Category Archives: Politics

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 8)

A dummy tank used in Operation Bodyguard

“These got a further boost when, just after midnight on 9 June, CATO [the German codename for GARBO] spent two full hours on the air sending a long and detailed report to his spymaster, Kühlenthal. The risk of capture was enormous when an agent transmitted that long, for it gave the direction-finding vans plenty of time to locate him. But this very fact impressed the Germans with the importance of his signal.” (Hitler’s Spies, by David Kahn, p 515)

“If the receivers of this vast screed had paused to reflect, they might have registered how unlikely it was that a wireless would have been able to operate for more than two hours without detection. But they did not.” (Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre, p 324)

“Garbo still ranked high in the esteem of his controller, but if Kühlenthal had thought coolly and carefully enough, there was one aspect of that day’s exchange of signals that might have made him suspicious. Garbo had been on the air so long that he had given the British radiogoniometrical stations ample time on three occasions to obtain a fix on his position and arrest him. Why was he able to stay on the air so long? Did he have a charmed life? Or was he being allowed to transmit by the British for the purpose of deception? These were questions that Kühlenthal might well have asked himself. But instead of being suspicious, he sent a message to Berlin. In it he recommended Garbo for the Iron Cross.” (Anthony Cave-Brown, Bodyguard of Lies, pp 676-677)

“The Abwehr remained remarkably naïve in thinking that in a densely populated and spy-conscious country like England an agent would be able to set up a transmitter and antenna without attracting attention. Moreover, it seems not to have smelled a rat from the fact that some agents, notably GARBO, were able to remain on the air for very long periods without being disturbed. It did have the good sense to furnish agents sent to Britain with only low-power sets that would cause minimal interference to neighbors’ receivers and would be more difficult for the British to monitor – though they also afforded less reliable communication. Once again, GARBO was an exception. Telling the Germans that he had recruited a radio operator with a powerful transmitter, he sent his messages at 100 watts from a high-grade set. Even this did not raise the Abwehr’s suspicions.” (Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers, pp 142-143)

“And so, with Eisenhower’s authorization, Pujol transmitted, in the words of Harris, ‘the most important report of his career’. Beginning just after midnight, the message took two hours and two minutes to transmit. This was a dangerously long time for any agent to remain on air.” (Operation Fortitude, by Joshua Levine, p 283)

“GARBO’s second transmission lasted a record 122 minutes, and hammered home his belief that the events of the past forty-eight hours represented a diversionary feint, citing his mistress ‘Dorothy Thompson’, an unconscious source in the Cabinet Office, who had mentioned a figure of seventy-five divisions in England.” (Nigel West, Codeword OVERLORD, p 274)

“The length of this message should have aroused suspicion in itself. How on earth a real secret agent could stay on the air transmitting for so long in wartime conditions was unbelievable. British SOE agents operating in Europe were told to keep transmissions to less than five minutes in order not to be detected. However, this was not questioned.” (Terry Crowdy, Deceiving Hitler, p 270)

“We are sure that we deceived the Germans and turned their weapon against themselves; can we be quite sure that they were not equally successful in turning our weapon against is? Now our double-cross agents were the straight agents of the Germans – their whole espionage system in the U.K. What did the Germans gain from this system? The answer cannot be doubtful. They gained no good from their agents, and they did take from them a very great deal of harm. It would be agreeable to be able to accept the simple explanation, to sit back in the armchair of complacency, to say that we were very clever and the Germans very stupid, and that consequently we gained both on the swings and the roundabouts as well. But that argument just won’t hold water at all.” (The Double-Cross System, by John Masterman, p 263)

“Masterman credited only his own ideas, fresh-minted like gold sovereigns entirely from his experiences on the XX Committee. The wonder of it is, with the exception of the sporadic pooh-poohing from the likes of maverick Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor and veteran counter-intelligence officer David Mure, The Double-Cross System came to be swallowed whole. Farago’s book was essentially forgotten; Masterman’s became celebrated.” (Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden, p 314)

“Yet, when all is said, one is left with a sense of astonishment that men in such responsible positions as were those who controlled the destinies of Germany during the late war, could have been so fatally misled on such slender evidence. One can only suppose that strategic deception derives its capacity for giving life to this fairy-tale world from the circumstance that it operates in a field into which the enemy can seldom effectively penetrate and where the opposing forces never meet in battle. Dangers which lurk in this terra incognita thus tend to be magnified, and such information as is gleaned to be accepted too readily at its face value. Fear of the unknown is at all times apt to breed strange fancies. Thus it is that strategic deception finds its opportunity of changing the fortunes of war.” (Fortitude, by Roger Hesketh, p 361)

“Abwehr officials, enjoying life in the oases of Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm or Istanbul, fiddling their expenses and running currency rackets on the side, felt that they were earning their keep so long as they provided some kind of information. This explains why for example Garbo was able to get away with his early fantasies, and Tricycle could run such outrageous risks.” (Michael Howard, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, p 49)

“However, the claim that the Double Cross spies were ‘believed’ in ‘Berlin’ needs some amplification. Even if the information was swallowed by the Abwehr, that is not to say that it was believed at OKW or that it influenced overall German policy. Part of the problem is that the Abwehr was not a very efficient organisation. Nor was it involved in significant analysis of its intelligence product: on the contrary, the Ast and outstations tended to pounce on any snippet of potentially useful information and, rather than evaluate its intelligence value, pass it on to Berlin as evidence of their ‘busyness’ and as justification for their salaries and expense accounts.” (David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day, p 163)

“We have succeeded in sustaining them so well that we are receiving even at this stage . . . an average of thirty to forty reports each day from inside England, many of them radioed directly on the clandestine wireless sets we have operational in defiance of the most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures.” (Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, in February 1944, from Ladislas Farago’s Game of the Foxes, p 705)

“A fundamental assumption they [the Germans] made was logically simple: if they were reading parts or all of different British codes at different times, and no mention of any signal was ever found that referred to any material transmitted by the Germans in an Enigma-encoded message, then the system had to be secure.” (Christian Jennings, The Third Reich is Listening, p 261)

GARBO and D-DAY

The Story So Far

(Readers looking for a longer recap may want to inspect the concluding paragraphs of The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, Part VII)

By 1943, the Radio Security Service, adopted by SIS (MI6) in the summer of 1941, has evolved into an efficient mechanism for intercepting enemy, namely German, wireless signals from continental Europe, and passing them on to Bletchley Park for cryptanalysis. Given the absence of any transmissions indicating the presence of German spies using wireless telegraphy on British soil, the Service allows its domestic detection and location-finding capabilities to be relaxed somewhat, with the result that it operates rather sluggishly in tracking down radio usage appearing to be generated from locations in the UK, whether they are truly illicit, or simply misguided. RSS would later overstate the capabilities of its mobile location-finding units, in a fashion similar to that in which the German police units exaggerated the power and automation of its own interception and detection devices and procedures. RSS also has responsibilities for providing SIS agents, as well as the sabotage department SOE (Special Operations Executive), with equipment and communications instructions, for their excursions into mainland Europe. SOE has had a very patchy record in wireless security, but RSS’s less than prompt response to its needs provokes SOE, abetted by its collaborators, members of various governments in exile, to attempt to bypass RSS’s very protocol-oriented support. RSS has also not performed a stellar job in recommending and enforcing solid Signals Security procedures in British military units. Guy Liddell, suspicious of RSS’s effectiveness, knows that he needs wireless expertise in MI5, and is eager to replace the ambitious and manipulative Malcom Frost, who is eased out at the end of 1943. It thus takes Liddell’s initiative, working closely with the maverick RSS officer, Sclater, to draw the attention of the Wireless Board to the security oversights. Towards the end of 1943, the plans for OVERLORD, the project to ‘invade’ France on the way to ensuring Germany’s defeat, start to take shape, and policies for ensuring the secrecy of the operation’s details will affect all communications leaving the United Kingdom.

Contents:

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Determining Censorship Policy

The Dilemma of Wireless

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Problems with the Poles

Guy Liddell and the RSS

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Special Agents at Work

The Aftermath

NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE

Operation Bodyguard

My objective in this piece is to explore and analyse policy concerning wireless transmissions emanating from the British Isles during the build-up to the Normandy landings of June 1944. This aspect of the war had two sides: the initiation of signals to aid the deception campaign, and the protection of the deception campaign itself by prohibiting possibly dangerous disclosures to the enemy that would undermine the deceits of the first. It is thus beyond my scope to re-present the strategies of the campaign, and the organisations behind them, except as a general refreshment of the reader, in order to provide a solid framework, and to highlight dimensions that have been overlooked in the histories.

OVERLORD was originally the codeword given to the assault on Normandy, but in September 1943 it was repurposed and broadened to apply to the operation of the ‘primary United States British ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe’. (Note that, on Eisenhower’s urging, it was not considered an ‘invasion’, a term which would have suggested incursions into authentic enemy territory.)  NEPTUNE was the codeword used to describe the Normandy operation. BODYGUARD was the overall cover plan to deceive the enemy about the details of OVERLORD. BODYGUARD itself was broken down into FORTITUDE North and FORTITUDE South, the latter conceived as the project to suggest that the main assault would occur in the Pas de Calais as opposed to Normandy, and thus disguise NEPTUNE.

I refer the reader to six important books for greater detail on the BODYGUARD deception plan. Bodyguard of Lies, by Anthony Cave Brown (1975) is a massive, compendious volume, containing many relevant as well as irrelevant details, not all of them reliable, and the author can be annoyingly vague in his chronology. Sir Michael Howard’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5 (1990), part of the authorized history, contains a precise and urbane account of the deception campaign, although it is rather light on technical matters. Roger Hesketh, who was the main architect of FORTITUDE, wrote his account of the project, between 1945 and 1948, but it was not published until 2000, many years after his death in 1987, as Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. (In his Preface to the text, Hesketh indicates that he was given permission to publish in 1976, but it did not happen.) Hesketh’s work must be regarded as the most authoritative of the books, and it includes a large number of invaluable, charts, documents and maps, but it reflects some of the secrecy provisions of its time. Joshua Levine’s Operation Fortitude (2001) is an excellent summary of the operation, lively and accurate, and contains a highly useful appendix on Acknowledgements and Sources. Nigel West delivered Codeword Overlord (2019), which sets out to cover the role and achievements of Axis espionage in preparing for the D-Day landings. Like many of West’s recent works, it is uneven, and embeds a large amount of source material in the text. Oddly, West, who provided an Introduction to Hesketh’s book, does not even mention it in his Bibliography. Finally, Thaddeus Holt’s Deceivers (2007) is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Allied military deception, an essential item in the library, very well written, and containing many facts and profiles not available elsewhere. It weighs in at a hefty 1000+ pages, but the details he provides, unlike Cave Brown’s, are all relevant.

Yet none of these volumes refers to the critical role of the Home Security Defence Executive (HSDE), chaired by Sir Findlater Stewart, in the security preparations. (Findlater Stewart receives one or two minor mentions in two of the Indexes, but on matters unrelated to the tasks of early 1944.) The HSDE was charged, however, with implementing a critical part of the censorship policy regarding BODYGUARD. The HSDE was just one of many intersecting and occasionally overlapping committees performing the planning. At the highest level, the Ops (B) section, concerned with deception under COSSAC (Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander), was absorbed into SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944, when General Eisenhower took over command, expanded, and split into two. Colonel Noel Wild headed Ops (B), with Jervis Read responsible for physical deception, while Roger Hesketh took on Special Means, whose role was to implement parts of the deception plan through controlled leakage.

In turn, Hesketh’s group itself was guided by the London Controlling Section (LCS), which was responsible for deciding the overall strategy of how misinformation should be conveyed to the enemy, and tracking its success. At this time LCS was led by Colonel John Bevan, who faced an extraordinary task of coordinating the activities of a large number of independent bodies, from GC&CS’s collection of ULTRA material to SOE’s sabotage of telephone networks in France, as well as the activities of the ‘double-agents’ within MI5. Thus at least three more bodies were involved: the W Board, which discussed high-level policy matters for the double-cross system under General Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence; the XX Committee, chaired by John Masterman, which implemented the cover-stories and activities of both real and notional agents, and created the messages that were fed to the Abwehr; and MI5’s B1A under ‘Tar’ Robertson, the group that actually managed the activities and transmissions of the agents. Lastly, the War Cabinet set up a special group, the OVERLORD Security Sub-Committee, to inspect the detailed ramifications of ensuring no unauthorised information about the landings escaped the British Isles, and this military-focussed body enjoyed a somewhat tentative liaison with the civilian-oriented HDSE through the energies of Sir Findlater Stewart.

When Bevan joined the W Board on September 23, 1943, the LCS formally took over the responsibility for general control of all deception, leaving the W Board to maintain supervision of the double-agents’ work solely. Also on the W Board was Findlater Stewart, acting generally on behalf of the Ministries, who had been invited in early 1941, and who directly represented his boss, Sir John Anderson, and the Prime Minister. The Board had met regularly for almost three years, but by September 1943, highly confident that it controlled all the German agents on UK soil, and with Bevan on board, held only one more meeting before the end of the war – on January 21, 1944. It then decided, in a general stocktaking before OVERLORD, that the XX Committee could smoothly continue to run things, but that American representation on the Committee was desirable. As for Findlater Stewart, he still had a lot of work to do.

Determining Censorship Policy

The move to tighten up security in advance of NEPTUNE took longer than might have seemed appropriate. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on the approximate timing and location of the operation, but it needed the consent of Stalin at the Teheran Conference at the end of November, and the Soviet dictator’s commitment to mount a large scale Soviet offensive in May 1944 to divert German forces, for the details to be solidified. Thus Bevan’s preliminary thoughts on the deception plan for OVERLORD, sketched out in July, had to be continually revised. A draft version, named JAEL, was circulated, and approved, on October 23, but, after Teheran, Bevan had to work feverishly to prepare the initial version of the BODYGUARD plan which replaced JAEL, completing it on December 18. This received feedback from the Chiefs of Staff, and from Eisenhower, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, and was presented to SHAEF in early January, and approved on January 19. Yet no sooner was this important step reached than Bevan, alongside his U.S. counterpart Bauer, was ordered to leave for Moscow to explain the plan, and convince the Soviets of its merits. Such was the suspicion of Soviet military and intelligence officers, and such was their inability to make any decision unless Stalin willed it, that approval did not arrive until March 5, when the delegates returned to London.

Yet Guy Liddell’s Diaries indicate that there had already been intense discussion about OVERLORD Security, the records of which do not seem to have made it into the HDSE files. Certainly, MI5 had been debating it back in December 1943, and Liddell refers to a Security Executive meeting held on January 26. At this stage, Findlater Stewart was trying to settle what travel bans should be put in place, and as early as February 8 Liddell was discussing with his officers Grogan and (Anthony) Blunt the implications of staggering diplomatic cables before OVERLORD. The next day, he met with Maxwell at the Home Office to discuss the prevention of the return of allied nationals to the country (because of the vetting for spies that would be required).

More surprisingly, on February 11, when reporting that the Chiefs of the General Staff had become involved, and had made representations to Churchill, Liddell refers to the formation of an OVERLORD Security Committee, and comments drily: “The committee is to consist of the Minister of Production, Minister of Aircraft Production, Home Secretary and Duncan Sandys, none of whom of course know anything about security.” This committee was in fact an offshoot of the War Cabinet, which had established a Committee on OVERLORD Preparations on February 9, part of the charter of which was ‘the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus, and increased exertions against espionage’, perhaps suggesting that not all its members were completely au fait with the historical activities of RSS and the W Board. It quickly determined that it needed a further level of granularity to address these complex security matters. Thus the Sub-committee on OVERLORD Security was established, chaired by the Minister of Production, Oliver Lyttleton, and held its first meeting on February 18, when Liddell represented MI5. Oddly, no representative from MI6 attended. Liddell continues by describing the committee’s  charter as considering: 1) the possibility of withdrawing diplomatic communications privileges; 2) the prevention of export of newspapers; 3) more strengthened surveillance of ships and aircraft; 4) the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus and increased precautions against espionage. Findlater Stewart is charged with collecting relevant material. In what seems to be an overload of committees, therefore, the HDSE and the War Cabinet carry on parallel discussions, with Findlater Stewart a key figure in both assemblies.

The primary outcome of this period is the resistance by the Foreign Office to any sort of ban, or even forced delay, in diplomatic cable traffic, which they believed would have harmful reciprocal consequences abroad, and hinder MI6’s ability to gather intelligence (especially from Sweden). This controversy rattled on for months [see below], with the Cabinet emerging as an ineffective mechanism for resolving the dilemma. Liddell believed that, if the Foreign Office and the Home Office (concerned about invasion of citizens’ rights) had not been so stubborn and prissy about the whole thing, the Security Executive could have resolved the issues quickly.

Thus the impression that Findlater Stewart had to wait for Bevan’s return for seeking guidance before chairing his committee to implement the appropriate security provisions is erroneous. Contrary to what the record indicates, the critical meeting on March 29 was not the first that the HDSE Committee held. Yet, when Bevan did return, he might have been surprised by the lack of progress. He quickly learned, on March 10, that the Cabinet had decided not to withdraw facilities for uncensored communications by diplomats, as it would set an uncomfortable precedent. That was at least a decision – but the wrong one. Bevan had a large amount of work to do shake people up: to make sure that the rules were articulated, that the Americans were in line, and that all agencies and organizations involved understood their roles. “Only under Bevan’s severe and cautious direction could they perform their parts in FORTITUDE with the necessary harmony”, wrote Cave Brown. Bevan clearly put some urgency into the proceedings: the pronouncements of LCS were passed on to Findlater Stewart shortly afterwards.

The history of LCS shows that security precautions were divided into eight categories, of which two, the censorship of civilian and service letters and telegrams, and the ban on privileged diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams, were those that concentrated on possible unauthorised disclosure of secrets by means other than direct personal travel. The historical account by LCS (at CAB 154/101, p 238) explains how the ban on cable traffic was imposed, but says nothing about wireless: “The eighth category, the ban on diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams was an unprecedented and extraordinary measure. As General EISENHOWER says, even the most friendly diplomats might unintentionally disclose vital information which would ultimately come to the ears of the enemy.”

What is significant is that there is no further mention of wireless traffic in the HDSE meetings. Whether this omission was due to sheer oversight, or was simply too awkward a topic to be described openly, or was simply passed on to the War Cabinet meetings, one can only surmise. When the next critical HDSE meeting took place on April 15, headlined as ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’, it echoed the LCS verbiage, but also, incidentally, highlighted the fact that Findlater Stewart saw that the main threat to security came from the embassies and legations of foreign governments, whether allies or not. Well educated by the W Board meeting, he did not envisage any exposure from unknown German agents working clandestinely from British soil.

The Dilemma of Wireless

It is worthwhile stepping back at this juncture to examine the dilemma that the British intelligence authorities faced. Since the primary security concern was that no confidential information about the details of the actual assault, or suggestions that the notional attack was based on the strength and movement of illusionary forces, should be allowed to leave the country, a very tight approach to personnel movement, such as a ban on leave, and on the holidays of foreign diplomats, was required, and easily implemented. Letters and cables had to be very closely censored. But what do to about the use of wireless? Officially, outside military and approved civil use (railway administration, police) the only licit radio transmissions were being made by Allied governments, namely the Americans and the Soviets, and by select governments-in-exile, the French, the Poles and the Czechs (with the latter two having their own sophisticated installations rather than just apparatus within an embassy). It was quite possible that other countries had introduced transmission equipment, although RSS would have denied that its use would have remained undetected.

Certainly all diplomatic transmissions would have been encyphered, but the extent to which the German interception authorities (primarily OKW Chi) would have been able to decrypt such messages was unknown. And, even if the loyalty and judgment of these missions could be relied upon, and the unbreakability of their cyphers trusted, there was no way of guaranteeing that a careless reference would not escape, and that a disloyal employee at the other end of the line might get his or her hands on an indiscreet message. (Eisenhower had to demote and send home one of his officers who spoke carelessly.) Thus total radio silence must have been given at least brief consideration. It was certainly enforced just before D-Day, but that concerned military silence, not a diplomatic shutdown.

Yet the whole FORTITUDE deception plan depended on wireless. The more ambitious aspect focused on the creation of dummy military signals to suggest a vast army (the notional FUSAG) being imported into Britain and moved steadily across the country to assemble in the eastern portion, indicating a northern assault on mainland Europe. Such wireless messages would have appeared as genuine to the Germans – if they had had the resources and skills to intercept and analyse them all. Thus the pretence had to be meticulously maintained right up until D-Day itself. In August 1943, the Inter-Services Security Board (ISSB) had recommended that United Kingdom communications with the outside world should be cut off completely, and Bevan had had to resist such pressure. As Howard points out, most involved in the discussion did not know about the Double-Cross System.

As it turned out, both German aerial reconnaissance and interception of dummy signals were so weak that the Allies relied more and more on the second leg of their wireless strategy – the transmissions of its special agents. Thus it would have been self-defeating for the War Cabinet to prohibit non-military traffic entirely, since the appearance of isolated, illicit signals in the ether, originating from British soil, and remaining undetected and unprosecuted, would have caused the Nazi receivers to smell an enormous rat. (One might add that it strains credibility in any case to think that the Abwehr never stopped to consider how ineffectual Britain’s radio interception service must be, compared with Germany’s own mechanisms, if it failed completely ever to interdict any of its own agents in such a relatively small and densely populated territory. And note Admiral Canaris’s comments above.) Of course, the RSS might have wanted to promote the notion that its interception and location-finding techniques were third-rate, just for that purpose. One might even surmise that Sonia’s transmissions were allowed to continue as a ruse to convince the Germans of the RSS’s frailties, in the belief that they might be picking up her messages as well as those of their own agents, and thus forming useful judgments about the deficiencies of British location-finding.

We should also recall that the adoption of wireless communications by the special agents was pursued much more aggressively by the XX Committee and B1A than it was by the Abwehr, who seemed quite content to have messages concealed in invisible ink on letters spirited out of England by convenient couriers, such as ‘friendly’ BOAC crewmen. Thus TREASURE, GARBO and BRUTUS all had to be found more powerful wireless apparatus, whether mysteriously acquired in London, from American sources, or whether smuggled in from Lisbon. The XX Committee must have anticipated the time when censorship rules would have tightened up on the use of the mails for personal correspondence, even to neutral countries in Europe, and thus make wireless connectivity a necessity.

In conclusion, therefore, no restrictions on diplomatic wireless communication could allow prohibition completely, as that would leave the special agents dangerously exposed. And that policy led to some messy compromises.

Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet

Sir Findlater Stewart

It appears that the War Cabinet fairly quickly accepted Findlater Stewart’s assurances about the efficacy of RSS. A minute from February 28 runs: “We have considered the possibility that illicit wireless stations might be worked in this country. The combined evidence of the Radio Security Service secret intelligence sources and the police leads to the firm conclusion that there is no illicit wireless station operating regularly in the British Isles at present. The danger remains that transmitting apparatus may be being held in readiness for the critical period immediately before the date of OVERLORD – or may be brought into the country by enemy agents. We cannot suggest any further measures to reduce this risk and reliance must therefore be placed on the ability of the Radio Security Service to detect the operation of illicit transmitters and of the Security Service to track down agents.” Thus the debate moved on to the control of licit wireless transmissions, where the HDSE and the War Cabinet had to overcome objections from the Foreign Office.

The critical meeting on ‘OVERLORD Security’ – ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’ was held on the morning of April 15, under Findlater Stewart’s chairmanship. This was in fact the continuation of a meeting held on March 29, which had left several items of business unfinished. That meeting, which was also led by Findlater Stewart, and attended by only a small and unauthoritative group (Herbert and Locke from Censorship, Crowe from the Foreign Office, and Liddell, Butler and Young from MI5) had considered diplomatic communications generally, and resolved to request delays in the transmission of diplomatic telegrams. After the Cabinet decision not to interfere with diplomatic cable traffic, Petrie of MI5 had written to Findlater Stewart to suggest that delays be built in to the process. A strangely worded minute (one can hardly call it a ‘resolution’) ran as follows: “THE MEETING . . . invited Mr. Crowe to take up the suggestion that diplomatic telegrams should be so delayed as to allow time for the Government Code and Cypher School to make arrangements with Postal and Telegraph Censorship for particularly dangerous telegrams to be delayed or lost; and to arrange for the Foreign Office, if they agreed, to instruct the School to work out the necessary scheme with Postal and Telegraph Censorship.”

It would be difficult to draft a less gutsy and urgent decision than this. ‘Invited’, ‘suggestion’, ‘to make arrangements’, ‘if they agreed’, ‘to instruct’, and finally, ‘particularly dangerous telegrams’! Would ‘moderately dangerous telegrams’ have been allowed through? And did GC&CS have command of all the cyphers used by foreign diplomacies? Evidently not, as the following discussion shows. It is quite extraordinary that such a wishy-washy decision should have been allowed in the minutes. One can only assume that this was some sort of gesture, and that Findlater Stewart was working behind the scenes. In any case, as the record from the LCS history concerning Eisenhower, which I reproduced above, shows, the cypher problem for cable traffic was resolved.

When the forum regathered on April 15, it contained a much expanded list of attendees. Apart from the familiar group of second-tier delegates from key ministries, with the War Office and  the Ministry of Information now complementing Censorship, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, Vivian represented MI6, while MI5 was honoured with the presence of no less than seven officers, namely Messrs. Butler, Robertson, Sporborg, Robb, Young, Barry – and Anthony Blunt, who no doubt made careful mental notes to pass on to his ideological masters. [According to Guy Liddell, from his ‘Diaries’, Sporborg worked for SOE, not MI5.] But no Petrie, Menzies, Liddell, White, Masterman, or Bevan. And the band of second-tier officers from MI5 sat opposite a group of men from the ministries who knew nothing of Ultra or the Double-Cross System: a very large onus lay on the shoulders of Findlater Stewart.

The meeting had first to debate the recent Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Diplomatic Missions, while not preventing the arrival of incoming travellers. Thus a quick motion was agreed, over the objections of the Foreign Office, that ‘the free movement of foreign diplomatic representatives to this country was inconsistent with the Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Foreign Missions in this country’. After a brief discussion on the movement of French and other military personnel, the Committee moved to Item IX on the agenda: ‘Use of Wireless Transmitters by Poles, Czechs and the French,’ the item that LCS had, either cannily or carelessly, omitted from its list.

Sporborg of MI5/SOE stated that, “as regards the Poles and the Czechs, it has been decided after discussion with the Foreign Office –

  • that for operational reasons the transmitters operated by the Czechs and the Poles could not be closed down:
  • that shortage of operators with suitable qualifications precluded the operation of those sets by us;
  • that accordingly the Poles should be pressed to deposit their cyphers with us and to give us copies of plain language texts of all messages before transmission. The Czechs had already given us their cyphers, and like the Poles would be asked to provide plain language copies of their messages.”

Sporborg also noted that both forces would be asked not to use their transmitters for diplomatic business. Colonel Vivian added that “apart from the French Deuxième Bureau traffic which was sent by M.I.6, all French diplomatic and other civil communications were transmitted by cable. There were left only the French Service transmitters and in discussion it was suggested that the I.S.S.B. might be asked to investigate the question of controlling these.”

Again, it is difficult to make sense of this exchange. What ‘operational reasons’ (as opposed to political ones) could preclude the closing down of Czech and Polish circuits? It would surely just entail an announcement to targeted receivers, and then turning the apparatus off. And, since the alternative appeared to be having the transmitters operated by the British – entrusted with knowledge of cypher techniques, presumably – a distinct possibility of ‘closing down’ the sets must have been considered. As for Vivian’s opaque statement, the Deuxième Bureau was officially dissolved in 1940. (Yet it appears in many documents, such as Liddell’s Diaries, after that time.) It is not clear what he meant by ‘French Service transmitters’. If these were owned by the RF Section of SOE, there must surely have been an exposure, and another wishy-washy suggestion was allowed to supply the official record.

The historical account by LCS says nothing about wireless. And the authorized history does not perform justice to the serious implications of these meetings. All that Michael Howard writes about this event (while providing a very stirring account of the deception campaign itself) is the following: “ . . . and the following month not only was all travel to and from the United Kingdom banned, but the mail of all diplomatic missions was declared subject to censorship and the use of cyphers forbidden”, (p 124, using the CAB 154/101 source given above); and “All [the imaginary double agents] notionally conveyed their information to GARBO in invisible ink, to be transmitted direct to the Abwehr over his clandestine radio – the only channel open after security restrictions on outgoing mail had been imposed.” (p 121) The irony is that Howard draws attention to the inconvenience that the withdrawal of mail privileges caused LCS and B1A, but does not inspect the implications of trying to suppress potentially dangerous wireless traffic, and how they might have affected the deception project’s success.

Problems with the Poles

The Polish Government-in-Exile

Immediately after the critical April 15 meeting, the War Office began to toughen up, as the file KV 4/74 shows. The policy matter of the curtailment of diplomatic privileges was at last resolved. Findlater Stewart gave a deadline to the Cabinet on April 16, and it resolved to stop all diplomatic cables, couriers and bags, for all foreign governments except the Americans and the Russians. The ban started almost immediately, and was extended until June 20, even though the Foreign Office continued to fight it. Yet it required some delicate explaining to the second-tier allies. Moreover, the Foreign Office continued to resist it, or at least, abbreviate it. They even wanted to restore privileges on D-Day itself: as Liddell pointed out, that would have been stupid, as it would immediately have informed the enemy that the Normandy assault was the sole one, and not a feint before a more northerly attack at the Pas de Calais.

Brigadier Allen, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, who had been charged with following up with the ISSB on whether the British were controlling French service traffic to North Africa, drew the attention of the ISSB’s secretary to the importance of the proposed ban. The record is sketchy, but it appears the Chiefs of Staff met on April 19, at which a realisation that control over all diplomatic and military channels needed to be intensified. The Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee was instructed to ensure that this happened, and a meeting was quickly arranged between representatives of the ISSB, MI6, SOE, the Cypher Policy Board and the Inter-Service W/T Security Committee, a much more expert and muscular group than had attended Findlater Stewart’s conference.

While the exposure by French traffic was quickly dismissed, Sir Charles Portal and Sir Andrew Cunningham, the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs, urged central control by the Service Departments rather than having it divided between SHAEF and Allied Forces Headquarters, and invited the JISC committee “to frame regulations designed to prevent Allied Governments evading the restrictions imposed by the War Cabinet on diplomatic communications, by the use of service or S.O.E. ‘underground’ W/T channels for the passage of uncensored diplomatic or service messages.” This was significant for several reasons: it recognized that foreign governments might attempt to evade the restrictions, probably by trying to use service signals for diplomatic traffic; it recommended new legislation to give the prohibitions greater force; and it brought into the picture the notion of various ‘underground’ (not perhaps the best metaphor for wireless traffic), and thus semi-clandestine communications, the essence of which was barely known. This minute appeared also to reflect the input of Sir Alan Brooke, the Army Chief, but his name does not appear on the document – probably because the record shows that he was advocating for the shared SHAEF/AFHQ responsibility, and thus disagreed with his peers.

The outcome was that a letter had to be drafted for the Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Commanders-in-Chief, the Belgian and Netherlands Ministers of Defence, and General Koenig, the Commander of the French Forces in the United Kingdom, outlining the new restrictions on ‘communications by diplomatic bag and cipher telegrams’ (implicitly cable and wireless). It declared that ‘you will issue instructions that no communication by wireless is to be carried out with wireless stations overseas except under the following conditions’, going on to list that cyphers would have to be deposited with the War Office, plain language copies of all telegrams to be submitted for approval first, with the possibility that some messages would be encyphered and transmitted through British signal channels. A further amendment included a ban on incoming messages, as well.

Were these ‘regulations’, or simply earnest requests? The constitutional issue was not clear, but the fact that the restrictions would be of short duration probably pushed them into the latter category. In any case, as a memorandum of April 28 makes clear, Findlater Stewart formally handed over responsibility for the control of wireless communications to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), reserving for himself the handling of ‘mail and telegrams’ (he meant ‘mail and cables’, of course). By then, the letter had been distributed, on April 19, with some special annexes for the different audiences, but the main text was essentially as the draft had been originally worded.

The Poles were the quickest to grumble, and Stanisław Mikołajczyc, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, wrote a long response on April 23, describing the decision as ‘a dangerous legal and political precedent’, making a special case out of Poland’s predicament, and its underground fight against the Germans. He promised to obey the rules over all, but pleaded that the Poles be allowed to maintain the secrecy of their cyphers in order to preserve the safety and security of Polish soldiers and civilians on Polish soil fighting the German. “The fact that Polish-Soviet relations remain for the time being unsatisfactory still further complicates the situation,” he added.

It is easy to have an enormous amount of sympathy for the Poles, but at the same time point out that their aspirations at this time for taking their country back were very unrealistic. After all, Great Britain had declared war on Germany because of the invasion of Poland, and the Poles had contributed significantly in the Battle of Britain and the Italian campaign, especially. The discovery by the Germans, in April 1943, of the graves of victims of the Katyn massacre had constituted a ghastly indication that the Soviets had been responsible. Yet Stalin denied responsibility, and broke off relations with the London Poles when they persisted in calling for an independent Red Cross examination. Moreover, Churchill had ignored the facts, and weaselly tried to placate both Stalin and the Poles by asking Mikołajczyc to hold his tongue. In late January, Churchill had chidden the Poles for being ‘foolish’ in magnifying the importance of the crime when the British needed Stalin’s complete cooperation to conclude the war successfully.

Yet the Poles still harboured dreams that they would be able to take back their country before the Russians got there – or even regain it with the support of the Russians, aspirations that were in April 1944 utterly unrealistic. The file at HW 34/8 contains a long series of 1942-1943 exchanges between Colonel Cepa, the Chief Signals Officer of the Polish General Staff, and RSS officers, such as Maltby and Till, over unrealistic and unauthorized demands for equipment and frequencies so that the Polish government might communicate with all its clandestine stations in Poland, and its multiple (and questionable) contacts around the world. Their tentacles spread widely, as if they were an established government: on December 9, 1943, Joe Robertson told Guy Liddell that ‘Polish W/T transmitters are as plentiful as tabby cats in the Middle East and are causing great anxiety’. They maintained underground forces in France, which required wireless contact: this was an item of great concern to Liddell. Thus the Poles ended up largely trying to bypass RSS and working behind the scenes with SOE to help attain their goals. The two groups clearly irritated each other severely: the Poles thinking RSS too protocol-oriented and unresponsive to their needs, RSS considering the Poles selfish and too ambitious, with no respect for the correct procedures in a time of many competing demands.

The outcome was that Churchill had a meeting with Mikołajczyc on April 23, and tried to heal some wounds. The memorandum of the meeting was initialled by Churchill himself, and the critical passage runs as follows: “Mr. Churchill told Mr. Mikołajczyc that he was ready to waive the demand that the Polish ciphers used for communication with the Underground Movement should be deposited with us on condition first, that the number of messages sent in these ciphers was kept down to an absolute minimum; secondly, that the en clair text of each message sent in these ciphers should be communicated to us; thirdly, that Mr. Mikołajczyc gave Mr. Churchill his personal word of honour that no messages were sent in the secret ciphers except those of which the actual text had been deposited with us, and fourthly, that the existence of this understanding between Mr. Mikołajczyc and Mr. Churchill should be kept absolutely confidential; otherwise H.M.G would be exposed to representations and reproaches from other foreign Governments in a less favourable position.”

Thus it would appear that the other governments acceded, that the Poles won an important concession, but that the British were able to censor the texts of all transmissions that emanated from British soil during the D-Day campaign. And Churchill was very concerned about the news of the Poles’ preferential treatment getting out. Yet the JIC (under its very astute Chairman, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck) thought otherwise – that the news was bound to leak out, and, citing the support of Liddell, Menzies, Cadogan at the Foreign Office and Newsam at the Home Office, it requested, on May 1, that the Prime Minister ‘should consider the withdrawal’ of his concession, and that, if impracticable, he should at least clarify to Mikołajczyc that it ‘related to messages sent to the underground movement in Poland and not to communications with other occupied or neutral countries’.

Moreover, problems were in fact nor restricted to the Poles. De Gaulle, quite predictably, made a fuss, and ‘threatened’ as late as May 29 not to leave Algiers to return to the UK unless he was allowed to use his own cyphers. The Chiefs of Staff were left to handle this possible non-problem. Churchill, equally predictably, interfered unnecessarily, and even promised both Roosevelt and de Gaulle (as Liddell recorded on May 24) that communications would open up immediately after D-Day. Churchill had already, very naively, agreed to Eisenhower’s desire to disclose the target and date of NEPTUNE to France’s General Koenig. The Prime Minister could be very inspiring and insightful, but also very infuriating, as people like Attlee and Brooke observed.

And there it stood. Britain controlled the process of wireless communication (apart from the Soviet and US Embassies) entirely during the course of the D-Day landings, with a minor exposure in Polish messages to its colleagues in Poland. The restrictions were lifted on June 20. And B1A’s special agents continued to chatter throughout this period.

Guy Liddell and the RSS

Guy Liddell

Guy Liddell, deputy director-general of MI5, had been energized by his relationship with Sclater of the RSS, and, with Malcolm Frost’s departure from MI5 in December 1943, he looked forward to an easier path in helping to clean up Barnet, the headquarters of the Radio Security Service. In the months before D-Day, Liddell was focused on two major issues concerning RSS: 1) The effectiveness of the unit’s support for MI5’s project to extend the Double-Cross System to include ‘stay-behind’ agents in France after the Normandy landings succeeded; and 2) his confidence in the ability of RSS to locate any German spies with transmitters who might have pervaded the systems designed to intercept them at the nation’s borders, and who would thus be working outside the XX System.

Overall, the first matter does not concern me here, although part of Liddell’s mission, working alongside ‘Tar’ Robertson, was to discover how RSS control of equipment, and its primary allegiance to MI6, might interfere with MI5’s management of the XX program overseas. Liddell had to deal with Richard Gambier-Parry’s technical ignorance and general disdain for MI5, on the one hand, and Felix Cowgill’s territoriality on the other (since a Double-Cross system on foreign soil would technically have fallen under MI6), but the challenges would have to have been faced after D-Day, and are thus beyond my scope of reference. In any case, the concern turned out to be a non-problem. The second matter, however, was very serious, and Liddell’s Diaries from early 1944 are bestrewn with alarming anecdotes about the frailties of RSS’s detection systems. The problems ranged from the ineffectiveness of Elms’s mobile units to the accuracy of RSS’s broader location-finding techniques.

I shall illustrate Liddell’s findings by a generous sample of extracts from his Diaries, as I do not believe they have appeared in print before. Thus, from January 26:

Sclater gave an account of the work by the vans on an American station which had been d.f.d by R.S.S. The station was at first thought to be a British military or Air Force one as it was apparently using their procedure. The vans went out to the Horsham area where they got a very strong signal which did not operate the needle. Another bearing caused them to put the Bristol van out, which luckily found its target pretty quickly. The point of this story is that it is almost impossible to say more than that a wireless transmitter is in the north or south of England. Unless you can get into the ground-wave your vans don’t operate. To get into the ground-wave you may need to be very close to their target. There is still no inter-com between the vans and they cannot operate for more than 8 hours without having to drive several hundred miles in order to recharge their batteries. Not a very good show. Sclater is going to find out who is responsible for American Army signal security.

While this may not have been a perennial problem for units that were repeatedly broadcasting from one place, it clearly would have posed a serious exposure with a highly mobile transmitting agent. Moreover, at a meeting on February 17, MI6/SIS (in the person of Valentine Vivian, it appears) had, according to Liddell, admitted some of its deficiencies, stating, in a response to a question as to how its General Search capability worked: “S.I.S. did not think that an illicit station was operating in this country but it was pointed out that their observation was subject to certain restrictions. They were looking for Abwehr procedure, whereas an agent might use British official procedure, which would be a matter for detection by Army Signals, who were ill-equipped to meet the task.” Did Vivian not know what he was talking about, or was this true? Could an agent using ‘British official procedure’ truly evade the RSS detectors, while the Army would not bother to investigate? I recall that Sonia herself was instructed to use such techniques, and such a disclosure has alarming implications.

The minutes of the War Cabinet Sub-committee on February 17 confirm, however, that what Vivian reported was accepted, as an accompanying report by Findlater Stewart displays how the vision for wireless interception embraced by Colonel Simpson in 1939 had been allowed to dissolve. (In fact, as Liddell’s Diaries show, a small working-party had met on the morning of the inaugural meeting to prepare for the discussion.) In a report attached to the minutes, Stewart wrote the following (which I believe is worth citing in full):

“As a result of their experience extending over some four years the Radio Security Service are of opinion there is no illicit wireless station being worked in this country at present. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that by itself the watch kept by the Radio Security Service is subject to some limitations. For example, the general search is mainly directed to German Secret Service communications and if an agent were to use official British signal procedures (there has already been some attempt at this), it is not likely to be picked up by the Service, and no guarantee that such stations would be detected should be given unless the whole volume of British wireless traffic, including the immense amount of service signal traffic, were monitored. This ‘general search’, however, is not the only safeguard. The danger to security arises from the newly arrived German Agent (on the assumption that there are no free agents at present operating here), but the art of tracking aircraft has been brought to such a point that the Security Service feel that in conjunction with the watch kept by the Radio Security Service even a determined effort by the enemy to introduce agents could not succeed for more than a few days. Admittedly if the agent were lucky enough to be dropped in the right area and obtain his information almost at once serious leakage could occur. But there is no remedy for this.”

I find this very shocking. While the RSS was justifiably confident that no unidentified spies were operating as its interceptors were monitoring Abwehr communications closely, it had abandoned the mission of populating the homeland with enough detective personnel to cover all possible groundwaves. Apparently, the sense of helplessness expressed in Stewart’s final sentence triggered no dismay from those who read it, but I believe this negligence heralded the start of an alarming trend. And the substance of the message must have confirmed Liddell’s worst fears.

Liddell and Sclater intensified their attention to RSS’s activities. Sclater also referred, later in February, to the fact that RSS had picked up Polish military signals in Scotland, but the Poles had not been very helpful, the signals were very corrupt, as picked up, and it was not even certain ‘that the messages were being sent from Gt. Britain’. Liddell also discovered that RSS had been picking up messages relating to Soviet espionage in Sweden, and blew a fuse over the fact that the facts about the whole exercise had been withheld from MI5 and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee, which Dick White of MI5 chaired. Thus, when he returned from two weeks’ leave at the end of March, his chagrin was fortunately abated slightly, as the entry for April 16 records:

During my absence there have been various wireless tests. GARBO, on instructions from the Germans, has been communicating in British Army procedure. He was picked up after a certain time and after a hint had been given to Radio Security Service. He was, however, also picked up in Gibraltar, who notified the RSS about certain peculiarities in the signals. This is on the whole fairly satisfactory. TREASURE is going to start communicating blind and we shall see whether they are equally successful in her case. Tests have also been taking place to see whether spies can move freely within the fifteen-mile belt. One has been caught, but another, whose documents were by no means good, has succeeded in getting through seven or eight controls and has so far not been spotted.

This was not super-efficient, however: ‘hints’, and ‘after a certain time’. At least the British Army procedure was recognised by the RSS. (Herbert Hart later told Liddell that ‘notional’ spies dressed in American military uniforms were the only ones not to get caught.) But the feeling of calm did not last long. Two weeks later, on April 29, Liddell recorded:

The Radio Security Service has carried out an extensive test to discover the GARBO transmitter. The report on this exercise is very distressing. The GARBO camouflage plan commenced on 13 March but the Mobile Units were not told to commence their investigations till 14 April. From 13 March to 14 April GARBO’s transmitter was on the air (and the operator was listening) for a total of twenty-nine hours, and average of one hour a day. On 14 April the Mobile Units were brought into action and they reported that the GARBO transmitter operated for four hours between 14 and 19 April inclusive. In fact, it operated for over six and a half hours, and it would seem that the second frequency of the transmitter was not recorded at all. On 15 April, GARBO transmitted for two whole hours. This incident shakes my confidence completely in the power of RSS of detecting illicit wireless either in this country or anywhere else. It is disturbing since the impression was given to Findlater Stewart’s Committee and subsequently to the Cabinet that no illicit transmissions were likely to be undetected for long. Clearly, this is not the case.

The irony is, of course, that, if the Abwehr had learned about RSS’s woes, they might have understood how their agents were able to transmit undetected. Yet this was a problem MI5 had to fix, and the reputation of the XX System, and of the claim that MI5 had complete control of all possible German agents in the country, was at stake. Liddell followed up with another entry, on May 6:

I had a long talk with Sclater about the RSS exercise. Apparently the first report of Garbo’s transmitter came from Gib. This was subsequently integrated with a V.I. report. The R.S.S. fixed stations in N. Ireland and the north of Scotland took a bearing which was well wide of the mark, and although the original report came in on March 13th it was not until April 14th that sufficiently accurate bearings were obtained to warrant putting into action of the M.U.s. They were started off on an entirely inaccurate location of the target somewhere in the Guildford area. Other bearings led to greater confusion. Had it not been for the fact that the groundwave of the transmitter was then ranged with the Barnet station it is doubtful whether the transmitter would ever have been located. The final round-up was not done according to the book, i.e. by the 3 M.U.s taking bearings and gradually closing in. One M.U. got a particularly strong signal and followed it home.

By now, however, Liddell probably felt a little more confident that homeland security was tight enough. No problematic messages had been picked up by interception, and thus there were probably no clandestine agents at large, a conclusion that was reinforced by the fact that the ULTRA sources (i.e. picking up Abwehr communications about agents in the United Kingdom) still betrayed no unknown operators. Nevertheless, Liddell still harboured, as late as May 12, strong reservations about the efficacy of RSS’s operations overseas, which he shared with the philosopher Gilbert Ryle at his club. At this time, MI5 was concerned about a source named JOSEFINE, sending messages that reached the Abwehr via Stockholm. (JOSEFINE turned out to be the Swedish naval attaché in London, and his associates or successors.) But then, Liddell expressed further deep concerns, on May 27, i.e. a mere ten days before D-Day:

I had a long discussion with TAR and Victor [Rothschild] about RSS. It seemed to me that the position was eminently unsatisfactory. I could see that the picking up of an agent here was a difficult matter. If he were transmitting on ordinary H.F. at fairly frequent intervals to a fixed station on the continent in Abwehr procedure we should probably get his signals. If he were transmitting in our military procedure it was problematic whether we should get his signals. If he were transmitting in VHF it was almost certain that we should not get him. I entirely accept this as being the position but my complaint is that the problem of detecting illicit wireless from this country has never been submitted to a real body of experts, and that possibly had it been given careful study by such a body at least the present dangers might have been to some extent mitigated. Victor agreed that it might be possible to work on some automatic ether scanner which would increase the chances of picking up an agent. There might also be other possibilities, if the ground were thoroughly explored. So much for picking up the call. The next stage is to D.F. the position of the illicit transmitter. Recent experiments had shown both in the case of GARBO and in the case of an imaginery [sic] agent who was located at Whaddon, that the bearings from the fixed stations were 50-60 miles out. This being so, the margin for error on the continent would be considerably increased. We have always been given to understand that fixed stations could give a fairly accurate bearing. The effect is that unless your vans get into the ground-wave they stand very little chance of picking up the agent. The D.G. is rather anxious to take this matter up; both TAR and I are opposed to any such course. I pointed out to the D.G. that the Radio Security Committee consisted of a Chairman who knew nothing about wireless, and that he and I had no knowledge of the subject, and therefore we would all be at the mercy of Gambier-Parry who could cover us all with megacycles. The discussion would get us no where and only create bad blood. He seemed to think however that we ought to get some statement of the position particularly since I pointed out to him that if an agent were dropped we should probably pick him up in a reasonable time. The fact is that unless the aircraft tracks pin-pointed him and the police and the Home Guard did their job, we should be extremely unlikely to get our man. Technical means would give us little if any assistance. By the time a man had been located the harm would have been done.”

Some of this plaint was misguided (VHF would not have been an effective communication wavelength for a remote spy), but it shows that, despite all the self-satisfied histories that were written afterwards, RSS was in something of a shambles. Fortunately there were no ‘men’ to be got: the Abwehr had been incorporated into the SS in the spring of 1944. Canaris was dismissed, and no further wireless agents were infiltrated on to the British mainland. Liddell was probably confident, despite RSS’s complacent approach, that no unknown wireless agents were at large because intercepted ISOS messages gave no indication of such. He made one more relevant entry before D-Day, on June 3:

TAR tells me that since 12 May RSS have been picking up the signals of an agent communicating in Group 2 cypher. They have at last succeeded in getting a bearing which places the agents somewhere in Ayrshire. The vans are moving up to the Newcastle area. Two hours later, TAR told me that further bearing indicated that the agent was in Austria. So much for RSS’s powers of D.F.ing. My mind goes back to a meeting held 18 months ago when G.P. [Gambier-Parry] had the effrontery that he could D.F. a set in France down to an area of 5 sq. miles.

Did someone mishear a Scottish voice saying ‘Ayrshire’, interpreting it as ‘Austria’? We shall never know. In any case, if Liddell ever stopped to think “If we go to the utmost to ensure there are no clandestine agents reporting on the real state of things here, wouldn’t German Intelligence imagine we were doing just that?”, he never recorded such a gut-wrenching question in his Diaries.

‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?

Before Bevan left London for Moscow, he attended – alongside Findlater Stewart – that last meeting of the W Board before D-Day. They heard a presentation by ‘Tar’ Robertson, who described the status of all the double agents, confirmed that he was confident that ‘the Germans believed in TRICYCE and GARBO, especially, and probably in the others’.  Robertson added that ‘the agents were ready to take their part in OVERLORD’, and offered a confidence factor of 98% that the Germans trusted the majority of agents. The concluding minute of the meeting was a recommendation by Bevan that the term ‘double agents’ be avoided in any documentation, and that they be referred to as ‘special agents’, the term that appears in the title of the KV 4/70 file.  A week later, Bevan was on his way to Moscow.

The reason that Bevan wanted them described as ‘special agents’ was presumably the fact that, if the term ‘double agent’ ever escaped, the nature of the double-cross deception would be immediately obvious. Yet ‘special agents’ was not going to become a durable term: all agents are special in some way, and the phrase did not accurately describe how they differed. Liddell continued to refer to ‘DAs’ in his Diaries, John Masterman promulgated the term ‘double agents’ in his influential Double Cross System (1972), and Michael Howard entrenched it in his authorised history of British Intelligence in the Second World War – Volume 5 (1990).

Shortly after Masterman’s book came out, Miles Copland, an ex-CIA officer, wrote The Real Spy World, a pragmatic guide to the world of espionage and counter-espionage. He debunked the notion of ‘double agents’, stating: “But even before the end of World War II the term ‘double agent’ was discontinued in favor of ‘controlled enemy agent’ in speaking of an agent who was entirely under our own control, capable of reporting to his original masters only as we allowed, so that he was entirely ‘single’ in his performance, and by no means ‘double’.” The point is a valid one: if an agent is described as a ‘double’, he or she could presumably be trying to work for both sides at once, even perhaps evolving into the status of a ‘triple agent’ (like ZIGZAG), which applies enormous psychological pressure on the subject, who will certainly lose any affiliation to either party, and end up simply trying to survive.

Yet ‘controlled enemy agent’ is, to me, also unsatisfactory. It implies that the agent’s primary allegiance is to the enemy, but that he or she has been ‘turned’ in some way. That might be descriptive of some SOE agents, who were captured, and tortured into handing over their cyphers and maybe forced to transmit under the surveillance of the Gestapo, but who never lost their commitment to the Allied cause (and may have eventually been shot, anyway). Nearly all the agents used in the Double Cross System had applied to the Abwehr under false pretences. They (e.g. BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO, TRICYCLE) intended to betray the Germans, and work for the Allied cause immediately they were installed. Of those who survived as recruits of B1A, only TATE had arrived as a dedicated Nazi. He was threatened (but not tortured) into coming to the conclusion that his survival relied on his operating under British control, and he soon, after living in the UK for a while, understood that the democratic cause was superior to the Nazi creed. SUMMER, on the other hand, to whom the same techniques were applied, refused to co-operate, and had to be incarcerated for the duration of the war.

Thus the closest analogy to the strategy of the special agents is what Kim Philby set out to do: infiltrate an ideological foe under subterfuge. But the analogy must not be pushed too far. Philby volunteered to work for an intelligence service of his democratic native country, with the goal of facilitating the attempts of a hostile, totalitarian system to overthrow the whole structure. The special agents were trying to subvert a different totalitarian organisation that had invaded their country (or constituted a threat, in the case of GARBO) in order that liberal democracy should prevail. There is a functional equivalence, but not a moral one, between the two examples. Philby was a spy and a traitor: he was definitely not a ‘double agent’, even though he has frequently been called that.

I leave the definitional matter unresolved for now. It will take a more authoritative writer to tidy up the debate. I note that the highly regarded Thaddeus Holt considers the debate ‘pedantic’, and he decided to fall back upon ‘double agent’ in his book, despite its misleading connotations.

Special Agents at Work

The events that led up to the controversial two-hour message transmitted by GARBO on June 9, highlighted in the several quotations that I presented at the beginning of this script, have been well described in several books, so I simply summarise here the aspects concerning wireless usage. For those readers who want to learn the details, Appendix XIII of Roger Hesketh’s Fortitude lists most of the contributions of British ‘controlled agents’ on the Fortitude South Order of Battle, and how they were reflected in German Intelligence Reports. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross gives a lively account of the activities of the agents who communicated via wireless – via their B1A operators, in the main.

TATE (Wulf Schmidt) was the longest-serving of the special agents, but the requirement to develop a convincing ‘legend’ about him, in order to explain to the Abwehr how he had managed to survive for so long on alien territory, took him out of the mainstream. In October 1943, Robertson had expressed doubts as to how seriously the Germans were taking TATE, as they had sent him only fourteen messages over the past six months, and in December, the XX Committee even considered the possibility that he had been blown. Their ability to verify how TATE’s reports were being handled arose mainly because communications were passed to Berlin from Hamburg by a secure land-line, not by wireless (and thus not subject to RSS/GC&CS interception.) Indeed, Berlin believed that the whole ‘Lena Six’ (from the 1940-41 parachutist project, and whose activity as spies was planned to last only a few weeks before the impending German invasion!) were under control of the British, but the Abwehr, in a continuing pattern, were reluctant to give up on one of their own. The post-war interrogation of Major Boeckel, who trained the LENA agents in Hamburg, available at KV 2/1333, indicates that Berlin had doubts about TATE’s reliability, but that Boeckel ‘maintained contact despite warnings’. TATE provided one or two vital tidbits (such as Eisenhower’s arrival in January 1944), and by April, the XX Committee judged him safe again. In May, he was nominally ‘moved’ to Kent, ostensibly to help his employer’s farming friend, and messages were directed there from London, in case of precise location-finding. But TATE’s information about FUSAG ‘operations’ did not appear to have received much attention: TATE’s contribution would pick up again after D-Day.

The career of TREASURE (Lily Sergeyev, or Sergueiev) was more problematical. In September 1943 she had had to remind her handler, Kliemann, that she was trained in radio operation, and that she needed to advance from writing letters in secret ink. Kliemann then improbably ordered her to acquire an American-made Halicrafter apparatus in London, and then promised to supply her one passed to her. He let her down when she visited Madrid in November, so the XX Committee had to start applying pressure. They engineered a March 1944 visit by TREASURE to Lisbon, where she was provided with a wireless apparatus, and instructed on when and how to transmit, with an emphasis that the messages should be as short as possible. She returned to the UK; her transmitter was set up in Hampstead, and her first message sent on April 13. There was a burst of useful, activity for about a month or so, but, by May 17, a decision was made that TREASURE had to be dropped. She confessed to concealing from her B1A controllers the security check in her transmissions that she could have used to alert the Germans to the fact that she was operating under control: she was in a fit of pique over the death of her dog. Robertson fired her just after D-Day.

TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) had formulated a role that allowed him to travel easily to Lisbon, but the Committee concluded that he need to communicate by wireless as well. Popov had engineered the escape to London of a fellow Yugoslav, the Marquis de Bona, in December 1943, who would become his authorized wireless operator, and Popov himself brought back to the UK the apparatus that de Bona (given the cryptonym FREAK) started using successfully in February. Useful information on dummy FUSAG movements was passed on for a while, but a cloud hung over the whole operation, as the XX Committee feared, quite justifiably, that TRICYCLE might have been blown because Popov’s contact within the Abwehr, Johnny Jebsen (ARTIST) knew enough about the project to betray the whole deception game. When Jebsen was arrested at the end of April, TRICYCLE and his network were closed down, with FREAK’s last transmission going out on May 16. TRICYCLE explained the termination in a letter written in secret ink on May 20, ascribing it to suspicions that had arisen over FREAK’s loyalties. Astonishingly, FREAK sent a final message by wireless on June 30, and the Germans’ petulant response indicated that they still trusted TRICYCLE. After the war, MI5 learned that Jebsen had been drugged and transported to Berlin, tortured and then killed, but said nothing.

The career of BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) was also dogged by controversy, as he had brought trouble on himself with the Polish government-in-exile, and the Poles had access to his cyphers. Again, fevered debate over his trustworthiness, and deliberation over what the Germans (and Russians) knew about him continued throughout 1943. His wireless traffic (which had been interrupted) restarted on August 25, but his handler in Paris, Colonel Reile, suspected that he might have been ‘turned’. Indeed, his transmitter was operated by a notional friend called CHOPIN, working from Richmond. By December 1943, confidence in the security of BRUTUS, and his acceptance by the Abwehr, had been restored: the Germans even succeeded in delivering him a new wireless set. Thereafter, BRUTUS grew to become the second most valuable member of the team of special agents. A regular stream of messages was sent, beginning in from February 1, culminating in an intense flow between June 5 and June 7, providing (primarily) important disinformation about troop movements in East Anglia.

Lastly, the performance of GARBO was the most significant – and the most controversial. According to Guy Liddell, GARBO had made his first contact with the Abwehr in Madrid in March 1943. GARBO had also claimed to have found a ‘friend’ who would operate the wireless for him. The Abwehr was so pleased that it immediately sent him new cyphers (invaluable to GC&CS), and, a month later, advised him how to simulate British Army callsigns, so as to avoid detection. A domestic crisis then occurred, which caused Harmer in MI5 to recommend BRUTUS as a more reliable vehicle than GARBO, but it passed, and, by the beginning of 1944 GARBO was using his transmitter to send more urgent – as well as more copious – messages. GARBO benefitted from a large network of fictional agents who supplied him with news from around the country, and his role in FORTITUDE culminated in the epic message of June 9 with which I introduced this piece.

The Aftermath

BODYGUARD was successful. The German High Command viewed the Normandy landings as a feint to distract attention from the major assault they saw coming in the Pas de Calais. They relied almost exclusively on the reports coming in from the special agents. They did not have the infrastructure, the attention span, or the expertise to interpret the deluge of phony signals that were generated as part of FORTITUDE NORTH, and they could not undertake proper reconnaissance flights across the English Channel to inspect any preparations for the assault that they knew was coming. Interrogations of German officers after the war confirmed that the ‘intelligence’ transmitted by the five agents listed above was passed on and accepted at the very highest levels. This phenomenon has to be analysed in two dimensions: the political and the technical.

The fact that the Abwehr (and its successor, the SS) were hoodwinked so easily by the substance of the messages was not perhaps surprising. To begin with, the Abwehr was a notoriously anti-Nazi organisation, and the role of its leader, Admiral Canaris, was highly ambiguous in his encouraging doubts about the loyalty of his agents to be squashed. He told his officer Jebsen (ARTIST) that ‘he didn’t care if every German agent in Britain was under control, so long as he could tell German High Command that he had agents in Britain reporting regularly.’ Every intelligence officer has an inclination to trust his recruits: if he tells his superiors that they are unreliable, he is effectively casting maledictions on his own abilities. Those who spoke up about their doubts, and pursued them, were moved out to the Russian front. The Double Cross System was addressing a serious need.

When the ineffectiveness and unreliability of the Abwehr itself was called into question, and the organisation was subsumed into the SS, the special agents came under the control of disciplinarians and military officers who did not really understand intelligence, were under enormous pressures, and thus had neither the time nor the expertise to attempt to assess properly the information that was being passed to them. They had experienced no personal involvement with the agents supposedly infiltrated into Britain. What intelligence they received sounded plausible, and appeared to form a pattern, so it was accepted and passed on.

Yet the technical aspects are more problematic. Given what the German agencies (the Sipo, Gestapo, and Abwehr) had invested in static and mobile radio-detection and location finding techniques (even though they overstated their capabilities), they should surely have asked themselves whether Great Britain would not have explored and refined similar technology. And they should have asked themselves why the British would not have exercised such capabilities to the utmost in order to conceal the order of battle, and assault plans, for the inevitable ‘invasion’ of continental Europe. Moreover, Britain was a densely populated island, homogeneous and certainly almost completely opposed to the Nazi regime, and infiltrated foreign agents must have had to experience a far more hostile and obstructive environment than, say, SOE agents of French nationality who were parachuted into a homeland that contained a large infrastructure of Allied sympathisers. Traces of such a debate in German intelligence are difficult to find. Canaris defended his network of Vertrauensmänner, and referred to ‘most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures’ in February 1944, but his motivations were suspect, and he was ousted immediately afterwards. Why was GARBO (especially) not picked up? How indeed could anyone transmit for so long, when such practices went against all good policies of clandestine wireless usage?

Even more astonishing is the apparent lack of recognition of the problem from the voluminous British archives. Admittedly, the challenge may have been of such magnitude that it was never actually mentioned, but one might expect at some stage the question to be raised: “How can we optimise wireless transmission practices so that it would be reasonable to assume that RSS would not be able to pick them up?” That would normally require making the messages as brief as possible, switching wavelengths, and changing locations – all in order to elude the resolute mobile location-finding units. That was clearly a concern in the early days of the war, with agent SNOW, when B1A even asked SNOW to inquire of his handler, Dr. Rantzau (Ritter) whether it was safe for SNOW always to transmit from the same place. Rantzau replied in the affirmative, reflecting the state-of-the-art in 1940. But progress had been made by the Germans, especially in light of the arrival of SOE wireless agents, and the XX Committee must have known this.

Yet, four years later, all that the XX Committee and B1a appeared to do was allow GARBO to emulate British military traffic. And they showed a completely cavalier attitude to the problem of time on the air by allowing GARBO to compose his ridiculously windy messages. After all, if they were sharp enough to ensure that signals emanated from a location roughly where the agent was supposed to be, in case German direction-finders were on the prowl, why would they not imagine that the Germans were contemplating the reciprocal function of RSS?  It was even more comprehensively dumb than the Abwehr’s credulous distancing from the problem.

Did MI5 try to communicate to the Abwehr the notion that RSS was useless? Guy Liddell confided his doubts about the apparently feeble tracking of GARBO only to his diary, so, unless the Abwehr had a spy in the bowels of RSS, and a method of getting information back to Germany, that would have been an impossible task. Perhaps some messages from the special agents indicating that they were close to being hunted down, but always managed to escape, would have given a measure of verisimilitude, indicating the existence of a force, but a very ineffective one. The behaviour of B1A, however, in reusing transmission sites, while paying lip-service to the location-finding capabilities of the foe, but allowing absurdly long transmissions to take place, simply denies belief. The utterly unnecessary but studied non-observance of basic protocols was highly unprofessional, and should have caused the whole scaffolding of deceit to collapse. It is extraordinary that so many historians and analysts have hinted at this debacle, but never analyzed it in detail.

In conclusion, the mystery of the Undetected Radios was not a puzzle of how they remained undetected, but of why both the Abwehr and MI5 both considered it reasonable that they could flourish unnoticed for so long, and behave so irresponsibly. Findlater Stewart’s 1946 history of RSS – which helped set the agenda for the unit during the Cold War – proves that he did not really understand the technology or the issues. What all this implies for the Communist agent Sonia’s transmissions (around which this whole investigation started) will be addressed in a final report that will constitute the concluding chapter of Sonia’s Radio and The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies?

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I recall, back in the early 1960s, seeing advertisements in the Daily Telegraph for a charity identifying itself as the Distressed Gentlefolk’s Aid Association. They showed an elderly couple, a rather tweedy gentleman of military bearing, and his elegant wife, who probably had worn pearls at some stage, but could no longer afford them. (The image I show above is a similar exhibit.) These were presumably persons of good ‘breeding’ who had fallen on undeserved hard times. The organization asked the readership to contribute to the maintenance and well-being of such persons.

I found these appeals rather quaint, even then, and asked myself why ‘gentlefolk’ should have been singled out as especially worthy of any handouts. After all, such terminology had a vaguely mid-Victorian ring: I must have been thinking of Turgenev’s ‘Nest of Gentry’, which I had recently read. Moreover, were there not more meritorious examples of the struggling poor? Perhaps I had Ralph MacTell’s ‘Streets of London’ ringing in my head [No. It was not released until 1969. Ed.], although I was never able to work out why, if the bag-lady celebrated by this noted troubadour (who, like me, grew up in Croydon in the 1950s) was lonely, ‘she’s no time for talking, she just keeps right on walking’. Was she perhaps fed up with being accosted in the street by long-haired minstrels wielding guitars?

But I digress. It was more probable that I had been influenced by the lunch monitor at my school dining-table, the much-loved and now much-missed John Knightly, who would later become Captain of the School. I recall how he, with Crusader badge pinned smartly on his lapel, would admonish those of us who struggled to complete our rather gristly stew by reminding us of ‘the starving millions in China’. I felt like telling him that he could take the remnants of the lunch of one particular Distressed Fourth-Former and send them off to Chairman Mao, but somehow the moment passed without my recommendation being made.

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

I thought about that institution as I was preparing this piece. I have warned readers of coldspur that I would eventually be offering an analysis of the phenomenon of Liverpool University as the Home for Distressed Spies, and here it is. It analyses the predicament that MI5 and the civil authorities found themselves in when they had clear evidence that Soviet spies were in their midst, but, because of the nature of the evidence, believed that they could not prosecute without a confession.

The accounts of the interviews, interrogations and suspicions surrounding some of the atom scientists (Pontecorvo, Peierls, Fuchs, Skinner, Skyrme, Davison) in Britain after the war display a puzzled approach to policy by the officers at the AERE (Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell) and at MI5. If such suspects were believed to have pro-Soviet sympathies, they could not be encouraged, on account of the knowledge they possessed about atomic power and weaponry, to consider escaping to the Soviet Union. On the one hand, it would have been difficult to prosecute those whose guilt was hardly in doubt (i.e. Fuchs and Pontecorvo), as it would require gaining a confession from them, and, on the other, the sensitivity of the sources (the VENONA decrypts, and a lost item of intelligence, respectively) would prohibit such evidence being used in a trial. In Fuchs’s case, some senior figures in MI5 (Percy Sillitoe, the Director-General, and Dick White, head of counter-espionage) were keen on trying to gain a confession, and prosecuting. Liddell of MI5 (Sillitoe’s deputy), in conjunction with Harwell’s chief, John Cockcroft, and Henry Arnold, the security officer, wanted to shift Fuchs and Pontecorvo quietly off to a regional university. Liverpool University loomed largest in this scenario.

I have decided to work backwards generally in this account, before advancing to the connection between the controversial role of Herbert Skinner, and how he eventually exerted an influence on the removal of the mysterious Boris Davison. I believe it will be more revealing to display gradually the undeclared knowledge that affected the decisions, misleading briefings and reports that emanated from Guy Liddell and his brother-officers at MI5, and from other civil servants at Harwell, and at the Ministry of Supply, to which AERE reported.

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

At the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell:

Cockcroft                    Director

Arnold                         Security officer

Skinner                        Assistant director; Head of Theoretical Physics division

Fuchs                           Scientist

Pontecorvo                  Scientist

Davison                       Scientist

Buneman                     Scientist

Flowers                       Scientist

The Men from the Ministries:

Attlee                          Prime Minister

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

Perrin                           Deputy to Portal

Appleton                     Permanent Secretary, Department for Scientific and Industrial Research

Makins                        Deputy Under-Secretary of State, Foreign Office

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

Rowlands                    Permanent Secretary, Ministry of Supply

Cherwell                      Paymaster-General (1953)

At MI5:

Sillitoe                         Director

Liddell                        Assistant Director

White                          Head of B Division (counter-espionage)       

Hollis                           B1

Mitchell                       B1E (Hollis’s deputy)

Robertson J. C.           Head of B2

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

Marriott                       B3

Serpell                         PA to Sillitoe

Skardon                       B2A

Reed                            B2A

Archer                         B2A

Collard                         C2A

Morton                        C2A

Hill                              Solicitor

Bligh                           Solicitor

At the Universities:

Mountford                  Vice-Chancellor, Liverpool University

Chadwick                    Master of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge

Oliphant                      Professor at Birmingham University

Peierls                          Professor at Birmingham University

Massey                        Professor at University College, London

Rotblat                        Professor at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, London

Fröhlich                       Professor at Liverpool University

Frisch                          Professor at Trinity College, Cambridge

Flowers                       Researcher at Birmingham University

Pryce                           Professor at Clarendon Laboratories

The Journalists:

Pincher                        Daily Express

Stubbs-Walker            Daily Mail

Moorehead                  Daily Express

Rodin                          Sunday Express

Maule                          Empire News

West                            New York Times

De Courcy                   Intelligence Digest

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

Contents:

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

Bruno Pontecorvo’s journey to Harwell was an unusual one. An Italian who worked with Joliot-Curie in Paris, he had escaped from France with his Swedish wife and their son in July 1940, in the nick of time before the Nazis overran the country. After some strenuous efforts visiting consulates and embassies to gain the necessary papers, he and his family gained a sea passage to the USA on the strength of a job offer from his Italian colleague Emilio Segrè in Tulsa, Oklahoma.

In the autumn of 1942, Pontecorvo was invited by Hans Halban to interview for a position with the British nuclear physics team working in Montreal. He was approved in December 1942, and was inducted into Tube Alloys, the British atomic weapons project, in New York, the following month. He was a success in Canada, and, after Halban’s demotion and subsequent return to Europe, worked closely with Nunn May on the Zero Energy Experimental Pile (ZEEP) project. Yet, as the war came to a close, Pontecorvo began to feel the anti-communist climate in Canada and the United States oppressive to him. In late 1945, with Igor Gouzenko and Elizabeth Bentley revealing the breadth and depth of the Soviet espionage network, he was happy to receive an informal job offer from John Cockcroft, who had been appointed head of the Atomic Energy Research Establishment at Harwell, which was to open on January 1, 1946. Chadwick, who had led the British mission to the Manhattan Project from Washington, had imposed travel restrictions on Pontecorvo, but the Italian was able to negotiate a satisfactory deal by the end of January 1946. Despite competitive offers from several prestigious US companies, he made his decision to join Harwell.

Yet, very strangely, Pontecorvo did not start work for three more years, continuing to operate in Montreal, and even travelling to Europe in the interim. In February 1948, he became a British citizen, to assuage government concerns about aliens working on sensitive projects. On January 24, 1949, he left Chalk River in Ontario for the last time, and officially started work at Harwell on February 1. An entry in his file at The National Archives, however, indicates that he was, rather late in the day, ‘nominated for a position at Harwell’, on July 7 of that year. Astonishingly, the record indicates that Pontecorvo was ‘confirmed in his appointment as S.P.S.O. [Senior Principal Scientific Officer] and established’ only on January 2, 1950! (KV 2/1888-2, s.n. 97c.)

It was not until October 1950, when Pontecorvo disappeared with his family during a holiday on the Continent, that Liddell made his first diary entry – at least, of those that have survived redactions – concerning Pontecorvo. As the record for October 21 states: “On information that had been received xxxxxxxxx in March of this year, intimating that PONTECORVO and his wife were avowed Communists, a decision was reached, after an interrogation of PONTECORVO by Henry Arnold, when the former admitted to having Communist relations – to get rid of him and find some employment for him at Liverpool University.” Yet Liddell thus implies that he (or MI5) learned of Pontecorvo’s unreliability only in March 1950, and his memorandum reinforces the notion that it was primarily the security officer Arnold’s idea to accommodate Pontecorvo at Liverpool University, even though the news had apparently come as a surprise to Arnold back in March.

Liddell was being deliberately deceptive. As early as December 15, 1949, (see KV 2/1288, s.n. 97A, as Frank Close reports in Half-Life, his biography of Pontecorvo), the FBI sent a report to MI5, dated December 15, that identified Pontecorvo’s links to Communism. As Close writes: ‘MI5 took note. Someone highlighted the above paragraph in Pontecorvo’s file’, but Close then asserts that MI5 did nothing, as they were consumed with the Fuchs case at the time.  On February 10, 1950, however, another clearer warning arrived, when Robert Thornton of the US Atomic Energy Commission, on a visit to a Harwell conference, informed John Cockcroft that Pontecorvo and his family were Communists, repeating specifically the formal report from December. A vital conclusion must be that, if this visitor from the USA had not been invited to the conference, Cockcroft might never have learned about the project already in place to remove Pontecorvo. 

Pontecorvo had in fact left behind him a trail of hints concerning his political allegiances. He had joined the French Communist Party on August 23, 1939, the day the Nazi-Soviet pact was signed. In July 1940, MI5 knew enough about him to judge him as ‘mildly unsuitable’ for acceptance as an escapee to Britain. In September, 1942, FBI agents had inspected his house in Tulsa (while Pontecorvo was away), and discovered communist literature there. After Pontecorvo’s application to join Tube Alloys, the FBI had exchanged correspondence with British Security Control (which represented MI5 and MI6 in the United States), concerning Pontecorvo’s loyalties. The FBI was able to confirm, after Pontecorvo’s flight, that it had sent letters to BSC on March 2, 16, and 19 but, inexplicably, BSC had issued him a security clearance on March 3, and had failed to follow up.

Alarmed by Thornton’s warning (having been kept in the dark by his own security officer and MI5), Cockcroft instructed Arnold to look into the matter. Arnold accordingly spoke to Pontecorvo, elicited information from him, and was able to inform MI5, by telephone call on March 1, that Pontecorvo was ‘an active communist’. (On the same day, Collard of C2A reported that Arnold’s conversation with Pontecorvo was ‘recent’: KV 2/1887, s.n. 20A.) Yet Arnold added more. He told MI5 that Pontecorvo had recently before been offered a job at the University of Liverpool, and that Pontecorvo’s acceptance of that offer would rid Harwell of a security risk. Again, this news goes unrecorded in Liddell’s diaries at the time.

But is this not extraordinary? What does ‘recently’ mean? If Arnold learned of the Liverpool job offer from Pontecorvo himself, when had it been arranged? And was this not extremely early for Pontecorvo to be seeking employment elsewhere? Given the long gestation period preceding the confirmation of Pontecorvo’s post at Harwell, would this not have provoked some high-level discussion? After all, Pontecorvo had been ‘established’ a couple of weeks after the original warning from the FBI. And who would have made the offer? Liverpool University is associated in the archives most closely with Herbert Skinner, but, as will be shown, Skinner was not yet established in a position of authority and influence at Liverpool. He had been formally appointed, but was not yet working full-time, as he was still executing his job as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell. Some senior academic figures should surely have been involved in the decision, especially the Vice-Chancellor, Sir James Mountford.

This aspect of the case has been strangely overlooked by Pontecorvo’s biographers, Frank Close, and Simone Turchetti. Both mention the fact that Pontecorvo had first indicated the fact of the Liverpool offer to Arnold on March 1, but do not follow up why it would have been made so early in the cycle, or investigate the earlier sequence of events, or even ask why Pontecorvo was informing Arnold of the fact. Had someone revealed to Pontecorvo that incriminating stories were floating around about his political beliefs, and had officers at Liverpool University come to some sort of unofficial agreement with the authorities at the Ministry of Supply and MI5 – but not Arnold or Cockcroft – since December? It is difficult to imagine an alternative scenario. Thus it is much more likely that MI5 did act in December, when they first received the report, but made no record of the fact.

Turchetti does in fact report that, in January 1950, i.e. well before the Arnold-Cockcroft exchanges, Herbert Skinner ‘asked Pontecorvo to join him at Liverpool, believing that he was the ideal candidate to lead experimental activities’, as if this would be a normal and smooth career progression. (I shall explore Skinner’s split role between Harwell and Liverpool later.)  Turchetti does not, however, follow up on the implications of these early negotiations. For, as I suggested earlier, this would have been a very sudden transfer, given Pontecorvo’s official confirmation on the Harwell post earlier that month. Moreover, this item does not appear in the files at the National Archives. It comes from a statement made by the Vice-Chancellor at Liverpool, Sir James Mountford, which seriously undermines MI5’s claim that it was not aware of the seriousness of the exposure until February 1950.   Pontecorvo, incidentally, also had the chutzpah around this time to request a promotion at Harwell, which was promptly rejected.

  • Machinations at Liverpool
Sir James Mountford

I acquired a copy of Mountford’s statement from Liverpool University. [By courtesy of the Liverpool University Library:  255/6/5/5/6 – Notes on Bruno Pontecorvo by James Mountford.]

It was sent by the Vice-Chancellor to Professor Tilley, in September 1978. Mountford explains that, after Sir James Chadwick in the spring of 1948 vacated the physics chair to accept the Mastership of Gonville and Caius College, Cambridge, the university was faced with the problem of finding a suitable candidate to replace him, with the added sensitivity that, if the right person were not selected, the nuclear project might be transferred to Glasgow. The challenge required some diligent networking by the experts in this field.

The first choice for Chadwick’s replacement was Sir Harrie Massey, the Australian Professor of Applied Mathematics at University College, London, who had had a distinguished war record, working lastly on isotope separation for the Manhattan Project at the University of California.  (Mountford indicated that Massey was Professor of Physics, but he was in fact not appointed Quain Professor of Physics until 1950.) Massey ‘reluctantly’ declined the offer, so the team from Liverpool had a meeting on January 26, 1949, with Professor Oliphant of Birmingham (to whom Massey had reported at Berkeley), Chadwick, and Sir Edward Appleton, the Secretary of the Department for Scientific and Industrial Research (DSIR). They decided upon W. H. B. Skinner of Harwell. Herbert Skinner headed the physics section there: he also had experience on the Manhattan Project, as he had worked with Massey on isotope separation at Berkeley.

There is, oddly, no discussion by the team of Skinner’s merits, nor even the suggestion of a process for interviewing Skinner, or asking him about his plans and objectives, or whether he even wanted the job. Cockcroft does not seem to have been consulted on his willingness to release his second-in-command so soon after the latter’s appointment. This must be considered as highly provocative and controversial, given Skinner’s role as Cockcroft’s deputy, and what Mountford wrote about the importance of the position, and I shall explore the rationale in detail later in this article. The note merely states: “He accepted and took up duties formally in Oct. 1949.”  Moreover, Andrew Brown, in his biography of Joseph Rotblat, states that Rotblat had been appointed joint acting head of the physics department at Liverpool in October 1948, before resigning in March 1949. That happened to be just after the speedy decision in favour of Skinner, but Skinner does not even merit a mention in Brown’s book. * Did Rotblat perhaps think that his close friend Chadwick should have championed his cause instead of Skinner’s? Maybe he simply regarded the prospect of working under Skinner intolerable. Or perhaps he was asked to move aside to make room for a Harwell transferee?

[* Rotblat obtained a Ph.D., his second, from Liverpool in 1950. It seems that the Ph.D. was awarded after he moved to London.]

According to what Mountford claimed, Rotblat moved to St. Bartholomew’s Medical School not out of pique at Skinner’s appointment, but because of his dislike of military applications of nuclear science. Again, Mountford’s judgment (or memory) should be challenged. Rotblat had voiced his objections to the military uses of the science back in 1944, when it became apparent that the Germans would not be successful in building such a bomb. He had moved to Liverpool, which was constructing a cyclotron to aid applications for energy, was appointed Director of Research for Nuclear Physics at the university, and was Chairman of the Cyclotron Panel of the UK Nuclear Physics Committee from 1946 to 1950. He had thus had several years to have considered any objections to working there.

Irrespective of the exact circumstances concerning Rotblat’s departure, and whether he felt rebuffed, Skinner, on taking up his duties, raised the question of replacing Rotblat, and ‘the idea emerged’ of a second chair in Experimental Physics. Turchetti indicates, more boldly, that Skinner ‘dictated’ that the Faculty of Sciences agree to establish a professorship, as this would be the status that Pontecorvo demanded. Yet it is not clear where Turchetti gathered this insight, and it is not precisely dated. Mountford gives October 1949 as the time Skinner assumed his duties. Even if one considers it unlikely that a recruit not yet established would be able to make demands of that nature, if Skinner did indeed identify and recommend Pontecorvo that early, two months before the disclosures ofDecember 1949, it would have very serious implications, suggesting that MI5 and the Ministry already had reservations about the naturalised Italian. And, even in December 1949-January 1950, Skinner’s approaching Pontecorvo without informing his boss, Cockcroft, would have been highly irregular. Mountford may have been putting a positive gloss on the affair, but it now sounds as if undisclosed pressure was being applied from other quarters.

In any case (again, according to Mountford) the Faculty responded by agreeing, in principle, to approve the chair ‘if a satisfactory person were available’. The outcome was that Mountford lunched with Skinner and Pontecorvo on January 18, 1950, i.e. a month before the fateful visit of the American Thornton. Pontecorvo, according to Turchetti, was, however, not very impressed with Liverpool. (And his highly strung Swedish wife, Marianne, would have been very uncomfortable there: the wife of one of my on-line colleagues, a woman who hails from Sheffield, asserts that there was not much to choose between Moscow and Liverpool at that time.) Alan Moorehead wrote that Mrs. Pontecorvo visited the city, but was ‘worried about the cold in the north’ – so unlike her native Stockholm, one imagines. The Chairs Committee then spent three months or so collecting information about the candidate. Mountford had meanwhile spoken to Chadwick, who had doubts whether Pontecorvo could stand up to Skinner’s ‘forceful personality’. A formal interview with Pontecorvo eventually took place, but not until June 6, 1950. He did not overall impress, however, partly because of his poor English. Yet the committee overcame its reservations, and Pontecorvo would later accept the position, with January 1951 set as the date on which he would assume duties.

Mountford’s description of events as a smooth series is a travesty of what was really going on. Given what happened between January and June, Pontecorvo’s apparent freedom to accept or reject the offer in June was an unlikely outcome. First of all, in March, Pontecorvo had given Arnold the impression he had already received a firm offer, a claim belied by Mountford’s account. At this stage, Pontecorvo apparently did not respond to it, however vague and undocumented. Later that month, however, further damaging evidence against him came from Sweden via MI6 (a communication that was surely not passed on to Mountford). A letter from MI6 to the famous Sonia-watcher J.H. Marriott, in B2, dated March 2, 1950, describes Pontecorvo and his wife as ‘avowed Communists’. This revelation applied more pressure on MI5 and the Ministry of Supply to remove Pontecorvo from Harwell. The outcome was that, on April 6 (KV/2 -1887, s.n. 26) Arnold was again recommending that ‘it would be a good thing if he were able to obtain a post at one of the British universities’, even boosting the suggestion that ‘we might continue to avail ourselves of his undoubted ability as consultant in limited fields.’ The naivety displayed is amazing: Klaus Fuchs had just been sentenced to fourteen years for espionage activities.

Furthermore, Arnold added that Pontecorvo, after denying that he was a Communist, but admitting that he was assuredly a man of the Left, ‘has already toyed with the idea of an appointment in Rome University, and is at present turning over in his mind an offer which has come to him from America.’ The latter must have been an enormous bluff: given the FBI report, the United States would have been the last place to admit him for employment. This truth of his allegiance was soon confirmed, with matters became more embarrassing in July. Geoffrey Patterson in Washington then wrote to Sillitoe informing him that the FBI had learned of Pontecorvo’s working at Harwell, and had indicated that they had sent messages to Washington (and maybe London) on three occasions in 1943 describing Pontecorvo’s communist affiliations. The messages may have been destroyed, among the files of British Security Co-ordination, after the war. In Washington, as MI6’s representative, Kim Philby (of all people) could not trace them – or so he said. MI5 apparently had no record of them.

If the dons at Liverpool had been briefed on all that had happened, they presumably would have been even more reluctant to take Pontecorvo on. Yet, the more dangerous Pontecorvo seemed to be, the more MI5 wanted to plant him at Liverpool. Using FO 371/84837 and correspondence held in the Liverpool University Library, as well as the Pontecorvo papers at Churchill College, (none of which I have personally inspected), Turchetti writes: “From the spring of 1950, Skinner used his recent security investigations to put pressure on his colleague to accept the new position. He also convinced the university’s administrators of Pontecorvo’s suitability without making them aware of the ongoing inquiry.” In addition, with ammunition from Roger Makins from the Ministry of Supply, Skinner had to wear down objections from university administrators that Pontecorvo was improperly qualified to teach. Skinner was clearly receiving instructions from his political masters.

Chadwick and Cockcroft acted as referees for Pontecorvo, but they could hardly be assessed as objective, given their involvement in the plot. Chadwick pondered over whether he should confide in Mountford with the awful facts, and wrote to him that he would discuss the university’s concerns with Cockcroft, but he did not follow up. And then, when the final offer was reluctantly made on June 6, Pontecorvo vacillated, requesting another month to consider. On July 24, the day before he left on holiday, never to return, he wrote to Mountford, accepting the offer, and stating that he expected to start work after Christmas, when he would leave Harwell.

On October 23, 1950, Liddell had an interview with Prime Minister Attlee. He glossed over the FBI/BSC issue without giving it a date, and referred solely to the Swedish source of March 2 as evidence of Pontecorvo’s communism, conveniently overlooking both the events of December 1949 and February 1950. All this is confirmed by his memorandum of the meeting on file (KV 2/1887, s.n. 63A). MI5 had been attempting a reconstruction of Pontecorvo’s activities (KV 2/1288, s.n. 87C), which presumably fed Liddell’s intelligence. This account (undated, but probably in July or August 1950) omits both the warning from the FBI in December 1949 (which is confirmed elsewhere in the file), as well as the information given to Cockcroft at the beginning of March 1950. It does concentrate, however, on the information from Sweden, reporting on the discussions that occurred in the following terms: “D. At. En. [Perrin, at Department of Atomic Energy] decided not to grant PONTECORVO’s request for promotion and to encourage him to take up the post offered him at Liverpool by Professor Skinner. This was arranged only after considerable discussion.” Pontecorvo was thus allowed to leave on vacation in July without submitting his resignation or formally being taken off Harwell’s books. And he never returned.

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

  • Klaus Fuchs at Harwell
Klaus Fuchs

Fuchs’s path to Harwell was slightly less erratic, but also controversial. He had been recruited to Tube Alloys, the British codename for atomic weapons research, in 1941, and had moved to the USA at the end of 1943 to work on the Manhattan Project. In June 1946 he was summoned from Los Alamos to head the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell, working under Herbert Skinner. Skinner had been the first divisional head appointed at Harwell.  Fuchs was appointed chairman of the Power Steering Committee at Harwell, and Pontecorvo joined the committee later.

What is extraordinary about Fuchs’s return to the UK is that the first that MI5 learned about it was when Arnold, the security officer, wrote to MI5, in October 1946, about his suspicions that Fuchs might be a communist. He might well have gained his intelligence from Skinner himself, who had known Fuchs from the time they both worked at Bristol University in the 1930s. The political climate by this stage meant that embryonic ‘purge’ procedures (which were solidified in May 1947) would have to be applied to such figures working in sensitive posts. Frank Close, in Trinity, covers very thoroughly these remarkable few months at the end of 1946, when MI5 officers openly voiced their concerns that Fuchs might be a spy. Michael Serpell and Joe Archer (Jane Archer’s husband) were most energetic in advising that Fuchs should be kept away from any work on atomic energy or weapons research. Rudolf Peierls came under suspicion, too, but Roger Hollis countered with a strong statement that it was highly unlikely that the two were engaged in espionage, and gained support in his judgment from Dick White and Graham Mitchell.

The next three years were thus a very nervous time for MI5 and Arnold, as they kept a watch on Fuchs’s movements and associations. Yet Fuchs was placed on ‘permanent establishment’ in August 1948, and Arnold was later to claim, deceitfully, that Fuchs came under suspicion only in that year, when he was observed speaking intently to a known communist at a conference. The matter came to a head, however, in 1949, when the decipherment of VENONA transcripts led the Washington analysts to narrow down the identity of the spy CHARLES to either Fuchs or Peierls. Guy Liddell indicates that fact as early as August 9: at the end of August, the FBI formally told MI5 of its belief that the leak pointed to Fuchs (because of the visit to his sister in Boston).

MI5 immediately started making connections. It alerted MI6 to the Fuchs case, and to his Communist brother, Gerhard. (Maurice Oldfield had told Kim Philby of the discovery before the latter left London for Washington in September 1949.) MI5 identified the close relationship between the Skinners and Fuchs. A report by J. C. Robertson (B2A) of September 9 (after a meeting between Arnold, Collard, Skardon and Robertson) runs as follows: “Although FUCHS’ address has until recently been Lacies Court, Abingdon, he has in fact rarely lived there, but has chosen to sleep more often than not with his close friends the SKINNERS at Harwell. He is on more than usually intimate terms with Mrs. SKINNER. The SKINNERS will be leaving in about six months for Liverpool, where SKINNER himself is to take up the chair about to be vacated [sic!] by Sir James Chadwick. At present, SKINNER devotes his time about half and half to Liverpool and Harwell.” 

Robertson went on to write that Professor Peierls was also a regular visitor at the Skinners, and that Fuchs was in addition very friendly with Otto Frisch of Cambridge University. (Frisch, the co-author, with Rudolf Peierls, of the famous memorandum that showed the feasibility of building a nuclear weapon, had moved to Liverpool from Birmingham, where Peierls worked, and had been responsible for the development of the cyclotron developed there. Yet, after the war, he had taken up work at Harwell as head of the Nuclear Physics Division, before moving to Trinity College, Cambridge, in 1947.) At Harwell, Arnold alone was in on the investigation: Cockcroft was not to be told yet of what was going on.

This is an intriguing document, by virtue of what it hints at, and what it gets wrong. The suggestion that Fuchs is having an affair with Erna Skinner is very strong, and the mention of Herbert’s long absences in Liverpool indicates the opportunities for Fuchs and Erna to carry on their liaison. Yet the transition of the Liverpool chair remains confusing: Chadwick had moved to Cambridge in 1948; Mountford noted that Skinner had taken up his duties in October 1949, but also referred (well in retrospect) that there had been an interregnum in the Physics position for a year, from March 1948 to March 1949. Robertson indicates that the Skinners will not be moving until about March 1950. Skinner’s own file at the National Archives informs us that he did not resign from Harwell until April 14, 1950, which was a very late decision, suggesting perhaps that his preferences had lain with staying at Harwell as long as possible, and that he might even have had aspirations of restoring his career there. The files suggest that his duties at Harwell remained substantial well into 1950. A report by J. C. Robertson of B2A, dated March 9, 1950, describes Skinner as follows: ’. . . deputy to Sir John Cockcroft and who has temporarily taken over Fuchs’ post as head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell’. Skinner then continued to work in a consultative capacity at Harwell: he wrote to the incarcerated Fuchs as late as December 20, 1950 that ‘we are definitely at Liverpool but go on visits to Harwell quite often.’ How could Skinner perform that job if he was spending so much his time in Liverpool? In any case, it was an exceedingly long and drawn-out period of dual responsibilities for Skinner.

  • Fuchs’s Interrogations
Jim Skardon

Armed with their confidential VENONA intelligence, MI5 prepared for the interrogation of Fuchs, but were not initially hopeful of gaining a successful confession. Thus the thorny question of what they could collectively do to ‘eliminate’ him (in their clumsy expression) quickly arose. Fuchs might decide to flee the country, which would be disastrous, as his Moscow bosses would be able to pick his brains without any restrictions. Liddell continued the theme, showing his enthusiasm for a softer approach against his boss’s more prosecutorial instincts. Liddell doubted that interrogations would be successful in eliciting a confession from Fuchs, and, as early as October 31, 1949, he was suggesting ‘alternative employment’, though being overruled by Sillitoe. At this stage, Peierls and Fuchs were both under investigation, but Liddell was gaining confidence that Fuchs was ‘their man’. (Peierls had come under suspicion in August since he also had a sister in the United States, but he was soon eliminated from the inquiry.)

On November 28, Liddell noted that he was still thinking in terms of finding another job for Fuchs, and on December 5, he tried to convince Perrin that the chances of a conviction were remote, saying that ‘efforts should be made to explore the ground for alternative work’. At a meeting to discuss Fuchs on December 15, 1949 (see Close, p 255), Perrin ‘commented that Herbert Skinner was about to move to Liverpool University, and that a transfer of Fuchs to Liverpool might be arranged through Skinner, who would probably welcome Fuchs’ presence there.’ (Perrin was presumably unaware then of the Erna Skinner-Klaus Fuchs liaison.) It seems that the notion of parking Fuchs specifically at Liverpool University was first aired at this time.  (Note that this is exactly the same date when MI5 learned about Pontecorvo from the FBI.) When Jim Skardon managed to get Fuchs to make a partial confession on December 21, Liddell was still considering finding him ‘some job at some University compatible with his qualifications’.

After another interrogation of Fuchs, on December 30, Liddell met the Prime Minister, Clement Attlee, on January 2, 1950, and informed him of MI5’s resolve to complete the interrogations. Even Lord Portal (head of Atomic Energy at the Ministry of Supply) was in general harmony, although reportedly bearing the more cautious opinion that ‘the security risk of maintaining FUCHS at Harwell could not be accepted, and that some post should be found for him at one of the Universities’. Attlee seemed ready to accept Portal’s recommendation. Yet two important players had yet to be brough into the plot: Cockcroft and Skinner.

When Cockcroft became involved, matters took an alarmingly different turn. Cockcroft asked Skinner, on January 4, whether he could find a place for Fuchs at Liverpool. This would suggest that, unless a deep feint was being played, Skinner was not aware of the clandestine efforts to dispose of Fuchs, as his depositions to Liverpool had hitherto been made with Pontecorvo in mind. Skinner must surely have been bemused, and must have asked why such a step was being considered. Cockcroft probably said more than he should have. (Cockcroft had the irritating habit of concealing his opinions in meetings with his subordinates, and then showing disappointment when his intentions were not read, but then talking too much in one-on-one conversations.) On January 10, Cockcroft met with Fuchs and Skinner, separately. Cockcroft told Fuchs ‘that he would help him find a university post and suggested that Professor Skinner might be able to take Fuchs on at Liverpool’. It also reinforces the fact that Cockcroft had not been brought into the Pontecorvo affair. Astonishingly, all the time up until March 1, Skinner was negotiating with Pontecorvo and Mountford behind Cockcroft’s back, while Cockcroft was pressing Skinner (up until Fuchs’s confession on January 24) to place Fuchs at Liverpool without bringing Skinner into the full picture.

Whether Skinner learned about Cockcroft’s offer to Fuchs from Cockcroft or Erna is not clear, but MI5 reported that Skinner learned ‘considerably more about the Fuchs affair than he is authorized to know’, and (as Close writes), ‘in consequence decided to take steps to ensure that Fuchs stayed at Harwell’. Given the circumstances, this was not surprising. Skinner already had been promoting Pontecorvo’s case, and because of Erna, would surely have preferred that Fuchs stayed at Harwell. So much for Skinner as the enabler of graceful retirement, but he had been placed in an impossible position. He had been thrust into the middle of these negotiations, perhaps reluctantly. In the course of one month (January 1950), Cockcroft applied pressure on him to accept Fuchs at Liverpool, Skinner next privately tried to talk Fuchs out of the move, and then, even before Fuchs made his confession, Skinner met with Mountford and Pontecorvo to consider a position for Pontecorvo at the University. It did not appear that his bosses at Harwell and the Ministry of Supply were behaving very sensitively to his own needs. At the same time, they were very anxious to make sure that Skinner kept to himself anything he may have learned about the predicament that Fuchs – and the authorities – were in.

Here also occurred the highly questionable incident of ‘inducement’, highlighted by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan in her recent biography of Fuchs, whereby Cockcroft essentially offered Fuchs a free pass if he co-operated, stressing that the recent appointment of Fuchs’s father to a position in East Germany made Klaus’s employment at Harwell untenable. Cockcroft also famously suggested that Adelaide University might be an alternative home, a suggestion which left Dick White and Percy Sillitoe aghast. Adelaide University happened to be the alma mater of Mark Oliphant, who had been a colleague of Peierls at Birmingham, and had also worked on isotope separation at Berkeley. (These connections go deep.) Oliphant’s biographical record suggests that he returned to Australia after the war, yet he is recorded by Mountford as attending the fateful meeting in January 1949 to decide on Skinner as Chadwick’s successor. No ground appeared to have been prepared for this idea, and the incident, while suggesting Cockcroft’s political naivety, also hints that Oliphant had been brought into the discussions some time before. MI5 struggled with the challenge of trying to coordinate the roles of Arnold, Skinner and Cockcroft, all with different needs, perspectives, and all being granted only a partial side of the story.

On January 11, Liverpool University decided to recommend the establishment of a second chair in Physics: perhaps Mountford was not yet aware that he was about to face two candidates for one position. On January 18, Skinner brought Pontecorvo up for a meeting with Mountford. Then some of the pressure was relieved. On January 24, Fuchs made a full confession to Jim Skardon, in the fourth interrogation. He was arrested on February 2, sent to trial, and sentenced to fourteen years’ imprisonment on March 1. For a while, Liverpool University was saved the embarrassment of being forced to accept one dangerous communist spy in its faculty. What Adelaide University thought about all this (if they were indeed consulted) is probably unrecorded.

  • Herbert Skinner at Harwell
Herbert Skinner

I wrote about Skinner’s enigmatic career in the second installment of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. He had enjoyed a distinguished war record, both in Britain in the USA, and merited his appointment as Cockcroft’s deputy at Harwell, where he was apparently a very hard and productive worker. Yet he had some facets to his character and lifestyle that raised security questions – not least the fact that he had married Erna, an Austrian born in Czernowitz, who socialized with openly communist friends. (The unconventional lives and habits of the Skinners assuredly deserve some special study of their own.) Despite their background, it appears (unless some files have been withheld) that MI5 began keeping record on the pair only towards the end of 1949, even though Erna had for a while maintained frequent social contact with her Red friends, including Tatiana Malleson. The statements that Skinner made, when later questioned by MI5, that protested innocence, could be interpreted as the honest claims of a loyal civil servant, or the obvious cover of a collaborator in subversion. (That is the Moura Budberg ploy with H. G. Wells, who, when asked by ‘Aitchgee’ whether she was a spy, told him that, whether she were a spy or not, she would have to answer ‘No.’)

Moreover, Erna was carrying on an affair with Fuchs, taking advantage of Herbert’s frequent absences when he was splitting his time between Liverpool and Harwell, but also acting brazenly when her husband was around.  In the last months of 1949, the Erna-Klaus relationship was allowed to thrive. As Close writes (Trinity, p 244): “Because Erna’s husband, Herbert, was in the process of transferring from Harwell to take up a professorship at the University of Liverpool, he was frequently away from the laboratory, so there were many empty hours for Erna, which she would pass with Fuchs.” If they were not aware of it before, MI5 could not avoid the evidence when they started applying phone-taps to Fuchs’s and the Skinners’ telephones. Skinner was thus a security risk himself.

Skinner, who had known Fuchs since their Bristol days, also made some bizarre and contradictory statements about Fuchs’s allegiances, at one time, in 1952, admitting that he had known that Fuchs was an ardent communist when at Bristol, but did not think it significant ‘when he found Fuchs at Harwell’, having earlier criticised MI5 for allowing Fuchs to be recruited at the Department of Atomic Energy. On June 28, 1950, when Skardon interviewed Skinner about Fuchs, the ex-Special Branch officer reported his response as following: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946. Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Yes, that response was perhaps a bit too pat, rather like Philby’s memoranda to London from Washington, where he brought attention to Burgess’s spying paraphernalia, and later to Maclean’s possible identity as the Foreign Office spy, as a ploy to distract attention from himself. Fuchs ‘clearly a Communist’ –  that should perhaps have provoked a stronger reaction, especially with Skinner’s assumed patriotism. But his claim was certainly fallacious: Skinner’s Royal Society biography makes it clear that he was busy supervising construction at Harwell in the first half of 1946, substituting for Cockcroft, who did not arrive until June. Fuchs did not arrive until August, and Skinner must have known about his coming arrival, and even facilitated it.

In addition, early in 1951, after Skinner had moved full-time to Liverpool, Director-General Sillitoe wrote to the Chief Constable of Liverpool, asking him to keep an eye on the Skinners. A Liverpool Police Report was sent to MI5 on May 10, indicating that the Skinners had been active members of the local Communist Party ‘since they arrived in Liverpool from Harwell almost two years ago’. (The timing is awry.) Faulty record-keeping? The wrong targets? A mean-spirited slur by a rival who resented Skinner’s appointment? A reliable report on some foolish behaviour by the new Professor? Another mystery, but a pattern of duplicity and subterfuge on his part.

Skinner’s actions are frequently hard to explain. In my recent bulletin on Peierls, I reported at length on the mysterious meetings that Skinner held with Fuchs in New York in 1947, when they were attending the Disarmament Conference. This episode was described at length by the FBI, but appears to have been overlooked (if available) by all five of Fuchs’s biographers: Moss (1987), Williams (1987), Rossiter (2014), Close (2019), and Greenspan (2020). More mysteriously, Skinner’s conversations with Fuchs suggested that he had a confidential contact at MI6. Was Skinner perhaps working under cover, gathering information on Communists’ activities?

Thus it is not surprising that Skinner might not have embraced the prospect of Fuchs’s joining him (and Erna) at Liverpool once his assignments at Harwell had been cleared up. Could he not get that ‘young pup’ out of his life and his marriage? The record clearly shows that, after Skinner had been instructed by Cockcroft to show no curiosity in what was going on with the Fuchs investigation, Fuchs admitted his espionage to Erna on January 17, after which she told her husband. By January 27, Robertson is pointing out that Skinner has been told too much by Cockcroft (who was not good at handling conflict), and that Skinner has been trying to persuade Fuchs to stay at Harwell. This particular crisis was held off by the fact that Fuchs had, shortly beforehand, made his full confession to Skardon, and the strategy favoured by White and Sillitoe of proceeding to trial began to take firm shape.

The files on the Skinners at the National Archives (KV 2/2080, 2081 & 2082) reveal yet more twists, however, indicating that there were questions about Skinner much earlier, and also showing a remarkable exchange a couple of years after the Pontecorvo and Fuchs incidents, when Skinner naively exposed, to an American publication, the hollowness of the government’s policy.

  • Skinner’s Removal?
Sir James Chadwick

We have to face the possibility that Skinner’s move away from Harwell had been planned a long time before. One remarkable minute from J. C. Robertson (B2A), dated July 20, 1950, is written in response to concerns expressed from various quarters about the Skinners’ Communist friends, and includes the following statement: “We agreed that since the SKINNER’s [sic], on their own admission, have Communist friends, they may share these friends [sic] views, and that Professor SKINNER’s removal from Harwell to Liverpool University should not therefore be a ground for the Security Service ceasing to pay them attention.” ‘Removal’ is a highly pejorative term for the process of Skinner’s being appointed to replace the highly-regarded Chadwick. Was this a misunderstanding on Robertson’s part as to why Skinner was leaving? Was it simply a careless choice of words? Or did it truly reflect that the authorities had decided that Skinner was a liability two years before?

The suggestion that Skinner was ‘removed’ might cause us to reflect on the possibility that Chadwick was encouraged to take up the appointment at Cambridge in order to make room for Skinner. What is the evidence? Chadwick was assuredly an honourable and effective leader of the Tube Alloys contingent in the USA and Canada. He forged an effective partnership with the formidable General Leslie Groves, who led the Manhattan Project, but who was very wary of foreign participation in the exercise. Yet Chadwick became stressed with his role, conscience-strung by the enormity of what was being created, and not always being tough enough with potential traitors.

Chadwick had made some political slip-ups on the way. He had been criticised by Mark Oliphant for not being energetic enough in the USA,  he had provided a reference for Alan Nunn May for  a position at King’s College London just before Nunn May was arrested, and, in a statement that perturbed many, he would later openly express his approval of Nunn May’s motives, while saying he did not support what his friend did. He had also given support to the questionable Rotblat when the latter announced his bizarre plan to parachute into Poland. He had appointed another scientist with a questionable background, Herbert Fröhlich, just before his departure from Liverpool. Moreover, while he had openly supported Cockcroft’s appointment, he was not overall happy with the separation of R & D from production of nuclear energy. He and Cockcroft were both building cyclotrons, and thus rivals, but Cockcroft was gaining more funding. Rotblat told Chadwick that Harwell was offering larger salaries. The feud over budgets simmered in the two short years (1946-1948) while Chadwick was at Liverpool.

He was reluctant to leave Liverpool, Mountford reported, even though he was admittedly an exhausted figure by then. His staff did not want him to leave, either, and he maintained excellent relations with Mountford himself. By 1948, Perrin – who reported to the strict and disciplined Lord Portal at the Ministry of Supply – and MI5 were following through Prime Minster Attlee’s instructions to tighten up on communist infiltration, as the Soviet Union’s intentions in Eastern Europe became more threatening. Thus installing Cockcroft’s number two at Liverpool would have allowed the removal of a competent leader who had made an embarrassing choice of wife, place an ally of Cockcroft’s at the rival institution, and set up a function that could assimilate unwanted leftists from Harwell. Overall, Cockcroft trusted Skinner, who had worked for him very effectively on radar testing in the Orkneys at the beginning of the war, but he had to be made to understand that Skinner’s wife’s friends were a problem.

Thus, if Chadwick was pushed out to make room for Skinner, what finally prompted the authorities to eject him? It looks as if Liddell, White and Perrin were pulling the strings, not Cockcroft. Arnold, the security officer, stated in October 1951 that Fuchs’s close relationship with Erna Skinner had started at the end of 1947. November 1947 was the month that the three of them were in New York. The injurious FBI report may have been sent to MI5, but subsequently buried. Thus MI5 officers, already concerned about Fuchs’s reliability, might in early 1948 have seen Skinner as a liability as well, arranged the deal with Perrin and Oliphant, convinced Chadwick (who had, of course, moved on by then) of Skinner’s superior claim over Rotblat and Fröhlich, and set the slow train in motion. It was probably never explained to Cockcroft what exactly what was going on.

It is possible that MI5 had seen the problem of disposing of possible Soviet agents coming some time before. Chapman Pincher had announced, in the Daily Express in March 1948, that the British counter-espionage service had been investigating three communist scientists at Harwell. This triad did not include Fuchs or Pontecorvo, however, since two months later Pincher reported that all three had been fired. In a memo written in August 1953, when Skinner was in some trouble over a magazine article [see next section], R. H. Morton of C2A in MI5, having sought advice from one of MI5’s solicitors, ‘S.L.B.’ (actually B. A. Hill of Lincoln’s Inn), stated that ‘The Ministry of Supply should be asked whether Skinner was ever in a position to know during the Fuchs investigation that although we knew Fuchs was a spy, he was allowed to continue at Harwell for a time’.

This is an irritatingly vague declaration, since ‘for a time’ could mean ‘for a few weeks’ or ‘for a few years’, or anything in between.  Yet it specifically states ‘was a spy’, not ‘was under suspicion because he was a communist’. According to the released archives, that recognition did not occur until September 1949. If the solicitor and the officer were aware of the rules of the game, and the impossibility of immediate removal or prosecution, they might have been carelessly hinting at earlier undisclosed events, and that the Ministry of Supply had initiated stables-cleaning moves that took an inordinate amount of time to complete.

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

Herbert Skinner later drew a lot of unwelcome attention to himself in two articles that he wrote for publication. In August 1952, John Cockcroft invited him to review Alan Moorehead’s book, The Traitors (a volume issued as a public relations exercise by MI5) for a periodical identified as Atomic Scientists’ News (in fact, more probably the American Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists). And in June 1953, Skinner published an article in the same Bulletin, titled ‘Atomic Energy in Post-War Britain’. In both pieces he betrayed knowledge that was embarrassing to MI5.

He was sagacious enough to send a draft of his book review to Henry Arnold on September 18, 1952, in particular seeking confirmation of the fact that Fuchs’s confession to Skardon occurred in two stages, and to verify his impression that the information that came from Sweden in March of 1950 applied only to Mrs. Pontecorvo. He wrote: “But I know K confessed to Erna about the Diff. Plant a day or two prior to Jan. 19th (the date when he was considered for the Royal Society. This is confidential but did you know it?)” Skinner felt that Moorehead’s account had been telescoped, and wanted to correct it. As for the communication from Sweden, Skinner based his recollection on what Cockcroft had told him, expressing the opinion that, since Pontecorvo had spent so little time in Stockholm, it was unlikely that data had been gathered about him.

The initial response from MI5 was remarkably light. Skardon (B2A) cast doubt on the earlier January 17 confession, and suggested that the claim should be followed up with Mrs. Skinner. His boss, J. C. Robertson, was however a bit more demanding, requesting, in a reply to Arnold dated September 24, that an entire paragraph, about Fuchs’s confessions, and the pointers to a leakage arriving from the USA, be removed. [The complete text of the draft review is available in KV 2/2080.] He added: “I understand that you will yourself be pointing out to SKINNER the undesirability of making any reference to the report from Stockholm which he quotes at the bottom of Page 9 of his manuscript.”

This latter observation was a bit rich and ingenuous. All that Skinner did was attempt to clarify a statement made by Moorehead about the Swedish report, and Moorehead had obviously been fed that information by MI5. Moorehead’s text (pp 184-185) runs as follows: “Indeed Pontecorvo was not persona grata any longer, for early in March a report upon him had arrived from Sweden and this report made it clear that not only Pontecorvo but Marianne as well was a Communist.” Moorehead went on to write that ‘there was nothing to support this in England or Canada [or the USA?], but it was evident that he would have to be closely watched’. Here was an implicit admission that MI5 had blown its cover by allowing Moorehead to see this information. MI5 wanted to bury all the intelligence about Pontecorvo that had come in from the USA, and Robertson clearly wanted to distract attention away from Sweden, too. The Ministry of Supply also issued a sharp admonition that the item about Sweden in Moorehead’s book should never have passed censorship. One wonders what Clement Attlee thought about this anomaly.

The outcome was that Skinner had to make a weird admission of error. First of all, he agreed that he found Moorehead’s mentioning of the Swedish reference ‘unfortunate’, but insisted that he was not in error over Erna’s distress call to him on the 17th, after Fuchs had confessed to her. This prompted Arnold to raise his game, and try to talk Skinner out of submitting the review entirely, as he was using personal information from his role at Harwell, and it would raise ‘a hornet’s nest’ of publicity. He even suggested to Skinner, after lunching with him and Erna, that his memory of dates must be at fault. Even though no statement to that effect is on file, Robertson noted on October 30 that Skinner ‘has now admitted that he may have been mistaken’. (But recall Robertson’s statement of January 27, described above, which indicated that Skinner had already tried to convince Fuchs to stay at Harwell.) Robertson added that ‘we have never been very happy about Mrs. SKINNER, who was of course FUCHS’ mistress’, but announced that MI5 no longer need to interview her about the matter. Robertson alluded to the fact that MI5’s own records pointed to the absence of any evidence of any ‘confession’ by Fuchs to Mrs. Skinner, but how such an event would even have been known about, let alone recorded, was not explained.

It appears that, after this kerfuffle, the review was not in fact published, but Cockcroft and Skinner did not learn any lessons from the exercise. In the June 1953 issue of the Bulletin appeared a piece titled ‘Atomic Energy in Postwar Britain’. The article started, rather dangerously, with the words: “I think that I, who was a Deputy Director at Harwell from 1946 to 1950, am by now sufficiently detached to write my own ideas without these being confused with the British official point of view.” Skinner went on to lament the decline in cooperation between the USA and Great Britain, although he openly attributed part of the blame to the Nunn May and Fuchs cases. But he then made an extraordinarily ingenuous and provocative statement: “It is true that we have had on our hands more than our fair share of dangerous agents who have been caught (or who are known).”

What could he have been thinking? Sure enough, the Daily Mail Science Correspondent J. Stubbs Walker picked up Skinner’s sentence in a short piece describing how Britain was attempting to convince Washington that its security measures were at least as good as America’s. Equally predictably, the MI5 solicitor B. A. Hill was rapidly introduced to the case, and, naturally, drew the conclusion that Skinner’s words implied that there were other agents known, but not yet prosecuted, at Harwell. He thus asked Arnold, in a meeting with Squadron Leader Morton (C2A), whether Skinner had read Kenneth de Courcy’s Intelligence Digest, since de Courcy (a notorious rabble-rouser who was a constant thorn in MI5’s flesh) had made a similar statement in the Digest of the preceding March that ‘there were still two professors employed at Harwell who were sending Top Secret information to the Soviet Union’.

Fortunately for his cause, Skinner had written to the Daily Mail to explain what he wrote, and how it should have been interpreted. (He assumed that Stubbs Walker must have picked up his statement from the UK publication, the Atomic Scientists’ News, which published the same text in July, but, while the archive contains all the pages of the issue of the American periodical, it does not otherwise refer to the UK publication.) “The parenthesis was simply put in to cover the case of Pontecorvo,” he wrote, “and I would like to make it clear that I have no knowledge whatever of any other agents not convicted.” It was a clumsy attempt at exculpation: the syntax of the phase ‘who are known’ clearly indicates a plurality.

Yet what was more extraordinary is that, again, Skinner had written the article at the request of the hapless Cockcroft, ‘who read the article before it was despatched’. Moreover, a copy also was sent to Lord Cherwell’s office, and an acknowledgment indicated that ‘Lord Cherwell had read the majority of the article’. Perhaps Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s wartime scientific adviser, and in 1953 Paymaster-General, now responsible for atomic matters, should have read the article from beginning to end. Perhaps he read all he was given, because Skinner was able to produce a letter from Cherwell at the end of August, indicating that he had no comments. Yet what was sent to Cherwell was a ‘draft of the first half of the paper’. The offending phrase did indeed appear near the beginning of the article: Skinner was given a slap on the wrists, and sent away. Whether Cockcroft was rebuked is unknown. A revealing note in Skinner’s file, dated June 12, 1953, reports that Cockcroft would probably be leaving Harwell soon, to replace Sir Lawrence Bragg as head of the Clarendon Laboratory.  Morton notes: “Rumours indicate Skinner in the running to replace him. Arnold considers this most undesirable ‘for obvious reasons’.” But it is an indication that Skinner still regarded his sojourn at Liverpool as temporary, and wanted to return to replace Cockcroft.

The MI5 solicitor made an unusual error of judgment himself, however. In that initial memorandum of August 12, when he had evidently discussed the matter with some MI5 officers, he included the following: “On the other hand it was not generally thought [note the bureaucratic passive voice] that when he wrote the article he was in fact quoting DE COURCY, but rather that he had in mind cases such as Boris DAVIDSON, and what he really meant to say was that there were persons at Harwell who were suspected of being enemy agents but had not yet been prosecuted, though they were suspected of acting as enemy agents.” That was an unlawyerly and clumsy construction – and it should have been DAVISON, not DAVIDSON – but the implication is undeniable. ‘Cases such as Boris DAVIDSON’ clearly indicates a nest of infiltrators. And I shall complete this analysis with a study of the Davison case.

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

The files on Boris Davison at the National Archives comprise nine chunky folders (KV 2/2579-1, -2 and -3, and KV 2/2580 to KV 2/2585), stretching from 1943 to 1954. They constitute an extraordinary untapped historical asset, and merit an article on their own. (Equally astonishing is that Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5 has only a short paragraph – but no Index entry – on Davison, and nothing about him appears in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery, when Pincher himself was responsible, at the time, for revealing uncomfortable information on Davison’s removal in the Daily Express.) I shall therefore just sum up the story here, concentrating on the aspects of his case that relate to espionage and British universities, and how his convoluted story relates to the problems of dealing with questionable employees in confidential government work.

Davison’s pilgrimage to Harwell is even more picaresque than that of Fuchs or Pontecorvo. Boris’s great-grandfather, who was English, had gone to Russia, accompanied by his Scottish wife, in Czarist times to work as a train-driver in Leningrad. They returned to Rugby for the birth of Boris’s grandfather, James (the birth certificate alarmingly states that he was born ‘at Rugby Station’), who was taken back to Russia at the age of two months, in 1851. James married a Russian, and their child Boris was born in Gorki as a British subject, in 1885. The older Boris married a Russian, and the younger Boris was born in 1908. He studied Mathematics at Leningrad University, and graduated in 1930 with an equivalent B.SC. degree.

Davison thereupon worked for the State Hydrological Institute, but, in trying to renew his British passport, he was threatened by the NKVD. Unwilling to give up his nationality, he applied to leave for the United Kingdom in 1938, and was granted a visa. He made his journey to the UK, and succeeded, through his acquaintance with Rear-Admiral Claxton (whom he had met in the Crimea), to gain employment in 1939 at the Royal Aircraft Establishment in Farnborough, working on wind-tunnel calculations. A spell of tuberculosis in 1941 forced his departure from RAE, but, after a year or so in a sanatorium, Rudolf Peierls adopted him for his Tube Alloys project at Birmingham, working for the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research. (Avid conspiracy theorists, a group of which I am certainly not a member, might point out that Roger Hollis was also in a sanatorium during the summer of 1942, being treated for tuberculosis.) Davison joined Plazcek at Chalk River in Canada, alongside Nunn May and Pontecorvo early in 1945, and, on his return to Britain in September 1947, worked under Fuchs at Harwell, as Senior Principal Scientific Officer.

The suspicions of, and subsequent inquiries into, Fuchs and Pontecorvo provoked similar questions about Davison’s loyalties, and he was placed under intense scrutiny in 1951, after Pontecorvo’s defection. In a letter to A. H. Wilson of Birmingham University, written from an unidentifiable location (probably the British mission in New York) on May 3, 1944, Rudolf Peierls had written that Davison’s ‘best place would be at Y [almost certainly Los Alamos] provided he would be acceptable there, of which I am not yet sure.’ Davison’s records at Kew state that he was sent to Los Alamos for a short while at the beginning of 1945, but indicate that the New Mexico air had not been suitable for Davison’s tubercular condition, and he had to return to Montreal. It is more probable that Davison’s origins and career would have been regarded negatively by the Americans. (Mountain air was at that time considered beneficial for consumptives.) In his memoir, Peierls also claimed that ‘Placzek wanted Boris to accompany him to Los Alamos, but the doctors doubted whether Boris’s health would stand the altitude. He went there on a trial basis, but after a few weeks had to return to Montreal.’

In any case, Davison was considered a very valuable asset, especially by Cockcroft, who declared that Davison ‘knew more about the mathematical theory behind the Atomic Bomb than any other scientist outside America.’ Nevertheless, or possibly because of that fact, MI5’s senior officers recommended in the winter of 1950-1951 that he should be transferred ‘to a university’. They were overruled, however, by Prime Minster Clement Attlee, who decreed that he should be allow to stay in place. MI5 continued to watch Davison carefully, but when a Conservative administration returned to power in October 1951, questions were asked more vigorously, and Davison was eventually forced to leave Harwell, after some very embarrassing leaks to the Press, and some unwelcome questions from the US Embassy. Hearing about the investigations, they would no doubt have been alarmed that Davison was another who had slipped through security procedures: the Los Alamos visit becomes more relevant. Davison joined Birmingham University in September 1953, and a year later found a position in Canada, whither his wife, Olga (whom he had met and married in Canada), wanted to return. He died in 1961.

This barebones outline (derived from various records in the Davison archive) conceals a number of twists, and raises some searching questions. I have been poring over the reports, letters and memoranda in the archive, and discovered some surprising anomalies and missteps. My conclusion is that MI5’s approach to Davison was highly flawed, and I break it down as follows:

  1. Lack of rigour in tracking Davison’s establishment in the UK: MI5 never investigated how he passed through immigration, how he provided for himself in the months after he arrived in 1938, how he was able to apply successfully for a sensitive position with the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, how he was allowed to join Peierls’s project supporting Tube Alloys at Birmingham without any vetting, or how he was allowed to join the Manhattan Project in America.  He was teased at the RAE because of his poor English, and nicknamed ‘Russki’. An occasional question was posed about these unresolved questions, but it appears that the mere holding of a British passport was an adequate qualification for the authorities.
  2. Failure to join the dots: When Peierls was viewed as a possible suspect alongside Fuchs in the autumn of 1949, MI5 might have pursued the Peierls-Davison connection. Peierls claimed in his autobiography Bird of Passage that Davison’s name had been sent to him from ‘the central register’ after Davison completed his spell in a sanatorium, although the event is undated. Peierls then recruited Davison. I can find no record of any such communication. There is no evidence that Peierls was ever interviewed over Davison’s entry to the Tube Alloys project, or that MI5 explored potential commonalities in the experiences of Genia Peierls and Davison in dealing with the Soviet authorities. In Bird of Passage, Peierls completely misrepresented the authorities’ inquiry into Davison’s reliability, suggesting that it did not get under way until 1953.
  3. Ignorance of Stalin’s Methods: MI5 displayed a shocking naivety about the methods of the NKVD. Davison was a distinguished scientist, as the authorised historian of atomic energy, Margaret Gowing, and John Cockcroft both declared. Rather than allow such a person on specious ‘nationalist’ grounds to leave the country to abet the ideological enemy, Stalin would have probably confiscated his UK passport, and forced him to work for the Communist cause. MI5 had failed to listen to Krivitsky, or gather information on the experiences of other scientists ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. Instead they trusted Davison’s account of his ‘refusal’ to take Soviet citizenship, even though he gave conflicting accounts of what happened.
  4. Naivety over NKVD Aggression: One of the experiences related by Davison to MI5 was that, when his passport problem came up, he was asked by his NKVD interrogators to spy on his colleagues at Leningrad University. He declined on the grounds that he was too clumsy to conceal such behaviour, a response that provoked the wrath of his interrogator. Such disobedience would normally have resulted in execution or, at least, exile to Siberia. Yet Davison was ‘rewarded’ by such non-compliance by being allowed to emigrate to his grandfather’s native land, and spread the news. That sequence should have aroused MI5’s suspicions.
  5. Delayed recognition of the threats of ‘blackmail’: A refrain in the archived proceedings is that Moscow would have been alerted to Davison’s presence at Harwell by Pontecorvo’s defection in the autumn of 1950, and that only then would Davison have been possibly subject to threats. For that reason, his correspondence with his parents in the Crimea (itself a noteworthy phenomenon from the censorship angle) was studiously inspected for coded messages and secret writing. MI5 failed to recognize that the threats to his family would probably have been initiated before Davison was sent on his mission, in the manner that the Peierlses were threatened. (That is an enduring technique: it is reported as being used today by Iran’s Islamic Revolutionary Guards Corps.) Since MI5 and the Harwell management realised that Communists had been installed at Harwell for a while, it was probable that the fact of Davison’s recruitment would have reached Soviet ears already. They ignored the fact that his working closely with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Nunn May meant he would not have needed a separate courier, but they expressed little curiosity in how he would have communicated with Moscow after Fuchs’s imprisonment.
  6. Unawareness of the role of subterfuge: MI5 spent an enormous amount of time and effort exploring Davison’s contacts and political leanings, looking for a trace of sympathy for communism that might point to his being a security risk. They even, rather improbably, cited the testimony of Klaus Fuchs from gaol, Fuchs vouching for Davison’s reliability, and quoted this item of evidence to the Americans! Yet, if Davison had been a communist, he would probably have preferred to stay in the Soviet Union, helping its cause, rather than taking on a role in provoking the revolution overseas, something for which his temperament was highly unsuited. Even if the lives of his parents had not been threatened, his most effective disguise would have been to steer clear of any communist groups or associations.
  7. Clumsy handling of their target: MI5 and Harwell – and, especially, John Cockcroft  – showed a dismal lack of imagination and tact in dealing with Davison. Cockcroft was weak, wanted to hang on to Davison because of his skills, and avoided awkward confrontational situations. They failed to develop an effective strategy in guiding Davison’s behaviour, and Cockcroft, when trying to encourage Davison to leave Harwell, even suggested that he was entitled to have a government job back after his one-year ‘sabbatical’, because of his civil servant status. Between them, Harwell and MI5 deluded themselves as to how the account of a Russian-born scientist expelled from Harwell would manage not to be re-ignited, through idle gossip, or careless bravado (as turned out to be the case).
  8. Simplistic views of loyalty: MI5’s perennial problem was that it did not trust ‘foreigners’, and had no mechanism for separating the loyal and dedicated alien from the possibly dangerous subversive, or taking seriously the possible disloyalty of a well-bred native Briton. Davison fitted in to no established category, and thus puzzled them. In his letter to Prime Minster Attlee of January 12, 1951, as Attlee was just about to make his decision as to whether Davison should remain in place, or be banished to a university, Percy Sillitoe wrote that ‘an alien or a person of alien origin has not necessarily enjoyed the upbringing which, in the absence of evidence to the contrary, normally ensures the loyalty of a British subject’, a sentiment that Attlee echoed a week later. Four months later, Burgess and Maclean defected.

MI5 were not happy with Attlee’s decision, wanting Davison safely transferred to academia. They were worried stiff that, if any action were taken, Davison ‘might do a Pontecorvo on us’, and that in that case closer cooperation with the Americans – an objective keenly sought at the time – would be killed by the Congressional committee. They thus hoped that matters would quieten down, and that Davison would behave himself. Yet a meeting held in February 1951 with the Prime Minister provoked the following minute: “Rowlands, Sillitoe and Bridges agreed there should be discussion on the proposition that Davison should be asked what his reactions would be if the Russians brought pressure on him through his parents. If approach were made, Davison would mark it as a mark of confidence in his own reliability.” What the outcome of this strange decision was is not recorded, but the threat to MI5’s peace of mind would turn out to come from friendlier quarters.

  • Boris Davison – after Attlee
Sir John Cockcroft

Attlee made his decision on February 20, 1951. Sillitoe requested a watch be kept on the Skinners in Liverpool. Meanwhile, MI5 officers had a short time to reflect on Davison’s background. Dick White wondered who the other ‘Britishers’ who were deported at the same time as Davison were, and what had happened to them. (Whether this important lead was followed up is not known: the results might have been so uncomfortable that the outcome was buried.) Yet Reed was later imaginative enough to wonder how Davison ‘was able to survive the purges and outbreaks of xenophobia’, suggesting perhaps that further lessons had been learned. “What services were rendered in exchange for immunity?”, he asked, but there the inquiry ended, for 1951 turned out to be an annus horribilis for the Security Service, as the uncovering of the Burgess & Maclean scandal showed the authorities that espionage and treachery were not simply a virus introduced by foreigners. For a while it distracted attention from the quandary of suspicions persons in place at Harwell.

By that time, however, a series of events began that showed the Law of Unintended Consequences at work. In February, Chapman Pincher had written a provocative article about Pontecorvo in the Daily Express, and on March 4 Rebecca West had published an article about Fuchs, critical of Attlee, in the New York Times. Perrin and Sillitoe agreed that a counterthrust in public relations was required, and conceived the idea of engaging the journalist Alan Moorehead to write a book that would reflect better on MI5’s performance. After some stumbles in negotiation, Moorehead was authorized to inspect some confidential information on September 24, and started work.

The year 1952 progressed relatively quietly. John Cockcroft had revealed to Skinner in early 1951 that he was considering recommending the South African Basil Schonland as his successor, and was perhaps surprised to be told by Skinner that Schonland was not up to the job. This was surely another indication that Skinner felt himself the better candidate, and wanted to return to Harwell now that Fuchs and Pontecorvo were disposed of. A possible opening for Cockcroft appeared in March 1952 at St. John’s College, Oxford, but nothing came of it. On July 29, Sillitoe announced he would retire at the end of the year. In August, Davison indicated for the first time that he wanted to leave Harwell. And in September, as I described earlier, Skinner’s controversial review of Moorehead’s finished work The Traitors came to the attention of Arnold and MI5.

While the Moorehead incident was smoothed over relatively safely, Skinner’s energies as a literary critic had more serious after-effects in 1953. First of all, Nunn May had been released in January, an event that brough fresh attention to the phenomenon of ‘atom spies’. As Guy Liddell reported on January 13, Foreign Secretary Anthony Eden wanted Nunn May settled into useful employment, but the scientist was blacklisted by the universities. (After working for a scientific instruments company for a few years, Nunn May moved to the University of Ghana in 1961.) Skinner’s observation about other spies being left in place, unpunished, was a far more serious blow to MI5’s reputation, and his weak explanation that he was referring solely to Pontecorvo was not convincing. Privately, he admitted that he had indeed been referring to Davison.

What was not revealed at the time was the fact that other such agents had been named in internal documents. One of the Boris Davison files at the National Archives (KV 2/2579-1, s.n.184A) shows us that Dick White, as early as January 25, 1951, wrote that there were eighteen known employees at Harwell ‘who have some sort of a Communist suspicion attaching to them’.  Of these, five were serious. He continued: “Two of the five, SHULMAN and RIGG are being transferred from Harwell on our recommendation. In the case of a third, DARLINGTON, we may recommend transfer and so this will almost certainly be agreed. The remaining two, PAIGE and CHARLESBY, are under active investigation and if additional information tends to confirm that they have Communist sympathies we may have to recommend their transfer likewise.”

This is an extraordinary admission. I have not discovered anything elsewhere on these characters, although I notice that the first three are cited in the Kew Index as working at Harwell, as authors or co-authors of papers, in AB 15/73, AB 15/2383, AB 15/566, AB 15/586, AB 15/1661 and AB 15/1386 (N. Shulman), AB 15/1254 (M. Rigg), AB 15/5531 (M. E. Darlington). Astonishingly, all three papers are currently closed, pending review. [Moreover, during the few days in which I investigated these items, they were being maintained and their descriptions changed. The author of AB 15/24, original given as ‘Rigg’, is now given as ‘Oscar Bunnemann’ [sic], which, in the light of revelations below, poses a whole new set of questions. Can any reader shed any light on these men?] Yet it proves that Skinner was correct, and knew too much. And one another link has come to light. As early as July 12, 1948 T. A. R. Robertson had discovered that Davison and one Eltenton were in Leningrad at the same time, noting that Eltenton was already up for an ‘interview’. (The word ‘interrogated’ has been replaced with a handwritten ‘interviewed’ in the memorandum.) The story of George Eltenton, who brought some bad publicity to MI5 through his involvement in the Robert Oppenheimer case in the USA, will have to wait for another day.

The denouement was swift. Skinner was let off with a warning, but his goose was essentially cooked. On August 8, 1952, he thanked Arnold for his support, adding casually that Chapman Pincher had invited him to lunch. A few weeks later, on August 26, Pincher published his article on Davison in the Daily Express, and two days later Henry Maule’s piece in the Empire News reported how ‘poor old Boris’ had been banished to the backwaters of Birmingham University, implicitly indicating that Davison was rejoining his prior mentor and supporter Rudolf Peierls.

Yet MI5’s embarrassments were not over. On December 14, 1952, a brief column by Sidney Rodin in the Sunday Express claimed that Churchill had intervened in the decision to replace Fuchs at Harwell, and explained that Davison had been rejected because of his background, and that six others had been passed over because they were foreign-born. In place (the piece continued), the 28-year-old Brian Flowers had been appointed, and ‘for months his background was checked.’ This announcement was doubly ironic, since it turned out that the leaker to Rodin was Professor Maurice Pryce of the Clarendon Laboratories, Acting Head of the Theoretical Division at Harwell alongside Rudolf Peierls. He had admitted planting the story as a way of ’distracting attention away from the “undesirable background of the Buneman case”’. Indeed. For Flowers had for a while been having an affair with Mary, the wife of Oscar Buneman, who had been working under Fuchs at Harwell. The future Baron Flowers, who also held a post at Birmingham University, had married his paramour in 1951, and was now presumably respectable. Like Fuchs, Buneman had been imprisoned by the Gestapo, escaped to Britain, and been interned in Canada. Maybe MI5 and Arnold overlooked this rather seedy side to Flowers’ background: the episode showed at best a discreditable muddle and at worst appalling hypocrisy at work.

It was thus Birmingham, not Liverpool, that became the home of a distressed scientist, one who may never have acquired the status of an official spy, but who was perhaps a communicator of secret information under duress. A cabal of Liddell, White and Perrin had plotted, and made moves, without consulting Cockcroft or Arnold. Skinner never quite realised what was going on, failing to consider that his wife’s liaisons were a liability, and harboured unfulfillable designs about returning to Harwell to replace Cockcroft. Skinner would remain at Liverpool, unwanted by Harwell, and remaining under suspicion. The loose cannon Cockcroft did not understand why Skinner had been banished, but considered him a useful ally at Liverpool, and naively encouraged him in his literary exploits.  Fuchs was in gaol: Pontecorvo in Moscow. By the time Davison had transferred to Birmingham, in September 1953, Liddell had resigned from MI5, bitterly disappointed at being outmanoeuvred by his protégé, Dick White, for the director-generalship, and had taken up a new post – as director of security at AERE Harwell. MI5 still considered Davison on a temporary transfer ‘outhoused’ to Birmingham, but did their best to ease his relocation to Canada, perhaps masking his medical problems. Davison died in Toronto in 1961, at the young age of 52, the year after Skinner’s death. I do not know whether foul play was ever suspected.

In conclusion, it should be noted that Peierls had his vitally significant correspondence with Lord Portal in April 1951, where he responded to accusations about him, and revealed the links with the Soviet Security organs that he had kept concealed for so long. (See The Mysterious Affair at Peierls, Part 1). Had Peierls perhaps discussed the shared matter of NKVD threats to family with his protégé, and ventured to inform MI5 and the Ministry of the predicament that Davison been in? Or, more probably, had Davison confessed to MI5 about how he himself had been threatened, and, as a possible source of ‘the accusations’, drawn Peierls in? Readers should recall that the decision to interview Davison, to ask him about possible threats to his parents, in the belief that such a dialogue might increase Davison’s confidence in them, was projected to have taken place just before then. The timing is perfect: Davison might well have told his interviewers the full story, and brought Peierls into his narrative.

So many loose ends in the story are left because of the selective process of compiling the archive. In 1954, Reed of MI5 referred darkly to a confidential source who was keeping them informed of Davison’s negotiations with Canada: likewise, it could well have been Peierls. We shall probably never know exactly what happened in that 1951 spring, but Portal, previously Air Chief Marshal, was no doubt shocked by the whole business. He resigned his position at the Ministry of Supply soon afterwards: Perrin left at the same time. And if Moscow had discovered that their threats had been unmasked, or that any of their assets had behaved disloyally, Sudoplatov’s Special Tasks squad would have been ready to move.

  1. Conclusions
Dick White

What should a liberal democracy do when it discovers spies, or potential spies, working within scientific institutions carrying out highly sensitive work? Is the process of removing them quietly to an academic institution a sensible attempt at resolving an apparently intractable problem, given that trials, however open or closed, are a necessary part of the judicial procedure? Torture or oppressive measures cannot be applied to the targets, backed up by other cruel or mortal threats, as was the feature of Stalin’s Show Trials. Perhaps moving awkward employees to a quiet backwater was the most sensible practice to protect the realm without causing undue publicity?

Attlee’s unfortunately named Purge Procedure was provoked by the Nunn May conviction, and a Cabinet Committee on Subversive Activities was set up in May 1947. The topic of the Procedure, which was established in March 1948, and how it was applied, has been covered by Christopher Andrew, in Defend the Realm, pp 382-393. Yet I find this exposition starkly inadequate: it concentrates on the discovery of communists within the Civil Service, but barely touches the highly sensitive issue of possibly disloyal scientists working at a secret institution like AERE Harwell. For reasons of space and time, a proper analysis will have to be deferred until another report, and I only skim the issue here.

Professor Glees has informed me that, during an interview that Dick White gave him in the 1980s (White died in 1993), the ex-chief of MI5 and MI6 impressed upon him ‘the importance of  keeping people away from where they could do harm’, and that the execution of such a policy was a key MI5 tool. As a counterbalance, the journalist Richard Deacon informed us that, in the early 1950s, ‘gone to Ag and Fish’ (the Ministry of Agriculture, Fisheries and Food) meant that an intelligence operative had ‘gone to ground’. That ministry was the destination for the MI6 agent Alexander Foote after he had been interrogated. Perhaps he worked alongside civil servants with communist leanings who had also been parked there.

I find that statement of policy a little disingenuous on White’s part. For it is one thing to take a discovered Communist off the fast track in some other Ministry and transfer him out to grass sorting out cod quotas with Iceland before he does any damage. And it is quite another to take a known or highly suspected spy from a secret institution like AERE Harwell, remove him completely from sensitive work, and transfer him to a university a hundred and fifty miles away. Multiple issues come into play: the processes of university councils, the creation of posts, preferential treatment over other candidates, funding, the candidates’ suitability for teaching, language problems, relocation concerns, even a wife’s preferences – and the inevitable chatter that accompanies such a disruption.

So what should the authorities have done in such cases? Civil servants were entitled to a certain measure of employment protection, and could not be fired without due cause. Being a communist was not one of those causes, and Attlee was nervous about left-wing backlash. The primary challenge to taking drastic action in the case of spies (who were frequently not open communists) thus consisted in the suitability of the evidence of guilt, however conclusive. Unless the suspect had been caught red-handed (as was Dave Springhall, although he was not an academic), or he or she could quickly be convinced to confess (as was Nunn May), the prosecution probably relied on confidential sources. In the case of Fuchs, the source was VENONA transcripts: the project was considered far too sensitive to bring up in court, and its validity as hard evidence might have been sorely tested. Even with a confession, there were risks associated. A defendant might bring up uncomfortable truths. With little imagination required, Fuchs could surely have brought up the matter of his inducement by Skardon/Cockcroft, and he could have honestly described how he had been encouraged to spy on the Americans while furthering British objectives.

Moreover, public trials would draw attention to a security service’s defects: counter-intelligence units are not praised when they haul in spies, but severely criticised for allowing them to operate in the first place. And if the suspects were British citizens, and were threatened to the extent that they felt uncomfortable, or could not maintain a living, they could not be prevented from fleeing abroad at any time (‘doing a Pontecorvo’), and had therefore to be encouraged to feel safe in the country. Thus sending such candidates to a functional Siberia, in the hope that they would become stale and valueless, yet behave properly, came to represent a popular option with the mandarins in MI5 and the Ministries. (On Khrushchev’s accession to power, Molotov was sent to be Ambassador in Mongolia, while Malenkov was despatched to run a power station in Kazakhstan. I have not been able to verify the claim that the Russians have a phrase for this – ‘being sent to Liverpool’.)

Yet it was an essentially dishonourable and shoddy business. First of all, unless the authorities were simply scared about what might happen, it rewarded criminal behaviour. It discriminated unjustly between those who did not confess and those who did (Springhall, Nunn May, Fuchs, Blake): we recall that Nunn May was blacklisted by British universities after his release, while Fuchs, with a little more resolve, might have spent a few calm years considering where he might be more content, continuing his liaison with Erna Skinner in Liverpool, or renewing his acquaintance with Grete Keilson in East Germany. The Purge Procedure allowed suspected civil servants to leave with some measure of dignity, but the method of transferring suspects to important positions at universities represented a deceitful, and possibly illegal, exploitation of academic institutions, and consisted in a disservice to undergraduates potentially taught by these characters. Moreover, there was no guarantee that such a move would have put the lid on the betrayal of secrets. The Soviets might try to extradite a suspect (Moscow thought Liverpool was useless as a home for Pontecorvo), which, if successful, would have raised even more questions.

Overall, the policy was conceived in the belief that the suspect would behave like a proper English gentleman, but that was no certainty, and there were sometimes wives to consider (such as Mrs. Pontecorvo.) Latent hypocrisy existed, in (for example) Cockcroft’s hope that Fuchs and Davison might still help the government’s cause. It was an attempt at back-stairs fixing, and the fact that it was covered-up indicated government embarrassment at the process. They displayed naivety in believing that the story would not come out. It was bound to happen, as indeed it did with Davison, although Skinner’s ‘removal’ appears to have been successfully concealed.

(I should also note that a similar process was applied to Kim Philby. He was dismissed from MI6, and made to feel distinctly uncomfortable, but allowed to pursue a journalistic career, again in the belief that his utility to his bosses in Moscow would rapidly disintegrate. Yet he had loyal friends still in the Service, and became an embarrassment. Some historians claim that Dick White allowed him to escape from Beirut as the least embarrassing option.)

What final lessons can be learned? The experiences with Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Davison (and to a lesser extent, Skinner) reinforce that fact that MI5 was hopelessly unprepared for the challenge of vetting for highly sensitive projects. Awarding scientists citizenship does not guarantee loyalty: the Official Secrets and Treachery Acts will not deter the committed spy. Stricter checks at recruitment should have been essential, although they might not have eliminated the expert dissimulator. Vetting procedures should have been defended and executed sternly, with no exceptions. Yet MI5 also showed a bewilderingly disappointing lack of insight into how the Soviet Union, and especially the NKVD/KGB, worked, which meant that they were clueless when it came to assessing an ‘émigré’ like Davison, who fitted into no known category. Until the Burgess-Maclean debacle, they continued to believe in the essential loyalty of well-educated Britons. They continued to ignore Krivitsky’s warnings and advice, and failed to gather intelligence on the Soviet Union’s domestic policies, and strategies for espionage abroad. It should instead have built up a comprehensive dossier of intelligence on the structure and methods of its ideological adversary, as did Hugh Trevor-Roper with the Abwehr, and promoted a strong message of prevention to its political masters and colleagues. That opportunity had faded when its sharpest counter-espionage officer, Jane Archer, was sidelined, and then fired, in 1940.

The events surrounding these scientists should surely provide material for a major novel or Fraynian dramatic work.  The line between inducement and threats, on the one hand, and careful psychological pressure, on the other, could have had vastly different outcomes, and could perhaps be compared to the treatment of the homosexuals Burgess and Turing, and how the former managed to get away with scandalous behaviour, while the latter was driven to suicide. Perhaps whatever strategy was tried was flawed, as it was too late by then, but dumping on universities was undistinguished and hypocritical. Demotion, removal from critical secret work, and removal of oxygen sent a signal that might have been successful with a more timid character like Davison, but it would not have worked with a showman like Pontecorvo.

This business of counter-intelligence is tough: MI5 was not a disciplined and ruthless machine, but simply another institution with its rivalries, ambitions, flaws, and politics to handle. It was poor at learning from experience, however, and sluggish in setting up policies to deal with the unexpected, instead spending vast amounts of fruitless time and effort in watching people, and opening correspondence. It thus muddled along, and found itself having to cover up for its missteps, and choosing to deceive the government and the public. For a long time, the ruse appeared to be successful. Seventy years have passed. A close and integrative, horizontal rather than vertical, inspection of the released archives, however, complemented by a careful analysis of biographical records, has allowed a more accurate account of the goings-on of 1950 to be assembled.

Primary Sources:

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

The Mountford memoir at Liverpool University

Britain and Atomic Energy by Margaret Gowing

Half-Life by Frank Close

The Pontecorvo Affair by Simone Turchetti

Klaus Fuchs: A Biography by Norman Moss

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy by Robert Chadwell Williams

The Spy Who Changed the World by Mike Rossiter

Trinity by Frank Close

Atomic Spy by Nancy Thorndike Greenspan

Elemental Germans by Christopher Laucht

The Atom Bomb Spies by H. Montgomery Hyde

Scientist Spies by Paul Broda

Bird of Passage by Rudolf Peierls

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

Cockcroft and the Atom by Guy Hartcup & T E Allibone

The Neutron and the Bomb by Andrew Brown

Joseph Rotblat, Keeper of the Nuclear Conscience by Andrew Brown

Churchill’s Bomb by Graham Farmelow

Defend the Realm by Christopher Andrew

(New Commonplace entries can be found here.)

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Sonia & MI6’s Hidden Hand

[This report lays out the detailed arguments behind the recent article in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ that featured research by Professor Glees and me. We claimed that MI6 had engaged upon a reckless exercise to try to manipulate Sonia as some kind of ‘double-agent’, but had been fooled completely by Sonia’s working as a courier for the atom-spy Klaus Fuchs. This piece reproduces and recapitulates some of my earlier research on Sonia, but also presents some new analysis.]

Sonia’s Home in Switzerland

Background and Sources

The story starts – probably – in the summer of 1939. One has to qualify many of the Switzerland-based events in this saga with ‘probably’ because so much of the evidence is provided by Ursula and Len Beurton themselves, who, in their testimonies to British immigration officials, told so many lies that it is difficult to trust anything they said. Moreover, Ursula (agent SONIA) then compounded the mendaciousness in her GRU-controlled memoir, Sonjas Rapport. We can recognise the first set of untruths because the statements are often self-contradictory, and easily refuted through an examination of the archival record. Many of Sonia’s claims in her book have been shown to be false by simple inspection of time and space, or by other records that have come to light that show persons she talks about were simply not where she said they were at the time, or by knowledge of the modus operandi of her employer, the GRU. Yet Sonia’s account has been cited by numerous historians as if it were a reliable version of what happened.

The primary source for assembling the story is a rich set of files at the UK National Archives – not just on Sonia, but on her family, the Kuczynskis, and her husband Len Beurton, on the senior International Brigader she recruited for her team in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, and on other Communist agents such as Oliver Green, whose exploits reflect usefully on the policies and practices of MI5. The files on the primary spy for whom Sonia acted as courier, Klaus Fuchs, are also very relevant, as are, to a lesser extent, the Diaries of Guy Liddell, the head of counter-espionage at MI5 at this time. (I have taken one hundred pages of notes from the on-line Diaries, without recording a single reference to Ursula, Kuczynski, Hamburger, or Beurton. The absence of nocturnal canine latration, whether because of redaction or by Liddell’s choice, is highly significant.) MI6 files are regrettably not available, but correspondence between, and memoranda to and from, officers of the Security Service and the Secret Intelligence Service are scattered among the files, as are occasional items from the Home Office and the Foreign Office. These records are complemented by a variegated set of files concerning the Radio Security Service (RSS), which was responsible for wireless interception in WWII.

More recently, some analysts have been promoting the value of files held in Russian archives, although nearly all of these derive from KGB (State Security) records rather than those of the GRU (Military Intelligence), for whom the Beurtons worked. William Tyrer and Svetlana Chervonnaya (see www.documentstalk.com ), have cited items of relevance, yet the existence of actual documents is hard to verify. What Chervonnaya shows are primarily American, not Soviet documents, and her focus is on American history. Moreover, her website appears to have fallen into disuse in recent times. The Vassiliev Papers, again focussing on KGB matters, are a highly reliable source, and show some important facts about Sonia, at a time when the KGB was exerting more control over the GRU.  They also reveal some interesting information about Sonia and her brother after they escaped to East Germany.

Solid literature on Sonia is sparse. Alexander Foote’s memoir, Handbook for Spies, brings some psychologically convincing insights into his time with Sonia in Switzerland, as well as plausible observations on Sonia’s marriage to Len, but we have to recall that the book was ghost-written by MI5’s Courtenay Young. John Green’s 2017 study of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, is a useful compendium in some ways, drawing much from Kuczynski family memoirs and interviews, and helping with a few facts, but it contains many errors, and is too adulatory of the family’s ‘fight against capitalism’, thereby side-stepping any awkward anomalies in the records. (For example, he writes of the family’s ‘overall achievements and its contribution to our humanistic legacy’, a statement straight out of the Felix Dzerzhinsky playbook.) I have started to inspect one or two books in Russian: Vladimir Lota’s book on the GRU (cited in last month’s coldspur post) provides convincing proof of the communications of the Rote Drei in Switzerland (although nothing of Sonia’s), and presents photographs of decrypted GRU telegrams. I ordered V.V. Beshanov’s book on Sonia, Superfrau iz GRU on May 3 of this year, but it has not yet arrived: I hope to be able to report on it in a later bulletin.

What is certain is that Sonia was stranded in Switzerland in the summer of 1939. She had moved from Poland, where her daughter Janina, by her lover in China, Johannes Patra, had been born in 1936, but the affair had damaged her marriage to Rudolf (Rolf) Hamburger. Sonia’s visa was due to expire at the end of September: she and Rolf had acquired Honduran passports, but they were of dubious stature. If Sonia were to be extradited to her German homeland, she would almost certainly face death as a Jew and Communist. She had recruited the International Brigaders Alexander Foote and Len Beurton as wireless operators, but they were working as spies in Germany during the summer, and were not withdrawn until just before war broke out.

Exactly what happened in those months is difficult to determine. Sonia’s account is illogical and inconsistent, and John Green skirts around that period, as if he didn’t trust her version of events, but also didn’t want to draw attention to the deceits. I gave an account in Sonia’s Radio: Part 2, but it is worth delving a little more deeply now, as the subterfuges hint strongly at strings working behind the scenes. The anomalies point strongly to the first plottings by the MI6 representative in Switzerland, Victor Farrell. What is certain is that Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z Organisation within MI6, and the deputy to the new Director-General, Stewart Menzies, had established its base in Geneva at the beginning of the war, and that Dansey himself was around to watch as these intrigues progressed, including Sonia’s divorce from Rolf Hamburger. Dansey did not return to Britain until November 1939.

In Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote indicates that at this time Sonia’s husband, Rolf (identified as ‘Schultz’) was ‘incarcerated in a Chinese jail for Communist activities’. In Foote’s version of the story, therefore, Rolf never appears in Switzerland, and Foote records his visit to Sonia’s chalet, where she lived singly with her two children and the nurse. Foote then collapses the whole story of Sonia’s divorce and marriage as follows: “Sonia was increasingly dissatisfied with the life and work and wished to return [sic: she had never stayed there for long] to England. The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was of course her German passport. Therefore, in order to get British nationality, she managed to persuade Bill [Len Beurton] to agree to marry her if she could get a divorce from Schultz. She managed to obtain a divorce in the Swiss courts early in 1940, and straight away married Bill and was thus entitled to a British passport.” He adds that, throughout this whole exercise, ‘she had no intention of being unfaithful to Schultz’, but the charade of a mariage de convenance fell apart when she and Len fell in love. This is all nonsense, of course, because of her affair with Patra, and Foote’s suggestion that Sonia was feeling useless and ‘homesick’, with Moscow resisting her plans to withdraw from espionage. Sonia would have done what she was told.

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

In Sonya’s Report, the author imaginatively has both her husband and her lover in Switzerland at the same time that summer, but the chronology is gloriously vague. “In the early summer of 1939, as the danger of war increased daily, an expired German passport was useless to an emigrant. My Honduras passport did not give me real security either. Centre asked what possibilities there might be of obtaining another passport for me. We proposed that, before Rolf left Europe, we should start divorce proceedings and I would enter into a pro-forma marriage with an Englishman.” Apart from the somewhat premature series of activities described, Jim [Foote] won the lottery, since his age was closer to Sonia’s: Rolf came to see Sonia for the last time. “When his return to China had been approved, Centre enquired whether he would be prepared to work under Ernst [Patra]. Generous and principled as he was, Rolf had a high opinion of Ernst and agreed.” The display of lofty unselfishness is comical: the notion that Soviet agents would have the freedom to accept or decline Centre’s instructions is absurd.

Sonia then compounds the unlikelihood of this domestic drama by having Ernst visit Switzerland, to see his daughter for the first and only time, and she then (apparently in about July 1939) sees off her husband and her lover from the train station in Caux. (Green informs us that Sonia and Patra did not see each other between 1935 and 1955.) Helpfully, Rolf, before he left, had written a letter to facilitate the divorce proceedings, which Sonia ‘ever since the spring’ had been trying to finalise. (So much for Sonia’s suggestion to ‘start divorce proceedings’ in early summer.) Why Rolf could not have more actively contributed by playing his part while in Switzerland is not explained. But then Foote tries to back out of the arranged marriage, claiming some difficulties with a girl in Spain, and a possible breach of promise. Why he had not thought of that earlier is likewise not explained, but Foote then recommends Len to take his place, and Len gallantly accepts the assignment, with Sonia saying that she will divorce him as soon as required. By February 1940, Sonia had collected all the documents she needed in order to marry.

When Foote was interrogated by MI5 and MI6 officers in late 1947, however, a different story emerged. In a report distributed by Percy Sillitoe (from KV 2/1613-1, pp 23-28), Foote’s first testimony claimed that Sonia’s divorce had been put through without Hamburger’s knowledge, ‘Foote providing the principal false evidence of Hamburger’s misconduct in London’. Later, however, Foote was shown information at Broadway (MI6’s head office) suggesting that Hamburger had been in Switzerland in 1939, indicating that the Security Intelligence Service was already keeping close tabs on the extended members of the Kuczynski clan. Foote was shown a photograph of Hamburger but was apparently ‘quite unable to identify it’.

When challenged later, Foote revealed even more to the MI5 officers Hemblys-Scales and Serpell, the latter writing the report: “Foote replied blandly that he had been the sole witness in the case. It was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce from Rudolf Hamburger and Foote made no bones at all about the perjury he had committed in the Swiss courts. When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced, he said that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis. After these revelations, I can no longer feel surprised at the anxiety shown by the Beurtons over the Hamburger divorce during their conversations with Mr. Skardon and myself at Great Rollright.” And, if Foote’s testimony were truthful, he would obviously have had to tell the Geneva court that he knew what Hamburger looked like. In fact, he had committed obvious perjury, as he now confessed.

Lastly, we have the records from Moscow acquired by William Tyrer, although his story contains its own contradictions. In a personal communication to me, he claimed that Sonia and her husband lived with Honduran documents after she and Rolf went to the Honduran consulate in Geneva, some time in mid-1939. Tyrer then, somewhat implausibly, suggests that, with her Swiss mission completed, she set her sights on going to Great Britain, where she would be more useful, and moreover closer to her family – but that this desire awoke only after August 1940! He then cites a reliable-sounding but undated document (Tsa MO RF, Op. 23397, delo 1, l. 33-37: The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of RF, op. 23397, file 1, pp. 33-37) that purports to record a wireless message from Sonia to Moscow Centre in late August 1939. It is remarkable in many dimensions, not least because it suggests that the thought of divorce has only just occurred to her, directly contradicting what she wrote in her memoir, and because it also asserts that Rolf is already working in China, a fact of which Moscow Centre would clearly have been aware, if it were true, and about which it would thus not have to be informed.

The text of the message (the name of the translator is not given, but it could be Chervonnaya, since the English is choppy) runs as follows: “In case of war, I will be sent to Honduras, where I won’t be able to work on your assignments. In this connection, I have the following suggestion. The idea is, that I divorce officially with Rolf and marry “Jim” or “John”. The marriage would be fictitious, but it would help me to obtain a permanent British passport, with which I’d be able to travel around the European countries without any obstacles and would be able to go to Britain at any time.

     … At present, I am still on a firm footing in Switzerland – my husband works as an architect in China, myself with two kids, I am unable to travel to join him, because China is in war. Waiting for my husband’s arrival, I am taking a rest with the kids at a mountain resort. With the help of my father, I am maintaining ties with some officials of the League of Nations, which also helps to improve my credibility.”

Fortunately for Sonia, Moscow Centre went along with her plan. For some reason, they did not point out to Sonia that, in the event of war, she would not be able to gad around Europe purely on the basis of a British passport. But why, if she was proposing to divorce Rolf, would she lament that she was unable to join him in China? (Note that Sonia here, in September 1939, first recommends the idea of divorce, while claiming in her memoir that Rolf had left the previous month, having already agreed to it. That the divorce was ‘unofficial’ beforehand is evident.) And how would she know, having just seen Rolf off at the train-station in Caux, that he was already working there as an architect? Even more incredibly, why would she be waiting for her husband’s arrival in late August 1939, if they had agreed to split? And, if Moscow had just approved Rolf’s return to China, why would he be on his way back again?

The conclusion must be that this document is a clumsy fake, inserted into the archive at some unspecified time, and forgotten when the GRU helped Sonia write her memoir. It is much more likely that Moscow approved the divorce plans much earlier, ordered Rolf to return to China so that he was out of the way and thus could not mess up the legal process, and then engaged in orchestrating Sonia’s new British citizenship and infiltration into the United Kingdom as a courier. And it is at this stage that MI6 starts to consider the possibilities of using the opportunity to manipulate Sonia.

Step One: Facilitating Sonia’s divorce and re-marriage

The marriage certificate of Len and Ursula Beurton

There is no doubt that Alexander Foote had been recruited by MI6. The file KV 2/1613-1 specifically records how in 1947, after his desertion and return to Britain, MI5 warned Foote not to talk about his intelligence experiences, using the claim that he had been a deserter from the R.A.F. as a threat hanging over him. One does not have to buy in to the argument that he was eventually used as a medium for passing on packaged ULTRA secrets to the Soviets (as I do) to conclude that he had been infiltrated into the Swiss network in order to gain insights into its wireless techniques. Indeed, one might assume that he started passing on the practices described in Handbook for Spies to his controllers in Berne as early as 1940, when he became the leading operator for the Rote Drei.

Thus, when faced with the prospect that Sonia intended to marry Foote when she had gained her divorce, MI6 would have been appalled at the plan. It would not have helped them to have Foote repatriated to the United Kingdom as soon as he had become effective. Yet the notion of potentially manipulating Sonia was attractive: Len Beurton would be proposed as the replacement candidate to marry Sonia. Foote would then come up with a bogus explanation as to why he could not go through with the marriage, and would instead provide false evidence against Rolf Hamburger, since the Swiss courts were apparently rather sticky when it came to granting divorces against absent spouses. Whether Rolf actually provided the letter that was supposed to grease the wheels is dubious: apparently it was not enough to convince the authorities.

So how did MI6 hope to use Sonia at this stage of the war? Of course, the Soviet Union’s pact with Nazi Germany was in effect: in principle, she might have been able to inform them of strategic intelligence. Yet her utility in Britain would have been very constrained. Any activity on UK soil – including contacts with as yet undiscovered sources – would transfer to MI5’s area of responsibility, and the Security Service would therefore have to be party to the plot, and take over the supervision and surveillance of Sonia. Perhaps they thought that she would lead them to other GRU agents in Europe, and would repay her new masters for their kindness in saving her from persecution in Germany. I suspect, however, that the real agenda was to use her as some kind of ‘double agent’ *, perhaps to feed her disinformation that she would be bound to transmit to Moscow Centre, and thereby gain further insights into her encipherment techniques. When her messages were intercepted (so went the plan), the fact that she had been passed texts that she would encode would provide an excellent crib for assisting in decryption – a technique that mirrored what RSS and GC&CS were performing with transmissions performed by the Abwehr.

(* ‘Double-agent’ is not really the appropriate term, as it suggests a continuing dual role. ‘Controlled enemy agent’ is the preferred description. I shall explore this phenomenon further in the coming final chapter of ‘The Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.)

According to her marriage certificate, Sonia received her divorce on December 29, 1939 (not in October, as she for some reason told UK immigration officers later), and was married to Len Beurton on February 23, 1940. Yet one further action hints at the connivance of MI6.

The anecdote appears in both Foote’s and Sonia’s narratives, although the details and motivations differ slightly, and it involves Olga Muth, Sonia’s nanny. Muth had been hired shortly after Nina’s birth in April 1936, and accompanied Sonia to London, back to Poland, and then to Switzerland. Sonia presents Olga as becoming distraught over the prospect of being separated from Nina, Sonia’s daughter, and, in the knowledge that Sonia had a wireless transmitter, goes to the British consulate in Montreux to denounce her as a spy. Foote states that Olga was distressed by Sonia’s disloyalty to Rolf in not just marrying Len, but subsequently falling in love with him.

In Foote’s account, Olga rings up the Consulate to denounce Sonia and Len as Soviet spies, telling them where the transmitter was hidden. In both versions, her broken English was incomprehensible, and she was thus ignored. During his interrogation in London, Foote additionally claimed (KV 2/1611-1) ‘that Ursula and Beurton were considered by Moscow to have been compromised by the action of Olga Muth, and it was the basis of their return to England.’ This is quite absurd: if they had been rumbled in Switzerland by the British, they would hardly have been allowed to settle in Britain. MI5’s Serpell sagely made a note, questioning why Sonia and Len would have been denounced to the British authorities rather than the Swiss? One might thus ask: Had the whole business been a ruse concocted to suggest distancing of the Beurtons from MI6 in Switzerland?

Step Two: Providing Sonia with a Passport

Milicent Bagot

On March 11, 1940, Sonia visited the British Consulate in Geneva to apply for a British passport, based on her marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files). She records that the reaction of the Consul was ‘distinctly cool’, Victor Farrell no doubt affecting a lack of enthusiasm for the whole venture. Mr. Livingston passed her application on to the Passport Office in London, adding the annotation that the purpose of her marriage was probably to confer British nationality on her, and then he rather provocatively appended the strange observation: ‘Husband is understood to be under medical treatment, and intends to return to Switzerland after escorting the applicant to England.’ Why Beurton, if he had recovered enough to make the arduous journey across Europe to Britain in war-time, would jeopardise his health, and then want to repeat the ordeal by returning to Switzerland for medical treatment instead of seeking it in the UK, is not evident.

I have described the events that took place next in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 2, and Chapter 8, but it is worth summarizing them here. The application was processed quickly, before Milicent Bagot, who was very familiar with the Kuczynski family, could advise against it. Sonia’s brother Jürgen had actually been interned as a dangerous communist, collaborating with another noted incendiary, Hans Kahle, in organizing espionage, but was conveniently released at about the same time that Sonia’s passport application was approved, in May. Len Beurton was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and thus not a person whose re-entry was to be encouraged. Cazalet in MI5 too late pointed out the anomalies, but stated that Sonia’s passport should be issued for limited duration, and should not be used for travel.

One bizarre item in the KV 6/41 file shows that Sonia, perhaps concerned that the application was not moving fast enough, actually sent a letter to her father (addressed mystifyingly as ‘Renée’: his forenames were Robert René) requesting local pressure on the Passport Office. In this missive, she curiously refers to herself in the third person (‘Maria’), and informs her family that ‘Maria’s husband’ (aka ‘Georgie’) has just written to the Office to advance his claim. As it happened, the passport had been approved the day before: it is not clear how Len’s personal approach would have helped his suit, unless he perhaps thought that making an overt breach from his chequered past would somehow make the Passport office look on his submission with more favour. Len’s letter has not survived, but it was not necessary.

Thus it is apparent that MI6 was able to bulldoze through the application, even though Sonia was known to be one of a dangerous Communist family, with lower-level officers in MI5 speaking strongly against the award, at a time when the Soviet Union was supporting Nazi Germany in the war effort against Great Britain. It is quite extraordinary that, during a period when any German refugees were looked at with great suspicion, and as rumours of a dangerous ‘Fifth Column’ of hostile aliens were gathering momentum, MI6 would go to strenuous efforts to facilitate the entry into the United Kingdom of a known German-born revolutionary. Laconically, Sonia reported in her memoir: “In the late autumn of 1940, Centre suggested that Len and I move to England”, as if the thought had just occurred to them. (This is presumably the sentiment that Tyrer echoes in his notes.)

Step Three: Exploiting Len’s Extended Presence in Switzerland

Len Beurton

Len’s status in 1940 is a little perplexing. We know from the infamous ‘Geneva Letter’ (see The Letter from Geneva) that Farrell must have engaged him for some intelligence-gathering purposes, with the Falkenberg connection providing a vital insight into how prominent German minds against Hitler might be thinking. Yet it surely cannot have been MI6’s intention to prevent his leaving with Sonia, as it would draw undue attention to her situation, and would make her passage more hazardous. Was the statement about his returning to Switzerland a blind, when they knew that he would struggle to gain a transit visa, and might be even less welcome in the UK than Sonia was?

Sonia wrote that ‘as a former member of the International Brigade, Len could not travel through Spain and had to stay in Geneva until we [Moscow? The British Consulate?] could find a different route for him.’ Yet she presents this observation very late in the cycle, after she and Len had received instructions from Moscow towards the end of 1940. It is difficult to imagine that they could have been so uninformed at this stage. She confirmed the fact when she was interviewed by customs officials in Liverpool on February 4, 1941, saying (after lying about how long she had been in Switzerland) that her husband had been unable to leave Switzerland as he could not obtain a Spanish visa.

The untruths about Len’s poor health (and other matters) start here. There are two interrogation reports on Sonia on file: one dated February 8, from Security and Immigration, and the other February 15, from the Home Office. In the former report, she is quoted as saying that Len had been in Switzerland for about two years ‘for health reasons’. She cannot give a date for when she first met him, but claims she went to Switzerland for the last time ‘just before the outbreak of war’, and that Len had paid visits to Germany during the previous nine months in an attempt to secure money owed her. She married Beurton in February 1940, ‘having secured a divorce from her former husband’. Fortunately, Len had now recovered from his tuberculosis, but had not been able to acquire a Spanish visa necessary for reaching Portugal, because of his membership of the International Brigades. Yet, despite Len’s ‘recovery’, she still cites his ill-health as an counter to the Spanish government’s obduracy, suggesting that his inability to fight should remove their concern.

The Home Office Report gives a slightly different story. Now Sonia claims that she had been in Switzerland since February 1940, thus eliding the circumstances by which she had been able to acquire her divorce papers. She was presumably not questioned as to where she had been prior to her arrival. She again says that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, but now embroiders the reason why she had to leave Switzerland without him – that she was, as she coyly admitted, ‘afraid to stay any longer owing to her connection with a well-known anti-Nazi family’. That family was of course the Kuczynskis, to which she was rather tightly bound, not simply ‘connected’. She does not indicate here that Len has recovered, and thus leaves the argument that he was unfit to be a fighting man in place.

The report goes on to say that the Spanish visa ‘has been refused by the Spanish authorities as he is still of military age and when it was pointed out to them that he was medically unfit they said that the grounds for refusal were that he was an engineer and therefore as valuable as a fighting man.’ It is not clear whether the officials derived this information from Sonia herself, or another source, but it does confirm that Len’s invalidity has already been raised as a reason for letting him depart. Sonia rather ingenuously concluded her statement by indicating that ‘Mr. Beurton would attempt to leave France by a cargo boat from Marseilles’. A simple cross-check between different statements to customs officials and Livingston’s passport application would have turned up an enormous contradiction about the supposed frailty of Len’s health and his desire to join his wife in England as soon as possible, as well as a cavalcade of lies about their movements in Europe. MI5 and MI6 were simply not interested

In any case, Len surely did face a challenge in trying to pass through France and Spain because of his history as an International Brigader, and this fact would consume some more of MI6’s devious energies later. Meanwhile, he made himself useful. In Handbook for Spies, Foote stated that Len gradually extricated himself from the Soviet organisation, and that contact ceased after March 1941 (when Sonia was safely ensconced in Oxfordshire). This was the period when Farrell presumably nurtured him, believing him also to be an ally, and indebted to the British authorities, and used him for intelligence-gathering purposes. Some time after his return to the United Kingdom, Len apparently tried to revive his career with MI6. In the Alexander Foote archive, in KV 2/1612-2, can be found a statement that Beurton ‘gave information about his work with KWEI, Z.156 [presumably von Falkenberg] and Rolf SUESS which was of little value, and he tried to obtain employment with British intelligence. This offer was refused, and in July 1943 he asked for help in joining the R.A.F. on the strength of “having rendered valuable assistance in Switzerland”’.

The exact sequence and timing of events is uncertain, but K 6/41 tends to undermine the ‘intelligence’ application in favour of the ‘R. A. F’ story. There, Colonel Vivian of MI6 confirms the approach, informing Shillito on August 17, 1943 that Beurton presented himself at the War Office with an introductory letter, asking for an interview with (name redacted). (But why else would Vivian have been involved?) Yet Beurton waited a long time to make this approach, as if he was not certain whether he was working for the GRU, or MI6, or both. He must have been getting rather desperate. Shillito had picked up the case again, and was busy asking questions at this time. Perhaps the combination of Farrell’s reminder in March, the imminent birth of his and Sonia’s baby, and his failure to find employment were making Len a bit desperate. MI6 in London were obviously quite aware of his services to the Swiss station, but had no wish to recruit him. If they were interested in taking him on, they would surely have acted soon after his arrival.

Step Four: Arranging the passage of Sonia and her children to Lisbon

The Grande Hotel, Estoril

Refugee literature informs us how arduous was the trek across France and Spain to the relative safety of Portugal. For a lone woman travelling with a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, it must have been especially difficult. Yet Sonia’s children (Maik and Janina) almost did not make it. The original passport application had specified that Sonia wanted her children added to the passport, but it seems that this inclusion did not guarantee their ability to travel, presumably since they had been born as German citizens, and had not been naturalized. This discovery occurred very late in the day. Sonia did not notice the dilemma until shortly before she left, apparently, or may have assumed that their status as appendages to her passport gave them right of entry. Else she may have considered that perhaps the original plan was for her to travel alone, leaving the children in Len’s (or somebody else’s) care. Sonia ignores the whole issue of her children’s approval process, merely stating that she planned to leave at the end of December.

Yet KV 6/41 shows that an urgent plaintext telegram was sent from Geneva to London on November 21, 1940, reflecting the recognition that the children might be turned away on attempting to land. (The question of whether they would have got past the Embassy in Lisbon is not raised.) Extraordinarily, the cable states, even at this late stage, that the children would be accompanied by their parents [sic, plural], and throws in the name of Sonia’s father, (“Doctor Kuczynski of London University’), as if that impressive academic touch would seal the deal. Mystifyingly still, Cazalet’s response of December 10 misses the point entirely, stating that MI5 (to whom the request was addressed) ‘have no objection to the names of Mrs. Ursula BEURTON’s children being added to her passport and the children accompanying their mother to this country’. His memo to Stafford of the Passport and Permit Office, dated December 4, clearly indicates that the problem was due to the fact that they were ‘German born children’.

Once she and her children arrived in Lisbon, Sonia faced multiple challenges in planning her transit. This section of her memoir is probably one of the more reliable parts, in the bare outline of their movements. She wrote a letter to her parents in which she described the horrendous journey, the unheated bus through France, the icy cold in which they stood waiting at customs houses, alleviated by a more comfortable train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and then a more stressful passage to Lisbon, where they arrived on December 24, 1940, with all three of them ill. The British consulate explained that Sonia was ‘about the most insignificant person on the long list’, so she moved, somewhat incongruously, to a comfortable hotel up the coast in Estoril (the ‘Grande’, “once the setting for the European aristocracy to spend its summers”), using monies from Moscow Centre’s account. “After about three weeks, the consulate informed me that we would be taken to England by ship”, she wrote. Yet the letter she wrote to her family on January 4 indicates that she already knew then that the waiting-time would be ‘about three weeks’ – not a bad prospect for someone so lowly on the pecking-order. She had been granted a Category ‘C’ endorsement (no internment required) on January 10. It appeared that MI6 had primed the consulate: Sonia gave the game away again.

Moscow also helped with the expenses involved in transporting Sonia and her family across Europe. While funding was tight in Switzerland, and caused special stresses, Foote informed his interrogators that ‘Albert’ (Radó) managed to send $3,500 to her in Portugal. This was obviously essential for Sonia’s living expenses while staying at the Grande Hotel. Sonia admitted this contribution in her memoir. Yet she was clearly indebted to MI6 for working behind the scenes to advance her priority up the queue of desperate refugees waiting to gain a spot on one of the ships bound for Liverpool. No questions were apparently asked about her source of funds or her lavish accommodation.

Step Five: Helping Sonia Settle in Britain

‘The Wake Arms’ in Epping

In two respects, MI6 helped Sonia with her accommodation and trysting arrangements in England. In one extraordinary item of testimony, Foote told his interrogators (KV 6/43-243A) that, before Sonia left Switzerland, she asked Foote to send a message to Moscow giving the address in Essex where her GRU contact was to meet. Foote’s notebook revealed that Sonia was to ‘meet with the Russians on 1st & 15th of every month at 3pm GMT at Wake Arms in Epping’. This location has an especial interest, since some of the items of correspondence intercepted at the Summertown address in September and October 1942 came from Epping. It would nevertheless not have been an easy place to travel to and from for a mother with two young children resident in Oxford. Yet Epping had its enduring attractions. In 1944, Sonia consequently decided to send Nina, aged seven, to a ‘boarding school in beautiful rural surroundings near Epping Forest’, Micha having already won a scholarship to a boarding school in Eastbourne, Sussex. Nannies and boarding-schools: those are the emblems of the truly dedicated Communist with important work to do.

What is astonishing about this item is how Sonia must have gained the intelligence. Unless the claim was a gross invention by Foote (which seems unlikely, given its detail, and the context), we have to consider the alternatives for the source of a message that was to be sent to Moscow. It therefore could not have originated from Moscow, but we also have to consider why Moscow would need this information. Did Sonia believe that Moscow would have to pass it on to her GRU contact in London, so that she and her handler could meet successfully? Surely not: Moscow was in constant touch with London. Or was she simply confirming what her GRU contact had told her already? Yet, even if she had been able to contact the GRU in London, by wireless, or possibly by coded letter to her sister or father, there would have been no need for her to inform Moscow, as her relatives must have derived the data from the local GRU residency.

Thus we have to assume that the address was given to her by Farrell in MI6. The implication that MI6 was in communication with GRU officers in London about the plan to bring Sonia to Britain, and aiding the process of setting up her treffs, is too scandalous and impossible to consider. I suggest one tentative interpretation. What probably happened is that Sonia had been able to inform Moscow that MI6 was going to recommend a suitable meeting-place (presumably with the objective of surveilling it closely), and, at the last minute before she left, it gave her the times and location for Epping. Her message thus constituted a warning to her bosses that this place was not to be used. There is no other evidence that she travelled regularly to Epping, which would have been an arduous journey from Oxford, although much easier from Hampstead, if that is where MI6 believed she would probably take up residence.

The fact that Foote had to inform Moscow of the arrangement must mean that the GRU was aware that Sonia was negotiating with MI6. That was in principle also a dangerous path, as such collaboration was severely frowned upon. In late 1943, Radó received a royal carpeting when he suggested to Moscow that he and Foote seek shelter in the British consulate in Geneva when the Gestapo started applying pressure to the Swiss, and mopped up the Rote Drei network. Sonia must have wisely told Moscow everything, and gained their approval for going along with MI6’s game, as it represented the best chance of gaining the foothold in Britain that they all desired.

The other instance where MI6 helped her was in her attempt to learn where her destination in England would be. I laid out in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 8 how she sent a desperate letter from Lisbon to her father’s address in London, which was redirected to the address in Oxford that she would later give, as her destination, to the immigration officer in Liverpool. Whether Oxford was chosen as part of a deep strategy by the GRU, as a sensible idea by MI6, or out of a firm preference from the Kucyznski family is unclear. It may well have been the latter, as Jürgen Kuczynski had expressed dismay that Sonia was coming to Britain, where she might draw undue attention by MI5 and Special Branch to his own subversive activities on behalf of the Party. The anguish in her letter shows that Sonia must have known already that she was not welcome in London, and would be directed elsewhere. Yet Sonia did learn what this address was before she arrived in Liverpool. Some emissary from MI6 must have provided this information care of the Consul in Lisbon: there is no other reasonable explanation. In Chapter 8 I put forward one speculative notion.

The voyage to Liverpool took three weeks: the Avoceta arrived on February 4. After the interrogation(s) (in which she was now able to provide a destination address), Sonia managed to find a hotel to stay in, and after an air-raid interrupted night, the next morning travelled smoothly by train to Oxford. Thereafter, her account does not ring true. She claimed that her parents were staying with friends at the Oxford address (78 Woodstock Road, as the MI5 files tell us: they followed her there), but that they had to return to London ‘because their room was needed by their friends’ relatives’. Implausibly, Sonia states that, because house-hunting in Oxford was ‘hopeless’, she tried to find something in the bombed cities, but that was impossible too. (Did she travel to Portsmouth? Coventry? Liverpool? She does not say.)  ‘At last’ she found a furnished room, but had to send the children away, as the landlady insisted on only one renter. So she found a room at the vicarage in Glympton, near Woodstock, settled down, and started her fortnightly visits to London.

If one were not aware of her brother’s objections, one night ask why on earth she didn’t move to the bosom of her family in London, so she would have grandparents to look after her children, and be able to carry on her trysts so much more easily? Apparently ‘moving in with them was out of the question’, as her parents were staying with friends in an overcrowded house’. In April 1941, she conveniently found the furnished bungalow in Kidlington, with no landlady, and the ability to keep her children with her. What she also omitted to mention, however, was that, during these hectic weeks, she was actually residing with her sister, Barbara, Mrs Taylor, at 97 Kingston Road, Oxford, as the constabulary report of February 24 informs us. Barbara’s husband, Duncan Burnett Macrae Taylor, was a trainee wireless operator in the R. A. F., and thus may well have been the officer Sonia claimed to have developed as an informer (‘James’) when she boasted of her ‘network’ in her memoir. Moreover, the report says that her parents are still living at 78 Woodstock Road. It is no wonder that Sonia fails to describe this part of her life in Oxford in any detail.

Step Six: Allowing Sonia to Carry On Unsurveilled

Kidlington Airport

What is clear from the archives is that a minimal surveillance of Sonia was undertaken, but it was of the generic kind of instructing the local constabulary ‘to keep an eye on her’, as if they might surprise her in the act of planting a bomb somewhere. It extended to intercepting her mail, but specifically did not track her movements. The problem is that much of the initiative came from younger officers, like Hugh Shillito, who were trying to do their job, but had clearly not been filled in on the bigger picture. Shillito (B.10.e) wrote to Major Ryde in Reading (the Special Branch representative) on February 7, suggesting that Sonia might want to ‘be kept under observation’. Yet he gives no indication that she is a communist, and related to subversives who have been interned. He merely states that she ‘clearly comes from an entirely different social stratum, and it appears that the marriage was one of convenience’. He says that Len’s ‘present whereabouts are unknown’. It is obvious that he has not been briefed properly, has not spoken to Milicent Bagot, has not read the immigration reports, and is completely unaware of the Communist group that Sonia was part of. He ends his request with the statement: ‘I shall be very interested to hear the result of any enquiries you may make’, but one could hardly expect Major Ryde to jump into action on the basis of this weak letter.

Shillito in fact copied his letter to the Oxford Constabulary, and Ryde did send it on to the Oxford City Police. Acting Detective-Sergeant Jevons did make enquiries, and discovered the facts about the Taylors, and also that Sonia’s father held ‘strong Communist views’, facts that he reported to Shillito on February 24. The very next day, Hyde sent a letter to Shillito, enclosing a copy of the Beurtons’ marriage certificate. This is shocking and absurd: Why did these dedicated civil servants have to educate an MI5 officer about the details of the case? I have noticed that MI5 officers often seemed remarkably ignorant of the marital status of Len and Sonia: when Sonia’s application for a passport came through in March 1940, Cazalet had even indicated that they thought Len was in Germany, in February 1940, which would have been a ridiculous supposition if he had married Sonia the previous month.

Thus Shillito appears to have been kept in the dark, deliberately. His response to Ryde of March 1 suggests that the marriage is all news to him. In any case, at that point Shillito effectively signs off, deeming no further action required, and again expresses the perennial hope that ‘an eye can be kept’ on Sonia. The file is passed to B4, as it appears to be a Communist Party matter. Thereafter, Sonia and Shillito disappear from the archival radar, the case not taking on new life until her husband’s repatriation in July 1942, by which time Shillito has been heavily involved with the business of Oliver Green, a member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and a spy who had been convicted and imprisoned, not for espionage, but for forging petrol coupons. In the reorganization of July 1941, after Petrie’s arrival, Shillito had been moved into the new F Division, tracking CP members, and was given a new assignment.

According to Sonia’s account, the hounds (if that is how these tentative inquisitors must be characterized) must have been called off at about the time she first met with her controller in London, in May, after several abortive attempts. She travelled up to London every couple of weeks, to speak to her father, and colleagues like Hans Kahle. She stayed with her parents, or one of her sisters, presumably leaving her children behind. She never explains how they were taken care of. It was in 1941, of course, that Peter Wright claimed that she maintained ‘a nest of spies’, something that surely should have gained the attention of any agency chartered with ‘keeping an eye on her’. As readers of these bulletins will know by now, I largely discount Wright’s allegations, although it is possible that Sonia developed contacts in important scientific research organisations in Oxford.  And yet, throughout the rest of 1941, no one apparently noticed any of her journeys and absences, or pondered how a mother was able to leave her kids behind so regularly.

The political environment changed in 1941, of course. The Battle of Britain was over; the threat of invasion receded; the search for parachuted German agents waned; Hitler turned his attention eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22. With Churchill’s immediate message of support to Stalin, and signals from the Y Board and the Foreign Office that counter-intelligence operations against the Soviet Union should be wound down, Sonia would have been seen in a different light. What possible harm could a lone and disconnected housewife perform to the cause of the war?

MI6’s need for insights into Soviet decryption techniques, however, did not go away, and GCHQ never completely abandoned its plans for attacking Soviet traffic. It was in the summer of 1941 that Sonia, having assembled her wireless transmitter at Glympton, began transmitting regularly to Moscow, and the only surviving message concerning her wireless activity (not from her directly, but from the Soviet Embassy) dates from July of this year. As I have outlined, her attempts to contact her bosses at that time were made from Kidlington, and were (apparently) never picked up. Thus it would appear that MI6 fell into a fallow period with Sonia, not certain what to do with her, and perhaps frustrated in noticing that, having installed herself as a competent wireless operator in Oxfordshire, she stubbornly refused to co-operate by sending any messages that could be intercepted.

The circumstances surrounding Sonia’s broadcasts in 1941, and the apparent failure of RSS to pick them up, are still perplexing. Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach Hamburg, or enemy wireless operators working on the Continent. Such signals should have immediately drawn attention, but they would have been harder to pick up at that wavelength, and it is probable that the Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) had not been instructed to perform General Searches in this range. We can only speculate as to how well MI6 understood the technicalities of waveband selection for the cuckoo they had transplanted into their nest, or how reluctant they would have been to divulge too much about her presence to RSS officers who were supposed to detect her.

We do know that, by early 1942, a VI picked up such a signal from the Soviet Embassy, but location-finding techniques still had great difficulty in tracking it down. It may be that, not until MI6 took over the fixed direction-finding stations from the Post Office in late 1941, and built new ones, and connected them all, was the RSS able to include in its ambit a greater range of frequencies, and pass some of them to the VIs. One RSS officer, Bob King, assured me that the complete spectrum of wavelengths was monitored, and, moreover, that Sonia’s transmissions were picked up, and instructions received to ignore them, but the dating of such events suggests they were post-war. I shall pick up this fascinating aspect of the story in the conclusion to my series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.

The final anomalous oversight of this period was Sonia’s momentous meetings with Klaus Fuchs. Yet those encounters properly belong to the time after Beurton’s arrival back in the United Kingdom, which was an important scheme by MI6 in its own right. It would be Len’s controversial arrangements for rejoining his wife that would gain Hugh Shillito’s attention again.

Step 7: Orchestrating Len’s Repatriation

Eleanor Rathbone

One extraordinary aspect of the whole project concerning Len’s repatriation is the extreme lengths that MI6 went to. When far more-deserving candidates, such as escaped prisoners-of-war, were struggling to gain passage back to England, Beurton, a known communist, agent in a Swiss spy network, and member of an official Black List, benefitted from the provision of false papers, and the advantage of an aircraft return to Poole, Dorset instead of the dangerous and slow sea journey that most refugees had to endure. (The busy MI9 route out of Gibraltar also used aircraft.) It is difficult to imagine that MI6 would go to such extreme lengths purely because of the pressure applied by leftist friends of the Kuczynskis, and for the office of the Foreign Secretary to become involved only draws attention to the anomaly.

Readers will recall that, when Sonia arrived in Liverpool in early February 1941, one of the accounts that she gave of Len’s absence was that he had gone two years ago to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis, that he had recovered and was thus fit to travel, but that the failure of the Spanish to grant him a transit visa had prevented his accompanying her. (And that this intelligence was in contradiction of what the passport application from Geneva had indicated.) Unsurprisingly, the testimonies now differ. Sonia reported that Radó had applied pressure on Len, saying that his work in Switzerland was more important, and Len had been influenced by him. But when he asked Moscow what he should do, they told him to ‘do as Sonya says’ – an extremely unlikely interchange.

Foote described it differently: “Bill [Len] then pulled out of the organisation, and though he remained in Switzerland until 1942 he had no more official contact with us after March 1941. Moscow allowed him to try to make arrangements to leave at the end of 1941 and even assisted him in obtaining a British passport by getting a leading British politician to intervene on his behalf. The politician concerned acted, I am sure, quite innocently in this as worked through a number of cut-outs, and the person in question would probably have been horrified at the thought of assisting a Russian spy.” Probably a more accurate account, and a useful commentary by the MI5 ghost-writer, to be sure. Radó echoed Foote’s account in Codename Dora, indicating that ‘John’ [Len] stayed on to provide training (‘at Central’s request’) but then observed that Len was able to leave the country by the spring of 1941. Even if Radó was mistaken over the date of Len’s derparture, it strongly suggests that Len was not occupied with the Rote Drei any longer.

Sonia made much of Len’s struggles to gain any priority with the consulate in the queue of escapees trying to reach Britain, and she said she then contacted Hans Kahle, who, in turn invoked the support of Eleanor Rathbone, the left wing MP, who pleaded on the basis of Len’s eagerness to join the British Army. It might have suited MI6 to keep Len in place for a while, since he was providing useful information on anti-Nazi thinking from his association with General von Falkenhausen, but someone obviously concluded that he would be of more use back in Britain. Events then took some extraordinary turns, involving some barefaced lies that apparently did not concern the authorities, who were, after all, responsible for some of them.

For example, Sonia wrote that Rathbone must have asked a question in Parliament, along the lines of : “Why is a British citizen and anti-fascist with military experience in the Spanish Civil War, who is abroad and wants to volunteer for the British Army, not being given the support of His Majesty’s Government in order to return to his home country?” She overlooked the obvious paradox that, in order to gain a transit visa necessary for repatriation and then enlisting, Beurton had to be declared unfit for military service in Geneva. A veritable Catch22. [I cannot find, in the 1942 Hansard records, this question from the MP for the Combined Universities, but Miss Rathbone was a vigorous and regular critic of government policy.]

When Rathbone wrote to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, she explained that Beurton had gone to Switzerland before the war for health reasons, and then underwent a serious ski-ing accident that prevented him from leaving. For good measure, the International Brigade Association secretary, Mr Jack Brent, threw in (orally) that Beurton probably had tuberculosis as well, and would therefore be unfit for military service, thus undermining Rathbone’s appeal. This submission conveniently reinforced the ‘legend’ that Sonia had built up about Len’s affliction, yet rather over-egged the pudding with the details of Len’s misfortunes while ski-ing. Of course, the myth that Len was unfit for military service was necessary in an effort to convince the Vichy French and Spanish authorities that Len could not contribute to the war effort, but it rather undermined the urgency of the reasons why the British authorities would be eager to repatriate a tubercular, crippled Communist subversive. Did they perhaps not recall that Klaus Fuchs’s brother Gerhard had arrived by aeroplane in the UK from Switzerland in July 1939, but had been denied entry, and had been forced to return, because he had tuberculosis?

In any case, the Foreign Office wisely pointed out that Beurton would probably need to be pronounced unfit by an impartial medical board in order to gain transit visas from the French and Spanish authorities. On June 3, Livingston, of the Geneva consulate, informed Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that Beurton had been trying to leave for two years (some slight exaggeration), but he was able to supply the good news that, in April, the doctor attached to the French consulate had declared him unfit for military service. Thereafter, they had applied for French and Spanish visas. The Spaniards, not smelling a rat (or possibly receiving some form of encouragement), had granted the visa, but the French were still delaying things. Yet what Livingston did not state at this juncture was that Beurton had already, on March 9, been issued with a false passport in the name of John William Miller. This fellow must have been a really important asset.

The final visa was issued on July 8, Beurton left Geneva on July 13, and Livingston reported his departure on July 20. There is no record of his journey on file, but Beurton apparently was given VIP treatment, not taking the regular MI9 route for escaped POWs and agents from occupied Europe via Madrid to Gibraltar, but enjoying instead the diplomatic route, and the comfort of a quick plane from Lisbon. He arrived at Poole Airport on July 29, hale, but a little peeved that the he had to undergo an interrogation, as he felt that the authorities in Lisbon should have warned immigration about his arrival. He confidently declared that his passport was a forgery, denied that he had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, indicated that he had gone to Germany in January 1939 to retrieve property owned by Rudolf Kuczynski, and intimated that he had an affair with the latter’s daughter, Ursula. He boasted that he had survived on a $20,000 legacy that he had been carrying round in cash. Furthermore he stated that he and Ursula were married in May 1940, and that they did not leave Switzerland at the beginning of the war as they were waiting for his wife’s divorce papers to come through. He was, however, quick to mention his contact from the League of Nations, L. T. Wang.

A more incriminating farrago of lies would have been difficult to concoct. On August 5, Vesey (B4A) wrote to MI6 expressing surprise that the Passport Control Officer would have issued a false British passport to man whose history must have been known. MI6 replied to Vesey that he had been given a faked passport as he had been refused a transit visa in his own name, adding that the PCO in Geneva was ‘of course’ not aware of the ‘individual circular’ concerning Beurton, who had in the meantime approached the ‘Passport Control’ (i.e. MI6 itself) to join the Armed Forces. MI6 was meanwhile very interested in Wang and Kwei. Vesey and a representative from MI6 would interrogate Beurton in October about the questionable legacy and his actions with Sonia’s friend Marie Guinzberg at the UN in gaining a Bolivian passport. Yet interest in all these suspicious activities was buried.

Step 8: Suppressing Leads on Sonia’s and Len’s Activities

Klaus Fuchs

I have written at length on the apparent confusion surrounding MI5’s surveillance of the Kidlington and Summertown addresses, and the Beurtons’ telephone and mail (see http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-response-to-denis-lenihan/, of March 19, 2020). Sonia claimed that she and Len had to move out of the Kidlington house very soon after Len’s arrival, but was fortunate in finding accommodation in the annex to the house owned by Neville Laski and his wife. Sonia was careful in picking landlords of impeccable standing: Laski was a notable jurist, and may have acted as a solicitor for MI5 at some stage. When the Beurtons moved to The Firs at Great Rollright after the war, they rented from Sir Arthur Salter, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1937 to 1950.

My main conclusion was that Hugh Shillito, having been emboldened by a successful investigation of Oliver Green’s espionage activities, shifted his attention back to the Beurtons soon after Len’s arrival in July 1942, but was firmly discouraged by senior MI5 officers from pursuing the leads too energetically. For example, the apparent failure to follow up on the provocative batch of letters listed on file is perplexing. Just after the time (November 1942) when he had gained the enthusiastic support of Director-General Petrie, and his immediate supervisor Roger Hollis, for his prosecution of the Green case, Shillito made the outlandish suggestion that Sonia and Len were probably Soviet spies. Yet this was information that some senior officers did not want to hear.

It would be quite plausible that Liddell and White had been drawn into the plot by MI6 at this stage, but that Petrie and Hollis (who had replaced his former boss, John Curry, as head of F Division in November 1941), had not. F2 was responsible for ‘Communism and Left-wing Movements’, but Sonia and Len were not associated with the Party, or visibly part of any ‘movement’, so they, along with many other free-flowing communists (such as Jürgen Kuczynski and Fritz Kahle) were allowed to behave unhindered. Perhaps a case was made on those lines that the Beurtons should be ignored. As late as July 1943, however, when the very disgruntled but severely anti-communist Curry had been transferred to MI6, Shillito was still grumbling to his former director that he thought the Beurtons were Soviet agents.

Yet it is the Fuchs business that dominates this period. Sonia had been introduced to Fuchs through her brother, Jürgen. From Sonia’s account, one would get the impression that she cycled out to the Banbury area a dozen times or more, sometimes meeting Fuchs in person, sometimes leaving a message in a shared ‘letterbox’ to arrange a subsequent meeting. When Fuchs passed her a hundred-page book of blueprints, she had to travel to London to inform her handler (by a secret chalk sign) that they would meet outside Oxford, and she then had to pedal out to the junction of the A34 and the A40 to hand over the formulae and drawings. Frank Close echoes the account of these idyllic trysts, even quoting what Sonia later told the local Oxford newspapers: “During the final months of 1942, and throughout 1943, Fuchs and Sonya met at regular intervals near Banbury, always at weekends. She would come from Oxford by train in the morning, Fuchs arriving from Birmingham in the afternoon. One meeting was in Overthorpe Park, two miles east of Banbury, and within easy reach by bicycle or on foot.”

One can already see the contradictions. Did Sonia bike the whole thirty miles to Banbury, or did she take her bicycle to the train station, and then ride out to Overthorpe Park? Remember, most of these adventures would have occurred in the windy and rainy English winter of 1942-1943: moreover the Beurtons’ son, Peter, was born in September 1943, which would have hindered Sonia’s cycling excursions in the latter part of this period. Fuchs would not have been able to make regular forays to duboks in North Oxfordshire just to inform Sonia when the next meeting should be. Sonia promoted the notion that they walked around arm-in-arm, as if they were lovers, to throw off any suspicions. Yet most of this must be fantasy.

Sonia probably met Fuchs for the first time in a café near Birmingham railway station, in late summer 1942, and on that occasion they probably only checked each other out. The Vassiliev Papers record that she had reported that Fuchs had already passed papers to her by October 22 (and they also inform us that Fuchs’s previous handler, Kremer, had returned to the Soviet Union in August 1942). MI5 later claimed that such meetings occurred only every two or three months (echoing what Fuchs told them in his confession), and lasted only a few minutes, which would appear to make more sense, with Fuchs needing to be careful about absenting himself from Birmingham. If Sonia had indeed been taking her bike to Oxford station at regular intervals, surely ‘keeping an eye on her’ would have quickly led to her being stopped, and interrogated about her business? And what happened if her bicycle had broken down and she had secret plans in her basket?

Sonia’s handling of Fuchs lasted only one year. They had their infamous ‘Quebec Agreement’ meeting in mid-August 1943, and a final tryst in November. So, even allowing for MI5’s possible distortions to cover their ineptitude, she and Fuchs probably met only about three or four times before, which, logistically, makes much more sense. More poignantly, this period happened to coincide almost exactly with Len’s presence, and idleness, before being enlisted in the R. A. F. on November 18, 1943, as a trainee wireless operator. Len had expressed to Vesey, in October 1942, his annoyance at being turned down by the Air Force, whom he was keen to join, for health reasons. But his ill health was a myth. Had MI6 been working behind the scenes to disrupt his application? And what about the support of Rathbone, Cadogan and Eden for getting this man into the fight against the Nazis? Did Rathbone conveniently forget about the vociferous appeal she had made on behalf of the valiant British fighting-man?

That there might be significance behind the apparent coincidence of Fuchs’s productivity and Len’s wireless activity is too horrendous to consider, but Beurton had surely taken over the operation of the radio in Kidlington from Sonia. Was that what MI6 conceived as his role? Unless they were interested purely in improved marital relations for Sonia and Len, MI6 must have had plans for him. Yet he could not be used for intelligence purposes in the UK, and he could possibly be a danger if used in the Armed Forces, as his later problems in being accepted reveal. Farrell’s letter of March 1943 remains puzzling, but could have been a coded reminder that Len needed to re-commit to the cause of British Intelligence, and advice from his new-found ‘friend’ would be timely.

Whether Sonia actually used her apparatus to transmit from the new address in Summertown is mainly speculation. The discovery of her set in January 1943 has been analysed studiously. Certainly she claimed that she transmitted regularly, and that her children confirmed her nocturnal activities, but the evidence is sparse. GCHQ, on behalf of RSS, claimed very unscientifically to Peter Wright that she could not have transmitted undetected, but of course her messages might have been intercepted, and decisions made to leave Sonia untouched and uninterrupted. Wright himself wrote vaguely of Sonia’s lost messages, and scoured the globe for them. William Tyrer’s dossier contains a number of unverifiable, mostly undated, messages from Moscow to Sonia, but they are largely very unbusinesslike and novelettish, and mostly predate the Fuchs era or are placed after the war. If she did transmit anything from the Summertown address, it would have been relatively harmless material, and used as a distraction to draw attention away from Kidlington.

With her knowledge and experience from direction-finding in Poland, however, it would have been career suicide for her to transmit repeatedly from a single address in densely populated England, and expect not to be detected. Thus one must assume that either a) if she had been a genuine, freely-operating spy, she would not have used her apparatus (maybe surprised that the authorities did not investigate her equipment), but would have taken advantage instead of Len and the Soviet Embassy to ensure that her secrets reached Moscow; or b) if she had been aware of MI6’s attempts to control her, she would have transmitted only her variant of ‘chicken-feed’, which would be enough to keep her watchers busy, but would never reveal any information that might cast doubt on her ‘new’ loyalties, even if GC&CS were able to decipher her messages. In any case, MI6 were stuck with the cuckoo in their nest, and, at the peak of Great Britain-Soviet Union ‘co-operation’ in 1942-43, had to sit back and let things take their course. Even though the extent of Sonia’s espionage may have been overstated, she certainly duped British Intelligence in her coup with Fuchs.

Step 9: Keeping the Lid On, 1944-1946

‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright

After Fuchs’s departure for the USA in December 1943, and Len’s enlistment in the R. A. F., Sonia’s espionage activities waned. She claimed that she maintained her contacts, and continued to use her wireless, even stating that she sent her son, Micha, and daughter, Nina, to boarding-schools in Eastbourne and Epping respectively so that they would not notice her nocturnal transmissions. How the financially strained Beurtons found the money to pay for private education is never explained, although MI6 has been known to help out in this manner for well-deserving cases. Certainly Sonia helped Erich Henschke and other anti-fascists in the OSS project to drop agents into Germany, in late 1944, but since her brother Jürgen was actually engaged by the American OSS at the time, her actions would not have been regarded as suspicious.

She also had some contact with Melita Norwood (TINA) who was probably of even more use to the Soviets than was Fuchs, but this lasted only for a short time in 1945. Melita’s mother was on friendly terms with Sonia’s mother, and Sonia and Melita had met shortly after Sonia’s arrival in 1941. It would not have been efficient for Sonia, based in Oxfordshire, to have couriered for Norwood, who was, after all, a KGB agent. The Vassiliev Papers (Yellow Notebook No. 1: File 82702) tell us that, even though Norwood had been recruited by the OGPU as far back as 1935, the receipt of papers from her in June 1945 was only the second batch she handed over. Moreover, she had left her job at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1943 to bear her child, and was out of action for over a year. Thus the claim that David Burke makes in The Spy Who Came In From the Co-Op (p 14), that Sonia ‘was Melita Norwood’s controller between 1941 and 1944’ should be quickly dismissed.

MI5, in the person of Shillito, continued to dig around, noticing the anomalies in Beurton’s sickness record.  Shillito also noted that Sonia’s first husband Rudolf had been arrested as a spy in Persia, which resuscitated his suspicions about Sonia. Sargant of O.D.3a had to respond to Air Ministry questions about Len’s dubious story concerning money and health. It was apparent that the Service was now having a difficult time keeping up consistent appearances of the plot to which it had colluded, and struggled to explain why Beurton had been given a fake passport. The rumours even reached the US Embassy, who in August 1944 were anxious to track down Rudolf Hamburger’s wife and family. Roger Hollis himself was called upon to respond to an inquiry from M. J. Lynch. In a letter dated August 10, 1944, Hollis made the best fist he could, admitting that the Beurtons had ‘communist sympathies’, and had probably been funded by the Soviets, adding, however, that MI5’s enquiries had come to nothing, and that neither Mr or Mrs Beurton had been noticed performing anything nefarious. He clearly hoped the problem would go away.

In any case, Moscow Centre at this time decided to loosen its ties with Sonia, although it articulated this message via the Embassy, which had become a much safer way of exchanging vital information by this time. One of the more convincing messages cited in William Tyrer’s dossier, dated January 15, 1945, and sent to Sklyarov in London, runs as follows:

“For your personal information. In the mountain country [Switzerland] Sonia was in contact with Albert [Rado] and his wife. The counterintelligence in your country knows about Albert’s activities in the mountain country and his work for us. There are grounds to suppose that to some degree the counterintelligence may learn about Sonia’s work during her stay in Albert’s country.

     In this connection:

     1. Any personal contact with Sonia should be ceased and not to be resumed without our authorization.

     2. To forbid Sonia to be engaged in our work. She should lead the life of a model mother, wife and housekeeper. Report on the execution. Direktor.”

Moscow was apparently alarmed by the break-up of the Swiss Ring, and the fact that Alexander Foote and Radó might have betrayed information about Sonia’s past activity. Yet there is a trace of disingenuousness here: how could they have imagined that British counter-intelligence was ignorant of Sonia’s career? Nevertheless, the pressure increased, with Gouzenko’s defection in Canada in September 1945 causing panic, and the closing down of multiple agents. The Vassiliev Notebooks (Yellow Notebook, No, 1, p 86) confirm that Moscow cut off all contact with Sonia in January 1946. When Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946, he had to seek out a new go-between. Thereafter, while Sonia was said to communicate occasionally (the language is ambiguous and puzzling), her sister Renate was used as an intermediary to get funds to her. Sonia claimed that she still used her wireless set at this time, having moved to The Firs in Great Rollright, and Bob King of the Discrimination Section of RSS reported to me that he was certain that her messages were picked up by the RSS interceptors, but buried by senior officers.

Before the dramatic defection in July 1947 of Alexander Foote, back to the British, and his subsequent interrogation by MI5, one last twist in the story occurred, revealing the awkwardnesses of MI5 officers having to explain the situation. In April 1946, the FBI, still trying to establish the whereabouts of Rudolf Hamburger, through J. Cimperman, contacted MI5 to determine whether they might approach Ursula Beurton. This time, it fell upon John Marriott (him of the XX Committee, now F2C), and he shared the remarkable information that a letter from the FBI of July 13, 1945 had referred to an address in Geneva (129 Rue de Lausanne), reportedly the address through which Hamburger could be contacted, which was the same address where Mrs. Beurton had last stayed in in Switzerland. Furthermore, she had indicated in 1941, when he arrived, that she thought her husband was still resident there.

One might imagine that an astute officer would either have concealed this information from the Americans, or, alternatively, shown great enthusiasm in following up this extraordinary coincidence. Marriott used it, however, to suggest to Cimperman that the relationships between the two men and Mrs. Beurton made it ‘undesirable’ to approach the lady. Yet he did promise to make further enquiries. The wretched Hamburger meanwhile had been taken back to Moscow from Persia, cruelly interrogated on the suspicion of being a spy, and sentenced to a long stay in a labour-camp. Peter Wright claims in Spycatcher that Hamburger had been an MI6 spy, although John Green comments that this story has never been corroborated.

Maybe foolishly (why would he think that Hamburger still had a link with Geneva?), Marriott agreed to follow up, and turned to the MI6 office responsible – Kim Philby. The same day, he wrote to Philby, explaining the situation, and asking him to make enquiries about the address, and provide, if possible, information on the whereabouts of Hamburger. Marriott revealed his discomfort about Cimperman’s approach directly to Philby, stating: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request,. . .”, hinting at a tacit, awkward understanding between the two. Two weeks later, Philby, having initiated the appropriate search, responded with a very enigmatic explanation, also confirming that his contact was trying to establish whether Beurton was still living at that address. Continuing to play his role of the simpleton, he added that ‘we have no knowledge of the present whereabouts of HAMBURGER’. Marriott was soon able to enlighten Philby that Beurton was now a Guardsman with the 1st Battalion of the Coldstream Guards in the B.A.O.R. He then sent a very useless and bland letter to Cimperman, which did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the shared address. Apparently nobody followed up with Len or Sonia to learn more about what may have been a Soviet safe-house. Philby clearly wanted to bury the story.

Step 10: Foote and Fuchs: Allowing Sonia and Len to Escape

Alexander Foote

Two challenges remained for the Beurtons – the defection of Alexander Foote, and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs.

The GRU had always harboured its suspicions about Foote’s loyalties, because of his relationship with the British consulate in Geneva, and especially when he encouraged Radó to take cover with him there in November 1943. After Foote was released from prison in November 1944, he made his way to Paris, where he made the extraordinarily bold decision to travel to Moscow to face the music, arriving in mid-January 1945. During the next couple of years, MI5 and MI6 communicated desultorily on Foote’s fate. Foote, meanwhile, was undergoing intense interrogation, and his brazenness in afforming his loyalty must have impressed the Soviets. He was sent to spy school, and on March 7, 1947, left Moscow for Berlin, with a new identity, and a mission to operate as a Soviet agent in South America. On July 2, he defected to the British authorities in Berlin. Claude Dansey did not see his hero return: he had died, discarded, disliked and dejected, on June 11.

Foote was initially interrogated by MI6, and quickly revealed, as is evident from the first Interrogation Report of July 14, that he had worked alongside ‘Sonia’ in the Rote Drei, and that ‘Sonia’ was the alias given to her by the Russian Secret Service, her real name being Ursula KUTSCINSKI’ [sic]. MI5’s Serpell (who had replaced an exasperated Shillito by then) was sent out to interrogate Foote, who immediately voiced his concerns about Sonia’s probable espionage in Britain.  Foote was brought back to the UK, under an assumed name, and arrived at Northolt on August 7. All this must have been a little embarrassing for MI6, who know saw matters spiralling out of control, with officers who had not been ‘indoctrinated’ in the case, including the new Director-General, spreading the news around. Percy Sillitoe contacted the Canadians about the Gouzenko connection; Serpell excitedly got in touch with the American Embassy. Foote, meanwhile, had a crisis of conscience: Sonia had, after all, been his collaborator and tutor, and he sent her a furtive message via Fred Ullmann, another International Brigader who had originally helped recruit him, that she and Len should be on their guard.

This news re-awakened MI5, with the familiar Marriott (now B1b) seeking information on the Beurtons’ whereabouts, since they had lost track of Len since his discharge in August 1945.  He immediately requested a Home Office Warrant check put on the Beurton’s correspondence, as it had apparently just come to his notice that they had both been Soviet spies in Switzerland during the early part of the war. Further revelations from the interrogation of Foote came to light: “Foote suggested that another symptom of SONIA’s continued link with MOSCOW after she reached England was contained in a message he had from Moscow in 1941 about the efforts to get BEURTON back to the U.K. The message said that ELEANOR RATHBONE and others were helping.”

Marriott treated the deluge of Foote’s divulgements as if they were all news to him, and wrote, apparently without irony: “It is not clear why Ursula Beurton left Switzerland as she did at the end of 1940 to proceed to this country, but on the evidence of Foote she did so with at least Russian concurrence and the possibility therefore cannot be excluded that she came here with a  mission.” (Indeed. Had he not read the files in the Registry?) On August 18, he disingenuously tried to finesse the issue by noting that ‘the circumstances of the issue of this latter passport are known to me, and are not relevant to my inquiries.’ The outcome was that Serpell, accompanied by William Skardon, went to The Firs on September 13, to interrogate Sonia and Len.

This extraordinary encounter has been thoroughly reported on, by such as Chapman Pincher and John Green. It seemed the intention of Serpell and Skardon was to put Sonia at her ease, by assuring her that they knew that she had not engaged in any espionage activity in Britain, but instead indicating that they wanted to learn more about what had happened in Switzerland. Yet Sonia had been prepared for the visit by Foote. While Serpell’s continued references to her marriage unnerved Sonia, she realised that if she stuck to her guns, and remained silent, no ill could come out of the exercise. After all, British Intelligence had as much to lose from the truth coming out as she did.

While the focus of the questions seemed to be on events in Switzerland (and Marriott’s notes had indicated that questions concerning Len Beurton’s passport were uppermost in his mind), Serpell and Skardon seemed singularly uninterested in Len, who joined the gathering later, and even indicated that he thought that he was on their side (which, of course, he had been, for a while). The behaviour of the officers in this encounter bewildered Sonia: it was as if MI5 had been trying to catch her out, but they performed with total clumsiness. Serpell and Skardon revealed events in Switzerland that could only have been communicated by Foote. Certainly, the visit confirmed that any espionage activity by her and Len would have to cease at that stage, but Moscow had already decreed that outcome. Or was it a subtle indication that MI5 knew all about her, and that she and Len should make their escape while the going was good? That is an interpretation that John Green hypothesizes. Remarkably, the Home Office Warrant letter checks on not only Sonia, but on other members of her family, were withdrawn immediately after this encounter. So life carried on smoothly for a couple of years.

The arrest of Fuchs, on February 3, 1950, was more alarming. Sonia feared that he would reveal everything under interrogation, and, indeed, as early as February 20, J. D. Robertson (B2A) remarked that Sonia might be induced to talk because of the announcement of his arrest, although it is not clear what prompted him to make that connection. Fuchs had indeed spoken of a female contact he had had encounters with in Banbury, which should have set some MI5 pulses beating faster. Sonia herself wrote that ‘when the press mentioned that Klaus had been meeting a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury I expected my arrest any day’. Frank Close, in his biography of Fuchs, Trinity, reports that ‘the files record enigmatically that she was “touch not”’, but indicates that a pencilled annotation explained that this should be “tough nut”. Quite so: I have not been able to verify this, but the message is clear.

In any case, Sonia jumped the gun, and escaped with her two youngest children to East Germany on February 27, while Fuchs’s trial was under way. The extraordinary gaffe in this exercise was that no effort at preventing her departure was made, despite the obvious recognition that MI5 had shown (such as in Robertson’s note) that she might have been connected to the case. It was obviously easier to have her out of the way. She was untouchable.  As Sonia herself wrote: “Either it was complete stupidity on the part of MI5 never to have connected me with Klaus, or they may have let me go with it, since every further discovery would have increased their disgrace.”

Sonia’s departure must have been recorded, yet many MI5 officers remained in the dark. They even expressed the desire for bringing her and Len in for questioning. Fuchs continued to reveal more. On June 16, Robertson reported that Jürgen Kuczynski was the person who had originally put Fuchs in touch with the Russians.  On June 22, a letter was sent to the GPO, requesting a Home Office Warrant for Sonia, as ‘we have recently received information which indicates that Ursula Beurton has not relinquished her connection with Soviet espionage since her arrival in the U.K.in 1941’. Even Director-General Sillitoe was on the act, asking Rutherford on July 25 about the whereabouts of Sonia and her husband. On June 27, Len Beurton, who had been recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle accident, was also allowed to leave the country untouched. On August 22, Robertson at last learned that Sonia had flown the coop. Not until November did Fuchs, obviously having been informed that Sonia and Len had safely left the country, admit that Sonia was his contact, and on December 18 he recognized her in a photograph. All through 1950, Liddell made no comment in his diaries about the Kuczynski link – or, if he did, the passages have been redacted. When Sonia was at last identified, his chagrin, and that of all senior officers in MI5 and MI6, must have been immense.

Conclusions

Claude Dansey

What started out as an imaginative opportunity for MI6 turned into a nightmare. It enabled the entry into Britain of a spy dedicated to the communist cause, one who helped her masters acquire secrets that would have been used to destroy the pluralist democracy. No doubt encouraged by the fruitful achievements of the emerging MI5 operation of developing double-agents (at that time, SNOW), Claude Dansey, the deputy to Stewart Menzies, alighted upon the availability of Ursula Hamburger to implement a similar project for Soviet spies. He was in Switzerland from September to November 1939, as Sonia’s divorce proceedings culminated. His man, van den Heuvel, and Farrell, the Passport Control Officer who was van den Heuvel’s deputy, became the instruments to make the plan a reality. In believing that they were saving Sonia’s life by abetting her escape, MI6 succumbed to the illusion that she and Len would be permanently beholden to them.

Yet managing so-called ‘double-agents’ is a hazardous business. It requires both very tight operational security, restricting knowledge of the project to as few persons as possible, and maintaining exclusive control over the agents’ movements and communications. The handling agency can never be sure that the person assumed to having been turned has made an ideological about-face, and switched his or her loyalties. Thus, unless a very tight rein is held over the agents’ behaviour, there is always the risk that, in their communications, they will betray the fact that they are being manipulated, or even arrange unsurveilled meetings where they will be able to describe what is going on. That is why they are properly called ‘controlled enemy agents’. MI5 knew this; the Abwehr knew this; the CIA, in its enthusiasm for transplanting the Double-Cross techniques to their own theatre of operations after the war, were slow to recognize the truth. For some reason MI6 did not think through the implications of bringing Sonia and Len into their fold.

The brunt of the burden fell upon MI5, who were responsible for domestic security against subversion and espionage. And the archive shows clearly how the service was divided over how to handle Len and Sonia once they arrived in Britain. The senior officers (Liddell and White, but not the Director-General) were surely complicit with MI6 in the scheme. Junior officers and recruits (such as Shillito, Cazalet, Reed, Vesey, J. D. Robertson, Bagot, Serpell) were kept in the dark, and left to stumble around, pursuing leads, until they became too energized in their suspicions, recommended some kind of interrogation or prosecution, and had to be gently talked out of it. (At a high-level meeting on January 25, 1950 between Lord Portal, Roger Makins, Liddell and White at the Ministry of Supply, this uncomfortable truth was even admitted.) The middle ranks (such as Marriott, Hollis, and Curry) were no doubt brought, at least partially, into the subterfuge, and were delegated the unpleasant tasks of dealing with other organisations, such as the Foreign Office, MI6 and the FBI. As can be seen, primarily in Marriott’s anguished correspondence, they struggled dismally with explaining away the inexplicable. The complexities of the project and its intelligence ramifications were clearly too deep to be entrusted to the Directors-General, one a soldier (Petrie) and the other a policeman (Sillitoe), although Petrie’s anti-communist vigour would mean that he probably had to have things explained to him after the Green case.

Above all, the exercise shows how improbable the theory must be that Roger Hollis single-handedly, as a Soviet mole, managed to protect Sonia (and Len) from the attention and prosecution that they obviously deserved. This theory has taken root so deeply that new historical works and biographies regularly appear that take it for granted that the assertions of Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright should be accepted unquestionably. Hollis’s guilt is affirmed purely on the basis that he must have protected Sonia (Len is rarely mentioned). The mass of detail that shows how Sonia and Len were nurtured, supported, assisted, recruited, even lied for – and then deliberately ignored, and allowed to escape – proves that it could not have been because of Hollis’s skills in throwing a blanket of ignorance around the couple with the outcome that they were thus able to remain unmolested. Even if Hollis had possessed the power and authority to insist that they were harmless, the widespread knowledge about their background, the illicit marriage, the recruitment of Len by MI6, the phony stories about ex-husbands, tuberculosis, and ski-ing injuries, about forged passports, dubious medical certificates, and unlikely inheritances would have made his protestations a laughing-stock.

In the English edition of her memoir, Sonia wrote: “I know no Fifth Man, and I must also spoil the speculation or, as some writers state, ‘the fact’ that I ever had anything to do with the one-time director of MI5, Roger Hollis”. That may be one of the few true statements she made in her book. Later in life, however, she wryly admitted that she mused over the possibility that someone in MI5 was protecting her. Indeed, madam.

As for the GRU, Sonia’s penetration of British atomic research was a coup, although perhaps not as astounding as the mythology has made it. Fuchs was her source for only a year, and modern assessments indicate that, as far as the United Kingdom was concerned, Engelbert Broda and Melita Norwood were probably far more valuable contributors to the Soviet’s purloining of weapons secrets. Sonia’s connection with Norwood has often been overplayed. Yet Sonia’s achievements were a significant blow to the prestige of British Intelligence, which had held a worldwide reputation now revealed to be unmerited. In the first couple of decades after the war, the Soviet Union and East Germany openly denied the activities of their spies, wanting to impress their citizens that their scientific achievements were attributable to Communist ingenuity.

Only when the spy scandals were rolled out in the United States and Great Britain did the mood change to one of pride in how their intelligence services had outfoxed the West’s. Then they lauded openly the achievements of their ‘atomic spies’, promoting memoirs like Sonia’s. President Putin, relying on his public’s fragile connection with history, after a brief fling promoting Soviet spy exploits (see the case of Svetlana Lokhova and The Spy Who Changed History, at http://www.coldspur.com/four-books-on-espionage/ ) seems now to want to return to the Cold War status quo ante, reinforcing the idea that the Soviet Union’s success with nuclear weaponry owed more to Russian skills than it did to underhand espionage and the theft of the discoveries of former allies.

One has to assume that the GRU in Moscow knew exactly what was going on at the time, and took a back seat while MI6 floundered. Immediately Sonia or Len was first approached by MI6 with any sort of feeler, each would have reported it to Moscow. Thus all further moves would have been passed on as well. Anthony Blunt was keeping his bosses informed, and relayed to them the lukewarm attention that Hugh Shillito paid to CP and GRU spies. The GRU must have wondered exactly what MI6 was up to, if it believed the opposition’s service could manipulate Soviet agents with such naivety. Indeed, around this time, the GRU’s sister service, the NKGB (as the NKVD-KGB was known at that time), was so dumbfounded by the fact that British Intelligence could allow the Cambridge Ring to flourish that it issued an internal report suggesting that the whole exercise was one of disinformation. Referring to the Double-Cross (XX) Committee as one of the vital institutions involved, Elena Modrzchinskaya, the head of the Third Department of the NKGB’s First Directorate, published the report in November 1942: it took almost two years for the suspicions to be disproved, and credibility in the sources re-established.

Yet, if MI6 and MI5 showed an alarming amateurishness about the whole process, the GRU’s agents likewise put on a dismal display of tradecraft. Before placing ‘illegals’ in the western democracies, the GRU and OGPU/NKVD invested an enormous amount of time in creating solid ‘legends’ for their agents, where, supported by false passports, individuals of indeterminate central and eastern European origin were allowed to establish convincing identities and occupations in the cities from which they operated. The GRU could not have exerted any influence on the stories that Sonia and Len concocted before embarking on their journeys to Britain, yet they – especially Sonia – should have been well indoctrinated into the necessity of maintaining a coherent narrative about their previous travel, objectives, sources of funds, business activities, and disabilities.

Sonia and Len behaved, however, completely amateurishly. Their accounts to the immigration authorities were absurd. It was as if they did not even discuss what their separate stories should be if they were interrogated, and how these rigmaroles would mesh together. The resulting narrative was so ridiculous that it should immediately have been discredited, and the suspects hauled in. We now know, of course, why that did not happen. Perhaps the Soviets, and Len and Sonia in particular, were so sure of MI6’s game-plan that they felt that they did not need to bother. But that assumption would have been based on granting the fragmented and pluralistic British intelligence services a discipline and unity that may have existed in the Soviet Union, but simply was unrealistic in a democratic society.

What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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HASP: Spycatcher’s Last Gasp

Peter Wright

(This report, on the dubious testimony of Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, concerning Agent Sonia and her wireless transmissions, is a long and challenging one, and I issue my customary health warning: Do not read this if you are of a sensitive disposition, or while operating agricultural machinery. I decided to lay out every step of my reasoning, with references, as I believe that, with the delivery of the authorised History of GCHQ in a few months’ time, it is important to present a comprehensive story of the slice of wartime Soviet wireless traffic that Wright focused on in his book. The interest in Spycatcher indicates that a mass of persons are fascinated by this topic: questions about possible traitors in the midst of the Security Service do not go away. I believe the issuance of this report is especially timely, as the recent feature in the Mail on Sunday should intensify the interest in the case that Wright made against Sonia and her alleged protector, Roger Hollis. If any of my readers would prefer to work with a Word version of this bulletin, in the belief that they might want to pore over it, and annotate it, please contact me at antonypercy@aol.com.  After a thorough background check by my team of ultra-sensitive, highly-trained, Moscow-based security personnel, the report will be sent to you.)

“Stella Rimington and some friends in the Security Service called Wright ‘the KGB illegal’, because, with his appearance and his lisp we could imagine that he was really a KGB officer.”                                                                                                         (Defending The Realm, p 518)

“I want to prove that Hollis was a spy; if I can do that I will be happy.” (Peter Wright to Malcolm Turnbull, from the latter’s ‘Spycatcher Trial’, p 31)

“The time has come for there to be an openness about the secret world of so long ago … the consequences of Hollis being a spy are enormous. Not only does it mean that MI5 is probably still staffed by people with similar view to him, but it means that ASIO was established on terms with the advice of a Russian spy.” (Peter Wright in the witness-box, Sydney, December 1986)

Contents:

  1. Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’
  2. The Background
  3. Cable or Wireless?
  4. War and Peace
  5. VENONA and HASP
  6. Wright on HASP
  7. The Remaining Questions
  8. The Drought of 1942-44
  9. Why did Wright Mangle the Story so much?
  10. Conclusions

Peter Wright and ‘Spycatcher’

As an ex-IBMer (1969-1973), until I read Spycatcher in the late nineteen-eighties, the only ‘HASP’ I knew was the Houston Automated Spooling Priority program (about which I shall mercifully write no more). One of the major contributions to mole-hunting that Peter Wright believed he made, in his best-selling account of dodgy business within MI5, was the unveiling of a new source of electronic intelligence, namely (as he described it) ‘the wartime traffic stored by the Swedish authorities known as HASP’. By citing a previously unknown and ever since unrevealed message that purported to indicate the size of Sonia’s ‘network’ of spies in 1941, Wright’s assertion has exerted quite a considerable influence on the mythology of Soviet ‘superspy’ SONIA. If judged as credible, his testimony boosts her achievements in England even beyond what the woman claimed in her memoir, Sonya’s Report. Moreover, Wright used this discovery as a major reason for confirming his belief that Roger Hollis was the Soviet mole known as ELLI: he drew attention to this accusation in his presence in the witness-box during the Spycatcher trial, and thus the process by which he came to this conclusion is of profound significance.

Spycatcher sold over two million copies. This success was mainly due to the outcome of Her Majesty’s Government’s lawsuit against the author before publication, with Malcom Turnbull’s successful defence in the trial of 1986-87 issuing a stern blow to the forces of hypocritical secrecy. He was able to show that the British authorities had connived at, or even encouraged, the publication of Chapman Pincher’s two books, Their Trade is Treachery, and Too Secret Too Long (as well as Nigel West’s A Matter of Trust), which made nonsense of the claim that a ban on the whole of Spycatcher was necessary for security reasons. It was the obstinacy of Margaret Thatcher, abetted by poor advice, that caused the lawsuit to be pursued. The irony was that it was Wright who had fed Pincher most of his stories, and Pincher would later amplify Wright’s case against Hollis with the very influential Treachery. That is why this article is so important. Those two million-plus readers need to learn the facts about a critical part of Wright’s story.

The Background

Another significant outcome of a careful study of Wright’s claims concerning the HASP story is the uncovering of secrets about the interception and decryption of electronic traffic that the British intelligence services (MI5, MI6 and, especially, GCHQ) would rather the public remain ignorant of. The authorised histories of MI5 (Andrew) and MI6 (Jeffery) steered well clear of analysis of the mechanics of wartime electronic espionage, since these volumes were designed and controlled as organs of public relations. No discussion of Sonia, or the controversies surrounding illicit wireless in wartime Britain, can be found in their books, and Andrew (especially) points readers towards the secondary literature without any indication of how reliable it is, or how selectively it should be explored.  Moreover, I regret that I am not confident that all will be revealed to us when the authorised history of GCHQ (Behind the Enigma, by Professor John Ferris) is published later this year. While a subsidiary objective of my focus on Wright is thus to provide a more rigorous analysis of the often puzzling story of the Allied effort to interpret Soviet intelligence traffic in World War II, a more thorough account will have to wait until a later bulletin.

The secondary literature almost universally shows an alarming confusion about the techniques and technology that underlay the surveillance of the traffic of foreign powers before, during, and after WWII. The largely American literature on the VENONA program (to which HASP was a critical adjunct: see below) is distressingly weak on technology, and focuses almost exclusively on the interception of traffic in the United States. Even such a well-researched and methodical work as Philip H. J. Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying contains only two short references to VENONA, guiding the reader (note 32, p 237) for ‘a (contested) British version of the story’ to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher. This seems to me a gross abdication of critical responsibility. Davies concentrates of human ‘machinery’, not technology, and delegates coverage of problematic matters to a source he instantly characterizes as dubious. It would appear, therefore, that, even though Wright’s story does not derive from any published archive, his controversial memoir has become the default – but flawed – authority. Yet he was a minor officer in the grand scheme of things, and an elderly man with a grudge and a failing memory when his book was composed.

It is certainly difficult to obtain reliable confirmation of the essence of HASP from other academic, or pseudo-academic, sources. One might, for example, have expected to learn about it in Richard J. Aldrich’s 2010 work, GCHQ, yet, while providing a comprehensive chapter on HASP’s cousin VENONA, the author does not mention the term. The only other analyst who appears to have written explicitly about HASP without simply echoing Wright’s account is Nigel West, in his 2009 book Venona. West has overall provided a competent guidebook to the initial breakthroughs on decryption, and an excellent coverage of the content of VENONA traffic, with emphasis on the London-Moscow communications, although it would benefit from a revision to consider the relevance of such sources as the Vassiliev Notebooks (see https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks). Venona is a highly readable summary for the curious student of intelligence, but West’s coverage of the mechanics of VENONA is spotty and inconsistent. Moreover, his representation of the HASP traffic is so different from that of Wright that I believe the topic merits greater scrutiny, and it is my goal here to provide that level of inspection, and assess the validity of what Wright claimed. This is uncharted and complex territory, however, and the landscape is strewn with pitfalls.

VENONA was one of the major successes of British-American co-operation on intelligence matters after WWII. Owing to a procedural mistake in 1943, a large number of GRU (military and naval intelligence) and NKVD/KGB (* state security) messages exchanged between Moscow and outlying stations in foreign embassies employed a defective technique for enciphering highly confidential messages – the re-use of so-called ‘one-time pads’. Intelligence agencies have regarded one-time pads as the most watertight way of preventing enemy decryption of messages, and they were adopted by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. (Many readers will be familiar with the concept if they have read Leo Marks’s Between Silk and Cyanide.) Alert cryptanalysts in the National Security Agency (NSA), inspecting messages in 1946, noticed unusual patterns, and in 1948 were joined by their British counterparts from GCHQ in exploring the phenomenon. By applying painstaking techniques to detect repeated sequences, they were able to initiate a project that gradually disclosed several networks of spies in the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia, leading to the successful prosecution of such as Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, and Alan Nunn May, and the identification of Donald Maclean. VENONA was not formally revealed to the public until 1995.

Yet exactly what this ‘re-use’ entailed, and where and when it took place, and to which cryptological tools it applied, remains one of the most vexing puzzles in the VENONA story. It is as if the practitioners, when explaining their successes to the lay historians who carried their accounts to the world, wished to keep the process and sequence of events to themselves, as a defensive measure to protect their secrets, and maybe, even, to exaggerate what they were able to accomplish. A deep integrative history is sorely needed.

[* The naming of the Soviet Security Organization changed frequently. In 1934, the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, which for a few months in 1941 became the NKGB, before reverting to NKVD until April 1943. In March 1946, it became the MGB, but foreign intelligence was transferred to the Committee for Information (KI) from October 1947 to November 1951. In March 1953, on Stalin’s death, the unit was combined with the MVD, out of which the KGB emerged, after Beria’s execution, in March 1954. Source: Christopher Andrew. I sometimes use ‘KGB’ in this article to refer to the permanent body, as do many authors.]

Cable or Wireless?

Eastern Telegraph Cables: 1901

One conundrum in the analysis of VENONA and HASP has endured: no author on the subject is precise about where and when VENONA (or HASP) was the result of intercepting cable traffic, and where and when it involved wireless traffic. This distinction is important when one considers the challenges facing the counter-espionage organisations of the nations trying to protect themselves. The term ‘cable’ is frequently used as a generic term for ‘telegram’, reflecting its historical background, but telegrams sent by wireless should definitely not be called ‘cables’. Christopher Andrew, in Defending the Realm, makes a useful distinction, but his account is incomplete and thus overall unsatisfying. He contrasts (on page 376) the regulations pertaining in the UK, where ‘even before the Soviet entry into the war, the Foreign Office had agreed that the Soviet embassy in London could communicate with Moscow by radio on set frequencies’, and adds that a project was soon underway to intercept these messages. On the other hand, no corresponding agreement existed in the USA, where, instead, ‘Soviet messages were written out for transmission by cable companies, which, in accordance with wartime censorship laws, supplied copies to the US authorities.’

This statement is probably an echo of what appears in the staff (but not ‘official’) story of VENONA, issued by the NSA/CIA in 1966 (VENONA: Soviet Espionage and the American Response, edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner). In the Preface (p xii) appear the following sentences: “Although Soviet intelligence services had clandestine radio transmitters in diplomatic missions located in several American cities, these apparently were to be used only in emergencies. In consequence, KGB and GRU stations cabled their important messages over commercial telegraph lines and sent bulky reports and documents – including most of the information acquired by agents – in diplomatic pouches.” This statement moves us closer to the truth, but in my opinion still misrepresents the essence of the Soviet strategy concerning clandestine systems, and does not explain whether these secret channels were intercepted at all.

Confusion abounds. For example, in the very first sentence of Venona, Nigel West writes of the project to intercept Japanese traffic in October 1942 as follows: “Cable 906 purported to be a routine circular in seven parts and, as it had come off the wireless circuit linking Tokyo to Berlin and Helsinki, it underwent the usual Allied scrutiny to see if it betrayed any information of strategic significance.” Cables cannot ‘come off’ (whatever that means) ‘wireless circuits’, and it is inaccurate to describe temporary wireless paths as ‘circuits’, since wireless transmission is by definition unconnected. It makes sense to refer to a ‘circuit’ linking ‘Tokyo to Berlin and Helsinki’ only in terms of a conceptual agreement about callsigns, frequencies, and schedules between intelligence services and outposts. As another example, the heading for the NSA’s official packaging of the London to Moscow traffic (at  https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf ) is titled ‘London GRU – Moscow Center Cables: Cables Decrypted by the National Security Administration’s Venona Project’, a regrettable misrepresentation of reality. The messages were sent by wireless.

The misconception is aggrandized by Peter Wright himself. In Spycatcher, the author, the self-professed expert in these matters, writes (p 182): “Whereas the Americans had all the Soviet radio traffic passing to and from the USA during and after the war, in Britain Churchill ordered all anti-Soviet intelligence work to cease during the wartime alliance, and GCHQ did not begin taking the traffic again until the very end of the war.” Sadly, every clause of this woeful sentence contains at least one blatant error, which casts serious doubt on his reliability on other matters. Specifically:

  1. The Soviet VENONA traffic to and from the USA was almost exclusively commercial cable traffic.
  2. ‘Had all the Soviet radio traffic’ is meaningless. Did the Americans intercept it all? Most certainly not. As other experts have pointed out, wireless traffic was banned (officially) during the war. The Soviets used wireless as an emergency back-up system, but also as a channel for clandestine espionage traffic.
  3. No one can point to the minute where Churchill ordered all interception, let alone all intelligence work, to cease. Hinsley’s famous footnote [see below] speaks only of ‘decryption and decoding’, not interception, and does not constitute an authoritative record. (Professor Glees reports conversations with Hinsley on this point in his book The Secrets of the Service: what Glees was told, namely that the Y Board may have issued such an order, now appears to be confirmed by the in-house history of the NSA.) We know that interception of signals continued, if erratically, throughout the war, and that Alastair Denniston, previously head of GC&CS, started his new project on Soviet traffic in late 1942.
  4. GCHQ did not come into existence until 1946. Before that the institution was known as GC&CS (Government Code & Cypher School). During the war, however, RSS was responsible for ‘taking the traffic’, and never reported to GC&CS. We know from RSS files that it monitored Soviet traffic, and that the ISCOT project started picking up Comintern messages in 1943.

Within this fog of misrepresentation a very important distinction remains. A cable is a wire, with the important corollary that those agencies that control the input to the physical cable may have special authority (or power) to intercept and store the traffic that is passed to them. Such transmissions can also be detected clandestinely by specialized sensory equipment, which would have to be laid close to the cable. Thus cables are a direct, bounded, targeted medium and not universally detectable. (Today’s fibre optic cables, which GCHQ and the NSA tap, follow largely the same oceanic paths used by the cables laid at the end of the nineteenth century.) Wireless traffic is looser: it is transmitted over the ether. It may be picked up by local groundwaves, or, remotely, by any receiving device that is geographically well-positioned to receive shortwave transmissions, allowing for the vagaries of atmospheric conditions, and frequencies used. Yet, while the atmosphere is lawless, the source of the transmission is frequently concealed, and the activity unpredictable. Wireless transmission presents a completely different set of security challenges.

P. S. I am grateful to Ian W. who, on the day this report was published, informed me that ‘cables’ might be transmitted for part of their journey over ‘wireless’ links – something I had suspected, but had not been able to verify. Ian also mentioned that, half a century ago, it was common for wireless contacts to be referred to as ‘circuits’.

War and Peace

Earlier in the century, circumstances – and improvements in technology – had encouraged the use of wireless as a medium for confidential traffic. Private or nationally-owned cable facilities had been shown to be liable to attack and destruction. Such sabotage happened when the British cut Germany’s nationally-owned transatlantic cables in 1914, an event that forced German diplomatic traffic to be routed through ‘neutral’ third parties. Britain used its sway to intercept German traffic, and with cryptological skills abetted by the provision of codebooks supplied by the Russians, started deciphering German messages. In February 1917, the British deciphered the Zimmermann Telegram, which had encouraged Mexico to join forces against the United States. When Zimmermann admitted the truth behind the cable telegram, public disgust brought the USA into the war.

Such an exposure encouraged experimentation with a rapidly developing wireless technology. (In Spycatcher, Peter Wright himself explained how, after World War I, his father assisted Marconi in convincing the British government that the beaming of short-wave wireless signals would be more effective than deploying long-wave technology as a means of linking the Empire.) In turn, as practices and understanding matured, that led to the important adoption of water-tight encryption mechanisms. Correspondingly, in the next two decades of peace, host governments tried to monitor such processes that originated on their home territory, by attempting to pick up open transmissions from the air, to set about decrypting them, and thus identifying possible hostile threats. The British project known as MASK, which detected Comintern traffic in London in the mid-thirties, was an example of such.

The advent of war, however, made a more spirited approach to trapping and prosecuting illicit wireless transmissions much more urgent. For example, at the outset of World War II, the British were fearful of the possibility of swarms of enemy wireless operators in their midst. They were initially not so scared about routine intelligence-gathering as they were about the (imaginary) menace of such spies using wireless to guide German bombers to their targets. The government also wanted to control the dissemination overseas of secret intelligence by conventional agencies. It made demands to foreign embassies and legations about being informed of wireless frequencies, and even call-signs, before giving approval for their use. Since a tacit understanding about reciprocal needs existed, governments often turned a blind eye to some technical breaches (such as the British with the Soviets, and the Swiss with the British). To monitor abuse of the airwaves, interception services then had to deploy enhanced wireless detection mechanisms to collect such clandestine messages, and maybe direction-finding/location-finding systems and vehicles to verify the source of such messages (as happened with the Soviet Embassy in London in 1942.) The elimination of any possibly overlooked German wireless agents was critical for the success of the Double-Cross system.

The UK government thus permitted the use of wireless transmitters on embassy premises only for Allies, while allowing, as a special case, the Polish and Czechoslovak governments-in-exile to have their own independent wireless stations, the Czech station in Woldingham, Surrey playing a very significant role. In the UK, all represented governments (including those in exile) clearly had a preference for using wireless rather than cable, in the belief that the traffic might not be picked up at all, and thus be more secure. The Soviet Union was in a unique position, as it was officially neither ally nor enemy from September 1939 until June 1941, but was hardly neutral, as it had, in that period been in a pact with Nazi Germany, and had aided the latter’s war effort against Great Britain. In those circumstances, it was supposed to use its wireless apparatus in the Embassy for diplomatic traffic only, and was instructed to inform His Majesty’s Government of frequencies and callsigns being used.   

Thus, when any embassy or legation in World War II wanted to send a ‘telegram’, it still maintained some level of choice. First, it had to deal with the local government, consider the regulations, and assess how strictly the rules were going to be enforced. Indeed, many such messages were enciphered, but still sent over private circuits. Copies were frequently taken by the local authorities, especially by those who (as with the USA) forbad the use of clandestine wireless by foreign governments. Indeed (as Romerstein and Breindel remind us in The Venona Secrets), in 1943 the US Federal Communications Commission detected illicit radio signals coming from the Soviet consulates in New York and San Francisco, and confiscated the apparatus. Consequently, the NKVD and GRU in the USA had to rely almost exclusively on commercial telegraph agencies to send their messages to Moscow. Likewise, all confidential traffic beyond the diplomatic bag that was sent back to Moscow by the embassy in Canberra, Australia (a vital VENONA source), was officially transmitted by commercial cable companies.

Romerstein’s and Breindel’s account corresponds in general with what NSA officers have written. Their statement is an echo of what appears in Benson’s and Warner’s history mentioned above. In that work’s Preface (p xii) appear the following sentences: “Although Soviet intelligence services had clandestine radio transmitters in diplomatic missions located in several American cities, these apparently were to be used only in emergencies. In consequence, KGB and GRU stations cabled their important messages over commercial telegraph lines and sent bulky reports and documents – including most of the information acquired by agents – in diplomatic pouches.”

Yet the FBI offers an intriguing twist to this story. In the archive of that institution (‘The Vault’) can be found some provocative assertions. An undated memorandum outlining considerations in using VENONA information in prosecutions (p 63) declares that ‘these Soviet messages are made up of telegrams and cables and radio messages sent between Soviet intelligence operators in the United States and Moscow.” While that is an implausible triad (cables and radio messages are both ‘telegrams’), it suggests a more complicated situation. And, on page 72, the writer measures, with some timidity, some political considerations, indicating that the Soviet Union might react in a hostile fashion to the news that the USA had been spying on its wartime ally, thus not acting ‘in good faith’. He writes: “ . . .  while no written record has been located in Bureau files to verify this it has been stated by NSA officials that during the war Soviet diplomats in the U.S. were granted permission to use Army radio facilities at the Pentagon to send messages to Moscow. It has been stated that President Roosevelt granted this permission and accompanied it with the promise to the Soviets that their messages would not be intercepted or interfered with by U.S. authorities.”

One can imagine the frequently naïve Roosevelt making an offer like this, but it is difficult to imagine that the wary Russians would take such an offer at face value, and have their cypher-clerks trek over to the Pentagon to send their material in the knowledge that it would probably be intercepted. Moreover, not all their traffic derived from Washington: New York and San Francisco were busy outlets. The item is undated, and apparently unconfirmed, and thus needs to be recorded as a footnote of questionable significance.

On the other hand, what is certain is that the Soviet Embassy in London breached the rules, even before Barbarossa, first of all by sending not just diplomatic traffic but also military and intelligence reports to Moscow on the acknowledged channels. Yet Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU), which was for a while the only functioning intelligence unit in the Soviet Embassy, as the NKVD officers had reputedly been recalled for almost all of 1940, went far beyond what was permitted in order to deceive surveillance mechanisms. I refer to a VENONA message of July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, which is titled ‘Setting up an illicit radio in the Soviet Embassy’. It unambiguously refers to apparatus sent over in the diplomatic bag, but without clear instructions, and requests more guidance on setting up the antenna. The GRU in London was trying to establish an alternative mechanism for transmission without informing its hosts, and, when the GRU rather absurdly suddenly were about to run out of one-time pads in August/September 1940, messages at that time specify that the ‘emergency system’ should be used. The emergency system was planned not just as a back-up procedure using a book-directed system for creating random keys (in place of the printed one-time pads), but as the deployment of an alternative wireless transmitter/receiver apparatus. (I analyse this phenomenon in more detail at the end of this report.)

To summarize, in the context of World War II: the pressures on combatants to prevent unauthorised intelligence from leaving the nation were intense. The distinction between the media was very important, as cables were finite, self-contained, and asynchronous, and could easily be collected by the host country. Wireless messages, on the other hand, were open, unconstrained, and always somewhat speculative, but required a sophisticated infrastructure just to be intercepted. Synchronicity was the goal with wireless, but was not always achieved: your target might not pick up your message and acknowledge it, or might receive it only partially. On the other hand, an unintended bystander might intercept it. Moreover, to circumvent the efforts of the authorities, units wanting to send intelligence back to their controllers would sometimes set up alternative wireless systems in secret, of which the local government had not been notified. I do not believe any analyst of VENONA has explained in detail how the respective traffic was transmitted or collected in each country, i.e. by cable, by authorised wireless, or by unauthorised wireless. Certainly, the experience – and opportunity – differed greatly for the British and American authorities.

VENONA & HASP

This confusion appears to have leaked into the VENONA-HASP muddle. In order to put the HASP phenomenon into the context of VENONA, I shall soon turn to the texts of Peter Wright, the primary source about HASP, and add detailed commentary on each passage. One of the difficult concepts to bear in mind with VERONA and HASP is that decryption (with the exception of the Australian intercepts) did not happen in real time. We are thus dealing with a process that attempted to decrypt messages that may have been transmitted two or three decades earlier, which were intercepted and stored at the time, but represent only a small percentage of the total messages that could have been theoretically available. Thus discontinuities and gaps are par for the course. Moreover, it is important to understand that the Soviets did not realise for several years that their systems had been exposed, and consequently did not rush to fix the problem. The fact of the breakthrough was revealed to the Soviets by the spies William Weisband and Kim Philby in 1949. Only then did the Soviets change their procedures, but they could do nothing about the historical traffic of 1940-48.

VENONA itself is a murky project filled with anomalies and unanswered questions, beyond the scope of analysis in this article. The set of facts that need to be borne in mind when considering HASP are the following:

  1. The key years of 1940 (when John Tiltman received a GRU code-book from the Finns); 1945 (when the damaged Soviet codebook gained at Petsamo was acquired by the USA, and when the GRU cypher-clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada); 1946 (when Meredith Gardner made the first major VENONA decryption); 1949 (when ex-Comintern wireless operator Alexander Foote revealed GRU techniques in Handbook for Spies); 1954 (when Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, Soviet cypher experts who had worked in Stockholm, defected in Australia); and 1959 (when the Swedes handed over HASP, the result of their decryption successes, to GCHQ and NSA).
  2. The GRU developed an auxiliary clandestine system to maintain secrecy. This consisted of a) an alternative method of using a secure one-time pad exploiting a reference book known to both parties (which could be used on the regular channel), and b) a separate wireless receiver-transmitter and protocols, not to be announced to the domestic authorities.
  3. In the USA and in Australia, the Soviet units used commercial cable channels almost exclusively. In Britain, all traffic was sent by wireless.

Wright on HASP

In 1987, Peter Wright (with the assistance of the journalist Paul Greengrass) published his best-selling work Spycatcher, an account of the efforts by the so-called ‘FLUENCY’ committee to identify a suspected mole in the senior ranks of MI5. Wright, who had been ‘chief technical officer’ within the service, was appointed chairman of the committee when it was set up in 1964. Because of the way the programme had unmasked figures such as Fuchs and Maclean, the disclosures from the VENONA project were viewed as possibly important providers of further breakthroughs. Yet successes with VENONA traffic had been slowing down in the early 1950s, and Wright stated that the project had come to a halt in 1954. A few years later a fresh injection gave the project new life. I do not intend to discuss the broader issues explored in Spycatcher: my focus is on a strict analysis of the passages where Wright writes about HASP.

Pp 185-187 [i] “In 1959, a new discovery was made which resuscitated VENONA again. GCHQ discovered that the Swedish Signals Intelligence Service had taken and stored a considerable amount of new wartime traffic, including some GRU radio messages sent to and from London during the early years of the war. “

Wright appears confused from the outset. He explicitly states that this traffic included messages that could be classified as ‘GRU’ and ‘radio’. But if this traffic had been stored, but not decrypted, how did the Swedish Service, or the receiving agency, GCHQ, know they were GRU exchanges until they were decrypted? Moreover, Wright states that these were radio messages sent ‘to and from London’. Does that mean between London and Stockholm or between London and Moscow? The suggestion could conceivably be the latter, as Stockholm would have been geographically well-situated to pick up messages targeted at Moscow, and there would be little reason for the GRU station in London to communicate with its Swedish counterpart (although a few such messages do exist in the archive). Why the Swedes would be interested, however, in intercepting and storing traffic that did not concern them directly is a puzzle in its own way. As an added complication, Fred. B. Wrixon, in his Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communications, states that the Swedes ‘had intercepted some GRU radio exchanges between agents [sic: my italics] in Great Britain and their headquarters in the Soviet Union’, (p 118), and that GCHQ gave the name HASP to the project to decipher them. Wrixon’s source is not stated. How Wrixon derived this information is not clear, but it eerily echoes one of Wright’s more outlandish caprices.

Did Wright mislead his readers, whether intentionally or not? I think so. His assertion about the nature of the traffic appears to be contradicted by Nigel West, who, in Venona, on page 120, presents an alternative explanation. He writes: “ . . . in 1959 the Swedish National Defence Radio Institute (Forsvarets Radioanstalt, FRA,) revealed that it had retained copies of a vast quantity of the Stockholm-Moscow traffic and negotiated with GCHQ to release its archive to the NSA via Cheltenham. This was the batch of intercepts codenamed HASP, and, bearing in mind that some of these texts had been encoded and signed by Petrov, there must have been a great temptation to confront him with them – if only to tax his memory by seeking clues to the missing, unrecovered groups.” West further explains that when the HASP material became available, ‘two 1945 VENONA intercepts from the Stockholm embassy, dated 16 July and 21 September, showed that Petrov, then codenamed SEAMAN, had been the personal cipher-clerk to two rezidents, first Mrs Yartseva, then Vasili F. Razin. However, their experience in Sweden had not prepared the Petrovs for the atmosphere of intrigue in Canberra.”

Thus West makes a very clear connection between traffic obtained locally in Sweden and the defection of Petrov and his wife in April 1954, and suggests, moreover, that HASP material was exclusively Stockholm-Moscow traffic. This is markedly in contrast to Wright’s representation. Yet West does not explain what the relationship was between the HASP and the VENONA material, how the former helped the GCHQ cryptanalysts, or where he derived his information. He refers to intercepts, but were these raw encrypted data, or partially decrypted texts – or both? The logic is very elusive, since the HASP messages are not separately identifiable, but it would appear that additional information enabled the cryptonym MORYAK (SEAMAN), as a key member of the Soviet embassy in Stockholm, to be identified as Petrov. And indeed, the source telegrams confirm Petrov’s statements from the memoir that he and his wife published in 1956.

The message of July 16 can be seen at: https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1945/16jul_cipher_text_seaman.pdf, but the VENONA records of September 21 appear to contain no Moscow-Stockholm traffic. Nevertheless, the identity of SEAMAN can be confirmed from earlier traffic from Stockholm to Moscow, when Petrov was working in Moscow (see telegrams No. 797, of September 6, 1941, and No. 821, of April 30, 1942), before the Petrovs’ dramatic seven-month journey to Stockholm, via Siberia, South Africa, and Great Britain.

A significant distinction between the respective descriptions of HASP by Wright and West can thus be seen, with West, to support his cause, providing more tangible evidence of what the traffic contained. The account of another historian, Christopher Andrew, would appear to reinforce West’s description, although without actually mentioning HASP. On page 380 of Defend the Realm, Andrew writes: “Following requests during 1960, the Swedes supplied copies of wartime GRU telegrams exchanged between Moscow and the Stockholm residency, some of which were discovered to have employed the same one-time pads used in hitherto unbroken traffic with London. One hundred and seventy-eight GRU messages from the period March 1940 to April 1942 were successfully decrypted in whole or part.” Andrew’s message is explicit: these messages were not London-Stockholm traffic, but Stockholm-Moscow messages that the Swedes had apparently enjoyed some success in decrypting. His log of successful decryption applies to London-Moscow traffic, however, the suggestion being that both sets of traffic used the same one-time pads, and that no progress had been made by GCHQ on the London messages beforehand.

Moreover, what does that strange, anonymous notion behind ‘requests’ indicate? How did the ‘requestor’ learn about them? What was the crypto-analytical expertise of the Swedes, and had they previously shared experiences with GCHQ and NSA? The certain implication here is that the FRA had successfully deciphered some local GRU traffic, as West informed us. Yet it was not the messages themselves that were of relevance to GCHQ’s investigations, but a suggestion that the process of using stale one-time pads had been deployed, and that the revelations from these could be applied to traffic that the GCHQ possessed, but had been unable to break. This insight from Andrew (the source is the typically useless ‘Secret Service Archives’ from the authorised ‘historian’), and his immediately following comments, will turn out to be critical in working out what happened. It should also be noted that Andrew specifically contradicts Wright’s description of the essence of HASP, yet, with characteristic unscholarliness, includes Spycatcher in his bibliography.

Andrew’s failure to specify explicitly whether these one-time pads were the conventional set of random numbers created and printed by the KGB, or the alternative ‘reference-book’ mechanism used as a back-up system, is a critical oversight. I note also that this notion of ‘re-use’ suggests that deploying the same conventional pads across different intelligence stations was as much against the rules as was the ‘re-use’ over time of pads by a single pair of stations. Alternatively, it could mean that London-Moscow and Stockholm-Moscow both used the same reference-book in their emergency systems. In any case, this ‘re-use’ evidently occurred in 1940, well before the much publicized year of 1943 described in the VENONA histories as the time when the first infraction occurred. Andrew provides no guidance for his readers.

[ii] “GCHQ persuaded the Swedes to relinquish their neutrality, and pass the material over for analysis. The discovery of the Swedish HASP material was one of the main reasons for Arthur’s [Arthur Martin’s] return to D1. He was one of the few officers inside MI5 with direct experience of VENONA, having worked intimately with it during the Fuchs and Maclean investigations.

            There were high hopes that HASP would transform VENONA by providing more intelligence about unknown cryptonyms and, just as important, by providing more groups for the codebook, which would, in turn, lead to further breaks in VENONA material already held.

The first point here is a reminder of Sweden’s neutrality – not just during World War II, but during the Cold War, when it was not a member of NATO. Like Portugal and Switzerland, Sweden had been abuzz with spies during World War II, and its proximity to the northern ports of German-occupied Poland and the Baltic States meant that Stockholm was well-positioned to supply information on German naval capabilities, repairs, etc. Hence the feverish wireless communications with Moscow. Moreover, that neutrality apparently endured, so that Sweden would not have been a natural sharer of decryption techniques with NATO members. Yet Sweden was not ‘neutral’ enough to be free of suspicions about Soviet intentions, and thus pursued its own program of trying to gather wireless intelligence.

In Venona, Nigel West relates how the Swedes collaborated with the more advanced, cryptanalytically speaking, Finns, who had provided the American with highly useful aids when they handed over the partially burned Petsamo codebooks that had been retrieved from the Soviet consulate in June 1941. And, no doubt, informal links were in place between the Swedes and the British, as Wright’s text suggests. West even indicates that the Finns managed to understand how the Soviets ‘built code-tables and relied on a very straightforward mathematical formula to encode emergency signals’, but it is not clear exactly how this happened, or whether the lessons learned applied to the GRU as well as to the NKVD.

Yet one overlooked event was John Tiltman’s acquisition of a GRU code-book retrieved from the body of a Soviet officer in1940. On Page 372 of his history of SIS, Keith Jeffery wrote: “In January 1940 Menzies asked Carr to find out if the Finnish authorities had ‘procured any Soviet cryptographic material which could be communicated to us’. Carr immediately replied in the affirmative and it was arranged that Colonel John Tiltman of GC&CS should travel out to Finland, where he was presented by Hallamaa with a Red Army code-book taken off a dead Russian officer and which ‘bore the marks of a bullet. GC&CS noted afterwards that it had been ‘of real assistance’ to their cryptographers.” It does not seem that this contribution, which predated the official recognition of the Petsamo code-book by five years, has ever been recognized in the few accounts of VENONA decipherment that exist.

Wright’s suggestion here, however, is that HASP was, in essence, different from traditional VENONA, although it is not immediately obvious in what manner. The implication is that HASP would share much with the VENONA traffic, such as the use of the same codebook (the reference by which otherwise meaningless sequences of numbers represented terms, functions, identities of persons, countries, institutions, etc., sometimes known as a nomenclator).  The studies of VENONA tell us that the different functions of Soviet commercial organisations and intelligence (Amtorg, NKVD, GRU, Naval GRU and Foreign Ministry) used different code-books, and thus breakthroughs in one area did not mean that other successes naturally followed. For instance, all departments referred to the Germans as ‘KOLBASNIKI’ (’SAUSAGE-DEALERS’), but in the NKVD book, that word could have been represented as, say, ‘1146’, and in that of the GRU, ‘9452’.

This system was all independent of one-time pads for further encryption. Yet, if Andrew’s description is correct, Wright’s concluding sentence in this extract makes more sense. If the Swedes had managed to make inroads into the GRU codebook from the analysis of their local messages, that experience would transfer directly to the British study of GRU traffic. The emphasis on ‘VENONA material already held’ is telling. Wright is starting to backtrack from his original characterisation.

[iii] Moreover, since powerful new computers were becoming available, it made sense to reopen the whole program (I was never convinced that the effort should have been dropped in the 1950s), and the pace gradually increased, with vigorous encouragement by Arthur, through the early 1960s.

            In fact, there were no great immediate discoveries in the HASP material which related to Britain. Most of the material consisted of routine reports from GRU offices of bomb damage in various parts of Britain, and estimates of British military capability. There were dozens of cryptonyms, some of whom were interesting, but long since dead. J. B. S. Haldane, for instance, who was working in the Admiralty’s submarine experimental station at Haslar, researching into deep diving techniques, was supplying details of the programs to the CPGB, who were passing it on to the GRU in London. Another spy identified in the traffic was the Honourable Owen Montagu, the son of Lord Swaythling (not to be confused with Euan Montagu, who organized the celebrated ‘Man Who Never Was’ deception operation during the war). He was a freelance journalist, and from the traffic it was clear that he was used by the Russians to collect political intelligence in the Labour Party, and to a lesser degree the CPGB.

Some of this is puzzling. Unfortunately, a detailed history of the evolutionary progress of the VENONA decrypts is not possible, based solely on the selection of documents released. As West writes in his Introduction: “Whereas the American policy appears to have provided a measure of protection to the living, being those suspected Soviet sources who were never positively identified or confronted with the allegations, their British partners seem to have adopted political embarrassment as their principal criterion for eliminating sensitive names. The only other deliberate excision in the declassified documents is the consistent removal throughout of all references to the first date of circulation. Each VENONA text is marked with the last, and therefore most recent, distribution, but it is impossible to determine precisely when the first break in a particular message was achieved, or to chart the subsequent program of the cryptographers.”

Overall, West’s statement is accurate, although some decrypts (such as those on BARON) do reveal a series of release dates, and others have had the issuance date deleted. Unfortunately, many of the critical items related to HASP, such as the discovery of the X Group, have no release dates at all, so it is impossible to determine how much of the messages had been decrypted before the contribution of the HASP codewords – and code-book. Wright’s seemingly authoritative view is that the project was suspended in the early 1950s, and then reactivated at the end of the decade, but the redacted (or concealed) data on the issuance of new decrypts does allow us to create only a very partial evolution of texts through time.

All this information described by Wright appeared as original VENONA material when described by West in Venona (pp 62-63), and it can clearly be traced by studying the on-line archive. So why does Wright revert to ‘the HASP material which related to Britain’? He appears to be going back to his initial position, that HASP consisted of traffic intercepted by the Swedes. That might have reinforced the idea that HASP was a motley set of messages that included local Stockholm-Moscow GRU/KGB traffic as well as interceptions of wireless messages between London and Moscow – and maybe more. Yet that scenario continues to look unlikely. And if these reports were ‘routine’, presumably familiar through VENONA messages already deciphered, why did Wright not say so?

J B S Haldane

Furthermore, he introduces Haldane and Montagu as if their appearance were no surprise, and not scandalous. Haldane’s cryptonym was INTELLECTUAL and Montague’s NOBILITY: when did Wright learn that? The appearance of these cryptonyms would not have been ‘routine’ if this was the first occurrence, and their identities were not known. In fact, it would have been a stunning discovery to learn that one of Britain’s most respected scientists was a named spy. The fact that they were dead was irrelevant – except when it came to GCHQ’s heightened protectiveness about references to hallowed public figures, and maybe to their survivors. Wright’s manner here is astonishingly casual.

It does not help that Nigel West (pp 75-81) presents the discoveries about Group X and Haldane as standard VENONA traffic without mentioning any contribution from HASP. He confidently identifies INTELLIGENTSIA as J. B. S. Haldane, and NOBILITY as the Honourable Ivor Montagu. After all, West’s understanding of HASP was that it concerned Stockholm-Moscow traffic: he writes that the arrival of HASP allowed the project to ‘be put back into gear’, but does not explain how that happened. West provides a lot of useful and fascinating information about Haldane’s background and activities, but (for example) sheds no light on how the decryption of the codeword INTELLECTUAL took place.

Christopher Andrew, however, is more explicit on this portion of the traffic, although he, too, still does not mention HASP, and the description of it as ‘new’ VENONA is misleading and unfortunate. “The main discovery from this new VENONA source was the existence of a wartime GRU agent network in Britain codenamed the ‘X Group’, which was active by, if not before, 1940. The identity of the leader of the Group, or at least its chief contact with the GRU London residency, codenamed INTELLIGENTSIA, was revealed in a decrypted telegram to Moscow on 25 July 1940 from his case officer as one of the CPGB’s wealthiest and most aristocratic members . . .” Thereafter, Andrew rather surprisingly goes on to identify INTELLIGENTSIA as Ivor Montagu, instead of ‘Montagu’s friend’, J. B. S. Haldane. In an endnote (p 926, No 81), Andrew states that ‘West misidentifies NOBILITY as Ivor Montagu and INTELLIGENTSIA as Haldane’, but provides no argument for this. Certainly the meaning of the two cryptonyms would appear to suit West’s interpretation better.

In 2012, Nigel West amplified his previous analysis in the Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, where he added further detail: “. . .  this unexpected windfall consisted of 390 partially deciphered messages, exchanged with Moscow between December 1940 and April 1446 [sic!]. The FRA had succeeded, as early as 1947, in reading a few messages, and between 1957 and 1959, some 53 texts were broken out. Information identifying individual Soviet spies had then been passed to the Allmänna Säkerhetstjänsten (General Security Service), which conducted investigations that effectively neutralized them without compromising the source.”

Apart from the vagueness of such terms as ‘broken out’ (does that mean complete decryption?), such level of detail is impressive, and authoritative-sounding, and West piled on the authenticity by naming eighty NKVD cryptonyms that provided ‘depth’ to the VENONA cryptanalytical process, including names that would carry import for the Washington and London operations, such as DORA, EDWARD, FROST, GROMOV, and  LEAF. West then listed an even longer array of GRU codenames, nearly all unfamiliar to me. But he did explain that, in August 1942, Lennart Katz ‘a source run by a contact working under diplomatic cover named Scheptkov, was arrested’, and provided further leads. It sounds as if West had access to insider information (Venona provides an Acknowledgement to ‘Stefan Burgland and some others who prefer to remain anonymous’), and that those arrested may have been able to provide insights on the ciphers and codes used. Moscow, however, appeared not to have worked out what was going on, and how so many of its spies had been detected.

[iv] The extraordinary thing about the GRU traffic was the comparison with the KGB traffic four years later. The GRU officers in 1940 and 1941 were clearly of low caliber, demoralized and running around like headless chickens in the wake of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. By 1945 they had given way to a new breed of professional Russian intelligence officers like Krotov. The entire agent-running procedure was clearly highly-skilled and pragmatic. Great care was being taken to protect agents for their long-term use. Where there seemed poor discipline in the GRU procedures, by 1945 the traffic showed that control was exerted from Moscow Center, and comparisons between KGB and Ambassadorial channels demonstrated quite clearly the importance the KGB had inside the Russian State. This, in a sense, was the most enduring legacy of the VENONA break – the glimpse it gave us of the vast KGB machine, with networks all across the West, ready for the Cold War as the West prepared for peace.”

This section is mostly irrelevant to the quest. It is difficult to discern what Wright is talking about when he does not provide samples of the messages. The KGB’s operation in London was (we have been told by several experts) suspended for nearly all of 1940, so the GRU was the only game in town. And these ‘headless chickens’ did manage to recruit Klaus Fuchs, and manage a ring of useful scientists, such as Haldane. What he may have been alluding to was the somewhat casual way that information was supplied in telegrams, but that would have been more a case of insufficiently well trained officers, cipher clerks, and wireless operators – which were evidently in short supply at the beginning of the war –  rather than the quality of those who recruited and handled British agents. Kremer’s struggles with setting up the alternative wireless link may be an example of what Wright was thinking of.

Pp 238-239      “Lastly there was the VENONA material – by far the most reliable intelligence of all on past penetration of Western security. After Arthur [Martin] left I took over the VENONA program, and commissioned yet another full-scale review of the material to see if new leads could be gathered. This was to lead to the first D-3 generated case, ironically a French rather than a British one. The HASP GRU material, dating from 1940 and 1941, contained a lot of information about Soviet penetration of the various émigré and nationalist movements who made their headquarters in London during the first years of the war. The Russians, for instance, had a prime source in the heart of the Free Czechoslovakian Intelligence Service, which ran its own networks in German-occupied Eastern Europe via couriers. The Soviet source had the cryptonym Baron, and was probably the Czech politician Sedlecek [sic], who later played a prominent role in the Lucy Ring in Switzerland.”

Wright’s restricting of the ‘HASP GRU material’ to 1940 and 1941 is provocative, not solely because he now seems to be classifying HASP material as GRU messages collected locally. Is the temporal phrase ‘dating from 1940 and 1941’ merely adding chronology for the full scope of the material, or is it a qualifying phrase that subdefines a portion of it? The parenthesis, separated by commas, suggests to me the former, namely ‘the only GRU material that can properly be classified as HASP is that of 1940 and 1941’. Yet we have no way of knowing what GRU material had been attacked, and partially decrypted, before 1960, apart from various clues provided by the ‘experts’.

The rubric around the published VENONA messages is disappointingly vague. Yet there appears to be some discernible order behind the numbering scheme. In my analysis of the traffic between March 1940 and August 1941 (the last date in that year for which a message from London to Moscow has been published), I counted 137 L-to-M messages, with the first numbered (by the GRU) as No. 120, and the last as No. 2311. Yet a countback to zero seemed to occur at the beginning of each year. The last listed in December 1940 is No. 1424, while the first listed for 1941, on January 16, is No. 83. Thus one might assume that well over 4,000 messages were sent by the London station in those two years.

The Moscow to London traffic is sparser, with only 18 messages listed. The last calendar entry present for 1940 is from September 21, numbered as 482, so it would appear that Moscow was not so active sending messages to London, although the record would suggest that the combination of RSS (Radio Security Service) and GC&CS was picking up far fewer inbound messages, both in aggregate and proportionately, than it was outbound. But that could also be explained by a far smaller proportion of inbound messages being (partially) decrypted, or even a larger amount being for some reason concealed.

These numbers correspond closely with what Andrew has written (see above), where he refers to 178 messages between the period March 1940 and March 1942. Yet the autumn/winter of 1941/42 was clearly a period where activity of some sort (number of transmissions, number of interceptions, number of partial decryptions, number of released decryptions!) declined rapidly, and this is such a controversial aspect of the whole business that I shall return to it after completing my analysis of Wright’s text.

As for the remainder of this passage, the information, again, is not breathtaking, but Wright, alongside his rather laid-back commentary on Sedlacek [sic], does suggest by his comments that GCHQ had decrypted nothing on the Czechoslovak agent before the HASP project came along. Sedlacek [BARON] was a familiar figure in the VENONA traffic (see West, pp 67-69), and he played a dangerous game spying for the Swiss, the Czechs, the Russians – and the British, who later supplied him with a passport under the name of Simpson so that he could enter Switzerland and contribute to the Lucy Ring. Again, Andrew differs in his analysis of BARON, quoting (page 926, Note 82) an unnamed MI5 officer as saying, in 1997, that no serious attempts had been made to identify him. Why anyone would expect an MI5 (or MI6) officer to be open and straightforward about such a controversial figure as Sedlacek (if indeed that was who he was) is puzzling. Andrew attempts to reinforce his argument by noting that the NSA regards BARON as unidentified, but interest in these local European matters is unsurprisingly muted on that side of the Atlantic.

BARON indeed figures prominently in these messages: he was potentially very useful to Moscow as he was clearly passing on, in the run-up to Barbarossa, information about German troop movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, gained via his contacts around Prague who were transmitting information to him via Woldingham. I write ‘potentially’ because, of course, Stalin ignored all intelligence about the German invasion as ‘provocation’.

P 374-375 [i] “There had recently been a small breakthrough in the existing traffic which had given cause for hope. Geoffrey Sudbury was working on part of the HASP material which had never been broken out. Advanced computer analysis revealed that this particular traffic was not genuine VENONA. It did not appear to have been enciphered using a one-time pad, and from the nonrandom distribution of the groups, Sudbury hazarded a guess that it had been enciphered using some kind of directory.

This, again, is distressingly vague. By alluding to ‘HASP material that had never been broken out’, Wright again gives the impression that HASP was a collection of London-to-Moscow (or Moscow-to-London) communications. Why would Sudbury work on native Swedish transmissions? Presumably, ‘genuine VENONA’ to Wright was traffic that had become decipherable because the Soviets, under pressure, disastrously re-used one of their one-time pads. Distributing fresh pads was an enormous task in war-time, so the London-Moscow GRU link may have resorted to a different system whereby page-numbers and word-numbers in a shared book were used for encipherment schemes. Such a mechanism was essential for any transmission activity by clandestine agents, where the problems of distribution and security with one-time pads would have been insuperable. Leo Marks composed easily memorable verses for use in the field by SOE agents: the GRU used statistical almanacs for in-house use.

On the surface, Wright’s description of Sudbury’s analysis would appear, however, to be reinforced by the few accounts of GRU espionage that we have. A classical description of the use of one-time pads has the original cleartext (the passage in native language) immediately processed by a portion of the one-time pad, normally the next page, which would then be destroyed. In many accounts of the Soviet system (e.g. James Gannon’s Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies), that was the only method. Yet some accounts indicate that the GRU used a different process of encipherment. Benson’s in-house history of the NSA informs us that Igor Gouzenko described the method during his interview by Frank Rowlett in October 1945, when he revealed the back-up system of using a shared reference book in place of classical one-time pads. (Oddly, in his CIA report, Cecil Phillips, who assisted Nigel West in his researches, elides over this aspect of Gouzenko’s contribution.) In Appendix A to his 1949 book, Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote (the Briton who was trained by SONIA as a wireless operator for the GRU in Switzerland) explains how a keyword of six letters, ‘changed at intervals by the Centre’ (and thus presumably communicated in later messages) was first used to translate the letters of the alphabet into a set of apparently meaningless numbers. Further manipulation transformed the text into five-figure groups – not yet a very secure encipherment.

Then came the ‘one-time’ aspect of the GRU’s process – but it was not through the use of a ‘pad’. Messages were then further processed by a function known as ‘closing’. Foote explained that, after the first stage of encipherment, he had to ‘close’ the message ‘by re-enciphering it against the selected portion of the “code book”’. (This ‘code-book, or ‘dictionary’ is a different entity from the ‘codebook’ that contained numeric representations of common terms.) This was a mechanism whereby a passage in a book owned by both parties was referred to by page and line number in order to identify a sequence of characters to be used to encipher a text one stage further. Max Clausen used a similar technique when enciphering for Richard Sorge, another GRU agent, in Japan. Foote said that he used ‘a Swiss book of trade statistics’:  David Kahn writes that Clausen used the 1935 edition of the Statistiches Jahrbuch für das deutsche Reich. Thus, for the GRU, the one-time pad was not a miniature printed guide that could be easily destroyed, but an accessible but otherwise anonymous volume that could be used by both ends of the communication. (Christopher Andrew’s claim that the Stockholm residency and the London residency employed the same one-time pads is thus probably not true: they almost certainly used the same – or a similar – reference work, however.) Sudbury had indeed hit upon the truth, and a directory was at work. This is what must be meant by ‘not genuine VENONA’.

What should also be recorded on this topic is the claim that Richard V. Hall makes in his ineptly titled but engrossing study of Wright and the Spycatcher trial, A Spy’s Revenge, that Wright acted as a ghost writer on Handbook for Spies. Since Wright was still working at the Admiralty Research Station in 1949, and did not join MI5 until 1955, this claim should be viewed circumspectly. If true, Wright’s apparent unawareness, in 1970, of GRU enciphering techniques is even more inexcusable.

[ii] We began the search in the British Library, and eventually found a book of trade statistics from the 1930s which fitted.

At first glance, this represents an enormous leap of faith. From ‘some kind of directory’ to stumbling on a book of trade statistics, with the implication that many others had been tested and found wanting first? Can it really be believed? That that is how the process worked, and that cryptologists would stumble on the right book? They must surely have been able to exploit a message that described the volume to be used, or gained a tip from someone. Suddenly, Alexander Foote’s hint of a ‘Swiss book of trade statistics’ takes on new significance. Wright echoes Foote’s words almost completely. Foote had died in 1956 (somewhat mysteriously: I am sure that Moscow’s ‘Special Tasks’ team was after him), but was surely interviewed on these matters at length by MI5 and GCHQ before he died.

Thus the dominant reaction should be: why on earth were Sudbury and Wright not familiar with Foote’s publication? It seems quite possible that they arrived at this conclusion by other means – namely what the Petrovs told them, and how Vladimir’s overall cryptological skills and knowledge, and particularly Yevdokia’s experiences as a NKVD cipher-clerk in Stockholm, benefitted the FRA, and in turn helped GCHQ. Yevdokia had worked for the GRU in her first eighteen months with OGPU, so she may have had some insight into its coding techniques.

After their post-war assignment in Stockholm, Vladimir Petrov and his wife had arrived in Australia in 1951, and decided to defect in 1954. Nigel West writes that Evdokia ‘was debriefed by western intelligence personnel, among them MI5’s George Leggett, who travelled to Australia after the couple had been resettled on their chicken-farm . . .’ Yet what Evdokia told them has not been disclosed. Was she responsible for GRU coding and encipherment, as well as that of the NKVD/MGB/KGB? Almost certainly not, but if so, she might have been able to inform the Swedes of such items as the name of the code-book (dictionary) used, and they thus were able to make some progress on the texts they had stored before the British did anything. If she had no involvement with the GRU, she might have been able to indicate the type of research volume that was used, and repeated efforts by Sudbury on the few relevant books of trade statistics in the British Library must have eventually borne fruit. Wright’s claim becomes clearer. It looks, however, as if the Swedes kept their project to themselves until 1959, when, for some reason, an informal link must have been elevated to an official communication.

[iii]  Overnight a huge chunk of HASP traffic was broken. The GRU traffic was similar to much that we had already broken. But there was one set of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Center, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner, Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski [sic].

This is very dramatic – ‘overnight’, but, again, Wright dissembles and confuses. If the traffic was suddenly ‘broken’, he suggests that ‘HASP’ was in the hands of GCHQ already, but in a poor state of decryption.  Now, HASP appears to mean ‘GRU traffic derived from both Stockholm and London’. But why next characterise it as ‘the GRU traffic’ – what else could it be? And what does ‘similar to’ mean? Were they the same messages, enciphered differently? Was there really nothing new in them worth recording? And his reference to ‘one set of messages’ is also ambiguous. He gives the impression that this was a new trove of London-Moscow traffic supplied by the Swedes, when we now know that that cannot be true.

Certainly, one meeting between Sonia and her handler is recorded in the VENONA transcripts, dated July 31, 1941. The full item appears as follows:

“From London to Moscow: No.2043, 31 July 1941

IRIS had meeting with SONIA on July 30. Sonia reported (15 groups unrecovered):

Salary for 7 months: 406

John:  195

?? from abroad:  116

Expenditure on apparatus (radio and microdots):  105

?? Expenditure:  55

She played [broadcast] on 26, 27, 28 and 29 July at 2400, 0100, 0200 hours  . . . but did not receive you. BRION

(Comments by translator: IRIS probably a woman, IRIS means either the flower, or a kind of toffee. Unlikely choice for covername. JOHN probably Leon BUERTON [sic] BRION probably SHVETSOV, Assistant Military Attaché.)”

Yet the handler here is not Kremer: IRIS is probably Leo Aptekar, a GRU officer registered as a chauffeur at the Embassy. The annotation here about BRION is wrong: BRION has been confidently identified in the Vassiliev Notebooks as Colonel Sklyarov, for whom Kremer worked. Wright (and the VENONA website) identify Kremer as the rezident, i.e. senior GRU officer in London, but that does not appear to be the case. In Venona (1999), Nigel West described Kremer as being Sklyarov’s secretary, but in his 2014 Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, West declares that the position was a cover for his ‘residency’, citing Krivitsky’s warning about him from 1940. Gary Kern (the biographer of Krivitsky) reflects, however, on the fact that others claim that Sklyarov was the boss. My analysis suggest that Sklyarov may have been brought in because Kremer was struggling, and Kremer then probably reported to Sklyarov after the latter arrived in October 1940. After all, Kremer turned out to be an unsuccessful cut-out for Fuchs, a role he would have hardly attempted had he been head-of-station. This is Pincher’s conclusion, too.

Sandor Rado (DORA) & I. A. Sklyarov (BRION)

One of the irritating aspects of the Venona archive, as published, is that identification of codenames switches from page to page, and the identification of BRION is one such casualty, with the annotators not being able to make up their minds between Sklyarov and Shvetsov. Vladimir Lota, in his ‘Sekretny Front General’novo Shtaba’ (Moscow 2005), confirms that BRION was Sklyarov, and offers a photograph of the officer (see above). West selects one VENONA annotator’s analysis that the reporting officer was Shvetsov, but informs us that Shvetsov died in an air accident in 1942. (The source of this is not clear. The Petrovs record that the family of an unnamed London military attaché died in transit from Aberdeen to Stockholm in 1943, when the plane was shot down over Swedish territory by German aircraft, but suggest that the attaché himself was not on board. See Yuri and Evdokia Petrov’s Empire of Fear, p 165).

As for Kremer, Mike Rossiter, the author of a biography of Klaus Fuchs, writes that he returned to Moscow in 1941, while West indicates that he remained in London throughout the war. Thus it is quite possible that Kremer composed reports on Sklyarov’s behalf, although his role had hitherto been as a courier. It was he who met Fuchs in August 1941, and he was Fuchs’s courier until the latter found he could not work with him, whereupon Fuchs was handed over to Sonia in the late summer of 1942. Kremer was also handling members of the X Group, so it seems unlikely that, at the same time that Kremer was regularly meeting Fuchs, he would also be meeting Sonia frequently, and then writing up the reports for Moscow.

The VENONA London GRU Traffic archive informs us that Kremer [BARCh]  ‘was appointed in 1937 and is thought to have left sometime in 1946. The covername BARCh occurs as a LONDON addressee and signatory between 3rd March 1940 and XXth October 1940, after which it is superseded by the covername BRION.’ (This analysis relies on the surviving VENONA traffic only, of course.) BRION first appears as a signatory or addressee on October 11, 1940. Thus the HASP traffic might provide evidence that Kremer was still active, as courier or signatory, or both, or, alternatively, the VENONA records might throw doubt on Wright’s claims about HASP. All three officers (Kremer, Sklyarov, Shvetsov) were active in London on June 7, 1941, as they are all cited as donating part of their salaries to the Soviet government.

The bottom line on Wright’s observations is that we are faced with another paradox. Apart from the fact that no trace of the ‘set of messages’ exists (why not, if they were solved overnight?), the association of Kremer with Sonia is very flimsy. The instance above is the sole surviving message in the VENONA archive that mentions SONIA. Wright’s account would imply the following: Apparently out of frustration with the fact that her transmissions received no response from Moscow, Sonia managed to contact the Embassy, and to meet her handler within a day or so. Sklyarov reported this event. At some stage afterwards, she was transferred to Kremer, who, apart from handling Fuchs, now had occasion to meet Sonia several times, and to make reports that he signed and sent himself. Yet the official archive informs us that Kremer stopped signing messages himself before Sonia even arrived in the United Kingdom.

What is also noteworthy is that Wright makes no comment about Sonia’s ability to escape radio detection-finding at this stage. If Sonia, as Kremer had recorded, had been transmitting for four successive nights, and had not been detected by RSS, one might have expected him, as a senior MI5 officer, to have reflected, at least, on her success in remaining undetected. He appears, at this stage, not to subscribe to the Chapman Pincher theory that Roger Hollis was able to interfere in the process; neither does he show any awareness that the proximity of Sonia’s home near Kidlington Airport might have masked her transmissions – which would admittedly have been a remarkable insight for that time. (It is probable that Sonia, and her husband, Len Beurton, adopted call-signs and preambles that made their traffic look, superficially, like British military signals, and that, should any remote direction-finding have taken place, the traffic’s origins would have been assumed to have been Kidlington airport itself.)

[iv] The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian Intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944.

Apart from an evasive non sequitur (the connection was held to be tenuous, but MI5 accepted that Sonia became active with Fuchs in 1944, a very solid interrelation), Wright enters dangerous territory here, with a vague and undated summary of what ‘MI5 tended to believe’. Fuchs, of course, volunteered his services in 1941, not 1944, and was in the United States throughout all of 1944. Yet Wright’s lapsus calami may reveal a deeper discomfort, in that he utterly misrepresents the pattern of events. According to the archives, after Alexander Foote had spilled the beans on Sonia’s activities in 1947, MI5 strongly suspected that Sonia had been working for the GRU in the UK. They were ready (or pretended to be so) to haul her in for questioning on the Fuchs case as early as February, 1950, before his trial was even over, apparently unaware that she had already fled the country! (The service probably connived at her speedy escape.) The Fuchs archive at Kew shows that in November 1950, and again in December, Fuchs, from prison, viewed photographs and recognized Sonia as his second contact. Wright was either hopelessly uninformed, or acting completely disingenuously.

[v] In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943.

            But Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs. They showed that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the time and durations of her own radio broadcasts. I thought bitterly of the way this new information might have influenced Hollis’ interrogation had we had the material in 1969.

The statement attributed to GCHQ, if it indeed was made – and Wright provides no reference – needs parsing very carefully. We should bear in mind that no GCHQ spokesperson may have uttered these words, or that, if someone did state something approximating their meaning, Wright may have misremembered them. He provides no reference, no date, no name for the speaker.

First of all, Sonia’s home. She had, in fact at least four residences during this period, but, if we restrict her domiciles to those where she lived after she became active, probably in June 1941, we have Kidlington (from that June) and Summertown (from August 1942). Summertown was in Oxford, not near it. Thus a reference to ‘her home’ expresses lack of familiarity with the facts. ‘Only radio messages’ is perplexing. Does it mean ‘only those radio messages sent from her home?’, thus suggesting she could have sent messages from elsewhere? Maybe, but perhaps it was just a clumsy insertion by Wright. The omniscience that lies behind the denial, however, expresses a confidence that cannot be borne out by the facts.

It would have been less controversial for GCHQ simply to make the claim that no unidentifiable illicit broadcasts had been detected, and that Sonia must therefore have been inactive. But it did not. It introduced a level of specificity that undermined its case. It suggested that Sonia might have been broadcasting, but not from her home. If Sonia had been using her set, and followed the practices of the most astute SOE agents in Europe (who never transmitted from the same location twice – quite a considerable feat when porting a heavy apparatus, and re-setting up the antenna), she would likewise have moved around.

For GCHQ to be able to deny that Sonia had been able to broadcast would mean that it had 100% confidence that RSS had been able to detect all illicit traffic originating in the area, and that, furthermore, they knew the co-ordinates of Sonia’s residence at that time. Thus the following steps would have had to be taken:

  1. All illicit or suspicious wireless broadcasts had been detected by RSS;
  2. All those that could not have been accounted for were investigated;
  3. Successful triangulation (direction-finding) of all such signals had taken place to localise the source;
  4. Mobile location-finding units had been sent out to investigate all transgressions;
  5. Such units found that all the illicit stations were still broadcasting (on the same wave-length and with the identical callsign, presumably);
  6. All the offending transmitters were detected, and none was found to be Sonia’s.

Apart from the fact that transmissions from Kidlington were masked by proximity to the airport, and Sonia’s traffic concealed to resemble military messages, GCHQ’s assertion requires an impossible set of circumstances: that, if and when Sonia had broadcast, the location of the transmitter would have been known immediately, and the RSS would have been able to conclude  that the signals could not be coming from Sonia’s residence. That was not possible. No country’s technology at that time allowed instant identification of the precise location of a transmission. Not even groundwave detection was reliable enough to ‘pin-point’ the source of a signal to the geography of a city, even. Reports and transcriptions of suspicious messages were mailed by Voluntary Interceptors to the RSS HQ at Arkley View, in Barnet! Sonia would have had to broadcast for over twenty-four hours in one session to be detected by a mobile unit operating at peak efficiency, supported by rapid decisions (which was never the case). GCHQ might have claimed to Wright that no illicit transmissions originated from the Oxford area, and therefore they could discount Sonia’s apparatus (if they knew she had one.) Yet, again, that would require RSS to have deployed radio direction-finding technology in order to locate the transmitter, and Sonia would surely have stopped broadcasting by then.

Thus GCHQ’s claim is logically null and void. If Sonia made only one transmission, from her home or anywhere else, she would never have been detected. If she made more than one, from the same location, she would (according to the RSS’s reported procedures) inevitably have been detected, interdicted, and prosecuted. And GCHQ’s claim that she made no transmissions is clearly false, as she did transmit from the semi-concealed site at Kidlington, which was apparently never picked up. (After the war, she broadcast from her next home, The Firs at Great Rollright, as Bob King of RSS has confirmed, but these events are strictly outside the scope of GCHQ’s claim here.)

Moreover, GCHQ (actually named Government Code & Cypher School, or GC&CS, during the war) was not responsible for intercepting illicit transmissions in 1941-1943: that was the responsibility of RSS, which reported to SIS. GCHQ took over RSS after the war. Institutional memory may be at fault.

Ironically, Wright then undermines the GCHQ statement as an unfounded ‘belief’, as if it were a vague hope rather than a matter of strict execution of policy. Thus, either Wright drills a large hole in the track-record of GCHQ’s inviolability, or his claims about Kremer’s reporting of ‘the times and durations’ of Sonia’s own broadcasts lack any substance – or a mixture of both, since, irrespective of Sonia, RSS may not have been perfect in its mission of pursuing all illicit broadcasts, as we know from its own files. And we also know from the VENONA transcripts that Sonia tried to contact Moscow on successive nights in July 1941, from Kidlington. Since RSS apparently did not detect any of these transmissions, GCHQ’s boasts of omniscience are flawed. Wright’s lack of expressed astonishment at the inefficiency of RSS is again a remarkable reaction. Moreover, why would Kremer report on such details of her transmissions, if she was successfully in touch with Moscow already? It was one thing to report her failure to get through, but these claims appear superfluous, even absurd.

How we treat this claim about Kremer’s reports on Sonia’s broadcasts depends very much on how reliable a witness one views Wright by now. As Denis Lenihan has pointed out to me, what Wright asserts contains so much fresh information that his claims should be taken seriously. On the other hand, I would say that the Kremer telegrams are simply too implausible to be considered as valuable evidence. That Sonia would have had a ‘string of agents’ by 1941, that they would need to be paid, that Kremer would consider it necessary to report to Moscow the details of recent successful transmissions she had made to Moscow, even the role of Kremer himself in meetings and handling Sonia, fail to pass the authenticity test with this particular analyst. West and Pincher apparently agree with me. West relegates the item to an endnote on page 70. Pincher ignores the whole matter: there is no mention of HASP in his Index to Treachery.

Lastly, we have to deal with the final claims. It would be very unlikely for a wireless message, sent to Moscow in 1941, to provide the information that Russian intelligence had specifically sent Sonia to the Oxford area, although that might be a reasonable conclusion for Wright to make. In addition, the claim that Sonia had rapidly acquired a ‘string’ of agents, and was seeking expenses for payments that she was making to these mercenaries, is very improbable. Where and how she acquired them is not stated, but any contact who might have been providing information to Sonia informally would have probably jumped with alarm if Sonia had suggested that he or she should be paid for such indiscretions. Even Sonia herself, in her memoir, stated that the informants she nurtured provided her with confidential information out of principle, not for payment.

Yet the most awkward part of this testimony is the declaration that MI5 did not have this evidence in 1969, when (so Wright claims) it might have helped with a more successful interrogation of Hollis. Wright explicitly indicates that the discovery occurred in 1970, or later. The critical discoveries that were made in the decryption of reference book-based random numbers for the process of ‘closing’ were revealed, however, in the 1960s. The VENONA records show that GCHQ tried to censor a series of the Moscow-Stockholm GRU traffic for the Version 5 release of the decrypts, and that the Swedes had to restore the excised passages in Version 6. I have studied all these messages: a few appear to have no relevance to British affairs at all, but several do specifically relate to the use of commonly owned books (knigi), and even identify the titles of the volumes. All these messages have an issue date in the mid-1960s.

We thus come to the conclusion that GCHQ and MI5 had four opportunities to learn of the use of a common book to be used by agents and clandestine embassy wireless when it was too dangerous to try to deploy conventional one-time pads: Gouzenko’s revelations in 1945; Foote’s disclosures in his memoir of 1949; the descriptions gained from questioning the Petrovs in 1954/55; and the experiences of the Swedish FRA when they handed over their decrypts in 1960. Practically all the final decryption work on GRU London-Moscow messages that was possible was completed during the 1960s, yet Wright tries to pass off the breakthrough by Sudbury, and the serendipity location of the directory in the British Library, as occurring in the 1970s.

[vi] Once this was known I felt more sure than ever that Elli did exist, and that he was run by Sonia from Oxford, and that the secret of his identity lay in her transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before. The only hope was to travel the world and search for any sign that her traffic had been taken elsewhere.

Over the four years from 1972 to 1976 I traveled 370,000 kilometers searching for new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions. In France, SDECE told me they had no material, even though Marcel told me he was sure they had taken it. Presumably one of the Sapphire agents had long since destroyed it. In Germany they professed total ignorance. It was the same in Italy. Spain refused to entertain the request until we handed back Gibraltar. I spent months toiling around telegraph offices in Canada searching for traces of the telex links out there. But there was nothing. In Washington, extensive searches also drew a blank. It was heart-breaking to know that what I wanted had once existed, had once been filed and stored, but had somehow slipped through our fingers.”

This, again, is a very controversial statement. Wright refers to ‘Sonia’s transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before’. Yet mentions of Sonia’s transmissions have never surfaced until now: the HASP exercise concerned the GRU’s alluding to such messages. Wright has given no indication that any of Sonia’s transmissions had been intercepted, and he even cites GCHQ as saying she could not have operated her wireless set undetected. So, if they never existed, they never could have been lost. Moreover, the records of Kremer’s supposed transmission(s) have also been lost. Wright may have wished that he had them in time to interrogate Hollis, but he cannot even present them after 1970, when it was too late!

Thus an astounding aspect of Wright’s testimony is his apparent lack of curiosity in determining what happened to the missing messages. He does not investigate what policy might have led to these last sets of decrypted traffic to be buried or destroyed. Surely his named colleague Sudbury and his fellow-cryptologists must have kept some copies of these vital messages, or at least have some recall as to what happened to them? Yet Wright does not undertake a search domestically first, or invoke his associates’ help in establishing the truth, and hunting the transcripts down. He ventures no opinion on the fact of their possibly being destroyed, but simply looks overseas.

Maybe there was a glimpse of hope that other countries might provide further VENONA nuggets, but, since we now know that the Stockholm operation concerned local traffic only, the quest seems very futile. And why ‘telex offices’? Why Wright expected further evidence of Sonia’s transmissions to come to light in telegraph offices around the world is astonishing. In the United Kingdom, Sonia’s messages were illicit, and subject to surveillance, with Voluntary Interceptors dispersed around the country to pick up the ground-wave from suspicious transmissions. If, by any chance, her messages were noticed anywhere else, amongst all the other radio noise, it would have been remarkable for any institution, public or private, to have dwelled upon them long enough to transcribe and store them. And if GCHQ (RSS) was never able to detect them, why on earth would Wright expect some foreign entity to be able to do so?

In addition, the question was not whether ELLI existed or not, but who ELLI was, and how significant a player he or she had been, and when he or she had been active. If this is the piece that clinches the argument for the case that Hollis was ELLI, it stands on very unsolid ground. Exactly what the link was between Sonia’s ability to maintain a string of agents and the existence of ELLI is not made clear by Wright. Did Wright really believe that he would have been able successfully to confront Hollis with the transcripts of Sonia’s messages to Moscow, and challenge him on the grounds that he had been able to prevent superior officers in MI5, RSS and GCHQ from performing their jobs?

It all echoes the laborious claims made by Chapman Pincher that the only way that Sonia could have hoodwinked MI5, RSS and GCHQ so that they all turned a blind eye to her shenanigans was through the existence of an intriguer in the middle ranks of MI5 who was so devious that he could entice his colleagues to ignore the basic tenets of their mission. Presumably it was ELLI who, instead of warning Sonia that it might be dangerous for her to persist in her illicit transmissions from one single geographic location, somehow convinced RSS that its procedures could be put in abeyance, and the signals ignored, and, moreover, that corporate memory allowed this oversight to become enshrined in official statements of policy within GCHQ after the war.

The Remaining Questions

Two crucial questions arise out of all this analysis:

  1. What happened to the missing messages?
  • Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

So much evidence conspires to inform us that what has been released to the archive of London-Moscow GRU traffic is only a small fraction of what was actually transmitted. The period of intensity is July 1940 to August 1941, followed by scattered fragments into early 1942, and a vast gulf until the end of the war, in 1945. The sequential telegram numbers tell us that less than 2% of the messages in 1940 and 1941 have been published. We have no idea how busy the communication link was during the next three years. We must therefore consider two separate sub-questions: i) given the ‘overnight breakthrough’ described by Wright, why were more messages in the 1940-1941 period not decrypted?, and ii) why was there a drought from the winter of 1941-1942 onwards?

The first sub-question cannot be answered by external analysis, as we do not know whether all messages were intercepted, which of these succumbed to even partial decryption, and which then remained classified because of issues of sensitivity or confidentiality. I do point out, however, that the official US VENONA website informs us that GCHQ did not hand over to the USA 159 of the GRU messages (i.e. close to the number I highlighted earlier) until 1996 – after the general disclosure of the VENONA project, indicating a high measure of discomfort about the disclosures (such as the Group X information).

What is also significant is that, having been passed decrypts from the Swedish authorities, GCHQ actually removed sections of the translated text before passing them on (in Version 5) to the Americans, with the result that the Swedes had to restore (in Version 6) the excisions GCHQ had made. Thus many messages in the VENONA archive include the puzzling rubric in their headings: “A more complete version of British Government-excised messages previously released in fifth VENONA release on 1 Oct 1996.” These revelations would seem to prove the case that the Swedes had made partial decryptions of their local GRU traffic, that they send these translations alongside the original messages, to GCHQ. It does not explain why GCHQ thought it was its business to edit them before passing them on to the NSA, especially if they also passed back their treatments to the Swedes at the same time.  A close analysis of all the relevant changes in Version 5 and Version 6 would be desirable. As I have indicated earlier, many of them have to do with the disclosures about shared reference volumes.

The Drought of 1942-1944

The second sub-question lays itself open to deeper inspection, because of the availability of other sources. On the matter of the missing messages, we need to judge:

  1. Did they not exist?
  2. Did they exist, but were never intercepted?
  3. Were they intercepted, but never stored?
  4. Were they stored, but subsequently lost?
  5. Were they discovered, but not decrypted (even partially)?
  6. Were they decrypted, but then not released?

The first issue is especially fascinating, partly because of Alexander Foote’s experience (or, at least, how he reported it). In October 1941, the Germans were at the gates of Moscow, and the vast majority of Moscow’s government apparatus was moved to Kuibyshev (now Samara), over a thousand kilometres to the east. In his testimony to MI5 in 1947, Foote told his interviewers that, working out of Switzerland, he lost contact with his controllers in Moscow in the middle of October, and, a few days later, even cabled Brigitte (Sonia’s sister) in London to determine what had happened. He then claimed that contact was not restored until March 1942, when he resumed his broadcasts. (This is all in Handbook for Spies, as well.)

Yet the existence of this forced hiatus is belied on at least two fronts. The TICOM (Target Intelligence Committee) archive indicates that Foote reported regularly during those winter months. Moreover, his boss, Alexander Radó (DORA) was using either Foote or another operator to communicate regularly with Moscow, as his memoir Codename Dora describes, with frequent messages about German troop movements. Radó echoes Foote’s story about the interruption, but states that it was on October 29 that he sent a desperate message to Moscow Centre. Contact was resumed at the end of November or the beginning of December, and all dated messages from October (the texts of which appear in Radó’s book) were re-transmitted. A telling detail indicates that Foote indeed was the chief wireless operator at this time: a TICOM interception shows that he reported on the source LOUISE from Berlin on December 3, and a related message listed by Radó of December 9 similarly reported on LUISE’s intelligence from Berlin. It could well be that Foote’s claim about radio silence was inserted by his ghost-writer at MI5, Courtenay Young – but why?

Radó’s telegrams are confirmed by Lota, who transcribes several of Radó’s messages from this period, and even includes photographs of a few from 1942. A satisfying match can be made between a telegram received on November 27, 1941 (Lota’s Document No. 37, on page 353), and Radó’s original message created on October 27 (p 76 of Codename Dora), confirming the delay before ‘Moscow’ returned to the air, and, incidentally, discrediting Foote’s account. Thus one might have expected a similar interruption to have occurred in London. Ivan Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, tells us otherwise, however. Molotov remained in Moscow, and informed Maisky by telegram on October 17th that ‘most of the government departments and the diplomatic corps’ had left for Kuibyshev. This date, and the fact of the almost total evacuation of the Soviet government, are confirmed by other memoirs, such as Tokaev’s and those of the Petrovs. Maisky does not tell exactly when communications were re-established, but hints it was after only a few days, and he was then able to resume full contact. Thus he would have been able to pass on to the GRU officers inside his embassy what was happening, and they would not have made futile attempts to contact their bosses. Maybe, after a month, however, the watchers got tired of waiting for something to happen, and dropped their guard?

Then there is the ‘government policy’ theory. In Defending the Realm (p 376), Christopher Andrew, following up his comments about British government approval of Soviet use on ‘set frequencies’ (see above), writes: ”These radio messages were initially intercepted and recorded in the hope that they could eventually be decrypted, but interception (save for that of GRU traffic, which continued until April 1942) ceased in August 1941 because of the need to concentrate resources on the production of ULTRA intelligence based on the decryption of Enigma and other high-grade enemy ciphers. Interception of Soviet traffic did not resume until June 1945.”

This must be partially true. Yet Andrew shows a remarkable disdain for the facts in his endnote to this section, where he adds: “Since the intermittent Soviet reuse of one-time pads, the basis of the VENONA breakthrough, did not begin until several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, the messages intercepted and recorded up to August 1941 proved of little post-war value to GCHQ.” Au contraire, maestro! There was practically nothing that was useful that occurred after August 1941, as Andrew himself records a few pages later, when he describes the disclosure of Haldane and the X Group, from July 1940. Moreover, Andrew does not explain why interception of GRU traffic continued for so long, or what happened to the messages stored. The VENONA GRU files show only two messages from 1942, both fragments, from January 19 (London to Moscow) and April 25 (Moscow to London).

Whether resources had to deployed elsewhere is a dubious assertion, too. Much has been made of the famous Footnote supplied by Professor Hinsley, on page 199 of Volume 1 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he wrote that ‘all work on Russian codes and cyphers was stopped from 22 June 1941’, variously attributed to Churchill himself or the Y Board.  The Foreign Office had promptly followed up the Y Board’s edict by forbidding MI5 to bug the Soviet Embassy, or to attempt to plant spies inside the premises, but was apparently more relaxed about the activities of MI6 and GC&CS, which nominally reported to the Foreign Office. While it may have taken a while for the policy statement to seep through, we should note that the edict said nothing about stopping the interception and storing of messages.

Robert Benson’s in-house history of the NSA (of which a key chapter is available on the Web) contains far more direct quotations from British authorities, such as Tiltman, Dill, Marychurch and Menzies, than can be found (as far as I know) from British histories. It reinforces the message that interception of Soviet traffic fairly rapidly tailed off towards the end of 1942, and that, during 1943 and 1944 any messages that had been stored were actually destroyed, to the later chagrin of intelligence officers. But that was what the alliance with the Soviet Union meant: a severe diminution in attempts to exploit Soviet intelligence, and that pattern was echoed in the USA. Since, at that time, no progress had been made on deciphering Russian traffic, it may have made little difference. One might also point out that, unless RSS intercepted all traffic, and inspected it, they would not know which was GRU and which was not, which makes Andrew’s already puzzling claim about the extension for GRU until April 1942 even more problematic, unless RSS knew that the secondary clandestine line was for GRU traffic only. Moreover, Andrew does not present Hinsley’s argument as a reason for the cessation.

‘HASP’ Annotation to Soviet Messages Detected in 1942

Certainly the Soviet Embassy was watched, and traffic was being monitored closely in March and April 1942. As I write, I have in front of me (see photograph above) the page from the RSS file HW 34/23, which shows a set of daily messages intercepted from March 16 to April 16, with callsigns, that changed each day, also listed. Very provocatively, the word ‘HASP’ has been written in opposite the April 7 entry, in what appears to be an annotation of May 1, 1973, and on the following page appears ‘from Maisky to Cadogan April 1942’, as if Maisky had perhaps had to explain himself to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. (One cannot be certain that the annotation ‘HASP’ refers exclusively to the April 7 entry, or whether its serves as a general descriptor. If the latter, it would appear that, in 1973, the observer recognized this set of traffic, coming from the back-up GRU transmitter, as generic HASP material, but it does not explain how he or she reached that conclusion.) Other sheets suggest the surveillance went on into 1943. Yet all the evidence seems to point to the fact that, because of the signals being received from the Y Board and the Foreign Office, and the volumes of Nazi traffic to inspect, traffic from the clandestine line was either ignored, or simply piled up unused, and was discarded. Moreover, it was remarkably late for Wright (or whoever was the annotator) to be making, in 1973, a link between the HASP material of 1959 and the RSS files of 1943.

Nevertheless, a completely new project to monitor Soviet traffic was started at the beginning of 1943. After Commander Denniston had been replaced by Travis as the head of GC&CS in January 1942, he moved to London to set up a team that would begin to inspect and attempt to decipher Soviet diplomatic messages. This became known as the ISCOT project, after its key contributor Bernard Scott (né Schultz), and it led to the discovery of a rich set of ‘Comintern’ messages between the Soviet Union and its satellite guerrilla operations, after Stalin had supposedly closed down that organisation. Denniston was also involved in direction-finding the illicit traffic of 1942 to the Soviet Embassy. Thus, even if GRU/NKVD messages classified later as VENONA were ignored, it could hardly have been because of scarcity of resources. In addition, Andrew never explains why interception suddenly picked up successfully again in June 1945, and why RSS/GCHQ had no trouble finding the frequencies and call-signs used by the GRU.

A tantalising aspect of this whole investigation is the lack of overlap between published records of the GRU, and interceptions stored as part of the VENONA program. Verifiable records taken from Soviet archives are very thin on the ground, and we should be very wary of claims that are made of privileged access. Lota’s book (mentioned above) is a valuable source, containing multiple texts, and even photographs. It concentrates very much on military matters, especially concerning the movements of Nazi forces in the Soviet Union, and thus does not touch the early aspirations of the ENORMOZ (atomic weapons research) project. The familiar name of Sklyarov (BRION) appears quite frequently, but the first example of his telegrams is dated September 23, 1941 (Document No. 25). The VENONA sample of intercepted GRU messages from London (visible at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf ) shows regular communications from BRION up to August 28, 1941, followed by a sprinkling of fragments up to March 1942, and then a long hiatus until 1945. Lota’s coverage thus overlaps in time, but I can see no messages that appear in both accounts.

Lastly, I must include the maybe very significant possibility that the rival channel set up in the London Embassy was not taken seriously enough. The official VENONA USA website offers (in ‘The Venona Story’) a very provocative paragraph, which runs as follows:

“Hundreds of GRU New York messages remain unsolved. The loss to history in the record of the GRU in Washington is particularly noticed. Of the several thousand Washington messages from 1941 to 1945, only about fifty were decrypted, in spite of the best efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. Unlike the New York GRU messages, where translations concern espionage, these few Washington translations deal with routine military attaché matters (such as overt visits to U.S. defense factories). However, a separate Washington GRU cryptographic system, which was never read, presumably carried GRU espionage traffic.”

One might ask: ‘How did they know about this “separate Washington GRU cryptographic system’”?’ And what does ‘never read’ mean? That it was not intercepted? How did they know it was GRU if they never ‘read’ it? If it had been sent via cable, it would have been accessible, like all the other messages. Are the USA authorities referring to a clandestine wireless system, perhaps? And, if so, why did they not close it down? The reason these questions are relevant is that we have ample evidence that the GRU in London did attempt to set up a clandestine wireless system, and, after considerable teething problems, were apparently successful. (Vladimir Petrov confirms that such an arrangement happened in Stockholm, as well.) As I suggested earlier, it is possible that the RSS had worked out that the clandestine channel was for the GRU only. The intense USA focus of the VENONA website, and the various books that have been published in the US, mean that this project has not received the attention it deserves.

A closer inspection of the London-Moscow GRU traffic reveals the evolution of the project. The documents in this file are unfortunately not in chronological order, but a careful review suggests that the first reference is in a report dated July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, where it is evident that a transmitter/receiver had been received in the diplomatic bag, but that the instructions for its assembly and deployment were deficient. London has to ask Moscow for the measurements for the aerial for MUSE’s apparatus. BARCh (Kremer) had decided to install the set in the lodgings of the military attaché, as he considered it was not safe in the Embassy, where the NKVD was ever-watchful. (“The only ones to fear are the NEIGBOURS’ people, who are in so many places here that it is hard to escape their notice.” This remark would tend to contradict the well-publicised notion that the NKVD staff had all been recalled to Moscow during 1940.) A few days later, however, it appears that Kremer has been ordered to change his mind, and install the radio-set in the Embassy, and is making rather feeble excuses about the lack of progress. On July 26, Kremer complains that the receiver works on 100 volts, which means it would be burned out by the 200-volt current in the embassy, and a transformer did not work. On August 13, they are back in the attaché’s house, where alternating current is available, and MUSE plans to try again, as a telegram of August 27shows. Kremer requests a schedule for the following months.

On August 30, 1940, reference is overtly made to the ‘London GRU emergency system’. The operator MUSE had been heard clearly, on schedule.   Yet problems in communication begin to occur in September, and the Director begins to show impatience, reporting again on September 18 that MUSE’s message was not received in full. Maybe it was Kremer’s struggles that prompted the transfer of Sklyarov from New York. Kremer tries to get his act together. In a message of October 3, he remarks that Sklyarov’s arrival is impending. In the same message he reports that MUSE has had a successful communication with Moscow at last, and that she will be trying again on October 7. Yet it was not a proper two-way conversation. On October 10, 1940, one of the few messages from Moscow shows the Director informing Kremer of further problems receiving messages on the illicit line, with nothing received since September 18. The Director has to remind him of the correct wavelength, crystal, callsign, and time.

It takes Sklyarov himself to report on November 25 that MUSE is now ready to begin regular communication, and that is the last we hear of the link for a while. Presumably it worked satisfactorily. Yet a very significant message on July 31, 1941 indicates a hitch, and that MUSE has had to test communications again. Sklyarov asked Moscow how well they had received her. The reason that this could be so important is the fact that the only report on SONIA that appears in the extracts was transmitted the very same day, suggesting perhaps that the back-up system (for highly confidential espionage traffic) was not working. Similarly, the only message from this period referencing Klaus Fuchs is of a short time later, on August 10. It would seem, therefore, that Sklyarov had to resort to the diplomatic channel to pass on critical information. Nearly all of the messages in the intervening period (November 1940-July 1941) concern more routine military matters (as Wright reported), so the absence of any other information on SONIA, both beforehand and afterwards, could mean either that there were no reports, or that they were sent on the clandestine channel.

It was probably this traffic which excited RSS so much in the spring of 1942, when they tracked unauthorised wireless signals emanating daily from the Soviet Embassy, signals that displayed an unusual pattern of call signs. As I described above, Alexander Cadogan in the Foreign Office seems to have approached Ambassador Maisky about them, but may have received a brush-off. Yet why only one of these messages was annotated with ‘HASP’ is puzzling. It is as if the messages had been intercepted and stored, and one of them had been (partially) decrypted through the assistance of the HASP code-book. But, in that case, why only one? And where is it? Was it the missing message from Kremer claimed by Peter Wright to show SONIA’s recruitment of her nest of spies?

Moreover, one final crucial paradox remains, concerning the two rare messages I identified a few paragraphs earlier. In the 1940-1941 GRU traffic can be found only one message referring to SONIA (3/NBF/T1764 of July 31, 1941: transcribed above), and only one to Klaus Fuchs (3/PPDT/101 of August 10, 1941). The singularity is startling. In their book, Venona; Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr offer (on p 439) a footnote on the Fuchs message, which describes Fuchs’s meeting with Kremer. Part of the note runs as follows: “This message is from a period antedating the Soviet duplication of one-time pads. Its decryption was made possible because the London GRU station in 1941 ran out of one-time pads and used its emergency back-up cipher system based on a standard statistical table to generate the additive key. British cryptanalysts working with the Venona Project recognized it as a nonstandard and vulnerable cipher and solved it, but not until well after Fuchs’s arrest.”

I found this analysis disappointingly vague. Apart from the unlikelihood of the GRU’s suddenly running out of one-time pads, the note did not indicate for how long the back-up system had to run, and how the problem of distributing new pads was resolved. I took a look at West again. On page 26, he writes: “The clerk [Gouzenko] also described the GRU’s emergency cipher system, and although this was considered at the time to have potential, it was never found to have been used apart from the 1940-41 London traffic, when the GRU apparently ran out of OTPs.” This was even more opaque. It threw the traffic for two whole years into the ‘back-up system’ bin, when a cursory inspection of the files indicates that the primary system was working well until Moscow and London started discussing the problem. Yet it rather wearily echoed the text that appears in The Venona Story, namely that ‘  . . . several messages deal with cipher matters — in 1940 to 1941, the London GRU used a so-called Emergency System, a variation of the basic VENONA cryptosystems. London GRU messages merit very close attention.’  Indeed.

I managed to contact Dr. Haynes by email, and asked him whether he could shed any light on the source of the footnote. He promptly responded, reminding me that two messages in the GRU trove from this period referred to the OTP problem, citing telegrams No. 410, of August 30, 1940, and No. 1036, of September 19, 1940. Yet Haynes and Klehr had cited 1941 in their note! These two messages were transmitted about a year before the phenomenon of the Fuchs and Sonia messages! How could an OTP problem remain unaddressed that long? Was the implication that the back-up system (using the reference book OTP on the diplomatic channel, as the new GRU wireless link was not yet working) was used for the next twelve months? How should this information be interpreted? I tactfully raised these questions with Dr. Haynes, but, even after conferring with Louis Benson, he has not been able to shed any light on the confusion over the expiration of the one-time pads, and the use of the back-up system, although Benson did offer the important information that he thought the British had ‘identified the standard statistical  manual used to generate the additive keys’. But no date was given.

The sequence of events between April 1940 and March 1942, the period that encapsulates the most frequent of the London GRU traffic, is so confused that a proper assessment must be deferred for another time. The primary problem is that both London and Moscow refer, in messages presumably transmitted using the standard diplomatic channel, exploiting conventional one-time pads, of the imminent exhaustion of such tools. In that process, they ask or encourage the immediate use of the back-up system. Yet it is not clear that all successive messages use that back-up system, as later messages make the same appeal. It might be that the pads were in fact re-used as early as 1940. One enticing message (1036, of September 19, 1940) talks about ‘the pad used having been finally destroyed’, as if it should have been properly destroyed earlier, but was in desperation, perhaps, employed again, against all the rules.

In any case, a possible scenario could run as follows. Coincident with the GRU’s plan to move Sonia to Britain, to create a new espionage network, it decided to establish a clandestine wireless channel to handle her potential traffic. The task was entrusted to Kremer, but he struggled with getting the apparatus to work, and Sklyarov was transferred from New York to take charge. The conventional connection was used until November 1940, when the clandestine line was made to work, at about the time Sonia prepared to leave Switzerland. It was thereafter used successfully, until an interruption at the end of July 1941 caused Sklyarov to use the standard diplomatic channel for a critical message about Sonia – the only one to have survived in VENONA. RSS appears to have noticed messages on the clandestine link, but, if it did indeed intercept them and store them, no trace has survived. It is probable that no messages on that line were ever decrypted (apart from fragments at the end of 1941, and the two 1942 messages identified earlier). If other messages concerning Sonia were picked up and analysed from the standard link, GCHQ and MI5 must have decided to conceal them. (I have outlined this hypothesis to Dr. Haynes.)

Why did Wright mangle the story so much?

This close inspection of Wright’s account in Spycatcher shows a glorious muddle of misunderstood technology and implausible explanations. So why did he publish such an incoherent account of what happened? I present three alternative explanations:

  1. Wright simply did not understand what had been going on.
  2. Wright understood perfectly what had been going on, but wished to distort the facts.
  3. Wright had forgotten exactly what had been going on.

Number 1 is highly unlikely. He had been recruited as an expert with scientific training, and had showed knowledge of audio-electronic techniques to the extent that he uncovered Soviet bugs on embassy premises. He must have understood the principles of wireless communication, and the practical implications of intercepting both cable and wireless traffic. Number 2 does not make sense, as the mistakes that appear in his narrative tend to undermine any case he wanted to make about the identity of ELLI and the pointers towards SONIA. The sentence I cited above (in Cable or Wireless) is so manifestly absurd that it should immediately have alerted any knowledgeable critic to the fact that something was awry. If Wright had wanted to place a false trail, or was on a mission, he would have ensured that he appeared as a reliable expert on the main issues, but inserted subtle twists in the subordinate texts – in the manner in which Chapman Pincher operated. Wright definitely wanted to incriminate Hollis, but overall did not think he was distorting the truth, even if he was part of the ‘conspiracy’ to obfuscate what happened in the VENONA project. If he did embroider his account with the inclusion of an improbable and unverifiable message, he surely did not think it would be considered important, or that he would be found out.

Regrettably, one must conclude that, by the time Wright came to put his memoir together, he was approaching his dotage. Even though he was only seventy-one years old in 1987, his health was not good: he had high blood-pressure, shingles, and diabetes. In his account of the events, The Spycatcher Trial, Malcom Turnbull repeatedly draws attention to Wright’s failing health and faulty memory, pointing out that, as early as 1980 (when Wright was only sixty-four) he was too frail to travel from Australia to the United Kingdom by himself. Wright did not remember clearly how everything happened, how the intelligence services were organized, what the processes behind VENONA were, or exactly what HASP consisted of. His book was effectively ghost-written by Paul Greengrass, who clearly did not understand exactly what he was told by Wright, and, by the time it came for Wright to check the text, he was probably simply too impatient in wanting to see the book published, and consequently did not go over carefully everything that Greengrass had written. He was not concerned about the details: he wanted to get back at MI5 over its mistreatment of him on the pension business, he needed the royalties, and he was focused on getting the message on Hollis out.

I believe that it is entirely possible that, in his summoning up the telegram from Kremer that reported on Sonia’s network and payments, Wright was recalling the July 31, 1941 message that I reproduced in full above. It does mention agents and payments, but was sent not by Kremer, but by Sklyarov (BRION), mistakenly identified as Shvetsov in the annotations. We should not accept Wright’s account simply because, at one time, he had been an expert and a reliable witness. In addition, later reports suggest that there was an untrustworthy, almost devious, dimension to Wright’s behaviour. In his book on the trial, Malcom Turnbull expressed surprise at Wright’s ‘too uncritical worship’ of his mentor, Lord Rothschild. In his 2014 memoir, Dangerous to Know, Chapman Pincher asserted that Rothschild and his wife Tess loathed Wright, and he implied that Wright had exerted some kind of blackmail over the pair by threatening to include a chapter in Spycatcher that described Tess’s ‘long relationship with Anthony Blunt’.

As I indicated earlier, Chapman Pincher does not use his sometime accomplice Wright’s ‘evidence’ in his comprehensive presentation of the case against Hollis. Given that Pincher clutched at every straw he could find, and was always willing to present testimony from anonymous but ‘authoritative’ sources, this omission is somewhat startling. All Pincher states on Sonia’s recruitment of agents (beyond Fuchs and Norwood) runs as follows: “There is also new evidence that she and Len may have recruited and serviced a further fellow German communist – an atomic scientist working at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford, whose wife Sonia had met socially.” (p 198 of Treachery) Pincher also acknowledges that members of her family were informants for her, but dismisses Sonia’s claims about finding and recruiting ‘minor agents’ as possibly being a ‘GRU legendary cover’ (p 259). What this ‘new evidence’ consisted of is not explained, and the first statement has a very hypothetical ring about it. The conclusion, however, must be that Pincher did not trust Wright’s account of the breakthrough telegram.

Conclusions

Apart from the fact that ‘Spycatcher’ caught no spies, Wright was an unreliable witness. As D. Cameron Watt observed about the case: “A moderately careful reading of Wright’s book, let alone any checking of such statements he makes that can be checked, reveals, as most serious reviews of the book in the American press have shown, that Mr. Wright’s command of the facts, let alone his claims to universal knowledge, are such as to cast the gravest doubts on his credibility where his assertions cannot be cross-checked.”  He completely misrepresented the structure of the VENONA project, and the material it used. He was likewise confused about the elements of the HASP program, and what the Swedes brought to the game. He magnified an illusory message, unlikely in its authorship, improbable in its content, and dubious in its objective, in order to promulgate a claim about Sonia that has no basis in any other facts, and to provide ammunition for a flimsy case that ELLI was Roger Hollis, the incrimination of whom he blatantly stated was his goal in publishing the book. In his muddled argument, he committed much damage to the other aspects of his case. At the time of the Spycatcher trial, even though he was only 71 years old, he was portrayed by Richard Hall and Malcolm Turnbull as an old, sick man, with a reputation for mendacity. He received the news of the outcome of the trial while in hospital.

The VENONA files, which should provide the archival evidence for his investigation, are in a mess. The USA website is very US-centric, it is scattered with spelling mistakes, chronologically misplaced items, contradictory and incorrect annotations about identities, misrepresentations of English place-names, and wayward references that could be cleaned up by recent scholarship. The British GRU traffic has been broken out, but it is out of sequence. An intense analysis of the pan-European communications could shed some strong light on a host of new relationships. A comprehensive index needs to be built, so that scholars could be more productive in bringing their expertise to bear.

HASP was a project that exploited GRU traffic between Stockholm and Moscow, which had been partially decrypted by the Swedes. It succeeded because of the policy that the GRU deployed, for the operations of clandestine and emergency services, and those of agents under their control, of using a common reference-book as a one-time pad. The Petrovs’ experience in Moscow and Stockholm contributed substantially to identifying the volume used. Thus dramatic improvements in decrypting certain London-Moscow traffic were made. Yet fresh work can be undertaken. The considerations of HASP, and other published material (e.g. Vassiliev), need to be incorporated into the British VENONA story (of which there is no ‘authorised’ publication at all, and nothing fresh since Nigel West’s book of 2009) and cross-referenced. An analysis of the excisions that the British Government is stated to have made between the Version 5 and Version 6 releases should be undertaken. In other words, it constitutes a major opportunity for GCHQ in the year that its authorised history appears. It needs a professional cryptanalyst to work on the source messages, and the evolution of the decipherment.

As I have written before, an authorised history of wartime and post-war interception services remains to be written. To begin with, the function crossed multiple organisations – not just all the intelligence services, but the War Office, the armed forces, the Post Office, even the Metropolitan Police. The Radio Security Service (RSS), of interest primarily to MI5, was never owned by the Security Service (despite Nigel West’s continued claims to the contrary), and was managed by a section of SIS from May 1941 until the end of the war, when GCHQ took control of it. Yet Keith Jeffery, in his authorised history of SIS, treated RSS (and GCHQ, which also reported to SIS during the war) as step-children. It will be interesting to see whether the coming history of GCHQ (Behind the Enigma, The Authorised History of Britain’s Secret Cyber Intelligence Agency, by John Ferris, due in November of this year), when covering the wartime years, treats RSS as an essential part of GC&CS (as it was then).

I believe that this bulletin provides an accurate account of the phenomenon of HASP, but a similar modern exercise needs to be performed against VENONA itself. After I post this report, I intend to draw the attention of the GCHQ Press Office to it. I ask all readers who would like to see some effort expended on clearing up this significant episode in British Intelligence History to contact the Press Office at pressoffice@gchq.gov.uk themselves, and thus reinforce my message.

(I regret that this research has been conducted without detailed access to the several files on VENONA at the National Archives, which have not been digitized. My previous superficial scans of the information did not indicate to me that the matters I have discussed were covered by the archival material at all. If any reader has found information in them that either clarifies, expands or confounds what I have written, please contact me. I also want to express my gratitude to Professor Glees, and to Denis Lenihan, for comments and suggestions they made concerning an earlier version of this article. Denis has continued to provide, right up to the completion of this report, very useful insights from the material he has analysed. Dr. Brian Austin has been a perennial outstanding adviser on wireless matters. I alone am responsible for the opinions expressed here, and any errors that may appear in the text.)

Major Sources:

Spycatcher, by Peter Wright

Venona, by Nigel West

GCHQ, by Richard Aldrich

The Code Breakers, by David Kahn

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Handbook for Spies, by Alexander Foote

The Code Book, by Simon Singh

Battle of Wits, by Stephen Budiansky

Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon

Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, by Nigel West

Sekretnyi Front General’nogo Shtaba’, by Vladimir Lota

Venona: Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957, ed. Robert Louis Benson & Michael Warner

Defend(ing) the Realm, by Christopher Andrew

The Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein & Alexander Vassiliev

Venona: Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes & Harvey Klehr

The Venona Secrets: The Definitive Exposé of Soviet Espionage in America, by Herbert Romerstein & Eric Breindel

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

The Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery

Empire of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov

Between Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks

Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communications, by Fred B. Wrixon

British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 1, by F. H. Hinsley and others

The Venona Story, by Robert L. Benson

MI6 and the Machinery of Spying, by Philip H. J. Davies

The Petrov Affair, by Robert Manne

A Spy’s Revenge, by Richard V. Hall

The Spycatcher Affair, by Malcom Turnbull

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Dangerous to Know, by Chapman Pincher

Peter Wright and the ‘Spycatcher’ Case, by D. Cameron Watt, in Political Quarterly, Volume 59, Issue 2, April 1988

The National Archives

https://www.cia.gov/library/center-for-the-study-of-intelligence/csi-publications/books-and-monographs/venona-soviet-espionage-and-the-american-response-1939-1957/preface.htm

https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf

https://www.nsa.gov/Portals/70/documents/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/dated/1945/16jul_cipher_text_seaman.pdf

https://nsarchive2.gwu.edu//NSAEBB/NSAEBB278/01.PDF

https://vault.fbi.gov/Venona/Venona%20Part%201%20of%201/view

https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks

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

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Special Bulletin: Sonia and the Mail on Sunday

Dateline: Sunday June 28, 2020

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

Ever since I started exploring the KV 6/41 file at the National Archives in greater depth, and published my findings in a special bulletin at the end of April (see here), Professor Glees and I have been pondering over its implications. We quickly agreed that the letter sent by Victor Farrell to Len Beurton in March 1943 was conclusive proof that MI6 was using Len and his wife, Ursula (agent SONIA), as some kind of asset, and this finding sealed the somewhat speculative story I had outlined in ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Professor Glees was able to use his contacts at the Mail on Sunday to excite their interest, and the story that appears today is the result.

We are very pleased with the outcome. Of course, there are items which we might have expressed differently ourselves (and Professor Glees and I still enjoy differences of opinion on how some of the evidence should be interpreted), but we agree that a compelling account of the story of treachery and self-delusion has been laid out. We think it has shed dramatic light on an intelligence puzzle that has foiled the experts for decades.

The story is unavoidably very complex, and in compressing into a single article an international series of events involving multiple intelligence agencies, it is inevitable that some oversimplifications occur. The details of World War II, and the fact that the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany during the Battle of Britain, may not be familiar to many readers. A new generation will not be aware, necessarily, of who Klaus Fuchs was, and why secrets of atomic weaponry were so critical in the years following the war. Thus some of the nuances of politics in the 1940s have had to be skated over, as have some of the details of the career, movements, and activities of Ursula and Len Beurton.

Those readers who want to pursue in more depth the story of SONIA’s career, her activities in Switzerland, her arranged marriage, and her escape to the United Kingdom, are encouraged to read the full story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, viewable here. And if any reader wishes to send a serious question about the Mail on Sunday piece, or anything that I have written about on coldspur, he or she is encouraged to post a comment after this bulletin, or to send me an email at antonypercy@aol.com. I shall post questions and responses here.

Lastly, look out for a fresh report at this website, an analysis of the description by Peter Wright (‘Spycatcher’) of the wireless messages that convinced him both of Sonia’s activity, and of Roger Hollis’s culpability, on Tuesday, July 1.

Update No. 1 (June 28)

Last night I received my first item of feedback, from a US resident. It ran as follows: “Utter nonsense. Sorry to hear that you bought into a ridiculous idea. Embarrassing for you that it has been published.”

My reactions are many. First of all, I know this correspondent (whom I shall call ‘Horace’) to be a smart fellow, who has contributed originally to intelligence research. But I also know him as a notorious skimmer of my work (like Frank Close, perhaps). After my Round-up last month, Horace wrote to me, enclosing a link to Ben Macintyre’s website, and the reference to the book on Sonia, at which I had to point out to him that I had already cited it in the same report, and pointed out a gross error. And, since, this Mail on Sunday feature is a highly logical extension of all that I have been writing in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ and since, Horace must have failed to follow the plot. He has occasionally stated that he does not agree with my conclusions, but has never provided a shred of evidence to challenge them. Moreover, Horace must be temperamentally unsuited to this business: so many mysteries exist that it is absurd to dismiss a serious attempt to explain them as ‘nonsense’. Alternatively, Horace must have a theory of his own to explain the multitude of accommodations that MI6 and MI5 made for Sonia – one he has never articulated.

I am far from ’embarrassed’. This feature is excellent publicity for coldspur. As for ‘buying into a ridiculous idea’, I find that amusing. No one ‘sold’ it to Professor Glees and me. We developed it.

Horace is not Ben Macintyre, by the way. I asked Horace whether I could quote his comments on coldspur. He never replied.

Update No. 2 (June 29)

I have now received many responses to the Mail on Sunday piece, for which I thank everyone. They were, with one exception already reported on, overall very positive, but I understand that the appearance of the information in this format did confuse some of you.

Let me recap first. Back in early May, I had been trying to find a media outlet for my latest conclusions about Sonia, in order to forerun the arrival of Ben Macintyre’s book on the Soviet spy. Having failed with the London Review of Books and the Times Literary Supplement, I was encouraged by Professor Glees to work with him on approaching the Mail on Sunday, where he had a solid contact. I jumped at the opportunity, but also had some concerns, as I was not sure how I would remain in control of the project. Things went fairly well, a story was put together (based on my material on coldspur, largely by Professor Glees, who was more familiar with the house style), and we in fact expected the story to be placed on May 31.

Then matters became difficult. For four successive weeks, the decision to publish was deferred, since apparently more pressing stories demanded priority. This was an extremely frustrating time for me, as I was obviously embargoed from writing any more on the subject that might weaken the freshness of the Mail on Sunday feature. We had no contract, but our contact implored us to be patient. I was about to pull the plug on the whole project, and either start with a new media outlet (which could have caused a repeat of the whole drawn-out business) or simply reverse to my own publishing model, where I can issue what I want, when I want, in my own voice, and without any editors looming over me, but where the readership and the publicity are indisputably small. I wanted very much a) a story in the national media about Sonia, and b) publicity for coldspur, so that I could continue my writings with the confidence that they were gaining more attention.

We thus extended our offer for one more week, and the Mail on Sunday came through. Unfortunately, it did not refer to coldspur (at least not in the on-line version), which I believed had been part of the agreement. That is a great disappointment to me, but I imagine those readers really interested will track coldspur down. Has it drawn Ben Macintyre out of the undergrowth? Not yet, it seems, but that will probably take a little longer. I must believe that ‘his attention will be drawn’ by experts, agents, editors, and colleagues at the Times to the Mail on Sunday story, and he may start to regret not having responded to my overtures a couple of years ago. I am predictably very keen on learning what his particular angle on Sonia (how Chapman Pincher spelled her) or Sonya (Macintyre’s choice, and the form in her translated memoir) will be.

As for the story itself, some of you were confused, for which I apologise. You found the narrative unconvincing, and looked for more substance – such as that which you normally find on coldspur. Some asked whether I agreed with all the statements ascribed to Professor Glees! I should mention that all the quotations offered to the paper were presented as joint submissions, but in their intensity, and maybe for space reasons, the journalists attributed nearly all to the Professor, and I was left with only a single, somewhat fractured one. Never mind. I am very grateful to Professor Glees for the academic and professional authority he brought to the project, and the proof of the pudding will remain in my researches on coldspur.

Thus I acknowledge that a slightly less ‘melodramatic’ version of the analysis would be useful – nay, essential – to many of my readers. You have submitted questions that demand scholarly and cool answers. Nevertheless, rather than address them during the month one by one here, I have decided to devote next month’s bulletin (to be published July 31) to an exposition of the full case of the MI6/MI5 collusion regarding Sonia, list all the evidence that led the Professor and me to our conclusions, and also describe the conundrums and unanswered questions that remain.

In the meantime, keep those comments coming, and do not forget to look out for new analysis on Peter Wright and Spycatcher tomorrow.

Update No. 3 (July 7)

The dust has settled a bit. I have received some further very positive feedback. Unfortunately the Google News feature that Professor Glees uses, which provides alerts on activities of his like the publication of this article, appears to have been de-activated. Many of his contacts may therefore not have noticed the feature. The editors at the Mail on Sunday are similarly perplexed. It looks as if some undefinable body, upset by the revelations, has the power to interfere with such mechanisms. How can that be?

Professor Glees and I have both been in cordial contact with Ben Macintyre. He claimed, in his message to Professor Glees, that his book would obviously be making references to coldspur. I await the arrival of his book (which he promised to send me via the US publisher) with great eagerness, so that I may verify that assertion. He apologised to me for the fact that my 2018 message to him via his publisher had gone astray, and told me that he had corrected the errors on his websites. Yet, as I look at them again today, they all appear to be unchanged.

Meanwhile, I have started working on a fuller and less hectic version of the Sonia/MI6 story for publication here on July 31. I also sent an email to the GCHQ Press Office, alerting it to my post on Spycatcher and HASP, and providing the link, on July 1. I have yet to receive any acknowledgment. I am sure my report has been the cause of much merriment in Cheltenham.

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Late Spring Round-Up

‘Dave’ Springhall’s Headstone

Dum spiro, conspiro

I was intending to publish this month the final chapter in the series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios, but was inhibited from doing so by the closure of the National Archives at Kew. I had performed 90% of the research, but needed to inspect one critical file to complete my story. Since my doughty researcher, Dr. Kevin Jones, will not be able to photograph it until we get the ‘All Clear’, the story will have to remain on hold. Instead, I use this month’s bulletin to sum up progress on a number of other projects.

Contents:

  • Sonia and Len Beurton
  • Ben Macintyre
  • Prodding Comrade Stalin
  • The National Archives and Freedom of Information
  • Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian
  • The BBC and Professor Andrew
  • Nigel West’s new publications, and a look at ELLI
  • The Survival of Gösta Caroli
  • Dave Springhall and the GRU
  • ‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp Tycoon Romance Drama!’ (exclusive)
  • China and the Rhineland Moment

Sonia and Len Beurton

I published the recent bulletin, The Letter from Geneva, because I believed it was important to get this story out before Ben MacIntyre’s book on Sonia appears. The fact that Len Beurton, Sonia’s bigamous husband, had acted as an agent-cum-informant for SIS in Switzerland seemed to me to be of immense importance for Sonia’s story, and the way that she was treated in the United Kingdom. Sonia herself wrote in her memoir that, when Skardon and Serpell came to interview her in 1947, they treated Len as if he were opposed to communism, rather than being an agent for it, abetting his wife as a recognized but possibly reformed spy or courier for Moscow, and the contents of the letter helped to explain why.

I wanted to have my conclusions published in a respectable medium, so as to have a more serious stake placed in the ground. I could not afford to wait for the more obscure journals on intelligence matters (and then perhaps get a rejection), and instead considered that the London Review of Books might be suitable. The editor, Mary-Kay Wilmers, could conceivably have a personal interest in the story (she is an Eitingon, and has written about her grandfather’s cousin Leon, who managed the project to kill Trotsky). The LRB frequently runs long articles on off-beat subjects (in fact, it runs so many earnest leftish political pieces that one sometimes forgets what its mission is supposed to be), and it could presumably turn round my piece quickly. I thus sent my bulletin, as an exclusive, to Ms. Wilmers, with a covering letter explaining the appeal it could have to her readers, the opportunity for a scoop, and describing how I would re-work my article to make it a suitable contribution for her periodical.

After a week, I had heard nothing – not even an acknowledgment. (Coldspur 0 : The Establishment 1) So I made a similar approach to the Times Literary Supplement, with obviously different wording in the cover letter. The Editor, Stig Abell (who had, after all, commissioned a review of Misdefending the Realm a couple of years ago), responded very promptly, and informed me he was passing my piece to a sub-editor to review. A couple of days later, I received a very polite and appreciative email from the sub-editor, who offered me his regrets that he did not think it was suitable for the periodical. That was it. I thus decided to self-publish, on coldspur. (Coldspur 1 : The Establishment 1)

I have since been in contact with a few experts on this aspect of Sonia’s and Len’s case, and have discussed the puzzling circumstances of the letter, why Farrell chose that method of communication, and how he must have expected its passage to be intercepted. Why did he choose private mail instead of the diplomatic bag? Would the diplomatic bag have taken the same route as airmail, and would the German have opened that, too? Why did he not send an encrypted message over cable (although the consulate had probably run out of one-time pads by then), or wireless to SIS in London? Presumably because he did not want Head Office to see it: yet this method was just as risky. And what kind of relationship did he possibly think he could nurture with Len in those circumstances? No convincing explanation has yet appeared.

Ben Macintyre

Meanwhile, what about Ben Macintyre’s forthcoming book on Sonia, Agent Sonya, subtitled variously as Moscow’s Most Daring Wartime Spy, or as Lover, Mother, Soldier, Spy? The publisher indicates that it is ‘expected on September 15, 2020’, yet Mr. Macintyre himself seems to be lagging a bit. His US website (to which I was directed at http://benmacintyre.com/US/ ) shouts at us in the following terms: ‘The Spy and the Traitor Arriving September 2018’, but even his UK website needs some refreshment, as it informs us that the paperback edition of his book on Gordievsky will be published on May 30, 2019 (http://benmacintyre.com/about-the-author/ ), and lists events in 2019 where the author will be signing copies of the same book. Wake up, Benny boy! This is 2020.

So, back to the publisher of Agent Sonya, where we can find information at https://www.penguinrandomhouse.com/books/612487/agent-sonya-by-ben-macintyre/ . The promotional material includes the following passage: “In 1942, in a quiet village in the leafy English Cotswolds, a thin, elegant woman lived in a small cottage with her three children and her husband, who worked as a machinist nearby. Ursula Burton was friendly but reserved, and spoke English with a slight foreign accent.” This is all rather disturbing, however. Sonia’s husband, Len, returned from Switzerland only in July 1942, and they lived in Kidlington for a short time before moving to Summertown, in Oxford. Her third child, Peter, was not born until 1943. Len did not work as a machinist at that time, since he was unemployed until called up by the R.A.F. in November 1943. And their name was not ‘Burton’ but ‘Beurton’. Still, ‘thin’ and ‘elegant’ might, with a little imagination, conceivably be accurate, and she surely spoke English with a foreign accent. Not a promising start, however.

Macintyre has updated his blurb, apparently. The Waterstone’s site (https://www.waterstones.com/book/agent-sonya/ben-macintyre/2928377041403?utm_source=wsnfpreorderA230520&utm_medium=email&utm_campaign=preorders ) tells a different story. The year has been corrected to 1944, where Sonia is pedalling her bicycle to ‘gather secrets from a nuclear physicist’. The only problem with this scenario is that Klaus Fuchs had left for the United States in December 1943.

So what is ailing our intrepid journalist? I hope things improve from here onwards. I shall place my advance order, and await the book’s arrival, as expectantly as the publisher itself. In fact, I heard from my sources earlier this month that Macintyre has started ‘tweeting’ about his new book. Meanwhile, I believe I have taken the necessary initiative by posting my analysis first. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 1)

Prodding Comrade Stalin

Neo-Keynesian Stalin?

It continues to dismay me how Stalin’s pernicious influence casts a depressing and inaccurate shadow over the history of the twentieth century. We can now read how President Putin attempts to resuscitate the days of the Great Patriotic War, emphasising Stalin’s role as a leader, and minimising events such as the Nazi-Soviet pact or the massacres of the Katyn Forest. At the end of last month, the New York Times carried a story that described how the Russian authorities have tried to discredit an amateur historian who discovered mass graves of Stalin’s victims in Sandarmokh in Karelia, near the White Sea. The State Military society is arguing that ‘thousands of people buried at Sandarmokh are not all Stalin’s victims but also include Soviet soldiers executed by the Finnish Army during World War II’, which is palpable nonsense.

Thus my disgust was intense when I read an article by one Lionel Barber in the Spectator of April 4. It included the following passage:

“Covid-19 is indeed the Great Leveller. Conventional wisdoms have been shattered. But crises offer opportunities. Wise heads should be planning ahead. FDR, Churchill, and, yes, Stalin lifted their sights in 1942-43 as the war against Nazi Germany began to turn. Prodded by gifted public servants like Keynes and others, these leaders thought about the future of Europe, the balance of power and the institutions of the post-war world.”

The idea that Stalin could have been ‘prodded’ by ‘gifted public servants’ is a topic to which perhaps only Michael Wharton (Peter Simple of the Daily Telegraph) could have done justice. I can alternatively imagine a canvas by Repin, perhaps, where the wise Stalin strokes his chin as he listens to a deputation from the Ministry of Economic Affairs, as if saying: ‘You make a strong point there, Alexey Dimitrovich. Maybe world revolution is no longer necessary. I shall change my plans immediately.’ I was propelled into sending a letter to the Editor of the magazine, which ran (in part) as follows:

“I wonder whether the Stalin Mr. Barber refers to is the same Joseph Stalin who incarcerated and killed millions of his own people, and then, after the war, enslaved eastern Europe, killing many of its democratic leaders and thousands of those who defied him, as he prepared for the inevitable collision with the ‘capitalist’ west? I doubt whether the despot Stalin was ‘prodded’ by anyone, except possibly by a distorted reading of Marx and Lenin, and certainly not by ‘gifted public servants’, whether they were Keynesian or not. The ‘future of Europe’, especially that of Poland, was a topic that, after Yalta, caused a sharp rift between the Allies, and led to the Cold War. Where did Mr. Barber learn his history?”

The Editor did not see fit to publish my letter. I do not know what is the saddest episode of this exercise: 1) The fact that Lionel Barber, who was Editor of the Financial Times from 2005 until January of this year, and is thus presumably an educated person, could be so desperately wrong about the character and objectives of Stalin; 2) The fact that the Editor of the Spectator was not stopped in his tracks when he read this passage, and did not require Mr. Barber to modify it; 3) The fact that no other Spectator reader apparently noticed the distortion, or bothered to write to the Editor about it; or 4) The fact that the Editor, having read my letter, determined that the solecism was so trivial that no attention needed to be drawn to it. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 2)

To remind myself of the piercing insights of Michael Wharton, I turned to my treasured copy of The Stretchford Chronicles: 25 Years of Peter Simple, and quickly alighted on the following text, from 1968:

                                                            Poor old has-beens

“The Soviet Government,” said a Times leader writer the other day, “has become hopelessly outdated and out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.”

So the Soviet Government is hopelessly outdated, is it? It has just imposed its will on the Czechs and Slovaks by force. And this is supposed to be hopelessly outdated in an age which, thanks to perverted science (a highly contemporary movement if there ever was one), has seen and will see force repeatedly and successfully applied on a scale undreamed of by the conquerors of the past.

So force is outdated. Treachery is outdated. War is outdated. Pain is out dated. Death is outdated. Evil itself is not only outdated but out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.

That a writer, presumably intelligent, certainly literate and possibly able to influence the opinions of others, can believe these things is positively terrifying. If the Russian Communist leaders, as we are told day in day out, are now cowering in the Kremlin in a state of extreme terror here is some little comfort for them.

When Soviet tanks are on the Channel Coast, shall we still be telling ourselves that the Soviet Government is outdated and out of touch? As we are herded into camps for political re-education or worse, shall we still go on saying to each other, with a superior smile: ‘This is really too ridiculously outdated for words. I mean, it’s quite pathetically out of touch with contemporary movements at home and abroad.’?”

There was as much chance of Brezhnev and his cronies paying heed to ‘contemporary movements at home and abroad’ in 1968 as there was of Stalin being prodded ‘by gifted public servants’ in 1946. Pfui!

As a final commentary on this calamity, a few weeks ago I read Norman Naimark’s Stalin and the Fate of Europe, published last year, which explained how duplicitous Stalin was in his dealings with western political entities, and how he restrained European communist parties until the Soviet Union successfully tested the bomb in August 1949. One of the books cited by Naimark was Grigory Tokaev’s Stalin Means War, published in 1951. I acquired a copy, and read how, in 1947, Colonel Tokaev had been commissioned by Stalin to acquire German aeronautical secrets, by any means necessary, including the kidnapping of scientists, to enable the Soviet Union to construct planes that could swiftly carry atomic bombs to New York. Thus would Stalin’s plans for world revolution be enforced.

‘Stalin Means War’

I do not think this book is a hoax. Tokaev managed to escape, with his wife and young daughter, to the United Kingdom at the end of 1947, where he had a distinguished academic career, and managed to avoid Moscow’s assassins. He died in 2003, in Cheam, in leafy Surrey, just a few miles from where I was born and grew up. I wish I had had the honour of shaking his hand. His book provides undeniable evidence that Stalin was not listening to gifted civil servants, and musing about the peaceful organisation of the world’s institutions. He wanted war.

The National Archives and Freedom of Information

In my recent piece on Rudolf Peierls (The Mysterious Affair  . . . Part 2) I drew attention to the increasing trend for archival material that had previously been released to be withdrawn and ‘retained’. Further inspection, prompted by a deeper search by Dr. Kevin Jones, reveals that an enormous amount of material is no longer available, especially in the ‘AB’ (records of the Atomic Energy Authority) category. I have counted 43 files alone in AB 1, 2, 3, & 4, mainly on Rudolf Peierls, including his correspondence, as well as multiple reports on Pontecorvo, and including Fuchs’s interview by Perrin. For instance, if you look up AB 1/572, you will find a tantalising introduction to the papers of Professor Peierls, described as ‘Correspondence with Akers, Arms, Blackman [Honor?], Blok, Bosanquet [Reginald?], Brown . . .’, from the period 1940-1947: yet the rubric informs us that ‘This record is closed while access is under review’.

I suspect some of these files may never have been made available, but it is hard to tell unless one has been keeping a very close watch on things. For example, the file on Perrin’s interviews with Fuchs (AB 1/695) has been well mined by other researchers, and the fact that the statement ‘Opening Date: 16 July 2001’ appears below the standard message would suggest that this file has indeed been withdrawn after a period of availability. But does the lack of any such date indicate that the file was never released, or is the absence merely the inconsistent application of policy? Several months ago, I referred to another provocative file, HO 532/3 (‘Espionage activities by individuals: Klaus Fuchs and Rudolf Peierls’),which has a different status of ‘Closed or Retained Document: Open Description’, where the rubric reads ‘This record is retained by a government department’, and has never been sent to the National Archives. It puzzles me somewhat as to why the Home Office would even acknowledge the existence of such a controversial file, as an open description without delivery just encourages speculation, but I suppose that is how bureaucracy works, sometimes.

Dr. Jones (who has made it his speciality to find his way among prominent archives) offered me his personal interpretation, which may be very useful for other researchers. He wrote to me as follows:

  • “Where a file is stated to be ‘closed while access is under review’, but has ‘Open Document’ in the ‘Closure status’ field (e.g. AB 1/572), then the file has always been available, until its ‘disappearance’.
  • Similarly, as with AB 1/695, if there is a specific ‘Record opening date’ the previously retained file was made available from that date, again until its ‘disappearance’.
  • With the likes of HO 532/3, where it is stated ‘Retained by Department under Section 3.’”, the file has indeed never been available.
  • Many of these ‘Retained’ files do reveal the file’s title (the ‘Open Description’) to tantalise the researcher, but many such files are listed in the catalogue with no title/description.
  • Where a specific government department is named in a retained file entry (e.g. FO, MOD, etc.), it is obliged to process a FoI request, though don’t expect a quick response, especially if they are composing various forms of waffle to justify not releasing the file! When the ‘government department’ is not named (as with HO 532/3), there is good chance it is retained by MI5/MI6, both of which are exempt from the FoI Act (well, certainly the latter, which also holds the retained SOE files; not 100% sure about MI5). In any instance, click the ‘Contact Us’ button and the TNA’s FoI team will inform you of the good/bad news.”

Occasionally, therefore, the researcher is invited to submit an FoI (Freedom of Information) request, as an attempt to challenge the status of the censored file. I performed this over the above Espionage file, on the grounds that no conceivable reason could be justified for withholding it now that the subjects (and their offspring) are all dead, but received just an acknowledgment. My colleague Denis Lenihan had approached GCHQ concerning the HASP file (referred to by Nigel West and Peter Wright), which was claimed to contain transcripts of Soviet wireless messages intercepted in Sweden during WW II. Denis requested its release, as no conceivable aspect of British security could be damaged through its publication, but his request was rejected by the GCHQ Press Office (as if it were simply a matter of PR).

Denis then brought my attention to another statutory body whither appeals could be sent – the Investigatory Powers Tribunal. I had just read an article in the Historical Journal of March 2014, by Christopher J. Murphy and Daniel W. B. Lomas (‘Return to Neverland? Freedom of Information and the History of British Intelligence’), which very quickly explained that ‘the intelligence and security services fall outside its provisions, in marked contrast to the comparable legislation in the United States  . . .’ I thus wondered why we bothered, and under what circumstances any of the security services (MI5, SIS, GCHQ) would feel they should have to even consider such requests. But, after all, Kew does advertise the facility: is it an exercise in futility?

Denis wrote to me as follows: “While they’re right about the FOI legislation, the security agencies react in odd but sometimes helpful ways. I remember Pincher saying somewhere that the Romer Report (re the Houghton/Molody/Kroger case) was obtained from MI5 by someone who applied under FOI. I once sought a document from MI5 and got the classic Sir Humphrey response: ‘while MI5 is not subject to the FOI Act, it has been decided to treat your application under that Act. It has been unsuccessful’.” That was rich – so generous! Then Denis went on to say that the authors of the article appeared not to be aware of the Investigatory Powers Tribunal, to which he had turned with the HASP material. (On his recommendation, I made a companion request, referring to the fact that a reference to HASP was evident on some of the RSS records, and that it was thus in the public interest to make the material available. I have since conducted some deep research into the HASP phenomenon: I shall report in full in next month’s coldspur.)

I followed up Denis’s valuable lead to Chapman Pincher’s Dangerous to Know. Pincher’s account of the application, and its rejection, can be seen in the chapter ‘The Elli Riddle’, on pages 318 and 319. An official of the Intelligence and Security Committee suggested that Pincher complain to the Tribunal about MI5’s lack of action on a ‘missing’ report on Gouzenko made by Roger Hollis. The Tribunal had been set up in 2000, under the Human Rights Act, to consider complaints about the public authorities, but Pincher had, surprisingly, never heard of it. It took notice of Pincher’s request (would it have paid heed to submissions by those of lesser standing, without a platform in the media?), and required MI5 to respond on the status of the Hollis report.

MI5 sent two items of correspondence to Pincher, stating that ‘despite an extensive search of the Service’s archives ‘it had to conclude that no record of the important interview was ever made’. And that appeared to be the end of the affair – until William Tyrer, through an astonishing display of terrier-like determination, managed to extract a copy from MI5, having first discovered a reference to a vital telegram in the Cleveland Cram archive. Tyrer wrote up his conclusions in 2016, in an article in The International Journal of Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence (see https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/abs/10.1080/08850607.2016.1177404), and Denis Lenihan has analysed Tyrer’s findings in Roger Redux: Why the Roger Hollis Case Won’t Go Away.

As the Tribunal’s website (https://www.ipt-uk.com/ ) explains, the Investigatory Powers Act of 2016 did strengthen provisions for the public to make appeals, but it is not clear to me that the withholding of files really fits into what the IPT declares its mission, namely ‘a right of redress for anyone who believes they have been a victim of unlawful action by a public authority using covert investigative techniques’. That sounds more like heavy-handed surveillance techniques, or officers and agents masquerading as person they were not in order to infiltrate possibly dissident groups. And the organisation has a very bureaucratic and legalistic methodology, as the recent decision on an MI5 case shows (see: https://www.ipt-uk.com/judgments.asp, and note that the Tribunal cannot spell ‘Between’). It is difficult to see how the body could sensibly process a slew of failed FoI requests. And what about the Home Office, retaining aged documents? That doesn’t come under the grouping of security services.

Yet all of this fails to grapple with the main question: why has the Government suddenly become so defensive and concerned about records dealing with matters of atomic power and energy, most of them over seventy years old, and many of which have already been dissected in serious books? In the articles to which I provided links beforehand, Michael Holzman and Robert Booth say it all. The lack of a proper explanation is astounding, and the blunderbuss approach just draws even more attention to the fact that the civil service is out of control. Did Peierls’s letters to Blok and others betray some secrets that would be dangerous for the country’s foes to get hold of? I cannot imagine it. Maybe all will be revealed soon, but the furtive and uncommunicative way in which these files are being withheld just induces more distrust of the authorities, and their condescending attitude to the public. (Coldspur 2 : The Establishment 3)

Professor Frank Close at the Bodleian

Professor Frank Close

My status as Friend of the Bodleian entitles me to attend events staged by that institution, and a couple of months ago I received the following invitation: “Our first video by Professor Frank Close, available exclusively to the Friends, can be viewed here. In this talk, ‘Trinity: Klaus Fuchs and the Bodleian Library’, Professor Close uses the Bodleian’s collections to describe an extraordinary tale of Communist spies and atomic bombs.” I viewed the presentation on YouTube, but I don’t believe that it is available solely through subscription, as the above link appears to function properly.

It does not appear that Klaus Fuchs ever visited the Bodleian Library, but Professor Close uses Bodleian resources, such as the correspondence of Rudolf Peierls, and the photographic collection of Tony Skyrme, another Trinity College, Cambridge man, and contributor to the Manhattan Project (see https://archives.bodleian.ox.ac.uk/repositories/2/resources/3424 ) to weave a fascinating story about Fuchs. Skyrme accompanied Fuchs and the Peierls family on a ski-ing holiday in Switzerland in 1947, and produced a riveting set of photographs of that adventure, some of which Close reproduces in Trinity, his biography of Fuchs. Close also makes some fascinating linkages between the dates that Fuchs claimed vacation days from his work at Birmingham, and the timings of wireless messages to Moscow reporting on the communication of his latest secrets. He does, however, avoid any possible hint of controversy over Peierls’s career, ignoring what I have written about him, even though his final message was a very pertinent one about the relationship between Fuchs and those who ‘adopted’ him, and how he eventually betrayed them.

Since I have read Close’s book, and am familiar with the overall story, the pace of his presentation was a little slow for me. Yet I could see that Close is a very gifted lecturer, and must have truly energized his students when he was a working physics don. I accordingly sent an email congratulating him on his performance, at the same time asking a question about the source of some of his data. I never received a reply. Apparently I have fallen out of favour with the learned professor, who was so eager to communicate with me a few years ago. (Coldspur 2: The Establishment 4)

The BBC and Professor Andrew

Readers may recall my last Round-up, in November 2019, where I left with the optimistic projection that, having been able to speak to Mr Brennan’s Personal Assistant, and hearing from her that she would commit to follow up on my letter, I might be able to make some progress on my complaint about Professor Andrew’s high-handed, even contemptuous, behaviour towards the listeners to the ‘Today’ show. (This concerns a letter written by Eric Roberts to a friend which Andrew categorized as ‘the most extraordinary intelligence document’ that he had ever seen, but of which he later claimed to have no memory.)

Well, I heard nothing. So, early in January, I tried to call the lady at Broadcasting House. (I had to explain who I was to get past the switchboard.) And there was no reply. I thus tried asking the switchboard operator if he could give me her email address, telling him, quite truthfully, that I was following up a previous conversation with her. And, believe it or not, in what was probably a gross breach of institutional policy, he gave it to me. I was thus able to write to her, as follows:

Dear Xxxxxxxx,

You may recall that we spoke several weeks ago about my correspondence with the BBC, specifically with Bob Shennan. You were familiar with my letter, and told me that it had been passed to Audience Services. You also said that you would personally ensure that I received follow-up.

Well, I have heard nothing since, and felt it was time to make contact again. Could you please explain to me what is happening, and why I have not yet received a reply to my letters?

Thank you.

Sincerely, Tony Percy.

Six days later, I received the following reply:

Good evening Mr Percy,

I am very sorry I have just picked up this email, which was sitting in my Junk inbox.   I will again try and find out where your original correspondence is and why it hasn’t been responded to, I know you offered to resend me a copy, may I please take you up on this.

Apologies again for the non response and I will come back to you as soon as I can.

Regards,

Xxxxxxxx

EA to Group Managing Director.

‘Be patient now  . . .’  I thus responded:

Thanks for your reply, Xxxxxxxx.

The reason I was not able to send you the letters beforehand was that I never received any email from you giving me your address! Only when the kind switchboard operator offered it to me when I called last week (explaining that I had spoken to you before: otherwise he probably would not have handed it out), was I able to contact you.

Anyway, here are the two letters we discussed. I would really appreciate your tracking down whoever is tasked with giving me a response. You will notice that it is now over three months since my original letter  . . .

Best wishes, Tony.

I didn’t hear from Xxxxxxx again, but on January 21st, I received the following message:

Dear Antony Percy,

Reference CAS-5759257-M8M4X9


Thank you for your letters and we apologise for the time it has taken to respond.

I have discussed your request with Sanchia Berg whose report you refer to on the Today Programme. While we appreciate your frustration, the decision whether or not to release the document rests with the family and not with the BBC. Sanchia has confirmed that this was a private family document which Eric Roberts’ family shared with her and later with Rob Hutton. The family did not want to publish it in full but agreed to certain extracts being made public. It was only with their consent that she shared it with Christopher Andrew. I understand Sanchia did suggest that you look at Rob Hutton’s book, as he’d published more of the letter than Sanchia had made available in her reports. Nor is it the case that Sanchia was being evasive. Rather she was respecting the family’s wishes.

I am afraid too that we can’t really comment on what Christopher Andrew has said. He obviously views an awful lot of documents, so it’s not that surprising he cannot remember in detail a long document he read four years ago. He is not the only historian the BBC talks to about MI5 – but he is their official historian, so it’s logical that we should go to him fairly frequently.

I have asked Sanchia to contact the family on your behalf and will let you know if she is successful. However, we would make it clear there is no guarantee they will be back in touch. I am sorry I am not able to give you any further help and once again I apologise for the time it has taken to respond to your concerns.

Yours sincerely,

Sarah Nelson
Editorial Adviser, BBC News


BBC Complaints Team 
www.bbc.co.uk/complaints

I tried one last gasp:

Dear Sarah,

Thank you for your reply. It was worth waiting for.

I appreciate your asking Sanchia to approach the family on my behalf. Since the family approved her showing the document to Christopher Andrew and Rob Hutton, I assume that they were comfortable with greater publicity. (Rob Hutton did not reply to my inquiry.) I await the outcome with great interest.

But I must admit that I do not find your distancing the BBC from Andrew acceptable. After all, it is on the BBC website that his comments still appear (see https://www.bbc.com/news/magazine-33414358). Do you not accept some responsibility for this highly provocative opinion, and do you not agree that it would be appropriate for the BBC to contact him, remind him of what he said, point out the information on the website, and request a clarification from him, instead of members of the public (like me) having to chase around for months trying to gain an explanation from the corporation? Why does Andrew’s role as MI5’s ‘official historian’ allow him to use the BBC to promote himself and to provoke public interest, but then to evade his professional responsibilities by concealing facts concerning MI5?

Sincerely,

Tony Percy.

But that was it. I heard no more.  The BBC is in such disarray, and the ‘Today’ editors have now moved on. I am not going to gain anything else. For a moment, I thought I might score a goal, but I suppose it is a draw of some sorts. (Coldspur 2 – The Establishment 4)

Nigel West’s New Publications

As I was flicking through one of the book catalogues that I receive through the mail, I noticed two startling entries, one advertising a new edition of Nigel West’s MI5 (originally published in 1981), the other his MI6 (1983), published by Frontline. Now this was exciting news, as I needed to learn what the “Experts’ Expert” (Observer, 1989) was now writing about the two intelligence services after an interval of over thirty years. I was half-minded to order them immediately at the discounted prices of $37.95 and $26.95, but thought I should check them out on-line first. Thus Casemate Publishers can be seen to promote the books, at https://www.casematepublishers.com/mi5-british-security-service-operations-1909-1945.html#.XrLLhSN_OUk , and the overview for MI5 includes the following: “In this new and revised edition, Nigel West details the organizational charts which show the structure of the wartime security apparatus, in what is regarded as the most accurate and informative account ever written of MI5 before and during the Second World War.”

This was encouraging, and I thought I might get a glimpse of the new Contents by gaining a Google Snippet view, before committing myself. Yet the text, as displayed by that feature, indicated that the Contents of the book had not changed, and the number of pages had not increased. Was that perhaps merely a procedural mistake, where Google had not replaced the former text? I decide that the only way to find out was to ask the author himself. Now, I have not been in touch with Nigel for a few years. I have since tweaked his nose a bit on coldspur, especially over his superficial yet contradictory treatment of Guy Liddell, and I wondered whether he would reply. Maybe he had not seen what I had written, but, if he had, he might not want to communicate with me.

Anyway, I sent a very polite message to him, in which I explained how excited I was at the prospect of reading his new versions, and the very next morning he replied very warmly, and included the following revelation: “The four wartime titles recently republished (MI5; MI6; The Secret War: The Story of SOE and The Secret Wireless War: GCHQ 1900 -1986) are simply corrected new editions of the four books previously published.”

Is this not shocking, even a gross misrepresentation of goods sold? Apart from the fact that, if I were a historian with a chance to revise an earlier book in these circumstances, I would take the opportunity to refresh it with all the research uncovered in the meantime, such as a host of files from the National Archives, and Christopher Andrew’s authorised history, I would be very careful in arranging how the book was presented to the public. But not just one! Four titles? I think this is highly irregular, and I hereby warn anyone who was thinking of acquiring any of these four volumes that the information they get will be very outdated, and that I doubt that all the multiple errors in them have all been addressed. (Coldspur 3 : The Establishment 4)

Meanwhile, I have been scouring other Nigel West books. His latest, Churchill’s Spy Files: MI5’s Top Secret Wartime Reports (2018), exploits the KV 4/83 file at Kew (although the reader is pushed to find the source, since it does not appear until a footnote to the very last sentence of the book). Beginning in April 1943, Director-General Petrie of MI5 sent a regular summary report, delivered to Churchill and for his eyes only (the copy was taken by the emissary), outlining the activities and achievements of MI5. It seems that West produces the reports in full, although I cannot yet verify that, as the files have not been digitized, and he adds some very useful (as well as some very dense and impenetrable) commentary gained from study of the relevant MI5 files at Kew, such as on the Double-Cross System, and on MI5’s major success against Soviet espionage in World War 2, the successful prosecution of Dave Springhall.

Yet it is another weird West concoction, akin to his recent book on Liddell (see http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ ), on which my colleague Denis Lenihan has recently posted an invigorating article (see https://www.academia.edu/43150722/Another_Look_At_Nigel_West_s_Cold_War_Spymaster_The_Legacy_of_Guy_Liddell_Deputy_Director_of_MI5 ). The author’s sense of chronology is wayward, he copies out sheaves of material from the archives, the relevance of which is not always clear, and he overwhelms the reader with a host of names and schemes that lack any proper exegesis. Moreover, the Index is cluttered, and highly inaccurate. I saw my friend General von Falkenhausen with a single entry, but then discovered that he ranges over several pages. Indeed, West describes, through rather fragmentarily, the SIS scheme to invoke Falkenhausen in 1942-43, which is very relevant to my discoveries about Len Beurton. I immediately downloaded from Kew the relevant files on the very provocative HAMLET, taking advantage of the current free offer. I shall return to comment on this volume when I have completed my reading of it.

West does highlight the role of Anthony Blunt in editing the reports for Churchill, which brings me back, inevitably I suppose, to ELLI, the spy within MI5 (or SIS) called out by the defector Gouzenko in 1945. I have studiously avoided making any statement on ELLI in my reports so far, but Denis Lenihan has been writing some provocative pieces, and I must catch up with him eventually. I had happened to notice, in Chapman Pincher’s Treachery (2012 edition, p 78), that the author quoted the file KV 3/417 as confirming that ELLI was a spy working for the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) in London in 1940. He gave the source as the GRU defector, Ismail Akhmedov, whose work In and Out of Stalin’s GRU, I had quoted in Misdefending the Realm. So I went back to that file, resident on my PC, and found the reference, in paragraph 104. The writer indeed states that Akhmedov was indeed the source, but that the defector claimed that ELLI was a woman! Why did Pincher not include that in his account – was that not rather dumb? And how come nobody else has referred to this anomaly? Professor Glees has pointed out to me that no male given a cryptonym by Soviet Intelligence ever received a female name. Apart from Roessler (LUCY, after Lucerne, which is a special case) and DORA (an anagram of Alexander RADÓ), I think he is overall correct, although I have to add the somewhat ambiguous IRIS, who was Leo Aptekar, a ‘chauffeur’, Sonia’s handler at the Soviet Embassy.

I have thus started a fresh project on digging out the various sources on ELLI. First of all, I re-read Molehunt, Nigel West’s account of the hunt for Soviet spies in MI5. This is a very confusing world, what with Pincher staking his reputation and career on Hollis’s culpability, based on what Peter Wright told him, John Costello pointing the finger at Guy Liddell (before succumbing to a mysterious and untimely death himself), Nigel West, using the substance of Arthur Martin’s convictions behind the scenes, making the case that Graham Mitchell was the offender, and Christopher Andrew pooh-poohing the lot of them as a crew of conspiracy theorists while allowing himself to be swayed by Gordievsky’s assertion that ELLI was, improbably, Leo Long. West’s book is very appealingly written, but his approach to chronology is utterly haphazard, he is very arch in concealing his whole involvement in the process, and he makes so many unverifiable assertions that one has to be very careful not to be caught up in the sweep of his narrative. For instance, he identifies the failure of British double-agent manoeuvres with Soviet spies as a major item of evidence for stating that MI5 had been infiltrated. But he never explores this, or explains what these projects were. Apart from the attempt to manipulate Sonia (and Len) I know of no documented case of such activity, and, as I have repeatedly written, such projects are doomed to fail as, in order to be successful, they rely both on discipline by a very small and secure team as well as exclusive control of the double agent’s communications.

Ismail Akhmedov

I also went back to Akhmedov, to re-acquaint myself with how he described his lengthy interviews with Philby in Ankara in 1948. His conclusion was that, even though a stenographer was present, and he suspected the safe-house had been bugged, Philby reported only a small amount of the material that he passed on, which certainly included a description of the GRU’s set-up in London. (He does not mention ELLI here.) But he also wrote that he knew this because of his contacts with American intelligence afterwards.  “Many years later I learned that Philby had submitted only a small part of the reams of material obtained from me to the British and American intelligence services”.  That indicated to me that a fuller record exists somewhere, and that Akhmedov was shown Philby’s report. Akhmedov also said that, a year later (in 1949) he was thoroughly debriefed by the FBI, CIA and Pentagon officials in Istanbul. So I assumed that CIA records were a good place to look.

And, indeed, the CIA archives display quite a lot of information that Akhmedov supplied them about GRU techniques and organisation, but in secondary reports. (I have not yet found transcripts of the original interviews.) Moreover, literature produced more recently points to a critical role that Akhmedov played in unmasking Philby. One account (Tales from Langley by Peter Kross) even states that Akhmedov informed the CIA in 1949 that Philby was a Soviet spy (how Akhmedov discovered that is not clear, since he obviously did not know that for a fact in 1948, although he claimed he partly saw through Philby’s charade at the time), and that Philby was presented with Akhmedov’s testimony when he was recalled from Washington immediately after the Burgess-Maclean escapade. Unfortunately, Kross provides no reference for this assertion, but Akhmedov’s informing the CIA at that stage would be an astonishing revelation: it would put Philby’s presence in Washington under a harsh new light, frame White’s ‘devilish plot’ in a dramatic new context, and even explain why Eric Roberts was faced with an astonishing new reality when he spoke to Liddell in 1949. Is that what Andrew was hinting at? I am going to claim an early goal, before VAR gets in. (Coldspur 4 : The Establishment 4)

Another anomaly I have noticed is the famed reference to ELLI (actually ‘ELLY’) in the Vassiliev papers. (These were transcripts of files created by Alexander Vassiliev from the KGB archives, containing information on the GRU as well, and available on the Internet at https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks .) Chapman Pincher presented the assertion that Gouzenko had betrayed the existence of ELLI in British intelligence as appearing in a report from Merkulov to Stalin in November 1945, and William Tyrer has echoed Pincher’s claim in his article about ELLI.

Yet the published archive states no such thing. The comment that “Gouzenko reported on the GRU source in British intel. ‘ELLY’” is not in the selected highlights of Merkulov’s report, but appears as an introduction in a separate pair of parentheses, looking as if it had been added by Vassiliev as editorial commentary, after the statement that informs us that what follows is a summarization of what Philby has given them. If it is intended to also reflect the information received from ‘S’ [STANLEY = Philby] that immediately precedes it, it is worth noting that Philby’s report likewise includes nothing about ELLI.

Pincher cites the comment as coming from Merkulov’s report, but uses the on-line version as his source. He is wrong. Tyrer reproduces the whole introduction in his article, but removes the parentheses. He is careless. Of course, it is very possible that Merkulov did write to Stalin about Gouzenko and ELLI, and that needs to be verified. Merkulov was, however, in the NKVD/KGB, not the GRU, and it seems implausible that he would want to lay any bad news concerning the GRU on Stalin’s plate. I cannot quickly see any other reference to the GRU in Merkulov’s communications, and Allen Weinstein and Vassiliev himself, in The Haunted Wood, suggest (note, p 105) that any reference to the GRU by Merkulov was an attempt to pass off some of the responsibility for Elizabeth Bentley’s defection to the GRU, who recruited her originally in 1936, and for whom she worked until 1938, when she was transferred to the NKVD.

Thus one might ask: if Vassiliev thought that the reference to ELLI was important enough to be highlighted, why did he not publish the original text that contained it? (I have checked the original Russian manuscript on the Wilson Center website: the texts are the same. Yet some pages are missing in all versions: original scan of manuscript, Russian transcription, and English translation). We should recall, also, that Vassiliev was not transcribing the texts surreptitiously: he had been given permission from the Association of Retired Intelligence Officers (KGB alumni) to inspect them, was well-briefed in western intelligence interests, and under no pressure. So I decided to try to ask him what the import of his commentary was. I know he is hiding somewhere in England (maybe holed up with Oleg Gordievsky in an especially leafy part of foliate Surrey), so on May 18 I sent a message to his publisher to inquire whether they could pass on a question to him. I was brushed off with a message saying I should look on Vassiliev’s social media, or write a letter to the publisher. I doubt whether Vassiliev is seeking any attention, or wanting to give clues to his whereabouts, so I shall take the latter course.

There is no doubt ELLI existed. But ELLI was almost certainly a woman, and the information on her is so sparse that she was probably a minor player, and was not an informant for long. Thus the quest for identifying ELLI has to be separated from the generic search for traitors within MI5. If there was evidence of leakage on certain projects, MI5 should have investigated it, traced it back to those officers who were privy to the information, and then tried to discern how they might have passed it to a member of Soviet intelligence. Instead, they listened to the emotional appeals of Angleton and Golitsyn, and started examining (and sometime interrogating) Mitchell, Hollis, Liddell, Hanley, even White.

In Spycatcher, Peter Wright tried to list the strongest reasons for suspecting a major source of treachery within MI5, narrowing his search for ELLI to Hollis and Mitchell.  I noticed that, after the Gouzenko revelations broke out, he even consulted Akhmedov to discuss the arrival of ‘ELLI’s telegrams’ [sic] in Moscow. But the two of them apparently did not discuss ELLI’s gender! It is all very mystifying. And if there was an endemic failure to protect against communist subversion (as L’Affaire Sonia shows), it makes even less sense to pretend that the rather dim Roger Hollis had the power and influence to stop all his smarter colleagues from performing their jobs properly. Every time I go back to Pincher, I am stunned by the ham-handed way he overstates his case against Hollis. Any decent defence-lawyer would submerge his case within minutes. Nevertheless, I am not yet ready to claim the winning goal.

The Survival of Gösta Caroli

Gosta Caroli

When I wrote about Jan Willem ter Braak, the German agent who apparently escaped undetected for several months in Cambridge in the winter of 1940-1941 (see http://www.coldspur.com/the-mystery-of-the-undetected-radios-part-3/  and http://www.coldspur.com/two-cambridge-spies-dutch-connections-2/ ), I referred to the claim that Nicholas Mosley had made about another agent parachuted in, Gösta Caroli, in his book The Druid. Mosley reported that Caroli had in fact been hanged in Birmingham prison, contrary to Nigel West’s reports that he had been repatriated to Sweden after the war.

Now, if that were true, it would have been an alarming course of events, with the Security Service arranging an extra-judicial killing, given that there was no account of a trial, even in camera, to be found. The biography of Caroli’s colleague Wolf Schmidt (TATE) was written by two Swedes, and mentioned Caroli, but it apparently gave no details about his incarceration and subsequent return to Sweden. So I left the issue hanging.

Now I can report that the intrepid Giselle Jakobs (the grand-daughter of Josef Jakobs, who was indeed executed as a spy) has tracked down the biography of Caroli, written by the same two authors, in Swedish, which they self-published in 2015. She has arranged for enough portions of it translated to prove that Caroli, while his health had been damaged by the fall on his landing in England, did recuperate enough to live for thirty more years. It includes a photograph of Caroli after his marriage. Giselle’s extraordinary account of his life, and of her admirable efforts to present the information for posterity, can be found at https://www.josefjakobs.info/2020/04/the-apres-espionage-career-of-gosta.html and at http://www.josefjakobs.info/.

While this is good news, removing one black mark against the occasionally dubious application of the law by the British authorities when under stress in 1940 and 1941, it does not materially change anything of my suggestion that the death of ter Braak was not a suicide. I expect this matter to be resuscitated before long. My on-line colleague Jan-Willem van den Braak (actually no relation, as Ter Braak’s real name was Fukken) has written a biography of Ter Braak, in Dutch. It is now being translated into English for publication next year, and Mr. van den Braak has invited me to offer an Afterword to present my research and theories.

Dave Springhall and the GRU

In April last year, I was investigating hints provided by Andrew Boyle about the possible recruitment of Kim Philby by the Communist Douglas (‘Dave’) Springhall, and wrote as follows:

“Springhall is problematical. On my desktop computer, I have twenty-seven bulky PDFs from his files at the National Archives, which I have not yet inspected properly. They provide a fairly exhaustive account of his movements, but Special Branch did not appear to track him having a meeting with members of the Soviet Embassy in 1933. (Springhall did make a request to visit Cambridge in March of that year, however.) I suppose it is possible that Liddell had an interview with the communist activist at the time of his conviction in 1943, but it is improbable that a record of such a conversation has lain undiscovered. Somewhere in that archive (according to Springhall’s Wikipedia entry) is a suggestion that Springhall was working for the GRU from 1932 onwards, but locating that record is a task that will have to wait – unless any alert reader is already familiar with the whole of KV 2/2063-2065 & KV 2/1594-1598 . . .”

Douglas ('Dave') Springhall
Douglas (‘Dave’) Springhall

Well, I have at last had enough time on my hands to go through the whole of that archive, and take notes. The evidence of a strong connection between ‘Springy’ (the comrades referred to each other thus, with Len Beurton responding to his MI5 interviewers about ‘Footie’ – Alexander Foote – as if they were members of the England cricket team) and Soviet military intelligence is thin. It derives from an SIS report concerning a translation of a Russian request for information on Indian Army capabilities from the Intelligence Directorate of the Staff R.K.K.A. to the Military Attaché in Berlin, in which Springhall’s name is brought up (KV 2/1594-2, p 40, August 20, 1931).

Yet Springhall was very much a naval/military figure. Even though he missed the Invergordon Mutiny (he was occupied in Moscow at the time), he was a regular commentator on military affairs. He was head of anti-military propaganda in England, he gave eulogistic descriptions of life in the Red Army, and busied himself with secret work at Woolwich Arsenal. And his eventual arrest, in 1943, for extracting secrets on radar defensive measures (WINDOW) from Olive Sheehan, was obviously for trying to transfer facts to Soviet military experts. MI5 never determined, however, who his courier was, despite the close watch that was kept on him. I noticed in his MI5 that Nigel West suggested that Gorsky of the KGB was his contact at the Soviet Embassy, but in the same author’s recent Churchill’s Spy Files, he indicates that it was a GRU officer, and that the courier was someone called Peppin. (Somewhere in the Springhall archive, I got the impression that the courier might have been Andrew Rothstein.) So I wrote to West about it, and he confirmed that it must have been a GRU contact, but he could no more about the courier.

This is a vast archive: I wouldn’t be surprised if someone is writing a book about Springhall at the moment. West’s book provides a good introduction, but there is so much more to be explored, and I shall certainly return to the archive when I come to write about Slater and Wintringham. I shall thus say little more here, but merely make a few important observations on three aspects: 1) The role of Anthony Blunt (as introduced above); 2) The immensity of the surveillance of Springhall; and 3) Springhall’s trial.

One of the remarkable features of the monthly reports to Churchill on MI5’s activities, starting in March 1943, was that Guy Liddell, to whom the task was delegated by Petrie, in turn brought in Anthony Blunt to perform much of the editorial work. Thus here was additional proof that most of the service’s ‘secrets’ were being passed on to Moscow before you could say ‘Andrew Rothstein’. Thus one has to interpret the prosecution and sentencing of Springhall (conducted in camera) in a completely new light. The CPGB (the head office of which, in King Street, had been bugged comprehensively by Special Branch) was shocked and disgusted at the fact that Comrade Springhall had been involved in espionage, and thus was guilty of bringing the Communist Party into disrepute. Moscow was, of course ‘appalled’, and denied anything untoward had taken place.

Yet, if Moscow had known what was going on throughout the Springhall investigation because of Blunt, they would not have been surprised at the outcome. They would have to make the necessary melodramatic denials, but were perhaps not completely unhappy that all the attention was being paid on an expendable, somewhat irresponsible, open member of the Communist Party, while their unmasked agents were gathering information on the atomic bomb. In that way, MI5 would continue to imagine that the Party was the major source for subversive activity (with Ray Milne in MI6, and Desmond Uren in SOE being minor casualties dragged in by Springhall), and their moles in the intelligence services would be able to carry on unhindered. ‘Springy’ was not sprung.

The second noteworthy aspect is the sheer volume of material that was collected about Springhall, hundreds and hundreds of pages of notes on his career in the Navy, his visits to the Soviet Union, his published articles in the Daily Worker, his girl-friends, his associates and friends, his meetings at Communist Party headquarters, his speeches exhorting revolution at rallies – and of course on his espionage, his arrest, his trial, his sentencing, his time in prison, and his release before dying in Moscow of cancer in 1953. MI5 and Special Branch must have an expended an enormous amount of time trailing and surveilling him, yet the service was mostly powerless in doing anything at all – until Springhall so clumsily tried to extract the secrets from the communist flatmate of a loyal citizen, Norah Bond, who shared what she overheard with her RAF boyfriend, Wing-Commander Norman Blackie.

In a way, I suppose, Springhall’s being caught red-handed justified all the effort, and it enabled MI5 to move the traitor Ray Milne quietly out of SIS, and Raymond Uren out of SOE. Yet so much other surveillance was going on that one has to conclude that it was all rather wasted energy. ‘Keeping an eye’ on suspicious characters became a literal watchword, in the vain hope that such an activity would lead to larger networks of subversive ne’er-do-wells. But what next? So long as the Communist Party was a licit institution, its members could make calls for revolution, even during wartime, without any fear of prosecution, and the Home Office seemed far too timid as to how the factories might be adversely affected if too energetic moves were made against the comrades of our gallant ally, the Russians. Meanwhile, most government institutions were infected with Communist moles, agents of influence, and fellow-travellers who separated themselves from links with the Communist Party itself.

Lastly, the Trial itself. Files KV 2/1598-2 & -3 from Kew contain a full record of ‘Rex v Douglas Frank Springhall, at the Central Criminal Court at the Old Bailey, 20th July Sessions, 1943’, before Mr Justice Oliver. It represents a transcript of the shorthand notes of George Walpole & Co. (Shorthand Writers to the Court). The Solicitor-General, Sir David Maxwell-Fyfe, K.C. and Mr L. A. Byrne appeared on behalf of the Prosecution, with Mr J. F. F. Platts-Mills appearing on behalf of the Defence. I think it is an extraordinary document.

From the first lines of the transcript, where the portentous Justice Oliver rather patronisingly puts the Rumpolean Maxwell-Fyfe in his place, and the Solicitor-General deferentially responds ‘If your Lordship pleases’, we can see a classical court-room drama take place. Oliver then treats Platts-Mills in the same peremptory manner, and, when the prosecuting council start their questioning of Olive Sheehan (who had passed on to Springhall secrets about ‘WINDOW’), Oliver interrupts them freely, as I am sure he was entitled to. He rebukes Platts-Mills, rather pettily, for referring to the Air Ministry as Sheehan’s ‘employers’: “Now, Mr Platts-Mills, this court has not become a theatre of politics.”  Platts-Mills has to adapt to his Lordship’s pleasure.

I shall comment no more now than to remark how different this court was from those administered by Roland Freisler or Andrey Vyshinsky. Yes, it was in camera, but this was not a show-trial where the defendants knew they were already guilty and were facing inevitable execution. Britain was at war, and had caught a spy declaring allegiance to a foreign power, stealing secrets that could have seriously harmed the war effort if they had passed into the wrong hands, and calling for revolution, but Springhall received a fair trial. It concludes with Springhall making a rather eloquent but disingenuous speech about wanting ‘to arouse the country behind the government headed by Mr Winston Churchill’. The jury took fifteen minutes to consider the evidence before returning a verdict of ‘Guilty’ on almost all counts, and Springhall was sentenced to seven years’ penal servitude.  A very British trial.

‘Superspy Daughter in Holiday-camp Tycoon Romance Drama!’

(“I wanted to marry him”, confesses distraught schoolgirl)

‘I am the Daughter’

A while back, I acquired a slim volume titled ‘Die Tochter bin ich’ (‘I am the Daughter’), by one Janina Blankenfeld. It was published in Berlin in 1985, and is a brief memoir by a schoolteacher who was the daughter of someone who will be familiar to all readers of this website – Ursula née Kuczynski, aka SONIA. Janina was actually Sonia’s daughter by her lover, Johannes Patra (cryptonym ERNST), conceived in China, born in Warsaw in 1936, and spending much of her childhood years in Switzerland and England. Janina did not learn who her real father was until 1955, when Sonia’s first husband, Rolf, returned to Berlin, and Sonia felt she ought to break the news to her. I bought the book because I thought it might shed some light on Sonia’s movements in the UK, and even explain how Janina was able to attend an expensive boarding-school in Epping.

Unfortunately, it gives little away, sheltering under her mother’s memoir, published a few years beforehand. Janina gives the impression that money was very tight, and she says nothing about the private school. For a while, the idea of a holiday was impossible, but Janina wrote that, six months after her grandmother’s death (which occurred in June 1947), Sonia found an inexpensive room on the Welsh coast, in Criccieth, which was a revelation for Janina, as she enjoyed the coastline and the ruined castles. (Criccieth is a bit too close to the University of Aberystwyth, to my liking.) But “Das schönste Erlebnis für mich war unser Bummel durch Butlins Holiday Camp.” (‘The best experience for me was our stroll through Butlin’s Holiday Camp’.) She revelled in the string of bungalows, and the loudspeakers playing all day, and the dances and merry-go-rounds in the evenings. “Der Glanzpunkt war die Wahl der schönsten Urlauberin. Schöne Beine and ein hübsches Gesicht – mehr war nicht gefragt.“  (“The climax was the election of the most beautiful holidaymaker. Fine legs and a pretty face – nothing more was asked for.”)

I am not sure what the Ernst Thälmann Pioneer Organisation leaders would have thought of all this frivolity, with no time spent on propaganda lessons and correct ideological thinking, and far too much attention paid to superficial bourgeois pastimes like beauty contests, but Janina’s memoir managed to get through the censors. And it all made a strong impression on the twelve-year-old girl. “Seit diesem Besuch hatte ich neue Träume – ich wollte so gern Herrn Butlin heiraten, ganz reich sein and jedes Jahr meinen Urlaub in solch einem Feriencamp verbringen. ” (Ever since this visit I had fresh dreams – I wanted to marry Mr Butlin so much, to become quite rich, and to spend my holiday every year in such a Holiday Camp.”) Instead, eighteen months later, she had to leave for good her idyllic life in the Cotswolds and Wales, exchanging it for Walter Ulbricht’s holiday-camp of East Germany.

China and the Rhineland Moment

I have been thinking recently of China’s gradual expansion, and reactions to threats to its growing power (e.g. concerning Taiwan, the South China Sea, the Uighurs, industrial espionage, Hong Kong), and reminded myself that, if the first response to a bully is to refrain from challenging him, and biffing him on the nose, he will continue in the knowledge that his adversaries are really too cowardly, afraid of ‘provoking’ him more, and that he can thus continue unimpeded with his aggressive moves. I thought of the piece I wrote on Appeasement a few months ago, and how I judged that Hitler’s invasion of the Rhineland in 1936 was the incident marking the opportunity for the dictator to have been stopped.

Then, on May 30, Bret Stevens wrote an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times titled ‘China and the Rhineland Moment’ (at https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/29/opinion/china-hong-kong.html, inside the paywall). His piece started off as follows: “Great struggles between great powers tend to have a tipping point. It’s the moment when the irreconcilability of differences becomes obvious to nearly everyone. In 1911 Germany sparked an international crisis when it sent a gunboat into the Moroccan port of Agadir and, as Winston Churchill wrote in his history of the First World War, ‘all the alarm bells throughout Europe began immediately to quiver.’ In 1936 Germany provoked another crisis when it marched troops into the Rhineland, in flagrant breach of its treaty obligations. In 1946, the Soviet Union made it obvious it had no intention of honoring democratic principles in Central Europe, and Churchill was left to warn that ‘an iron curtain has descended across the Continent’.”  After making some recommendations as to what the USA and Great Britain should do, Stevens concluded: “If all this and more were announced now, it might persuade Beijing to pull back from the brink. In the meantime, think of this as our Rhineland moment with China — and remember what happened the last time the free world looked aggression in the eye, and blinked.”

This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

[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.]

Rudolf Peierls

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.

Would 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.

I 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:

Peierls’s 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.

Moreover, 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 Labour”.

It 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]

And:

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.

Max 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]

What 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 example:
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/research-brought-halt-national-archives/
and

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 (see: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/25/how-the-cia-writes-history/). 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.

On 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 Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

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.

Other 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

Nevill Mott

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.”

Mott 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 visit.

Yet 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.

“In 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.

Eventually, 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

Max Born

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.

This controversy 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 Fuchs.”

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?

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

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 Council.

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.)

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

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 six years’.

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.”

‘Bohemian’ 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.

It 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’ was about.

In 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.)

On 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.”

Skinner 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 cover?

Skinner 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

Joseph Rotblat

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.

Rotblat 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.

Rotblat 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.

By 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.

One 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.

Rotblat 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

George Plazcek

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.)

In 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.”

What 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 Landau???”)

Peierls’s 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.

Plazcek 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.

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

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:

  1. “I 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)
  • “If 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)
  • “I 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 . . .

During 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 dogmatic views.

When 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 exceptional.

In 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 young people.

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 Passage, 1985)

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 responsible.

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.

Peierls’s Naturalization

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 referees

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 internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

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?’

Conclusions

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.


New Commonplace entries to be found here.

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Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan, with More on Sonia

When I posted Denis’s commentary recently, I said that there was more to come. Thus I now present some further analysis by him, focussed primarily on Len Beurton’s presence in Kidlington, and the efforts by MI5 officer Hugh Shillito to track him down. I have not yet studied the Kew file on Sonia’s sister Sabine Loeffler, which Lenihan mentions, so I shall delay my response until I have done that. Again, readers are encouraged to offer their views on the matter.

Aspects of Sonia

Antony Percy’s ‘Sonia’s Radio’ at coldspur.com is a tour de force, beginning and ending with Sonia’s activities in Oxford, but in between encompassing such apparently diverse but in fact related matters as the bureaucracy dealing (or not) with wireless interception in the UK during World War II, written accounts of that subject, how Sonia and her husband got to the UK and ‘the claim that British authorities [MI6/SIS] had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spyring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government’.

His conclusion, expressed as an hypothesis, is that MI6 were involved in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland via that strange man Alexander Foote; that MI6 also ‘helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings’; that ‘Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory’; that ‘Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance ̶ had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions’; and that her husband Len had another radio at a separate address at Kidlington in Oxford, and it was from there that the radio messages were really sent.

There are several difficulties with this hypothesis. I am not qualified to discuss the exploitation or otherwise of the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland, but it may be worth observing that if there was such exploitation, it is a matter of wonder that the bragging rights have not thus far been exercised by official sources. Percy identifies a number of hints and glances in an extraordinary range of publications, as well as a number of denials of such exploitation, at least some of which he shows to be without much foundation. In total they do not carry conviction that such exploitation occurred.

Unfortunately the hypothesis really comes unstuck at the very last hurdle: Sonia and Len’s living arrangements in Oxford. Percy and Pincher both praise the MI5 officer Hugh Shillito for his work with the Beurtons. On their accounts he did good work on the case of the GRU spy Oliver Green, but the record shows that so far as investigating the Beurtons was concerned, he was rather dim.

Len’s Addresses

Working from Sonia and Len Beurton’s MI5 file (KV6/41), Percy notes that in November 1942 Shillito asked that mail going to 134 Oxford Rd Kidlingon be intercepted, as Len had gone to live there alone (there being no mention of Sonia). Percy takes this to be accurate, as he does memoranda in 1943 from Shillito to others which repeat this address. Percy suggests that ‘One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’ to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia’. Further, he asks: ‘Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities?’

A close examination of the file shows that there is no evidence that Len ever lived at Kidlington on his own.

The file shows that when Len landed at Poole Airport on 29 July 1942 he gave his address in the UK as 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington. On Pincher’s account at Treachery 138, Sonia and the children had moved there in the previous April from The Rectory, Glympton, near Woodstock. Judging from the file, one of Beurtons’ case officers at that time was D I Vesey, who with an unidentified MI6 officer interviewed Len on 18 September 1942. Vesey recorded that ‘on the whole Beurton made a good impression.’ The arrangements for the interview had been made via the Oxford police, who had been provided with the Kidlington address.

There had however been a very interesting development in the meantime. Early in August Sonia had written to one of her sisters in London, Mrs Sabine Loeffler. MI5 had a file on her and her husband Francis (KV2/2927) and in fact were intercepting their mail as well as their telephone. Sonia’s letter showed a return address of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford and referred to both her and Len coming to London the following month. There is no record of the letter on the Loefflers’ file, as it was placed on the Beurtons’ file. Another MI5 officer, shown only by his initials JBM, promptly put a two-week return of correspondence check on that address. (This required the Post Office to record all mail going to that address, the postmarks, and the sender where recorded; the next step was a Home Office Warrant enabling items of mail to be opened). Pincher has Sonia and Len moving to Summertown ‘in the autumn of 1942’.

The return over the period 19 August to 3 September showed that no fewer than 26 items of mail were received for both the Beurtons at that address. One addressed to Mrs Hamburger (Sonia’s name from her previous marriage, still used by the child of that marriage) had been redirected from Kidlington. Some had apparently been sent from Kidlington and others from Oxford or London, sent by Len or Sonia or in one case by Sonia’s father. Given the volume and origins of the mail, it might have been a reasonable step to upgrade the check to a warrant, but JBM simply wrote on the return P A (put away).

While other mail checks – of both kinds – were put on the Beurtons later, they showed no such volume or origins of mail; in fact they received hardly any mail. Pincher would have noted at this point, had he been aware of this conjunction, that Hollis was absent from work ill from March to September 1942; and he would have drawn the inference that because of that absence the Beurtons were unaware that their mail was being intercepted in August-September, but they were aware at the other times. It is a point worth contemplating.

At least the exercise established that both Beurtons were living at Summertown, or so it seemed; but this escaped the notice of Shillito. When he took over the file again in November, he asked the Post Office whether the Kidlington address had a telephone, as he was interested in Beurton ‘who has gone to live there’. (There is no reply to this query on the file). Shillito may have been misled by the previous paper on the file, a letter from the British Vice-Consul in Lisbon to Beurton at the Kidlington address which had been intercepted and opened by the Post Office. Shortly thereafter Shillito obtained a Home Office Warrant for Beurton at the Kidlington address.

Nearly three weeks later, Shillito asked that the police make further inquiries about Beurton, noting that the Warrant had (unsurprisingly) been ‘unremunerative’, by which he presumably meant unproductive. This having been the case, it might have been prudent to check that Beurton was in fact living at the Kidlington address.

In January 1943 the Oxford City Police reported that ‘the Beurtons’ were living at George St Summertown and that they had interviewed two neighbours, Mrs Laski and Mrs Best. The information obtained suggested that the Beurtons had lived there for some time and there was no indication that Len did not live there in the normal way. On 6 July 1943, Shillito wrote to a colleague in MI6 saying among other things that ‘since their return to this country the Beurtons have been living together at Oxford…’ The following month however he wrote to a colleague in MI5 and said that Len ‘lives at 134 Oxford Rd Kidlington’, while in the same month he received a letter from the War Office giving Len’s address at Summertown. The penny appeared to have dropped at last with Shillito as he wrote to the Post Office saying that ‘Beurton has now moved’ and asking that the Home Office Warrant be changed accordingly.

Shillito was notified in December that Len had been called up by the RAF and had the Home Office Warrant at Summertown suspended. Inexplicably he then had another issued, applying both to Kidlington and to the RAF Station at Cardington where Len was based, explaining that it was ‘desired to cover both his home and service address’, despite official letters on the file all showing that Len lived at Summertown.

A year later, in December 1944, the Post Office wrote to Shillito about the check on Len, noting that it had been suspended in February last ‘as there seemed to be some doubt as to Beurton’s address’. Shillito cancelled the check, and thereafter had nothing to do with the case.

Tellingly, except in two cases (the Lisbon letter noted above, and a letter from Geneva, both writers evidently having used an address given to them some time previously, when it was accurate), there is no record on the file of any mail addressed to Len at Kidlington having been intercepted.

In summary, the totally confused or essentially dim Shillito:

– late in 1942 obtained a warrant for Len at the Kidlington address, notwithstanding that the file showed that he was living at Summertown;

– in August 1943 told a colleague that Len lived at Kidlington, despite having had a further report showing that he was living at Summertown;

– in December 1943 caused a warrant to be issued covering Len’s ‘home address’ at Kidlington, despite having received further official correspondence showing his address as being Summertown.

In the absence of others, the more mundane hypothesis that Sonia was able to conduct her business through a combination of MI5’s corruption and incompetence, as proposed by Pincher, survives.

The HASP Material

Drawing on Nigel West’s description in the Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, Percy writes of this material that it ‘derived from partially successful attempts by the [Swedish signals interception organisation] FRA to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946’, and that ‘Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959’. He adds that some of the messages according to Wright in Spycatcher were from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow describing his meetings with Sonia.

Percy assumes that this is Venona material and says that ‘There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there’. He adds that Wright does not divulge what is in the messages and that he can find no reference to Sonia in the Venona transcripts, other than the one mentioned above.

There may be some confusion here. In Spycatcher (375), Wright describes part of the HASP material as ‘not genuine Venona’ and which was broken using a 1930s book of trade statistics.
While the GRU traffic was similar to that already broken ‘…there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident [in London] Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski.’ The messages showed ‘that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the times and durations of her own broadcasts’.

Wright records that he spent much time and effort over the next four years, without success, ‘searching for new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions’.

Has anybody ever asked GCHQ for this material?

‘The String of Agents’

Are there any clues about agents other than Fuchs and perhaps Elli being run by Sonia, especially after the end of the war? If Hollis was Elli, MI5 were by then back in London and his Oxford connection was no more. One clue is the well-referenced entry on Sonia on Wikipedia where this appears:
‘In addition to the (retrospectively) high-profile spies Fuchs and Norwood, Sonya was the GRU handler for (among others) an officer of the British Royal Air Force and a British specialist in submarine radar. She was also able to pass to her Soviet employers information from her brother, her father, and other exiled Germans in England. It was, indeed, her brother Jürgen Kuczynski, an internationally respected economist, who originally recruited Klaus Fuchs to spy for the Soviets at the end of 1942.[5]’

The reference [5] is Thomas Karny (11 May 2007). “”Sonja” – Stalins beste Spionin”. Wiener Zeitung (online). It is beyond my linguistic or technical abilities to retrieve this item, although it is not clear if it extends beyond Jurgen.

The Wikipedia piece also says about Sonia (without references):
‘In Oxfordshire, together with Erich Henschke, she worked on infiltrating German Communist exiles into the US Intelligence Agency. By Autumn 1944 she and Henschke had succeeded in penetrating UK activities of the US Intelligence Service (OSS). The Americans were at this time preparing an effort called “Operation Hammer” for parachuting UK-based German exiles into Germany. Ursula Beurton was able to ensure that a substantial number of the parachuted OSS agents would be reliable communists, able and willing to make inside intelligence from the “Third Reich” available not merely to the US military in Washington, but also to Moscow.’

This gets support from the following CIA piece on-line: Gould, Jonathan S., “The OSS and the London ‘Free Germans'”, Stud. Intel. V46:1-11-29 (2002) PDF [1.0MB*]


Sonia’s Radio

Percy writes in the introduction to chapter 9: ‘[Len] and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation’.

They were hardly being watched. The police called at the request of MI5, which happened twice in the period 1941-5. What was discovered in their rented accommodation in January 1943 appears to have been a radio receiver – a wireless – which could hardly have been illicit. One of Percy’s options for it elsewhere in his piece is that it was used only for reception (could it have been used for anything else?). Further, it was hardly ‘discovered’. It had been seen by a least one neighbour. The police who visited he house did not think it unusual enough to remark on it in their report, although the MI5 man to whom the report was sent did comment on it.

For what it’s worth, my memory of the 1940s in New Zealand is that wirelesses were often so large as to be items of furniture, and that aerials strung up on poles were often necessary for good reception. Sonia might easily have passed off the wireless and aerial as being needed for good reception from London or even Switzerland.


Obiter dicta

Percy records that ‘Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.”

The first explanation is contradicted by the sole Venona message mentioning Sonia – no 2943 of 31 July 1941 – which shows that she had tried and failed to make contact with Moscow via the radio on the four nights 26-29 July; by the GRU records which show that she notified Moscow on 4 September 1943 of the Quebec Agreement; and by the HASP material, which on Wright’s account (Spycatcher 375) showed in messages from the Soviet Embassy in London to Moscow ‘the times and durations of her [Sonia’s] own radio broadcasts’. As to the second, the information given to Pincher by the former RSS officer James Johnston confirms that Sonia’s transmissions were detected, but the reports were ignored. (Treachery 141, 260)


Other parts of the message concerning Sonia are not without interest. It shows her salary for seven months as being £406, so £59 a month; her husband £195; (?) from abroad £116; expenditure on radio and microdots £105; and expenditure on an item not identified £55, giving a total of £877. Assuming this is all expenditure for seven months, in 2020 terms the equivalent of £877 is £44,600, or say £75,600 for 12 months, just for one agent; so spying in 1941 was quite an expensive business.

Denis Lenihan, London, January 2020

*          *          *          *          *          *          *          *          *

Response by coldspur

The HASP Material

Thank you for this clarification, Denis.  I should have kept the distinction between VENONA and HASP material clear. As you point out, part of this misconception is encouraged by Wright’s misleading characterization of HASP as ‘not genuine VENONA’. Moreover, his text (see p 186) appears to attribute to HASP lessons learned about J. B. S. Haldane (INTELLIGENTSIA) and Owen [sic: actually ‘Ivor’] Montagu (NOBILITY) that can be detected from VENONA transcripts, as Nigel West’s book confirms.

And I agree with you that the intelligence claimed for these messages is tantalising. Why have they not been revealed by GCHQ? I wonder whether it has anything to do with what Wright himself says about ‘the Sonia connection’ (p 375):

“The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944 [sic!]. In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943.”

I wonder whether you agree with me that this is pure hokum. What is behind that passive voice of ‘had been dismissed’? ‘Tended to believe’ suggests contrary opinions were voiced – and suppressed? And why would Wright get the chronology so wrong? After all, he, like Alexander Foote, believed that Sonia had been tipped off by an insider within MI5, and told Lord Trend that he believed that Hollis was ELLI. The whole point of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and my subsequent research, is to show that MI5 and SIS colluded desperately to keep Sonia from being investigated properly. Of course GCHQ would ‘vehemently deny’ that she could have operated under their noses! Was Wright simply being loyal to MI5 here, and contributing to the project to blame everything on Hollis? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

‘The String of Agents’

I would be surprised to be able to verify that Sonia was running a ‘string of agents’ by 1941. (I likewise have been unable to locate the Wiener Zeitung article.) Sonia’s memoir is very vague about dates, and of course cannot be relied upon too much, but she was very occupied in 1941 in finding accommodation, meeting with her brother and Hans Kahle, and with ‘Sergei’ from the Embassy. “After I had succeeded in making some military contacts . . .”, she writes (p 243), with no explanation as to how or where or when the acquaintances were made, but it would have been foolhardy to have offered such persons money. On page 249, she describes how, in 1942, before Len came to England ‘I had taken up an important contact with an RAF officer whose wife and child had been evacuated to Oxford’ (James), and she eventually persuaded him, with Moscow Centre’s approval, to ‘cooperate’. James provided details of aircraft construction, but refused to take any money from the organisation. On page 250, she introduces ‘Tom’, a fitter in a car plant, who was recruited as a back-up wireless operator. He refused to take any money, either. In the English version of the book, she mentions Klaus Fuchs as coming into her life only at the end of 1942. I don’t know where ‘the specialist in submarine radar’ comes from.

Have I answered the point about her brother Jürgen, Henschke and the OSS adequately? On page 260 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she writes in some detail about the Strategic Bombing Survey, and confirms that Jürgen contacted her about it, so that she could ‘consult Centre’. After that, she took over from Jürgen, who had introduced Joe Gould, responsible for recruiting German emigrants for the espionage missions in Germany, to Erich Henschke. She thus worked with Henschke to identify ‘anti-fascists’ who could help. She says she never met Joe Gould. So the activity was hardly ‘penetration’, or ‘infiltration’: their help had been sought out. At least, that’s what Sonia writes. I don’t think the CIA article you identify contradicts that story, even though it fails to mention Sonia’s contribution.

Sonia’s Radio

Thank you. Yes, it is more accurate to say that the first discovery was made after a request from Hugh Shillito. I don’t recall where I implied that Sonia’s radio might have been only a receiver – which was characteristic of the apparatus of most of the ‘Lena’ spies – as Sonia would have been powerless without a transmitter, and knew how to construct one. I am not technically adept enough to know about the vagaries of wireless reception in wartime New Zealand (did the sheep interfere?), but I suspect outsize aerials would have been very conspicuous (and unnecessary) in wartime Oxfordshire. And why would anyone need to listen into broadcasts from Switzerland? Admittedly, Sonia gained permission from Mrs Laski to erect an aerial from Sonia’s roof to one of Mrs Laski’s stables, and wrote that ‘the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver’.

Yet she acknowledged that, since amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, ‘we had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’, which is why she trained Tom. (How Tom was going to access secret material when Sonia had been arrested is not made clear.) I continue to maintain that it was extremely flamboyant for Sonia to parade her unusual aerial so boldly, and it should have merited attention. This was a woman who was known to derive from a Communist family and background, and was suspected by many junior officers in MI5. Moreover, the Oliver Green case was active in MI5’s portfolio, and had gained the urgent attention of Director-General Petrie! Why no action?

I don’t claim that Sonia transmitted exclusively by the methods Nigel West outlined: that came later. Certainly, she tried to communicate by conventional means in July 1941, as VENONA confirms. On page 243 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she declares that she made some contact with the Soviet Union, and then Sergei gave her a miniature transmitter, ‘about eight by six inches’, which contained a new transmitter. She thereupon dismantled her old transmitter, ‘which was six times the size, and hid the parts for emergency use’. The event is undated. But the story suggests that it was late in 1941, before Len returned.

As for the GRU records for the Quebec Agreement, the HASP material, and James Johnston’s evidence to Pincher, I have to be very distrustful of all three, as none can be inspected! (Although I am sure that the RSS ignored Sonia’s transmissions.)

Keep on keeping on,

Tony  (March 26, 2020)

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War in 1944: Howard’s Folly

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Captain Professor

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

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

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

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

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

Her Majesty & Professor Sir Michael Howard

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

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

The Warsaw Uprising

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

The Monte Sole Massacre

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

Site of the Monte Sole Massacre

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

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

The Red Army and Warsaw

  1. Military Operation:

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

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

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

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

  • Political Goals:

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

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

Stanislaw Mikolajcyzk

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

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

  • The Partisans:

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

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

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

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

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

  • Offensive Strategy:

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

General Rokossovsky

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

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

  • The Aftermath:

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

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

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

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

The Allies in Italy

  1. Military Operations

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

Operation ANVIL

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

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

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

  • Political Goals

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

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

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

  • The Partisans

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

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

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

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

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

  • Offensive Strategy

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

General Alexander of Tunis

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

  • The Aftermath

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

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

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

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

Reassessment of Howard’s Judgment

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

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

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

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

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

‘ . . had issued orders to unmask themselves’.

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

‘ . . .and attack German communications’.

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

‘The Germans reacted with predictable savagery.’

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

‘Allied armies did not come to their help’.

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

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

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

‘It was still believed . .  .’

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

‘Someone must have known what was going on’.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Sources:

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

Russia at War 1941-1945 by Nicholas Werth

Barbarossa by Alan Clark

The Second World War by Antony Beevor

War in Val D’Orcia by Iris Origo

Captain Professor by Michael Howard

The House in the Mountains by Caroline Moorehead

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

The Pursuit of Italy by David Gilmour

Between Giants by Prit Buttar

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

Rising ’47 by Norman Davies

No Simple Victory by Norman Davies

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

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

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

(New Commonplace entries may be viewed here.)

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios – Part VII

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

Stewart Menzies
Richard Gambier-Parry

SM: Hallo, Richard. Take a pew.

RG-P: Thank you, sir.

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

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

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

RG-P: Good news, I trust.

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

RG-P: The enemy, sir? Who?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: I see. That changes things.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: So what does Military Intelligence think?

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: So what happened?

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Access to the PM?

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

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

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

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

SM: Where was I?

RG-P: With Davidson, sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Will do, sir.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

RG-P: Floreat Etona, sir.

Edward Maltby

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

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

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Dear Dr Percy

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

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

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

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

Yours sincerely 

David Watson”

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

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

*                *                      *                      *                      *                      *

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Year of Signals Security

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Mobile Direction-Finding

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Management of RSS

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

An equipped RSS Packard in Alexandria

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The Double-Cross Operation

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

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

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

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

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

Conclusions

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

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