Category Archives: Personal

The Hoax of the Blunt Confession (Part 2)

Anthony Blunt after his exposure

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.

Primary Sources:

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)

Secondary Sources:

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 Courtauld Institute (in Portman Square)

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

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 [1938], 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 University of Pennsylvania

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 The Climate 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 The Climate 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.

William Sullivan & Edgar J. Hoover

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.

John Cairncross

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.]

(Case) Western Reserve University

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?

(A profile of him can be found at https://spartacus-educational.com/SSmartin.htm, but it contains several egregious errors, primarily on chronology.)

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.

Guy Liddell (with secretary Joan (?), Arthur Martin’s second wife)

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.

Summary:

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.

Conclusions:

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.

The Hoax:

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.

Authorised History:

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.

Late-Breaking News!

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.

New Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan – In Memoriam

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.

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Year-End Wrap-up – 2020

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:

  1. ‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
  2. The John le Carré I Never Knew
  3. The Dead Ends of HASP
  4. Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
  5. Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
  6. Bandwidth versus Frequency
  7. ‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
  8. Puzzles at Kew
  9. Trouble at RAE Farnborough
  10. End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes

‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out

Kati Marton

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.

(For verification of the true story about Sonya, see https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html and http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ )

My letter was not published.

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

John Le Carre

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

Professor Wilhelm Agrell

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

Anthony Blunt
Anthony Blunt

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

Trevor Barnes

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.

Snelling is not a very common name, although, in an extraordinary coincidence, a ‘Freddie Snelling’ also appears in Dead Doubles. He was an antiquarian book-seller friend of the Krogers. From an inspection of genealogical records, however, it does not appear that the two could have been related. I performed some searches on ‘J. W. E. Snelling’, and came up with a couple of intriguing items. The name appears in the St. Edmund Hall Magazine of 1951-52 (see https://issuu.com/stedmundhall/docs/st_edmund_hall_magazine_1951) , and the Statesman’s Yearbook of 1966-67 shows that he was a First Secretary in the British Embassy to South Africa (see https://books.google.com/books?id=DdfMDQAAQBAJ&pg=PA1412&lpg=PA1412&dq=j+w+e+snelling&source=bl&ots=8Pd9Dd0J97&sig=ACfU3U3DEgUt_KnJ2KZn_gbi9MbtoEjL8Q&hl=en&sa=X&ved=2ahUKEwjxjsmI06rtAhXFjVkKHf6pAmoQ6AEwCHoECAgQAg#v=onepage&q=j%20w%20e%20snelling&f=false).  I wrote to the Librarian at St. Edmund Hall, asking for further details on Snelling. She acknowledged my request, but after several weeks the Archivist has not been able to respond.

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

Dr. Brian Austin

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

The National Archives 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

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’

Eric Hobsbawm
Eric Hobsbawm

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

Tom Clark

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’.

December Commonplace entries can be found here.

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Special Bulletin: Review of ‘Agent Sonya’

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.

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Five Books on Espionage & Intelligence

When Sonia Met Klaus at Snow Hill Station? (see below)

Dead Doubles, by Trevor Barnes (2020)

Atomic Spy, by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan (2020)

An Impeccable Spy, by Owen Matthews (2019)

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’

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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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?
  3. 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.
  4. 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.)
  5. 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.
  6. 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’

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’

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’

Master of Deception: The Wartime Adventures of Peter Fleming, by Alan Ogden (2019)

‘Joyce Carey playing Myrtle Bagot’

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’

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.

So no scandal here – or not yet anyway.

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Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies?

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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 wielding guitars?

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.

Astonishingly, I have discovered that the DGAA endured under that name until 1989, when it was renamed as Elizabeth Finn Care, after its founder. A fascinating article about it, before the name change, appeared in the New York Times that year: https://www.nytimes.com/1989/09/02/world/london-journal-lifting-a-pinkie-for-the-upper-crust.html?smid=em-share

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.

The 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.

I 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.

The Dramatis Personae (primarily in 1950, when most of the action occurs):

At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:

Cockcroft                    Director

Arnold                         Security officer

Skinner                        Assistant director; Head of Theoretical Physics division

Fuchs                           Scientist

Pontecorvo                  Scientist

Davison                       Scientist

Buneman                     Scientist

Flowers                       Scientist

The Men from the Ministries:

Attlee                          Prime Minister

Portal                           Controller of Production, Atomic Energy, at the Ministry of Supply

Perrin                           Deputy to Portal

Appleton                     Permanent Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research

Makins                        Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office

Bridges                        Permanent Secretary to the Treasury, and Head of Civil Service

Rowlands                    Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Supply

Cherwell                      Paymaster-General (1953)

At MI5:

Sillitoe                         Director

Liddell                        Assistant Director

White                          Head of B Division (counter-espionage)       

Hollis                           B1

Mitchell                       B1E (Hollis’s deputy)

Robertson J. C.           Head of B2

Robertson, T. A. R.     B3 (retired in 1948)   

Marriott                       B3

Serpell                         PA to Sillitoe

Skardon                       B2A

Reed                            B2A

Archer                         B2A

Collard                         C2A

Morton                        C2A

Hill                              Solicitor

Bligh                           Solicitor

At the Universities:

Mountford                  Vice-Chancellor, Liverpool University

Chadwick                    Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Oliphant                      Professor at Birmingham University

Peierls                          Professor at Birmingham University

Massey                        Professor at University College, London

Rotblat                        Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Fröhlich                       Professor at Liverpool University

Frisch                          Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge

Flowers                       Researcher at Birmingham University

Pryce                           Professor at Clarendon Laboratories

The Journalists:

Pincher                        Daily Express

Stubbs-Walker            Daily Mail

Moorehead                  Daily Express

Rodin                          Sunday Express

Maule                          Empire News

West                            New York Times

De Courcy                   Intelligence Digest

Various wives, mistresses, girl-friends and spear-carriers

Contents:

  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
  2. Machinations at Liverpool
  3. Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
  4. Fuchs’s Interrogations
  5. Herbert Skinner at Harwell
  6. Skinner’s Removal?
  7. Skinner’s Ventures into Journalism
  8. Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
  9. Boris Davison – after Attlee
  10. Conclusions
  1. Bruno Pontecorvo at Harwell
Bruno Pontecorvo

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.

In 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.

Yet, 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.)

It 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.

Liddell 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. 

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.

Alarmed 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 time.

But 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.

This 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.

Turchetti 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 rejected.

  • Machinations at Liverpool
Sir James Mountford

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.]

It 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.

The 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.

There 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.]

According 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 working there.

Irrespective 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.

In 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.

Mountford’s 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.

Furthermore, 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.

If 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.

Chadwick 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.

On 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.

Yet his whole saga eerily echoes what had happened in a collapsed time-frame with Klaus Fuchs.

  • Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Klaus Fuchs

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.

The 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).

MI5 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 and Harwell.” 

Robertson 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 going on.

This 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.

  • Fuchs’s Interrogations
Jim Skardon

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.)

On 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.

When 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 picture.

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.

Here 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.

On 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.

  • Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Herbert Skinner

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.’)

Moreover, 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.

Skinner, 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 rebuff.”

Yes, 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 facilitated it.

In 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.

Skinner’s 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 Communists’ activities?

Thus 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.

The 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.

  • Skinner’s Removal?
Sir James Chadwick

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?

The 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.

Chadwick 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.

He 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.

Thus, 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.

It 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’.

This 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 Ventures into Journalism
Herbert Skinner in ‘The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists’

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, The Traitors (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.

He 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.

The 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.”

This 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.

The 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.

It 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).”

What 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’.

Fortunately 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.

Yet 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 Cockcroft.

The 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.

  • Boris Davison – from Leningrad to Harwell
Boris Davison in ‘Empire News’

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.

Davison’s 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.

Davison 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.

The 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.’

In 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.

This 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:

  1. 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.
  2. 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.
  3. 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.
  4. 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.
  5. 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 Fuchs’s imprisonment.
  6. Unawareness 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.
  7. Clumsy 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).
  8. Simplistic 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.

MI5 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.

  • Boris Davison – after Attlee
Sir John Cockcroft

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.

By 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.

The 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 and MI5.

While 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.

What 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.”

This 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.

The 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 Rudolf Peierls.

Yet 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.

It 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.

So 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.

  1. Conclusions
Dick White

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?

Attlee’s unfortunately 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.

Moreover, 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 successfully concealed.

(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.)

What 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.

The 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 Pontecorvo.

This 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 assembled.

Primary Sources:

National Archives files on Pontecorvo, Fuchs, the Skinners, Davison: the Guy Liddell Diaries

The Mountford memoir at Liverpool University

Britain and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing

Half-Life by Frank Close

The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti

Klaus Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Trinity by Frank Close

Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Elemental Germans by Christopher Laucht

The Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde

Scientist Spies by Paul Broda

Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls

Sir Rudolf Peierls, Correspondence, Volume 1 edited by Sabine Lee

Cockcroft and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone

The Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown

Joseph Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown

Churchill’s Bomb by Graham Farmelow

Defend the Realm by Christopher Andrew

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Special Bulletin: Sonia and the Mail on Sunday

Dateline: Sunday June 28, 2020

Today the Mail on Sunday has published an article based on research performed by Professor Glees and me, describing the way that MI6 (SIS) carried out a plan to manipulate Ursula Hamburger, nee Kuczynski, as a double-agent, and how the exploit catastrophically rebounded on both MI6 and MI5. It can be seen at https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html

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 antonypercy@aol.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)

I 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.

Then 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 more attention.

We 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 be.

As 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.

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On ‘Wilmington’s Lie’

‘Wilmington’s Lie’ by David Zucchino

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.

On 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.

On 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.].

Wilmington, NC and the Beautiful Blue Danube . . . I mean the Cape Fear River

Next, four anecdotes . . .

  1. 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.”

I 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 ‘white’ Wilmingtonians?

I 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.

It 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’.

‘Kolyma Stories’ by Varlam Shalamov (no photograph of Kolyma does justice to the horrors)

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.

Notes taken after seeing the ‘Witness’ Exhibition

(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 – ? . . .’

I 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 Orton Plantation

Near 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?

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

I 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 African continent.

To 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.

“‘In 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.

People 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.

The Wilmington 1898 Memorial

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 documents.

The Wilmington Coup, 1898

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 streets.

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 spotless virtue

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 ugliness?

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 extraordinary omission.

The Dawes Severalty Act

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.)

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War in 1944: Howard’s Folly

I was reading, in the Times Literary Supplement of January 17, a review of a book titled The French Revolutionary Tradition in Russian and Soviet Politics, Political Thought, and Culture. The author of the book was one Jay Bergman, the writer of the review Daniel Beer, described as Reader in Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. I came across the following sentences: “The Bolsheviks could never admit that Marxism was a failed ideology or that they had actually seized power in defiance of it. Their difficulties, they argued, were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in their midst.”

This seemed to me an impossibly quaint way of describing the purges of Stalin’s Russia. Whom were these Bolsheviks trying to convince in their ‘arguments’, and where did they make them? Were they perhaps published on the Letters page of the Pravda Literary Supplement or as articles in The Moscow Review of Books? Or were they presented at conferences held at the elegant Romanov House, famed for its stately rooms and its careful rules of debate? I was so taken aback by the suggestion that the (unidentified) Bolsheviks had engaged in some kind of serious discussions on policy, as if they were an Eastern variant of the British Tory Party, working through items on the agenda at some seaside resort like Scarborough, and perhaps coming up with a resolution on the lines of tightening up on immigration, that I was minded to write a letter to the Editor. It was short, and ran as follows:

“So who were these Bolsheviks who argued that ‘their difficulties were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the Party and traitors in its midst’? Were they perhaps those ‘hardliners in the Politburo’ whom Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden imagined were exerting a malign influence on the genial Uncle Joe Stalin, but whose existence turned out to be illusory? Or were they such as Trotsky, Kirov, Radek, Kamenev, Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc. etc., most of whom Stalin had murdered simply because they were ‘old Bolsheviks’, and knew too much? I think we should be told.”

Now the Editor did not see fit to publish my offering. Perhaps he felt that, since he had used a letter of mine about the highly confused Professor Paul Collier in the December 2019 issue, my quota was up for the season. I can think of no other conceivable reason why my submission was considered of less interest than those which he did select.

Regular readers of coldspur will be familiar with my observations about the asymmetry of Allied relationships with the Soviet Union in World War II. See, for instance, http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/, where I analysed such disequilibrium by the categories of Moral Equivalency, Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism, Espionage, Culture, and Warfare. The misunderstanding about the nature of Stalin’s autocracy can be viewed in two dimensions: the role of the Russian people, and that of Stalin himself.

During the war, much genuine and well-deserved sympathy was shown in Britain towards the long-suffering Russian people, but the cause was often distorted by Soviet propaganda, either directly from such as ambassador Maisky and his cronies, or by agents installed in institutions such as the Ministry of Information. The misconceptions arose from thinking that the Russians were really similar to British citizens, with some control over their lives, where they worked, the selection of those who governed them, what they could choose to read, how they were allowed to congregate and discuss politics, and the manner in which they thus influenced their leaders, but had unfortunately allowed themselves to sign a pact with the Nazis and then been treacherously invaded by them. Their bravery in defending their country against the assault, with losses in the millions, was much admired.

Yet the catastrophe of Barbarossa was entirely Stalin’s fault: as he once said to his Politburo, using a vulgar epithet, ‘we’ had screwed up everything that Lenin had founded and passed on. And he was ruthless in using the citizenry as cannon fodder, just as he had been ruthless in sending innocent victims to execution, famine, exile, or the Gulag. For example, in the Battle of Stalingrad, 10,000 Soviet soldiers were executed by Beria’s NKVD for desertion or cowardice in the face of battle. 10,000! It is difficult to imagine that number, but I think of the total number of pupils at my secondary school, just over 800, filling Big School, and multiplying it by 12. If anything along those lines had occurred with British forces, Churchill would have been thrown out in minutes. Yet morale was not universally sound with the Allies, either. Antony Beevor reports that in May 1944 ‘nearly 30,000 men had deserted or were absent without leave from British units in Italy’ – an astonishing statistic. The British Army had even had a mutiny on its hands at Salerno in 1943, but the few death sentences passed were quickly commuted. (Stalin’s opinions on such a lily-livered approach to discipline appear not to have been recorded.) As a reminder of the relative casualties, the total number of British deaths in the military (including POWs) in World War II was 326,000, with 62,000 civilians lost. The numbers for the Soviet Union were 13,600,000 and 7,000,000, respectively.

As my letter suggested, Western leaders were often perplexed by how Stalin’s occasionally genial personality, and his expressed desire for ‘co-operation’, were frequently darkened by influences that they could not discern. They spoke (as The Kremlin Letters reminds us) of Stalin’s need to listen to public opinion, or deal with the unions, or heed those hard-liners on the Politburo, who were all holding him back from making more peaceful overtures over Poland, or Italy, or the Baltic States. During negotiations, Molotov was frequently presented as the ‘hard man’, with Stalin then countering with a less demanding offer, thus causing the Western powers to think they had gained something. This was all nonsense, of course, but Stalin played along, and manipulated Churchill and Roosevelt, pretending that he was not the despot making all the decisions himself.

Thus Daniel Beer’s portrayal of those Bolsheviks ‘arguing’ about the subversive threat holds a tragi-comic aspect in my book. Because those selfsame Bolsheviks who had rallied under Lenin to forge the Revolution were the very same persons whom Stalin himself identified as a threat to him, and he had them shot, almost every one. The few that survived did so because they were absolutely loyal to Stalin, and not to the principles (if they can be called that) of the Bolshevik Revolution.

I was reminded of this distortion of history when reading Professor Sir Michael Howard’s memoir, Captain Professor. I had read Howard’s obituary in December 2019, and noted from it that he had apparently encountered Guy Burgess when at Oxford. The only work of Howard’s that I had read was his Volume 5 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he covered Strategic Deception. (The publication of this book had been delayed by Margaret Thatcher, and its impact had thus been diminished by the time it was issued in 1999. I analysed it in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’. It is a very competent but inevitably flawed analysis of some complex material.) With my interest in Burgess’s movements, and his possible involvement in setting up the ‘Oxford Ring’ of spies, I wanted to learn more about the timing of this meeting, and what Burgess was up to, so I acquired a copy of Howard’s memoir.

Captain Professor

The paragraph on Burgess was not very informative, but I obviously came to learn more about Howard, this acknowledged expert in the history of warfare. He has received several plaudits since his death. In the January issue of History Today, the editor Paul Lay wrote an encomium to him, which included a quotation from the historian’s essay ‘Military Experience in European Literature’. It ran as follows: “In European literature the military experience has, when it has been properly understood and interpreted, immeasurably enriched that understanding of mankind, of its powers and limitations, of its splendours and its miseries, and not least of its relationship to God, which must lie at the root of all societies that can lay any claim to civilization.”

Now what on earth does that mean? I was not impressed by such metaphysical waffle. If I had submitted a sentence like that in an undergraduate essay, I would not have been surprised to see it returned with a circle of red ink. Yet its tone echoed a remark by Howard, in Captain Professor, that I had included in my December 2019 Commonplace file: “I had written a little about this in a small book The Invention of Peace, a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached climax with the two world wars.” (p 218) Hallo, Professor! ‘Beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years’? What about all those wars? Revolutions? Religious persecution? Specifically, what about the Inquisition and the Thirty Years War? What was this ‘European society’ that cohered so closely, and which the Professor held in such regard? I wondered whether the expression of these somewhat eccentric ideas was a reason why the sometime Regius Professor of History at Oxford University had not been invited to contribute to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, or the Oxford Illustrated History of World War II.

Apparently, all this has to do with the concept of ‘War and Society’, with which Howard is associated. Another quote from Captain Professor: “The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies. Only by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought about and why they fought in the way they did. Further, the fact that they did so fight had a reciprocal impact on their social structure. I had to learn not only to think about war in a different way, but also to think about history itself in a different way. I would certainly not claim to have invented the concept of ‘War and Society’, but I think I did something to popularize it.” Note the contradiction that, if these ‘societies and cultures’ were fighting each other, they could hardly be said to have ‘held together for a thousand years’. I am also not sure that the Soviet soldiers in WII, conscripted and harassed by the NKVD, shot at the first blink of cowardice or retreat, thought much about how the way they fought had a reciprocal impact on Soviet culture (whatever that was), but maybe Howard was not thinking of the Red Army. In some sense I could see what he was getting at (e.g. the lowering of some social barriers after World War II in the United Kingdom, because of the absurd ‘officers’ and ‘men’ distinctions: no one told me at the time why the Officers’ Training Corps had morphed into the Combined Cadet Force). Nevertheless, it seemed a bizarre agenda.

And then I came on the following passage, describing Howard’s experiences in Italy: “In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

My initial reaction was of astonishment, rather like Howard’s first expression of outrage, I imagine. How could the betrayal of the Poles by the halted Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula, in the process of ‘liberating’ a country that they had raped in 1939, now an ally, be compared with the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, trying to expel the Germans, while liberating a country that had been an enemy during the war? What had the one to do with the other? And why would it have been controversial for the Allies to have wanted to weaken the Communist movement? But perhaps I was missing something. What had caused Howard to change his mind? I needed to look into it.

Her Majesty & Professor Sir Michael Howard

The poignant aspect of this anecdote was that Howard had been wounded at Monte Sole, only in December 1944, some two months after the Monte Sole massacre. Howard had been commanding a platoon, and had been sent on a reconnaissance mission with ‘poor Terry’ (an alias). Returning from the front line, they had become disoriented, and stumbled into an ambush, where Terry was mortally wounded by a mine, and Howard, having been shot in the leg, managed to escape. He was mortified by the fact that he had chosen to leave Terry to die, and felt his Military Cross was not really deserved. He had fought courageously for the cause of ridding Italy of fascism, yet the fact that he had not known at the time of the Massacre of Monte Sole (sometimes known as the Marzobotto Massacre) was perplexing to me.

These two closely contemporaneous events – the Warsaw Uprising, and the Monte Sole Massacre – were linked in a way that Howard does not describe, as I shall show later. They could be summarised as follows:

The Warsaw Uprising

As the Red Army approached Warsaw at the end of July of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London decided that it needed to install its own administration before the Communist Committee of National Liberation, established by the Soviets as the Lublin Committee on July 22, could take over leadership. Using its wireless communications, it encouraged the illegal Polish military government in Warsaw to call on the citizenry to build fortifications. On July 29, the London leader, Mikolajczyk, went to Moscow, whereupon Moscow Radio urged the Polish Resistance to rise up against the invader. A few days later, Stalin promised Mikołajczyk that he would assist the Warsaw Uprising with arms and ammunition. On August 1, Bor-Komorowski, the Warsaw leader, issued the proclamation for the uprising. In a few days, the Poles were in control of most of Warsaw, but the introduction of the ruthless SS, under the leadership of von dem Bach-Zelewski, crushed the rebellion with brutal force. Meanwhile, the Soviets waited on the other side of the Vistula. Stalin told Churchill that the uprising was a stupid adventure, and refused to allow British and American planes dropping supplies from as far away as Italy to land on Soviet territory to refuel. The resistance forces capitulated on October 2, with about 200,000 Polish dead.

The Monte Sole Massacre

In the summer of 1944, British and American forces were making slow progress against the ‘Gothic Line’, the German defensive wall that ran along the Apennines. Italy was at that time practically in a stage of civil war: Mussolini had been ousted in the summer of 1943, and Marshall Badoglio, having signed an armistice with the Allies, was appointed Prime Minister on September 3. Mussolini’s RSI (the Italian Social Republic) governed the North, as a puppet for the Germans, while Badoglio led the south. Apart from the general goal of pushing the Germans out of Italy, the strategic objective had been to keep enough Nazi troops held up to allow the D-Day invasion of Normandy to take place successfully. In late June, General Alexander appealed to the Italian partisans to intensify a policy of sabotage and murder against the German forces. The Germans already had a track-record of fierce reprisals, such as the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in March 1944, when 320 civilians had been killed following the murder of 32 German soldiers. The worst of these atrocities occurred at Monte Sole on September 29-30, where the SS killed 1830 local villagers at Marzabotto. Shortly after that, Alexander called upon the partisans to hold back their assaults because of the approach of winter.

Site of the Monte Sole Massacre

Now, there are some obvious common threads woven into these narratives (‘partisans’, ‘reprisals’, ‘invasions’, ‘encouragement’, ‘SS brutality’, ‘betrayal’), but was there more than met the eye, and was Howard pointing at something more sinister on the part of the Western Allies, and something more pardonable in the actions of the Soviets? I needed some structure in which to shape my research, if I were to understand Howard’s weakly presented case. Thus I drew up five categories by which I could analyse the events:

  1. Military Operation: What was the nature of the overall military strategy, and how was it evolving across different fronts?
  2. Political Goals: What were the occupier’s (‘liberator’s’) goals for political infrastructure in the territories controlled, and by what means did they plan to achieve them?
  3. Make-up, role and goals of partisans: How were the partisan forces constituted, and what drove their activities? How did the respective Allied forces communicate with, and behave towards, the partisan forces?
  4. Offensive strategy: What was the offensive strategy of the armed forces in approaching their target?  How successful was the local operation in contributing to overall military goals?
  5. The Aftermath, political outcomes and historical assessment: What was the long-term result of the operation on the country’s political architecture? How are the events assessed seventy-five years later?

The Red Army and Warsaw

  1. Military Operation:

The most important resolution from the Tehran Conference, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and Stalin on December 1, 1943, was a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the planned D-Day operation (‘Overlord’) would be complemented by assaults elsewhere. Such cooperation would prevent German forces being withdrawn to defend the Allies in eastern France. Thus an operation in the South of France (‘Anvil’) was to take place at the same time that Stalin would launch a major offensive in the East (‘Bagration’). At that time Overlord was planned to occur in late May; operational problems, and poor weather meant that it did not take place until June 6, 1944.

Stalin’s goal was to reach Berlin, and conquer as much territory as he could before the Western Allies reached it. Ever since his strategy of creating ‘buffer states’ in the shape of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and western Ukraine after the Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 had been shown to be an embarrassing calamity (although not recognized by Churchill at the time), he realised that more vigorously extending the Soviet Empire was a necessity for spreading the cause of Bolshevism, and protecting the Soviet Union against another assault from Germany. When a strong defensive border (the ‘Stalin Line’) had been partially dismantled to create a weaker set of fortifications along the new borders with Nazi Germany’s extended territories (the ‘Molotov Line’), it had fearfully exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces, and Hitler had invaded with appalling loss of life and material for the Soviet Union.

In 1944, therefore, the imperative was to move forward ruthlessly, capturing the key capital cities that Hitler prized so highly, and pile in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of troops. When the Red Army encountered German forces, it almost always outnumbered them, but the quality of its leadership and personnel were inferior, with conscripts often picked up from the territories gained, poorly trained, but used as cannon fodder. Casualties as a percentage of personnel were considerably higher than that which the Germans underwent. The Soviet Union had produced superior tanks, but repair facilities, communications, and supply lines were constantly being stretched too far.

On June 22, Operation ‘Bagration’ began. Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front crossed the River Bug, which was significantly on the Polish side of the ‘Curzon Line’, the border defined (and then modified by Lewis Namier) in 1919, but well inside the expanded territories of Poland that the latter had occupied and owned between the two World Wars. On July 7, Soviet troops entered Vilna to the north, a highly symbolic city in Poland’s history. On July 27, they entered Bialystok and Lvov. By July 31, they had approached within twenty-five miles of the Vistula, the river that runs through Warsaw, and four days later, had actually crossed the waterway 120 miles south of Warsaw. At this stage, exhausted and depleted, they met fiercer opposition from German forces. Exactly what happened thereafter is a little murky.

  • Political Goals:

The Soviets’ message was one of ‘liberation’, although exactly from what the strife-worn populations of the countries being ‘liberated’ were escaping from was controversial. The Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) had suffered, particularly, from the Soviet annexation of 1940, which meant persecution and murder of intellectuals and professionals, through the invasion by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941, which meant persecution and murder of Jews and Communists, to the re-invasion of the Soviets in 1944, which meant persecution and murder of anyone suspected of fascist tendencies or sympathies. Yet the British Foreign Office had practically written off the Baltic States as a lost cause: Poland was of far greater concern, since it was on her behalf that Great Britain had declared war on Germany in September 1939.

The institution favoured by the British government to lead Poland after the war was the government-in-exile, led, after the death in a plane crash of General Sikorski in June 1943, by Stanisław Mikałojczyk. It maintained wireless communications with underground forces in Poland, but retained somewhat unreasonable goals for the reconstitution of Poland after the war, attaching high importance to the original pre-war boundaries, and especially to the cities of Vilna and Lvov. The London Poles had been infuriated by Stalin’s cover-up of the Katyn massacres, and by Churchill’s apparent compliance, the British prime Minster harbouring a desire to maintain harmonious relations with Stalin. Mikałojczyk continuously applied pressure on Winston Churchill to represent the interests of a free and independent Poland to Stalin, who, like Roosevelt, had outwardly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter that gave the right of self-determination to ‘peoples’. Mikałojczyk was adamant on two matters: the recognition of its traditional eastern borders, and its right to form a non-communist government. Stalin was equally obdurate on countering both initiatives, and his language on a ‘free and independent Poland’ started taking on clauses that contained a requirement that any Polish government would have to be ‘friendly’ towards the Soviet Union.

Stanislaw Mikolajcyzk

On July 23, the city of Lublin was liberated by the Russians, and Stalin announced that a Polish Committee of National Liberation (the PCNL, a communist puppet) had been set up in Chelm the day before. Churchill was in a bind: he realised which way the wind was blowing, and how Soviet might would determine the outcomes in Poland. He desperately did not want to let down Mikałojczyk, and preferred, foolishly, to trust in Stalin’s benevolence and reasonableness. Churchill had been pressing for Mikałojczyk to meet with Stalin, as he was beginning to become frustrated by the Poles’ insistence and romantic demands. Stalin told Churchill that Mikałojczyk should confer with the PCNL.

When Stalin made an ominously worded declaration on July 28, where he ‘welcomed unification of Poles friendly disposed to all three Allies’ (which made even Anthony Eden recoil in horror), Churchill convinced Mikałojczyk to visit Moscow, where Stalin agreed to see him. On July 29, Moscow Radio urged the workers of the Polish Resistance to rise up against the German invader. Had Mikałojczyk perhaps been successful in negotiating with Stalin?

  • The Partisans:

On July 31, the Polish underground, encouraged by messages from the Polish Home Army in London, ordered a general uprising in Warsaw. It had also succeeded in letting a delegate escape to the USA and convince the US administration that it could ally with Soviet forces in freeing Warsaw. (It is a possibility that this person, Tatar, was a Soviet agent: something hinted at, but not explicitly claimed, by Norman Davies.) It was, however, not as if there was much to unite the partisans, outside a hatred of the Fascist occupying forces. The Home Army (AK) was threatened by various splinter groups, namely the People’s Army (AL), which professed vague left-wing political opinions (i.e. a removal of the landowning class, and more property rights for small farmers and peasants), the PAL, which was communist-dominated, and thus highly sympathetic to the Soviet advance, and the Nationalist Armed Forces (NSZ), which Alan Clark described as ‘an extreme right-wing force, against any compromise with Russian power’. Like any partisan group in Europe at the time, it was thus driven by a mixture of motivations.

Yet for a few short weeks they unified in working on fortifications and attacking the Nazis. They mostly took their orders from London, but for a short while it seemed that Moscow was supporting them. According to Alexander Werth (who was in Warsaw at the time), there was talk in Moscow that Rokossovsky would shortly be capturing Warsaw, and Churchill was even spurred to remind the House of Commons on August 2 of the pledge to Polish independence. On August 3, Stalin was reported by Mikałojczyk to have promised to assist the Uprising by providing arms and ammunition – although the transcripts of their discussions do not really indicate this. By August 6, the Poles were said (by Alan Clark) to be in control of most of Warsaw.

The Home Army was also considerably assisted by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had succeeded in landing hundreds of agents in Warsaw and surrounding districts, with RAF flights bringing food, medical supplies and wireless equipment. This was an exercise that had started in February 1941, with flights originating both from Britain and, latterly, from southern Italy. By the summer of 1944, a majority of the military and civilian leadership in Warsaw had been brought in by SOE. Colonel Gubbins, who had been appointed SOE chief in September 1943, was an eager champion of the Polish cause, but the group’s energies may have pointed to a difference in policy between SOE’s sabotage programme, and Britain’s diplomatic initiatives, a subject that has probably not received the attention it merits.

Yet the Rising all very quickly turned sour. The Nazis, recognizing the symbolic value of losing an important capital city like Warsaw, responded with power. The Hermann Goering division was rushed from Italy to Warsaw on August 3. Five days later the SS, led by von dem Bach-Zelewski, was introduced to bring in a campaign of terror against the citizenry. After a desperate appeal for help by the beleaguered Poles to the Allies, thirteen British aircraft were despatched from southern Italy to drop supplies: five failed to return. The Chiefs of Staff called off the missions, but a few Polish planes carried on the effort. Further desperate calls for help arrived, and on August 14 Stalin was asked to allow British and American planes, based in the UK, to refuel behind the Soviet lines to allow them more time to focus on airdrops. He refused.

By now, however, Stalin was openly dismissing the foolish adventurism of the Warsaw Uprising, lecturing Churchill so on August 16, and, despite Churchill’s continuing implorations, upgraded his accusations, on August 23, to a claim that the partisans were ‘criminals’. On August 19, the NKVD had shot several dozen members of the Home Army near the Byelorussian border, carrying out an order from Stalin that they should be killed if they did not cooperate. Antony Beevor states that the Warsaw Poles heard about that outrage, but, in any case, by now the Poles in London were incensed to the degree that they considered Mikałojczyk not ‘anti-Soviet’ enough. Roosevelt began to tire of Churchill’s persistence, since he was much more interested in building the new world order with Uncle Joe than he was in sorting out irritating rebel movements. By September 5, the Germans were in total control of Warsaw again, and several thousand Poles were shot. On September 9, the War Cabinet had reluctantly concluded that any further airdrops could not be justified. The Uprising was essentially over: more than 300,000 Poles lost their lives.

  • Offensive Strategy:

Accounts differ as to how close the Soviet forces were to Warsaw, and how much they were repulsed by fresh German attacks. Alexander Werth interviewed General Rokossovsky on August 26, 1944, the latter claiming that his forces were driven back after August 1 by about 65 miles. Stalin told Churchill in October, when they met in Moscow, of Rokossovsky’s tribulations with fresh German attacks. Yet that does not appear to tally with Moscow’s expectations for the capture of Warsaw, and it was a surprising acknowledgement of weakness on Rokossovsky’s part if it were true. Soviet histories inform us that the thrust was exhausted by August 1, but, in fact, the First Belorussian Front was close to the suburb of Praga by then, approaching from the south-east. (The Vistula was narrower than the Thames in London. I was about to draw an analogy of the geography when I discovered that Norman Davies had beaten me to it, using almost the exact wording that I had thought suitable: “Londoners would have grasped what was happening if told that everyone was being systematically deported from districts north of the Thames, whilst across the river to Battersea, Lambeth, and Southwark nothing moved, no one intervened,”  from Rising ’44, page 433).  Rokossovsky told Werth that the Rising was a bad mistake, and that it should have waited until the Soviets were close. On the other hand, the Polish General Anders, very familiar with Stalin’s ways, and then operating under Alexander in Italy, thought the Uprising was a dangerous mistake.

General Rokossovsky

Yet all that really misses the point. It was far easier for Stalin to have the Germans exterminate the opposition, even if it contained some communist sympathisers. (Norman Davies hypothesizes that the radio message inciting the partisans to rebel may have been directed at the Communists only, but it is hard to see how an AL-only uprising would have been able to succeed: such a claim sounds like retrospective disinformation.) Stalin’s forces would eventually have taken over Warsaw, and he would have conducted any purge he felt was suitable. He had shamelessly manipulated Home Army partisans when capturing Polish cities to the east of Warsaw (such as Lvov), and disposed of them when they had delivered for him. Thus sitting back and waiting was a cynical, but reasonable, strategy for Stalin, who by now was confident enough of his ability to execute – and was also being informed by his spies of the strategies of his democratic Allies in their plans for Europe. Donald Maclean’s first despatch from the Washington Embassy, betraying communications between Churchill and Roosevelt, was dated August 2/3, as revealed in the VENONA decrypts.

One last aspect of the Soviet attack concerns the role of the Poles in the Red Army. When the captured Polish officers who avoided the Katyn massacres were freed in 1942, they had a choice: to join Allied forces overseas, or to join the Red Army. General Zygmunt Berling had agreed to cooperate after his release from prison, and had recommended the creation of a Polish People’s Army in May 1943. He became commander of the first unit, and eventually was promoted to General of the Polish Army under Rokossovsky. But it was not until August 14 that he was entrusted to support the Warsaw Uprising, crossing the Vistula and entering Praga the following day – which suggests that the river was not quite the natural barrier others have made it out to be. He was repulsed, however, and had to withdraw eight days later. The failed attempt, with many casualties, resulted in his dismissal soon afterwards. Perhaps Stalin felt that Polish communists, because they were Poles, could be sacrificed: Berling may not have received approval for his venture.

  • The Aftermath:

With Warsaw untaken, the National Council of Poland declared Lublin as the national capital, on August 18, and on September 9, a formal agreement was signed between the Polish communists and the Kremlin. In Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski, perhaps now concluding that war crimes trials might be hanging over him, relented the pressure somewhat, and even parleyed with the survivors. He tried to convince them that the threat from Bolshevism was far more dangerous than the continuance of Fascism, even suggesting that the menace from the East ‘‘might very well bring about the downfall of Western culture’ (Clark). It was not certain what aspects of Western culture he believed the Nazi regime had enhanced. (Maybe Professor Howard could have provided some insights.)

The Lublin administration had to wait a while as the ‘government-in-waiting’, as Warsaw was not captured by the Red Army until January 17, 1945. By that time, imaginative voices in the Foreign Office had begun to point out the ruthlessness and menace of the tide of Soviet communism in eastern Europe, and Churchill’s – and even more, Roosevelt’s – beliefs that they could cooperate with the man in the Kremlin were looking very weary. By the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, any hopes that a democratically elected government would take power in Poland had been abandoned.  Stalin had masterfully manipulated his allies, and claimed, through the blood spent by the millions who pushed back the Nazi forces, that he merited control of the territories that became part of the Soviet Empire. There was nothing that Churchill (or then Attlee), or Roosevelt, rapidly fading (and then Truman) could do.

The historical assessment is one of a Great Betrayal – which it surely was, in the sense that the Poles were misled by the promises of Churchill and Roosevelt, and in the self-delusion that the two leaders had that, because Stalin was fighting Hitler alongside them, he was actually one of the team, a man they could cooperate with, and someone who had tamed his oppressive and murderous instincts that were so evident from before the war. But whether the ‘Soviet armies’ deserved sympathy for their halt on the Vistula is quite another question. It was probable that most of the Ivans in the Soviet armed forces were heartily sick of Communism, and the havoc it had brought to their homes and families, but were instead conscripted and forced to fight out of fear for what might happen if they resisted. By then, fighting for Mother Russia, and out of hatred for the Germans because of the devastation the latter had wrought on their homeland, they were brought to a halt before Warsaw to avoid a clash that may have been premature. But they were Communists by identification, not by conviction. Stalin was the sole man in charge. He was ruthless: he was going to eliminate the Home Army anyway: why not let the Germans do the job?

Alan Clark’s summing-up ran as follows: “The story of the Warsaw uprising illustrates many features of the later history of World War II. The alternating perfidy and impotence of the western Allies; the alternating brutality and sail-trimming of the SS; the constancy of Soviet power and ambition. Above all, perhaps, it shows the quality of the people for whom nominally, and originally, the war had been fought and how the two dictatorships could still find common ground in the need to suppress them.”

The Allies in Italy

  1. Military Operations

The invasion of Italy (starting with Operation ‘Husky’, the invasion of Sicily) had always been Churchill’s favoured project, since he regarded it as an easier way to repel the Germans and occupy central Europe before Stalin reached it. It was the western Allies’ first foray into Axis-controlled territory, and had been endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943. Under General Alexander, British and American troops had landed in Sicily in July 1943, and on the mainland, at Salerno, two months later. Yet it was always something of a maverick operation: the Teheran Agreement made no mention of it as a diversionary initiative, and thereafter the assault was regularly liable to having troops withdrawn for the more official invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil, modified to Dragoon). This strategy rebounded in a perhaps predictable way: Hitler maintained troops in Italy to ward off the offensive, thus contributing to Overlord’s success, but the resistance that Alexander’s Army encountered meant that the progress in liberating Italy occurred much more slowly than its architects had forecast.

Operation ANVIL

Enthusiasm for the Italian venture had initially been shared by the Americans and the British, and was confirmed at the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943. At this stage, the British Chiefs of Staff hoped to conclude the war in a year’s time, believing that a march up Italy would be achieved practically unopposed, with the goal of reaching the ‘Ljubljana Gap’ (which was probably a more durable obstacle than the ‘Watford’, or even the ‘Cumberland’ Gap) and striking at the southern portions of Hitler’s Empire before the Soviets arrived there. Yet, as plans advanced, the British brio was tempered by American scepticism. After the Sicilian campaign, the Allied forces were thwarted by issues of terrain, a surprising German resurgence, and a lack of coordination of American and British divisions. In essence, clear strategic goals had not been set, nor processes by which they might be achieved.

Matters were complicated in September 1943 by the ouster of Mussolini, the escape of King Emanuel and General Badoglio to Brindisi, to lead a non-fascist government in the south, and the rescue of Mussolini by Nazi paratroopers so that he could be installed as head of a puppet government in Salò in the North. An armistice between the southern Italians and the Allies was announced (September 3) the day before troops landed at Salerno. The invading forces were now faced with an uncertain ally in the south, not fully trusted because of its past associations with Mussolini’s government, and a revitalized foe in the north. Hitler was determined to defend the territory, had moved sixteen divisions into Italy, and started a reign of terror against both the civilian population and the remnants of the Italian army, thousands of whom were extracted to Germany to work as slaves or be incarcerated.

The period between the armistice and D-Day was thus a perpetual struggle. As the demands for landing-craft and troops to support Overlord increased, morale in Alexander’s Army declined, and progress was tortuously slow, as evidenced by the highly controversial capture of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, where the Polish Army sustained 6,000 casualties. The British Chiefs of Staff continually challenged the agreement made in Quebec that the Anvil attack was of the highest priority (and even received support from Eisenhower for a while). Moreover, the Allies did not handle the civilian populace very shrewdly, with widescale bombing undermining the suggestion that they had arrived as ’liberators’. With a valiant push, Rome was captured on June 4, by American forces, but a rivalry between the vain and glory-seeking General Clark and the sometimes timid General Alexander meant that the advantage was not hammered home. The dispute over Anvil had to be settled by Roosevelt himself in June. In the summer of 1944, the Allies faced another major defensive obstacle, the Gothic Line, which ran along the Apennines from Spezia to Pesari. Bologna, the city at the center of this discussion, lay about forty miles north of this redoubt. And there the Allied forces stalled.

  • Political Goals

The Allies were unanimous that they wanted to install a democratic, non-fascist government in Italy at the conclusion of the war, but did not really define what shape it should take, or understand who among the various factions claiming ideological leadership might contribute. Certainly, the British feared an infusion of Communism into the mix. ‘Anti-fascism’ had a durable odour of ‘communism’ about it, and there was no doubt that strong communist organisations existed both in the industrial towns and in the resistance groups that had escaped to the mountains or the countryside. (After the armistice, a multi-party political committee had been formed with the name of the ‘Committee of National Liberation’, a name that was exactly echoed a few months later by the Soviets’ puppets in Chelm, Poland.) Moreover, while the Foreign Office, epitomised by the vain and ineffectual Anthony Eden, who still harboured a grudge with Mussolini over the Ethiopian wars, expressed a general disdain about the Italians, the Americans were less interested in the fate of individual European nations. Roosevelt’s main focus was on ‘getting his boys home’, and then concentrating on building World Peace with Stalin through the United Nations. The OSS, however, modelled on Britain’s SOE, had more overt communist sympathies.

Yet there existed also rivalry between the USA and Great Britain about post-war goals. The British were looking to control the Mediterranean to protect its colonial routes: the Americans generally tried to undermine such imperial pretensions, and were looking out for their own commercial advantages when hostilities ceased. At this time, Roosevelt and Churchill were starting to disagree more about tactics, and the fate of individual nations, as the debate over Poland, and Roosevelt’s secret parleys with Stalin, showed. Churchill was much more suspicious of Soviet intrigues at this time, although it did not stop him groveling to Stalin, or singing his praises in more sentimental moments.

The result was a high degree of mutual distrust between the Allies and its new partners, the southern Italians, and those resisting Nazi oppression in the north. As Caroline Moorehead aptly puts it, in her very recent House in the Mountains: “Now the cold wariness of the British liberating troops puzzled them. It was, noted Harold Macmillan, ‘one vast headache, with all give and no take’. How much money would have to be spent in order to prevent ‘disease and unrest’? How much aid was going to be necessary to make the Italians militarily useful in the campaign for liberation? And what was the right approach to take towards a country which was at once a defeated enemy and a co-belligerent which expected to be treated as an ally?”

  • The Partisans

The partisans in northern Italy, like almost all such groups in occupied Europe, were of very mixed origins, holding multitudinous objectives. But here they were especially motley, containing absconders from the domestic Italian Army, resisting deportation by the Nazis, escaped prisoners-of-war, trying to find a way back to Allied lines, non-Germans conscripted by the Wehrmacht, who had escaped but were uncertain where to turn next, refugees from armies that had fought in the east, earnest civilians distraught over missing loved ones, Jews suddenly threatened by Mussolini’s support of Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, the ideologically dedicated, as well as young adventurists, bandits, thieves and terrorists. As a report from Alexander’s staff said: “Bands exist of every degree, down to gangs of thugs who don a partisan cloak of respectability to conceal the nakedness of their brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in their back gardens and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera uniforms when the first Allied troops arrive.”  It was thus challenging to find a way to deal consistently with such groups, scattered broadly around the mountainous terrain.

The British generally disapproved of irregular armies, and preferred the partisans to continue the important work of helping POWs escape to Switzerland, where they were able to pass on valuable information to the SIS and OSS offices there. As Richard Lamb wrote: “However, the Allies wanted the partisan activities to be confined to sabotage, facilitating the escape of POWs, and gathering intelligence about the Germans.”  Sabotage was encouraged, because its perpetrators could not easily be identified, and it helped the war effort, while direct attacks on German forces could result in fearful reprisals – a phenomenon that took on increasing significance. Hitler had given instructions to the highly experienced General Kesselring that any such assaults should be responded to with ruthless killing of hostages.

Yet the political agitators in the partisans were dominated by communists – who continuously quarreled with the non-communists. The British did not want a repeat of what had happened in Yugoslavia and Greece, where irredentists had established separate control. The CLN had set up a Northern Italian section (the CLNAI) in January 1944, and had made overt claims for political control of some remote areas, seeing itself as the third leg of government. Thus the British were suspicious, and held off infiltrating SOE liaison officers, and parachuting in weapons and supplies, with the first delivery not occurring until December 1943. This encouraged the partisans to think that the Allies were not interested in widespread resistance, and were fearful of communism – which was largely (but not absolutely) true. Tellingly, on July 27, 1944, in the light of Soviet’s expansive colonial intentions, Chief of the Imperial General Staff Alan Brooke first voiced the opinion that Britain might need to view Germany as a future ally against the Soviets.

Churchill expressed outwardly hostile opinions on the partisans in a speech to the House of Commons on February 22, 1944, and his support for Badoglio (and, indirectly, the monarchy) laid him open to the same criticisms of anti-democratic spirit that would bedevil his attitude towards Greece. Ironically, it was the arrival of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti from Moscow in March 1944, and his subsequent decision to join Badoglio’s government, that helped to repair some of the discord. In May, many more OSS and SOE officers were flown in, and acts of sabotage increased. This interrupted the German war effort considerably, as Kesselring admitted a few years later. Thus, as summer drew on, the partisans had expectations of a big push to defeat and expel the Germans. By June, all Italian partisan forces were co-ordinated into a collective command structure. They were told by their SOE liaison officers that a break through the Gothic Line would take place in September.

Meanwhile, the confusion in the British camp had become intense. Churchill dithered with his Chiefs of Staff about the competing demands of Italy and France. General Maitland Wilson, who had replaced Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean in January 1944, was in June forecasting the entry into Trieste and Ljubljana by September, apparently unaware of the Anvil plans. He was brought back to earth by Eisenhower. At the beginning of August 1944, Alexander’s forces were reduced from 250,000 to 153,000 men, because of the needs in France. Yet Churchill continued to place demands on Alexander, and privately railed over the Anvil decision. Badoglio was replaced by Bonomi, to Churchill’s disappointment. Alexander said his troops were demoralized. There was discord between SOE and the OSS, as well as between SOE and the Foreign Office. It was at this juncture that the controversy started.

  • Offensive Strategy

On June 7, Alexander had made a radio appeal to the partisans, encouraging sabotage. As Iris Origo reported it in, in War in Val D’orcia (written soon after the events, in 1947): “General Alexander issues a broadcast to the Italian patriots, telling them that the hour of their rising has come at last. They are to cut the German Army communications wherever possible, by destroying roads, bridges, railways, telegraph-wires. They are to form ambushes and cut off retreating Germans – and to give shelter to Volksdeutsche who have deserted from the German Army. Workmen are urged to sabotage, soldiers and police to desert, ‘collaborators of fascism’ to take this last chance of showing their patriotism and helping the cause of their country’s deliverance. United, we shall attain victory.”

General Alexander of Tunis

This was an enormously significant proclamation, given what Alexander must have known about the proposed reduction in forces, and what his intelligence sources must have told him about Nazi reprisals. They were surely not words Alexander had crafted himself. One can conclude that it was perhaps part of the general propaganda campaign, current with the D-Day landings, to focus the attention of Nazi forces around Europe on the local threats. Indeed the Political Warfare Executive made a proposal to Eisenhower intended to ‘stimulate . . . strikes, guerilla action and armed uprisings behind the enemy lines’. Historians have accepted that such an initiative would have endangered many civilian lives. The exact follow-up to this recommendation, and how it was manifested in BBC broadcasts in different languages, is outside my current scope, but Origo’s diary entry shows how eagerly the broadcasts from London were followed.

What is highly significant is that General Alexander, in the summer of 1944, was involved in an auxiliary deception operation codenamed ‘Otrington’, which was designed to lead the Germans to think that an attack was going to take place on the Nazi flanks in Genoa and Rimini, as opposed to the south of France, and also as a feint for Alexander’s planned attack through the central Apennines north of Florence. (This was all part of the grander ‘Bodyguard’ deception plan for Overlord.) Yet in August 1944, such plans were changed when General Sir Oliver Leese, now commanding the Eighth Army, persuaded Alexander to move his forces away from the central Apennines over to the Adriatic sector, for an attack on August 25. The Germans were misled to the extent that they had moved forces to the Adriatic, thus confusing Leese’s initiative. Moreover, the historian on whom we rely for this exposition was Professor Sir Michael Howard himself – in his Chapter 7 of Volume 5 of the British Intelligence history. Yet the author makes no reference here to Alexander’s communications to the partisans, or how such signals related to the deception exercise, merely laconically noting: “The attack, after its initial success, was gradually brought to a halt [by Kesselring], and Allied operations in Italy bogged down for another winter.”

Perhaps not surprisingly, the message provoked even further animosity from the Germans when Alexander made three separate broadcasts through the BBC, on June 19, 20 and 27, where he encouraged Italian partisans to ‘shoot Germans in the back’. The response from Kesselring, who of course heard the open declaration, was instantaneous. He issued an order on June 20 that read, partially, as follows: “Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village, the village will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.”

The outcome of this was that a horrible series of massacres occurred during August and September, leading to the worst of all, that at Marzabotto, on September 29 and 30. A more specific order by the German 5 Corps was issued on August 9, with instructions as to how local populations would be assembled to witness the shootings. Yet this was not a new phenomenon: fascist troops had been killing partisan bands and their abettors for the past year in the North. The requirement for Mussolini’s neo-fascist government to recruit young men for its military and police forces prompted thousands to run for the mountains and join the partisans. Italy was now engaged in a civil war, and in the north Italians had been killing other Italians. One of the most infamous of the massacres had occurred in Rome, in March 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves. A Communist Patriotic Action Group had killed 33 German soldiers in the Via Rasella, and ten times that many hostages were killed the next day as a form of reprisal. The summer of 1944 was the bitterest time for executions of Italians: 7500 civilians were killed between March 1944 and April 1945, and 5000 of these met their deaths in the summer months of 1944.

The records show that support for the partisans had been consistent up until September, although demands had sharply risen. “In July 1944 SOE was operating 16 radio stations behind enemy lines, and its missions rose from 23 in August to 33 in September; meanwhile the OSS had 12 in place, plus another 6 ready to leave. Contacts between Allied teams and partisan formations made large-scale airdrops of supplies possible. In May 1944, 152 tons were dropped; 361 tons were delivered in June, 446 tons in July, 227 tons in August, and 252 tons in September.” (Battistelli and Crociani) Yet those authors offer up another explanation: Operation ‘Olive’ which began on August 25, at the Adriatic end of the Gothic Line, provoked a severe response against partisans in the north-west. The fierce German reprisals that then took place (on partisans and civilians, including the Marzobotto massacre) by the SS Panzer Green Division Reichsführer contributed to the demoralization of the partisan forces, and 47,000 handed themselves in after an amnesty offer by the RSI on October 28.

What is not clear is why the partisans continued to engage in such desperate actions. Had they become desperadoes? As Battistelli and Crociani write, a period of crisis had arrived: “In mid-September 1944 the partisans’ war was, for all practical purposes, at a standstill. The influx of would-be recruits made it impossible for the Allies to arm them all; many of the premature ‘free zones’ were being retaken by the Germans; true insurgency was not possible without direct Allied support; and, despite attacks by the US Fifth and British Eighth Armies against the Gothic Line from 12 September, progress would be slow and mainly up the Adriatic flank. Against the advice of Allied liaison officers, the partisan reaction was, inexplicably, to declare more ‘free zones’.” Things appeared to be out of control. Battistelli and Crociani further analyse it as follows: “The summer of 1944 thus represented a turning-point in partisan activity, after which sabotage and attacks against communications decreased in favour of first looting and then attacks against Axis troops, both being necessary to obtain food and weapons to enable large formations to carry on their war.” And it thus led to the deadliest massacre at Marzabotto, south of Bologna, where the SS, under Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, shot about 770 men, women, and children.

The wholesale deaths even provoked Mussolini to beg the SS to back off. On November 13 Alexander issued a belated communiqué encouraging the partisans to disarm for the winter, as the campaign was effectively coming to a halt. Alexander’s advice was largely ignored: the partisans viewed it a political move executed out of disdain for communism. The Germans viewed it as a sign of weakness, and it deterred any thoughts of immediate surrender. Thus the activity of the partisans continued, but less vigorously, as air support in the way of supplies had already begun to dwindle. And another significant factor was at work. Before he left Moscow, Togliatti, the newly arrived Communist leader, had made an appeal to the Italian resistance movement to take up arms against the Fascists. Yet when he arrived in Italy in March 1944, Togliatti had submerged the militant aspects of his PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in the cause of unity and democracy, and had the Garibaldi (Communist) brigades disarmed. Moorehead points out that the Northern partisans were effectively stunned and weakened by Togliatti’s strategic move to make the Communists appear less harmful as the country prepared for postwar government.

In addition, roles changed. Not just the arrival of General Leese, and his disruption of careful deception plans. General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, took the view that Italy was ‘an expensive sideshow’ (Brian Holden Reid). In December, Alexander had to tried to breathe fresh life into the plan to assault the Ljubljana Gap,  but after the Yalta Conference of February 1945, Alexander, now Supreme Commander in the Mediterranean, was instructed simply to ensure that the maximum number of German divisions were held down, thus allowing the progress by Allied troops in France and Germany to be maintained. Bologna was not taken until April 1945, after which the reprisals against fascists began. Perhaps three thousand were killed there by the partisans.

  • The Aftermath

The massacres of September and October 1944 have not been forgotten, but their circumstances have tended to be overlooked in the histories. It is difficult to find a sharp and incisive analysis of British strategy and communications at this time. Norman Davies writes about the parallel activities in Poland and Italy in the summer of 1944 in No Simple Victory, but I would suggest that he does not do justice to the situation. He blames General Alexander for ‘opening the floodgates for a second wave of German revenge’ when he publicly announced that there would be no winter offensive in 1944-45, but it was highly unlikely that that ‘unoriginal thinker’ (Oxford Companion to Word War II) would have been allowed to come up with such a message without guidance and approval. Davies points to ‘differences of opinion between British and American strategists’, which allowed German commanders to be given a free hand to take ruthless action against the partisans’. So why were the differences not resolved by Eisenhower? Moreover, while oppression against the partisans did intensify, the worst reprisals against civilians that Davies refers to were over by then.

Had Alexander severely misled the partisans in his encouragement that their ‘hour of rising’ had come at last? What was intended by his open bloodthirsty call to kill Nazis in the back? Did the partisans really pursue such aggressive attacks because of Alexander’s provocative words, or, did they engage in them in full knowledge of the carnage it would cause, trying to prove, perhaps, that a fierce and autocratic form of government was the only method of eliminating fascism? Were the local SOE officers responsible for encouraging attacks on German troops in order to secure weapons and food? Why could Togliatti not maintain any control over the communists? And what was Alexander’s intention in calling the forces to hold up for the winter, knowing that the Germans would pick up that message? Whatever the reality, it was not a very honourable episode in the British war effort. Too many organisations arguing amongst themselves, no doubt. Churchill had many things on his mind, but it was another example of where he wavered on strategy, then became too involved in details, or followed his buccaneering instincts, and afterwards turned sentimental at inappropriate times. Yet Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, and clearly had problems in enforcing a disciplined approach to strategy.

At least the horrendous reprisals ceased. Maybe, as in Warsaw, the SS realised that the war was going to be lost, and that war crimes tribunals would investigate the legality of the massacre of innocent civilians. Yet a few grisly murders continued. Internecine feuds continued among the partisans during the winter of 1944-45, with fears of collaborators and spies in the midst, and frequently individuals who opposed communism were persecuted and killed. It is beyond the scope of this article to describe the events of this winter in the north (see Moorehead for more details), but a few statements need to be made. The number of partisans did decline sharply to begin with, but then ascended in the spring. More supplies were dropped by SOE, but the latter’s anti-communist message intensified, and the organisation tried to direct weaponry to non-communist units. Savage reprisals by the fascists did take place, but not on the scale of the September massacres. In the end, the communists managed to emerge from World War II with a large amount of prestige, because they ensured that they were present to liberate finally the cities of Turin, Milan, and Bologna in concert with the Allied forces that eventually broke through, even though they were merciless with fascists who had remained loyal to Mussolini and the Nazis. As with Spain, the memories of civil war and different allegiances stayed and festered for a long time.

And the communists actually survived and thrived, as Howard’s encounter forty years later proved –  a dramatic difference from the possibility of independent democratic organisations in Warsaw enduring after the war, for example. Moreover, they obviously held a grudge. Yet history continues to be distorted. Views contrary to the betrayal of such ‘liberating’ communists have been expressed. In his book The Pursuit of Italy David Gilmour writes: “At the entrance of the town hall of Bologna photographs are still displayed of partisans liberating the city without giving a hint that Allied forces had helped them to do so.” He goes on to point out that, after the massacre of the Ardeatine Caves, many Italians were of the opinion that those responsible (Communists) should have given them up for execution instead. Others claim that the murders of the German soldiers were not actually communists: Moorhead claims they were mainly ‘students’. It all gets very murky. I leave the epitaph to Nicola Bianca: “The fact is that brutalization was a much part of the Italian wars as of any other, even if it was these same wars which made possible the birth of the first true democracy the country had known.”

Reassessment of Howard’s Judgment

Professor Howard seemed to be drawing an equivalence between, on the one hand, the desire for the Red Army to have the Nazis perform their dirty work for them by eliminating a nominal ally but a social enemy (the Home Army), and thus disengage from an attack on Warsaw, and, on the other, a strained Allied Army, with its resources strategically depleted, reneging on commitments to provide material support to a scattered force of anti-fascist sympathisers, some of whom it regarded as dangerous for the long-term health of the invading country, as well as that of the nation it was attempting to liberate. This is highly unbalanced, as the Home Army had few choices, whereas the Italian partisans had time and territory on their side. They did not have to engage in bloody attacks that would provoke reprisals of innocents. The Allies in Italy were trying to liberate a country that had waged warfare against them: the Soviet Army refused to assist insurgents who were supposedly fighting the same enemy. The British, certainly, were determined to weaken the Communists: why was Howard surprised by this? And, if he had a case to make, he could have criticised the British Army and its propagandists back in London for obvious lapses in communications rather than switching his attention to expressing sympathy for the communists outside Warsaw. Was he loath to analyse what Alexander had done simply because he had served under him?

It is informative to parse carefully the phrases Howard uses in his outburst. I present the text again here, for ease of reference:

“In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”

‘In September 1944, believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command . . ’

Did the incitement actually happen in September, as opposed to June? What was the source, and who actually issued the order? What did that ‘in sight’ mean? It is a woolly, evasive term. Who actually believed that the war would end shortly? Were these orders issued over public radio (for the Germans to hear), or privately, to SOE and OSS representatives?

‘ . . had issued orders to unmask themselves’.

What does that mean? Take off their camouflage and engage in open warfare? The Allied High Command could in fact not ‘order’ the partisans to do anything, but why would an ‘order’ be issued to do that? I can find no evidence for it in the transcripts.

‘ . . .and attack German communications’.

An incitement to sabotage was fine, and consistent, but the communication specifically did not encourage murder of fascist forces, whether Italian or German. Alexander admittedly did so in June, but Howard does not cite those broadcasts.

‘The Germans reacted with predictable savagery.’

The Germans engaged in savage reprisals primarily in August, before the supposed order that Howard quotes. The reprisals took place because of partisan murders of soldiers, and in response to Operation ‘Olive’, not simply because of attacks on communications, as Howard suggests here. Moreover, the massacre at Marzabotto occurred at the end of September, when Kesselring had mollified his instructions, after Mussolini’s intervention.

‘Allied armies did not come to their help’.

But was anything more than parachuting in supplies expected? Over an area of more than 30,000 square miles, behind enemy lines? Bologna only? Where is the evidence – beyond the June message quoted by Origo? What did the SOE officers say? (I have not yet read Joe Maioli’s Mission Accomplished: SOE in Italy 1943-45, although its title suggests success, not failure.)

‘The partisan movement in northern Italy was largely destroyed’.

This was not true, as numerous memoirs and histories indicate. Admittedly, activity sharply decreased after September, because of the Nazi attacks, and the reduction in supplies. It thus suffered in the short term, but the movement became highly active again in the spring of 1945. On what did Howard base his conclusion? And why did he not mention that it was the Communist Togliatti who had been as much responsible for any weakening in the autumn of 1944? Or that Italian neo-fascists had been determinedly hunting down partisans all year?

‘It was still believed . .  .’

Why the passive voice? Who? When? Why? Of course the communists in Bologna would say that.

‘ . . .deliberately planned to weaken the communist movement’.

Richard Lamb wrote that Field Marshal Harding, Alexander’s Chief of Staff, had told him that the controversial Proclama Alexander, interpreted by some Italian historians as an anti-communist move, had been designed to protect the partisans. But that proclamation was made in November, and it encouraged partisans to suspend hostilities. In any case, weakening the communist movement was not a dishonourable goal, considering what was happening elsewhere in Europe.

‘. . . much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans exterminated them’.

Did the Bologna communists really make this analogy, condemning the actions of communists in Poland as if they were akin to the actions of the Allies? Expressing sympathy for the class enemies of the Polish Home Army would have been heresy. Why could Howard not refute it at the time, or point out the contradictions in this passage?

‘ . . .was there really nothing that we could have done to help?

Aren’t you the one supposed to be answering the questions, Professor, not asking them?

‘. . . huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines’

Why had Howard forgotten about the depletion of resources in Italy, the decision to hold ground, and what he wrote about in Strategic Deception? Did he really think that Alexander would have been able to ignore Eisenhower’s directives? And why ’cumbrous’ – unwieldy? inflexible?

‘Someone must have known what was going on’.

 Indeed. And shouldn’t it have been Howard’s responsibility to find out?

‘Ever since then I have been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies’

Where? In print? In conversations? What has one got to do with the other? Why should an implicit criticism of the Allied Command be converted into sympathy for Stalin?

The irony is that the Allied Command, perhaps guided by the Political Warfare Executive, did probably woefully mismanage expectations, and encourage attacks on German troops that resulted in the murder of innocent civilians. But Howard does not make this case. Those events happened primarily in the June through August period, while Howard bases his argument on a September proclamation. He was very quick to accept the Bologna communists’ claim that the alleged ‘destruction’ of the partisans was all the Allies’ fault, when the partisans themselves, northern Italian fascists, the SS troops, Togliatti, and even the Pope, held some responsibility. If Howard had other evidence, he should have presented it.

Why was Howard not aware of the Monte Sole massacre at the time? Why did he not perform research before walking into the meeting in Bologna? What did the communists there tell him that convinced him that they had been hard done by? Did they blame the British for the SS reprisals? Why was he taken in by the relentless propagandizing of the Communists? Why did he not explain what he thought the parallels were between Alexander’s actions and those of Rokossovsky? The episode offered an intriguing opportunity to investigate Allied strategy in Italy and Poland in the approach to D-Day and afterwards, but Howard fumbled it, and an enormous amount is thus missing from his casual observations. He could have illustrated how the attempts by the Western Allies to protect the incursions into Europe had unintended consequences, and shown the result of the competition between western intelligence and Togliatti for the allegiance of the Italian partisans. Instead the illustrious historian never did his homework. He obfuscated rather than illuminated, indulging in vague speculation, shaky chronology, ineffectual hand-wringing, and unsupported conclusions.

Perhaps a pertinent epitaph is what Howard himself wrote, in his volume of Strategic Deception, about the campaign in India (p 221): “The real problem which confronted the British deception staff in India, however, was that created by its own side; the continuing uncertainty as to what Allied strategic intentions really were. In default of any actual plans the best that the deceivers could do as one of them ruefully put it, was to ensure that the enemy remained as confused as they were themselves.” He had an excellent opportunity to inspect the Italian campaign as a case study for the same phenomenon, but for some reason avoided it.

This has been a fascinating and educational, though ultimately sterile, exercise for me. It certainly did not help me understand why Howard is held in such regard as a historian. ‘Why are eminent figures allowed to get away with such feeble analysis?’, I asked myself. Is it because they are distinguished, and an aura of authority has descended upon them? Or am I completely out to lunch? No doubt I should read more of Howard’s works. But ars longa, vita brevis  . . .

Sources:

War in Italy 1943-1945, A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb

Russia at War 1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

War in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo

Captain Professor by Michael Howard

The House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead

World War II Partisan Warfare in Italy by Pier Paola Battistelli & Piero Crociani

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

Between Giants by Prit Buttar

Winston Churchill: Road to Victory 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert

Rising ’47 by Norman Davies

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

The Oxford Companion to World War II edited by Ian Dear and M. R. E. Foot

The Oxford Illustrated History of World War II edited by Paul Overy

British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, Strategic Deception by Michael Howard

(New Commonplace entries may be viewed here.)

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios – Part VII

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

Stewart Menzies
Richard Gambier-Parry

SM: Hallo, Richard. Take a pew.

RG-P: Thank you, sir.

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

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

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

RG-P: Good news, I trust.

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

RG-P: The enemy, sir? Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: I see. That changes things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: So what does Military Intelligence think?

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Access to the PM?

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

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

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

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

SM: Where was I?

RG-P: With Davidson, sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Will do, sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Floreat Etona, sir.

Edward Maltby

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

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

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Dr Percy

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely 

David Watson”

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

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

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of Signals Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile Direction-Finding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Management of RSS

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

An equipped RSS Packard in Alexandria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Double-Cross Operation

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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