I take a break from intelligence matters this month to celebrate Sylvia’s and my forty-fifth wedding anniversary, and to exploit the occasion by indulging in some mostly reliable reminiscences and reflecting upon them.
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On occasions, when conversing with Americans at social gatherings, I am asked at which ‘school’ (= ‘college’) I was educated. When I reply ‘Christ Church, Oxford’, a beatific smile sometimes takes over the face of my interlocutor, as if he (or she) believed that Christ Church was the British equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and they start thinking about whether they should invite me to be one of their lay preachers or readers at the local Methodist or Episcopalian Church. I am always quick to ward them off any such idea, as I do not believe I would delight their congregation, and it normally turns out that, when I start explaining the peculiar history of Christ Church (the ‘House’ – Aedes Christi, and never referred to as ’Christ Church College’), and its role as an independent college in the Oxford University framework, their eyes start to glaze over, and they look instead for someone they can discuss the football with.
But there was a time! I happened recently to retrieve from my archives my Report Cards from my years at St. Anne’s Preparatory School in Coulsdon, Surrey, for the years 1952 to 1956. In my Kindergarten report of Summer 1952, Mrs. Early’s assessment for ‘Scripture’ runs: ‘Listens to Bible Stories with interest’. Was this true absorption? Or a well-managed bluff? Or a view of astonishment? I cannot recall. A year later, I was third in the exams, although I dropped to sixth by Christmas. The following summer, there was apparently no exam, but it was recorded that I ‘attended morning assembly regularly’. I suspect I did not have a choice, but maybe others did? By Summer 1955, ‘Scripture’ had been replaced by ‘Divinity’, and I achieved a creditable second place in the exams, followed by more excellent results. But then, in my last term, in Summer 1956, I dropped to 18th in the standings, from a class of 27. ‘Very fair’, was the comment, which is English-teacher speak for ‘pretty awful’. What had happened? Obviously a crisis of faith had occurred. And it happened because of a convergence of music and history.
I had been intrigued by the History lessons, where we learned about Cavemen, and the Stone Age, and perhaps I found these a more plausible account of the Birth of Man than the rather saccharine Bible Stories. At about the same time, I recall we had music and singing lessons, where we were encouraged to trill lustily some English (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh) folksongs. Apart from such standbys as ‘Bobbie Shaftoe’, I particularly remember two songs: the first one that I had for long imagined was by Rabbie Burns – ‘A-Rovin’’, the second, ‘Greensleeves’. Looking the former up today, I see that its title is ‘The Maid of Amsterdam’, and is a traditional sea shanty that first appeared in London, in 1608, in a play by Robert Heywood. The chorus went as follows:
A-rovin’, a -rovin’, since rovin’s been my ru-i-in
I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you – fair – maid.
I can recall to this day the atmosphere in the classroom as we took up the refrain, with the smell of cabbage and dirty socks wafting in from other rooms, and my seat, bottom left, where I was always trying to catch the teacher’s attention.
But isn’t that extraordinary – that a prim preparatory school in postwar England would encourage its eight-year-olds to sing about ‘roving’? Assuredly we did not sing the whole song, as I note that the third verse runs as follows:
I put my hand upon her thigh Mark well what I do say I put my hand upon her thigh She said: “Young man you’re rather high!” I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you fair maid
Needless to say, we did not get further than the first verse, but I think I was already enthused enough to think that this roving business was something I needed to investigate. I now wonder whether I already had at that time enough imagination to reflect that wasn’t it more likely that the Fair Maid would face Ruin than the Rover would? I was certainly not looking for ruination at that age, but I was very keen to learn more about this frightening prospect, and how beautiful maidens could indeed be the cause of the complete collapse into desolation or penury of innocent young lads like me.
But where to find ‘fair maids’? My father owned a handsome, tall, glass-lined – but locked – bookcase, and I could inspect the titles there through the panes. One title was The Fair Maid of Perth, which sounded promising. Perhaps Perth was a fertile location for the incipient Rover? So I looked up ‘Perth’ in the atlas: it seemed a bit far away. Requiring quite a substantial rove, in fact. My absence might have been noted, and I would have been pushed to get back in time for my favourite baked-beans-on-toast supper, so I abandoned that plan. Another potential source was Roy Race, of Melchester Rovers, who featured in Tiger magazine, but I soon saw that his adventures did not involve exploits with girls but instead such feats as rescuing the Rovers’ French import, Pierre Dupont, from a lighthouse where he had been kidnapped, so that they could get him back in time for kick-off. (“Who’d play the Rovers with Pierre on our wing ?” Tra-la-la.) All stirring stuff, of course, but not really relevant to the Quest.
And then there was Greensleeves. That glorious tune, and the illustrations, at the back of some encyclopædia or annual that I possessed, that showed a comely young girl, draped in muslin or something similar, sitting on a bough of a tree in some medieval forest. Was Greensleeves one of those maids who could ruin you? She didn’t look as if she were someone who could cause permanent damage. At the same time, I couldn’t see myself taking her home to meet Mum and Dad. (“Sit down, dear, and have a cup of tea. But why is your frock all green? Have you been frolicking in the grass?”) Nevertheless, maybe it would have been safe to do a little roving with her, to see what it was like, without getting into trouble.
Another permanent memory is attending Sunday School. I would inwardly seethe at being sent off, on an afternoon when playing outside beckoned far more energetically, to the church at the top of the hill in Coulsdon, Surrey. (It was St. Andrew’s, where my parents were married in August 1940, as the bombs started falling.) It was utterly boring, and prominent among the tedious exercises that we had to carry out was the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, which, even then, I regarded as the most ridiculous mumbo-jumbo I had ever heard. (This was especially so with the St. James version in use then, that contained ‘the Holy Ghost’, ‘hell’, and ‘the quick and the dead’, making it particularly opaque.) It was never explained to us what these statements meant, how they were derived, or why they were important. We were just indoctrinated: “I believe in . . .”. I fail consistently to understand how any inquisitive child would not rebel against such nonsense, and the way it was drilled into us. But eight-year-olds in my world did not ask questions. We did what we were told. Moreover, the girls at Sunday School were all very soppy and outwardly very pious. Not a single green sleeve to be found among the lot of them.
But to return to school. At the end of one of the lessons, probably in the spring of 1956, I went up to speak to Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder, who for some reason were both present during the session. Mr. Robinson was a kindly, Pickwickian figure, who blinked at us, and always wore a three-piece-suit with a fob watch in his waistcoat. He taught us English and History. Mr. Wilder was much younger, tall and athletic, half-French. He taught Arithmetic, French, and sport, and impressed me and other pupils once when he said he could think in French. I had two questions for the pair of them: Who wrote ‘Greensleeves’? And which account of Man’s origins was right – the Garden of Eden or the Story of the Cavemen?
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder looked at each other awkwardly. The Greensleeves question they were able to dispense with fairly quickly: ‘traditional’, ‘no known composer’, but the other one was challenging. I am not sure exactly what they said: they may have used the word ‘allegory’, but probably not, but I do recall having the impression that I should not take those Bible stories all very literally. And I think that did it for me, as far as religion was concerned. They confirmed for me that it was all bogus. I had sorted out something significant, and from that day on, I knew what I wanted to do. When cringe-making friends of my parents patted me on the head, and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an ‘influencer’, and would seek to monetise my content-creation as soon as I could. (That quickly shut them up.) Unfortunately it took sixty-five years for that idea to take off.
Now, I have to say that I was a very literal-minded little boy at that stage. I had great problems differentiating between fiction and reality, and no one had yet introduced me to William Empson and his Seven Types of Ambiguity. For example, I recall seeing the advertisement for Johnny Walker whisky on the front page of the Illustrated London News, where the slogan declared: ‘Born 1820. Still going strong!’, and it displayed a regency gentleman, in red jacket, shiny black boots, and a golden top-hat breezily striding somewhere. 1954 minus 1820 was 134. How could a man live to be that long, I asked myself, and where could I meet him?
And then there were the movies (pictures). We went to see The Blue Lamp, where Jack Warner played P.C. Dixon, and was eventually shot by the Dirk Bogarde character. (It came out in 1950. Did I really see it that early?) I was distraught. The very likable policeman was dead, definitely not ‘still going strong’, and it must have been ages before it was explained to me that it was all illusory. About that time we must also have seen a trailer for King Kong (children would not have been allowed to watch the full movie), and I had nightmares for months, since I believed that great apes could actually grow to that size and might terrorize our neighbourhood. And I know I was puzzled about ‘The Dark Ages’, concluding that for hundreds of years the sun did not come out, and people must have groped around in the murkiness until the light returned.
I recall, also, my bewilderment over my father’s occupation during the day. He would set off on his bicycle to school each day (a journey of about five miles along the busy Brighton Road), but I could not work out why a man of his age was still attending school. My sister eventually explained to me that he was not a pupil there, but a teacher. Somehow, even though I saw men of his age teaching at St. Anne’s, I had never made the connection.
Yet that summer of 1956 must have been very important. I remember being introduced to the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword, and solving my first clue. (The answer was ‘OSCAR’.) I discovered – and delighted in – nonsense verse. I recall being fascinated by my father’s meagre store of one-liners, such as ‘She was a good cook, as cooks go, but, as cooks go, she went’, and was exceedingly happy to sort out why the linguistic twist worked, and why it made me laugh. I suddenly started to appreciate allusion, metaphor, irony, bathos, and paradox. The real world was far more subtle and multi-layered than I had ever imagined. At the same time, I felt a distinct disdain for the mythical and the mystical, a distaste that has never gone away. (The Greek Myths left me cold, as did C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Though I loved Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.) But not the mysterious: mystery was captivating. And Greensleeves lay in the field of mystery.
In September 1956 I started at Whitgift School in Croydon. Like many such independent schools, it had a charitable foundation, and the assumption seemed to be that all the pupils should be trained to be solid Christian gentlemen. That was assuredly something that the Headmaster, Geoffrey Marlar (who had ridden with the cavalry in WWI) believed. Coincident with my arrival at the school, our family had moved house – to more spacious accommodation rented from the school Foundation, on the playing-fields, about four hundred yards from the Headmaster’s house. If, on a Sunday, my brother and I played any ball-game that caused us to stray far from Haling Park Cottage, and Marlar espied us while gardening, he would shake a fist at us for breaking the Sabbath, and our father would get a roasting from him the next day. I found this all very strange, and the arrival of Cavaliers cricket on Sundays soon afterwards must have dismayed Marlar. (He retired in 1961.)
I had to attend daily Assembly, careful to be carrying my hymnbook for inspection. (For one week when I had mislaid that item, I recall taking in a pocket dictionary, and not being spotted.) I would never even have thought of getting exempted as a pagan, but then I learned that there was a category of boys called ‘Jews’ who were allowed to sit it out. This seemed to me grossly unfair. I couldn’t tell why these characters were any different from the motley crew of youngsters from all quarters of Europe, both friendly and inimical, that I had to deal with, and thus could not work out why they were allowed to escape all the mumbo-jumbo. Later I would learn that there were atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews, and Protestant and Catholic Jews, and Jews for Jesus, and non-Jews who had converted for marital reasons, but it all seemed to me like an Enormous Category Mistake at the time, even though I had not worked out why. Much later, after looking into the matter, I decided that dividing the world into Jews and Gentiles was patently absurd, and I was encouraged to learn that Schlomo Sands (in The Invention of the Jewish People) gave historical authority to my doubts and inclinations.
Then I got recruited to the Choir. Not because I liked singing, but because I apparently had a decent voice, and obedient boys did not challenge what their elders and betters decreed. The only trouble was that the times for Choir Practice and Rugby Practice collided, and it was an easy decision for me to pick the activity I preferred. Thus, when the first performance of Iolanthe was staged, in December 1957 (I think), one Fairy who had missed out on the rehearsals was able to give a startling innovative and true-to-life interpretation of the first chorus ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’, something which my classmates were quick to point out to me the following morning. Mortification came easily.
Hymn- and carol-singing was, however, quite enjoyable, and even the less devout masters joined in lustily (with my father notoriously singing out of tune, another embarrassing fact that was swiftly communicated to me by one of his colleagues). But it was important not to study the words too closely. I do not know how many of us inquisitive ten- and eleven-year-olds worked out, when singing the stirring Adeste Fideles, what ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ meant, but it was a line that Frederick Oakeley (if indeed it was he) should have stifled at birth when he faced the challenge of translating
Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, gestant puellae viscera Deum verum, genitum non factum.
What was extraordinary to me then, and remains so, is how many of the school staff, presumably intelligent and well-educated persons who were supposed to be encouraging their pupils to think critically, swallowed up such nonsense unquestioningly.
In fact my sister confided in me an awful truth, in about 1959. She told me that our father (not Our Father, I hasten to add, since His views on the matter are for ever indeterminable) did not believe in the Apostles’ Creed. What a shock! I was like: ‘Hallo!’, and in my best Holden Caulfield style responded that surely no one believed in that stuff any more. Why Daddy had vouchsafed this truth to my sister, and not to me, was a mystery, but I concluded that, in my resolve not to accompany the rest of the family to church, something they did only at Christmas and Easter, I had perhaps been working my ‘Influencer’ magic on him for the good. (Those who knew my father will know how unlikely a story that is.)
But back to the choir. After a while, my voice broke, of course, and I became an alto. Something was wrong, however, and I was jolted out of my complacency when a fellow chorister – name of Balcomb (where is he now?) – pointed out loudly, to no one in particular, that ‘Percy just sang the treble part one octave lower’. Apparently I was supposed to sight-read the alto part from the hymnal, and thus harmonise with the basses and tenors. But I couldn’t do that! No one had told me what to do, or taught me how to sight-read. Another colleague informed me that most of the choir actually sang at their church, where they learned such tricks, but that his main objective in joining the church had been ‘to meet girls’. So maybe that was the route to take! But there was no way that I was going to sacrifice my irreligious principles for a bit of skirt-chasing (‘that’s not who I am’), so the hunt for Greensleeves was temporarily abandoned, and the choir permanently discarded.
Yet my teenage years were filled with things that I really did not want to do. I had joined a local Scout group, because a new master at the school had a son my age who was keen, and my parents thought it was ‘a good idea’ for me to join. I was made by my unmusical parents to take up piano-playing, something I was not adept at. I hated practising, and dreaded the weekly lesson, dearly hoping that the scheduled time would clash with an away cricket match. Later came the Combined Cadet Force, much harder to avoid, as the alternative was the Boy Scouts, but Monday night, preparing my uniform for CCF day, was the most dismal evening of the week.
This all left very little time for roving. I attended the Yates-Williams School of Ballroom Dancing, at the Orchid Ballroom in Purely, but that was all rather chaotic, and dancing was not my shtick, either. No time for careful wooing of Greensleeves. And glimpses of such a life were few and far between. When we studied Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, I recall Henry Axton trying to make the play a little more spicy for us (I was fourteen at the time), by suggesting, in the scene where M. Jourdain meets Dorimène, that he was probably trying to look down her cleavage. This was unbearably saucy for my liking, but indicated that Mr. Axton probably knew a bit about roving. I did not seek him out after the class, however, to quiz him on the details.
Thus, by the time the Sixth Form Socials arrived, where the girls from the local high schools were invited, I was hopelessly disadvantaged. (Well, there had been a few romantic roving episodes – none of Turgenevian proportions, I should add – but I must stay silent about them, as any account would be too shy-making.) I bet all those blighters sporting ‘Crusader’ badges were winning the roving spoils. And, bewilderingly, the Religious Knowledge classes continued into the Lower Sixth Form, where a dreary three-quarters of an hour was wasted each week in studying some Bible extract, and poor Don Rose was brought into relative despair in trying to fire evangelical enthusiasm in the few obvious non-believers in the class. On the other hand, John Chester, our Sixth Modern form-master, as a dedicated Count Bernadotte internationalist, was perplexed at any admission of atheism, seeing it as a symptom of Communism. Presumably the same impulse that provoked the US Congress to adopt ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto in 1956.
There were not many women at Whitgift. In the early years, we had Miss Scott in the Art Room, and the Headmaster’s secretariat contained two ladies, a very pleasant person called Mrs. Haynes, and her rather dour assistant whom we nicknamed ‘Olga’, as she looked as if she had just stepped out of a Chekhov play. In a sincere attempt to bring more joy to their lives, I posted the following clerihew on the Poetry Wall in the Prefects’ Room:
Goes jiving in Staines,
Dances the polga.
I do not know whether Life imitated Art in this particular case, but such musings formed a creative break from our cheerless studies.
The themes from the German literature we were given as set books were too frequently beyond the ken of secluded and protected sixteen-year-olds like me. Thus Gretchen’s passion and torment in Goethe’s Urfaust were rather bewildering (‘abhorrence of a virgin’s womb’? Mr. Chester would never have discussed sex or pregnancy with us), although the role of Mephistopheles in introducing Faust to Roving was unmistakably evil. (Was Gretchen’s “Meine Ruh’ ist hin” a ghostly echo of “my ru-i-in”?) And Goethe’s development of the ending, where Gretchen’s Old Testament fate (“ist gerichtet” – “judged”) evolved eventually to one of New Testament salvation (“ist gerettet” – “saved”) cut no ice with me. On the other hand, the Cambridge Examiners, in their fashionable wisdom, set the Communist Bertolt Brecht’s turgid Leben des Galilei as the second set book. Definitely no cleavages on view there. The last book, Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Prinz von Homburg, was an extraordinarily modern psychological study, Shakespearean in its combination of historical drama with study of period-independent human failings. It was thus for me the most accessible of the three set texts. Kleist died in a joint suicide with his Greensleeves, the mortally ill Henriette Vogel, in 1811. No more a-rovin’ for you, Heinrich old chap. But your work lives on: ‘Born 1777 – Still Going Strong’.
Thus a rather confused and hesitant candidate applied for entrance to Oxford University.
It was a strange business, landing up at Christ Church, of all places, the home of the Oxford Cathedral, and alma mater of countless Prime Ministers. My acceptance was surely not because of my scholastic record or potential, and I can only assume that they must have picked me for one of three reasons:
1) They thought I was a fairly close relative of the Duke of Northumberland, they hadn’t had many Percys enrolled in recent years, and imagined I might be a useful addition to the beagling set;
2) They hadn’t filled their quota of infidels for the year, and needed to take some immediate affirmative action to balance the numbers;
3) They needed a versatile rugby three-quarter, who could play fly-half, centre, or full-back, and preferably someone who could bowl a bit as well.
In fact, I may have been admitted through a misunderstanding. When I had my interview, one of the dons suddenly asked me: “Have you done any roving?”, to which I immediately piped up, replying: “Not much, but I certainly expect to take it up enthusiastically if I am accepted!”. One or two heads nodded at this, which was quite encouraging. It was not until a few hours later that it occurred to me that the distinguished academic had perhaps been impressed with my strapping 6’ 4” physique, and that the question might have been: “Have you done any rowing?”. I must have disappointed the Senior Common Room when I did not take my place on the boats.
Yet it was a bit of a culture shock. The cathedral was obviously a dominant presence, and there was a fairly vigorous Church Militant group from such places as Wellington and Marlborough. I was not even like the agnostic worshipper at the Cathedral quoted in Peter Snow’s Oxford Observed: “I am conscious of communicating if not with Christ then with the whole of English history and tradition.” And I soon found that I, as an obvious non-cathedral-service attendee, was to be excluded from some of the key social events – such as the Chaplain’s sherry parties. (Such discrimination would not be allowed in 2021, where chaplains, now probably called Spiritual Care and Outreach Officers, presumably have to administer to everyone, including Buddhists, Rosicrucians and atheists, and to attend to their emotional needs when they are offended by the presence of statues of benefactors of less than stellar integrity. And I notice that Harvard University recently appointed an atheist as its Head Chaplain.) One of my few god-fearing friends did however encourage me to gatecrash one of those parties, but I was sent away with a flea in my ear – not what I considered very charitable behaviour. Yet I learned one thing: One did not go to the Chaplain’s sherry parties to meet Greensleeves. No sirree.
But the theologians! I could not believe how many canons and readers and students of Theology there were. What on earth was ‘Theology’ and how could one pursue a course of study in it? The study of ‘God’ or of ‘gods’? Even today, when I pick up a recent copy of Christ Church Matters, the House magazine, I find that most of the books by Christ Church alumni that receive reviews are on matters of religion (e.g. ‘Theologically Engaged Anthropology’, ‘The Study of Ministry’, ‘Theology and Religion: Why It [sic] Matters’; ‘Interfaith Worship and Prayer: We Must Pray Together’; etc. What is going on? How can such superstition occupy so many serious minds for so much of their time? I find it astounding. And then there are the editorials from the Dean, written in language that has no meaning at all for persons like me.
This lesson was brought home to me recently when I read an article in Prospect, titled ‘How to Build a New Beveridge’. It was written by someone called Justin Welby, who I assumed was perhaps the offspring of Marcus Welby, M. D., until the footnote informed me that he apparently occupied a role described as ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Welby started his article as follows: “An apocryphal riddle for theology students goes thus: ‘Could God create a rock so heavy that God couldn’t lift it?’ The problem, of course, is that if God can’t, then he’s not omnipotent. If God can, he can’t lift it, and so he’s not omnipotent.” (The rest of the essay was a depressing parade of preachy homilies, worthy of Private Eye’s J. C. Flannel.)
Apocryphal, eh? We all know about the Apocrypha, don’t we, and how they relate to truly genuine canonical texts. So that is what theology students were doing to earn their degree, discussing nonsensical questions like that, while I was slaving away, doing really useful stuff, such as trying to make sense of the High German Consonant Shift, and exploring the use of symbols in Chekhov’s plays! It reminded me of that other no doubt apocryphal essay question on the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) finals paper at Oxford: “Is this a question?”. One candidate was inspired enough to write simply: “If it is a question, this is an answer”, and was awarded a First on account of it. That is presumably how the Church, the Cabinet, and the Foreign Office were staffed – with people who could so ably tackle such urgent questions, and such achievements led them on to believe that they could ‘solve’ the pressing problems of their time, like ‘the problem of social welfare.’ Harrumph.
‘But enough of politics, what about your social life?’, I hear you cry. Well, a little roving went on. I’d like to report that, as in Philip Larkin’s imaginings with the women he encountered in books, ‘I broke them up like meringues’, but that would not be strictly true, and the National Profiterole and Meringue Authority might have had something to say about such a micro-aggression. Yet I shall necessarily have to draw a veil over such activities. More engaging for a mature audience, perhaps, might be some of my other social encounters. When I was a member of the Nondescripts, the Christ Church sporting club, I recall attending a cocktail party hosted or attended by J. I. M. Stewart, the English literature don who had rooms on my staircase in Meadows 3. Now, not all of you may know that Stewart wrote detective novels under the name of Michael Innes, so I thought I would be very clever, showing off how familiar I was with his œuvre, and I thus asked him something about the plot of Landscape with Dead Dons. He paused, looked at me rather quizzically, and observed: “Forgive me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t that work written by Robert Robinson?”. I suddenly felt very small, and wanted to hide behind the sofa.
Now it has all changed. The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, received last month, celebrates ‘Forty Years of Women at the House’, and a wonderful milestone it is, indeed. The magazine is dedicated completely to women, with a very impressive Introduction by the Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, who informs us that ‘Unlike Catherine Dammartin, whose corpse was temporarily buried in a dung heap in 1557 for daring to live within the confines of Christ Church despite being the wife of a Regius professor, today’s women know that they belong at the House, front and centre.’ And indeed they do, as all the little darlings [Is this usage wise? It sounds very patronising and 1970s . . . Ed.] can be seen in a wide range of glittering photographs, in their blue stockings, green sleeves, and black gowns, alongside the senior members of faculty, and all those in the Cathedral, Steward’s Office, Hall, Lodge, Library, etc. etc. who make the place hum. Completely unexpected in 1965, when I arrived and was matriculated.
And then came a passage to the real world: teacher training, with a term at Bognor Regis Comprehensive School (where I was sent on an emergency mission to teach Russian and German, since the previous incumbent had turned out to be far too energetic a rover with one of his pupils), and then a move away from academia to business, and IBM. After a while, I met my Greensleeves, as I have described in http://www.coldspur.com/my-experience-with-opioids/. It all started because, during my extended stay in hospital (four months, in fact), I saw the invitation outside the hospital window: ‘Please Help Our Nurses’ Home’, and somehow failed to notice the apostrophe. That was in the summer of 1973, and Sylvia and I were married in September of 1976.
We have lived more than half our lives in the United States, and nearly half of that period in Southport, North Carolina – far longer than I have ever lived in one place. My accent still seems to be a source of fascination to many, and I am accustomed to being asked by the check-out personnel in the supermarket, even when I have explained that I have lived here for twenty years: ‘Do you like it here?’.
In The Road to Little Dribbling Bill Bryson lists some of the features of his adopted country that he likes: Boxing Day; Country pubs; Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration; Jam roly-poly with custard; Ordnance Survey maps; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; Cream teas; the 20p piece; June evenings, about 8 p.m.; Smelling the sea before you see it; Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop. I could quickly add a few from my own collection of favourite UK phenomena, namely Stonehenge; the Listener crossword puzzle; Promenade Concerts; Jeeves; sheepdog trials; clerihews and limericks; the Wisden cricketers’ almanack; the Bluebell Railway. Yet if I had to come up with a list of similar Americana, it would run: Thanksgiving, the Grand Canyon . . . and, er, that’s it.
Thus, while the USA has been an overall very positive experience for us, it does not contain many truly endearing features. And several things about the country and its habits and customs sometimes drive Sylvia and me to distraction. But, if they came to be really unbearable and unavoidable, we presumably would move elsewhere – but whither? In our seventies, an upheaval moving to some remote island, like my wife’s St. Vincent, or Maui, or Mauritius, or the Isle of Wight, does not seem very appealing It would be a hard adjustment: moreover, once you have kids who really have not lived anywhere else, and then the grandchildren arrive, that effectively seals the deal. So we live with all the oddities and frustrations of the USA, and its Bible Belt.
It is a droll irony that, while the Protestant Church in the United Kingdom is established (i.e. recognised as the official church, in law, and supported by civil authority), but the level of public unbelief is distinctly high, in the United States, there is supposed to be a constitutional separation between Church and State, while Christian fervour is an unavoidable presence in the public sphere. A few years ago, the local electricity company, Brunswick County Public Utilities, decided to have ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on all its support vehicles. Lord knows how devolving everything to a deity would help in the reliable delivery of power to the local citizenry, and I found this an unnecessarily divisive and pointless initiative, at an unjustifiable expense. It was my Micro-Aggression of the month. (I was effectively told to clam up, and was referred to the minutes of the council meeting where the majority decision had been made.)
When we first moved to Southport, one of the first questions our neighbours asked us was: ‘What Church do you belong to?’, something that would still be considered horribly crass in the UK, I imagine, as what one’s friends believed in, or what they worshipped, was none of anyone’s business, but the interrogation seemed perfectly natural to Americans who did not even know us. I think they got the message when we held our first dinner party, and did not offer a prayer of ‘Grace’ before the meal, a ceremony that can be seen quite frequently in public restaurants, with participants holding hands around the table. In Brunswick County can be found churches of practically every conceivable Christian denomination: Pentecostal, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Unitarian, Mormon, Apostolic, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. I have no idea what doctrinal differences separate these institutions, and have no wish to find out.
We attended the memorial service for a neighbour at the Episcopal Church in Southport a few months ago. I was astonished at how high-church it was. Swinging censers, the ritual of the eucharist, and the congregation all declaiming earnestly their belief in the Apostles’ Creed, and especially Eternal Life. When obituaries in the local paper state that the deceased (who normally has not ’died’, but ’passed’) has ‘gone to be with Jesus’, or ‘taken by the angels’, those who mourn him or her mean it quite literally. The after-life is ‘a better place’. But I can’t help but feel that if such people accepted that this life on earth is the only one they are going to have, they might value it rather more than they do. Ascribing disasters and premature or avoidable deaths to ‘God’s will’, or to His ‘Plan’, in the belief that everything will be well when we are all re-united, is a deeply depressing philosophy, in my opinion. It suggests that life is merely some dire metaphysical project akin to the Communist Experiment. And it is also a little hypocritical. When survivors of a tornado are pulled from the wreckage of their houses, their first statement is frequently: ‘The Lord saved me’, the implication being that the person down the street who did not survive was unworthy of such grace.
And yet. The charity . . . . The organisation of food-pantries when disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes strike . . . The helping hands offered to neighbours and strangers. All very splendid and admirable, but not a little perplexing.
Someone (Meister Eckhart, C. S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman?) once said that one believes in this rigmarole purely because it is utterly irrational and inexplicable, which seems to me an argument for anything, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. And that line can take you into the Paul Johnson school of theology, namely that ‘because Christianity inspired great art, it must be true’. What is astonishing to me is that if otherwise smart persons are taken in by such nonsense, are they not likely to be taken in by a lot of other absurd theories that circulate – especially on the Web? Why should the particular mythology that was instilled into them at primary school have any greater significance and durability than any other? And what happens – heaven forbid! – when politicians take some disastrous course of action to which they say they were divinely inspired? Or fundamentalist Christians (or those claiming to be so) resort to quoting the Bible to avoid having to be vaccinated against Covid-19?
As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece I read, in the New York Times, an obituary of John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931. His mother was a strict Calvinist ‘who refused to sing hymns because they were not the word of God’, and it was apparently such fundamentalism that prompted Spong’s subsequent rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Thus Spong called on his flock to reject ‘sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth’ (no questions of womb-abhorrence for Spong, then) and ‘the existence of heaven and hell’, and in 2013 he preached that several of the apostles were ‘mythological’, also claiming that the notion that Jesus’ blood had washed away the sins of Christians was ‘barbaric theology’. But why stop there? If you start dismantling the whole edifice as superstition, there will not be much left. I was not surprised to read that the Bishop of Brisbane had barred Spong from speaking in his diocese.
God granted episcopant Spong
A life that was wondrously long;
This in spite of the breach
When Spong started to preach
“What the Bible reveals is all Wrong!”
Still, not much else I can do about it all, especially if some insiders have woken up to the truth. And it is not as if we atheists get together in pressure-groups, or go on marches. No point in having meetings to discuss policy: “Still no God, then?”; “So who brought the donuts?”; “Same time next month?”. I do occasionally venture out into the public sphere, however. Several years ago, the local paper printed a letter from a local citizen who had become angered that Walmart had replaced its ‘Happy Christmas’ welcome sign with one saying ‘Happy Holidays’. I was moved to respond, and the State Port Pilot published my letter, which ran as follows:
May I respond to Mr Livingston’s letter (‘Xmas’) with a few anecdotes?
In the country where I was born, the UK, where there remains an established church, the religious aspects of the Christmas festival had long been melded with pagan traditions. And to me, the beautiful Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College, Cambridge, was as much a cultural event as a religious ceremony. Thirty years ago, there was no awkwardness about calling the period ’Christmas’, although today the members of the European Union are divided as to the degree to which they should acknowledge their Christian heritage.
When I came to the US, in 1980, I was quickly reminded how socially inept it was to send a Christmas card to friends who were Jewish, no matter how loosely religious they were. And a few years later, the new (Jewish) wife of an old friend of mine stormed out of the room when I – a non-believer ̶ put on some ‘Christmas’ music. (And it wasn’t Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer). But how was I supposed to know? And wasn’t that a bit of an overreaction?
When I came to Southport a few years ago, I was astonished that a Christian prayer was said at a secular business meeting, and I am still surprised that your columnists refer to ‘our Lord’, as if the Pilot were a parish magazine. But it does not surprise me that Walmart should have decided that it wanted to post a message of seasonal goodwill to all its customers, whether they be Jews, Sikhs, Moslems, Buddhists – or even atheists – as well as the dominant sects of Christianity. Mr Livingston can continue to enjoy making his personal celebrations in his church.
Finally, Happy Holidays to you and all your readers!
In conclusion, this extended anecdote is really a celebration: I did not find God, but I found my Greensleeves. I look back on my life of almost seventy-five years, with many important decisions made and a good number of lucky breaks accepted, of which meeting Sylvia was the best. My thanks to my beautiful and adorable wife for supporting me for so long.
Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves my heart of gold Greensleeves was my heart of joy And who but my lady Greensleeves.
(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)
MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas
How Spies Think by David Omand
In fact three of the books reviewed this month are about MI5. The fourth relates more to general intelligence, but it is a noteworthy addition, and marginally concerns MI5, and I wanted to keep the title of the piece simple. ‘Three Books About MI5 – and One Not’ didn’t seem very catchy.
Regular readers will recognize that the main focus of my research into intelligence agencies has been MI5, with occasional ventures into MI6, GCHQ, and SOE. If ever I were to attempt a second book, it would be called The Authoritative But Unauthorised History of MI5 (hereafter referred to as TABU). Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 is a monumental work, very readable, and a valuable companion, but I have consistently maintained that it is too ambitious in its scope, flawed in its methodology, unscholarly in its references to sources, and far too delicate in its avoidance of controversy. That last aspect may have been forced upon its author, but then he should not have succumbed to such pressures if he wanted to preserve his academic prestige.
Above all, there is a wealth of information that needs to be incorporated in any comprehensive history of MI5, with hundreds of files released to the National Archives that require a concentrated and disciplined amount of cross-referencing, a process that would then shed much light on the activities of MI5 officers. I could start TABU with my research into Fuchs, Peierls, Pontecorvo, Philby, Maclean, Blunt, Ursula Kuczynski, Gouzenko, etc. etc. and package the stories into a book on its own. Then there are the figures who have not been properly covered: for example, Alexander Foote, Oliver Green, Dave Springhall, Guy Liddell, Roger Hollis, and Jane Archer.
A more serious approach would carve MI5’s history up into more manageable sections. Thomas Hennessey and Claire Thomas attempted something similar in their three-volume ‘Unofficial History of MI5’, titled Spooks (2009-2011), but their compilation inexplicably lacks an index, which is a fatal flaw. It provides a measure of useful chronicling, but contains numerous errors, and is overall unusable. Another project is required, perhaps covering separately the era of each MI5 director-general. Thus Volume 1 would take us to 1940 with Kell (1909-1940), with perhaps a chapter on Harker’s interregnum, Volume 2 with Petrie (1940 to 1946), Volume 3 with Sillitoe (1946 to 1953), Volume 4 with White (1953-1956), Volume 5 with Hollis (1956-1965), and Volume 6 with Furnival-Jones (1965-1972) – furnished perhaps with an appendix on Hanley’s molehunts, while the remaining Volumes would await further release of archival material. Whoever is charged with managing this enterprise, I hope that he or she has access to the TABU sources available on coldspur.
Meanwhile, some potentially valuable books exploring lesser-known aspects of MI5’s history continue to appear – some absurdly priced – and it is my allotted task this month to analyse what I found in them.
MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta (Oxford University Press, 2020)
This hefty volume is described in the following terms: “[It] is concerned with the powers, activities, and accountability of MI5 principally in the period from 1945 to 1964. It was a body without statutory authority, with no statutory powers, and with no obvious forms of statutory accountability. It was established as a counter-espionage agency, yet was beset by espionage scandals on a frequency that suggested if not high levels of incompetence, then high levels of distraction and the squandering of resources.”
This is all very stirring stuff, in the tradition (it would appear) of that overlooked classic of counter-intelligence analysis, Misdefending the Realm, which the authors unaccountably do not list in their Bibliography, while giving ample recognition to those renowned chroniclers of the truth, Chapman Pincher, Kim Philby and Peter Wright. Since my attention was focussed on the period 1939-1941, with some projection into 1949 and 1950 on account of the Klaus Fuchs case, one might expect a smooth transition from MTR into the post-war challenges posed by Gouzenko, Nunn May, Fuchs and Pontecorvo, followed by the growing controversies surrounding Burgess and Maclean up to Philby’s disappearance in 1963.
Yet this is not a conventional study. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta are lawyers – and their book is therefore a ‘lawyerly’ approach to the mission of MI5, with an emphasis on rights, and discrimination and surveillance. Readers should thus not be surprised when they encounter sentences such as: “That said, it must also be recognized that the consequence of vetting was to discriminate against individuals, either on grounds of their political affiliations or beliefs, or on the ground of their lifestyle.” (p 303)
To an audience in 2021, ‘discrimination’ is clearly a highly negative term. After all, MI5 recently put out a press release stating that ‘in the interests of diversity’, and ‘to ensure that our personnel accurately reflect the community they serve’, the agency would ‘begin a recruiting campaign to hire all manner of riff-raff, ne’er-do-wells, losers, and subversives to its counter-intelligence staff’. [That was intended as a joke. I do not believe any such statement has been made – yet.] In 1950, however, such a policy of ‘discrimination’ should have been seen as eminently sensible, as it should be now. Why on earth should a government department, or a company with governmental contracts engaged on secret work, not discriminate against persons whose avowed objective was to destroy the whole liberal democracy? For we are talking about Communists (Party members), and communists (fellow-travellers), here.
Be that as it may, the authors start off by providing a very useful and detailed inspection of the movements between the electoral success of Clement Attlee in July 1945, flushed with the recent victory between the western allies and their counterpart, the Soviet Union, and Attlee’s recognition, a few years later, after detection of spies and warlike impulses from Stalin, that communist influence in government needed to be stamped out. Attlee was suddenly not beholden to his Left Wing any more. This period was well summarized by Christopher Andrew in Defend the Realm (pp 382-386), and Ewing and Co. exploit the rich archival sources now available to track the important contributions of civil servants like Findlater Stewart and Edward Bridges (neither of whom appear in Andrew’s book), and the efforts by MI5 to resist any controls over its independence.
The focus of the authors is very much on the constitutional authority of MI5, and especially its involvement in ‘surveillance’. Indeed, the word ‘Surveillance’ appears in six of the fifteen chapters’ headings, and is a dominant theme throughout. This expressed dislike of ‘surveillance’ concerns these lawyers the most. It even leads them into some unfortunate misconceptions. As early as page 7, in the Introduction, they write: “Yet we too had a secret police . . .” While MI5 operated secretly, however, it was not a police force with powers of arrest and prosecution, and suggestions that it was somehow akin to the Gestapo and the NKVD are irresponsible. The motif is picked up later, on page 51, where the following interpretation appears: “Quite apart from the form of words used, further evidence that MI5 was being authorized to act as a secret political police force rather than a counter-espionage agency is to be found . . .”.
These lawyers admit to sympathies for ‘progressive’ views. “Lawyers had no immunity from MI5 surveillance during the Cold War, and progressive lawyers had even less”, they write (p 168). They hail ‘the progressive National Unemployed Workers Movement “ (p 11). They lament how certain presumably ‘advanced’ members of parliament were treated: “In terms of MI5’s mandate (defence of the realm, as threatened by subversion and espionage), what we have here is a situation in which progressive MPs were the subject of fairly intrusive MI5 and Special Branch surveillance on two grounds.” (p 150)
Now, I am not certain what distinguishes a ‘progressive’ lawyer from a ‘regressive’ one (after all, should they not simply be interpreting the law?), but if they are borrowing from the world of economics and politics, they are entering dangerous ground. I could just about accept that ‘progressive’ taxation has an accepted definition concerning the increasing confiscation of wealth from those who either earn a lot or possess substantial assets, but the idea of a ‘progressive’ politician (as espoused by the New York Times and its Nobelist idol of American academia, Paul Krugman) in fact indicates someone on the loony Left who wants the government to pay for free childcare, fund reparations for slavery, forgive all student loans, distribute a universal minimum wage, offer free healthcare, community college tuition, etc. etc. with monies that it does not have, and will never have a chance of collecting.
I do not believe that historians or lawyers should ever start classifying people as ‘progressives’, as they end up sounding like a Pravda editorial, or a functionary from the Politburo. For example, here is Molotov speaking on the new Soviet constitution in 1937, quoting Stalin: “We are entirely on the side of those who have at heart the interests of ‘the whole of advanced and progressive humanity’”. Thus one has to question exactly what sort of world Ewing, Mahoney, and Moretta are progressing towards when they champion the protection of subversive elements whom the government is funding, and analyze the poorly-named ‘Purge’ Procedures. With some apparent sense of regret, they write (p 248): “Although in practice most civil servants at the time  enjoyed secure tenure and relatively good conditions of service, they could nevertheless be hired and fired at will, with no remedy in the event of a transfer or termination on security grounds”. This is a commentary on Attlee’s statement to the Cabinet of March 25, where he essentially expressed exactly that policy. (And Attlee went so far as to include the shocking statement: ‘Even promotion does not come of right’. The injustice! The iniquity!) If it was good enough for the socialist Attlee in 1948, why question it now?
The authors are on much stronger ground when they analyze MI5’s policies being carried out in practice against the broader public. I have commented before on the colossal waste of time, and the occupation of yards and yards of filing space, that was driven by MI5’s vague and all-encompassing policy of ‘keeping an eye on’ possibly disruptive elements. Literally hundreds of intellectuals, academics, union leaders and CP members were at large, spreading falsehoods about the phenomenon of Soviet Russia, and denigrating what they viewed as the oppressive, exploitative nature of western democratic society. There was thus a continuous hum that abetted Soviet propaganda, and apologists for the relatively free and enlightened United Kingdom struggled to find the right voice and outlet. The ‘scandal’ that erupted when Encounter magazine was found to have been funded by the CIA was typical of this: why on earth should a government organisation not assist a publication that promoted western values?
Nearly all these dubious characters were never going to be caught in any illegal act, such as bomb-throwing, or passing state secrets to a Soviet contact. Dave Springhall was a notable exception, and his arrest caused alarm and dismay in Moscow. As the authors point out, the most dangerous activity was taking place under the noses of MI5’s and MI6’s senior officers, by traitors who had concealed their ideological loyalties. Thus most of the surveillance energy was a wasted effort. As the authors conclude (p 424): “True, we have become accustomed to MI5 – a counter-espionage agency – being over-obsessed with fears of subversion and ill-informed about espionage threats, going back to Nunn May and Klaus Fuchs, and of course to ‘Sonya’.” (‘Of course’?)
On more prosecutorial issues, Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta proceed painstakingly through the 1950s and early 1960s, albeit with some confusing jumping around in time, explaining in detail the ramifications of such overlooked but much cherished phenomena as The Radcliffe Report on Positive Vetting, the Maxwell Fyffe Directive and the George Wigg Codicil. With their published concern about the fashionable leftist bogey of ‘witch hunts’, they offer a barbed criticism of Lord Denning as the Grand Inquisitor, but cover the Vassall case well, and are very incisive and accurate in their criticism of the government’s performance in the Profumo case. One probably long-forgotten grievance they document is the case of one John Lang, a solicitor with ICI who had lost the confidence of its board because he had, in 1951, married a woman who had been a member of the Communist Party, and has thus appeared on MI5’s radar trail. The authors fail to make any comparison with the romantic affairs of Dick White, the director-general of MI5 a couple of years later, who had himself married a communist at the end of the war.
One highly useful component of the volume is the Appendix on the Post-War Structure of MI5. (This was the feature that introduced me to the book, when I was conducting a Google search.) The neglect by Christopher Andrew of this important facet of MI5’s operations is one of the severest failings of Defend the Realm, and I had been strenuously trying to establish (for instance) exactly the extent to which Roger Hollis was working in Soviet counter-espionage after the war. His rump Division F became reconstituted into the new B Division at the end of 1946, after which Hollis headed B1 for a couple of years. The preliminary conclusions from this narrative indicate that Hollis became Director of C Division in December 1948, and was for some years involved in relatively inconsequential vetting procedures away from the main spy-fighting unit when the Fuchs and Pontecorvo cases were rumbling, a fact that I have since confirmed from a closer inspection of Liddell’s Diaries. The authors’ analysis of the records that source their inquiry (KV 4/162 and KV 4/166, primarily) is close and detailed, but patchy and error-prone. I have ordered photocopies of the relevant material, and plan to provide a fuller account on coldspur at some time, as a follow-up to my piece from November 2018, B2B or Not B2B?.
The standard of copy-editing in this book from the venerated Oxford University Press is sadly lamentable. Thus we read of ‘invetigations’, ‘a corrigenda’, and ‘enior judiciary’. One sub-chapter is headed ‘The Expulcation of MI5’. Persons’ names are mis-spelled: ‘Gielgud’ appears as ‘Gilguid’; ‘Beurton’ as ‘Buerton’; on a single page (219) Evelyn McBarnet appears as ‘McBarnet’ and ‘Barnet’. Sir Burke (later Lord) Trend is introduced as ‘Sir Burke’ on page 302 (without a respective index entry), and referred to thereafter as ‘Sir Burke’. One or two incomprehensible sentences obtrude, such as the verbless creature on p 369: “It is disappointing, nevertheless, that the official trade union structures co-operative in both the development of the Radcliffe exclusion policy and its extension and implementation.” Percy Sillitoe is described as being the director-general of MI5 in September 1945 (p 236), when he did not accede to the position until the following April. A similar mistake is made over Roger Hollis, when he is presented as being the director-general in November 1952 (p 320). The authors make several mistakes about Soviet espionage, such as asserting that Dave Springhall ran the Cambridge Five (p 233), and a puzzling judgment about the need for secrecy at GCHQ (p 352). They claim that the trials of Nunn May and Fuchs were both held in camera, when in fact both were public.
In conclusion, this is a bit of a clunker; a useful compendium for the earnest scholar of constitutional law, with hundreds of valuable references to archival material that might otherwise have been overlooked, but a bit laborious in its repeated plaints about MI5 as a secret police force, and its obvious bias in favour of (disputable) rights and entitlements for the left-wing cause. Nevertheless, it properly raises some important points about the constitutional and legal basis on which MI5’s surveillance powers are based, which never go away.
Security and Special Operations: SOE and MI5 during the Second World War by Christopher J. Murphy (Palgrave MacMillan, 2006)
I had to make a further raid on my wife’s gardening budget to acquire this volume, which had somehow lain undetected by me since its release fifteen years ago. I cannot recall where I encountered it, but its title beckoned unavoidably, since earlier this year I was earnestly trying to hunt down information on the decision to send the enigmatic George Graham (né Leontieff) to Moscow as George Hill’s special assistant and cipher-clerk in 1941. Murphy is described as ‘an independent scholar . . . formerly Leverhulme Postdoctoral Fellow at the Centre for Contemporary British History at the Institute of Historical Research’. I was not familiar with that institution, which is apparently celebrating its centenary this year. Unfortunately, its resources seem designed for research libraries and universities through a subscription service, and, like Taylor and Francis, offers no flexible subscription package for a retiree like me.
The book arrived, and I re-inspected the blurb: “The first comprehensive account of the work of the Security Section of the Special Operations Executive (SOE) during the Second World War, . . .”, and Richard Thurlow, of the University of Sheffield, added his commendation: “Security and Special Operations is a significant addition to the burgeoning literature of the history of the Special Operations Executive.” Thurlow, I see, wrote a book titled The Secret State, published in 1994, that I should perhaps read. So I turned eagerly to the Contents and Index, to discover what Murphy had written about the Russian Section of SOE in his ‘comprehensive’ account.
The answer was – not one word. That was a colossal disappointment. How could this be a ‘comprehensive’ account if it neglected to cover the most controversial of all of SOE’s undertakings – its attempt to ‘co-operate’ with the NKVD, the most suspicious, unyielding, aggressive and demanding ‘intelligence’ organisation in the world? And how did Murphy’s sponsors (“The archival research on which this book is based was made possible by a Leverhulme Foundation Postdoctoral Fellowship at the Centre for British History at the Institute of Historical Research”) not supervise adequately Murphy’s project to ensure that it delivered the goods? Leaving the Russian Section out was like recounting the tale of Harry Potter without mentioning Voldemort. [Is this correct, Thelma? I was going to write ‘Hamlet without the Prince’, but I wanted an analogy that today’s readers would understand . . . Please emend as necessary. Tony].
What is notable is the fact that Murphy also thanks one Duncan Stuart (‘former SOE Adviser at the Foreign and Commonwealth Office’) for his help, ‘pointing me in the right direction with a single sheet of paper’. Is it not strange that the F&CO would need an ‘adviser’ for a unit that was dissolved in January 1946? Was he perhaps appointed in 1943, and kept his position for several decades, forgotten and untroubled? His status sounds rather like that of Peter Simple’s Dr. Heinz Kiosk, ‘chief psychiatric adviser to the National Meringue and Profiterole Authority’. Yet it is an important position, and was in fact designed to ‘help’ historians, not the Foreign Office itself. E. G. Boxshall was the first appointee, in 1959, but for much of the period my record is bare. Christopher Woods occupied the post from 1983 to 1988, and Gervase Cowell (of Oleg Penkovsky/Greville Wynne fame) followed him until 1996, with Duncan Stuart, the last Adviser, succeeding him, and retiring in 2002. Thus to Dr. Murphy I would say: ‘I am sure Stuart did indeed orient you, squire, and pointed you away from the files on the Russian Section, which you were not capable of finding by yourself.’ The last thing an SOE Adviser would want is someone digging around in files he did not understand, whose revelations might be embarrassing, and which the Adviser was trying to get withdrawn, in any case . . .
Despite its obvious oversights, I of course read the book. As the image above shows, the cover displays the determined visage of the ‘double agent’ Henri Déricourt, taken in November 1946. When I read the volume several months ago, I had only a very hazy idea of who Déricourt was, but, now that I have become involved with Patrick Marnham and War in the Shadows, he is a subject of immense interest to me. Murphy dedicates ten dense pages to the aspects of the Déricourt affair which intrigue him, but it is symptomatic of his methods that he completely misses the point, starting his investigation only with the events of November 1943, when all the damage had been done in the preceding twelve months. I shall return to this analysis later.
Murphy has clearly applied some serious delving into the archives to put a story together. He lists an impressive Bibliography, but his detailed and very useful Endnotes are almost exclusively from files at the National Archives, and they thus for some reason ignore the published sources. Concerning the establishment of the Security Section of SOE – a unit that was much resented by the Country Sections – Murphy painstakingly explains the struggles that Air Commodore Archie Boyle experienced after he was appointed Director of Intelligence and Security in July 1941. There was ‘physical’ security (maintaining the secrecy of what went on in SOE’s various establishments), and ‘esoteric’ security, which former SOE security officer Peter Lee described as work ‘including the double cross system, running double agents [and] the very high grade interrogation of people coming out of occupied territories.’ The latter were the functions that the country sections resented, as they felt their judgments were being questioned, and the bureaucrats were putting obstacles in the way of their achieving results.
While Murphy understands well the question of how relationships between SOE and MI5 (what he calls, in the familiar jargon of our time, ‘adequate liaison machinery’) should work, he is somewhat ponderous in explaining its ramifications. He really gets going with the MI5 connections only in Chapter 4, when Geoffrey Wethered was appointed in early 1943 as the SOE Liaison Officer. The need for such had intensified. As Murphy writes: “MI5 had good reason to be concerned over the security of SOE agents in the field. Fears about the extent of undetected German penetration of SOE networks in Belgium, raised during the winter of 1942-1943, were compounded by the ‘increasing number of cases’ of agents returning to the UK having been captured by the German and ‘turned’, a staged escape preceding their return to the UK with a German mission’” In other words, MI5 had every reason to be petrified about the influx of such persons, and their not being vetted stringently enough as they passed through the London Reception Centre in Wandsworth, and how secrets about the Double-Cross Operation might be inadvertently revealed.
Yet Murphy struggles to discriminate clearly between the insignificant and the important episodes. His narrative attempts to pick up every detail of who said what to whom, and how Wethered groped through his difficult task, and the responses by SOE security officer John Senter to Wethered’s recommendations and intrusions. Murphy describes the tensions as the two organisations grappled. The Country Sections continued to act in a blasé fashion. MI5 warned SOE about its ‘shockingly irresponsible’ conduct in sending a dubious character, Barry Knight, to France, and the dispute almost reached the level of Lord Selborne, the minister responsible for SOE, but Duff Cooper backed off. Guy Liddell wanted a softer approach, by talking with Senter’s boss, Archie Boyle.
Thus Murphy introduces the Déricourt story only with the investigations in late 1943, when allegations were made against him, by Jacques Frager (another SOE agent), that he was working for the Germans. Murphy painstakingly goes through the records of the discussions over Déricourt, logging the testimonies of various witness, and the plans to bring Déricourt back to the United Kingdom for interrogation. He thereby ignores all the fracas about Déricourt going back to 1942, when he had been snapped up by Dansey’s henchman, Bodington, in SOE and bypassed all the recommended investigations into his biography that MI5 tried to insist upon. His shady past was suspected then and confirmed in early 1943: Murphy misses all the nuances and sub-plots of this investigation. As with nearly all other historians of this period, he also does not seem to be familiar with the TWIST committee, and the way that MI6 was managing SOE’s ’double agents’ for them. That is understandable (given that the revelations on TWIST appeared only in 2009), but Murphy displays a lack of imagination in not providing the well-documented background material to Déricourt that did exist at the time, and not putting the events of 1946 and after into context.
There is more, on the Double Cross System and the plans for OVERLORD, which the enterprising reader may wish to follow up him- or herself, but overall my judgment is that this book was an opportunity missed. Too much of ‘what one clerk said to another’, in the immortal words of A. J. P. Taylor, and not enough imaginative synthesizing investigation. No risks were taken in the creation of this work, and no endangered species harmed. Murphy draws no integrative conclusions from his study, and the book ends very abruptly, with a Chapter he titles ‘Unfinished Business’. He covers some of the post-mortems, especially the ‘Nordpol’ operation in the Netherlands, and a fruitless interrogation of Hugo Bleicher of the Abwehr at Camp 020, in an attempt to learn more about Déricourt, but his only conclusion is to suggest that MI5’s interest in SOE soon waned after the war, ‘as the new security priorities of the Cold War emerged’.
I suspect the reality is more complex than that. For example, the failure to even consider the Russian Section is unpardonable, in my opinion. I of course wrote to Murphy about this oversight, and then, failing to gain any response from his email address, tried to call him on the telephone, leaving him a message on his answering machine. He never responded, and I thus add him to my list of appalling academics who advertise an email address, but never want to engage with any of the public who read their books. As Ko-Ko might have sung:
The reclusive annalist, I’ve got him on my list. I don’t think he’d be missed! I’m sure he’d not be missed!
[What do you think, Thelma? Will my readers recognise The Mikado?]
Intelligence, Security and the Attlee Governments, 1945-51: An uneasy relationship? by Daniel W. B. Lomas (Manchester University Press, 2017)
I do not think it is a sensible idea to introduce a question in the title of a serious book on intelligence: it makes it sound like a conference presentation where you want to keep your audience in suspense. But, if you haven’t made up your mind by the time you have completed writing its 250-plus pages, you have probably chosen the wrong topic. It is not as if the eager reading public is walking around thinking: ‘Gee, I wonder whether the relationship between Intelligence and Security during Attlee’s premiership was uncomfortable in any way, and I wish some capable academic would sort it all out for me’, partly because ‘Intelligence’ and ‘Security’ are merely abstract nouns, and do not have relationships with governments, and I do not believe that anyone has made the claim that the Attlee administration was exceptional in that dimension. So not a good start. Yet, according to his biographical profile at Salford, Lomas’s book was shortlisted for the Royal Historical Society’s Whitfield Prize for first academic monograph.
Dr. Lomas is described as Lecturer in International History at the University of Salford, and an early warning signal is communicated in the second sentence of his ‘Acknowledgements’, where he thanks his colleague, Dr. Christopher J. Murphy, of renown in this parish above, for ‘his cherished advice and support’ throughout his research. And here is another academic who manages to gain sponsorship from a charitable institution – this time the Arts and Humanities Research Council. How do these guys do it? All that money flowing around, simply to spend some hours in the dusty archives? Moreover, he lists a whole stream of eminent persons who gave him ‘valuable advice’, such as Countess Attlee, Professor Richard Aldrich, Dr Gill Bennett, Tom Bower, Professor Keith Jeffery, Dr Christopher Moran, Professor the Lord (Kenneth) Morgan, etc. etc. (I did not see David Hare, John le Carré or Ben Macintyre on the list.) What did they tell him?: ‘Go West, young man’? ‘Don’t forget to floss’? And how does one handle all that advice, and what happens if their advice clashes? To whom would one turn? It beats me. Perhaps Lomas would have won that Whitfield Prize if he had used fewer advisers.
In fact the book starts out promisingly, with an Introduction that offers an insightful tour d’horizon of the state of play in historiography of the Labour Party and MI5 and MI6. He suggests that the phenomenon of ‘the missing dimension’, first formulated by Christopher Andrew and David Dilks, is still at work in writings about political history, although he lets off certain biographers (including one of his advisers) because they did not have access to relevant archival material at the time. He crisply describes the effect of the 2005 Freedom of Information Act, and how its good intentions are often hindered by bureaucratic trudgery. And he sensibly reminds his readers of the large number of other sources, including private papers, that need to be mined to cover the era properly. He provides a rich bibliography, comprising a wide array of papers from various Ministries, as well as MI5 records, although his ‘primary’ source documents are dominated by possibly dubious memoirs from notable participants, with presumably more objective accounts from eminent (and not so eminent) historians relegated to ‘secondary’ level.
He then provides a brief history of the British Labour party’s relationship with ‘intelligence’, in which he unfortunately deploys the 21st-century cliché of ‘the intelligence community’, as well as that misplaced metaphor of ‘the machinery’. (If historians want to refer to ‘intelligence agencies’, they should do so: classifying them, alongside GCHQ, as a ‘community’ distorts the battles and rivalries that flourished then, and still do, just as with the FBI and the CIA. If they were a ‘community’, they would not be separate units.) Lomas highlights the background to the Labour Party’s electoral victory in 1945, and the historical reasons why socialist politicians might have had cause to be suspicious of more ‘reactionary’ intelligence organisations, going back to the Zinoviev Letter affair of 1924, a fake stage-managed by the Tory Joseph Ball. Yet his conclusion is tentative: “The legacy of the Zinoviev Latter meant that relations between ministers and the intelligence community may have suffered during the initial stages of the second MacDonald government, elected in June 129.” That ‘may’ demands a lot more analysis.
Yet Lomas effectively destroys his straw man at the outset. The concluding clause of this section runs: “ . . . the legacy of Zinoviev was not as damaging as popularly [by whom?] suggested, showing that Labour-intelligent relations were on the mend”. His synopsis of Chapter 1 reinforces this idea by stating that, since Labour ministers in Churchill’s coalition government had access to, and use of, intelligence, ‘the experience ended any lingering animosity that remained from the Zinoviev Letter affair.” So the notion of debunking the rumour of ‘an uneasy relationship’ quickly appears to be an artificial one. And, if the reader jumps forward to Lomas’s conclusion, one reads: “Rather than intelligence novices, many senior figures in the Attlee government were experienced intelligence committee consumers, having used intelligence products in office.” (p 259). So what was the whole controversy about?
Another example of how Lomas attempts to present his argument as innovative is in his treatment of Attlee. “While it has been argued that Attlee, a committed internationalist, was opposed to any hostility towards the Soviet Union”, he writes, “the chapter shows that he was kept fully aware of Soviet interests and intentions despite his commitment to renewed Anglo-Soviet relations.” But of course he was kept informed. There is no conflict there. Moreover, Lomas introduces his Chapter 6 (‘Defending the Realm: Labour Ministers, vetting and subversion’) with a quote from Attlee expressed as early as 1940: “The Communists have no right to the name of socialists or Communists. They are Stalinists. Whatever Stalin says is right for them . . .” The antithesis of ‘internationalism’ and ‘anti-communism’ is a false one. Attlee saw through Stalin from the start, as did his Foreign Minister, Bevin. It would have been more interesting if Lomas had focused on why the Edenic Tory policy of ‘co-operation’ with the Soviet Union had been forged in the first place, and if he had explored why a Labour administration had had to undo the appeasement strategies of Attlee’s Conservative predecessors.
Thus what Lomas has compiled is a very readable, well-sourced, integrative study of the fascinating few post-war years where any illusions about Stalin were quickly dispelled. It is overall well-edited (although the U.S. Secretary of State James Byrnes appears several times in Chapter 5 as ‘Brynes’, and is not indexed). If the reader is new to this subject, he or she can gain a well-written and widely-sourced account of the Gouzenko affair, the Soviet threats with the atomic bomb, the espionage of Fuchs, Nunn May, and Pontecorvo, the Foreign Office’s propaganda offensive, the disastrous operations against Albania, relations with the USA and the Commonwealth, Attlee’s policy of ‘positive vetting’, and the disappearance of Burgess and Maclean. Lomas has gathered many fascinating accounts of politicians and intelligence, such as Christopher Mayhew’s discussions with Attlee about setting a middle way between American capitalism and Soviet totalitarianism. Topics like these could well have been extended into a novel analysis, but immediately an opportunity seems to appear to develop an innovative study, the text returns to the more platitudinous generalisations. The author tries to wrap it all in a message that is simply not invigorating or imaginative.
Thus for any reader who has performed even only occasional study of these topics, there will be little new to be found here, apart from some incidental minutes and observations from ministers and diplomats, and Lomas misses many of the darker undercurrents that affected the surface appearance of many events. Another example: if the relationship between ministers and MI6 was so good, how was it that Attlee, Bevin and Strang approved the calamitous incursions into Albania? Lomas simply concludes: “The results were far from positive”, and reports that Bevin and Strang then decided to suspend any such activities. These episodes could have provided a stirring stretch of useful analysis, but Lomas simply moves on. At the Conclusion, one reads: “It [this book] has shown that, contrary to existing views of the relationship, ministers enjoyed what could be described as an excellent working relationship with the intelligence community . . .”. Not much of a breakthrough, that, and not really true, anyway.
It is not that the subject of his ‘monograph’ is unworthy of study. Attlee and his period certainly deserve attention, as he was probably the finest British premier of the century, skilled in both management and leadership. The reality otherwise was that ministers came and went, and some were good, and some were duds, while civil servants and the intelligence services went on for ever (with the exception of SOE, of course, which was absorbed by MI6). The intelligence ‘community’ had its rivalries, just as the individual agencies had their internal plots, conspiracies, and competition. Their bosses sometimes lied to their political masters, and intelligence was frequently concealed from those who should have received it – both outside and within the service, such as frequently happened with MI5, where senior officers withheld vital information from the grunts. Lomas seems to want us to believe that everything was hunky-dory, and that the Whitehall ‘machinery’ acted according to well-oiled routines, with politicians and intelligence officers all executing their roles in an exemplary manner. But that was not the case. Unfortunately, his book reads very much as if it had been written by a committee, and maybe that court of advisers helped bring about that result.
The bland monographist, I’ve got him on my list.
He never will be missed! He never will be missed!
How Spies Think by David Omand (Penguin Viking, 2020)
When I first saw this title, I imagined that it might sit handily on my shelf next to the SOE handbook How To Become a Spy, and that I could learn more about what made Anthony Blunt and Richard Sorge tick. Yet it all seemed a little unlikely that a book could be written about such a subject: would not spies be simply concentrating on the topic of ‘How can I get this document to my controller without being spotted?’ But then, inspecting further, I discovered that the book is not really about Spies at all. The subtitle is Ten Lessons in Intelligence: the PR boys must have got hold of it, and told their bosses that the author would never get invitations to the late-night TV shows unless they sexed up the title a bit.
For the author is the distinguished Former Director of GCHQ (Government Communications Headquarters), and more recently ‘the first UK Security and Intelligence Coordinator, responsible for the professional health of the intelligence community [yes, that dread word again], national counter-terrorism strategy and “homeland security”’. (Why that last phrase appears in inverted commas, I have no idea.) And Omand’s book focuses on how seasoned intelligence analysts think, how they sort out fact from fiction, and thus build a reliable picture of the world. Espionage (or ‘Spying) may play a part in that process, but the fact that GCHQ has traditionally picked up electronic signals from the ether that have been transmitted with the awareness that adversaries will intercept them, and attempt to decrypt them, is not indicative that spying went on. Intercepting citizens’ private telephone calls or email messages without legal authority would be another matter, however.
How Spies Think turns out to be a very practical, and riveting, tutorial in how (good) intelligence analysts process information, and the author presents his analysis as a guide to how the rules for sound decision-making can be applied to everyday life. He outlines a four-step process, the SEES model, as a method for developing confident judgments about uncertain intelligence that may be arriving in a variety of forms. It consists of the following levels (and I quote directly):
* Situational awareness of what is happening and what we face now.
* Explanation of why we are seeing what we do and the motivations of those involved.
* Estimates and forecasts of how events may unfold under different assumptions.
* Strategic notice of future issues that may come to challenge us in the longer term.
All his explanations are liberally illustrated with examples from military and intelligence history, such as the D-Day landings, the Iraq War, the Falklands War, the Invasion of Czechoslovakia, the Cuban Missile Crisis.
I must confess a personal fascination with these ideas. I spent the most important part of my career as an analyst at the Gartner Group, where we were charged with assessing the situation in our area of interest and expertise, and presenting forecasts for a five-year time period based on our analysis of trends, technologies, vendor capabilities, market dynamics, and buyer preferences and profiles. (The acid test of such processes occurred when a five-year cycle was completed, and one’s forecasts from the past were dredged up for review.) I was always intrigued as to why so many smart persons would have contrary opinions as to what outcomes would be, and it turned out that a certain hard-headedness, even cynicism, and a good dose of practical experience in the field, were required to cut through much of the idealistic waffle that attached itself to many technological initiatives. Thus the analysts who believed they could change the world, or who imagined vendors to operate against their own interests (as opposed to the emissaries they sent to industry consortia), who were simplistically influenced by the more skillful of the vendor marketing campaigns, or who ignored the dynamics of buyer politics, were essentially lost. The most serious defect they displayed was viewing the world as they hoped it could be rather than as it was.
Furthermore, my last job, as VP of Strategy for a small software company, showed me how even skilled executives can ignore intelligence if it gets in the way of their personal agenda and use of power. As part of the strategic planning process, I developed a simple scheme for separating Facts about the market and technology from Assumptions about such matters as competitive threats and future innovations, and started to determine why different executives in the company sometimes maintained conflicting ideas about the unknowns we were addressing. It turned out that the CEO was really not enthusiastic about a formal strategy, as she regarded it as possibly inhibiting her desire to act spontaneously and whimsically: moreover, she paid too much attention to Wall Street, where the analysts looked to her to be a ‘deal-maker” (i.e. engage in precarious acquisition strategies), as it would enhance her reputation (and maybe the stock-price in the short run). The VP of Research and Development (who worked 1500 miles away from Head Office) believed, as creator of the product, that she had a unique insight into what features the product needed, but would change the schedule according to which large customer walked into her office. The VP of Sales did not want his creative energies to be limited by being told what market segments he should pursue to make his numbers. Thus cool assessments can always be undermined by personality traits and private ambitions.
But back to Omand. His text is studded with accurate and useful observations. He offers a clear-headed analysis of how Bayesian approaches of conditional probability can help develop alternative hypotheses to explain events, and how new evidence thus enables new situational awareness, such as in the Cuban Missile Crisis. He presents some cogent insights on topics relevant to historians as well as intelligence analysts, such as the following, on the reliability of a source: “Like the historian who discovers a previously unknown manuscript describing some famous event in a new way, the intelligence officer has to ask searching questions about who wrote the report and when, and whether they did from first-hand knowledge, or from a sub-source, or even from a sub-sub-source with potential uncertainty, malicious motives or exaggeration being introduced at every step of the chain.” (p 27) He offers a provocative section on ‘Reluctance to act on intelligence warnings’, although he fails to delineate a clear linkage about general intelligence about inhuman crimes (e.g. genocide in Bosnia: ‘something has to be done’), and how that intelligence is converted into political action. He laments the communal ‘magical thinking’ at the time of the Falklands crisis that prevented anticipatory action in time – a clear echo of my point about self-delusion over realities.
Since the four SEES items comprise Lessons 1-4, the rest of the book covers Lessons 5-10. Again, Omand offers a very lively lecture, almost impossible to simplify. I thus recapitulate these Lessons for the eager reader, the first three grouped under the heading of ‘Checking our Reasonimg’:
5. It is our own demons that are most likely to mislead us
6. We are all susceptible to obsessive states of mind
7. Seeing is not always believing: beware manipulation, deception and faking
The final three are characterized under ‘Making Intelligent Use of Intelligence’:
8. Imagine yourself in the shoes of the person on the other side
9. Trustworthiness creates lasting partnerships
10. Subversion and sedition are now digital.
This section includes several insightful passages, such as his coverage of conspiracy theories, where he cites Peter Wright as noted delusionist. He provides (on pages 142-143) a useful checklist of memes that characterize a conspiracy narrative, and admits that today’s world of social media makes it much more difficult to debunk or dismantle such theories. He adds, somewhat beguilingly, that his experience ‘is certainly that even in the world of secret intelligence cockups outnumber conspiracies by a large margin’. He recommends a number of steps that an analytic team should perform to check their models in the light of new information, since even such disciplined teams can fall in love with their own theories. I found all this accurate and hard-hitting advice.
I thought, however, that Omand’s arguments became a little slack, the further on he went, and even presented some contradictions. For instance, I considered a phenomenon of Number 8 that Omand does not cover: the appeasement of Stalin in the belief that he would behave like a decent English gentleman after sitting in meetings with the likes of Anthony Eden, and the completely misguided strategy of ‘co-operation’ that the Foreign Office tried to forge as the Soviet Union and the Western Allies fought together against the common enemy. It was the inability to imagine that Stalin was an irredeemably ruthless individual, an autocrat who did not have to listen to ‘the hard men in the Kremlin’ (or even to his own people, as he claimed) that resulted in a disastrous misjudgment of his intentions.
And, as for 8 and 9, whom should one trust? Should the USA and Great Britain really have sat down at the conference table with the amorphous and undisciplined Taliban, for instance, knowing that that body was utterly untrustworthy? Would one of Omand’s ‘negotiated agreements’ have meant anything? On Lesson 9, Omand concentrates on ‘trust’ between natural affiliated allies, such as the USA and Great Britain, and the long-term value that such strategic alliances can bring. But how enduring are they? Are they institutional, or too dependent on personalities? Can President Trump, or a Brexit, disrupt them in both directions? Do the FBI and the CIA, or MI5 and MI6 trust each other? Do members of NATO trust each other over controversial issues like Afghanistan? Does the public trust the government? It is in this section that Omand’s advice tends to become a bit preachy and idealistic, and I should have liked to read more on when and why the process of intelligence analysis fails.
Moreover, even if the analytical process is correct, the problem will be one of political will, made all the more difficult by the fact that everyone and his sister will be out there on a public platform criticising policy, or recommending populist change. The recent withdrawal from Afghanistan is turning out to be disastrous: one expert stated on television that the USA had given the Afghan government the materials, the training, and the intelligence, but that it lacked the political will to resist. Yet an assessment of the integrity and fortitude of the Afghan administration should have been one of the factors in intelligence-gathering before planning the withdrawal. (Bayesian reasoning does not appear to have helped here.) On the other hand, from intelligence gained, China’s intentions regarding territorial expansion and authoritarian control seem evident enough, what with the suppression of the Uighurs, the closing down of democracy in Hong Kong, and its claims on Taiwan, but does President Xi’s policy represent an existential threat to the West, and how can it be resisted given how economies are interlocked?
Omand’s argument disappointingly starts to get mushier in lesson 10 (‘Subversion and sedition are now digital’), where, after covering the dangers from cyber-crime and -espionage, he tries to summarise: “Finally, in Part Three I have wanted to persuade you that to manage our future sensibly we all need effective partnerships based on trust and the ability to establish constructive relationships with those with whom we have to deal.” Who is that ‘we’? – the familiar plea of the journalist with his or her heart on the sleeve, appealing to an undefined audience. And a page later, he follows with: “We are on notice that there are further developments in information warfare capabilities over the horizon that will further damage us, unless we start to prepare now.” All very vague and unspecific, more like an article by the Archbishop of Canterbury: not a useful call to action.
In a more puzzling denouement, Omand appears to discard his own Lessons in his final chapter 11: ‘A final lesson in optimism’. It is as if his Editors told him that he had to leave his readers with some hope among the chaos. The chapter concludes with an analysis of the rules of today’s digital byways, and the author then rather fancifully projects forward to ‘a warm spring day in Trafalgar Square in 2028’. After welcoming a return to representative democracy, Omand attributes the success to three schemes. The first was a major five-year programme in schools to teach critical thinking for the digital world; the second was ‘a marked reduction in the vulnerability of the public to online manipulation and disinformation’. He illustrates it as follows: “There was praise for the leadership of the new US President in calling a 2025 global conference on internet norms that had brought together democratic governments, civil society groups, the major internet companies and the global advertising industry.” (p 291) This is pure Kumbaya wish-fulfilment: maybe Osman’s own demons trying to mislead him, his own ‘magical thinking’. The third scheme was a stronger defence against cyber-coercion. However realistic that third plank may be, the chapter constitutes a weak ending to an otherwise strong book.
As a coda, I offer this suggestion. In a recent LRB review of Scott Anderson’s book on the CIA, The Quiet Americans, Charles Glass presented a long list of US intelligence failures, including many of Omand’s examples, from the Soviet atom bomb to 9/11, which he tantalisingly attributed to a ‘neglect of intelligence gathering’, rather than to a failure of analysis. So perhaps a broader study is required: how ‘spies’ collect information, whether they all cogitate over it according to Omandian principles, what happens when they disagree, and what occurs when they present their conclusions to their political masters. ‘How Politicians Think’ would be a valuable follow-up. All politicians who set out to ‘change the world’ should be interrogated to determine why they think they know best what ‘the world’ needs, and why their enterprises will necessarily make it better, not worse.
Finally, I noted a few questionable assessments in the text overall.
P 139 “The paranoia even crossed the Atlantic. Under the charismatic influence of Angleton, a small group of MI5 officers in London led by Peter Wright caught the obsession with long-term Soviet penetration. Angleton sent the defector Golitsyn to London to brief them and help them uncover the Soviet weevils presumed also to be burrowing away within the British intelligence agencies.” They did? What ‘weevils’ were those? ‘Presumed’ or ‘real’? If ‘uncovered’, presumably the latter. But who? I think we should be told.
P 141 “We now know that he [Hollis] was cleared by high-level British government inquiries, confirmed by evidence from later KGB defectors.” Well, actually not quite true. And who are ‘we’, again? The question was very much left open: Gordievsky may have pooh-poohed the idea, but his and Christopher Andrew’s explanations about ELLI muddied the waters. If it were only that simple.
P 174 “The Cabinet Secretary would have been all too aware that the incoming Prime Minister [Wilson] had been, as we saw in the previous chapter, the subject of unofficial inquiries by a clique of MI5 officers in response to the CIA’s Angleton into whether Wilson was a KGB agent of influence.” A clique? Who, in particular? Is that intelligence or rumour? That claim deserved greater detail. Was it an example of ‘How Spies Think’?
P 175 “Eric Hobsbawm knew he had been discriminated against . . .” Of course, Hobsbawm should have been discriminated against! See my comments under MI5, the Cold War, and the Rule of Law, above.
P 215 “That led to the uncovering of the Russian spies Donald Maclean . . . and Klaus Fuchs.” Maclean and Fuchs were British citizens, but Soviet spies.
P 243 “We all carry, for example, unconscious fear about others who appear different. This instinctive xenophobia is the result of our evolutionary history as a species.” This is a very risky and debatable generalization, a dangerous step into the domains of anthropology and biology.
P 275 “The individual Western citizen is thus already, and will be for the foreseeable future, the recipient of digital information of all kinds . . .” Both a statement of the obvious, as well as a feeble prediction: ‘the foreseeable future’ (like ‘only time will tell’) represents a vague prognostication that should NEVER be used by any reputable intelligence analyst, let alone an officer of Omand’s stature. The period could be five minutes or fifty years. I forbad my team at Gartner Group to use either of the two phrases.
But definitely the best book of the four. The ‘wise cryptanalyst’ is not on my list.
This month, I conclude my analysis of the accounts of Anthony Blunt’s Confession, and describe what I think really happened, and what the lessons are.
1 Defend the Realm [The Defence of the Realm in the UK] by Christopher Andrew (2009)
2 The Prime Minister’s Statement to the House of Commons: November 21, 1979 (extract)
3 The Fourth Man by Douglas Sutherland (1980)
4 Their Trade is Treachery by Chapman Pincher (1981: paperback version 1982)
5 MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945 by Nigel West (1981)
6 MI5: 1945-72, A Matter of Trust by Nigel West (1982)
7 After Long Silence by Michael Straight (1983)
8 Too Secret Too Long by Chapman Pincher (1983)
9 Conspiracy of Silence by Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman (1986)
10 Molehunt: Searching for Soviet Spies in MI5 by Nigel West (1987)
11 Spycatcher: The Candid Autobiography of a Senior Intelligence Officer by Peter Wright (1987)
12 Mask of Treachery by John Costello (1988)
13 Seven Spies Who Changed the World by Nigel West (1991)
14 My 5 Cambridge Friends by Yuri Modin (1994)
15 The Perfect English Spy by Tom Bower (1995)
16 The Enigma Spy by John Cairncross (1995)
17 Anthony Blunt: his lives by Miranda Carter (2001)
18 Open Secret by Stella Rimington (2001)
19 Last of the Cold War Spies by Roland Perry (2005)
20 Triplex by Nigel West (2009)
21 CIA files on Straight (released March 2007)
22 The FBI Vault: Michael Straight
23 Treachery by Chapman Pincher (2012)
24 The Shadow Man by Geoff Andrews (2015)
25 FCO 158/129 – ‘Foreign and Colonial Office file on John Cairncross, 1953-1982’ (released 23 October, 2015)
26 Spymaster by Martin Pearce (2016)
27 CAB 301/270 – ‘John Cairncross, former member of the Foreign Office: confession to spying’ (released July 20, 2017)
28 Enemies Within by Richard Davenport-Hines (2018)
29 The Last Cambridge Spy by Chris Smith (2019)
30 Agent Moliere by Geoff Andrews (2020)
The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969)
With My Little Eye by Richard Deacon (1982)
The Secrets of the Service by Anthony Glees (1987)
The Haunted Wood by Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev (1999)
The Art of Betrayal by Gordon Corera (2012)
The Secret World by Hugh Trevor-Roper (2014)
Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence by Nigel West (2014)
The Black Door by Richard J. Aldrich & Rory Cormac (2016)
A Question of Retribution? edited by David Cannadine (2020)
How Spies Think by David Omand (2020)
MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law by K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney and Andrew Moretta (2020)
I see four major topics encapsulating the study of the Hoax of the Blunt Confession: the circumstances of the encounter itself at the Courtauld Institute; the contribution made by Michael Straight; the details of Cairncross’s confession in Ohio; and the role and character of Arthur Martin. All these issues are coloured by the actions and objectives of Roger Hollis and Dick White.
The Events at the Courtauld Institute:
It must be borne in mind that all reports of the circumstances of Anthony Blunt’s confession derive from one source – Arthur Martin, who apparently carried out the project singlehandedly. The unnumbered and unidentifiable archival record that Christopher Andrew claimed to have seen must have been written by him. Martin was the source for the accounts adumbrated by Chapman Pincher, Nigel West, and Barrie Penrose and Simon Freeman, even though some of them they may have been channelled through Martin’s fellow officer, Peter Wright. All subsequent narratives rely on one or more of these five authors. Thus the analyst has to deal with the disquieting fact that Martin disseminated conflicting accounts of what happened, and I shall inspect later to what degree I think this aberration was due to artifice or to indiscipline.
To begin with, the encounter’s externalities clash. In the official record, Martin called on Blunt on the evening of April 23, as if on an unscheduled visit, in the hope of finding his quarry at home (1). Alternatively, it occurred in the mid-morning of April 22 (10), or perhaps in the morning of the following day (12). By all accounts, Martin carried out the interview alone (a fact which American intelligence officers found astounding (12)), although a report in the Washington Post of November 22, 1979 quoted Sir Michael Havers, the Attorney General, as informing the House of Commons that ‘When officials [sic] went to Blunt’s Home in April 1964 to question him for the 12th time . . .they revealed new information implicating him’. The report in Hansard simply states that Blunt was interviewed ‘by the Security Service’.
Thereafter, the accounts diverge further. The authorised version runs as follows (1): Martin asked Blunt about Michael Straight, at which Blunt started to twitch. He disagreed over Martin’s account of Straight’s recruitment, at which point Martin offered the assurance of immunity should Blunt confess. A minute of silence followed, before Martin informed Blunt that he had recently put John Cairncross through such an exercise, and gained a confession. Blunt declared that he needed ‘five minutes to wrestle with his conscience’. He then left the room for five minutes, returning to pour himself a drink. He stood at a tall window for several minutes. Martin appealed to him again, whereupon Blunt came back to his chair and confessed.
Several aspects of this account are highly unlikely – or pure melodrama. The fact that Blunt apparently expressed no shock or surprise on learning of Cairncoss’s confession, and asked no questions about it, suggests that the claim was a later insertion to the archival record (as I have earlier suggested), or that Blunt already knew about the events in Cleveland, but fluffed his lines. Instead, he is reported to have made the ludicrous remark about his ‘conscience’ – an item in the screenplay that Alan Bennett would not have considered including even on an off day. To give the game away about having a guilty conscience before making the confession would have been an astonishing mis-step by someone who had successfully weathered almost a dozen interrogations beforehand. And what was the evidence from Straight that incriminated Blunt? That Blunt had tried to recruit him in Cambridge twenty-seven years ago, maybe acting on behalf of Guy Burgess? After all, Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had said in 1979 that Blunt had come under suspicion ‘as a result of information to the effect that Burgess had been heard in 1937 to say that he was working for a secret branch of the Comintern and that Blunt was one of his sources’. The whole scenario seems like a bad comic opera.
One might also question the wisdom of a single junior officer’s being charged with such an assignment, especially since Blunt was allowed to leave the room for several minutes. Would he come back? Might he have done a runner, or even topped himself? Was a posse of Special Branch constables waiting outside to apprehend him should Plan B have been required, in the event that a saloon from the Soviet Embassy rolled up to steal him away? One cannot imagine the KGB goons indulging Oleg Penkovsky or Oleg Gordievsky with permission to leave the room for a few minutes while either gathered his thoughts. (‘Certainly, comrade. But don’t be too long, mind.’) Pincher very early on thought the whole performance was bogus (8), that Blunt had been pre-warned, and no plans had been made for the eventuality where he did not confess. Martin echoed this opinion to Costello (12): he may have thought that he was breaking fresh ground in having been granted the peachy assignment, and executing it so successfully, but the way that it developed make him think otherwise, and no doubt contributed to his frustrations.
Yet the evidence that Martin provided to other journalists added further wrinkles. In his first testimony to Pincher (4), Martin offered differing evidence (without mentioning Cairncross), describing a scenario where Blunt never left the room. According to Nigel West (6), Blunt took only a few seconds to confess. In Pincher’s next offering (8), he also echoed the point that Blunt capitulated too soon, and that Martin never articulated the conditions of the immunity deal. Moreover, Pincher introduced the fact of the tape-recorder as a substitute for any written record. One might think that Blunt would have reacted to such an obvious device with some alarm or mis-giving, but nothing appeared to faze him. He agreed to the recording, knowing that it would have no legal status. Penrose and Freeman (9) even state that Blunt ‘nodded in assent’ when the tape-recorder was presented.
The evidence of these latter two authors was dependent upon letters that Martin had conveniently supplied to them in 1985. In this deposition, Martin said he had ‘unequivocal evidence that Blunt had been a Soviet agent during the war’: the authors state that Blunt denied this, ‘as the assertion simply wasn’t true’. It is not clear whether they are expressing their own opinion, or Martin’s, but the fact is that the assertion was true (the business with Leo Long in MI14), but had been conveniently been buried. If Martin truly did have access to this information at the time, it could have appeared to him as more damning evidence than the stories Straight old, but White and Hollis had known about it, and tried to minimise its significance. No conceivable new source of this allegation is given, but perhaps Martin had been given this ammunition just beforehand. Since that gambit provoked no response, Martin next turned to his interviews with Straight, but Blunt was ‘expressionless’ (no ‘twitching’ then), walked to the window, poured himself a large drink (without leaving the room), and immediately admitted to Martin that it was all true. In this version, Martin played back the recording, so that Blunt could agree that it was an accurate record of the conversation. (How could it have been otherwise?) The meeting was over after twenty-five minutes.
According to West (10) and Wright (11), the events were collapsed to a shorter time-frame, with Wright indicating that Blunt admitted his espionage ‘almost immediately’. While gin has been shown to be the preferred tipple up till now (4), Miranda Carter suggests that Blunt ‘poured himself a large Scotch’ (17). In his last work on the subject (23), Chapman Pincher picked up from Penrose and Freeman the thread of Blunt’s wartime complicity and detection, but did not investigate the source of this new intelligence. He echoed the story that Martin had told Costello that Roger Hollis had warned Blunt about the coming confrontation.
The whole charade is a mess. Amid all these conflicting stories, however, one thread appears prominent: that Michael Straight had provided breakthrough evidence of Blunt’s guilt. And it was that external evidence, rather than MI5’s mismanagement of its suspicions, that had given the senior officers of the Security Service an alibi, and had provoked Blunt’s confession.
Michael Straight & Anthony Blunt:
Michael Straight was a somewhat sad actor in this whole pantomime. His life and career were characterized by irresolution, privilege and lack of purpose. He was pliable and weak. Critics of his memoir have challenged him as to why he did not confront his own missteps earlier, instead of conniving at the activities of his erstwhile Cambridge colleagues in espionage. He vacillated, admitting his failings, but was also deceptive and misleading in his explanations. A review by a CIA officer of his memoir concluded: “As to Michael Straight himself, no semantic contrivances can avoid the conclusion to which he guides us; as both man and agent he was too gullible, too idealistic, too self-serving, and too long silent.”
For example, when Straight made his long-winded confession to the FBI in June 1963, he emphasised his contacts and friendships in Cambridge, and admitted his recruitment by Blunt, but minimised the level of espionage he had undertaken, and understated Blunt’s close association with Moscow (see below). He claimed tentatively that, during his assignments with his contact Michael Green (Akhmerov) in Washington, ‘he may have furnished Green with memoranda which he prepared from public material and his personal knowledge’. When Pincher broke the story of the investigations into Hollis in Too Secret Too Long in 1983, and pointed indirectly to Straight, Straight claimed to David Binder of the New York Times that he had declined Blunt’s 1937 invitation to spy. (Pincher may well have alerted the journalist. The column about Straight’s denial appears on the same page of the March 26, 1981 issue as the news on Hollis.) In After Long Silence, Straight admitted that he had ‘failed to reject Anthony’s scheme out of hand’, but again claimed that he had passed on to Akhmerov only papers he had written himself, or publicly available material.
Yet, reluctant spy that he claimed to have been, Straight was indeed persuaded to hand over important classified material. In The Haunted Wood (1999), Allen Weinstein and Alexander Vassiliev, the latter having inspected relevant KGB archives, record the usefulness of agent NIGEL (Straight’s cryptonym). They write, for example, “Nevertheless, in June , he finally delivered his armaments report to Akhmerov, and, the following month, the Russian noted that Straight had passed on a report from the American consul in London about British war reserves of raw materials.” While Straight’s contributions waned after the announcement of the Nazi-Soviet pact, his Moscow bosses still considered him an important ‘agent in place’, and obviously had a hold over him by then. The US authorities would surely have not have been as indulgent with Straight after his confession had they known the true extent of his treachery.
Commentators have asked: ‘What took him so long to confess?’ And ‘Why did he confess so much?’ After all, was it really necessary to introduce Blunt as his recruiter, given that all his espionage was carried out in the USA? Yet Straight was aware that his Communist affiliations in Cambridge were known by a few, and probably believed that, if he did not tell a comprehensive story, and then further unpalatable facts emerged, he would face fresh challenges. By 1963, however, the McCarthyite climate of the early nineteen-fifties had ameliorated, and previous communist sympathies would not have been so harshly treated. That does, however, provoke, a further question that I do not believe has been analysed: ‘Did Straight warn Blunt of his proposed confession?’ And if so, ‘how and when?’
Since there was a sort of childlike simplicity and decency in Straight, I believe that he would not have betrayed Blunt’s role without informing him of his intentions, and I thus suspect that the two of the must have prepared the ground before June 1963. They surely met some time after that as well, before the improbably late and apparently harmonious encounter in September 1964 that Straight describes in his memoir (7), on an occasion which is strongly referred to in the CIA and FBI records (21 & 22), and implied, with supporting evidence, by Perry (19). Moreover, we have the perplexing series of events described by Costello (12). Costello also believed that Blunt would have been given a warning, but presented messy evidence from various items of Courtauld correspondence. Lastly, we have Costello’s suggestion that Blunt made a late decision to travel to Pennsylvania for his summer lecture series (12), when published evidence confirms that the commitment with Blunt had been forged a year earlier.
The timing of Straight’s confession, as articulated by the agent himself, is driven by his coming nomination to the Advisory Council on the Arts, and set in June 1963. But it is quite probable that he had considered such eventualities earlier than that. In his memoir, he tells how he had completed two novels in 1962, was looking for other ‘good causes’ to pursue, and that his mother-in-law had been trying to secure him a prominent position several times before he was approached about the position of Chairman of the Fine Arts Commission in May 1963. With his interests (he had been editor of the New Republic from 1948 to 1956, and on the board since), he would surely have heard about Blunt’s public invitation by the University of Pennsylvania, and Perry records his visit to the United Kingdom in April, where he stayed at Dartington Hall in Devon (‘his third trip inside a year’) and then spent time at 42 Upper Brook Street in London, ‘a short walk from Blunt’s flat in Portman Square’. Straight did not disclose this visit in his memoir: he conceded to Costello that he had been in the UK that April, but claimed that he had not visited the Courtauld.
If Straight was reconciled to making a (partial) confession at this time in the confidence that he would emerge without penalty, Blunt may also have felt emboldened. Philby had absconded to the Soviet Union from Beirut in January of that year, and Blunt had made a provocative and controversial visit to that city the month before. On November 18, 2013, the BBC posted a bulletin by George Carey (https://www.bbc.com/news/uk-24803131), who pointed out that Blunt had gone to Beirut in December 1962, staying with his friend the British Ambassador (Sir Moore Crosthwaite), on a quest to find a frog orchid. But frog orchids apparently do not grow in the Lebanon, so Carey assumed that Blunt was lying. The conventional interpretation of this visit is that Blunt came to warn Philby about the imminent arrival of MI6 officer Nicholas Elliott, sent to unmask him at last, and that Blunt had been sent by his Soviet controllers.
Blunt had previously visited Philby there, some time in 1961. In Their Trade Is Treachery (p 142), Chapman Pincher relates how Blunt later admitted to helping Philby escape, describing how he had visited Philby in his flat, in an event that is undated. His host had said: “I have been asked by our friends to make contact with you, Anthony, but I have told them that you are not in a position to do anything useful”, an opinion to which Blunt gave his immediate assent. Yet this encounter seems incongruous to me. If Blunt took advantage of his presence in Beirut to look up Philby, why would Philby show the initiative by saying that their ‘friends’ (Moscow) wanted to re-establish contact with Blunt? Would that not have been simpler for the KGB to do in London, without drawing attention to an unusual rendezvous in Beirut? And, if Blunt had not been in contact with his KGB masters for a long time, while Philby apparently still was, how come that Blunt had been sent by them to warn Philby, when they could have relayed a message to Philby through their own networks? Moreover, 1961 would have been very early for aiding Philby in his escape plan, unless Blunt was conflating two visits into one.
It is thus plausible that Dick White, continuing to use Blunt as a ‘consultant’, knowing him to be tainted, but believing him to be far less dangerous than Burgess, Maclean and Philby, sent Blunt out to alert Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival. White knew that the best place for Philby was Moscow, rather than being repatriated for an embarrassing trial. After all, how would Blunt have learned of this highly secret mission? That would explain how Philby was prepared for Elliott’s visit, as he explained when he told his former fellow-officer that he had been ‘expecting him’ (10).
Be that as it may, and given that the evidence, like all other material in this investigation, is largely circumstantial, Blunt did not appear unduly embarrassed by Straight’s actions if he knew of them in the summer of 1963. The garbled statements from Mrs Jefferies about Blunt’s chagrin that Straight was ‘going to shop them’ are impossible to analyse properly unless the original letters surface (12). For instance, why is the letter dated August 1962? Moreover, it seems highly unlikely, to me, that Straight would have been allowed to visit the UK so soon after his interrogation, in July 1963, before the FBI and MI5 had discussed the case properly. After all, Sullivan asked him only that month whether he would be prepared to repeat his story to British intelligence! And it also seems very improbable that Blunt would be able to make a decision to fulfil his commitments for a summer school in the USA as late as that, and then depart for a six-weeks adventure. (Of course, if all these events at the Courtauld did occur in 1962, it would bring an entirely new perspective to the discussion.)
Lastly, some commentators have pointed to Blunt’s probable irritation at the continuing deceit and subterfuge, and his fear that Guy Burgess might return to the United Kingdom and unmask him. Andrew Boyle raised this question in TheClimate of Treason, suggesting that Blunt wanted to get his story out first, and control the narrative. Yet Burgess died on August 19, while Blunt was in the USA. Yuri Modin suggested that he confessed as a reaction to Burgess’s death (14), a counter-intuitive idea if one accepts the previous premise. In his review of TheClimate of Treason in the Spectator on November 17, 1979, Hugh Trevor-Roper echoed this notion, since Burgess in Moscow had threatened to expose him, which, in the historian’s words, ’would have been fatal for Blunt’. Trevor-Roper overlooked the fact, however, that, if Burgess had successfully negotiated a guarantee of immunity, it would have had to be applied to Blunt (and others) as well, in the fashion that Blunt’s eventual deal was extended. Trevor-Roper then made the rather illogical statement that Blunt’s confession ‘may have been unnecessary, since Burgess then died in Moscow, having revealed nothing.’. Either the writer was pointing to an earlier confession (something clearly not indicated by the rest of his text), or he was confused by the chronology. It is all very strange.
The FBI & MI5:
Thus it seems more fruitful to start by inspecting the intentions of the FBI to inform their colleagues in MI5 of what had transpired with Straight. The assertions of a delay until January 1964 are made by Nigel West (6 & 7), on the grounds that Hoover did not trust MI5 with the material. He again attributes the lack of action to ‘petty inter-agency rivalry’ (13), presumably suggesting competition between the FBI and the CIA, though why that should be, given the clear territorial responsibilities, is not clear. Admittedly, J. Edgar Hoover, the FBI’s chief, never told the CIA anything. Carter (17) says that the FBI waited several months before telling Martin. To select Martin as their target would have been highly irregular, as it would have bypassed the proper level of communication. Even if Hoover and Sullivan had trusted Martin more than they trusted Hollis, it would have been a crass political move.
Yet the FBI and MI5 appeared overall to enjoy a positive relationship. Roger Hollis went back with Hoover a long way. As the Liddell Diaries inform us, in the summer of 1945, Hoover had made repeated requests to MI5 Director-General Petrie for Hollis to visit the FBI to help them with plans for countering Soviet espionage. In 1950, during the Pontecorvo investigations, Hollis had felt impelled, when head of F Division, to tell George Strauss, the Ministry of Supply of the ‘special relationship’ between the two organisations. As Edward Perrin reported on November 9: “Roger Hollis of M.I.5 was present at the meeting with our Minister last Monday and he made it very clear that the utmost care should be taken to avoid release of this information [concerning BSC, RCMP, and US Embassy in London], particularly in view of a recent agreement reached between Sir Percy Sillitoe and Mr. Edgar Hoover of the F.B.I. to the effect that neither organisation would say anything about the other’s actions without consultation and agreement.” (FO 371/8437) (In the light of the Fuchs and Pontecorvo fiascos, Hoover may have been assuaged by the fact that he had just been awarded an honorary KBE.) And Richard Deacon, in his 1982 memoir With My Little Eye, wrote (p 226) that Hollis ‘had been on exceptionally good terms with the allegedly anti-British J. Edgar Hoover to be given a signed photograph and a set of golf clubs.’ Strangely, Andrew offers no analysis of the relationship between the FBI and MI5 between 1950 and 1963. Liddell refers frequently to Hoover’s temper, but it seems that the FBI director was much more concerned about his personal reputation and status than he was about relations with MI5.
There appear to be no available archival records of any early communications on the Straight business from the FBI to MI5. Andrew states, however, that Hollis flew out to Washington at the end of September, having been encouraged to do so by the Prime Minister, Harold Macmillan (1). Hollis had been barraged by a cabal of MI5 officers (Wright, Martin, Winterborn, and one other), who each threatened to resign unless MI5 were open with the FBI about the Mitchell investigation – a worrisome lack of group judgment, as it turned out. Wright claimed in Spycatcher that Hollis faced opposition from his officers when he was more cautious about revealing MI5’s embarrassing inquiries to the Americans (11): it is not clear whether Andrew extracted this fact from Wright’s book, or had access to an alternative source, so readers should be naturally cautious. In any case, Hollis had been unnerved enough to have to consult with White over the visit, and then gain the approval of the Prime Minister. Since Macmillan had been required to inform President Kennedy of the possible exposure caused by the suspicions over Mitchell, and had been ‘humiliated’ by the experience, he was anxious that no more secrets be withheld from the Americans, and gave the nod.
For some reason, Martin followed a day later, to go into the details of which American intelligence sources might have been compromised (1). Yet, if Hollis did glower across the table at Martin, and say he would brief the Americans himself, he might have decided to do so in order to request of his counterparts that the rewards from the Straight confession not be shared with Martin when he followed. As West claimed, Hoover’s deputy, Sullivan, had been ordered not to reveal Straight’s existence (20). And, if Martin did indeed fly over the following day, Hollis could hardly have succeeded in convincing his team that he perform the briefing exclusively himself, since he was not familiar enough with the details.
Another version of the story has Dick White playing a more active, almost interfering, role. In this scenario (15), White recommends that Hollis inform the FBI and the CIA about the state of the Mitchell inquiry, at which Hollis ‘reluctantly’ flew out. If this is true, it shows that Hollis was even more under the influence of White, taking instructions from him on how to handle the situation. Hollis certainly would have bridled at revealing what had occurred to the arch-molehunter James Angleton of the CIA, but, since the latter would otherwise have been informed by Maurice Oldfield, White’s man in Washington, it was something he had to swallow.
In any case, it would seem hard to imagine that the meetings in late September would not have presented the perfect opportunity for Hoover and Hollis to discuss the Straight confessions. And, when he returned to the UK, Hollis surely shared what he learned with White, but probably with none of his subordinates in MI5 – certainly not with Martin. That is what Pincher surmised (8). The intelligence from Straight provided Hollis and White with a perfect opportunity to inform their political masters that proof of Blunt’s guilt had come from an outside source, thus distracting attention from their own fumblings. The two of them may then have decided that a further session with Blunt was called for, and prepared to invite Straight to come over to confront him.
That would explain the suggestion that Straight was in London in the October-November period (19), and what Straight himself admitted to the CIA (21), where he actually stated that he had a private fifteen-minute meeting with Blunt before the MI5 officers entered the fray. This visit was confirmed by what Straight ‘later’ told the FBI about confronting Blunt in London, claiming that his challenges to Blunt ‘broke’ him and made him admit his espionage (22). Pincher refers to a letter concerning Straight sent to the US Embassy in November (8), but does not present the details. It may have referred to Straight’s coming visit. Of course, the ‘confrontation’ may have been a staged act by the pair of them, but the event surely occurred. Straight may have lied to the FBI about the nature and extent of his own espionage, but it is hard to imagine why he should have deceived them over the external circumstances of this encounter.
As for the secrecy within MI5, Pincher wrote that Martin ‘was not informed about Straight in the November time-frame’ (8), which represents a very strong indication that an important meeting did occur then, but that events were not explained to Martin until some time in 1964, when Martin’s career crisis occurred. (Pincher declares that, at the time, in January 1964, Martin believed that the Washington encounter was the first occasion where MI5 had heard about Straight and his information.) The source for this assertion is, tantalisingly ‘the Straight-Martin correspondence’. * Obviously, if Martin had been told about the November agreement at the time, he would not have been interested in listening to Straight in Washington in January. Correspondingly, Straight must have been sworn to an oath of secrecy about his visit to London: otherwise, he would have briefed Martin about it in Washington. It seems highly likely that Martin and Straight exchanged letters after April 1964, and Martin thereby learned the whole story. Pincher also makes the strange claim that Straight ‘was ignored by MI5 during the November visit’ (8), but that can be interpreted as the fact that he was overlooked by the rank and file because they were not aware of his presence in London.
[* In Too Secret Too Long (p 360), Pincher refers to ‘Correspondence Between Straight and Martin in 1982’, but his note suggests that Straight corresponded with Pincher in 1982, referring to earlier letters exchanged with Martin. These letters have not been located, so far as I know.]
The conclusion must be that the immunity agreement with Blunt was made at the end of 1963. The primary source evidence is scarce, admittedly, but no scarcer than that supporting the April 1964 confrontation, and the secondary indications are stronger and more consistent. Blunt presumably successfully sought immunity as well for Leo Long and John Cairncross (at least), who were the leading lights that he identified to his interrogators. Hollis and White were surely the only intelligence officers who knew about it, and Hollis hoped to keep it that way. Whether Dick White had any ulterior motives must be an issue for debate. Yet the situation was thrown into rapid turmoil through the fortuitous but unfortunate entry of Cairncross himself into the drama.
Cairncross and His Visa:
John Cairncross’s appearance in London, probably in December 1963, can only be an extraordinary coincidence. The existence of the Graham Greene-Cairncross correspondence proves that Cairncross had approached the author as early as August 4, 1963 for a reference for the position at the Western Reserve University (30), so it is impossible that MI5 could have lured him from Karachi to be interrogated in London as a result of Straight’s involvement. Thus Cairncross’s appearance there, before travelling to Rome to pick up his paperwork, must have caused much embarrassment. First of all, Blunt had very recently named him as a fellow-conspirator, a fact that MI5 would have to address. Secondly, Cairncross had applied to the USA authorities for a visa. If MI5 concealed from US Customs and Immigration (via the FBI) what they had learned from Blunt, it would no doubt turn out to be a frightful indictment when the FBI found out about it later. If MI5 informed the FBI, Cairncross’s visa would surely be denied, and the publicity risk of preventing an apparently harmless citizen from pursuing his career would have to be faced. In fact, even without the recent unveiling of Cairncross, if he had been honest in any interviews he had with the US immigration authorities, his previous political sympathies should have excluded him, as the Foreign Office files suggest (25).
All this leads to explain the extraordinary shenanigans that were displayed by Cabinet Secretary Burke Trend and his colleagues (27). MI5 wanted the job appointment to go ahead, and to pursue the serious interrogation of Cairncross on foreign soil, where any testimony would have less standing. Thus they had to ‘fix’ the FBI. If we are to believe Pincher (23), Martin flew out to Washington in early January, presumably to explain the dilemma, and to convince the FBI to go along – at least temporarily – with the plan to indulge Cairncross. The Foreign Office files prove that Cairncross had applied for the visa some time before February 7, 1964, albeit with a degree of urgency. Martin must have performed his task effectively, because a later memo confirms that his visa had been granted (25).
Thus the conflict over Martin’s presence in Washington appeared to be quickly resolved. It was not as a follow-up to the ‘Mitchell inquiries’, as Pincher was led to believe early in the cycle (8). The need to talk to the FBI about Mitchell had evaporated, and nothing of that nature would have required such an extended stay. (Pincher’s claim that Hollis deputed the task of interviewing Straight to Martin, and then recalled him before the interview (8) is patently absurd.) It did not arise as a result of Martin’s accepting a long-standing invitation by Sullivan to talk to Straight (7). West asserts that Sullivan had been ordered by Hoover to be very discreet about Straight, and not reveal what had occurred (20). It is impossible to imagine that Martin would have been given permission by Hollis to visit Washington on such a pretext, and again, such a project would not have taken weeks. Martin had been sent to handhold the FBI through the Cairncross project.
Martin was in ignorance about the recent Blunt confession. As laid out above, Martin told Pincher that he did not know about the ‘November confession’ (8). He was assuredly also not told about the Cairncross interview that must have occurred, where Cairncross was instructed in the role he had to play. And then, when he arrived in Washington, Martin was told by Sullivan that he needed to meet an important person. This is the encounter that Straight describes in his memoir, expressing surprise that he had not been called ‘before January 1964’ (7). Where they met is a matter of dispute, though probably immaterial. Straight’s Daily Telegraph obituary says Martin ‘attended a lunch given by the FBI’s Bill Sullivan, where he met Straight, who volunteered to confront Blunt’. Nigel West has told me that Penrose and Freeman were wrong in indicating that the meeting took place at the Mayflower Hotel, and that the lunch was held at Straight’s club in Washington.
What is more important is why the encounter was arranged. One can believe that the molehunters in the CIA – enthusiastically led by Angleton – would by now have become extremely frustrated by the lack of follow-up on MI5’s part after Straight’s unmasking of Blunt. The meeting was surely set up without Hoover’s knowledge, and I have pointed out that Sullivan had been forbidden to mention his name to any MI5 officer. That, in itself, must have bred resentment. Martin had been working closely with Angleton ever since the arrival of the defector Golitsyn, and Martin disclosed that he had had to be discreet about Straight because Sullivan had been ordered not to reveal his existence (20). What is potentially ominous, however, is the possible involvement of Maurice Oldfield. In the memoir of his uncle, Martin Pearce makes the claim that Sullivan liaised with his ‘MI6 associate’, Oldfield, and that Oldfield ‘arranged for Arthur Martin to fly out to interview Straight’. This is a provocative statement, as the official lines of communication were MI6-CIA and MI5-FBI, and the FBI and the CIA were jealous enemies. Yet Martin had gained the confidence of Angleton, showing that the contacts were by now more flexible. I have not been able to gain a confirmation of this item from Pearce, but, for the multiple reasons given above, it sounds totally implausible that Dick White, notwithstanding his influence over Hollis, would have been able to arrange for Martin to fly out on such a mission.
Martin was no doubt astonished and energised about Straight’s revelations, thinking he had fallen on a scoop. Yet he did not immediately return home in excitement, contrary to what Penrose & Freeman, Bower and Perry all asserted (9, 15 & 19). Nor did he meet Straight after his interrogations of Cairncross, as West claims in his books on MI5 and in Molehunt (5, 6 & 10). Pincher distorts the events utterly (8 & 23). Whether Martin subdued his excitement until he returned home, or whether he sent a cable to alert his bosses, cannot be determined. If Sullivan warned him appropriately, he probably kept it to himself until his return. For Martin was to stay out in the United States for several weeks, as the Cabinet papers prove (27).
Finally, an analysis of Straight’s evidence is in order. Martin was impressed enough by what Straight told him to believe that it was the information that MI5 needed to nail Blunt. He was ‘elated’ (7). But what did Straight tell him? If he repeated to Martin what he had told the FBI, as he claimed, his account did not point to espionage on Blunt’s part, but to his role as a messenger. It referred to ‘anti-fascism’, ‘the Third International’, to an opinion that Straight was required to gather economic data in New York, that Straight’s ‘protests had been rejected’, and that Blunt was a ‘mild communist’, and was acting on behalf of Burgess (22). Yet in his memoir, Straight clearly indicates whence Blunt was getting his instructions, as the latter refers to the fact that Straight’s reluctance had been discussed in ’the highest circles of the Kremlin’.
Reliable information indicates that MI5 already knew that Blunt was not just an ‘intellectual communist’, and had direct links to Moscow. Professor Glees wrote an article for the Journal of Intelligence and National Security in 1992 (Volume 7, Number 3), titled War Crimes: The Security and Intelligence Dimension, resulting from an assignment with the British Government. In this piece, Glees wrote that, in 1952 (the Sillitoe era), MI5 had discovered from an Eastern European ex-Soviet intelligence officer that an ‘art adviser of HM the King worked for Soviet intelligence’. This is, to me, an astonishing revelation, indicating a far more serious indictment of Blunt than a casual supplier of military secrets to a wartime ally, which is how White and Hollis probably viewed him at that time. Even if, again, the evidence would not stand up in court, the direct identification would surely have been something that Blunt would have struggled to deny. Glees stated that this item would have been presented ‘to the very highest level in the Security Service’. * Assuredly so, and Martin, and the other officers who repeatedly interrogated Blunt, were not made aware of it.
[ * The information did not apparently reach Guy Liddell, deputy Director-General in 1952. His Diaries show that he continued to seek Blunt’s advice over problematic communists in the summer of 1952, and even came to the spy’s defence when he was warned – probably by Goronwy Rees – about Blunt’s shady past. Did Sillitoe pass on the information to White on the latter’s accession in 1953? I imagine so.]
The Cairncross Confession:
The confession all happened very quickly. Andrews suggests that Cairncross had been ‘pleasantly surprised’ that MI5 had done nothing to stop his visa application, and confidently travelled to London to perform research at the British Museum and see his estranged wife, Gabi (30). Yet it was a while before the application was approved. In a rather breathless minute, Street in the Foreign Office reported, on February 18, that not only had Cairncross’s application been approved at last, but the subject had also already confessed! Cairncross had flown to New York on February 11, and had been notified by a Customs official that he would be needed for further questioning when he reached his destination. Martin had visited him at his hotel in Cleveland on Sunday, February 16, and apparently gained a confession immediately. The haste and efficiency of the whole operation were almost unseemly, and certainly suspicious.
Why had Cairncross confessed so rapidly? The explanations are hardly convincing. Cairncross’s own story is unreliable, primarily because he sets the event as occurring in April (16), presumably to grant the timing rather more credulity. In his version, an FBI officer arrives first, informing him that Arthur Martin will be calling shortly. When the MI5 officer declares that he believes that Cairncross has not told the whole story, Cairncross folds, out of a desire to ‘make an end to this cat and mouse game once and for all’. He guesses that someone has informed on him, and concludes that it must have been Blunt, a notion espoused by Costello (12), thereby giving ammunition to the theory that Blunt confessed first, as Geoff Andrews boldly indicates (24). West has a slightly different representation: the meeting was ’by appointment’, and Cairncross ‘attended’ because he was fearful about his job (20). That goes against the grain of Smith’s account, which states that Cairncross was ‘doorstepped’ (29), suggesting an element of surprise.
But what would one expect the normal reaction of a person in Cairncross’s position to be, as an innocent academic who has just been cleared for employment in the United States? He is warned at US Customs, but seems to express no alarm. When Martin and the FBI turn up, he does not reflect: why on earth did these people allow me to come all this way, and then immediately harass me about these long-ago events? When Martin approaches him with the soft-ball challenge that he may not have told him all before, why does he not send him away with a flea in his ear, and tell him he has nothing more to say? It must have been because he was primed for the whole episode before he left London, and it was explained to him that Blunt had confessed, and that he likewise would be given immunity from prosecution if he admitted everything on foreign soil.
So all the references to ‘a second bite of the cherry’ – after twelve years (10), ‘D Branch retracing its steps’ (7), and Cairncross’s being ’thrown to the wolves’ by Blunt (29), must be discarded. So must any assertion that Cairncross received no immunity, and thus risked returning to London at his peril (30), although.in his book on Klugmann (24), Andrews singularly does state that Martin offered Cairncross an immunity deal. Claiming that Klugmann had been his recruiter, and thus distancing himself from Blunt, was part of that agreement. Now Hollis and Trend have to go through the machinations from the Cabinet Office (27), trying to establish what the FBI and the US Immigration Authorities will do, hoping to avoid publicity, and attempting to ensure that Cairncross finds a safe haven in a foreign country (Italy) where he will not be able to cause any trouble. And the FBI duly expels him in June – not to Cairncross’s obvious surprise, it seems.
As I have shown, Martin did not rush back after this interview. He had to stay while the panjandrums discussed what had happened, and decided what to do next (27). On February 19, Trend informed the Prime Minister of the confession. Douglas-Home convened a meeting, at which it was determined that gaining a statement under caution should be attempted. On March 2, Martin was thus instructed to return to Cleveland, and the news quickly came back (on March 4) that Cairncross had declined the invitation. So, probably in mid-March, Martin was able to return to London, and brief Hollis and White on the Straight breakthrough. According to Bower, White, in true Captain Louis Renault style, was ‘shaken’ by the news (15).
Hollis must have been furious, however. First of all, how and why could Sullivan of the FBI break the commitment that Hoover had given him about keeping the Straight business confidential? And why had Martin been snooping around in Washington, communicating with CIA people without instructions to do so, when he had been sent specifically to liaise with the FBI on Cairncross? Moreover, on his return Martin must have pressed for interrogation of Blunt, and prosecution. He was probably told that the evidence that Straight provided would not stand up in court, and that Blunt would continue to deny everything. Fresh from his triumph in Cleveland, however, Martin probably believed he was on firm ground. Even though Hollis was infuriated by Martin, he was probably encouraged by White to appease him, and that is where the rumour started that it was Martin’s idea that Blunt should be offered immunity (despite Martin’s lack of sympathy for the idea), and that Martin would be chosen to interview Blunt in his flat (4). And that is what led to the pantomime of late April, where the key players (except for Martin) repeated their roles from the previous November.
The Role of Arthur Martin:
Arthur Martin remains an enigmatic figure. Why was such an ordinary but volatile officer selected for such an important task? How much did he know? Why had he become such an enthusiastic acolyte of James Angleton? Why did Dick White recruit him after Hollis had suspended him? And, most intriguing of all, why did he spread such conflicting stories about the Blunt confession?
Martin had his champions. Michael Straight found him ‘sophisticated and urbane’, in contrast to FBI agents (7), and told the CIA that he was ‘the original for George Smiley’ (21) – an unconvincing comparison. According to William Tyrer (who accessed the Cram archive), Cleveland Cram, CIA officer and historian of the agency, may have been echoing what Straight told him when he observed that Martin was ‘generally agreed to have been the counterintelligence genius of the British services’, surely an over-the-top assessment. Penrose and Freeman, while characterising him as ‘unprepossessing, self-made, and down-to-earth’ (does the suggestion of plain speaking jibe with ‘sophistication and urbanity’?), went on similarly to portray him as ‘a creation of John le Carré; a brooding spycatcher’ (9). Furthermore, they wrote: “His mind was a constant blur of bluffs and double-bluffs and, although he never claimed to be an intellectual, he was quick-witted and open-minded.” (Martin may have helped promote that image himself.)
In his Guardian obituary, Richard Norton-Taylor referred to Martin’s ‘sharp, analytical mind’ (but that could surely be said of most intelligence officers worth their salt), and in his BBC piece, described him as ‘a hardened interrogator’. Cairncrosss described him as ‘one of the most effective intelligence officers I have ever met’ (16), yet, since Cairncross probably met few such animals, and doubtless wanted to provide a solid explanation as to why he had quickly confessed, he probably over-egged the pudding. And Nigel West offered Martin praise for his performance at the Courtauld, writing of ‘the carrot dangled skilfully’, which appears a bit of a travesty when the record is inspected carefully. Peter Wright claimed that Martin proved himself ‘a brilliant and intuitive case officer’ (11).
Yet Martin had his critics and detractors, too. His close associate, Peter Wright, was also one of the most outspoken, writing that he was ‘temperamental and obsessive’, and ‘never understood the extent to which he had made enemies over the years.’ Bower expressed some surprise at White’s ‘tolerance’ for Martin (15). White was told that Martin ‘had a chip on his shoulder’, a judgment echoed by Gordon Corera, but then White was overall too trusting of people until it was too late. Christopher Andrew depicted Martin as follows: ‘a skilful and persistent counter-espionage investigator . . . , but he lacked the capacity for balanced judgement and a grasp of the broader context.’ (1) Andrew also considered him and Wright ‘the most damaging conspiracy theorists’, one of the most damning dispensations the historian can deliver (see https://www.mi5.gov.uk/mi5-in-world-war-ii ), and this characterisation was echoed by John Marriott of MI5, who wrote in an earlier memorandum: “In spite of his undeniable critical and analytical gifts and powers of lucid expression on paper, I must confess that I am not convinced that he is not a rather small minded man, and I doubt he will much increase in stature as he grows older.” (1; 28)
Martin had worked for the Radio Security Service (RSS) in World War II, and then moved to GCHQ, where he was liaison officer to MI5. Andrew informs us that it was Kim Philby who recommended him to MI5 in 1946, having met him in his RSS days. (Martin was apparently disappointed to have been replaced by Elliott for the mission to Beirut to interrogate Philby, though why an MI5 officer would have been considered for the job is not clear. Gordon Corera claims that White believed that Philby would be more likely to confess to an old friend.) Martin’s Guardian obituary stated that he was the first to learn – from the CIA – that Klaus Fuchs was a Soviet agent. Yet this would appear to contain some grandstanding. Serial 260/9 in KV 6/134 shows that Maurice Oldfield communicated the breakthrough news to Martin on August 17, 1949, and that it resulted from the efforts of Dwyer and Paterson (the MI6 and MI5 representatives in Washington), working on research performed by Philp Howse of GCHQ. Thus the first symptoms of Martin’s vainglory appear. In his Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, Nigel West reinforces Martin’s contributions, but it is hard to identify any specific counterespionage feat he accomplished, apart from those placed in his hands by such as VENONA and the disclosures of defectors.
It was Martin’s encounter with the defector Golitsyn that set him on the trail of believing that the British intelligence services were infested with moles, and I turn the reader to Chapter 10 in Section D of Andrew’s Defend the Realm to learn more about his dogged efforts, and the obstacles and objections he faced in his pursuit of traitors (although the details of some events, such as the transfer of Cumming, and the reorganisation of D Division, are wrong). In the episodes when first Graham Mitchell, and then Roger Hollis, were suspected of being Soviet agents, Martin gained an inappropriately sympathetic ear from Dick White, who had been his mentor when Martin acted as White’s emissary in 1951. Then Martin had helped to plant hints on the CIA that Philby was the primary candidate for abetting the escape of Burgess and Maclean (see DickWhite’sDevilishPlot.) White, of course, had been a senior officer in MI5 at the time, and shifting the blame to MI6 helped him protect his position and career. In 1963 and 1964, from his vantagepoint as chief of MI6, White was now quite happy to suggest that MI5 was the leaky vessel, in order to achieve a similar goal.
Thus Martin was an unlikely choice to carry out a careful interrogation of Blunt. It was not that he had similar successes under his belt, unlike the experienced (but overrated) Jim Skardon, for instance. His noted successes with the Portland Spy Ring and Vassall cases were prompted by information from defectors rather than superlative sleuthing. Gordon Corera credits him with his persistence in trying to pin down Philby’s guilt, and convincing Dick White of the fact, but White himself had understood that back in 1951. The exercise was probably set up as a sop to his vanity: having believed that he was going to impress Hollis and White with his news from Straight, he was rebuffed by their lack of enthusiasm. Hollis and White had their hands forced, but would later be able to represent the faux confession as something imposed on to them by Straight’s revelations, when in fact they knew about the facts all along. They needed to try to keep Martin loyal. Martin had not been told of the November-December 1963 negotiations with Blunt (as his comments to Pincher indicate (8)), or the details of the Cairncross interviews in London, but he must have been informed of the requirements of the Cairncross case, as he was sent on a delicate mission to strategise with the FBI some weeks before Cairncross’s arrival in the United States.
And then he got into trouble with Hollis, becoming such a disruptive influence, frustrated that Blunt was continuing unpunished, demoralised that Cumming was moved into the D Division as his boss, and next having key personnel removed, that he had be suspended, and then dismissed. Corera writes: “Even his friends acknowledged that he lacked tact, but he became increasingly reckless, even self-destructive, in his single-minded pursuit.” (The Art of Betrayal, p 204) Yet for White to then hire him, in November 1964, was very controversial. As Aldrich and Cormac write in The Black Door (p 241): “Remarkably, Dick White, who had been director-general of MI5 and was now chief of MI6, was inclined to agree with Martin, and felt that suspicions lingered around his former colleagues Hollis and his deputy, Graham Mitchell.” The whole episode is redolent of what happened to Jane Sissmore, when Guy Liddell had to fire her in 1940 under dubious pretexts, whereupon she was picked up by MI6. White’s action was a monstrous insult to his protégé Hollis.
Lastly, what could Martin’s motivations have been, in adopting such a scattershot approach to leaking information to journalists and writers? Was he undertaking an official disinformation exercise? And, if so, was he simply chaotic and disorganised, with a faulty memory? I think not. In his 2020 poorly titled but overall engrossing study of how intelligence analysts should approach their tasks, How Spies Think, David Omand, former head of GCHQ, explains what is essential to detect a successful disinformation project. “The corollary is that to detect deception as many different channels should be examined as possible. It requires great skill to make the messages consistent on each channel and avoid errors. One inconsistency may be enough to reveal the deception.” (p 267) Thus, if an agency is going to peddle a Big Lie on any target audience, it has to have a watertight, well-conceived story – such as the legends developed by the Double Cross team in World War II.
Yet Martin’s (and Wright’s) stories are all over the place, riddled with inconsistences, conflicting chronologies and details, and unconvincing psychological portraits. I have come to the conclusion that Martin probably did this deliberately – to draw attention to the fact that a gross injustice had been performed, and a cover-up perpetrated, and to provide solid hints for the more intrepid and inquisitive of those who chronicled the events that the story was not as it seemed. Andrew Boyle got a portion of the way there, but the baton was scandalously dropped by every analyst afterwards. And one of his stories even reached the authorised history, thus receiving officially blessing.
Martin retired from MI5 in 1969, and took on a job as a clerk at the House of Commons. In 1984, he collaborated with Stephen de Mowbray in writing an Editor’s Foreword for their ghosting of Golitsyn’s New Lies for Old. He died in 1996, after expressing public doubts that Hollis had been a spy. As Anthony Glees records in the Secrets of the Service (p 316), Martin had written in the Times, on July 19, 1984, that only new evidence could shed light on an inconclusive case. His second marriage was to Guy Liddell’s secretary, Joan. According to West, both he and his wife ‘abhorred’ the notoriety that his doggedness over KGB penetration had brought him.
Here follows my version of events.
Sometime in 1963, probably in April, Michael Straight and Anthony Blunt agreed to try to regularise relations with their respective intelligence authorities. In June, Straight confessed to the FBI, and the news was passed on to Roger Hollis, who kept it to himself and Dick White. In September, Hollis in person impressed upon Hoover the need for secrecy. Straight was invited over to the UK in October, where he briefed Hollis and White, and a highly confidential immunity agreement for Blunt was made with the help of Cabinet Secretary Trend, Home Secretary Brooke, and Attorney General Hobson. Blunt revealed the involvement in espionage of (at least) Cairncross and Long, and pointed the finger at several other dubious characters. Cairncross unexpectedly sprang on the scene in December, when he arrived in London in the process of trying to gain a USA visa to work in Ohio. MI5 convened a hurried session with Cairncross, where they explained to him the situation, promised him immunity if he would talk, and explained that they would prefer to interrogate him formally in Cleveland. MI5 started negotiations with the FBI for the approval of Cairncross’s visa.
Martin was sent on to Washington in advance, to finalise the visa arrangements, prepare the ground for Cairncross’s interrogation, and to alert the FBI of the sensitivity of the situation. With Oldfield’s assistance, Martin was immediately introduced to Straight, as Angleton and the CIA had grown impatient with the lack of evident action on the interrogation of Blunt. Cairncross arrived in the USA in February, and swiftly confessed, but Martin had to stay on to try to gain a statement from him under caution, which Cairncross not surprisingly declined. Martin returned to London, armed with the new evidence and expecting a hero’s welcome, but was chagrined at the lack of enthusiasm for interrogating Blunt. Hollis and White then decided to re-stage the confession, with Blunt’s obvious compliance. But Blunt remained not only unprosecuted but unscathed. Martin quickly realised that he had been hoodwinked, and started to make boisterous objections, which eventually cost him his job. He landed on his feet under Dick White in MI6, but the resentment lingered, and White became an enthusiastic supporter of his theories about a mole in MI5.
I present five main areas of conclusion, on the essence of the hoax, on the policy of offering immunity, on Hollis’s lack of leadership, on White’s duplicity, and on the failures of authorised history.
Some might argue that this was no hoax, since no obvious victim was deceived. Perhaps the events were just part and parcel of the cloak-and-dagger activities that are intrinsic to the business of the ‘Secret World’. Yet a large deception was undertaken. And why did MI5 plant a bogus document in the archives, unless they intended seriously to mislead someone? The authorized historian was deceived, swallowed the whole story, and everyone who followed him trusted what appeared in Defend the Realm.
In a partial sense, Blunt’s confession was a hoax. He committed to give a full confession, but prevaricated and dissembled, so that his interrogators never gained the full story. But the major hoax was that perpetrated by Hollis and White, in the deceptions they played against various agencies. They claimed to the Home Secretary and the Attorney General that that it was Straight’s testimony that proved Blunt’s guilt, when they already had powerful evidence of his traitorous activities that they had kept to themselves. They concealed from their own officers in MI5 the fact that a very private deal with Blunt had been concluded in December 1963. They prepared documentation for posterity that indicated that an authentic confession had been elicited from Blunt in April 1964, when the whole episode had been choreographed. In addition, in a supplementary plot where they tripped over themselves in the chronology, they suggested to the Foreign Office that Cairncross had confessed for the first time, in Cleveland, in February 1964, when they had in fact followed up Blunt’s revelations the previous December and interrogated Cairncross in London.
In The Historian as Detective: Essays on Evidence, edited by Robin W. Winks (1969), Jacques Barzun and Henry F. Graff made an important distinction between the genuine and the authentic. They wrote: “The two adjectives may seem synonymous but they are not: that is genuine which is not forged; and that is authentic which truthfully reports on its ostensible subject.”. In this scheme, the Hitler Diaries would be ungenuine and inauthentic, a counterfeit copy of a book would be ungenuine but authentic, and Arthur Martin’s description of the Blunt Confession would be genuine but inauthentic. It is that document – if it exists – that is the kernel of the hoax.
The Failure of Immunity:
Offering immunity from prosecution in exchange for full cooperation is not a strategy.
This policy might be called the Macmillan Doctrine, since the Prime Minister, when admonishing Roger Hollis for proudly informing him that MI5 had caught the spy John Vassall, declared: “When my gamekeeper shoots a fox, he doesn’t go and hang it up outside the Master of Foxhounds’ drawing room; he buries it out of sight”. Yet Macmillan overlooked the fact that, while dead foxes may tell no tales, pardoned spies usually have witnesses, who will frequently seek that fairness and equity be observed. As Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta remind us in their recent book on MI5, MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law, in 1961 Macmillan pressed for immunity to be granted to George Blake, in exchange for his full co-operation, but Dick White insisted that the business go to trial. Blake was sentenced to forty-two years, and the later comparison of the fate of Blake (a Dutchman with a Jewish father) with that of the aristocratic Blunt helped fan the flames of the protestors’ cause.
The problem is that the authorities will never know how much co-operation they are getting from their suspect. In his August 7, 2020 Times Literary Supplement review of A Question of Attribution (the British Academy and the Matter of Anthony Blunt), edited by David Cannadine, Richard Davenport-Hines wrote: “The compact between the Security Service and Blunt was broken by a novice prime minister fifteen years later.” Yet that is a perversely one-sided interpretation of what happened: the news had escaped through no fault of Margaret Thatcher, but Blunt remained unprosecuted. Blunt did not fulfil his side of the bargain, as his wishy-washy written ‘confession’ shows. Moreover, one condition of Blunt’s immunity deal, insisted upon by the Attorney General, John Hobson, was that he admit that he had not spied after 1945, as Miranda Carter reported (17). So what did Blunt do? He made that assertion to Martin, one which turned out to be untrue.
That does not necessarily mean that Blunt should have been prosecuted. A public trial – or even one held in camera – would have been very embarrassing, and even the Arthur Martins and Peter Wrights of this world would have recognized that. But, apart from the fact that he should never have been recruited by MI5, Blunt should never have been treated so leniently when he was found assisting Leo Long in espionage in 1944, should never have been trusted during the Burgess-Maclean fiasco, should never have been used as a ‘consultant’ in the Philby business, or by Liddell in further investigations of dangerous communists, and certainly should never have been sent to Beirut to warn Philby of Elliott’s impending arrival (as the evidence strongly suggests). He should have been asked to resign his posts, have his perks and privileges taken away, and found his own new niche – perhaps even a minor chair at Liverpool University, which he might have regarded as only slightly more appealing than exile to Moscow. And this should have been effected with a promise that he would maintain his silence. The secret might still have leaked out eventually, but at least the objections to his tolerant treatment would not have been so strong. (Contrary to what Professor Sir Michael Howard claimed in a letter to the Times, Blunt was never used as channel of disinformation to the Soviets: see http://www.coldspur.com/double-crossing-the-soviets/ for a debunking of this absurd notion.)
Thus the policy as executed for Leo Long and John Cairncross – and maybe others unknown – and planned for Kim Philby, was a misguided show of passivity and evasion.
The Weakness of Roger Hollis:
Roger Hollis must be held accountable for much of this failure, since most of it occurred on his watch (1956-65). One must recall that, during this eventful year of 1963 (so far as the actions surrounding Blunt, Straight and Cairncross were concerned), Hollis also had to deal with the Profumo case. This had problematic outcomes: Stephen Ward had committed suicide, while John Profumo had been let off extremely lightly, considering the misdeeds and lies he undertook. Ewing, Mahoney and Moretta (see above) make a strong case that, even though Hollis was cleared by Lord Denning in the latter’s inquiry, Hollis had in fact acted very indolently in not informing the Home Secretary of what MI5 knew about Profumo, Ward, Keeler and Ivanov, and that he had avoided the truth that it was an issue of ‘defending the realm’.
Hollis clearly had more important matters on his mind. But that is no excuse: as the saying goes, ‘it came with the territory’. Hollis was yet another senior MI5 officer who let himself be taken aback by events, and had not worked out what the agency should do if unpleasant surprises came along. Maybe that was an outcome of MI5’s exact statutory footing’s being indistinct, but that had been clarified to a certain extent by the Findlater Stewart report at the end of the war, and the following Attlee and Maxwell Fyfe Directives. Hollis had enough time to attempt to resolve such issues, but preferred to keep his head down, and try to maintain a quiet life. Moreover, Hollis was apparently far too much under the influence of Dick White, with MI6 officers also appearing to be meddling in MI5 affairs far more than was suitable.
Thus the strategy over Blunt and Cairncross, of trying to keep the secret to as small a number of persons as possible, was bound to fail in the long run. It was one thing to conceal important facts from the incoming and possibly naïve Prime Minister Alec Douglas-Home (where Hollis was abetted by the Cabinet Secretary, the Home Secretary and the Attorney General), but the policy of deceiving junior officers, with their natural inquisitiveness and interest in internal gossiping, did not inspire trust as the story went around. Perhaps it is surprising that the secret remained in the private sphere so long as it did. Hollis died in 1973, and thus did not live to see his handiwork unveiled.
The Duplicity of Dick White:
Dick White’s contribution to the whole affair is controversial, even sinister. He had recommended Roger Hollis as the officer who should succeed him when he was appointed head MI6 in 1956. And maybe Hollis looked for guidance from his mentor when he took over the reins as director general. In any case, White appeared to maintain a very active involvement in MI5 affairs. No doubt he kept in close touch with Arthur Martin, who had been a loyal servant to him during the machinations of the Burgess-Maclean business. It is White who encourages Martin to pursue the Mitchell inquiries, and Hollis is regularly consulting with White, for example when the information from Straight arrives. It is White who encourages Hollis to fly out to Washington to explain the details of the Mitchell case to the FBI and the CIA.
Yet White apparently did not have a high opinion of Hollis’s capabilities. Chapman Pincher, in Treachery (p 428), cites a letter that White wrote to Hugh Trevor-Roper (Lord Dacre) in 1984: “Hollis was never interested in CE (counter-espionage) work, having one of those crabbed minds that prefer protective security measures to the fun of sniffing things out.” This was a highly unprofessional statement for White to make. Either he deliberately wanted MI5 to fail under the leader he had recommended, or MI5 had no other candidates who could have competed. But, if White had always had this opinion of Hollis (‘never interested’), it would have been incumbent upon him to recommend that someone be appointed from outside. (Cleveland Cram dubbed Hollis ‘the biggest dolt to come down the pike in years’.) After all, there had been two recent precedents for such a decision (Petrie and Sillitoe).
White had as much to lose in the Blunt business as anyone, having been the sole surviving officer in the agencies who had witnessed his recruitment in 1940, and he had been hoodwinked by him and his cronies ever since. White had believed that Philby was guilty back in 1950, or earlier, but had avoided MI5-M6 strife by channeling his accusations through the FBI. On taking over MI6, he had banished Philby, but the spy had managed to get back on the books as an unofficial contributor. Now Philby had disappeared, and it suited White to suggest that someone within MI5 (where the main molehunt was occurring) had been responsible for leaking the news of the impending visit by Nicholas Elliott. Gordon Corera writes (p 194) that ’it was Martin’s theory that his old foe had been tipped off that most intrigued the MI6 chef’, but, in light of Blunt’s visit to Beirut, it is safe to assume that White played along with Martin, and saw a great opportunity for camouflage.
So was White a serious believer in the presence of an ELLI in MI5, whether Mitchell, Hollis, or anyone else? I doubt it. Yet he very quickly turned against Hollis. When Hollis fired his troublemaker, Martin, White quickly recruited him. Shortly afterwards, Hollis’s deputy, Furnival Jones, after discussing the problem with Dick White, agreed that an inter-agency investigative committee needed to be set up, and White convinced a reluctant Roger Hollis that it was a good idea Thus the FLUENCY sub-committee, under Peter Wright’s chairmanship, was established, and it soon had to consider whether Hollis himself was a spy. The outcome was inevitably destructive, and may have contributed to Hollis’s early death in 1973.
White retired from MI6 in 1968, somewhat detached from the fray that he had set in motion. In 1974, however, after the less eventful tenure of John Rennie, a fresh anti-MI5 thrust emerged from MI6. As Professor Glees described in The Secrets of the Service, Stephen de Mowbray of MI6 (a member of the FLUENCY team) ‘broke his cover’ to write an article in Encounter magazine that revivified all the theories of Soviet subversion within MI5, and the probable guilt of Roger Hollis. The new head of MI6 was Maurice Oldfield, White’s molehunt facilitator from Washington.
My final observations concern the phenomenon of authorised history – and specifically Christopher Andrew’s work. Readers who are swayed by my theories about the confessions will agree that the exposition in Defend the Realm is, in the coverage of Blunt and Cairncross, erroneous. It contains misrepresentations and oversights. Yet Andrew’s book is generally regarded as biblical in its authority, even to the extent that historians and biographers will ignore evidence before their own eyes that suggests an alternative story in favour of Andrew’s account. In May 2017, in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’ (http://www.coldspur.com/officially-unreliable/), I laid out my objections to authorised histories in general, with Defend the Realm as one of my examples, and I withdraw nothing I wrote at that time. In fact my message is reinforced by the Blunt case.
In many respects Defend the Realm is an impressive work, with a masterful synthesis of complex issues. Yet it is deeply flawed, primarily in its indiscriminate use of dubious sources, and in its vast number of citations of anonymous archival records that cannot be verified independently. The passage describing Blunt’s confession is the latest notorious example. I see no reason why the document that is claimed to play such a major role in Andrew’s narrative, and those related to it, should not be released by MI5, so that independent historians could make their own assessment of their authenticity, and how they shed light on the events of 1963 and 1964. Moreover, I suspect that Andrew, and those who assisted him, may not have maintained a scrupulous cross-reference of documents and citations so that a full concordance could be constructed if and when the authorities see fit to make the archival material accessible. (It is not as if relevant Freedom of Information requests can easily be made, as there are no identifiers to refer to.) I made this point in my original script, and I know at least one distinguished historian who maintained such a system in his researches and writing.
The scope of Defend the Realm is surely too ambitious. So much released material exists that a new History could probably be divided up into volumes covering the stewardship of each Director-General. That would have to be complemented by a judicious and methodological treatment of other literature (memoir, biography, other government sources, etc.). I happen to believe that my own contributions in this area, covering such as Fuchs and Peierls, Agent Sonya, Dick White and the Burgess-Maclean affair, Liverpool University, the RSS and the Double-Cross System, the LENA spies, VENONA and HASP, the Portland Ring – and now Blunt and Cairncross – constitute a valuable corpus of material that should be used in any fresh enterprise.
Yet it is difficult to see how such a programme would evolve. For example, despite the best efforts of Professor Glees and me, it has been a struggle to gain serious attention over the hubbub of publicity given recently to Agent Sonya, and correct Ben Macintyre’s story. Serious historians do not seem to want to challenge the establishment history of MI5. A few years ago, the FBI gave serious airtime to the debate about ELLI and Roger Hollis (see https://fbistudies.com/2015/04/27/was-roger-hollis-a-british-patriot-or-soviet-spy/ ), but it fizzled out. I do not see any mechanism in the UK for performing a similar exercise on MI5 molehunts, but, if anyone decides that it should be pursued, I am very willing to contribute.
I have not yet received my copy of the February 26 Times Literary Supplement in the mail, but my on-line colleague Michael Holzman has just informed me that the following item appears on the back page:
‘Antony Percy writes from Southport, NC, to point out a near-enough coincidence: as we were quoting John le Carré (January 22) wondering if the future might bring about a “fairer, less greedy world” than the present (with its “jingoistic” England – “an England I don’t want to know”), Hunter Davies was recalling in The Times (January 21) how le Carré, fifty-odd years ago, “handed over £2.6 million to a tax avoidance schemer in the West Indies – and lost it all”. The top rate of tax at the time, Mr Percy omits to mention, was 95 per cent.’
What the columnist fails to consider is that, if John le Carré had been serious in wanting to contribute to a ‘fairer, less greedy world’, he would presumably (unlike me) have supported the government’s ‘progressive’ tax policies, as it obviously would have been far wiser in spending (ahem, ‘redistributing’) his hard-earned income than he himself was.
I recently heard the sad news that Denis Lenihan had died of Covid-19 on December 29 in London.
I never met Denis: we started corresponding in September 2019, after I tracked him down from an article of his that I had read. Yet we soon realised that, in our interest in intelligence matters, we had a common enthusiasm for treating ‘official’ history with a quizzical eye, for patiently inspecting archival records, for reading broadly and deeply, and for recording what we found as honestly and plainly as we could. Denis became an eager supporter of coldspur, contributed a few pieces, and always very calmly challenged my conclusions when he judged they were not watertight.
We enjoyed a very fruitful email correspondence over fifteen months. He was still doggedly going through the Petrov archives when he was taken ill, and, in his last message to me before Christmas, when he was about to be admitted to hospital, he told me how much he was looking forward to picking up the Molehunt research in the New Year.
I shall miss him greatly, and offer my sincerest condolences to his family. If I learn more about Denis’s career and life, I shall post them here. I hope all coldspur readers stay healthy in these dark times.
Update on January 20
I heard more from Denis’s daughter, Siobhan, who provided me with a bio of Denis, and details of his funeral service.
He was born in Invercargill, New Zealand, in 1937, and moved to London, the residence of his second wife, Bridget, in 2009. I cite two paragraphs verbatim:
“Except for a little while at the start and at the end of his career, Denis was a Commonwealth public servant (that is, a person working for the Australian Government). He worked in education, with some of the earliest international university students; immigration, including a wonderful period as Counsellor (Migration), Scandinavia, when he and his family lived in Stockholm as diplomats (harder work than you might think, but rewarding and the experience of a lifetime); and on various royal commissions and other bodies investigating organised crime. He was the founding CEO of the National Crime Authority. Somewhere in here lies the seed of his consuming interest in espionage and its practitioners in Australia and New Zealand.
He was kind, funny, clever, gregarious, ethical, devout, generous and modest. He enjoyed people, books, newspapers, travelling, golf, rugby union, food, wine and cognac, cryptic crosswords and bridge. He read non-stop. (Both his wives marvelled at how he could spend ‘all day’ reading the newspaper.) Faith, vocation, family and accident combined gave him NZ, Australian and Irish loyalties, strongly reflected in his interests and reading. He took to the internet as a duck to water, relishing the communication and information it afforded and keeping in contact with a wide international circle of family and friends. He became a researcher later in life, exercising his interest in solving puzzles in a different way and making a new group of friends and contacts. He loved his family and we loved him and will miss him for ever.”
While I cannot match Denis in moral qualities, the list of his interests mirrors mine almost exactly. We discussed golf and rugby, but for some reason never touched bridge or cryptic crosswords. What a distinguished life he led, and I am sorry I never had the pleasure of meeting him.
At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?
The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
The John le Carré I Never Knew
The Dead Ends of HASP
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Bandwidth versus Frequency
‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
Puzzles at Kew
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/agent-sonya-ben-macintyre.html?searchResultPosition=1) I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:
Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’
Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.
Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.
A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.
She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.
Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.
Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.
A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.
It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.
As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.
The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.
Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.
His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.
The John le Carré I Never Knew
I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.
In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”
I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-le-carre-the-spy-who-was-my-friend-svr8tgv82 ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.
And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.
Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”
Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?
It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.
I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.
On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)
I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.
“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead? Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”
But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”
I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.
(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)
The Dead Ends of HASP
I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.
Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.
The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.
In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.
I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.
One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.
It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.
It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.
The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.
This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.
The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.
The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home. In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):
“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’ (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)
“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)
“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)
“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)
The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.
With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.
In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)
Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.
Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:
“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”
The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:
“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”
That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.
For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.
So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.
Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.
Bandwidth versus Frequency
My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:
Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:
“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”
This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain. The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz. On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz). Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.
By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide. As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!
So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency. It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength. And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).
You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.
In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.
An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely. The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.
Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.
Puzzles at Kew
I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.
My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)
A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.
Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”
This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.
Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.
My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.
On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.” But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?
Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:
‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’
Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.
This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.
Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.
Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’
Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’
The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?
I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.
And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.
So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:
“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.
Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’
Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.
Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”
Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.” Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team . .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?
I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.
Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?
Let us go then, you and me,
When the evening is spread out above the sea
But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.
It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.
Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”
I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.
I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.
On December 8, the Journal of Intelligence and National Security published on-line my review of Ben Macintyre’s ‘Agent Sonya’, and it may be seen at https://www.tandfonline.com/action/showAxaArticles?journalCode=fint20. Those readers who have institutional access to the Journal may read the whole article there: for others, since the terms of the Agreement entitle me to re-publish the review on my personal website, I present it here.
Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)
Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]
I return this month to reviewing some recently published books on espionage and intelligence, and thank Denis Lenihan, coldspur’s Commissioner for Antipodean Affairs, for making a lively and insightful contribution. Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya did not arrive in time to meet the Editor’s deadline, but, in any case, I have been engaged to write a review of it for an external publication, so I shall have to hold off for a while. (My review was submitted on October 19, has been accepted, and will be published soon.) I considered two other books that, from their titles, might have been considered worthy of consideration for a review, Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services, by Simon Ball (2020), and Radio War: The Secret Espionage War of the Radio Security Service 1938-1946 by David Abrutat (2019). Then, a few weeks ago, I came across the following comment from one of my least favourite economists, Joseph Stiglitz, in a book review in The New York Times: “As a matter of policy, I typically decline to review books that deserve to be panned. You only make enemies.”
On reflection, this seemed a tendentious and somewhat irresponsible line to take. Assuming that experts like Stiglitz are commissioned to write reviews of books, how will they know whether such volumes deserve to be panned or not until they have read them – unless they make a prejudgment based on their understanding of the author’s politics or opinions, and in ignorance of how well the book may have been written? It would be a bit late to accept the commission, read the book, decide it was dreadful, and back out of the contract. But maybe that is why book reviews are overall positive: the publisher of the review wants to encourage readers, not warn them off undeniable clunkers.
Well, I am not worried about making enemies. Heaven knows, I must have upset enough prominent historians and journalists through my writings on coldspur, and the ones who were too elevated to engage with me were never going to change anyway, so that is not a worry that concerns me. And, since I am not in this for the money, I can choose to review what I want. But the two books named above, which would seem, potentially, to play a valuable role in the history of intelligence activities were in their different ways so poor in my opinion that I decided not to waste any further time on them. Incidentally, as I revealed a few months ago, Abrutat has recently been confirmed as the new GCHQ departmental historian.
Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes
The 1960-61 case of the Portland Spy Ring is, I assume, fairly well known by enthusiasts of espionage lore. A very public trial took place, and a government inquiry followed. Paul Tietjen, a Daily Mail reporter, wrote a very competent account, Soviet Spy Ring, in 1961, and a movie based on the case, Ring of Spies, appeared in 1964. References are sprinkled round various books, and the several million who read Peter Wright’s Spycatcher will have learned of some of the electronic wizardry that went on in preparation for the arrests. Late in 2019, the National Archives released a batch of files relating to the five subjects in the case, and Trevor Barnes has worked fast and diligently to produce a comprehensive account of what happened, in his recently released Dead Doubles. The title is a little unfortunate: it refers to the Soviet practice of stealing identities of children who died soon after birth, such as Konon Molody was permitted to do with Gordon Lonsdale. Yet it is not the essence of the story, and does not perform justice to the other actors in it.
In 1959, the CIA received a warning from a Polish intelligence officer who was close to defecting, Michael Goleniewski, that secrets were leaking from a top-secret naval research establishment in Portland, Dorset. When MI5 was informed, suspicion soon fell upon Harry Houghton, who maintained a relationship with Ethel Gee, an employee who had access to documents concerning development of underwater weapons technology. Houghton was trailed to London, where he had assignations with an enigmatic character called Gordon Lonsdale. By inspecting Lonsdale’s possessions, and eavesdropping on his apartment, MI5 and GCHQ were able to ascertain that Lonsdale listened to coded messages from Moscow on his wireless, and also owned one-time pads (OTPs) that were necessary for decryption – and probable encryption – of messages. He was in turn followed to a bungalow in Ruislip, where two ostensible New Zealanders, Peter and Helen Kroger, the latter a second-hand book-dealer, were living. As the KGB moved closer on Goleniewski, MI5 had to act quickly, and arrested all five miscreants, soon discovering a hidden wireless apparatus in the Ruislip basement. All five were jailed: Gordon Lonsdale turned out to be one Konon Molody, while the Krogers’ real identities were Morris and Lona Cohen, known to the FBI as dangerous Soviet agents, but lost track of. Molody and the Cohens were soon released in spy swaps.
Barnes’s story does not start well. He supplies a map – an excellent device, since maps give substance to the dimension of space in the same way that a proper chronology provides a reliable framework for time. In his first sentence, however, he refers to ‘Fitzrovia’ in order to provide a location for ‘Great Portland Street’. But ‘Fitzrovia’ is a literary construct, not an administrative district, and his map betrays the confusion, as Fitzrovia is clumsily packed close to Marylebone, and, to make matters worse, mis-spelled as ‘FIZROVIA’. Moreover, on page 2, Barnes describes a journey from Great Portland Street to the ‘secret MI5 laboratory two miles to the west’. But this establishment does not appear on the map, and it was located two miles to the east, not to the west. Thereafter, some other important places do not appear on the map, such as the CIA’s London Office at 71 Grosvenor Street, referred to on page 15.
After this, Barnes quickly gets into his stride. He has performed all the necessary research to give the story the political and intelligence context it needs, exploiting American and Russian sources, the obvious archives at Kew, as well as the unpublished diaries of Charles Elwell, the MI5 officer on the case, and the papers of Morris Cohen at the Imperial War Museum. He understands the technological issues well, and re-presents them in a highly accessible and comprehensible way. He very rarely gives the impression of bluffing his way through a thorny controversy, although he may be a bit too trusting of that rogue, Peter Wright. (Barnes refers to Wright’s ‘Radio Operations Committee’, when the Spycatcher author wrote of a ‘Radiations Operations Committee’. I can find no trace of such an entity.) The story moves at a smooth pace, although the chronology darts around a little too much for this highly-serial reader, with the result that relevant details of some events are scattered around the text. An irritating structure of Parts and Chapters, a very sparsely populated Index, and – the bane of all inquisitive reference-followers – Endnotes that refer to Parts, but do not describe the relevant chapter or page ranges at the top of their own pages, made close analysis more difficult than it could have been. A master index of National Archives files used would have been useful, rather than having them scattered around the Endnotes. Overall, however, Dead Doubles is unmistakably an indispensable and highly valuable contribution to espionage literature.
And yet. (Coldspur regulars will know there is always an ‘and yet’.) While every aspect of the investigation, arrest and prosecution is fleshed out in gripping detail, I was looking for a deeper analysis of some of the more troubling dimensions of the case. For example, it does not help me to know that, a week before Houghton and Gee were trailed to London on the day of their arrest, the Beatles had given ‘a sensational performance in the ballroom of Litherland Hall’, or that The Avengers serial began on television the same day (January 7, 1961). What I would have liked to read, for example, was a more insightful analysis of why Houghton’s drunkenness and violent behaviour while working for the British Embassy in Warsaw resulted in his being sent home but then transferred to Portland’s Port Auxiliary Unit in 1951, rather than being fired.
It reminded me of the scandalous behaviour of Guy Burgess and Donald Maclean, who benefitted from a series of indulgent job changes, instead of being despatched to earn their living elsewhere. What is it about the British Civil Service that causes it to think that a recruit has a job (and pension) for life? Barnes reveals some fresh information on the way that The Admiralty and MI5 had ignored a damaging report on Houghton provided in 1956 by his abused wife, which was buried, or diminished, and he concentrates on this new archival evidence, but at a cost of overlooking a more dramatic scoop.
For the charges went back farther than that. In his book, Tietjen had recorded, back in 1961, that the British Embassy in Warsaw had declared, when they sent Houghton home in October 1952, that he was ‘a security risk’. If that were true, the whole exposure could have been quashed at birth. (We must remember that Tietjen was not aware of the Goleniewski revelations, or Mrs Johnson’s testimony, when he wrote his book. Moreover, as is clear from his notations, his book was published before the Romer Report on security at Portland came out in June 1961.) It is not clear where Tietjen gained his information about the ‘security risk’ report, but it was obviously official, as Tietjen annotates his awareness of it with a Footnote: “Whether Houghton was ever reported to the Admiralty by Captain Austen as a ‘security risk’ is a matter still under investigation by a specially convened Government committee.”
Yet Barnes does not mention this report in his book: he records an interview (undated, but probably in late May 1960) that MI5 officer George Leggett and MI6’s Harold Shergold had with Captain Nigel Austen, for whom Houghton had worked in Poland, but Barnes does not cite Austen as referring to his own ‘security risk’ report on Houghton. On the contrary, Austen used the opportunity to minimise Houghton’s failings, and bolster his own image: Yes, Houghton had been drinking heavily, but Austen was quick to get rid of him; yes, Houghton did make money on the black market, but then no more than any other Embassy official; Houghton’s wife was as much to blame (‘a colourless, drab individual who disliked being in Warsaw and no doubt was partly responsible for Houghton’s conduct’) for her husband’s behaviour. And when Leggett asked Austen whether he thought Houghton was a spy, Austen suggested that Houghton’s actions never indicated any betrayal of secrets to the Poles. (p 19)
It appears as if Austen had been nobbled by this stage, and instructed that, if he wanted to keep his pension (he had retired in January 1960), he should downplay Houghton’s behaviour, and never mention the ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty had already started digging its hole. As Barnes writes: “The Admiralty had forwarded this report [UDE to Admiralty in 1956, concerning claims made by his ex-wife, now Mrs. Johnson] to MI5 with a covering note, which disclosed that Houghton had been sent home from Poland because he had become very drunk on one occasion, and ‘it was thought he might break out again and involve himself in trouble with the Poles.” (p 10)
‘On one occasion’? As Barnes adds: “According to Mrs Johnson, while in Warsaw Houghton was ‘frequently the worse for drink in public, and apt to talk loudly and indiscreetly about his work. On . . . occasions, at official parties at the embassy, Captain Austen was obliged to send Houghton home by car, he having become incapable of standing up.’” Moreover, when the MI5 officer James Craggs, ‘a sociable bachelor in his late thirties’, went into the Admiralty on May 5, 1960 to inspect the Houghton files, he apparently learned a lot. “A picture of Houghton’s life began to emerge. In December 1951 Austen had cautioned the navy clerk for heavy drinking, and the following May Austen wrote again to say that Houghton was still drinking excessively. Houghton was sent home later that year, and on his return to the UK he was posted to the UDE at Portland.” (p 12) The Admiralty was trying to pull the wool over the eyes of MI5. Certainly not just ‘one occasion’.
So where did Tietjen get his information? Did officer Craggs find out about the ‘security risk’ in his session at the Admiralty, and leak it to Tietjen? The claims that the Admiralty made were evidently untrue, according to Mrs Johnson’s testimony, but also from the Admiralty files that they must have forgotten to weed. But Craggs surely knew. And the whole problem of suitable behaviour at foreign embassies was brushed under the rug when Lord Carrington addressed the House of Commons on the Romer Report. On June 13 he spoke as follows, as Hansard reports: “1. No criticism can be made of Houghton’s appointment in 1951 as Clerk to the Naval Attaché in Warsaw. Nor can any criticism be made of want of action by the Naval Attaché or the Admiralty in the events leading up to his recall to London, before the expiration of his appointment, on account of his drinking habits. 2. Given the security criteria of the time no legitimate criticism can be made of Houghton’s subsequent appointment in 1952 to a post in the Underwater Detection Establishment at Portland which did not in itself involve access to secret material. It is regrettable however that the authorities at Portland were not informed about the reason for Houghton’s recall from Warsaw.”
So that’s all right, then. Getting continually sloshed is a hazard of working in dull Embassies behind the Iron Curtain. Black market dealings are not mentioned. Nothing is said about the lost ‘security risk’ report. Yet the Admiralty’s own evidence contradicts this smooth elision of what happened. Did Tietjen speak up after the Romer Report was issued, possibly incriminating Craggs, and was he then sworn to silence? Moreover, a further disturbing complication has to be addressed. In an endnote, Barnes informs us that ‘Craggs’ was not the MI5 officer’s real name (it had been redacted in the archives), and Barnes, though he discovered the real name, had to conceal it, at the request of MI5, because of ‘potential distress to his family’. (Note 8, p 290)
Apart from questioning why Barnes was negotiating with MI5 during this research, I have to ask: what could Craggs possibly have done that would require his name to be concealed after sixty years have passed! This must be an epic scandal if today’s cadre of MI5 officers have to be warned about it. Was Craggs perhaps punished severely for leaking information from the Admiralty files to a Daily Mail journalist? Craggs’s inspection of Admiralty records, Tietjen’s knowledge of Austen’s report, Austen’s clumsy interview, the Admiralty’s claim that the report was lost, Cragg’s humiliation and excision from the record: they all point to a dishonourable leakage of information. I believe that Barnes could, and should, have paid more attention to this mystery. By highlighting the fact of his own diligent sleuthing, namely that he had discovered who the anonymous officer was, but then showing no interest in what the scandal was about, Barnes has simply drawn attention to the shenanigans. (I have communicated my thoughts to him, but he has not replied to my latest analysis.)
A related story worthy of deeper investigation is the lamentable security at the Underwater Defence Establishment (UDE) at Portland. On May 11, 1961, Prime Minister Harold Macmillan commissioned Lord Radcliffe to investigate security across all the public services, and the Romer Committee (which was inquiring into Houghton and Gee) delivered its own findings to the Cabinet Secretary on May 30. The Romer report described the lack of security-consciousness at UDE, and criticised the head of the establishment, Captain Pollock, but the outcome was feeble. As Barnes writes: “Although the Portland security officer was dismissed from his post, as a temporary civil servant his pension was not cut; and the head of UDE in 1956, Captain Pollock, who retired in 1958, submitted a robust defence. Almost a year after the Portland trial, the Admiralty decided there were simply no grounds for disciplinary action against him.” What incentive can there be for doing a job properly if the incumbent knows that the institution will always take care of its own? The analysis of the Radcliffe report warrants only two short sentences in Dead Doubles: no doubt Barnes felt it was outside his remit, but this is a subject crying out for greater analysis.
This account presents an absorbing case-study in historiography. Barnes has clearly benefitted from the support and encouragement of his mentor, Christopher Andrew (‘the godfather to this book’), and cites Andrew’s coverage of the case in his 2009 history of MI5, Defending the Realm (pp 484-488). Andrew had offered one line about the failure of MI5 to follow up on the clues provided by Houghton’s ex-wife. But Andrew was characteristically oblique in his sources, listing solely his traditional ‘Security Service Archives’, some conversations with MI5 officers, and some selective – and thus, highly questionable – references to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. (which Andrew shamelessly lists in his Bibliography). The only specific source was an obscure article in Police Journal by Charles Elwell, one of Barnes’s key witnesses, written under the pseudonym ‘Elton’. See: https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/pdf/10.1177/0032258X7104400203 . (I do not believe Barnes cites this, but it may have been inserted into the recently released files.)
Yet a useful file was available at the National Archives at that time. In his 2012 work, The Art of Betrayal, Gordon Corera also wrote about the Portland Spy Ring at length, and dedicated a paragraph (p 234) to the fact that Houghton’s ex-wife believed that he was in touch with Communist agents. Corera quotes the response from MI5 that her accusations were ‘nothing more than the outpourings of a jealous and disgruntled wife’, citing the file ADM 1/30088, which was the text of the Romer Inquiry. One can ascertain from the Kew Catalogue that this file is accompanied by ADM 116/6295-6297: they appear to have been stored for access in the 1960s, and updated with various items since. Yet these files (which Andrew could have named) are not referred to by Barnes. Instead, he uses the more comprehensive version of the Romer Inquiry issued in 2017, at CAB 301/248. I have not been able to compare the two, but it is important to recognize that the facts about MI5’s oversights in not checking out Houghton have been known for almost sixty years.
Furthermore, Chapman Pincher claimed, at the same time, that Macmillan ‘declined to publish Romer’s findings’, and that they were not published until 2007, when the Cabinet Office yielded to a Freedom of Information request from Dr Michael Goodman. That presumably relates, however, to Cabinet Office files, not Admiralty records. (Infuriatingly, the Catalogue entry for ADM 1/30088 does not give a release date.) Naturally, Pincher places all the blame on Roger Hollis, and that his ‘minimalist policy’ had allowed Houghton to continue his espionage untroubled. That was more an indictment of incompetence rather than of treachery. If Hollis had really wanted the Portland Spy Ring to remain a secret, he would surely have arranged things so that Lonsdale left town at the first available opportunity.
I believe Barnes might have plunged in more boldly on some other intelligence aspects of the case, and I highlight six here:
Lonsdale’s One-Time Pads: One of the key discoveries made when Lonsdale’s safe-deposit box was opened by MI5 was a set of three one-time pads (OTPs), vital for the decryption of incoming and outgoing messages. It seems that Helen Kroger keyed in all of Lonsdale’s messages, both the confidential ones (encyphered and typed on his typewriter), and the family ones (in manuscript) that were found in HK’s bag. One of the pads evidently referred to encyphered messages received on Lonsdale’s general-purpose wireless set, and MI5 & GCHQ were able to detect the frequency of personalized transmissions by inspecting the use of the pad. Thus the second of the three OTPs found in Lonsdale’s box must have been used for the encypherment of transmissions. Why did GCHQ/MI5 not notice or comment on how pages in this OTP had been used up, as they did with his receiver OTP? And what was the third OTP used for? Barnes does not comment.
Lonsdale in Ruislip: The reason that the Krogers were able to be arrested was because Lonsdale had unwittingly led his surveillance officers to their bungalow. But why did Lonsdale have to visit them? It sounds to me like very dangerous tradecraft. He should surely have met Helen or Peter at a neutral location to pass over his documents. After all, when Lonsdale was extradited to Berlin in the swap with Greville Wynne, he told MI5 officers, as they went through Ruislip, that they had chosen that location because of the US air traffic that would mask their transmissions, so why would the three of them endangered that ruse by the possibility of Lonsdale’s leading surveillance officers to the secret place?
Flash Mode: Barnes comments that the Krogers had been issued with a ‘novel’ wireless apparatus (the R-350-M) that operated in ‘flash’ mode, namely allowing keyed messages to be stored on tape, and then sent at ultra-high speeds to Moscow to avoid interception and direction-finding. If the Krogers had been using flash mode from the start, why would they have been concerned about direction-finding? The operation would have been over before GCHQ could even contact a van, if they had been able to pick up the signal (which Arthur Bonsall of GCHQ said was impossible, anyway.) Barnes refers to their previous equipment as the ‘Astra’ box, but does not describe it fully, or explain whether it was also capable of ’flash’ operation. His reference to ‘novel’ suggests that the previous box did not have flash capabilities. This characteristic is important in the story of interception.
Interception and Direction-Finding: Astonishingly, the status of GCHQ’s ability to intercept and locate illicit transmissions in 1960 appears to be markedly weaker than it was in World War II, as is shown by the testimony from Bonsall that Barnes cites. Coldspur readers will recall that Peter Wright claimed that GCHQ said that it would have been impossible for Agent Sonia to have operated undetected in the years 1941 to 1945. Yet by 1959 GCHQ admits defeat in its ability to pick up clandestine traffic targeted towards Moscow, and needs MI5 to tip it off about the places to watch! There is an untold story here about the reality and deterioration of the capabilities of the RSS (after the war The Diplomatic Wireless Service). (I have my own theories on this, which I shall explain in my culminating chapter on Sonia and Wireless Detection.)
Soviet Stable of Spies: Barnes makes some highly provocative claims about the presence of unnamed Soviet spies and illegals, assertions that are dropped into the text – almost carelessly. He writes that, at the time of the arrests, GCHQ was aware of ‘radio signals transmitted by KGB illegals in the UK’. So how did they know of the existence of such? Elsewhere he refers to the ‘stable of spies’ which had issued burst signals similar to those transmitted by the Krogers? Who were these people? He also states that MI5 had no practical experience of KGB illegals. Apart from the fact that they were aware of Soviet illegals in the 1930s (Mally & co.), if GCHQ knew of them, MI5 must surely have known them, too. This is a puzzle that I do not understand, and I am anxious to know Barnes’s sources.
Lonsdale’s Death: Lastly, the demise of Lonsdale. I have a particular interest in the dozens of cases of unexplained or early deaths of those who incurred the wrath of the KGB, and whom Sudoplatov’s ‘Special Tasks’ group may have pursued and annihilated. Barnes recounts Lonsdale’s death from a heart-attack in Moscow while mushroom-picking (a notoriously dangerous Russian pastime, by the way). Was this a straightforward medical incident? After all (as Barnes relates) he received death warnings, feared being shot on his return, was openly critical of Soviet society, and was given multiple injections shortly before he died. Is it not possible that his appalling tradecraft incurred the ire of KGB high-ups?
The good news is that I have presented this set of questions to Mr. Barnes himself, and he has accepted them as appropriate and thought-provoking. He has promised to inspect them more closely when he is not so busy. He must be much in demand with the attention over his book, as he well deserves to be. I look forward avidly to Barnes’s eventual response. His discomfort with Peter Wright comes through in his narrative, where he is sensibly cautious in accepting some of Wright’s claims about GCHQ’s interceptions of related messages. That is the perennial challenge for Barnes, and Andrew, and anyone else who chooses to cite Wright’s recollections from Spycatcher. Why do you accept some assertions, but discount others, and what does the inclusion of the book in your Bibliography mean?
I also wish Barnes had pushed his comprehensive reportage a bit further into analysis, and not withdrawn because of pressure from MI5, but I still encourage you to read Dead Doubles. And please send me your thoughts on the issues I have listed. In order to ensure the confidentiality of our correspondence, I do remind you all not to re-use your one-time pads (as some of you have been doing), and to ensure that your indicator groups appear in your message after my name, not before it. And, if you run out of one-time pads, we use Wisden’s Almanac, 2016 edition (not 2015!) as our reference book. Got that? It shouldn’t be that difficult, should it?
Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)
Does the world need another biography of Klaus Fuchs? I have on my shelf those by Norman Ross, Robert Chadwell Williams, and Eric Rossiter, as well as last year’s epic composition by Frank Close. Evidently, the publishers at Viking, an imprint of Penguin Random House, thought so, even though Close’s Trinity was published by Allen Lane, also an imprint of Penguin Random House. Presumably Ms. Greenspan knew about Frank Close’s concurrent work, and she indeed lists it in her biography. So one might expect a novel interpretation of the life of the atomic spy with divergent loyalties. The sub-title is ‘The Dark Lives of Klaus Fuchs’. Dark – as in ‘previously undisclosed’? Or as in ‘sinister’?
And what are Ms. Greenspan’s qualifications for writing about Fuchs, and what is her approach? It is not clear. She is recorded as having collaborated with her late husband, Stanley, on works of child psychiatry, and she published a book on the Life and Science of Max Born a decade ago, but I can find no record of her academic credentials. Moreover, she appeared to require large doses of help in compiling her work – not just the predictable interviews with a large range of offspring of friends and associates of Fuchs, but availing herself of an impressive list of persons who ‘agreed to interviews, tours, meetings, teas, and lunches and in every way were supportive’, from Charles and Nicola Perrin to the inevitable Nigel West and the elusive Alexander Vassiliev. How very unlike the solitary drudgery in which coldspur finds himself performing his researches! I should add, however, that while I shall probably not breakfast in Aberystwyth again, I did have a very pleasant lunch with Nigel West a few years ago, but am still awaiting Sir Christopher Andrew’s invitation to tea.
Ms. Greenspan lists a highly impressive set of international archival references, which point to a broad and deep study of the available material. Moreover, one noticeable feature of Greenspan’s detailed endnotes is the fact that she appears to have had access to some of the Fuchs files that have been withheld at Kew, such as the AB/1 series, which has been closed for access for most human beings. Her ability to inspect Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence, for instance, represents a highly controversial feather in her cap, which demands a more open explanation. Why would the relevant ministries allow an American writer to inspect such files, and why does she not explain her tactics in achieving such a coup? I was immediately intrigued to know whether her access to papers that the authorities have, in their wisdom, deemed too confidential to be exploited by the common historian, enabled her to construct some piercing breakthroughs in analysing Fuchs’s relationship with his political masters in the United Kingdom. When researching this matter with an on-line colleague, however, I was informed that she (and Frank Close) both probably benefitted from the availability of papers before the decision to withdraw them – primarily the AB 1/572-577 series of Rudolf Peierls’s correspondence. From a study of her endnotes, and those of Close (which are, incidentally, a treasure trove in their own right, which teaches more on each subsequent inspection), it would appear that Greenspan delved more widely in these particular arcana than did Close. What prompted the sudden secrecy by units of the British government over atomic research in the 1940s remains an enigma.
Greenspan’s methodical coverage of the sources is, however, not reflected in the originality of her text. Atomic Spy is overall disappointing, and does not add much to our understanding of Fuchs’s motivations and behaviour. Nevertheless, in four aspects, I thought Greenspan provided some fresh value worth noting. She dedicates four excellent chapters on Fuchs’s experiences in Kiel and Berlin in 1932 and 1933 – a period compressed to just two pages in Close’s account – describing vividly the terrors that the Nazis imposed on opposition groups, but especially the German Communist Party. At the age of twenty-one, Klaus had taken over from his brother, Gerhard, the leadership of the Free Socialist Student Group (a cover name) in Kiel. Gerhard had escaped to Berlin, but Klaus was now a hunted man, under sentence of death. On February 28, 1933, Klaus himself escaped from Kiel, when he was number one on the list to be arrested, and moved to Berlin. Very recklessly, when Gerhard had had to go into hiding, Klaus continued to try to recruit students to the communist cause, when it was clearly a hopeless venture. The Nazis were leaving mangled bodies of communists on the streets. In mid-July, Klaus boarded a train for Aachen, Paris, and eventually Bristol.
Greenspan also sheds fresh light on the horrors of internment that Fuchs and others experienced on the S. S. Ettrick on the voyage to Canada in July 1940, the brutal way that the prisoners were treated by their guards, and the vile conditions that existed on the ship, with thirteen hundred refugees crowded into a hold with the portholes shut in conditions of unbelievable squalor. According to Fuchs, the communists did most of the work in cleaning up the vomit and excrement that swamped the place. While they were at sea, they heard that U-boats had torpedoed the sister ship, the Arandora Star. Dry land in Canada may have been a relief after ten days on the Atlantic Ocean, but conditions in the camp were also grim to start with, a freezing winter making life desperately uncomfortable. The prisoners successfully petitioned for improved conditions, and by December Fuchs was a member of one of the first lists of internees to be sent back to Britain. One can forgive him for harbouring a grudge against the treatment they received, and the frequent accusations and insults that they heard from guards and civilians that he and his fellow internees were ‘Nazis’ simply because they were Germans.
The third area where I believe that Greenspan is more perceptive than other biographers is her coverage of the conversations between Henry Arnold, the security officer at Harwell, and Klaus, in late 1949. A possible defence that Fuchs could have used at his trial was that he had been ‘induced’ by Arnold, and John Cockcroft, the director of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment, into confessing his espionage a spart of a deal. The concern that Fuchs’s confession might not have been truly voluntary brought MI5 to questioning whether the prosecution might fail on that account. Moreover, he had not been cautioned appropriately. Thus the written confession that he provided became extremely important. MI5’s attorney, B. A. Hill, was comfortable, however, with the sequence of events, and moved to advise the prosecuting lawyer, Christmas Humphreys. Yet Fuchs’s decision to say nothing at his initial hearing (on February 10, 1950), and the reluctance of Derek Curtis-Bennett, who represented Fuchs at the trial that took place on March 1, to challenge the Attorney-General, Sir Hartley Shawcross, on what Greenspan describes as ‘the now open secret of inducement’ is puzzling and disturbing. Curtis-Bennett, perhaps under instructions, made a very disjointed plea in Fuchs’s defence, but Fuchs had little to say when invited by Lord Goddard to speak.
Lastly, Greenspan adds some useful information about Fuchs from his time in East Germany, where he did not get the heroes’ welcome that he expected, maybe naively. The Soviets wanted no suggestion that they had acquired the atomic bomb other than from their own research and imagination. The author writes: “No celebrations and accolades welcomed him. The Russians wanted no reference to his passing them information. According to them, they had discovered the atomic secrets themselves. Russia’s denial of any connection to him made his past taboo. Even his nephew Klaus had felt the long arm of the KGB. When he applied for admission to Leipzig University in 1956, he included that his uncle had spied for Russia. University officials accused him of lying. Russia didn’t have spies. They forced him to delete the information.” But what is surprising is that Greenspan does not include the passage from the Vassilievsky Notebooks, where Sonia (Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski) was quick to tell the authorities how ashamed she was of Fuchs’s conduct in confessing, and how, if she had been given the chance to give him a firm talking-to, the whole messy business of arrest and trial could have been avoided.
Yet the reader has to trudge through some familiar territory, well-ploughed by Close, to glean these insights. And Greenspan leaves behind a number of errors in her wake, mainly because she appears to have spent little time in the British Isles. She characterizes MI6 as ‘the military division of foreign intelligence’, represents the British intelligence establishment as ‘dominated by toffs’ from Eton or Harrow, which was certainly not the case, and introduces Edinburgh (where Fuchs returned to work under Max Born) in the following terms: “Januarys in Edinburgh are blustery and gray. The cold, raw air from the English Channel blankets the city of stone and seeps into the bones”, an observation bound to raise the hackles of even the most indulgent Caledonian. She hazards a guess that Sonia might have been in contact with Fuchs in 1949 because of ‘the proximity of Harwell to Great Rollright’, when Sonia had in fact lived closer to Harwell beforehand, and there is no evidence that she and Fuchs got together again in the UK after 1943. I would have thought that one of her many advisory readers would have shown a greater familiarity with British geography and institutions. Like many chroniclers, Greenspan is also a bit too trusting of ‘Sonya’s Report’.
The final judgments that emanate from all this teamwork are drearily mundane and misguided. She phrases her final verdict thus: “Fuchs’s actions left most people confused, but what they didn’t see was that his life, circumscribed from within, was consistent and constant to his unwavering set of ideals, he sought the betterment of mankind that transcended national boundaries. His goal became to balance world power and to prevent nuclear blackmail. As he saw it, science was his weapon in a war to protect humanity.” If this is what ‘Dark Lives’ consists of, it is very feeble, and represents the tired refrain that a traitor like Fuchs, who, like Sonia, took advantage of British citizenship, and then betrayed his adopted home, should somehow be forgiven because he was ‘sincere’. (Shortly before she died, Lorna Arnold, the official historian at AERE Harwell, gave Frank Close a similar testimony.) ‘An unwavering set of ideals’ – much the same could be said of Lenin, and Stalin, all the way to their grisly imitators such as Pol Pot, all laced with the vague narcissistic illusion that the hero of our tale had it in his hands the ability ‘to balance world power’. It is a shoddy ending to a weakly-conceived and ill-timed book.
Ms. Greenspan needed some help with her writing, as she acknowledges no less than sixteen persons who read ‘most or some of the manuscript’, a handful who helped her with German and Russian translations, another twelve who made suggestions or who provided introductions, and archivists from thirty or so libraries who pointed her in the right direction, as well as her team of agents, editors, project managers, an endnote compiler, and a copy editor. As an author who had to perform my own copy-editing with no benefit of outside readers, and was obliged to reconstruct my own text after an ‘experimental’ editor mangled my words and punctuation, who had to create all the footnotes and endnotes, create the Affinity Charts and Biographical Index, select and organize the illustrations, undertake the laborious task of constructing an index, recruit my own PR agency, and then, when a copy of Misdefending the Realm was requested for review purposes by the Times Literary Supplement, had to order a copy from amazon for the reviewer since my editor had taken off for India for a month without informing me, I was both overwhelmed and disenchanted. It is rather like comparing two expeditions to the Hindu Kush. The Zoological Society would take hampers of chutney, chocolate and champagne with them, and recruit a posse of porters and ponies to carry their provisions, while Eric Newby or Eric Shipton would go alone, with a rucksack on their backs. But it is the solo explorers who bring back the more intriguing stories.
An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)
The only major feature wrong with this book is its title. If a spy were truly ‘impeccable’, he (or she) would be infiltrated silently into a target institution, would extract vital secrets and deliver them to his controllers without ever being detected, his achievements would never be lauded and publicized, and he would die in obscurity, his name and cryptonym forever a secret. No doubt there have been persons like that. But there would be no material to write biographies of them.
Richard Sorge (the subject of Owen Matthews’ book) was far from that model. He behaved ostentatiously, drawing attention to himself, he was caught by the Japanese, he confessed his crimes, and was eventually hanged. Up until the last day he believed that Stalin would rescue him in some exchange deal because of his dedication, and the value he had brought to his bosses. Yet that was not the way Stalin thought. Sorge was a failure because he had got himself caught. And maybe Sorge knew at heart that a return to Moscow might mean death at the hands of his employers. After all, in Stalin’s eyes, Sorge had lived too long abroad, would clearly have been subject to non-communist influences, and might disapprove of how Stalin had distorted the Bolshevik impulse. Moreover, he was half-German. Let him swing.
Biographers of spies have to spice up their stories to attract attention, admittedly. ‘The Most Dangerous Spy in History’ (Fuchs, according to Frank Close); ‘The Spy Who Changed the World’ (Fuchs, according to Mike Rossiter); ‘Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy’ (Sonia, according to Ben Macintyre), ‘The Spy Who Changed History’ (Shumovsky, according to Lokhova), etc. etc. Matthews appears to have taken his inspiration from Kim Philby, perhaps a dubious authority in this métier. Philby is quoted on the dust-jacket as stating that Sorge’s ‘work was impeccable’, John le Carré, for good measure, classifies Sorge as ‘the best spy of all time’, and Ian Fleming is recorded on the cover as claiming that Sorge was ‘the most formidable spy in history’, all reflecting an enthusiasm for bohemianism and extravagance rather than patience and discretion.
Sorge’s life was a rambunctious and exhilarating one. He was born in 1895 in Baku, in the Russian Empire, of a German father and Russian mother. He served on the Western Front, where he became a communist. After the Russian revolution, he moved to Moscow, where he was recruited by the Comintern, and roamed around Europe on various missions, including a short stay in the United Kingdom in 1929. Shortly after that, he was instructed to join the Nazi party with cover as a journalist, and sent to Shanghai, China in 1930, to join a motley international group of ne’er-do-wells, conspirators, saboteurs, spies and activists, and among his sexual conquests were Agnes Smedley and Ursula Hamburger (Sonia). (In Agent Sonya, Ben Macintyre has written: “Exactly when Ursula Hamburger and Richard Sorge became lovers is still a matter of debate.” That may be so in London, but in the circles in which I move, the precise date of that tempestuous event has never been a topic of conversation.) On a return to Moscow in 1933, where Sorge got married, he received fresh instructions to go to Japan and organize an intelligence network, since Stalin was more concerned about the threat from the East than he was of the Nazi menace. He went there via Germany, where he was able to build links with the Nazi Party, and thereafter led a stressful double life of hobnobbing with Nazi officials while building contacts with the Japanese government, and recruiting Max Clausen to send his reports to Vladivostok by wireless. He provided much valuable information to Stalin – although some of it is overrated – but the Japanese penetrated his ring, and he was arrested on October 18, 1941, interrogated and tortured. He then confessed, and was hanged on November 7, 1944.
I was familiar with Owen Matthews from an earlier work of his, Stalin’s Children (2008), which was not literally about the Dictator’s own offspring, but consisted of an uneasy combination of private memoir and serious history. It was an affecting and occasionally moving composition, uncovering the stories of Matthews’ maternal Russian grandparents (his grandfather was killed in the purges of 1937, and his grandmother lost her mind in the Gulag), and the love-affair of his own parents. (The granting of his mother’s visa to leave for Britain was part of the deal to free the Krogers, noted above.) Yet I found it flawed, owing to some mystical nonsense about ‘blood memory’, a lot of speculation about his grandfather’s thoughts and intentions, the insertion of many now familiar stories of the Ukrainian famine and the Purges, too much shy-making information on the author’s own love-life, and an irritatingly but no doubt fashionably erratic approach to the chronology of his story. The book was 50% longer than it needed to be.
Matthews, who spoke Russian before he learned English, studied Modern History at my alma mater, Christ Church, Oxford, and then pursued a career as a journalist, working in Moscow from 1997. His account of Sorge’s life is methodical, and sensibly cautious about many of the rumours that surrounded Sorge’s career in the muddle of Shanghai and wartime Japan. (I must confess that I have not read any other of the Sorge biographies, so cannot compare.) He has had access to American, German, Russian and Japanese archival sources, with necessary assistance in translation, and professes a large and learned bibliography. There is little of the Pincherite speculation about assignments and recruitment (e.g. ‘Hollis’s position at BAT would have been of interest to the GRU’ and ‘Sorge could have encountered Hollis there [at the YMCA]’: Treachery, page 46).
Matthews does comment on the Hollis case, however, although mainly in an endnote (of which there are many rich examples). On pages 367 and 368 he spends perhaps too much space on a topic that is not germane to the Sorge story, echoing the line of the Pincherite-Wrightean clique of faux-historians. He states that ‘there is evidence that Luise Rimm [the wife of a GRU operator] had a love affair with Roger Hollis that lasted three years’, and he accuses Hollis of being deceptive about his movements in China and Moscow. He is firmly of the belief that Hollis alone was able to shield Sonia from investigation, concluding, rather lamely: “The record is clear that Hollis was that protective hand, for reasons that make no apparent sense unless he was the agent ‘Elli’ and was working, like Sonja, for the GRU”. It would have been better for Matthews to have stepped back from this particular controversy.
I found a few mistakes about personalities and organisation. Matthews introduces Peter Wright as ‘the Australian-born head of MI5 counter-intelligence’, which is wrong on two counts. And he gets a bit carried away about Shanghai in the 1920s. One sentence stands out, on pp 57-58: “In the 1920s Shanghai hosted many of the great Soviet illegals of the age – Arnold Deutsch (who went on to recruit Kim Philby), Theodore Maly (later controller of the Cambridge Five), Alexander Rado (one of the many agents who would later warn Stalin of Nazi plans to invade the Soviet Union), Otto Katz (one of the most effective recruiters of fellow-travellers to the Soviet cause from Paris to Hollywood), Leopold Trepper (founder of the Rote Kapelle spy ring inside Germany before the Second World War), as well as legendary Fourth Department illegals Ignace Poretsky and Walter Krivitsky, Ruth Werner [Sonia] and Wilhelm Pieck.” No matter that this was the decade before Sorge arrived, that not all of these characters were ’illegals’, and that none of them was mythical. Sonia did not arrive there until 1930, and Agnes Smedley would have been very upset to have been omitted from this list of desperadoes. How a lot of problems would have been forestalled if this crew had been mopped up at the time and locked away where they could do no damage!
The account of Sorge’s eventual entrapment and arrest is very dramatic, and Matthews tells it well. I was particularly interested, because of my research into Sonia’s activities, in the attempts to determine the location of Clausen’s transmitter, as one would think that the Japanese would have been ruthless and efficient in tracking down illicit transmissions. Matthews reports: “Thanks to their own radio monitoring, and after a tip-off from the military government in Korea, the Japanese authorities knew that a powerful illegal transmitter was regularly operating from various sites in the Tokyo area. An all-points bulletin was sent out to all municipal police stations, including Toriizaka, to try to spot the source of the signals. But the Japanese were never able to successfully triangulate Clausen’s radio. And happily for Sorge, the Russian military code he used proved unbreakable – though the messages were faithfully monitored and transcribed by the Japanese in an ever-thickening file of unintelligible strings of number groups.” It seems to me that because of the wavelengths that Clausen would have been using, and the peculiar shape of Japan, and its mountains, that detecting the exact location of Clausen’s transmissions (and he did sensibly move around) turned out to be impossible.
Matthews’s final judgment endorses the view that Sorge was impeccable because he was ‘brave, brilliant and relentless’, and he laments the Soviet Union’s overall indifference to him, and the fact that it engaged in ‘the ultimate betrayal of its greatest spy.’ “It was Sorge’s tragedy that his masters were venal cowards who placed their own careers before the vital interests of the country that he laid down his life to serve” is the last sentence in Mathews’ book. Well, that is one way of looking at it. But you could also say that he was just like every other Stalinist dupe: he was consumed by a dopey ideology, believed that he was one of the charmed saviours of humanity, and completely overlooked the evidence that pointed to the fact that Stalin was a monster who would show no compassion or mercy when his underlings were no longer of use to him. One of Matthews’ excellent commentaries contains the following chilling fact (p 179): Soviet military intelligence had six different heads between 1937 and 1939, five of whom would be executed. The Hall of Fame consists of the following:
Jan Berzin, 1924-April 1935
Semyon Uritsky, April 1935-July 1937
Jan Berzin, July 1937-August 1937
Alexander Nikonov, August 1937-August 1937
Semyon Gendin, September 1937-October 1938
Alexander Orlov, October 1938-April 1939
Ivan Proskurov, April 1939-July 1940
Filipp Golikov, July 1940-October 1941
Alexei Panfilov, October 1941-November 1942
Not a career to be undertaken lightly. One might wonder why Jan Berzin, the second time round, didn’t reflect on the opportunity, and select a quieter and less hazardous occupation, such as deep-sea diving. But you couldn’t do that with Stalin. Once you were in the maw, you had no control. And the same for Sorge. Despite its occasional missteps, I recommend this book highly.
Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)
Most readers will probably recall Peter Fleming as the elder brother of Ian Fleming, or the husband of Celia Johnson, whose controlled performance of thwarted passion made Brief Encounter such an iconic film. That story of how Sonia (Celia Johnson) met Klaus Fuchs (Trevor Howard) at Birmingham’s Snow Hill Station, and then how the couple had to subdue their romance for the cause of delivering atomic secrets safely to the Soviet Embassy [are you sure this is correct? Ed.], was a box-office hit in 1945, and notable for the cameo performance by Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot [sic! Milicent’s sister?], an MI5 officer under cover as the restaurant owner. Perhaps more authentically, I remember being introduced to Fleming in his travel-book, Brazilian Adventure (1933) about a poorly-organized search for Percy Fawcett, which entertained me because the author appeared to parody himself. I thus keenly consumed his One’s Company (1934) and News from Tartary (1936), in which his cover as a journalist allowed him to perform some intelligence-gathering on behalf of MI6. (There is no evidence that he had an affair with Sonia while he was in Manchukuo, and Sonia wisely decided to omit all references to any such liaison in her memoir.) His account of Hitler’s plans after the invasion of Britain, Invasion 1940, was of great historical interest to me. Finally, I enjoyed Duff Hart-Davis’s biography of Fleming, published in 1974.
Thus I jumped at the opportunity to learn more when Alan Ogden’s Master of Deception appeared last year, especially since it carried a warm endorsement from Professor Glees on the back cover. Alan Ogden was not a name I knew, but, since he has written several books about the Special Operations Executive, especially concerning activities in a region of the world that I find utterly absorbing – Transylvania, Romania, and parts of the old Austro-Hungarian Empire – I thought that it was an omission that I should quickly remedy. Ogden has set himself the task of documenting Fleming’s war experiences in the Military Intelligence Directorate (MIR) and then in what Ogden calls the ‘mysterious’ D. Division, which was responsible for deception in the Far East.
Part of the problem of recording faithfully what went on in military intelligence circles is the tendency to be overwhelmed with acronyms, liaison officers, operational code-names, and a host of minor figures, the Biffies, Jumboes and Tigers who populated this realm. (Ogden recognises part of this challenge in his Preface, where he declares his aim to reduce the ‘alphabet soup’. Yet he provides no glossary of acronyms, and his Index is very weak.) Thus it requires a large amount of concentration and patience to keep up with the stream of codewords and rapidly changing military units that evolved as the war changed its shape. Another hurdle for the author to overcome, however, is more paradoxical, and more serious. Even though Fleming is characterised as the ‘Master of Deception’, his schemes and campaigns were essentially failures – not because of his lack of inventiveness, but because the enemy refused to bite, or because the battle was lost for external reasons. A campaign record of Norway, Greece, the Pacific and Burma is not the most illustrious showcase for how deception operations won the day.
I have recently studied the deception campaign supporting the Normandy landings (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-8/ ), and it was informative to discover that much of the investment that the Allies put into the movements of dummy armies was wasted because the Germans did not have the capacity nor the imagination to interpret all the fake signals and equipment that were constructed to convince them of the existence of FUSAG. The Nazis were nowhere near to building a picture of the organisation and order of battle of the Allies to match what British and American intelligence had constructed concerning Nazi forces. Thus Germany came to be completely reliant on its crew of agents, who had either been ‘turned’ or had signed up for the Abwehr originally with the intention of working for the opposition. And British intelligence was able to manipulate the Abwehr and its successors simply because they wanted to be misled.
Whereas deception, under Lt.-Colonel Dudley Clarke’s ‘A’ Force, had been successful in Africa, it was a struggle in the war in Burma and the frontiers of Japanese-controlled territory. As Fleming himself wrote in a report: “There can be no question that the Japanese Intelligence was greatly inferior in all respects to the German and even the Italian Intelligence. The successful deception practiced on the Axis military machine in Europe was made possible by the fact that the enemy’s Intelligence staffs and services were, though gullible, well organized and reasonably influential.” As Ogden concludes, D. Division’s plans were too sophisticated: Philip Mason, head of the Conference Secretariat (SEAC), echoed Fleming’s judgment: “Deceiving the Germans had been very different; they wanted to know our plans and expected us to try and deceive them. That had been like playing chess with someone not quite as good as oneself.; with the Japanese, it was like setting up the chessboard against an adversary whose one idea was to punch you on the nose.”
Fleming was to explain failure in other ways, such as a lack of knowledge with the deception planners as to what military strategies actually were in a chaotic and dispersed region – very different from what existed in the European theatre. But a naivety about deception, and maybe an overestimation of achievement, and a lack of understanding of how controlling agents was supposed to work, were evident in other activities. Ogden reports how, in March 1943, our old coldspur friend John Marriott was sent to India to advise on how a new section should be formed to handle double-agents (a formulation that immediately highlights a problem, as you cannot be sure you have ‘double-agents’ until you have trained them, and brought them strictly under your control). Ogden reports: “Marriott’s credentials were impeccable save in one respect. He had never been to India, and knew next to nothing about its peculiarities, impediments and handicaps.” Marriott was very critical of the set-up in India, and Fleming appeared to have been rather disdainful of Marriott’s practical experience. For where were these double-agents going to come from? Who arrested them, interrogated them, and who was to ‘turn’ them, and ensure that they were loyal to you? Moreover, Fleming frequently upset the military brass with his unconventionality. One judgment recorded by Ogden is that of Colonel Bill Magan, one of the officers in the Delhi Intelligence Bureau. He found Fleming ‘an irresponsible, ambitious and irrational man who was always trying to persuade us to pass messages which we believed would “blow” the channel.’
Ogden has clearly done his homework, as is shown by the hundred or so files from the National Archives that he lists in his Sources, and whose contents are faithfully reflected in his text. But it becomes a bit of a trudge working through his story to find the nuggets. Too many multi-page reports are embedded, when they should preferably have been summarized, and the complete versions relegated to Appendices. Much detail about operations, which is surely of considerable value to the dedicated military historian, could have been left out in order to focus more tightly on the author’s main thrust, and Fleming sometimes gets lost in the caravanserai.
Yet nuggets there certainly are. I was delighted to add the following assessment to my dossier on Roger Hollis. In August 1939, Fleming was invited to submit his recommendations as to who, among associates he had known, might be useful to the war effort, and offered, among his testimonies, that Hollis ‘Did several years in China with BAT’, adding: “Though he has not been there recently, his judgement of Far Eastern affairs has always impressed me as unusually realistic. His cooperation, or even his comments, might be valuable at an early stage, particularly as he is available in London.” Nothing appeared to come from this, but the outwardly rather dim Hollis had impressed someone who knew what he was talking about, and gained a fan of note. (My dossier has also been enriched this month by one of the more memorable phrases in Ben Macintyre’s Agent Sonya: “He [Hollis] was a plodding, slightly droopy bureaucrat with the imaginative flair of an omelet.”)
Another gem consists of a paper that Fleming wrote in Chungking in 1942, titled ‘Total Intelligence’, which, by using the fictitious example of Ruritania in 1939, outlined how a diverse set of intelligence sources could be harnessed without consolidating the gatherers of intelligence into one massive organisation. The paper takes almost ten pages of text, and should thus likewise have been a candidate for appendicisation, but it deserves broader exposure, and is well worth reading. I was a bit puzzled, however, by Ogden’s brief commentary on this report, where he indicates that, addressing Fleming’s criticism, SOE went out of his way to recruit business men and bankers to assist them in undermining the enemy. But SOE was a sabotage organisation, not an intelligence-gathering unit (although intelligence came its way by way of its destructive exploits), and I should have liked Ogden to explore this dilemma – one so keenly understood by MI6 – in a little more depth.
So what is the verdict on Fleming? Ogden’s assessment is a little surprising. He writes (p 274): “As the new world order unfurled, with his knowledge of and experience in dealing with Russia and China, he was eminently well qualified for a top post in either SIS or MI5.” That seems to me an errant call. Fleming had no insider reputation in the Security Service or the Secret Intelligence Service, and his sudden appointment would surely have provoked resentment. Moreover, I believe he was temperamentally unsuited for roles that required tact, patience, and an ability to negotiate with Whitehall. He was an adventurer, a maverick, and would have bridled at all the protocols and formalities of communicating with career civil servants – something that Dick White was famously good at. It is not surprising that Fleming took early retirement as a gentleman farmer.
‘Master of Deception’ he may have been, but the targets of his deception frequently failed to act like English gentlemen, or perform as they were supposed to, not having installed the obvious British-like institutions. In one important passage, Fleming’s frustrations come through. As Ogden writes, of one multi-year operation that had minimal impact, the HICCOUGHS project, which planted a network of notional agents in Burma, and somehow caused them to send messages back to Delhi (p 228): “For two years, Fleming and the HICCOUGHS case attached little importance to this rather tiresome routine commitment since it was transparently flawed. ‘Why,’ asked Fleming, ‘if our agents could communicate with us by W/T, could we not communicate with them by the same means? Why, if we were forced to broadcast messages to them, did we continue to use a low-grade cipher? How was it that they were all (apparently) able to listen in twice daily at fixed times to receive a message when in most cases it affected only one of them? How was it that the Japanese Radio Security Service never obtained the slightest clue to the places and times at which they transmitted their lengthy and invaluable reports? Why, after all this talk about sabotage and subversion, did nothing ever happen?’”
This was perhaps an admission that ingenuity alone was not enough. It needed comprehensive understanding and support from the military organisation, and it required, even more, a proper assessment of the psychology of the enemy, insights into how its intelligence units thought, and a clear idea of what behavioural changes the operation was trying to achieve. Causing confusion was not enough.
Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State, by Brian Toohey (2019) [guest review by Denis Lenihan]
Even taking into account the generation gap, there are some remarkable similarities between Brian Toohey (born 1944) and Harry Chapman Pincher (1914-2014). Both began their journalistic careers in conventional fields, Toohey in finance, although the Australian Financial Review when he joined it in the 1970s had perhaps a somewhat broader range than now. Pincher’s field was initially defence and science on the Daily Express in the Beaverbrook days after the war. Both had the gift or the knack of attracting confidences, so that senior figures in government leaked material which they wished to see released, for varying reasons. The historian E P Thompson described Pincher as
“a kind of official urinal in which, side by side, high officials of MI5 and MI6, sea lords, permanent under-secretaries, Lord George-Brown, chiefs of the air staff, nuclear scientists, Lord Wigg and others, stand patiently leaking in the public interest. One can only admire their resolute attention to these distasteful duties.”
Pincher’s sources went beyond that group, taking in those who went fishing or pheasant or grouse shooting in season – cabinet ministers, industrialists, well-informed nobles – when some on Pincher’s account became much more willing to divulge secrets, or at least matters which were classified as secrets. It was not a difference that they or Pincher always recognised. Toohey’s only overseas posting was to Washington, and his social circle was more restricted; and if there were any grouse shooters among his sources, he has been careful to protect them.
While Pincher will be well-known to readers of coldspur.com some further information on Toohey might be helpful. He has written about national security policy since 1973 and is the author or co-author of four books, including Oyster: The Story of the Australian Secret Intelligence Service (1989). After part of the manuscript came into the Australian (Labor) Government’s possession, it took court action which resulted in the book effectively being vetted by the Government. A sensible approach saw only one major deletion, the name of a public relations firm, an omission remedied soon after the book’s publication by another journalist who published not in The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age (Melbourne).
Pincher became interested in spies in 1950 when he covered the trial of Klaus Fuchs, the atomic spy. Pincher informed his editor that a spy named Fuchs had been arrested, and the editor said ‘Marvellous! I’ve always wanted to get that word into a headline.’ As noted, Toohey has written about national security matters since 1973, while he was still at the AFR, perhaps more so later when he moved to the late-lamented National Times. Both believed in lunch as a setting where people talked; French was Pincher’s cuisine of choice, habitually at A L’Ecu de France in Jermyn St Piccadilly. His footnotes show that Toohey followed suit on at least one occasion, at La Bagatelle in Washington, but in New York he went to the Union Club (founded 1836), the cuisine in which was unlikely to have been French. No Canberra restaurant is mentioned. Perhaps Toohey was wise to move about. After A L’Ecu closed in the 1990s, Pincher was told by the senior director that MI5 had bugged the banquettes, including the one favoured by Pincher. A later development of the story had it that when MI5 went to remove the bugs, it found another set – put there by the KGB. Whether it’s true or not is irrelevant: it’s a great story. Pincher evidently had a very good memory and drank little. After lunch he would return to his office and dictate the story without reference to documents. ‘…I have always had a golden rule’, he recorded in 2013,’ that I would never touch or look at any classified documents’. (Foreword to Christopher Moran: Classified: Secrecy and the State in Modern Britain (2013)). Toohey seems to have got documents frequently but after writing his story he would very sensibly destroy them, thus putting himself beyond the reach of his official pursuers who often took him to court.
Reading along and between the lines in Toohey’s book Secret: The Making of Australia’s Security State (2019) suggests that most of his sources were public servants. As with Pincher, much public money was spent on attempting to find out who they were, evidently without success. Both lived or have lived long enough to be able to see from government files released to archives the attempts made to identify their sources. After Pincher had published in 1959 details of a cabinet decision two days after it had been made, Harold Macmillan was moved to exclaim: ‘Can nothing be done to suppress or get rid of Mr Chapman Pincher’. Pincher’s books contain the explanation for many of the characteristics of Australian government which Toohey rightly complains about: unwarranted secrecy and lies, particularly by security agencies. The UK system of government has for decades prized secrecy, very often in circumstances where it was later shown to be unnecessary and even harmful. In Treachery, Pincher is able to show that time and again MI5 in particular lied to ministers and even the Prime Minister, to the extent of being publicly reproved. In 1963 Harold Macmillan criticised Sir Roger Hollis, the Director General of MI5, in the House of Commons for keeping from him critical information during the Profumo affair.
As time goes by, more and more ludicrous examples emerge. In 1940 Neville Chamberlain while still Prime Minister commissioned Lord Hankey to investigate the efficiency of the intelligence services. His report has never been released in the United Kingdom, which had prompted much speculation about its contents. The spy John Cairncross had at the time slipped a copy to Moscow and in 2009, in its well-known role of assisting scholarship, the Soviet archives released it. Fallen upon by scholars eager to find its secrets, it turned out to be in the words of one reader ‘mostly pedestrian and superficial’.
That tradition of too much secrecy and too many lies was bequeathed to Australia and the other colonies and continues to bedevil them, as Toohey shows. He became the bete noire of Sir Arthur Tange, the Secretary of the Department of Defence, whose ‘demands to find the leakers chewed up the time of senior officials who had more important things to do than pursue often inept and always futile investigations’. Tange might usefully have followed the precedent of his UK counterpart, Sir Richard Powell, who advised his minister in 1958 with regard to Pincher that
“I believe that we must live with this man and make the best of it. We can console ourselves that his writings, although embarrassing at times to Whitehall, disclose nothing that Russian intelligence does not already know.”
Toohey’s jousts with the establishment make for enjoyable reading, and on most issues (nuclear bomb testing in Australia, ‘the depravity of nuclear war planning’ etc) he is on the side of the angels, even if sometimes he does not quote prominent supporters such as the Pope who give weight to his causes. Given that most of the Pope’s clergy and his flock do not at least in public echo his views on the bomb, Toohey’s omission is forgivable.
When he strays outside his area of expertise, however, as he does when arguing that out of the thirteen wars Australia has fought, only one (the Pacific theatre of World War II) was ‘a war of necessity for Australia’, Toohey stumbles. Some of the thirteen pre-dated the establishment of Australia in 1900, and while his argument might be true looking backwards, there was no prospect in say 1914 that Australia would not join in the defence of what was then called the mother country, especially when all her other white daughters enrolled. Toohey must also be one of the very few Australian commentators to have written about the Japanese and World War II and who have failed to mention the bombing of Darwin and the invasion of Sydney Harbour by midget submarines, both in 1942.
All this makes it very disappointing that Toohey should be so far off the mark in the very first chapter of his book (there are 60 chapters, some of them very short), which deals with ‘The Security Scandal that the US Hid from the Newborn ASIO’, as the chapter heading has it. The scandal concerned the Venona material, messages which passed between Moscow and its embassies in a number of countries, including Australia, in the 1940s, many of which were intercepted by the US or its allies (or by neutral countries such as Sweden) and some of which were able to be decoded or deciphered. On Toohey’s account, an NSA employee, William Weisband, was a KGB spy and told Moscow in 1948 about the interceptions and the encryption methods were then changed. Again on Toohey’s account, ASIO was never told about this betrayal. All these assertions are worth examining in some detail, together with Toohey’s account of what the Australian Venona material revealed.
Toohey begins by claiming that ‘the highly classified material handed over by the Australian spies was of no consequence’, in particular the two top-secret UK planning papers passed over in 1946 which showed ‘banal, often erroneous predictions’; further, the predictions were ‘fatuous’ while the other papers passed over were ‘trite’. That some of the predictions turned out to be wrong, and that some of the other material seemed to be unimportant, are hardly sufficient to dismiss them altogether. Given some indication by the Soviet Embassy in Canberra of the contents of the two top-secret reports, Moscow asked that they be sent immediately by telegram, which is a good indication of what it thought of them at the time. A more objective account of the Canberra Venona is to be found in Nigel West’s Venona (1999), where he describes one of these two documents as being ‘of immense significance’, and says that for it to have fallen into Soviet hands at that time was ‘devastating’.
In any event, Toohey fails to mention that in the estimation of the US National Security Agency which released the Venona material in the 1990s ‘More than 200 messages were decrypted and translated, these representing a fraction of the messages sent and received by the Canberra KGB residency.’ (NSA website). It is idle to suppose that those not intercepted contained no important classified material.
Toohey also misrepresents the messages sent by Moscow to the senior MI5 officer in Canberra, Semyon Makarov: ‘Moscow told Makarov not to let [Clayton, the Communist Party member who was the contact man for the spies in External Affairs] recruit new agents, not to send any document that was more than a year old, not to be overeager to achieve success and to stop obtaining information of little importance.’ What Moscow in fact said to Makarov was‘…if possible do not take any steps in the way of bringing in new agents without a decision from us’ (message of 6 October 1945); ‘you should not receive from [Clayton] and transmit by telegraph textual intelligence information that is a year old’ the implication being that it might be sent by bag (message of 17 October 1945); and that [Nosov, the TASS correspondent in Sydney] should be brought into the work ‘but do not be over-eager to achieve success to the detriment of security and maximum caution’ (message of 20 October 1945). This kind of close supervision by Moscow was not unusual, as West’s book shows.
Individual members of the External Affairs spy ring are declared to be innocent. Ric Throssell is described thus: ‘After interviewing him in 1953, ASIO concluded that he “is a loyal subject and is not a security risk in the department in which is employed” ‘. Quite true, but incomplete. After Petrov’s defection in 1954, ASIO formed the view that Throssell could not be given a security clearance for classified material, and he never was. Frances Garratt (nee Bernie) is described by Toohey as ‘working mainly on political party issues as a young secretary/typist in the Sydney office of the External Affairs minister, Bert Evatt..She insisted that she thought she was simply giving the local Communist Party some political information.’ Again, incomplete. As Robert Manne noted in The Petrov Affair (1987), the Royal Commission on Espionage found that
“While Frances Bernie had certainly broken the law – in passing official documents to Walter Clayton without authorisation – she had only admitted to doing so having been granted an immunity from prosecution.”
And according to the late Professor Des Ball, ‘In 2008, Bernie admitted that she had given Walter Seddon Clayton (code-named KLOD or CLAUDE), the organiser and co-ordinator of the KGB network, much more important information than she had previously confessed’. (‘The moles at the very heart of government’, The Australian, April 16, 2011)
The scandal referred to in the chapter heading is this. As noted, on Toohey’s account the Venona secret was betrayed to Moscow by William Weisband, a Soviet spy employed by the National Security Agency, and in 1948 the Soviet encryption systems were changed. Toohey takes up the story:
“I asked ASIO when the US informed it (or its predecessor) that Weisband had told the Soviets that Venona was able to read its messages; ASIO replied in an email on 30 June 2017: ‘The information you refer to is not drawn from ASIO records.’ ASIO also told the National Archives of Australia (NAA) that it does not hold any open period records (i.e.up to 1993) about the US notifying it that Weisband told the Soviets about Venona. The US should also have told the Defence Signals Directorate (now the Australian Signals Directorate, or ASD). When I asked ASD, via Defence, it declined to answer.”
It is worth noting here that entering ‘William Weisband’ and ‘National Security Agency’ into the Australian Archives website yields only references to public material about the Agency. Entering ‘William Weisband’ into the website of the UK National Archives yields no result; while the only two results for ‘National Security Agency’ are for files from the Prime Minister’s Office concerning the publication of material about the Agency. Toohey would presumably not argue on the basis of these results that the Agency did not tell the UK security authorities about Weisband. The strongest argument against Toohey’s claim is that entering Weisband’s name into the website of the US National Archives and Records Administration yields only scraps, and nothing connected directly to the NSA. Clearly NSA guards its records zealously, as one would expect. It was at one time so secret that its initials were said to mean ‘No Such Agency’.
In any event, ASIO did not come into existence until 1949, and on Horner’s account in Volume 1 of the history of ASIO – The Spycatchers – he and his research team ‘found files that ASIO did not even know they had.’ Relying on ASIO records, especially from the early days, is thus a chancy business.
I recall, back in the early 1960s, seeing advertisements in the Daily Telegraph for a charity identifying itself as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. They showed an elderly couple, a rather tweedy gentleman of military bearing, and his elegant wife, who probably had worn pearls at some stage, but could no longer afford them. (The image I show above is a similar exhibit.) These were presumably persons of good ‘breeding’ who had fallen on undeserved hard times. The organization asked the readership to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of such persons.
I found these appeals
rather quaint, even then, and asked myself why ‘gentlefolk’ should have been
singled out as especially worthy of any handouts. After all, such terminology
had a vaguely mid-Victorian ring: I must have been thinking of Turgenev’s ‘Nest
of Gentry’, which I had recently read. Moreover, were there not more
meritorious examples of the struggling poor? Perhaps I had Ralph MacTell’s
‘Streets of London’ ringing in my head [No. It was not released until 1969.
Ed.], although I was never able to work out why, if the bag-lady celebrated
by this noted troubadour (who, like me, grew up in Croydon in the 1950s) was
lonely, ‘she’s no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking’. Was she
perhaps fed up with being accosted in the street by long-haired minstrels
But I digress. It was more probable that I had been influenced by the lunch monitor at my school dining-table, the much-loved and now much-missed John Knightly, who would later become Captain of the School. I recall how he, with Crusader badge pinned smartly on his lapel, would admonish those of us who struggled to complete our rather gristly stew by reminding us of ‘the starving millions in China’. I felt like telling him that he could take the remnants of the lunch of one particular Distressed Fourth-Former and send them off to Chairman Mao, but somehow the moment passed without my recommendation being made.
I thought about that
institution as I was preparing this piece. I have warned readers of coldspur
that I would eventually be offering an analysis of the phenomenon of
Liverpool University as the Home for Distressed Spies, and here it is. It
analyses the predicament that MI5 and the civil authorities found themselves in
when they had clear evidence that Soviet spies were in their midst, but,
because of the nature of the evidence, believed that they could not prosecute
without a confession.
accounts of the interviews, interrogations and suspicions surrounding some of
the atom scientists (Pontecorvo, Peierls, Fuchs, Skinner, Skyrme, Davison) in
Britain after the war display a puzzled approach to policy by the officers at the
AERE (Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell) and at MI5. If such
suspects were believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, they could not be encouraged,
on account of the knowledge they possessed about atomic power and weaponry, to
consider escaping to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it would have been
difficult to prosecute those whose guilt was hardly in doubt (i.e. Fuchs and
Pontecorvo), as it would require gaining a confession from them, and, on the
other, the sensitivity of the sources (the VENONA decrypts, and a lost item of
intelligence, respectively) would prohibit such evidence being used in a trial.
In Fuchs’s case, some senior figures in MI5 (Percy Sillitoe, the
Director-General, and Dick White, head of counter-espionage) were keen on
trying to gain a confession, and prosecuting. Liddell of MI5 (Sillitoe’s
deputy), in conjunction with Harwell’s chief, John Cockcroft, and Henry Arnold,
the security officer, wanted to shift Fuchs and Pontecorvo quietly off to a
regional university. Liverpool University loomed largest in this scenario.
have decided to work backwards generally in this account, before advancing to
the connection between the controversial role of Herbert Skinner, and how he
eventually exerted an influence on the removal of the mysterious Boris Davison.
I believe it will be more revealing to display gradually the undeclared knowledge
that affected the decisions, misleading briefings and reports that emanated
from Guy Liddell and his brother-officers at MI5, and from other civil servants
at Harwell, and at the Ministry of Supply, to which AERE reported.
Dramatis Personae(primarily in 1950, when most of the
the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:
director; Head of Theoretical Physics division
Men from the Ministries:
Controller of Production, Atomic Energy, at the Ministry
Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research
Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office
Secretary to the Treasury, and Head of Civil Service
Secretary, Ministry of Supply
Cherwell Paymaster-General (1953)
of B Division (counter-espionage)
Mitchell B1E (Hollis’s deputy)
J. C. Head of B2
T. A. R. B3 (retired in 1948)
of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge
at Birmingham University
at Birmingham University
Massey Professor at University College, London
Rotblat Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London
at Liverpool University
Frisch Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge
Flowers Researcher at Birmingham University
Pryce Professor at Clarendon Laboratories
Pincher Daily Express
Stubbs-Walker Daily Mail
Moorehead Daily Express
Rodin Sunday Express
Maule Empire News
West New York Times
De Courcy Intelligence Digest
wives, mistresses, girl-friends and spear-carriers
Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Machinations at Liverpool
Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
Boris Davison – after Attlee
Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Bruno Pontecorvo’s journey to Harwell was an unusual one. An Italian who worked with Joliot-Curie in Paris, he had escaped from France with his Swedish wife and their son in July 1940, in the nick of time before the Nazis overran the country. After some strenuous efforts visiting consulates and embassies to gain the necessary papers, he and his family gained a sea passage to the USA on the strength of a job offer from his Italian colleague Emilio Segrè in Tulsa, Oklahoma.
the autumn of 1942, Pontecorvo was invited by Hans Halban to interview for a
position with the British nuclear physics team working in Montreal. He was
approved in December 1942, and was inducted into Tube Alloys, the British
atomic weapons project, in New York, the following month. He was a success in
Canada, and, after Halban’s demotion and subsequent return to Europe, worked
closely with Nunn May on the Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP) project. Yet,
as the war came to a close, Pontecorvo began to feel the anti-communist climate
in Canada and the United States oppressive to him. In late 1945, with Igor Gouzenko
and Elizabeth Bentley revealing the breadth and depth of the Soviet espionage network,
he was happy to receive an informal job offer from John Cockcroft, who had been
appointed head of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, which
was to open on January 1, 1946. Chadwick, who had led the British mission to
the Manhattan Project from Washington, had imposed travel restrictions on Pontecorvo,
but the Italian was able to negotiate a satisfactory deal by the end of January
1946. Despite competitive offers from several prestigious US companies, he made
his decision to join Harwell.
very strangely, Pontecorvo did not start work for three more years, continuing
to operate in Montreal, and even travelling to Europe in the interim. In
February 1948, he became a British citizen, to assuage government concerns
about aliens working on sensitive projects. On January 24, 1949, he left Chalk
River in Ontario for the last time, and officially started work at Harwell on
February 1. An entry in his file at The National Archives, however, indicates
that he was, rather late in the day, ‘nominated for a position at Harwell’, on
July 7 of that year. Astonishingly, the record indicates that Pontecorvo was
‘confirmed in his appointment as S.P.S.O. [Senior Principal Scientific Officer]
and established’ only on January 2, 1950! (KV 2/1888-2, s.n. 97c.)
was not until October 1950, when Pontecorvo disappeared with his family during
a holiday on the Continent, that Liddell made his first diary entry – at least,
of those that have survived redactions – concerning Pontecorvo. As the record
for October 21 states: “On
information that had been received xxxxxxxxx in March of this year, intimating
that PONTECORVO and his wife were avowed Communists, a decision was reached,
after an interrogation of PONTECORVO by Henry Arnold, when the former admitted
to having Communist relations – to get rid of him and find some employment for
him at Liverpool University.” Yet Liddell thus implies that he (or MI5) learned
of Pontecorvo’s unreliability only in March 1950, and his memorandum reinforces
the notion that it was primarily the security officer Arnold’s idea to
accommodate Pontecorvo at Liverpool University, even though the news had apparently
come as a surprise to Arnold back in March.
was being deliberately deceptive. As early as December 15, 1949, (see KV
2/1288, s.n. 97A, as Frank Close reports in Half-Life, his biography of Pontecorvo),
the FBI sent a report to MI5, dated December 15, that identified Pontecorvo’s
links to Communism. As Close writes: ‘MI5 took note. Someone highlighted the
above paragraph in Pontecorvo’s file’, but Close then asserts that MI5 did
nothing, as they were consumed with the Fuchs case at the time. On February 10, 1950, however, another clearer
warning arrived, when Robert Thornton of the US Atomic Energy Commission, on a
visit to a Harwell conference, informed John Cockcroft that Pontecorvo and his
family were Communists, repeating specifically the formal report from December.
A vital conclusion must be that, if this visitor from the USA had not been
invited to the conference, Cockcroft might never have learned about the project
already in place to remove Pontecorvo.
had in fact left behind him a trail of hints concerning his political
allegiances. He had joined the French Communist Party on August 23, 1939, the
day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. In July 1940, MI5 knew enough about him to
judge him as ‘mildly unsuitable’ for acceptance as an escapee to Britain. In
September, 1942, FBI agents had inspected his house in Tulsa (while Pontecorvo
was away), and discovered communist literature there. After Pontecorvo’s
application to join Tube Alloys, the FBI had exchanged correspondence with
British Security Control (which represented MI5 and MI6 in the United States),
concerning Pontecorvo’s loyalties. The FBI was able to confirm, after
Pontecorvo’s flight, that it had sent letters to BSC on March 2, 16, and 19
but, inexplicably, BSC had issued him a security clearance on March 3, and had failed
to follow up.
by Thornton’s warning (having been kept in the dark by his own security officer
and MI5), Cockcroft instructed Arnold to look into the matter. Arnold accordingly
spoke to Pontecorvo, elicited information from him, and was able to inform MI5,
by telephone call on March 1, that Pontecorvo was ‘an active communist’. (On
the same day, Collard of C2A reported that Arnold’s conversation with
Pontecorvo was ‘recent’: KV 2/1887, s.n. 20A.) Yet Arnold added more. He told
MI5 that Pontecorvo had recently before been offered a job at the University of
Liverpool, and that Pontecorvo’s acceptance of that offer would rid Harwell of
a security risk. Again, this news goes unrecorded in Liddell’s diaries at the
is this not extraordinary? What does ‘recently’ mean? If Arnold learned of the
Liverpool job offer from Pontecorvo himself, when had it been arranged? And was
this not extremely early for Pontecorvo to be seeking employment elsewhere?
Given the long gestation period preceding the confirmation of Pontecorvo’s post
at Harwell, would this not have provoked some high-level discussion? After all,
Pontecorvo had been ‘established’ a couple of weeks after the original
warning from the FBI. And who would have made the offer? Liverpool University
is associated in the archives most closely with Herbert Skinner, but, as will be
shown, Skinner was not yet established in a position of authority and influence
at Liverpool. He had been formally appointed, but was not yet working full-time,
as he was still executing his job as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell. Some senior
academic figures should surely have been involved in the decision, especially
the Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Mountford.
aspect of the case has been strangely overlooked by Pontecorvo’s biographers,
Frank Close, and Simone Turchetti. Both mention the fact that Pontecorvo had
first indicated the fact of the Liverpool offer to Arnold on March 1, but do
not follow up why it would have been made so early in the cycle, or investigate
the earlier sequence of events, or even ask why Pontecorvo was informing Arnold
of the fact. Had someone revealed to Pontecorvo that incriminating stories were
floating around about his political beliefs, and had officers at Liverpool
University come to some sort of unofficial agreement with the authorities at
the Ministry of Supply and MI5 – but not Arnold or Cockcroft – since December? It
is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario. Thus it is much more likely
that MI5 did act in December, when they first received the report, but
made no record of the fact.
does in fact report that, in January 1950, i.e. well before the
Arnold-Cockcroft exchanges, Herbert Skinner ‘asked Pontecorvo to join him at
Liverpool, believing that he was the ideal candidate to lead experimental
activities’, as if this would be a normal and smooth career progression. (I
shall explore Skinner’s split role between Harwell and Liverpool later.) Turchetti does not, however, follow up on the
implications of these early negotiations. For, as I suggested earlier, this
would have been a very sudden transfer, given Pontecorvo’s official
confirmation on the Harwell post earlier that month. Moreover, this item does
not appear in the files at the National Archives. It comes from a statement
made by the Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool, Sir James Mountford, which seriously
undermines MI5’s claim that it was not aware of the seriousness of the exposure
until February 1950. Pontecorvo, incidentally, also had the
chutzpah around this time to request a promotion at Harwell, which was promptly
I acquired a copy of Mountford’s statement from Liverpool University. [By courtesy of the Liverpool University Library: 255/6/5/5/6 – Notes on Bruno Pontecorvo by James Mountford.]
was sent by the Vice-Chancellor to Professor Tilley, in September 1978.
Mountford explains that, after Sir James Chadwick in the spring of 1948 vacated
the physics chair to accept the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College,
Cambridge, the university was faced with the problem of finding a suitable
candidate to replace him, with the added sensitivity that, if the right person
were not selected, the nuclear project might be transferred to Glasgow. The
challenge required some diligent networking by the experts in this field.
first choice for Chadwick’s replacement was Sir Harrie Massey, the Australian Professor
of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, who had had a
distinguished war record, working lastly on isotope separation for the
Manhattan Project at the University of California. (Mountford indicated that Massey was
Professor of Physics, but he was in fact not appointed Quain Professor of
Physics until 1950.) Massey ‘reluctantly’ declined the offer, so the team from
Liverpool had a meeting on January 26, 1949, with Professor Oliphant of
Birmingham (to whom Massey had reported at Berkeley), Chadwick, and Sir Edward
Appleton, the Secretary of the Department for Scientific and Industrial
Research (DSIR). They decided upon W. H. B. Skinner of Harwell. Herbert Skinner
headed the physics section there: he also had experience on the Manhattan
Project, as he had worked with Massey on isotope separation at Berkeley.
is, oddly, no discussion by the team of Skinner’s merits, nor even the
suggestion of a process for interviewing Skinner, or asking him about his plans
and objectives, or whether he even wanted the job. Cockcroft does not seem to
have been consulted on his willingness to release his second-in-command so soon
after the latter’s appointment. This must be considered as highly provocative
and controversial, given Skinner’s role as Cockcroft’s deputy, and what Mountford
wrote about the importance of the position, and I shall explore the rationale
in detail later in this article. The note merely states: “He accepted and took
up duties formally in Oct. 1949.” Moreover,
Andrew Brown, in his biography of Joseph Rotblat, states that Rotblat had been
appointed joint acting head of the physics department at Liverpool in October
1948, before resigning in March 1949. That happened to be just after the speedy
decision in favour of Skinner, but Skinner does not even merit a mention in
Brown’s book. * Did Rotblat perhaps think that his close friend Chadwick should
have championed his cause instead of Skinner’s? Maybe he simply regarded the
prospect of working under Skinner intolerable. Or perhaps he was asked to move
aside to make room for a Harwell transferee?
Rotblat obtained a Ph.D., his second, from Liverpool in 1950. It seems that the
Ph.D. was awarded after he moved to London.]
to what Mountford claimed, Rotblat moved to St. Bartholomew’s Medical School
not out of pique at Skinner’s appointment, but because of his dislike of
military applications of nuclear science. Again, Mountford’s judgment (or
memory) should be challenged. Rotblat had voiced his objections to the military
uses of the science back in 1944, when it became apparent that the Germans
would not be successful in building such a bomb. He had moved to Liverpool,
which was constructing a cyclotron to aid applications for energy, was
appointed Director of Research for Nuclear Physics at the university, and was
Chairman of the Cyclotron Panel of the UK Nuclear Physics Committee from 1946
to 1950. He had thus had several years to have considered any objections to
of the exact circumstances concerning Rotblat’s departure, and whether he felt
rebuffed, Skinner, on taking up his duties, raised the question of replacing
Rotblat, and ‘the idea emerged’ of a second chair in Experimental Physics. Turchetti
indicates, more boldly, that Skinner ‘dictated’ that the Faculty of Sciences
agree to establish a professorship, as this would be the status that Pontecorvo
demanded. Yet it is not clear where Turchetti gathered this insight, and it is
not precisely dated. Mountford gives October 1949 as the time Skinner assumed
his duties. Even if one considers it unlikely that a recruit not yet
established would be able to make demands of that nature, if Skinner did indeed
identify and recommend Pontecorvo that early, two months before the
disclosures ofDecember 1949, it would have very serious implications,
suggesting that MI5 and the Ministry already had reservations about the
naturalised Italian. And, even in December 1949-January 1950, Skinner’s approaching
Pontecorvo without informing his boss, Cockcroft, would have been highly
irregular. Mountford may have been putting a positive gloss on the affair, but
it now sounds as if undisclosed pressure was being applied from other quarters.
any case (again, according to Mountford) the Faculty responded by agreeing, in
principle, to approve the chair ‘if a satisfactory person were available’. The
outcome was that Mountford lunched with Skinner and Pontecorvo on January 18,
1950, i.e. a month before the fateful visit of the American Thornton. Pontecorvo,
according to Turchetti, was, however, not very impressed with Liverpool. (And
his highly strung Swedish wife, Marianne, would have been very uncomfortable
there: the wife of one of my on-line colleagues, a woman who hails from
Sheffield, asserts that there was not much to choose between Moscow and
Liverpool at that time.) Alan Moorehead wrote that Mrs. Pontecorvo visited the
city, but was ‘worried about the cold in the north’ – so unlike her native
Stockholm, one imagines. The Chairs Committee then spent three months or so
collecting information about the candidate. Mountford had meanwhile spoken to
Chadwick, who had doubts whether Pontecorvo could stand up to Skinner’s
‘forceful personality’. A formal interview with Pontecorvo eventually took
place, but not until June 6, 1950. He did not overall impress, however, partly
because of his poor English. Yet the committee overcame its reservations, and
Pontecorvo would later accept the position, with January 1951 set as the date
on which he would assume duties.
description of events as a smooth series is a travesty of what was really going
on. Given what happened between January and June, Pontecorvo’s apparent freedom
to accept or reject the offer in June was an unlikely outcome. First of all, in
March, Pontecorvo had given Arnold the impression he had already received a
firm offer, a claim belied by Mountford’s account. At this stage, Pontecorvo apparently
did not respond to it, however vague and undocumented. Later that month,
however, further damaging evidence against him came from Sweden via MI6 (a
communication that was surely not passed on to Mountford). A letter from MI6 to
the famous Sonia-watcher J.H. Marriott, in B2, dated March 2, 1950, describes
Pontecorvo and his wife as ‘avowed Communists’. This revelation applied more pressure
on MI5 and the Ministry of Supply to remove Pontecorvo from Harwell. The
outcome was that, on April 6 (KV/2 -1887, s.n. 26) Arnold was again
recommending that ‘it would be a good thing if he were able to obtain a post at
one of the British universities’, even boosting the suggestion that ‘we might
continue to avail ourselves of his undoubted ability as consultant in limited
fields.’ The naivety displayed is amazing: Klaus Fuchs had just been sentenced to
fourteen years for espionage activities.
Arnold added that Pontecorvo, after denying that he was a Communist, but admitting
that he was assuredly a man of the Left, ‘has already toyed with the idea of an
appointment in Rome University, and is at present turning over in his mind an
offer which has come to him from America.’ The latter must have been an
enormous bluff: given the FBI report, the United States would have been the
last place to admit him for employment. This truth of his allegiance was soon
confirmed, with matters became more embarrassing in July. Geoffrey Patterson in
Washington then wrote to Sillitoe informing him that the FBI had learned of
Pontecorvo’s working at Harwell, and had indicated that they had sent messages
to Washington (and maybe London) on three occasions in 1943 describing
Pontecorvo’s communist affiliations. The messages may have been destroyed,
among the files of British Security Co-ordination, after the war. In
Washington, as MI6’s representative, Kim Philby (of all people) could not trace
them – or so he said. MI5 apparently had no record of them.
the dons at Liverpool had been briefed on all that had happened, they
presumably would have been even more reluctant to take Pontecorvo on. Yet, the
more dangerous Pontecorvo seemed to be, the more MI5 wanted to plant him at
Liverpool. Using FO 371/84837 and correspondence held in the Liverpool
University Library, as well as the Pontecorvo papers at Churchill College, (none
of which I have personally inspected), Turchetti writes: “From the spring of
1950, Skinner used his recent security investigations to put pressure on his
colleague to accept the new position. He also convinced the university’s
administrators of Pontecorvo’s suitability without making them aware of the
ongoing inquiry.” In addition, with ammunition from Roger Makins from the
Ministry of Supply, Skinner had to wear down objections from university
administrators that Pontecorvo was improperly qualified to teach. Skinner was
clearly receiving instructions from his political masters.
and Cockcroft acted as referees for Pontecorvo, but they could hardly be
assessed as objective, given their involvement in the plot. Chadwick pondered
over whether he should confide in Mountford with the awful facts, and wrote to
him that he would discuss the university’s concerns with Cockcroft, but he did
not follow up. And then, when the final offer was reluctantly made on June 6,
Pontecorvo vacillated, requesting another month to consider. On July 24, the
day before he left on holiday, never to return, he wrote to Mountford,
accepting the offer, and stating that he expected to start work after
Christmas, when he would leave Harwell.
October 23, 1950, Liddell had an interview with Prime Minister Attlee. He
glossed over the FBI/BSC issue without giving it a date, and referred solely to
the Swedish source of March 2 as evidence of Pontecorvo’s communism,
conveniently overlooking both the events of December 1949 and February 1950.
All this is confirmed by his memorandum of the meeting on file (KV 2/1887, s.n.
63A). MI5 had been attempting a reconstruction of
Pontecorvo’s activities (KV 2/1288, s.n. 87C), which presumably fed Liddell’s
intelligence. This account (undated, but probably in July or August 1950) omits
both the warning from the FBI in December 1949 (which is confirmed elsewhere in
the file), as well as the information given to Cockcroft at the beginning of
March 1950. It does concentrate, however, on the information from Sweden,
reporting on the discussions that occurred in the following terms: “D.
At. En. [Perrin, at Department of Atomic Energy] decided not to grant
PONTECORVO’s request for promotion and to encourage him to take up the post
offered him at Liverpool by Professor Skinner. This was arranged only after
considerable discussion.” Pontecorvo was thus allowed to leave on vacation in
July without submitting his resignation or formally being taken off Harwell’s
books. And he never returned.
his whole saga eerily echoes what had happened in a collapsed time-frame with
Fuchs at Harwell
Fuchs’s path to Harwell was slightly less erratic, but also controversial. He had been recruited to Tube Alloys, the British codename for atomic weapons research, in 1941, and had moved to the USA at the end of 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. In June 1946 he was summoned from Los Alamos to head the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell, working under Herbert Skinner. Skinner had been the first divisional head appointed at Harwell. Fuchs was appointed chairman of the Power Steering Committee at Harwell, and Pontecorvo joined the committee later.
What is extraordinary about Fuchs’s return to the UK is that the first that MI5 learned about it was when Arnold, the security officer, wrote to MI5, in October 1946, about his suspicions that Fuchs might be a communist. He might well have gained his intelligence from Skinner himself, who had known Fuchs from the time they both worked at Bristol University in the 1930s. The political climate by this stage meant that embryonic ‘purge’ procedures (which were solidified in May 1947) would have to be applied to such figures working in sensitive posts. Frank Close, in Trinity, covers very thoroughly these remarkable few months at the end of 1946, when MI5 officers openly voiced their concerns that Fuchs might be a spy. Michael Serpell and Joe Archer (Jane Archer’s husband) were most energetic in advising that Fuchs should be kept away from any work on atomic energy or weapons research. Rudolf Peierls came under suspicion, too, but Roger Hollis countered with a strong statement that it was highly unlikely that the two were engaged in espionage, and gained support in his judgment from Dick White and Graham Mitchell.
next three years were thus a very nervous time for MI5 and Arnold, as they kept
a watch on Fuchs’s movements and associations. Yet Fuchs was placed on ‘permanent
establishment’ in August 1948, and Arnold was later to claim, deceitfully, that
Fuchs came under suspicion only in that year, when he was observed speaking
intently to a known communist at a conference. The matter came to a head,
however, in 1949, when the decipherment of VENONA transcripts led the
Washington analysts to narrow down the identity of the spy CHARLES to either
Fuchs or Peierls. Guy Liddell indicates that fact as early as August 9: at the
end of August, the FBI formally told MI5 of its belief that the leak pointed to
Fuchs (because of the visit to his sister in Boston).
immediately started making connections. It alerted MI6 to the Fuchs case, and to
his Communist brother, Gerhard. (Maurice Oldfield had told Kim Philby of the
discovery before the latter left London for Washington in September 1949.) MI5
identified the close relationship between the Skinners and Fuchs. A report by
J. C. Robertson (B2A) of September 9 (after a meeting between Arnold, Collard,
Skardon and Robertson) runs as follows: “Although FUCHS’ address has until
recently been Lacies Court, Abingdon, he has in fact rarely lived there, but
has chosen to sleep more often than not with his close friends the SKINNERS at
Harwell. He is on more than usually intimate terms with Mrs. SKINNER. The
SKINNERS will be leaving in about six months for Liverpool, where SKINNER
himself is to take up the chair about to be vacated [sic!] by Sir James
Chadwick. At present, SKINNER devotes his time about half and half to Liverpool
went on to write that Professor Peierls was also a regular visitor at the
Skinners, and that Fuchs was in addition very friendly with Otto Frisch of
Cambridge University. (Frisch, the co-author, with Rudolf Peierls, of the
famous memorandum that showed the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon, had
moved to Liverpool from Birmingham, where Peierls worked, and had been
responsible for the development of the cyclotron developed there. Yet, after
the war, he had taken up work at Harwell as head of the Nuclear Physics
Division, before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947.) At Harwell, Arnold
alone was in on the investigation: Cockcroft was not to be told yet of what was
is an intriguing document, by virtue of what it hints at, and what it gets
wrong. The suggestion that Fuchs is having an affair with Erna Skinner is very
strong, and the mention of Herbert’s long absences in Liverpool indicates the
opportunities for Fuchs and Erna to carry on their liaison. Yet the transition
of the Liverpool chair remains confusing: Chadwick had moved to Cambridge in
1948; Mountford noted that Skinner had taken up his duties in October 1949, but
also referred (well in retrospect) that there had been an interregnum in the
Physics position for a year, from March 1948 to March 1949. Robertson indicates
that the Skinners will not be moving until about March 1950. Skinner’s own file
at the National Archives informs us that he did not resign from Harwell until
April 14, 1950, which was a very late decision, suggesting perhaps that his preferences
had lain with staying at Harwell as long as possible, and that he might even
have had aspirations of restoring his career there. The files suggest that his
duties at Harwell remained substantial well into 1950. A report by J. C.
Robertson of B2A, dated March 9, 1950, describes Skinner as follows: ’. . .
deputy to Sir John Cockcroft and who has temporarily taken over Fuchs’ post as
head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell’. Skinner then continued to
work in a consultative capacity at Harwell: he wrote to the incarcerated Fuchs
as late as December 20, 1950 that ‘we are definitely at Liverpool but go on
visits to Harwell quite often.’ How could Skinner perform that job if he was
spending so much his time in Liverpool? In any case, it was an exceedingly long
and drawn-out period of dual responsibilities for Skinner.
Armed with their confidential VENONA intelligence, MI5 prepared for the interrogation of Fuchs, but were not initially hopeful of gaining a successful confession. Thus the thorny question of what they could collectively do to ‘eliminate’ him (in their clumsy expression) quickly arose. Fuchs might decide to flee the country, which would be disastrous, as his Moscow bosses would be able to pick his brains without any restrictions. Liddell continued the theme, showing his enthusiasm for a softer approach against his boss’s more prosecutorial instincts. Liddell doubted that interrogations would be successful in eliciting a confession from Fuchs, and, as early as October 31, 1949, he was suggesting ‘alternative employment’, though being overruled by Sillitoe. At this stage, Peierls and Fuchs were both under investigation, but Liddell was gaining confidence that Fuchs was ‘their man’. (Peierls had come under suspicion in August since he also had a sister in the United States, but he was soon eliminated from the inquiry.)
November 28, Liddell noted that he was still thinking in terms of finding
another job for Fuchs, and on December 5, he tried to convince Perrin that the
chances of a conviction were remote, saying that ‘efforts should be made to
explore the ground for alternative work’. At a meeting to discuss Fuchs on
December 15, 1949 (see Close, p 255), Perrin ‘commented that Herbert Skinner
was about to move to Liverpool University, and that a transfer of Fuchs to
Liverpool might be arranged through Skinner, who would probably welcome Fuchs’
presence there.’ (Perrin was presumably unaware then of the Erna Skinner-Klaus
Fuchs liaison.) It seems that the notion of parking Fuchs specifically at Liverpool
University was first aired at this time. (Note that this is exactly the same date when
MI5 learned about Pontecorvo from the FBI.) When Jim Skardon managed to get
Fuchs to make a partial confession on December 21, Liddell was still considering finding him ‘some job at some
University compatible with his qualifications’.
After another interrogation of Fuchs, on
December 30, Liddell met the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on January 2,
1950, and informed him of MI5’s resolve to complete the interrogations. Even
Lord Portal (head of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply) was in general harmony,
although reportedly bearing the more cautious opinion that ‘the security risk
of maintaining FUCHS at Harwell could not be accepted, and that some post
should be found for him at one of the Universities’. Attlee seemed ready to
accept Portal’s recommendation. Yet two important players had yet to be brough
into the plot: Cockcroft and Skinner.
Cockcroft became involved, matters took an alarmingly different turn. Cockcroft
asked Skinner, on January 4, whether he could find a place for Fuchs at
Liverpool. This would suggest that, unless a deep feint was being played,
Skinner was not aware of the clandestine efforts to dispose of Fuchs, as his
depositions to Liverpool had hitherto been made with Pontecorvo in mind.
Skinner must surely have been bemused, and must have asked why such a step was
being considered. Cockcroft probably said more than he should have. (Cockcroft
had the irritating habit of concealing his opinions in meetings with his
subordinates, and then showing disappointment when his intentions were not
read, but then talking too much in one-on-one conversations.) On January 10, Cockcroft met with Fuchs and
Skinner, separately. Cockcroft told Fuchs ‘that he would help him find a
university post and suggested that Professor Skinner might be able to take
Fuchs on at Liverpool’. It also reinforces the fact that Cockcroft had not been
brought into the Pontecorvo affair. Astonishingly, all the time up until March
1, Skinner was negotiating with Pontecorvo and Mountford behind Cockcroft’s
back, while Cockcroft was pressing Skinner (up until Fuchs’s confession on
January 24) to place Fuchs at Liverpool without bringing Skinner into the full
Whether Skinner learned about Cockcroft’s offer
to Fuchs from Cockcroft or Erna is not clear, but MI5 reported that Skinner
learned ‘considerably more about the Fuchs affair than he is authorized to know’,
and (as Close writes), ‘in consequence decided to take steps to ensure that
Fuchs stayed at Harwell’. Given the circumstances, this was not surprising.
Skinner already had been promoting Pontecorvo’s case, and because of Erna,
would surely have preferred that Fuchs stayed at Harwell. So much for Skinner
as the enabler of graceful retirement, but he had been placed in an impossible
position. He had been thrust into the middle of these
negotiations, perhaps reluctantly. In the course of one month (January 1950),
Cockcroft applied pressure on him to accept Fuchs at Liverpool, Skinner next
privately tried to talk Fuchs out of the move, and then, even before Fuchs made
his confession, Skinner met with Mountford and Pontecorvo to consider a
position for Pontecorvo at the University. It did not appear that his bosses at
Harwell and the Ministry of Supply were behaving very sensitively to his own
needs. At the same time, they were very anxious to make sure that Skinner kept
to himself anything he may have learned about the predicament that Fuchs – and
the authorities – were in.
also occurred the highly questionable incident of ‘inducement’, highlighted by Nancy
Thorndike Greenspan in her recent biography of Fuchs, whereby Cockcroft
essentially offered Fuchs a free pass if he co-operated, stressing that the
recent appointment of Fuchs’s father to a position in East Germany made Klaus’s
employment at Harwell untenable. Cockcroft also famously suggested that
Adelaide University might be an alternative home, a suggestion which left Dick
White and Percy Sillitoe aghast. Adelaide University happened to be the alma
mater of Mark Oliphant, who had been a colleague of Peierls at Birmingham, and
had also worked on isotope separation at Berkeley. (These connections go deep.)
Oliphant’s biographical record suggests that he returned to Australia after the
war, yet he is recorded by Mountford as attending the fateful meeting in
January 1949 to decide on Skinner as Chadwick’s successor. No ground appeared
to have been prepared for this idea, and the incident, while suggesting Cockcroft’s
political naivety, also hints that Oliphant had been brought into the
discussions some time before. MI5 struggled with the challenge of trying to
coordinate the roles of Arnold, Skinner and Cockcroft, all with different
needs, perspectives, and all being granted only a partial side of the story.
January 11, Liverpool University decided to recommend the establishment of a
second chair in Physics: perhaps Mountford was not yet aware that he was about
to face two candidates for one position. On January 18, Skinner brought
Pontecorvo up for a meeting with Mountford. Then some of the pressure was
relieved. On January 24, Fuchs made a full confession to Jim Skardon, in the
fourth interrogation. He was arrested on February 2, sent to trial, and
sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on March 1. For a while, Liverpool
University was saved the embarrassment of being forced to accept one dangerous
communist spy in its faculty. What Adelaide University thought about all this (if
they were indeed consulted) is probably unrecorded.
Skinner at Harwell
I wrote about Skinner’s enigmatic career in the second installment of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. He had enjoyed a distinguished war record, both in Britain in the USA, and merited his appointment as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell, where he was apparently a very hard and productive worker. Yet he had some facets to his character and lifestyle that raised security questions – not least the fact that he had married Erna, an Austrian born in Czernowitz, who socialized with openly communist friends. (The unconventional lives and habits of the Skinners assuredly deserve some special study of their own.) Despite their background, it appears (unless some files have been withheld) that MI5 began keeping record on the pair only towards the end of 1949, even though Erna had for a while maintained frequent social contact with her Red friends, including Tatiana Malleson. The statements that Skinner made, when later questioned by MI5, that protested innocence, could be interpreted as the honest claims of a loyal civil servant, or the obvious cover of a collaborator in subversion. (That is the Moura Budberg ploy with H. G. Wells, who, when asked by ‘Aitchgee’ whether she was a spy, told him that, whether she were a spy or not, she would have to answer ‘No.’)
Erna was carrying on an affair with Fuchs, taking advantage of Herbert’s
frequent absences when he was splitting his time between Liverpool and Harwell,
but also acting brazenly when her husband was around. In the last months of 1949, the Erna-Klaus
relationship was allowed to thrive. As Close writes (Trinity, p 244):
“Because Erna’s husband, Herbert, was in the process of transferring from
Harwell to take up a professorship at the University of Liverpool, he was
frequently away from the laboratory, so there were many empty hours for Erna,
which she would pass with Fuchs.” If they were not aware of it before, MI5
could not avoid the evidence when they started applying phone-taps to Fuchs’s
and the Skinners’ telephones. Skinner was thus a security risk himself.
who had known Fuchs since their Bristol days, also made some bizarre and
contradictory statements about Fuchs’s allegiances, at one time, in 1952,
admitting that he had known that Fuchs was an ardent communist when at Bristol,
but did not think it significant ‘when he found Fuchs at Harwell’, having
earlier criticised MI5 for allowing Fuchs to be recruited at the Department of
Atomic Energy. On June 28, 1950, when Skardon interviewed Skinner about Fuchs,
the ex-Special Branch officer reported his response as following: “Dr. Skinner
was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to
be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first
met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a
particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell
when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946. Of course I asked Skinner
whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic
and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their
objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this
that response was perhaps a bit too pat, rather like Philby’s memoranda to London
from Washington, where he brought attention to Burgess’s spying paraphernalia,
and later to Maclean’s possible identity as the Foreign Office spy, as a ploy
to distract attention from himself. Fuchs ‘clearly a Communist’ – that should perhaps have provoked a stronger
reaction, especially with Skinner’s assumed patriotism. But his claim was
certainly fallacious: Skinner’s Royal Society biography makes it clear
that he was busy supervising construction at Harwell in the first half of 1946,
substituting for Cockcroft, who did not arrive until June. Fuchs did not arrive
until August, and Skinner must have known about his coming arrival, and even
addition, early in 1951, after Skinner had moved full-time to Liverpool, Director-General
Sillitoe wrote to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, asking him to keep an eye
on the Skinners. A Liverpool Police Report was sent to MI5 on May 10,
indicating that the Skinners had been active members of the local Communist
Party ‘since they arrived in Liverpool from Harwell almost two years ago’. (The
timing is awry.) Faulty record-keeping? The wrong targets? A mean-spirited slur
by a rival who resented Skinner’s appointment? A reliable report on some
foolish behaviour by the new Professor? Another mystery, but a pattern of
duplicity and subterfuge on his part.
actions are frequently hard to explain. In my recent bulletin on Peierls, I
reported at length on the mysterious meetings that Skinner held with Fuchs in
New York in 1947, when they were attending the Disarmament Conference. This
episode was described at length by the FBI, but appears to have been overlooked
(if available) by all five of Fuchs’s biographers: Moss (1987), Williams
(1987), Rossiter (2014), Close (2019), and Greenspan (2020). More mysteriously,
Skinner’s conversations with Fuchs suggested that he had a confidential contact
at MI6. Was Skinner perhaps working under cover, gathering information on
it is not surprising that Skinner might not have embraced the prospect of
Fuchs’s joining him (and Erna) at Liverpool once his assignments at Harwell had
been cleared up. Could he not get that ‘young pup’ out of his life and his
marriage? The record clearly shows that, after Skinner had been instructed by
Cockcroft to show no curiosity in what was going on with the Fuchs
investigation, Fuchs admitted his espionage to Erna on January 17, after which
she told her husband. By January 27, Robertson is pointing out that Skinner has
been told too much by Cockcroft (who was not good at handling conflict), and
that Skinner has been trying to persuade Fuchs to stay at Harwell. This
particular crisis was held off by the fact that Fuchs had, shortly beforehand,
made his full confession to Skardon, and the strategy favoured by White and
Sillitoe of proceeding to trial began to take firm shape.
files on the Skinners at the National Archives (KV 2/2080, 2081 & 2082) reveal
yet more twists, however, indicating that there were questions about Skinner
much earlier, and also showing a remarkable exchange a couple of years after
the Pontecorvo and Fuchs incidents, when Skinner naively exposed, to an
American publication, the hollowness of the government’s policy.
We have to face the possibility that Skinner’s move away from Harwell had been planned a long time before. One remarkable minute from J. C. Robertson (B2A), dated July 20, 1950, is written in response to concerns expressed from various quarters about the Skinners’ Communist friends, and includes the following statement: “We agreed that since the SKINNER’s [sic], on their own admission, have Communist friends, they may share these friends [sic] views, and that Professor SKINNER’s removal from Harwell to Liverpool University should not therefore be a ground for the Security Service ceasing to pay them attention.” ‘Removal’ is a highly pejorative term for the process of Skinner’s being appointed to replace the highly-regarded Chadwick. Was this a misunderstanding on Robertson’s part as to why Skinner was leaving? Was it simply a careless choice of words? Or did it truly reflect that the authorities had decided that Skinner was a liability two years before?
suggestion that Skinner was ‘removed’ might cause us to reflect on the
possibility that Chadwick was encouraged to take up the appointment at
Cambridge in order to make room for Skinner. What is the evidence? Chadwick was
assuredly an honourable and effective leader of the Tube Alloys contingent in
the USA and Canada. He forged an effective partnership with the formidable
General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, but who was very wary of
foreign participation in the exercise. Yet Chadwick became stressed with his
role, conscience-strung by the enormity of what was being created, and not
always being tough enough with potential traitors.
had made some political slip-ups on the way. He had been criticised by Mark
Oliphant for not being energetic enough in the USA, he had provided a reference for Alan Nunn May
for a position at King’s College London
just before Nunn May was arrested, and, in a statement that perturbed many, he
would later openly express his approval of Nunn May’s motives, while saying he
did not support what his friend did. He had also given support to the
questionable Rotblat when the latter announced his bizarre plan to parachute
into Poland. He had appointed another scientist with a questionable background,
Herbert Fröhlich, just before his departure from Liverpool. Moreover, while he
had openly supported Cockcroft’s appointment, he was not overall happy with the
separation of R & D from production of nuclear energy. He and Cockcroft
were both building cyclotrons, and thus rivals, but Cockcroft was gaining more
funding. Rotblat told Chadwick that Harwell was offering larger salaries. The
feud over budgets simmered in the two short years (1946-1948) while Chadwick
was at Liverpool.
was reluctant to leave Liverpool, Mountford reported, even though he was admittedly
an exhausted figure by then. His staff did not want him to leave, either, and
he maintained excellent relations with Mountford himself. By 1948, Perrin – who
reported to the strict and disciplined Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply – and
MI5 were following through Prime Minster Attlee’s instructions to tighten up on
communist infiltration, as the Soviet Union’s intentions in Eastern Europe
became more threatening. Thus installing Cockcroft’s number two at Liverpool
would have allowed the removal of a competent leader who had made an
embarrassing choice of wife, place an ally of Cockcroft’s at the rival
institution, and set up a function that could assimilate unwanted leftists from
Harwell. Overall, Cockcroft trusted Skinner, who had worked for him very
effectively on radar testing in the Orkneys at the beginning of the war, but he
had to be made to understand that Skinner’s wife’s friends were a problem.
if Chadwick was pushed out to make room for Skinner, what finally prompted the
authorities to eject him? It looks as if Liddell, White and Perrin were pulling
the strings, not Cockcroft. Arnold, the security officer, stated in October
1951 that Fuchs’s close relationship with Erna Skinner had started at the end
of 1947. November 1947 was the month that the three of them were in New York. The
injurious FBI report may have been sent to MI5, but subsequently buried. Thus MI5
officers, already concerned about Fuchs’s reliability, might in early 1948 have
seen Skinner as a liability as well, arranged the deal with Perrin and
Oliphant, convinced Chadwick (who had, of course, moved on by then) of Skinner’s
superior claim over Rotblat and Fröhlich, and set the slow train in motion. It
was probably never explained to Cockcroft what exactly what was going on.
is possible that MI5 had seen the problem of disposing of possible Soviet
agents coming some time before. Chapman Pincher had announced, in the Daily
Express in March 1948, that the British counter-espionage service had been
investigating three communist scientists at Harwell. This triad did not include
Fuchs or Pontecorvo, however, since two months later Pincher reported that all
three had been fired. In a memo written in August 1953, when Skinner was in
some trouble over a magazine article [see next section], R. H. Morton of
C2A in MI5, having sought advice from one of MI5’s solicitors, ‘S.L.B.’
(actually B. A. Hill of Lincoln’s Inn), stated that ‘The Ministry of Supply
should be asked whether Skinner was ever in a position to know during the Fuchs
investigation that although we knew Fuchs was a spy, he was allowed to continue
at Harwell for a time’.
is an irritatingly vague declaration, since ‘for a time’ could mean ‘for a few
weeks’ or ‘for a few years’, or anything in between. Yet it specifically states ‘was a spy’, not
‘was under suspicion because he was a communist’. According to the released
archives, that recognition did not occur until September 1949. If the solicitor
and the officer were aware of the rules of the game, and the impossibility of immediate
removal or prosecution, they might have been carelessly hinting at earlier
undisclosed events, and that the Ministry of Supply had initiated
stables-cleaning moves that took an inordinate amount of time to complete.
Skinner’s Venturesinto Journalism
Herbert Skinner later drew a lot of unwelcome attention to himself in two articles that he wrote for publication. In August 1952, John Cockcroft invited him to review Alan Moorehead’s book, TheTraitors (a volume issued as a public relations exercise by MI5) for a periodical identified as Atomic Scientists’ News (in fact, more probably the American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And in June 1953, Skinner published an article in the same Bulletin, titled ‘Atomic Energy in Post-War Britain’. In both pieces he betrayed knowledge that was embarrassing to MI5.
was sagacious enough to send a draft of his book review to Henry Arnold on
September 18, 1952, in particular seeking confirmation of the fact that Fuchs’s
confession to Skardon occurred in two stages, and to verify his impression that
the information that came from Sweden in March of 1950 applied only to Mrs.
Pontecorvo. He wrote: “But I know K confessed to Erna about the Diff. Plant a
day or two prior to Jan. 19th (the date when he was considered for
the Royal Society. This is confidential but did you know it?)” Skinner felt
that Moorehead’s account had been telescoped, and wanted to correct it. As for
the communication from Sweden, Skinner based his recollection on what Cockcroft
had told him, expressing the opinion that, since Pontecorvo had spent so little
time in Stockholm, it was unlikely that data had been gathered about him.
initial response from MI5 was remarkably light. Skardon (B2A) cast doubt on the
earlier January 17 confession, and suggested that the claim should be followed
up with Mrs. Skinner. His boss, J. C. Robertson, was however a bit more
demanding, requesting, in a reply to Arnold dated September 24, that an entire
paragraph, about Fuchs’s confessions, and the pointers to a leakage arriving
from the USA, be removed. [The complete text of the draft review is available in
KV 2/2080.] He added: “I understand that you will yourself be pointing out to
SKINNER the undesirability of making any reference to the report from Stockholm
which he quotes at the bottom of Page 9 of his manuscript.”
latter observation was a bit rich and ingenuous. All that Skinner did was
attempt to clarify a statement made by Moorehead about the Swedish report, and
Moorehead had obviously been fed that information by MI5. Moorehead’s text (pp
184-185) runs as follows: “Indeed Pontecorvo was not persona grata any
longer, for early in March a report upon him had arrived from Sweden and this
report made it clear that not only Pontecorvo but Marianne as well was a
Communist.” Moorehead went on to write that ‘there was nothing to support this
in England or Canada [or the USA?], but it was evident that he would
have to be closely watched’. Here was an implicit admission that MI5 had blown
its cover by allowing Moorehead to see this information. MI5 wanted to bury all
the intelligence about Pontecorvo that had come in from the USA, and Robertson
clearly wanted to distract attention away from Sweden, too. The Ministry of
Supply also issued a sharp admonition that the item about Sweden in Moorehead’s
book should never have passed censorship. One wonders what Clement Attlee
thought about this anomaly.
outcome was that Skinner had to make a weird admission of error. First of all,
he agreed that he found Moorehead’s mentioning of the Swedish reference ‘unfortunate’,
but insisted that he was not in error over Erna’s distress call to him on the 17th,
after Fuchs had confessed to her. This prompted Arnold to raise his game, and
try to talk Skinner out of submitting the review entirely, as he was using
personal information from his role at Harwell, and it would raise ‘a hornet’s
nest’ of publicity. He even suggested to Skinner, after lunching with him and
Erna, that his memory of dates must be at fault. Even though no statement to
that effect is on file, Robertson noted on October 30 that Skinner ‘has now
admitted that he may have been mistaken’. (But recall Robertson’s statement of
January 27, described above, which indicated that Skinner had already tried to
convince Fuchs to stay at Harwell.) Robertson added that ‘we have never been
very happy about Mrs. SKINNER, who was of course FUCHS’ mistress’, but
announced that MI5 no longer need to interview her about the matter. Robertson
alluded to the fact that MI5’s own records pointed to the absence of any
evidence of any ‘confession’ by Fuchs to Mrs. Skinner, but how such an event
would even have been known about, let alone recorded, was not explained.
appears that, after this kerfuffle, the review was not in fact published, but
Cockcroft and Skinner did not learn any lessons from the exercise. In the June
1953 issue of the Bulletin appeared a piece titled ‘Atomic Energy in
Postwar Britain’. The article started, rather dangerously, with the words: “I
think that I, who was a Deputy Director at Harwell from 1946 to 1950, am by now
sufficiently detached to write my own ideas without these being confused with
the British official point of view.” Skinner went on to lament the decline in
cooperation between the USA and Great Britain, although he openly attributed
part of the blame to the Nunn May and Fuchs cases. But he then made an
extraordinarily ingenuous and provocative statement: “It is true that we have
had on our hands more than our fair share of dangerous agents who have been
caught (or who are known).”
could he have been thinking? Sure enough, the Daily Mail Science
Correspondent J. Stubbs Walker picked up Skinner’s sentence in a short piece
describing how Britain was attempting to convince Washington that its security
measures were at least as good as America’s. Equally predictably, the MI5
solicitor B. A. Hill was rapidly introduced to the case, and, naturally, drew
the conclusion that Skinner’s words implied that there were other agents known,
but not yet prosecuted, at Harwell. He thus asked Arnold, in a meeting with
Squadron Leader Morton (C2A), whether Skinner had read Kenneth de Courcy’s Intelligence
Digest, since de Courcy (a notorious rabble-rouser who was a constant thorn
in MI5’s flesh) had made a similar statement in the Digest of the
preceding March that ‘there were still two professors employed at Harwell who
were sending Top Secret information to the Soviet Union’.
for his cause, Skinner had written to the Daily Mail to explain what he
wrote, and how it should have been interpreted. (He assumed that Stubbs Walker must
have picked up his statement from the UK publication, the Atomic Scientists’
News, which published the same text in July, but, while the archive
contains all the pages of the issue of the American periodical, it does not
otherwise refer to the UK publication.) “The parenthesis was simply put in to
cover the case of Pontecorvo,” he wrote, “and I would like to make it clear
that I have no knowledge whatever of any other agents not convicted.” It was a
clumsy attempt at exculpation: the syntax of the phase ‘who are known’ clearly
indicates a plurality.
what was more extraordinary is that, again, Skinner had written the article at
the request of the hapless Cockcroft, ‘who read the article before it was
despatched’. Moreover, a copy also was sent to Lord Cherwell’s office, and an
acknowledgment indicated that ‘Lord Cherwell had read the majority of the
article’. Perhaps Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, and in
1953 Paymaster-General, now responsible for atomic matters, should have read
the article from beginning to end. Perhaps he read all he was given, because
Skinner was able to produce a letter from Cherwell at the end of August,
indicating that he had no comments. Yet what was sent to Cherwell was a ‘draft
of the first half of the paper’. The offending phrase did indeed appear near
the beginning of the article: Skinner was given a slap on the wrists, and sent
away. Whether Cockcroft was rebuked is unknown. A revealing note in Skinner’s
file, dated June 12, 1953, reports that Cockcroft would probably be leaving
Harwell soon, to replace Sir Lawrence Bragg as head of the Clarendon
Laboratory. Morton notes: “Rumours
indicate Skinner in the running to replace him. Arnold considers this most
undesirable ‘for obvious reasons’.” But it is an indication that Skinner still
regarded his sojourn at Liverpool as temporary, and wanted to return to replace
MI5 solicitor made an unusual error of judgment himself, however. In that
initial memorandum of August 12, when he had evidently discussed the matter
with some MI5 officers, he included the following: “On the other hand it was
not generally thought [note the bureaucratic passive voice] that when he
wrote the article he was in fact quoting DE COURCY, but rather that he had in
mind cases such as Boris DAVIDSON, and what he really meant to say was that
there were persons at Harwell who were suspected of being enemy agents but had
not yet been prosecuted, though they were suspected of acting as enemy agents.”
That was an unlawyerly and clumsy construction – and it should have been
DAVISON, not DAVIDSON – but the implication is undeniable. ‘Cases such as Boris
DAVIDSON’ clearly indicates a nest of infiltrators. And I shall complete this
analysis with a study of the Davison case.
Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
The files on Boris Davison at the National Archives comprise nine chunky folders (KV 2/2579-1, -2 and -3, and KV 2/2580 to KV 2/2585), stretching from 1943 to 1954. They constitute an extraordinary untapped historical asset, and merit an article on their own. (Equally astonishing is that Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 has only a short paragraph – but no Index entry – on Davison, and nothing about him appears in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, when Pincher himself was responsible, at the time, for revealing uncomfortable information on Davison’s removal in the Daily Express.) I shall therefore just sum up the story here, concentrating on the aspects of his case that relate to espionage and British universities, and how his convoluted story relates to the problems of dealing with questionable employees in confidential government work.
pilgrimage to Harwell is even more picaresque than that of Fuchs or Pontecorvo.
Boris’s great-grandfather, who was English, had gone to Russia, accompanied by
his Scottish wife, in Czarist times to work as a train-driver in Leningrad.
They returned to Rugby for the birth of Boris’s grandfather, James (the birth
certificate alarmingly states that he was born ‘at Rugby Station’), who was
taken back to Russia at the age of two months, in 1851. James married a
Russian, and their child Boris was born in Gorki as a British subject, in 1885.
The older Boris married a Russian, and the younger Boris was born in 1908. He
studied Mathematics at Leningrad University, and graduated in 1930 with an
equivalent B.SC. degree.
thereupon worked for the State Hydrological Institute, but, in trying to renew
his British passport, he was threatened by the NKVD. Unwilling to give up his
nationality, he applied to leave for the United Kingdom in 1938, and was
granted a visa. He made his journey to the UK, and succeeded, through his
acquaintance with Rear-Admiral Claxton (whom he had met in the Crimea), to gain
employment in 1939 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working
on wind-tunnel calculations. A spell of tuberculosis in 1941 forced his
departure from RAE, but, after a year or so in a sanatorium, Rudolf Peierls
adopted him for his Tube Alloys project at Birmingham, working for the
Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. (Avid conspiracy theorists, a
group of which I am certainly not a member, might point out that Roger Hollis
was also in a sanatorium during the summer of 1942, being treated for
tuberculosis.) Davison joined Plazcek at Chalk River in Canada, alongside Nunn
May and Pontecorvo early in 1945, and, on his return to Britain in September
1947, worked under Fuchs at Harwell, as Senior Principal Scientific Officer.
suspicions of, and subsequent inquiries into, Fuchs and Pontecorvo provoked
similar questions about Davison’s loyalties, and he was placed under intense
scrutiny in 1951, after Pontecorvo’s defection. In a letter to A. H. Wilson of
Birmingham University, written from an unidentifiable location (probably the
British mission in New York) on May 3, 1944, Rudolf Peierls had written that
Davison’s ‘best place would be at Y [almost certainly Los Alamos]
provided he would be acceptable there, of which I am not yet sure.’ Davison’s
records at Kew state that he was sent to Los Alamos for a short while at the beginning
of 1945, but indicate that the New Mexico air had not been suitable for
Davison’s tubercular condition, and he had to return to Montreal. It is more
probable that Davison’s origins and career would have been regarded negatively
by the Americans. (Mountain air was at that time
considered beneficial for consumptives.) In his memoir, Peierls also
claimed that ‘Placzek wanted Boris to accompany him to Los Alamos,
but the doctors doubted whether Boris’s health would stand the altitude. He
went there on a trial basis, but after a few weeks had to return to Montreal.’
any case, Davison was considered a very valuable asset, especially by Cockcroft,
who declared that Davison ‘knew more about the mathematical theory behind the
Atomic Bomb than any other scientist outside America.’ Nevertheless, or
possibly because of that fact, MI5’s senior officers recommended in the winter
of 1950-1951 that he should be transferred ‘to a university’. They were
overruled, however, by Prime Minster Clement Attlee, who decreed that he should
be allow to stay in place. MI5 continued to watch Davison carefully, but when a
Conservative administration returned to power in October 1951, questions were
asked more vigorously, and Davison was eventually forced to leave Harwell,
after some very embarrassing leaks to the Press, and some unwelcome questions
from the US Embassy. Hearing about the investigations, they would no doubt have
been alarmed that Davison was another who had slipped through security
procedures: the Los Alamos visit becomes more relevant. Davison joined
Birmingham University in September 1953, and a year later found a position in Canada,
whither his wife, Olga (whom he had met and married in Canada), wanted to
return. He died in 1961.
barebones outline (derived from various records in the Davison archive)
conceals a number of twists, and raises some searching questions. I have been
poring over the reports, letters and memoranda in the archive, and discovered
some surprising anomalies and missteps. My conclusion is that MI5’s approach to
Davison was highly flawed, and I break it down as follows:
Lack of rigour in tracking Davison’s establishment in the UK: MI5 never investigated
how he passed through immigration, how he provided for himself in the months
after he arrived in 1938, how he was able to apply successfully for a sensitive
position with the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, how he was allowed to join
Peierls’s project supporting Tube Alloys at Birmingham without any vetting, or
how he was allowed to join the Manhattan Project in America. He was teased at the RAE because of his poor
English, and nicknamed ‘Russki’. An occasional question was posed about these
unresolved questions, but it appears that the mere holding of a British
passport was an adequate qualification for the authorities.
Failure to join the dots: When Peierls was viewed as a possible suspect
alongside Fuchs in the autumn of 1949, MI5 might have pursued the
Peierls-Davison connection. Peierls claimed in his autobiography Bird of
Passage that Davison’s name had been sent to him from ‘the central
register’ after Davison completed his spell in a sanatorium, although the event
is undated. Peierls then recruited Davison. I can find no record of any such
communication. There is no evidence that Peierls was ever interviewed over
Davison’s entry to the Tube Alloys project, or that MI5 explored potential
commonalities in the experiences of Genia Peierls and Davison in dealing with
the Soviet authorities. In Bird of Passage, Peierls completely
misrepresented the authorities’ inquiry into Davison’s reliability, suggesting
that it did not get under way until 1953.
Ignorance of Stalin’s Methods: MI5 displayed a shocking naivety about the
methods of the NKVD. Davison was a distinguished scientist, as the authorised
historian of atomic energy, Margaret Gowing, and John Cockcroft both declared.
Rather than allow such a person on specious ‘nationalist’ grounds to leave the
country to abet the ideological enemy, Stalin would have probably confiscated
his UK passport, and forced him to work for the Communist cause. MI5 had failed
to listen to Krivitsky, or gather information on the experiences of other
scientists ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. Instead they trusted Davison’s
account of his ‘refusal’ to take Soviet citizenship, even though he gave
conflicting accounts of what happened.
Naivety over NKVD Aggression: One of the experiences related by Davison to
MI5 was that, when his passport problem came up, he was asked by his NKVD
interrogators to spy on his colleagues at Leningrad University. He declined on
the grounds that he was too clumsy to conceal such behaviour, a response that
provoked the wrath of his interrogator. Such disobedience would normally have resulted
in execution or, at least, exile to Siberia. Yet Davison was ‘rewarded’ by such
non-compliance by being allowed to emigrate to his grandfather’s native land,
and spread the news. That sequence should have aroused MI5’s suspicions.
Delayed recognition of the threats of
‘blackmail’: A refrain in the archived proceedings is
that Moscow would have been alerted to Davison’s presence at Harwell by
Pontecorvo’s defection in the autumn of 1950, and that only then would Davison
have been possibly subject to threats. For that reason, his correspondence with
his parents in the Crimea (itself a noteworthy phenomenon from the censorship
angle) was studiously inspected for coded messages and secret writing. MI5
failed to recognize that the threats to his family would probably have been
initiated before Davison was sent on his mission, in the manner that the
Peierlses were threatened. (That is an enduring technique: it is reported as
being used today by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Since MI5 and
the Harwell management realised that Communists had been installed at Harwell
for a while, it was probable that the fact of Davison’s recruitment would have
reached Soviet ears already. They ignored the fact that his working closely with Fuchs,
Pontecorvo and Nunn May meant he would not have needed a separate courier, but they
expressed little curiosity in how he would have communicated with Moscow after
of the role of subterfuge: MI5 spent an enormous amount of
time and effort exploring Davison’s contacts and political leanings, looking
for a trace of sympathy for communism that might point to his being a security
risk. They even, rather improbably, cited the testimony of Klaus Fuchs from gaol,
Fuchs vouching for Davison’s reliability, and quoted this item of evidence to
the Americans! Yet, if Davison had been a communist, he would probably have
preferred to stay in the Soviet Union, helping its cause, rather than taking on
a role in provoking the revolution overseas, something for which his temperament
was highly unsuited. Even if the lives of his parents had not been threatened,
his most effective disguise would have been to steer clear of any communist
groups or associations.
handling of their target: MI5 and Harwell – and, especially,
John Cockcroft – showed a dismal lack of
imagination and tact in dealing with Davison. Cockcroft was weak, wanted to
hang on to Davison because of his skills, and avoided awkward confrontational
situations. They failed to develop an effective strategy in guiding Davison’s
behaviour, and Cockcroft, when trying to encourage Davison to leave Harwell,
even suggested that he was entitled to have a government job back after his
one-year ‘sabbatical’, because of his civil servant status. Between them,
Harwell and MI5 deluded themselves as to how the account of a Russian-born
scientist expelled from Harwell would manage not to be re-ignited, through idle
gossip, or careless bravado (as turned out to be the case).
views of loyalty: MI5’s perennial problem was that it did
not trust ‘foreigners’, and had no mechanism for separating the loyal and
dedicated alien from the possibly dangerous subversive, or taking seriously the
possible disloyalty of a well-bred native Briton. Davison fitted in to no
established category, and thus puzzled them. In his letter to Prime Minster
Attlee of January 12, 1951, as Attlee was just about to make his decision as to
whether Davison should remain in place, or be banished to a university, Percy
Sillitoe wrote that ‘an
alien or a person of alien origin has not necessarily enjoyed the upbringing
which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, normally ensures the loyalty
of a British subject’, a sentiment that Attlee echoed a week
later. Four months later, Burgess and Maclean defected.
were not happy with Attlee’s decision, wanting Davison safely transferred to
academia. They were worried stiff that, if any action were taken, Davison
‘might do a Pontecorvo on us’, and that in that case closer cooperation with
the Americans – an objective keenly sought at the time – would be killed by the
Congressional committee. They thus hoped that matters would quieten down, and
that Davison would behave himself. Yet a meeting held in February 1951 with the
Prime Minister provoked the following minute: “Rowlands, Sillitoe and Bridges
agreed there should be discussion on the proposition that Davison should be
asked what his reactions would be if the Russians brought pressure on him
through his parents. If approach were made, Davison would mark it as a mark of
confidence in his own reliability.” What the outcome of this strange decision
was is not recorded, but the threat to MI5’s peace of mind would turn out to
come from friendlier quarters.
Davison – after Attlee
Attlee made his decision on February 20, 1951. Sillitoe requested a watch be kept on the Skinners in Liverpool. Meanwhile, MI5 officers had a short time to reflect on Davison’s background. Dick White wondered who the other ‘Britishers’ who were deported at the same time as Davison were, and what had happened to them. (Whether this important lead was followed up is not known: the results might have been so uncomfortable that the outcome was buried.) Yet Reed was later imaginative enough to wonder how Davison ‘was able to survive the purges and outbreaks of xenophobia’, suggesting perhaps that further lessons had been learned. “What services were rendered in exchange for immunity?”, he asked, but there the inquiry ended, for 1951 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the Security Service, as the uncovering of the Burgess & Maclean scandal showed the authorities that espionage and treachery were not simply a virus introduced by foreigners. For a while it distracted attention from the quandary of suspicions persons in place at Harwell.
that time, however, a series of events began that showed the Law of Unintended
Consequences at work. In February, Chapman Pincher had written a provocative
article about Pontecorvo in the Daily Express, and on March 4 Rebecca
West had published an article about Fuchs, critical of Attlee, in the New
York Times. Perrin and Sillitoe agreed that a counterthrust in public
relations was required, and conceived the idea of engaging the journalist Alan
Moorehead to write a book that would reflect better on MI5’s performance. After
some stumbles in negotiation, Moorehead was authorized to inspect some
confidential information on September 24, and started work.
year 1952 progressed relatively quietly. John Cockcroft had revealed to Skinner
in early 1951 that he was considering recommending the South African Basil Schonland
as his successor, and was perhaps surprised to be told by Skinner that
Schonland was not up to the job. This was surely another indication that
Skinner felt himself the better candidate, and wanted to return to Harwell now
that Fuchs and Pontecorvo were disposed of. A possible opening for Cockcroft
appeared in March 1952 at St. John’s College, Oxford, but nothing came of it.
On July 29, Sillitoe announced he would retire at the end of the year. In
August, Davison indicated for the first time that he wanted to leave Harwell.
And in September, as I described earlier, Skinner’s controversial review of
Moorehead’s finished work The Traitors came to the attention of Arnold
the Moorehead incident was smoothed over relatively safely, Skinner’s energies
as a literary critic had more serious after-effects in 1953. First of all, Nunn
May had been released in January, an event that brough fresh attention to the
phenomenon of ‘atom spies’. As Guy Liddell reported on January 13, Foreign
Secretary Anthony Eden wanted Nunn May settled into useful employment, but the
scientist was blacklisted by the universities. (After working for a scientific
instruments company for a few years, Nunn May moved to the University of Ghana
in 1961.) Skinner’s observation about other spies being left in place,
unpunished, was a far more serious blow to MI5’s reputation, and his weak
explanation that he was referring solely to Pontecorvo was not convincing.
Privately, he admitted that he had indeed been referring to Davison.
was not revealed at the time was the fact that other such agents had been named
in internal documents. One of the Boris Davison files at the National Archives
(KV 2/2579-1, s.n.184A) shows us that Dick White, as early as January 25, 1951,
wrote that there were eighteen known employees at Harwell ‘who have some sort
of a Communist suspicion attaching to them’.
Of these, five were serious. He continued: “Two of the five, SHULMAN and
RIGG are being transferred from Harwell on our recommendation. In the case of a
third, DARLINGTON, we may recommend transfer and so this will almost certainly
be agreed. The remaining two, PAIGE and CHARLESBY, are under active
investigation and if additional information tends to confirm that they have
Communist sympathies we may have to recommend their transfer likewise.”
is an extraordinary admission. I have not discovered anything elsewhere on
these characters, although I notice that the first three are cited in the Kew
Index as working at Harwell, as authors or co-authors of papers, in AB 15/73,
AB 15/2383, AB 15/566, AB 15/586, AB 15/1661 and AB 15/1386 (N. Shulman), AB 15/1254
(M. Rigg), AB 15/5531 (M. E. Darlington). Astonishingly, all three papers are
currently closed, pending review. [Moreover, during the few days in which I
investigated these items, they were being maintained and their descriptions
changed. The author of AB 15/24, original given as ‘Rigg’, is now given as
‘Oscar Bunnemann’ [sic], which, in the light of revelations below, poses
a whole new set of questions. Can any reader shed any light on these men?]
Yet it proves that Skinner was correct, and knew too much. And one another link
has come to light. As early as July 12, 1948 T. A. R. Robertson had discovered
that Davison and one Eltenton were in Leningrad at the same time, noting that
Eltenton was already up for an ‘interview’. (The word ‘interrogated’ has been
replaced with a handwritten ‘interviewed’ in the memorandum.) The story of
George Eltenton, who brought some bad publicity to MI5 through his involvement
in the Robert Oppenheimer case in the USA, will have to wait for another day.
denouement was swift. Skinner was let off with a warning, but his goose was
essentially cooked. On August 8, 1952, he thanked Arnold for his support, adding
casually that Chapman Pincher had invited him to lunch. A few weeks later, on
August 26, Pincher published his article on Davison in the Daily Express,
and two days later Henry Maule’s piece in the Empire News reported how
‘poor old Boris’ had been banished to the backwaters of Birmingham University,
implicitly indicating that Davison was rejoining his prior mentor and supporter
MI5’s embarrassments were not over. On December 14, 1952, a brief column by
Sidney Rodin in the Sunday Express claimed that Churchill had intervened
in the decision to replace Fuchs at Harwell, and explained that Davison had
been rejected because of his background, and that six others had been passed
over because they were foreign-born. In place (the piece continued), the
28-year-old Brian Flowers had been appointed, and ‘for months his background
was checked.’ This announcement was doubly ironic, since it turned out that the
leaker to Rodin was Professor Maurice Pryce of the Clarendon Laboratories,
Acting Head of the Theoretical Division at Harwell alongside Rudolf Peierls. He
had admitted planting the story as a way of ’distracting attention away from
the “undesirable background of the Buneman case”’. Indeed. For Flowers had for
a while been having an affair with Mary, the wife of Oscar Buneman, who had
been working under Fuchs at Harwell. The future Baron Flowers, who also held a
post at Birmingham University, had married his paramour in 1951, and was now
presumably respectable. Like Fuchs, Buneman had been imprisoned by the Gestapo,
escaped to Britain, and been interned in Canada. Maybe MI5 and Arnold
overlooked this rather seedy side to Flowers’ background: the episode showed at
best a discreditable muddle and at worst appalling hypocrisy at work.
was thus Birmingham, not Liverpool, that became the home of a distressed
scientist, one who may never have acquired the status of an official spy, but
who was perhaps a communicator of secret information under duress. A cabal of
Liddell, White and Perrin had plotted, and made moves, without consulting
Cockcroft or Arnold. Skinner never quite realised what was going on, failing to
consider that his wife’s liaisons were a liability, and harboured unfulfillable
designs about returning to Harwell to replace Cockcroft. Skinner would remain
at Liverpool, unwanted by Harwell, and remaining under suspicion. The loose
cannon Cockcroft did not understand why Skinner had been banished, but
considered him a useful ally at Liverpool, and naively encouraged him in his
literary exploits. Fuchs was in gaol:
Pontecorvo in Moscow. By the time Davison had transferred to Birmingham, in
September 1953, Liddell had resigned from MI5, bitterly disappointed at being
outmanoeuvred by his protégé, Dick White, for the director-generalship, and had
taken up a new post – as director of security at AERE Harwell. MI5 still
considered Davison on a temporary transfer ‘outhoused’ to Birmingham, but did
their best to ease his relocation to Canada, perhaps masking his medical problems.
Davison died in Toronto in 1961, at the young age of 52, the year after
Skinner’s death. I do not know whether foul play was ever suspected.
In conclusion, it should be noted that Peierls had his vitally significant correspondence with Lord Portal in April 1951, where he responded to accusations about him, and revealed the links with the Soviet Security organs that he had kept concealed for so long. (See The Mysterious Affair at Peierls, Part 1). Had Peierls perhaps discussed the shared matter of NKVD threats to family with his protégé, and ventured to inform MI5 and the Ministry of the predicament that Davison been in? Or, more probably, had Davison confessed to MI5 about how he himself had been threatened, and, as a possible source of ‘the accusations’, drawn Peierls in? Readers should recall that the decision to interview Davison, to ask him about possible threats to his parents, in the belief that such a dialogue might increase Davison’s confidence in them, was projected to have taken place just before then. The timing is perfect: Davison might well have told his interviewers the full story, and brought Peierls into his narrative.
many loose ends in the story are left because of the selective process of
compiling the archive. In 1954, Reed of MI5 referred darkly to a confidential
source who was keeping them informed of Davison’s negotiations with Canada: likewise,
it could well have been Peierls. We shall probably never know exactly what
happened in that 1951 spring, but Portal, previously Air Chief Marshal, was no
doubt shocked by the whole business. He resigned his position at the Ministry
of Supply soon afterwards: Perrin left at the same time. And if Moscow had
discovered that their threats had been unmasked, or that any of their assets
had behaved disloyally, Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks squad would have been
ready to move.
What should a liberal democracy do when it discovers spies, or potential spies, working within scientific institutions carrying out highly sensitive work? Is the process of removing them quietly to an academic institution a sensible attempt at resolving an apparently intractable problem, given that trials, however open or closed, are a necessary part of the judicial procedure? Torture or oppressive measures cannot be applied to the targets, backed up by other cruel or mortal threats, as was the feature of Stalin’s Show Trials. Perhaps moving awkward employees to a quiet backwater was the most sensible practice to protect the realm without causing undue publicity?
named Purge Procedure was provoked by the Nunn May conviction, and a Cabinet
Committee on Subversive Activities was set up in May 1947. The topic of the
Procedure, which was established in March 1948, and how it was applied, has
been covered by Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm, pp 382-393. Yet
I find this exposition starkly inadequate: it concentrates on the discovery of
communists within the Civil Service, but barely touches the highly sensitive
issue of possibly disloyal scientists working at a secret institution like AERE
Harwell. For reasons of space and time, a proper analysis will have to be
deferred until another report, and I only skim the issue here.
Professor Glees has
informed me that, during an interview that Dick White gave him in the 1980s
(White died in 1993), the ex-chief of MI5 and MI6 impressed upon him ‘the importance of keeping
people away from where they could do harm’, and that the execution of such a
policy was a key MI5 tool. As a counterbalance, the journalist Richard Deacon
informed us that, in the early 1950s, ‘gone to Ag and Fish’ (the Ministry of
Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) meant that an intelligence operative had ‘gone
to ground’. That ministry was the destination for the MI6 agent Alexander Foote
after he had been interrogated. Perhaps he worked alongside civil servants with
communist leanings who had also been parked there.
I find that statement of policy a little disingenuous on White’s
part. For it is one thing to take a discovered Communist off the fast track in
some other Ministry and transfer him out to grass sorting out cod quotas with
Iceland before he does any damage. And it is quite another
to take a known or highly suspected spy from a secret institution like AERE
Harwell, remove him completely from sensitive work, and transfer him to a
university a hundred and fifty miles away. Multiple issues come into play: the
processes of university councils, the creation of posts, preferential treatment
over other candidates, funding, the candidates’ suitability for teaching, language
problems, relocation concerns, even a wife’s preferences – and the inevitable
chatter that accompanies such a disruption.
So what should the
authorities have done in such cases? Civil servants were entitled to a certain
measure of employment protection, and could not be fired without due cause. Being
a communist was not one of those causes, and Attlee was nervous about left-wing
backlash. The primary challenge to taking drastic action in the case of spies
(who were frequently not open communists) thus consisted in the suitability of
the evidence of guilt, however conclusive. Unless the suspect had been caught
red-handed (as was Dave Springhall, although he was not an academic), or he or
she could quickly be convinced to confess (as was Nunn May), the prosecution
probably relied on confidential sources. In the case of Fuchs, the source was
VENONA transcripts: the project was considered far too sensitive to bring up in
court, and its validity as hard evidence might have been sorely tested. Even
with a confession, there were risks associated. A defendant might bring up
uncomfortable truths. With little imagination required, Fuchs could surely have
brought up the matter of his inducement by Skardon/Cockcroft, and he could have
honestly described how he had been encouraged to spy on the Americans while
furthering British objectives.
public trials would draw attention to a security service’s defects:
counter-intelligence units are not praised when they haul in spies, but severely
criticised for allowing them to operate in the first place. And if the suspects
were British citizens, and were threatened to the extent that they felt
uncomfortable, or could not maintain a living, they could not be prevented from
fleeing abroad at any time (‘doing a Pontecorvo’), and had therefore to be
encouraged to feel safe in the country. Thus sending such candidates to a functional
Siberia, in the hope that they would become stale and valueless, yet behave
properly, came to represent a popular option with the mandarins in MI5 and the
Ministries. (On Khrushchev’s accession to power, Molotov was sent to be
Ambassador in Mongolia, while Malenkov was despatched to run a power station in
Kazakhstan. I have not been able to verify the claim that the Russians have a
phrase for this – ‘being sent to Liverpool’.)
Yet it was an
essentially dishonourable and shoddy business. First of all, unless the
authorities were simply scared about what might happen, it rewarded criminal
behaviour. It discriminated unjustly between those who did not confess and
those who did (Springhall, Nunn May, Fuchs, Blake): we recall that Nunn May was
blacklisted by British universities after his release, while Fuchs, with a
little more resolve, might have spent a few calm years considering where he
might be more content, continuing his liaison with Erna Skinner in Liverpool,
or renewing his acquaintance with Grete Keilson in East Germany. The Purge
Procedure allowed suspected civil servants to leave with some measure of
dignity, but the method of transferring suspects to important positions at
universities represented a deceitful, and possibly illegal, exploitation of
academic institutions, and consisted in a disservice to undergraduates
potentially taught by these characters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that such
a move would have put the lid on the betrayal of secrets. The Soviets might try
to extradite a suspect (Moscow thought Liverpool was useless as a home for
Pontecorvo), which, if successful, would have raised even more questions.
Overall, the policy was
conceived in the belief that the suspect would behave like a proper English
gentleman, but that was no certainty, and there were sometimes wives to
consider (such as Mrs. Pontecorvo.) Latent hypocrisy existed, in (for example)
Cockcroft’s hope that Fuchs and Davison might still help the government’s cause.
It was an attempt at back-stairs fixing, and the fact that it was covered-up
indicated government embarrassment at the process. They displayed naivety in
believing that the story would not come out. It was bound to happen, as indeed
it did with Davison, although Skinner’s ‘removal’ appears to have been
(I should also note that
a similar process was applied to Kim Philby. He was dismissed from MI6, and
made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but allowed to pursue a journalistic
career, again in the belief that his utility to his bosses in Moscow would
rapidly disintegrate. Yet he had loyal friends still in the Service, and became
an embarrassment. Some historians claim that Dick White allowed him to escape from
Beirut as the least embarrassing option.)
final lessons can be learned? The experiences with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and
Davison (and to a lesser extent, Skinner) reinforce that fact that MI5 was
hopelessly unprepared for the challenge of vetting for highly sensitive
projects. Awarding scientists citizenship does not guarantee loyalty: the
Official Secrets and Treachery Acts will not deter the committed spy. Stricter
checks at recruitment should have been essential, although they might not have
eliminated the expert dissimulator. Vetting procedures should have been
defended and executed sternly, with no exceptions. Yet MI5 also showed a
bewilderingly disappointing lack of insight into how the Soviet Union, and
especially the NKVD/KGB, worked, which meant that they were clueless when it
came to assessing an ‘émigré’ like Davison, who fitted into no known category.
Until the Burgess-Maclean debacle, they continued to believe in the essential
loyalty of well-educated Britons. They continued to ignore Krivitsky’s warnings
and advice, and failed to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s domestic
policies, and strategies for espionage abroad. It should instead have built up
a comprehensive dossier of intelligence on the structure and methods of its
ideological adversary, as did Hugh Trevor-Roper with the Abwehr, and
promoted a strong message of prevention to its political masters and
colleagues. That opportunity had faded when its sharpest counter-espionage
officer, Jane Archer, was sidelined, and then fired, in 1940.
events surrounding these scientists should surely provide material for a major
novel or Fraynian dramatic work. The line
between inducement and threats, on the one hand, and careful psychological
pressure, on the other, could have had vastly different outcomes, and could
perhaps be compared to the treatment of the homosexuals Burgess and Turing, and
how the former managed to get away with scandalous behaviour, while the latter
was driven to suicide. Perhaps whatever strategy was tried was flawed, as it
was too late by then, but dumping on universities was undistinguished and
hypocritical. Demotion, removal from critical secret work, and removal of
oxygen sent a signal that might have been successful with a more timid
character like Davison, but it would not have worked with a showman like
business of counter-intelligence is tough: MI5 was not a disciplined and
ruthless machine, but simply another institution with its rivalries, ambitions,
flaws, and politics to handle. It was poor at learning from experience, however,
and sluggish in setting up policies to deal with the unexpected, instead
spending vast amounts of fruitless time and effort in watching people, and
opening correspondence. It thus muddled along, and found itself having to cover
up for its missteps, and choosing to deceive the government and the public. For
a long time, the ruse appeared to be successful. Seventy years have passed. A
close and integrative, horizontal rather than vertical, inspection of the
released archives, however, complemented by a careful analysis of biographical
records, has allowed a more accurate account of the goings-on of 1950 to be
Archives files on Pontecorvo, Fuchs, the Skinners, Davison: the Guy Liddell
Mountford memoir at Liverpool University
and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing
by Frank Close
Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti
Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss
Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams
Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter
by Frank Close
by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan
Germans by Christopher Laucht
Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde
Spies by Paul Broda
of Passage by Rudolf Peierls
Rudolf Peierls, Correspondence, Volume 1 edited by Sabine Lee
and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone
Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown
Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown
Ever since I started exploring the KV 6/41 file at the National Archives in greater depth, and published my findings in a special bulletin at the end of April (see here), Professor Glees and I have been pondering over its implications. We quickly agreed that the letter sent by Victor Farrell to Len Beurton in March 1943 was conclusive proof that MI6 was using Len and his wife, Ursula (agent SONIA), as some kind of asset, and this finding sealed the somewhat speculative story I had outlined in ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Professor Glees was able to use his contacts at the Mail on Sunday to excite their interest, and the story that appears today is the result.
We are very pleased with the outcome. Of course, there are items which we might have expressed differently ourselves (and Professor Glees and I still enjoy differences of opinion on how some of the evidence should be interpreted), but we agree that a compelling account of the story of treachery and self-delusion has been laid out. We think it has shed dramatic light on an intelligence puzzle that has foiled the experts for decades.
The story is unavoidably very complex, and in compressing into a single article an international series of events involving multiple intelligence agencies, it is inevitable that some oversimplifications occur. The details of World War II, and the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany during the Battle of Britain, may not be familiar to many readers. A new generation will not be aware, necessarily, of who Klaus Fuchs was, and why secrets of atomic weaponry were so critical in the years following the war. Thus some of the nuances of politics in the 1940s have had to be skated over, as have some of the details of the career, movements, and activities of Ursula and Len Beurton.
Those readers who want to pursue in more depth the story of SONIA’s career, her activities in Switzerland, her arranged marriage, and her escape to the United Kingdom, are encouraged to read the full story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, viewable here. And if any reader wishes to send a serious question about the Mail on Sunday piece, or anything that I have written about on coldspur, he or she is encouraged to post a comment after this bulletin, or to send me an email at email@example.com. I shall post questions and responses here.
Lastly, look out for a fresh report at this website, an analysis of the description by Peter Wright (‘Spycatcher’) of the wireless messages that convinced him both of Sonia’s activity, and of Roger Hollis’s culpability, on Tuesday, July 1.
Update No. 1 (June 28)
Last night I received my first item of feedback, from a US resident. It ran as follows: “Utter nonsense. Sorry to hear that you bought into a ridiculous idea. Embarrassing for you that it has been published.”
My reactions are many. First of all, I know this correspondent (whom I shall call ‘Horace’) to be a smart fellow, who has contributed originally to intelligence research. But I also know him as a notorious skimmer of my work (like Frank Close, perhaps). After my Round-up last month, Horace wrote to me, enclosing a link to Ben Macintyre’s website, and the reference to the book on Sonia, at which I had to point out to him that I had already cited it in the same report, and pointed out a gross error. And, since, this Mail on Sunday feature is a highly logical extension of all that I have been writing in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ and since, Horace must have failed to follow the plot. He has occasionally stated that he does not agree with my conclusions, but has never provided a shred of evidence to challenge them. Moreover, Horace must be temperamentally unsuited to this business: so many mysteries exist that it is absurd to dismiss a serious attempt to explain them as ‘nonsense’. Alternatively, Horace must have a theory of his own to explain the multitude of accommodations that MI6 and MI5 made for Sonia – one he has never articulated.
I am far from ’embarrassed’. This feature is excellent publicity for coldspur. As for ‘buying into a ridiculous idea’, I find that amusing. No one ‘sold’ it to Professor Glees and me. We developed it.
Horace is not Ben Macintyre, by the way. I asked Horace whether I could quote his comments on coldspur. He never replied.
Update No. 2 (June 29)
have now received many responses to the Mail on Sunday piece, for which
I thank everyone. They were, with one exception already reported on, overall very
positive, but I understand that the appearance of the information in this
format did confuse some of you.
Let me recap first. Back in early May, I had been trying to find a media outlet for my latest conclusions about Sonia, in order to forerun the arrival of Ben Macintyre’s book on the Soviet spy. Having failed with the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, I was encouraged by Professor Glees to work with him on approaching the Mail on Sunday, where he had a solid contact. I jumped at the opportunity, but also had some concerns, as I was not sure how I would remain in control of the project. Things went fairly well, a story was put together (based on my material on coldspur, largely by Professor Glees, who was more familiar with the house style), and we in fact expected the story to be placed on May 31.
matters became difficult. For four successive weeks, the decision to publish
was deferred, since apparently more pressing stories demanded priority. This
was an extremely frustrating time for me, as I was obviously embargoed from
writing any more on the subject that might weaken the freshness of the Mail
on Sunday feature. We had no contract, but our contact implored us to be
patient. I was about to pull the plug on the whole project, and either start with
a new media outlet (which could have caused a repeat of the whole drawn-out business)
or simply reverse to my own publishing model, where I can issue what I want,
when I want, in my own voice, and without any editors looming over me, but
where the readership and the publicity are indisputably small. I wanted very
much a) a story in the national media about Sonia, and b) publicity for coldspur,
so that I could continue my writings with the confidence that they were gaining
thus extended our offer for one more week, and the Mail on Sunday came
through. Unfortunately, it did not refer to coldspur (at least not in
the on-line version), which I believed had been part of the agreement. That is a
great disappointment to me, but I imagine those readers really interested will
track coldspur down. Has it drawn Ben Macintyre out of the undergrowth?
Not yet, it seems, but that will probably take a little longer. I must believe
that ‘his attention will be drawn’ by experts, agents, editors, and colleagues
at the Times to the Mail on Sunday story, and he may start to
regret not having responded to my overtures a couple of years ago. I am predictably
very keen on learning what his particular angle on Sonia (how Chapman Pincher spelled
her) or Sonya (Macintyre’s choice, and the form in her translated memoir) will
for the story itself, some of you were confused, for which I apologise. You
found the narrative unconvincing, and looked for more substance – such as that
which you normally find on coldspur. Some asked whether I agreed with
all the statements ascribed to Professor Glees! I should mention that all the
quotations offered to the paper were presented as joint submissions, but in
their intensity, and maybe for space reasons, the journalists attributed nearly
all to the Professor, and I was left with only a single, somewhat fractured
one. Never mind. I am very grateful to Professor Glees for the academic and
professional authority he brought to the project, and the proof of the pudding
will remain in my researches on coldspur.
Thus I acknowledge that a slightly less ‘melodramatic’ version of the analysis would be useful – nay, essential – to many of my readers. You have submitted questions that demand scholarly and cool answers. Nevertheless, rather than address them during the month one by one here, I have decided to devote next month’s bulletin (to be published July 31) to an exposition of the full case of the MI6/MI5 collusion regarding Sonia, list all the evidence that led the Professor and me to our conclusions, and also describe the conundrums and unanswered questions that remain.
In the meantime, keep those comments coming, and do not forget to look out for new analysis on Peter Wright and Spycatcher tomorrow.
Update No. 3 (July 7)
The dust has settled a bit. I have received some further very positive feedback. Unfortunately the Google News feature that Professor Glees uses, which provides alerts on activities of his like the publication of this article, appears to have been de-activated. Many of his contacts may therefore not have noticed the feature. The editors at the Mail on Sunday are similarly perplexed. It looks as if some undefinable body, upset by the revelations, has the power to interfere with such mechanisms. How can that be?
Professor Glees and I have both been in cordial contact with Ben Macintyre. He claimed, in his message to Professor Glees, that his book would obviously be making references to coldspur. I await the arrival of his book (which he promised to send me via the US publisher) with great eagerness, so that I may verify that assertion. He apologised to me for the fact that my 2018 message to him via his publisher had gone astray, and told me that he had corrected the errors on his websites. Yet, as I look at them again today, they all appear to be unchanged.
Meanwhile, I have started working on a fuller and less hectic version of the Sonia/MI6 story for publication here on July 31. I also sent an email to the GCHQ Press Office, alerting it to my post on Spycatcher and HASP, and providing the link, on July 1. I have yet to receive any acknowledgment. I am sure my report has been the cause of much merriment in Cheltenham.
I interrupt this bulletin to note the deaths of two significant persons related to the world of intelligence that have been recorded in NYT obituaries in the past ten days, reminders of the feverish days of World War II.
April 2, Walentyna Janta-Polczynska died in Queens, New York. She was appointed
personal secretary to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the
Polish government-in-exile, in 1939. She translated and prepared reports by Jan
Karski, who brought the first eyewitness accounts of atrocities against the
Jews in Warsaw. In 1943 she assisted in Sikorski’s funeral arrangements after
his plane crashed after takeoff from Gibraltar. She was born in Lemberg (Lvov,
now Lviv): her father ‘hailed from an English family that had initiated oil
exploration in eastern Poland’. Ms. Janta-Polcynska was 107.
April 7, Henry Graff, historian, died in Greenwich, Connecticut, aged 98. In
November 1943 [date probably wrong], he translated part of a message
sent by Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin who had regular
discussions with Hitler, and passed on encrypted summaries of what he learned.
In this case, Oshima described German plans for countering the expected D-Day
invasion. Nine months later [sic], shortly after Hiroshima, Graff
translated a message from Japan to the Soviet Union, for some reason directed
at Bern in Switzerland, asking for help extricating Japan from the war. [I
informed the ‘New York Times’ of these anomalies, but have not received a
reply, and, as yet, the publisher has not issued a Correction.].
Next, four anecdotes . . .
Soon after we retired to Southport, North Carolina, at the beginning of August 2001, I made a trip into Wilmington, a town about thirty-five miles away, a port city on the Cape Fear River. I wanted to explore it, to familiarize myself with its layout, find out where the libraries and bookshops were, and, while I was about it, to get a haircut. I found a barber’s shop in a quiet street, went in, and sat down, waiting for my turn. I was then horrified when I heard the man I believed to be the owner, snipping away at a customer’s hair, say: “Of course the blacks were much happier when they were slaves.”
had come across some casual racism in my time in the United States, mainly in
the South, but not exclusively there, and had even experienced some ‘ethnic’
hatred directed at me, but I had never heard such a blatant example of stupid,
ugly, patronizing, disgusting, ignorant speech before. How dare this redneck
put himself in the minds of his fellow citizens, and make a facile conclusion
about them and their ancestors of almost two centuries ago? I would not call it
‘prejudice’, because this insect had clearly thought about the matter before
coming up with his well-exercised opinion. And the fact that he was ready to
speak up openly about it, in the presence of a stranger, made the expression of
his opinion even more frightful and alarming than it would otherwise have
been. Was this a common feeling among
felt like standing up and biffing the perpetrator on the nose, but thought that
causing an affray so soon after my arrival in South-Eastern North Carolina
might not be a good idea. The barber might claim that I had misheard him, after
all, or that it was a joke taken out of context. But I knew it was not. I
simply stood up and walked out of his establishment, and found a proper
hairdresser in the centre of town. Maybe that was a shabby exit, not
confronting evil when it pushes its voice into your face, but it was all a bit
overwhelming at the time.
I have since discovered that sentiments like the barber’s are not that uncommon, and that even though Wilmington has overall become more civilized by the arrival of Yankees and others in its population, and joining its media outlets, etc. (much of it resented by some locals, I should add), a combination of resentment that the Civil War was lost, and regret over the decline of ‘white’ supremacy, can still be found in many pockets of New Hanover County and its surrounding rural areas.
2. Early in 2000, about eighteen months before we left Connecticut for good (we have not been back in almost twenty years), I read in the New York Times about a photographic exhibition being held at a small gallery in New York City. It concerned records of lynchings that has been carried out in the United States in the twentieth century, with some of the photographs taken after I was born (in 1946). These had apparently not been shown before. I had reason to make a business trip to New York – about an hour away by train – so I decided to make time to visit this gallery. I am not somebody who chases down the grisly out of some perverse pleasure, but I believed that this might be a once-only opportunity to become educated about a horrific aspect of American history about which I had only vague understandings.
was an experience both moving and horrifying. I had read about the British
soldiers who discovered Belsen, and were so shocked by what they found that it
made them physically sick. I had a similar reaction – not quite so physical,
but creating that roiling in the stomach. To see a ‘black’ man strung up on a
tree, and ‘white’ families celebrating as if it were a public holiday (which is
how they probably treated it), was nauseating. What made it even worse – although this is a specious argument – was
that it had taken place in my lifetime. One thinks of ‘medieval’ practices, but
all this happened frequently in the first part of the twentieth century, in a
country that made all manner of claims about human liberty, and ‘making the
world safe for democracy’.
After all, this was not Stalin’s Gulag, where in fact the horrors were far worse in number. I have just read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, covering a largely contemporaneous period (1937-51) when Shalamov spent most of his incarceration working as a slave in or around the notorious goldmines of Kolyma. The death rate there was truly monstrous, and dwarfed the assaults on humanity represented by the lynchings. Yet the photographic record of Kolyma is scanty: the world knows little about the broken bodies, the mutilations and executions. Shalamov’s vignettes provoke similar feelings of disgust, but the Gulag reflected a different kind of cruelty – the abomination of State-run terror run amok. Prisoners were sentenced to ten years in Kolyma for being members of the Esperanto Society, for expressing a hope for the return of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for praising the exiled poet Ivan Bunin, for complaining about the length of the queue for soap, or on the false denunciation of a neighbour, and few would survive. The lynchings were private vigilante operations, and took place in a supposedly democratic society run by the rule of law. How can one compare them? A few hundred lynchings in twentieth-century America, six million dead in the Holocaust, over a million in Kolyma alone? Every brutal death was an individual calamity.
(Amazingly, I was able to dig out, on the afternoon after I wrote the above two paragraphs, my clippings file on the exhibition, and related topics. I had forgotten that I had composed a brief memorandum immediately afterwards, which I present here, in its unimproved form. As is evident, one or two of the references are incomplete, but I believe it sums up well my immediate disgust. I recall now that the main reference I left unfinished was the final passage of Emanuel Litvinoff’s searing Faces of Terror trilogy, where Peter Pyatkov is taken down to the cellars of the Lubianka:
‘Cold metal against the nape of his
neck. His moment.
“Who am – ? . . .’
also reproduce in this page some clippings from The New York Times of
that time. A warning: they are discomforting to look at.)
It was at that time that I understood there was something much darker and more pervasive going on. I had rather naively imagined that the absurd colour barriers and divisiveness had broken down in the ‘Great Society’ of the 1960s. I knew that it had been illegal in North Carolina, up until 1965, for a marriage between a ‘white ‘ person and a ‘black’ one to take place (which would have meant that Sylvia and I could not have wed), but thought that these absurd racial categories were gradually being eroded. Other political trends, however, were in fact re-emphasising this false science.
3. A few years after we moved down her, Sylvia, Julia and I made a visit to the Orton Plantation. This was one of the few private estates that are open to visitors in this neck of the woods – or even across the whole of the country. It is attached to the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site, half-way between Southport and Wilmington, on the west side of the Cape Fear River. Brunswick Town was a port that was destroyed by the British in 1776, but never rebuilt, while Fort Anderson was constructed on the ruins, as a fort in the Civil War. There is not much to see there, especially for those familiar with the variety of castles that can be inspected in Great Britain, but it is of great historic interest, and a compulsory target for any tourist or resident of the area.
the historical site lies the Orton Planation, of which the jewel is the
antebellum country house, considered to be one of the best of its kind. It has
apparently been used in many movies and TV shows (none of which I profess to
have seen: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood somehow escaped my
attention), as the following link explains (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton_Plantation)
. We were able to walk around the park, and survey what had been the rice
plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves, that led down to the Cape Fear
River. We were reminded of how many of England’s fine country houses were
constructed with the wealth derived from the exploitation of slaves, only in
their case not in their back yard, but mostly thousands of miles overseas, such
as in St. Vincent, where Sylvia was born.
The house itself was not open to the public, but as we walked near it, an elderly gentleman saw us, and approached us, and, perhaps after learning where we were from, invited us to take a look round. I don’t recall much of the details (there was a billiard-table in good condition), but it was charming house, and we considered ourselves very fortunate. The gentleman gave his name as ‘Sprunt’: I worked out later that he was probably Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, whose name appears in the Wikipedia entry. In 2010, the Sprunts sold the whole property to Louis Moore Bacon, a hedge fund manager, and descendant of the house’s original owner and builder, Roger Moore. The grounds have not yet been re-opened.
4. Earlier this month, Sylvia and I filled out the US 2020 Census forms, on-line this time. It was quite a simple operation: we were asked for birthdate information for the three of us, and whether we rented or owned the house, and whether we had any mortgage. What business was it of theirs, we asked ourselves? And then we came to the bulk of the form, which was about ‘ethnicity’. The first part required us to state whether we were ‘Hispanic’ or not – and did not allow this binary question to be ignored! At the same time, it reminded us that ‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’ could be of any race.
How in heaven’s name were they going to use this information? Deciding what federal aid should be given to each State, I suppose, but how could they verify whether anybody really understood the question, or could even be relied upon to tell the truth on the form? And how would such information affect the government’s decisions? I thought of a root of my maternal-grandfather’s family, the Robinis, who were Huguenots escaping via Guernsey, and suddenly felt a surge of Italianate fervour. And then there was my unexplained partiality to Neapolitan ice-cream and pizza margherita. Were such features part of my ‘identity’? H’mm. But there was no way out. We decided to say ‘No’, and move on.
The last section concerned ‘race’, and in this area the Census Bureau believed they were on firmer ground. The first option was ‘White’, but if you rejected that, it offered a whole host of exotic categories to choose from, including ‘Pacific Islander’ (about which I have written before here). Why it believed that, in 2020, American citizens would universally want to define themselves in such terms is absolutely beyond me, but it keeps many Census Bureau people in employment, and helps to foment those minor distinctions that can breed resentment, and feelings of entitlement, and which accompany the notions of ‘identity’ which the sociological professors get so excited about. Fortunately, the very last option was to tick off ‘Other’, and Sylvia and I happily entered ‘Human’ in the box, and were gratified that our submission was not rejected. But should we expect a visit from the Census Police, to verify that we are indeed so?
* * * * * * * * * *
shall get round to ‘Wilmington’s Lie’ soon, but I need to digress over some
science, and some definitions. As readers may have noticed, in this text I have
used ‘black’ and ‘white’ in quotation marks. Since all reputable scientists
have concluded that ‘race’ is a sociological construct, and that the genetic
differences between human beings of different pigmentation are smaller than
those found within any one particular ‘ethnic group’, I struggle with what
language to use in this discussion. American institutions have for a long time
advised us that anyone born with a drop of ‘black’ blood should be defined as
‘black’, which is obviously nonsense. Yet using some term is inescapable in
this discussion. Selecting the term ‘Negro’ is disdained these days; ‘colo(u)red’
is a ridiculous hangover from South African categorisations, although it
endures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
‘African-American’ is simply inaccurate (what about Egyptians?), and some
famous Americans, such as Colin Powell, have objected to it (his parents came
from Jamaica), since they do not regard themselves as having ‘roots’ in the
remind readers of the stubbornness of some sectors of government and the academic
world to recognize the facts about race, I present the following paragraphs. I
picked them out of a book review from the Listener of 13 November, 1935.
For some reason, I had acquired a few years ago a bound copy of the issues of
that magazine from September to December 1935: they present a fascinating
perspective of the world seen from a variety of educated viewpoints as the
totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia started to exert an eerie
hold over the democracies’ attentions. The review is titled Racial Problems
in Europe, and it comprises a critique of We Europeans, by Julian
Huxley, A. C. Haddon, and A. M. Carr-Saunders, written by A. S. Russell.
a scientific age’, say the authors, ‘prejudice and passions seek to clothe
themselves in a garb of scientific respectability; and when they cannot find
support from true science, they invent a pseudo-science to justify themselves’.
There is today a pseudo-science of ‘racial biology’ which has been erected to
justify political ambitions, economic ends, social grudges, and class
prejudices. ‘Race’ and ‘racialism’ are regarded by the authors as almost
blasphemous terms, and it is against the fallacies associated with these vague
and mischievous ideas that the principal part of the book is directed.
who talk about pure races nowadays do not know what they are talking of. You
cannot judge a man’s race accurately from externals. You can be certain of a
man’s racial purity only when you know his ‘genetical constitution’. The
discovery of the gene, thousands of which go to the physical make-up of an
individual, has revealed how immensely more complex inheritance in the physical
sense is than was thought of in old days, when the characteristics of a child
were considered to be a mere blending of those of the parents. It was convenient at one time to make a rough
classification of Europeans into the Nordic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean
‘races’; the first exemplified in the tall, ‘long-headed’, fair-haired Swede;
the second in the ‘round-headed’ Russian peasant of medium height; the third in
the dark, ‘long-headed’, small inhabitant of southern Italy. Actually these
types, like every other in Europe, are just different mixtures; they aren’t in
any sense pure races. Everybody in Europe is of mixed race as evidenced by his
or her ‘genetical constitution’. And the reason for this is plain. For tens of thousands of years man has been
on the move in every part of the world inter-breeding and inter-breeding. There
might have been pure races at one time; sections of mankind might have got
isolated geographically from the rest for thousands and thousands of years and
evolved so as to become adapted to their climactic environment; but those days
are long past and it is in the highest degree unlikely they will ever recur.”
One might observe that even Wallace didn’t quite get it, what with his references to ‘racial purity’ and ‘inter-breeding’. Yet the challenge to the monstrous racial theories of Hitler is clear. Nevertheless, in what could be considered a provocative commentary on Hitler’s dogma, later in the review, Wallace questions the authors’ application of their research into the identity of the Jews (“ . . . the authors assert the Jews are of mixed origin and no more different from the mass of Europeans than ourselves or the Germans” – a judgment that would anticipate what Schlomo Sand wrote recently in his engrossing and controversial Invention of the Jewish People). Wallace concludes by accepting that nations of ‘inter-marriage’ are based purely on sentiment and tradition. I could point to dozens of articles that I have read over the years that would reinforce the assertions of Huxley and co. They got it right eight-five years ago, but too many people still resist those notions. For example, I marvel at the unscientific way that certain liberal arts critics misrepresent how genetics works. My latest offering: “Whether they have been hard-wired into a Jewish genetic make-up after centuries of the singular Jewish experience it’s impossible to prove, but Lebrecht’s passion is persuasive”, from Mark Glanville’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, in the TLS of February 28.
And now to Wilmington’s
Lie. I had been vaguely aware of the murky secret that the city of
Wilmington had tried to hide. I have another clipping, from the New York
Times of December 19, 2005, showing a report by John DeSantis headed ‘North
Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes’. His second
paragraph sums up the event very succinctly: “Only scant mention is made,
however, of the bloody rioting more than a century ago during which black
residents were killed and survivors banished by white supremacists, who seized
control of the city government in what historians say is the only successful
overthrow of a local government in United States history.”
What prompted the attention
then to the happenings of November 10, 1898 was the release of a draft of a
500-page report ordered by the state legislature. In what may come as a
surprise to many European readers, after the Civil War, the government of
Wilmington, which had been ruled by the Democratic Party, was replaced by a coalition
that was dominated by Republicans, and contained many ‘blacks’. (It was the
Republican Abraham Lincoln who had resisted the Southern States’ rights to
continue slavery, and the switch of party allegiances around civil rights and
white supremacism would come much later.) The growing power and influence of
those persons whom reactionary Democrats considered as inferior to them, and
responsible for diminishing their prosperity, caused a mass of resentment that
broke out murderously before Election Day of November 9, 1898. A mob of white
vigilantes invaded ‘black’ businesses, most notably the printing-press of The
Daily Record, and shot ‘black’ men in the streets of Wilmington. The report
estimated that up to a hundred ‘black’ deaths were recorded, and hundreds fled
from the city.
I regret not getting hold of the full report, which, according to de Santis, was to be delivered the following year. There was some controversy over its release, as many felt that the ‘mistakes’ of over a hundred years ago should be buried. In 2008, however, a Memorial Park was opened in Wilmington, although the City still seems very ambivalent about promoting and describing it. A link on the City’s webpage, indicating the website of the memorial, leads to a Facebook Page: a full description can be seen at https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/842/. I have visited the memorial, and was moved by it, but was sorry it had been placed somewhat off the beaten track, and found the symbology puzzling. The monument itself consists of six 16-feet tall paddles, which, according to a plaque nearby, refer to the role of water in ‘the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent’. Why the memorialists would want to generalise all the religions of the African continent in that stereotypical way, especially when almost universally those who suffered at the time of the events (and those who come to honour them today) were and are devout Christians is one of those weird dimensions of ‘identity’ and ‘heritage’ that dominate discussions of such topics today.
And then, earlier this
year, David Zucchino’s account of the incidents, Wilmington’s Lie: The
Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, was published.
Zucchino gained his Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing in The Philadelphia
Inquirer in 1989: he has also published Thunder Run and The Myth
of the Welfare Queen. His book provides a very thorough history of the
events that led up to what he characterises as the 1898 ‘coup’: the action was,
however, not so much the directing ousting of a governing body as the
terroristic oppression of those citizens who would democratically elect that
group, but the result was the same. Zucchino uses the official report
(available at https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p249901coll22/id/5842, released on May 31, 2006,
which I have not read), as well as an account by LeRae Umfleet, the principal
researcher on the project, A Day of Blood, which I have also not looked
at. So I regret I cannot compare Zucchino’s account with Umfleet’s. Zucchino
has also trawled through an impressive list of books, unpublished memoirs and
diaries, articles, theses, dissertations, and government publications and
Zucchino takes his readers painstakingly through the background that led to the vigilantism of 1898. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina, and freed slaves flocked to it for the opportunities in trade and exports that it provided. In the author’s words, ‘it was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, policemen and magistrates.’ The Ku Klux Klan had made an attempt to roll back Reconstruction in 1868, but had been driven out of town. Abraham Galloway (of ‘mixed race’) had been the vigorous senator who had encouraged the locals to defend their right, and when he died in 1870, the cause was taken up by Alexander Manly, the publisher of the Daily Record. “Manly”, Zucchino writes, “could easily have passed as white, the preferred option of so many so-called mulattoes.” Manly spoke up for Negro rights, and pointed out the hypocrisy that occurred when ‘white’ supremacists spoke up for the virtue of their women intermingling with ‘black’ males, while they themselves had affairs with ‘black’ women. He thus became the prime target of the frustrated Democrats.
In 1897, several
lynchings occurred in Georgia. ‘White’ leaders could not imagine that a sexual
act between a ‘white’ woman and a ’black’ man could be consensual, and
vigilante justice was frequently the outcome. After a Mrs. Felton defended the
practice of lynching, Manly wrote an editorial that pointed out the hypocrisy,
and ridiculed the insecurity and self-delusion that lay at the heart of the
hatred of Southern ‘white’ men. Thus the office of the Daily Record
became the prime target of the rebels. Two days after voting took place for the
state legislature on November 8, 1898, over two thousand Red Shirts (as they
were called), heavily armed, piled into Wilmington looking for victims.
Buildings were burned, and at least sixty ‘black’ men were killed in the
Zucchino reports how
the Wilmington Messenger published the lyrics to ‘Rise Ye Sons of
Carolina’ on November 8, 1898.
“Proud Caucasians one
and all . . .
Hear your wives and
daughters call . . .
Rise, defend their
With your strong and
manly arms . . .
Rise and drive this
Black despoiler from your state.”
It is a message that
anticipates Hitler. A shocking and nauseating refrain, blatantly ignoring the
fact that the forbears of these ‘black despoilers’ had been brought to those
shores against their will, in utterly cruel conditions, when, if they had
survived, they were forced into slavery. What demagogues, preachers or teachers
had embedded this sort of thinking? How could anyone today not denounce such
I shall not relay all
the details of the coup. Readers can pick up the book. Zucchino has performed
an absolutely vital task of chronicling the details of this ghastly event, one
that remained buried for so long. Yet Wilmington’s Lie is not very easy
reading: not because of the grisly subject-matter, but because the author lacks
a good narrative sweep, and moves around without a clear chronology. Events
outside Wilmington are sketched very thinly, so we do not gain a good
understanding of, for example, why federal or state officials were so reluctant
to intervene. He leaves the meatier issues for the Epilogue, almost as an
afterthought, such as the way that Wilmington became an example for ‘white’
supremacists in other states to pick up on voter suppression, and vicious
attacks on ‘blacks’. He has nothing to say about the culture and political
battles that encouraged such cruelty, or how the fundamentalist Josiah Nott,
who had Gobineau’s dangerous writings on the Aryan race translated, exerted such
a swift and penetrative effect on the Southern states and the rise of the Ku
Klux Klan. Where did they learn about ‘Caucasians’? This, for me, was an
Moreover, Zucchino makes no references to the expulsion of indigenous Americans of a couple of generations before, which these horrors echoed, or even the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, which applied different racial principles to the treatment of indigenous American tribes. The author makes a link between the events of 1898 and current attempts to implement voter ID laws: such initiatives may or may not be stirred by similar impulses, but Zucchino does not examine the case. He skims over in one paragraph the bouleversement in Party allegiances (when minority rights became a Democratic plank of policy) that was caused by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, noting that in 1972 North Carolina elected its first Republican US senator for seventy-four years – the notorious Jesse Helms. And lastly, he appears to be a prisoner of his own cultural milieu – talking about ‘white blood’ and ‘black blood’ as if they were realities, and never analysing seriously the pseudo-science behind these notions. (As I was completing this piece, I encountered the following quotation from the NYT obituary of Abigail Thernstrom, a stolid opponent of affirmative action, a woman who had grown up in a communist household: “Race is the American dilemma. It is race that, you know, keeps this country in agony. It is our most serious domestic problem. And therefore, we want to think specially hard about anything that involves sorting people out on the basis of one drop of blood of this or that.”)
I noticed one poignant
aspect. The captain general of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1868 was a
Colonel Moore, who led the attempt to terrorize ‘blacks’ in April 1868, was
then repulsed, and was left licking his wounds inside Thalian Hall. Thirty
years later, no longer Klan leader, he was still active in Wilmington, and had
been elected to the County Board of Commissioners in the corrupt elections of
1898. Yet he was outsmarted by another political rival, Colonel Alfred Waddell,
who led the attack on Manly’s newspaper offices. After the killings of November
10, one of the businessmen who tried to persuade Waddell to allow the ‘blacks’
who had been chased out of town, since he needed them for loading the seven
steamships backed up at the port, was a James Sprunt. Sprunt ‘told a reporter
he was confident that the city’s blacks would be reassured by Mayor Waddell’s
public declarations of equal treatment for both races’. He had been born in
Glasgow, was British vice-consul, and later became renowned for his
philanthropic work in Wilmington, and his dedication to local history.
Colonel Roger Moore
was a descendant of Roger Moore, a brother of Maurice. Maurice Moore sold the
Orton Planation to Roger when the latter moved into the area from South
Carolina, in 1725, and together they founded Brunswick Town. Roger Moore had to
deal with unfriendly native Americans, who destroyed his first house, but then
set up the rice plantation with slave labour. The gentleman whom we met at the
Orton Plantation, Murchison Sprunt, was a grandson of James Laurence Sprunt,
who, with his wife, Luola, purchased the property in 1904, on the death of his
father-in-law, Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, a Confederate military
officer. In May 2010, as I described earlier, the Sprunt family sold the
Plantation to Louis Moore Bacon, who informs us that he is a direct descendant
of the first Roger Moore. (How he might be related to the notorious Klansman
Roger Moore, I do not know.)
Thus are the fortunes
and careers of North Carolinians – like those of everyone, I suppose –intertwined.
Allowing for about ten generations since 1725, Louis Moore Bacon could also
claim that he was the direct descendant of about one thousand other people. Yet,
like many others, he favours a single lineage with a name that endured, and a
known family history. Likewise, there are probably thousands of other persons
who could claim ‘direct descendancy’ from Roger Moore, but who did not have the
money, the genealogical insights, or the personal interest, to want to bid for
the Orton Plantation, and invest in it. That is the way the world works.
Back to today’s
Wilmington. It is easy for someone like me to sit back, and proclaim that all
these racial categories are absurd, when such loftiness in fact could show an
insensitivity to the realities of the stories of humiliation passed down, and
the daily insults that continue. Whenever I walk around in Wilmington, I am
especially careful, say, to open the door for any ‘black’ person coming into
the Post Office, and offer them a friendly ‘Take your time, sir!’, or ‘Have a
good day, madam!’, perhaps to balance the affronts or rudenesses they may have
encountered from persons who share my skin pigmentation, and I deliver such politesses
a little more enthusiastically than I might do to anyone else. Maybe it is
condescending behaviour, but I trust it helps. Because I can hope for the day
when these categories will be meaningless (and I think of our beautiful Anglo-Irish-Italian-French-German-West
Indian-Vietnamese grand-daughters – ignoring, for now, the Persky branch from
Minsk), but have to accept that reality is different. So long as census-takers, white supremacists, affirmative
action lawyers, ethnic studies professors, fundamentalist preachers, racial
activists, identity politicians, Dixie whistlers, sociologists, psephologists,
pseudo-historians, eugenicist neo-confederates, Marxist academics, cultural
appropriation specialists, self-appointed ‘community’ spokespersons, and general
grudge-grinding journalists have a job to hold on to, the distinctions will
continue. And, after all, if the New York Times says that a ‘Latinx’
community exists, it must be so, right?
My gestures are a kind of reparation,
I suppose. And thereby lies one final dilemma, as the irrepressible and
overexposed Ta-Nehisi Coates has promoted, urging that ‘blacks’ should receive
money for the injustices performed against them (or their forebears). Yet not
all those who would have to pay are guilty, nor are all those who would be
remunerated necessarily victims. None of us automatically inherits the sins or
the virtues of our forebears, and each us should be free to reject the
indoctrination of parents, school or religious institution.
I made light of this at my seventieth birthday party a few years ago, attended by a few dozen of my closest friends, at which I made a speech (see Taking the Cake). At one point, I took out a piece of paper from my jacket pocket, and told the assembled diners that it was a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. I proceeded to read it: “Dear Mr. Percy . . . blah, blah, blah, . . . We have to inform you that, according to recent legislation, you, as a descendant of colonialist oppressors, are hereby ordered to make the following reparations payments to victims of such injustices. (Pause.) Mr. Tiger Woods: $5,000. Mrs. Sylvia Percy: $10,000. And to Mr. Douglas Hamilton (not his real name, but a prosperous ‘black’ friend of mine sitting at Table 4): $50,000!”
Yet so long as that barber, and
persons like him, are around, it is no laughing matter.
(Recent Commonplace entries can be found here. This month’s collection includes a special not-to-be-missed feature on Gavin Ewart and light verse.)