I take a break from intelligence matters this month to celebrate Sylvia’s and my forty-fifth wedding anniversary, and to exploit the occasion by indulging in some mostly reliable reminiscences and reflecting upon them.
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On occasions, when conversing with Americans at social gatherings, I am asked at which ‘school’ (= ‘college’) I was educated. When I reply ‘Christ Church, Oxford’, a beatific smile sometimes takes over the face of my interlocutor, as if he (or she) believed that Christ Church was the British equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and they start thinking about whether they should invite me to be one of their lay preachers or readers at the local Methodist or Episcopalian Church. I am always quick to ward them off any such idea, as I do not believe I would delight their congregation, and it normally turns out that, when I start explaining the peculiar history of Christ Church (the ‘House’ – Aedes Christi, and never referred to as ’Christ Church College’), and its role as an independent college in the Oxford University framework, their eyes start to glaze over, and they look instead for someone they can discuss the football with.
But there was a time! I happened recently to retrieve from my archives my Report Cards from my years at St. Anne’s Preparatory School in Coulsdon, Surrey, for the years 1952 to 1956. In my Kindergarten report of Summer 1952, Mrs. Early’s assessment for ‘Scripture’ runs: ‘Listens to Bible Stories with interest’. Was this true absorption? Or a well-managed bluff? Or a view of astonishment? I cannot recall. A year later, I was third in the exams, although I dropped to sixth by Christmas. The following summer, there was apparently no exam, but it was recorded that I ‘attended morning assembly regularly’. I suspect I did not have a choice, but maybe others did? By Summer 1955, ‘Scripture’ had been replaced by ‘Divinity’, and I achieved a creditable second place in the exams, followed by more excellent results. But then, in my last term, in Summer 1956, I dropped to 18th in the standings, from a class of 27. ‘Very fair’, was the comment, which is English-teacher speak for ‘pretty awful’. What had happened? Obviously a crisis of faith had occurred. And it happened because of a convergence of music and history.
I had been intrigued by the History lessons, where we learned about Cavemen, and the Stone Age, and perhaps I found these a more plausible account of the Birth of Man than the rather saccharine Bible Stories. At about the same time, I recall we had music and singing lessons, where we were encouraged to trill lustily some English (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh) folksongs. Apart from such standbys as ‘Bobbie Shaftoe’, I particularly remember two songs: the first one that I had for long imagined was by Rabbie Burns – ‘A-Rovin’’, the second, ‘Greensleeves’. Looking the former up today, I see that its title is ‘The Maid of Amsterdam’, and is a traditional sea shanty that first appeared in London, in 1608, in a play by Robert Heywood. The chorus went as follows:
A-rovin’, a -rovin’, since rovin’s been my ru-i-in
I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you – fair – maid.
I can recall to this day the atmosphere in the classroom as we took up the refrain, with the smell of cabbage and dirty socks wafting in from other rooms, and my seat, bottom left, where I was always trying to catch the teacher’s attention.
But isn’t that extraordinary – that a prim preparatory school in postwar England would encourage its eight-year-olds to sing about ‘roving’? Assuredly we did not sing the whole song, as I note that the third verse runs as follows:
I put my hand upon her thigh Mark well what I do say I put my hand upon her thigh She said: “Young man you’re rather high!” I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you fair maid
Needless to say, we did not get further than the first verse, but I think I was already enthused enough to think that this roving business was something I needed to investigate. I now wonder whether I already had at that time enough imagination to reflect that wasn’t it more likely that the Fair Maid would face Ruin than the Rover would? I was certainly not looking for ruination at that age, but I was very keen to learn more about this frightening prospect, and how beautiful maidens could indeed be the cause of the complete collapse into desolation or penury of innocent young lads like me.
But where to find ‘fair maids’? My father owned a handsome, tall, glass-lined – but locked – bookcase, and I could inspect the titles there through the panes. One title was The Fair Maid of Perth, which sounded promising. Perhaps Perth was a fertile location for the incipient Rover? So I looked up ‘Perth’ in the atlas: it seemed a bit far away. Requiring quite a substantial rove, in fact. My absence might have been noted, and I would have been pushed to get back in time for my favourite baked-beans-on-toast supper, so I abandoned that plan. Another potential source was Roy Race, of Melchester Rovers, who featured in Tiger magazine, but I soon saw that his adventures did not involve exploits with girls but instead such feats as rescuing the Rovers’ French import, Pierre Dupont, from a lighthouse where he had been kidnapped, so that they could get him back in time for kick-off. (“Who’d play the Rovers with Pierre on our wing ?” Tra-la-la.) All stirring stuff, of course, but not really relevant to the Quest.
And then there was Greensleeves. That glorious tune, and the illustrations, at the back of some encyclopædia or annual that I possessed, that showed a comely young girl, draped in muslin or something similar, sitting on a bough of a tree in some medieval forest. Was Greensleeves one of those maids who could ruin you? She didn’t look as if she were someone who could cause permanent damage. At the same time, I couldn’t see myself taking her home to meet Mum and Dad. (“Sit down, dear, and have a cup of tea. But why is your frock all green? Have you been frolicking in the grass?”) Nevertheless, maybe it would have been safe to do a little roving with her, to see what it was like, without getting into trouble.
Another permanent memory is attending Sunday School. I would inwardly seethe at being sent off, on an afternoon when playing outside beckoned far more energetically, to the church at the top of the hill in Coulsdon, Surrey. (It was St. Andrew’s, where my parents were married in August 1940, as the bombs started falling.) It was utterly boring, and prominent among the tedious exercises that we had to carry out was the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, which, even then, I regarded as the most ridiculous mumbo-jumbo I had ever heard. (This was especially so with the St. James version in use then, that contained ‘the Holy Ghost’, ‘hell’, and ‘the quick and the dead’, making it particularly opaque.) It was never explained to us what these statements meant, how they were derived, or why they were important. We were just indoctrinated: “I believe in . . .”. I fail consistently to understand how any inquisitive child would not rebel against such nonsense, and the way it was drilled into us. But eight-year-olds in my world did not ask questions. We did what we were told. Moreover, the girls at Sunday School were all very soppy and outwardly very pious. Not a single green sleeve to be found among the lot of them.
But to return to school. At the end of one of the lessons, probably in the spring of 1956, I went up to speak to Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder, who for some reason were both present during the session. Mr. Robinson was a kindly, Pickwickian figure, who blinked at us, and always wore a three-piece-suit with a fob watch in his waistcoat. He taught us English and History. Mr. Wilder was much younger, tall and athletic, half-French. He taught Arithmetic, French, and sport, and impressed me and other pupils once when he said he could think in French. I had two questions for the pair of them: Who wrote ‘Greensleeves’? And which account of Man’s origins was right – the Garden of Eden or the Story of the Cavemen?
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder looked at each other awkwardly. The Greensleeves question they were able to dispense with fairly quickly: ‘traditional’, ‘no known composer’, but the other one was challenging. I am not sure exactly what they said: they may have used the word ‘allegory’, but probably not, but I do recall having the impression that I should not take those Bible stories all very literally. And I think that did it for me, as far as religion was concerned. They confirmed for me that it was all bogus. I had sorted out something significant, and from that day on, I knew what I wanted to do. When cringe-making friends of my parents patted me on the head, and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an ‘influencer’, and would seek to monetise my content-creation as soon as I could. (That quickly shut them up.) Unfortunately it took sixty-five years for that idea to take off.
Now, I have to say that I was a very literal-minded little boy at that stage. I had great problems differentiating between fiction and reality, and no one had yet introduced me to William Empson and his Seven Types of Ambiguity. For example, I recall seeing the advertisement for Johnny Walker whisky on the front page of the Illustrated London News, where the slogan declared: ‘Born 1820. Still going strong!’, and it displayed a regency gentleman, in red jacket, shiny black boots, and a golden top-hat breezily striding somewhere. 1954 minus 1820 was 134. How could a man live to be that long, I asked myself, and where could I meet him?
And then there were the movies (pictures). We went to see The Blue Lamp, where Jack Warner played P.C. Dixon, and was eventually shot by the Dirk Bogarde character. (It came out in 1950. Did I really see it that early?) I was distraught. The very likable policeman was dead, definitely not ‘still going strong’, and it must have been ages before it was explained to me that it was all illusory. About that time we must also have seen a trailer for King Kong (children would not have been allowed to watch the full movie), and I had nightmares for months, since I believed that great apes could actually grow to that size and might terrorize our neighbourhood. And I know I was puzzled about ‘The Dark Ages’, concluding that for hundreds of years the sun did not come out, and people must have groped around in the murkiness until the light returned.
I recall, also, my bewilderment over my father’s occupation during the day. He would set off on his bicycle to school each day (a journey of about five miles along the busy Brighton Road), but I could not work out why a man of his age was still attending school. My sister eventually explained to me that he was not a pupil there, but a teacher. Somehow, even though I saw men of his age teaching at St. Anne’s, I had never made the connection.
Yet that summer of 1956 must have been very important. I remember being introduced to the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword, and solving my first clue. (The answer was ‘OSCAR’.) I discovered – and delighted in – nonsense verse. I recall being fascinated by my father’s meagre store of one-liners, such as ‘She was a good cook, as cooks go, but, as cooks go, she went’, and was exceedingly happy to sort out why the linguistic twist worked, and why it made me laugh. I suddenly started to appreciate allusion, metaphor, irony, bathos, and paradox. The real world was far more subtle and multi-layered than I had ever imagined. At the same time, I felt a distinct disdain for the mythical and the mystical, a distaste that has never gone away. (The Greek Myths left me cold, as did C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Though I loved Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.) But not the mysterious: mystery was captivating. And Greensleeves lay in the field of mystery.
In September 1956 I started at Whitgift School in Croydon. Like many such independent schools, it had a charitable foundation, and the assumption seemed to be that all the pupils should be trained to be solid Christian gentlemen. That was assuredly something that the Headmaster, Geoffrey Marlar (who had ridden with the cavalry in WWI) believed. Coincident with my arrival at the school, our family had moved house – to more spacious accommodation rented from the school Foundation, on the playing-fields, about four hundred yards from the Headmaster’s house. If, on a Sunday, my brother and I played any ball-game that caused us to stray far from Haling Park Cottage, and Marlar espied us while gardening, he would shake a fist at us for breaking the Sabbath, and our father would get a roasting from him the next day. I found this all very strange, and the arrival of Cavaliers cricket on Sundays soon afterwards must have dismayed Marlar. (He retired in 1961.)
I had to attend daily Assembly, careful to be carrying my hymnbook for inspection. (For one week when I had mislaid that item, I recall taking in a pocket dictionary, and not being spotted.) I would never even have thought of getting exempted as a pagan, but then I learned that there was a category of boys called ‘Jews’ who were allowed to sit it out. This seemed to me grossly unfair. I couldn’t tell why these characters were any different from the motley crew of youngsters from all quarters of Europe, both friendly and inimical, that I had to deal with, and thus could not work out why they were allowed to escape all the mumbo-jumbo. Later I would learn that there were atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews, and Protestant and Catholic Jews, and Jews for Jesus, and non-Jews who had converted for marital reasons, but it all seemed to me like an Enormous Category Mistake at the time, even though I had not worked out why. Much later, after looking into the matter, I decided that dividing the world into Jews and Gentiles was patently absurd, and I was encouraged to learn that Schlomo Sands (in The Invention of the Jewish People) gave historical authority to my doubts and inclinations.
Then I got recruited to the Choir. Not because I liked singing, but because I apparently had a decent voice, and obedient boys did not challenge what their elders and betters decreed. The only trouble was that the times for Choir Practice and Rugby Practice collided, and it was an easy decision for me to pick the activity I preferred. Thus, when the first performance of Iolanthe was staged, in December 1957 (I think), one Fairy who had missed out on the rehearsals was able to give a startling innovative and true-to-life interpretation of the first chorus ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’, something which my classmates were quick to point out to me the following morning. Mortification came easily.
Hymn- and carol-singing was, however, quite enjoyable, and even the less devout masters joined in lustily (with my father notoriously singing out of tune, another embarrassing fact that was swiftly communicated to me by one of his colleagues). But it was important not to study the words too closely. I do not know how many of us inquisitive ten- and eleven-year-olds worked out, when singing the stirring Adeste Fideles, what ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ meant, but it was a line that Frederick Oakeley (if indeed it was he) should have stifled at birth when he faced the challenge of translating
Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, gestant puellae viscera Deum verum, genitum non factum.
What was extraordinary to me then, and remains so, is how many of the school staff, presumably intelligent and well-educated persons who were supposed to be encouraging their pupils to think critically, swallowed up such nonsense unquestioningly.
In fact my sister confided in me an awful truth, in about 1959. She told me that our father (not Our Father, I hasten to add, since His views on the matter are for ever indeterminable) did not believe in the Apostles’ Creed. What a shock! I was like: ‘Hallo!’, and in my best Holden Caulfield style responded that surely no one believed in that stuff any more. Why Daddy had vouchsafed this truth to my sister, and not to me, was a mystery, but I concluded that, in my resolve not to accompany the rest of the family to church, something they did only at Christmas and Easter, I had perhaps been working my ‘Influencer’ magic on him for the good. (Those who knew my father will know how unlikely a story that is.)
But back to the choir. After a while, my voice broke, of course, and I became an alto. Something was wrong, however, and I was jolted out of my complacency when a fellow chorister – name of Balcomb (where is he now?) – pointed out loudly, to no one in particular, that ‘Percy just sang the treble part one octave lower’. Apparently I was supposed to sight-read the alto part from the hymnal, and thus harmonise with the basses and tenors. But I couldn’t do that! No one had told me what to do, or taught me how to sight-read. Another colleague informed me that most of the choir actually sang at their church, where they learned such tricks, but that his main objective in joining the church had been ‘to meet girls’. So maybe that was the route to take! But there was no way that I was going to sacrifice my irreligious principles for a bit of skirt-chasing (‘that’s not who I am’), so the hunt for Greensleeves was temporarily abandoned, and the choir permanently discarded.
Yet my teenage years were filled with things that I really did not want to do. I had joined a local Scout group, because a new master at the school had a son my age who was keen, and my parents thought it was ‘a good idea’ for me to join. I was made by my unmusical parents to take up piano-playing, something I was not adept at. I hated practising, and dreaded the weekly lesson, dearly hoping that the scheduled time would clash with an away cricket match. Later came the Combined Cadet Force, much harder to avoid, as the alternative was the Boy Scouts, but Monday night, preparing my uniform for CCF day, was the most dismal evening of the week.
This all left very little time for roving. I attended the Yates-Williams School of Ballroom Dancing, at the Orchid Ballroom in Purely, but that was all rather chaotic, and dancing was not my shtick, either. No time for careful wooing of Greensleeves. And glimpses of such a life were few and far between. When we studied Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, I recall Henry Axton trying to make the play a little more spicy for us (I was fourteen at the time), by suggesting, in the scene where M. Jourdain meets Dorimène, that he was probably trying to look down her cleavage. This was unbearably saucy for my liking, but indicated that Mr. Axton probably knew a bit about roving. I did not seek him out after the class, however, to quiz him on the details.
Thus, by the time the Sixth Form Socials arrived, where the girls from the local high schools were invited, I was hopelessly disadvantaged. (Well, there had been a few romantic roving episodes – none of Turgenevian proportions, I should add – but I must stay silent about them, as any account would be too shy-making.) I bet all those blighters sporting ‘Crusader’ badges were winning the roving spoils. And, bewilderingly, the Religious Knowledge classes continued into the Lower Sixth Form, where a dreary three-quarters of an hour was wasted each week in studying some Bible extract, and poor Don Rose was brought into relative despair in trying to fire evangelical enthusiasm in the few obvious non-believers in the class. On the other hand, John Chester, our Sixth Modern form-master, as a dedicated Count Bernadotte internationalist, was perplexed at any admission of atheism, seeing it as a symptom of Communism. Presumably the same impulse that provoked the US Congress to adopt ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto in 1956.
There were not many women at Whitgift. In the early years, we had Miss Scott in the Art Room, and the Headmaster’s secretariat contained two ladies, a very pleasant person called Mrs. Haynes, and her rather dour assistant whom we nicknamed ‘Olga’, as she looked as if she had just stepped out of a Chekhov play. In a sincere attempt to bring more joy to their lives, I posted the following clerihew on the Poetry Wall in the Prefects’ Room:
Goes jiving in Staines,
Dances the polga.
I do not know whether Life imitated Art in this particular case, but such musings formed a creative break from our cheerless studies.
The themes from the German literature we were given as set books were too frequently beyond the ken of secluded and protected sixteen-year-olds like me. Thus Gretchen’s passion and torment in Goethe’s Urfaust were rather bewildering (‘abhorrence of a virgin’s womb’? Mr. Chester would never have discussed sex or pregnancy with us), although the role of Mephistopheles in introducing Faust to Roving was unmistakably evil. (Was Gretchen’s “Meine Ruh’ ist hin” a ghostly echo of “my ru-i-in”?) And Goethe’s development of the ending, where Gretchen’s Old Testament fate (“ist gerichtet” – “judged”) evolved eventually to one of New Testament salvation (“ist gerettet” – “saved”) cut no ice with me. On the other hand, the Cambridge Examiners, in their fashionable wisdom, set the Communist Bertolt Brecht’s turgid Leben des Galilei as the second set book. Definitely no cleavages on view there. The last book, Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Prinz von Homburg, was an extraordinarily modern psychological study, Shakespearean in its combination of historical drama with study of period-independent human failings. It was thus for me the most accessible of the three set texts. Kleist died in a joint suicide with his Greensleeves, the mortally ill Henriette Vogel, in 1811. No more a-rovin’ for you, Heinrich old chap. But your work lives on: ‘Born 1777 – Still Going Strong’.
Thus a rather confused and hesitant candidate applied for entrance to Oxford University.
It was a strange business, landing up at Christ Church, of all places, the home of the Oxford Cathedral, and alma mater of countless Prime Ministers. My acceptance was surely not because of my scholastic record or potential, and I can only assume that they must have picked me for one of three reasons:
1) They thought I was a fairly close relative of the Duke of Northumberland, they hadn’t had many Percys enrolled in recent years, and imagined I might be a useful addition to the beagling set;
2) They hadn’t filled their quota of infidels for the year, and needed to take some immediate affirmative action to balance the numbers;
3) They needed a versatile rugby three-quarter, who could play fly-half, centre, or full-back, and preferably someone who could bowl a bit as well.
In fact, I may have been admitted through a misunderstanding. When I had my interview, one of the dons suddenly asked me: “Have you done any roving?”, to which I immediately piped up, replying: “Not much, but I certainly expect to take it up enthusiastically if I am accepted!”. One or two heads nodded at this, which was quite encouraging. It was not until a few hours later that it occurred to me that the distinguished academic had perhaps been impressed with my strapping 6’ 4” physique, and that the question might have been: “Have you done any rowing?”. I must have disappointed the Senior Common Room when I did not take my place on the boats.
Yet it was a bit of a culture shock. The cathedral was obviously a dominant presence, and there was a fairly vigorous Church Militant group from such places as Wellington and Marlborough. I was not even like the agnostic worshipper at the Cathedral quoted in Peter Snow’s Oxford Observed: “I am conscious of communicating if not with Christ then with the whole of English history and tradition.” And I soon found that I, as an obvious non-cathedral-service attendee, was to be excluded from some of the key social events – such as the Chaplain’s sherry parties. (Such discrimination would not be allowed in 2021, where chaplains, now probably called Spiritual Care and Outreach Officers, presumably have to administer to everyone, including Buddhists, Rosicrucians and atheists, and to attend to their emotional needs when they are offended by the presence of statues of benefactors of less than stellar integrity. And I notice that Harvard University recently appointed an atheist as its Head Chaplain.) One of my few god-fearing friends did however encourage me to gatecrash one of those parties, but I was sent away with a flea in my ear – not what I considered very charitable behaviour. Yet I learned one thing: One did not go to the Chaplain’s sherry parties to meet Greensleeves. No sirree.
But the theologians! I could not believe how many canons and readers and students of Theology there were. What on earth was ‘Theology’ and how could one pursue a course of study in it? The study of ‘God’ or of ‘gods’? Even today, when I pick up a recent copy of Christ Church Matters, the House magazine, I find that most of the books by Christ Church alumni that receive reviews are on matters of religion (e.g. ‘Theologically Engaged Anthropology’, ‘The Study of Ministry’, ‘Theology and Religion: Why It [sic] Matters’; ‘Interfaith Worship and Prayer: We Must Pray Together’; etc. What is going on? How can such superstition occupy so many serious minds for so much of their time? I find it astounding. And then there are the editorials from the Dean, written in language that has no meaning at all for persons like me.
This lesson was brought home to me recently when I read an article in Prospect, titled ‘How to Build a New Beveridge’. It was written by someone called Justin Welby, who I assumed was perhaps the offspring of Marcus Welby, M. D., until the footnote informed me that he apparently occupied a role described as ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Welby started his article as follows: “An apocryphal riddle for theology students goes thus: ‘Could God create a rock so heavy that God couldn’t lift it?’ The problem, of course, is that if God can’t, then he’s not omnipotent. If God can, he can’t lift it, and so he’s not omnipotent.” (The rest of the essay was a depressing parade of preachy homilies, worthy of Private Eye’s J. C. Flannel.)
Apocryphal, eh? We all know about the Apocrypha, don’t we, and how they relate to truly genuine canonical texts. So that is what theology students were doing to earn their degree, discussing nonsensical questions like that, while I was slaving away, doing really useful stuff, such as trying to make sense of the High German Consonant Shift, and exploring the use of symbols in Chekhov’s plays! It reminded me of that other no doubt apocryphal essay question on the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) finals paper at Oxford: “Is this a question?”. One candidate was inspired enough to write simply: “If it is a question, this is an answer”, and was awarded a First on account of it. That is presumably how the Church, the Cabinet, and the Foreign Office were staffed – with people who could so ably tackle such urgent questions, and such achievements led them on to believe that they could ‘solve’ the pressing problems of their time, like ‘the problem of social welfare.’ Harrumph.
‘But enough of politics, what about your social life?’, I hear you cry. Well, a little roving went on. I’d like to report that, as in Philip Larkin’s imaginings with the women he encountered in books, ‘I broke them up like meringues’, but that would not be strictly true, and the National Profiterole and Meringue Authority might have had something to say about such a micro-aggression. Yet I shall necessarily have to draw a veil over such activities. More engaging for a mature audience, perhaps, might be some of my other social encounters. When I was a member of the Nondescripts, the Christ Church sporting club, I recall attending a cocktail party hosted or attended by J. I. M. Stewart, the English literature don who had rooms on my staircase in Meadows 3. Now, not all of you may know that Stewart wrote detective novels under the name of Michael Innes, so I thought I would be very clever, showing off how familiar I was with his œuvre, and I thus asked him something about the plot of Landscape with Dead Dons. He paused, looked at me rather quizzically, and observed: “Forgive me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t that work written by Robert Robinson?”. I suddenly felt very small, and wanted to hide behind the sofa.
Now it has all changed. The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, received last month, celebrates ‘Forty Years of Women at the House’, and a wonderful milestone it is, indeed. The magazine is dedicated completely to women, with a very impressive Introduction by the Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, who informs us that ‘Unlike Catherine Dammartin, whose corpse was temporarily buried in a dung heap in 1557 for daring to live within the confines of Christ Church despite being the wife of a Regius professor, today’s women know that they belong at the House, front and centre.’ And indeed they do, as all the little darlings [Is this usage wise? It sounds very patronising and 1970s . . . Ed.] can be seen in a wide range of glittering photographs, in their blue stockings, green sleeves, and black gowns, alongside the senior members of faculty, and all those in the Cathedral, Steward’s Office, Hall, Lodge, Library, etc. etc. who make the place hum. Completely unexpected in 1965, when I arrived and was matriculated.
And then came a passage to the real world: teacher training, with a term at Bognor Regis Comprehensive School (where I was sent on an emergency mission to teach Russian and German, since the previous incumbent had turned out to be far too energetic a rover with one of his pupils), and then a move away from academia to business, and IBM. After a while, I met my Greensleeves, as I have described in http://www.coldspur.com/my-experience-with-opioids/. It all started because, during my extended stay in hospital (four months, in fact), I saw the invitation outside the hospital window: ‘Please Help Our Nurses’ Home’, and somehow failed to notice the apostrophe. That was in the summer of 1973, and Sylvia and I were married in September of 1976.
We have lived more than half our lives in the United States, and nearly half of that period in Southport, North Carolina – far longer than I have ever lived in one place. My accent still seems to be a source of fascination to many, and I am accustomed to being asked by the check-out personnel in the supermarket, even when I have explained that I have lived here for twenty years: ‘Do you like it here?’.
In The Road to Little Dribbling Bill Bryson lists some of the features of his adopted country that he likes: Boxing Day; Country pubs; Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration; Jam roly-poly with custard; Ordnance Survey maps; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; Cream teas; the 20p piece; June evenings, about 8 p.m.; Smelling the sea before you see it; Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop. I could quickly add a few from my own collection of favourite UK phenomena, namely Stonehenge; the Listener crossword puzzle; Promenade Concerts; Jeeves; sheepdog trials; clerihews and limericks; the Wisden cricketers’ almanack; the Bluebell Railway. Yet if I had to come up with a list of similar Americana, it would run: Thanksgiving, the Grand Canyon . . . and, er, that’s it.
Thus, while the USA has been an overall very positive experience for us, it does not contain many truly endearing features. And several things about the country and its habits and customs sometimes drive Sylvia and me to distraction. But, if they came to be really unbearable and unavoidable, we presumably would move elsewhere – but whither? In our seventies, an upheaval moving to some remote island, like my wife’s St. Vincent, or Maui, or Mauritius, or the Isle of Wight, does not seem very appealing It would be a hard adjustment: moreover, once you have kids who really have not lived anywhere else, and then the grandchildren arrive, that effectively seals the deal. So we live with all the oddities and frustrations of the USA, and its Bible Belt.
It is a droll irony that, while the Protestant Church in the United Kingdom is established (i.e. recognised as the official church, in law, and supported by civil authority), but the level of public unbelief is distinctly high, in the United States, there is supposed to be a constitutional separation between Church and State, while Christian fervour is an unavoidable presence in the public sphere. A few years ago, the local electricity company, Brunswick County Public Utilities, decided to have ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on all its support vehicles. Lord knows how devolving everything to a deity would help in the reliable delivery of power to the local citizenry, and I found this an unnecessarily divisive and pointless initiative, at an unjustifiable expense. It was my Micro-Aggression of the month. (I was effectively told to clam up, and was referred to the minutes of the council meeting where the majority decision had been made.)
When we first moved to Southport, one of the first questions our neighbours asked us was: ‘What Church do you belong to?’, something that would still be considered horribly crass in the UK, I imagine, as what one’s friends believed in, or what they worshipped, was none of anyone’s business, but the interrogation seemed perfectly natural to Americans who did not even know us. I think they got the message when we held our first dinner party, and did not offer a prayer of ‘Grace’ before the meal, a ceremony that can be seen quite frequently in public restaurants, with participants holding hands around the table. In Brunswick County can be found churches of practically every conceivable Christian denomination: Pentecostal, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Unitarian, Mormon, Apostolic, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. I have no idea what doctrinal differences separate these institutions, and have no wish to find out.
We attended the memorial service for a neighbour at the Episcopal Church in Southport a few months ago. I was astonished at how high-church it was. Swinging censers, the ritual of the eucharist, and the congregation all declaiming earnestly their belief in the Apostles’ Creed, and especially Eternal Life. When obituaries in the local paper state that the deceased (who normally has not ’died’, but ’passed’) has ‘gone to be with Jesus’, or ‘taken by the angels’, those who mourn him or her mean it quite literally. The after-life is ‘a better place’. But I can’t help but feel that if such people accepted that this life on earth is the only one they are going to have, they might value it rather more than they do. Ascribing disasters and premature or avoidable deaths to ‘God’s will’, or to His ‘Plan’, in the belief that everything will be well when we are all re-united, is a deeply depressing philosophy, in my opinion. It suggests that life is merely some dire metaphysical project akin to the Communist Experiment. And it is also a little hypocritical. When survivors of a tornado are pulled from the wreckage of their houses, their first statement is frequently: ‘The Lord saved me’, the implication being that the person down the street who did not survive was unworthy of such grace.
And yet. The charity . . . . The organisation of food-pantries when disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes strike . . . The helping hands offered to neighbours and strangers. All very splendid and admirable, but not a little perplexing.
Someone (Meister Eckhart, C. S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman?) once said that one believes in this rigmarole purely because it is utterly irrational and inexplicable, which seems to me an argument for anything, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. And that line can take you into the Paul Johnson school of theology, namely that ‘because Christianity inspired great art, it must be true’. What is astonishing to me is that if otherwise smart persons are taken in by such nonsense, are they not likely to be taken in by a lot of other absurd theories that circulate – especially on the Web? Why should the particular mythology that was instilled into them at primary school have any greater significance and durability than any other? And what happens – heaven forbid! – when politicians take some disastrous course of action to which they say they were divinely inspired? Or fundamentalist Christians (or those claiming to be so) resort to quoting the Bible to avoid having to be vaccinated against Covid-19?
As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece I read, in the New York Times, an obituary of John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931. His mother was a strict Calvinist ‘who refused to sing hymns because they were not the word of God’, and it was apparently such fundamentalism that prompted Spong’s subsequent rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Thus Spong called on his flock to reject ‘sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth’ (no questions of womb-abhorrence for Spong, then) and ‘the existence of heaven and hell’, and in 2013 he preached that several of the apostles were ‘mythological’, also claiming that the notion that Jesus’ blood had washed away the sins of Christians was ‘barbaric theology’. But why stop there? If you start dismantling the whole edifice as superstition, there will not be much left. I was not surprised to read that the Bishop of Brisbane had barred Spong from speaking in his diocese.
God granted episcopant Spong
A life that was wondrously long;
This in spite of the breach
When Spong started to preach
“What the Bible reveals is all Wrong!”
Still, not much else I can do about it all, especially if some insiders have woken up to the truth. And it is not as if we atheists get together in pressure-groups, or go on marches. No point in having meetings to discuss policy: “Still no God, then?”; “So who brought the donuts?”; “Same time next month?”. I do occasionally venture out into the public sphere, however. Several years ago, the local paper printed a letter from a local citizen who had become angered that Walmart had replaced its ‘Happy Christmas’ welcome sign with one saying ‘Happy Holidays’. I was moved to respond, and the State Port Pilot published my letter, which ran as follows:
May I respond to Mr Livingston’s letter (‘Xmas’) with a few anecdotes?
In the country where I was born, the UK, where there remains an established church, the religious aspects of the Christmas festival had long been melded with pagan traditions. And to me, the beautiful Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College, Cambridge, was as much a cultural event as a religious ceremony. Thirty years ago, there was no awkwardness about calling the period ’Christmas’, although today the members of the European Union are divided as to the degree to which they should acknowledge their Christian heritage.
When I came to the US, in 1980, I was quickly reminded how socially inept it was to send a Christmas card to friends who were Jewish, no matter how loosely religious they were. And a few years later, the new (Jewish) wife of an old friend of mine stormed out of the room when I – a non-believer ̶ put on some ‘Christmas’ music. (And it wasn’t Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer). But how was I supposed to know? And wasn’t that a bit of an overreaction?
When I came to Southport a few years ago, I was astonished that a Christian prayer was said at a secular business meeting, and I am still surprised that your columnists refer to ‘our Lord’, as if the Pilot were a parish magazine. But it does not surprise me that Walmart should have decided that it wanted to post a message of seasonal goodwill to all its customers, whether they be Jews, Sikhs, Moslems, Buddhists – or even atheists – as well as the dominant sects of Christianity. Mr Livingston can continue to enjoy making his personal celebrations in his church.
Finally, Happy Holidays to you and all your readers!
In conclusion, this extended anecdote is really a celebration: I did not find God, but I found my Greensleeves. I look back on my life of almost seventy-five years, with many important decisions made and a good number of lucky breaks accepted, of which meeting Sylvia was the best. My thanks to my beautiful and adorable wife for supporting me for so long.
Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves my heart of gold Greensleeves was my heart of joy And who but my lady Greensleeves.
(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)
With a special guest appearance from Lotte Lenya as Luba Polik
‘It makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy look like Dad’s Army’ (Michel Foucault)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
1. The Story So Far and Dramatis Personae
2. Anomalies and Misconceptions:
a) The BSC Report and Roger Hollis
b) Peter Wright and VENONA Telegrams
c) Guy Liddell and the RCMP
d) Roger Hollis and Counter-Espionage
3. Background Clarification:
a) Stephen Alley
b) George Hill
c) George Graham
4. Guy Liddell’s Moves:
a) Petrie and Sillitoe
b) Security Issues
c) The Voyage to the Americas
1. The Story So Far:
In September 1945, a Soviet GRU (military intelligence) cipher-clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected in Ottawa, bringing with him evidence of espionage in Canadian government institutions. William Stephenson, the head of British Security Coordination, the wartime intelligence unit in the United States, immediately took a keen interest in the matter. For various reasons, the growing news about Gouzenko’s revelations arrived in London at the desk of Kim Philby of MI6, who alerted his Moscow bosses via his handler, Krotov, and passed on the information with less than urgent dispatch to his colleagues in MI5. While the initial concern of MI5 was about the imminent departure for London of Alan Nunn May, the premier spy named by Gouzenko, the Security Service was also interested in the identity behind another person labelled as ‘ELLI’. ELLI was stated to have been a spy working within the intelligence services in the UK in 1942 or 1943, and had been revealed by Gouzenko’s colleague in Moscow at the time. MI5’s Roger Hollis, responsible for the surveillance of domestic subversives such as the Communist Party of Great Britain, returned from holiday to be sent immediately to North America to co-ordinate the handling of the Nunn May case, and the political fall-out from the defection. At the time he left, he almost certainly knew nothing of ELLI, and he did not see Gouzenko before returning after a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Guy Liddell, head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage, ruminated on the possible candidates for ELLI, concluding from the meagre descriptions received thus far that he probably had been associated with SOE, the Special Operations Executive. During the period in question, SOE had had a representative in Moscow, George Hill, and it liaised with the NKVD representative in London, Colonel Chichaev. Roger Hollis returned to the Americas, and had a short interview with Gouzenko in November. Liddell then discussed possible security exposures with Archie Boyle, who had been head of Security for SOE during the war. Politicians dithered about detaining and prosecuting the suspects, not wanting to upset Stalin.
Dramatis Personae (status in November 1945, unless otherwise indicated):
Attlee UK Prime Minister
Dalton Chancellor of the Exchequer: Minister for Economic Warfare 1940-42
Bruce Lockhart Deputy Under Secretary of State, Political Warfare Executive 1941-45
Findlater Stewart retired: previously Chairman of Home Defence Executive
Mackenzie King Canadian Prime Minister
Robertson Canadian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Petrie Director-General (retired April 1946)
Sillitoe Director-General (appointed November 1945)
Harker Deputy Director-General (retired 1946)
Liddell Director of B Division
White Deputy-Director, B Division
Curry historian: previously Director of F division, then transfer to MI6
Hollis (Assistant) Director of F Division (Subversive Activities0
Alley E2 (Alien Control of Finns, Poles & Baltic States)
Rothschild B1C (Sabotage)
Blunt B1B (Diplomatic)
Wright joined in 1954
Orr Room 055, War Office
Mills Canadian representative: demobilized September 1945
Curry established Section IX in 1943: moved back to MI5
Dwyer representative in BSC
De Mowbray joined in 1950
SOE (Special Operations Executive):
Nelson chief 1940-42
Hambro chief 1942-43
Gubbins chief 1943-46
Senter MI5 liaison
Boyle head of security
Hill Russian section representative in Moscow until May 1945
Graham aide-de-camp to Hill
Truskowski assistant to Hill
Seddon head of Russian section 1941-44
Manderstam head of Russian section 1944-45
Uren officer, spy; imprisoned
JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee):
Sudbury Russian cryptanalyst
RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police):
Rivett-Carnac head of intelligence (Commissioner 1959-60)
Gagnon deputy Commissioner
Harvison head of Criminal Investigation (Commissioner 1960-63)
Leopold deputy to Rivett-Carnac; first translator; chief of Intelligence Branch (October 1945)
Black second translator
McLellan Inspector (Commissioner 1963-67)
BSC (British Security Co-ordination):
Dwyer MI6 representative: head of MI6 station (1945)
Evans colleague of Dwyer
FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation):
Harvey counter-intelligence (moved to CIA in 1947)
Whitson expert in communism
Lamphere agent: espionage expert
OSS (Office of Strategic Services) & CIA (Central Intelligence Agency):
Angleton OSS counter-intelligence (chief of CIA counter-intelligence 1954)
GRU (Soviet military intelligence):
Zabotin Colonel, military attaché & head of station, Ottawa
Gouzenko cipher clerk
Kulakov cipher clerk
NKVD (or KGB, Soviet Security):
Ossipov Major-General, liaison to SOE in Moscow (Ovakimyan)
Chichaev [JOHN], Colonel, liaison to SOE in London (1941-45)
Krotov [BOB], controller of Philby (Krötenschield)
Gromov [VADIM], rezident in Washington since 1944 (Gorsky)
Kukin [IGOR], rezident in London, replaced Gorsky in 1944
Pravdin [SERGEY], officer in Washington (Abbiate)
Poliakova Lieutenant-Colonel (on loan from GRU)
Polik manager at the National hotel in Moscow
Worthington Toronto Sun
Picton Toronto Star
Pincher Daily Express
2. Anomalies and Misconceptions:
My overall approach has been to step through these events in strict chronological sequence. Judging from some of the feedback I received after my first instalment, however, I sense it will be useful to comment on some of the anomalies and misconceptions that have been published, and echoed, in recent accounts of the Gouzenko affair, in order to crystallize how the events of 1945 have been consistently misrepresented. [With the goal of improving the independent coherence of this piece, I re-present some material from the previous article.]
a) The BSC Report and Roger Hollis:
One dominant story that has entered the mythology is that of Roger Hollis’s reputed interference in the investigation by creating a false trail. For example, Amy Knight, in her 2005 book How The Cold War Began (which is frequently cited as the ‘standard’ work on the subject), writes (p 237): “Gouzenko’s information about ‘Elli’ was first conveyed during his interview with MI5’s Roger Hollis (with the RCMP present), who visited Gouzenko shortly after the defection. According to the report from the British Security Coordination, written in mid-September 1945, presumably after Hollis’s visit,
Corby [the codename for Gouzenko] states that while he was in the Central Code Section [in Moscow] in 1942 or 1943, he heard about a Soviet agent in England, allegedly a member of the British Intelligence Service. This agent, who was of Russian descent, had reported that the British had a very important agent of their own in the Soviet Union, who was apparently being run by someone in Moscow. The latter refused to disclose his agent’s identity even to his headquarters in London. When this message arrived it was received by a Lt. Col. Polakova who, in view of its importance, immediately got in touch with Stalin himself by telephone.”
Knight, rather mysteriously, here gives the source of this statement (from ‘the BSC Report’) as ‘Intelligence Department of the Red Army in Ottawa’, p 30. (On page 60, she indicates that that was actually the title of the BSC report.) The text is exactly the same as that identified by William Tyrer as coming from the Canadian National Archives, and Tyrer assumes that the message is numbered serial 2a in ELLI’s Personal File in London (as a reference to such a posting, but not the note itself, appears, in KV 2/1420, immediately after a September 15 report on the NKVD).
Yet Knight seems not to have inspected the archives in a disciplined fashion, instead relying too heavily (for example) on the account of Hollis’s activity provided by Dick White to his biographer, Tom Bower. She describes Hollis as MI5’s ‘point man’ for the Gouzenko case, and quotes Bower (The Perfect English Spy, pp 79 & 80) as follows: “MI5’s communist expert flew to Canada to meet Gouzenko on the shores of Lake Ontario”, adding: “Instead of tickling Gouzenko’s vanity and absorbing lessons about Soviet intelligence techniques, Hollis abruptly left the defector after just one hour and flew back across the Atlantic to chase Nunn May, now living in London.” As I shall show, this is pure fantasy. Knight’s ‘presumably’ reflects pure speculation.
Knight then inserts another observation, concerning an interview on October 29, conducted by the RCMP, and recorded only in handwritten notes, at which Gouzenko ‘elaborated’ on his story (p 238). He said (of ELLI) that it was ‘possible he or she is identical with the agent with a Russian background who Kulakoff [Kulakov, Gouzenko’s successor, who had recently come from Moscow] spoke of – there could be 2 agents concerned in this matter’. Knight’s account continues:
Corby handled telegrams submitted by Elli . . . Elli could not give the name of the [British] agent in Moscow because of security reasons. Elli [was] already working as an agent when Corby took up his duties in Moscow in May 1942 and was still working when Kulakoff arrived in Canada in May 1945. Kulakov [sic] said agent with a Russian connection held a high position. Corby from decoding messages said Elli had access to exclusive info.
This is presented as an extension of Hollis’s account of his interview with Gouzenko.
The significance of these claims becomes apparent when Knight later turns to the later re-investigation of the ELLI story on page 243. She reports on the visit by Patrick Stewart of MI5 to Canada in the autumn of 1972. Armed with ‘the notes of the initial debriefing of Gouzenko’, which the RCMP had generously just handed to him, Stewart met the defector in Toronto, showing him a copy of the BSC report, as well as the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly thereafter, ‘both of which had Gouzenko saying Elli was working in British Intelligence, MI6, not counterintelligence, MI5’. Knight then states:
“Gouzenko went into a fury and threw the papers across the room. He claimed that he had not said what was written in the BSC report, that someone had falsified his statements. As for the notes of the RCMP interview, which were in the handwriting of the translator, Mervyn Black, Gouzenko said they had been forged. He demanded, to no avail, that he be allowed to take the notes home so he could compare them with his copies of Black’s handwriting.”
Knight’s explanation for this outburst is that Gouzenko had been disappointed that the officer who interviewed him in September 1945 had granted him only a few minutes of his time, and did not seem interested in ELLI. When he later learned of that officer’s identity (Hollis), and that Hollis was suspected of being a mole, he believed that Hollis must have deliberately misrepresented his statements to conceal the fact that he was ELLI.
Knight was also basing her narrative on a 1984 compilation by John Sawatsky titled Gouzenko: The Untold Story. Chapter 20 of this book is titled The MI5 Interview, and various journalists, lawyers, broadcasters contributed to the investigation. These persons appear to confirm the following ‘facts’: an unnamed British fellow interrogated Gouzenko shortly after his defection; the meeting was brief; Gouzenko was asked very few questions, and he did not see the interrogator again; the Briton shielded his face; Gouzenko had identified a mole in British Counter-Intelligence [MI5]; Gouzenko was shown a thick report in the early 1970s by a different man from British intelligence; Gouzenko threw the report across the room as it contained ‘all lies’; Gouzenko had asserted that the British could not have a high-ranking mole in the Kremlin, ‘not when Philby was sitting as head of MI6’.
Several aspects of Knight’s account are very tangled. The story that she appears to tell all derives from her strong belief in Hollis’s meeting with Gouzenko in mid-September, and runs as follows, with my commentary in parentheses:
i) When Stewart arrived in Toronto, the RCMP showed him notes of the original debriefing of Gouzenko. (Why only then? Had MI5 never seen them before? How did they correspond to the reports sent over by Dwyer? Did they concern just a single debriefing, and in what way was it ‘original’? Knight suggested that the RCMP debriefing(s) occurred after the BSC interrogation.)
ii) Stewart showed Gouzenko ‘a copy of the BSC report and the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly after’. (What was the ‘BSC report’? According to Knight, it was the account of the September meeting where Hollis was present. She confirms that the BSC report had been written ‘in mid-September’: yet she knew that Hollis did not fly out until September 16. Elsewhere (p 60), she describes it as having been written by Evans and Dwyer, and that it was based on interviews with Gouzenko and an analysis of his documents (C293177, September 23). Moreover, in a message from London on October 1, after his return from Canada, Hollis informed the RCMP that MI5 had made ‘an extra copy of the interim report produced by EVANS and also of the additional pages I brought back’, apparently confirming Evans’s authorship, and that he, Hollis, was only the messenger (see KV 2/1412, sn.31A). And were ‘the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly after’ the record of the October 29 meeting, or did they correspond to the ‘additional pages’ that Hollis brought back at the end of September? She does not say.)
iii) Gouzenko introduced the name of ‘ELLI’ when he spoke to Hollis in mid-September. (Knight appears adrift over this issue on two counts. She confuses references to an as yet unnamed agent with a later example of direct usage of that name, and she presents a muddled story about when that latter event occurred. The first citation above – where ELLI is not mentioned – is echoed on page 238, where she states that Hollis reported allegations about ELLI, ‘which is why they appeared in the BSC report’, after his ‘first’ meeting with Gouzenko, allegedly in September. She later quotes the RCMP report (above) of October 29, where Gouzenko talked about ELLI. Elsewhere, however (on page 62), Knight states that ‘ELLI’ was first recorded in a November 1945 RCMP report. She then (page 238) refers to Hollis’s ‘second’ meeting with Gouzenko (in November), and then implies that Liddell responded at that time by looking into the ELLI matter, and sent a telegram to Ottawa about possible identification. Yet she notes that this telegram was dated September 23! It is an unpardonable mess.)
iv) Hollis spent an hour with Gouzenko (at Camp X) before flying back to London. (This flies in the face of what Gouzenko claimed about the shortness of Hollis’s interrogation, which lasted ‘three minutes’, according to John Picton’s testimony in Gouzenko; The Untold Story. Camp X was a long way from Ottawa, and Gouzenko was not moved there until late October. Hollis’s interrogation at the end of November was indeed short.)
v) The main message from these reports was that ELLI was working in British Intelligence, MI6, not Counterintelligence, MI5. (This is not only incorrect factually, but inherently useless – a false contrast. Both MI5 and MI6 had counter-intelligence sections. In 1945, MI6’s counter-intelligence capabilities were stronger than MI5’s. Besides, Hollis’s report of November said no such thing. Interestingly, Genrikh Borovik, in The Philby Files, recorded that Gouzenko’s revelations pointed to a spy within SIS (MI6).)
vi) Gouzenko then went off the deep end, claiming that he had never said what was written in the BSC report, and that the statements were falsified. (Without knowing the exact text provided by Stewart, it is hard to inspect Gouzenko’s objections, but if the challenge was over the denial of the statement about a spy in Moscow, he was apparently wrong. The passage that Knight cites corresponds to what is available in the Canadian Archives, confirming that Gouzenko himself introduced this information. Yet I should note that, in his May 1952 testimony, Gouzenko made no reference to the existence of spies in Moscow, thus giving the denial from the Sawatsky book some merit.)
vii) Gouzenko challenged the notes of the RCMP interview ‘which were in the handwriting of the translator, Mervyn Black’, but he was not allowed to take them home to compare them with his copies of Black’s handwriting. (Black was most certainly not the translator at the time of the RCMP interrogation(s). Was this a simple mistake, with Stewart unaware of John Leopold’s role, and thus innocently misrepresenting the authorship? Or did Black’s name appear as the signatory, and had it been provided by MI5, in the belief that Black had been the translator in September, which would indicated dirty dealings?)
And what would Gouzenko have known about Philby in 1945? Of course Philby was never ‘head of MI6’, and he had a fairly junior role in MI6 in 1942-43. Gouzenko’s comment shows some retrospective imagination that failed to refute what he was claimed to have said at the end of the war. Sadly, Knight did not analyse any of these conundrums, but the distortions have reinforced some highly dubious mis-statements about the Gouzenko interrogations.
For example, Chapman Pincher echoed Knight’s story faithfully in order to solidify his case against Hollis (p 243 of Treachery, where he reprised the account he had first laid out in Their Trade Is Teachery). Gouzenko was shown ‘a substantial typewritten report that was allegedly Hollis’s account of his original interview’, including the claim about a mole in the Kremlin, he claimed. (This assertion would again fly directly in the face of the accusation that Hollis held only a peremptory interview with Gouzenko.) Pincher continued: “Gouzenko said that the document attributed other false statements to him guaranteed to discredit him as a witness and create the impression that he was unreliable. He told Peter Worthington, then editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, ‘whoever wrote that report about a fake interview had to be working for the Soviets’. Worthington put his account on record in a letter to The Spectator on 2 May 1987.”
Earlier, even Nigel West (who favoured Graham Mitchell rather than Hollis as the mole known as ELLI) had got in on the act. In A Matter of Trust (1982), West had rather imaginatively written that William Stephenson had facilitated Gouzenko’s extrication to Camp X: “Here, on the outskirts of the town of Oshawa, Gouzenko was interrogated at length by Stephenson, Hollis, and the Mounties” – an assertion wrong on at least three counts. Later, without providing any sources, West described, in his 1987 book Molehunt (p 79), Patrick Stewart’s visit to Toronto, with Stewart, in the presence of three armed RCMP officers, reading Gouzenko a copy of Hollis’s original report [sic] dated September 1945. “Gouzenko denounced the report as a fabrication,” wrote West, “and insisted that the remarks attributed to him by the author were bogus and had been manufactured with the intention of discrediting him. When asked about the authenticated signatures, Gouzenko insisted that they were forgeries.” West then openly wondered whether the report represented more evidence of the duplicity of DRAT [the codeword for the mole], or simply constituted additional proof of Gouzenko’s paranoia.
Again, in Gouzenko: The Untold Story, the contributors (including Gouzenko’s widow, Svetlana) appeared to corroborate the assertion that the Stewart package was a forgery, clumsily assembled, and something of an embarrassment to the RCMP officers who attended the meeting. Svetlana Gouzenko declared that the report had been pasted together from several separate documents, with inconsistent handwriting. She and Igor had suspected that the words in Black’s handwriting, confirming that Gouzenko had made such and such a statement, were not his, and that is why they wanted to compare the document with what they had at home. She was supported in her objections by the reporter John Picton, who described how the Mounties snatched the report back from Gouzenko. All this gimcrackery was later ascribed to Hollis’s malevolence.
The arrival of Molehunt provoked a lively review by the author’s ex-employer Richard Deacon in The Spectator, and a correspondence to which the journalist Peter Worthington (as noted by Pincher, above), and others, contributed. Deacon attempted to debunk the ‘guilty Hollis’ theory on the basis that i) the allegation about a mole in MI5 did not come up until a much later cross-examination of Gouzenko by the RCMP; ii) Norman Robertson, the Canadian permanent secretary for foreign affairs, came to London after Gouzenko’s defection, and briefed the heads of MI5 and MI6 on Gouzenko’s revelations, so Hollis’s obstructions would have been pointless; and iii) while Hollis was in Ottawa at the time of Gouzenko’s first interrogation, he spoke no Russian, and Nicholson of the RCMP (who was fluent in the language) conducted the interrogation. (The introduction of Nicholson has not apparently been endorsed by any other writer. Deacon’s ramblings did not help in any elucidation.)
This review prompted a spirited riposte by Worthington, who was convinced of Hollis’s guilt, basing his judgment on Gouzenko’s objection to the lies in the report ‘that had been made by the British intelligence officer who had interviewed and debriefed him in 1945 after he defected.’ Worthington especially drew attention to the claims made about the penetration of the Soviet system by British agents, and he reminded his Spectator readers that ‘the British security officer who came to Canada to interview Gouzenko in 1945 was Roger Hollis’. Worthington also boasted that Gouzenko had written, in 1952, ‘a special memorandum directed to British Intelligence’, which Worthington published in the Toronto Telegram 18 years later, and subsequently gave to Chapman Pincher in connection with his book Too Secret Too Long’, and which appears therein as Appendix A.
Yet, in their rush to jump on the band-wagon, all these writers seriously missed several vital points. Moreover, rather surprisingly, recent analysts, with a clearer canvas of archival material available, have failed to tidy up the mess. For example, two important articles that have been published in the intelligence press over the past few years have missed the opportunity to set matters straight. William Tyrer hinted at the confusion, but failed to come to grips with the problem in his rather convoluted coverage in ‘The Unresolved Mystery of ELLI’ (International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 29, 1-24, 2016). David Levy, in his article ‘The Roger Hollis Case Revisited’ (International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 32, 146-158, 2019) skated towards the paradox, but then avoided exploring it. Both writers were equivocal about Hollis’s contribution in September 1945.
The first point is that Roger Hollis did not interrogate Gouzenko in September 1945. The archive is quite clear that his September mission was to deal with the courses of action deriving from the exposure of Nunn May. Gouzenko had been secluded, for security reasons. He and his wife were moved at the beginning of October to a safe-house in Kemptville, and, after a couple of nights, to one at Otter Lake (about 100 miles from Ottawa), and, two weeks later, to Camp X, which was situated near Whitby, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, about two hundred and fifty miles from Ottawa. No casual meeting would have been allowed, and even the MI6 members of the now resident BSC team (Dwyer and Evans) were not given an audience. Dick White’s testimony about Hollis interrogating Gouzenko ‘on the shores of Lake Ontario’ represents a dangerously naive attempt to add verisimilitude. Hollis’s first interview with Gouzenko was on November 21, and the report I cited in my March article (the one discovered by William Tyrer, dated November 23, 1945) constitutes the record of that interview, when Gouzenko was brought from Camp X to Ottawa. (The fact that that meeting took place is confirmed by a telegram from London to New York of May 23, 1946, visible at KV 2/1423-2, sn. 216A.) On the other hand, the information about an Allied agent in the Soviet Union (including the reference to Polakova/Poliakova) was provided on September 15, the day before Hollis left for Canada the first time.
(By the time he wrote Cold War Spymaster (2018), Nigel West had modified his stance. He corrected the chronology, although he wistfully reflected on his previous assertion in the following terms: ‘While there is no evidence that Hollis actually met Gouzenko in September 1945 . . .’.)
Thus the second fact ignored by the commentators is that Hollis did not introduce the notion of a British spy in Moscow. The name ‘ELLI’ was known by September 15, and the transcripts of the telegrams received by Liddell in September show very clearly that this idea was transmitted by Dwyer, based on the RCMP interviews with Gouzenko. The insight stimulated both Dwyer and Liddell to focus, separately, on possible SOE links. The October 29evidence from Gouzenko confirmed the earlier ‘agent in Moscow’ story that he had supplied in September, but also severely muddied the waters before Hollis ever had a chance to meet him. Gouzenko was here relying on further hearsay evidence from another clerk, and thus possibly merging the details of two individuals, as well as casting doubts on the strength of the ELLI identification process. This recognition is confirmed by Liddell’s diary entry of November 5, well before Hollis’s interview with Gouzenko. The passage cited above by Knight corresponds to the RMCP interrogations that must have occurred in September and October. All that Hollis’s report states about the agent in Moscow is to confirm the previously offered insight that the attaché in Moscow would not reveal the name of his agent.
A third distortion occurs in the authorship of the so-called ‘BSC report’. As this was compiled before Hollis arrived on the scene (as is now obvious), it was clearly written by Peter Dwyer and John-Paul Evans, the MI6 representatives attached to BSC, who flew to Ottawa as soon as the Gouzenko case broke. (Knight records this authorship.) Yet neither Dwyer nor Evans interviewed Gouzenko in person. The BSC report was based on information provided by RCMP officers. Moreover, by some vague process of ahistorical drift, it is represented by Pincher and Worthington as being written by Hollis, but Hollis did not compile any report on Gouzenko (as opposed to one on Nunn May) until he had seen the defector, in late November. What he did accomplish, as noted above, was to bring a copy of the Dwyer/Evans report with him when he returned to the UK at the end of September. All of Knight’s analysis is based on the premise that the November 1945 interview that Hollis had with Gouzenko was his second exposure, and she thus presents earlier events (such as the RCMP interview on October 29) as elaborations on what she claims Hollis had discovered in September. Yet all information at that time came from the RCMP via Dwyer and Evans.
The fourth important matter overlooked by these writers is that Gouzenko was correct for the wrong reasons. He suspected forgery, but was let down by his faulty memory, and the wiles of MI5.It is somewhat astonishing that he could not distinguish, even twenty-seven years later, between the circumstances of his several interrogations at the safe house and at Camp X in September and October by RCMP officers (when John Leopold was the interpreter/translator), and his short interview with Hollis in November, which took place in Ottawa (by which time Mervyn Black had assumed the role). Gouzenko claimed to have been interviewed by an MI5 officer (presumably Dwyer, but certainly not Hollis!) in September, when, by all other accounts, not even Dwyer (of MI6) had direct access to him. Gouzenko failed to recall what he had told his RCMP interrogators, including the important intelligence about the British agent in Moscow, and mixed up those interviews with his encounter with Hollis. He rightly was suspicious of the document that Stewart showed him, but was in a muddle about what constituted British counter-intelligence (it could be MI5 or MI6), and allowed himself to be convinced that Hollis had concocted the whole mishmash. [Problems remain with Gouzenko’s testimony, which I shall analyze in a future report. And the possibility must not be discounted that the transcription of his earliest statements was in error, since he never signed off on it.]
In such a way do untruths accumulate. Amy Knight’s lack of chronological discipline causes her whole analytical scaffolding to collapse. Instead, the evidence all suggests a very clumsy attempt by MI5 to frame Roger Hollis, one that was abetted by Gouzenko’s erratic memory, and his strong suspicions of possible traitors around him.
b) Peter Wright and VENONA Telegrams:
Strangely, Peter Wright, in Spycatcher, made no mention of the Patrick Stewart visit to Canada in 1972. In contrast (p 282), he described his own efforts to interview Gouzenko in the mid-1960s, but was told that by then ‘he was an irretrievable alcoholic.’ “I sent a request to the Canadian RCMP for permission to interview Gouzenko once more, but we were told that Gouzenko had been causing problems for the Canadian authorities through his alcoholism and badgering for money. They feared that further contact with him would exacerbate the problems, and that there was a high risk Gouzenko might seek to publicize the purpose of our interview with him.” It is not clear why the RCMP changed their minds a few years later. Chapman Pincher took pains (Treachery, p 248) to relate that whenever he spoke to Gouzenko, and at the time Stewart interviewed him, the defector was coherent and rational in all respects, and that ‘the previous conviction in MI5 that he was a hopeless drunk was an internal deception’. Pincher does not explain why the RCMP originated this slur: nor does he say why or when it became a ‘conviction’ in MI5 rather than perhaps an excuse by the RCMP for limiting visits.
On the other hand, Wright did throw fresh confusion in the works through his citation of VENONA telegrams as a factor in reinforcing the treachery of ELLI, and the claim that Hollis was the probable candidate. First, he recorded that the RCMP told him that the original notes of the debriefing had been destroyed (thus implicitly questioning the authenticity of what Stewart later presented). Yet, as Wright puzzled over the evidence in intelligence files, and pondered over the reasons why Hollis had been sent out to Canada, he focused on Hollis’s apparent attempt to have Liddell’s diaries destroyed, since those journals had speculated on the identity of ELLI. [No matter that the Diaries never betray any suspicion that Hollis was ELLI: in fact they would help the cause for Hollis’s innocence.]
Then Wright recorded a somewhat miraculous breakthrough in breaking out VENONA traffic. He introduced his story by referring to the famous VENONA message that constitutes the confirmation from the KGB about the GRU, but he misrepresented its essence. Wright strongly implied that Hollis was sent to Canada in September to interview Gouzenko, and based his text on that assertion. “We have it from VENONA, however, that the KGB was unaware of the existence of a GRU spy in MI5 when Hollis travelled to Canada and interviewed Gouzenko,” he wrote. As I showed in the previous article, this is a great distortion, one that was reinforced by Pincher. That telegram states no such thing: it was dated September 17, before Hollis arrived in Ottawa, and merely confirmed Philby’s information about GRU spies in Canada. Moreover, Philby’s report of November 18 (which is reproduced in full on pages 238 and 239 of Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels, and appears in Vassiliev White Notebook p 27) deals exclusively with the Nunn May case, and its political fall-out, and makes no mention of ELLI or other spies within the intelligence services.
The breakthrough (according to Wright) came with the analysis of a week’s traffic from September 15. It began that day, ‘with a message to Krotov discussing, with no sense of panic, the precautions he should take to protect valuable argentura [sic: agentura] in the light of problems faced by the ‘neighbours’ in Canada’. Wright interpreted this to mean that the KGB had no reason to fear that any of its agents in Britain had been compromised by Gouzenko. Yet, by the end of the week, on September 22, ‘the tone of the messages is markedly different’. “The relaxed tone disappears, Krotov is given elaborate and detailed instructions on how to proceed with his agents. ‘Brush contact only’ is to be employed, and meetings are to reduced to the absolute minimum, if possible only once a month.”
Wright then asked GCHQ to conduct a search on the London to Moscow traffic – but it could not be read. The only significant message they could identify was a Moscow to London message sent on September 19-20 ‘which they could tell was a message of the highest priority because it overrode all others on the same channel’, and Wright concluded that its significance was obvious, as it had been sent the day after Philby had received the MI6 telegram containing Gouzenko’s description of ELLI in ‘five of MI5’. “Indeed,” he wrote, “when GCHQ conducted a group-count analysis of the message, they were able to conclude that it corresponded to the same length as a verbatim copy of the MI6 telegram from Canada which Philby removed from the files.”
Wright and Geoffrey Sudbury (his colleague at GCHQ then sat down made a determined attack on a high-priority message sent by Moscow in reply. It was sent at the end of the week (i.e. about September 22), and eventually they were able to break it out. According to Wright, it read: “Consent has been obtained from the Chiefs to consult with the neighbours about Stanley’s material about their affairs in Canada. Stanley’s data is correct.”
In many respects, this account looks like a farrago of nonsense. First of all, the Vassiliev Notebooks (Black, page 54) inform us that, in light of the increased local surveillance measures, a generic message for all stations (VADIM, SERGEY, BOB and IGOR) about the need for extra caution was despatched as early as September 10. It is worth citing the bulk of the message:
It is essential to carefully prepare for every meeting with agents; operatives should meet with agents no more than 2-3 times a week. Arrange work with agents in such a way that the work of the operating staff is indistinguishable from the work of other members of the Soviet colony. Select authoritative and confidential group handlers from among the local citizens and operate the agents through them. High level workers should meet with group handlers as rarely as possible and only for briefing and to go over assignments.
This message was not decrypted under VENONA.
Thus it would have been not only logistically impossible but also in contradiction of instructions for Philby to have received the message about ELLI, arrange a meeting with Krotov, have his handler send a message to Moscow, and the KGB then investigate the matter with their superiors and the GRU, and then send a message in return the next day. Moreover, we have it on record that the famed ‘confirmation’ message to Krotov (BOB) was sent on September 17, i.e. before Philby received the news about ELLI. Certainly, further warning messages were sent. A message dated September 21 (‘surveillance has been increased’: Vassiliev, Black, p 57) was directed at the USA (VADIM, in Washington) only, and identified agents operating in the USA. A similar message from Moscow to London on the same day (VENONA 34) includes the same precautionary language, and corresponds to the message identified by Wright above, but its main emphasis is on HICKS (Burgess). A further message that day (VENONA 64A) contains a specific warning about maintaining secrecy in meetings with STANLEY (Philby). Furthermore, according to the evidence, the phrase ‘five of MI5’ never appeared in any of the September reports: the indication of some association with ‘5’ in intelligence came in Hollis’s report at the end of November.
The conclusion must be that the precautionary messages had nothing to do with ‘ELLI’. In fact, Philby had requested an urgent meeting with Krotov on September 20 (using Burgess as a courier) in light of the Volkov news from Istanbul. Of course, Peter Wright was writing in 1987, long before Vassiliev got to work, and did not know then that the VENONA transcripts would eventually be published. He therefore thought he could get away with falsifying the record. He presented the confirmatory message about Philby as arriving several days later than it actually did, as if it had been provoked by an alert from Philby about ‘ELLI’ that in fact was never articulated.
c) Guy Liddell and the RCMP:
One of the dubious stories that has gained traction is Gouzenko’s claim that, when Guy Liddell visited Ottawa in 1944, this information was leaked by someone based in London. For instance, the claim can be found in the Spartacus profile of Gouzenko at https://spartacus-educational.com/SSgouzenko.htm. The source given is Philip Knightley’s Master Spy (1988), page 130. Yet no trace of that assertion can be found on page 130 of the book – nor on any succeeding page. Nevertheless, Chapman Pincher echoed this story (Treachery, p 24), where he (correctly) pointed out that Liddell did pay a visit in 1944 to advise the RCMP on German counter-espionage. Pincher quoted Gouzenko as suggesting that this leak meant that ‘Moscow had an inside track in MI5’.
Pincher’s opinions evolved through the creation of Their Trade is Treachery, Too Secret Too Long, and Treachery, as was only natural, given the paucity of archival sources in the early days, and the proliferation of rumours. Regrettably, instead of admitting that he did not know certain things, or that the information was ambivalent, Pincher would use every snippet to try to bolster his accusations against Hollis. (I shall investigate in depth, in a later article, Pincher’s interactions with Gouzenko.) The story about Liddell is just such an example. Gouzenko’s claim can be seen in the Report he submitted to Sergeant McLellan of the RCMP, after a request from MI5, on May 6, 1952. (As I indicated earlier, the whole report appears as Appendix A in Too Secret Too Long.)
Here Gouzenko described some ‘indirect, but possible evidence’. “In 1944, (the latter part, or maybe the beginning of 1945), in the embassy, Zabotin received from Moscow a long telegram of a warning character. In it, Moscow informed that representatives of British ‘greens’ (counter-intelligence) were due to arrive in Ottawa with the purpose of working with local ‘greens’ (R.C.M.P.) to strengthen work against Soviet agents, and that such work would definitely be stepped up.” After outlining the precautionary actions that were taken, Gouzenko commented: “Now it could be that Moscow just invented these representatives who were supposed to arrive in Ottawa, in order to make Zabotin more careful. On the other hand, it might be genuine, in which case it would mean that Moscow had an inside track in the British MI5.”
That is hardly the unqualified assertion as expressed by Pincher. Yes, Guy Liddell did pay a visit to Ottawa, in July-August 1944 (not at the end of the year). He was there to discuss with Cyril Mills a possible double-cross operation against the Germans, and advise the RCMP, which was in fact a police force, not a counter-espionage organisation. There is no evidence that MI5 recognised at that time a problem of Soviet agents in Canada, and Liddell travelled alone. Of course, Anthony Blunt (NKVD, not GRU) might have been the source of the information about Liddell’s visit. For example, on July 7, 1944, he provided Moscow with a full report on the Double-Cross system, and would have been very aware of Liddell’s movements.
d) Roger Hollis and Counter-Espionage:
Much has been made of the fact that Roger Hollis was MI5’s expert in Soviet counter-intelligence. Nominally, this might have been so, but, in truth, he was far from being able to fulfil that role. In September 1945, he was head of F Division, ‘Counter-Subversion’. F Division had been split off from B Division in April 1941 by the new Director-General Petrie, as part of his ‘new broom’ reorganization, so that Liddell’s team could focus on the Nazi threat. John Curry had been its first chief, but had moved across to a staff position under Petrie in October of that year, allowing Hollis to take his place. In May 1943, Curry moved over to MI6 to help set up the service’s Soviet counter-espionage section (Section IX).
The mission of F Division was very much on constraining and defanging domestic ‘subversive activities’. When Hollis was placed in charge of F2 (‘Communism and Left Wing Movements’), he had Clarke watching over Policy Activities of the CPGB (F2A), a vacancy for the position managing ‘Comintern Activities generally, and Communist Refugees’ (F2B), and Pilkington representing ‘Russian Intelligence’ (F2C). By April 1943, when Hollis had taken over the Division, Hugh Shillito had replaced Pilkington, and was responsible for F2B and F2C. Thus F Division was very thin on experience with the Soviet espionage threat. In his in-house history, John Curry lamented the fact that the only officers who knew anything about Soviet espionage (Liddell, Harker and Archer) had all been diverted to activities directed against the war enemy.
A major part of the problem was that the movements of communist subversives did not respect the artificial boundaries that divided the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 into the territories of the Empire, and foreign countries, and thus MI5 was totally reliant on the co-operation of MI6 when it came to providing information about the backgrounds of dubious characters trying to enter the UK, or any imperial territory. The protective policies of Felix Cowgill caused serious rifts during World War II, especially over ISOS (Abwehr ENIGMA) decrypts that revealed German analysis of the results from double-agents, and MI5 also clashed with SOE over escaped agents being too hurriedly allowed into the country without proper vetting. The officers in charge had no direct exposure to the decade of the ‘Great Illegals’ in the 1930s, and the lessons that Walter Krivitsky had provided were too easily overlooked.
Hugh Shillito seems to have made a game attempt to overcome the inattention, and he doggedly pursued the cases of Oliver Green and Sonia, while receiving discouragement from senior officers. In these endeavours, he was determinedly backed up by Milicent Bagot, who assuredly knew the history, but they were both greatly rebuffed in their inquiries. As Curry wrote: “The only palliative to this situation [the inferiority of MI6 records] was that F.2.b was in the hands of Miss Bagot, whose expert knowledge of the whole subject enabled her to find and make available a large variety of detailed information based on the records of the past.” By the autumn of 1945, Shillito (whom Hollis had more than once, probably unjustifiably, characterised as ‘idle’ and ‘ineffective’ in complaints to Liddell, but of whom Curry thought highly), had left the service. Bagot was also fed up, and wanted a transfer.
What is more, MI5 at that time lagged severely behind MI6 in developing structures to handle the Soviet threat. MI6’s Section IX had been set up in May 1943 by Curry, and Kim Philby had engineered his takeover of it by November 1944, when Curry retired from the job. The result was that MI5 dithered. Liddell knew implicitly that the problem had to be addressed by MI5, as his diaries constantly show through the winter of 1945-46. Yet, even though he was the expert on what the Soviets were up to, it was not in his power exclusively to solve the problem. F Division, Petrie’s creation, did not report to him. Hollis, who had at least shown some imagination over the Soviet threat, and written several monitory reports in his vantage point in F Division, obviously did not want his stature diminished by reporting through Liddell.
Hollis was known as somewhat of a plodder, one who preferred the quiet life. He was not temperamentally suited for the role of counter-espionage chief. He did not have a first-rate brain, showed little intellectual curiosity, and would have been bemused by the layers of deception inherent in spycraft. He knew no Russian, and had not been exposed to the structures and techniques of the NKVD and the GRU. He was not a practised or natural interrogator. As K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta wrote, with some equivocation, in their 2020 book MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law: “That in 1945 Liddell chose to describe Hollis as an ‘expert’ on counter-espionage was arguably an accolade which reflects [more] the dearth of knowledge about Soviet intelligence operations against the west than upon Hollis’ qualities as a Security Service officer” (note 25, p 454).
Thus it is not surprising that Liddell himself eventually sought an audience with Gouzenko. Amy Knight completely mis-represented Hollis’s role when she described him as MI5’s ‘point-man’ on Gouzenko, and it appears that Kim Philby himself wrote a tissue of lies in his report to the KGB (Should Agents Confess?) when he described setting up meetings with Hollis and lawyers immediately the news about Nunn May came though. Hollis was on holiday at the time. (Unless, of course, Liddell was lying, and Philby’s account is more reliable . . .)
3. Background Clarification:
a) Stephen Alley:
Readers will recall, from my March posting, how Guy Liddell’s analysis of hints provided by Gouzenko through Peter Dwyer led him to discern an SOE connection in the person of ELLI. The fact that, under Operation PICKAXE, the Special Operations Executive had developed a liaison with the NKVD in Moscow and in London suggested to him that an indication of leakages hinted at by Gouzenko might involve security lapses at both ends. There is strong evidence that Stephen Alley, because of his fluent Russian, and his role within MI5, was the officer who shepherded Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD military attaché who represented Moscow in London. Liddell considered Alley as a possible candidate for ELLI before quickly rejecting the idea as absurd.
A close inspection of the conclusions of Dwyer and Liddell is provocative. As I described in March, Dwyer came up with Ormond Uren’s name as a candidate for ELLI. But Liddell instantly dismissed that hypothesis. On November 1, 1943, however, he had recorded in his diary that Uren had ‘divulged the complete lay-out of SOE’s organisation’. Thus something in the information provided by Gouzenko must have indicated to him either a) that there were corners of SOE’s organisation that were not known to Uren, or b) that the disclosures had occurred either before his recruitment to SOE (in 1942) or after his arrest (in July 1943), or c) that the additional hints about ‘Russian descent’ excluded Uren. The third alternative seems the most likely, and may have pointed him towards Alley. In addition, Uren was known to have worked by supplying secrets to Dave Springhall, not to a Soviet handler from the Embassy.
In my previous posting, I drew attention to the astonishing way in which Alley has been excised from the historical record. He makes three brief appearance in the published extracts from Liddell’s Diaries (Volume 1, pages 66, 158 and 245), but Nigel West does not judge him important enough to be listed in his introductory ‘Personalities’. Alley does not appear in the Index of Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm, nor does John Curry list him there in his in-house history of the Security Service. Similarly, Nigel West overlooks him in his account of MI5. Curry does show Alley in his organisation charts, however: for June 1941, as Major Alley, sharing responsibility with Mr. Caulfield for E2, a section of Alien Control that managed Nationals of Baltic, Balkan and Central European countries, and, in 1943, maintaining a similar role in that Division.
Yet Alley had a remarkable background. He was born in Russia, and thus had a stronger claim to have been ‘of Russian descent’ than any other candidate for ELLI. As Keith Jeffery recounts, Lieutenant Alley accompanied Captain Archibald Cumming as a member of the mission sent to Petrograd on September 26, 1914. By February 1917, Alley had been promoted to captain in MI1(c), and was responsible for controlling passengers travelling from Russia to England or France, for counter-espionage and the coordination of intelligence matters with the Russian Secret Service. Claims have been made, dependent on the verification for authenticity of a letter that Alley wrote to his colleague John Scale, that he was involved in the murder of Rasputin. Others suggest that he was party to the unsuccessful attempts to save the Romanov family from their execution. In his Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, however, Nigel West brings Alley’s colourful career down with a thud. After being evacuated in 1918, Alley ‘served in MI5 for three years and then moved to Paris, where he ran a business trading in commodities’.
[In my previous piece, I referred to Alley’s memoir, held by Glasgow University, which rather shockingly tells how Alley was dismissed from MI6 for declining to assassinate Stalin. I have succeeded in contacting the Librarian at the University, but, because of the Covid lockdown, the staff were not allowed into the archive to inspect the status of the memoir for me. A verification of this astounding item will therefore have to wait a while.]
An analysis of MI5 files at Kew, and especially Guy Liddell’s Diaries, shows that Alley was involved in several significant activities with MI5 during World War II. He was the officer who welcomed Walter Krivitsky ashore in January 1940, impressing the defector with his excellent Russian, and thereafter acted as translator for Jane Archer (Sissmore) during the interrogations. Liddell records him having a last confidential discussion with Krivitsky before he returned to the Americas. When the Poles planned to assassinate Rudolf Hess in June 1941, in the belief that such an action would avert peace talks, Alley was brought in to investigate, and produced a report for Liddell – all of which is reported in Nigel West’s Encyclopedia of Political Assassinations.
When Liddell first identified Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD officer liaising with SOE in Operation PICKAXE, in his diary entry for July 19, 1943, the name of the officer who was introduced to Chichaev by the Czech, Bartik, was later redacted, but it is highly probable that it was Alley. Chichaev’s background in Finland and Reval was mentioned, and it would need MI5’s premier (and maybe only) Russian speaker in MI5 to engage with him. It is apparent that the officer had had a lengthy interview with Chichaev in order to assess his character. Alley’s name fits in the redacted space, and Liddell wrote of this officer: “He thinks that provided the odds are not too much against him, he can handle CHICHAEV without making the slightest concession to the amour propre of the man himself or the country he represents.” The fact that Alley had a prominent role in handling Chichaev is confirmed by numerous items concerning Chichaev’s engagements that appears in his file at the National Archives. They have the rubric “No action to be taken on this report without reference to Major Alley” boldly displayed on them.
Alley is also mentioned several times in the period in which the Gouzenko affair unfolded. He had apparently been drawn in to try to help the Dutch set up a counter-intelligence department, and Alley negotiates with Liddell and Colonel Eindhoven over providing training, in order to pre-empt the American OSS from taking over. It can thus be safely concluded that Alley’s name was considered persona grata for most of the war. For some reason, a direct association with Chichaev was later considered a little too sensitive, drawing attention unwittingly to what must have been an embarrassment.
Finally, Alley was friendly with George Hill, which brings him more closely into the net of the ELLI business. Exactly what Alley’s political sympathies were at this time is impossible to gauge (yet), but the role of this vital, knowledgeable, and influential personality in the Gouzenko affair has clearly been overlooked in the accounts to date. Last month, I emailed Nigel West to ask him why he thought that Alley had been ignored in all the histories (including his own). He replied that his impression was that Alley was not well-liked, and was regarded with some suspicion, by other MI5 officers. Yet West did not answer my question directly. I would have thought that the perceived lack of trust in Alley on the part of his fellow-officers should provoke greater interest in his career and influence, not less.
b) George Hill:
Far more has been written about Stephen Alley’s long-time fellow-agent and friend, and counterpart in the SOE Russian operation, George Hill. He wrote two published memoirs, Go Spy the Land (1932), and Dreaded Hour (1936), and an unpublished record of his WWII experiences, Reminscences of Four Years with N.K.V.D. (ca. 1967), is freely available from the Hoover Institution. As with any memoir, but especially those concerning intelligence matters, the material needs to be treated with caution. Furthermore, Peter Day has written a biography of Hill, Trotsky’s Favourite Spy (2017), which relies heavily on his subject’s memoirs, but also incorporates much archival and other material. Day informs us that, when Alley returned to Britain in 1919, he had ‘set up an unofficial lunch club for intelligence officers known as Bolo, short for the Bolshevik Liquidation Club, and George Hill had been a member alongside such as Sidney Reilly and Paul Dukes’. In Dreaded Hour, Hill describes how, in 1923, he bumped into his ‘old friend’, ‘Major Stephen Ally [sic], M.C. one time Assistant Military Attaché in Petrograd’ in London, whereupon the latter engaged him to help liquidate the Bulgarian branch of a huge British tobacco concern. Thus their anti-Bolshevik credentials had at that time been strong.
Hill’s appointment as SOE’s representative in Moscow was thus a controversial one, initially because the Foreign Office thought that his track-record in Russia would make him unacceptable to the NKVD, and on those grounds he had sceptics within SOE, too. After consulting Stafford Cripps, the ambassador in Moscow, Dalton was able to push though his nomination, and some have even stated that MI6 helped in the appointment – perhaps to weaken the unit. In January 1943, Menzies, who was a fierce critic of SOE, vented to Bruce Lockhart of the Political Warfare Executive about ‘the nomination of a hopeless adventurer like ‘Flying Corps’ Hill as their man in Moscow’, perhaps unaware that his underlings may have abetted the appointment.
More serious reservations emerged after Hill was installed, moreover. MI5 and others judged that he had become too easily manipulated by his Soviet counterparts, and feared that his character defects would lead him to be naturally exploited. He had been introduced to SOE through Lawrence Grand and D Section of MI6, and had actually shared training duties at Brickendonbury Hall and at Beaulieu with Kim Philby, who recalled Hill in his own memoir. The conflicts and disputes that endured over Hill’s time in Moscow are too complex to be covered in detail here, but can be summed up as consisting of the following: a) security exposures in the Moscow station; b) Hill’s indiscretions in getting too close to Ossipov, his NKVD counterpart, and giving him confidential information; c) Hill’s dalliance with the hotel manager, Luba Polik, who was surely under the control of the NKVD; and d) Hill’s evolving sympathies with his hosts’ politics, which drew him into a massive clash with the head of the Russian section of SOE, Len Manderstam, over the propaganda role of Soviet citizens forced to serve in the Wehrmacht.
For the purposes of the ELLI investigation, the claims about Hill running an agent in Moscow are of the most relevant. Recall the vital phrase from the BSC report: “The British had a very important agent of their own in the Soviet Union, who was apparently being run by someone in Moscow.” In his Reminiscences, George Hill describes how, in March 1942 he was accosted in his hotel by a man, Sergei Nekrassov, whom he did not recognize at first. When the man identified himself as Hill’s ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, Hill realized who he was: ‘my best White Russian agent, 1919-1922. A Tsarist cavalry officer from a crack regiment, fearless, resourceful, who loathed the Reds, and went through their lines like a needle through a haystack.’
When Hill went to drink brandy in Nekrassov’s room, he quickly conjectured that Nekrassov had been sent as a provocation, and, overcoming the temptation to re-use Nekrassov as a source, he complained by telephone to Ossipov, who claimed to know nothing about Nekrassov. But before Ossipov arrived (at 5:30 in the morning), Hill wrote out a report on the incident, with one copy for Ossipov, and a second to the Foreign Office via the Embassy diplomatic bag. Thus, when Hill returned to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1943, Liddell and White presumably had some knowledge of the incident. Part of Liddell’s diary entry for October 5, a long account of the discussion he had with Hill, alongside Dick White and John Senter (the MI5 liaison in SOE), accompanied by two other unnamed SOE members, runs as follows:
The Russians had sent him a man who had worked for him in 1920, and who had made suggestions about working for him again. Hill did not fall for this but immediately rang up the NKVD. The man was removed from the National Hotel where Hill stays with apologies. Three of four months later however he made another approach. Hill then became exceedingly annoyed. The man disappeared again and Hill was told that he had been severely dealt with. The whole thing was an obvious plant. It was however an interesting example of Russian distrust. Hill had never made any attempt to disguise his past activities in Russia which were of course well known to them owing to the publication of his book. He thinks he was accepted because he was regarded as a professional. The Russians have a liking for professionals and experts.
This passage is, I believe, significant in several aspects. First, it confirms what Hill wrote in his memoir, namely that he objected violently to the approach, and made his reaction known to Ossipov. (Whether that account is entirely true cannot be assessed, of course.) Second, Liddell was clearly familiar with the story of Hill’s encounter with an ‘agent’ in Moscow – although that figure was supposed to have been retired long before then – and appeared to accept Hill’s account at face value. Yet, in November 1945, Liddell was unable to associate this anecdote with the disclosure emanating from Gouzenko [see my March report]. Perhaps most startling, however, is the method by which the story could have been leaked – and possibly misinterpreted. Hill had sent a copy of his letter to the Foreign Office, and here, apparently, were two junior officers in SOE who were being regaled with the same information. Had Hill told them this story beforehand? It is not clear. Since Liddell also reported on the fact that Hill said that Chichaev ‘had received instructions from Moscow not to hold official conversations with U.35’ [‘Klop’ Ustinov, an MI5 agent: coldspur], it would seem a gross misjudgment by Liddell and White, on security grounds, to have Hill talking so freely on these matters.
In any case, it is perhaps easy to imagine how the story about Hill’s ‘agent in Moscow’ made the rounds, and became distorted in the process. If Alley was informed, he may have shared it with Chichaev, not even thinking that it was a confidential matter. Chichaev may not have understood the subtleties of the incident, but would have been bound to report such matters to his bosses in Moscow, with the inevitable result of alarm-bells ringing. Poliakova would have taken the news to the Kremlin, whereupon Ossipov would have smoothed matters over.
A question mark must remain over Hill’s honesty, as well as his judgment, however. Chapter XIV of his Reminiscences, purportedly written in 1945, starts off as follows:
“Uncle Joe”, had skilfully gained his aim. The Polish Provisional Government in London was powerless to prevent the Lublin Committee becoming the Lublin Provisional Government, and not much later the Government of Poland. Prime Minister Mikolajczyk due to pig headedness and failure to face realities and utter miscalculation of Mr. Churchill’s strength and the intention of dying President Roosevelt. Thus Poland as planned by Stalin became communist; a satellite of Moscow. General Mihailovic was out, Yugoslavia was to be governed by Marshall Tito, a satellite of Moscow. Bulgaria was communist, Comrade Vyshinsky saw to that. Czechoslovakia was still Democratic, but not for long. Truly those ‘Planners’ in London, drawn from the Foreign Office and State Department had made a mess of their task.
Yet in a report to his SOE bosses in January 1944, Hill had written the following:
All this means what I have endeavoured to point out in previous despatches that the moral leadership of the new Europe has passed to the Soviet Union in much the same manner as England had the moral leadership in the nineteenth century when Liberal movements were astir in Europe. The day has passed when this new movement should be considered in terms of ideologies. It is no longer a matter of communism versus capitalism or even socialism versus capitalism. It is rather a struggle of the peoples of Europe to free themselves of some of the vested interests of the past. These vested interests have been throttling the efforts of the people to attain that degree of political and economic security they feel will put an end to the miseries which have vitiated the lives of a whole generation. The peoples have been looking forward to the leadership of one of the great powers and in this way they have been finding it in the Soviet Union. It is up to the real democracies of the West not to lag behind but to keep in step with the progressive movements now preparing the way to a brighter future for the oppressed people of Europe. (from HS 4/338 at The National Archives)
This echoed a pitch he had given Bruce Lockhart in March 1943. It is pure Marxist propaganda, straight from the editorials of Pravda. Hill was a humbug, and a dangerous one at that. He had gone native. The efforts of ELLI pale beside this rampant example of ‘useful idiocy’. Yet, a third leg of the stool – alongside Hill’s romantic dalliances, and his Stalinist sympathies – eclipsed any security threat that may have been posed by the obscure ELLI. And that concerned Hill’s aide-de-camp, George Graham.
c) George Graham:
Readers will recall, from my March posting, the meeting that Liddell had with Archie Boyle on November 16, 1945, where they discussed, among other concerns about the Moscow outfit, their suspicions about George Graham. When Hill travelled to Archangel, at the end of September 1941, on the minesweeper HMS Leda, the other two members of his team were on another ship of the convoy, and arrived at the same time after a difficult three-week voyage. The first member, Major Richard Truszkowski (‘Trusco’), had been foisted on Hill at the last moment, and Hill complained bitterly about him in his memoirs, as he was the son of a well-known Pole who had fought Russia ‘tooth and nail, in Tsarist days’. The Polish faction in SOE had demanded that they have a representative with the Polish forces in the USSR, and Frank Nelson and Hugh Dalton had given in. Hill thought his appointment would only arouse the NKVD’s suspicions. (Hill had himself been cleared, despite his similar background.)
About Graham, Hill said little, only that the Lieutenant was in the Intelligence Corps, and that Hill had selected him as his A.D.C. Nevertheless, he relied upon him extensively. One of the items that the Hill party took with them to Moscow was a heavy Chubb safe in which to lock the codes and ciphers each night, but when the embassy was evacuated to Kuibyshev, soon after their arrival, because of the proximity of Hitler’s army, the safe had to be left behind. When an apartment had been found for the SOE office in Kuibyshev, Hill wrote in his diary: “We take care never to leave the flat alone; poor Graham is practically chained to it. Our files and codes are kept under lock and key when not in use. Not in a safe, deary – we ain’t got one – but in our largest suitcase, which is nailed to the floor.” [Much of Hill’s memoir derives from letters that he sent his wife.]
Yet a few months later, Graham and Hill were separated. When it was safe, after a few months, to return to Moscow, Ossipov went first, followed by Hill in early February. But Hill had to leave ‘Trusco’ and Graham behind, much to Hill’s chagrin. “I don’t like being separated from Graham, though, especially on account of coding,” he wrote. Trusco was scheduled to return to England in mid-February, so Graham would have sole responsibility for the flat. Before Hill left (by train), he had to write out orders for Graham, ‘covering every likely eventuality’. “Codes and cash we deposited with the Embassy, otherwise poor Graham would have been tied to the flat for keeps: he will do his coding at the Embassy”, he continued.
Hill’s chronology is annoyingly vague (and not much helped by Peter Day in Trotsky’s Favourite Spy), but it seems that Hill did not see Graham again until he returned to Kuibyshev in about July 1942, to renew his passport, as he had been recalled to London for discussions. Even (or especially) in wartime, strict diplomatic protocols had to be obeyed. Thus Graham had been left for several months without any kind of formal supervision. As a member of the Intelligence Corps, his credentials were presumably considered impeccable.
At some stage, concerns about SOE’s security in the Soviet Union must have been raised. Initially, this focused on physical security: SOE’s premises had been previously used by the Yugoslavs, and Soviet technicians must have placed bugs in them before Hill took over. Even Kim Philby knew about this. “A very belated security check of his conference room in Moscow revealed a fearsome number of sources of leakage”, he wrote in My Silent War, suggesting he knew about it at the time, or soon after. Yet the security problem did not stop there. And that is why the infamous Liddell diary entry for November 16, 1945, becomes so relevant. Archie Boyle, who was head of Security for SOE during the war, describes to Liddell the close relationship between Hill and Graham: “Archie says he cannot understand how a man like Hill can possibly be acceptable to the Russians unless they are getting some sort of quid pro quo, the more so since they banished his mistress to Siberia and then brought her back after a certain delay.”
Boyle also revealed something astounding. George Graham’s real name was Serge Leontieff, and he was a White Russian. Now, it would have been questionable enough for the Intelligence Corps to have recruited someone with such a history without a very careful background check, but to send him on a mission to Moscow, even under deep cover and an anglicised name, was surely irresponsible. If he truly was a White Russian (i.e. a person born in tsarist times, of probable aristocratic lineage, and against the revolution), the Soviets would be merciless, either rejecting him immediately, or accepting him in the knowledge that they would be able to suborn him by threats to surviving family members. And if he had arrived, apparently freely, from the Soviet Union at some later stage (perhaps in the early 1930s), that should have rung alarm bells about the circumstances of his escape, and the purpose of his arrival. No Soviet citizen was able to leave the country at that time without some ulterior motive on the government’s part.
A certain Serge Leontieff received his naturalization papers in London on December 20, 1933. He had been born in Peterhof, near Petrograd, on August 18, 1910, and his parents were given as Alexander Ivanovitch Leontieff and Olga Shidlovsky (formerly Leontieff), with Olga having British citizenship. Serge was single, gave his trade as Clerk (Journalist), and lived in Earl’s Court. The records suggest that his parents had been accepted to the UK some years before, but the circumstances of Olga’s second marriage are not clear. Nor is it explained how and why she alone took up British citizenship. A newspaper report (in the Winnipeg Tribune) shows that Alexander Leontieff, a former Colonel of the Imperial Guard, led the Old Moscow Balalaika Orchestra at a concert in London on May 30, 1931. Another short piece (in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) informs us that on November 10, 1934, Alexey Leontieff, a former colonel in the Czarist Army, and manager of a local machine supply office, faced a firing-squad in Novosibirsk, for failing to provide proper machinery to a nearby collective farm. Were Alexander and Alexey brothers? And did ‘Serge’ want to try to determine what happened to his uncle? Pure conjecture at this time. Yet Graham’s past would turn out to be more complicated.
4. Liddell’s Moves:
In this context of mismanagement and deception Guy Liddell faced the combined challenge of the ELLI threat, and the disturbing news about SOE security lapses in Moscow, as well as concerns about his own professional status in MI5. (For a more detailed analysis of Liddell’s career, and the events of this time, I recommend to readers that they turn to http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ ).
a) Petrie and Sillitoe:
Guy Liddell had a difficult time with his boss, David Petrie, during this period. Liddell admitted that he lost his temper with Petrie back in February, and threatened to resign, over what seemed to be a relatively minor matter concerning the Channel Islands, when Petrie interfered after forgetting what Liddell had briefed him on beforehand. When Petrie planned his retirement (his sixty-fifth birthday fell on September 9, 1945), and considered who should replace him, Liddell was not his recommendation. Jasper Harker, Petrie’s nominal deputy, was not yet sixty, but was not a candidate, and retired in 1946. Various accounts have been put forward as to why Liddell was overlooked at this time, but the influence of the Attlee government, and MI5’s reputation for being anti-socialist, must have contributed to the decision to bring in an outsider. Findlater Stewart, so busy in trying to define the future of the intelligence services, had wanted Petrie to stay on for a couple of years ‘to put MI5 on a good peace-time footing’ (as Howard Caccia told Liddell), but he was overruled.
Petrie’s behaviour was decidedly odd. John Curry gave hints of his enormous stress and disappointment at the end of the war, hinting at ‘tragedy’, as if Petrie would have been glad to get out of the hothouse. Yet he took an unconscionably long time in leaving, and botched the handover. Liddell found him very listless over the Gouzenko case: on October 18, he recorded a frustrating meeting he had with Hollis and Petrie after Hollis’s return from Canada, when the two officers were seeking some high-level directive on signals security. Petrie did not want to speak to the Prime Minister (Attlee) himself, and merely suggested that Liddell and Hollis talk the matter over with Menzies, and have him make the approach to Downing Street. Overall, it was a poor performance by Petrie: he neglected to solve the problem of Soviet counter-intelligence himself, he failed to give Liddell the authority to do so, and he protected his own broken structures, all while knowing that his successor would be bewildered by the challenge.
Moreover, Petrie did not have the guts to inform Liddell himself that the next Director-General would be a policeman, Percy Sillitoe, the Chief Constable of Kent. Liddell heard the rumour on December 10, when Desmond Orr, a member of Petrie’s staff, and the liaison with the War Office told Liddell that he had learned ‘on good authority’ that a policeman in the UK had been appointed. The story was relayed to Liddell more strongly on December 17, so Liddell went to Petrie’s office, where the news was confirmed. Petrie, rather uncomfortably, explained that the choice had been between Liddell and Sillitoe, but that (as Liddell recorded Petrie’s words) ‘the Committee possibly having thought that it might be better that I should have my hands free to deal with the Intelligence side of things’. This was a weaselly and sophistical excuse – what else was MI5, if not ‘Intelligence’? And Petrie hypocritically did not divulge to Liddell the recommendations he had made in a report submitted in 1943, which specifically called for an external career police officer to take over. Liddell had been invited to appear before the Whitehall interviewing committee, but his diary entry for the interview, on November 14, does not reflect a convincing and authoritative display. The committee had seen several other impressive candidates (e.g. Strong, Eisenhower’s intelligence chief, and Penney, a senior military intelligence officer), and was perhaps going through the motions with Liddell. As confirmation of his shiftiness, Petrie did not want to make any formal announcement: he wanted the news to ‘leak out’.
Liddell was naturally very disappointed, and listed his reasons why choosing an outsider policeman was a bad idea, for practical considerations, and especially for morale. But then Petrie told him that he was going to stay on until April 1946, which left Liddell in a very invidious position. Petrie would be filling ‘Shillito’ (as Liddell’s secretary mis-spelled the newcomer’s name) with all the wrong ideas (such as separating Russian espionage from F Division, and inserting it in B), while Liddell and his team would have to perform the grunt-work of implementing new organisation and policies. Liddell eventually met Sillitoe – but not until February 8, his judgment being that he seemed ‘a pleasant person’. That had more the ring of Barbara Pym describing a new curate despatched to the parish by Lambeth Palace than a senior officer heralding a steely new director-general ready to take on the Gremlin from the Kremlin. MI5 needed more than leadership by a nice chap.
Yet one more clash with Petrie occurred. Liddell was keen to pay a visit to the United States – ostensibly to reinforce good relations with the FBI, but also for personal reasons. Rather than simply declare his intentions, he sought permission, and raised the matter with Petrie on February 4. Budgets must have been tight, and Petrie was not enthusiastic. Hollis had recently journeyed there, and Lord Rothschild also had a visit coming up. Petrie wanted to have Liddell around in March, when Sillitoe would be visiting regularly, and suggested he go in June instead. For reasons that will become apparent, that did not suit Liddell, and a compromise was suggested, whereby Liddell would pay half his passage if he insisted on leaving sooner. The next day, Liddell accepted those terms, but felt insulted by the way he had been treated. “I feel rather like a schoolboy who has been accused of wangling a day’s holiday on the excuse that he is going to his aunt’s funeral.” There was, however, a grain of truth behind that implicit grievance.
b) Security Issues:
In the previous piece, I left Liddell at the end of 1945 attempting to derive information from Stephen Alley, and pursuing military records in the quest for learning more about George Hill’s set-up in Russia. The follow-up with Alley is inconclusive: no entry in his diary refers to any explanation from Alley as to what the ‘ELLI’ reference might mean, but Alley still crops up, with regularity, and without any apparent suspicion expressed by Liddell. The visits by the Dutch counter-intelligence officers are mentioned. Alley wrote what must have been a controversial report on Polish organisations, destined for Cavendish-Bentinck at the JIC, and Cavendish-Bentinck has been told that he will receive ‘an expurgated edition’. Alley was also involved in checking out the activities of Poles recruited at sensitive government establishments. Part of Liddell’s entry for February 12 reads: “Alley has got a case of a Pole employed by RAE Farnborough. I understand that there are quite a number there always getting in touch with the pro-Russian group of Poles in this country. This may or may not be significant, but in any case there are over 80 British CP members in Farnborough through whom there is doubtless a complete leakage of information to the Russians.” A diary entry for February 21 shows that Alley had been tracking possibly illicit Polish use of wireless transmissions.
Thus it appears that Alley was a competent and well-respected member of the senior counter-intelligence staff, and one should perhaps conclude that Liddell had by then received a satisfactory explanation from the officer to the effect that the ELLI revelations had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding. If Alley had suggested otherwise to Liddell, but convinced Liddell that he himself was not ELLI, one might expect Liddell to have picked up the quest urgently elsewhere, and in his diary set to rest the suspicions over Alley. Yet he does neither (unless the relevant comments have been redacted). Moreover, questions he raises about ELLI’s identity later in the year, and, in 1951, when Kim Philby’s name is introduced as a possible ELLI candidate, suggest that Liddell was either very confused, very forgetful, or very negligent. As I shall explain in a future piece, he also does not appear to have shared his conclusions with Roger Hollis.
Moreover, the trail on military records, and the reliability of the Moscow staff, also goes completely cold. It is difficult to imagine that this is because interest in the case dissolved: it is much more likely that the findings were too embarrassing for Liddell to report. If Liddell had delved into the records (as I have done in recent weeks), he might have discovered some disturbing facts. Readers will recall that George Graham (born as Serge Leontieff) declared on his naturalization papers that his parents were Colonel Alexander Leontieff (b. 1887, d. in Hendon, 1957) and Olga Shidlovsky (b. 1892, d. in Tunbridge Wells, 1975). When he married Edith Manley Axten (1906-1980) in Amersham in April 1941, however, he gave his parents as Philippe Leontieff and Anna Grigorieva. It must be the same Serge Leontieff, since the birthdate is the same (August 18, 1910), and his address from the 1939 census (31 Longridge Road, Earl’s Court) is the same as that appearing on the naturalization record. Serge’s trade/profession is given as Air Raid Precaution Warden.
Before Graham’s final return from Russia, he and Edith had a son, Christopher J., who was born in March 1945 in Amersham. Thus Serge must have been in the UK in June 1944: indeed, the archives of the Russian section of SOE show that Graham (D/P 103) arrived in London on leave on May 4. Graham (recently promoted to Major) was with Hill at the latter’s farewell dinner in Moscow in May 1945, and had apparently returned from a visit to London with him in March. The father could therefore have been present at the birth. The son is listed as Christopher J. Graham, thus confirming that Leontieff changed his name to Graham at some stage between his wedding and his departure for Archangel. Christopher died in Wycombe in December 1949. Moreover, at her death in 1980, in Horsham, Sussex, Edith’s name is given as Edith Graham. I cannot yet determine the date or location of Serge’s death, since a few candidates with the 1910 birth-year appear, and such a discovery will require further information about Graham (such as a second initial, perhaps, and an inspection of the death certificate).
It would appear that two examples of fraud are at work here. Serge misrepresented his parentage at his marriage ceremony (for all I know, those two people never existed). Was it perhaps a union of convenience, to help establish his bona fides? And George Hill certainly misled his bosses when selecting Serge as his ADC, unless other forces decided to pick him and give him a new identity. Records show that this ‘George Graham’ was never in the Intelligence Corps. If Archie Boyle was really ignorant of it all until 1945, might Hill have been blackmailed by the Soviets into bringing Serge in, and was the very odd suggestion, coming from Novosibirsk, of the imminent execution of Alexey Leontieff in 1934 a warning? At a time when millions of Soviet citizens were being killed for utterly specious reasons, it seems very odd for a very specific press release like this to be made available to the West.
Did Boyle and Liddell interrogate George Graham? That would have been the obvious response, if they could track him down. Yet, even if they had done so, and the outcome was as disastrous as the evidence suggests it could have been, Boyle and Liddell would not have been able to do much more than try to wrap a discreet veil over the whole business, maybe concluding that the quid pro quo that Boyle referred to back in November 1945 had some substance to it. And George Hill would have become persona non grata. The possibility of a furtive mole called ELLI still being active in British intelligence would have been thrown into the shade had George Hill actually been working for the Soviets. That is what Len Manderstam believed. In From the Red Army to SOE he wrote: “I was sure George Hill was a triple agent. There was, in my opinion, no other explanation for his conduct and for subsequent events than that he was feeding information to the British, the Russians and the Germans. Even when he was liaising with the NVD on an official basis, I believe Hill supplied to them a great deal of important information and received little in return. He had been promoted to the control of SOE’s Mission in Moscow through his pre-war connections with the SIS and helped by the grandiose claims which he made for himself”. And Manderstam knew nothing about the George Graham fiasco, it seems.
Meanwhile the CORBY case opened up. On February 5, Prime Minister Mackenzie King set up the Royal Commission (the Kellock-Taschereau Commission) to investigate Gouzenko’s allegations, and it began secret hearings soon afterwards. A telegram of February 14 reported to MI6 that Gouzenko had been making a good impression. On February 6, Hollis had brought Liddell a transcript of a speech about Gouzenko made by Drew Pearson in the USA, thus breaking the silence, and the Gouzenko affair became public knowledge in the UK a week later. On February 20, Nunn May confessed to Commander Burt that he had indeed spied for the Soviets. The day before, Hollis had complained to Philby about his attempt to control the Gouzenko business, and he firmly requested that Philby relinquish it. On February 27, Liddell left on the boat-train with Victor Rothschild for Paris, and thence to Washington, courtesy of an RAF flight. Yet, partly because of inclement weather, he did not fly out of Paris until March 7.
c) The Voyage to the Americas:
Guy Liddell did not write up his diary entries for his visit to the Americas until he returned to the UK at the end of April. One of the most beguiling series of entries concerns his meetings with someone called ‘Gay’, whom he meets in the company of Carl Paulson, ‘a nice quiet type of American’ [yes, they do exist], on March 10. He sees her again in New York on March 16, and also the following day, and he would afterwards accompany her to Chicago and San Francisco. Yet this was not a conventional series of trysts. Liddell never identified ‘Gay’ in his diaries, but it is clear that she was his daughter, Elizabeth Gay.
Liddell had lost custody of his four children with Calypso (née Baring), and they had returned to the United States in 1941. Yet his elder daughter had obviously stayed in touch with him, and wanted him to meet her intended fiancé – even to give his approval to the match, perhaps, as she was not yet eighteen years old. Indeed, on April 5, 1946, the announcement was made that Elizabeth Gay Liddell, of Anselmo, California, was engaged to Ensign Carl G Paulson of the United States Naval Reserve, and they were married on May 4. Liddell was obviously not able to attend the wedding ceremonies, but the reasons for his hasty trip now become evident.
Not that he did not have important business affairs to deal with. He met members of the Security Council, discussing joint approaches to the Soviets, and then had a meeting with Lish Whitson and William Harvey of the FBI on communist matters. Liddell confided in his diary that ‘he was not au fait in any great detail about the Canadian case’, betraying his mental occupations elsewhere. He was much more comfortable on deception, and the Double-Cross System in WWII, and was able to explain to Colonel Sweeney in the Pentagon why a similar system against the Russians could not be effective in peacetime. On March 15, he had his meeting with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, who talked so much that Liddell missed his train to New York. Liddell took the opportunity to ask Hoover whether he would object if MI5 placed an officer in Passport Control in Washington. Hoover had none.
And next – to Ottawa. He was met by Rivett-Carnac and Gagnon of the RCMP, and on March 18 witnessed Mackenzie King speak in the House of Commons. He dined with Peter Dwyer and his wife, so was presumably updated on proceedings with Gouzenko, but had a further opportunity to be briefed when he had lunch with a distinguished group at RCMP headquarters. (“We discussed the espionage case.”) On the morning of March 20, he had a talk with Leopold (the Gouzenko translator), and with Gagnon, and with Mead. And in the afternoon, Liddell spent an hour with Gouzenko himself, whom he found alert and intelligent. Liddell’s report (from his Diaries, not from the Gouzenko archive) runs as follows:
He will not be drawn into making any statement about matters of which he has no first-hand knowledge. He is somewhat temperamental, though when I saw him he was much elated by the fact that MAY had not been given bail and by Mackenzie King’s statement in the House of Commons commending his (CORBY’s) action. I asked him how it was that Russia had been going on in its present state for 28 years and how it was that the Russian people fought so well. He said that if I had been brought up on Marxian dialectics from the age of 6, if I had heard nothing but Soviet press and radio telling me that conditions abroad were far worse than any conditions in Russia, in fact that the rest of the world was living in squalor and revolution, if I had known what it was to walk down a street with my best friend and feel I could not talk freely, and if I had no opportunity of comparing my standards with those of anybody else, I should have been thinking as he did before he came to Canada. The impact of Canadian conditions was so terrific that he had been completely converted and had realised that from his youth up he had been completely deceived. He said that although he was under guard day and night by 3 officers of the RCMP he had never felt freer. I had no idea what it meant to him to be able to go out and buy a bag of oranges and a pound of hamburger. As a matter of fact it meant quite a lot to me on this occasion.
I then asked CORBY whether the Russians had deliberately let the Germans into their country in 1941. He said emphatically no. He was at the time at intelligence headquarters. The Russians were in fact running away and throwing away their arms to an alarming extent. It was only at Rostov on Don that anything like a halt was made. On this occasion Stalin put the NKVD behind the troops and gave them orders to fire on anyone running away. Subsequently there had been a tremendous wave of nationalist propaganda recounting deeds of Soviet heroism. In this way the tide had just been turned at Stalingrad.
Liddell had some further talks with RCMP officers, as well as Peter Dwyer, before returning to New York, and resuming the private part of his tour in the Americas – to Chicago and San Francisco with Gay.
I find this whole episode astonishing, for many reasons. The first is that no official record of the interview has been placed in the Gouzenko files, and the context of the experience that Liddell enjoyed has been completely overlooked. Did he not report on the encounter to Petrie and Sillitoe on his return? As an experienced officer, he would surely have followed protocol, and posted a memorandum on file. And there does not appear to be anything sensitive in his account that would require it to be weeded. It is all very bewildering. Christopher Andrew quotes a few sentences (pp 349-350), but appears not to grasp how bizarre the focus of the discussion was, given the recent revelations, the interrogations of the RCMP, the telegrams from Peter Dwyer, and the Hollis interview at the end of November 1945. Here was an opportunity for the head of British counter-espionage to ask searching questions of the defector who (according to the misguided beliefs of Amy Knight) was the person who provoked the Cold War, and who had provided alarming hints at Soviet spies in the fabric of British Intelligence, but Liddell failed to grasp the nettle. Instead he simply tried to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity.
There could be multiple explanations. Liddell could have invented the whole incident: yet, given the context, the ambience of the RCMP and the company of other intelligence officers, and the details in his report, that theory can be instantly discounted. More probable is that his account is incomplete. He probably did discuss – or broach – other matters (such as ELLI), but did not want them recorded. And if there were more sensitive revelations, it is quite likely that, for similar reasons, any report that he did submit to the Gouzenko file was buried, or subsequently weeded. Yet it also possible that, by that time, Liddell considered the whole ELLI business dead and buried, as if Alley had convinced him that it was all a harmless misunderstanding.
One must also consider the situation from Gouzenko’s side: perhaps he had grown so dismayed by MI5’s representation by then that he was not willing to speak about any confidential matters with such an officer, and glided over the more incisive questions. The first sentence of Liddell’s entry could be interpreted as saying that Gouzenko kept his lips sealed about the claims that his colleagues had made to him, using that pretext as an excuse for not opening up before another MI5 officer. Yet Liddell must have used an interpreter, and an RCMP witness. Was there no RCMP record of the interview? Gouzenko’s behaviour would surely have been worthy of remark.
Thus Gouzenko’s apparent poor recollection of the interview is also extraordinary. In Gouzenko: the Untold Story there is no mention of Liddell’s interview in March 1946. It is inconceivable that Gouzenko did not know to whom he was talking. Indeed, in his submission to the RCMP in 1952, he described how ‘on two occasions representatives of MI5 talked with me in Ottawa during the Royal Commission investigation’. (And we should note the length of Liddell’s interview – one hour, exactly the duration White attributed to Hollis.) The first of these was the encounter with Liddell. But by this time, Gouzenko had made up his mind. He was apparently convinced that ELLI was in MI5, and that the job of investigating him (or her) should thus have been entrusted to an outside agency, like Scotland Yard or the Army. ‘The result, even beforehand, could be expected as nil’ was how he characterized any outcome of the search for the agent. He must thus have decided to say little when Liddell appeared, and regarded the whole episode as inconsequential.
This was no well-oiled intelligence machinery at work. It all began with the disastrous lack of vetting of George Hill and his aide-de-camp when the SOE operation in Moscow was set up. When the Gouzenko defection occurred, the RCMP was hopelessly unprepared to handle the situation, and MI5 had vacated its representation. No disciplined interrogation of Gouzenko took place. MI5 failed to control the project, and allowed Kim Philby and MI6 to keep a rein on communications. As the Canadian, US and British governments dithered out of a desire to appease Stalin, MI5 dithered over its implementation of structures to handle Soviet intelligence attacks. It should have immediately seconded Jane Archer from MI6, to be accompanied by Stephen Alley, so that the team that handled Krivitsky so well could have reprised its success in Ottawa. Hollis was not the right candidate for either handling the political fall-out of the Nunn May case or interrogating Gouzenko. Liddell or Petrie should have taken on the former task, with Hollis instructed to keep close tabs on the ELLI business in London. If Hollis had been required to interrogate Gouzenko, he should have been well briefed, and been given a precise agenda. Boyle and Liddell should have doggedly pursued the leads on SOE security, and ensured that the ELLI identification was either pinned, and disposed of, and the outcome well communicated, or an action plan outlined to resolve the issue. Liddell should not have approached his opportunity to interview Gouzenko so casually.
The open identification of ELLI had not been conclusively determined, and questions about the merging of the features of multiple agents remained. The ‘dubok’ reference would not suit Alley easily, for example. Yet, what all this muddle meant was that fertile ground had been prepared for sowing confusion later on, and for Hollis to be conveniently framed as ELLI. Twenty years later, when the ELLI business was resuscitated, the screenplay turned out to be not so much Who Framed Roger Rabbit as Murder on the Orient Express, with a cast of guilty characters that included Dick White, Arthur Martin, Peter Worthington, Maurice Oldfield, Patrick Stewart, Chapman Pincher, Peter Wright, Stephen de Mowbray, James Angleton and Robert Lamphere, with Igor Gouzenko even dragged in as an accomplice himself.
Further Research Questions:
1) What secrets did Stephen Alley leave behind? I hope to be able to track down Alley’s memoirs when the Glasgow University Archive opens up again, but has any coldspur reader inspected these pages? Do any of you live in the Glasgow area, and could you possibly visit in person?
2) Where did George Graham come from, and what happened to him? Graham, né Leontieff, appears to have disappeared from the scene without trace. Does anyone have any knowledge of him or his wife, Edith, living in Amersham after the war?
3) What are the facts of the burglary at the Chichaev residence? I believe I now have discovered the official account, but has anyone read the Russian version of George Hill’s memoir, referred to by Dónal O’Sullivan in Dealing with the Devil? O’Sullivan has not replied to my email messages to firstname.lastname@example.org (California State University, Northridge).
4) What is the full story behind the security problems in the Russian Section of SOE? I thought Christopher J. Murphy (author of Security and Special Operations) might have some answers, but my phone and email messages to him at the University of Salford have been ignored. Does anyone know how to contact him?
And much to report on in later bulletins: ELLI in 1946 and beyond; a detailed analysis of Gouzenko’s statements, including what Pincher claimed he said to him; the composition of the NKVD intelligence organisation in London, 1941 to 1945; and maybe more.
I interrupt this bulletin to note the deaths of two significant persons related to the world of intelligence that have been recorded in NYT obituaries in the past ten days, reminders of the feverish days of World War II.
April 2, Walentyna Janta-Polczynska died in Queens, New York. She was appointed
personal secretary to General Wladyslaw Sikorski, the prime minister of the
Polish government-in-exile, in 1939. She translated and prepared reports by Jan
Karski, who brought the first eyewitness accounts of atrocities against the
Jews in Warsaw. In 1943 she assisted in Sikorski’s funeral arrangements after
his plane crashed after takeoff from Gibraltar. She was born in Lemberg (Lvov,
now Lviv): her father ‘hailed from an English family that had initiated oil
exploration in eastern Poland’. Ms. Janta-Polcynska was 107.
April 7, Henry Graff, historian, died in Greenwich, Connecticut, aged 98. In
November 1943 [date probably wrong], he translated part of a message
sent by Hiroshi Oshima, the Japanese ambassador in Berlin who had regular
discussions with Hitler, and passed on encrypted summaries of what he learned.
In this case, Oshima described German plans for countering the expected D-Day
invasion. Nine months later [sic], shortly after Hiroshima, Graff
translated a message from Japan to the Soviet Union, for some reason directed
at Bern in Switzerland, asking for help extricating Japan from the war. [I
informed the ‘New York Times’ of these anomalies, but have not received a
reply, and, as yet, the publisher has not issued a Correction.].
Next, four anecdotes . . .
Soon after we retired to Southport, North Carolina, at the beginning of August 2001, I made a trip into Wilmington, a town about thirty-five miles away, a port city on the Cape Fear River. I wanted to explore it, to familiarize myself with its layout, find out where the libraries and bookshops were, and, while I was about it, to get a haircut. I found a barber’s shop in a quiet street, went in, and sat down, waiting for my turn. I was then horrified when I heard the man I believed to be the owner, snipping away at a customer’s hair, say: “Of course the blacks were much happier when they were slaves.”
had come across some casual racism in my time in the United States, mainly in
the South, but not exclusively there, and had even experienced some ‘ethnic’
hatred directed at me, but I had never heard such a blatant example of stupid,
ugly, patronizing, disgusting, ignorant speech before. How dare this redneck
put himself in the minds of his fellow citizens, and make a facile conclusion
about them and their ancestors of almost two centuries ago? I would not call it
‘prejudice’, because this insect had clearly thought about the matter before
coming up with his well-exercised opinion. And the fact that he was ready to
speak up openly about it, in the presence of a stranger, made the expression of
his opinion even more frightful and alarming than it would otherwise have
been. Was this a common feeling among
felt like standing up and biffing the perpetrator on the nose, but thought that
causing an affray so soon after my arrival in South-Eastern North Carolina
might not be a good idea. The barber might claim that I had misheard him, after
all, or that it was a joke taken out of context. But I knew it was not. I
simply stood up and walked out of his establishment, and found a proper
hairdresser in the centre of town. Maybe that was a shabby exit, not
confronting evil when it pushes its voice into your face, but it was all a bit
overwhelming at the time.
I have since discovered that sentiments like the barber’s are not that uncommon, and that even though Wilmington has overall become more civilized by the arrival of Yankees and others in its population, and joining its media outlets, etc. (much of it resented by some locals, I should add), a combination of resentment that the Civil War was lost, and regret over the decline of ‘white’ supremacy, can still be found in many pockets of New Hanover County and its surrounding rural areas.
2. Early in 2000, about eighteen months before we left Connecticut for good (we have not been back in almost twenty years), I read in the New York Times about a photographic exhibition being held at a small gallery in New York City. It concerned records of lynchings that has been carried out in the United States in the twentieth century, with some of the photographs taken after I was born (in 1946). These had apparently not been shown before. I had reason to make a business trip to New York – about an hour away by train – so I decided to make time to visit this gallery. I am not somebody who chases down the grisly out of some perverse pleasure, but I believed that this might be a once-only opportunity to become educated about a horrific aspect of American history about which I had only vague understandings.
was an experience both moving and horrifying. I had read about the British
soldiers who discovered Belsen, and were so shocked by what they found that it
made them physically sick. I had a similar reaction – not quite so physical,
but creating that roiling in the stomach. To see a ‘black’ man strung up on a
tree, and ‘white’ families celebrating as if it were a public holiday (which is
how they probably treated it), was nauseating. What made it even worse – although this is a specious argument – was
that it had taken place in my lifetime. One thinks of ‘medieval’ practices, but
all this happened frequently in the first part of the twentieth century, in a
country that made all manner of claims about human liberty, and ‘making the
world safe for democracy’.
After all, this was not Stalin’s Gulag, where in fact the horrors were far worse in number. I have just read Varlam Shalamov’s Kolyma Stories, covering a largely contemporaneous period (1937-51) when Shalamov spent most of his incarceration working as a slave in or around the notorious goldmines of Kolyma. The death rate there was truly monstrous, and dwarfed the assaults on humanity represented by the lynchings. Yet the photographic record of Kolyma is scanty: the world knows little about the broken bodies, the mutilations and executions. Shalamov’s vignettes provoke similar feelings of disgust, but the Gulag reflected a different kind of cruelty – the abomination of State-run terror run amok. Prisoners were sentenced to ten years in Kolyma for being members of the Esperanto Society, for expressing a hope for the return of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, for praising the exiled poet Ivan Bunin, for complaining about the length of the queue for soap, or on the false denunciation of a neighbour, and few would survive. The lynchings were private vigilante operations, and took place in a supposedly democratic society run by the rule of law. How can one compare them? A few hundred lynchings in twentieth-century America, six million dead in the Holocaust, over a million in Kolyma alone? Every brutal death was an individual calamity.
(Amazingly, I was able to dig out, on the afternoon after I wrote the above two paragraphs, my clippings file on the exhibition, and related topics. I had forgotten that I had composed a brief memorandum immediately afterwards, which I present here, in its unimproved form. As is evident, one or two of the references are incomplete, but I believe it sums up well my immediate disgust. I recall now that the main reference I left unfinished was the final passage of Emanuel Litvinoff’s searing Faces of Terror trilogy, where Peter Pyatkov is taken down to the cellars of the Lubianka:
‘Cold metal against the nape of his
neck. His moment.
“Who am – ? . . .’
also reproduce in this page some clippings from The New York Times of
that time. A warning: they are discomforting to look at.)
It was at that time that I understood there was something much darker and more pervasive going on. I had rather naively imagined that the absurd colour barriers and divisiveness had broken down in the ‘Great Society’ of the 1960s. I knew that it had been illegal in North Carolina, up until 1965, for a marriage between a ‘white ‘ person and a ‘black’ one to take place (which would have meant that Sylvia and I could not have wed), but thought that these absurd racial categories were gradually being eroded. Other political trends, however, were in fact re-emphasising this false science.
3. A few years after we moved down her, Sylvia, Julia and I made a visit to the Orton Plantation. This was one of the few private estates that are open to visitors in this neck of the woods – or even across the whole of the country. It is attached to the Brunswick Town/Fort Anderson Historic Site, half-way between Southport and Wilmington, on the west side of the Cape Fear River. Brunswick Town was a port that was destroyed by the British in 1776, but never rebuilt, while Fort Anderson was constructed on the ruins, as a fort in the Civil War. There is not much to see there, especially for those familiar with the variety of castles that can be inspected in Great Britain, but it is of great historic interest, and a compulsory target for any tourist or resident of the area.
the historical site lies the Orton Planation, of which the jewel is the
antebellum country house, considered to be one of the best of its kind. It has
apparently been used in many movies and TV shows (none of which I profess to
have seen: Divine Secrets of the Ya-Ya Sisterhood somehow escaped my
attention), as the following link explains (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Orton_Plantation)
. We were able to walk around the park, and survey what had been the rice
plantations, worked by hundreds of slaves, that led down to the Cape Fear
River. We were reminded of how many of England’s fine country houses were
constructed with the wealth derived from the exploitation of slaves, only in
their case not in their back yard, but mostly thousands of miles overseas, such
as in St. Vincent, where Sylvia was born.
The house itself was not open to the public, but as we walked near it, an elderly gentleman saw us, and approached us, and, perhaps after learning where we were from, invited us to take a look round. I don’t recall much of the details (there was a billiard-table in good condition), but it was charming house, and we considered ourselves very fortunate. The gentleman gave his name as ‘Sprunt’: I worked out later that he was probably Kenneth Murchison Sprunt, whose name appears in the Wikipedia entry. In 2010, the Sprunts sold the whole property to Louis Moore Bacon, a hedge fund manager, and descendant of the house’s original owner and builder, Roger Moore. The grounds have not yet been re-opened.
4. Earlier this month, Sylvia and I filled out the US 2020 Census forms, on-line this time. It was quite a simple operation: we were asked for birthdate information for the three of us, and whether we rented or owned the house, and whether we had any mortgage. What business was it of theirs, we asked ourselves? And then we came to the bulk of the form, which was about ‘ethnicity’. The first part required us to state whether we were ‘Hispanic’ or not – and did not allow this binary question to be ignored! At the same time, it reminded us that ‘Hispanics’ or ‘Latinos’ could be of any race.
How in heaven’s name were they going to use this information? Deciding what federal aid should be given to each State, I suppose, but how could they verify whether anybody really understood the question, or could even be relied upon to tell the truth on the form? And how would such information affect the government’s decisions? I thought of a root of my maternal-grandfather’s family, the Robinis, who were Huguenots escaping via Guernsey, and suddenly felt a surge of Italianate fervour. And then there was my unexplained partiality to Neapolitan ice-cream and pizza margherita. Were such features part of my ‘identity’? H’mm. But there was no way out. We decided to say ‘No’, and move on.
The last section concerned ‘race’, and in this area the Census Bureau believed they were on firmer ground. The first option was ‘White’, but if you rejected that, it offered a whole host of exotic categories to choose from, including ‘Pacific Islander’ (about which I have written before here). Why it believed that, in 2020, American citizens would universally want to define themselves in such terms is absolutely beyond me, but it keeps many Census Bureau people in employment, and helps to foment those minor distinctions that can breed resentment, and feelings of entitlement, and which accompany the notions of ‘identity’ which the sociological professors get so excited about. Fortunately, the very last option was to tick off ‘Other’, and Sylvia and I happily entered ‘Human’ in the box, and were gratified that our submission was not rejected. But should we expect a visit from the Census Police, to verify that we are indeed so?
* * * * * * * * * *
shall get round to ‘Wilmington’s Lie’ soon, but I need to digress over some
science, and some definitions. As readers may have noticed, in this text I have
used ‘black’ and ‘white’ in quotation marks. Since all reputable scientists
have concluded that ‘race’ is a sociological construct, and that the genetic
differences between human beings of different pigmentation are smaller than
those found within any one particular ‘ethnic group’, I struggle with what
language to use in this discussion. American institutions have for a long time
advised us that anyone born with a drop of ‘black’ blood should be defined as
‘black’, which is obviously nonsense. Yet using some term is inescapable in
this discussion. Selecting the term ‘Negro’ is disdained these days; ‘colo(u)red’
is a ridiculous hangover from South African categorisations, although it
endures in the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People;
‘African-American’ is simply inaccurate (what about Egyptians?), and some
famous Americans, such as Colin Powell, have objected to it (his parents came
from Jamaica), since they do not regard themselves as having ‘roots’ in the
remind readers of the stubbornness of some sectors of government and the academic
world to recognize the facts about race, I present the following paragraphs. I
picked them out of a book review from the Listener of 13 November, 1935.
For some reason, I had acquired a few years ago a bound copy of the issues of
that magazine from September to December 1935: they present a fascinating
perspective of the world seen from a variety of educated viewpoints as the
totalitarian states of Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia started to exert an eerie
hold over the democracies’ attentions. The review is titled Racial Problems
in Europe, and it comprises a critique of We Europeans, by Julian
Huxley, A. C. Haddon, and A. M. Carr-Saunders, written by A. S. Russell.
a scientific age’, say the authors, ‘prejudice and passions seek to clothe
themselves in a garb of scientific respectability; and when they cannot find
support from true science, they invent a pseudo-science to justify themselves’.
There is today a pseudo-science of ‘racial biology’ which has been erected to
justify political ambitions, economic ends, social grudges, and class
prejudices. ‘Race’ and ‘racialism’ are regarded by the authors as almost
blasphemous terms, and it is against the fallacies associated with these vague
and mischievous ideas that the principal part of the book is directed.
who talk about pure races nowadays do not know what they are talking of. You
cannot judge a man’s race accurately from externals. You can be certain of a
man’s racial purity only when you know his ‘genetical constitution’. The
discovery of the gene, thousands of which go to the physical make-up of an
individual, has revealed how immensely more complex inheritance in the physical
sense is than was thought of in old days, when the characteristics of a child
were considered to be a mere blending of those of the parents. It was convenient at one time to make a rough
classification of Europeans into the Nordic, the Alpine and the Mediterranean
‘races’; the first exemplified in the tall, ‘long-headed’, fair-haired Swede;
the second in the ‘round-headed’ Russian peasant of medium height; the third in
the dark, ‘long-headed’, small inhabitant of southern Italy. Actually these
types, like every other in Europe, are just different mixtures; they aren’t in
any sense pure races. Everybody in Europe is of mixed race as evidenced by his
or her ‘genetical constitution’. And the reason for this is plain. For tens of thousands of years man has been
on the move in every part of the world inter-breeding and inter-breeding. There
might have been pure races at one time; sections of mankind might have got
isolated geographically from the rest for thousands and thousands of years and
evolved so as to become adapted to their climactic environment; but those days
are long past and it is in the highest degree unlikely they will ever recur.”
One might observe that even Wallace didn’t quite get it, what with his references to ‘racial purity’ and ‘inter-breeding’. Yet the challenge to the monstrous racial theories of Hitler is clear. Nevertheless, in what could be considered a provocative commentary on Hitler’s dogma, later in the review, Wallace questions the authors’ application of their research into the identity of the Jews (“ . . . the authors assert the Jews are of mixed origin and no more different from the mass of Europeans than ourselves or the Germans” – a judgment that would anticipate what Schlomo Sand wrote recently in his engrossing and controversial Invention of the Jewish People). Wallace concludes by accepting that nations of ‘inter-marriage’ are based purely on sentiment and tradition. I could point to dozens of articles that I have read over the years that would reinforce the assertions of Huxley and co. They got it right eight-five years ago, but too many people still resist those notions. For example, I marvel at the unscientific way that certain liberal arts critics misrepresent how genetics works. My latest offering: “Whether they have been hard-wired into a Jewish genetic make-up after centuries of the singular Jewish experience it’s impossible to prove, but Lebrecht’s passion is persuasive”, from Mark Glanville’s review of Norman Lebrecht’s Genius and Anxiety, in the TLS of February 28.
And now to Wilmington’s
Lie. I had been vaguely aware of the murky secret that the city of
Wilmington had tried to hide. I have another clipping, from the New York
Times of December 19, 2005, showing a report by John DeSantis headed ‘North
Carolina City Confronts Its Past in Report on White Vigilantes’. His second
paragraph sums up the event very succinctly: “Only scant mention is made,
however, of the bloody rioting more than a century ago during which black
residents were killed and survivors banished by white supremacists, who seized
control of the city government in what historians say is the only successful
overthrow of a local government in United States history.”
What prompted the attention
then to the happenings of November 10, 1898 was the release of a draft of a
500-page report ordered by the state legislature. In what may come as a
surprise to many European readers, after the Civil War, the government of
Wilmington, which had been ruled by the Democratic Party, was replaced by a coalition
that was dominated by Republicans, and contained many ‘blacks’. (It was the
Republican Abraham Lincoln who had resisted the Southern States’ rights to
continue slavery, and the switch of party allegiances around civil rights and
white supremacism would come much later.) The growing power and influence of
those persons whom reactionary Democrats considered as inferior to them, and
responsible for diminishing their prosperity, caused a mass of resentment that
broke out murderously before Election Day of November 9, 1898. A mob of white
vigilantes invaded ‘black’ businesses, most notably the printing-press of The
Daily Record, and shot ‘black’ men in the streets of Wilmington. The report
estimated that up to a hundred ‘black’ deaths were recorded, and hundreds fled
from the city.
I regret not getting hold of the full report, which, according to de Santis, was to be delivered the following year. There was some controversy over its release, as many felt that the ‘mistakes’ of over a hundred years ago should be buried. In 2008, however, a Memorial Park was opened in Wilmington, although the City still seems very ambivalent about promoting and describing it. A link on the City’s webpage, indicating the website of the memorial, leads to a Facebook Page: a full description can be seen at https://docsouth.unc.edu/commland/monument/842/. I have visited the memorial, and was moved by it, but was sorry it had been placed somewhat off the beaten track, and found the symbology puzzling. The monument itself consists of six 16-feet tall paddles, which, according to a plaque nearby, refer to the role of water in ‘the spiritual belief system of people from the African continent’. Why the memorialists would want to generalise all the religions of the African continent in that stereotypical way, especially when almost universally those who suffered at the time of the events (and those who come to honour them today) were and are devout Christians is one of those weird dimensions of ‘identity’ and ‘heritage’ that dominate discussions of such topics today.
And then, earlier this
year, David Zucchino’s account of the incidents, Wilmington’s Lie: The
Murderous Coup of 1898 and the Rise of White Supremacy, was published.
Zucchino gained his Pulitzer Prize for feature-writing in The Philadelphia
Inquirer in 1989: he has also published Thunder Run and The Myth
of the Welfare Queen. His book provides a very thorough history of the
events that led up to what he characterises as the 1898 ‘coup’: the action was,
however, not so much the directing ousting of a governing body as the
terroristic oppression of those citizens who would democratically elect that
group, but the result was the same. Zucchino uses the official report
(available at https://digital.ncdcr.gov/digital/collection/p249901coll22/id/5842, released on May 31, 2006,
which I have not read), as well as an account by LeRae Umfleet, the principal
researcher on the project, A Day of Blood, which I have also not looked
at. So I regret I cannot compare Zucchino’s account with Umfleet’s. Zucchino
has also trawled through an impressive list of books, unpublished memoirs and
diaries, articles, theses, dissertations, and government publications and
Zucchino takes his readers painstakingly through the background that led to the vigilantism of 1898. In the second half of the nineteenth century, Wilmington became the largest city in North Carolina, and freed slaves flocked to it for the opportunities in trade and exports that it provided. In the author’s words, ‘it was a bustling port city with a burgeoning African American middle class and a Fusionist government of Republicans and Populists that included black aldermen, policemen and magistrates.’ The Ku Klux Klan had made an attempt to roll back Reconstruction in 1868, but had been driven out of town. Abraham Galloway (of ‘mixed race’) had been the vigorous senator who had encouraged the locals to defend their right, and when he died in 1870, the cause was taken up by Alexander Manly, the publisher of the Daily Record. “Manly”, Zucchino writes, “could easily have passed as white, the preferred option of so many so-called mulattoes.” Manly spoke up for Negro rights, and pointed out the hypocrisy that occurred when ‘white’ supremacists spoke up for the virtue of their women intermingling with ‘black’ males, while they themselves had affairs with ‘black’ women. He thus became the prime target of the frustrated Democrats.
In 1897, several
lynchings occurred in Georgia. ‘White’ leaders could not imagine that a sexual
act between a ‘white’ woman and a ’black’ man could be consensual, and
vigilante justice was frequently the outcome. After a Mrs. Felton defended the
practice of lynching, Manly wrote an editorial that pointed out the hypocrisy,
and ridiculed the insecurity and self-delusion that lay at the heart of the
hatred of Southern ‘white’ men. Thus the office of the Daily Record
became the prime target of the rebels. Two days after voting took place for the
state legislature on November 8, 1898, over two thousand Red Shirts (as they
were called), heavily armed, piled into Wilmington looking for victims.
Buildings were burned, and at least sixty ‘black’ men were killed in the
Zucchino reports how
the Wilmington Messenger published the lyrics to ‘Rise Ye Sons of
Carolina’ on November 8, 1898.
“Proud Caucasians one
and all . . .
Hear your wives and
daughters call . . .
Rise, defend their
With your strong and
manly arms . . .
Rise and drive this
Black despoiler from your state.”
It is a message that
anticipates Hitler. A shocking and nauseating refrain, blatantly ignoring the
fact that the forbears of these ‘black despoilers’ had been brought to those
shores against their will, in utterly cruel conditions, when, if they had
survived, they were forced into slavery. What demagogues, preachers or teachers
had embedded this sort of thinking? How could anyone today not denounce such
I shall not relay all
the details of the coup. Readers can pick up the book. Zucchino has performed
an absolutely vital task of chronicling the details of this ghastly event, one
that remained buried for so long. Yet Wilmington’s Lie is not very easy
reading: not because of the grisly subject-matter, but because the author lacks
a good narrative sweep, and moves around without a clear chronology. Events
outside Wilmington are sketched very thinly, so we do not gain a good
understanding of, for example, why federal or state officials were so reluctant
to intervene. He leaves the meatier issues for the Epilogue, almost as an
afterthought, such as the way that Wilmington became an example for ‘white’
supremacists in other states to pick up on voter suppression, and vicious
attacks on ‘blacks’. He has nothing to say about the culture and political
battles that encouraged such cruelty, or how the fundamentalist Josiah Nott,
who had Gobineau’s dangerous writings on the Aryan race translated, exerted such
a swift and penetrative effect on the Southern states and the rise of the Ku
Klux Klan. Where did they learn about ‘Caucasians’? This, for me, was an
Moreover, Zucchino makes no references to the expulsion of indigenous Americans of a couple of generations before, which these horrors echoed, or even the infamous Dawes Act of 1887, which applied different racial principles to the treatment of indigenous American tribes. The author makes a link between the events of 1898 and current attempts to implement voter ID laws: such initiatives may or may not be stirred by similar impulses, but Zucchino does not examine the case. He skims over in one paragraph the bouleversement in Party allegiances (when minority rights became a Democratic plank of policy) that was caused by the Civil Rights movement in the 1950s and 1960s, noting that in 1972 North Carolina elected its first Republican US senator for seventy-four years – the notorious Jesse Helms. And lastly, he appears to be a prisoner of his own cultural milieu – talking about ‘white blood’ and ‘black blood’ as if they were realities, and never analysing seriously the pseudo-science behind these notions. (As I was completing this piece, I encountered the following quotation from the NYT obituary of Abigail Thernstrom, a stolid opponent of affirmative action, a woman who had grown up in a communist household: “Race is the American dilemma. It is race that, you know, keeps this country in agony. It is our most serious domestic problem. And therefore, we want to think specially hard about anything that involves sorting people out on the basis of one drop of blood of this or that.”)
I noticed one poignant
aspect. The captain general of the Ku Klux Klan in North Carolina in 1868 was a
Colonel Moore, who led the attempt to terrorize ‘blacks’ in April 1868, was
then repulsed, and was left licking his wounds inside Thalian Hall. Thirty
years later, no longer Klan leader, he was still active in Wilmington, and had
been elected to the County Board of Commissioners in the corrupt elections of
1898. Yet he was outsmarted by another political rival, Colonel Alfred Waddell,
who led the attack on Manly’s newspaper offices. After the killings of November
10, one of the businessmen who tried to persuade Waddell to allow the ‘blacks’
who had been chased out of town, since he needed them for loading the seven
steamships backed up at the port, was a James Sprunt. Sprunt ‘told a reporter
he was confident that the city’s blacks would be reassured by Mayor Waddell’s
public declarations of equal treatment for both races’. He had been born in
Glasgow, was British vice-consul, and later became renowned for his
philanthropic work in Wilmington, and his dedication to local history.
Colonel Roger Moore
was a descendant of Roger Moore, a brother of Maurice. Maurice Moore sold the
Orton Planation to Roger when the latter moved into the area from South
Carolina, in 1725, and together they founded Brunswick Town. Roger Moore had to
deal with unfriendly native Americans, who destroyed his first house, but then
set up the rice plantation with slave labour. The gentleman whom we met at the
Orton Plantation, Murchison Sprunt, was a grandson of James Laurence Sprunt,
who, with his wife, Luola, purchased the property in 1904, on the death of his
father-in-law, Colonel Kenneth MacKenzie Murchison, a Confederate military
officer. In May 2010, as I described earlier, the Sprunt family sold the
Plantation to Louis Moore Bacon, who informs us that he is a direct descendant
of the first Roger Moore. (How he might be related to the notorious Klansman
Roger Moore, I do not know.)
Thus are the fortunes
and careers of North Carolinians – like those of everyone, I suppose –intertwined.
Allowing for about ten generations since 1725, Louis Moore Bacon could also
claim that he was the direct descendant of about one thousand other people. Yet,
like many others, he favours a single lineage with a name that endured, and a
known family history. Likewise, there are probably thousands of other persons
who could claim ‘direct descendancy’ from Roger Moore, but who did not have the
money, the genealogical insights, or the personal interest, to want to bid for
the Orton Plantation, and invest in it. That is the way the world works.
Back to today’s
Wilmington. It is easy for someone like me to sit back, and proclaim that all
these racial categories are absurd, when such loftiness in fact could show an
insensitivity to the realities of the stories of humiliation passed down, and
the daily insults that continue. Whenever I walk around in Wilmington, I am
especially careful, say, to open the door for any ‘black’ person coming into
the Post Office, and offer them a friendly ‘Take your time, sir!’, or ‘Have a
good day, madam!’, perhaps to balance the affronts or rudenesses they may have
encountered from persons who share my skin pigmentation, and I deliver such politesses
a little more enthusiastically than I might do to anyone else. Maybe it is
condescending behaviour, but I trust it helps. Because I can hope for the day
when these categories will be meaningless (and I think of our beautiful Anglo-Irish-Italian-French-German-West
Indian-Vietnamese grand-daughters – ignoring, for now, the Persky branch from
Minsk), but have to accept that reality is different. So long as census-takers, white supremacists, affirmative
action lawyers, ethnic studies professors, fundamentalist preachers, racial
activists, identity politicians, Dixie whistlers, sociologists, psephologists,
pseudo-historians, eugenicist neo-confederates, Marxist academics, cultural
appropriation specialists, self-appointed ‘community’ spokespersons, and general
grudge-grinding journalists have a job to hold on to, the distinctions will
continue. And, after all, if the New York Times says that a ‘Latinx’
community exists, it must be so, right?
My gestures are a kind of reparation,
I suppose. And thereby lies one final dilemma, as the irrepressible and
overexposed Ta-Nehisi Coates has promoted, urging that ‘blacks’ should receive
money for the injustices performed against them (or their forebears). Yet not
all those who would have to pay are guilty, nor are all those who would be
remunerated necessarily victims. None of us automatically inherits the sins or
the virtues of our forebears, and each us should be free to reject the
indoctrination of parents, school or religious institution.
I made light of this at my seventieth birthday party a few years ago, attended by a few dozen of my closest friends, at which I made a speech (see Taking the Cake). At one point, I took out a piece of paper from my jacket pocket, and told the assembled diners that it was a letter from the U.S. Department of Justice. I proceeded to read it: “Dear Mr. Percy . . . blah, blah, blah, . . . We have to inform you that, according to recent legislation, you, as a descendant of colonialist oppressors, are hereby ordered to make the following reparations payments to victims of such injustices. (Pause.) Mr. Tiger Woods: $5,000. Mrs. Sylvia Percy: $10,000. And to Mr. Douglas Hamilton (not his real name, but a prosperous ‘black’ friend of mine sitting at Table 4): $50,000!”
Yet so long as that barber, and
persons like him, are around, it is no laughing matter.
(Recent Commonplace entries can be found here. This month’s collection includes a special not-to-be-missed feature on Gavin Ewart and light verse.)
[In Part 1 of this segment, I analysed the way in which Rudolf Peierls tried to frame his life and career. He almost managed to conceal a murky connection with the Soviet authorities, but a study of archives, letters and memoirs strongly suggested a hold that Moscow exerted over him and his wife. In Part 2, I investigate how the network of physicists in Britain in the 1930s helped to enable Peierls’s close friend and protégé Klaus Fuchs to thrive, and explore how Peierls tried to explain away Fuchs’s ability to spy under his watch.]
When those UK public servants who aided or abetted the espionage of Klaus Fuchs were judged, whether they were in academia, government, or intelligence, the investigation essentially boiled down to four questions: 1) Were they incompetent? (‘I never knew he was a Communist’); 2) Were they negligent? (‘I knew he was a Communist, but didn’t think it mattered’); 3) Were they timid? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and was concerned, but didn’t want to rock the boat’); or 4) Were they culpable? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and that is why I recruited/approved him’). The actions of each were highly dependent upon roles and timing: supporting a communist scientist in the 1930s would have been almost de rigueur in physicist circles; in 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was so desperate to beat Hitler that it admitted it had no qualms about recruiting a communist; after Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, and Nunn May’s sentencing, any communist links began to be treated as dangerous; in 1951 Sillitoe and White of MI5 lied to Prime Minster Attlee about Fuchs’s communism in order to save the institution’s skin. In comparison, in 1944 the OSS recruited Jürgen Kuczynski (Sonia’s brother, who introduced Fuchs to a member of Soviet military intelligence) because he was a communist. But the post mortems of the Cold War suggested that warning signals should have been made at every stage of the spy’s advancement to positions where he had access to highly confidential information.
Moreover, Fuchs is often presented in contrasting styles. On the one hand appears the superb master of tradecraft, who effortlessly insinuated himself into Britain’s academic elite, convinced the authorities of his skills and commitment, took up UK nationality, and then, with his keen knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques was able to pass on atomic secrets to his handler, Sonia, and later, in 1949, to give away no clues when he was being watched, being betrayed solely because of the VENONA decrypts, and the tenacity of those who followed the leads. On the other hand we see the clumsy communist, who made no effort to conceal his true affiliations, escaped undetected only because of the incompetence of MI5, but carelessly provided possible clues by visiting his sister in Boston, and contacting a known Communist (Johanna Klopstech) on his return to the UK in 1946. Moreover, he drank ‘like a fish’, according to Genia Peierls. When questioned, he was foolish enough to confess to espionage when anyone else would have brazened it out, with the result that his Soviet spymasters were disgusted with him.
it not have made more sense for Fuchs to soften his communist stance, thus
avoiding a complete volte-face and loss of credibility with his leftist peers
in England, but suggesting he was more of a vague theoretician than a firm
believer in the Stalinist paradise? In this respect the relationship to Fuchs
of Rudolph Peierls, as his mentor and recruiter, is especially poignant. In
this article, I examine what is known about Peierls’s and other scientists’ awareness
of Fuchs’s true political commitment, and how Peierls danced around the issue
in the years after Fuchs’s prison sentencing, and later, when Fuchs was
released, and left the UK for the German Democratic Republic. I expand my
analysis by using the statements and testimony of other scientists who dealt
with the pair.
wrote about Peierls in Misdefending the Realm, and it might be useful to
re-present here a few sections from my book that focused on my assessment of
Peierls’s role in recruiting Fuchs to the Tube Alloys project, from Chapter 8:
account of what happened next is deceptive. In his autobiography he claimed
that, several months after Fuchs’s release, when thinking about technical help
he himself needed in the spring of 1941, he thought of Fuchs. “I knew and liked
his papers, and I had met him”, he wrote, dismissing the relationship as fairly
remote. Yet he had never written about Fuchs beforehand, and he does not
describe the circumstances in which he had met him. His autobiographical
contribution is undermined, however, by what he had told MI5. When he was
interviewed by Commander Burt in February, 1950, shortly before Fuchs’s trial,
he said that he had first met Fuchs “in about 1934, probably at some scientific
conference”, but also stated that “he did not know him very well until Born
recommended him”. Fuchs was later to confirm that he had met Peierls at a
scientific conference “immediately before the war”. An MI5 report of November
23, 1949, states that “Peierls had met Fuchs at a Physics Conference in
Bristol, when Peierls had first suggested that Fuchs should work under him at
Birmingham”. That occasion was clearly before the war: Peierls and Fuchs had
achieved more than merely discuss issues of joint interest, and Peierls clearly
misrepresented the closeness of their relationship when speaking to Burt.
Without explaining how he had learned that Fuchs had been released from internment, and had returned to Edinburgh, Peierls stated that he wrote to Fuchs asking him whether he wanted to work with him, even before he (Peierls) had gained permission to do so. He next asked for official clearance, but was instructed “to tell him as little as possible”. “In due course he [Fuchs] got a full clearance, and he started work in May 1941.” One might conclude that the impression Peierls wanted to give is that it was a fortuitous accident that Fuchs’s availability, and his own need, coincided: he conveniently forgot the previous job offer. Moreover, the “and” in Peierls’s account is troublesome, suggesting a sequence of events that did not in fact happen that way. Fuchs had not received ‘full clearance’ by that time: in another item of correspondence, Peierls admitted that he had to wait. The process was to drag on for several months, and some MI5 personnel were later to express horror that the relevant government ministries had proceeded so carelessly in advancing Fuchs’s career without concluding the formal checks. For example, in June 1940, Peierls had taken Fuchs with him to Cambridge to meet the Austrian expert in heavy water, Dr. Hans Halban, who was a member of the exclusive five-man Tube Alloys Technical Committee: Fuchs’s training was assuredly not being held back.
Peierls’s account does not correspond with other records. It is clear from his
file at the National Archives that Fuchs was recommended for release from
internment in Canada as early as October 14, 1940 (i.e. shortly after the
meeting of the Maud Technical Sub-Committee), and that the termination of his
internment (to return to Edinburgh) was officially approved a few weeks later.
This followed an inquiry by the Royal Society as early as July 1940, since an
MI5 memorandum states that “the Royal Society included Fuchs on list of
scientists they wanted urgently released soon after Fuchs sailed on Ettrick on
July 3, 1940.” An ‘exceptional case’ was made on October 17, and the Home
Office gave Fuchs’s name to the High Commissioner for Canada. These requests
would later appear very provocative, as a defined role for Fuchs appeared to
have been described very early in the cycle. Yet, after his arrival in
Liverpool in January 1941, the Immigration Officer specified very clearly to
the Superintendent of the Register of Aliens that Fuchs would not be able to
“engage in any kind of employment without the consent of the Ministry of
would at first glance be quite reasonable to suppose that Peierls had initiated
this action, especially given the curious testimony of Fuchs’s supervisor at
Edinburgh, Max Born. In a letter dated May 29, 1940, Born had written (to whom
is not clear) that, despite Fuchs’s being “in the small top group of
theoretical physicists in this country”, he and the others should not be freed
from internment. Furthermore, Born wrote that “there are strict regulations
that prohibit any liberated internees to return to the ‘protected area’ where
they live”. “Even if they would be released they could not join my department
again”, he added. Either this was a deliberate deception by Born, to provide a
cover-story, or he had a quick change of heart, or he was sincere, but was
overruled, the British government wishing to maintain the fiction that
everything happened later than supposed. The third alternative can probably be
discounted, as Born soon after began writing to influential persons, trying to
gain Fuchs’s release, immediately after his arrest, and himself vigorously
tried to find Fuchs remunerative employment as soon as he learned about Fuchs’s
release from internment. In any case, the earlier statement represented an
unnecessarily severe judgment, made just over two weeks after Fuchs’s
interrogation and arrest, and its only purpose can have been to smooth the path
of Fuchs’s employment elsewhere after his eventual release. [pp 217-218]
In fact, correspondence between Peierls and the pacifist-minded Born suggests that the two collaborated to find Fuchs employment very soon after his release from internment was approved. It appears the two scientists knew each other well. In the summer of 1936, Born (whose position at Cambridge had come to an end) had received an invitation from Kapitza to work for him in Moscow. The fact that Kapitza appeared then to be an unreformed Stalinist, writing in his letter of invitation: “Now, Born, is the time to make your decision whether you will be on the right or the wrong side in the coming political struggle”, did not deter Born. He considered it so seriously that he started taking Russian lessons from Peierls’s wife, Eugenia, but instead assumed the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University in October 1936. Laucht’s study of Frisch and Peierls refers to letters exchanged between Peierls and Born in November, 1940, where they explored opportunities for placing Fuchs successfully. This correspondence continued during the spring of 1941, with Peierls expressing extreme dedication towards bringing Fuchs into his camp. “Although it looked initially as if Fuchs would not make the move to the University of Birmingham, Peierls remained tireless in his effort to find a job for the talented physicist at his university. In the end, he succeeded and offered Fuchs a temporary position,” wrote Laucht. Thus Peierls’s version of the recruitment process can be interpreted as another self-serving memoir attempting to distance the author from a traitor. All this was known by MI5: they had gained Home Office Warrants to read the correspondence.
Born, moreover, was far from innocent in helping Fuchs on his mission. In his
two items of autobiography, he relentlessly reminds his readers that he had no
competence in nuclear physics, a convenient pretence for his attitude of
non-participation and pacifism. Yet in his later, more comprehensive volume he
related the episode of a visit to Cambridge in the summer of 1939, where he met
the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and how, on his return, he shared with Fuchs
Szilard’s conviction that an atom bomb could be made. He was then unequivocal
that Fuchs knew that the nature of the work he would have to be engaged in was
nuclear weapons research, with the goal of defeating Hitler, as he claimed he
tried to talk Fuchs out of it. Just as Peierls did in his own memoir, Born
concealed the fact of the correspondence between the two exiled scientists at the
end of 1940, supporting the lie that it was Peierls’s sudden request for Fuchs
in May of 1941 that occasioned the latter’s transfer from Edinburgh to
Birmingham. [pp 220-21]
new material can shed further light on this story? In some ways, the sources
have become sparser. In recent years, previously available files concerning
atomic weapons and energy research, including vital files on Klaus Fuchs, have
been ‘retained’ by UK government departments for unspecified reasons. (see, for
https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/british-nuclear-archive-files-withdrawn-without-explanation ) Very recently, some of the files on
Sonia’s family have been inexplicably withdrawn (’closed while access is under
review’). In his 1997 biography of Professor Chadwick (the head of the British
mission to assist in the Manhattan Project), Andrew Brown wrote: “Some of the wartime
letters between Chadwick and Peierls that have never been released in England
were available at the National Archives, but possibly as a result of the Gulf
War, they were recently recensored by the US authorities” – an
extraordinary admission of foreign interference. The Cleveland Cram archive of
CIA material at Georgetown University has been withdrawn, at the CIA’s request
Sabine Lee’s publication of the Letters of Rudolf Peierls has usefully extracted
a number of communications between the scientist and his colleagues and
contacts, but the emphasis is very much on technical matters, most of the letters
appear in the original German, and the volume is very expensive.
the other hand, a careful examination of the archival material of fringe
figures (such as the enigmatic Herbert Skinner), and the articles, book
reviews, memoirs and biographies of scientists who engaged with Peierls and
Fuchs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s can reveal a host of subsidiary detail that
helps to shed light on the process by which Fuchs was allowed to be adopted by
Peierls, and approved for work on Tube Alloys.
The saga started at the University of Bristol, where a fascinating group of future luminaries was assembled in the 1930s. Klaus Fuchs arrived there, in October 1933, and was introduced to Professor Nevill Mott by Ronald Gunn, who was a director of Imperial Tobacco, was described by many as a Quaker, but was also a strong communist sympathiser. Gunn had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, had met Fuchs in Paris in 1933, and had sponsored his move to Bristol. The university admissions board accepted Fuchs as a doctoral student of Mott, who held the Melville Wills Chair of Theoretical Physics. Mott and Gunn were both alumni of Clifton College, as, indeed, was Roger Hollis, the controversial future chief of MI5. Mott had taken up his new position only in the autumn of 1933, at the young age of twenty-six, and one of his new colleagues was Herbert Skinner, to whom he was indebted for helping focus his research. Professor Tyndall’s history of the Physics Department also credits Skinner with endorsing the selection of Mott.
Skinner was later to become Fuchs’s boss at AERE Harwell, where Fuchs was to conduct an affair with Skinner’s ‘Austrian-born’ wife, Erna, described as ’glamorous’ in one memoir. Skinner had been appointed a Henry Herbert Will Research Fellow at Bristol in 1927, and was given a more permanent position as Lecturer in Spectroscopy in June 1931, which he held until 1946. In October 1934, Rudolph Peierls’s long-time friend, colleague and correspondent Hans Bethe arrived, but he stayed only four months before leaving for the United States to take up a chair at Cornell University. Soon after that, however, Herbert Fröhlich was added to the faculty. (I wrote about his miraculous escape from the Soviet Union in Part 1 of this analysis.) Fröhlich was appointed Lecturer in 1944, and Reader in 1946. He stayed until 1948, when he was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Ronald Gurney was another Soviet sympathiser, a member of the local Communist Party, working as a George Wills research associate from 1933 to 1939, and contributing, alongside Fröhlich, to Mott’s research on semiconductors and crystals. (Ironically, Fuchs would later tell the FBI that Gurney was ‘a security risk’ because he and his wife had at Bristol both been members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.) Alan Nunn May, the other famed ‘atom spy’ was one of those scientists from King’s College, London, evacuated to Bristol at the start of the war.
German-speaking physicists were recruited, and were later, like Fuchs, to
undergo internment during the ‘fifth column’ scare of 1940. Christopher Laucht
writes, in Elemental Germans: “Other German-speaking émigré physicists
who were interned included Walter Kohn and Hans Kronberger, as well as eight
members of the physics department at Bristol University: Walter Heitler and his
brother Hans, Herbert Fröhlich, Kurt Hoselitz, Phillip Gross and Heinz London,
and two of their students Robert Arno Sack and G. Eichholz.” (p 27) Yet it is primarily
the exposures of Mott, Born, Skinner, Gurney and Fröhlich to Klaus Fuchs,
supplemented by the careers of two other important figures, Rotblat and
Plazcek, that concern me here.
Nevill Mott was ambivalent in his assessment of Fuchs. Mott was some kind of fellow-traveller himself: in his memoir, A Life in Science, he describes how in 1934 he enthusiastically paid a visit to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to attend a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mendeleyev. The scientist who invited him, Yakov Frenkel, was the same person who had invited Peierls to Odessa in 1931. Mott had the good (or bad) fortune to be accompanied on the Soviet boat by Sidney Webb. He recorded part of his experiences as follows: “To me, from England at the height of the depression, Russia appeared as a country without unemployment. At any rate, I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of the half million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now that this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.”
could be described as the perfect embodiment of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’.
Admittedly, far greater persons posed the same question. Winston Churchill also
asked Stalin about the kulaks, in 1942, although it was a foolish impulse, as
the Prime Minister must have known full well by then what the nature and scale
of the massacres, deportations and enforced famine had been, and, if he was not
prepared to challenge the Soviet dictator on the matter, his question would
turn out to be a political victory for Stalin. Mott was naive enough to admit
his gullibility, at least: Peierls remained silent after his more tortured
Mott was a little evasive about Fuchs. In a memoir Bristol Physics in the
1930s, he wrote that Fuchs’s ‘views, as we all knew, were very left wing,
and at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s
invasion of Abyssinia, so were those of many of the young physicists’. In A
Life in Science, however, Mott’s awkwardness shines through. First he
introduces Fuchs as ‘a political refugee, with communist sympathies’, not
explaining how he knew that. He next writes that Fuchs was ‘was shy and
reserved and I do not remember discussing politics with him’. But then he
relates the famous incident of the meeting of the local branch of the Society
for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which he and Fuchs – and maybe
others – attended. The description ironically does not comment on those aspects
of ‘cultural relations’ that Mott judged worthy of nurturing.
Bristol in the 1930s, we had a branch of the Society for
Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. It met from time to time in a
studio in Park Street, which disappeared in 1940 in the first big raid on
Bristol, (during which I remember walking home from a meeting, with
incendiaries falling in the street). We used to dramatize translations of the
Soviet treason trials, but which Stalin appears to have got rid of most of his
possible rivals. They were accused of sabotage in the interests of the Germans.
But my most vivid recollection is of Fuchs in the role of Vishinsky, the
prosecutor, accusing the defendents [sic] with a cold venom that I would
never have suspected from so quiet and unassuming a young man.” The mystery is
a) why Fuchs would go out of his way to express his political sympathies, and
b) why Bristol academia would not consider his behaviour outrageous.
Fuchs moved on – to Edinburgh University, under Professor Max Born. The record
here is again ambiguous. Mott described the action as follows: “After four
years I arranged for him to go to the former leader of the Göttingen theorists,
Max Born, by then Professor in Edinburgh. Born, in his autobiography, writes
that I wanted to get rid of him because he was a communist, but that was not
so; we had many refugees in Bristol and needed to think about permanent posts
for some of them, and we hadn’t the resources to provide for all.”
Max Born had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after taking a position at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was in 1936 appointed to the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. In an essay in his My Life and Views, Born wrote: “Next, Klaus Fuchs, a highly gifted man who never concealed the fact that he was a communist; after the outbreak of the war and a short internment as an enemy alien, he joined the British team investigating nuclear fission. I think he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.” Apart from the disingenuous claim that ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘honest conviction’ are opposite motivators in the field of espionage, Born makes it quite clear that he knew about Fuchs’s loyalties, writing in My Life about recently arrived scientists at Edinburgh: “One of the first of these was Klaus Fuchs, later so well known through the spy affair in which he was involved,’ as if The Spy Who Changed the World (Michael Rossiter’s clumsy title for his first-class biography, flawed only by its lack of specific references) had been a bit-player in some distasteful society scandal.
was intensified, however, when the first biography of Fuchs, by Norman Moss,
titled Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb, was reviewed by M.
F. Perutz in the 25 June, 1987 issue of the London Review of Books.
Fuchs had taught Perutz the principles of theoretical physics when both were
interned in Canada in the summer of 1940. In his review, Perutz referred to the
claim made by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons that there had been
no evidence that Fuchs had ever been a Communist, and commented: “When I mentioned this to a veteran physicist
friend of mine recently, he interjected: ‘But Fuchs and I were in the same
Communist cell when we were students at Bristol.’ Max Born, Fuchs’s former
chief at Edinburgh, wrote about Fuchs: ‘He never concealed that he was a
convinced communist. During the Russo-Finnish war everyone’s sympathies in our
department were with the Finns, while Fuchs was passionately pro-Russian.’ On
the other hand, Peierls had no idea that Fuchs was a Communist.”
Norman Moss explained more, in a response
published by the LRB: “In his autobiography My Life, Max Born, who took on Fuchs as a young
researcher, said Sir Nevill Mott told him he sent him away from Bristol
University because ‘he spread Communist propaganda among the undergraduates.’
But there is a footnote containing a comment by Sir Nevill to the effect that
Born must have misunderstood something he said, because he does not remember
his doing any such thing. “In fact, none of Fuchs’s close friends knew he had
been an active Communist in Germany. Fuchs did once defend Russia’s attack on
Finland in 1939 in an argument with Born, as Professor Perutz says in his
review and as I said in my book.”
While this sheds light on the Born-Mott
misunderstanding, the final sentences would seem to be a non sequitur.
It is worth examining Born’s text more closely. In fact he admitted surprise at
the written reasons Mott gave for passing Fuchs on to him, which stressed
Mott’s desire to learn more about Born’s ‘special methods’. Born felt that Mott
understood such methods very well, and could have thus passed them on to Fuchs
himself. The message that Mott later denied was delivered orally at a meeting
in London. According to Born: “I enjoyed working with Fuchs so much that I
wondered why Mott had sent him away. This was explained when I encountered Mott
at a meeting in London. He asked me how I was getting on with Fuchs, and when I
answered ‘splendidly’, and praised his talent, Mott said ‘What a pity I had to
get rid of him. He spread communist propaganda among the undergraduates’. Mott
told me that he had arranged for his own contribution to the general refugee
fund to be directed to Fuchs, a generous gesture which possibly also showed how
much he was afraid of communist propaganda.”
Does that last statement indicate that Mott
was trying to buy Fuchs off? What did it mean that Mott (or Bristol) could not
afford to pay Fuchs, but could cover his expenses at Edinburgh? It does not
appear to make much sense. In any case, Mott apparently had a chance to review
Born’s script before publication, as he was allowed to comment, in the footnote
cited by Moss, as follows: “I must have made a remark which Born misunderstood
or took more seriously than I intended. I do not remember believing that Fuchs
spread communist propaganda among the students, and at a time when Hitler was
the enemy I could not have worried unduly if he had. What happened was this. In
Bristol we had research funds from the generous gifts of the Wills family, and
with these and help from the Academic Assistance Council we built up a very
strong group of physicists who had left Germany in 1933. Some we wished to
keep; but established positions then as now were few and far between and for
others we helped as we could to find jobs elsewhere. This is how we acted about
A strong measure of truth may have
accompanied that last claim, but how come Born could not have been apprised of
it from the outset? Why did Mott beat about the bush? And why did he so
carelessly misrepresent Nazi Germany’s status as of 1937, when Fuchs moved to
Edinburgh? At that time, Hitler may have been a grossly unpleasant threat to
leftist scientists like Mott, but he was no more ‘the enemy’ than Stalin was.
It was a typically disingenuous footnote by Mott.
Many witnesses seem to be behaving
economically with the truth here, including, of course, Clement Attlee, who had
been lied to outrageously by Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5. Yet the most
startling item of evidence is the statement by Perutz’s ‘veteran physicist
friend’, who talks about membership of communist cells as casually as a British
diplomat might refer to his house at Marlborough or Wellington. Who was this
friend? And why would Perutz treat his friend’s confession so lightly?
The friend cannot have been Skinner, as Skinner had died while attending a conference in Geneva in 1960. Ronald Gurney had been a member of the CPGB, but he had left for the United States, where he died in 1953. If we are looking for a prominent physicist, of suspected communist affiliation, present at Bristol between 1934 and 1937, still alive in 1987, and a probable friend of Max Perutz, it would be Herbert Fröhlich. And the communist cell may not have been a unit of the Communist Party of Great Britain: it was much more likely to have been the German branch (the KPD). Fuchs regarded himself still as a member of the KPD when in the United Kingdom, and he had made contact with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother, who had arrived in London in 1933, and re-energised the KPD through the front of the Free German League of Culture. Jürgen became head of the KPD in Britain, and was in contact with the GRU representative in London, Simon Kremer.
You will not find a reference to Fröhlich in
the biographies of Fuchs by Moss, Edwards, Rossiter or Close. Christopher
Laucht, in Elemental Germans, records the contribution to the Maud Committee
that Fröhlich made with Walter Heitner, in the field of spontaneous fission in
uranium. Yet he glides smoothly over Fröhlich’s time in the Soviet Union,
remarking solely that he experienced problems in getting his visa renewed.
Laucht does note, however, that Fröhlich also lodged with the Peierlses, and
that Peierls managed to gain funding for Fröhlich from the Academic Assistance
G.J. Hyland’s biography of Fröhlich (A
Physicist Ahead of His Time, published in 2015) provides the details on
Frohlich’s experiences in the Soviet Union, whither he had also been invited by
the ever-present Frenkel. Yet Hyland is comparatively bland on the physicist’s
career after that, providing a text that is very much directed at the specialist.
He does not mention any Maud work, although he does record that Fröhlich, after
being released from internment in September 1940, returned to Bristol, but was
prohibited from working on nuclear fission – an intriguing contrast to how
Fuchs was sought out and approved. During the remainder of the war, Fröhlich
‘was occupied in part-time research for the Ministry of Supply, working
initially on an image converter instrument for use on tanks to extend night
vision’. Fröhlich was not naturalised until August 1946, but was then offered
the position of Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell. “He
declined this offer, however, not wanting to be involved with any work that
might further nuclear warfare,” writes Hyland, adding: “Klaus Fuchs was
appointed in his place!”
(I welcome any other suggestions as to who
Perutz’s communist friend might have been.)
The most mysterious figure in this whole farrago is Herbert Skinner, since he owned an unmatched intimacy and longevity in his relationship with Klaus Fuchs, but his career is the least well documented of all. While his presence at Bristol University in the 1930s has been clearly described, his period in the war years has been sparsely addressed. His biographical memoir as a Fellow of the Royal Society indicates that, from 1939, he performed very valuable work on the detection of submarines by microwave radar, and after experiments in the Shetlands pursued the deployment of the technology at the Telecommunication Research Establishment at Malvern. (Ironically, this type of work was so secret, and so critical to the defence of the nation, that Skinner’s German-born colleagues were prohibited from working on it.) Skinner was then recruited, in 1943, to work as Oliphant’s deputy in California. Mike Rossiter simply notes that Skinner had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Berkeley ‘on electromagnetic separation with Lawrence’, and Frank Close similarly – but not strictly correctly – writes that ‘Herbert Skinner had also spent the war in the Berkeley team, which had studied separation of isotopes and investigated the physics of plutonium’. Skinner merits only one mention in Volume 1, 1939-1945) of Margaret Gowing’s history of Britain and Atomic Energy, when she refers to a Harwell planning meeting he attended in Washington in November 1944. Skinner does not appear in Graham Farmelow’s Churchill’s Bomb.
Skinner came to life again on his appointment
at Harwell after the war as head of the General Physics Department. He was also
John Cockcroft’s deputy, and in the first half of 1946 selected staff and
guided the construction, while Cockcroft was still in Canada. Fuchs was one of
those appointments, arriving at Harwell in June 1946. Before the sordid
business in the late forties, however, when Fuchs conducted his affair with Erna
Skinner, a liaison closely surveilled by MI5 and Special Branch, Skinner appeared
with Fuchs in a very strange episode in New York. I introduced this event in my
Letter to Frank Close, but it merits deeper coverage here.
The two of them had travelled to Washington
in November 1947, in order to attend a declassification conference (November
14-16) where the implications of the McMahon Act on release of information on
atomic weaponry and energy were to be discussed. Evidence supplied in 1950 to
the FBI is so bizarre that I decided to transcribe here the main section of the
report. (I do not believe it has been reproduced anywhere before this. See https://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/klaus-fuchs/klaus-fuchs-part-05-of/view .) On
February 4, 1950, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit * informed the FBI that Dr. Karl Cohen,
who was head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and thus Fuchs’s counterpart
in the Atomic Energy Program, had described to him how Fuchs, after meeting
Cohen at a restaurant, had later called his counterpart, asking him to pick up
a hat he had left at the restaurant and return it to the person from whom he
had borrowed it on West 111th Street.
[* Goudsmit had been the head of the Alsos
project, which set out to determine how close the Nazis were getting to the
creation of an atomic bomb. After the war, he appears to have been a regular
contributor to the FBI, the CIA and SIS. His name comes up as an informant in
the Pontecorvo archive.]
The FBI interviewed Cohen on February 9,
1950. He described his encounters with
Fuchs at Columbia University and in Los Alamos, and then went on to explain
that he had no further meeting with Fuchs until the declassification conference.
His testimony is presented as follows:
“Cohen was told by Dr. Willard Libby of the
Atomic Energy Commission that he should discuss with Fuchs the declassification
of a certain document and make his recommendations to the conference. Cohen
received a phone call from a woman who explained that she was a good friend of
Fuchs, that Fuchs was staying either at the Henry Hudson Hotel or Park Central
Hotel, and that Fuchs wanted to see Cohen. Thereafter Cohen called Fuchs and
invited him to his home, which invitation Fuchs declined. He and Fuchs,
however, had dinner at a restaurant of Cohen’s choosing, during which time they
discussed the declassification of the document, Cohen recommending that it be
declassified and Fuchs opposing. Cohen stated that some time after leaving the
restaurant, Fuchs realized he had left a hat in the restaurant, which had
belonged to the person with whom he had been staying. He asked Cohen to pick it
up and return it since he, Fuchs, was leaving town. Cohen said that he regarded
this request out of line, but agreed to call the people and tell them where
they could obtain the hat. He did this, but the woman declined to retrieve the
hat and consequently, a few days later, Cohen obtained it and returned it. It
was Cohen’s recollection that Fuchs’ contact was a Dr. Cooper or Dr. Skinner,
attached to the British Delegation that was in the United States for the
Declassification Conference and who was staying with his wife and her father on
West 111th Street. He said that when he returned the hat he met the
scientist’s wife and her father. He described the wife as being typically
English, but stated that her father was of European extraction and spoke with
an accent. He said that on the bell to the apartment house there was the name
Cooper or Skinner, as well as the name of the father-in-law. He commented that
he would have forgotten this incident had it not been for the recent publicity
on Fuchs.” The FBI later confirmed that the names on the bell of 536 West 111th
Street appeared as Skinner, Hoffman and Kirsch, and that the apartment was
owned by Mrs. Skinner ‘who is presently living in Connecticut’. The report
added that ‘she had rented out this apartment to various roomers for the past
What is one to make of this extraordinary
tale? Why was there such a performance around a simple hat? Was there any
significance in Erna’s accompanying her husband to New York at that time? What
was the role of her father, named Wurmbrand? (Her father was Moishe Michael
Wurmbrand, who was born in Sadhora, a suburb of Czernowitz, in 1883 and died in
New York in 1952. The claim that Erna was ‘Austrian’, as represented at the
National Archives, may have been a convenient fiction, but Bukovina was
governed by the Austrian Empire until 1918, after which it lay under Romanian
rule until 1940. Skinner’s Wikipedia entry gives her maiden name as
‘Abrahamson’.) Why did Fuchs have to borrow a hat, and why could the Skinners
not have picked it up themselves?
A former intelligence officer tells me that
he regards the whole episode as an example of complex tradecraft, but, given
Cohen’s sure innocence (else he would not have alerted the authorities), it
seems a very clumsy effort by Fuchs that risked exposing contacts to the FBI. As
I pointed out earlier, when speaking to the FBI, Fuchs identified the property
as belonging to Mrs. Skinner, overlooking her husband’s presence. (I believe I
misjudged the knowledge of the FBI about Cohen, and his role, in my earlier
piece. And the FBI surely was aware of the joint mission of Fuchs and Skinner,
although the report, rather dimly, states that ‘it would appear probable that
Mrs. Skinner is the wife of Dr. W. H. B. Skinner . . . who was one of the
members attending the Declassification Conference . . .’) Perhaps Cohen was used, as an
unwitting and innocent accomplice, to send a message about a completed project
from the restaurant to the Skinners – or Erna’s father. Fuchs may have left a
message at the restaurant chosen by Cohen, but wanted confirmation of its
receipt to be delivered to Erna and her father by an unimpeachable medium. In
any case, the incident shows that all the biographers of Fuchs have failed to
exploit the considerable information about him in the FBI Vault.
How much did Herbert Skinner himself know
what was going on? Why would he not have mentioned this incident to MI5 himself,
given the suspicions he later claimed to have had about Fuchs? And why would
the FBI not have made some connection? I have found no evidence of it in the
obvious places. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere came to London with Hugh Clegg in May
1950, after Fuchs’s conviction, to interview the spy, and extracted from him
the photographic recognition of his contact Harry Gold. Lamphere reports that
Clegg, who was not familiar with the case, brought a copy of the whole Fuchs
file with him, and read it on the plane. But Lamphere does not even mention
Skinner in his book, The FBI-KGB Wars.
Skinner comes across as a very complex
character. Rudolf Peierls has this to say about him, in Bird of Passage:
“His [Cockcroft’s] second-in-command was
Herbert Skinner, a well-known experimental physicist, whom we had known since
the thirties. He was more forceful in conversation than Cockcroft; he tended to
hold strong opinions, often more conservative than those of most physicists,
and was never reluctant to make them known. His lively personal contacts with
the staff at Harwell made up for Cockcroft’s detachment.” Cockcroft presented
him as somewhat self-important, with a tendency to regard himself and his
family as specially entitled. Others have described the Skinners’ boisterous
parties at Harwell, which were less inhibited than those of the
Cockcrofts. Close describes him as
follows: “A lean man with tousled hair, he and his wife Erna
shared a bohemian outlook. She had grown up in Berlin between the wars. Both
were socialists, like many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb
programme, but they also had a cosmopolitan circle of friends in London, all of
which interested MI5.”
and ‘cosmopolitan’ – dangerous epithets in the world of security. Yet how are
the contrary ideas of ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ explained? Was Skinner a
dissembler, working perhaps for some other organisation himself, and playing
Philbyesque roles of communist one day, fascist sympathiser the next? Rossiter
describes the two occasions, in December 1947 and February 1949, where Skinner
confided to Fuchs that he had seen two separate reports from MI6 that indicated
that German nuclear scientists had been detected working on a Soviet nuclear
bomb at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast, immediately putting Fuchs on his guard.
Why and how would MI6 (SIS) have introduced such reports to a socialist like Skinner?
Why would they not have gone to Cockcroft, and why did Skinner think it was
suitable to show them to Fuchs, given the suspicions he admittedly harboured
about him? Is there another narrative, with Skinner involved as some secret
channel by SIS, to be uncovered here? So many questions, still.
is true that MI5 did maintain a file on Herbert and Erna (see KV 2/2080, 2/2081
& 2/2082 at The National Archives). Yet it was not opened until the end of
1949, when the Fuchs affair was brewing, and MI5 noticed that Erna was
associating ‘with a proven Soviet spy’ as well as ‘with persons who are
potential spies’. (It was not unknown for MI5 to maintain files on MI6
operatives about whom they were not told anything.) Input from the FBI would
have been very appropriate at that time, and it was careless of MI5 not to have
recalled the 1947 visit to New York. It would also have been odd if Robert
Lamphere did not mention the incident while he was in England. (Maybe he did,
of course, but nothing was recorded.) One would think that any possible link that had an aspect of
subterfuge should have been followed up. That was what ‘intelligence-sharing’
any case, MI5 had by then demanded that Commander Henry Arnold, the Security
Officer at Harwell, warn Skinner about such undesirable contacts. The Skinners
admitted that they had communist friends, and MI5 considered that it would be
safer to move Skinner to Liverpool, thus indicating that MI5’s discomfort over
him anteceded Cohen’s revelations. (I shall investigate the whole story about the
role of Liverpool University as a rest-home for distressed spies, and how MI5
misrepresented the project to Prime Minister Attlee, in a future article.)
June 28, 1950, William Skardon interviewed Skinner at Liverpool, and elicited
an extraordinary statement from him: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of
M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the
development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at
Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant
young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there
to take up his post in 1946.” One might ask what Skinner had done about this,
in the fraught post-war world of 1946, with the Cold War under way, and Nunn
May having been sentenced a few months before. Skinner was surely responsible
for making the key appointments at Harwell. Skardon did in fact ask him, as his
report shows: “Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about
this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and
integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of
junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”
echoed this opinion in a review of Alan Moorehead’s Traitors in The
Atomic Scientists’ News : “We should not take on another Pontecorvo, who had
never lived in England, or another Fuchs, whom we knew to have been a communist
in Germany and who all through the 8 years of his stay in Britain until his
employment on the project, had continually consorted with extreme left-wing
groups without any attempt to disguise the fact.” This was a remarkably naïve position for
Skinner to take, given his prominence in atomic affairs, and his leading role
at Harwell. More alarming, perhaps, was a Liverpool police report from May 10,
1951, sent to Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, that the Chief Constable had
received information, from ‘a hitherto most reliable and trustworthy source’,
that the Skinners were attending Communist Party meetings. Were they working under
died in 1960, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, at a conference in Geneva.
Was there anything suspicious about his death? None appears to have been
raised. But he was a very paradoxical character, and I do not believe the last
word has been uttered on exactly what his role in atomic espionage – either
abetting it, or trying to prevent it – had been.
Joseph Rotblat never served on the faculty at Bristol, but his career is so interwoven with that of Peierls and the other émigré scientists that he merits a section here. His life was scarred by an unspeakable tragedy, but he came under suspicion by the FBI when he was posted to Los Alamos.
was born in 1908 in Poland. He left Warsaw for Great Britain in 1939,
travelling to Liverpool to learn more about the cyclotron being constructed
there under James Chadwick’s direction. Chadwick soon awarded Rotblat a
fellowship, which now meant that he could afford to bring Ewa, his wife, to the
U.K. With the prospect of war looming, he returned to Poland in order to pick
up Ewa. She was ill with appendicitis, however, so he reluctantly returned
without her. Strenuous efforts to bring her out after the outbreak of war
failed. She was killed at Belzec concentration camp, although Rotblat was not
to learn this for several years.
worked on the Tube Alloys project, although he had never became naturalised. He
was nevertheless still allowed to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos in January
1944, after a waiver had been granted. Committed to the project out of fear
that the Germans would acquire the atomic bomb, Rotblat asked to be released
when it seemed that the Germans would fail: he reputedly heard from General
Groves that the Soviets were now the potential enemy, and his pro-Soviet
sympathies rebelled at this prospect.
this time he had come under suspicion. When he told Chadwick of his desire to
return to the UK, Chadwick contacted General Groves, who showed him the contents
of the FBI file on him, now available on-line. Exactly what happened cannot be
determined from the file, as so many retractions and denials concerning its
content occurred later. But Rotblat’s name was later found in Fuchs’s address
book, which led to renewed investigations. Rotblat had met in the course of his
year at Los Alamos a lady friend from England, in love with Rotblat, who at
first indicated to the FBI that Rotblat had had communist sympathies, and
wanted to train with the RAF so that he could parachute into Soviet-occupied
Poland. That would have been unthinkable, given what he knew. The lady later
retracted some of her testimony, and Rotblat apparently managed to convince the
authorities that the accusations were baseless.
final twist on the story is that Rotblat, leaving Los Alamos on Christmas Eve 1944
on a train to Washington and New York, packed a large box with all his personal
records in it. After staying with Chadwick in Washington, he discovered in New
York that the box was missing. Yet Martin Underwood, in an article for Science
and Engineering Ethics in 2013 (‘Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb, and Anomalies
for his Archive’) points out that highly confidential papers concerning
critical developments at Los Alamos turned up in Rotblat’s archive at Churchill
College in Cambridge, showing that Rotblat probably did engage in important
work (despite his claim that he was bored and underutilised), and that thus not
all his papers were in that mysterious lost box.
was a complex character, and his work for the Pugwash Conference led him to a
Nobel Prize. He worked closely with Peierls, who had been instrumental in
setting up the Soviet-friendly British Association of Atomic Scientists in the
early postwar years. Moreover, he was one of those scientists involved in the
musical chairs at Liverpool. In 1946 he took up British citizenship, and was
appointed acting director of nuclear physics at Liverpool. After Chadwick moved
on to become Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1949, and
Skinner was appointed his replacement, Rotblat, against Chadwick’s stern
advice, left Liverpool to become Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew’s
Hospital in London. By then he had learned that Ewa was dead. He was made a
Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995.
George Placzek deserves a mention because he was a close collaborator with Peierls. As a resident scientist in Kharkov, working with Landau, he also attended the fateful 1937 conference in Moscow [but see below: the evidence is contradictory]. Yet he is distinctive mainly because he retained a fiercely critical opinion of the Stalinist oppression of scientists, and was outspoken about it when he returned to the West. Placzek was born in 1902 in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after working in Prague and Vienna, joined Lev Landau’s circle in Kharkov in 1937. There he witnessed some of the persecutions of scientists by Stalin, such as Houtermans, Ruhemann, Weisskopf, and Landau himself. Blessed with a sardonic wit, and a sense of humour, Placzek got himself into trouble. (As a fascinating but irrelevant sidenote in this whole saga of intelligence, Plazcek was to marry Els, the first wife of Hans Halban, the Austrian physicist: Isaiah Berlin married Halban’s second wife. For details, please read Isaiah in Love. Placzek was also involved in performing a security check on Pontecorvo at the time the latter was recruited, on Halban’s recommendation, in Montreal: correspondence from British Security Coordination in Washington was sent to him in March 1943.)
the book he edited about the travails of scientists in the Soviet Union, Physics
in a Mad World, Mikhail Shifman relates an anecdote about Placzek where his
subject, having been offered a permanent chair in Kharkov, named five
conditions that would have to be fulfilled for him to accept it. The last was
that ‘the Khozyain must go’, with a scarcely veiled reference to the Boss,
Stalin himself. While most of the small gathering that heard his playful speech
were amused, the incident was reported by Ruhemann’s wife, Barbara, to the
local Communist Party chief. It thus got back to Stalin, who immediately dubbed
him as a Trotskyist. Plazcek managed to get away, unlike some of his colleagues,
but he was a marked man.
The difference was that, when Placzek returned to the West, he ruthlessly warned his colleague of the dangers of Stalinism, unlike, for example, Ruhemann, who immediately joined the Communist Party, or Peierls, who maintained an undignified silence. As Shifman writes in Love and Physics: “In England, Fuchs could have discussed the situation with David Shoenberg, professor at the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge, who spent a year in Moscow (from September 1937 to September 1938) and had witnessed the arrest of Landau and hundreds of other innocent scientists and the onset of the Great Terror. Also, he could have spoken with George Placzek, who returned from Kharkov in early 1937; before his departure for the US in 1938 he stayed some time in Copenhagen, London, and Paris to explain the consequences of the communist ideology to the left-leaning colleagues he was in contact with.”
is especially poignant is the fact that Placzek made several appeals to Peierls
to intervene in the cases of incarcerated scientists in the Soviet Union. On September 4, 1938, he wrote to him from Pasadena: “Zunächst
möchte ich Sie fragen, was mich der seelige Bucharin fragte, als ich ihn einmal
sozusagen im Namen der internationalen Wissenschaft bat, sich dafür
einzusetzen, dass Landau ab und zu ins Ausland gelassen werde, nämlich: Ist Ihre
Demarche offiziell, offiziös, oder inoffiziell?” (My translation: “I
would next like to ask you the question that the late Bukharin asked me, when
once, in the name of international science I begged him to stand up for
Landau’s being allowed to travel abroad occasionally, namely: Is your
initiative official, semi-official, or unofficial?” In his biography of Plazcek,
Shifman translates the passage as follows: “First of all, may I ask you, as
blessed Bukharin asked me (when once I, so to say, personally represented
international science and solicited for Landau, trying to convince Bukharin
that they should now and then let him travel abroad), namely: is your démarche
official, officious, or unofficial?”) And, with a little more desperation, from Paris on
October 17, 1938: “Ich höre dass der Schönberg jetzt in Cambridge sein soll,
wissen Sie etwas authentisches über Dau???” (“I hear that Shoenberg
is supposed to be in Cambridge by now, do you know anything authoritative about
response from Birmingham on October 22 was lapidary and vague. “Shoenberg habe ich gesprochen. Ueber Dau hatte er nicht
mehr zu berichten, als wir schon wussten (oder jedenfalls befürcheteten). In
dieselbe Gruppe gehören auch Rumer und Hellman. Hier in England läuft der
Zehden herum, der via Berlin hierher vorgedrungen ist, aber seine russische
Frau mit Kind in M. zurücklassen musste, und seit Monaten nicht mehr mit ihr
korrespondiert. Es ist eine schöne Welt.” (In Shifman’s
translation, from his biography of Placzek: “I spoke to Shoenberg. On Landau, he
had nothing more to report than we already knew (or feared). Rumer and Hellman
belong to the same group. [Walter] Zehden is running around here in England; he
got here via Berlin, but had to leave his Russian wife and child in M[oscow],
and hasn’t corresponded with her for months. What a world we live in.” Indeed,
Sir Rudolf. [Shifman notes that Hellman, a German-born quantum scientist, had
worked at the Karpov Institute in Moscow, was arrested on charges of espionage
in March 1938, and shot in May 1938.] Later in the same letter, Peierls says:
“I’d rather not write about the political situation. It’s just too annoying. [‘ . . .man ärgert sich doch zu sehr.’]”
That was an
understatement, but a revealing one. Hitler’s persecutions and Stalin’s purges
– a very tiresome business.
also worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. Later, in 1947, he tried to
inject a dose of reality into the attempts to gain agreement with the Soviets
over mutual inspection of installations working on nuclear weaponry, pouring
cold water on the statement, expressed by Gromyko, that foreign inspectors
would be allowed to pry around on Soviet territory. It appears he trusted
Peierls to the end. And what was his end? He met a premature death in a hotel
in Zürich in 1955, at the comparatively young age of fifty. His biographers Gottwald
and Shifman ascribe his death to suicide, but was the long arm of Soviet
intelligence behind his demise? Did they recall his heretical comments from
1937, and were waiting to pounce? Like Skinner, an unexplained death, far from
home, in a Swiss hotel.
It thus seems inconceivable that Peierls could have not been aware of Fuchs’s communist allegiance. He worked with him closely, Fuchs lodged with him, they were friends. Frank Close describes Fuchs as ‘like a son’ to Peierls. So how did Peierls explain the situation? I analyse a few of his statements:
can believe now that he may have had so much self control as to deceive all
those who believed to be his friends. I asked him whether he really believed in
the superiority of the Soviet system. His reply was, ‘You must remember what I
went through under the Nazis’. I said I quite understood this but I was
surprised he still believed in all this at the time we were in America.” (from
letter to Commander Burt, received February 6, 1950)
one takes these statements as genuine, and it is very hard to believe anything else,
he has lived all these years hiding his real allegiance, yet at the same time
acquiring a genuine and almost passionate interest for his job and building up
personal relationships and friendships which were kept quite separate from his
secret contacts. One can believe that a man should hold political views of such
strong, almost religious, conviction that he should let them override all other
considerations, but it is incredible that, at the same time, a man who had
never thought for himself and was always ready to go to enormous lengths in the
interest of others, should allow himself to become so attached to the people
and to allow other people to become so attached to him without seeing what he
was doing for them.” (from letter to Niels Bohr, February 14, 1950)
knew he had left Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis and I respected
him for this. I knew of his connection with left-wing student organizations in
Germany since at that time the communist controlled organizations were the only
ones putting up any active opposition . . .
all these years we saw much of him. Shy and retiring at first he made many
friends and in many conversations politics was, of course, a frequent topic.
His views seemed perhaps a little to the left of ours, but he seemed to share
the attitude to Communism – and to any kind of dictatorship – of most of his
friends. I remember an occasion when he talked to a young man who was in
sympathy with communism and in the argument Fuchs was very scornful of the other’s
I heard of his arrest I regarded it as quite incredible that anyone should have
hidden his real beliefs so well. Looking back it seems that at first he shared
in the life of his colleagues and pretended to share their views and attitude
only in order to hide his own convictions. But gradually he must have come to
believe what was at first only pretence. There must have been a time when he
shared one attitude with his colleagues and friends and another with the agents
to whom he then still transmitted information, and when he was himself in doubt
which of the two was conviction and which was pretence. I do not want to enter
into speculations about the state of his mind during all this time. Some have
described it as a superb piece of acting, but either way it was certainly quite
the case of Fuchs, they would have had to probe very deeply to disclose his
continued adherence to the communist cause and that would have required a depth
of human insight that is very hard to achieve.” (from memorandum ‘The Lesson of
the Fuchs Case’, March 1950)
“The main point was Fuchs had then, although he
had changed his mind and allegedly or at least claimed not to be pro-Communist
anymore, he still out of a sense of chivalry was refusing to name his contacts
and so on, and they thought this was foolish and they expected I would think it
foolish too, and they wanted me to urge him to do that – which I tried. I don’t know whether this
was a success. Anyway, in the course of this conversation, Commander Burt of
Scotland Yard, asked me what sort of man Fuchs had appeared to be and whether
we realized what his views were. I said, ‘No, he didn’t say much on political
things, but he gave the impression of agreeing with everybody else, being
perhaps a little to the left of most of us but not drastically.’ Of course, I knew
that as a young man he had been mixed up with a Communist student organization
in Germany, but that was understandable and this was very common with young
people.” (from interview with Charles Weiner, 1969)
“But I needed regular help – someone with whom
I would be able to discuss the theoretical technicalities. I looked around for
a suitable person, and thought of Klaus Fuchs. He was a German, who as a
student had been politically active as a member of a socialist student group
(which was essentially communist) and had to flee for his life from the Nazis.
He came to England, where he worked with Neville Mott in Bristol, completed his
Ph. D., and did some excellent work in the electron theory of metals and other
aspects of the theory of solids. I knew and liked his papers, and had met him.
He also asked me whether Fuchs’s pro-communist
views had been evident. ‘No’, I said, ‘he never talked much about his political
views, but gave the impression he shared our general views. I knew, of course,
that he had been strongly left-wing as a student, but that is very common with
I formed the impression that his conversion
from communism was genuine. His communist friends in Germany must have
instilled in him a rather unfavourable picture of Britain, which life in
Bristol and Edinburgh, where he perhaps still associated with left-wing
friends, did not dispel.
Perhaps the process of understanding took so
long because in our intellectual circles we are curiously shy about saying what
we believe. Our style is not to use any words with capital letters. We don’t
mind talking about what is wrong and what we want to fight, but we find it much
harder to talk about moral principles and about what is right. Our behavior
follows quite firm rules, but somehow we feel it is bad taste to spell them
out, and they have to be discovered by observing how we act.” (from Bird of
It is instructive to examine the probable
evolution of Peierls’s thoughts.
At the time of A) he knows that he is under
suspicion as well (telephone taps have revealed Genia’s fears). He deems it
appropriate to show some initiative with Commander Burt of Special Branch,
knowing that the policeman will probably not be familiar with the background of
Nazi and Soviet oppression of opposition elements. Peierls no doubt believes
that Fuchs’s blatant demonstrations of pro-Soviet views may be forever
concealed, so he confidently ascribes Fuchs’s deception of his friends to
superlative self-control, thus absolving Peierls (who after all, is a very
bright man) of any responsibility for not seeing through his subterfuge. In
expressing sympathy for what Fuchs went through Peierls conveniently overlooks
what his wife’s family, and the physicists who were murdered by Stalin, underwent,
which dwarfed the actual sufferings of Klaus Fuchs.
A little later, in B), he is more reflective.
Fuchs’s confession of January 27 made a claim that the spy was subject to a
‘controlling schizophrenia’ which allowed his life to be strictly
compartmentalized. This is Fuchs’s excuse for letting down his friends. So
Peierls can jump on this self-assessment to his own advantage, while at the
same time expressing some sympathy for Fuchs’s commitment and earnestness. Yet
the suggestion, to a fellow ‘peace-loving’ scientist, Bohr, that Fuchs
possessed some kind of saintly altruism and selflessness is disturbing and
irresponsible. It is not surprising that Peierls apparently did not share this
confidence with anyone else.
A few weeks later, a more measured statement is
required, in C). As an astute political watcher, Peierls has to show a greater
awareness of the facts of life, and a slippery equivalence of ‘left-wing’ and
‘communist’ is even admitted. He has to admit that he and Fuchs talked
politics: after all, the Peierls household saw such lodgers as Bethe, Fröhlich, Frisch, G. E. Brown, even the recently
deceased Freeman Dyson, as well as Fuchs, so it would have been difficult to
steer the conversation away from politics. Now he indulges in some very fine
distinctions: Fuchs’s views are ‘a little left’ from those of the Peierlses,
but, in an unlikely aside, Peierls indicates that Fuchs was ‘very scornful’ of
a dogmatic communist. In this, he directly contradicts Born’s evidence. Significantly,
the episode is undated: in the thirties, through the Spanish Civil War, right
up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, it would have been very appropriate in
intellectual circles for enthusiasm for Communism as the ‘bulwark against
Fascism’ to be expressed.
So what were Fuchs’s ‘real beliefs’ that he hid
so well from Peierls? A loyalty to Stalin instead of an honest commitment to
principles of the Bolshevik revolution? This reflection allows Peierls to make
an artificial distinction between ‘his colleagues and friends’ and ‘the agents
to whom he still transmitted information’, when Peierls must have known that
there would not have been much time for idle political chit-chat during the
encounters when Fuchs passed on his secrets, and was aware that he still
mingled with communist sympathisers, and
had promoted his views unrestrainedly, such as at Bristol and Edinburgh
universities, and in the internment camp in Canada. Thus he creates a cover for
himself, suggesting that the authorities would have had to be very tenacious to
detect Fuchs’s adherence to the communist cause when a relatively simple
investigation would have revealed his political cause.
By the time of D), the crisis has blown
over. The complete text of the interview
shows that Weiner was a very persistent interrogator, but he was not
well-prepared on the Fuchs case. Peierls can dispose of Fuchs’s communism as a
student entanglement, and represents the state of being ‘strongly left-wing’ as
an affectation of young people, predominantly, calmly overlooking the fact
that, in the 1930s, it was almost a required disposition of the intellectually
‘progressive’ academic body. In contrast to his statement of almost twenty
years before (when politics was a ‘frequent topic of conversation’) Peierls now
minimizes the time he and Fuchs talked politics, since Fuchs ‘didn’t say much
on political things’. Moreover, he can diminish Fuchs’s involvement with the
communist organisation in Germany, describing Fuchs’s role as being ‘mixed up’
with it, as if he were a respectable youth who had, ‘fallen in with the wrong
crowd’, and become a delinquent, as one occasionally reads in the words of
regretful parents. Yet such persons are part of the crowd, and are thus
This strain continues in Peierls’s
autobiography in E), written sixteen years later. Moreover, Peierls can now
afford to be cavalier with the chronology. His comment about looking around for
‘a suitable person’ overlooks the fact that Fuchs had been identified for early
deportation from Canada in the summer of 1940, that Peierls and Born had
discussed his recruitment, and that Fuchs knew, as early as January 1941, when
he first met Simon Kremer, that he would have access to important information
on nuclear physics. On the other hand, it is true that Peierls met Fuchs at
Bristol, and collaborated with him. A letter from Nevill Mott to Peierls, dated
December 4, 1936, invites Peierls to add his name to a paper produced primarily
by Fuchs. Peierls declines.
And Peierls reinforces the illusion of
political discussions, let alone articulation of extreme views. He echoes the
notion that strong left-wing views are primarily the province of young people,
and gives the impression that the young firebrand had mellowed, and shared the opinions
of Peierls’s circle – ‘our general
views’. But again, he provides no date, and Peierls had gained a reputation for
encouraging and harbouring communists at Birmingham University. He continues
the lazy distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’, but then indulges in
some very complacent pipe-dreaming. Peierls is by now part of the
establishment, the academic elite: he is an English gentleman. Thus he
romantically starts to refer to ‘our intellectual circles’ – the senior common-room at New College, Oxford,
in the 1970s, presumably – as if it were
indistinguishable from the 1930s hothouses of Bristol, Cambridge, or
Birmingham. That delicate English sensitivity in refraining from hard
ideologies now provides cover for his group’s not quickly winkling out Fuchs’s
traitorous impulses. Peierls is now safe.
Thus Peierls, in the multiple roles of his
public, private and secret lives, experienced all four of the traits I listed
above. He had to present to the outside world the notion that he was not aware
that Fuchs was a Communist. He had to convince the authorities selecting the
Tube Alloys team that any suspicions of Fuchs’s ultra left-wing views did not
present a danger, or reason for disqualification. He had to recoil from any
exposure of Fuchs’s activities because of the threats that the Soviet regime
made on Genia’s family. He had to conceal his own very real preferences for
recruiting communist sympathisers to his team.
The last, highly important item, in the case
against Peierls is his failure to tell the truth in his application for British
citizenship. I pointed out, in Chapter 1 of this report, how a 1989 letter of
his, to L. I. Volodarskaya, admitted that he had travelled to the Soviet Union
several times in the 1930s. These visits had probably been concealed by dint of
their being inserted into extended journeys to Copenhagen, to see Bohr and
Placzek. In his statement (undated, viewable at KV 2/1658-1, but certainly
accompanying his May 17, 1938 application for naturalisation), Peierls records the
visits he made abroad between 1933 and 1938. The list includes a ‘holiday trip
to the Caucases’ [sic] in 1934, and attendance at a Conference on
Nuclear Physics in Moscow in 1937. He had much to hide.
It is worthwhile trying to define the sequence
of events that led to his naturalization. For some reason, in Bird of
Passage, Peierls does not describe the application. He writes of it only:
“Our position improved further, quiet unexpectedly, when in February 1940 my
naturalisation papers came through.” Yet in a letter to Professor Appleton,
dated September 13, 1939 (written thus by a German subject after the outbreak
of war), he explains that he first made his application in May 1938. We should
recall that that date was immediately after his return from a holiday in
Copenhagen, where an observant customs officer noticed the 1937 Soviet stamp in
his German passport, and Peierls had been very evasive over the reason for his
visit. He had got away with it, but perhaps that was an alarm call. Maybe
Moscow had told him to acquire UK citizenship. Peierls never explained why or
when he made the decision.
One might imagine that the idea of reprisals
governed the timing. While Genia’s family was evidently undergoing threats in
the Soviet Union, Rudolf’s father, Heinrich, and second wife, Else, were still
resident in Nazi Germany in 1938. A too precipitous rejection of German
citizenship might have caused repercussions for Heinrich and Else. Yet,
according to Sabine Lee, Rudolf’s father and step-mother did not get permission
to leave Germany, and be admitted to the UK, until early 1939. Peierls wrote
that his father had been reluctant to leave Germany, because of his age,
health, and lack of other languages, but that ‘in 1938, he finally decided to
leave’. It does not seem as if it was as simple as that, but Heinrich and Else
were able to join Heinrich’s brother, Siegfried, in New York in 1940.
The processing of the application took an
inordinately long time. Peierls clearly believed that he would have to record
the 1937 visit in his outline of foreign travel, and thus more boldly described
the conference in Moscow about which he had been so sheepish a month before. He
would have had, at some stage, to submit his German passport (which was to
expire on May 17, 1939) to the UK authorities, but that apparently did not
happen for some while, as the record from the Letters indicates he paid at
least two more visits to Copenhagen that year. Peierls himself twice states, in
his memoir, that he paid ‘several visits to Copenhagen’ in 1938). Yet, if his
own admission elsewhere is correct about other undocumented visits to the
Soviet Union in the 1930s, they must have been undertaken with a forged Soviet
passport in order to leave and return to Copenhagen. (One wonders, also,
whether an alien in the process of applying for citizenship would have been
allowed to leave the country at all.)
The archive is very sketchy about what happened
next, and some of the few documents that have survived have been redacted. One
letter of December 8, 1938, reporting to the Chief Constable of Cambridge, lays
out the positive outcome of an inquiry into Peierls’s credentials. Page 2 of a
chronology laying out the processing of the request appears, and runs as
follows (enigmatically, Page 1 is missing):
19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport
13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s
31.8.39 Application from Peierls for permit to
join in A. R. P. (Air Raid Precaution) work
10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from
21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization
23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from
2.4.40 Naturalization granted
On July 18, 1939, Peierls wrote to the German
Embassy, asking whether he could renounce his German citizenship before his
naturalization papers came through, but received a dampening reply that he
could only do that if he submitted birth certificates, which were, of course, already
in the hands of the British authorities. And then, a remarkable revelation
appears: on August 31, Peierls wrote to the Home Office, with some obvious –
but subdued – frustration, trying to determine where his application stood.
(This is presumably what the item above refers to.) “I am therefore writing now
to ask whether there is any way of obtaining a statement to the effect that my
application for naturalization is being considered, or some other statement
which might make it possible for me to enroll [in any ARP service]”, he wrote.
Was it really possible that, after fifteen months, Peierls had received no
acknowledgment that his application was even being considered? Peierls does not
record these events, either.
Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn
from this saga is that there existed a strong reluctance to naturalize German
scientists until war was imminent, or even under way. Yet a period between May
1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 for sitting on an application,
with neither a rejection nor an approval, seems very odd. Were there some
witnesses who made objections, aware perhaps of his connections and sympathies
– even of his unadmitted travel to the Soviet Union? After all, someone decided
to place the customs officer’s report on file –
a highly selective but broad hint from the authorities to us
researchers, perhaps. Peierls again is very coy: he does not comment on the
long period of waiting, or even suggest to Appleton that the delay is
unreasonable. He must have been anxious not to appear peevish or querulous, as
any more detailed inquiry might have upset the applecart. As it was, his collaboration
with Frisch, and Appleton’s important role as Secretary of the Department of
Scientific and Industrial Research, and awareness of what he and Frisch were
doing, saved him.
In their book A Matter of Intelligence, MI5
and the Surveillance of anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-1950, Charmian Brinson and
Richard Dove sum up the episode as follows: “Peierls’ perceived importance in
British atomic research can be measured by his successful application for
British naturalisation. His work was considered so valuable to the war effort
that he was granted British citizenship as early as [sic!] March 1940: a
rare distinction, since naturalisation had been formally suspended for the
duration of the war and was permitted only in exceptional circumstances.” Given
what we know now (but which Peierls himself did not reveal), we might ask
instead: ‘What took them so long?’
What was it that drew so many scientists to the
communist cause? Winston Churchill spoke of the Nazis’ use of ‘perverted
science’ in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, but at that time the observation could
more appropriately have been directed at Joseph Stalin. It was as if the slogan
‘the communist experiment’, in which millions of human beings were treated like
laboratory rats in the quest to build Soviet man took on a respectability that
merited the endorsement of the western scientific world. Yet an initiative to
exploit their naivety was surely undertaken.
If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would
be tempted to point out some alarming coincidences in the events that led to
Fuchs’s betrayal of his naturalised allegiance, and his passing on of atomic
secrets to the Soviets. I would refer to Ronald Gunn’s predecessor visit to the
Soviet Union in 1932, and his sponsorship of Fuchs’s establishment in the UK. I
would allude to the fact that Yakov Frenkel invited Peierls, Mott and Fröhlich to the conference in Odessa in 1934. I
would point out that some unusual circumstances allowed all three to be
installed in influential academic positions that they might otherwise not have
achieved. Peierls was able to use the funding released by Kapitza’s forced
detention in the Soviet Union to gain his position at the Cavendish Laboratory.
Mott was appointed professor, at a very young age, for a position for which he
had to receive technical guidance from Skinner at Bristol, because of the
influence of his schoolfriend, Ronald Gunn, and the encouragement of Skinner himself.
Peierls helped locate funding for Fröhlich to work under Mott after Fröhlich’s extraordinary escape from the Soviet
Union. And then Gunn introduced Fuchs to Mott, who protected him, and then
arranged his transfer to Edinburgh, again using special funding.
Rudolf Peierls was thus caught up in this
maelstrom. True, he made some personal questionable decisions (as well as some
good ones), but he was also inveigled into a conspiracy not of his direct
choosing. This resulted, I believe, in his living a lie, and I know that he
wrote a very dishonest memoir. I suspect the internal pressure on him may have
been even greater than that on Fuchs, who, despite some superficial softening
in his exposure to a liberal democracy, remained a hardened communist. Yet
Peierls’s career, for all its achievement, was essentially dishonourable.
I received several notes of appreciation after
I published Part 1 of this report on Peierls. I did not receive – even
confidentially – any complaints over, or criticisms of, my conclusions about
the probable explanation for the strange behavior of Rudolf and Genia. That may
have been, of course, because no one who might challenge my thesis actually
read the piece. Or it might mean that they read it, but did not want to draw
any undesirable attention to it. (I suspect that Frank Close and Sabine Lee have
read it, and even introduced it to the Peierls offspring. But maybe not.) My
intention has not been to single Peierls out, and malign him, for the sake of
rabble-rousing, and I have expressed a measure of sympathy for his probable
plight. My goal, however, has been to stir up the complacent and lazy official
and authorised historians, and the fawning biographers, and the custodians of
MI5’s official memory. I want to encourage them to reach beyond the obvious, and
question the very misleading memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies to their
biographers made by such as Peierls, Berlin, White, Jebb, Philby, Foote,
Sillitoe, Wright, etc. etc., instead of treating them as reliable archival
material. I want them to amend their incomplete and erroneous accounts of how
the realm was let down by a very shoddy security and counter-espionage system,
and that continuing to try to conceal the facts performs a gross disservice to
the historiography of British Intelligence. But not just that – to the history
of the United Kingdom itself.
was reading, in the Times Literary Supplement of January 17, a review of
a book titled The French Revolutionary Tradition in Russian and Soviet
Politics, Political Thought, and Culture. The author of the book was one
Jay Bergman, the writer of the review Daniel Beer, described as Reader in
Modern European History at Royal Holloway, University of London. I came across
the following sentences: “The Bolsheviks could never admit that Marxism was a
failed ideology or that they had actually seized power in defiance of it. Their
difficulties, they argued, were rather the work of enemies arrayed against the
Party and traitors in their midst.”
seemed to me an impossibly quaint way of describing the purges of Stalin’s
Russia. Whom were these Bolsheviks trying to convince in their ‘arguments’, and
where did they make them? Were they perhaps published on the Letters page of
the Pravda Literary Supplement or as articles in The Moscow Review of
Books? Or were they presented at conferences held at the elegant Romanov
House, famed for its stately rooms and its careful rules of debate? I was so
taken aback by the suggestion that the (unidentified) Bolsheviks had engaged in
some kind of serious discussions on policy, as if they were an Eastern variant
of the British Tory Party, working through items on the agenda at some seaside
resort like Scarborough, and perhaps coming up with a resolution on the lines
of tightening up on immigration, that I was minded to write a letter to the
Editor. It was short, and ran as follows:
“So who were these
Bolsheviks who argued that ‘their difficulties were rather the work of enemies
arrayed against the Party and traitors in its midst’? Were they perhaps those
‘hardliners in the Politburo’ whom Roosevelt, Churchill and Eden imagined were
exerting a malign influence on the genial Uncle Joe Stalin, but whose existence
turned out to be illusory? Or were they such as Trotsky, Kirov, Radek, Kamenev,
Zinoviev, Bukharin, etc. etc., most of whom Stalin had murdered simply because
they were ‘old Bolsheviks’, and knew too much? I think we should be told.”
Now the Editor did not
see fit to publish my offering. Perhaps he felt that, since he had used a letter
of mine about the highly confused Professor Paul Collier in the December 2019
issue, my quota was up for the season. I can think of no other conceivable
reason why my submission was considered of less interest than those which he
Regular readers of coldspur
will be familiar with my observations about the asymmetry of Allied
relationships with the Soviet Union in World War II. See, for instance, http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/,
where I analysed such disequilibrium by the categories of Moral Equivalency,
Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism, Espionage, Culture, and Warfare. The
misunderstanding about the nature of Stalin’s autocracy can be viewed in two
dimensions: the role of the Russian people, and that of Stalin himself.
During the war, much
genuine and well-deserved sympathy was shown in Britain towards the
long-suffering Russian people, but the cause was often distorted by Soviet
propaganda, either directly from such as ambassador Maisky and his cronies, or
by agents installed in institutions such as the Ministry of Information. The
misconceptions arose from thinking that the Russians were really similar to
British citizens, with some control over their lives, where they worked, the
selection of those who governed them, what they could choose to read, how they
were allowed to congregate and discuss politics, and the manner in which they
thus influenced their leaders, but had unfortunately allowed themselves to sign
a pact with the Nazis and then been treacherously invaded by them. Their
bravery in defending their country against the assault, with losses in the
millions, was much admired.
Yet the catastrophe of
Barbarossa was entirely Stalin’s fault: as he once said to his Politburo, using
a vulgar epithet, ‘we’ had screwed up everything that Lenin had founded and
passed on. And he was ruthless in using the citizenry as cannon fodder, just as
he had been ruthless in sending innocent victims to execution, famine, exile, or
the Gulag. For example, in the Battle of Stalingrad, 10,000 Soviet soldiers
were executed by Beria’s NKVD for desertion or cowardice in the face of battle.
10,000! It is difficult to imagine that number, but I think of the total number
of pupils at my secondary school, just over 800, filling Big School, and multiplying
it by 12. If anything along those lines had occurred with British forces,
Churchill would have been thrown out in minutes. Yet morale was not universally
sound with the Allies, either. Antony Beevor reports that in May 1944 ‘nearly
30,000 men had deserted or were absent without leave from British units in
Italy’ – an astonishing statistic. The British Army had even had a mutiny on
its hands at Salerno in 1943, but the few death sentences passed were quickly
commuted. (Stalin’s opinions on such a lily-livered approach to discipline
appear not to have been recorded.) As a reminder of the relative casualties, the
total number of British deaths in the military (including POWs) in World War II
was 326,000, with 62,000 civilians lost. The numbers for the Soviet Union were
13,600,000 and 7,000,000, respectively.
As my letter suggested,
Western leaders were often perplexed by how Stalin’s occasionally genial
personality, and his expressed desire for ‘co-operation’, were frequently
darkened by influences that they could not discern. They spoke (as The
Kremlin Letters reminds us) of Stalin’s need to listen to public opinion,
or deal with the unions, or heed those hard-liners on the Politburo, who were
all holding him back from making more peaceful overtures over Poland, or Italy,
or the Baltic States. During negotiations, Molotov was frequently presented as
the ‘hard man’, with Stalin then countering with a less demanding offer, thus
causing the Western powers to think they had gained something. This was all
nonsense, of course, but Stalin played along, and manipulated Churchill and
Roosevelt, pretending that he was not the despot making all the decisions
Thus Daniel Beer’s
portrayal of those Bolsheviks ‘arguing’ about the subversive threat holds a
tragi-comic aspect in my book. Because those selfsame Bolsheviks who had
rallied under Lenin to forge the Revolution were the very same persons whom
Stalin himself identified as a threat to him, and he had them shot, almost
every one. The few that survived did so because they were absolutely loyal to
Stalin, and not to the principles (if they can be called that) of the Bolshevik
I was reminded of this distortion of history when reading Professor Sir Michael Howard’s memoir, Captain Professor. I had read Howard’s obituary in December 2019, and noted from it that he had apparently encountered Guy Burgess when at Oxford. The only work of Howard’s that I had read was his Volume 5 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he covered Strategic Deception. (The publication of this book had been delayed by Margaret Thatcher, and its impact had thus been diminished by the time it was issued in 1999. I analysed it in my piece ‘Officially Unreliable’. It is a very competent but inevitably flawed analysis of some complex material.) With my interest in Burgess’s movements, and his possible involvement in setting up the ‘Oxford Ring’ of spies, I wanted to learn more about the timing of this meeting, and what Burgess was up to, so I acquired a copy of Howard’s memoir.
The paragraph on Burgess
was not very informative, but I obviously came to learn more about Howard, this
acknowledged expert in the history of warfare. He has received several plaudits
since his death. In the January issue of History Today, the editor Paul
Lay wrote an encomium to him, which included a quotation from the historian’s
essay ‘Military Experience in European Literature’. It ran as follows: “In
European literature the military experience has, when it has been properly
understood and interpreted, immeasurably enriched that understanding of
mankind, of its powers and limitations, of its splendours and its miseries, and
not least of its relationship to God, which must lie at the root of all societies
that can lay any claim to civilization.”
Now what on earth does that
mean? I was not impressed by such metaphysical waffle. If I had submitted a
sentence like that in an undergraduate essay, I would not have been surprised
to see it returned with a circle of red ink. Yet its tone echoed a remark by
Howard, in Captain Professor, that I had included in my December 2019
Commonplace file: “I had written a little about this in a small book TheInventionofPeace,
a year earlier, where I tried to describe how the Enlightenment, and the
secularization and industrialization it brought in its wake, had destroyed the
beliefs and habits that had held European society together for a thousand years
and evoked a backlash of tribal nationalism that had torn apart and reached
climax with the two world wars.” (p 218) Hallo, Professor! ‘Beliefs and habits
that had held European society together for a thousand years’? What about all
those wars? Revolutions? Religious persecution? Specifically, what about the
Inquisition and the Thirty Years War? What was this ‘European society’ that cohered
so closely, and which the Professor held in such regard? I wondered whether the
expression of these somewhat eccentric ideas was a reason why the sometime
Regius Professor of History at Oxford University had not been invited to
contribute to the Oxford Illustrated History of Modern War, or the Oxford
Illustrated History of World War II.
Apparently, all this has to do with the concept
of ‘War and Society’, with which Howard is associated. Another quote from Captain
Professor: “The history of war, I came to realize, was more than the
operational history of armed forces. It was the study of entire societies. Only
by studying their cultures could one come to understand what it was they fought
about and why they fought in the way they did. Further, the fact that they did
so fight had a reciprocal impact on their social structure. I had to learn not
only to think about war in a different way, but also to think about history
itself in a different way. I would certainly not claim to have invented the
concept of ‘War and Society’, but I think I did something to popularize it.” Note
the contradiction that, if these ‘societies and cultures’ were fighting each
other, they could hardly be said to have ‘held together for a thousand years’. I
am also not sure that the Soviet soldiers in WII, conscripted and harassed by
the NKVD, shot at the first blink of cowardice or retreat, thought much about
how the way they fought had a reciprocal impact on Soviet culture (whatever
that was), but maybe Howard was not thinking of the Red Army. In some sense I
could see what he was getting at (e.g. the lowering of some social barriers
after World War II in the United Kingdom, because of the absurd ‘officers’ and
‘men’ distinctions: no one told me at the time why the Officers’ Training Corps
had morphed into the Combined Cadet Force). Nevertheless, it seemed a bizarre
And then I came on the following passage,
describing Howard’s experiences in Italy: “In September 1944, believing that
the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had issued orders for
the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German communications
throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on and around Monte
Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The Allied armies did not
come to their help, and the partisan movement in North Italy was largely
destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna, where the
communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had been deliberately
planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist movement, much as the
Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the
Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts that this was an
outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we could have done, they
smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered about poor Terry, was
there really nothing that we could have done to help? Were
there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast supply-lines might
have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must
have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been
sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”
My initial reaction was of astonishment, rather like Howard’s first expression of outrage, I imagine. How could the betrayal of the Poles by the halted Soviet forces on the banks of the Vistula, in the process of ‘liberating’ a country that they had raped in 1939, now an ally, be compared with the advance of the Allied Armies in Italy, trying to expel the Germans, while liberating a country that had been an enemy during the war? What had the one to do with the other? And why would it have been controversial for the Allies to have wanted to weaken the Communist movement? But perhaps I was missing something. What had caused Howard to change his mind? I needed to look into it.
The poignant aspect of this anecdote was that
Howard had been wounded at Monte Sole, only in December 1944, some two months
after the Monte Sole massacre. Howard had been commanding a platoon, and had
been sent on a reconnaissance mission with ‘poor Terry’ (an alias). Returning
from the front line, they had become disoriented, and stumbled into an ambush,
where Terry was mortally wounded by a mine, and Howard, having been shot in the
leg, managed to escape. He was mortified by the fact that he had chosen to
leave Terry to die, and felt his Military Cross was not really deserved. He had
fought courageously for the cause of ridding Italy of fascism, yet the fact
that he had not known at the time of the Massacre of Monte Sole (sometimes
known as the Marzobotto Massacre) was perplexing to me.
These two closely contemporaneous events – the
Warsaw Uprising, and the Monte Sole Massacre – were linked in a way that Howard
does not describe, as I shall show later. They could be summarised as follows:
The Warsaw Uprising
As the Red Army approached Warsaw at the end of July of 1944, the Polish government-in-exile in London decided that it needed to install its own administration before the Communist Committee of National Liberation, established by the Soviets as the Lublin Committee on July 22, could take over leadership. Using its wireless communications, it encouraged the illegal Polish military government in Warsaw to call on the citizenry to build fortifications. On July 29, the London leader, Mikolajczyk, went to Moscow, whereupon Moscow Radio urged the Polish Resistance to rise up against the invader. A few days later, Stalin promised Mikołajczyk that he would assist the Warsaw Uprising with arms and ammunition. On August 1, Bor-Komorowski, the Warsaw leader, issued the proclamation for the uprising. In a few days, the Poles were in control of most of Warsaw, but the introduction of the ruthless SS, under the leadership of von dem Bach-Zelewski, crushed the rebellion with brutal force. Meanwhile, the Soviets waited on the other side of the Vistula. Stalin told Churchill that the uprising was a stupid adventure, and refused to allow British and American planes dropping supplies from as far away as Italy to land on Soviet territory to refuel. The resistance forces capitulated on October 2, with about 200,000 Polish dead.
The Monte Sole Massacre
In the summer of 1944, British and American forces were making slow progress against the ‘Gothic Line’, the German defensive wall that ran along the Apennines. Italy was at that time practically in a stage of civil war: Mussolini had been ousted in the summer of 1943, and Marshall Badoglio, having signed an armistice with the Allies, was appointed Prime Minister on September 3. Mussolini’s RSI (the Italian Social Republic) governed the North, as a puppet for the Germans, while Badoglio led the south. Apart from the general goal of pushing the Germans out of Italy, the strategic objective had been to keep enough Nazi troops held up to allow the D-Day invasion of Normandy to take place successfully. In late June, General Alexander appealed to the Italian partisans to intensify a policy of sabotage and murder against the German forces. The Germans already had a track-record of fierce reprisals, such as the Massacre at the Ardeatine Caves in Rome in March 1944, when 320 civilians had been killed following the murder of 32 German soldiers. The worst of these atrocities occurred at Monte Sole on September 29-30, where the SS killed 1830 local villagers at Marzabotto. Shortly after that, Alexander called upon the partisans to hold back their assaults because of the approach of winter.
Now, there are some obvious common threads woven
into these narratives (‘partisans’, ‘reprisals’, ‘invasions’, ‘encouragement’,
‘SS brutality’, ‘betrayal’), but was there more than met the eye, and was Howard
pointing at something more sinister on the part of the Western Allies, and
something more pardonable in the actions of the Soviets? I needed some
structure in which to shape my research, if I were to understand Howard’s
weakly presented case. Thus I drew up five categories by which I could analyse
Military Operation: What
was the nature of the overall military strategy, and how was it evolving across
Political Goals: What
were the occupier’s (‘liberator’s’) goals for political infrastructure in the
territories controlled, and by what means did they plan to achieve them?
Make-up, role and goals
of partisans: How were the partisan forces constituted, and what drove their
activities? How did the respective Allied forces communicate with, and behave
towards, the partisan forces?
Offensive strategy: What
was the offensive strategy of the armed forces in approaching their target? How successful was the local operation in
contributing to overall military goals?
The Aftermath, political
outcomes and historical assessment: What was the long-term result of the
operation on the country’s political architecture? How are the events assessed
seventy-five years later?
The Red Army and Warsaw
The most important
resolution from the Tehran Conference, signed by Roosevelt, Churchill and
Stalin on December 1, 1943, was a co-ordinated approach to ensuring that the
planned D-Day operation (‘Overlord’) would be complemented by assaults
elsewhere. Such cooperation would prevent German forces being withdrawn to
defend the Allies in eastern France. Thus an operation in the South of France
(‘Anvil’) was to take place at the same time that Stalin would launch a major
offensive in the East (‘Bagration’). At that time Overlord was planned to occur
in late May; operational problems, and poor weather meant that it did not take
place until June 6, 1944.
Stalin’s goal was to
reach Berlin, and conquer as much territory as he could before the Western
Allies reached it. Ever since his strategy of creating ‘buffer states’ in the
shape of eastern Poland, the Baltic States, and western Ukraine after the
Nazi-Soviet pact of August 1939 had been shown to be an embarrassing calamity
(although not recognized by Churchill at the time), he realised that more
vigorously extending the Soviet Empire was a necessity for spreading the cause
of Bolshevism, and protecting the Soviet Union against another assault from
Germany. When a strong defensive border (the ‘Stalin Line’) had been partially
dismantled to create a weaker set of fortifications along the new borders with
Nazi Germany’s extended territories (the ‘Molotov Line’), it had fearfully
exposed the weaknesses of the Soviet armed forces, and Hitler had invaded with
appalling loss of life and material for the Soviet Union.
In 1944, therefore, the
imperative was to move forward ruthlessly, capturing the key capital cities
that Hitler prized so highly, and pile in a seemingly inexhaustible supply of
troops. When the Red Army encountered German forces, it almost always
outnumbered them, but the quality of its leadership and personnel were
inferior, with conscripts often picked up from the territories gained, poorly
trained, but used as cannon fodder. Casualties as a percentage of personnel
were considerably higher than that which the Germans underwent. The Soviet
Union had produced superior tanks, but repair facilities, communications, and
supply lines were constantly being stretched too far.
On June 22, Operation
‘Bagration’ began. Rokossovsky’s First Belorussian Front crossed the River Bug,
which was significantly on the Polish side of the ‘Curzon Line’, the border
defined (and then modified by Lewis Namier) in 1919, but well inside the
expanded territories of Poland that the latter had occupied and owned between
the two World Wars. On July 7, Soviet troops entered Vilna to the north, a
highly symbolic city in Poland’s history. On July 27, they entered Bialystok
and Lvov. By July 31, they had approached within twenty-five miles of the
Vistula, the river that runs through Warsaw, and four days later, had actually
crossed the waterway 120 miles south of Warsaw. At this stage, exhausted and
depleted, they met fiercer opposition from German forces. Exactly what happened
thereafter is a little murky.
The Soviets’ message was
one of ‘liberation’, although exactly from what the strife-worn populations of
the countries being ‘liberated’ were escaping from was controversial. The
Baltic States (Estonia, Lithuania, Latvia) had suffered, particularly, from the
Soviet annexation of 1940, which meant persecution and murder of intellectuals
and professionals, through the invasion by Nazi forces in the summer of 1941,
which meant persecution and murder of Jews and Communists, to the re-invasion
of the Soviets in 1944, which meant persecution and murder of anyone suspected
of fascist tendencies or sympathies. Yet the British Foreign Office had
practically written off the Baltic States as a lost cause: Poland was of far
greater concern, since it was on her behalf that Great Britain had declared war
on Germany in September 1939.
The institution favoured by the British government to lead Poland after the war was the government-in-exile, led, after the death in a plane crash of General Sikorski in June 1943, by Stanisław Mikałojczyk. It maintained wireless communications with underground forces in Poland, but retained somewhat unreasonable goals for the reconstitution of Poland after the war, attaching high importance to the original pre-war boundaries, and especially to the cities of Vilna and Lvov. The London Poles had been infuriated by Stalin’s cover-up of the Katyn massacres, and by Churchill’s apparent compliance, the British prime Minster harbouring a desire to maintain harmonious relations with Stalin. Mikałojczyk continuously applied pressure on Winston Churchill to represent the interests of a free and independent Poland to Stalin, who, like Roosevelt, had outwardly accepted the principles of the Atlantic Charter that gave the right of self-determination to ‘peoples’. Mikałojczyk was adamant on two matters: the recognition of its traditional eastern borders, and its right to form a non-communist government. Stalin was equally obdurate on countering both initiatives, and his language on a ‘free and independent Poland’ started taking on clauses that contained a requirement that any Polish government would have to be ‘friendly’ towards the Soviet Union.
On July 23, the city of
Lublin was liberated by the Russians, and Stalin announced that a Polish
Committee of National Liberation (the PCNL, a communist puppet) had been set up
in Chelm the day before. Churchill was in a bind: he realised which way the
wind was blowing, and how Soviet might would determine the outcomes in Poland.
He desperately did not want to let down Mikałojczyk, and preferred, foolishly,
to trust in Stalin’s benevolence and reasonableness. Churchill had been
pressing for Mikałojczyk to meet with Stalin, as he was beginning to become
frustrated by the Poles’ insistence and romantic demands. Stalin told Churchill
that Mikałojczyk should confer with the PCNL.
When Stalin made an
ominously worded declaration on July 28, where he ‘welcomed unification of
Poles friendly disposed to all three Allies’ (which made even Anthony Eden
recoil in horror), Churchill convinced Mikałojczyk to visit Moscow, where
Stalin agreed to see him. On July 29, Moscow Radio urged the workers of the
Polish Resistance to rise up against the German invader. Had Mikałojczyk
perhaps been successful in negotiating with Stalin?
On July 31, the Polish underground, encouraged
by messages from the Polish Home Army in London, ordered a general uprising in
Warsaw. It had also succeeded in letting a delegate escape to the USA and
convince the US administration that it could ally with Soviet forces in freeing
Warsaw. (It is a possibility that this person, Tatar, was a Soviet agent:
something hinted at, but not explicitly claimed, by Norman Davies.) It was,
however, not as if there was much to unite the partisans, outside a hatred of
the Fascist occupying forces. The Home Army (AK) was threatened by various splinter
groups, namely the People’s Army (AL), which professed vague left-wing
political opinions (i.e. a removal of the landowning class, and more property
rights for small farmers and peasants), the PAL, which was communist-dominated,
and thus highly sympathetic to the Soviet advance, and the Nationalist Armed
Forces (NSZ), which Alan Clark described as ‘an extreme
right-wing force, against any compromise with Russian power’. Like any partisan
group in Europe at the time, it was thus driven by a mixture of motivations.
Yet for a few short weeks
they unified in working on fortifications and attacking the Nazis. They mostly
took their orders from London, but for a short while it seemed that Moscow was
supporting them. According to Alexander Werth (who was in Warsaw at the time),
there was talk in Moscow that Rokossovsky would shortly be capturing Warsaw,
and Churchill was even spurred to remind the House of Commons on August 2 of
the pledge to Polish independence. On August 3, Stalin was reported by
Mikałojczyk to have promised to assist the Uprising by providing arms and
ammunition – although the transcripts of their discussions do not really
indicate this. By August 6, the Poles were said (by Alan Clark) to be in
control of most of Warsaw.
The Home Army was also
considerably assisted by Britain’s Special Operations Executive, which had
succeeded in landing hundreds of agents in Warsaw and surrounding districts,
with RAF flights bringing food, medical supplies and wireless equipment. This
was an exercise that had started in February 1941, with flights originating
both from Britain and, latterly, from southern Italy. By the summer of 1944, a
majority of the military and civilian leadership in Warsaw had been brought in
by SOE. Colonel Gubbins, who had been appointed SOE chief in September 1943,
was an eager champion of the Polish cause, but the group’s energies may have pointed
to a difference in policy between SOE’s sabotage programme, and Britain’s
diplomatic initiatives, a subject that has probably not received the attention
the Rising all very quickly turned sour. The Nazis, recognizing the symbolic
value of losing an important capital city like Warsaw, responded with power.
The Hermann Goering division was rushed from Italy to Warsaw on August 3. Five
days later the SS, led by von dem Bach-Zelewski, was introduced to bring in a
campaign of terror against the citizenry. After a desperate appeal for help by
the beleaguered Poles to the Allies, thirteen British aircraft were despatched
from southern Italy to drop supplies: five failed to return. The Chiefs of
Staff called off the missions, but a few Polish planes carried on the effort.
Further desperate calls for help arrived, and on August 14 Stalin was asked to
allow British and American planes, based in the UK, to refuel behind the Soviet
lines to allow them more time to focus on airdrops. He refused.
now, however, Stalin was openly dismissing the foolish adventurism of the
Warsaw Uprising, lecturing Churchill so on August 16, and, despite Churchill’s
continuing implorations, upgraded his accusations, on August 23, to a claim
that the partisans were ‘criminals’. On August 19, the NKVD had shot several
dozen members of the Home Army near the Byelorussian border, carrying out an
order from Stalin that they should be killed if they did not cooperate. Antony
Beevor states that the Warsaw Poles heard about that outrage, but, in any case,
by now the Poles in London were incensed to the degree that they considered
Mikałojczyk not ‘anti-Soviet’ enough. Roosevelt began to tire of Churchill’s
persistence, since he was much more interested in building the new world order
with Uncle Joe than he was in sorting out irritating rebel movements. By
September 5, the Germans were in total control of Warsaw again, and several
thousand Poles were shot. On September 9, the War Cabinet had reluctantly
concluded that any further airdrops could not be justified. The Uprising was
essentially over: more than 300,000 Poles lost their lives.
Accounts differ as to how close the Soviet forces were to Warsaw, and how much they were repulsed by fresh German attacks. Alexander Werth interviewed General Rokossovsky on August 26, 1944, the latter claiming that his forces were driven back after August 1 by about 65 miles. Stalin told Churchill in October, when they met in Moscow, of Rokossovsky’s tribulations with fresh German attacks. Yet that does not appear to tally with Moscow’s expectations for the capture of Warsaw, and it was a surprising acknowledgement of weakness on Rokossovsky’s part if it were true. Soviet histories inform us that the thrust was exhausted by August 1, but, in fact, the First Belorussian Front was close to the suburb of Praga by then, approaching from the south-east. (The Vistula was narrower than the Thames in London. I was about to draw an analogy of the geography when I discovered that Norman Davies had beaten me to it, using almost the exact wording that I had thought suitable: “Londoners would have grasped what was happening if told that everyone was being systematically deported from districts north of the Thames, whilst across the river to Battersea, Lambeth, and Southwark nothing moved, no one intervened,” from Rising ’44, page 433). Rokossovsky told Werth that the Rising was a bad mistake, and that it should have waited until the Soviets were close. On the other hand, the Polish General Anders, very familiar with Stalin’s ways, and then operating under Alexander in Italy, thought the Uprising was a dangerous mistake.
all that really misses the point. It was far easier for Stalin to have the
Germans exterminate the opposition, even if it contained some communist
sympathisers. (Norman Davies hypothesizes that the radio message inciting the
partisans to rebel may have been directed at the Communists only, but it is
hard to see how an AL-only uprising would have been able to succeed: such a
claim sounds like retrospective disinformation.) Stalin’s forces would
eventually have taken over Warsaw, and he would have conducted any purge he
felt was suitable. He had shamelessly manipulated Home Army partisans when
capturing Polish cities to the east of Warsaw (such as Lvov), and disposed of
them when they had delivered for him. Thus sitting back and waiting was a
cynical, but reasonable, strategy for Stalin, who by now was confident enough
of his ability to execute – and was also being informed by his spies of the
strategies of his democratic Allies in their plans for Europe. Donald Maclean’s
first despatch from the Washington Embassy, betraying communications between
Churchill and Roosevelt, was dated August 2/3, as revealed in the VENONA
last aspect of the Soviet attack concerns the role of the Poles in the Red
Army. When the captured Polish officers who avoided the Katyn massacres were
freed in 1942, they had a choice: to join Allied forces overseas, or to join
the Red Army. General Zygmunt Berling had agreed to cooperate after his release
from prison, and had recommended the creation of a Polish People’s Army in May
1943. He became commander of the first unit, and eventually was promoted to
General of the Polish Army under Rokossovsky. But it was not until August 14
that he was entrusted to support the Warsaw Uprising, crossing the Vistula and
entering Praga the following day – which suggests that the river was not quite
the natural barrier others have made it out to be. He was repulsed, however, and
had to withdraw eight days later. The failed attempt, with many casualties,
resulted in his dismissal soon afterwards. Perhaps Stalin felt that Polish
communists, because they were Poles, could be sacrificed: Berling may not have
received approval for his venture.
Warsaw untaken, the National Council of Poland declared Lublin as the national
capital, on August 18, and on September 9, a formal agreement was signed
between the Polish communists and the Kremlin. In Warsaw, Bach-Zelewski,
perhaps now concluding that war crimes trials might be hanging over him,
relented the pressure somewhat, and even parleyed with the survivors. He tried
to convince them that the threat from Bolshevism was far more dangerous than the
continuance of Fascism, even suggesting that the menace from the East ‘‘might
very well bring about the downfall of Western culture’ (Clark). It was not
certain what aspects of Western culture he believed the Nazi regime had
enhanced. (Maybe Professor Howard could have provided some insights.)
Lublin administration had to wait a while as the ‘government-in-waiting’, as
Warsaw was not captured by the Red Army until January 17, 1945. By that time,
imaginative voices in the Foreign Office had begun to point out the
ruthlessness and menace of the tide of Soviet communism in eastern Europe, and
Churchill’s – and even more, Roosevelt’s – beliefs that they could cooperate
with the man in the Kremlin were looking very weary. By the time of the Yalta
conference in February 1945, any hopes that a democratically elected government
would take power in Poland had been abandoned.
Stalin had masterfully manipulated his allies, and claimed, through the
blood spent by the millions who pushed back the Nazi forces, that he merited
control of the territories that became part of the Soviet Empire. There was
nothing that Churchill (or then Attlee), or Roosevelt, rapidly fading (and then
Truman) could do.
historical assessment is one of a Great Betrayal – which it surely was, in the
sense that the Poles were misled by the promises of Churchill and Roosevelt,
and in the self-delusion that the two leaders had that, because Stalin was
fighting Hitler alongside them, he was actually one of the team, a man they
could cooperate with, and someone who had tamed his oppressive and murderous
instincts that were so evident from before the war. But whether the ‘Soviet
armies’ deserved sympathy for their halt on the Vistula is quite another
question. It was probable that most of the Ivans in the Soviet armed forces
were heartily sick of Communism, and the havoc it had brought to their homes
and families, but were instead conscripted and forced to fight out of fear for
what might happen if they resisted. By then, fighting for Mother Russia, and
out of hatred for the Germans because of the devastation the latter had wrought
on their homeland, they were brought to a halt before Warsaw to avoid a clash
that may have been premature. But they were Communists by identification, not
by conviction. Stalin was the sole man in charge. He was ruthless: he was going
to eliminate the Home Army anyway: why not let the Germans do the job?
Clark’s summing-up ran as follows: “The story of the Warsaw uprising
illustrates many features of the later history of World War II. The alternating
perfidy and impotence of the western Allies; the alternating brutality and
sail-trimming of the SS; the constancy of Soviet power and ambition. Above all,
perhaps, it shows the quality of the people for whom nominally, and originally,
the war had been fought and how the two dictatorships could still find common
ground in the need to suppress them.”
The Allies in Italy
The invasion of Italy (starting with Operation ‘Husky’, the invasion of Sicily) had always been Churchill’s favoured project, since he regarded it as an easier way to repel the Germans and occupy central Europe before Stalin reached it. It was the western Allies’ first foray into Axis-controlled territory, and had been endorsed by Churchill and Roosevelt at Casablanca in January 1943. Under General Alexander, British and American troops had landed in Sicily in July 1943, and on the mainland, at Salerno, two months later. Yet it was always something of a maverick operation: the Teheran Agreement made no mention of it as a diversionary initiative, and thereafter the assault was regularly liable to having troops withdrawn for the more official invasion of Southern France (Operation Anvil, modified to Dragoon). This strategy rebounded in a perhaps predictable way: Hitler maintained troops in Italy to ward off the offensive, thus contributing to Overlord’s success, but the resistance that Alexander’s Army encountered meant that the progress in liberating Italy occurred much more slowly than its architects had forecast.
Enthusiasm for the
Italian venture had initially been shared by the Americans and the British, and
was confirmed at the TRIDENT conference in Washington in May 1943. At this
stage, the British Chiefs of Staff hoped to conclude the war in a year’s time,
believing that a march up Italy would be achieved practically unopposed, with
the goal of reaching the ‘Ljubljana Gap’ (which was probably a more durable
obstacle than the ‘Watford’, or even the ‘Cumberland’ Gap) and striking at the
southern portions of Hitler’s Empire before the Soviets arrived there. Yet, as
plans advanced, the British brio was tempered by American scepticism. After the
Sicilian campaign, the Allied forces were thwarted by issues of terrain, a
surprising German resurgence, and a lack of coordination of American and
British divisions. In essence, clear strategic goals had not been set, nor
processes by which they might be achieved.
Matters were complicated
in September 1943 by the ouster of Mussolini, the escape of King Emanuel and
General Badoglio to Brindisi, to lead a non-fascist government in the south,
and the rescue of Mussolini by Nazi paratroopers so that he could be installed
as head of a puppet government in Salò in the North. An armistice between the
southern Italians and the Allies was announced (September 3) the day before
troops landed at Salerno. The invading forces were now faced with an uncertain
ally in the south, not fully trusted because of its past associations with
Mussolini’s government, and a revitalized foe in the north. Hitler was
determined to defend the territory, had moved sixteen divisions into Italy, and
started a reign of terror against both the civilian population and the remnants
of the Italian army, thousands of whom were extracted to Germany to work as
slaves or be incarcerated.
The period between the
armistice and D-Day was thus a perpetual struggle. As the demands for
landing-craft and troops to support Overlord increased, morale in Alexander’s
Army declined, and progress was tortuously slow, as evidenced by the highly
controversial capture of Monte Cassino between January and May 1944, where the
Polish Army sustained 6,000 casualties. The British Chiefs of Staff continually
challenged the agreement made in Quebec that the Anvil attack was of the
highest priority (and even received support from Eisenhower for a while). Moreover,
the Allies did not handle the civilian populace very shrewdly, with widescale
bombing undermining the suggestion that they had arrived as ’liberators’. With
a valiant push, Rome was captured on June 4, by American forces, but a rivalry
between the vain and glory-seeking General Clark and the sometimes timid
General Alexander meant that the advantage was not hammered home. The dispute
over Anvil had to be settled by Roosevelt himself in June. In the summer of
1944, the Allies faced another major defensive obstacle, the Gothic Line, which
ran along the Apennines from Spezia to Pesari. Bologna, the city at the center
of this discussion, lay about forty miles north of this redoubt. And there the
Allied forces stalled.
The Allies were
unanimous that they wanted to install a democratic, non-fascist government in
Italy at the conclusion of the war, but did not really define what shape it
should take, or understand who among the various factions claiming ideological
leadership might contribute. Certainly, the British feared an infusion of
Communism into the mix. ‘Anti-fascism’ had a durable odour of ‘communism’ about
it, and there was no doubt that strong communist organisations existed both in
the industrial towns and in the resistance groups that had escaped to the
mountains or the countryside. (After the armistice, a multi-party political
committee had been formed with the name of the ‘Committee of National
Liberation’, a name that was exactly echoed a few months later by the Soviets’
puppets in Chelm, Poland.) Moreover, while the Foreign Office, epitomised by
the vain and ineffectual Anthony Eden, who still harboured a grudge with
Mussolini over the Ethiopian wars, expressed a general disdain about the
Italians, the Americans were less interested in the fate of individual European
nations. Roosevelt’s main focus was on ‘getting his boys home’, and then concentrating
on building World Peace with Stalin through the United Nations. The OSS,
however, modelled on Britain’s SOE, had more overt communist sympathies.
Yet there existed also
rivalry between the USA and Great Britain about post-war goals. The British
were looking to control the Mediterranean to protect its colonial routes: the
Americans generally tried to undermine such imperial pretensions, and were looking
out for their own commercial advantages when hostilities ceased. At this time,
Roosevelt and Churchill were starting to disagree more about tactics, and the
fate of individual nations, as the debate over Poland, and Roosevelt’s secret
parleys with Stalin, showed. Churchill was much more suspicious of Soviet
intrigues at this time, although it did not stop him groveling to Stalin, or singing
his praises in more sentimental moments.
The result was a high
degree of mutual distrust between the Allies and its new partners, the southern
Italians, and those resisting Nazi oppression in the north. As Caroline Moorehead
aptly puts it, in her very recent House in the Mountains: “Now the cold
wariness of the British liberating troops puzzled them. It was, noted Harold
Macmillan, ‘one vast headache, with all give and no take’. How much money would
have to be spent in order to prevent ‘disease and unrest’? How much aid was
going to be necessary to make the Italians militarily useful in the campaign
for liberation? And what was the right approach to take towards a country which
was at once a defeated enemy and a co-belligerent which expected to be treated
as an ally?”
The partisans in
northern Italy, like almost all such groups in occupied Europe, were of very
mixed origins, holding multitudinous objectives. But here they were especially
motley, containing absconders from the domestic Italian Army, resisting
deportation by the Nazis, escaped prisoners-of-war, trying to find a way back
to Allied lines, non-Germans conscripted by the Wehrmacht, who had escaped but
were uncertain where to turn next, refugees from armies that had fought in the
east, earnest civilians distraught over missing loved ones, Jews suddenly
threatened by Mussolini’s support of Hitler’s anti-Semitic persecution, the
ideologically dedicated, as well as young adventurists, bandits, thieves and
terrorists. As a report from Alexander’s staff said: “Bands exist of every
degree, down to gangs of thugs who don a partisan cloak of respectability to
conceal the nakedness of their brigandage, and bands who bury their arms in
their back gardens and only dig them up and festoon themselves in comic opera
uniforms when the first Allied troops arrive.” It was thus challenging to find a way to deal
consistently with such groups, scattered broadly around the mountainous
The British generally
disapproved of irregular armies, and preferred the partisans to continue the important
work of helping POWs escape to Switzerland, where they were able to pass on
valuable information to the SIS and OSS offices there. As Richard Lamb wrote: “However,
the Allies wanted the partisan activities to be confined to sabotage,
facilitating the escape of POWs, and gathering intelligence about the
Germans.” Sabotage was encouraged,
because its perpetrators could not easily be identified, and it helped the war
effort, while direct attacks on German forces could result in fearful reprisals
– a phenomenon that took on increasing significance. Hitler had given
instructions to the highly experienced General Kesselring that any such
assaults should be responded to with ruthless killing of hostages.
the political agitators in the partisans were dominated by communists – who
continuously quarreled with the non-communists. The British did not want a
repeat of what had happened in Yugoslavia and Greece, where irredentists had
established separate control. The CLN had set up a Northern Italian section
(the CLNAI) in January 1944, and had made overt claims for political control of
some remote areas, seeing itself as the third leg of government. Thus the
British were suspicious, and held off infiltrating SOE liaison officers, and
parachuting in weapons and supplies, with the first delivery not occurring
until December 1943. This encouraged the partisans to think that the Allies
were not interested in widespread resistance, and were fearful of communism –
which was largely (but not absolutely) true. Tellingly, on July 27, 1944, in the
light of Soviet’s expansive colonial intentions, Chief of the Imperial General
Staff Alan Brooke first voiced the opinion that Britain might need to view
Germany as a future ally against the Soviets.
expressed outwardly hostile opinions on the partisans in a speech to the House
of Commons on February 22, 1944, and his support for Badoglio (and, indirectly,
the monarchy) laid him open to the same criticisms of anti-democratic spirit
that would bedevil his attitude towards Greece. Ironically, it was the arrival
of the Communist leader Palmiro Togliatti from Moscow in March 1944, and his
subsequent decision to join Badoglio’s government, that helped to repair some
of the discord. In May, many more OSS and SOE officers were flown in, and acts
of sabotage increased. This interrupted the German war effort considerably, as
Kesselring admitted a few years later. Thus, as summer drew on, the partisans
had expectations of a big push to defeat and expel the Germans. By June, all Italian partisan forces were co-ordinated
into a collective command structure. They were told by their SOE liaison
officers that a break through the Gothic Line would take place in September.
the confusion in the British camp had become intense. Churchill dithered with
his Chiefs of Staff about the competing demands of Italy and France. General
Maitland Wilson, who had replaced Eisenhower as the Supreme Commander in the
Mediterranean in January 1944, was in June forecasting the entry into Trieste
and Ljubljana by September, apparently unaware of the Anvil plans. He was
brought back to earth by Eisenhower. At the beginning of August 1944,
Alexander’s forces were reduced from 250,000 to 153,000 men, because of the
needs in France. Yet Churchill continued to place demands on Alexander, and
privately railed over the Anvil decision. Badoglio
was replaced by Bonomi, to Churchill’s disappointment. Alexander said his
troops were demoralized. There was discord between SOE and the OSS, as well as
between SOE and the Foreign Office. It was at this juncture that the controversy
On June 7, Alexander had made a radio appeal to the partisans, encouraging sabotage. As Iris Origo reported it in, in War in Val D’orcia (written soon after the events, in 1947): “General Alexander issues a broadcast to the Italian patriots, telling them that the hour of their rising has come at last. They are to cut the German Army communications wherever possible, by destroying roads, bridges, railways, telegraph-wires. They are to form ambushes and cut off retreating Germans – and to give shelter to Volksdeutsche who have deserted from the German Army. Workmen are urged to sabotage, soldiers and police to desert, ‘collaborators of fascism’ to take this last chance of showing their patriotism and helping the cause of their country’s deliverance. United, we shall attain victory.”
was an enormously significant proclamation, given what Alexander must have
known about the proposed reduction in forces, and what his intelligence sources
must have told him about Nazi reprisals. They were surely not words Alexander
had crafted himself. One can conclude that it was perhaps part of the general
propaganda campaign, current with the D-Day landings, to focus the attention of
Nazi forces around Europe on the local threats. Indeed the Political Warfare
Executive made a proposal to Eisenhower intended to ‘stimulate . . . strikes,
guerilla action and armed uprisings behind the enemy lines’. Historians have
accepted that such an initiative would have endangered many civilian lives. The
exact follow-up to this recommendation, and how it was manifested in BBC
broadcasts in different languages, is outside my current scope, but Origo’s
diary entry shows how eagerly the broadcasts from London were followed.
What is highly significant is that General Alexander, in the summer of 1944, was involved in an auxiliary deception operation codenamed ‘Otrington’, which was designed to lead the Germans to think that an attack was going to take place on the Nazi flanks in Genoa and Rimini, as opposed to the south of France, and also as a feint for Alexander’s planned attack through the central Apennines north of Florence. (This was all part of the grander ‘Bodyguard’ deception plan for Overlord.) Yet in August 1944, such plans were changed when General Sir Oliver Leese, now commanding the Eighth Army, persuaded Alexander to move his forces away from the central Apennines over to the Adriatic sector, for an attack on August 25. The Germans were misled to the extent that they had moved forces to the Adriatic, thus confusing Leese’s initiative. Moreover, the historian on whom we rely for this exposition was Professor Sir Michael Howard himself – in his Chapter 7 of Volume 5 of the British Intelligence history. Yet the author makes no reference here to Alexander’s communications to the partisans, or how such signals related to the deception exercise, merely laconically noting: “The attack, after its initial success, was gradually brought to a halt [by Kesselring], and Allied operations in Italy bogged down for another winter.”
not surprisingly, the message provoked even further animosity from the Germans
when Alexander made three separate broadcasts through the BBC, on June 19, 20
and 27, where he encouraged Italian partisans to ‘shoot Germans in the back’. The
response from Kesselring, who of course heard the open declaration, was
instantaneous. He issued an order on June 20 that read, partially, as follows:
“Whenever there is evidence of considerable numbers of partisan groups a
proportion of the male population of the area will be arrested, and in the
event of an act of violence these men will be shot. The population must be
informed of this. Should troops etc. be fired at from any village, the village
will be burnt down. Perpetrators or ringleaders will be hanged in public.”
outcome of this was that a horrible series of massacres occurred during August
and September, leading to the worst of all, that at Marzabotto, on September 29
and 30. A more specific order by the German 5 Corps was issued on August 9,
with instructions as to how local populations would be assembled to witness the
shootings. Yet this was not a new phenomenon: fascist troops had been killing
partisan bands and their abettors for the past year in the North. The
requirement for Mussolini’s neo-fascist government to recruit young men for its
military and police forces prompted thousands to run for the mountains and join
the partisans. Italy was now engaged in a civil war, and in the north Italians
had been killing other Italians. One of the most infamous of the massacres had
occurred in Rome, in March 1944, at the Ardeatine Caves. A Communist Patriotic
Action Group had killed 33 German soldiers in the Via Rasella, and ten times
that many hostages were killed the next day as a form of reprisal. The summer
of 1944 was the bitterest time for executions of Italians: 7500 civilians were
killed between March 1944 and April 1945, and 5000 of these met their deaths in
the summer months of 1944.
records show that support for the partisans had been consistent up until
September, although demands had sharply risen. “In July 1944 SOE was operating 16 radio stations
behind enemy lines, and its missions rose from 23 in August to 33 in September;
meanwhile the OSS had 12 in place, plus another 6 ready to leave. Contacts
between Allied teams and partisan formations made large-scale airdrops of
supplies possible. In May 1944, 152 tons were dropped; 361 tons were delivered
in June, 446 tons in July, 227 tons in August, and 252 tons in September.”
(Battistelli and Crociani) Yet those authors offer up another explanation:
Operation ‘Olive’ which began on August 25, at the Adriatic end of the Gothic
Line, provoked a severe response against partisans in the north-west. The
fierce German reprisals that then took place (on partisans and civilians,
including the Marzobotto massacre) by the SS Panzer Green Division Reichsführer
contributed to the demoralization of the partisan forces, and 47,000 handed
themselves in after an amnesty offer by the RSI on October 28.
is not clear is why the partisans continued to engage in such desperate actions.
Had they become desperadoes? As Battistelli and Crociani write, a period of
crisis had arrived: “In mid-September 1944 the partisans’ war was, for all practical
purposes, at a standstill. The influx of would-be recruits made it impossible
for the Allies to arm them all; many of the premature ‘free zones’ were being
retaken by the Germans; true insurgency was not possible without direct Allied
support; and, despite attacks by the US Fifth and British Eighth Armies against
the Gothic Line from 12 September, progress would be slow and mainly up the
Adriatic flank. Against the advice of Allied liaison officers, the partisan
reaction was, inexplicably, to declare more ‘free zones’.” Things appeared to
be out of control. Battistelli and Crociani further analyse it as
follows: “The summer of 1944 thus represented a turning-point in partisan
activity, after which sabotage and attacks against communications decreased in
favour of first looting and then attacks against Axis troops, both being
necessary to obtain food and weapons to enable large formations to carry on
their war.” And it thus led to the deadliest massacre at Marzabotto, south of
Bologna, where the SS, under Sturmbannführer Walter Reder, shot about 770 men,
women, and children.
The wholesale deaths
even provoked Mussolini to beg the SS to back off. On November 13 Alexander
issued a belated communiqué encouraging the partisans to disarm for the winter,
as the campaign was effectively coming to a halt. Alexander’s advice was
largely ignored: the partisans viewed it a political move executed out of
disdain for communism. The Germans viewed it as a sign of weakness, and it
deterred any thoughts of immediate surrender. Thus the activity of the
partisans continued, but less vigorously, as air support in the way of supplies
had already begun to dwindle. And another significant factor was at work.
Before he left Moscow, Togliatti, the newly arrived Communist leader, had made
an appeal to the Italian resistance movement to take up arms against the
Fascists. Yet when he arrived in Italy in March 1944, Togliatti had submerged
the militant aspects of his PCI (Communist Party of Italy) in the cause of
unity and democracy, and had the Garibaldi (Communist) brigades disarmed.
Moorehead points out that the Northern partisans were effectively stunned and
weakened by Togliatti’s strategic move to make the Communists appear less
harmful as the country prepared for postwar government.
In addition, roles
changed. Not just the arrival of General Leese, and his disruption of careful
deception plans. General George Marshall, the US Chief of Staff, took the view
that Italy was ‘an expensive sideshow’ (Brian Holden Reid). In December,
Alexander had to tried to breathe fresh life into the plan to assault the
Ljubljana Gap, but after the Yalta
Conference of February 1945, Alexander, now Supreme Commander in the
Mediterranean, was instructed simply to ensure that the maximum number of
German divisions were held down, thus allowing the progress by Allied troops in
France and Germany to be maintained. Bologna was not taken until April 1945, after
which the reprisals against fascists began. Perhaps three thousand were killed there
by the partisans.
The massacres of
September and October 1944 have not been forgotten, but their circumstances
have tended to be overlooked in the histories. It is difficult to find a sharp
and incisive analysis of British strategy and communications at this time. Norman
Davies writes about the parallel activities in Poland and Italy in the summer
of 1944 in No Simple Victory, but I would suggest that he does not do
justice to the situation. He blames General Alexander for ‘opening the
floodgates for a second wave of German revenge’ when he publicly announced that
there would be no winter offensive in 1944-45, but it was highly unlikely that
that ‘unoriginal thinker’ (Oxford Companion to Word War II) would have
been allowed to come up with such a message without guidance and approval.
Davies points to ‘differences of opinion between British and American
strategists’, which allowed German commanders to be given a free hand to take
ruthless action against the partisans’. So why were the differences not
resolved by Eisenhower? Moreover, while oppression against the partisans did
intensify, the worst reprisals against civilians that Davies refers to were
over by then.
Had Alexander severely
misled the partisans in his encouragement that their ‘hour of rising’ had come
at last? What was intended by his open bloodthirsty call to kill Nazis in the
back? Did the partisans really pursue such aggressive attacks because of
Alexander’s provocative words, or, did they engage in them in full knowledge of
the carnage it would cause, trying to prove, perhaps, that a fierce and
autocratic form of government was the only method of eliminating fascism? Were
the local SOE officers responsible for encouraging attacks on German troops in
order to secure weapons and food? Why could Togliatti not maintain any control
over the communists? And what was Alexander’s intention in calling the forces
to hold up for the winter, knowing that the Germans would pick up that message?
Whatever the reality, it was not a very honourable episode in the British war
effort. Too many organisations arguing amongst themselves, no doubt. Churchill
had many things on his mind, but it was another example of where he wavered on
strategy, then became too involved in details, or followed his buccaneering
instincts, and afterwards turned sentimental at inappropriate times. Yet
Eisenhower was the Supreme Commander, and clearly had problems in enforcing a
disciplined approach to strategy.
At least the horrendous reprisals
ceased. Maybe, as in Warsaw, the SS realised that the war was going to be lost,
and that war crimes tribunals would investigate the legality of the massacre of
innocent civilians. Yet a few grisly murders continued. Internecine feuds
continued among the partisans during the winter of 1944-45, with fears of
collaborators and spies in the midst, and frequently individuals who opposed
communism were persecuted and killed. It is beyond the scope of this article to
describe the events of this winter in the north (see Moorehead for more
details), but a few statements need to be made. The number of partisans did
decline sharply to begin with, but then ascended in the spring. More supplies
were dropped by SOE, but the latter’s anti-communist message intensified, and
the organisation tried to direct weaponry to non-communist units. Savage
reprisals by the fascists did take place, but not on the scale of the September
massacres. In the end, the communists managed to emerge from World War II with
a large amount of prestige, because they ensured that they were present to
liberate finally the cities of Turin, Milan, and Bologna in concert with the
Allied forces that eventually broke through, even though they were merciless
with fascists who had remained loyal to Mussolini and the Nazis. As with Spain,
the memories of civil war and different allegiances stayed and festered for a long
And the communists
actually survived and thrived, as Howard’s encounter forty years later proved – a dramatic difference from the possibility of
independent democratic organisations in Warsaw enduring after the war, for
example. Moreover, they obviously held a grudge. Yet history continues to be
distorted. Views contrary to the betrayal of such ‘liberating’ communists have
been expressed. In his book The Pursuit of Italy David Gilmour writes: “At the
entrance of the town hall of Bologna photographs are still displayed of
partisans liberating the city without giving a hint that Allied forces had
helped them to do so.” He goes on to point out that, after the massacre of the
Ardeatine Caves, many Italians were of the opinion that those responsible (Communists)
should have given them up for execution instead. Others claim that the murders
of the German soldiers were not actually communists: Moorhead claims they were
mainly ‘students’. It all gets very murky. I leave the epitaph to Nicola
fact is that brutalization was a much part of the Italian wars as of any other,
even if it was these same wars which made possible the birth of the first true
democracy the country had known.”
Reassessment of Howard’s
Professor Howard seemed
to be drawing an equivalence between, on the one hand, the desire for the Red
Army to have the Nazis perform their dirty work for them by eliminating a
nominal ally but a social enemy (the Home Army), and thus disengage from an attack
on Warsaw, and, on the other, a strained Allied Army, with its resources
strategically depleted, reneging on commitments to provide material support to
a scattered force of anti-fascist sympathisers, some of whom it regarded as
dangerous for the long-term health of the invading country, as well as that of the
nation it was attempting to liberate. This is highly unbalanced, as the Home
Army had few choices, whereas the Italian partisans had time and territory on
their side. They did not have to engage in bloody attacks that would provoke
reprisals of innocents. The Allies in Italy were trying to liberate a country
that had waged warfare against them: the Soviet Army refused to assist
insurgents who were supposedly fighting the same enemy. The British, certainly,
were determined to weaken the Communists: why was Howard surprised by this? And,
if he had a case to make, he could have criticised the British Army and its
propagandists back in London for obvious lapses in communications rather than switching
his attention to expressing sympathy for the communists outside Warsaw. Was he
loath to analyse what Alexander had done simply because he had served under
It is informative to
parse carefully the phrases Howard uses in his outburst. I present the text
again here, for ease of reference:
“In September 1944,
believing that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command had
issued orders for the Italian partisans to unmask themselves and attack German
communications throughout the north of Italy. They did so, including those on
and around Monte Sole. The Germans reacted with predictable savagery. The
Allied armies did not come to their help, and the partisan movement in North
Italy was largely destroyed. It was still believed – and especially in Bologna,
where the communists had governed the city ever since the war – that this had
been deliberately planned by the Allies in order to weaken the communist
movement, much as the Soviets had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and
then sat by while the Germans exterminated them. When I protested to my hosts
that this was an outrageous explanation and that there was nothing that we
could have done, they smiled politely. But I was left wondering, as I wondered
about poor Terry, was there really nothing that we could have
done to help? Were there no risks that our huge cumbrous armies with their vast
supply-lines might have taken if we knew what was going on? – and someone must
have known what was going on. Probably not: but ever since then I have been
sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies for their halt before Warsaw.”
‘In September 1944, believing
that the end of the war was in sight, the Allied High Command . . ’
Did the incitement
actually happen in September, as opposed to June? What was the source, and who
actually issued the order? What did that ‘in sight’ mean? It is a woolly,
evasive term. Who actually believed that the war would end shortly? Were these
orders issued over public radio (for the Germans to hear), or privately, to SOE
and OSS representatives?
‘ . . had issued orders
to unmask themselves’.
What does that mean?
Take off their camouflage and engage in open warfare? The Allied High Command
could in fact not ‘order’ the partisans to do anything, but why would an
‘order’ be issued to do that? I can find no evidence for it in the transcripts.
‘ . . .and attack German
An incitement to
sabotage was fine, and consistent, but the communication specifically did not
encourage murder of fascist forces, whether Italian or German. Alexander admittedly
did so in June, but Howard does not cite those broadcasts.
‘The Germans reacted
with predictable savagery.’
The Germans engaged in
savage reprisals primarily in August, before the supposed order that
Howard quotes. The reprisals took place because of partisan murders of soldiers,
and in response to Operation ‘Olive’, not simply because of attacks on
communications, as Howard suggests here. Moreover, the massacre at Marzabotto
occurred at the end of September, when Kesselring had mollified his
instructions, after Mussolini’s intervention.
‘Allied armies did not
come to their help’.
But was anything more
than parachuting in supplies expected? Over an area of more than 30,000 square
miles, behind enemy lines? Bologna only? Where is the evidence – beyond the
June message quoted by Origo? What did the SOE officers say? (I have not yet
read Joe Maioli’s Mission Accomplished: SOE in Italy 1943-45, although
its title suggests success, not failure.)
‘The partisan movement
in northern Italy was largely destroyed’.
This was not true, as
numerous memoirs and histories indicate. Admittedly, activity sharply decreased
after September, because of the Nazi attacks, and the reduction in supplies. It
thus suffered in the short term, but the movement became highly active again in
the spring of 1945. On what did Howard base his conclusion? And why did he not
mention that it was the Communist Togliatti who had been as much responsible
for any weakening in the autumn of 1944? Or that Italian neo-fascists had been
determinedly hunting down partisans all year?
‘It was still believed . . .’
Why the passive voice? Who? When? Why? Of course the communists in Bologna would say that.
‘ . . .deliberately
planned to weaken the communist movement’.
Richard Lamb wrote that
Field Marshal Harding, Alexander’s Chief of Staff, had told him that the
controversial Proclama Alexander, interpreted by some Italian historians
as an anti-communist move, had been designed to protect the partisans. But that
proclamation was made in November, and it encouraged partisans to
suspend hostilities. In any case, weakening the communist movement was not a dishonourable
goal, considering what was happening elsewhere in Europe.
‘. . . much as the Soviets
had encouraged the people of Warsaw to rise and then sat by while the Germans
Did the Bologna
communists really make this analogy, condemning the actions of communists in
Poland as if they were akin to the actions of the Allies? Expressing sympathy
for the class enemies of the Polish Home Army would have been heresy. Why could
Howard not refute it at the time, or point out the contradictions in this
‘ . . .was there really nothing that we could have done to help?’
Aren’t you the one supposed to be answering the questions, Professor, not asking them?
‘. . . huge cumbrous
armies with their vast supply-lines’
Why had Howard forgotten
about the depletion of resources in Italy, the decision to hold ground, and
what he wrote about in Strategic Deception? Did he really think that
Alexander would have been able to ignore Eisenhower’s directives? And why
’cumbrous’ – unwieldy? inflexible?
‘Someone must have known
what was going on’.
Indeed. And shouldn’t it have been Howard’s
responsibility to find out?
‘Ever since then I have
been sparing of criticism of the Soviet armies’
Where? In print? In
conversations? What has one got to do with the other? Why should an implicit
criticism of the Allied Command be converted into sympathy for Stalin?
The irony is that the
Allied Command, perhaps guided by the Political Warfare Executive, did
probably woefully mismanage expectations, and encourage attacks on German
troops that resulted in the murder of innocent civilians. But Howard does not
make this case. Those events happened primarily in the June through August
period, while Howard bases his argument on a September proclamation. He was
very quick to accept the Bologna communists’ claim that the alleged
‘destruction’ of the partisans was all the Allies’ fault, when the partisans
themselves, northern Italian fascists, the SS troops, Togliatti, and even the
Pope, held some responsibility. If Howard had other evidence, he should have
Why was Howard not aware
of the Monte Sole massacre at the time? Why did he not perform research before
walking into the meeting in Bologna? What did the communists there tell him
that convinced him that they had been hard done by? Did they blame the British
for the SS reprisals? Why was he taken in by the relentless propagandizing of
the Communists? Why did he not explain what he thought the parallels were
between Alexander’s actions and those of Rokossovsky? The episode offered an
intriguing opportunity to investigate Allied strategy in Italy and Poland in
the approach to D-Day and afterwards, but Howard fumbled it, and an enormous
amount is thus missing from his casual observations. He could have illustrated
how the attempts by the Western Allies to protect the incursions into Europe
had unintended consequences, and shown the result of the competition between
western intelligence and Togliatti for the allegiance of the Italian partisans.
Instead the illustrious historian never did his homework. He obfuscated rather
than illuminated, indulging in vague speculation, shaky chronology, ineffectual
hand-wringing, and unsupported conclusions.
Perhaps a pertinent
epitaph is what Howard himself wrote, in his volume of Strategic Deception,
about the campaign in India (p 221): “The real problem which
confronted the British deception staff in India, however, was that created by
its own side; the continuing uncertainty as to what Allied strategic intentions
really were. In default of any actual plans the best that the deceivers could
do as one of them ruefully put it, was to ensure that the enemy remained as
confused as they were themselves.” He had an excellent opportunity to inspect
the Italian campaign as a case study for the same phenomenon, but for some
reason avoided it.
This has been a fascinating
and educational, though ultimately sterile, exercise for me. It certainly did not
help me understand why Howard is held in such regard as a historian. ‘Why are
eminent figures allowed to get away with such feeble analysis?’, I asked
myself. Is it because they are distinguished, and an aura of authority has
descended upon them? Or am I completely out to lunch? No doubt I should read
more of Howard’s works. But ars longa, vita brevis . . .
in Italy 1943-1945, A Brutal Story by Richard Lamb
at War1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth
Second World War by Antony Beevor
in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo
Professor by Michael Howard
House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead
World War II Partisan
Warfare in Italy by Pier Paola Battistelli & Piero Crociani
The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour
Between Giants by Prit Buttar
Winston Churchill: Road
to Victory 1941-1945 by Martin Gilbert
Rising ’47 by Norman Davies
No Simple Victory by Norman Davies
The Oxford Companion to
World War II edited by Ian Dear and M. R. E. Foot
The Oxford Illustrated
History of World War II edited by Paul Overy
British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, Strategic Deception by Michael Howard
Notice: If any reader posts a comment, and does not see it after a couple of
days, please will he or she contact me directly. In recent weeks, the number of
spam comments posted to the site increased to over a thousand a day, all of
which I had to investigate, and then approve or reject, which was a highly
time-consuming process. I have now installed some spam-prevention software, but
it is possible, I suppose, that the software will trap some genuine comments.
A few weeks ago, at the bridge table at St. James, I was chatting between rounds, and my opponent happened to say, in response to some light-heated comment I made: ‘Touché!’ Now that immediately made me think of the famous James Thurber cartoon from the New Yorker, and I was surprised to learn that my friend (who has now become my bridge partner at a game elsewhere) was not familiar with this iconic drawing. And then, a few days ago, while at the chiropractor’s premises, I happened to mention to one of the assistants that one of the leg-stretching pieces of equipment looked like something by Rube Goldberg. (For British readers, Goldberg is the American equivalent of W. Heath Robinson.) The assistant looked at me blankly: she had never heard of Goldberg.
recalled being introduced to Goldberg soon after I arrived in this country. But
‘Touché’ took me back much further. It set me thinking: how had I been
introduced to this classic example of American culture? Thurber was overall a
really poor draughtsman, but this particular creation, published in the New
Yorker in 1932, is cleanly made, and its impossibly unrealistic cruelty did
not shock the youngster who must have first encountered it in the late 1950s. A
magazine would probably not get away with publishing it these days: it would be
deprecated (perhaps like Harry Graham’s Ruthless Rhymes for Heartless Homes)
as a depiction of gratuitous violence, likely to cause offence to persons of a
sensitive disposition, and also surely deemed to be ‘an insult to the entire worldwide
Was it my father who showed it to me? Freddie Percy was one of the most serious of persons, but he did have a partiality for subversive wit and humour, especially when it entered the realm of nonsense, so long as it did not involve long hair, illicit substances, or sexual innuendo. I recall he was fan of the Marx Brothers, and the songs of Tom Lehrer, though how I knew this is not certain, as we had no television in those days, and he never took us to see a Marx Brothers movie. Had he perhaps heard Tom Lehrer on the radio? He also enjoyed the antics of Victor Borge (rather hammy slapstick, as far as I can remember) as well as those of Jacques Tati, and our parents took my brother, sister and me to see the films of Danny Kaye (The Secret Life of Walter Mitty – from a Thurber story – and Hans Christian Andersen), both of which, I must confess, failed to bowl me over.
was it with these Jewish performers? The Marx Brothers, Lehrer, Borge (né
Rosenbaum) and Kaye (né Kaminsky)? Was the shtick my father told us about
the Dukes of Northumberland all a fraud, and was his father (who in the 1920s worked
in the clothes trade, selling school uniforms that he commissioned from East
London Jewish tailors) perhaps an émigré from Minsk whose original name was
Persky? And what happened to my grandfather’s Freemason paraphernalia, which my
father kept in a trunk in the attic for so long after his death? It is too late
to ask him about any of this, sadly. These questions do not come up at the
may have learned about Thurber from my brother. He was a fan of Thurber’s
books, also – volumes that I never explored deeply, for some reason. Yet the
reminiscence set me thinking about the American cultural influences at play in
Britain in the 1950s and 1960s, and how they corresponded to local traditions.
and television did not play a large part in my childhood: we did not have television
installed until about 1965, so my teenage watching was limited to occasional
visits to friends, where I might be exposed to Bonanza or Wagon Train,
or even to the enigmatic Sergeant Bilko. I felt culturally and
socially deprived, as my schoolmates would gleefully discuss Hancock’s Half
Hour, or Peter Cook and Dudley Moore, and I had no idea what they were talking
about. (It has taken a lifetime for me to recover from this feeling of cultural
inferiority.) I did not attend cinemas very often during the 1950s, although I
do recall the Norman Wisdom escapades, and the Doctor in the House
series featuring Dirk Bogarde (the dislike of whom my father would not shrink
from expressing) and James Robertson Justice. Apart from those mentioned above,
I do not recall many American films, although later The Searchers made a
big impression, anything with Audrey Hepburn in it was magical, and I rather
unpredictably enjoyed the musicals from that era, such as Seven Brides for
Seven Brothers, Oklahoma!, Carousel, and The King and I.
was perhaps fortunate that I did not at that stage inform my father that I had
suddenly discovered my calling in the roar of the greasepaint and the smell of
the crowd, as the old meshugennah might have thrown me out of Haling
Park Cottage on my ear before you could say ‘Jack Rubenstein’. In fact, the
theatre had no durable hold on me, although the escapist musical attraction did
lead me into an absorption with American popular music, which I always thought
more polished and more stimulating than most of the British pap that was produced.
(I exclude the Zombies, Lesley Duncan, Sandy Denny, and a few others from my
wholesale dismissal.) Perhaps seeing Sonny and Cher perform I Got You Babe,
or the Ronettes imploring me to Be My Baby, on Top of the Pops, led
me to believe that there was a more exciting life beyond my dreary damp
November suburban existence in Croydon, Surrey: California Dreaming
reflected that thwarted ambition.
left the UK in 1980, and, despite my frequent returns while I was working, and
during my retirement, primarily for research purposes, my picture of Britain is
frozen in a time warp of that period. Derek Underwood is wheeling away from the
Pavilion End, a round of beers can be bought for a pound, the Two Ronnies
are on TV, the Rolling Stones are just about to start a world tour, and George
Formby is performing down the road at the Brixton Essoldo. [Is this correct?
Ed.] I try to stay current with what is going on in the UK through my
subscriptions to Punch (though, as I think about it, I haven’t received
an issue for quite a while), Private Eye (continuous since 1965), the Spectator
(since 1982), and Prospect (a few years old), but, as each year goes by,
a little more is lost on me.
are just about to enter our fortieth year living in the USA. As I wrote, we
‘uprooted’ in 1980, although at the time we considered that the relocation
would be for just a few years, to gain some work experience, and see the
country, before we returned to the UK. My wife, Sylvia, and I now joke that,
once we have settled in, we shall explore the country properly. We retired to
Southport, North Carolina, in 2001, and have thus lived here longer than in any
other residence. Yet we have not even visited famous Charleston, a few hours
down the road in South Carolina, let alone the Tennessee border, which is about
seven hours’ drive away. (The area of North Carolina is just a tad smaller than
that of England.) We (and our daughter) are not fond of long journeys in the
car, which seems to us a colossal waste of time overall, and I have to admit
there is a sameness about many American destinations. And this part of the
world is very flat – like Norfolk without the windmills. You do not drive for
I belong here? Many years ago we took up US citizenship. (I thus have two
passports, retaining my UK affiliation, but had to declare primary loyalty to
the USA.) My accent is a giveaway. Whereas my friends, when I return to the UK,
ask me why I have acquired that mid-Atlantic twang, nearly everyone I meet over
here comments that ‘they like my accent’ – even though some have been known to ask
whether it is Australian or South African. (Hallo! Do I sound like Crocodile
Dundee?) Sometimes their curiosity is phrased in the quintessential American
phrase: ‘Where are you from?’, which most Americans can quickly respond to with
the name of the city where they grew up. They may have moved around the country
– or even worked abroad – but their family hometown is where they are ‘from’.
So what do I answer? ‘The UK’ simplifies things, but is a bit dull. To jolly up the proceedings, I sometimes say: ‘Well, we are all out of Africa, aren’t we?’, but that may unfortunately not go down well with everyone, especially in this neck of the woods. Facetiousness mixed with literal truth may be a bit heady for some people. So I may get a bit of a laugh if I respond ‘Brooklyn’, or even ‘Connecticut’, which is the state we moved to in 1980, and the state we retired from in 2001 (and whither we have not been back since.)
they really want to know is where my roots lie. Now, I believe that if one is
going to acknowledge ‘roots’, they had better be a bit romantic. My old
schoolfriend Nigel Platts is wont to declare that he has his roots in Cumbria
(wild borderlands, like the tribal lands of Pakistan, Lakeland poets: A-),
while another old friend, Chris Jenkins, claims his are in Devon (seafarers,
pirates, boggy moors: B+). My wife can outdo them both, since she was born in
St. Vincent (tropical island, volcano, banana plantations: A+). But what do I
say? I grew up in Purley, Coulsdon, and South Croydon, in Surrey: (C-). No
one has roots in Purley, except for the wife of the Terry Jones character in
the famous Monty Python ‘Nudge Nudge’ sketch. So I normally leave it as ‘Surrey’,
as if I had grown up in the remote and largely unexplored Chipstead Valley, or
in the shadow of Box Hill, stalking the Surrey Puma, which sounds a bit more
exotic than spending my teenage years watching, from a house opposite the AGIP
service station, the buses stream along the Brighton Road in South Croydon.
I carry British (or English) culture with me? I am a bit skeptical about these
notions of ‘national culture’. One might summarise English culture by such a
catalogue as the Lord’s test-match, sheepdog trials, pantomime, fish and chips,
The Last Night of the Proms, the National Trust, etc. etc., but then one ends
up either with some devilish discriminations between ‘high’ and ‘low’ culture
or with a list of everything that goes on in the country, which makes the whole
exercise pointless. And what about ‘European’ culture? Is there such a thing,
apart from the obvious shared heritage and cross-influences of music, art and
literature? Bullfights as well as foxhunting? Bierfests alongside pub quizzes? The
Eurovision Song Contest? Moreover, all too often, national ‘culture’ ends up as
quaint customs and costumes put on for the benefit of the tourists.
one could try to describe American culture: the Superbowl, revivalist rallies,
Fourth of July parades, rodeos, NASCAR, Thanksgiving turkey. But where does the
NRA, or the Mormon Church (sorry, newly branded as the Church of Jesus Christ
of Latter-Day Saints), fit in? Perhaps the USA is too large, and too new, to
have a ‘national culture’. Some historians have claimed that the USA is
actually made up of several ‘nations’. Colin Woodard subtitled his book American
Nations ‘A History of the Eleven Rival Regional Cultures of North America’,
and drew on their colonial heritages to explain some mostly political
inclinations. Somewhat of an oversimplification, of course, as immigration and
relocation have blurred the lines and identities, but still a useful pointer to
the cultural shock that can occur when an employee is transplanted from one locality
to another, say from Boston to Dallas. Here, in south-eastern North Carolina,
retirees from Yankeedom frequently write letters to the newspaper expressing
their bewilderment and frustration that local drivers never seem to use their
indicators before turning, and habitually drive below maximum speed in the fast
lane of the highway. The locals respond, saying: “If you don’t like how we do
things down here, go back to where you came from!”.
then is the apparent obsession in some places about ‘identity’ and ‘ethnicity’.
The New York Times, leading the ‘progressive’ (dread word!) media, is notorious
on this matter, lavishly publishing streams of Op-Ed articles and editorial
columns about ‘racial’ identities and ‘ethnic’ exploitation. Some of this
originates from the absurdities of the U.S. Census Bureau, with its desperate
attempts to categorise everybody in some racial pigeonhole. What they might do
with such information, I have no idea. Shortly after I came to this country, I
was sent on a management training course, where I was solemnly informed that I
was not allowed to ask any prospective job candidate what his or her ‘race’
was. Ten minutes later, I was told that Human Resource departments had to track
every employee’s race so that they could meet Equal Employment Opportunity
Commission guidelines. So it all depended on how a new employee decided to
identify him- or her-self, and the bureaucrats got to work. I might have picked
‘Pacific Islander’, and no-one could have questioned it. (Sorry! I meant
‘Atlantic Islander’ . . .) Crazy stuff.
few weeks ago, I had to fill out one of those interminable forms that accompany
the delivery of healthcare in the USA. It was a requirement of the March 2010
Affordable Care Act, and I had to answer three questions. “The Government does not
allow for unanswered questions. If you choose not to disclose the requested
information, you must answer REFUSED to ensure compliance with the law”, the
form sternly informed me. (I did not bother to inquire what would happen to me
if I left the questions unanswered.) The first two questions ran as follows:
Circle the one that best describes your RACE:
Indian or Alaska native
Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander
or African American
Circle the one that best describes your ETHNICITY:
a. Hispanic or Latin
b. Non-Hispanic or Non-Latin
fresh nonsense is this? To think that a panel of experts actually sat down
around a table for several meetings and came up with this tomfoolery is almost
beyond belief. (You will notice that the forms did not ask me whether the
patient was an illegal immigrant.) But this must be one of the reasons why so
many are desperate to enter the country – to have the opportunity to respond to
those wonderful life-enhancing questionnaires created by our government.
sociological aberration leaks into ‘identity’, the great hoax of the 21st
century. A few weeks ago, the New York Times published an editorial in
which it, without a trace of irony, announced that some political candidate in
New York had recently identified herself as ‘queer Latina’, as if that settled
the suitability of her election. The newspaper’s letter pages are sprinkled
with earnest and vapid statements from subscribers who start off their
communications on the following lines: “As a bald progressive Polish-American
dentist, I believe that . . . .”, as if
somehow their views were not free, and arrived at after careful reflection, but
conditioned by their genetic material, their parents, their chosen career, and their
ideological group membership, and that their status somehow gave them a
superior entitlement to voice their opinions on the subject of their choice. (I believe the name for this is
‘essentialism’.) But all that is irrelevant to the fact of whether they have
anything of value to say.
trouble is that, if we read about the views of one bald progressive
Polish-American dentist, the next time we meet one of his or her kind, we shall
say: “Ah! You’re one of them!”, and assume that that person holds the same
opinions as the previously encountered self-appointed representative of the bald
progressive Polish-American dentist community. And we end up with clumsy
stereotypes, which of course are a Bad Thing.
should be about uniqueness, not groupthink or unscientific notions of ethnicity,
and cannot be defined by a series of labels. No habits or practices are
inherited: they are all acquired culturally. That doesn’t mean they are
necessarily bad for that reason, but people need to recognize that they were
not born on predestinate grooves to become Baptists or Muslims, to worship
cows, to practice female circumcision, or to engage in strange activities such as
shooting small birds in great numbers, or watching motor vehicles circle an
oval track at dangerous speeds for hours on end, in the hope that they will at
some time collide, or descending, and occasionally falling down on, snowy
mountainsides with their feet buckled to wooden planks, while doing their best
to avoid trees and boulders. It is not ‘in their blood’, or ‘in their DNA’.
workers are encouraged (and sometimes required) to seek foster-parents for
adoption cases that match the subject’s ‘ethnicity’, so as to provide an
appropriate cultural background for them, such as a ‘native American’ way of
life. Wistful and new-agey adults, perhaps suffering from some disappointment
in career or life, sometimes seek out the birthplace of a grandparent, in the
belief that the exposure may reveal some vital part of their ‘identity’. All
absolute nonsense, of course.
instance, I might claim that cricket is ‘in my DNA’, but I would not be able to
tell you in what epoch that genetic mutation occurred, or why the gene has
atrophied in our rascally son, James, who was brought to these shores as a ten
month-old, and has since refused to show any interest whatsoever in the great
game. On the other hand, did the young Andrew Strauss dream, on the banks of
the blue Danube, of opening the batting for England? Did Michael Kasprowicz
learn to bowl outswingers in the shadow of the Tatra Mountains?
this practice of pigeon-holing and stereotyping leads to deeper problems. We now
have to deal with the newly discovered injustice of ‘cultural appropriation’. I
read the other day that student union officials at the University of East
Anglia had banned the distribution of sombreros to students, as stallholders
were forbidden from handing out ‘discriminatory or stereotypical imagery’.
Well, I can understand why Ku Klux Klan hoods, and Nazi regalia, would
necessarily be regarded as offensive, but sunhats? Were sombreros
introduced by the Spanish on reluctant Aztecan populations, and are they thus a
symbol of Spanish imperialism? Who is actually at risk here? What about solar
topis? Would they be banned, too?
mustn’t stop there, of course. Is the fact that Chicken Tikka Masala is now
viewed by some as a national British dish an insult to the subcontinent of
India, or a marvellous statement of homage to its wonderful cuisine? Should
South Koreans be playing golf, which, as we know, is an ethnic pastime of the
Scots? Should non-Maori members of the New Zealand rugby team be dancing the
haka? English bands playing rhythm ‘n’ blues? Should Irving Berlin have written
blight has even started to affect the world of imaginative fiction. I recently read,
in the Times Literary Supplement, in an article on John Updike, the
following: “Is self-absorbed
fiction always narcissistic, or only if it’s written by a straight white male?
What if it’s autofiction, does that make it ok? What are the alternatives? If a
writer ventures outside their own socio-cultural sphere, is that praiseworthy
empathy or problematic cultural appropriation? Is Karl Ove Knausgaard more
self-absorbed than Rachel Cusk? Is that a good thing or a bad thing?”
(‘Autofiction’ was a new one on me, but it apparently means that you can invent
things while pretending to write a memoir, and get away with it. Since most autobiographies
I have read are a pack of lies planned to glorify the accomplishments of the
writer, and paper over all those embarrassing unpleasantnesses, I doubt whether
we need a new term here. Reminiscences handed down in old age should more
accurately be called ‘oublioirs’.)
writer, Claire Lowdon, almost nails it, but falls into a pit of her own making.
‘Socio-cultural sphere’? What is that supposed to mean? Is that a category anointed
by some policepersons from a Literary Council, like the Soviet Glavlit, or
is it a classification, like ‘Pacific Islander’, that the author can provide
him- or her-self, as with ‘gay Latina’? Should Tolstoy’s maleness, and his
‘socio-cultural sphere’, have prevented him from imagining the torments of Anna
Karenina, or portraying the peasant Karatayev as a source of wisdom? The
defenders of culture against ‘misappropriation’ are hoist with the petard of
their own stereotypes. (And please don’t ask me who Karl Ove Knausgaard and
Rachel Cusk are. Just because I know who John Updike, James Thurber and Rube
Goldberg are, but fall short with these two, does not automatically make me nekulturny,
and totally un-cool.)
whole point of this piece is to emphasise the strengths and importance of
pluralism, and diminish the notion of multiculturalism. As I so urbanely wrote
in Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm: “In a pluralist society,
opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in
churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive
arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are
considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The
ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are
considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms
that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly
the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group),
and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere.”
while tracing some allegiance to the cultures of both the UK and the USA, I do
not have to admit to interest in any of their characteristic practices (opera,
horse-racing, NASCAR, American football, Game of Thrones, etc. etc.) but
can just quietly go about my business following my legal pursuits, and rejoice
in the variety and richness of it all.
was thus refreshing, however, to find elsewhere, in the same issue of the TLS,
the following statement – about cricket. An Indian politician, Shashi
Tharoor, wrote: “And yet, this
match revealed once again that cricket can serve as a reminder of all that
Indians and Pakistanis have in common – language, cuisine, music, clothes,
tastes in entertainment, and most markets of culture, including sporting
passions. Cricket underscores the common cultural mosaic that brings us
together – one that transcends geopolitical differences. This cultural
foundation both predates and precedes our political antipathy. It is what
connects our diasporas and why they find each other’s company comforting in
strange lands when they first emigrate – visibly so in the UK. Cricket confirms
that there is more that unites us than divides us.”
Well, up to a point, Lord Ram. That claim might be a slight exaggeration and simplification, avoiding those tetchy issues about Hindu-based nationalism, but no matter. Cricket is a sport that was enthusiastically picked up – not appropriated – in places all around the world. I cannot be the only fan who was delighted with Afghanistan’s appearance in the recent World Cup, and so desperately wanted the team to win at least one game. I have so many good memories of playing cricket against teams from all backgrounds (the Free Foresters, the Brixton West Indians, even the Old Alleynians), never questioning which ‘socio-cultural sphere’ they came from (okay, occasionally, as those readers familiar with my Richie Benaud experience will attest), but simply sharing in the lore and traditions of cricket with those who love the game, the game in which, as A. G. McDonnell reminded us in England Their England, the squire and the blacksmith contested without class warfare getting in the way. Lenin was said to have despaired when he read that policemen and striking miners in Scotland took time off from their feuding to play soccer. He then remarked that revolution would never happen in the UK.
For a while, I considered myself part of that very wholesome tradition. I was looking forward, perhaps, to explaining one day to my grandchildren that I had watched Cowdrey and May at the Oval (‘Oh my Hornby and my Barlow long ago . . .’), and that I could clearly recall an evening in late July 1956 where I overheard a friend of my father’s asking him whether he had heard that ‘Laker took all ten’. But Ashley, and the twins Alexis and Alyssa (one of their maternal great-grandfathers looked just like Ho Chi Minh, but was a very gentle man with no discernible cricket gene in his make-up) would surely give me a quizzical look, as if it were all very boring, and ask me instead to tell them again the story of how I single-handedly tracked down the Surrey Puma . . .
Uprooted and rootless I thus remain. My cosmopolitan days are largely over, too. Even though I have never set my eyes on Greenland’s icy mountains or India’s coral strand (or Minsk), I was fortunate enough to visit all five continents on my business travels. I may still make the occasional return to the United Kingdom: otherwise my voyages to major metropolitan centres are restricted to visits to Wilmington for appointments with the chiropractor, and cross-country journeys to Los Altos, California to see James and his family.
where does that leave me, and the ‘common cultural mosaic that binds us
together’? A civilized culture should acknowledge some common heritage and
shared customs, while allowing for a large amount of differences. Individuals
may have an adversarial relationship in such an environment, but it should be
based on roles that are temporary, not essentials. Shared custom should
prevent the differences becoming destructive. Yet putting too many new stresses
on the social fabric too quickly will cause it to fray. For example, returning
to the UK has often been a strange experience, revealing gradual changes in common
civilities. I recall, a few years ago, walking into the branch of my bank in
South Croydon, where I have held an account since 1965. (The bank manager
famously gave me what I interpreted as a masonic handshake in 1971, when I was
seeking a loan to ease my entry into the ‘property-owning classes’.) The first thing I saw was a sign on the wall
that warned customers something along these lines: “Abuse of the service staff
in this bank will not be tolerated! Offenders will be strictly prosecuted.”
oh my, I thought – does this bank have a problem! What a dreadful first
impression! Did they really resent their customers so much that they had to welcome
them with such a hostile message? Was the emotional well-being of their service
staff that fragile? Did the bank’s executives not realise that customer service
requires a thick skin? And perhaps behind all that lay a deeper problem – that
their customer service, and attentiveness to customers’ needs, were so bad that
customers too often were provoked into ire? Why would they otherwise advertise
that fact to everyone who walked in?
can’t see that happening in a bank in the United States, where I am more likely
to receive the well-intentioned but cringe-making farewell of ‘Have a blessed
day!’ when I have completed my transaction. That must be the American
equivalent of the masonic handshake. (No, I don’t do all my bank business via
my cell-phone.) Some edginess and lack of trust appear to have crept in to the
domain of suburban Surrey – and maybe beyond. Brexit must have intensified
example: In North Carolina, when walking along the street, we residents are in
the habit of engaging with strangers as we pass them, with a smile, and a ‘Good
Day!’, or ’How are you doin’?’, just as a measure of reinforcing our common
civility and good humour. When I last tried that, walking around in South
Croydon, where my roots are supposed to be, it did not work out well. I got a
scared look from an astonished local, as if to say: ‘Who’s that weird geezer!
He clearly doesn’t belong here’. And he would be right.
In conclusion: a list. As a retired Anglo-American slightly Aspergerish atheist ex-database administrator, I love lists, as all persons with the above description predictably do. My choice below catalogues fifty cultural figures (including one pair) who have influenced me, or for whom I hold some enthusiasm, a relationship occasionally enhanced by a personal encounter that contained something special. (I should point out, however, that I was brought up in a milieu that stressed the avoidance of showing excessive enthusiasm: ‘Surtout, pas trop de zèle!’. Somehow I survived American business without being ‘passionate’ about anything.) That does not mean that these persons are idols, heroes, icons, or role-models – they simply reflect my enthusiasms and tastes. But they give an idea of how scattered and chaotic any one person’s cultural interests can be in a pluralist society. Think of them as my cosmopolitan roots. Rachel Cusk did not make the list, but she would probably have beaten out J. R. R. Tolkien and Eric Hobsbawm.
Regular readers will know that Isaiah Berlin has featured prominently in my research. His planned trip to Russia with Guy Burgess in 1940 was what triggered the course of study leading to my doctoral thesis; my article in History Today, ‘The Undercover Egghead’, analysed his role in intelligence; his study of Marx and Marxism plays a pivotal role in Misdefending the Realm, where I also record his wartime activities, including his somewhat shady dealings with the Soviet agent Gorsky; I have written about his private life in ‘Isaiah in Love’, and in ‘Some Diplomatic Incidents’, both posted on this website.
Throughout this time Henry Hardy, Berlin’s chief editor,
and the man largely responsible for bringing Berlin’s writings to orderly
publication, and a broader audience, has been very helpful to me, providing me
with unpublished source material, and answering my questions. He attended the
seminar on Berlin that I held at the University of Buckingham, and I had the
pleasure of travelling to the Wirral to visit him a few years ago. Yet Henry
has, quite naturally, been a little suspicious of my motives, thinking that I
was perhaps a ‘conspiracy theorist’ (true, in a way), and he has probably not
agreed with all my conclusions about the qualities of Berlin’s thought, or the
judiciousness of some of his actions. I believe I can confidently state,
however, that he respects the seriousness of my methods, and my commitment to
Last year, Henry published a book titled In Search of Isaiah Berlin, in which he
describes his decades-long relationship with Berlin, and his struggles (as they
must surely be called) to bring Berlin’s papers to a state ready for
publication and see them into print. (He had already kindly sent me some of
these works that I had not already acquired.) A philosopher himself, Henry also
records the exchanges he had with Berlin in trying to understand exactly what
lay behind the ideas his mentor espoused, attempting to resolve what appeared
to him to be contradictions.
The book recently became available in the USA, and I
have now read it. While enjoying the saga of Henry’s activities as an editor, I
must confess to being somewhat disappointed by the essence and outcome of the
philosophical debate. (I am probably a little jealous, too, that Henry’s book
has received far more attention in the press than has Misdefending the Realm, but that must be due both to Henry’s
energies and the fact that Berlin is still regarded as a national treasure.)
Henry’s reflections concern some of Berlin’s more controversial assertions, especially those about the universality of human nature, and the nature of pluralism. At the risk of oversimplifying what is a deep discussion in the second part of Henry’s book, the paradoxes arising from Berlin’s writings that particularly interested me could be stated as follows:
Are human values in some
way universal, and thus shared? If so, whence do they derive? And should we
treat behavior that appears essentially as ’evil’ as still ‘human’?
How does a pluralist
outlook relate to the national culture to which it belongs, and how should it
treat dogmas that ruthlessly reject such a compromising worldview?
Can pluralism function
as a remedy against relativism, namely the view that values have no standing
outside the society or person who espouses them?
Berlin appeared to cherish some thoughts about the
objectivity of such a common core of values across humanity, but provided
little evidence, and Henry’s earnest and well-framed questions frequently drew
no convincing response from Berlin. I was somewhat alarmed at the fuzziness of
all of this, and accordingly organised some thoughts to send to Henry, to which
he generously replied. That exchange comprises this Special Bulletin. Henry’s
comments appear in bold in the passage below.
* * * * * * * * * * * *
on the publication of In Search of Isaiah Berlin. I enjoyed the
story of your quest. I wonder: will we soon read a parody by David Taylor
in Private Eye? Hope springs eternal …
was prompted by the intensity of your debate, and my own exposure to IB’s
writings, to record a few reactions, not exactly random, but not comprehensive
or fully-formed, either. (I have not studied what sociologists have no doubt
written about these issues.)
dominant thought that occupied me was that, if the great thinker’s ideas needed
to be explained by his amanuensis, and yet that interpreter could not find any
consistency or coherence in them That’s an
exaggeration: my difficulties are local, and I believe resolvable, though not,
it seems, by IB at that stage of his life, when his mind had begun to rigidify, then perhaps the ideas
were not that outstanding in the first place. Some critics have called out IB
for humbuggery, but, now having read your book, I am more convinced that IB
accepted that he was not a great or original thinker, and was indeed surprised
by the attention, acclaim, and awards that he received. Yes, I think he meant it, though he was not too keen
when one agreed too readily.
What also struck me was a disappointing vagueness in the terminology used in the discourse. That point is well taken, and indeed I make it myself in the book (e.g. p. 207). But to some extent vagueness goes with the territory: ‘Out of the vague timber of humanity no precise thing was ever made’, one might say. This point was made by Aristotle: ‘It is the mark of an educated man to look for precision in each class of things just so far as the nature of the subject admits; it is evidently equally foolish to accept probable reasoning from a mathematician and to demand from a rhetorician scientific proofs.’ Nicomachean Ethics, Book I, 1094b.24. IB himself is aware of this point: I could look for the references if you wanted them. But the main message is that human affairs do not lend themselves to the same precision as the sciences. You may recall that, in Misdefending the Realm, I wrote of IB’s book on Marx: “In his method and style, Berlin echoes much of Marx’s verbosity, and displays an unexpected lack of precision in his references to such concepts as ‘civilisation’, ‘class’, ‘nation’, ‘race’, ‘community’, ‘people’, ‘group’, ‘culture’, ‘age’, ‘epoch’, ‘milieu’, ‘country’, ‘generation’, ‘ideology’, ‘social order’, and ‘outlook’, which terms all run off the page without being clearly defined or differentiated.” I am not sure that watertight definitions of these terms are possible; but of course one should use them with all due care. (I also asserted that the book was ‘erudite, but not really scholarly’ – an opinion with which Professor Clarke of All Souls and the University of Buckingham agreed. I agree too. Did you really find it ‘brilliant’ (p 61)? Yes, in the sense that he gets inside Marx’s skin and understands what makes him tick: far more important, in my opinion, than getting the references right. Sadly, I saw this pattern repeated in many of the exchanges you had with IB. What does it mean, for example, to wish that humanity could have ‘moral or metaphysical unity’ My phrase not IB’s: I meant living in a shared moral and conceptual world (p 251)? Who are ‘normal human beings’ (p 177)? That is the $64,000 question, to which chunks of this book, and all of the next one, are/will be devoted. It was also one of IB’s recurring themes, of course, but it is not an easy one: he appeals to ‘A general sense of what human beings are like – which may well not merely have gaps but be seriously mistaken in places – but that cannot be helped: all vast generalisations of this kind are neither avoidable nor demonstrable’ (p. 189).
I also found the debate all very
abstract. That may be a valid criticism. My
own default methodological rule is to give at least one concrete example of
every abstract point, but I expect I fail to do this reliably in the book.
However, part of the problem is that IB and I have a more philosophical
temperament than you do, as a historian. That’s why I invited unphilosophical
readers to skip chapters 9–11. Do you not agree that it could have benefitted from
more real-world examples? Probably (see above). Perhaps some references
to research being performed in more scientific disciplines than philosophy,
such as anthropology, psychology, evolutionary biology, or even history, and
the dreaded sociology? Perhaps, but a leading
burden of IB’s song is that human studies are generically different from
scientific ones, and this means that there is a limit to how far the latter can
throw light on the former. Some disciplines are partly hybrids between the two,
including those IB mentions on p. 189; and he always insisted that science
should be used to the maximum extent possible. I, however, am too ignorant to
summarise the current state of science. (IB tends to support this point of
exposure on p 189.) As I write, I have in front of me the March 1 issue of the Times
Literary Supplement. In one review, the anthropologist Richard Wrangham is
quoted as identifying ‘coalitionary proactive aggression’ as a drive that
launched human ancestors toward full humanity. I read
that review too, and found it enormously suggestive. A few pages later, Michael
Stanislawski draws our attention to Omer Bartov’s Anatomy of a
Genocide (which I have read, and have referred to on my website),
which describes how members of a friendly community suddenly turned mercilessly
on each other under the experience of both Nazi and Soviet occupation. What do
such pieces tell us about any consistent ‘human nature’, and how could other
such experts contribute to the debate? Good
questions, which again I am not competent to answer. But there are connections
between them and my suggestion that IB underrates evil.
I believe that one
of the problems is that, if we talk about ‘human nature’ in a vacuum, we enter
the world of mysticism, akin to that of religion. Ignorance rather than mysticism, in my case: I am dead against
mysticism. Where does human nature reside? In human biology, history and society. How is it passed on genetically by DNA,
or modified by culture and education? IB (p 184) indicates that he thinks that
religion is ‘hard-wired’ into human nature: if this were true, how and when did
this occur? Who knows? We can only examine ourselves
as we are now, and such records of the past as we have, and speculate. And when did the wiring fail I don’t regard its absence as any kind of failure, but as a (sometimes
hard-won) strength for
those of us who do not require that facet in our lives? And how do such
religious instincts get wired into those who would practice, say, honour
killings, under the guise of religion by culture,
again, which can be a malign force? Does human nature thus not end up being simply those
traits that we enlightened beings consider desirable? We must avoid that risk: it should be those traits that are actually
beneficial, which is a different matter. Or is human nature just another name for
something that is mere tradition, and thus differs in separate countries and
times, like the practice of suttee or female circumcision? No: that’s exactly what the term is not supposed to refer
their adherents say it was ’tradition’ it’s mistaken
tradition, in my opinion or
‘human nature’?) And what do we do with a monster like Eric Hobsbawm, who was
feted for his historical accomplishments, but to his dying day refused to deny
that the murder of millions on behalf of the Communist cause had been a
mistake? Was he human? Or was he simply ‘malign’, a ‘pinpusher’, as IB might
describe those who fall outside the morally acceptable? Was he ‘evil, without
qualification’ (p 194)? Not quite, perhaps; but he was what IB
describes as ‘wickedly wrong’ (p. 261).
P.S. I noticed that, in the
next issue of the TLS, dated March 8,
David Kynaston offers a review of Richard J. Evans’s biography of Hobsbawm,
subtitled ‘a national treasure whose politics provoked endless bitterness’.
What can one say about a ‘culture’ that promotes a worm like Hobsbawm to such
status? It is all here, including the notorious ‘Desert Islands Discs’
programme where Hobsbawm openly approved the slaughter of millions in the
communist cause. As John Gross is recorded here as saying, such apologists
would have been the first to be lined up against the wall to be shot.
religion, I was surprised by your rather weak defence of atheism, as if we
needed a new term to define somebody who simply ‘doesn’t understand’. I think we do, for the reasons given; but this doesn’t
make one a weak(er) opponent of religion, as my book surely shows. If I am faced with
all the verbal paraphernalia of, say, Christianity, with the ideas of God, angels, saints, sin, salvation,
heaven, hell, Holy Spirit, saviour, resurrection, eternal life, soul,
immaculate conception, transubstantiation, prayer, etc. etc., it is quite easy
to take the line that this is all mumbo-jumbo, and no more worthy of discussion
than the existence of the Tooth Fairy. It would be easier for me to have
conversation about beginnings and ends with an atheist from Turkmenistan than
with my fundamentalist Baptist neighbour, who is presumably of the same
‘culture’ or ‘society’ that I find myself in. I share
your alienation from that terminology, but to call it mere mumbo-jumbo
underestimates its allegorical/metaphorical significance for many believers, something
IB accepts (up to a point).
is no doubt fashionable to talk about ‘cultures’, and the pluralist bogeyman of
‘multiculturalism’, but I believe the concept is much more fluid (and evasive)
than your debate suggests. I would maintain that we have to inspect ‘culture’
in at least three dimensions – temporal, geographical, and social, and
determine how it relates to the concept of a nation (is there a national
‘culture’ yes, to a greater or lesser
extent is specific cases; how does it relate to that country’s rule of
law closely?). For example, British
(or English!) culture has changed over the centuries: we no longer accept
bear-baiting, hanging, slavery, child labour, or duelling, but are currently
torn over fox-hunting, and largely indulgent of fishing for sport. Our mores
over divorce and homosexuality have gradually evolved in recent decades. We
extend the geography to talk about ‘European’ culture, which in its most lofty
forms presumably means such features as a free press, scientific inquiry,
French cuisine, the Prado, and the Eurovision Song Contest, but have to make
exceptions for such localised cultural activities as eating horseflesh,
bull-fighting, euthanasia, and lax regulations concerning gun-ownership.
(European culture also produced the horrors of Nazism and Communism.) Within a
certain country, there may be differences between (and I hesitate to use the
terms) ‘high’ culture, such as opera, fox-hunting and polo, and ‘low’ culture,
such as fishing, greyhound racing, grunge rock, or trainspotting (p 223)! I
might consider myself a ‘cultured’ person without indulging in any of those
activities. Thus I find it very difficult to identify something that is a clear
and constant ‘culture’ among all these behaviours. Fair enough. One can certainly try to be more careful
in one’s use of terms such as ‘culture’. But everyone knows what one means by
something being characteristically British, German, Japanese etc.
So what is the pluralist culture
that IB defends? He says (p 194) that he is ‘wedded to his own culture’ – but
what is that? Englishness, mainly. He writes about a
‘dominant culture’ in every society, and asserts that the ‘society’ has a right
to protect itself against ‘religious or ethnic persuasions which are not
compatible with it’ (p 199). But what standing does this have in law? Culture doesn’t operate only by legal means; but law
can help support the dominant culture. Enlightened people should stand up
against ‘grooming’ and bigamy, presumably of
but who decides what is compatible and what is incompatible outside the
processes of legislation? Everyone, by consensus. What allowances are made
for religious observance? I wish it were none,
but can’t persuade myself to defend such an extreme position. Should parents be
allowed to indoctrinate their own children in some faiths, but not
others? Not in any faith, say I: all
children should be educated in the plurality of faiths, in the hope (for me)
that this will help inoculate them against faith as such. Are they allowed
to reject certain socially beneficial practices, such as vaccination? I say no. Don’t tell the Jehovah’s Witnesses! What would IB have said
about wearing the niqab in public places? He was
probably in favour of allowing it: some Jews, after all, wear skullcaps in
public; some Christians crosses. It makes my own flesh creep, but I can’t agree
that it should be totally banned. The best test of one’s tolerance is when it
is most severely tried.
I was groping with the elusiveness of what ‘a culture’ means, I read further in
the March TLS. It was fascinating. I read pieces about Jews in
Belarus, and Circassians in Palestine, and reflected how sad it was that
individuals should try to solve their problems of ‘identity’ by searching for
the odd habits and practices of one of their grandfathers. Quite so. (I would not expect my grandchildren to do this, since
they have a mixture of Vietnamese, West Indian and typically complex British
grandparents: is that because we are privileged, or merely sensible?) And then
I encountered a marvellous essay by Hanif Kureishi, ‘Touching the Untouchable’,
where he looks back at the Satanic Verses scandal. He quotes
(disapprovingly) some remarkably silly statements by John le Carré and Roald
Dahl, which run as follows:
position was that there is no law in life or nature that says great religions
may be insulted with impunity” (le Carré), and
civilized world we all have a moral obligation to apply a modicum of censorship
to our own work why? in
order to reinforce this principle of free speech” (Dahl), and then goes on to
message of the Enlightenment is that we have some choice over who we want to
be, making our own destiny as individuals, without submitting to gods,
revelation or ancestors. The basis of this is a liberal education and a
democracy of ideas. These are not British values – over which Europeans have no
monopoly – but universal ones.”, and closes with:
of criticism, free-ranging thought, and questioning are universal values which
benefit the relatively powerless in particular. If we gave way on any of these,
even for a moment, we’d leave ourselves without a culture, and with no hope.”
I think making that equivalence of ‘a culture’ with
‘pluralism’ is spot on bravo,
although I think Kureishi is being too optimistic yes: what he should have said is that
they should be universal values when
claiming these are ‘universal values’, as apparently even members of the
intellectual elite do not share them with him, let alone Islamicists = Islamists/Moslems?. And of course,
Britain is still part of Europe, with or without Brexit, so the distinction
between ‘British’ values and ‘European’ values is somewhat specious, but also
In summary, I find all the talk
about a ‘common core’ of human values, an inherent ‘human nature’, and a
definable ‘culture’ all very unconvincing. ‘The crooked timber of humanity’ is indeed
that: human beings are very unpredictable, and display very different traits
over time and space. Human culture, including religious belief, is not
genetically wired in any way, but passed on through the agencies of family,
school, friends, church, etc. (For example, I hear so many Americans say that
‘hunting is in everybody’s blood, because once “we” were hunters’: but I have
never had any desire to hunt, although if I were starving, I might rediscover
the skill. cf. my remarks in the book about
militarism, e.g. p. 333) There is no biological basis for ethnicity I think this an exaggeration, given the generalisations
of physical anthropology, or the notion of practices inherited through it.
Geneticists still do not understand exactly how evolutionary adaptation works.
Morality is the sphere of the personal: expansive social actions claiming
broader virtue frequently fall foul of the Law of Unexpected Consequences a point IB regularly makes. What governs cultural activity
is partly the rule of law,
which operates at the level of the nation-state, whose actions themselves
should be controlled through democratic processes. The preferred ‘culture’
should simply be pluralism. There is also room for
culturally specific ingredients like the Japanese tea ceremony, which are
neither required nor prohibited by law, but maintained by tradition for as long
as they last. (And,
in my implementation, Hobsbawm would not be persecuted, but he would not be
invited to appear on Desert Island Discs.)
the Realm I attempted to draw my own picture of how this dynamic
operates in a liberal, pluralist society. ‘Forgive me’ (as you are wont to say
to your mentor) for including a paragraph here: “In a pluralist society,
opinion is fragmented – for example, in the media, in political parties, in
churches (or temples or mosques), and between the legislative and the executive
arms of government. The individual rights of citizens and their consciences are
considered paramount, and all citizens are considered equal under the law. The
ethnic, cultural, religious or philosophical allegiances that they may hold are
considered private affairs – unless they are deployed to subvert the freedoms
that a liberal society offers them. A pluralist democracy values very highly
the rights of the individual (rather than of a sociologically-defined group),
and preserves a clear line between the private life and the public sphere. So
long as the laws are equally applied to all citizens, individuals can adopt
multiple roles. The historian of ideas Sir Isaiah Berlin, who has featured so
largely in this book, was a major contributor to this notion of the
‘incommensurability of values’, although he did not confidently project it into
political discourse why do you say this? I
don’t say it in the cited article?.[i] Moreover,
a highly important distinction needs to be made: pluralism is very distinct
from ‘multiculturalism’, which attempts to reduce the notion of individual
identity by grouping citizens into ‘communities’, giving them stereotyped
attributes, and having their (assumed) interests represented collectively outside the normal political
structure and processes.”
* * * * * * * * * * *
Henry and I could probably debate further, but I think we are of a very similar mind, and the differences are minor. I did add to him that I thought that philosophers (and others) have to be very careful when they use analogies from the sciences in describing human behaviour (e.g. ‘hard-wired’, ‘in our DNA’), because the usage is dangerous as a metaphor, and inaccurate if meant literally. I also don’t deny the succour that religion has brought to many people (the Paul Johnson theory that because it is beautiful and beneficial, it must be true), but it doesn’t alter my belief that it should be called out for what is, and mumbo-jumbo conveys exactly the right spirit for me. I hope this exchange encourages readers to seek out Henry’s book – and, of course, Misdefending the Realm, for those who have still resisted my entreaties. I look forward to the next publication he promises us.