National Archives, my hitherto untold story of extrajudicial murder of an Abwehr agent engineered by MI5 during World War II might constitute a considerable scoop for one of the British dailies. I thus gave a glimpse of my findings, serially to the Times the Daily Telegraph, and the Daily Mail, alerting them to my imminent posting, and inviting them to put together a coincident story around my publication date at the end of the month. None of the newspapers even acknowledged my email, even though they had provided an address for the public to submit stories to them. I did the same with Private Eye (knowing that it had been largely responsible for unmasking Anthony Blunt: see http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-468 ), accepting that the matter was probably not really current enough for its ambit. I did receive a courteous declinatory email from the Editor, Ian Hislop.

The Nub of the Matter

So what is the meat of all this? Are these just specialist issues of intelligence arcana? I think not. Intelligence history is of little value unless it is deeply integrated into political and military history. Stalin manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt at Yalta because his spies in the UK and the USA forewarned him of their negotiating tactics over Eastern Europe. He mistrusted the commitment of his Alliance counterparts because they fed to him only a small edited sub-section of the ULTRA decrypts that his agents were sending to him through the London Embassy. The invasion of Europe could have been fatally undermined because of the reckless way that the XX Committee and B.1a in MI5 orchestrated the wireless transmissions of their Abwehr double agents. These are the kinds of question that I have been pursuing in my research, trying to gain attention to my argument that the official and unofficial histories of WWII and the Cold War need always to be re-assessed in the light of fresh developments.

I have developed a classification for such issues into seven states. These are not necessarily stages through which issues pass, but it may be that an evolution from 1 to 7 does occur in some cases.
State 1: No apparent public controversy exists. The official (or ‘authorised’) explanation is broadly accepted and echoed, but questions of evidence or logic gather on the truth of the claim, and are not easily dispelled. Examples of State 1 are Churchill’s reported edict on banning any decryption of Russian signals after the Soviet Union entered the war, and the still not satisfactorily explained death of Hugh Gaitskell.

State 2: No discernible ‘official’ position exists. A matter of intelligence is covered with contradictions and paradoxes, with no distinctive theory gaining strong support. The truth may be lost in ‘the wilderness of mirrors’. An example of State 2 is the allegiance and role of the scientist Wilfrid Mann when assigned to work in the USA.

State 3: A maverick theory carrying some definite sense is postulated, but its sources are undefined or dubious: the hypothesis may be diminished because of very constrained publicity and awareness. Examples of State 3 are the possible execution of Gösta Caroli, and the claim that Michael Foot was a KGB agent of influence.

State 4: A serious debate among historians takes place, reflecting multiple views. Some sources may be verifiable, but they are frequently secondary, and carelessly repeated: questions still remain unresolved because of the lack of primary sources. Examples of State 4 are Britain’s use of the Rote Drei in Switzerland to communicate ULTRA to Stalin, and the identification of the Soviet spy with the cryptonym ELLI.

State 5: Strong support for an alternative explanation is found, but it lacks conclusive evidence, and thus cannot be accepted in official forums. An example of State 5 is the assertion that Admiral Canaris was not simply a plotter against Hitler, but was actively assisting British intelligence.

State 6: A carefully argued new explanation, backed up by solid research, receives local or peer-group acceptance, but is not broadly or officially accepted, probably owing to lack of awareness and interest, and may have segments missing.  Examples of State 6 are this author’s explanation that the political objective of Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow was known and approved by leading civil servants, and my theory that Soviet agent SONIA’s arrival in the UK was orchestrated by SIS and MI5.

State 7:  A simmering ‘conspiracy theory’ is resolved and accepted, becoming part of authorised history, or is at least recognized by leading established historians: sceptics, however, may turn against the establishment for making official what is still unpopular in some quarters. An example of State 7 is the confirmation through the VENONA transcripts that Alger Hiss was indeed a Soviet agent, which has provoked some leftist backlash to the effect that this is an establishment conspiracy theory, and that he was in fact innocent.

An Alphabet-Sized List of Intelligence Mysteries from WWII & After

I conclude this piece by listing twenty-six conundrums that I have come across during my researches. For the sake of conciseness (at the risk of over-simplification) I restrict my description of each to 75 words. They appear in no particular order. (Readers who would like to inspect a deeper coverage of a subset of such topics might like to look at Nigel West’s Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II, published in London in 1984. It appeared in the USA the following year with the title A Thread of Deceit – and the same sub-title.)

A. The cover-up over Guy Burgess: The House of Commons was misled over Guy Burgess’s career when the post-mortem into Burgess’s and Maclean’s escape occurred. Sir Patrick Reilly provided a parliamentary response which completely overlooked Burgess’s employment by the Foreign Office and D Section before and during the war, claiming that he had simply worked for the BBC. Who exactly knew about his mission to Moscow, and who ordered his activities to be hushed up? (State: 6)

B. Roessler & Sedlacek: Roessler was the shadowy figure identified as LUCY in the Swiss spy ring. But Alexander Foote wrote that LUCY was the Czech intelligence officer Sedlacek (aka Selzinger), who was issued with a British passport by SIS before he went to Switzerland. Were Roessler and Sedlacek one person? Is Roessler’s well-publicised bio, showing a life in Germany, fake? Or was Foote confused? Why was his error not corrected? Can anyone supply a photograph of Sedlacek? (State: 1)

C. ULTRA & Rote Drei: While the official line is that ULTRA was never distributed to Stalin through an Anglo-Soviet spy ring in Switzerland, too many prominent voices have claimed otherwise. It is a much more plausible explanation than that of LUCY receiving his information directly from inside German intelligence. If Foote was an agent of Dansey’s Z Organisation, the answer becomes even clearer. Why were claims from insiders so strenuously denied? (State: 4)

D. Foote & the Z Organisation: Much of the evidence points towards the fact that Alexander Foote, who had outwardly been recruited to Soviet espionage through the International Brigade in Spain, was in fact a member of Claude Dansey’s parallel intelligence structure to SIS, the Z organisation. Foote’s role as an apprentice to – and then replacement for – agent SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) then makes much more sense, even though officers in Z denied it. Why wouldn’t they? (State: 3)

E. Double-Cross agents & the Radio Security Service: Many commentators have observed that the wireless transmission practices of several XX agents in WWII were highly reckless, and should have caused German intelligence to question the efficiency of Britain’s wireless detection mechanisms. Even if the Abwehr was tacitly sympathetic to anti-Hitler initiatives, why did the XX Committee and the London Controlling Station risk the whole plan of deceit by condoning such irresponsible behaviour? (State: 1)

F. Manipulation of agent SONIA: The ease with which agent SONIA was able to pass, in the winter of 1940-41, from Switzerland to the UK via Portugal has been overlooked. Yet a close study of the archives show that she was abetted by generous practices on behalf of SIS and MI5 (and by Foote’s perjury), which facilitated her being installed in Oxfordshire as a Soviet spy. Was this all in fact engineered by Claude Dansey of the Z Organisation? (State: 6)

G. The Identification of ELLI: ELLI was the cryptonym of a Soviet agent – probably in MI5 – disclosed by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. Various theories have been promoted as to who lay behind the name: Guy Liddell (John Costello); Roger Hollis (Chapman Pincher); and Leo Long (Christopher Andrew, the authorised historian, relying on Gordievsky). For various reasons, all are unlikely, and the answer may rely on the opening of Russian archives. When, President Putin? (State: 4)

H. Leo Long in MI14: When Joan Miller published ‘One Girl’s War’ in 1986, the British government tried to ban it. It contained an obvious pointer to the detection of Leo Long’s wartime espionage in MI14, working for Anthony Blunt. It seems obvious that MI5 tried to hush up the discovery up at that time, and Long was even recruited for intelligence work in Germany after the war. What was going on, and why has Miller’s work been overlooked? (State: 6)

I. Fuchs as British agent?: In his biography of Klaus Fuchs, ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’, Mike Rossiter tells of files he found at Kew that suggested that Fuchs was collaborating with the British government while at Los Alamos. These files were subsequently withdrawn, and other files have been withheld. Why the secrecy? It could be another reason for MI5’s considerable coyness over the Fuchs affair, but why would Fuchs have not brought it up at his trial? (State: 1)

J. Demise of Denniston: Alistair Denniston was a loyal and (mostly) effective leader of GC&CS from 1919 to 1942, yet he alone of all chiefs was not knighted, and his pension was reduced – a major humiliation. Was there a reason beyond his rather dilatory response to the organisational problems posed by the growth of the unit? The published records are contradictory: did Denniston simply rebel too outspokenly at the intrusion of military experts on his turf? (State: 1)

K. Churchill’s ban on Soviet traffic: Professor Hinsley reported on Churchill’s edict, when the Soviet Union became an ally in June 1941, that its diplomatic cable and wireless traffic should not be inspected. Uncharacteristically for Churchill, however, no minuted decision was made, and we know that work did continue, especially when Denniston’s project on ISCOT messages was set up in 1943. Was it a PR exercise by Churchill designed to gain Stalin’s attention and cooperation? (State: 1)

L. Colonel Simpson: One of the astutest contributions to Britain’s wireless interception capabilities was made by Lt.-Col. Simpson of MI5, in 1939 and 1940, when the RSS reported to Military Intelligence. Simpson wanted RSS to report to MI5, but it was wrested away from him, eventually landing with SIS, and he was quickly moved away. An internal history of MI5 says this led to a ‘Greek tragedy’. The authorised history of MI5 ignores Simpson. Why? (State: 1)

M. Wilfrid Mann: The atomic scientist Wilfrid Mann wrote a memoir titled ’Was there a Fifth Man?’, essentially denying it, and then on his deathbed admitted it was he, even as self-described ‘experts’ declared his innocence. Yet CIA agents claimed that Mann had been turned by them, after he had been assigned to work in the USA, to feed information to Donald Maclean. What is the real truth about his career and his loyalties? (State: 2)

N. Death of Gaitskell: When Labour leader Hugh Gaitskell’s sudden death in 1956 was diagnosed as lupus, some wondered whether he had been poisoned at the Soviet Embassy, perhaps to enable Moscow’s favoured Harold Wilson to replace him. When such a plot was debunked, however, the possible poisoning was forgotten. Could Gaitskell’s presence at Kim Philby’s 1934 marriage in Vienna had something to do with it? Was Gaitskell planning to unmask him? (State: 1)

O. Ter Braak’s ‘Suicide’: The circumstances of the claimed suicide of the Abwehr spy who parachuted into Britain in early November 1940 are extremely suspicious. The archival evidence points to the fact that MI5 engineered his death after trying to surveil his espionage activities and wireless traffic. MI5 probably concluded that matters had run irretrievably out of control when ter Braak ran out of money, and was abandoned by the Abwehr. Was he then eliminated in a faked suicide? (State: 6)

P. MI5’s passivity over Gouzenko: When the information about the Soviet defector in Canada, Igor Gouzenko, was passed on to London in September 1945, the cable was routed to Kim Philby of SIS, instead of MI5, who was responsible for espionage on Canadian territory. Guy Liddell thus learned about the defection from Philby, who took control of the response, arranging for Roger Hollis to be sent to Toronto to interview Gouzenko. Why was MI5 so passive? (State: 1)

Q. Execution of Gösta Caroli?: The Swedish Abwehr agent Gösta Caroli, who had been ‘turned’ by MI5, in January 1941 reneged on his agreement, tried to throttle his guard, and to escape across the North Sea. He was captured, and incarcerated, and reputedly returned to Sweden after the war. Leonard Mosley (and others) say he was hanged to protect the XX System. His files at Kew stop abruptly. What really happened? Was he ‘bumped off’, as Liddell’s Diary strongly suggests? (State: 3)

R. Dansey & SOE: Claude Dansey, assistant chief of SIS under Menzies, was reputed (according to the witness Sir Patrick Reilly) to have schemed to undermine the efforts of SOE, and was witnessed celebrating some of its failures. Apart from a disdain for noisy sabotage projects that interfered with gaining intelligence, and his contempt for university-trained men, what else lay behind this reputation? And, as a believer in ‘turning’ agents, was he SIS’s representative on the XX Committee? (State: 1)

S. Rothschild a Soviet agent of influence: Victor Rothschild made strenuous efforts to clear his name of the accusation that he had been a Soviet spy, yet his associations with such as Burgess and Philby, and his other actions furthering the communist cause, cause such as Christopher Andrew to suggest that he was an equally dangerous agent of influence. Were he and his wife the couple given the cryptonyms DAVID and ROSA? His name is carefully redacted from many files at Kew. (State: 5)

T. Isaiah Berlin in Lisbon: Isaiah Berlin, intriguing between SIS’s Section D and the Jewish Agency, happened to be in Lisbon in January 1941 when agent SONIA was granted her visa to travel to the UK. She also learned from somebody the address in Oxford where her father was staying. Was Berlin – who had recently accompanied Guy Burgess on their abandoned mission to Moscow, and just visited Oxford – her courier? What else was he up to in Lisbon? (State: 3)

U. The sacking of Jane Archer: The only source for the October 1940 sacking of Jane Archer, MI5’s shrewdest counter-subversion officer, is from her boss, Guy Liddell, who ascribes it to her continued mocking of the acting head of MI5, Jasper Harker. But did Liddell and Archer, who then headed the team of Regional Security Liaison Officers, have a serious fall-out over double-agent policy? Archival evidence points to a very pivotal meeting just before the event. (State: 1)

V. The disappearance of Major Frost & W Section: Malcolm Frost was recruited by Guy Liddell from the BBC in the summer of 1940 to fill the radio interception vacancy created by Lt.-Col. Simpson’s departure. Frost quickly gained enemies, but was a survivor, and did not leave MI5 until November 1942. So why does the authorised history completely overlook his contribution, and his group, W Section, especially since Frost was in charge of double-agents when the Abwehr LENA operation was executed? (State: 1)

W. Michael Foot as Soviet agent of influence: In his memoir, the Soviet defector Oleg Gordievsky claimed that the Labour leader Michael Foot had been a Soviet agent, BOOT, something that was enthusiastically picked up by Ben Macintyre in his volume ‘The Spy and the Traitor’. Private Eye has already come to Foot’s defence, pointing to his published criticism of the Soviet regime. Was Foot an ‘agent of influence’, and did he really accept money from Soviet contacts? How reliable is Gordievsky? (State: 3)

X. Cairncross’s Confession: The Fifth Man John Cairncross managed to hoodwink both his interrogators from MI5 as well as Nigel West, the writer who collaborated on his memoir ‘The Enigma Spy’. A careful study of the chronology shows he was active much longer than he claimed. Why were the obvious anomalies in his account of the chronology and his activities not pursued more aggressively? And why was he allowed to go into exile? (State: 2)

Y. SONIA and the Quebec Agreement: It has now entered popular historical lore that one of agent SONIA’s major coups was the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to her bosses in Moscow. Yet such claims rest on an impossible sequence of events in the autumn of 1941, and, despite authoritative-sounding assertions, no conclusive evidence has emerged from the Russian archives. If the secret was revealed to the Soviets (probably in the USA), who was responsible? (State: 3)

Z. Walter Gill: Walter Gill, the Oxford don recruited to RSS, who essentially defined Britain’s policy towards interception and detection of possible German spies at the end of 1940, was mysteriously and perfunctorily sacked from RSS a few months later. Yet the delayed timing of his report (December 1940) was very odd: he made a fatal but obvious flaw in his conclusions, but the report was endorsed. Was he set up? Why was he fired? (State: 1)

This list is not inclusive, nor its artificial length constrained: items may be retired, and new ones added. I welcome feedback. But why, I wonder, is there apparently not very much interest in these matters? Is it due simply to indolence, or is it a lack of curiosity? Extrajudicial executions, poisonings, faked suicides, moles, double agents, secret organisations, unexplained slights, hidden archives, political denials – is this not all as topical as ever? I cannot believe everyone is ganging up in a dark conspiracy to silence me. Or maybe everything is as it should be, and I am simply imagining things  . . . In order that these conundrums not be forgotten, I thus lay them all out on coldspur for others to pick up, just in case my body is found one misty morning under a hedge in County Ceredigion.

An Update on ter Braak

I have a professional researcher and collaborator in London, Dr. Kevin Jones (whom I have not yet had the pleasure of meeting) who is an expert at navigating the indexes at Kew, and who on my behalf inspects undigitised files at the National Archives, namely those that I cannot acquire and download. He has recently been delving around some of the lesser known folders that have a bearing on the ter Braak case, and I wanted to bring some aspects of these to readers’ attention to provide an update to the analysis outlined in last month’s blog.

One of the challenging dimensions of ter Braak’s life as a fugitive is the level of political compliance in the plan to let him roam, and then to eliminate him. It is clear from Swinton’s endorsement of the initiative for a speedy inquest, and his approval of the decision not to engage in recriminations over the Cambridge Police Force, that he was either party to the original decision, or had been convinced of the need for extraordinary measures when matters started to run out of control. Given the speed with which actions progressed after ter Braak’s death, it is more probable that he had approved the whole operation in advance.

But how much did Churchill know? Swinton had been brought in by Churchill to oversee MI5, and parts of SIS, after Vernon Kell had been dismissed, since Churchill was not confident in MI5’s ability to defend the country against the ‘Fifth Column’ menace that he then believed had been a prime factor in the defeat of the France and the Low Countries. Swinton had not been a universally popular choice at the House of Commons, but, when the Fifth Column ‘menace’ was shown by August 1940 to have been illusory, Swinton’s supervision of MI5, and mission to help Jasper Harker, the acting Director-General, to rebuild the service, continued, and his focus on subversion shifted to the arrival of the Abwehr agents. The files PREM 3/418/1 and 2 show records pertaining to the establishment of Swinton’s Committee, the Home Defence (Security) Executive, and correspondence on enemy agents between Swinton and the Prime Minister.

On September 10, Churchill made a request at Cabinet for a report on information obtained from enemy agents in the UK. The records show that he was informed about the declared mission of the four agents who landed in Kent (three of whom were executed) and of Gösta Caroli (who was successfully ‘turned’ – for a while). Reports from the interrogations indicated that the spies believed they were the advance guard of an invasion that was to follow in a couple of weeks. When Swinton reported, on October 4, on the spies who landed by boat in Scotland, however, he showed that Churchill already knew about ‘Agent 5 and Agent 6 who are being used successfully in deception operations already’. The list provided to Churchill has yet been found, but is highly noteworthy that it cannot be the same list that MI5 used for RSLO training (KV 4/407), since ter Braak appeared there as Agent 5, but he had not yet arrived when this memorandum was written!

Thus we have proof that Churchill knew about the emerging Double-Cross operation as early as October 1940, if not sooner. This all goes against the grain of what the authorised historians tell us. In his recent book, The Secret World, Christopher Andrew suggests that the first report given by MI5 to Churchill on the actions of the XX Committee did not occur until March 26, 1943. “It was an instant success with the Prime Minister. Churchill wrote on it in red ink: ‘deeply interesting’”, writes Andrew. This is rather hard to believe: that Churchill, with his massive interest in intelligence matters, and having been made aware of Nazi agents being used for deception in the autumn of 1940, would let the matter drop for two-and-half years.

In addition, it would seem that Swinton was passing Churchill a longer list than was being maintained by MI5. Given what I have written about overlooked spies not appearing in the official records, it would be fascinating to learn what names had been given to the Prime Minister at this stage. The archive is confoundingly sparse at this point. On October 31, Swinton advised Churchill of the arrival of the spies Lund, Edvardsen and Joost, but the narrative stops on November 2, just after ter Braak has landed. Is that significant? The search for other revealing items that might fill out this story continues.

At this stage, one can only speculate what went on between Swinton and Churchill. Since ter Braak was not a captured spy, perhaps Swinton would have interpreted his guidance literally, and decided to conceal the project from his boss. What would Churchill have thought of an armed agent running loose in the Cambridge area? Might he have approved of the plan to monitor his activities in order to learn more? Knowing his expressed desire at this time to see more spies executed, however, it is more likely that he would have cancelled the project, and have ter Braak hauled in. I just hope that some other records are found that shed light on this intriguing dynamic.

I also made some changes to the September text in the light of a re-discovery of passages in Guy Liddell’s Diaries, to which Dr. Giselle Jakobs had pointed me. I had read these a long time ago when I was not focussed on the LENA agents. They show very clearly that, just after Caroli’s recapture, Liddell discussed very seriously with his superiors (and Valentine Vivian in SIS) the possibility of ‘elimination’ or ‘bumping off’ of recalcitrant German agents. This is not the language of judicial trial and possible execution. Yet Caroli’s possible career after incarceration is plagued with contradictions, a matter to which I shall eventually have to return. In the meantime, please see Dr. Jakobs’s website at http://www.josefjakobs.info/ for a recent posting on Caroli,

Lastly (for this month, anyway!), is the fate of Jasper Harker. In last month’s blog, I had begun to cast doubt on Guy Liddell’s declared rationale for Jane Archer’s dismissal, namely that she had ridiculed Harker one time too many. Liddell reports the sacking on November 18, 1940, and, two days later, suggests that she should speak to David Petrie. Clearly, by that time Petrie has already been invited to take over the direction of MI5, so Harker’s fate was effectively sealed at that time. Ironically, Swinton was one of the few (apart from the disgraced Vernon Kell) who had supported Harker, and saw it as part of his mission to help him with the reconstruction of MI5. What PREM 3/418/1 shows is that, as early as August 29, 1940, Desmond Morton (an ex-MI5 officer, and Churchill’s right-hand man on intelligence) was telling Churchill of the multiple criticisms of Harker from within MI5, and reported that he was ‘a weak man’. Given the military circumstances, and the pressures, it seems that Swinton (whose judgment of character was not good, as is shown by his endorsements of Joseph Ball and William Crocker) was slow in realising that Harker was not up to the job, while Jane Archer – alongside multiple other officers in MI5 – had come to the conclusion much earlier that he was dragging down morale. It casts even more doubt on the reason for Archer’s forced departure, and, if a meeting with Petrie could not salvage her employment in MI5, suggests that there were deeper reasons for the parting of the ways.

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

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