Category Archives: Politics

The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 2)

Cyril Fairchild of RSS: Ditchling Beacon, 1939

When I set about my research into the puzzle of the apparent failure of the British Radio-Direction Finding mechanisms to detect the German agents incorporated in the Double-Cross System, I thought it would turn out to be a relatively straightforward case of guile – foolish, perhaps, and lucky – but still a feint. Yet my readings led me to conclude that here was a multi-dimensional enigma, involving the following conundrums: the bizarre and humbling treatment of Gill, after he made a breakthrough analysis; Gill’s mistake over the assumption that Hitler’s agents all had receivers as well as transmitters; the mystery of Lt.-Col. Simpson, who made a significant impact, but was almost completely removed from the records; the deceptions of Dick White about the timetable of the Double Cross System; the misrepresentations of Guy Liddell about his organisation; the official exaggeration of the Abwehr strategy, and finessing of some technical aspects of their agents’ method of operating; the contradictory representations, by various ‘experts’, of the state-of-the-art of wireless direction-finding; and the scanty coverage of the topic by the authorised historians.

Yet perhaps the most extraordinary finding was the almost apocalyptic observation that appeared in John Curry’s confidential history of MI5 compiled at the end of the war, asserting that the decisions made about the responsibility for the Radio Security Service (RSS) had caused a tragedy of Greek proportions to take place. This judgment was made when the war had recently been won, and the activities of the Double Cross Committee, in exploiting the agents under its control to promote the message that a dummy army (FUSAG) was assembled to invade the Pas de Calais, had been a primary contributor to the success. Was Curry hinting at the Cold War, and the betrayal of Eastern Europe by the Allies? Was he suggesting that British Intelligence had abdicated its responsibility for monitoring illicit Soviet transmissions? Did a careless decision not to deploy the RSS with the correct discipline allow the Soviets to transmit undetected, or did a careful decision to soft-pedal RSS in order to allow the spies to be surveilled open up a different exposure? Or was he simply lamenting the handing-over of control of RSS to SIS, with the struggle over the release of ISOS (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material implying a colossal failure in joint intelligence? Given the political climate at the time, it is difficult to posit any other scenario beyond these. And, in fact, archival documents that have recently come to my attention firmly suggest that it was complacency about German agents that led to carelessness over other threats.

In my May blog, I had referred, in passing, to three documents written by the enigmatic Lt.-Col. Simpson that I believed were no longer extant. In June, through the agency of Dr. Brian Austin, I managed to contact a wartime RSS operator, one Bob King (who can be found in Pidgeon: see below) now in his nineties, who passed on to me a few files. One, though undated and unauthored, was surely an early draft of a contribution by John Curry of MI5 to his 1946 history of the institution (as the style was unmistakeable), but included comments that did not find their way into the eventual published version. The second was the 1938 report by Simpson on the threats constituted by the use of low-powered and miniaturized wireless transmitters in time of war, and what infrastructure, technology and organisation would be required to take on and eliminate such a menace. The discovery of this document is as if one of the lost plays of Aristophanes had suddenly been found. Likewise, I had not been able to locate this report from the Index of the National Archives at Kew, but, if any of Simpson’s contributions have been made publicly available, it astounds me that no historian appears to have grasped the significance of both these pieces. Another absorbing item is a report by an engineer who worked on a secret wireless interception project under the Metropolitan Police. I have no doubts whatever as to the authenticity of these documents, and shall use them (and others) to update the story in this entry. Moreover, in an email communication, Bob King assured me that Sonia’s illicit messages were picked up by the RSS, but the unit was told to ignore them. This nugget of information has enormous significance, and I shall address it in a future episode.

I had originally intended that this chapter would move the whole story – including progress in wireless transmission and detection techniques made by British, Soviet and German espionage and counter-espionage agencies – up to June 1942. The discovery of these new sources, however, means that this piece is dedicated to a deeper analysis of the evolution of RSS leading up to its transfer to SIS in the spring of 1941, and the immediate decisions made in the months afterwards.  I shall return to a full discussion of Phase 2 (January 1941 to June 1942) in a couple of months’ time.

RSS finds its Home

  • Background

For my research on the RSS as displayed in ‘Sonia’s Radio’, I had relied primarily on the Introduction to Hugh Trevor-Roper’s The Secret World, subtitled Behind the Curtain of British Intelligence in World War II and the Cold War, written by its Editor, Edward Harrison, for much of my information on the evolution of the Radio Security Service in the first two years of the war. That was complemented by a revealing chapter in Nigel West’s GCHQ, although West probably ascribes too much importance to the role of Lord Sandhurst, since West enjoyed exclusive access to the Sandhurst papers, and relied on them for much of his narrative. I found valuable, but mainly anecdotal, evidence in Geoffrey Pidgeon’s The Secret Wireless War, some rather fragmented accounts in Frank Birch’s often inscrutable Official History of British Sigint (which frequently reads as if it had been poorly translated from a foreign language, probably German), and some revealing but often imprecise material in Professor Hinsley’s official history of British Intelligence in the Second World War. Philip Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying is overall very thorough and contains good corrective analysis. But Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 is very disappointing in its coverage, considering that it is the authorised history, and that RSS was an integral part of SIS after the spring of 1941. I had inspected some of the source material at the National Archives on a visit in 2017, but, since little of it has been digitised, I have not been able to analyse any other since, apart from a few pieces shared by other researchers.

I recently discovered (thanks to Stan Ames, an RSS enthusiast) a longer paper published by Harrison, which appeared in the English Historical Review Vol. CXXIV, no. 506, dated January 13, 2009. It is titled ‘British Radio Security and Intelligence, 1939-1943’, and provides a very comprehensive account of this critical era in wireless and intelligence. Harrison, who suggests that his contribution ‘fills the gap’ in offering an academic article ‘dedicated to the organisation’ of RSS, generally provides an insightful guide to the literature, and skilfully exploits a broad number of sources. He crisply explains the evolution of RSS, taking the line that MI8 tried to find it a  home in MI5; that MI5 resisted, because of issues of overstretch and competence; how Walter Gill, introduced to the unit late in 1939, brought to it new skills in discrimination (isolating and organising signals of relevance from among a vast noise in the ether); how Gill’s findings shifted efforts towards Abwehr signals abroad rather than illicit transmissions from the UK; and how, because of this geographical re-focusing, with the approval of the imminently-to-be-appointed chief of MI5, David Petrie, RSS was handed over to SIS early in 1941, with official approval occurring in May. He then relates the continuing battles between MI5 and SIS – primarily through the personalities of Guy Liddell, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Maurice Cowgill – over the availability of ISOS decrypts that MI5 thought were critical for the smooth running of the Double-Cross system. It is a masterful and highly valuable contribution to the history.

Yet Harrison’s story does, I believe, not perform full justice to RSS, or describe accurately the manoeuvrings that went on behind the scenes to determine the control of RSS. It is a more a study of the relationships and tensions between MI5 and SIS than of the machinery and contributions of RSS itself, and Harrison is perhaps a touch too respectful of Trevor-Roper’s role, describing him as ‘the intellectual inspiration of RSS’. Moreover, Harrison largely ignores some of the figures who participated. He says nothing about Lord Sandhurst, who was appointed to RSS, and played some role in recruiting or training the Volunteer Interceptor force in the first months of the war. (As indicated above, this may have been a sagacious choice, as Sandhurst’s involvement remains somewhat controversial.) Harrison does not mention, however, the greater contribution of Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson, who wrote the seminal paper that defined the structures, technology and organisation that he felt were vital for protecting the nation’s defences. Harrison seems to be unaware of SIS’s own clandestine interception capabilities constructed in cooperation with the Metropolitan Police, documented by Kenworthy, and chronicled in the National Archives, which throw a bizarre light on the whole issue of MI5/SIS territorial control. He rather bizarrely devotes a section to Malcom Frost’s late efforts to increase the efficiency of the mobile detection units without offering an explanation of what illicit operators they were supposed to be pursuing. He mentions Richard Gambier-Parry, who headed SIS’s Section VIII, under which RSS resided, only in passing. He offers a restrained analysis of John Curry’s highly provocative assessment of the ‘Greek tragedy’ that resulted from SIS’s takeover of RSS, an opinion that Curry himself appeared to abjure elsewhere.

Moreover, Harrison brings to the surface a number of anomalies and paradoxes that are not satisfactorily addressed in his paper, and I have to backtrack a little to the topics I introduced in the first chapter of this saga to refresh the story. I should point out that I am not attempting to offer a comprehensive account of RSS’s history, but to focus on the questions highly relevant to radio interception and direction-finding policies in WWII. Who drove the takeover of RSS by SIS? Why were domestic interception and detection so casually executed? Why were Sonia’s radio transmissions overlooked? Why did British intelligence believe it could convince the Abwehr that the Double Cross agents had not been detectable?

  • The Strange Decline of Lt.-Col. Simpson

Simpson’s Report: First Page

Now that one of Simpson’s papers has come to light, one can understand his considerable strengths, as well as what probably caused him to fall into disfavour. (If not familiar with him, readers should inspect Chapter 1 of this saga first.) His October 1938 report to the Director of Security Service at the War Office, titled ‘Illicit W/T Communication’, is a masterful explanation of the way developments in wireless technology could allow a nest of foreign spies to remain undetected in Britain. He pointed out that low-power transmitters would be able to broadcast to receiving stations overseas (in Germany) while remaining difficult to detect locally via normal ground waves. He recommended the establishment of three fixed Direction-Finding (DF) stations, each complemented by a pair of portable (i.e. mobile) stations, that in turn would be supported by a set of hand apparatuses that could be used for house-to-house search. Landlines to connect the DF stations would be essential, and a line would also link the main DF station with the fixed Interception station. The project was to be enabled by the recruitment of ‘some 50 or 60 picked amateurs out of the 4,000 now existing in this country’; Simpson did add, however, that he believed that the creation of such an organisation was already under way.

Lt.-Colonel Simpson’s Plan for Interception, 1938

Simpson expressed concern about the suitability of the G.P.O., the institution currently chartered with executing MI5’s requirements in this area, since it had a more regulatory and bureaucratic approach to the issue of frequency usage. ‘Our objective’ (which should probably not be interpreted as ‘MI5’s objective’, but as a national interest), he said, is to prevent any unauthorised transmissions, not just investigate them after they had happened. That is why he focused on developing a more elite, professional staff from among all the amateurs who held experimental licenses. He did add, however, the intriguing comment that one of the objectives would be to ‘locate the source of transmission with the least possible delay, but not necessarily stop it’, hinting at the notion of possible control of alien broadcasts, but in fact suggesting a desire to distort the suspected propaganda signals to make them unintelligible. His final appeal was for centralised control over the whole process of interception, direction-finding, and message gathering, and that, when the collection ‘of a certain class of highly confidential intelligence’ had been made, it would be conveyed to the appropriate department ‘to take the necessary executive action’. Lastly, he nominated three very distinguished names to serve on a Technical Advisory Committee, Dr. James Robinson, Director of Wireless Research at the Air Ministry, Captain Round, an expert in DF and interception work, and Mr. K. Tremellen, ‘the greatest practical authority alive on the subject of short-wave communication’. Strangely, none of these names appears in the authorised histories.

Some of Simpson’s ideas would be echoed later (e.g. the need for unification of resources, the professionalisation of voluntary interceptors), but his recommendations were perhaps influenced by two notions that were gradually becoming obsolete: i) a too technical approach that emphasised that the problem was one simply of interception and location, not foreshadowing the technique of traffic analysis, and the way in which that process, alongside (even partial) decryption, fed back into the act of discrimination, and ii) the belief, perhaps encouraged by WWI memories of German spy threats, that the country was riddled with German agents, equipped with wireless, who were ready to spring into action. What is also significant that he articulated the mission as ‘closing . . . all illicit channels of communication with the enemy in time of war, and of locating sources of political propaganda in time of peace’. What he did not include was the need to protect the realm from hostile (not necessarily declared enemy) communications designed to help subvert the country – i.e. transmissions by Communist spies, whether in time of peace or war. This must have been a failure of knowledge or imagination, and it is astonishing that, since he was offering his report on behalf of MI5, he was allowed to make his submission to the Director of Security Service at the War Office without this oversight being pointed out.

John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, suggests that MI5 rejected his ideas there and then, ‘being firmly of the view that German agents would only be using the mails or couriers to send in their reports’, and that the matter was turned back to the War Office. But that does not make sense. The source that Bryden provides for this explanation (Curry) does not give that as the reason: Curry blamed it on the administrative burden and financial commitments required. Moreover, despite the fact that the War Office approved Simpson’s recommendation that the RSS unit be set up, it did not endorse his ideas of ‘unified control’, and when MI5 declined to become involved, Simpson stayed on as the Security Service’s expert. He was surely happy to see his recommendations accepted, no matter where the unit reported. (His perspective on MI5 ownership is a little ambiguous: at one stage in his report he refers to ‘our’ DF or interception stations, but then goes on to write that they would be used ‘in conjunction with M.I.5.’ It appears he had an open mind on the command structure.) Bryden and Curry do agree, however, that the founding of MI1(g) was attributable to MI5’s lack of eagerness to take charge. Accordingly, RSS started collaborating with the Post Office in March 1939, with MI5 demoted to the sidelines, waiting for results.

Simpson may have been somewhat deflated, but thus hung around in MI5 (though without warm recognition from Liddell, his boss in MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division). The fragment from Curry indicates that he was vigorously promoting his original vision of unified control, and stressing the importance of the Post Office in harnessing the appropriate resources to tackle the threat of illicit transmissions by supplying suitable personnel, and moving to build the new facilities required. Indeed, Curry reports that Simpson was the main muscle behind the establishment of the Voluntary Interceptor system: a recognition that other commentators have overlooked. As B3b, he was actively supplying the liaison between MI5 that was later mirrored in SIS’s Section V. As MI5’s representative on the Technical Committee on Leakage of Information (TCLI) that the War Office set up in October, 1939, he was quick (in February 1940) to try to persuade the Ministry of Home Security to bring pressure on to the GPO. He attended the critical meeting on March 20 at Bletchley Park after which GC&CS agreed to set up the ISOS decryption unit. Yet his stubbornness in believing that a domestic German menace was being overlooked (when none existed) must have clashed with the messages coming from RSS. His emphasis on the need for widely dispersed Voluntary Interceptors to pick up illicit ground signals turned out to be something of a luxury, although the wide dissemination of interceptors greatly aided the ability of the unit to avoid omissions provoked by the whimsicality of ‘skip zones’ and the presence of thunderstorms. His expressed frustrations with the GPO’s lack of urgency in constructing new DF and Interception stations was probably on target, but his insistence that the detection of illicit wireless was ‘extremely unsatisfactory’ was not.

Maybe the SNOW affair changed Liddell’s mind somewhat. Simpson’s ideas must have had a slight resurgence with the ‘Fifth Column’ scare in the summer of 1940, but Liddell’s entering discussions with ‘the BBC man’ Malcolm Frost in May 1940 suggests that Simpson was no longer around. (Frost had been the BBC representative on the TCLI, and thus presumably had caught Liddell’s eye as a possible replacement for Simpson.) Indeed, the system of Regional Security Liaison Officers that MI5 set up by Guy Liddell in June 1940, specifically to address the threat of illicit wireless (and which was headed by Jane Archer, mysteriously sidelined from her expert role in tracking Communist subversion) mapped very closely to Simpson’s areas of demarcation. But when that was shown to be a false alarm, his whole infrastructure was seen to be somewhat redundant, especially in the light of the lessons being learned by Gill and Trevor-Roper in the RSS organisation. Interceptors were needed in large numbers, but did not have to be located so evenly around the country in order to pick up ground waves. Simpson’s attendance at the meeting at Bletchley Park where the revelations about the discovery of Abwehr traffic were made is the last reference that Liddell makes to him in his Diaries.

Still, Simpson’s omission from the record books (outside Curry) is extremely puzzling, and some of his contribution remains uncredited. For example, his report clearly refers to the 4,000 amateurs known to the Post Office who had the potential of providing the elite force that Simpson needed. Yet most histories and memoirs attribute the imaginative idea to Lord Sandhurst, who was reportedly recruited by RSS at the outbreak of war to develop a professional force of interceptors to replace the largely part-time group assembled by Colonel Worlledge. Sandhurst, who had also been instructed to liaise with R. L. Hughes of MI5 (who, Curry informs us was B3b, responsible for liaison with the RSS and the BBC, and thus working directly for Simpson at that time), soon approached Arthur Watts, the President of the Radio Society of Great Britain. Watts had ‘several thousand’ members who were radio hams, so Sandhurst then began to select the most suitable for training. Thus Simpson’s contribution is overlooked: Davies, like Harrison, remarkably makes no mention of wireless expertise in MI5 before Frost.  Simpson will turn up again in this account, when I write about the negotiations to find RSS a suitable home, but the verdict on his contribution must be that he was technically correct, but strategically wrong. He brilliantly assessed the state of the art of short-wave wireless telegraphy, and its potential subversive use, but he was caught up in the tide of searching for a phantom menace – the German W/T agents installed in the English countryside – and failed to gain the confidence of his colleagues in MI5. The irony was that the flock of interceptors he identified to protect the nation did not need to be precisely dispersed to detect ground waves, as there were no illicit operators at large at that time, but the volume and placement of such individuals did turn out to be essential to pick up the mass of signals originating from overseas.

  • The Rise and Fall of Walter Gill

Walter Gill

Walter Gill, on the other hand, was (in a specialised sense) technically wrong, but strategically correct. It still comes as a surprise to some observers that nearly all the Abwehr agents infiltrated by air or sea in 1940 were equipped only with a transmitter, and not with a combined transmitter-receiver, or with a separate receiver. Operating ‘blind’, without any confirmation that one’s message was being received at all, or perhaps not clearly enough (and thus needed to be re-sent) would appear to reflect a less than serious objective by the perpetrators of the scheme. And that is one interpretation that can be cast on the German planning, as I have suggested. (Preparations for sending agents into Britain did not begin until July 1940.) Yet that phenomenon is confirmed by the archival reports, as well as by the memoirs of some of the members of RSS. While Gill showed great insight over the question of the source of beams guiding German aircraft, his thesis, that if the supposed German agents could hear their controllers’ signals, then so should the operators in RSS have been able to, and that there were therefore none operating, was based on a false assumption. The focus on enemy signals originating abroad, and the eventual deciphering of many of them (ULTRA), was, however, a major contributor to the success of the war.

Gill’s policy must come under continual scrutiny, however. I have recently read accounts of two Abwehr agents who parachuted on to English soil before the main wave (Operation LENA) that arrived in early September 1940. Each of this pair was reported to have brought a working transmitter/receiver unit and successfully exchanged messages with his controller. Such transmissions were presumably not detected by RSS, since Gill claimed the unit had not identified any unexplained outgoing Abwehr signals. Such agents might therefore have been able to transmit undetected for some time, contrary to the accounts that the authorised and semi-official historians would have us believe. I shall investigate such adventures in my next chapter, to judge whether this was all an elaborate hoax. It should perhaps also be noted that Gill came to his breakthrough conclusion about the absence of German agents in Britain in December 1939, when SNOW was, almost certainly, the only wireless operator recruited by the Abwehr. His report, however, was not written until November, 1940, when the experience of Operation LENA, under which a dozen or more spies landed on British soil, would have sharpened sensitivities in MI5. Indeed, as early as July 13, 1940, Liddell felt compelled to record in his diary the following: “While I feel it is likely that there are a few German agents here, possibly transmitting by wireless, I do not envisage anything in the nature of large bodies of individuals going out to stab us in the back as soon as the Germans invade this country.” That observation indicates that the Gill doctrine had not been accepted wholesale at that time, and Liddell did not have complete trust in the energies of RSS.

I have little here to add to my account of Gill’s demise that I described two months ago, but the account that Hugh Trevor-Roper gave of Gill’s departure is somewhat paradoxical. Trevor-Roper was known for his caustic dismissals of many of those he encountered in wartime, especially the blimpish characters he considered to be his intellectual inferiors, but he clearly had some admiration and affection for Gill. Gill had been a lecturer on electricity at Oxford University, and a successful Bursar at Merton College, although Trevor-Roper had diminished his overall academic qualifications by writing that he ‘could only by a charitable laxity of definition be included among the educated’, a harsh and inaccurate judgment (as revealed in Dr. Austin’s detailed profile of him), which sheds more light on Trevor-Roper’s arrogance than on Gill’s cultural accomplishments. Yet they worked well together as a team. Trevor-Roper, however, when commenting on Gill’s clumsy and harsh dismissal and demotion, could only comment (in Sideways into SIS) as follows: “The real genius of the affair, Major Gill, was also deliberately overlooked. Left to find other employment, he became a radar officer and an expert on captured German equipment. Under the new regime, his name was never mentioned.”

Was there a reason for Trevor-Roper’s coyness over Gill’s treatment, which he also characterised simply as ‘rather shabby’? After all, Gill had been fired without even a formal notification, and then demoted from Major to Captain. Major Cowgill, the offended SIS officer (who had joined SIS only in March 1939, so did not enjoy a reputation of any sort), had repeatedly called for Trevor-Roper, who had been just as complicit in the affair as Gill, to be court-martialled. Yet Trevor-Roper escaped unscathed, even though the head of RSS, Colonel Worlledge, lost his job as well. It is surprising that Trevor-Roper did not provide a more comprehensive coverage of the whole business. In fact he concluded that Cowgill in fact ‘had every right to explode’, as Worlledge had revealed secrets concerning intelligence and security ‘not only to his official contacts in the Armed Services intelligence departments . . . but also (horror of horrors!) to the civilians of the Post Office.’ Perhaps Gill and Worlledge were punished because, as military veterans from WWI, they should have known better. In fact, as will be shown, it was a bit more complicated than that.

One last mysterious incident concerns Gill’s reappearance in April 1942. Despite what Trevor-Roper wrote over fifty years later, Gill’s name was apparently mentioned again, because (as Harrison reports) Trevor-Roper was in contact by letter with F. E. Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), who was Churchill’s scientific adviser, at a time when Trevor-Roper, disenchanted again with his work in SIS, was looking for other opportunities. As Adam’s Sisman’s biography of Trevor-Roper makes clear, he was highly frustrated over the failure of RSS management (Maltby and Gambier-Parry) to keep technical policy aligned with intelligence aims. He had earlier rather indiscreetly criticised the leaders of RSS, specifically Gambier-Parry, and now told Lindemann that Menzies (chief of SIS) had called him in, and then accused him (Trevor-Roper) ‘of having supplied facts to Gill which he had supplied to you and you to Swinton’. Is that ‘he’ Menzies or Gill? Unlikely the former, as Trevor-Roper would presumably not have been party to information passed by Menzies to Lindemann: Menzies would in that case have been concerned about a breach of security elsewhere.

So if it was Gill supplying facts to Lindemann that got back to Menzies via Swinton of the Security Executive, what could those facts have been about, and on what basis were Gill and Trevor-Roper still in communication over important matters if Gill was by then working in a completely unrelated sphere of the war effort? And why would Gill want to leak secrets to Lindemann? It may be relevant that, at exactly this time, as Dr. Austin informs us, Gill joined the Army Operational Research Group, where he was responsible for investigating advanced aspects of Army field communications, but no details of the exchange have come to light. It sounds very much as if Gill and Trevor-Roper had stayed in touch, as ex-colleagues who had collaborated very productively on the matter of intelligent signals analysis, and that Gill was a man whose reputation had been restored, and had connections with influential persons. Another interesting twist to the story (as related by Sisman) is that when Trevor-Roper made a trip to Ireland in early 1942, i.e. just before the contact with Gill, Colonel Worlledge invited him to his home, Glenwilliam Castle, where ‘over a convivial dinner each outlined to the other what he knew of the takeover of RSS by SIS’. The existence of this conversation hints at untold scheming and plotting. Vivian of SIS was later to use this incident to make the astonishing claim that Trevor-Roper had gone to Dublin to betray the Ultra secret to the Germans, and that he had been ‘motivated by resentment against SIS for its treatment of Worlledge, and of Gill in particular.’ (Vivian was by now unstable: Liddell reports that he suffered a nervous breakdown in June 1942.) Trevor-Roper’s published account of Gill’s dismissal was clearly much more muted than this: he was surely concealing something of substance, but it may have no important connection with the fate and mission of RSS.

Gill’s major contribution to the debate about RSS’s future was his November 19, 1940, paper on the Organisation of RSS. Curry represented the arguments therein (the whole Theseus episode, after which focus was shifted to interception of overseas transmissions) as a clinching argument for RSS’s ‘vitality and value’, and for moving it into MI5, but that judgment appears weak and woolly. The timing of this report suggests it was produced under some pressure, but Gill’s account expresses no concern about the current organisation, or the allocation of work between RSS & GC&CS, and it concludes simply with a modest request for more resources. Yet the report includes a very telling statement concerning Direction Finding: “Any of the residue [i.e. the messages remaining after known ones had been identified] found by D.F. to be outside the country could for the above purpose have been neglected [but were not].”  RSS was successful in tracking those same messages, but, by implication, some unknown messages did originate inside the country. Gill gave, however, no indication of how these were investigated, a statement that should have alarmed MI5’s officers. If anything, the case as he made it was an argument against moving the unit to MI5, contrary to what Curry claimed. As we shall see, the question of territory and ownership would play a strong role in the decision, and MI5, even if the service had an outspoken champion, was on its weakest footing at this stage. The transfer to MI5 of course did not happen, but it did provoke a major debate about where RSS should report. Had Gill performed his job, and was thus no longer needed? Or was his demise just an accident of politics? That question may be unanswerable.

  • Kenworthy and the Secret Interception Unit

SIS was a notoriously secret organisation, but even it had clandestine corners that were not apparently known to all its officers, or even its authorised historian. In Keith Jeffery’s Secret History of MI6 the author informed us that the strategic split between the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 (SIS) was made on October 1, 1931, when the semi-autonomous unit of the Special Branch, SS1, which consisted of the familiar Guy Liddell and his colleague Hugh Miller, experts in counter-subversion, was peeled off from the Metropolitan Police and handed over to MI5. SIS was also stripped of its domestic intelligence network, the ‘Casuals’, which was causing an embarrassment. This decision apparently simplified and clarified the missions for MI5 and SIS to handle subversion in the Empire and in foreign countries, respectively. “Thus . . . the Secret Intelligence Service and the Security Service took on their modern form and distinct spheres of responsibility which were to survive for at least the next eight years”, Jeffery wrote, with a high degree of authority (p 236).

Yet it was not quite like that. The reader will learn, from Nigel West’s 1986 book, GCHQ, that in 1930, a Commander Kenworthy reported ‘an illicit Comintern circuit operating between a site just outside Moscow and a terraced house in a suburb of London’. (The Moscow location was verified by direction-finders located in Palestine’s Sarafand, in India, and in London, thereby showing that widely dispersed location-finders working in harness could place remote transmitters with an accuracy that could not always be exercised in more confined areas. Such phenomena perplexed security officers like Liddell.) West added that Kenworthy was ‘the controller of the Home Office intercept station at Grove Park, Camberwell’. It might surprise some that the Home Office was involved with interception. Indeed, in West’s later book (2005) on this Comintern project, MASK, the author informs us that ‘GC&CS’s [sic] monitoring station at Grove Park, Camberwell, headed by Commander Kenworthy, first began intercepting Wheeton’s signals in February 1934 . . .’. Aided by the revelation by an MI5 mole of the cipher used, the codebreakers Leslie Lambert and John Tiltman were able to read the traffic until January 1937. By employing the full force of the direction-finding equipment of the Army (Fort Bridgewoods), Navy (Flowerdown) and Air Force (Waddington), the team of technicians were able to locate the members of a worldwide Comintern ring.

Fort Bridgewoods

The intercept station, however, was not run consciously by the Home Office or by GC&CS. It was run clandestinely by the Metropolitan Police. We owe it to a memorandum by Kenworthy himself, available at HW 3/81 at the National Archives, for a richer account of how Special Branch, assisted by both SIS and MI5, kept a watch on traffic that the armed forces declined to surveille. Supported by secret funds, an interception unit was encouraged by its experience in the General Strike (1926) to seek support from SIS in trying to detect foreign diplomatic stations which did not have ‘Berne List’ status (the latter presumably representing official frequencies allocated by international agreement). Kenworthy made it clear that Admiral Sinclair, the chief of SIS, was intimately familiar with what was going on. Remarkably, Kenworthy indicated that the expertise in interception gained by his unit entitled him to attend Y [= Signals Interception] Committee meetings, where the Services ‘looked to him for guidance’. He described his success in locating the illicit Comintern operator in Wimbledon, also showing that he and his colleague Lambert developed a portable direction-finding piece of apparatus that was critical for their mission.

What is intriguing is that The Metropolitan Police was the institution responsible for tracking the increasing volume of diplomatic traffic that appeared in the 1930s. “The Services were however disinclined to intercept Diplomatic (Commercial) Wireless to any extent as it would lead to a curtailment of the examination of their particular Service channels of Foreign Countries, as it became more and more important that encouragement should be given to Police by S.I.S”, Kenworthy wrote. Soon SIS was funding the exercise, as it was difficult to account for the expenses internally, and not long thereafter the new Receiving Station at Denmark Hill was constructed. Some official funding was approved, and made public, in 1938, but SIS maintained a controlling interest in the project. (At the base of one of his many organisational charts, Birch lists the Police Y Station at Denmark Hill as being controlled by the Foreign Office, i.e. SIS’s sponsor!) Now the interest of GC&CS (which reported to Admiral Sinclair, SIS’s chief) was piqued. In 1939 it decided that Commercial traffic should be intercepted as well, requiring a workload that Denmark Hill could not handle. “G.C. & C.S. realised that more facilities were required but unfortunately they had to cloak their activities and could not openly control wireless stations.” Everything that was going on was contrary to the rules of the protocol-oriented GPO. The outcome was that a new interception station was set up at Sandridge, near St. Albans, ‘specially for G.C. & C. S.’. Finally, to tidy up the picture, GC&CS took over the complete Police signals intelligence capability between November 1939 and January 1940, as the summary of the relevant files at the National Archives website informs us. (Regrettably, I have not yet been able to inspect the complete file.)

This whole chapter in British signals intelligence contains some remarkable ironies. The first is that the task of intercepting commercial and diplomatic traffic had devolved to a clandestine unit of Scotland Yard, a fact that appears to have been overlooked by all historians except Frank Birch. (HW 3/81 was not declassified until 2004: Andrew and Jeffery would have had access to it anyway, but chose not to use it.) The second is that SIS was involved in intercepting traffic occurring within the territorial boundaries of the UK, which flagrantly broke the rules that had been set up in 1931 guiding the missions of the two intelligence services. Since one of the main planks of the argument for placing, in early 1941, RSS under SIS’s aegis was the fact that RSS, after the beginning of the war, changed its focus from domestic to international interception, the episode sheds fresh light on the sincerity and professionalism of Sinclair and Menzies. The third irony is that MI5 knew all about this incursion on its turf, but apparently did not raise any protest: Curry mentions, without judgment, that ‘a certain amount of interception work was being done by M.I.6’, referring to the illicit set operated by the Russians. (One of Kenworthy’s paragraphs reads: “A conference took place with S.I.S. and M.I.5. The latter pointed out that strictly speaking the G.P.O. as the Communication Authority were the Department who should tackle these sorts of jobs but for reasons best known to S.I.S. and M.I.5. G.P.O. were not considered a very secure body.”) In early 1941, the Security Service, already weak in its drive and leadership, would have been on insecure footing had it tried to play the territorial card.

The fourth irony is that GC&CS was allowed to enter the interception game at the beginning of the war (the transfer presumably muscled through quickly by Menzies) at a time when Commander Denniston was making vigorous representations about interceptors invading his own domain of cryptography, an action that led to Worlledge and Gill losing their jobs. Denniston was extremely possessive about GC&CS’s ownership of cryptanalysis, even though he and others (according to Birch) accepted that ‘Y generally involved interception, traffic analysis and ‘low-level cryptanalysis’. But Hinsley also records that, in the summer of 1940, Denniston opposed the demand from MI8 (RSS) that its Traffic Analysis staff of 70 officers be transferred to GC&CS (on the basis that Traffic Analysis and cryptanalysis should be done in the same place), on the grounds that ‘his establishment should continue to be a cryptanalytical centre’ (only).

Kenworthy thus moved to GC&CS, worked there during the war, when it became GCHQ, and retired in 1957. Though working for Bletchley Park, he was stationed at Knockholt, where he led the project to intercept German Teleprinter Communications. This was the very important ‘Fish’ set of non-Morse messages, and Kenworthy wrote a report on that activity in 1946. But of enduring interest to this area of research is his achievement in developing, so early, effective handheld location-finding equipment. I have not yet been able to trace the extent to which his inventions passed on to the GPO in wartime, apart from a brief mention by Curry, who stated that Kenworthy’s portable D-F set was tested by MI5, and that ‘some interesting Mobile Unit operations were carried out on connection with this case [the detection of the Comintern transmissions]’. I thus have not been able to determine whether the apparent dilatoriness of the GPO – so frequently demeaned by intelligence officers – was caused by inadequate technology or by official edict.

  • The Transfer to SIS

So was the transfer of RSS to SIS a smooth operation, or was it bedevilled with conflict and controversy? One can learn little from the authorised histories. The History of British Intelligence in the Second World War contains some errors, as well as some very puzzling observations that do not always make sense. Christopher Andrew does not mention the episode at all, or even the mission that MI5 shared with MI8/RSS. You will not find Lt.-Colonel Simpson, Malcolm Frost, the RSS, or even Section B3, in his Index. Keith Jeffery devotes just two sentences of his equally massive book to the adoption by Section VIII of RSS, indicating simply that it occurred ‘on Petrie’s recommendation’. He has nothing to say about Trevor-Roper, and Cowgill receives just a cursory mention. Geoffrey Pidgeon records the event as follows: “In January 1941, Swinton recommended that RSS be handed over to SIS, but this met with fierce opposition throughout the upper echelons of MI5, resulting in a battle that reached the highest levels”.  However, since Pidgeon (like many commentators) appeared to be under the impression that RSS had been run hitherto by MI5, his account may have been coloured. Nigel West, in his 1985 history, MI5, represents the struggle as one more between Menzies, the SIS chief, and Worlledge of RSS than a conflict between SIS and MI5, although West’s somewhat haphazard chronology of events means it is difficult to follow his narrative. He does, however, make the provocative claim that the change-over ‘was, in effect, “C”s (i.e. Menzies’s) final consolidation of his grasp on signals interception, and was only achieved after a closely-fought struggle with MI5’s ‘old guard’, but this interesting thread is not picked up or developed in his history, MI6, which came out two years later. Since Menzies did not assume his leadership of SIS until November 1939, and did not enjoy a reputation as a deep thinker or strategist, West’s opinion comes over as rather startling. I shall return to it later.

Stewart Menzies

So what does the evidence indicate? Birch suggests that several agencies had had their eyes on the prize of domestic interception, namely MI1b, MI5, SIS, the armed services, the police and the Post Office, before the 1938 decision that the War Office should be in charge, and the establishment of RSS. MI5 had a natural interest, because of the mission it shared with the unit, but, as has been explained, was reluctant to plunge in. Lt.-Col. Simpson must have grown frustrated, because he expressed his dissatisfaction with the state of affairs on September 15, 1939, and, according to Curry ‘suggested that the assistance of Colonel xxxxxxxx [name redacted] (an M.I.6. officer) should be sought’. Now, there were not many established Colonels in SIS at that time. Sinclair, mortally ill, was an Admiral, and Colonel Dansey was absent in Switzerland between September and November 1939. Unless Simpson intended to invoke Dansey, not knowing he was abroad, that left Colonel Menzies, head of Section II (military) and Sinclair’s deputy, Colonel Vivian, head of Section V (counter-espionage). Another officer, however, had been promoted to Colonel earlier that year – Richard Gambier-Parry, head of the Communications unit, Section VIII. There is no doubt, given the length of the name redacted, that it is he whom Simpson approached, and the significance of this connection will be explored later. It is not clear why Simpson decided to voice his frustrations at this time, apart from the fact that war had recently been declared. Was he annoyed at the pace of RSS hiring? Or at the shift to tracking overseas transmissions? Or at MI5’s continued reticence to grab the bull by the horns? The fragment from Curry’s report indicates that his ideas had moved on to consider broader issues of signals security, but his plans at that time encompassed a leading role for MI5 as the hub of a wireless intelligence organisation that it must have been reluctant to assume. Perhaps Gambier-Parry was an old ally, and this was a move to invite SIS to step in. But Simpson might have upset his bosses in MI5 during the process.

Richard Gambier-Parry

RSS was in fact moving along reasonably well: the GPO must have been propelled into action, though perhaps reluctantly. It did not think its mission was to build interception stations that would be focusing on detecting traffic originating from overseas. Three new Direction-Finding stations had been set up, and arrangements had been made in August for linking them with telephone lines. Lord Sandhurst was turning the corps of radio amateurs into a more professional body, though perhaps not as quickly as Simpson would have liked. As Nigel West writes: “The operators had to be skilled, discreet and dedicated, so the recruitment process was necessarily slow. By Christmas 1939, the Home South Region boasted only seven VIs (Voluntary Interceptors) on its roll.” Within three months, RSS had recruited fifty VIs, who were tracking 600 sources – all on the other side of the Channel. West reports that the Home South section had produced 1,932 logs by the end of the year, a figure that grew to 3,052 by March 1940. And, by that time, Gill and Trevor-Roper had cracked the Abwehr hand-cipher, and Bletchley Park had agreed to set up a special-purpose cryptographic unit to handle the traffic. RSS’s reputation was on the rise, but its role probably not broadly understood.

At the same time, fierce arguments over policy and organisation were being discussed by members of the Y Committee, which broadly was responsible for interception, traffic analysis, and low-grade cryptography. There were disagreements about the degree to which the needs of the three Services should be shared, or kept separate, but there was also questioning as to why SIS (whose head, Menzies, chaired the meetings) should control proceedings. It took an appeal to Lord Hankey, the ultimate committee man, for a solution, which involved a stronger Y Committee with a full-time chairman, and supporting clerical staff. Frank Birch suggests some of the confusion when he indicates that the news about the interception and decryption of Abwehr traffic in Europe, and the establishment of GC&CS’s ISOS group appeared to come as some surprise to the committee. ‘Officially, all this was no one’s concern’, he wrote, but in May 1940 the Committee gave formal recognition to the extension of RSS’s responsibility to provide preliminary investigation of these groups of signals. Seven months into the war, the Committee was still in reactive mode, instead of setting policy. The full Committee met for the first time not until January 1, 1941.

In the summer of 1940, after Simpson’s departure, Liddell also found a new candidate to lead B3b (Simpson’s unit), one Maurice Frost of the BBC, whom Swinton encouraged Liddell to hire. After initial good impressions, Frost was signed up, and in June 1940, Liddell reported plans for Frost to set up a new branch (the W Branch), instead of reporting to Liddell in B. The decision was made in July, and ‘Tar’ Robertson (who was handling SNOW) was deputed to work for him. But Liddell had to backtrack, and in August the W unit was folded back into B Branch, much to Frost’s annoyance. (Curry’s report states that Frost was Director of the W Division at this time ‘which comprised B.3’. It is probable that Liddell’s journal is more accurate than Curry’s memory on this matter.  MI5 was also notoriously inconsistent in its naming conventions for Branches and Divisions.) Yet Frost was beginning to get under everybody’s skin by this time. Robertson declared he could not work under him, and even Lord Swinton, who had supported Frost’s recruitment, said in late November 1940 that Frost could not stay in MI5. His ambition and untrustworthiness had become intolerable: moreover, he probably did not possess the appropriate skills for such a job. His interest was more in establishing a service to monitor foreign broadcasts.

Matters appeared to come to a disruptive head in September. According to Hinsley, the War Office concluded that its own interception capabilities (of German Air Force Enigma traffic) were not keeping up with GC&CS’s capacity to absorb it. Thus, on Winston’s Churchill’s bidding, Hankey ordered a transfer of an unspecified number of ‘operators’ from RSS to the Services, ‘overruling RSS’s protests’. This was probably a gross misjudgement: the failure to detect the enemy’s movements in the Nazis’ overrun of Europe in the summer of 1940 was due more to an incapacity to analyse and integrate intelligence properly than a paucity of intercepts. That was the insight that Gill and Trevor-Roper had arrived at.  Moreover, the War Office was responsible for MI8, which was where the unit reported. RSS received intercepts from its team of VIs, the permanent stations managed by the Post Office, as well the Armed Forces, the BBC and the cable companies, so simply shifting operators around was not likely to fix the poorly identified problem. Somehow the discoveries that Gill and Trevor-Roper had made about Abwehr communications with agents as the German war machine moved across Europe in the summer of 1940 should have made it to the General Staff, but there was no mechanism for that to happen.

By now, however, MI8 was feeling the pressure. On October 9 it pushed MI5 to take over the RSS unit en bloc, as it needed to concentrate on military matters, clearly not understanding that the work that RSS was doing was much more closely related to the theatre of war than the stated mission of detecting illicit domestic transmissions. But, of course, MI5 did know. Moreover, Brigadier Allen (MI5’s assistant director) went on record as saying that the service was being asked to take over an organisation that was breaking down. MI5 thus still demurred, because of cost and complexity, and because it understood that the current concentration on Abwehr traffic in Europe (and beyond) made the procedural case for the responsibility’s belonging to the Security Service completely tenuous. MI8 and MI5 were at cross-purposes. No doubt the secret but successful execution of an unchartered mission had to be revealed. The publication of Gill’s report in November 1940 thus brought the achievements of RSS into the open, perhaps preventing any further poaching by the Military, but inevitably driving the unit further away from MI5.

MI5 was also experiencing considerable turmoil at the time: even as Vivian of SIS was reminding MI5 officers (via Jasper Harker) of the correct procedures for communicating with SIS, Liddell was lobbying for Vivian to head MI5, so confusing was the current leadership. Lord Swinton, who headed the Security Executive set up by Churchill, had made life difficult for acting Director-General Jasper Harker, and had inserted William Crocker as an awkward co-head of B Division with Liddell. On December 3, 1940, Churchill’s security adviser, Desmond Morton, had told the Premier that MI5 was ‘close to collapse’, but the previous month the Lord President of the Council, John Anderson, had already brought in David Petrie to review its operation. Petrie had in fact been offered the job of Director-General, but declined to accept until he had performed a proper survey of the operation. He did not complete his report until February 13, 1941, but by January 30 he had already recommended to Swinton that SIS take over RSS. Where is the evidence of the struggle of ‘MI5’s old guard’, identified by West? It seems they put up no fight at all.

David Petrie

Yet the same day that Petrie arrived in MI5 to perform his investigation (January 1), Swinton approached the Director of Military Intelligence, Major-General F. H. N. Davidson to discuss the future of RSS. In an exchange that underlined what critical observers might say about the oxymoron of ‘military intelligence’, Davidson was reported to respond that he found RSS and related matters ‘very interesting, very complicated, and a strain on one’s brain’. Maybe this ‘very model of a modern major-general’ was simply overwhelmed, since he had assumed his new post only the previous month. Harrison, having inspected the Davidson papers, observes that Davidson noted in his diary that Swinton was ‘not satisfied that it [RSS] was doing its stuff’. Whether Swinton understood what RSS’s ‘stuff’ was, or consulted Lt.-Colonel Simpson, as a possibly sharper analyst of RSS’s failings, is not recorded. Davidson’s overall contribution is ambiguous: Cavendish-Bentinck, a normally good judge of character, who was the highly successful Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) for most of the war, recorded that Davidson was ‘a very mediocre officer, with a permanent desire to make our reports fit in with the views of the CIGS [Chiefs of the Imperial General Staff].’ On the other hand, the official history of the JIC makes it clear that Davidson sensibly pressed, in January 1941, for a more integrated view of intelligence to assist the war effort – although he did not include MI5 or SIS in his choice of contributors to the process.

When Worlledge opposed the transfer on February 14 (’vigorously’, as Davies informs us), he also cast aspersions on SIS’s administrative skills, as well as making tactless criticisms of Gambier-Parry’s technical abilities, a mis-step that would later cost him his job. Why Worlledge was so set against SIS’s taking over RSS is puzzling, since it should have been clear to him that MI5 was even less endowed with managerial and technical talent than SIS. Hinsley writes that ‘the MI8 Colonel in any case fervently believed that the Services should control Sigint in time of war’. Was Worlledge perhaps aware of the Metropolitan Police unit, and its mobile detection exercises over the Comintern spies, and harboured some doubts about SIS’s interception policy and strategy?

Maybe Davidson was a fast learner, and had quickly unravelled the complications of RSS. The next day, he questioned Petrie’s decision, pointing out that ‘MI6 is concerned with the transmitting of signals and not their interception or location’, a claim that, as has been shown above, merely indicated that the Director of Military Intelligence did not know the full story of what was going on in the world of interception. Yet Davidson’s preference appeared to be to keep RSS under MI8 control rather than pass it to MI5, echoing his clearly diminished regard for the civilian services. Swinton coolly demolished Davidson’s objections, drawing on his position as supremo of both Intelligence Services to ensure that matters would work out fine, that the necessary committees would be in place to handle overlaps and conflicts, and that more professional training of RSS personnel would address his colleague’s concerns. Davidson was subdued, but not eliminated as a threat. Nigel West informs us that Davidson would later cross swords with Menzies, as he was not happy about the civilian nature of GC&CS, and wanted to wrest control back to the War Office. He believed the Office had not gained the results from interception which it merited for the investment it had made.

Yet another extraordinary step occurred before the eventual decision was made. According to Curry: “Early in 1941 it was suggested that an independent adviser, Mr. Kirke of the B.B.C., should carry out an investigation into R.S.S. organisation from the technical point of view and make recommendations for its future running by M.I.5.” The passive voice disguises an unlikely initiative: that the opinion of a BBC manager, supposedly independent of Frost and his objectives, might have been considered a fair judge of the best home for RSS, with the outcome of the investigation apparently pre-determined, and when in the past year the unit had moved well away from its mission of tracking voice broadcasting, and Frost himself had fallen out of favour, is simply shocking. Unsurprisingly, ‘this proposal aroused considerable opposition’. Curry nevertheless noted that ‘although it was partially carried out’, it resulted in meetings between the Director-General of the Security Service and representatives of SIS. Unsurprisingly, Petrie’s recommendation held. Liddell reported in his diary entry for March 6 that Gambier-Parry of SIS was taking over RSS, and the formal transfer occurred the next day.

  • The Aftermath: RSS under Gambier-Parry

RSS was indeed transferred to the control of Colonel Gambier-Parry in Section VIII of SIS. Gambier-Parry was a larger-than-life character who had been recruited by Sinclair in 1938 to fix the ailing communications systems of SIS and its satellites overseas. Gambier-Parry was an expert on radio: he had worked for the BBC, and for Philco, an American radio company. He had a reputation for being able to get things done, while showing a disdain for any bureaucrats who placed constraints on his will. From most accounts of those who worked for him, he was a popular figure who brought much energy and understanding to the complex challenges facing SIS. He thus embarked on a crash programme of building transmitter-receivers for the locations on the Continent, establishing broadcasting stations in safe places on the UK mainland, and devising the protocols to allow them to communicate securely.

Section VIII was certainly not in the business of interception – overtly, at least. Yet an enigmatic comment by Keith Jeffery in his history of SIS hints at a perhaps clandestine programme that has otherwise escaped the analysts. When Maurice Hankey performed his investigation into SIS at the beginning of 1940, one of the officers he interviewed was Rear-Admiral Godfrey, the Director of Naval Intelligence, seeking his views on the effectiveness of the Secret Intelligence Service. Godfrey was less than enthusiastic about GC&CS, though Jeffery then wrote: “But for Godfrey ‘the one really bright spot’ was the ‘” Y’ side”, in particular the intercepted signals and call signs, which the Admiralty found of the greatest possible use. All praise for this state of affairs’, he added, ‘was due to Colonel Gambier-Parry’. Now Admiral Godfrey was no slouch: he was a well-respected intelligence officer (celebrated for being Ian Fleming’s boss and mentor), and had even been a candidate to replace Admiral Sinclair as head of SIS. It is thus highly unlikely that he would have misunderstood someone else’s contribution as that of Gambier-Parry. This insight therefore does appear to confirm what Nigel West alluded to, namely SIS’s deeper involvement with interception than the authorised histories are prepared to admit.

Guy Liddell knew in March that Gambier-Parry would be taking over RSS, and he was initially optimistic about the changeover, although he recorded in his diary his concern that RSS might now concentrate on ISOS messages solely, to the detriment of MI5’s total interests. Swinton informed the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office Alexander Cadogan on March 10, and on March 16 a meeting was held between representatives of MI5, RSS and SIS to discuss responsibilities. Liddell’s diary entry shows that Gambier-Parry was already putting his stamp on the organisation: “It was agreed that G.P. should set up two Y. masts and retain a limited number of skilled V.I.s. At present there were some 450, many of whom were useless and could be returned to store. He would have expert personnel with his Y. masts who would know the ether and be in a position to eliminate anything but the suspicious traffic. Any communication thought to be peculiar would be sent to the W. Analysis Committee and would be co-related and distributed by Cowgill’s organisation. G.P.s organisation would only be responsible for sifting in the first instance genuine traffic from the suspicious.” It seems clear that Gambier-Parry believed the interceptors themselves were capable of deciding what should be investigated, and would be authorized to do so.

In a significant move, Felix Cowgill had replaced Valentine Vivian as head of Section V in January. It was Cowgill who had objected so strongly to Worlledge’s initiative over the Morocco revelation, and for some reason he was given the task of developing a charter for the new RSS. Liddell again wrote an ominous comment on the proposal in his entry for April 10: “It seems to lay far too much emphasis on the interception of the Group traffic and to neglect the possibility of illicit transmissions in this country. We are replying in this sense.” Was someone guiding the novice Cowgill on this issue? Liddell reinforced his concerns in a conversation with Gambier-Parry on May 1, when he urged that he did not want transmissions from the UK ignored. Gambier-Parry gave a very revealing response, echoing the Gill doctrine that traffic had to be two-way, and arguing that ‘thus we have good chance of picking up traffic from abroad’. Gambier-Parry thus appeared to be set out in an unnecessarily dogmatic vein, parroting a policy that he had not crafted himself. Why would he not show greater sensitivity to his customer’s needs? Since the source of previously unidentified short-wave signals could not easily be located, why would Gambier-Parry promote a policy of diminishing efforts at direction-finding on the mainland? It was another indication that, despite the experience from the MASK exercise, non-Abwehr traffic was not going to be considered seriously. Meanwhile, the highly security-conscious Cowgill was already tightening up on the distribution of ISOS material.

The official handover occurred in early May. Gambier-Parry moved swiftly, installing a long-time friend, Major E. H. Maltby, as Controller of RSS. Liddell reported that Army Signals was taking over the responsibilities of the sniffer vans. A new interception station was set up at Hanslope Park, and some select VIs were recruited to become part of a more professional Royal Signals cadre there. Gambier-Parry dismissed Gill in an unprofessional manner, but Worlledge, contrary to some reports, was not fired immediately. He was instead effectively demoted, to work under Cowgill of Section V. Worlledge did not last long there: Dick White reported later that he resigned that summer on a matter of policy. He might have found working for Cowgill intolerable, but it is also quite possible, given his outspoken comments the previous December, that he did maintain grave concerns about the way interception policy was being diverted away from the mission that he had been attempting to execute. As for Trevor-Roper, he escaped dismissal – no doubt because he and Gambier-Parry had enjoyed hunting together with the Whaddon hounds before the war. “In the world of neurotic policemen and timid placemen who rule the secret service, he moves like Falstaff, or some figure from Balzac, if not Rabelais”, wrote the Oxford don of his comic-opera friend. Adam Sisman goes on to record that, after his appointment as head of Section VIII, “Gambier-Parry had seized an opportunity to establish his headquarters at Whaddon Hall, which was not far from Bletchley. There he lived like a colonial governor, with a fleet of camouflaged Packards at his disposal.”

Whaddon Hall in wartime

On May 20, Liddell chaired the first meeting of the Joint Wireless Committee, attended also by Malty, White, Cowgill and Frost. This was a series of fortnightly gatherings that would eventually create deep rifts between the two security services. The first resolution at this meeting ran as follows: “It was agreed that it was the function of the committee to coordinate the mutual interests of S.I.S. and the Security Service in the Radio Security Section [sic: according to Trevor-Roper, ‘Section’ was a temporary name soon abandoned]. It should lay down general directions for the operation of R.S.S. and decide priorities of service to be supplied by R.S.S. to S.I.S. and the Security Services.” It was also resolved to invite Mr. Strachey from GC&CS to become a member, and Captain Trevor-Roper was appointed Secretary. On the provocative and controversial matter of detecting domestic illicit transmissions, the minute for Item 4 read as follows: “It was agreed to proceed with a limited policy of ‘snifting’ in cases where intelligence information gave rise to a reasonable belief that an illicit transmitter existed at any known location in the British Isles. All Sections of the Security Service should be informed of the facilities available but demands should be strictly allotted to those important cases where the position of a wireless set by any individual was considered a genuine possibility. Major Frost would consult with Mr Dick White on the importance of the cases submitted, and the priority to be given to them.” The bland implication here is that some examples of illicit transmissions would be ‘unimportant’. But who would be the judge of that unless the incident were properly investigated?

That same week, at the end of May 1941, agent Sonia of Soviet Military Intelligence sent, from her lodgings in Oxfordshire, her first wireless message from British territory to her masters in Moscow.

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So what evidence is there for Nigel West’s claim about SIS’s long-term ambitions to gain control over interception, and that Gambier-Parry’s Communications Section may have been assisting in its objectives? We have the clandestine operation that uncovered the Comintern spies, sponsored by SIS. Lt.-Colonel Simpson may inadvertently have helped the SIS’s cause when he brought Gambier-Parry into the picture in September 1939. That may have provoked SIS into moving on the Denmark Hill operation: the unit was transferred to GC&CS as the disputes over RSS’s future heated up in the winter of 1939-1940. We have the evidence of Admiral Godfrey, who appreciated Gambier-Parry’s valuable contribution to interception and traffic analysis in early 1940. Worlledge is outspoken on his concerns over Gambier-Parry’s and SIS’s suitability for tackling the interception problem thoroughly, and resigns on a point of policy. And SIS’s charter for RSS is oddly delegated to Major Cowgill, who is a relative newcomer to the business, has had no involvement in telecommunications, and does not work for Gambier-Parry. Moreover, Cowgill has recently taken over from Colonel Vivian, who was always bitter enemies with a man who is now his rival as second-in-command at SIS, Colonel Dansey. Dansey will be familiar to readers of Sonia’s Radio, and the most perspicacious of you will recall, from Part 9, that I pointed out an exchange of opinions between Dansey and Gambier-Parry in 1943, which showed conclusively that Dansey maintained a very active interest in clandestine wireless communications. As the saga enters the phase where SIS is in control of RSS, Liddell is soon seen to harbour grave concerns about the purity of SIS’s intentions, and Gambier-Parry gives the impression of voicing a dangerous policy crafted by someone else.  But why would SIS set out so obstructively, not accepting MI5’s requirements, or attending to their legitimate concerns?

Claude Dansey

An observer might ask at this stage: why did the JIC not take a firmer interest in all these negotiations? The committee was in fact still finding its feet after a revitalisation arising from Churchill’s accession to the premiership. MI5 and SIS were not even admitted to the committee until mid-1940, and were normally represented by Brigadiers Allen and Menzies, respectively, who might not have known exactly what was going on, or may not have been certain how much they should disclose. After all, Cavendish-Bentinck, even as Chairman of the JIC, did not know about ULTRA at this time. Yet Hinsley records that the first attempt during the war to involve the JIC in the discussion of Sigint policy and organisation foundered on Menzies’s opposition. This is an extraordinary assertion, given that Menzies, as a newcomer, presumably could not have had much clout, and he would not have been able to display his ULTRA card. As I have shown, the Y Committee, which determined interception priorities, was likewise undergoing a high degree of turmoil at the time. The whole dispersal of policy and practice for interception and intelligence gathering seems a glorious muddle, and then one remembers that glorious muddling-through is the modus operandi of liberal democracies, and the reason they thrive. Halfway through this chapter of RSS’s wartime translocation, the Conservative administration of Chamberlain had been replaced by Churchill’s coalition, with new ministers, new ideas, new appointments. There was in fact a great deal of trust and creative, open discussion between the departments, unlike the fiercely competitive agencies in Hitler’s Germany, or those cowed into indecision under Stalin, with both intelligence groups mainly telling their respective dictators what they wanted to hear.

And, finally, what about the ‘Greek tragedy’ alluded to by John Curry? We recall that this judgment appeared in the official internal history completed by Curry in 1946. Yet in his draft chapter on Illicit Interception dated October 22, 1945, Curry (who was a rather cautious and neurotic individual, as Liddell’s Diaries inform us) came to a very different conclusion. “It is nevertheless true to say that the benefits derived as a result of R.S.S. being under the control, first of the War Office, and secondly of M.I.6. were considerable and the results achieved and the benefits to intelligence work were immense. However, one is left with the feeling that had M.I.5 accepted responsibility for the organisation in 1938 a great deal of the trouble which ultimately arose between R.S.S. and M.I.5. and the ultimate change of command in 1941, would never have arisen and indeed the organisation detecting illicit wireless transmissions would have been just as good, if not better, than the one that ultimately emerged.”

That is a weak and fudgy statement that sounds as if Curry was trying to please too many audiences. Why those multiple ‘ultimates’? Is Curry referring to friction between RSS and MI5 before the ‘ultimate change of command’, or that which occurred afterwards? Was his subjective and unanalytical ‘feeling’ shared by other officers? Why did Curry alone believe that MI5 would have found the right talent and skills to sort out RSS’s house, when its own organisation was in such a mess, and short of managerial talent, and Simpson had resigned? If the SIS control turned out to be a disaster, why did he not say so?

I suspect that the ‘Greek tragedy’ conclusion may have been inserted by Petrie himself. Harrison implies (tacitly) that it might have been the Director-General who doctored Curry’s official history, since he disagreed with Curry’s conclusions, and wanted a firmer statement made on Cowgill’s obstinacies. Harrison, by the way, clearly identifies the ‘Greek tragedy’ as the withholding of ISOS material in April 1942 by Cowgill. Yet that was an Act III episode that was overcome before the finale. I have pointed out before how the circumstances of Petrie’s retirement are finessed by Andrew: I suspect Petrie had discovered some of the nasty smells that derived from a flawed interception policy when he retired in 1946. It is possible that he then realised that a deal between SIS and MI5 had already been in the works when his opinion was sought, one that effectively hamstrung him in his effort to protect the nation from the malign efforts of Soviet spies. Ensuring that his opinion of the whole affair was recorded for posterity was his swan-song.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, for his very helpful comments during the evolution of this article, and to Stan Ames and Bob King for their research contributions and insights. The conclusions made in it, and any errors therein, are mine alone.)

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Homo Sovieticus

Aeroflot Advertisement, New York Times, 2017

A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.

Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.

I reproduce the letter here:

Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972

It reads:

“Dear Sir,

I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.

. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;

И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . .  (Lermontov)

Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”

[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless  . . .”]

I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.

I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.

The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika

My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.

At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.

H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg

I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”

Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest

My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.

The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.

The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.

Oleg Gordievsky

Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.

I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.

(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)

I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see  http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/)  But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.

Some people opposed the . . .  rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.

Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips

As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.

So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler?  Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.

President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.

So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.”  (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)

I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:

“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.

The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.

We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”

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The Mystery of the Undetected Radios (Part 1)

[A review of Misdefending the Realm appeared in the Times Literary Supplement of May 25. The text can be seen here.]

A G.P.O. detector-van, circa 1925. Note the well-camouflaged postilion on the roof of the vehicle.

The successful invasion of France by the Allied Forces in May 1944 was achieved largely because of the successful project to mislead the Germans about the planned landing site – the Pas de Calais rather than the actual beachhead in Normandy. Operation OVERLORD was a winner because of Plan BODYGUARD and the latter’s Directive for FORTITUDE. Yet the ability of the Abwehr – and hence the Wehrmacht – to be deceived so comprehensively by the group of double agents recruited by MI5, and run by Britain’s Double Cross (XX) Committee, opens up the management of these agents to some searching inspection. The relentless question, posed by many historians of this period, can be expressed essentially as follows: Why did the XX Committee allow such intensive wireless transmissions (especially from agent GARBO) to take place, knowing that any respectable interception agency would have located them and arrested the operators?

The Strategic Dilemma

In last month’s blog, I started analyzing the statement by Sir Michael Howard, the author of Volume 5 of British Intelligence in the Second World War (‘Strategic Deception’) concerning the challenges the Abwehr faced in exploiting its agents in Britain. Howard wrote: “The most satisfactory channel was radio transmission, but for this three problems had to be solved. First, the agents had to be provided with transmitting and receiving sets, and after June 1940 this was easier said than done. Secondly their missions had to evade detection by the security authorities; and finally they had to communicate in a secure cypher.” What were Howard’s sources in divining this strategy?

Howard was strangely subdued as to how the Abwehr went about its mission, or how the German intelligence service overcame these supposed challenges. He records a few sporadic observations, and refers to Professor Sir Harry Hinsley’s and C. A. G. Simkin’s Volume 4 (‘Security and Counter-Intelligence’), which also writes about the XX Committee, but says little about Abwehr strategies. As I have pointed out before, it seems that the authors of this volume did not want to engage the technical challenges too energetically.  The discussion of such is relegated to a very amateurish and inadequate Appendix 3 (‘Technical Problems Affecting Radio Communications by the Double-Cross Agents’), written by an anonymous ‘former MI 5 officer from his personal experience’, which only skims the surface of the intricate subterfuges and negotiations that were undertaken to allow the agents to communicate with their supposed controllers in occupied Europe.

In fact the wireless strategy of the Abwehr was haphazard, tentative, and frequently incompetent. At the end of 1940, when the main wave of agents arrived on UK shores, mainly by parachute, most of the spies were equipped only with transmitters, not receivers, as they were planned to be used only as temporary informants before the imminent invasion. Howard’s description of the Abwehr’s objectives thus misrepresent its intentions. The chances of a heavy wireless set, strapped to the parachutist, surviving the fall from a low height, were not considered healthy. When one of the surviving sets (belonging to Wulf Schmidt, agent TATE) was at last made operable, the Abwehr gave advice for charging it up from motor-cycle batteries that, if followed, would have burned the valves. When Lily Sergueiev (agent TREASURE) was, after an inordinate amount of bureaucratic muddle, finally given her visa by the Abwehr to leave France for Madrid, as late as October 1943, her advised method of communication was still invisible ink, even though she had been trained in wireless operation. The acquisition of agent GARBO’s (Juan Pujol’s) wireless set had to be arranged by MI5: TREASURE likewise had to convince her Abwehr boss that she could go to Lisbon to pick up a set, under cover of being employed by the Ministry of Information. Agent BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) appealed to his controller to send him a more powerful transmitter, but the Germans prevaricated. It was as if the Abwehr only very late in the war considered seriously the use of wireless as a means of communicating intelligence.

The British, on the other hand, as they started to realise that the double-agents could be used more for strategic deception than simply gathering information about the enemy’s intentions, concluded that critical information needed to be forwarded in a timely fashion. Letters with invisible ink or microdots, sent to intermediaries, simply took too long, and the XX Committee thus inveigled the Abwehr into more intensive use of radio. Yet this was a very delicate path to follow, for the double agents would have to deploy their wireless sets as if the whole exercise had been initiated by the Abwehr itself, complemented by the ingenuity of the spies themselves. Thereafter, once radio communication had been set up, the XX Committee, and the officers of B.1.a of MI5 who controlled the agents and liaised with the Radio Security Service (RSS), had the outwardly conflicting goals of a) ensuring crisp and reliable communication between the agents and their handlers, and b) pretending that their powers of radio-detection and location-finding (generally known as ‘D/F’, for ‘direction-finding’, even though the term does not explicitly include ‘locating’) were so poor that their own agencies were incapable of intercepting the transmissions and hunting down the culprits.

One can thus present the dilemmas faced by the architects of strategic deception as follows:

  • The authorities had to ensure that no unauthorised enemy transmissions were made from UK soil. Hence good detection and direction-finding were paramount.
  • They had to be confident that the Abwehr trusted the communications of their agents and that they were kept in place providing ‘useful’ information. Hence D/F had to be shown to be inadequate, or extraordinarily imaginative transmission techniques, masking location, or using wavelengths close to dominant broadcasters, had to be used.
  • At the same time, MI5 had to discourage illicit broadcasts by embassies and governments-in-exile, since information might be passed on that would undermine the ‘bodyguard of lies’ being woven by the official deception agency. In order to do this, an effective interception and D/F operation had to be managed.
  • Thus all illicit broadcasts, by such agencies, or by rogue private operators, had to be shut down. If news of this got out, the Abwehr would no doubt hear of it, which would lead them to conclude that the operation was an effective instrument of surveillance. How, therefore, could the Abwehr be convinced that the British D/F operation made sense?
  • The British experts needed to keep informed about the capabilities of the Nazi D/F operation. This process would mature soon, when SOE, the Special Operations Executive, started up its insertion of wireless agents into France, Belgium and the Netherlands, and later in the war when the shared Soviet-British espionage network in the neutral territory of Switzerland was pinned down by Gestapo technology and silenced in 1943. Would the Germans not assume that its enemy’s capabilities were as advanced as its own? Thus the XX Committee, abetted by the RSS, focused on such practices as reducing radiation emissions as far as possible without weakening the signal so much that it could not be picked up across the Channel.
  • Meanwhile, doubts lingered over the efficacy of the domestic interception operation. RSS was known to be very capable at locating, fairly broadly, transmitting stations in occupied Europe. It also gave great assistance to the MI5 in testing the strength of agents’ signals when the location of the transmitter was known. But how good – or committed – was it at detecting all other sources (such as the Communist transmitters that MI5 was nervously following)? If known operators could bypass RSS detection, what unknown agents were doing the same? This knowledge of undetected transmissions (some acknowledgeable, others not) increased suspicion of the efficacy of RSS processes.

This chapter starts to explore the evolution of this tangled operation. The official histories provide little guidance: there is no comprehensive account of the RSS organisation outside some mainly affectionate memoirs. Frank Birch’s multi-volume history of British Sigint is opaque, and often self-contradictory: it is overloaded with obscure organizational subtleties, and fails to make crisp conclusions. Some facts can be gleaned by a close inspection of the agents’ folders at the National Archives: occasionally a fascinating handwritten note of ‘Copy to Wireless Folder’ can be seen on documents, but no such Folder has been released. Several documents listed in the Indices of the agents’ folders have been plainly destroyed (some entries having a line through them with the descriptor ‘DEST’!). Yet enough tidbits of information can be gathered from the National Archives, including the unedited (but redacted) original of Guy Liddell’s very revealing Diaries, to indicate that the challenge of masking the D/F operation was taken very seriously by some intelligence officers. Strangely, however, many reckless decisions were made, too, that could have jeopardized the whole campaign.

Four Phases

I have divided the period in question into four segments. The divisions are in some respects arbitrary, but they do delineate some clear shifts in trends, and in the conduct of the war (up to the Normandy landings).

Phase 1: Learning the Ropes (September 1939 to the end of 1940):

This phase is characterised by a fear of invasion, and of supposed ‘Fifth Columnists’ assisting it. It is a period of organisational dysfunction, with no clear command over the personnel and technology required to intercept illicit transmissions, or the detection of strategic wireless communications from overseas. British Intelligence quickly learns, from its experiences with the suspected triple agent SNOW, and the rather undisciplined attempts by the Germans to land spies in the UK, the lessons deriving from analysis of radio traffic, and the role of detection-finding. The W Board and the XX Committee are set up as a structure to explore ways of handling double agents, but by then MI5 is losing control of an important asset with insights into the problem of interception.

Phase 2: Conflicts and Tensions (January 1941 to June 1942):

Organisational change brings improved management and leadership to MI5, but the placement of RSS under SIS (with which MI5 was initially happy) leaves the Security Service with a sense of lost control. SIS’s tightness over security means MI5 does not receive the decrypts it regards as essential to the task of running its double agents, and RSS’s mission shifts more to overseas work. Both MI5 and SIS try to deal with their prima donnas. Even the Controlling Officer of Deception faces political attacks. RSS is outwardly cooperative in direction-finding, but MI5 questions its ability and commitment to the Security Service’s aims. The situation regarding the Soviet Union is clarified by its entry to the war as an ally, but is then complicated by the wireless activity of Soviet spies.

Phase 3: From Defence to Offence (June 1942 to May 1943):

Progress is made: Masterman persuades the head of SIS to release decrypts to the XX Committee, and he confidently declares that the operation controls all German spies. The new Controlling Officer of Deception (Bevan) brings energy and imagination to the overall deception plans for OVERLORD: the strategy for double agents evolves to using them to mislead the enemy about the proposed landings in Europe. Knowledge of Abwehr communications has increased. With the arrival of GARBO, the XX Committee develops plans to expand the usage of wireless telegraphy among the agents it is controlling, as the method of communication will be faster, and more reliable.

Phase 4: High Stakes (May 1943 to June 1944):

As the pressures on the security of the Double-Cross operation increase, doubts surface. MI5 expresses anxiety about RSS’s abdicating monitoring of Army transmissions, a loophole the Abwehr seems to be aware of. Gambier-Parry, head of Section VII in SIS, is not fully trusted. Concerns intensify about the volume of traffic being sent, but that remain undetected by British surveillance. Concerns are expressed about rumours of suspicions within the Abwehr about the reliability of their spies in England. Interception of Abwehr messages, however, appears to confirm that the messages of the double agents are overall being trusted. Transmissions by third parties (embassies, Soviet spies and visitors) alarm MI5, which reflects on its technical lack of expertise. While periods of radio silence have to be imposed, the double agents (especially GARBO) continue to send long-winded messages, remaining on the air for hours. Yet the deception is successful.

This chapter covers Phase 1. The other Phases will be examined in future postings.

RSS & The Fifth Column Threat

For the first nine months of the war, MI5 was focussed almost entirely on the risk that a Fifth Column, taking its instructions from German radio broadcasts, might aid the Nazi invasion when it came. The Germans had set up several radio stations broadcasting in English, of which the New British Broadcasting Station was the most prominent. Apart from the obvious propaganda in its messages, MI5 believed that the signals included coded instructions that subversive refugees – and ardent British Union of Fascists – would decipher. The Security Service even believed that some privately-owned transmitters were sending information back to their masters, even though the use of unregistered transmitters was illegal. Prime Minister Chamberlain chartered his Minister Without Portfolio, Maurice Hankey, with investigating such leaks, and in November 1939 a new unit, MI8(c), was set up to take over responsibility for wireless interception from MI1(g). Guy Liddell, head of Counter-Espionage in MI5, did not think anyone was taking the matter of disguised radio codes seriously enough: no one – neither MI8, nor GC&CS, nor SIS, nor MI5 itself – was adequately equipped or motivated to assume the work.

The problem endured into Churchill’s administration, which took over the reins in May 1940. Ironically, Churchill was the most vehement about the Fifth Column threat, installing a new layer of management over the intelligence services, and firing the veteran head of MI5, Vernon Kell. An apparently valuable expert in telecommunications and cyphers, Lt.-Colonel Simpson, had recently been lost from the service. As a possible replacement, an officer from the BBC, Malcolm Frost, who started to work with Liddell, reinforced the claim that the NBBS was sending coded messages to subversives, and Frost probably saw an opportunity to enter the limelight by taking on the challenge of deciphering them. Yet, by the spring of 1940, the RSS (the Radio Security Service) had concluded that the lack of domestic wireless transmissions suggested that the threat from a Fifth Column was minimal. It came to these conclusions in an imaginative fashion, but the logic behind that judgment was to come to harm relationships between SIS (to whom RSS eventually reported), and MI5, responsible for domestic security.

The exact origin and identity of RSS are murky, some accounts suggesting that it was subsumed into MI8(c), and in fact became the bulk of that section, which officially reported to the War Office – a clash between militarism and amateurism that would lead to later tensions. (Please see SoniasRadioPart2 for a fuller account of the origins of this unit.) Some official archives suggest that RSS had been set up in 1938, and was a team composed largely of Voluntary Interceptors – amateur radio hams – who watched the ether for unusual signals, and a team of mobile direction-finding units nominally reporting to the General Post Office. That latter part is clearly true, but Frank Birch’s Official History of British Signals Intelligence indicates that, when the financial approval for an organisation called IWI (Interception of Illicit Wireless Communications) was granted in March 1939, that unit was soon named MI1(g), later reassigned MI8(c), and that the definitive organisation permanently known as RSS developed under MI8(c)’s control.  (Some archival documents tantalisingly refer to an entity titled the ‘Radio Section’, as if it had been a department of M11g, and then lent its name to the larger organisation.) Internal MI5 documents, such as Dick White’s Notes for Counter-Espionage Training in 1943 (KV 4-170), strongly assert that RSS was set up only at the outbreak of war. In any case, the section known as RSS had moved to Wormwood Scrubs, in the same building as MI5, in September 1939, and thus enjoyed close collaboration with MI5’s officers while keeping its separate identity. The official history informs us that the completion of the transfer from MI1(g) did not take place until November.

The critical conclusion that RSS made was based on the interception of transmissions from the German intermediary ship, the Theseus. The relevant sentences from Hinsley’s history are worth quoting in full: “The organisation responsible for the interception of illicit wireless transmission, the future RSS, continued to be controlled by the War Office – by MI 1(g) till November 1939 and by MI8 (c) after that date – with the GPO acting as its agent for the provision of men and material and the maintenance and operation of the intercept stations. By the outbreak of war its headquarters staff had been located close to GC and CS, which was to be responsible for cryptanalytic work on the intercepts, and it had finally established the beginnings of a network with the decision in March 1939 to establish three fixed and four mobile stations and the recruitment, from June 1939, of an auxiliary observer corps of amateur radio enthusiasts. But it had listened in vain for transmissions from the United Kingdom – in vain because it was still the case that no transmissions were being made apart from those on Snow’s set which was operating under MI5’s control. Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range. By December 1939, however, it had been recognised that the difficulty did not apply to transmissions made from Germany to agents: they had to be able to receive their control stations’ signals, and if they could hear them, so could the RSS.”

What Hinsley does not explicitly state is that the task of deciphering these messages was undertaken by a Major E. W. B. (Walter) Gill of RSS, in conjunction with his aide, Hugh Trevor-Roper. Gill, who had served as a wireless intelligence officer in World War I, had been recruited by Colonel Worlledge only that same month, December 1939. Exactly why Gill had joined at this critical moment is unclear from the familiar accounts: John Bryden, in Fighting to Lose, describes Gill as primarily ‘a Canadian army signals officer’, and explains that a unit in Ottawa had picked up ‘the clandestine wireless traffic from Canada’, whereupon Gill had arrived at the War Office ‘looking for advice on how to handle it’. Bryden clearly states that the clandestine traffic was the Germany enemy-agent transmissions, and that Gill’s mission was to ensure that RSS abandoned its beacon-searches for the newer phenomenon. If Gill needed advice, why did the War Office not turn to Simpson, first, rather than planting Gill at MI8c with a directive role? Why could it not give those instructions to Worlledge directly? Who was making these critical decisions?

E. W. B. Gill

Bryden’s explanation does not really make sense. Indeed, it does not appear that Gill was shipped over from Canada. According to a biographical article by Dr. Brian Austin, Gill was aged 56, and employed as Bursar of Merton College when he volunteered for duty on the outbreak of war. Indeed, Gill had plenty of relevant experience for his role as head of the ‘discrimination section’ at RSS. In WW I, he had been instrumental in interpreting the wireless messages of the Zeppelins, and had also set up wireless intercept stations in Egypt. After demobilization, in July 1919, Gill was put in charge of the wireless intercept station at Devizes, where, as Austin notes, the attention of the listening devices including listening to allies as well. With an OBE awarded, Gill then returned to civilian life in the Electrical Laboratory at Oxford, and in 1934 published a short memoir of his life in the military titled War, Wireless and Wangles. Dr. Austin, who has performed intensive research into Gill’s life, reports that he was identified in a scheme of Lord Hankey’s as a potentially useful asset in signals intelligence (sigint), and assigned to RSS to work on discrimination, an aspect of traffic analysis that isolates signals of interest.  Given Hankey’s charter at that time, as described earlier, that makes excellent sense.

Trevor-Roper, who described Gill as ‘a genial philistine with very little respect for red tape, hierarchy, convention or tradition’, confirms for us that Gill was Bursar of Merton College when he invited Trevor-Roper to join him at the RSS, an observation that does not sit tidily with that of a sudden visit from Canada, and an order from the War Office. MI5 records that GC & CS turned down RSS’s requests for assuming the task of inspecting the messages, as it was too busy, and thus Gill and Trevor-Roper set about decrypting them themselves. By late January, 1940, Gill and Trevor-Roper had solved the cipher, and thus informed GC & CS of their achievement. That provoked Denniston’s ire. (Gill had performed a similar act in World War I, but the War Office had reacted positively to his breaking of the rules.) Perhaps as a punishment, Gill was then ordered – on loan –  to Oxford to set up a radar-training school, but, on returning to duty, was demoted and sent to the Siberia of Catterick. He must surely have upset someone with influence, and Hankey could not save him.

Yet, if RSS dabbled dangerously into GC & Cs’s domain of cryptography, it perhaps departed too rapidly from its own mission of interception and counter-espionage. It overlooked a very pertinent fact. Gill’s report, written in November 1940, states, on the basis that ‘it takes two to make a wireless communication’, that ‘if the agent can hear his replies, so can we, and the watch on the German agent stations is thus of first importance to see if they are working to any station we may not have heard’. The serious flaw in RSS’s logic, which I do not believe anyone has picked up, is that SNOW had been supplied with a transmitter only. Since any undetected agents would likewise probably have no receiver capability, there would not have been any messages sent out to them by their ‘control stations’, and thus absence of evidence of acknowledgment or guidance from Abwehr controllers was no solid indication that there were no other agents in possession of transmitters. Gill’s conclusions about the likelihood of undetected wireless agents in Britain may have been sound, but it was based on the assumption that these agents had receivers. If this was an acknowledged flaw in Gill’s reasoning, he could have been reprimanded, and the decision overturned. But it was not: his recommendations were adopted, and echoed by the official histories.

Thus Gill, with his disdain for the proper procedure, was ultimately responsible for a major strategic decision while gaining enemies on all fronts. At exactly the same time that Lt-Colonel Simpson was bolstering RSS and pressing for tight domestic surveillance, Gill turned its attention elsewhere. He incurred the annoyance of Denniston in GC & CS for stepping on its turf, and, with his boss, Worlledge, later touting his achievements in a case involving espionage in Morocco, he also trod on the sensitive toes of Major Cowgill in SIS. While the known technical difficulty of picking up medium-range signals could still have inhibited the detection of active agents infiltrated by the Germans, Gill persuaded his superiors that interception efforts should be focussed overseas. This new policy was articulated in the following account of the decision (at MI5’s 1943 training session of intelligence officers): “As far as stray agents in the U.K. were concerned it was held that rather than try to get on to their ground waves, they would watch the controls in Europe and would get the reflection of the existence of an enemy agent in the U.K.” Yet Dick White’s report includes a very misleading and surprising statement, relating to Gill’s discoveries of early 1940: “He [Gill] therefore obtained from M.I.5 (Captain T. A. Robertson) full information concerning double-cross W/T agents run by M.I.5, and directed the machinery of R.S.S. to a systematic study of first the control, then the other out-stations, of the enemy W/T system thus penetrated.” White is unambiguously referring to the time when the detected traffic was sent to GC& CS, and rejected, early in 1940. There was, however, no network of double-cross agents being run at that time. SNOW was the only candidate. What was White’s intention here in misrepresenting the facts, so soon after the event? Might have he wanted to inflate the breadth and depth of RSS’s capabilities, and to underline the correctness of its new mission?

Nevertheless, out of convenience, and because of the difficulties in picking up short-wave radio signals from close proximity, a policy was adopted of abandonment of any attempt to detect illicit wireless at source, replaced by a reliance purely on reflected signals.  Liddell hints at a tortured fear several times in his Diaries without every describing the explicit reasons for his sense of horror – namely, that he knew agents might have transmitters only, and that not all dangerous illicit transmissions were actually issuing from enemy (i.e. German) agents. Moreover, this concern echoed further, and was even represented by one of the historians (Curry) as a disaster of almost existential proportions.

Gill’s demise is astonishing. Here was an officer with an outstanding WWI record in wireless interception, awarded an OBE, bearing an impressive résumé of original scientific analysis in the inter-war years, sponsored by an influential minister, Lord Hankey, and recognised for some important analysis of German radio traffic. He was then dumped unceremoniously, not even being informed of his sacking, demoted from Major to Captain, and despatched to the Royal Signals Training Centre at Catterick. The obituaries written about him all point out his puckish humour, and his impatience with any cant or humbuggery. He must surely have spoken up in inappropriate terms about Denniston, or made other unpublished criticisms, to incur such treatment, but Denniston himself was under the gun, disliked by the Armed Forces staff, and shortly to be demoted himself. It is a mystery that suggests there was more going on than has been recorded. Was Gill really such an unpopular performer in the eyes of the Top Brass?

Such tensions between cryptography and interception had been highlighted by ongoing disagreements between GC & CS and the intelligence units of the Armed Forces, who were all investing more money and personnel into sigint, but who were resenting the amount of control that GC & CS wielded over the committees that made decisions about interception. The Y Committee, which was responsible for wireless interception policy, had held a meeting on December 28, 1939 (chaired by Denniston), that did not succeed in reconciling the disparate views expressed, representable mainly as the conflict between Service independence and inter-Service centralised control. In familiar tradition, the Minister Without Portfolio, Lord Hankey was asked to arbitrate. Hankey was a committee man, and his recommendation of strengthening the Y Committee, under a new chairman from the Admiralty, and joint secretaries nominated by the War Office and the Air Ministry, was adopted on March 1, 1940. In May, this new committee officially recognised RSS’s vital role in exploring these overseas groups before handing them over for attention by the Service analysis stations.

Double Agents

Meanwhile, MI5 had been exposed to its first experiences with double agents. (The primary reference for the double-cross operation is John Masterman’s The Double-Cross System, but, while giving a first-class breakdown of the mechanisms and principles of the operation, it is as much a work of public relations as it is formal history. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross is engagingly written, and an excellent guide, but contains many mistakes.) This period was dominated by the case of agent SNOW, a Welshman named Arthur Owens. Owens, who was a businessman specializing in batteries, had been an occasional agent for SIS, but was discovered by MI5 to have been in contact with the Abwehr on business visits to Germany. He had been given a wireless transmitter by his Abwehr controllers, and started signalling in early September 1939. He was by then, however, under MI5 supervision, and his messages were initially sent from Wandsworth Prison. (A lively account of Owens’s career as a double, and possible triple-agent, can be found in James Hayward’s Double Agent Snow.) What is important for the story of detection and deception is what MI5 learned early in the cycle, before the mass of would-be spies arrived in the autumn of 1940, with the result that the Security Service was prepared when the tide arrived.  It was at this stage that many of the formative ideas about deception, and what was required to make it successful, were forged.

Agent SNOW (Arthur Owens)

SNOW’s exchanges with the Abwehr also provoked some highly important breakthroughs. This particular aspect of how the SNOW experience assisted cryptology generally has been told concisely and comprehensively several times (for example in Nigel West’s MI5), so I shall simply summarise it here, and add some commentary. The knowledge of the codes that SNOW used in his communications facilitated for Gill and Trevor-Roper, and then Oliver Strachey and Dillwyn Knox in GC&CS, the task of deciphering Abwehr messages. Some of these were based on use of the Enigma machine, but communications with agents in the field, and outlying bases that would not have been secure enough to be entrusted with Enigma machines, used hand cyphers (such as pinwheels with codes).

Early in 1940, RSS’s team of Voluntary Interceptors had been able to ‘pinpoint’ [a term that Nigel West provocatively uses] a vessel, the Theseus, lying in the North Sea as the originator of the transmissions received by SNOW, and the source of messages to other agents in Western Europe. It is, however, extremely unlikely that location finding was accurate enough at that time to give precise co-ordinates of any transmitter without local sniffers being required. It is not clear from the accounts whether a broad area was identified, and the precise location of the German vessel established by aircraft inspection, or whether a purely electronic identification of the location of the Theseus had been made. ‘Pinpointing’ is a regrettable term. Indeed, Frank Birch offers the following laconic observation about the state-of-the-art at this stage of the war: “The optimism of enthusiasts as to the pinpoint [sic] accuracy of D/F fixes was shattered early in 1940 by the Norwegian campaign.” Nevertheless, through this successful detection exercise, RSS was able to supply GC&CS with a constant stream of traffic to the cryptanalysts in Bletchley Park.

Yet the questioning of SNOW in early 1939, when he had informed his contacts in MI5 of the immediate plans of the Abwehr to deliver to him a wireless-set, are also very revealing, in that they show both the mixed ambitions of the Abwehr as well as the ignorance of MI5 about wireless matters. The set itself was delivered to a left-luggage locker at Victoria Station, and MI5 arranged for the equipment to be removed and inspected by SIS before allowing SNOW to explain its workings, and hand over its codes and callsigns that he was supposed to use. The device was small, and portable, and was claimed to have a range of 12,000 miles, using an ordinary 350-volt battery, and also to be activatable by plugging into a normal lamp-socket. Yet it was a transmitter only: SNOW was to inform his masters when transmissions would start by means of the regular mail service, and, in time, acquire a short-wave set that would allow reception. This is quite an extraordinary revelation, showing how unambitious the Abwehr was in its wireless plans at this time. A transmission without any mechanism for immediate confirmation was a highly quixotic venture, and the Abwehr’s relying on its agent to construct a receiver (a more complicated piece of apparatus than a transmitter) and manipulate it properly betrays an overall lack of seriousness that again belies Howard’s confident assertions about Abwehr strategy.

An earlier interrogation of SNOW had been carried out, in September 1938, by Edward Hinchley-Cooke, an enigmatic figure in the whole saga. Hinchley-Cooke is a puzzle, primarily because the authorized historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, gives him no coverage at all after the early 1920s. He features regularly, up until 1943, as an interrogator of Germans in Liddell’s Diaries, but Nigel West (who also edited the published version of the Diaries) never places him in any of his organisation charts in his own history. Hinchley-Cooke had a German mother, and spoke German very fluently, which is probably the reason that he was brought into so many of the interrogations and prosecutions of Nazi agents. John Curry, in his history of MI5, suggests that Hinchley-Cooke was ‘attached to’ B Division in 1939, while working for the War Office, because of his interrogatory skills, but then clearly states that he was on the Director-General’s Staff after Petrie’s reorganization of summer 1941. John Bryden indicates that Hinchley-Cooke was the sole MI5 officer working on German counter-espionage up to the outbreak of the war. Moreover, Hinchley-Cooke’s questioning of SNOW was not very subtle. He failed to follow up on SNOW’s evasive answers, and it is clear that Hinchley-Cooke had no understanding of the principles of radio communication and codes. He was accompanied by an Inspector and Superintendent from Special Branch, but their names are redacted, and they contributed little to the proceedings. This lack of technical expertise would come to dog MI5 in a big way.

The Strange Career of Lt.-Colonel Simpson

Yet MI5 did possess competency – for a while. Even more astonishing than the oversight with Hinchley-Cooke is the failure of the authorised historian to include any reference to a key figure behind the events of 1939, one Lt.-Colonel Adrian Simpson. Perhaps Andrew’s omission (quite probably a matter of strong guidance to the authorised historian by MI5’s mandarins) is due to the fact that Simpson appears to have been appallingly mishandled. We owe it to Curry’s ‘official’ history, published for internal use in 1946, to describe for us how Simpson was appointed to advise MI5 on all matters relating to wireless after the Security Service had declined to take on the responsibility for establishing the Radio Security Service in late 1938. Simpson was well qualified, having been head of MI1(b), the code- and cipher-breaking agency in WWI, and an executive with the Marconi company between the wars. Nigel West’s Dictionary of  Signals Intelligence informs us that in 1915 ‘Simpson established a General Headquarters cipher bureau at Le Touquet to analyse material collected from intercepted enemy landline communications’, and that ‘within a year, MI1(b) had built direction-finding stations at Leiston in Suffolk and Devizes in Wiltshire, with a control facility on the roof of the War Office in London’. MI1(b) was a core group that was amalgamated into the Government Code and Cypher School (GCCS) in 1919. So Simpson was eminently qualified to define the next generation of interception facilities. And it should be noted that Walter Gill had been the head of the Devizes station, possibly appointed by Simpson: one might expect him and Simpson to have been collaborators, even friends.

Simpson’s efforts appear, however, to have been wasted. Curry would go on to write: “One of the conspicuous illustrations of these tendencies has been the refusal in December 1938 to grapple with the problem of wireless and the consequent establishment of R.S.S. under M.I.8 with results recalling the principles of Greek tragedy.” This extraordinary uncensored commentary on ‘Greek tragedy’ must hint at disasters undocumented. If the war was won, and the Double Cross operation judged to be an utter success, where did the calamities lie? Which character would suffer in Act V? Would it be Liddell’s failure to be appointed Director-General of MI5 in 1953? Where were the bodies buried? Why did MI5 allow this judgment from Curry to appear?

Curry states that B.3 (which Simpson headed, a section under chief of counter-espionage Guy Liddell) was not set up until the beginning of the war, but Simpson was clearly active in some influential capacity throughout 1939. He wrote (at least) three important papers, none of which appear to have survived. In an October 1938 report that surely provoked the December decision, he had crisply laid out the investments, equipment, and organisation that an effective Security Service would require to defend the realm against illicit wireless, pointing out that technology had advanced considerably in the past few years. This scenario would include three fixed Direction-Finding stations, and a corps of several dozen Voluntary Interceptors to track the airwaves. Hinsley and Simkins reinforce the importance of Simpson’s recommendations, writing that his report ‘reached the disturbing conclusion that interception arrangements were so inadequate that had recent developments led to the outbreak of hostilities a skilled agent could have established a reliable wireless service and maintained it for a considerable period with almost complete immunity; he added that such a service might well be already in existence.’

Simpson took over responsibility for B.3, a section that was set up to liaise with the RSS, and to deal with suspected illicit transmissions, in person being involved with any search and prosecution decisions. He was clearly closely involved with the SNOW case during 1939, but was moved to write another report, dated February 2, 1940, which harshly criticized ‘the state of affairs concerning the detection of illicit wireless’, although he laid most of the blame at the General Post Office for its failure to provide the appropriate skilled staff in operating the sniffer-vans that would hunt down transmitters to individual residences. His career with MI5 effectively ended at that point, as he was reportedly moved over to General Wavell’s army in the Middle East: whether he was pushed out, or resigned in frustration, is not clear. The source of this story may be Stephen Dorrill, who writes in his 2000 history of MI6 (SIS) that Simpson was appointed by Wavell to prepare to counter possible Soviet intervention in Transcaucasia. Since Dorrill then states, however, that Simpson, ‘a former managing director of Marconi’ [correct], ‘had been ADC to the Grand Duke Nicholas in the Russian Army’s Caucasus “Savage Division”’, Dorrill may have got the wrong Simpson. That experience does not sound as if it comes from the ‘Memoirs of a Wireless Interception Man’. In any case, Curry’s observation that MI5 ‘lost his services’ at that time suggests that he resigned. An intriguing correspondence that Mark Rowe, author of Don’t Panic: Britain Prepares for Invasion, 1940, discovered in Bristol record offices, indicates that, in April 1940, Simpson was still recruiting Voluntary Interceptors to the RSS organisation. Maybe he did not move to the Middle East, but worked for a while championing what he saw as RSS’s true role, and applying pressure to his successor, Malcom Frost (see below).

Curry’s suggestion that Simpson stated that the fault lay with the staff operating the sniffer-vans may have been a political comment that veiled the truth. If sniffer-vans were going to be effective in following up triangulations of illicit transmissions, they would have to work in real-time in close communication with the Y Service that tracked signals. Sending them out the next day to try to detect noise would be a fruitless task unless the service expected the offenders to transmit at the same time that day. Moreover, the sight of such vans would immediately have deterred further transmissions, as we learned from the activities of the communist Green network (see SoniasRadioPart9). The Gestapo would soon perfect such an operation, with radio contact between vans and central control (which I shall describe in a later chapter), but one can easily imagine a more casual approach in island Britain at this time. Simpson’s criticisms, and imminent departure, hint at such more serious problems. Perhaps he had identified the inevitable conflict between efficient location-finding and controlled double agents using wireless, and his name has thus to be excised from the record, like one of Stalin’s commissars disappearing from a photograph?

What is even more astonishing is Guy Liddell’s almost complete exclusion of any reference to Simpson in his Diaries. The complete (but redacted) version of the diaries at the National Archives contains just one reference to Simpson by name (when he is called to investigate Verey lights at Harwich Harbour), and one veiled reference to his positional identity (B.3) when, on March 20, 1940, shortly before he resigned, Simpson attended a meeting with Liddell, Worlledge of M.I.I.8, and G.C.& C.S. officers and ‘cypher experts’, to discuss decrypted messages from Germany. Yet the organisation of B3 is very puzzling. If Simpson headed it (as Curry clearly states), T. A. (‘Tar’) Robertson must have been his subordinate, yet Robertson signs off his reports as ‘B3’ in the autumn of 1939, while a couple of anonymous memoranda, signed off as ‘B3.a’ while Robertson was away, may have been written by Simpson. Robertson worked closely with Simpson on the SNOW case: Robertson refers to Simpson’s attending a meeting at Robertson’s house without clarifying the management relationship.

Yet there may have been problems with authority and rank. Simpson was a Lt.-Colonel with a proper military background, while Robertson was only a Captain at this time (soon promoted to Major after Simpson left). In the rank-obsessed climate of wartime Britain, that would have been a problem if Simpson had truly been subordinate to Robertson. Curry muddies the waters even more, since elsewhere he writes that a subsection B.3.B was responsible for liaison with RSS. That is how the structure appears in his diagram of the organisation after the Petrie decisions in July 1941: I have found no specific reference to B.3.B in the time that Simpson was around. Maybe with some purposeful vagueness, without giving a precise date, Curry writes: “It [B.3.B] derived from the section under Captain later Lt.-Colonel Robertson and Lt. Colonel Simpson which, before and soon after the beginning of the war, was concerned with the arrangements for developing the R.S.S. organisation and for maintaining liaison with it . . .” If anything, it points to an awkward compromise joint leadership, akin to the role that Liddell was sharing with Lord Swinton’s pal Crocker at the time. William Crocker, a solicitor, was another disastrous imposition forced upon MI5, this time by Sir Joseph Ball, who was responsible for handling the Fifth Column ‘menace’ on Swinton’s Security Executive.

Liddell frequently talked to Robertson about the SNOW affair, but ignored – or bypassed  –  the expert brought in to design the RSS architecture, and makes no mention of his career, or the reasons for his leaving, even though what occupied Simpson’s time (the laxity over tracking down illicit wireless) was a subject that worried Liddell just as much. Robertson himself is recorded as speaking to Liddell in a fashion that passed on Simpson’s opinions (such as the criticism of the sniffer vans), and it appears that Robertson was content working under/with Simpson (unlike his relationship with Simpson’s eventual successor, Malcolm Frost). Thus Liddell’s studied rejection of Simpson’s significance is even more surprising. Did he perhaps resent an officer being foisted upon him? Did Simpson argue and activate too strongly for taking on RSS within the B3 section? It all points to a mysterious clash of personalities, or a disagreement over policy, not just a later embarrassment that might have required his name to be redacted. One must also wonder whether Gill and Simpson had crossed swords at some time. Gill, as I pointed out earlier, had been head of the interception station at Devizes, which was one of the monitoring posts established by Simpson. The highly oppositional strategies of a) RSS being consumed by foreign broadcasts, and being passed to SIS (Gill), and b) MI5 securing its control over illicit transmissions in Britain by taking over RSS (Simpson), would have clashed mightily. Is it possible that Gill was inserted into RSS to ensure that the unit did not fall into the hands of MI5? Moreover, the neglect by the authorised historian, Christopher Andrew, to write anything about B3 section must count as either a colossal oversight or an act of censorship – especially since Andrew recognised Simpson’s intellectual contribution in his earlier (1999) Introduction to the publication of Curry’s History.

SNOW’s Radio Activity

To return to SNOW. The coverage of SNOW’s radio activity after MI5 took control is infuriatingly elusive in the books that write about him, from Nigel West’s rather choppy MI5 (1981), through Volume 4 of The Official History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, by Hinsley and Simkins (1990) and Christopher Andrew’s authorized history of MI5 Defend the Realm (2009), to James Hayward’s breezy Double Agent Snow (2013) and John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose (2014). The archives on SNOW are typically disorganised, with much repetition, as well as many undated and anonymous reports, and it is consequently very difficult to identify exactly what wireless equipment is being referred to in the various documents.

The narrative on his wireless activity appears to run as follows: As outlined earlier, the Abwehr originally, in January 1939, provided SNOW with a transmitter only, suggesting that he himself construct a receiver. SNOW had been apprenticed as an electrical engineer, and was an expert on batteries, but constructing a reliable transmitter was no simple task. In the interim, it would mean that confirmation of receipt, transmission times, etc. would have to be conducted by letter, through SNOW’s purported business contacts in Germany – an extraordinary convoluted process, but one which was acceptable during peace-time. The Abwehr apparently had plans to send SNOW to the Americas at one stage: hence the extraordinary wide radius the transmitter enjoyed. The set was flexible and portable. It could be tuned to different wavelengths, unlike later models used, which required individual crystals. But it was unreliable, burning up under SIS/MI1(g) tests, and the boffins had to restore a resistance unit so that it would do the same again when SNOW tried to use it. In fact, SNOW was still having problems with it in July 1939, when he wrote to his contact Auerbach saying that he had at last rectified the faulty resistance. And transmitting successfully over 12,000 miles, had SNOW been able to smuggle his set overseas, would have required a very large antenna.

SNOW’s career was then disrupted by family matters: a jealous wife reported him to the authorities, telling them that he had disposed of his wireless set. MI5 tracked SNOW down to Surbiton, whither he had moved with his mistress on August 29, and, with his guidance, Robertson and his colleagues discovered a receiver in the bathroom cupboard, and his original transmitter buried in the garden. (Hayward notes that the receiver was a ‘crude’ device, and that SNOW had ‘apparently’ constructed it himself: maybe the experts from the Royal Signals had actually delivered it for him.) When war broke out, SNOW was arrested, and MI5 started broadcasting on his behalf, officially using him as a double agent. After the initial broadcast from Wandsworth Prison, the officers feared that the Germans might be able to triangulate the origin of the signals, and then ask themselves how a clandestine transmitter could be allowed to operate from such an institution. In fact they were being unduly cautious: locations could be identified only to the level of a large conurbation, and (certainly at this stage of the war) it would have taken a platoon of sniffer-vans, supported perhaps by portable equipment, to narrow the search to a particular building.  Moreover, German goniometric techniques were inhibited by geography: it took at least three receiving stations to plot an accurate fix, and their dominant Eastern orientation meant it was more difficult for them to triangulate transmissions from the UK. The British authorities would nevertheless have been mindful of the successful, but highly complex, process that allowed them to home in on the illicit Soviet MASK transmitter in Wimbledon a few years before.

Hereafter the story becomes contradictory. SNOW did make contact with his Abwehr controllers on September 19, but, given the problems he was experiencing with his apparatus, Hamburg promised to send him a new transmitter. MI5 reported how unreliable the current transmitter was. On February 29, Liddell noted that SNOW’s set had blown up, and a telegram had had to be concocted to send to the Abwehr to indicate that he had not been raided. His apparatus required a 98 foot antenna, which did not work reliably if misaligned. (The device had a knob – a ‘tuner’ – to control frequencies, but required corresponding changes to the antenna length if a frequency was switched. Using a knob would have been less reliable as a way of selecting a frequency than the insertion of a fixed frequency crystal.) Signals were not strong: Hamburg said they were weaker than those coming from Ireland. MI1(c) had been monitoring SNOW’s transmission: they said that jamming by a powerful station was causing interference. A note of February 29, 1940 indicates that the intrusion of dampness caused the equipment to burn up, with advice to use an outside antenna to avoid the use of the relay circuit.

A typical British suitcase wireless transmitter/receiver of early WWII

Yet, in another Case History, undated, but probably written in April 1940, as it refers to events that month as in the recent past, and describes how ‘every two or three months’ SNOW travels to Antwerp to meet Dr. Rantzau (whose real name was Ritter) – a record which must have preceded the Nazi invasion of the Low Countries. Here the writer tells us that SNOW ‘broadcasts every evening’. At some stage, SNOW’s set must have been improved after the stumblings earlier in the year: the archive notes that seamen couriers (quaintly described as ‘lascars’) did bring over new parts in April 1940, but the arrangement of having a separate receiver and transmitter was clumsy, and maybe the range of the machine made it more liable to direction-finding. Back in March 1939, MI5’s B.3 (i.e. Lt.-Colonel Simpson) had sought the opinion of Colonel Yule of MI1(g) as to how long he thought it should take for ‘our internal intercept and D/F organisation’ to locate SNOW’s transmitter, clearly concerned about what the Germans were thinking. Yule had organized some rather casual efforts to track SNOW’s frequency, and even mentioned detector vans, but the initiative appeared to fizzle.

Despite his studied ignoring of Simpson, Guy Liddell himself showed remarkable foresightedness in understanding the sensitivity of this issue, and the value of downplaying the radio-detection capabilities of the British security organs. In a diary entry for October 28, 1939, he wrote: “Brigadier Martin of MI.1 has suggested that a representative of the News Chronicle who thinks he had detected an illicit wireless station, should be shown the apparatus we use and taken round in a van in order to get a cross-bearing. He would then write up the story in the Press. D.S.S. telephoned Martin to say that we had strong objections to any publicity being given to this matter. It was in our interests that the Germans should regard us as grossly inefficient in these matters, particularly as ‘Snow’ is sending them weather reports. If they thought our organisation was that good they might well ask how it was that he managed to get his messages through.” This episode shows how quickly Liddell summed up the value of subterfuge against the obvious appeal of propaganda, at a time when the British press was very keen on providing the public with ammunition against the Fifth Column threat.

Nikolaus Ritter, Chief of Abwehr Air Intelligence

Direction-Finding

The British were not the only group to be thinking about wireless detection. When SNOW visited Rantzau in Antwerp in early April, 1940, prepared by MI5 to probe the enemy’s thoughts on detection-finding, Rantzau told him that he should not be concerned about being detected, as ‘as it was a very difficult thing to track down short wave wireless sets’. This information – that shortwave sets were immune to detection and direction-finding – was one he had originally given to SNOW as early as January 1939, a revelation that SNOW had passed on to a sceptical Robertson. Now, in April, 1940, Rantzau even mentioned the Abwehr’s strenuous efforts to track down such sets closer to hand. The details are redacted, but these were probably sets managed by the Soviet Red Orchestra. Rantzau told SNOW that a transmitter had been detected in the Wilhelmshaven area, but it had been impossible to run it down. In the light of later experience with this communist network, and with SOE wireless operators inserted into Nazi-controlled territory, primarily in France, this rather sanguine opinion would need to be changed.

“This is nonsense”, declares Bryden, perhaps too brusquely, implying that Rantzau was being devious, and in his book he gives an oversimplified account of how triangulation worked. In the early part of 1940, techniques were surely not that advanced. I quote Bryden’s summary in full: “Obviously, in order to survive in enemy territory, it is helpful for a spy to change frequencies and call signs as often as practical., but the most important necessity is to send from different locations. DR. RANTZAU was not asked the most critical question: Was it safe for JOHNNY – the name Ritter preferred to use for Owens – to always be sending from the same place? The Germans were soon to provide the answer when Britain’s sabotage agency, Special Operations Executive, began landing its agents into occupied Europe. Their wireless transmissions were DF’d and they were caught by the score. The only MI5 officer with the technical clout to challenge DR. RANTZAU’s advice – Colonel Simpson – had left. In his absence, Robertson chose to believe his German opponent.”

What is extraordinary is that, the very same month (April 1940), SNOW’s transmissions had been picked up by the French ‘illicit wireless service’, as Liddell reported. The French were, of course, conveniently at a distance where clear signals could be picked up. Fortunately, the French had sent a report to GC&CS, whence Commander Denniston forwarded it to Gill in RSS, who contacted MI5. “We are telling them to lay off”, wrote Liddell. Robertson sent a letter to Major Cowgill of SIS, telling them that MI5 knew all about the station. But, if a French service had been able to pick up SNOW’s signals, and to determine that it was probably an illicit set operating from the United Kingdom, why did MI5 not imagine that the Germans would conclude that the British should have been able to do the same, making allowances for the dispersion of their interception stations? (This is a vital point that Bryden makes, although he does not discuss the subject of ‘dead’ zones.) And was it not a careless mistake to brush off the interest of the French so casually? It could have been a leaky organisation, and the rumour that the British were manipulating a German agent could have spread.

Despite the provocative but fortuitous French experience, the problems in performing accurate direction-finding of short-wave radio signals were officially well recognized at the time. Frank Birch, in his Official History of British Sigint, 1914-1945, wrote: “Intertwined with the problem of interception was that of D/F, greatly complicated since 1918 by the development of shortwave transmissions and the general awareness among signals personnel of the need to defeat, as far as possible, D/F operation”, rather cryptically hinting at defensive methods that British signals would need to employ against German capabilities. Surprisingly, Birch did not explain why short-wave transmissions were less easy to detect: it was because their signals were bounced off the ionosphere, which gave them a greater range, but made their isolation more difficult. M.R.D. Foot, in his book on SOE, informs us that this phenomenon is called ‘skip’:  the signals bounce between the ionosphere and earth, and create ‘zones of silence and zones of good reception that may alternate all around the globe – and may vary according to time of day, season of the year, or prevalence of sunspots.’ (As will be shown below, Simpson offered a similar explanation of this phenomenon.) These signals were also subject to interference from local electronic activity, but, if that were too intense, it would have affected reception on behalf of the intended audience as well. Birch also pointed out that, while the Germans were able to specify their frequencies to the level of one kilocycle, the British were precise only to five, and ‘and in practice measurements were often up to a hundred kilocycles out’. Birch went on to write: “Now, its frequency was an attribute of a signal on which both traffic analysts and cryptanalysts partly based their work, and by February 1940 the nuisance of inaccuracy had become generally recognised as acute. But the remedy was still far to seek.”

Earlier in this piece, I quoted the MI5 report about giving up on trying to ‘get on to their ground waves’. The way that short-wave transmissions worked, ground waves would be emitted from the antenna, as a source of radiation, and could be picked up until the curvature of the earth (or unusual geological formations) attenuated them completely. In order to reach a remote target, the antenna would also emit skywaves, which would use the ionosphere to ‘bounce’ those signals beyond the horizon. But there would be a dead zone between the area where the ground wave penetrated and the larger expanse where the signals could be picked up – both by the desired station, as well as by interception stations with roughly the same distance and sphere of receptivity. (see diagram) These areas are technically called ‘lobes’, and their dimensions are dependent upon whether the antenna is placed horizontally or vertically. And that is why the detection and location of illicit radio were problematical. Interception stations within the skip zone would receive nothing if they were also beyond the ground wave range. And it would require at least two stations in the right place to attempt a fix, while the distortions of the skip zone could confuse the analysts.

Ground waves, sky waves and the ‘Skip Zone’

Birch was even more outspoken elsewhere, and it is worthwhile quoting in full an important paragraph: “On its own, D/F has been described [here he cites a Naval source] as ‘by far the most important source of communications intelligence, if the cryptographers are out of form.’ This is no doubt true, but truer still is another authoritative statement that ‘independently of Special Intelligence, D/F was useful, but in a much narrower field’. Optimistic illusions as to its accuracy were shattered early in the war. ‘It was the exception rather that the rule for a fix to be obtained that could be classified as being within ‘forty-mile radius’, and there were many occasions on which even such fixes turned out to be very wrong indeed’. In spite of the multiplication of stations carefully sited so that as many as 30 or more bearings could be taken of a simple transmission, in spite of improved equipment by technical staffs and the working out of a mathematical method of calculating the position of a unit, based on the ‘weight’ or class of bearings, investigations by experts revealed that ‘a good operator was nine-tenths of the battle.’ In plotting, skill and experience mattered more than gadgets and quantity of bearings. In short, D/F ‘as practised from 1939 to 1945 was an art – not a science.’” That judgment would appear to contradict directly the rather overawed conclusion that the American intelligence officer Norman Holmes Pearson offered in his Foreword to John Masterman’s book: “The techniques of intercepting messages sent by wireless were highly developed. So was the science of direction-finding by which the location of the transmitting instrument could be determined.” That is how mythologies begin.

Simpson had himself contributed to the debate. Again, we have to rely on Curry. Before he left B.3, Simpson wrote the third report that we know of: ‘Notes on the Detection of Illicit Wireless 1940’, with a view to investigating reports of suspected illicit wireless transmission. In Curry’s somewhat clumsy words: “He explained the problems connected with Ionosphere or Reflected Ray communication and ground rays, and suggested that secret agents would be able to avoid bulky or intricate apparatus and that only low-power would be employed. He said that, assuming an efficient receiving station in Germany, it would be possible to select a suitable wave-length, having regard to range and seasonal conditions, which would give a regular, reliable service. If such a station were to be established in a carefully chosen locality in this country it would very likely not be heard at all by our permanent interception and D/F stations. Such a station could be situated in the centre of a densely populated area or alternatively installed in a small car. He set out detailed instructions for procedure in dealing with investigations in these circumstances.” What those instructions were, we shall apparently never know. But his advice appears to have been ignored – or to have been politically unsuitable.

Simpson’s message was picked up by Hinsley and Simkins in Volume 4 of their History. “Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range”, they wrote, to which Bryden has a riposte. In a note concerning the official claim, he comments: “This is correct, but it does not mean that the transmitters could not be located. The British Post Office was already using mobile direction-finding units to pick up local transmissions, and the Germans in Holland and France were to develop the technique to a fine art.” He goes on to say ‘the spy could change frequencies by changing the crystals in his set.’ For 1940, Bryden probably anticipates a little too much, and credits the Post Office vans with a little too much finesse. (It is one thing to roam around potentially busy locations, like Embassy districts, and another to chance upon illicit transmissions from private residencies around the countryside.) We now know that Simpson criticized the skills of the mobile direction-finding units (as did Liddell), but they may have been limited by technology. Furthermore, changing crystals had other implications, and was not available to every operator at this time. The commentaries on SNOW’s apparatus inform us that, in order to change a frequency, if a crystal were inserted (or the change made by the advanced facility of using a knob), the length of the antenna had to be changed as well. Matters were not as cut and dried as Bryden represents them: the state-of-the-art was probably more in the vein of what Rantzau and Simpson independently stated at about the same time.

The confusion is reinforced by other conversations. Liddell had discussed the question of detection with Menzies, the head of SIS, in April 1940. By then, Menzies claimed that it had wireless sets ‘operating from German territory and all over the continent’, a boast that would incidentally appear to be belied by Keith Jeffery’s authorised history. Thus Menzies’s statement was probably more goal than reality. Menzies echoed the general confidence when he told Liddell that he thought that SIS’s newest sets were ‘extremely difficult to pick up’, and he doubted very much ‘whether any monitoring system however widespread will be effective against them’. Where Menzies derived this science is not explained (he had no doubt been briefed by his head of Section VII, the telecommunications expert Richard Gambier-Parry, who was known for treating non-technicians with some arrogance) but it led Liddell to compare SNOW’s set, even with its new valves, very unfavourably against the SIS’s latest technology. Liddell concluded that diary’s entry with a not unreservedly confident belief that the British were ahead of the Germans in this matter. Both Rantzau and Menzies would later have to revise their opinions.

[This whole puzzle of direction-finding is tantalisingly highlighted by the titles of a set of lectures given by Herbert Hart, Major Morton Evans and Major Frost at the MI5 training session for regional officers on January 5th, 1943. They were, respectively, ‘Intercept Intelligence and its uses’, ‘The work of R.S.S. Interception and discrimination of Axis secret communications and its bearing in detection of illicit W/T’, and ‘Investigation into illicit W/T’. Unlike Dick White’s comprehensive notes, the details appear to have been destroyed.]

In any case, SNOW was provided with a new transmitter/receiver in August 1940, when the courier BISCUIT (Sam McCarthy) went to Lisbon, and was handed over a suit-case containing a new apparatus, known as an Afu. This is the equipment described in a later 1941 report: “His [SNOW’s] second set was a mains operated transmitter and receiver of excellent construction, the reception frequency being 5,800 kcs and the transmission frequency either on 6636 kc or on 6536 kc. The even frequency was used on odd days, the odd frequency on even days. The antenna used consisted of about 90 ft. in one leg and counter-poise 15 ft. long in the other. There was no difficulty in erecting this or its subsequent many locations and no difficulty experienced anywhere.” Hardly the discreet apparatus that could be easily concealed from the landlady, but it presumably gave much more reliable service until SNOW was closed down in 1941, and his wireless taken over for other agents. But there was a cost, too, since only two frequencies were offered, appearing to be delivered by separate crystals rather than a controlling knob: more reliable, but with fewer options.

Thus the Abwehr’s initial experiments with wireless were very tentative. It was as if they did not take the need for close two-way communication very seriously. They did not supply SNOW with reliable equipment, and accepted long periods of silence with equanimity. This was, of course, when western borders of Europe were still open for travel. The Afu set was ideal for smuggling overseas, concealed in a suitcase, but was probably not robust enough to survive a parachute jump. The pattern of the next wave of agents to arrive would reinforce this phenomenon, however. Spies were not planned to be long-term subversives: their terms of activity were expected to be short as they facilitated conquest. Hitler was expecting a successful invasion of the British Isles after he moved through Western Europe, and won the air-battle. Investing in a miniaturised, robust and flexible combined transmitter/receiver was not a priority. This lack of imagination about the potential of agents equipped with wireless would require the British to take the lead, and help put ideas in the minds of their adversaries.

The XX Committee

Meanwhile, MI5 was increasing its attention on the strategic challenges of handling double agents. The original idea had in fact come from the French, In June 1938, the intelligence office Paillole had visited MI5 to instruct them on such a policy and practice, and in October 1939 Dick White, Liddell’s right-hand man, had gone to France to get a refresher. On January 10, 1940, Liddell entered the following observation in his Diary: “With a view to supplying double-agents with information, commands have been asked to send in reports on local information or rumour which they, as ordinary members of the public, can pick up from observation or from gossip. Xxxxxx xxxx xxxx [redacted], this information will be supplied for transmission to the enemy. It is hoped that once confidence is established in this way it will be possible to mislead the enemy at a critical time. In addition it is felt that the reports will provide M.I. with some picture of the extent of leakage that is going on.” Yet MI5’s resources in this field were now scant. SNOW, the only agent with a wireless snow under double control, was acting suspiciously. Moreover, his wireless blew up on February 29, and a false telegram had to be concocted to show that he his operation had not been raided. A series of adventures would ensue, but he was finally cut off on April 13, 1941. MI5 officers by then considered that his Abwehr control, Rantzau (= Ritter), had wised up to what was happening.

The Fifth Column hysteria confused practically everybody about a native threat to abet the coming invasion. Throughout the year, Liddell would report regularly on illicit broadcasts detected, but they would inevitably end up as being harmless, normally foreign embassies trying to break the rules. In July 1940, Malcolm Frost, the BBC man, was appointed to head a new branch (W) to coordinate SIS and MI5 activities concerned with Radio Security, supported on a committee by representatives from the RAF, the Army, and the Royal Navy. It looked like an auspicious move, although at about the same time, Churchill rather unhelpfully told the British public that the Fifth Column menace ‘had always been exaggerated’, perhaps forgetting that he himself had been the prime cause of that hyperbolic reaction. On October 1, Liddell rather enigmatically reported that a W Committee had been set up, at the instigation of the Director of Military Intelligence, ‘to control false rumours and disseminate false information’.

Tensions arose almost immediately. It did not make sense for a man recently recruited from the BBC for his radio expertise, with no experience in counter-espionage fieldcraft, to be put in charge of the new group responsible for locating enemy agents. In the summer of 1940, Liddell had reported that he was impressed with Frost (‘strikes me as an extremely able and knowledgeable person’). In July, Liddell and Frost discussed the new group that Frost would lead ‘under the guidance of RSS [MI.8]’, with Robertson as his deputy. As soon as they heard about this, MI.8 applied fresh pressure on MI5 that the Security Service should absorb RSS completely (including all the civilian Voluntary Interceptors). MI5 was generally still very wary over taking responsibility for activities deriving from foreign soil. Soon, moreover, Frost was bridling over the demands from MI.8 for him to hire dozens of military people to carry out the RSS’s mission – a demand that had been ironically crafted by Lt.-Colonel Simpson. Frost declared that he wanted to hire his own people. Frost was appointed head of W Branch in August, but it was soon subsumed into Liddell’s organisation as a section (B3) – Simpson’s old organisation, where Robertson worked. The W Committee soon morphed into the W Board, and delegated its detailed work to the XX (Double-Cross) Committee, which started to meet in January 1941. This was a dysfunctional mess.

By then, B3 was in tatters. Frost had always wanted his own Branch, reporting at the same level as Liddell, and his ambitiousness, arrogance, and intriguing started to grate. Lord Swinton, the head of the Security Executive (who had encouraged Liddell to charge Frost with setting up the new group on radio security only a few months before), said that the bumptious Frost had to go: Tar Robertson found Frost impossible to work for. Frost had of necessity (as head of B3) been an integral part of the debates over the German agents in the preceding months, but he had no expertise in this area. In December 1940, Liddell reported that Robertson and his group of agent handlers had been moved over to B Branch, as the new B1a section, ‘back where they belonged’.  Yet the initial handling of captured agents was in fact carried out by a group named B8L: you will find no mention of that entity in Curry’s, West’s or Andrew’s book. [One should not trust official authorities on the structure of Liddell’s ‘B’ branch: memoranda in the TATE file show Robertson, after being identified as ‘W’ in November 1940, reporting as ‘B2a’ long into 1941, which would have put him under Maxwell Knight’s ‘Agents’ section. Andrew’s implication that B1a had been run by Robertson since early 1940 (p 249) is patently false. McIntyre makes the same blatant mistake (p 38).] It took the early 1941 arrival of David Petrie, as the new MI5 chief, to bring some permanent structure to the service. Yet Curry’s organisation chart for July 1941 still shows the unpopular survivor Frost in charge of B.3 (Communications), including B.3.B (Illicit Wireless Investigations; R.S.S. Liaison). Robertson is only then under Dick White in charge of B.1.a (Special Agents).

In the middle of November, the W Committee had set up objectives for the planned Double-Cross System, and, at exactly the time that Malcolm Frost was falling into greater disfavour, the Oxford don John Masterman (who had been tutor to Dick White) was interviewed to help the project. He became the highly successful chairman of the XX Committee, which had its first meeting on January 2, 1941, and was to convene weekly throughout the war, the last meeting being on May 10, 1945. The W Board (the new name for the W Committee, to which the XX Committee reported) was responsible for setting overall policy, but it left the details of managing double agents to Masterman and the team of B.1a, later led by a happier Tar Robertson.

Sir John Masterman, Chairman of the XX Committee

By then a new tactical thrust from the Germans had taken place. The Battle of Britain had started on July 10, 1940, and, in anticipation of a swift victory, Hitler ordered that spies be inserted into Britain to inform the invasion force of weather conditions, troop movements, the condition of aerodromes, etc. Between the beginning of September and the end of November, about a couple of dozen agents arrived on British shores.  MI5 had used SNOW, however, to pass on examples of identification numbers for ration-cards to the Abwehr, so that the British were able to detect forgeries supplied to captured agents during this later swarm. This gave MI5 an inkling of the possibilities of deception, with some important feedback, and constituted one of the most important coups of the campaign, as it verified the trust that the Abwehr held in SNOW. Owing to SNOW’s information, predominantly the supply of false identity card numbers, and the decryption of the Abwehr hand cyphers, the British were ready for the infiltrators. A few arrived by sea, the majority by air. Most were arrested within hours. Several were executed: a couple committed suicide. And some were turned into double agents.

One remarkable aspect of the project was that, while most of the spies were equipped with wireless apparatus, it normally consisted of a transmitter only. That decision had been made primarily out of optimistic pragmatism: the Nazis expected the invasion force to arrive shortly afterwards, and there was no need for the spies to receive additional instructions after they had supplied the information they had been instructed to gather. But it was not an exclusive policy, nor one governed by the logistics of carrying a set by boat, or landing with a heavy unit by parachute. (Agent TATE was told that the type of set they were to use in England depended on whether they crossed by sea or by air, as there was not yet any shock-proof apparatus available. But that was clearly not the whole truth.) The first wave that arrived on the Kent coast on September 3rd all had transmitters only. Gosta Caroli (SUMMER), who was parachuted in three days later, brought a combined transmitter/receiver with him, strapped to his chest – but it knocked him unconscious when he landed. Amazingly, he had never experienced a practice jump. TATE (Wulf Schmidt), underwent a bad landing from low altitude on September 20, owing to poor weather, and he hurt his hand and ankle because of the weight of the equipment strapped on to him. Dr. Ritter (aka Rantzau) had informed TATE that arrangements were being made for him to take with him to England a separate transmitter and receiver and also a large transmitter (called a ‘Z.B.V.’) which would be dropped separately and which he could destroy if the smaller sets were unbroken after landing. How exactly a probably injured airman was supposed to grope around the countryside looking for another parachute with transmitter/receiver, and then conceal them, before looking for a safe haven, without provoking interest from the local population, is not addressed. The spies were expendable.

Yet MI5 had to move fast. The spies were expected to report quickly (in about a week) to their masters, and the Security Service did not want any uncontrolled messages going back to Hamburg. SUMMER had forewarned them about TATE’s arrival, but a tight procedure of isolating the agents from each other was required. If they could not be quickly turned, and with confidence, they would have to be detained, isolated, and probably executed. Having been interrogated and threatened at Camp 020 on Ham Common over a period of thirteen days, TATE was turned, and eventually made contact with the Germans on October 16, sending a message under the control of B1.a of MI5 that he was safe but had been hurt on landing. A similar excuse had to be concocted for SUMMER (who was by no means a Nazi like TATE, and more easily turned). SUMMER was viewed by the Abwehr as an agent in SNOW’s network, and the authorities in the UK had dithered. SUMMER was installed at a safe house in Hinxton Grange, where his operator sent a message on his behalf on September 27, claiming that Caroli had recovered from his injury and was now lodging near Cambridge.

SUMMER had provided his interrogators with vital information. After gaining consciousness, he realised he had missed the first agreed time for transmitting (2-4 am), but he was arrested before the second (6-8 pm) arrived. The notes in his Kew archive declare that he agreed to give all information and details of his code on condition that his colleague coming over soon (TATE) should not be shot. He had known the colleague only since July; he would also have receiver and transmitter. Details of contacts, the type of cipher used, and frequencies, were all to be ‘found on file’. Here can be seen callsigns, the cipher wheel used for encryption, the choices of frequencies (4000 or 6000 kcs). TATE would use the same kind of cipher, he said, but with a different key.  He was given no instructions on what to do when his batteries ran down – again a probable sign that the Abwehr thought that the invasion was imminent. Poor SUMMER had been told that if he was caught with his set he would be shot. If he was caught without his set, he was told to tell a tale. Early the following year, SUMMER would try to escape and attempt suicide. But that is for the next episode.

John Bryden , in Fighting to Lose, argues that Ritter and the Abwehr were in control all the time. “Ritter found he could plant double agents on MI5 by allowing the British to intercept wireless messages in easy-to-break ciphers that referred to his spies before they set out for England,” he writes. His case is based on the fact that, since Hitler called off the invasion on September 8 (and that Canaris, the head of the Abwehr knew that), the landing of spies was a sop. Ritter was not taken in by the fake identity papers; Caroli and the others who arrived after him were intended to be caught. Ritter’s objective, by sending back lengthy questionnaires to SNOW, was at least to gain some useful intelligence. Bryden’s criticism of MI5 are justified, but his account does not explain how well TATE (especially) was able to mislead the Abwehr so successfully later in the war. And Germany’s attentions were now moving elsewhere: on December 18, 1940,  the directive for Operation Barbarossa – the invasion of the Soviet Union – was created. Britain was, temporarily, no longer subject to invasion.

Summary & Conclusions

Four major conclusions can be derived from the analysis of Phase 1:

  • The British authorities lost control of the supervision of the interception of illicit domestic wireless transmissions. MI5 fumbled by claiming it had neither the expertise nor the bandwidth to assume the responsibility. To help, it recruited an expert (Simpson) who was cast aside, with his recommendations being overthrown by the well-intentioned thoughts of a wireless interception expert but counter-espionage amateur (Gill), and an ineffective Signals officer (Worlledge). All three (as well as Denniston of GC & CS) were soon unceremoniously discarded. The official accounts of the decision to concentrate interception away from Britain points to a clumsy and grotesque attempt to conceal what must have been a major embarrassment. Curry referred to a ‘Greek Tragedy’, which suggests more than the casual sacrifice of Simpson: it suggests an undocumented drama affecting the essence of MI5. Did Simpson point out the irreconcilable conflict of having an efficient RDF capability, and running double agents through wireless transmission? Or do Curry’s words hint at a completely undocumented fiasco, such as an abandonment of surveillance of Soviet spy networks? The fact that the Double Cross Operation has been lauded as such a success would suggest the latter. The act of representing Britain’s D/F capabilities as ineffectual may have helped the deception campaign, but nothing I have found in the archives suggests that it was a deliberate decision, as opposed to an accident of circumstances. The answer may not be knowable, but my further research, as this saga evolves, may throw up something. Curry’s ‘Tragedy’ must mean something, and Andrew’s unwillingness to follow up on the issue is itself significant.
  • MI5’s counter-espionage section showed a combination of strategic imagination and operational clumsiness. For a group that was so unprepared as to what it should do when it found it had recruited Soviet spies to its corps, B Branch’s Liddell showed some farsighted insight when it came to the possibilities of using double agents for deception. Liddell quickly recognised the necessity of keeping British radio detection-finding capabilities under wraps, well before the massive deception campaign associated with FORTITUDE was conceived. Yet he was overcome by events rather than preparing for them: his mismanagement of Simpson and Frost, his reluctance to engage with Gill, and his slowness in reorganising his officers dealing with Nazi espionage, show that he was an ineffectual leader who did not show decisiveness in putting the structures and personnel in place for the smooth execution of its mission. True, he was operating under extreme pressures, but it is the duty of leaders to rise above them.
  • The Abwehr started off at half-cock with its wireless strategy, and displayed no firm intention that radio communications by spies would play a large part in the war. The agents they tried to insert at the end of 1940 were of low calibre and motivation, poorly prepared, and supplied with inferior equipment. The Abwehr’s treatment of SNOW remains an enigma. There were many in British Security who thought that SNOW was so unreliable that he should be dropped immediately. Yet MI5 and B.1a persevered. It is clear that Ritter and his cohorts had suspicions that SNOW was being run by their adversaries, yet they ignored the obvious signs. Why did they not suspect that the ID numbers passed on were phony? Or maybe they thought that it did not matter. John Bryden’s arguments should not be discounted completely, but the Abwehr’s behaviour was in many ways as naïve of that of the British.
  • While the evidence is sometimes contradictory (maybe deliberately so, some of it written long after), it seems that precise direction-finding and location of short-wave radio transmitters was at this stage of the war still something of a black art. The techniques of sending low-powered short-wave transmissions to bounce off the ionosphere, and skip large areas of potential interception, represented a considerable exposure to any nation’s domestic security. Both the German and the British intelligence organisation showed awareness that technology in this area was going to be a critical factor in the espionage and counter-espionage wars.

Thus Phase 1 of the saga came to a close. The focus in 1941 will be primarily on TATE and SUMMER, although it is in fact one of the quieter periods of wireless espionage. SNOW was determined to be too much of a risk, and he was soon taken out of commission. The second wave of double agents had yet to enter the stage. And the unsettling matter of reorganisation, of MI5 as well as the placement of RSS, would bring some clarity, some improvements, but also a lot of tension to the management of double agents.

(I am very grateful to Dr. Brian Austin, a retired academic from the Department of Electrical Engineering and Electronics at the University of Liverpool, for his recent guidance to me on matters of wireless telegraphy. Any mistakes or misrepresentations made in this piece are my responsibility alone.)

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

 

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Double-Crossing the Soviets?

“In view of the damage that Sonia helped to inflict on Western interests through her assistance to Fuchs alone, the suggestion by some authors that she was some kind of double agent being used by MI5 as a means of passing misleading information to the Russians is ridiculous. In a BBC radio programme in 2002, Markus Wolf, the former spymaster of the East German intelligence agency the Stasi, who knew Sonia in her later years, categorically denied that she had been any kind of ‘double’. Released MI5 documents confirm that view.” (Chapman Pincher, in Treachery, p 208)

When Chapman Pincher wrote these sentences, he was guilty of what could be called Professor Hinsley Syndrome, a pattern of hinting at unexplained rumours, and then pretending to refute them by simple denial. Careful readers of coldspur will recall, from Sonia’s Radio, Chapter 5, that I quoted the following utterance from the official historian of British intelligence in World War II: “There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring, a Soviet espionage organisation which operated from Switzerland, to forward intelligence to Moscow”.

Now, if you are assigned the role of ‘official’ historian of anything, my view is that you should follow these precepts:

  • Never dignify a rumour that you want stifled, whether you believe it has merit or not, by even mentioning it.
  • If you are going to identify a rumour, explain what it is, where it derives, who is promoting it, and on what grounds the claims in it are made.
  • If you then want to deflate the rumour, explain in a detailed fashion why it should be disregarded.

Otherwise, all you do is provoke interest, and encourage readers to postulate ‘There’s no smoke without fire’ and wonder ‘what is he or she trying to hide?’

Pincher was not an official historian (nor a very disciplined one), but the outcome is the same. Moreover, he refers to ‘some authors’, which suggests that the culprit was not a one-man-band. Yet the only author that I can identify who suggests anything close is Jerry Dan, the nom de plume of one Nigel Bance, who in his Ultimate Deception, an odd compilation of fact and fiction, implies that a high-level plot, approved by Churchill, funnelled information about the Manhattan project (the US-based exercise that researched and developed atomic weaponry) through Sonia to Stalin. But the channelling of disinformation through a known enemy agent does not automatically mean that that person becomes a double agent. A double agent is a turned spy, switching allegiances, perhaps under threat of death, to become a vehicle for the side that captures him or her. There is no evidence that Sonia was ever confronted and pressured to be controlled by the British, or subsequently consented to such a move. On the contrary: the little evidence we have suggests that MI5 officers recognised her as a sometime Soviet spy, declared openly to her that they believed she had been inactive during her time in the UK, and tried to haul her in only after she had flown the coop. (Some of this archival evidence may be disinformation to muddy the waters, of course.)

Pincher’s statement is thus problematic in many aspects. No source for the claim that Sonia was a double agent is identified. Wolf’s denial means nothing, as all it declares is that Sonia was never turned. Pincher’s claim that MI5 documents ‘confirm this view’ is completely hollow: it is almost impossible for archives to prove a negative, and he does not identify what files support his case. However, by expressing the rumour in this way, Pincher’s dismissal of the claim does not explicitly reject the more nuanced notion that Sonia may have been fed information (or disinformation, or a mixture of the two) to pass on to her bosses in Moscow, without ever acting as a double agent. Lastly, and most significant of all, if the implication is that Sonia was manipulated as ‘some kind of double agent’, it would suggest that British intelligence knew that her role in the United Kingdom was that of a Soviet agent in communication with her controls in Moscow. Why, then, did they do nothing about it? Exploring this avenue would have severely damaged Pincher’s theory that Sonia was able to thrive solely because of the efforts of her protector, Roger Hollis.

European Espionage Patterns in WWII

Before I explore the various accounts that might bolster the claim that British Intelligence could have attempted to mirror its success with the Double-Cross System (in which the complete Abwehr-supplied network of agents in the United Kingdom was turned and managed) by taking some measure of control over Soviet spies, it will be useful to apply some structure to the variety of espionage efforts that were undertaken in Europe during World War II, and then to analyse what made the Double-Cross operation successful.

I have thus created the following chart:

 Please double-click on the image to see it fully.

I do not believe any historian has produced a similar classification, as comparative studies of intelligence in World War II are thin on the ground, and tend to skim the surface of what is a highly intriguing subject. Readers may have suggestions as to how to improve or amplify the chart, but I think that, as it stands, it can teach several useful lessons.

  • The Soviet Union was far more energetic in spying against its allies than it was against its enemy. The main reason that this conclusion is true is that, in the couple of decades before the war, the Soviet Union had treated Great Britain (and its Empire) as the major enemy, and had made espionage investments accordingly. Lenin believed that the inevitable worldwide revolution would break out in Germany first, only for his successors to watch how communists in that country were either quietened, exiled, imprisoned, or killed. Thus the build-up of the Red Orchestra, the Soviet Union’s espionage network in Western Europe, was a slower and arduous process. Yet the dividends of recruiting Soviet spies in Britain in the early 1930s, and inserting them into the fabric of British institutions, paid off handsomely by the time the war started. While its network in Germany was gradually mopped up by German counter-intelligence, Moscow could take advantage of British accommodation of, and indulgence to, Soviet sympathisers in government and the intelligence services to gain detailed secrets about Nazi war-plans from its ally. These revelations dwarfed what information the British government was prepared to pass on openly.
  • It was very difficult to sustain an intelligence network in a totalitarian country. If the country being spied upon is a ruthless, totalitarian state that has little respect for human life, the life expectancy of agents trying to report its secrets will be short. Nazi Germany used its radio-detection and location-finding apparatus mechanisms ruthlessly to track down illegal broadcasts. Suspects and those caught red-handed were tortured, confessions with names of contacts extracted, and the victims normally executed. Soviet tradecraft was not solid enough to isolate spies from each other, and the bosses in Moscow had little concern about the capture of their agents. The Red Orchestra was wrapped up in Germany by August 1942. In the latter stages of the war, the NKVD parachuted into Germany spies who were hopelessly unprepared and ill-equipped for what they would face. Planting spies in the Soviet Union was even more difficult, owing to the distances involved, and the challenges in getting any information out. Instead, the Nazis and the Soviets both looked to prisoners-of-war as a primary source of intelligence.
  • Agents in neutral countries were of dubious reliability. While Britain’s SIS should have been able to have in place a productive agent network in Europe at the time war broke out, a combination of spending restrictions and incompetence (e.g. the Venlo incident in the Netherlands) meant that its forces were thin. A shadow structure (the ‘Z’ organisation) was developed under Colonel Dansey, but that was also pared back. As the Nazi war machine rolled over Europe, the residual centres of espionage activity in Europe in WII were in the neutral countries, predominantly Portugal, Switzerland, and Turkey, with Spain and Sweden in the background. All participants had agents in the three main countries, constantly looking over their shoulders. Yet those claiming to have access to proprietary information would often offer it for financial reasons, would not offer it exclusively to one party, and it was not always reliable. In Switzerland, some members of the Soviet network were also working for British intelligence, and, in addition, informants passed on their secrets to Swiss intelligence. Thus espionage on neutral territory was always a speculative venture, as the motivations and intentions of agents not under direct control could not reliably be assessed. British intelligence was always fearful that anti-Nazis might turn out to be fervent communists – as was frequently the case in Nazi-occupied countries.
  • Fascism attracted fewer espionage activists than did communism. While communism had an international and idealistic appeal, and thus exerted a broad influence that crossed national boundaries, the German style of Fascism, especially when its cruelty became apparent, had fewer ideological sympathisers. For example, the feared ‘Fifth Column’ in Britain petered out: few fascist enthusiasts wanted Hitler as a future dictator. Soviet citizens who initially welcomed German troops as liberators from Communism were soon subjected to the brutality of Nazi methods of oppression, and thus quickly antagonized. Thus, as the Nazi empire extended its range, apart from the rise of notable quislings and their followers, and an ugly contribution by anti-Semitic collaborators, kernels of civic populations eager to abet Nazi successes were thin on the ground. The Nazis relied on criminals, hoodlums, and the morally bankrupt to assist in their counter-intelligence efforts. Even Germany’s Abwehr was sprinkled with patriotic Germans who wanted Hitler to fail, as the failed coup against him proved. In addition, Hitler, as aggressor, did not strongly believe in the value of intelligence, trusting his army and weapons to crush opposition without the need for complementary information on the activities of his adversaries. Only when faced with the Allied assault on Europe did the role of intelligence gain more significance for the Wehrmacht.
  • British counter-intelligence versus Germany was in direct contrast to its performance against the Soviet Union. The major intelligence successes for Britain were the decryption of Enigma traffic, and the management of the Double-Cross System, by which Germany’s complete network of agents in Britain was turned and manipulated. This latter programme, coupled with realistic illusory effects about non-existent battalions, contributed largely to the success of the Normandy landings. While Germany also deployed such tactics (such as the Englandspiel, by which SOE agents captured in the Netherlands – and France – sent positive messages to London to entice further landings), nothing approached the comprehensiveness and thoroughness by which British intelligence provided a mixture of facts and disinformation to help misdirect German suppositions about the location of the invasion of France in 1944. This success was in dynamic contrast to MI5’s woeful performance against the Soviet Union, where a lack of discipline in assessing the threat of homegrown communists, and a weak and appeasing stance against the Soviet Union, left a large network of spies untouched. This failure resulted from a reluctance to accept that the country, while a temporary ally against Nazi Germany, remained a permanent adversary and threat.
  • Wireless was the greatest asset in espionage, and its biggest liability. Couriers were a valuable mechanism for passing on secrets at the outbreak of war, but the Nazi invasions of much of Europe made their use far more difficult – such as British communications from Switzerland. Surprisingly, perhaps, invisible writing (in letters passed through the mail) was still a useful technique. When Soviet wirelesses failed in western Europe, the Communists had to resort to couriers, but the passage of material in diplomatic bags from (say) London to Moscow took several weeks, thus putting more pressure on speedier radio communications. Britain’s ability to mount more aggressive work through the XX system increased markedly when GARBO acquired a wireless transmitter. Wireless messages were faster, but could be intercepted, and thus required encryption. Much of the British counter-intelligence success was gained by decrypting Enigma and hand-cypher traffic, such as the Abwehr’s reports from Madrid and Paris to Berlin that transcribed the reports given by XX agents to their German handlers, which thus confirmed that the Double-Cross bait had been accepted. The Battle of the Atlantic was won and lost by the fact that Germany and Britain at different stages had an advantage in deciphering their adversaries’ open communications on the air. At the same time, within any country, techniques in location-finding improved quickly, leading to more portable equipment and greater precision in tracing illicit communications. Telephonic cable communications, such as those possible on natively controlled territory, remained highly secure.

Yet the most startling fact is how inconsistently Britain’s counter-intelligence performed. Germany’s utter failure to deploy agents successfully in Britain (and thus Britain’s complete success in nullifying them) was diametrically different from the Soviet Union’s complete success in penetrating Britain’s defences (and Britain’s corresponding utter failure in countering such subversion). This cannot be ascribed solely to the role of the Soviet Union as an ally. That transformation occurred only in June 1941 (Barbarossa), and two years of bitter experiences later, the new threat that the Soviet Union represented was recognised – admittedly sooner by military and intelligence officers than by diplomats and politicians. Britain knew about a Soviet espionage campaign, and tolerated it. Stalin did not regard the alliance against Hitler as a reason for pausing in the quest for secrets from his partners, nor would he have expected Great Britain and the United States to loosen their efforts. I have written before about the apparent belief by Dansey that he could undermine the Soviet espionage network, in a fashion perhaps similar to the Double-Cross System. But what was different is that British counter-intelligence officers massively underestimated the scope and depth of the Moscow-controlled espionage that was going on under their noses.

The Double-Cross Operation

The Double-Cross operation was conceived as early as November 1940, when Britain was essentially fighting alone, and still under threat from invasion. Historians almost universally accept that its success in convincing German Intelligence that its agents were passing on accurate reports on Allied military plans for the invasion of Europe consisted a vital part of the deception campaign. Why was it so successful? What lessons can be learned from it? Analysis of it (notably by Masterman, Howard, Andrew, West, Holt, Hastings, and Macintyre) indicates a number of vital features:

  • Ill-preparedness of inserted agents: It was difficult enough to insert agents across the North Sea, either by boat or by parachute. Those that did make the journey were not well-prepared, as far as their knowledge of British customs and the language, and the reliability of their wireless equipment (if they had it), were concerned.
  • Inclusivity: By early 1942, MI5 was confident that it had trapped 80% of all spies, through interrogation and interception of radio messages, and by the summer, that it was in control of all. (Though Guy Liddell, head of B Division in MI5, would in his Diaries later cast doubt on the expertise behind such claims.) If spies refused to be turned and to cooperate, they were executed.
  • Authenticity: Only authorized spies were used in the operation. MI5 initiated no ‘coat-trailing’, namely offering up volunteers to the Abwehr. (GARBO had, admittedly, offered his services in Spain, after being rejected by the British, and TREASURE had approached the Abwehr in Paris after declining an offer to work for German intelligence before the war.) The motivations and psychologies of those who committed to turn were severely tested before being approved for deception work.
  • Patience: The operation was undertaken by a passive requirement to keep agents viable, and learn more about Nazi invasion plans – a defensive manoeuvre – and only as the war progressed was it converted into an offensive strategy, namely that of deceiving the enemy about the eventual Normandy landings. Subsidiary objectives (such as learning more about Enigma encryptions) were clearly laid out. This kept the team very focused.
  • Plausibility: An immense effort was expended in ensuring that the messages sent by double agents were plausible, namely that the disinformation was combined with a high degree of realism concerning events, location, contacts, etc. and a sprinkling of facts that could be verified. Painstaking details were created around the lives of the fictional spies in GARBO’s network.
  • Isolation: Solid tradecraft was used to ensure that the double agents did not know about each other, and thus never had a chance to exchange notes about the experience. Agents were rarely allowed to transmit messages themselves.
  • Verifiability: Messages that were transmitted on behalf of double agents to controllers in Madrid would later be re-sent by the Abwehr to Berlin, and thus the XX Committee, able to review transcripts of Enigma traffic provided by Bletchley Park, could verify that their information had been received and accepted.
  • Secrecy: While the XX Committee had representation by the Intelligence Services and the Armed Forces, a high degree of secrecy was demanded and maintained. Even the Joint Intelligence Committee was not initially aware of its activities. (Yet Anthony Blunt, MI5’s representative on various committees dealing with strategic deception, gave his Moscow masters a full account of what was happening.)
  • Integrity: The Committee was very sensitive to its mission, and conscious that, by delivering disinformation, the process might have unexpected consequences (such as the attempted rerouting of V1 and V2 bombs short of London.) No decision was made casually: highly sensitive decisions were made very carefully.
  • Leadership: The committee was ably led by John Masterman, a tactful and persuasive chairman, who inspired confidence, and commanded attendance at meetings that were held every week until the end of the war.

The success was also abetted by the defects of the Abwehr organization. It was a failing of human nature for officers in the Abwehr to want to believe that their hand-picked agents were successful. Maintaining the story that their agents were trustworthy and valuable was a career-helping activity, the alternative for some officers perhaps being sent to the Russian Front. The voices of those that queried whether the agents were in fact being controlled by the British were quickly quashed. There were even Abwehr officers (e.g. Jebsen) who were surely aware of what was happening, but desired an Allied victory. (Jebsen’s refusal to talk, when arrested by the Gestapo, was critical to the success of FORTITUDE, part of the OVERLORD deception plan named BODYGUARD.) Kliemann (who controlled TREASURE) was an amateur, an Austrian more concerned about his romantic life than serious spycraft, and he did not have his heart in the business.

Yet some exposures could have fatally damaged the exercise. The agents’ true loyalty was always suspect: they could have inserted codes into their wireless transmissions to indicate that they were fake, and thus experienced operators were brought in to adopt their transmission patterns, and act as surrogates. One double agent, SNOW, was suspected of being a triple agent, and was withdrawn. TREASURE was immediately suspended when MI5 learned that she had omitted to inform her handlers about a special code she was to insert into messages to indicate to the Abwehr that she was being controlled. Despite their confidence over radio transmission detection, intelligence officers were always fearful of an undetected spy in their midst, and had to be wary of reports emanating from the embassies of ‘neutral’ countries, which might contradict the information the XX Committee was disseminating. There were occasional accidental releases of intelligence hinting at the operation, or uncannily similar bulletins issued by discrete agents, that were fortunately not picked up by the enemy.

Finally, there was the major unexplained phenomenon of undetected radio traffic. Given the progress that the Gestapo had made in improvements in radio direction-finding and location, it should have been obvious for the Germans to assume that the British had made similar advances. It is still astonishing to consider the ability with which agents were apparently allowed to move about Britain, carrying bulky wireless equipment, and to install themselves invisibly in lodgings where they were able to transmit lengthy, wordy, messages without their ever being detected, and without the Abwehr ever seriously analysing why and how their agents were able to operate so freely. The official historian, Michael Howard, provocatively wrote that ‘their [the agents’] transmissions had to evade detection by the security authorities’. He was describing the challenges from the perspective of the Abwehr, but, pari passu, he sharply identified how canny a game the XX Committee had to play, with turned agents operating wireless equipment that its own detection powers would have to overlook. He left unexplained the extent to which RSS, the Radio Security Service, had been brought in to the secret, and whether the network’s integrity was kept intact by virtue of a) the deployment of transmission techniques that managed to evade the detectors, or b) the guidance by influential members of RSS who would have been capable of ensuring that the signals were ignored.

Howard then appeared to explain things, but in an unconvincing way: he informed us that Lieut Col TA (‘Tar’) Robertson (of B1A in MI5) on July 15, 1942 told the Y Board, the committee responsible for overall wireless monitoring, that ‘the RSS had discovered no uncontrolled agents reporting’, an observation that would appear to confirm that the RSS was aware of the transmissions of authorised double agents, could discriminate between them and possible illicit occurrences, and was confident, presumably, that no felonious transmissions had gone undetected. (Robertson’s statement granted the RSS an omnipotence that Guy Liddell would repeatedly question in his Diaries.) Howard also related how 500 transmissions were made between January 1944 and D-Day: the ‘security authorities’ presumably did not pick them up, and somehow the Abwehr must have been convinced of their undetectability. What Howard did not record was the fact that, in March 1943, the Abwehr instructed the agent GARBO to imitate call-signs of the British Army, whose messages were not analysed by the Radio Security Service. This reality immediately undermines Robertson’s confident assertion, and leaves unanswered many questions concerning the stumbles in Britain’s radio detection-finding operation. Howard never resolved this paradox, which is a highly controversial topic, and one to which I shall return in a future article.

(For a refresher on the activities of the RSS, I refer you to Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 9)

Application of XX to the Soviets?

It is in this context – of a disciplined procedure for handling double agents, complemented by a fear that the enemy would suddenly realise that the exercise was a total sham (owing to exposures such as the efficacy of Britain’s radio detection-finding techniques) – that any inspection of possible manipulation of Soviet agents must be understood.

The story starts with Colonel Dansey’s Z Organisation, a shadow espionage service set up within SIS in the late 1930s. The experts seem to agree that some of the agents who worked for the Soviet subsection of the so-called ‘Rote Kapelle’ (‘Red Orchestra’) in Switzerland were also working for the British, whose strongest remaining ‘Z’ outstation, at the outbreak of war, was in Geneva. In Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 6, I present the case for concluding that Alexander Foote, one of the leading wireless operators in the Swiss network (‘Rote Drei’), was actually a double agent planted by Dansey. Foote had perjured himself to the Swiss authorities when providing evidence that Sonia’s husband, Rolf Hamburger, had committed adultery in London with Sonia’s sister, thus enabling Sonia to enter an arranged, and probably bigamous, marriage with Foote’s colleague Len Beurton. This, in turn, allowed her to gain British citizenship (the objective of her bosses in Moscow), and re-enter Britain as a citizen, whereafter she was able to act as a courier for the atomic scientist and spy, Klaus Fuchs.

Credulity is strained to accept that the British Intelligence Services, knowing that a Soviet agent, one of the infamous Kuczynski family, whose members were the bane of the British authorities in defending subversive Communists in Britain and preventing their being expelled, would not attempt to confound her plans for migrating to the United Kingdom at a time when the Soviet Union was an ally of Nazi Germany. On the contrary, her marriage and her transport were facilitated, and lower members of MI5, the domestic security service, were misled about the facts of her application. The obvious conclusion would be that Dansey hoped to be able to manipulate her when she was safely installed, as a means of monitoring and intercepting her radio transmissions with a view to decipherment (since the provision of a ‘crib’ would have greatly facilitated the process), or as a way of planting false information on her, or as a means of identifying her contacts, or for some combination of the above purposes. According to his biographers, Dansey had been a pioneer of double-cross operations in World War I, strongly believing that, if you convinced your enemy that his agent is ‘loose and operating’, it was ‘of infinitely greater value than having a dead man’.

Complementary to this analysis are the well-documented assertions, despite the blunt denial by the official historian of wartime British Intelligence of such, that the British authorities used members of the Rote Drei to pass on to the Soviets thickly veiled summaries of highly confidential intelligence gained from decryption of Nazi signals traffic (‘ULTRA’). I describe these in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 4. Further reading appears to confirm the accuracy of this interpretation of the exercise: for example, I have recently read Hidden Weapons: Allied Secret or Undercover Services in World War II, by Basil Collier, who received ULTRA material when working in Fighter Command. Collier added to the chorus of experts who suggest that the official explanation was incorrect when he wrote, in 1982: “I have always supposed that Lucy received from the British the substance of Enigma decrypts, but this has been authoritatively denied.”

According to the more reliable accounts, Rudolf Roessler (LUCY), the primary source of information to the Soviets about the Nazi battle-plans, was not recruited until the autumn of 1942. Great Britain had become frustrated with trying to pass massaged intelligence derived from the ULTRA programme through its military mission in Moscow, and had thus decided to exploit its contacts in Switzerland. Thus the intelligence provided to Lucy was authentic, but not genuine: the information passed was accurate, but its authorship was concealed. By the Law of Unintended Consequences, however, the project had the effect of reducing Stalin’s trust rather than provoking his gratitude. The Soviet leader naturally wanted to know the source of such intelligence, and since he was receiving comprehensive transcriptions of ULTRA traffic from his well-placed spies within Britain’s political infrastructure, he naturally mistrusted the LUCY material, judged Britain’s official cooperation to be minimal, and wondered whether he was being manipulated. Thus the whole programme rebounded poorly on the British Intelligence Services. They had a poor understanding of the psychology of their dictator-ally, and they were blithely ignorant of the fact that the task of passing on information was being executed more efficiently by traitors in their midst.

The LUCY project was thus one concerning information – intelligence, even though its method of delivery was deceptive. Yet the main campaign of disinformation – if indeed there was one – came earlier. And, if Chapman Pincher’s disguised references can be interpreted correctly, it concerned research into atomic weapons.

Pincher clearly had read Jerry Dan’s 2003 work, Ultimate Deception, since he cites it in his attempt to pin the revelation of the Quebec Agreement to Sonia. Ultimate Deception, subtitled How Stalin stole the Bomb, is an extraordinary work, primarily because it is very difficult to separate fact from fiction. It includes as appendices a number of documents from the NKVD/KGB archives, which look as if they are genuine, but perhaps not authentic – i.e. they were assuredly crafted by qualified officials, but may have been written and inserted some time after the fact, to deliver an alternative story. [see below] The main thrust of Dan’s account seems to be that the British government engineered a disinformation campaign to convince the Soviets that British interest in nuclear weaponry was nugatory, while spies in its midst (most surprisingly, the newly-revealed Soviet sympathiser John Anderson, Home Secretary, Lord President of the Council, and then Chancellor of the Exchequer in Churchill’s wartime coalition administration) facilitated the delivery of atomic secrets to Stalin, thus accelerating his development of the bomb.

The blurb for Ultimate Deception is unhelpful: “Is the ULTIMATE DECEPTION merely historical fiction or is it a genuine account of an extraordinary wartime episode?”, it challenges us. If the author, editor and publisher abandon their readers so equivocally, I am not going to spend any more time here analysing the strengths and defects of this work. Pincher hinted at other sources. What else can be found?

The precise role of Klaus Fuchs has come under the microscope. In his very careful biography of Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, Mike Rossiter describes a puzzling series of events. Rossiter has studied documents that indicate that, after the war, when he returned to a position at AERE Harwell, Fuchs provided confidential information to the British on the construction of nuclear reactors and other topics that he had gained from his time in the USA at Los Alamos. The implication here is that Fuchs had been spying on the Americans. President Truman had signed the McMahon Act on August 1, 1946, which made it illegal for the United States to share nuclear information with any other country, thus brusquely annulling the commitment to technology sharing embodied in the Quebec Agreement of 1943. (According to Graham Farmelo’s account in Churchill’s Bomb (2013), Truman’s officials could not find a copy of the Quebec Agreement, and had to request a copy from London.) Coincidentally, August 1, 1946 was the day that Fuchs took up his position at Harwell. Prime Minister Attlee was seriously peeved at Truman’s betrayal: it would not be surprising if Fuchs had been approached with the goal of maximising knowledge that would contribute to Britain’s now independent atomic weapons programme. Yet picking his brains over information learned before the McMahon Act was passed can hardly count as espionage.

Rossiter believes this transaction may have affected Fuchs’s confession. Rossiter discovered at the National Archives a file titled ‘Miscellaneous Super Bomb Notes by Klaus Fuchs’, dated 1954, but when he went back to re-inspect it in November 2013, it had been withdrawn at the request of the Ministry of Defence, as if the idea of collaboration between Fuchs and the Ministry were an item of some embarrassment. If this were so, it is perhaps surprising that Fuchs did not bring this matter up with his lawyer, as he surely was expecting a stiff sentence. The episode could even hint instead at influence by bureaucrats who knew what Fuchs was up to, and even approved it. After all, in the USA, Roosevelt’s nefarious emissary, Joseph Davies, had stated that Soviet stealing of atomic secrets was morally justified (Ottawa Citizen, February 19, 1946, according to David Levy). Yet, if it was not considered embarrassing to mention Fuchs in this context in 1954, why should it be so in 2013? Despite this unseemly and provocative attempt at a cover-up, there seems to be no indication of any controlled release of information (or disinformation) to Soviet Russia using Fuchs as an intermediary.

Then there is the case of Wilfrid Basil Mann, whose role in the saga of atomic secrets remains elusive. I have written about Mann before (see Mann Overboard!), pointing out the discrepancies in the account of the scientist’s negotiations to leave the Tube Alloys project in London, and gain a transfer to Washington. This career move suggested to me connivance over a clandestine move by the British authorities, which now seems to be supported in other accounts. Reliable testimony on Mann’s life is sparse, but I note that Nigel West, in his history of the stealing of atomic secrets, Mortal Crimes (2004), wrote of Mann that he was ‘cultivated by the KGB to the point that he was run as a double agent by the CIA’s Counterintelligence Staff’, thus finessing the question of whether Mann had been recruited by SIS (see below).  It was not clear at the time where West derived his information; West also appears to contradict the terminological rules he set up himself as to the nature of a ‘double agent’. (I have developed a diagram that sets out to distinguish ‘spies’ and ‘double agents’ based on their initial recruitment and allegiance, and later conversions or treachery: it must be noted that, in order to be considered a ‘double agent’, the organization the agent is then working for must know that he is a confirmed agent of a foreign power. See here:

Spy Mole, or DoubleAgent?

Andrew Lownie, who published a biography of Guy Burgess in 2016, then found further incriminating evidence in the papers of Patrick Reilly (which I have since confirmed) that indicated that Mann was a Soviet spy (cryptonym MALONE) disclosing confidential intelligence to his masters. Lownie referred to the thinly veiled description of Mann in Climate of Treason (1979), where Andrew Boyle wrote that ‘Basil’ was identified and ‘broke down quickly and easily’. “He was given the choice of continuing to work for the Russians as a double agent under CIA direction, or face prosecution under American law. He agreed to provide Maclean with useless information in return for immunity from prosecution and American citizenship”, wrote Lownie. Boyle’s account, nourished by CIA contacts, explained that Mann had been tailed because of his contact with Donald Maclean, and, having been turned, was tutored (by James Angleton) to advise Maclean which information the later should extract from the US Energy Commission’s headquarters, and then pass on to the Soviets. Thus we have a clear glimpse of a disinformation exercise. Yet why the Americans thought it useful to supply any information to the Russians at this time, and why they did not haul Maclean in if they had proof he was a spy, is not clear. Despite Mann’s having been ‘turned’, he was not ‘controlled’, and still could have signalled to his Soviet handler, or Maclean himself, that the latter was under suspicion, which would, while increasing Maclean’s emotional instability, probably also have accelerated his flight.

In 2000, when Mann was 92 years old, Dan tracked him down to a retirement home in Owings Mills, Maryland. He did not gain much fresh information from his prey, although he did extract a confession from Mann that he was indeed ‘the Fifth Man’ (the subject of his rhetorically-titled memoir, Was There a Fifth Man?). Since John Cairncross had long been outed as Number 5, that admission was perhaps surprising. Dan appended the photograph he took of Mann (below) with the following (partial) text: “After a short period with the British nuclear programme in Canada Mann returned to Washington as a member of MI6, advising Donald Maclean on atomic matters, reporting to Welsh, and liaising with James Angleton of the CIA. Under suspicion after Maclean’s defection, Mann was replaced by Dr Robert Press, an attaché at the Embassy. From 1951-1980 Mann worked at the US National Bureau of Standards, and headed the radioactivity department. He later became a naturalized American citizen, but was accused in 1979 of being a Soviet agent, the same year Anthony Blunt was publicly named a wartime spy. Mann was a double agent, working for both British Intelligence and the NKVD, the Russians believing he was part of the British wartime Double X operation. During the war and in the post-war period Mann had been in regular contact with Gorsky, Kukin, Kreshin and Barkovsky. The author visited Mann in Rainbow Hall, a retirement home in Owings Mills, near Baltimore, just months before he died in March 2001. KGB veterans confirm that Mann was a Soviet agent of considerable influence. His codename in NKVD transmissions from London was Malone. In his debriefing session in Moscow Philby argued that Mann was unstable and his information should not be relied upon.”

Wilfrid Basil Mann in 2000

Nigel West agrees, in his Dictionary of British Intelligence, that Soviet archives appear to confirm that the spy identified as MALONE was indeed Mann. And here is the relevant page from the NKVD archive, as presented by Dan:

 

It is dated August 23, 1945, and confirms that MALONE is an ‘agent of the NKGB, employee of the special technical bureau of the second department of the intelligence service [SIS]’. Yet this chronology is complicated by the fact that Mann, in his memoir, states that he returned to the UK from Washington on 29 September 1945, docking at Southampton. This archival entry, however, reports a meeting between the head of the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, [Sir Edward] Appleton, attended by MALONE, that took place on August 17. If Mann was truly MALONE, and had in fact been debriefed after his return, either he or the NKGB archive was falsifying the record. Mann also dissembles about his appointment to the ‘civil service’, after which he moved to Canada, arriving at Chalk River on 27 July, 1946, to continue his further career in counter-espionage.

But what is astonishing in Dan’s account is the claim that Mann came under suspicion only after Maclean’s desertion. Moreover, Dan does not allude to Mann’s being turned. Thus his classification of Mann’s being a double agent, because he worked ‘for both British Intelligence and the NKVD’ is also spurious. More accurately Mann was a spy (like Nunn May) who had made a personal allegiance to the Communist movement, had been recruited to SIS (like Kim Philby), and had then acted as an advisor to Donald Maclean (another mole), perhaps spying for Britain and the Soviet Union against the Americans (when Maclean was not aware of Mann’s true loyalties), and then had been turned by the CIA (or so they thought). No wonder Mann became a little unstable: he did not have the temperament of a TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) or a GARBO (Juan Pujol Garcia) to handle the stress of such dissimulation and conflict of roles. In this mass of rumours, the exact chronology of Mann’s activities is probably never definable. Yet the most fascinating fact coming out of Dan’s summary is where he asserts that the Russians believed there was a British wartime Double Cross operation targeted at the Soviet Union. I shall return to this topic shortly.

Akin to the Mann/MALONE case is that of Cedric Belfrage. In many ways his career has similarities to that of Mann – a British citizen with communist convictions who ended up in the United States, and then came under suspicion from the US authorities. Only Belfrage’s identity was revealed more blatantly, by the Soviet courier Elisabeth Bentley, who had taken over the network of her lover and NKVD illegal agent in New York, Jacob Golos, when the latter died in November 1943. She told the FBI, in her 1945 confession, of Belfrage’s activities while working for British Security Coordination (BSC), the representative of Britain’s overall intelligence interests in the USA. Belfrage then left the USA at the end of the war, to take up a position with the Allied government of occupation in Germany, but returned to the USA in 1947, when the FBI started interrogating him. The fact that he lied to the FBI about his removal of documents from BSC to hand over to one V.J. Jerome was confirmed later in VENONA decrypts, where Belfrage’s activity as the agent with cryptonym UNC/9, during the period 1943-1945, is clearly shown. Belfrage was not charged by the FBI. As Nigel West writes: “Despite Bentley’s incriminating testimony, because the offenses he had committed against British interests had occurred in America, he was never charged.” Instead, he was subject to a deportation order after being called to give evidence at the House Committee on Un-American Activities in 1953.  He fought the order, but was eventually deported to England in August 1955.

Yet there is another link in the ‘double agent’ movement. John Simkin has written in depth on Belfrage in his Spartacus blog (http://spartacus-educational.com/spartacus-blogURL61.htm). As if coming to Belfrage’s defence while challenging the perspective of a BBC programme on Belfrage, Simkin makes the somewhat strange statement: “However, as he explained in his own interview with the FBI in April, 1947, he only passed information to the Soviet Union on behalf of BSC. Belfrage, like several intelligence officers, worked as a double agent in the war.” He attempts to make the case that, as Belfrage was working for the BSC when he was passing secrets to the Soviets, he was providing that information under orders, as if Belfrage’s testimony in this matter should be trusted. Yet, with all his communist affiliations and obvious illicit disclosures – Belfrage joined the Party in the US in 1937, only to drop it, as many others did, for cover – Belfrage should be characterized more as a Soviet spy who was recruited by a British intelligence organisation, in this case, BSC, just as Mann was, rather than as an idealistic anti-fascist who took a long time to understand the reality of communism. Simkin presents Belfrage as innocent – in other words, that he was a true patriot under cover feeding selected information to the Soviets. But that would make him a supremely competent intelligence officer – not a double agent.

Simkin may have become excited about what is a fascinating thread in this story – the need for America’s OSS (the wartime predecessor of the CIA) to understand what double-crossing was about. Simkin quotes a passage from the History of BSC that indicates that BSC was helping the Americans run double agents. “Many of the FBI’s troubles with double agents arose from their lack of understanding of the European mind and outlook, and their inability to place in charge of a double agent officers with a background likely to win his friendship and sympathy”, he quotes, adding that ‘the book also attempts to explain why the BSC double agents had to be given real intelligence to pass to another country’. “Finally, double agents cannot be used to deceive the enemy unless they are given, from time to time, true and useful intelligence material which they are permitted to transmit, for otherwise the enemy will realize that their information is of no value and will soon discard them.” I have a copy of this work in front of me. The chapter on ‘Double Agents’ very clearly states “A man or woman who is already permanently engaged in espionage on the enemy’s behalf must be persuaded or coerced to retain his employment but to transfer his allegiance to the other side.” If Belfrage had been in this category, he would have had to be a proven Soviet agent first, known to the authorities, and then coaxed to shift his allegiances. That is not the claim. Moreover, this book focuses exclusively on counter-espionage against the Nazis: Simkin’s inability to distinguish between the highly different circumstances of the Double Cross System and the management of suspected Soviet spies represents a colossal failure in analysis.

Were the Americans clumsily trying to imitate the practices of the XX System, but now against communist spies? In June 1943, the OSS had transferred the Yale academic Norman Holmes Pearson to London to learn from British counter-intelligence operations, and he became a member of the XX Committee in 1944, where he offered advice on some of the ethically more troublesome decisions that had to be made. (Other Americans involved in the BODYGUARD deception plans were allowed to attend XX meetings.) Holmes also recruited James Angleton as his assistant, an experience that had a long-lasting effect on the future CIA officer, who developed close relations with both Wilfrid Mann and Kim Philby. In his study of this period, Cloak and Gown, Robin Winks wrote: “James Murphy [counter-intelligence chief in OSS] was beginning to think that the next task would be to detect Soviet intelligence agents in the west, including those who worked under the cover of their own embassies. The NKVD had begun as a defensive intelligence organization with the goal of saving the revolution in Russia, but in its Cheka guise it had turned into an offensive operation. In this Murphy was joined by Norman Pearson, privy to the secrets of the British use of double agents against the Germans. At some point between August and December 1943 Murphy mentioned his concern to Angleton, who was fascinated by the notion of penetrating the enemy by exploiting its own agents.”

Yet it was one thing to turn a captured Nazi parachuting into the country, and quite another to attempt to convince an isolated but committed Soviet spy to change his allegiance fully to the other side! Most of the Abwehr agents landed in the United Kingdom were not Nazi enthusiasts, and quite quickly agreed to their new role. The most stubborn, TATE, took some time to be convinced, even though the alternative was a death sentence. And, indeed, many spies were led to the hangman’s noose or the firing-squad as the only alternative course of action. That threat did not loom over Blunt or Philby, Long or Cairncross. Guy Liddell would have preferred to shuffle off Nunn May or Fuchs, when they were proved to be spies, off to some provincial university, and Leo Long was encouraged to go on some kind of long stretch of Gardening Leave to repent, before being called back to intelligence duties. The punishment that the Cambridge Five faced, since MI5 did not want any messy trial to be undertaken, and knew that only a confession would procure a conviction, was the British version of the Comfy Chair so menacingly offered by Monty Python’s Spanish Inquisition. Did Pearson and Angleton really think they had a model for a strategy? After all, Julius and Ethel Rosenberg quietly went to the electric chair because they refused to implicate others, or change their opinions. The whole performance seems very ingenuous, but a fuller study of that aspect of OSS/CIA policy must remain for another day.

This intrinsically absurd phenomenon received official approbation after Margaret Thatcher unmasked Anthony Blunt in the House of Commons in 1979. Richard Davenport-Hines writes, in his Enemies Within (2018), that the official historian of intelligence, Sir Michael Howard, had a letter published in the Times, on November 21, which exculpated MI5’s cover-up. Decrying ‘witch-hunts’ (of course, but we must remember that while there was no such entity as ‘witches’, ‘unidentified Soviet spies’ was a very real category), Howard apparently gave a ‘temperate explanation’. The Times archive on-line does not go back that far, but Davenport-Hines next quotes from the letter: “When an enemy agent is discovered, the natural instinct of the security authorities is not to expose but to use him, and the greater his importance the stronger his instinct will be. Not only is he a mine of useful information, but if his employers are unaware that he has been ‘blown’, they will keep in contact with him. He can then be used as a double agent, feeding them information. For MI5, the value of keeping Professor Blunt as a card in their hands rather than discarding him by handing him over to justice must have been a major factor in the minds of those who made the decision.”

This is manifest nonsense. Blunt had managed to extricate himself from any commitments to his Soviet handlers soon after the war, and had lain idle, as a spy, for almost two decades before Michael Straight revealed Blunt’s activities, and MI5 successfully gained a confession from him in 1964. His importance then as a source was negligible. He was not a ‘mine of information’: on the contrary, he lied and dissembled about the whole story. If he had started producing ‘disinformation’ for Moscow, presumably under some threat of prosecution otherwise, Soviet intelligence would have immediately smelled a rat. Moreover, what would have stopped him telling his contacts what had happened, and thus alerting them to the deception? Was a minder going to accompany Blunt on his assignations to ensure that he passed on the information correctly? Howard’s ingenuous message should have received a vigorous riposte, but Davenport-Hines appears to have been taken in as well.

And what had the Soviets thought of all this wartime Double-Cross activity? After all, they were well aware of what was going on with Masterman’s committee, since Anthony Blunt kept them well-informed. Indeed, in 1943 Moscow Centre’s suspicions that British Intelligence might be double-crossing them were raised after Kim Philby made an operational mistake. According to West’s and Tsarev’s Crown Jewels, Moscow was shocked that Philby had decided to recruit as a source Peter Smollett (né Smolka) in the Ministry of Information, to be handled by Guy Burgess, without gaining permission first. ‘The Centre was appalled: who was Smollett?’ Notwithstanding that this, on the surface, showed a bewildering amount of ignorance about a person who was known to be a friend of the Communists, had visited the Soviet Union, and written a sympathetic book about it, Moscow was unconvinced by Burgess’s protestations, and documented that they now had set themselves the task of discovering what disinformation the British were planting on them. Lieutenant Elena Modrzchinskaya, who headed the English section of the NKVD, in July 1943 sent a damning report to her boss, Merkulov, claiming that the XX Committee was conducting a well-coordinated program against the Soviets as well as the Nazis. It was a typical display of obtuseness that only homo sovieticus could accomplish, in which Moscow displayed disgust at the untrustworthiness of its ally, while at the same time indulging in deep penetration of the latter’s political infrastructure in order to steal secrets.

It all blew over. At some stage the NKVD leaders decided that their spies had provided them with so much rich material that it was highly likely that it consisted of genuine confidential documents illicitly gained, and they could also not identify exactly which information was false. Burgess pointed out that it would be impossible for the British authorities to maintain so many double agents in places of influence. Just because the British had developed an efficient double-cross system against the Nazis, it did not automatically mean that they would deploy it against their allies. Russian paranoia had come into play. Thus by October 1943 the credibility of the network in Britain was restored. The London residency was told to take great care in handling the group, but the period of suspicion had come to a close by August 1944. Just before then, Blunt had given his bosses a comprehensive account of the XX System, which would have described its sole focus on the Abwehr, and that helped the NKVD to relax. Moreover, a delegation to Moscow, early in 1944, led by John Bevan, the head of the London Controlling Section (responsible for deception) had explained the whole BODYGUARD project to the Soviets, with the result that Lieutenant-General Kuznetsov of the General Staff was able to master its intricacies. Presumably Messrs. Murphy and Pearson were not aware of this goodwill visit.

Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU, for whom Fuchs and Sonia worked) would have been unaware of all this turmoil. Yet it is hard to imagine that the GRU did not observe the whole matter of Sonia’s installation in England with a certain amount of amazement. How could the British authorities be so dumb as to facilitate her transfer? Even Sonia recorded in her memoir that she thought she had some kind of protector helping her in MI5. The evidence (such as the phony-looking extracts from the Soviet archives that suggest Sonia was merely loyally passing on information about German war plans) indicate that they went along with the game, using the surreptitious wireless set for the real business. Yet they must overall have concluded that the naivety of British Intelligence outweighed its natural wiliness, else they would not have been so indulgent with Alexander Foote. They had concerns that he might be a British plant back in Switzerland, and Foote must have performed heroically after his return to Moscow in 1945 to convince his interrogators that he was the genuine article.

The links between the activities of the XX Committee and attempts to turn Communist spies do have some substance, however. After the war, General Leslie Hollis *, then Chief of Staff to the Ministry of Defence, set up what was called the ‘Hollis Committee’, effectively taking over the role of the old W Board, which had directed high-level policy for the management of double agents, and to which the XX Committee had reported. To complement it, a little-known committee was set up to replace the wartime XX Committee, titled the Inter-Service Communications Intelligence Committee, under the chairmanship of ‘TAR’ Robertson (him who was so important a figure in the Double-Cross operation), to coordinate ongoing deception plans. The only adversary of substance, to whom such plans might be directed, was the Soviet Union. This committee did explore some ideas, such as using GARBO to infiltrate Soviet intelligence via Nazi officers recruited by the Soviets, although that particular exploit was abandoned. Moreover, there is evidence of loftier attempts to pass misinformation to the Russians. Thaddeus Holt, in his epic account of military deception in WWII, The Deceivers, writes about postwar efforts by the British and the Americans to mislead the Soviets as to the state of Western research and development, and ‘in particular to induce them to fritter their resources in directions known to the West to be unproductive’. Holt refers in passing to Operations THUMBTACK, CLASSROOM and BOYHOOD that were under discussion in 1948, and the little that Holt offers about them suggests that the first of these could well apply to nuclear secrets. (I am astonished that such an accomplished historian as Holt could, as late as 2007, solemnly describe the attempts to mislead the Soviets without acknowledging that the whole wartime deception plan had been revealed to them by the Cambridge spies.)

[* Were Roger Hollis, director-general of MI5, and General Leslie Hollis perhaps cousins? Roger was born in Wells in 1905, and his father, George Arthur, was at that time a curate. Leslie was born in Walcot, Bath, in 1897, and his father, Charles Joseph, was also a curate . . .]

But Fuchs seems a highly unlikely candidate to have been adopted at this time, and there is no evidence (that I have found) which would suggest that efforts had been undertaken to persuade Sonia to act as a double agent as the Cold War got under way. By then, her utility had diminished. Dansey, the premier candidate for the project of her manipulation, had died in 1947. The only clear incidents – with Mann and Belfrage – both occurred in the United States, where British Security Co-ordination, more closely linked to SIS than to MI5, rather clumsily succeeded in recruiting officers with communist sympathies to perform some sort of propaganda. Inspired by the heroics from Masterman and his team, BSC (and the OSS, FBI and CIA) then may have made even clumsier attempts to convince them to work against their Soviet bosses. Yet the conditions that made double-crossing of Nazi spies successful in wartime Britain – threats, confidence in the reoriented agent, tight and exclusive control, painstaking preparation, a high degree of security – simply did not obtain with the management of Soviet spies.

As for domestic lessons from the exercises during the war, and afterwards, we know that Britain was harsher with foreign-born spies (e.g. Fuchs, Blake) than it was with native-born Englishmen (and Scotsmen) who had betrayed their country from what the Security Service considered was a misguided sense of mission. (If obtuseness was the métier of homo sovieticus, that of homo britannicus was hypocrisy.) But MI5 (and MI6) did not linger long over the thought that they might be turned to good advantage. These characters did what they did out of political conviction, not from shabby mercenary motives, and the preference was, when their guilt was established, to hush the whole matter up and get the pests secluded somewhere, maybe abroad (like Cairncross), or preferably, perhaps, behind the Iron Curtain. If the intelligence services had tried to turn them as a bargain for non-prosecution, how would they ever have been convinced that an ideological volte-face had occurred, and that their victims had been defanged? The spies would still have had to communicate with their controllers in person, so it would have been impossible to supervise their duplicity. Guessing full well that they did not control the full network, what could MI5 and SIS possibly have hoped to achieve?

Pincher’s vague denials should thus be seen more as a smokescreen to deflect attention from the more plausible scenario that British intelligence tried to manipulate Sonia. She was never any kind of double agent, and any plans to assist her were conceived long before the XX Committee was created. If Dansey, as Colonel Z, did try to facilitate her passage into a role where the SIS might have had some measure of supervision over her, it was far more likely that it would have been simply a discreet attempt to decrypt her wireless transmissions. The official histories provide no insights. Dansey himself does not appear in the index of any of the five bulky volumes of the History of British Intelligence in World War II, which cannot be attributed solely to the fact of his unpopularity. It is true that the authors were reticent in identifying individuals, but then there is no reference to the Z Organisation, either. The lack of coverage means nothing. It could indicate that there was a massive cover-up over an intelligence disaster: it could indicate that there truly was some manipulation, but that the historians were ‘encouraged’ not to write about it. But it surely cannot mean that nothing of significance at all happened around the indulgent treatment of Sonia. And the fact is that SIS and MI5 were outwitted. The Soviets swindled the British.

[I encourage readers who may have insights into Pincher’s claims to contact me at antonypercy@aol.com]

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

 

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Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History, Politics

Isaiah in Love

(Since I shall be on holiday/vacation in California and Maui for the remainder of December, I am posting this month’s blog early, as a special gift to all my readers – and especially to the members of the Murmansk Chapter of the Coldspur Appreciation Society  –  and presenting a piece that I wrote five years ago. When I started my research for what was then going to be a master’s degree, the focus was very much on Isaiah Berlin, and I decided then to write up some initial findings on various episodes in his life that Michael Ignatieff’s biography bypassed. I have used parts of this essay in a previous post (‘Some Diplomatic Incidents‘), and have explored in depth some aspects concerning Berlin’s role in intelligence  in my book Misdefending the Realm. I have also described the strange coincidence that found Berlin in Estoril at exactly the time (early January 1941) when Soviet agent Sonia received her permission to travel to the UK (see ‘Sonia’s Radio: Part VIII)’. The essay could also be updated in the light of more recent findings. For instance, I have now discovered that Berlin’s claims to have stayed at the Palacio Hotel in Estoril, Portugal, in that January, appear to have been completely fabricated, which must cast some doubt on the accuracy of other details he provided on his journey from the UK to the USA. Exploring those murky events warrants a dedicated blog later in 2018. I thus present ‘Isaiah in Love’ unchanged. I shall update the Commonplace files on my return. A happy seasonal festival to all my readers! December 12, 2017.  P.S. Please note that I now list, for ease of access, all previous monthly blog entries on the ‘About’ page.)

December Commonplace entries duly posted here. (December 31)

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One of the more bizarre episodes in the life of the great intellectual historian Sir Isaiah Berlin occurred when Guy Burgess invited him to join him on a trip to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1940. Burgess, probably anxious to make contact with his spymasters after the purging of the London station, had persuaded his mentor Harold Nicolson that Berlin, a native Russian speaker, should be appointed as press officer at the embassy in Moscow. Was Berlin merely a cover? Did Burgess have other motives for enticing Berlin to Russia? Maybe – but Berlin was in any case eager to fulfill a long-time desire to visit the Soviet Union. The necessary paperwork was arranged, and Berlin and Burgess left Liverpool for Moscow, via Montreal, the US, and Vladivostock. They never completed the journey. In New York, Burgess received the news that he was to be recalled to London. Unlike ‘recalls’ to Moscow, where agents would probably be sent to the Lubianka, for no other reason than that they had been exposed to Western influences, Burgess was simply fired by MI6 on his return.  There, in the treatment of agents under a cloud, lay a key difference between the West and Soviet Russia: in Moscow, a bullet in the back of the head; in London, a transfer to the BBC. Yet, despite Berlin’s ease in gaining a visa from the Soviet Embassy in Washington, the Foreign Office quickly scotched his hopes of taking up his post in Moscow, and he was left twiddling his thumbs. Adapting to circumstances, he quickly earned a reputation for his deft analysis of the American scene, and through the British Embassy was offered a semi-permanent job with the British Press Service. While successful in this role, Berlin wanted to return to the United Kingdom first, one strong reason he gave his biographer being that he was did not want to be thought cowardly in avoiding the Blitz back in England. Was this desire not to end up as a character in an Evelyn Waugh novel, like the elopers Auden and Isherwood, whom Waugh so sharply lampooned as Parsnip and Pimpernel, some neat retrospective insight? Put Out More Flags did not appear until 1942. The timing is unclear: Michael Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin states that Burgess came to Berlin’s rooms with his plan ‘in mid-June’, while Henry Hardy notes in Volume 1 of Berlin’s Letters that it was ‘in late June’. On June 23, Berlin wrote to Marion Frankfurter, wife of Felix, the associate justice on the Supreme Court, joining in the condemnation of Auden, Isherwood and Macneice, and added: ‘ – if I could induce some institution in the U.S.A. to invite me, I would. But cold-blooded flight is monstrous.’.

Ignatieff’s biography covers this period, but depicts the philosopher’s return to the United Kingdom, in the winter of 1940-41, as an insignificant interlude. In doing so, Ignatieff was largely reliant on Berlin’s account of that journey. After describing how Berlin returned on a sea-plane with Lord Lothian, the British Ambassador, as far as Lisbon (whence Lothian moved on alone, leaving Berlin to await a regular flight), he devotes a paragraph to Berlin’s time in Oxford and London, mentioning along the way a lunch with Guy Burgess and Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information. He then writes: ‘A month into term, a letter arrived from the Ministry of Information ordering Berlin to return immediately to New York. Having reassured his parents, arranged his leave from New College, and having proved that he wasn’t running away from the Blitz, Isaiah now returned to New York with a clear conscience.’

But did Berlin really have a clear conscience? While he evidently did not want to be seen as an escapist, it is unlikely that anyone would have thought that of him, since his journey to Washington had been on government business. Nevertheless, all the evidence suggests he had a hidden agenda that he was never comfortable making public, and points towards his motivation for returning to Europe being a desire to meet with his current hero, Chaim Weizmann, at an important rendezvous in Lisbon to discuss Zionist matters. Why, as his life was fading to a close, would he wish to conceal such activities from his biographer? Both his Zionist enthusiasm and scepticism were well-known; after the creation of the Israeli state, he had had misgivings over the way it had developed, as well as over the pusillanimity of the British government towards it. He had had to be careful about promoting ideas too energetically while being employed by that same government. So why would he try to prevent his attendance at a meeting in Lisbon becoming part of the record?

That he intended to meet Weizmann in Lisbon seems clear from a reading of the biography and his Letters 1928-1946. The following conclusions are derivable:

1) Berlin contrived a convoluted story about the renewal of his post in Washington. The first impression he leaves is that he was offered a permanent job with the British Press Service there in 1940, but negotiated that he had to return to the UK first. A letter to his parents, dated October 5, from New York, states that his job is ‘practically fixed’. But in his Introduction to Washington Dispatches (1980), he muddies the waters by indicating that he returned home without an understanding that he had an offer to continue the job in Washington. When in the UK, he reports that he received a sharp letter from the Ministry of Information asking him to explain why he hadn’t reported for duty, at which he claims that he had never been told about the appointment, an observation which the Ministry admitted was true. (Henry Hardy, the editor of the Letters, points out this contradiction in a note.) On the other hand, he writes to a friend, Marie Gaster (January 3, 1941) and gives a very different account, claiming he was not offered anything attractive in Washington, and wanted to return to the UK to look for something more appropriate. He further suggests that, much against his will, he was then encouraged to take up the job with the British Press Service, and ‘return to America at once’. (Hardy suggests that this account ‘offers a possible explanation of what really happened’, but it gives the appearance of yet another smokescreen.)

2) Berlin indicates that his return to the UK should have been considered as a personal trip, because he takes pains, in a letter to his parents (October 5, 1940), to make arrangements for the cost of the four links in the journey (New York-Lisbon-UK-Lisbon-New York) to be paid partly by them. If he was in any way on government business, because an appointment had come to a close, or he needed to be interviewed for another position, he would surely have had his expenses paid for him by the UK Government. In fact, in another letter to his parents (January 10, 1941), when stuck in Estoril, he writes that, ‘unlike the private passengers, I can claim a Govt. priority from the Air Attaché.’ And, indeed, the manifest for his voyage from Lisbon to New York, on the SS Excambion, does indicate that his fare was paid for by the British Government.

3) Berlin always intended to see Chaim Weizmann during his visit, probably to explore a position with the Jewish Agency. Ignatieff reports on that preference in the biography. In another letter to his parents (September 3, 1940), he writes: ‘I should like to hop back [sic] to England, see some people, Lord Lloyd [Secretary of State for the Colonies], Weizmann, etc., arrange with Oxford, & skip back [sic] again, preferably by Clipper.’ ‘Hopping and skipping’ was not the normal mode of travel across the Atlantic during the early years of WWII, but it helps suggest to posterity that Berlin was in a hurry to get back, implying again that he had a permanent position waiting for him in the USA that he was eager to assume. He also made a reference to possible ‘ice on the Clipper’s wings’ in January, which might necessitate a slower return by boat. The Weizmann papers in fact show that Weizmann did enjoy a thorough de-briefing from Berlin soon after his arrival in the UK. Berlin was asked to describe the disruptive effect a visit from a Foreign Office functionary, a Mr Voss, had had on Jews in the US. Weizmann expressed his desire that Berlin could delay his trip back to the States so that they could journey together. Communications must have broken down, because, shortly before his departure, writing from Oxford, Berlin tries to contact Weizmann, after abortive phone-calls, with a note of urgency detectable in the message, at the Dorchester Hotel in London in December 1940, saying that he would ‘make a gigantic effort to see you before I go’, and asking Weizmann to ‘write or wire me in Oxford where & when you are to be expected in Lisbon and whom I could ask, while there, about your probable whereabouts?’ Berlin was due to leave on January 3, from Bournemouth airport. Lastly, he writes to his old friend Maire Gaster (wife of the Communist activist, Jack Gaster) again, just before his flight to Lisbon, informing her that he is very miserable at the prospect of leaving the UK for New York, but that ‘there is no doubt that there is a job to perform & my new God Dr Weizmann is wooing me ardently into doing it.’ For some reason, communications broke down, or Weizmann lost his enthusiasm for having Berlin work for the Jewish Agency. Berlin was deceptive when explaining this offer to his biographer: he told Ignatieff that Weizmann had urgently pressed him to accept a position with the organization when in New York, but that he had ‘diplomatically declined the Chief’s embrace’. On the other hand, he was perhaps playing for time.

4) Berlin had been impressed with Weizmann when he met him early in 1939. At the time, Weizmann was heavily involved, as head of the Jewish Agency and the World Zionist Organization, in negotiating with the British Government the form of the Jewish homeland in Palestine, as well as the shape of a Jewish Fighting Force to be established in Palestine as part of the British Army. But talks had stalled. Lord Lloyd, the Colonial Secretary, was fatally ill, and would die on February 2, 1941. Anthony Eden, representing the Arabist Foreign office, was executing delaying tactics; Weizmann decided to extend his stay in London until he could witness the proclamation of the communiqué announcing the Jewish Unit. Of all this, Berlin seemed to be unaware. He wrote to his parents (January 10, 1941), in the Excambion, on Hotel Estoril Palacio notepaper – about to leave, but still moored – that he intended to buy dried fruit for the journey later in the day. The timing means, that, despite his – and his employers’ – desire for him to report quickly to the States, he would have been able to have a few days with Weizmann, and almost a week in Lisbon for any meetings before embarking on his voyage. Mysteriously he told his parents that ‘Chaim said he was going – the 15th’, which suggests that he was very much out of date. Weizmann did not leave England for the United States until March 10. Finally, Berlin bizarrely informs his parents, in a letter from New York (January 28, 1941), that he spent ‘two agreeable days in Portugal about which I wrote to you from Lisbon’ – a gross understatement of the time he spent there. As for Weizmann, he completely ignores this interval, his autobiography Trial and Error skipping directly from meetings with Churchill in September 1940 to the bland statement: ‘In the spring of 1941 I broke off my work in London for a three month trip to America.’

Was there a secret Zionist meeting in Lisbon, at which Berlin and Weizmann had hoped to meet? As the Nazi net closed around the capitals of Europe, the Portuguese capital had become a popular city for assignations of every kind. For example, an important Jewish charitable organization, the Jewish Joint Distribution Committee, was compelled to close its offices in Paris as the Germans approached in 1940, and relocate to Lisbon. With official German authorization, Dr. Josef Löwenherz, described as ‘the leader of Jews in Vienna’ visited Lisbon in neutral Portugal (apparently in 1940 or 1941) to meet with representatives of the World Jewish Congress, including Dr. Parlas, described as ‘secretary to Chaim Weizmann’ (but who does not appear in the Index to Weizmann’s memoirs), and with WJC financial affairs director Tropper. Löwenherz wanted to negotiate an agreement for the mass emigration of Jews from German-controlled Europe. But if Berlin attended such meetings, he says nothing about them. And, as a government employee, he had to be very careful about adopting Zionist causes too vigorously.

Berlin’s enthusiasm for Zionism was typical of the contradictions that appeared to grip him at times, and cause perennial self-doubt. While he believed fervently that a home in Palestine was essential to protect the beleaguered and oppressed Jews of Eastern Europe, in the United Kingdom (as well as the United States) Berlin would often encounter Jews who had gradually been assimilated and who were taken aback by the whole idea of Zionism. Some found the notion that the world could be divided into Jews and Gentiles to be as bizarre – and even as offensive – as the notion that it could be divided into Aryans and non-Aryans. And Berlin was not consistent himself. In his government role, he was often asked to calm the more urgent Zionists, and he often called upon the secular Jew Victor Rothschild to help him in his mission. Such gestures, of embracing a vague ‘Jewish’ but unreligious culture but resisting the more extreme aspects of Zionism, sometimes got him into trouble. Ignatieff represents Berlin’s views on cultural identity in the following way: ‘individuals must have secure cultural belonging if they are to be free’. While that sounds more like T. S. Eliot than Isaiah Berlin, Berlin appeared never to come to terms with the paradox that assimilated Jews whom he encountered could be happy with their situation, having cast off so many cultural remnants, whereas he always had feelings of being an outsider. Right up to the time of his death he expressed feelings of alienation, of not being accepted in English society, unaware, perhaps, that an insistence on tribal separateness constituted the real irritant to a pluralist culture. But many Jews established in Britain were not interested in aspirations for a homeland for Jews. As Kenneth Rose writes of (some of) the Rothschilds: ‘By a century and a half of assiduous assimilation they had emerged from the ghetto of Frankfurt to the broad, sunlit uplands of Buckinghamshire; they were not prepared to see their security eroded by a sentimental attachment to Zionism.’ Later on in life, Berlin saw Zionism in action – the terrorism, the jingoism – and began to realize that it was becoming just another of those Grand Solutions of which he was instinctively suspicious. His enthusiasm for it nevertheless sometimes blinded his judgment, and caused him some missteps. Ignatieff recounts the way that Berlin, stung by a critical review by the Stalinist Isaac Deutscher, was antagonized by ‘Deutscher’s political dogmatism and his hostility to Zionism’, and decided to destroy the historian’s chances for being appointed to a professorship at Sussex University, saying that Deutscher was ‘the only man whose presence in the same academic community as myself I should find morally intolerable.’ But anti-Zionism is not the same thing as anti-Semitism: in an exchange with the critic Christopher Hitchens, Berlin tried to wriggle out of the charge of trying to scotch Deutscher’s ambitions, and thus suppressing free speech.

In any case, a momentous encounter causes the plot to take a sudden switch, as in a Hitchcock film. In his letter to his parents dated January 28, 1941, after he arrived in New York, Berlin gave a thumb-nail sketch of the voyage across the Atlantic. ‘A mixed, very mixed company, a Duchess, a lot of rich expatriated Americans, the Times correspondent from Lisbon, a plump Jewess from Geneva called Frieda Vogel who insisted, to the general amusement that she was a Turk, a member of an old Turkish family, etc.’ Indeed, some breathtakingly clear camera footage of the arrival in New York of the Excambion appears to confirm some of this picture. These are not images of starving refugees delirious at their first sight of the Manhattan skyline, but of comfortable-looking citizens in furs and plush coats, chewing gum and smoking cigars, looking happily at familiar landmarks. They receive perfunctory inspections of their landing passes, and make landfall without stress. On the other hand, it must have been a much more arduous inspection for escapees from Nazi Europe; US immigration officials were urged to be very careful in discriminating between US citizens and aliens. And from a study of the ship’s manifest, one can fill in a few details in Berlin’s account. The Times journalist was Walter Edward Lucas, returning with his American wife, Lenore (née Sandberg). The duchess was 27-year-old Solange de Vivonne, described as widowed; Frieda Vogel, single, aged 39, and travelling with her mother, had indeed been born in Istanbul. Yet Berlin fails to identify someone who must have been the most famous passenger on board at that time, someone very close to the Roosevelts in the White House – Eve Curie, who had in 1937 published an extremely successful biography of her mother, Marie Curie, the Nobelist scientist, and was travelling from the UK on a lecture tour. When interviewed in one of the lounges on the Excambion, as it moved from Quarantine to Pier F, in Jersey City, Madame Curie gave a promotional speech for Great Britain, and pleaded for more tangible aid to the war effort there. Berlin, himself a government propagandist, surprisingly makes no mention of her or her role. Maybe his attentions were drawn elsewhere during the ten-day voyage. For, as he decades later told his biographer, it was on that ship that he first saw a striking lady. ‘He had noticed the tall, elegant, shy woman, and wondered who she was.’

The woman was named Aline Strauss, and would fifteen years later become his wife. Aline was travelling with her son, Michel, aged four. She was a widow, and had fled south from Paris as the Germans approached, staying in Biarritz, then Nice, and running to Portugal after the Vichy regime published its anti-Jewish edicts. (Ignatieff reports all this.) But it could have not been easy exiting France and crossing Spain to get to Lisbon, especially with her parents in tow. Susan Zuccotti, in her book The Holocaust, the French, and the Jews writes: ‘Hoping to leave legally, Aline Strauss wrestled with government bureaucracies for weeks. Her top priority was to obtain entry visas to the United States for herself and her family – a supremely difficult challenge, for few such visas were being issued at the time. She also needed to secure French passports for herself and her family, transit visas through Spain and Portugal, French exit visas, and proof of ship passage. The entire process was complicated by endless bureaucratic obstruction and by the intricate time frame involved. Visas were often valid for only a limited period, and by the time they were all in place, a ship might have sailed. Miraculously enough, Aline Strauss finally succeeded. She left France with her son in January 1941; her parents, to avoid giving the impression of a family exodus, followed three months later.’ Apart from the ‘With one bound Jack was free’ nature of this adventure, one wonders whether concerns about ‘a family exodus’ would really have been that intense under the circumstances, and how Aline’s parents managed to organize their departure with similar dexterity in Aline’s absence. For a historian such as Zuccotti to go all the way to Headington House in Oxford to interview Aline Berlin, and take back no explanation of the ‘miracle’, is disappointing.

Did Aline get help? Did she have connections? Probably. As Chaim Weizmann once said to Berlin: ‘Miracles do happen. But one has to work very hard for them.’  And the account of the trek offered by her son, Michel, in his 2011 publication Pictures, Passion, and Eye is far more revealing, showing the tenacity and resolve she had to adopt. What Michel adds is that Aline had to make repeated visits to the US Embassy in Nice to get her exit visa, not being allowed to see the consul or vice-consul, since the necessary affidavits had not arrived from the US. After receiving assistance from the American Embassy in Vichy, she did manage to gain access to the vice-consul in Nice, and acquired the necessary visas. But then she was unable to acquire the necessary exit visa from the Vichy government, and had to start the whole process again, having to invent a justification for her journey by claiming that she was getting married in America.  The Vichy government even demanded that the banns for such a marriage be read, until the Consulate lawyer issued a paper stating that in America, banns did not have to be read. Finally, she had the exit visas; the miracle had occurred, and she and her son made their way by train, from Barcelona to Madrid, and on to Lisbon – not without further scares – until they were able to rest at a small hotel in Estoril, in all probability not the Palacio, where Berlin was staying, to wait for the departure of SS Excambion.  One surprising datum from the ship’s manifest, however, is the description of Aline Strauss’s marital status as ‘married’ not ‘widowed’ – a simple mistake, perhaps, or possibly a reflection of her desire to be taken as attached, and thus unavailable, by possible suitors on board. But she was on the less prestigious list of ‘Aliens’, for whom immigration officers performed additional checks. Was it not dangerous to represent herself this way, especially as the method by which she had gained an exit visa was a laborious and stressful process in which she claimed that she was to be married in the USA?

Who was Aline Strauss? She had been born Aline de Gunzbourg – in England, in 1915, away from the war zone – and had been brought up in an apartment block in the Avenue d’Iéna in Paris, enjoying contacts with some of the most celebrated names of French society, such as the Rothschilds. She was a close friend of Liliane Fould-Springer (a great-aunt of the actress Helena Bonham-Carter), who lived in another apartment in the block, and who was later to marry Elie de Rothschild, her childhood sweetheart. As Ignatieff reports: ‘Aline’s father was Baron Pierre de Gunzbourg, an illustrious banker and philanthropist of pre-revolutionary St Petersburg. Her father had settled in Paris and had married the daughter of a Jewish family from Alsace, who had made their fortune in heating oil.’  In fact, there was another Rothschild link here, because her grandfather had set up a company to sell American oil in other European countries with the Rothschilds. (There was also intermarriage between Rothschild and de Gunzbourg: for example Marguerite de Gramont (1920–1998), daughter of the Count de Gramont, Officier of Légion d’Honneur and Croix de Guerre, was later to become Baroness de Gunzbourg, and Aline’s cousin, Bertrand Goldschmidt – of whom more later – married Naomi de Rothschild, who was the daughter of Victor Rothschild’s cousin Lionel, in 1947.)  Aline spent considerable time in the United Kingdom. She would pass several summers in a rented house in North Berwick with relatives, and regularly played golf in England with some of the world’s best-known players: she can be seen in photographs on the course at Stoke Poges, for instance, in the early 1930s. Indeed, she was a golfer of renown. After winning the National Ladies’ Championship of France in April 1934, she represented her country in the tied match against England, and, in July of that year, lost in the semi-final of the country’s International Championship to the eventual winner, Pam Barton. But Aline also had her share of tragedy. Her husband, Jules Strauss, a well-known art-collector, died young of cancer in 1939. She had also lost a brother (while he was a conscript in the army in 1933) and a sister (who fell to her death from a horse in an accident in Windsor Great Park in 1925).

The story now resembles a world conceived by Alan Furst, but with the clumsy plotting of Raymond Chandler. Aline Strauss had a few other encounters with Berlin in the US before their love affair blossomed, several years later, in England. The first few appear at first glance to be chance meetings at which the two really did not connect. From an inspection of Ignatieff’s biography, and Berlin’s Letters, they run as follows:

i) Berlin spots the elegant shy woman on the Excambion. (January 1941)

ii) They meet at the Rothschilds on Long Island, where Aline is playing golf with Cécile Rothschild. Isaiah is impressed; Aline less so. (undated)

iii) Aline visits Victor Rothschild’s apartment at the Hotel Pierre in New York, to find Isaiah there. She ignores him, since she is pre-occupied with gaining news from Rothschild about her brother Philippe, then working for the Resistance in France. (November 1942)

iv) Aline and Isaiah meet at a tea arranged by Victor Rothschild in New York. Berlin reports that ‘marriage has crushed her, she is meek and unhappy’, although Aline of course does not talk about any problems. (Spring 1946)

What has been going on here? Berlin was known for his perceptiveness about other people’s state of mind, but how has the callow Isaiah suddenly become an expert on woman’s psychology?  And why the emphasis on the failure of these two engaging personalities to connect? The studied reinforcement of the distance between the two is overdone, and thus generates a degree of scepticism.

Many aspects of this account do not ring true. Aline Strauss was certainly ‘tall and elegant’, but hardly shy – although those who know her say that she is diffident in front of high-powered intellectuals. She was travelling with her son; she had moved in dazzling social circles, had been in the limelight in the world of golf, and had shown great enterprise and fortitude in escaping to Portugal while dealing with obstructive officials in Southern France. She was acquainted with several other passengers on the Excambion, and, upon her arrival in New York, left her son in the care of nannies in order to take up a hectic social life. There may have been more alluring companions on the ship than Isaiah Berlin, but it was unlikely that she shrank back to her quarters, or avoided company out of shyness. Even more telling, on the occasion of his marriage to Aline on February 8, 1956, Berlin informed a reporter from the Hampstead and Highgate Express that their first ‘meeting’ had been ‘in the middle of the Atlantic in 1941’. A ‘meeting’ suggests an introduction, and exchange of names, at least. So why did he tell his biographer that he wondered who she was?

The next two encounters also stretch the bounds of credulity. Here was a refined Jewish woman, attracted to intelligent men, being introduced to another Jew with roots in St Petersburg, while both of them had strong connections with the Rothschilds. Moreover, this was no ordinary Jew. Berlin was the first Jew to be elected to a fellowship at All Souls, and had been described as the best conversationalist in Britain (in truth, more of a monologuist), noted for charming both the men and the ladies with his quick-wittedness and intellect. His gift of good companionship, and his ability to lift people’s spirits, have been well-recorded. Yet Aline Strauss ignores him. And then, a few years later, Berlin meets her again, at a tea-party on Long Island, evidently not surprised to find her married (he makes no comment).  Despite his lack of close acquaintance with the lady, he is immediately able to detect signs of stress, although Aline has been married for only a little over two years and is pregnant with her first son by Hans Halban, to be born on June 1, 1946. What is more, the archives indicate that her husband, who had also recently returned from a visit to the UK, was present at the meeting. It had apparently been set up by Victor Rothschild to facilitate the move by the Halbans to Oxford, where Hans was taking up a job at the Clarendon Laboratory, so that they would have ready friends there. How did this sophisticated lady, on such a happy occasion, with a birth imminent, at a positive meeting set up by their mutual friend, soon to welcome the arrival of her Resistance hero brother and his family in New York, and the prospect of an exciting new life in Oxford ahead, give such signals of attrition and stress to a man she had hardly noticed on previous encounters?

Were there problems with her marriage already? Certainly Hans Halban had had his difficulties.  Halban was a nuclear scientist who was working on the Manhattan Project in Montreal. Ignatieff, again, does not quite get the story right. He reports that, in 1943, ‘Aline met Halban, a physicist of Austrian extraction who had worked on the French nuclear programme and had escaped to America in 1940, carrying with him important information about the production of heavy water, a component in the manufacture of atomic weapons.’ According to Ignatieff, they married and went to Montreal. But Halban’s journey had in fact been more circuitous, and tinged with controversy. Halban was indeed an Austrian, of half-Jewish descent, who had been educated at Leipzig, and worked with Irene Joliot-Curie, and with Niels Bohr in Copenhagen before being invited to Paris to collaborate with Frederic Joliot-Curie at the Collège de France, where he was granted French citizenship. As the Nazis approached, he had escaped with his colleague Lew Kowarksi to the UK with a valuable canister of heavy water (stored temporarily at Wormwood Scrubs, where MI5 was also located for a while, and then at Windsor Castle). Winston Churchill invited him to work at the Cavendish Laboratory in Cambridge; he was greatly aided by John Cockcroft and Frederick Lindemann (later Lord Cherwell), both of whom became lifelong allies. Halban was eventually appointed to the technical committee of the Tube Alloys Project, the codename for research into atomic power and weaponry. His team was later reconstituted in Canada, in order to be close to the US atomic research efforts, and where resources for their experiments would be more available. Halban moved to Montreal in 1942.

But Halban had the knack of acquiring some highly dubious characters to work for him. The connections and conspiracies that evolved among his team constitute some of the most significant espionage activities of the century, and are worth listing. In Cambridge, he employed one Engelbert (Bertl) Broda, who was in fact a Communist agent (code-named ‘Eric’). Broda had come to the UK in 1938, found his way to Cambridge University, and was by 1942 assisting Halban in his work on atomic reactors and controlled chain reactions. In that seedbed of communist subversion, Vienna in the early 1930s, Broda had probably been the lover of another Soviet agent, Edith Tudor-Hart. Tudor-Hart was acquainted with the master-spy Kim Philby via the latter’s first wife Litzi Friedman, whom he married in Vienna in 1933, and may have been responsible for recruiting him to spy for the Soviet Union. Broda was eventually to return to Austria in 1947, having been a steady provider of atomic secrets to the Soviets in the intervening years. MI5 also suspected Broda of being responsible for the recruitment of the spy Alan Nunn May, who also worked for Halban – and followed him to Montreal in 1943.  Nunn May was closely connected to the notorious group of Soviet agents known as ‘the Cambridge 5’. He was a friend of Donald Maclean at Trinity Hall, Cambridge, was tutored by the Communist sympathiser Patrick Blackett, and had joined the Communist Party on the early 1930s. He was able, however, able to get past security checks, as he was a ‘secret’ member of the Communist Party of Great Britain, and had been recommended by the prominent scientist James Chadwick to join the Cavendish team. He was recruited by the GRU (the Army side of Soviet intelligence) while on the Tube Alloys Project, and it was only through the testimony of the Soviet cipher-clerk Igor Gouzenko, who identified him after defecting in Toronto, that Nunn May was arrested, and subsequently confessed to his espionage activities. He was jailed in 1946, and when released a few years later, went to work in Ghana, having married Bertl Broda’s former wife, Hildegarde.

But there were other snakes in the grass who worked closely with Halban. Bruno Pontecorvo, the spy who suddenly defected to the East in 1950, had worked with him in Paris, and escaped to the US as the Nazis approached.  He then not only gained employment in Canada under Halban, but also rejoined him at Harwell in 1948 under John Cockcroft’s leadership. Working there, too, was yet another notorious spy, Klaus Fuchs, maybe the most brilliant of them all. Having recruited Nunn May, Broda had been responsible for the KGB’s recruitment of Fuchs, who continued his spying activities after the war. In 1946, Fuchs was hired at Harwell as Head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and gave the Soviets some of the most critical and useful information about the USA’s nuclear achievements and potential, which directly affected Stalin’s military decisions, such as initiating the Korean War. When Soviet wartime radio traffic was decrypted in the Venona project, evidence pointed to a spy at Harwell, and Fuchs’s background made him an obvious suspect. He was arrested in January 1950, confessed under interrogation, and was sentenced to fifteen years’ imprisonment, though released after nine. He then left for the German Democratic Republic (DDR), (leaving London on a plane with a ticket in the name of Strauss!), and in September 1959 married a Central Committee employee, Margarete Keilson (a widow, six years older), whom he had met as a fellow Communist in Paris in the 1930s. He later indicated to Markus Wolf, the head of the DDR’s foreign intelligence division, that he had expected the death penalty. While Halban’s role was reduced in the post-war organization at Harwell, it was perhaps a signal of recognition for his skills and knowledge that so many spies gathered around him during his career.

While he tried to re-build, in Canada, the team that had worked for him in Paris (to the consternation of the Americans, who did not trust the French implicitly), Halban’s managerial skills were tested. His colleague Kowarski declined to accompany him to Montreal, frustrated by the politicization of dealings with patents, and Halban’s treatment of him. Later, another physicist on the team, Bertrand Goldschmidt, reported how the team was frustrated by lack of access to raw materials, and that ‘their demoralization was to be further increased by the difficult character, the authoritarian manners and the poor managerial abilities of Halban, their leader’. (Goldschmidt was in fact a cousin of Aline Strauss, and was the person responsible for introducing her to Halban in Canada when they were on a ski-ing trip early in 1943.)  Despite his reputation for acting alone, and not being the best communicator, Halban had nevertheless managed to bring other members of his Parisian team to Montreal. One was Georg Plazcek (who married Halban’s first wife, Els Andriesse, after Els followed Halban to Montreal, but then left him); another was the afore-mentioned Communist agent, Bruno Pontecorvo. Pontecorvo had failed security checks for joining the Manhattan project in the USA, but had been able to get hired in Canada.

The Americans were very suspicious of Halban. Their misgivings increased when he visited  France after the liberation of Paris in 1944, with the purpose of discussing the issue of patents with Joliot-Curie. They wondered whether he was planning to pass atomic secrets to the French. Knowing the situation was tense, Halban had travelled to England, but waited there for approval for his visit to Paris. On gaining it from Sir John Anderson, the Chancellor of the Exchequer, he left on November 24, and was given hospitality by the UK’s Ambassador to France, Duff Cooper, who was staying at Victor Rothschild’s elegant house in the Avenue Marigny. Halban had been caught in a complex conflict of loyalties. He had taken patents created in Paris with him to the UK in 1940, and given them to the UK government. And as the Americans started to wonder about why so many French scientists were working on the project in Montreal, they tried to apply stricter controls on participants without firm allegiances to the USA or the UK. This process resulted in the passing of the McMahon Act of 1946, which restricted access to nuclear secrets even to accredited citizens of countries who were US allies (like Great Britain and Canada), and thus solidified the preliminaries to the Cold War. Halban denied giving secrets to Joliot-Curie, but the Americans were annoyed, knowing that Joliot-Curie was a member of the Communist Party who had made threatening noises about contacting the Soviet Union if he were not treated respectfully. They thus applied pressure on the British to replace him – which they did, demoting Halban to head of the physics committee, and bringing in John Cockcroft as leader in Montreal. Nevertheless, Halban was soon put under detention in the US for a year, and not allowed to work. Ironically, the man who replaced him in Montreal was the spy Alan Nunn May. Any secrets that Halban might have confided to Joliot-Curie were dwarfed by the revelations of Nunn May, Fuchs, Pontecorvo and Broda, as well as those made by Guy Burgess’s fellow absconder, Donald Maclean, working in Washington.

The week of the meeting between Berlin and the Halbans that was set up by Victor Rothschild can be pinpointed, as Berlin completed his assignment in Washington on March 31, and left for the UK on the Queen Mary on April 7. Clearly, Halban had been under stress, which might have affected his marriage. Here was a man, born von Halban in Austria, of half-Jewish background, who was sometimes taken for a German, but who then adopted French citizenship (and dropped the ‘von’ from his name on that occasion) when he worked in Paris. After his escape to France, he was employed by the British government, and owed it his allegiance, signing the Official Secrets Act, before leaving to work in Canada in co-operation with the United States government. He was intensely concerned about the patents he had brought with him from France, and his loyalties were thus pulled in multiple directions. His health was not good: he had a weak heart, which had necessitated his travelling by cruiser rather than aircraft during the war, and Bertrand Goldschmidt attributes his dictatorial and impatient manner partly to that affliction. He was harsh with his stepson, Michel, who explained his own asthma attacks as being caused by Halban’s treatment of him: this must have distressed his mother. But in the spring of 1946, Halban was coming to the end of a frustrating nine months’ period of cooling his heels in New York, eagerly waiting for June to come round, a date on which he would be free to return to Europe. One might have imagined a positive outlook from both Halban and his wife.

Isaiah Berlin, on the other hand, had just returned from experiencing one of the most significant adventures of his life – his encounter with the famous Russian poet, Anna Akhmatova, in Leningrad. Berlin had been able to fulfill his longtime desire to visit the Soviet Union after the British ambassador in Moscow from 1942 to 1946, Archibald Clark Kerr, had suggested to him that he survey the scene, and write a report on relations between the Soviet Union and the West. Having carefully gained approval from the Foreign Office, Berlin was initially subject to obstructive tactics by the Soviet Foreign Ministry. Molotov eventually granted him official accreditation as a member of the British Embassy, and Berlin was given a visa in September 1945. It is ironic that Berlin breezed through his visa application with the Soviet authorities in Washington in 1940, before that particular journey was cancelled. Clark Kerr, made Baron Inverchapel in 1946, had shown a remarkable talent for engaging Stalin’s confidence, and no doubt influenced the approval process. The historian John Costello has written of Clark Kerr’s enthusiasm for communism. He had consorted with Stig Wennestrom, a Soviet spy from Sweden, in the 1930s, and in his role as ambassador to China in the late 1930s, had also been a keen admirer of Mao Tse-Tung. He then developed a special relationship with Stalin himself, going to so far as being a supporter of Stalin’s demands for the repatriation of Russians as the war came to a close. As Costello writes (in Mask of Treachery) ‘The ambassador was so cozy with the Soviet dictator that he secured the release from prison of a Red Army deserter whose sister was on the British embassy staff. Instead of facing a firing-squad, Yevgeny Yost found himself presented – like some medieval serf – as a valet to Inverchapel when he left Moscow and returned to London at the end of the war.’  Clark Kerr had also been a close friend of Anthony Burgess, and, on visits back to London in the 1940s, held parties which communist sympathizers and Soviet diplomats attended: his suggestion that Berlin travel to Moscow was thus an eerie echo of the abortive exploit of 1940.

Ignatieff covers the journey in depth, so only the key aspects of his encounter with Akhmatova, whose first husband, Gumilev, had been executed in 1921, and whose son had suffered in the Gulag, need be retold here. On a visit to Leningrad, Berlin had casually asked about her in a bookstore, and had been led to her apartment. He ended up talking to her all night about Russian friends, about art and literature. She told him her bitter life-story, her love affairs, her exile, and encouraged him to speak of his own personal life. He admitted to her that he was in love with one Patricia de Bendern (née Douglas), whom he was to visit in Paris on his way back. (Extraordinarily, the previous August, Patricia, despondent after the collapse of her marriage, had proposed to Berlin, a suggestion which he assessed as unlikely to have a happy outcome, and thus declined.) What Akhmatova made of all this is unknown, but Berlin’s account of their meeting suggests it was erotically charged.  At eleven the next morning, when he returned to the Astoria Hotel, he exclaimed to Brenda Tripp, his companion from the British Council: ‘I am in love, I am in love.’

Akhmatova went on to write a cycle of elegiac poems about Berlin and his visit, titled Cinque. But the encounter caused her problems, too. The fact that Berlin had eluded Stalin’s secret police in managing to meet Akhmatova infuriated the dictator, who had essentially been blackmailing her, forcing her silence in public by holding a sword over the head of her son. When Zhdanov, Chairman of the Supreme Soviet, sent him a report on the encounter, Stalin was reported to have said: ‘So our nun has been seeing British spies’, accompanying his reaction with a vulgar epithet. The matter was complicated by the fact that Randolph Churchill, the son of Stalin’s old rival Winston Churchill – sometime ally, sometime adversary – had also been present, according to Berlin’s account, outside Akhmatova’s residence. Seeking Berlin out, he had reputedly called boorishly to him, although he had not been able to gain entry. Akhmatova thought enough of her own importance, and the way Stalin behaved afterwards, to state to Berlin, years later, when she visited Oxford, that she thought their encounter provoked the Cold War – a probable overstatement, though an accurate insight, no doubt, into the fact that Stalin did not like to be thwarted or challenged. Akhmatova’s biographer Roberta Reeder makes the point that Stalin used her as a victim to teach a lesson to the Soviet people, and the writer Konstantin Simonov represented Stalin’s attack on her as a general one on the intelligentsia, cosmopolitanism, and even the independent westernized spirit of Leningrad itself. Stalin had delivered a speech in February 1946 that reaffirmed the superiority of communism, which in turn prompted Churchill’s ‘Iron Curtain’ speech in March, so the fresh challenge from his former ally was on his mind when he heard that Randolph was meddling.

Most commentators have pointed out that Stalin was exaggerating in describing Berlin and Churchill as ‘spies’, since Berlin’s mission to prepare a dispatch about American-Soviet-British relations had been approved by the Soviet Foreign Office. Eluding one’s minder was not evidence of espionage, but the Soviet authorities were obviously suspicious of any covert activity, or attempts to contact Soviet citizens without supervision. Berlin took pains to declare his lack of involvement with any intelligence activities at any point in his life. ‘I had nothing to do with intelligence in any country, at any time, and took no interest in what he [Alexander Halpern] did,’ he wrote in his profile of the Halperns, maybe a little disingenuously. (It should be pointed out that he informed his parents – in a letter of June 2, 1944, from Washington – that Halpern ‘works for us here’, suggesting a close familiarity with Halpern’s activities.) There is a difference between ‘having something to do with intelligence’ and ‘formally working for the Intelligence Service’, the latter being what Berlin appears to want to disassociate himself from. While nominally working for the British Embassy in New York and Washington, Berlin had actually been seconded to the assuredly covert British Security Co-ordination, an organization dedicated to propaganda and intelligence-gathering. And another little-known relationship that Berlin had in the world of intelligence was with Efraim Halevy, who was head of Mossad (Israel’s Intelligence Organization) from 1998 to 2002. A casual search of the Internet will give a careless browser the news that Halevy was Berlin’s nephew: he was in fact a nephew of Berlin’s aunt. Their relationship was close: Halevy was born in London in 1934, and his parents were friends of the Berlin family in Hampstead. Isaiah, along with his parents, attended Halevy’s bar mitzvah. But you will not find an entry for him in Ignatieff’s biography of Berlin. That is doubly remarkable, as the Letters, Volume 2, reports that Halevy accompanied Berlin on the 1956 trip to the Soviet Union. As the editors report: ‘As Secretary-General of the National Union of Israeli Students, he was in Moscow ostensibly to assist in planning for an international youth festival to be held in Moscow the following year, but his main intention was to make contact (normally impossible) with young Russian Jews.’ They go on to say that Berlin and Halevy did succeed in the early hours of one morning in getting away to meet Berlin’s aunt Zelma Zhmudsky, although Halevy was later reprimanded and delayed at the border for the ‘crime’ of escaping surveillance. More significant is the fact that Halevy delivered the seventh annual Isaiah Berlin lecture in Hampstead, London, on November 8, 2009, choosing the title: ‘Diplomacy and Intelligence in the Middle East: How and why are the two inexorably intertwined?’ After lauding Berlin’s contribution to the Jewish people, the Israeli nation, and the Rothschild Foundation, he went on to say: ‘Shaya, as we all called him, was not a neutral bystander as history unfolded before our eyes. He was often a player, at times a clandestine one, as when he met me in the nineties to hear reports of my many meetings with the late King Hussein of Jordan and his brother Crown Prince Hassan, who had been his pupil at Oxford. In retrospect, I regret not taking with me one of my secret recording machines to allow for these titillating exchanges to become part of recorded history. Alas, one more Israeli intelligence failure.’ That is hardly the evidence for someone who was never involved with intelligence, and to commemorate Berlin via a lecture on the subject suggests a pride in his achievements in that sphere. But this aspect of Berlin’s life is smoothly finessed, as is information about the Rothschild Foundation. Kenneth Rose’s biography of Victor Rothschild practically ignores that whole segment of Rothschild’s life. It appears that many people would prefer it to remain a mystery.

Berlin returned to the USA to tidy up his commitments in Washington, and to have the equally fateful meeting with the Halbans. But questions have arisen about his version of what happened in Leningrad. When György Dalos was researching his account of the event for his book The Guest From The Future, and interviewed Berlin in 1995, Berlin significantly downplayed the romantic aspect of his feelings. ‘No’, he said, ‘there was no Utopia for me’, and his feelings towards Akhmatova were expressed in terms of fascination, respect, admiration and sympathy – not love. Perhaps he said so to protect the feelings of his wife, Aline, whom he had taken to the Soviet Union in 1956, and whom Akhmatova, possibly with a sense of jealousy, but also because she was fearful that the thaw in the oppression of writers such as her might only be temporary, declined to see. Berlin always stated that his meeting with Akhmatova was the most important event of his life, but he felt guilty for the mayhem that occurred afterwards – including the growing anti-semitism in the Soviet Union that was fostered by Stalin. (Akhmatova was not Jewish, but Berlin had relatives who suffered under Stalin’s persecution.) The focus of that new purge, the uncovering of a so-called ‘Doctors’ Plot’, was derailed only by the dictator’s death in 1953, a couple of days before those indicted were to go on trial. By the time Berlin returned to the Soviet Union in 1956, matters had improved considerably. Khrushchev’s celebrated speech debunking Stalin (February 1956) had resulted in a release of political prisoners, including Akhmatova’s son, Lev, who was freed on May 14 and officially exonerated by the Supreme Soviet on June 2, shortly before the Berlins arrived. Akhmatova had not been re-admitted to the Writers’ Union, and still felt threatened, but there is no doubt that she felt peeved at the realisation that her ‘Guest From the Future’ had turned out to be just like other men, and had transferred his affections to someone else.  Berlin himself reported the long silence on the telephone after he spoke to Akhmatova about his marriage, a pause followed by: ‘I am sorry you cannot see me, Pasternak says your wife is charming’, after which came another long silence. Roberta Reeder, in Anna Akhmatova: Poet and Prophet, writes: ‘Her grief and disappointment, as in the past, were transformed into poetry, into a cycle entitled Sweetbriar in Blossom’, in which Akhmatova compares herself to Dido abandoned by Aeneas.

Later commentary, namely Josephine von Zitzewitz’s article in the Times Literary Supplement of September 9, 2011,‘That’s How It Was’ (effectively a review of a book published with that title, ‘I eto bylo tak’, in St Petersburg in 2009) represented further research into records from contemporaries at the scene, as well as study of archives in Britain. This analysis suggests that Berlin must have known that Akhmatova was still alive beforehand, that the original encounter may not have been as spontaneous as suggested, that there may have been further encounters between Akhmatova and Berlin (namely five, to match the number in Cinque), that details of those present are incorrect, that the incident with Randolph Churchill was invented, and that the meetings may have been more intimate that Berlin admitted. One key plank concerning the first part of this claim, not explained in the piece, is Berlin’s friendship with Alexander and Salomea Halpern (née Andronikova). Berlin had been introduced to this couple by a friend in New York, found them appealing (especially Salomea), and they became close friends. Salomea had been a noted beauty, and a very close friend of Akhmatova’s in pre-war St. Petersburg, sharing a circle including the poets Tsvetaeva, Mandelstam, and Akhmatova’s husband, Gumilev. Indeed, Mandelstam had fallen deeply in love with her. It seems inconceivable that Salomea Halpern would not have besought Berlin to try and visit Akhmatova while he was in Leningrad, yet Berlin later claimed to have asked naively inside an antiquarian bookseller’s whether she was still alive. (In a letter to Maurice Bowra, dated June 7, 1945, he refers to Akhmatova’s forced seclusion at that time in Leningrad, thus showing knowledge of her status.) This association has further wrinkles: Alexander Halpern, like Berlin, worked for the British Security Coordination in the US, helping to set up propaganda on a dummy radio station in Boston, and his role as head of Special Operations Executive’s (SOE’s) Political and Minorities section included responsibilities for the sensitive category of Ukrainians. Moreover he had been an official in Kerensky’s Provisional Government in 1917, as well as being an advisor to the British Embassy in St. Petersburg. If Stalin’s intelligence network had been doing its job, such a relationship would surely have come to his attention. Salomea herself was an enigma: by the 1950s she had become a rabid Stalinist herself, and when she moved to London after the war (so Berlin himself informs us), Russian writers were encouraged by the Soviet authorities to visit her primitive salon in Chelsea. ‘Salomea’s opinions were evidently noted favourably in Moscow’, notes Berlin.

The conclusions of Zitzewitz’s article are enigmatic: Berlin may have wanted to protect Akhmatova, but it does not explain why, since Akhmatova died in 1966, he would have needed to continue to shield her from the facts concerning his visit when he recalled the encounter, both in his 1980 essay Meetings With Russian Writers in 1945 and 1946, and in his conversations with Ignatieff shortly before he died. Moreover, a faulty memory cannot really explain all the distortions of the truth. As in other aspects of his life, Berlin frequently presented facts in a disturbingly deceptive manner. Akhmatova challenged Berlin on his sense of reality: after she received an honorary degree at Oxford in June 1965, she visited the Berlins at their opulent Headington House, and declared: ‘So the bird is now in its golden cage.’ (She then went on to have a long-awaited reunion with her close friend, but now a political adversary, Salomea Halpern, in London.) Ignatieff notes that, after Akhmatova’s death, Berlin wrote to a friend, Jean Floud, that he would always think of her as an “uncontaminated”, “unbroken”  and  “morally impeccable” reproach to all the Marxist fellow-travellers who believed that individuals could never stand up to the march of history. This avowal was doubly ironic: Jean Floud was the sister-in-law of another Soviet agent, Bernard Floud, and she misguidedly came to his defence in a letter to the Times. And Berlin would later undermine his heartfelt comment about fellow-travellers in his praise of another woman.

In April 1946 Berlin returned to England, and Oxford. The Halbans sailed back on July 1; Peter had been born on June 1, and their two children followed them on the Queen Mary in September. Berlin resumed teaching at New College, now a celebrity with a reputation gained from his Washington dispatches. Hans Halban was pleased to assume a post as Professor of Physics at the Clarendon Laboratory, after an offer from his old friend Lord Cherwell. By all accounts, he had eight successful and productive years working there. At first, the Halbans lived in a rented mock-Tudor house outside Headington; a year later, the family moved into Hilltop House ‘a finely proportioned Georgian House with a large garden at the top of Headington Hill’, as Michel Strauss reported. In 1953, Aline and Hans found a larger Georgian house on six acres of land in Old Headington, Headington House, which was to become the Berlins’ domicile after Hans and Aline divorced, and Hans moved back to France, in 1955. As Victor Rothschild had hoped, Isaiah became good friends with the Halbans during the next few years. Ignatieff relates: ‘Isaiah became part of their life, taking Aline to concerts, dining at their house and gradually becoming a family friend. She felt at ease with him; he made her laugh and provided her with a safe and blameless escape from a marriage that was becoming more difficult by the year.’

An example of this new intimacy was apparent in 1949. The way Ignatieff reports it, it was an accident: ‘when he went to Harvard, she was on the same boat heading to visit her mother in New York, and they spent ten happy days together on a crossing which included Marietta and Ronald Tree and other friends.’ The least ingenious of sleuths might conclude that there had been some planning to this highly enjoyable voyage, perhaps a subtle twist to Graham Greene’s May We Borrow Your Husband? Berlin’s diligent amanuensis, Henry Hardy, and his co-editor, Jennifer Holmes, inform us that Berlin had indeed suggested that Aline join him and his friends on the voyage, and she travelled from Paris to pick up the Queen Mary when it docked at Cherbourg. As luck would have it, the ship, driven by a gale, ran aground there, and had to limp back to Southampton for repairs. Isaiah and Aline took the opportunity to leave the rest of the party marooned in a dock on the Solent, and to return to Oxford until the ship was ready to sail again. Earlier, as he waited off the Isle of Wight on January 2, while the ship was being inspected by divers, Berlin wrote to his parents: ‘Life is terribly gay & agreeable: breakfast in bed with every kind of delicious juices & eggs: then promenades with Mrs Halban, the Trees, Miss Montague, Alain de Rothschild’. Ignatieff (provided with this insight by Isaiah and Aline in the 1990s) states that it was on board ship that they became inseparable friends, but the evidence suggests that they had already formed a strong bond. And at some stage they started an affair. Michel Strauss confides that his mother used to have trysts with Isaiah, before their liaison became official, in a flat in Cricklewood (a touch that would have delighted Alan Coren). Michel also informs us that Hans Halban had been seeing Francine Clore (née Halphern), a cousin of his mother’s, in the 1950s, ‘at the same time my mother was seeing Isaiah Berlin’. The gradual dissolution of the marriage, and the new re-groupings, were becoming obvious to their friends.

Halban’s social stature had improved in his time at Oxford. A significant feather in his cap was being elected to one of the initial fellowships at St Antony’s College. The College (for graduates only) had been founded in 1950 by a bequest from a successful French businessman with merchant interests in the Middle East, Antonin Besse. After some preliminary stumbles in negotiation between Besse and the University, Bill Deakin had taken over the Wardenship of the College, impressing Besse with his common sense and vision. Deakin (who had worked with Isaiah Berlin in Washington during the war) was a historian who had seen fierce action with SOE among the guerrillas in Yugoslavia, and had acted as literary assistant to Winston Churchill in the latter’s historical writing. While Deakin had been a fellow at Wadham College, many of the initial staff members were from New College, and Isaiah Berlin had been very active in advising the Warden on appointments and administration. Halban was offered a Fellowship; when interviewed in 1994 by Christine Nicholls, the historian of the college, Berlin said that it was because Lord Cherwell had thought it a good idea that a scientist be represented – a somewhat surprising explanation, given that the mission of St Antony’s was to improve international understanding, and diplomacy had not been the strongest arrow in Halban’s sleeve. Maybe the fact that the elegant Mrs Halban would be able to join in social events was an extra incentive. Indeed, Headington House had its uses. As Nicholls’s History of St Antony’s College reports: ‘The grandest social event of all was the ox-roasting. In 1953, at the time of the Queen’s coronation, an Anglo-Danish committee, on which Deakin sat with a Danish chairman, wanted to do something to thank Britain for its help in wartime. The chairman asked Deakin whether his college would like to roast a Danish ox ….. Hans Halban and his wife Aline, who had a large house with land on Headington Hill, agreed to the roasting taking place there.’

The choice of Fellows was a little eccentric. A certain David Footman was elected at the same time as Halban. His expertise lay in the Balkans and the Soviet Union, but he had been dismissed from the Secret Service because of his support for Guy Burgess. Intriguingly, Deakin, who enjoyed fraternizing with Secret Service personnel, had said he wanted a Soviet expert who was free of any commitment to Marxism, and therefore welcomed Footman to the college. But there were questions about Footman’s loyalty: the Foreign Office did not give him a clean bill of health, and Sir Dick White (who headed both MI5 and MI6 in his career) admitted he should have been more skeptical about his trustworthiness. Footman had had contacts with the Soviet spy-handler Maly, and, when Guy Burgess defected, Footman was the first to be notified of the event by that dubious character Goronwy Rees, close confidant of Burgess; Footman in turn informed Guy Liddell – Victor Rothschild’s boss in MI5. Thus the first appointments at St Antony’s were very much made by an old-boy network, about which Berlin must have eventually had misgivings. As early as 1953, he was to write to David Cecil, when looking for advice on career moves: ‘In a way I should prefer Nuffield because St Antony’s seems to me (for God’s sake don’t tell anyone that) something like a club of dear friends, and I should be terribly afraid that the thing was becoming too cosy and too bogus.’ His words got back to the sub-warden at St Antony’s, James Joll, who had also lectured at New College and had been a pupil of Deakin, and Berlin was duly chastised. (James Joll was later to receive a certain amount of notoriety by virtue of his harbouring Anthony Blunt when the latter was being hounded by the Press after his public unmasking.) In any case, the chroniclers at the college did not seem surprised when the Halban marriage fell apart. The History laconically reports: ‘Halban remained at St Antony’s until he resigned on October 1, 1955, upon taking a chair at the Sorbonne. When Halban resigned his fellowship and left for Paris, he asked his wife to choose between Paris and Berlin. She determined on the latter and became Isaiah Berlin’s wife.’ The source was James Joll. After returning to France as a professor at the Sorbonne, Halban was invited to direct the construction of a nuclear research facility (a large particle accelerator) at the Orsay facility in Saclay, outside Paris, for the French Energy Commission. When the divorce between Mr and Mrs Halban was finalised, Isaiah and Aline were married at Hampstead Synagogue on February 7, 1956, with Victor Rothschild as Aline’s witness. For over forty years, they enjoyed a stable, loving, and rewarding marriage. Practically the last thing he said to his biographer was how much he loved Aline, and how much she had been the centre of his life ­– no doubt a sincere claim, but one made with the intent of comforting Aline and stilling any doubts she may have had about competition from other relationships.

There was, however, at least one more twist to the story before Isaiah and Aline were able to be together. Berlin had seemed to be destined for the life of a bachelor: his correspondence shows that he was able to keep up a lively and affectionate dialogue with attractive young females, but they did not appear to view him as romantic material. (One exception was a pupil, Rachel Walker, of Somerville College, who fell in love with him, but whose attentions he found discomforting.) In the early 1950s he still professed to be in love with Patricia de Bendern, even as she misused him, continually playing with his affections. Moreover, Berlin had been telling friends he wanted to get married. Then, out of the blue, in the summer of 1950, Berlin started an affair with the wife of an Oxford don. When Ignatieff wrote his biography, the woman’s identity was thinly veiled, but the story came out when Nicola Lacey published, in 2004, her biography of the woman’s husband, H. L. A. (Herbert) Hart. Hart was a prominent professor, one of the great legal philosophers of the twentieth century. Berlin had known Jenifer and Herbert for a long time; indeed, Henry Hardy describes Jenifer as ‘a close and lifelong friend of IB’. Herbert was a don at New College, and Jenifer had been an admirer of Berlin’s intellectual talents ever since she first met him. Unlike Aline Berlin, who claimed to struggle to understand what he was saying at their first encounter, Jenifer Hart recorded in her own memoirs, Ask Me No More, her first impression of Berlin, in 1934: ‘It was here [New College] that I first met the philosopher Isaiah Berlin, whose conversation I found so dazzling that, already in an excited state, I was almost reduced to hysterics.’ Ignatieff describes the historic seduction as one initiated by Berlin when he was sick, and Jenifer came to visit him: Hardy and Holmes note that, much later, both Isaiah and Jenifer would claim that the other initiated the affair. Berlin’s state of mind was probably at a low point; on May 11, 1950, Aline Halban gave birth to her third son, Philippe, her second with Hans. For what Berlin had gauged as a rocky marriage several years ago was perhaps re-energizing itself, and his opportunity was fading. Isaiah was anguished over his affair with Jenifer, believing that he had to explain himself to the husband, also a close friend; Herbert Hart (who had homosexual tendencies, and once declared to his children that the problem with their parents’ marriage was that ‘one of the partners didn’t like sex, and the other didn’t like food’) refused to accept the reality of the situation. The Nobelist Mario Vargas Llosa has written about Berlin’s ‘adulterous affairs with the wives of university colleagues’, which makes Berlin sound like a satyr of Ayeresque proportions. It is possible that Llosa has inside information that would expand the list of Berlin’s amours: no other lady, apart from Mrs Hart and Mrs Halban, has been identified, but of course it is as difficult to prove that somebody definitely did not have another lover as it is to prove that any senior British Intelligence officer was for certain not an agent of the Soviets. (Though the sexual mores of the intelligentsia of that time seem bizarre even in this enlightened age: Isaiah Berlin was in love with Patricia de Bendern, who was sleeping with A. J. Ayer, who was two-timing her with Penelope Felkin, who was married to Elliott Felkin, who had been the first lover of Jenifer Hart, who initiated Berlin into sex: a veritable La Ronde on the Isis.)

And here the timing looks a little awry. It is impossible to plot the exact trajectory of the affair of Isaiah and Aline, since the prime source of facts about it is Berlin himself, and he has proved to be an unreliable witness, events blurring from a faulty memory forty years later, and maybe a desire to believe that the course of true love had been more honourable than it really was. Ignatieff writes that ‘the affair continued for several years, but Berlin’s affections slowly began to transfer towards another woman, also married to an Oxford colleague’. Berlin’s affections for Aline had of course been harboured for many years already: in a letter to Alice James (August 12, 1955), he writes about his impending marriage: ‘I have loved her long and very silently for fear of upsetting what seemed to me a household.’ And then, after claiming his innocence, and rather ingenuously stating that ‘No “deeds” occurred’, he writes further: ‘I am naturally in a state of enormous bliss; & think myself fantastically lucky & cannot conceive how such happiness can have come my way after eating my heart out for years (I first saw her in 1941) nor does Dr Halban seem to mind much now’. It seems very incongruous for a man who had loved in vain for all those years to have set upon a sudden affair with another woman only five years previously, and indicate to his biographer that his affections slowly began to transfer to another woman. In any case, the usual accompaniments to such affairs took place: secret assignations, surreptitious telephone calls overheard, private detectives tracking movements, confrontations, temporary separations and tearful reunions. Berlin tried the same tactic of confronting Halban, pointing out to him the philosophical challenge of trying to keep caged someone yearning to be free (neatly paraphrasing a saying of Herzen about the impossibility of providing a house for free people within the walls of a former prison), and how such behavior would be counterproductive. At the end of 1954, another deus ex machina saved the situation. Halban was offered the position in Paris, and gave Aline the famous ultimatum. She decided to stay: Halban somehow must have been persuaded to give up Headington House, no doubt with some monetary payment to assist the process, and after waiting for the divorce to come through, Isaiah and Aline became engaged. Jenifer Hart happened to hear the news at an All Souls lunch, and was notably shocked and upset. According to Ignatieff, she came to Isaiah’s rooms and he could only comfort her as best he could: ‘Cry, child, cry’ (since emended by Henry Hardy, after inspection of the tapes, to ‘Weep, my child, weep’). Marx and Belinsky meet Mills & Boon.

Yet Jenifer Hart’s world contained another momentous secret: she had been a member of the Communist Party, and a Soviet agent, suspected by MI5 of passing on secrets from the Home Office to her Communist handlers. In her autobiography, Hart makes no secret of her Communist affiliation, but claims that she abandoned her allegiance at the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact in 1939. (Protestations made by former Soviet agents under gentle Security Service interrogation are notoriously untrustworthy, as the experience with Anthony Blunt showed. Unfortunately, statements made by their more innocent friends, such as Rothschild and Berlin, likewise have to be treated with circumspection.) She was one of the group that regularly mingled at the apartment in Bentinck Street that Victor Rothschild rented to Guy Burgess and Anthony Blunt. Others are not so sure that she abandoned her role in espionage that soon. The historian Professor Anthony Glees even lists her, in his Secrets of the Service, in a rogues’ gallery of Soviet spies, in the same class as Blunt, Philby, Maclean, Burgess, Long and Fuchs; other analysts, such as the veteran tracker of communist subversion, Chapman Pincher, consider her as relatively small fry. But there seems no doubt she was a traitor. She concealed her membership of the Communist party, being told by her masters to go underground. She gained employment at the Home Office, where she had access to information on telephone taps, without declaring her affiliation, and signed the Official Secrets Act. She married Herbert Hart, and recommended him for work at Bletchley Park, where he worked on decrypts of Nazi radio traffic. Glees believes that she would have had to pass on secrets to prove her commitment to the cause: that was the pattern that the Stasi followed in East Germany, and what the KGB demanded of its agents in the UK and the USA. Her role was revealed by Anthony Blunt and his associate Phoebe Pool, who was incidentally a very close friend of Jenifer Hart’s. Pool stated that Hart had been recruited by Bernard Floud – another agent in the Oxford Ring that mirrored the Cambridge Five – who committed suicide shortly after being interrogated by MI5. Arthur Wynn, another recently uncovered agent, was her handler. She might have escaped more public attention, but she made some unguarded comments to a journalist in 1983, expressing overtly unpatriotic opinions, which provoked interest in her all over again, actions which caused her to threaten Professor Glees. She blustered, but eventually backed down from the threat of a libel action, as her previous disloyalty was undeniable. As Markus Wolf, the Chief of Foreign Intelligence for the German Democratic Republic, wrote in his memoirs, Man Without A Face: ‘No co-operation with an intelligence service will ever leave you. It will be unearthed and used against you until your dying day.’  Moreover, Hart’s life was one of hypocrisy: she claimed to be a socialist, but clearly believed that socialism was not for her, as she took advantage of all the benefits of a liberal education, watched her investments (like that other armchair socialist A. J. P. Taylor), sent her children to public schools, jointly inherited a large house in Cornwall, and travelled around the world with her husband on the proceeds of a trust established by an American entrepreneur. And as the cycle of Berlin’s life came to a close, she revealed in the book a last ironic twist: Aline de Gunzbourg had been a schoolmate of hers in Paris, and she included in the memoir a photograph of her class at the Cours Fénelon, which clearly identifies herself and Aline.

All this might not affect Isaiah Berlin’s legacy, except for the fact that he wrote a very flattering foreword to Hart’s memoirs just before he died. (The volume was published only after his death in 1998.) In some matters, he was blunt. He spoke of Hart’s betrayal of her husband. He named Michael Oakeshott, the conservative philosopher, as an early amour, and added: ‘Nor was he her only lover’, but did not divulge that he himself was one on that list. And he showed some awareness of her shady past. He recognized her communist commitment, but was indulgent with her failing. ‘At any rate, Jenifer was much taken in by what I have described, and that is what made her drift towards the Communist Party; a great many friends had done the same, and in peaceful, civilized England communism must have seemed mainly a strong remedy against illiteracy and injustice, an illusion which persisted in the West for a very long time.’ He even recognized her role as a Soviet agent while working at the Home Office, but was inclined to give her the benefit of the doubt. ‘The Party was probably pleased to have an agent in so sensitive a place, but in fact Jenifer never did anything for the benefit of the Party – gave no secret information  – this has never been refuted in all the examinations of Soviet penetration that took place in later years.’ How did Berlin know that for sure? Did he really believe it? (The only sure fact about the whole affair appears to be that there is no record of Clement Attlee’s receiving a report from MI5, and then commenting: ‘So our monk has been seeing Soviet spies.’) But what reflected really poor judgment was his going overboard in his testimony to Hart’s character: ‘Before her unyielding integrity, her acute moral sense, even the cynical or complacent or indolent or wheeler-dealers, were bound to quail, or at least feel uncomfortable.’ There is a world of difference between having vague sympathies for Communism (such as Berlin himself might have harboured had he not been inoculated in his youth by the barbarity of the Revolution), and breaking an oath of loyalty to one’s government to betray secrets to a foreign power. So is this the implacable foe of Soviet totalitarianism, disgusted by the violence he saw as a boy in Petrograd, and by the cruelty of Stalin’s institutionalized terror that he witnessed in the 1950s, speaking? Is this the man who would not stay in a room with Christopher Hill because of his ideology, and who prevented Isaac Deutscher from getting a chair at Sussex University because of his totalitarian sympathies? Berlin liked to see the positive aspects of people he knew (witness his Personal Impressions), but he could have performed a favour for an old friend and lover without putting her on a false pedestal.

Having one’s judgment about treachery affected by one’s friendship and liking for someone is a familiar symptom: Graham Greene notoriously offered an apology for Kim Philby’s sincerity of  beliefs when he wrote his introduction to Philby’s My Silent War – ‘who among us has not committed treason to something or someone more important than a country?’ Such a plea clearly echoes the famous statement by E. M. Forster that he hoped he would have the guts to betray his country rather than a friend, a view that calmly glides over the fact that friendships of the kind Forster enjoyed (as well as a climate that tolerated eccentricity and openly unpatriotic opinions) were one of the benefits of living in a liberal democracy. The patrician Lord Annan, provost of King’s College, Cambridge, said of another traitorous rascal, Leo Long, in his memoir Changing Enemies: The Defeat and Regeneration of Germany: ‘Whether he was still passing information to the Russians I do not know, but my activities in Berlin against the KPD, of which he can hardly have approved, did not affect our relations.’ But, as Jacques Duclos, general secretary of the French Communist Party, said in 1949 at meeting in honour of the twenty-fifth anniversary of Lenin’s death: ‘Any man of progress had two homelands, his own and the Soviet Union.’ The bargain that British traitors made was to replace their own patriotism with that of another country. The brave Soviet defectors thought poorly of such cowardice. Ismail Akhmedov, who saw at first hand the horrors of Stalin’s police state, said of Philby in In And Out Of Stalin’s GRU: ‘This traitor was never a fighter for the cause. He was, and still is, a sick alcoholic weakling’, and Akhmedov contrasted the relatively comfortable choices the Cambridge Five made with the perils the Old Bolsheviks suffered – ‘the true champions’. ‘To completely close the circle he will pass into oblivion, into an empty abyss during one of his drunken hours, as did Burgess, and join the company of butchers, henchmen, headhunters – call them what you will – the despised enemies of the unfortunate Soviet people still yearning for their freedom.’  This is what Berlin had spoken up for all his life – the right of the pluralist and independent citizen to be protected from the horrors of ideological dictatorship. And yet his final literary act was to praise one of Stalin’s agents, one of the fellow-travellers he had so sharply scorned after Akhmatova’s death, and thus did he betray Akhmatova and all she stood for. Pluralism does not extend its arms to embrace a creed which irrepressibly denies the essence of pluralism itself.  And as an echo to his tribute, the first in the series of his Letters – loyally and indefatigably edited by Henry Hardy – is dedicated to that same woman, Jenifer Hart (although one cannot determine Hart’s treachery from the biographical glossary at the back of the book.) According to Hardy, Hart gave ‘heroic assistance’ in the editing of the Letters, and it was Aline’s suggestion that the first volume be dedicated to her. It seems also to have been a gesture from Berlin’s widow to the woman who introduced her third husband to carnal delights, maybe overlooking her guilty past. Berlin’s love for his wife meant that he diminished ‘the most important event in his life’, and betrayed Akhmatova’s memory. In the long run, Stalin’s long arm stretched out and plucked his revenge.

Roger Hausheer, in his introduction to Berlin’s Against The Current, wrote: ‘Berlin’s works may seem to many to offer a vision of life shot through with pessimism, and indeed, it cannot be denied that in this conception of man and the ends of life there is a powerful element of tragedy: avenues to human realisation may intersect and block one another; things of inestimable intrinsic value and beauty around which an individual or a civilisation may seek to build an entire way of life can come into mortal conflict: and the outcome is eradication of one of the protagonists and an absolute unredeemable loss.’ Thus the messiness of an individual life echoes the messiness of history, and so it was with Berlin, saved from irredeemable loss by Aline’s slowly emerging love for him. He was reputed not to have cared about posterity’s verdict. He was very willing for his letters to be published – and for all those nasty little secrets, those jealous quips and barbs, the attempts to cover up for an indiscreet remark or move, those internecine aspects of college politics, those actions and favours initiated for not perfectly honourable motives, to come out in the wash. And what they show, for all the great sweep and humanity of his ideas, is that Berlin was simply human, like everyone else. He was essentially unsure of himself and his identity, maybe feeling his fame was undeserved, anxious to be loved and liked, wanting to please, jealous of competitors, and he struggled to balance the private persona with the public image. He did not want to upset anybody, and thus reinvented his life-story again and again. The unpredictability of life, and the inability of big ideas to result in satisfactory conclusions in which no one was hurt, were central to his thinking, and his own life resembled his view of history. In ‘The Song Before It is Sung’, his highly fictionalized version of the relationship between Berlin and the conspirator against Hitler, Adam von Trott, the novelist Justin Cartwright provides a fitting epitaph on Berlin’s distortions. ‘After years of reflection, old people reorder their lives. We all do it our way. We construct our self-image as if we are hoping for some retrospective distinction, a vision of the person we believe we are supposed to be; without being able to see a template, we carry on relentlessly, like bees obeying an order they don’t understand, until death makes it all irrelevant. Why is it important to practice willful amnesia and invent myths?’

And in his desire to define his legacy in his own terms, controlling the narrative for the biography that Ignatieff wrote, Berlin echoed the opinions of one of his favourite historians, Giambattista Vico. In his essay, One Of The Boldest Innovators in the History of Human Thought, he describes how Vico developed an almost mystical notion of how history can be understood, contrasting it with the analytical methods of science. Berlin paraphrases the obscure Vico to demonstrate the inevitable biases of the historian too close to his subject: ‘All history in the end relies on eye-witness testimony. If the historian was himself engaged in the affairs of he was describing, he was inevitably partisan; if not, he would probably not have direct access to that vital information which only participants possessed and were hardly likely to divulge. So the historian must either be involved in the areas he describes, and therefore partisan, or uninvolved and liable to be misled by those who had an interest in bending the truth in their own favour; or, alternatively, remained too far from the true sources of information to know enough.’ As the influential historian of his own life, Berlin demonstrated that partisanship. He died on November 5, 1997; Ignatieff’s biography came out in 1998, and clearly could have benefitted from some tighter editing and fact-checking. With Volumes 3 and 4 of his Letters still to be published, and a more objective and thoroughly researched biography still to be written, Berlin has successfully simplified and sanitised a life that was far more complicated and paradoxical than the record currently shows.

Lastly, one must consider the role of Lord Rothschild, omnipresent and influential, either an aristocratic Zelig, a fixer par excellence, or the deus ex machina himself. The Rothschild family welcomes Berlin after his appointment at All Souls, and it is Victor who provides Berlin with a taxi home from Cambridge to Oxford by aeroplane. It is Rothschild who cancels Burgess’s visit to Moscow, and he who is the facilitator of Isaiah’s and Aline’s encounters in New York, and their eventual friendship in Oxford. Rothschild entertains Herbert and Jenifer Hart at Tring, and it is Rothschild’s flat in Bentinck Street that Guy Burgess shares with Anthony Blunt, and where Burgess’s cronies, including Jenifer Hart, meet. Rothschild, Fellow of the Royal Society, heads counter-sabotage operations in MI5 during the Second World War. As the war winds down, Rothschild makes his house in Paris available to the newly installed Ambassador, Duff Cooper, who takes care of Hans Halban during his brief mission to see Joliot-Curie. His kinship relationship with Aline is strengthened when Aline’s cousin marries his cousin’s daughter. When Isaiah and Aline get married, the bride’s witness is Victor Rothschild. It is Rothschild who assists Weizmann in enabling Israel’s nuclear research programme, using his contacts in British intelligence, making frequent visits to Israel, and encouraging the French to assist in the project. On one of these missions he encounters Flora Solomon at the Weizmann Institute, who recalls to him that Kim Philby once tried to recruit her, thus leading to Philby’s unmasking. Berlin works on unspecified business for the Rothschild Foundation. Rothschild hobnobs with President Roosevelt and Edgar Hoover, and ensures that Churchill’s gifts of cigars are free from sabotage. He chairs the high-level think tank under Prime Ministers Heath and Wilson, and advises the Shah or Persia in his role as head of research for Shell Oil. It would not be surprising if the archives some time showed that, late in 1954, Rothschild made a discreet call to Mendès-France, the Prime Minister of France, to suggest quietly that it would help a few matters greatly if the eminent scientist and expert on nuclear power, Hans Halban, could quickly be offered a prominent post in the French administration.

(© Antony Percy 2012)

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Krivitsky, Churchill and the Cold War

An Unpublished Letter

In August, 2016, I wrote the following letter to the editor of Prospect magazine:

“In her review of Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War: Into Battle, 1937-41 (Prospect, August 2016) Lara Feigel writes: ‘He (Churchill) sent in foolishly large numbers of troops to help France in 1940 because he was upset to lose such a close ally to a German occupation, while he failed to help the Soviet Union swiftly in 1941.’

This appears as a reckless judgment. When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941 (Operation Barbarossa), the Nazi-Soviet Pact had been in effect for almost two years, and Stalin had been supplying the Germans not only with strategic intelligence, but with oil and war materiel to aid the Nazis’ prosecution of their war against Britain. Churchill had meanwhile supplied Stalin with urgent warnings about Hitler’s plans for Barbarossa, intelligence that Stalin stubbornly ignored. Moreover, since the original casus belli had been Hitler’s invasion of Poland, Britain could be said to have had a moral obligation to declare war on the Soviet Union rather than come to her aid, given the latter’s rape of Eastern Poland and the Baltic States in 1939-1940.

When the Soviet Union was attacked, Churchill immediately declared support for a regime he implicitly loathed, and diverted valuable resources to the Soviet cause, at a time when the USA was not yet in the war. The dangerous convoys to Murmansk started as soon as September 1941, an effort for which little gratitude was received from Stalin. Instead, the Soviet dictator, aided by his manipulative ambassador, Ivan Maisky, and his spies in such crucial places as the Ministry of Information, pressed for the opening of a Second Front, the premature execution of which would have been disastrous for the war effort. Stalin no doubt knew that.

One could assert that the Soviet Union deserved all that came to it. The long-suffering people of that country, however, unlike those in Britain, had no control over the policies of their leader: Churchill, meanwhile, had continually to consider his political opponents as well as the views of the public. The notion that Churchill somehow failed the ‘gallant vast Soviet Union’ is simply ridiculous.”

My letter was not published. Rather than use this opportunity to complain about the way that professional historians are allowed to make highly controversial assertions without there being any open forum for dissident voices to challenge them (perhaps a topic for a later blog), I want to use the letter as a prologue to expand on the messages from my book, Misdefending the Realm.

The Cold War

A dominant narrative in much of recent histories of the Cold War runs as follows: Roosevelt and Churchill had an excellent opportunity to cooperate with Stalin as WWII ran down; the relationship was betrayed by the fact that nuclear secrets were not shared with Stalin; atomic spies were working for world peace; McCarthyite witch-hunts persecuted many innocent leftist activists; any trust that could have been built up with Stalin (who wanted ‘peace’) was destroyed by political extremism. The agreements at Yalta fell apart. In that way did the Cold War start. Amy Knight’s How The Cold War Began (2005) is one such work, suggesting that undue fuss was made over communists who did not actually spy, and that Stalin was justifiably offended by the USA’s bomb being exploded at Hiroshima, the opportunity for international control of atomic power was lost, and the Cold War thus began.

I believe this narrative is a travesty. To begin with, believing in ‘partnership’ with a totalitarian murderer in the interest of ‘world security’ was a mistake of disastrous proportions. In this regard, we have to challenge the judgment of the leaders of the western alliance. Churchill never successfully reconciled his odium for communism with his belief that he could do business with Stalin. Roosevelt, for all his political skills, was a victim of his own vanity and was influenced by a nest of communists in government. He drove an unnecessary wedge between himself and Churchill in a play of appeasing Stalin, and trying to win the dictator’s trust. Stalin expertly exploited Roosevelt’s and Churchill’s weaknesses. Moreover, he gained an immense advantage in negotiations because of the spies he had operating in Britain and the USA. Yet this dimension of an intelligence disequilibrium, by which forces of oppression were able to take advantage of the democracies, is frequently overlooked, or even turned on its head. Every now and then, another book or article appears chanting this tune of missed opportunities by the western powers, claiming, for instance, that Alger Hiss was innocent, the concern about communist infiltration was ‘hysteria’, and the disdain for the Soviet Union was ‘prejudice’. Accordingly, historians such as John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr (the authors of the excellent In Denial) have to write a letter to the press reminding editors and historians of the VENONA transcripts, and pointing out how Roosevelt’s administration was riddled with Communist spies. Only last month, Jonathan Mirsky admitted, in the Spectator (October 14): “. . . Alger Hiss, an actual communist spy – as lefties like myself could not admit for years.” Lara Feigel’s criticism of Churchill’s apparent passivity is the latest symptom of this pro-Stalinist malaise.

In my book, I make the case that MI5 calamitously let the country down when it failed to heed the warnings of the defector Walter Krivitsky in early 1940, and, with a woeful regard for security, carelessly let a report on his interrogations slip into the hands of the Soviet spies Jenifer Hart and Guy Burgess. The result was twofold: Krivitsky was killed a year later, and Burgess was able to effect the infiltration of further spies and communist sympathisers into all areas of government before Germany invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941. Yet the narrative in my book mainly stopped before Barbarossa. I did not undertake any projection of ‘virtual history’ to suggest how the lack of heeding Krivitsky’s warnings affected British policy towards the Soviet Union. I did not project how the disclosures from Stalin’s spies in Britain affected the conduct of the war, or how events might have unfolded differently as the Cold War took over from the heat of 1945 when Germany collapsed. I did not consider whether the Soviet Union could have been prevented from extending its empire into the territories in whose defence Britain had gone to war. The promotional campaign for my work has concentrated on the longer-term possible outcomes of MI5’s mistakes, and I want to analyse them here.

Security and Cooperation

The topics that dominated internal wartime discussions about handling the Soviet Union were ‘security’ and ‘co-operation’. Security, because the Soviets were determined that their borders not be infringed a third time, after the Germans had invaded Russia during the First World War, and then again in 1941. ‘Collective security’ had failed as a protective strategy in the 1930s, and an agreement with the western democracies was necessary for the Soviet Union to become strong again.  (What was frequently forgotten, however, was that much of Stalin’s historical security problem had been self-inflicted, since he had jeopardised his country’s defences – and ability to wage war – by the purges of the Red Army.) Stalin wanted to carve up Germany when the war was won, and rationalised the Soviet Union’s occupation of the Baltic States as a desire to have ‘buffer states’ between themselves and Germany. He recapitulated this theme as they planned the occupation of Bulgaria, Romania, Hungary, Czechoslovakia, and Poland, demanding a leading role in administering these countries at the conclusion of the war. The notion of ‘security’ also played into Roosevelt’s hands, as he had dreams by which the ‘Big Three’ would dominate the forthcoming world government body, the United Nations, and thus prevent further wars. ‘Co-operation’ was a watchword for the Foreign Office diplomats, who believed that a positive approach to defining joint goals for peace, and ensuring the security of Europe after the war, without a vengeful Germany being able to make any recidivist moves, would be likely to be reciprocated by good will and accommodating gestures by Stalin.

Yet there were major problems with this negotiating tactic. First of all, the Soviet Union had engaged in an odious compact with Nazi Germany to invade sovereign states: it was equally as guilty of border infringement. A deep moral question surrounded the notion of ‘buffer states’. ‘Buffer states’ were reliable cushions against possible aggression only if they were dependable, led by governments sympathetic to Soviet aims. In order to be dependable, they had to be controlled. And if they were controlled from Moscow, that meant they became part of the Soviet Empire, and were no longer buffer states. The Soviet Union’s military boundaries were in fact extended. That reinforced the notion of a perpetual communist threat to the rest of Europe, and gave life to ‘domino theory’. Nothing would have pleased the Soviets more than the Communists winning post-war elections in France and Italy. Moreover, the role of Poland was especially poignant in this debate. Britain had gone to war over Germany’s invasion of Poland, and the Polish government-in-exile had been one of the most loyal administrations during the war. While one might ask questions as to exactly how ‘democratic’ pre-war Poland had been, and what the ambitions of its government-in-exile were, it did nevertheless appear that Roosevelt and Churchill were prepared to sacrifice Polish democracy (and national boundaries) in a dire gesture of appeasement to Stalin, who intended to impose his authoritarian communism over that country as the war wound down. Why should that privilege be granted to the Soviet Union? What kind of ‘security’ was that?

The notion of ‘cooperation’ is a dangerous one, as well. If two parties are going to ‘cooperate’, they must have common values and goals. (This is the dominant conclusion from Plokhy’s book, listed below, one that I must admit to have reached before I read his work.) To suggest that Britain and the Soviet Union shared the same vision for what the shape and structure of postwar Europe should be would indicate that at least one party was lying, and trying to deceive the other. ‘Cooperation’ is not a goal, but a process. If security meant only that the Soviet Union’s ability to crush independence of thought in the states it would come to ‘liberate’ after the war, it was not a goal worth cooperating over. That security on which Roosevelt (especially) pinned his hopes simply granted a degree of legitimacy to Stalin’s despotism, and committed eastern Europe to almost fifty years of communist oppression. If (as Plokhy suggests) the Soviet Union needed twenty years of security in order to prepare for the next major clash between ideologies, why would the potential victims of that revolution facilitate their enemy’s recovery? How did Britain and America’s political strategists become so deluded over these matters?

What I find deficient in most of the histories of this period is their single-dimensionality. They almost uniformly ignore, above all, the influence that Stalin’s spies had on the fabric of British and American institutions and strategical thinking, and thus on Stalin’s ability to negotiate to his advantage.  I present here a summary of some of the primary relevant works. Victor Rothwell’s oddly titled Britain and the Cold War 1941-1947 (1982) provided an analysis of Foreign Office ruminations, but was correctly encapsulated by A J. P. Taylor in the London Review of Books, as ‘What one clerk said to another’, since it ignored the multiple organs outside the Foreign Office who laid claim to contributing to the forging of British foreign policy. Martin Kitchen’s Britain’s Policy Towards the Soviet Union 1939-1945 (1986) has worn very well, despite a disappointingly equivocal and bland conclusion about the merits of the two participants, and is enlivened by the author’s dry humour. It is understandably parsimonious in covering the activities of Stalin’s spies, not even mentioning the 1940 mission of Burgess and Berlin to Moscow to influence the Comintern. It is balanced well by Stephen Miner’s Between Churchill and Stalin (1988), which contains some penetrating observations about the reality of Soviet policies, with concentration on Cripps’s tenure as ambassador, and draws parallels between the appeasement of Hitler and that of Stalin. Geoffrey Warner provided a rich and insightful contribution to the compilation Diplomacy and Word Power: Studies in British Foreign Policy, 1890-1950 (1996), but his chapter, From ally to enemy: Britain’s relations with the Soviet Union, 1941-1948, surprisingly makes no reference to the influence of espionage and Soviet propaganda on the UK. I have on this site previously drawn attention to the strengths and weaknesses of Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (1996). Martin H. Folly’s Churchill, Whitehall and the Soviet Union 1940-45 (2000) focuses laboriously on the strategy of ‘cooperation’ between Britain and the Soviet Union, but it includes only one reference to espionage, and that appears on the last page, in the conclusion, when Donald Maclean receives a belated mention. It lacks any pressing political context, or critical impulse. Ian Kershaw’s Fateful Choices (2007) overall provides an excellent analysis of the war leaders’ strategic options, and covers the intelligence dimension very well, although he is somewhat too trustful of secondary sources (such as Read and Fisher on the Lucy Ring), and rather too sunny over the Roosevelt-Churchill relationship. S. K.  Plokhy’s Yalta (2010) has a more American perspective, and is excellent in its focus on the complexities of the Yalta negotiations, although occasionally too discursive. I shall say little about Susan Butler’s irresponsible Roosevelt and Stalin: Portrait of a Partnership (2015). The work with which I initiated this piece, Daniel Todman’s Britain’s War 1937-1941: Into Battle (2016) is a much livelier compendium, but likewise can find no room for such organisations as the Joint Intelligence Committee, let alone the machinations of Guy Burgess’s friends in influencing propaganda. (Yet I struggled to find the assertion that Lara Feigel highlights: on the contrary, Todman writes, on p 692, that “If America was the ‘arsenal of democracy’, then over the winter of 1941-42, Britain was an arsenal for totalitarianism.”) But how can incisive history be written about this period without considering the implications of intelligence, espionage and counter-espionage?

Asymmetrical Relations

The notion of ‘co-operation’ suggests one of partnership. Yet the imbalance in the field of espionage is just one facet of many disparities that governed the partnership between the Allies. In reality, it was a highly asymmetrical relationship that existed between the Soviet Union, Great Britain, and the USA, and it had the following dimensions:

1) Moral Equivalency:

Leftist commentators have frequently categorised the discord of the Cold War as a clash between ideologies, namely ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’, echoing the Leninist line. But it was really nothing of the kind. It should be better described as a struggle between liberal democracy and totalitarianism, and Stalin’s version of the latter was just as distasteful and murderous as Hitler’s. Roosevelt (and, to a lesser extent, Churchill) was quick to classify Stalin as ‘peace-loving’ when it suited them, suffering temporary amnesia over the fate of millions of Soviet citizens for whose death he was responsible, and the fact that Stalin’s ideology required the overthrow of the democracies which the two leaders defended. Moreover, the UK and the USA did not plan to install ‘right-wing’ governments in Europe (as Stalin feared): they wanted to foster liberal democracies that would rely on commerce and free enterprise to bring prosperity – ‘bourgeois’ notions that Stalin detested. To him, ‘democratic’ meant ‘anti-fascist’, and ‘anti-fascist’ meant communist. Stalin’s plans, on the other hand, were authoritarian and despotic, and citizens of such countries as Czechoslovakia would soon learn what the Poles had already predicted  ̶  that they had swopped one tyranny for another. ‘Liberation’ thus had two meanings: when the western allies brought liberation, it mean freedom, open elections, and withdrawal (apart from Germany) by the liberators; when the Soviets were the agents, it meant imprisonment, persecution, murder, and imposed communism. Yet British and American representatives, during negotiations, were loath to mention uncomfortable facts like the Purges or the Nazi-Soviet pact, as it might have risked embarrassing their ‘partner’. Likewise they were craven over the discovery of the murders of Katyn Forest, and did not challenge Stalin over the massacre of thousands of Polish officers. Overall, they were reluctant to take any moral higher ground, lest ‘co-operation’ be endangered.

In one respect, Great Britain was morally impaired. The Atlantic Charter of August 1941, signed by Roosevelt and Churchill, had promised political self-determination to oppressed countries. While Roosevelt considered that this principle applied to all peoples, Churchill obtusely decided that it applied only to enslaved European countries, and not to British colonies. Stalin was not morally superior in pointing out this contradiction, but he was correct in identifying the hypocrisy of Churchill’s interpretation of the Atlantic Charter. Britain’s obdurate retention of imperial pretensions (something that the postwar Labour Government oddly hung on to, overruling Attlee’s inclinations) was a severe stumbling-block in its ability to negotiate with confidence and integrity, and it caused a rift between Roosevelt and Churchill that Stalin was able to exploit. Yet this comparison should not be taken too far: Beaverbrook, for example, compared the need for the Soviet Union to control buffer states as a strategic frontier to Britain’s use of an outpost at Gibraltar. The treatment of the colonies by Great Britain was frequently cruel, even brutal, but the use of a territory acquired legally by treaty to defend sea-routes can by no means be equated to the tyrannies imposed by Stalin on neutral countries. Foreign Office opinion, however, had, in 1940, been exceedingly bland about the injustices of the Baltic States’ being sacrificed in the cause Stalin’s defensive whims. When a Foreign Office dignitary like Orme Sargent could later write: “Is not the Russian attitude about Warsaw exactly the same as General Eisenhower’s about Paris?”, it should have been obvious that the propaganda battle had been lost. Britain had not been able to articulate a consistent moral stance.

2) Pluralism vs. Totalitarianism:

Reading the accounts of Whitehall’s development of strategy vis-à-vis the Soviet Union provides the analyst with a bewildering sense of how fragmented the approach was. Not only did multiple Foreign Office members contribute learned papers on how Stalin’s moves should be interpreted; input came from the diplomats in the Embassy (in Kuibyshev or Moscow), from the Ambassadors Cripps and Clark Kerr, from visiting ministers like Eden (the Foreign Minister), or Beaverbrook, from the Chiefs of Staff and the Ministry of Political Warfare, from the Joint Intelligence Committee, and the Ministry of Information – and, of course, from Churchill himself. His pragmatic Chiefs of Staff were almost always at loggerheads with the more idealistic Foreign Office, which contained its own differences of opinion. Moreover, Churchill presided over a coalition government that contained crypto-communists like Cripps and Ellen Wilkinson, and he was answerable to a public that had access to a free press. Communist sympathisers freely published their opinions, and Soviet agents of influence performed their role in official propaganda. Lastly, Churchill had several insistent governments-in-exile on his doorstep, continually asking for special treatment.

Stalin had no such bureaucracy to deal with. Unlike his counterparts in Whitehall, he surely did not maintain a Post Hostilities Planning Sub-Committee. He made all the decisions himself, and his minions (even Molotov) would not suggest any plan of action without having gained approval from the Generalissimo beforehand. His intelligence officers, when they listened in to private conversations, were amazed that British diplomats could challenge their superiors – a phenomenon unknown in the Soviet Union. General Brooke (Churchill’s Chief of the Imperial General Staff, later Viscount Alanbrooke) was in turn amazed at the obsequiousness that Stalin’s generals displayed to their boss. And, while Stalin frequently baited his counterparts with suggestions that he was powerless to act because of how his public might react, that was a charade. Eden (for example) was naive enough not to challenge him. British diplomats ingenuously imagined that Stalin’s more inflexible policies were drawn up because of pressure from Politburo hardliners, who were responsible for Stalin’s occasional foul moods. They even convinced Churchill that Stalin was subject to their malign influences, a frustration that Churchill echoed. (There were no such beasts.) The Soviet public had no access to objective information about the course of the war, and no vehicle through which to express any opinions. Stalin manipulated his citizenry to such a degree that the British complained that their contributions to assist the Soviet Union’s war efforts never received any recognition or gratitude. Stalin publicly minimised the role the Allies were playing, took aid for granted, and complained about British sailors’ antics in Murmansk. He hated any foreign influence reaching his Soviet citizens.

3)  Espionage:

Whereas British diplomats continually expressed concern that they might not be ‘trusted’ by Stalin, their sincerity doubted, and the partnership with the Soviet Union might therefore be thrown at risk, Stalin manipulated them by a massive betrayal of ‘trust’ – namely the presence of a large web of spies in all departments of government. This infiltration ironically increased after Krivitsky’s interrogation early in 1940, as Guy Burgess was (probably) able to divert attention away from Communists towards a phantom Nazi Fifth Column. Thus several of Stalin’s Englishmen and Englishwomen, and their sympathisers, soon came to be established in positions of power, influence, or access. For example, Anthony Blunt and Victor Rothschild were employed by MI5, and Kim Philby by SIS. Donald Maclean was in the Foreign Office, while one of the Oxford Group of spies, Christopher Hill, an open Marxist, wrote pro-Soviet propaganda in the Foreign Office Research Department, and became the Northern Department’s expert on Soviet affairs. Burgess himself worked with his crony Harold Nicolson at the Ministry of Information, liaising with SIS, while his friend the Czech communist Peter Smollett (né Smolka) took charge of the Russian desk to push Soviet propaganda. James MacGibbon and Bernard Floud worked in Military Operations (M08). Leo Long was in Military Intelligence in MI14, and John Cairncross at Bletchley Park in GC&CS. Jenifer Hart worked at the Home Office, and Isaiah Berlin and Cedric Belfrage were in British Security Information in New York. E. H. Carr now had an influential position at the Times, and James Klugmann influenced policy for SOE in Cairo. The crypto-communist Stafford Cripps was ambassador in Moscow, while ‘Red’ Ellen Wilkinson, the lover of Home Secretary Herbert Morrison, had a junior post in Churchill’s coalition government. Cripps’s revolutionary colleague Walter Monckton also worked in the Ministry of Information. The Stalinists Andrew Rothstein and Denis Pritt freely gave their opinions to the press. The atomic spies, Klaus Fuchs, Alan Nunn May, Wilfred Mann and Melita Norwood (and maybe others) did their mischief. This crew was oddly complemented by the unlikely Soviet enthusiast Max Beaverbrook, who, despite his dislike of communism, became the most fervent spokesperson for diverting resources to the Soviet Union, because he thought it would increase productivity in the labour forces of the factories at home, and also enable him to keep his rival Ernest Bevin at bay. As a last unhelpful contributor, Beneś, the Czechoslovak prime minister in exile, was a fervent Moscow enthusiast, and used his own secure communications facilities in Surrey to pass on many secrets to Stalin. It was thus not just the notorious ‘Cambridge Five’ who were doing Stalin’s work.

The outcome was that Stalin was far better informed about all aspects of British strategy than even the Joint Intelligence Committee, and Churchill lost control of propaganda. The wartime chairman of the JIC, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, was not initially granted access to Ultra secrets (a decision overruled probably in 1941); the JIC knew nothing of the proceedings of the XX Committee that managed turned Nazi spies, as that group was answerable to no one except the W Board. Most astounding of all, the JIC was taken by surprise (as were members of Churchill’s War Cabinet) when the USA dropped the atomic bombs on Hiroshima and Nagasaki, as they had no knowledge of the Manhattan project. All this information  ̶  as well as the complete D-Day plans –  went promptly to Stalin via his spies. The project to distribute covertly Ultra extracts to Stalin was a disaster, since he was receiving unedited transcripts from Blunt, Cairncross, and MacGibbon, and he thus disparaged the other summarised source. And because of the contributions of the Cambridge Spies, Stalin also had complete access to Britain’s planned negotiation stances before – and after  ̶  Yalta (where the spy Alger Hiss even attended as an adviser to Roosevelt), which meant the Soviet leader was prepared for any compromise or tactic offered. Folly writes, without a trace of irony, that “Stalin’s realism increasingly came to be fused with an admiration for his intelligence, which became almost a mystique; some policy-makers, including Cadogan, seem to have developed an inferiority complex towards Stalin, in terms of their belief that he was far-sighted, extremely well-briefed, and knew exactly what he wanted.” Historians now know better whence Stalin’s expertise came. And because he received more information illicitly rather than being given freely by the Allies, Stalin started to mistrust them, suspecting, for instance, that they might strike a separate peace with Hitler. He was used to total obedience at home, and expected similar subservience abroad. Yet his counterparts were right to treat Stalin warily: he was essentially ‘untrustworthy’ (as Chamberlain had rightly pointed out in 1939). If they had behaved otherwise, they would simply have been like Lenin’s ‘useful idiots’. Stalin lied about his ambitions, and would say anything to achieve them. Moreover, Churchill, Menzies, and others rightfully feared leakage of vital secrets to the Germans. Stalin utterly failed to appreciate this dynamic: a few in the Allied camp (though of course ignorant about his spies) understood it all too well, but they were drowned out by the ‘co-operators’. Finally, SIS had no spies in the Soviet Union: the intelligence breach was entirely one-sided.

4) Culture:

British diplomats and military representatives were quick to characterise their Soviet counterparts as ‘Asiatic’ or ‘backward’, and thus lacking in the arts of diplomacy. They frequently spoke to them condescendingly, and the Soviets were frequently offended by the behaviour of the officers sent on the military missions. Yet this did not prevent the Foreign Office imagining that its opposite numbers could perhaps be taught to act like gentlemen, and that conciliatory gestures would be answered in kind. When this did not happen, they professed surprise. Churchill, in particular, would express his distaste for Bolshevism, and his mistrust of its leaders, when away from them, but would fall under Stalin’s charm when in his presence, and offer emotional speeches of effusive praise for the skills and personality of his temporary ally. Eden and Roosevelt both believed they possessed the perfect techniques for handling Stalin, and building a relationship with him. But seeking to protect Soviet-British relations, and maintaining the ‘partnership’, necessarily meant appeasing Stalin. Eden expressed personal messages of good will towards Stalin in the hope that they might reduce his ‘suspiciousness: Stephen Miner rightly dubs such thoughts ‘fatuous’. Churchill recognised the weakness of appeasement after Yalta, but had to be persuaded by his secretary, John Colville, to remove the Chamberlainite phrase ‘peace with honour’ from his subsequent speech to Parliament that explained the concessions made over the composition of the Polish government engineered by Stalin.

Stalin knew how to manipulate such weaknesses. He adapted his negotiating style very skilfully, using classical passive/aggressive techniques. He used Molotov to bring bad news, after which he would appear as the conciliator. But he was quite ruthless: like Hitler, he did not take treaties seriously. And he respected hard and unobsequious military men (like Tedder, Ismay, Brooke and Portal), who stood up for what they believed in, and were firm but polite, much more than he did the appeasing patricians like Eden, or the bogus revolutionaries like Cripps (whose asceticism and priggishness he found ridiculous). He saw through Roosevelt’s attempt to keep Churchill out of discussions, but was happy to indulge the American president’s delusions. He mercilessly exploited the divisions between Roosevelt and Churchill, for example in the prologue to Yalta, where Roosevelt avoided any western pre-planning for the conference. He was thus able to throw scorn on émigré Poles who had not taken any part in the fighting for wanting to take control of Polish elections, and easily overcame objections about Poland’s new borders. He left Roosevelt, Churchill and their advisors nonplussed because they had not anticipated the contradictions in Stalin’s claims about democratic elections, and he blithely allowed the Allies to endorse the shared concept of ‘liberation’ of Nazi-controlled territories, even when in the Soviet case it involved enslavement. As Miner wrote: “The Soviets did not expect goodwill gestures, they discounted western sincerity, and, most importantly, they did not respond in a like manner.”

5) Warfare:

In one respect the Soviet Union carried a moral and psychological advantage. Having suffered from the predations and cruelty of the Nazi invaders, its forces had beaten back the enemy hordes, and by the time of the Yalta conference in February 1945, had occupied Poland. The country suffered enormous losses in the battles against the Germans, as Max Hastings and Daniel Todman, among many historians of the period, have recorded. The Soviet Union lost about 9 million combatants in battle, or from death in captivity, compared to the British Empire’s figure of under 400,000. Fighting as an infantry army in the Soviet Army was perilous: the chances of surviving captivity were minimal, and if any soldier showed cowardice or a hint of desertion, the NKVD’s commissars were there to shoot him. (Hastings gives a figure of 157,000 shot for military disciplinary reasons in 1941-42 alone.) This philosophy extended to the attitude towards those taken prisoner during Barbarossa (of whom about 3 million would die in German camps): the Soviet Union believed such soldiers should have committed suicide rather than be captured, and it treated them as traitors when they were returned after the Yalta agreements, whether they had forcibly fought as ‘Vlasovites’ in Hitler’s armies or not. When pushed back to their native territory, the Nazis showed fiercer resilience, and Soviet casualties were large. Stalin forced his battalions to move fast in order to get to Berlin first, and he had a strong argument in his favour when he claimed that his forces had performed the lion’s share in the task of beating the Germans into submission. The WWII losses incurred by the Soviet Union (a total of 25 million, including civilians) rightly engendered an enormous amount of sympathy and respect in the West.

On the other hand, the leaders of the democracies could not allow their armies to suffer huge casualties through quixotic enterprises, such as a premature operation across the Channel, or sending divisions to the Caucasus to help Stalin. As they gradually progressed through Germany after eliminating Hitler’s final push in the Ardennes in the winter of 1944, the armies of the western powers faced a different set of morale problems. They were fighting on foreign soil, not removing invaders from native territory. The infantry men thought the war was practically over, and the United States soldiers in particular wanted to return home rather than become the last casualties of the war. They saw surrendering Germans enjoy a more comfortable existence than their own, as their commanders pressed them forwards. Wars are not won by holding positions in attack. They did not understand why the Germans did not surrender, and bring the whole business to a close. Stalin was able to exploit the fact of ‘might being right’ as he brushed off the appeals by Roosevelt and Churchill at Yalta to discuss the composition of the Polish government, and insisted on the new boundaries for the Polish nation. These decisions enlarged Soviet territory, and resulted in massive migrations of German citizens from the land now given to Poland, as well as of Poles left stranded east of the Curzon line.

Churchill & Strategy

All this goes to show that it was a very unequal partnership at work. Given the complexity of these relationships, could matters have evolved otherwise, without the subjugation of central Europe to Stalin, if the warnings about Stalin’s subversive activities had been taken seriously? After Yalta, Roosevelt and Churchill were anguished by what they saw as Stalin’s betrayal over Polish borders and arrangements for governance. Yet Stalin had not betrayed the agreements forged at Yalta: he had outwitted his allies in having the wording defined to his advantage. Moreover, it was too late by then. Churchill’s physician, Dr. Moran, said the trouble had started at Teheran, but in truth it antedated even November 1943. (Teheran was largely a waste of time.) It went back to 1941.

Churchill’s role in this sad story was well-intentioned, but careless. He was not a great strategist, but a military man, impulsive, and prone to gestures. He frequently incurred the frustration of his military commanders (as the diaries of Viscount Alanbrooke show, for example) by interfering in details, or throwing out wild ideas that should never have seen the light of day. Alanbrooke considered Stalin much superior to both Roosevelt and Churchill as a military strategist (although Ian Kershaw categorises Stalin’s knowledge of military matters asthose of an ‘informed amateur’.) Churchill’s inability to curb the picaresque Beaverbrook (even sending him to Moscow to further his individual cause of unbridled support) provoked anguish with his Chiefs of Staff, as well as with others members of the War Cabinet.  And he showed much ambivalence in dealing with the Soviet Union. Away from direct negotiations with Stalin, he was privately vigorous in his denunciations of the communist regime. In those moments he echoed the more consistent anti-communist (and anti-Stalinist) opinions of the War Office, whose voices the Foreign Office considered ‘prejudiced’ rather than displaying sound judgment, and found them unhelpful to the cause of ‘good relations’ with the Soviets. (Much of Churchill’s rhetoric, it must be admitted, now sounds trite and woolly.)  But, when dealing personally with Stalin, like others, Churchill fell victim to the Generalissimo’s charm and grasp of detail, often became sentimental, and made concessions that were not necessary or appropriate. He mistakenly treated moments of personal rapport as signs of strategic harmony.

The trouble had really started with Churchill’s radio broadcast of June 22, 1941, after the Nazis attacked the Soviet Union. The historian A. J. P. Taylor, in English History 1914-1945, described this message as something that ‘settled the world for many years to come’. Churchill’s words are well-known: “It follows, therefore, that we shall give whatever help we can to Russia and the Russian people. We shall appeal to all our friends and allies in every part of the world to take the same course and pursue it, as we shall, faithfully and steadfastly to the end. We have offered the Government of Soviet Russia any technical or economic assistance which is in our power, and which is likely to be of service to them.” He added that “the Russian danger is therefore our danger, and the danger of the United States, just as the cause of any Russian fighting for his hearth and home is the cause of free men and free peoples in every quarter of the globe”. This was a highly quixotic gesture, and a giant leap of faith. Churchill had certainly believed for some years that the Soviet Union would be required as an ally in order for Hitler to be overcome, but did he need to go overboard? He did not ask his military advisers, or the Joint Intelligence Committee, to analyse the various scenarios concerning the invasion, such as the risk of a quickly victorious Germany turning back to re-assault Great Britain. Most commentators thought the Soviet Union would crumble in weeks, so how could Britain have prevented that, and contributed to an outcome where Hitler was swiftly repulsed? In truth, whatever aid the Allies were able to give (at enormous cost) to the Soviet Union turned out to have little impact on the war. Churchill would have been better off preserving his materiel and forces for a possible German counter-attack. Stalin ungraciously came to regard what aid Britain did offer as an entitlement. The Communist Party of Great Britain, moreover, was a continuous thorn in the flesh of the war effort. The message of sudden co-operation with a power that had been reviled as vicious, and had for the past twenty-one months been abetting Germany in the war effort was too much for many – not just military men, but even Labour politicians – to swallow.

A successful strategist has to discriminate between facts and assumptions. He has to show imagination about outcomes. And he has to be able to convert the strategy into decisive tactics, communicating clearly to those chartered with executing them. Moreover the strategy must possess enough consistency to provide guidance over time, yet allow adaptation should some of the underlying assumptions turn out to be flawed. Churchill’s strategy concerning the Soviet Union did not obey any of these rules. A policy, in 1940, of pursuing trade agreements in spite of dismay over Russia’s invasion of the Baltic States was followed by moralising proclamations in the Atlantic Charter. He sent an ambassador to Moscow (Cripps) who was a more effective representative for Stalin’s ambitions than he was of Britain’s policies towards the Soviet Union.  Churchill’s expressed revulsion for communism was undermined by his sudden enthusiasm for Stalin’s dictatorship. He had defended the Crippsian notion that the Soviets had a right to increase its strength in the Baltic States, changing his mind when it was too late, and then reversing himself again after Teheran. (That debate had caused a rift between Attlee and Beaverbrook, with the ironic result that the latter resigned from the War Cabinet.) He did not consult with his War Cabinet or his Chiefs of Staff before making his radio announcement, after which both groups reacted with alarm. He then upset his wished-for allies in the United States by promising to send arms to the Soviet Union. He told his advisors that they should forget about the evils of communism, but expressed dismay when the Ministry of Information projected such a message. He enmeshed himself in awkward entanglements over the second front, raising expectations that could not be met. He allowed contrary messages to flourish, and made life difficult for his ministers through impulsive gestures, such as sending Beaverbrook on a mission to speak to Stalin, and allowing the press baron to broadcast irresponsible messages in the USA. He thus lost the propaganda battle, and confused those serving his administration. Moreover, the left-wingers in his Cabinet pressed Churchill to commit to postwar social reforms for which he was unready: he wanted to defer ‘peace plans’ until the war was won. The coalition government had been insisted upon by Churchill was supposed to represent national unity, but the marked differences in personality and politics meant that it rarely spoke with one voice. Co-operation had thus been a struggle in domestic politics.

Allied Co-operation

The lack of unity extended to the transatlantic alliance, where the two leaders gradually developed markedly different philosophies about the objectives of the war. Matters started well. Roosevelt had performed a skilful, though eminently cautious, job in assisting Britain (giving surplus destroyers, and signing the Lend-Lease agreement, even though they were largely symbolic gestures) before Germany declared war on the USA. He and Churchill were certainly united in their belief that Hitler was the existential enemy they had to defeat, and Roosevelt recognised the importance of the European theatre, but goals became complicated after that. Minor discord occurred as early as Barbarossa, when Churchill’s offer of unqualified support to Stalin took Roosevelt by surprise. In some ways, this gesture was a reminder of May 1940, when more sceptical US politicians wondered what the purpose was of diverting arms to Great Britain if it were going to succumb inevitably to Germany. The Atlantic Charter (of August 1941) was well-intentioned wording that made them both feel good, but then was effectively ignored when it suited them  – Churchill, concerning the colonies, Roosevelt in trying to please Stalin. Roosevelt unsuccessfully tried to gain Churchill’s commitment to giving India independence after the war. Roosevelt was less concerned about protecting Britain’s Empire, about which he was disdainful, and a little jealous, and he later had a broader Pacific war to contend with. He was even more scornful about France’s colonial pretensions after its defeat, while Churchill wanted to see a resurgent France as a counterpoint to Germany after the war.

Churchill and Roosevelt did not respond to Stalin’s demands consistently. After Germany declared war on the USA in December 1941, it should have been the goal of the western allies to present a united front to the Soviet dictator over the cause of their shared beliefs in liberal democracy, and to defend the rights of the minor states. But they both foolishly attempted to bargain (or prevaricate) with Stalin over his desire to maintain the boundaries won during the pact with Hitler, predominantly the control of the Baltic States. They thus disagreed about the urgency of settling European boundary issues, and how power should be exercise after the war.  Roosevelt referred to the necessity of gaining the Polish-American vote for his fourth presidential campaign: Churchill sent Eden to Moscow to do a deal over recognition of Britain’s interests in India in exchange for allowing Stalin to keep the Baltic States. He later separately bargained with Stalin, in the notorious ‘percentages’ deal, whereby British influence in Greece was traded for Soviet dominance in other Balkan countries.

Moreover, they were divided in responding to Stalin’s demands for the Second Front. Hitler had abandoned a cross-channel invasion, at the peak of his powers, when Britain was almost powerless to defend itself. There would be only one chance to execute a reverse operation successfully, and it would require a massive amount of planning, personnel, and materiel. The western leaders made promises to Stalin they could not keep. Roosevelt, while committing to his ‘Europe First’ policy, underestimated the complexities of a cross-channel invasion. Churchill set his eyes more on ‘the soft underbelly’ of Nazi-controlled Europe, as he wanted to make inroads via Italy in the hope of reaching Austria and Berlin before Stalin. Roosevelt’s belief that he and Stalin, and their respective countries, were the future leaders on the world stage, grew increasingly stronger, and he began to cut Churchill out of negotiations. Churchill seethed, but was powerless to do much, as his country was becoming bankrupt, and losing influence, though he could not face the truth that the days of maintaining an empire were over.

Roosevelt had grand plans for securing postwar peace through a Wilsonian United Nations project, while Churchill’s focus was more on spheres of influence in Europe – a notion Roosevelt disliked. Thus Roosevelt was less concerned about the threat of Stalin, and saw the dictator in a more benevolent light: he had always been partially blind to the evils of Stalin’s regime. (He noticeably omitted Stalin’s dictatorship from the list of totalitarian threats when the Lend-Lease program from the ‘arsenal of democracy’ was announced in December 1940.) He even told Churchill in March 1942 that Stalin ‘liked him [FDR] better’, and preferred dealing with the US diplomats than with the British. Churchill and Roosevelt had long since used the language of ‘democracy’ and ‘freedom-loving’ to describe their murderous ally, and forgotten both the freedoms they had been chartered to defend when war was declared in September 1939 and December 1941 and the mass slaughters that Stalin had invoked on his own people. The Soviet Union in 1944, with its armies moving confidently across Europe, was a very different beast from the cowering and helpless entity which the Nazi aggressors so blatantly hoodwinked.

Such dissensions and concessions were dangerous. In the classic phrase used by Chamberlain, Roosevelt and Churchill ‘missed the bus’. In 1943, as Stalin turned the tide (with the help of his English spies) against the Germans at Kursk, his confidence increased. No longer did he have to seek favours from his allies. But he could still manipulate them. In 1943, he made the gesture of dissolving the Comintern  ̶   in name only, as if to signal that plots to subvert the western democracies were a thing of the past. The Foreign Office overall believed this gesture because its civil servants wanted to, as they did with many of Stalin’s insincere promises. MI5 believed it was a fraudulent move, but the Security Service was not listened to, or did not press the point. Yet it should have been obvious to the Joint Intelligence Committee (if it had read the transcripts from the highly clandestine ISCOT project, which decrypted transmissions between Moscow and its guerrilla armies in Europe) that the plans for introducing communism by force in central Europe had not gone away. The Chiefs of Staff had their suspicions of Stalin’s true intentions confirmed by his passivity at Warsaw in August-September 1944, where he refused to help the uprising against the Germans because the insurgents were democrats inspired from London, not communists. Moreover, Roosevelt did not see Stalin between Teheran, in November 1943, and Yalta in February 1945, when FDR was a very sick man. Stalin had prevaricated, saying he had to stay in the Soviet Union to manage his forces. He was also highly scared of flying, and very wary about assassination attempts. The mountains had to go to Mahomet. And Mahomet was fully prepared to exploit the fissures in the two edifices.

Alternative History?

What could have happened differently? Could the ideals of resisting totalitarianism have been converted into a sturdy defence of the democratic aspirations of the central and eastern European countries? Had there been an opportunity when Churchill (and later, Roosevelt) could have presented a bolder front to Stalin without pushing him into a renewed alliance with Hitler? My contention is that, had Churchill known the details of Krivitsky’s revelations, and a tougher and confidential follow-up had occurred, he would have had an opportunity to cleanse the stables, influence public opinion, and present a far more pragmatic and determined face to Stalin when Barbarossa occurred. If Stalin’s strategy for subversion of British governmental institutions had been known to him, Churchill might have not behaved in such a starry-eyed fashion when he pledged assistance to the dictator in June 1941. Yet such a scenario is unavoidably complicated by a series of events that would have had to happen. Chamberlain was prime minister when the Krivitsky interrogations took place, and there is no evidence that Churchill ever heard about the defector, or read the report that MI5 produced. I therefore present a series of steps that could have led to an outcome where Stalin would not have been able to ride so roughshod over the long-suffering citizens of the countries that eventually lay behind the Iron Curtain. I shall next analyze these individual steps, and allocate a score to the degree of difficulty associated with each, in consideration of the political and organizational challenges at the time. (1 = straightforward; 5 = highly complex).

Krivitsky would have had to be secreted somewhere, and paid to give a fuller account of the hints he gave concerning spies in the undergrowth. The whole process would have to be highly secret, and if a report were to be written on his interrogations, it would have had to be subject to very tight controls. Chamberlain and Churchill would have had to be notified. An investigation would have had to take place into the backgrounds of identified Soviet agents (primarily Maclean and Philby), which would have led to warnings of friends and associates with similar backgrounds. That process would have had to be converted into a policy of positive vetting for future employment, and the sacking of communists (or ex-communists) from government posts. It would have required a new strategy for handling the Soviet Union to be developed, executed with a firmness that would not have allowed the customary dissents in the Foreign Office and elsewhere. Roosevelt would have had to be informed, and sold on the measures, so that a similar exercise could take place in the USA. Churchill would have had to change his tune on the destiny of the Empire after the war, and to take more closely to heart the precepts of the Atlantic Charter. Churchill and Roosevelt would have had to resolve their differences, agree about goals for democratic constitutions in central Europe, and present a united and forceful opposition to Stalin’s wiles.

1) Safeguarding Krivitsky (1): This could have been an easy task. The diaries of Guy Liddell, where he describes his discussion with Krivitsky on the day before the defector sailed back to Canada, have been redacted. But there had been a plan to spirit him (and his family) to a safe place in Scotland, and, had he been paid enough, his memory would probably have enabled him to recall more crisply the identities of the figures he hinted at in his testimony. He assuredly knew more about the profiles of the agents than he was prepared to divulge for free to institutions he still regarded as hostile. The historian of MI5, Christopher Andrew, has offered excuses that MI5 did not know how to handle defectors, and was inadequately staffed. But that does not add up to a valid explanation: it was the service’s duty to develop such skills, and in Jane Archer it had a superbly qualified officer who was in the process of being wastefully sidelined.

2) Confidential Report (2): Irrespective of the evolution of the process of interrogation, the distribution of the report that outlined Krivitsky’s revelations was a mistake of disastrous proportions. If the heads of intelligence (Kell, Menzies) had given a minute’s thought to the implications of a defector’s claims that Britain’s government was infested with Stalin’s spies, and the nature of those accusations being widely-spread in Whitehall, they should have placed an embargo on any publication. It was a completed abdication of tradecraft, showing how amateurish the mechanisms of counter-intelligence were. Thus a grade of (1), given the obviousness of the correct action, is corrected to a (2) by the reality of a security organisation that could have benefited from some more military discipline.

3) Notification of Chamberlain and Churchill (1):  The reporting lines were confused. MI5 answered to the Home Office: SIS (who was represented in the interrogation) to the Foreign Office. The two intelligence services were not invited to join the Joint Intelligence Committee (which focused very much on imperial military matters until then) until late May 1940. Chamberlain, still prime minister at the time of the interrogations, was rather disparaging about intelligence, but Churchill was an enthusiast, and would have jumped at an opportunity to read such a report, or even meet the defector. Gary Kern, in his A Death in Washington writes that Krivitsky’s friends reported that MI5 had arranged for him to meet Churchill, but the encounter never happened. One unfortunate episode that occurred is that MI5 at one stage suspected that Churchill’s nephews, Esmond and Giles Romilly, were the characters hinted at by Krivitsky: if Churchill had come to hear of this, he might have discounted Krivitsky’s reliability. Yet Churchill had a very good relationship with Vernon Kell, the head of MI5, going back to World War I, and one might have expected him to brief him, or his intelligence advisor, Desmond Morton (who had worked for SIS as an expert on communism) on the case. Churchill was to fire Kell in May 1940 – for reasons probably associated with the Nazi Fifth Column: no evidence seems to exist that Churchill was aware of the Krivitsky interrogations at the time. David Stafford, in his Churchill & Secret Service, indicates that Churchill was fully occupied with possible German espionage in the first nine months of the war: there is no mention of Krivitsky, or John Herbert King, the Foreign Office spy identified by Krivitsky, in Stafford’s work. Overall, however, one cannot help thinking that Churchill would have taken the report very seriously.

4) Investigation of Krivitsky’s Allegations (1): Commentators nowadays accept that, with some degree of sleuthing, the main characters hinted at by Krivitsky could have been identified. That would have turned the spotlight on Donald Maclean and Kim Philby. Both had to explain away leftist backgrounds at their interviews (for the Foreign Office and SOE/SIS respectively, with Philby’s recruitment taking place later in 1940). But Philby’s past in Vienna was well-known (by such as Hugh Gaitskell). Trails would have led to the Cambridge University Socialist Club, and the Apostles, and searching interviews could have taken place. With the knowledge of Philby’s activities in Spain, and Krivitsky’s testimony, Philby would have had a much tougher time in 1940 explaining away his past. The links would have led to Anthony Blunt, who, it must be remembered, was himself withdrawn from Military Intelligence training because of his communist past, and to Leo Long and Guy Burgess.

5) Removal of Communists (2): It is not whimsical to suggest that a ban on communists in government service, or at least in positions where security was affected, would have been possible in 1940. Later, when the Soviet Union was a ‘gallant ally’, and propagandists were championing its cause, public opinion would have objected violently to any such measures. Nervousness about the Unions, and their required productivity, no doubt existed, but the Labour Party was adamantly opposed to the Soviet Union’s excesses, even before the Coalition government was formed in May 1940. It is sometimes forgotten that Churchill, during the Fifth Column ‘panic’ that month, was as keen to cut down on Communists as he was fascists, and a lively debate about the wisdom of hiring communists for sensitive positions continued throughout 1940 (which Burgess and Rothschild successfully countered). But at a time when the Soviet Union was providing war materiel to Nazi Germany to spite the efforts of the Political Warfare Executive, a properly executed campaign could have succeeded. King had confessed, and, while it would have been difficult to gain any outright admission of guilt from the Cambridge crew, their subversive careers could have been averted. It should be remembered that Krivitsky’s revelations led to the removal of over a dozen spies, and that Maclean, Blunt, and Philby had all been challenged over their communist pasts at their interviews. As it happened, Burgess’s reputation as a fixer, and his many connections and protectors, may have warded off investigations, but Burgess had been scared enough about betrayal by Goronwy Rees (to whom he confessed his Comintern allegiance in 1939) that he wanted him killed. In a different climate, Rees would have spoken up about Burgess’s working for the Soviets  ̶  a fact that might have been concluded in any case by the mission to Moscow in August 1940.

6) Different Strategy for Handling the Soviet Union (3): During the period of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Britain still discussed trade agreements with the Soviet Union. Britain needed her timber to build ships: the Soviet Union needed machine-tools, and certain raw materials. Yet no discernible strategy for dealing with Stalin’s Russia emerged: it was all very fragmented and tentative. Churchill had admittedly for some time believed that Hitler would betray the Soviet Union, and that the latter would eventually come in on the side of the Allies. He even thought that such a move would be essential to secure the Allies’ victory. But this policy never was converted into a consistent set of principles by which the country would be prepared for the event. A proper strategist would have set up some guidelines around which negotiations should take place, and public opinion guided: a recognition that the Soviet Union was a durable ideological enemy, and planned to destroy the democracies; that alliance with it should be cautious, as the countries’ goals were different; that the public should be reminded of the slaughters that had taken place in the name of communism; that Stalin should be approached with reserved toughness, and no attempt at appeasement; that offers of help should be conservative, and not affect the imperial war effort; that promises should not be made that could not be kept; that discussions of ‘trust’ and ‘cooperation’ were virtually meaningless when dealing with Stalin’s state. Yet forging and communicating such a stance was alien to the British, pluralist way of doing things, and Churchill, who did not think along such lines, was too impulsive. The Foreign Office would have challenged such a stance for its ‘pessimism’. Thus this step is somewhat problematic.

7) Coordination with Roosevelt (4):  For Stalin’s thrusts and subversion to be thwarted, Churchill would have needed a similar exercise to have taken place in the USA. The country was at the beginning of the war fiercely anti-communist: in fact its opposition to totalitarianism cast aspersions on the Nazis and the Communists, and it was determined to stay out of the conflict, remembering when it had come to the rescue of Europe just over twenty years before. Roosevelt had to tread the path of bringing the USA into the war very carefully. Yet he had authoritarian instincts himself, and his wife – a committed leftist – was an influential figure over him, and the country. Moreover, the USA authorities were very slow to react to Krivitsky’s revelations, or other warnings of Soviet spies in place. J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, was furious with Krivitsky for suggesting his bureau had been neglectful in allowing Soviet spies into the country. Whitaker Chambers accused Alger Hiss in 1939, but Roosevelt ignored Adolf Berle’s subsequent report about communist penetration, and Hiss was not even interrogated until 1942. Roosevelt was not impressed with the deliberations of the Dies Committee, for he had developed an early admiration for Stalin, and appeared to have forgiven him his transgressions. He thus minimised the significance of Krivitsky’s story. The elimination of Stalin’s network of spies and agents of influence in the USA would therefore have been a tough challenge to overcome. That group was, however, less influential in helping Stalin negotiate with, and confound, the Allies than were the agents installed in Great Britain.

8) The Atlantic Charter (4): The Charter was signed in August 1941 by Roosevelt and Churchill, i.e. after the Soviet Union had been invaded, but before Pearl Harbor, and the declaration of war against the United States by Germany. The symbolism of the event was important, as it indicated the nominal support of the United States for the Allied cause. A key ingredient of the agreement was the commitment to self-determination by peoples, a broad hint that the countries of Europe that had been invaded by the Nazis or the Communists (or by both) should have the right to determine their own form of government after the war. This motion was enthusiastically taken up by the governments-in-exile of the affected countries. But it was also noted by the putative leaders of those colonies, British, French, Dutch, especially, who took it as a signal that such entities would also be granted independence when the hostilities were over. That had never been how Churchill, a confirmed imperialist, had conceived the charter. Roosevelt tried to finesse the issue by postponing any interpretation until the conflict ended, but Churchill got himself into severe trouble with Roosevelt, for wanting later to grant the Soviet Union the ownership of the Baltic States as a bargaining tool. Churchill also had problems with Stalin, who pointed out the prime minister’s hypocrisy in pushing back against Soviet plans for other central European countries, in particular Poland, when he had no plans to let India and other colonies elect the governments they wanted. It would have taken some highly imaginative and influential figure to sway Churchill at this time: ironically, during the war, the Labour members of his coalition were almost as keen to protect the notion of Empire as he was. If Roosevelt had challenged Churchill head-on on this issue, rather than working behind his back to undermine him, the outcome could have been different, and the two leaders might have been able to face Stalin with more resilience.

9) Roosevelt and Churchill United: (3) As Churchill’s (and Britain’s) influence during the war waned, Roosevelt increasingly excluded him from discussions, in the misguided belief that he (Roosevelt) and Stalin were a more substantial pairing out of the Big Three. This breach occurred primarily because of Roosevelt’s disdain for, and disapproval of, the British Empire, but he also had designs on taking over some of Britain’s military bases, and economic opportunities, after the war. The United Nations was the light that guided FDR’s mission, and he started to tire of the complications of European territorial disputes. He and Stalin (he thought) would ensure that ‘security’ dominated the post-war landscape, even though it might mean the peace of a Schillerian churchyard. Roosevelt wanted an earlier second front across the Channel, where Churchill prevaricated, partly because he hoped to reach Vienna and Berlin before Stalin. Thus their visions of the post-war world diverged (as did, of course, Stalin’s), and the fault-lines meant that Stalin was able to exploit their disagreements. If an opportunity to influence Stalin did exist, it would have been early on, in 1942, when he was on the defensive, and needed all the aid he could get. Conditions could have been set for such assistance. Stalin might have reneged on them, of course, but he would have been on much weaker footing. As he started to repel the Nazis in 1943, his confidence gained, and he viewed his Western Allies more scornfully. With the personalities and motivations they had, it would never have been easy for FDR and WSC to reconcile their differences. And, as Molotov pointed out, giving in to Stalin’s demands just led to more.

Conclusions

The conclusion must be that the overwhelming benefit that could have been gained by a purge of communists in administration would have been a much more effective negotiation with the Soviet Union. Stalin would not have been aware of the discord and hesitations in the Allied camp, and would not have been able to bluff or threaten his way into consummating his aggressive territorial and governmental demands. Churchill would have been able to keep a tight hold on his stance vis-à-vis the Soviet Union, and influence public opinion accordingly. True, Britain would not have been able to discipline communists in an illiberal way (the Communist Party was never actually banned), but it would have been able to exclude them from positions of influence, or when there was a security risk. Admitted loyalties to a foreign power would have been censured. We can recall that Cripps was expelled from the Labour Party because of his defence of the Soviet Union’s invasion of Finland.

It would have changed the terms of negotiation. Stalin’s overtures suggested that he was susceptible to western approval. As early as November 1941, when his country was on the verge of collapse, he was asking for agreement on war aims, and seeking acceptance of the Soviet Union’s frontiers gained in collusion with Hitler. Thus he was assuredly looking for some positive sign of approval from the western powers to gain expiation for his past offences, and to give his post-war security plans a certificate of acceptance. It must be admitted that even if he had been sharply reminded of such illegality, and Roosevelt and Churchill had set stringent conditions for providing aid, he might still have ignored them when the tide later turned in his favour, but the historical record suggests that tougher negotiation at the time could have been successful. Once Stalin learned that ‘buffer states’ were a valid concept, however, and that some diplomats believed he was entitled to vanquish independent countries, the door was open for him to exploit the opportunity. A lack of access to the secrets of his allies would have weakened his ability to bargain.

Whether the behaviour of Roosevelt and Churchill could have changed is more problematic. The attributes that made Churchill an inspiring leader of the nation – his rhetoric, his buccaneering spirit – meant that he was no more than an adequate chief executive. He reorganised his Cabinet skilfully, but he did not seek their opinions, accordingly set course, and rally them around a plan of action. Many of his cabinet meetings drifted without focus. His attachment to the Empire was unswerving. Yes, he probably could have been persuaded that a less generous and more principled attitude to the Soviet Union, one more in tune with that of his Chiefs of Staff, would have been more appropriate, and thus more effective by not kowtowing to Stalin, but he would probably still have fallen prey to Stalin’s deviousness. And Beaverbrook, the anti-communist, caused as much havoc as any of Churchill’s leftist advisers.

Roosevelt had similar operational dysfunctionality, often bypassing his lieutenants, and not issuing precise orders. Yet his instincts were frequently on target. His clever manipulation of Congress to aid Britain before the USA entered the war was invaluable, but he thought he could equally deftly handle Churchill and Stalin. He was too easily affected by Stalin’s charm, however, and betrayed some major blind spots. His failure to recognise that the USA and Great Britain had far more in common, and at stake, than did the USA and the Soviet Union, betrayed his democratic ally, and the principles for which they were fighting. He was not so interested in the fortunes of central Europe (apart from the Polish vote), and became carried away with his Wilsonian vision for a resuscitated League of Nations, the United Nations.

Thus the Cold War would have happened anyway. Nothing could really stop Stalin after 1943, when he began to repulse the Germans, and started his march into central Europe. Might made right. But with more resolute demands from the West, a more hopeful configuration of states might have emerged. The Iron Curtain might have been moved further east. The Baltic States might not have been saveable, but perhaps a democratic Polish government could have been insisted on, a moderate socialist administration established in Czechoslovakia, and a pluralist set-up in Hungary assured, to complement the independent spirit of Tito’s Yugoslavia. Thus not so much liberty – for which the war had been declared in the first place – might not have been lost for so long, and the collapse of communism might have occurred many years earlier.

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Misdefending The Realm

 

“Which are we, Carruthers – workers, peasants or intellectuals?”

‘Misdefending the Realm’ was published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26, and is available in the UK, as they say, ‘at all good booksellers’. But in case there are no booksellers at all left in your area, you can see it listed at amazon (https://www.amazon.co.uk/s/ref=nb_sb_noss?url=search-alias%3Dstripbooks&field-keywords=misdefending+the+realm ). It will be published in the USA next spring.  I have prepared a page dedicated to coverage of the book at  ‘Misdefending the Realm’  .

Here follows the blurb:

“When, early in 1940, an important Soviet defector provided hints to Britain’s Intelligence about spies within the country’s institutions, MI5’s report was intercepted by a Soviet agent in the Home Office. She alerted her sometime lover, Isaiah Berlin, and Berlin’s friend, Guy Burgess, whereupon the pair initiated a rapid counter-attack. Burgess contrived a mission for the two of them to visit the Soviet Union, which was then an ally of Nazi Germany, in order to alert his bosses of the threat, and protect the infamous ‘Cambridge Spies’. The story of this extraordinary escapade, hitherto ignored by the historians, lies at the heart of a thorough and scholarly exposé of MI5’s constitutional inability to resist communist infiltration of Britain’s corridors of power, and its later attempt to cover up its negligence.

Guy Burgess’s involvement in intelligence during WWII has been conveniently airbrushed out of existence in the official histories, and the activities of his collaborator, Isaiah Berlin, disclosed in the latter’s Letters, have been strangely ignored by historians. Yet Burgess, fortified by the generous view of Marxism emanating from Oxbridge, contrived to effect a change in culture in MI5, whereby the established expert in communist counter-espionage was sidelined, and Burgess’s cronies were recruited into the Security Service itself. Using the threat of a Nazi Fifth Column as a diversion, Burgess succeeded in minimising the communist threat, and placing Red sympathizers elsewhere in government.

The outcome of this strategy was far-reaching. When the Soviet Union was invaded by Hitler’s troops in June 1941, Churchill declared his support for Stalin in defeating the Nazi aggressor. But British policy-makers had all too quickly forgotten that the Communists would still be an enduring threat when the war was won, and appeasement of Hitler was quickly replaced by an appeasement of Stalin. Moreover, an indulgence towards communist scientists meant that the atom secrets shared by the US and the UK were betrayed. When this espionage was detected, MI5’s officers engaged in an extensive cover-up to conceal their misdeeds.

Exploiting recently declassified material and a broad range of historical and biographical sources, Antony Percy reveals that MI5 showed an embarrassing lack of leadership, discipline, and tradecraft in its mission of ‘Defending the Realm’.”

One day I might write a blog about the process of seeing a project like this come to fruition, but now is not the time. Instead I wanted to introduce readers to a sample of the cartoons that I selected to illustrate the period under the book’s microscope, that between the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939 and Operation Barbarossa, Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, in June 1941. (The sketch I selected for the frontispiece appears above.)

Ever since I first set eyes on Osbert Lancaster’s precise illustrations of architectural patterns, accompanied by their witty and ironic commentaries, I have been an enthusiast of the cartoonist and architectural critic. In another universe, I might have claimed that his influence propelled me into a career in theatrical design, but, alas (though at no great loss for the world of drama), all it did was to confirm me as a perpetual fan of his work. My father had acquired a few of Lancaster’s volumes, and I particularly recall how, before the age of ten, I pored over Homes, Sweet Homes & From Pillar to Post (combined later in one volume as Here, of All Places, with additions describing American structures), as well as There’ll Always be a Drayneflete, with their precise draughtsmanship, all too-human and familiar caricatures of citizens in history, and their satirical, but not malicious, commentaries. (Of course I was too young at the time to appreciate the texts.) The books displayed a sense of the unique continuity of habitation on the British Isles – unique, because of the lack of invasion over the centuries  ̶  which brought history alive for me.  The first date that a schoolboy in the 1950s would learn was 1066, and I can recall as a child regretting that I would not be around to enjoy the millennium of that occasion. There must have been something about the durability of certain things among monumental change that captured my imagination, and a strong aspect of that element can be found in Misdefending the Realm.

Lancaster wrote some entertaining memoirs as well (All Done From Memory and With an Eye to the Future), which are liberally sprinkled with his drawings. For those readers unfamiliar with him, you can also read about him in his Wikipedia entry at (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Osbert_Lancaster). One fact I recently learned is that his second wife, Anne Scott-James (with whom he collaborated on the equally delightful Pleasure Garden), was the mother of the historian Max Hastings, whose books on WWII I have especially enjoyed. (I have read The Secret War, Retribution, and Armageddon this year. Hastings sadly did not have a good relationship with his mother, who died aged 96 only a few years ago.) As for Osbert, to gain a sense of the man, readers may want to listen to his second Desert Island Discs interview, by Roy Plomley (see https://player.fm/series/desert-island-discs-archive-1976-1980-44534/sir-osbert-lancaster). The subject’s understated but very patrician demeanour, and his aristocratic pronunciation of such words as ‘Alas’, suggest that the whole performance could have been a parody executed by Peter Sellers or Peter Cook.

‘Which are we, Carruthers . . .?’ is one of Lancaster’s most famous pocket cartoons. Lancaster was responsible for the success of the genre of ‘pocket cartoon’ after convincing his art editor at the Daily Express to publish such in the newspaper, as part of Tom Driberg’s column, early in 1939. The feature ran for the best part of forty years, interrupted primarily by Lancaster’s commitments abroad. Thus he provided a very topical commentary on many of the events that occurred in the time that interested me. As I declare when introducing Lancaster’s cartoons among other illustrations (I also use several Punch cartoons from the same period): “He skillfully lampooned authority figures during World War II, but never maliciously, and his insights into the ironies and absurdities with which the war was sometimes engaged brought entertaining relief to persons in all walks of life.”

I love this particular cartoon, which appeared in the Daily Express on July 18th, 1941, at the end of the period on which my study concentrates, because it suggests so much in such simple lines. Who are these blimpish and aristocratic characters, no doubt enjoying a tiffin in their London club? They have presumably been told that the Russians are now our allies, and that they had better acquaint themselves with the principles of Marxism, and learn more about the workers’ paradise over which Stalin prevails. It all appears to be something of a shock to the system for these two gentlemen, yet their confusion underlies the nonsense of the Marxist dialectic.

‘Carruthers’ is a poignant name, as it appears most famously in Erskine Childers’ Riddle of the Sands, where Carruthers is a Foreign Office member who goes sleuthing over German skulduggery in the Baltic Sea before the First World War. Ever since then, the name ‘Carruthers’ has epitomised that doughty and loyal comrade that any intrepid wayfarer would want to be accompanied by, as in the way that Times obituaries used, not so very long ago, to describe such men: ‘someone you would want to go tiger-shooting with’. Yet this Carruthers does not look like a tiger-shooter, or even an SIS spy. He looks more Wodehousian, perhaps a rather dim-witted younger son of an earl, and his territory is probably more Lord’s and Ascot, with a trip to the grouse-moors in August, than the coasts of the Baltic.

These two are supremely ‘superfluous men’, as Turgenev might have identified them, although they probably lack the artistic talent that was characteristic of the Russian novelist’s grouping. Lancaster’s caption wryly suggests that these fellows are not intellectuals. The pair of clubmen might well have been encountered in Boodle’s, or the Beefsteak, perhaps, of which club Lancaster himself was a member.  Lenin and Stalin would certainly have considered them parasites, ‘former people’, and they would have been on the list as members of the class enemy to be exterminated as soon as possible, as indeed such people were treated in Poland and the Baltic States. They are clearly bemused by the radical division of the world found in Life in the U.S.S.R. Yet their simple question drives at the heart of simplistic class-based Marxian analysis.

That same Marxism, which grabbed so many intelligent persons’ fascination at this time – something that endures seventy-five years later, despite all its nonsense  ̶  should surely by then have been shown as bankrupt. In my book, I describe how much damage the young Isaiah Berlin caused in his effervescent biography of Karl Marx, which gave an utter and undeserved respectability to the studying of Marxism, while gaining the eager approbation of such as Freddie Ayer and Guy Burgess. By 1940, it should have been obvious that the ‘dictatorship of the proletariat’ was a cruel nightmare, with Stalin, as a power-mad ex-peasant, ruling over a prison-camp more horrible than anything Hitler had yet prepared. Yet even MI5 fell victim to the appeal of ‘intellectual Marxism’. When the German general von Paulus was captured at Stalingrad, his interrogators tried to impress upon him the doctrines of the new world of communism. “You should know that Germany’s workers and peasants are among the most prominent supporters of Hitler”, he replied. Even Churchill hailed the Soviet Union as a ‘peace-loving nation’ in June 1941, and Roosevelt was to fall even more sharply under the delusion that Stalin was a man of peace.

What was different about Britain was that buffers like these two were tolerated. Even if they were on the way out, there was no reason that they should have to be eliminated through a bloody slaughter. Lenin is said to have abandoned hope of a revolution in Britain when he read about strikers playing soccer with policemen: class war would never reach the destructive depths into which it sank in Russia after the Communist takeover. And that is one of the points in my book: that liberal democracy in the Britain of the 1930s was certainly flawed, with the aristocrats in control, and position of power excluded from those without the proper background or standing. It did not have enough confidence in its structure and institutions to resist Fascism resolutely, and the Communists took advantage of that fact to propagandise the British, and cause the monstrosities of Stalin’s penal colonies, famines, purges and executions to be overlooked. Stalin ended up enjoying a massive intelligence superiority over the British and the Americans at Yalta. Yet the UK was eventually able to evolve into the more democratic and more fair country of Attlee’s administration, the days of imperialism were clearly over, and the realm was still worth defending.

For the endpaper of the book, I used the following cartoon, published just after Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 23rd, 1941. That is all the caption says.

It reminds me so much of a famous photograph of a gathering of communists during the Spanish Civil War, dated February 5, 1937. Could this not have been a caricature drawn by Lancaster?

 

Here we see the ice-cold demeanour of the French apparatchik, Maurice Thorez, the flamboyancy of the street bully in the leather-jacket, Antonio Mije, and the pious gaze skywards in the beatific pose of Francisco Antón (who eerily looks rather like the young Osbert Lancaster). They epitomise all the ghastly aspects of the Soviet totalitarian machine, the efficiency, the cruelty, and the self-righteousness. ‘What an absolute shower!’, as Terry-Thomas might have called them. Thus I can see this set piece as a tableau vivant by Lancaster himself, akin to his famous sketch of John Betjeman and others performing the madrigal ‘Sumer is icumen in’.

 

“A musical evening laid on for the Uffington Women’s Institute by Penelope Betjeman. At the piano: Lord Berners; back row: Adrian Bishop, Karen Lancaster and Osbert on the flute, Penelope, seated, playing ‘a strange instrument resembling a zither’; standing at the front, Maurice Bowra and John Betjeman.” [source: Cartoons and Coronets]

In my book, I use a total of ten of Lancaster’s cartoons, each one representing the theme of a single chapter, or pair of chapters. I gained copyright permission from the Daily Express owners, yet strangely the institution could not offer me images of the originals themselves, even in its fee-based archive on the Web. Nor is the Lancaster Archive of any use. I relied on my own collection of cartoon books. For readers who may be interested in pursuing this historical side-alley more extensively, they may want to investigate the following.

The richest guide to the work of Lancaster is probably Cartoons and Coronets, introduced and selected by James Knox, and designed to coincide with the exhibition of the artist’s work at the Wallace Collection, 2008-2009. The Essential Osbert Lancaster, a 1998 compilation, selected and introduced by Edward Lucie-Smith, contains an excellent introduction to Lancaster’s life and offers a rich representation of his graphic and literary work. Lancaster provided an illuminating foreword to his 1961 compilation of pocket cartoons, from 1939 to that year, titled Signs of the Times, which offers a solid selection of his wartime sketches. The Penguin Osbert Lancaster (1964) is a thinner and unannotated selection, including excerpts from Homes, Sweet Homes and From Pillar to Post. Earlier, Penguin also offered a fine glimpse into his wartime work in Osbert Lancaster Cartoons (1945).

And then there are the (mainly) yearly selections, all of which (apart from the very rare first 1940 publication) I have in my possession. They are worth inspecting for Lancaster’s Forewords alone. Many of the captions appear very laboured now (compared, say with Marc Boxer’s Stringalongs), and the references are often recondite, but the cartoons still represent a fascinating social commentary. Here they are:

Pocket Cartoons (1940)

New Pocket Cartoons (1941)

Further Pocket Cartoons (1942)

More Pocket Cartoons (1943)

Assorted Sizes (1944)

More and More Productions (1948)

A Pocketful of Cartoons (1949)

Lady Littlehampton and Friends (1952)

Studies from the Life (1954)

Tableaux Vivants (1955)

Private Views (1956)

The Year of the Comet (1957)

Etudes (1958)

Mixed Notices (1963)

Graffiti (1964)

A Few Quick Tricks (1965)

Fasten Your Safety Belts (1966)

Temporary Diversions (1968)

Recorded Live (1970)

Meaningful Confrontation (1971)

Theatre in the Flat (1972)

Liquid Assets (1975)

The Social Contract (1977)

Ominous Cracks (1979)

My book also contains a few cartoons from Punch, likewise culled from my ‘Pick of Punch’ albums from the years 1940 to 1942. (Permission for use was also gained from the copyright-holder.) But, if you want to see any more, you will have to buy the book. You will also be treated to three Affinity Charts, which show the complex relationships that existed between various groups when war broke out, as well as a Biographical Index of almost three hundred persons who feature in the work. Enjoy!

The regular set of new Commonplace entries appears here.

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Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

If I had wanted to bake the cake for my seventieth birthday party myself, I would not have been allowed to do so. For reasons of liability insurance, a catered event at Troon properties does not allow privately created confections, the risk of food poisoning (and consequent lawsuits) being presumably too great. That was fine with me, and the manager and I agreed that ‘Baked With Love’ (who had provided the cake for my sixtieth birthday party) would be an excellent choice as authorized purveyor of dessert comestibles to the St. James gentry. I thus made my way into Southport that same afternoon, cheerily greeted the owner, and presented my request.

But I was to be rejected. She did not recall the order of 2006, and dourly told me that she could not meet my request, as she now only baked for ‘regular customers’. My first flippant thought (apart from the Pythonesque ‘this is a cake shop, isn’t it?’) was that you can’t get much more regular than every ten years, but as I made my way through the door (having been recommended by her to try a couple of alternatives), another thought occurred to me. Would she have been entitled to reject my request if I had said that I was planning a gay wedding? Or the annual solstitial celebrations of the Southport Atheists’ Society? Don’t small business proprietors like her have to be very careful these days?

Now my first instinct is that a family-owned small business – or even a larger one – should be free to develop and market its products as it thinks fit, with as little government intervention as possible. As an example, Neuwirth Motors, the Chrysler/Dodge/Jeep/RAM dealership in Wilmington, North Carolina, advertises its business every night on the local TV news programme with the relentless slogan: ‘Where God, Family and You come first!’  Apart from the fact that I am uncertain how one can have this unusual trinity all in first place, and I do not understand what role the Almighty has in the selling of motor vehicles, this does not worry me unduly. (I do not take the micro-aggression too personally.) All it means is that I am permanently discouraged from even considering Neuwirth as the supplier of my next means of private transport, as I would feel very uncomfortable walking into a dealership where I might get quizzed on my understanding of the Thirty-Nine Articles before I was let in to the showroom. But that is fine. There are many other reputable car dealers in Wilmington (although, sadly none for Lexus yet, which could be the subject of another whole blog), and I occasionally wonder how many prospective customers the dealership loses rather than gains through its evangelism, and whether the top honchos at Chrysler approve of  ̶  or even encourage  ̶  this marketing technique.

Yet that is surely not enough. I am too reminiscent of the landladies’ signs of ‘No Irish. No Blacks’ in the streets of London when I was growing up, and am sharply aware of the prejudices that have been exerted against minorities in this country – especially in the South, where I now live. It is clearly unacceptable for someone to be turned away from a business because of who he or she is (or appears to be), and I strongly deprecate such practices. But should a proprietor be forced to participate in a cultural undertaking to which he (or she) is strongly unsympathetic? If I am employed as a registrar of marriages, and gay unions are legal in the state where I work, my beliefs indisputably should not be allowed to interfere with my civic responsibility, and entitle me to refuse to administer such an event. But as a private entrepreneur, may I decline to ice a cake that celebrates such an occasion? Alternatively, irrespective of whether I am a member of the American Civil Liberties Union, should I be able to decline the order of a cake from a well-known Ku Klux Klan member? Or only when that person requests an objectionable but legal slogan on the cake itself? Or never?

Even the U.S. Supreme Court struggles over these matters, and how far the push for free speech can be extended into a legal resolution. It is perhaps regrettable that these disputes find themselves in legislative territory, as they could in many cases be avoided by good manners. By that, I don’t mean to suggest that racist speech can be hygienically cloaked in etiquette, but that sensible persons do not go out of their way to upset other people. I would not try to prove a point by wanting an irreligious message iced on a cake, and going round the bakers of Southport trying to find a willing purveyor. (I doubt whether I would find one.) And I know that if I paraded heathen bumper-stickers on my car around Brunswick County, I would be bound to get key-scratches on it before you could say ‘Billy Graham’. I was brought up more on a philosophy of ‘Live and let live’ (homespun proverbial), ‘It isn’t wrong, but we just don’t do it’ (the Reverend W. Awdry), and ‘There’s nowt so queer as folk’ (from my Wearside grandmother). (I should add to that the acquired and very un-English technique of confronting anti-social behavior the first time it occurs: this sometimes causes immediate friction, but offers the best chance of changing such behavior. I seriously regret the occasions when I have not done that, but have had no second thoughts about the situations when I have followed the principle.) But so much of today’s discourse is about rights and entitlements and grievances and identity and micro-aggressions and cultural appropriation and oppression and victimisation that contrary values are bound to provoke some stepping on other people’s toes.

A pluralistic society (not a ‘multi-cultural’ one) is supposed to be able to deal with such conflicts, recognizing that private beliefs may not be reconcilable but should be allowed to exist so long as they do not break the law (no polygamy, for example). As Isaiah Berlin wrote: “That is why pluralism is not relativism – the multiple values are objective, part of the essence of humanity rather than arbitrary creations of man’s subjective fancies.” But when private values invade the public space too boldly, tensions arise. And we see a lot of that these days. From the traditional right, for example, come jingoistic flag-waving, ‘right to life’ protests, demands for freedom to carry guns, pressures for prayer in schools, and calls for ‘creationism’ to appear in science text-books. And from the left, claims for broader abortion rights, demands for hunting bans, and appeals for strident minority entitlements, including special legal accommodations for all manner of tribes and ‘communities’, including unauthorised immigrants. All these complemented recently, of course, by the question of whether religious attire should be allowed to conceal one’s features in public spaces.

Some believe that these twin pressures can lead to authoritarianism. Isaiah Berlin again:   “ . . . some values clash: the ends pursued by human beings are all generated by our common nature, but their pursuit has to be to some degree controlled — liberty and the pursuit of happiness, I repeat, may not be fully compatible with each other, nor are liberty, equality, and fraternity. So we must weigh and measure, bargain, compromise, and prevent the crushing of one form of life by its rivals. . . .  One cannot have everything one wants — not only in practice, but even in theory. The denial of this, the search for a single, overarching ideal because it is the one and only true one for humanity, invariably leads to coercion.”  That the pressures inevitably express a dawnist yearning may be an exaggeration, but they certainly make that space in the middle more precarious. In a pluralist society, one should be able to engage in discourse with strangers without knowing their ‘identity’, or their ethnic origin, or their religious beliefs, or their political persuasions – or even their sexual personae and preferences, namely all the attributes that belong in the private sphere, and which should better be uncovered gradually as two persons begin to explore each other’s territory, without stereotypes or prejudice. But the gently regal ‘Have you come far?’ has more often been replaced by the brusquely interrogative ‘Where are you from?’ As I like to respond: ‘We are all out of Africa’.

(Note the following item from the New York Times of December 25: “Before 2003, believe me, my neighbor didn’t know what I was. No one could ask, are you Sunni? Or Shia? Or Muslim? Or Christian?” [Mosul Christian Haseeb Salaam])

The outcome was that I ordered my cake elsewhere, at the Side Street Bakery in downtown Southport. See http://www.downtownsouthport.org/side-street-bakery/.  And very good it was. I had my gâteau and ate it, too (well, not all of it). The party went off very well, I believe, and everybody seemed to have a good time. My playlist of ‘The 100 Best Soft Rock Songs, 1960-2000’, relayed by the magic of Bluetooth from my iPad to the sound system, was soon drowned out by the chatter of the guests. About fifty friends attended, but sadly none from the UK. My brother and his wife were regrettably not able to make it, but Sylvia, Julia and I were delighted that our son, James, travelled from California with his eldest daughter, Ashley, for the event. (His wife, Lien, had to stay home with the twins.) Here are Ashley at the Beach Club, she and James, and she and I at the party location, the Founder’s Club at St James.

I also set up, on the back of the menu, a topical quiz, which turned out to be far too hard. (If you are interested, see here.)

All in all, apart from certain political developments, a satisfactory year. I completed my doctoral thesis, and successfully defended it. I signed my book contract, and supplied the publisher with the typescript at the end of this month, so that the item should be available in time for the centenary of the Russian Revolution. I also learned – though not yet officially  ̶  that I had been elected a Vice-President of the Whitgiftian Association, the administrative body of my alma mater. Not an earth-shattering achievement, but one that gives me pleasure, as it reflects some measure of how I must have contributed to the success and reputation of the school. Unless, of course, it was all a hoax. This was, after all, the year of Bob Dylan’s Nobel Prize, and the appointment of Wonderwoman to be the ambassador for women’s empowerment to the United Nations. That prompts me to recall a classic Private Eye cover, from April 1980, just before we emigrated to the United States. It can be seen here: http://www.private-eye.co.uk/covers/cover-479. Doesn’t that take the cake? On that note I wish all my readers a very happy 2017.

P.S. For all the thousands of eager readers around the world who are pleading for the next installment of Sonia’s Radio  – be patient! I know the suspense is almost unbearable. As one reader wrote to me: ‘Sonia’s Radio makes The Old Curiosity Shop seem like press releases from the Department of Work and Pensions’. Quite so. The saga will be resumed next month.

As is customary, the Commonplace entries for the month appear here.

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Economists’ Follies

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At Ashley’s school in San Jose, CA. October 2016

(James, Alyssa, Ashley, Coldspur, Julia, Alexis & Sylvia)

In my Commonplace Book of 2008, I recorded the following nugget: “There is no greater nonsense than that uttered by a Nobel prize-winning economist in a mood of moral indignation”, attributing the apothegm to ‘Anon.’. But that was pure invention: I had actually come up with the saying myself, and indulged in a bit of subterfuge to give it a bit more authority. If the World watched, however, it said nothing.

I can’t recall what particular speech or article had prompted my expostulation, but the trend goes back a long way, with Karl Marx the obvious prototype, even though not all economists’ absurdities are expressed in a mood of moral indignation. John Maynard Keynes died before the Nobel Prize for Economics was instituted, but his contribution: “In the long run, we are all dead” is a good place to start. It was either an unimaginative truism, or else a colossal lie, in that, while he and all his Bloomsburyites would indeed be dead within a decade or two, the heritage that he and his acolytes would leave behind would dog future generations, and there is nothing easier for politicians to do than leave a legacy of debt to posterity. One notorious example who did catch my attention was the 1992 Nobelist, Gary Becker. He once wrote a piece for Business Week (I have it somewhere in my clippings files), which recommended that housewives  ̶  he may have called them ‘homemakers’  ̶  should be paid for the work they did. It must have been utterances like this that caused the New York Times to dub Becker ‘the most important social scientist of the past fifty years’, as it reflects a tragic confusion in the economist’s brain between Effort and Value. Moreover, who would check whether the housework was done properly? If the government were to pay housewives for their contributions, it would need a Bureau of Domestic Affairs to be set up, with supervisory rights, inspection capabilities, a system of fines, as well as all the trappings of equal opportunity hiring, overtime pay, health care benefits, proper vacations and pensions for all its employees. Who would be paying for all this? One might as well suggest that I should be paid to do the gardening or the yardwork.

And then there’s Paul Krugman, whose ‘progressive’ rants (yes, that’s how he classifies himself, as if everyone who disagrees with him is some regressive Neanderthal – not that I have any bias against the Neanderthal community, I hasten to add, as most of them were upstanding characters, with reliable opinions on such matters as free childcare and climate change, and actually passed on some of their genes to me), appear regularly in the New York Times. Krugman  ̶  the 2008 laureate  ̶  once famously said that the US National Debt (now standing at about $19 trillion), is not a major problem, ‘as we owe it to ourselves’. In which case, one might suggest: ‘why don’t we just write it off’? I am sure we wouldn’t mind. Krugman lives in a Keynesian haze of 1930, and is continually arguing against austerity, and recommending that now is the time to increase the debt even further by ‘investing’ (note the leftist economist’s language: government spending is always ‘investing’, not ‘spending’) in infrastructure and education in the belief that this will get the economy ‘moving’ again, and foster wealth-creation, not just consumption. Keynes in fact recommended increasing government spending during times of recession, and putting it away when times were good, when the rules of national and global economics were very different from what they are today. The policy of today’s leftist economists seems to be to encourage governments to spend a lot when times are good, and even more when times are bad, criticizing any restraints on spending as ‘the deficit fetish’ (see Labour MP Chris Mullin in the Spectator this month).

So next comes along Joseph E. Stiglitz, the 2001 Prize recipient.  Earlier this year he published “The Euro: How A Common Currency Threatens the Future of Europe”, which I think is an absolutely muddle-headed and irresponsible project. Not that he doesn’t bring an honest concern to bear on the perils of the euro, but a) sensible persons (including me) have been pointing out for ages that financial integration is impossible without political integration, so the overall message is nothing new; and b) it is not clear whether he is talking about the future of the European Union or Europe itself, or why the health of ‘Europe’ is tied to a shared currency. Worry not: the flyleaf informs us that the guru ‘dismantles the prevailing consensus around what ails Europe, demolishing the champions of austerity while offering a series of plans that can rescue the continent – and the world – from further devastation.’ Apart from the fact that, if there is a ‘consensus’ about what ails Europe, his would be a lone voice in the wilderness, one can only marvel at his hubris.

Stiglitz shows he does not understand what he calls ‘neoliberalism’, the belief in the efficacy of free markets, at all. He characterizes neoliberalism as ‘ideas about the efficiency and stability of free and unfettered markets’, and wants to bring the power of the regulator – him who knows best – to address the instability of markets. ‘With advances in economic science [sic], aren’t we supposed to understand better how to manage the economy?’, he inquires in his Preface, without specifying what he regards as ‘the economy’ – the total output of all the countries of Europe?   ̶  or why he claims economics is a ‘science’. And, if he is a Nobelist, shouldn’t he be answering such questions, not posing them rhetorically?  (This month, Janet Yellen, the chairwoman of the US Federal Reserve, expressed the following alarming concern: “The events of the past few years have revealed limits in economists’ understanding of the economy and suggest several important questions I hope the profession will try to answer.” From his recent see-sawing, Mark Carney, the governor of the Bank of England, appears to be similarly bewildered. Over to you, Joseph.)  But markets are inherently unstable: that is why they are markets. Joseph Schumpeter was the economist who introduced the notion of ‘creative destruction’ to explain how previously dominant players can be swept away by innovation and organizational sclerosis. Such ideas disturb econometric regulators like Stiglitz: they would prefer to have a clearly defined number of players in a market, allow them to make enough profit to keep their investors happy, but ensure that there should be enough competition for each to keep on its toes, but not so much that any individual company should actually fail. Yet such a set-up quickly drifts into crony capitalism, like the US health insurance ‘market’, where supporters of President Obama’s disastrous Affordable Care Act admit that the role of the regulators is to keep insurance companies solvent. Or politicians meet with ‘business leaders’ in the belief that they are discovering what ‘business’ wants; today’s ‘business leaders’ know very well that they do not represent the interests of a competitive market, but gladly go along with the pretence, and look for favours to protect them from the upstarts. Be very wary when journalists (or politicians) start talking about ‘the business community’: it proves they don’t get it.

What is more, Stiglitz demonises his intellectual foes. Even though their ideas have been ‘discredited’, ‘they are held with such conviction and power, immune to new contrary evidence, that these beliefs are rightly described as an ideology’. (p 10) Unlike his own ideas, of course, which are naturally ‘scientific’. “Modern scientific [sic!] economics has refuted the Hooverite economics I discussed in the last chapter.” (p 54)  “Doctrines and policies that were fashionable a quarter century ago are ill suited for the 21st century”, he continues (p 269), but he quickly adopts the Keynesian doctrines of eighty-five years ago, without distinguishing what is fashion and what is durable. (Keynes made some notoriously wrong predictions, especially about automation and leisure.) People who disagree with Stiglitz are madmen: “Today, except among a lunatic fringe, the question is not whether there should be government intervention but how and where the government should act, taking account of market imperfections.” (p 86: his italics) Yet it is clear that, while he denigrates the designers of the Euro for applying free-market economics to the reconstruction of Europe’s economies, categorising them as ‘market fundamentalists’ is utterly wrong. Those architects may have believed, as Stiglitz claims, that ‘if only the government would ensure that inflation was low and stable, markets would ensure growth and prosperity for all’, but such an opinion merely expresses a different variation on the corporatist notion that governments can actually control what entrepreneurialism occurs within its own borders. After all, as Stiglitz admits, the chief architect of the European Union and the euro was Jacques Delors, a French socialist.

The paradoxes and contradictions in Stiglitz’s account are many: I group the dominant examples as follows:

1) Globalisation: For someone who wrote “Globalization and its Discontents”, Stiglitz is remarkably coy about the phenomenon in this book. The topic merits only three entries in the index, much of which is dedicated to some waffle about ‘the global community’. For, if globalization is an unstoppable trend, it must require, in Stiglitz’s eyes, political integration to make it work, on the basis of the advice he gives to the European Union. “The experiences of the eurozone have one further important lesson for the rest of the world: be careful not to let economic integration outpace political integration.” (p 322) Are you listening, ‘the rest of the world’, whoever you are? Yet the idea of ‘World Government’ is as absurd as it was when H. G. Wells suggested it a century ago. By the same token, however, if Europe believes it can seclude itself from globalization effects by building a tight Customs Union, it must be whistling in the dark. Stiglitz never addresses this paradox. Nor does he recommend the alternative – a return to aurtarkic economies, which would be an unpalatable solution for someone who has to admit the benefits of trade. No: he resorts, as in his proffered ‘solution’ for the Euro crisis, to tinkering and regulation.

2) Austerity: On the other hand, Stiglitz has much to say about ‘austerity’. Unsurprisingly, he is against it, defined as ‘cutbacks in expenditure designed to lower the deficit.’ But he then goes on to make some astounding claims about it: “Austerity has always and everywhere had the contractionary effects observed in Europe: the greater the austerity, the greater the economic contraction.”  (p 18) “Almost as surprising as the Troika’s not learning from history – that such private and public austerity virtually always brings recession and depression – is that Europe’s leaders have not even learned from the experiences within Europe.” (p 312)  No evidence is brought forward to support such assertions. Is he not familiar with the austerity of the Labour Chancellor Stafford Cripps between 1947-1950, which was necessary in order to foster an export effort, and was seen as successful? Or Reynaud’s austerity policies in France in the 1930s, which led to economic recovery? Unfortunately, ‘austerity’ has come to imply meanness of politicians unwilling to hand out entitlements with funds they don’t have (the belief of those who concur with that definition being  that such spending will inexorably lead to wealth creation), rather than signifying a well-designed good-housekeeping move to protect the currency. Yes, austerity will not work as a policy for Greece: debts will have to be forgiven in some measure, since (as Keynes told us in The Economic Consequences of the Peace), people reduced to slavery will never create enough wealth to hand a portion over to others. But a large part of the problem there was government overspending and poor tax collection – a lack of ‘austerity’.

3: Confidence: Stiglitz is dismissive of any softer aspects of economic decision-making that may get in the way of his ‘scientific’ thinking. ‘Confidence theory’ is another of his bugbears. “The confidence theory dates back to Herbert Hoover and his secretary of the Treasury, Andrew Mellon, and it has become a staple among financiers. How this happens has never been explained. Out in the real world, the confidence theory has been repeatedly tested and failed. Paul Krugman has coined the term confidence fairy in response.” (p 95) Stiglitz never explains how anybody was able to conduct ‘scientific’ experiments on something as vague as ‘confidence’ in the real world. Moreover, Paul Krugman is a good mate of Stiglitz, and they clearly belong to a Mutual Admiration Society. “Joseph Stiglitz is an insanely great economist”, puffs Klugman on the back-cover. But then, there must be different types of confidence, since Stiglitz later states: “Indeed, Mario Draghi, head of the European Central Bank since 2011, may have saved the eurozone, with his famous speech that the ECB would do whatever it takes to preserve the euro – and in saying that, restoring confidence in the bonds of the countries under attack.”  (p 145) But ‘confidence theory’ never works! Shome mishtake shurely? Absent-mindeness? Or sophistry?

4: Productivity: Stiglitz seems as muddled by productivity as do most economic journalists. He appears to share the popular opinion that increased productivity is important, as it leads to greater prosperity. That was one of the goals of the Eurozone, after all, with its free flow of labour and capital. (p 70) But common-sense tells us normal people that productivity can be applied only to a certain task. If it takes fewer employees, and less capital, to make 1000 widgets, than it did before, the benefits will accrue to the owners of capital (and in turn the pension funds) rather than to the general working populace (as Piketty has pointed out). Only if the displaced employees can find alternative similarly well-paid employment will overall prosperity increase. Stiglitz, somewhat reluctantly, seems to accept this viewpoint, but gets there in a devious way: “In the eurozone, across-the-board average hours worked per worker have declined – implying an even worse performance.” (Would fewer hours worked not suggest better productivity? Britain is reported to have lower productivity – and lower wages – than most European rivals, but less unemployment. Is that good or bad?) And then: “But most of the advanced countries will have to restructure themselves away from manufacturing towards new sectors, like the more dynamic [= ‘unstable’?] service sectors.” (p 224) But what is required to make this happen? Yes, government intervention. The market does not perform this task very well, so what is needed is ‘concerted government effort’. By individual nations? By the EU? Stiglitz is not sure, as he knows such policies are largely precluded within the eurozone. And it is not clear whether everyone will fall over themselves trying to provide services to a declining manufacturing sector – especially when those services are moving overseas as well. What is to be done? What will people do to earn a decent living? That is the perennial problem.

5: Markets: Stiglitz does not understand how markets work. In reality, they are not ‘designed’, as he claims. They do not pretend to lend themselves to stability. Their members compete, and sometimes fail. Yet he severely criticises those who he claims do not understand his view of them, for example as in the following observation about distortions: “But, of course, in the ideology of market fundamentalism, markets do not create bubbles.” (p 25) What market fundamentalists would say is that markets will make corrections to bubbles in due course, so that overpriced (or underpriced) assets will return to their ‘correct’ value once information is made available, or emotions are constrained. Moreover, failure is an inevitable outcome of the dynamism of markets, and, in order to keep trust in those entities who behave properly, mismanagement and misdemeanours of those who break such trust must be seen to fail. (An enormous slush of capital – primarily Oriental – is currently looking for safe havens in Western countries, and is almost certain to create another bubble.) In addition, there is no ‘banking system’: banks are no different from any other corporation. A loose and dynamic range of institutions provides various financial services: they will lend as they see fit, and, if they miss an opportunity, a competitor should pick it up. The answer to the recent errors of Wells Fargo on the US, for instance, is not more regulation, but a massive exodus of its customers to other banks, and visible punishment for the executives who let it happen. Bailouts lead to moral hazard: investment is always a risk. Yet the Stiglitzes of this world close their eyes to reality, seeing a business environment where established companies should be entitled to survive, making enough profit to satisfy the pension funds and their investors, but not so much that they would appear greedy and exploitative, and should try to maintain ‘stability’ to contribute to ‘full employment’. ‘Stability’ is the watchword of Stiglitz and his kind (like the Chinese government trying to maintain the ‘stability’ of the stock-market), but it is impossible to achieve.

Enough already. There are some other oddball things, such as his dabbling with referenda when the going gets tough: “There could be a requirement, too, that, except when the economy is in recession, any increase in debt over a certain level be subject to a referendum within the country.” (p 243) Surely not! And I don’t claim to understand his remedy for fixing the euro without dismantling the eurozone itself, something that apparently involves carving it up into different sectors. But Stiglitz has really written a political pamphlet: the eurozone is for some reason important to him, as it is to those who think that only political integration will prevent a reoccurrence of the dreadful world wars that originated there. “A common currency is threatening the future of Europe. Muddling through will not work. And the European project is too important to be sacrificed on the cross of the euro. Europe – the world – deserves better.” (p 326) That belief in ‘the European project’, and the disdain for those who would question it, is what divided Britain in its recent referendum.

Yet I can’t help concluding that Stiglitz and his colleagues are much closer to the architects of the euro, and thus part of the problem, than he would ever admit. The belief that expert economists, with their mathematical models and their Nobel prizes, can somehow understand how an ‘economy’ works, and possess the expertise to fine-tune it for the benefit of everybody, and somehow regulate out of the way all the unpredictable missteps that will happen, is one of the famous modern illusions. When separate decisions are made by millions of individuals, and companies and firms devise any number of strategies for new technologies, new markets, some whimsical, some wise, to suppose that all such activity can be modeled and projected, in order to supply enough taxable revenue to fund any number of favourite programmes, is simply nonsense. It is as if such experts had never worked in the real world, managed a start-up, struggled to make a payroll, had to lay off good people, dealt with a sudden competitive threat, faced an embarrassing product recall or an employee rebellion, or wrestled to bring a new product successfully to market. Yes, of course, capitalism is flawed, some executives are absurdly overpaid, compensation committees are largely a joke, and corporate boards are frequently useless, risktakers should not be generously rewarded for playing recklessly with other peoples’ money (and being rewarded for failure as well as success), and the notion that ‘aligning executive goals with those of shareholders’ does not magically solve anything if the former get away like bandits just once because of cheap stock options, while the latter who wanted to be there for the long haul simply watch from afar . . .  When all is said and done, common prosperity still relies on private enterprise and profit.

Those who believe in expert management of ‘the economy’ simply have it all wrong. Except under war conditions, governments of liberal democracies cannot control the wealth-creation processes of their populace. They can spend money cautiously, knowing how unpredictable private wealth-creation is, and simply try to foster the conditions that encourage entrepreneurialism. Alternatively, they can put the currency at risk by running massive deficits, and they can plunge the place into the depths through socialism (see Venezuela), or abet a death spiral like that of Greece or Puerto Rico. But the one thing they should not do is carelessly engage Nobel Prize-winning economists to give them advice. As a postscript to the self-indulgent advice from Keynes that I quoted earlier, two prominent economists, Paul A. Volcker, former chairman of the Federal Reserve, and Peter G. Peterson, former secretary of commerce, jointly offered the following observation concerning the National Debt in the New York Times this month: “Take some advice from two observers who have been around for a while: The long term gets here before you know it.”  But neither of them has won the Nobel Prize.

P.S. A few hours after I completed this piece, I read a feature encompassing an interview with Stiglitz by the editor of Prospect, Tom Clark, in the October issue of the magazine. The article quoted Keynes’s biographer, Robert Skidelsky, as saying: ‘the likes of Stiglitz and Krugman have got their Nobel prizes, then given up developing the economic ideas, and drifted into radical political commentary instead.’ Too true. If Stiglitz is not a charlatan, he is hopelessly confused. I would not change a word of what I wrote.

P.P.S. After the publication of last month’s installment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, three items have come to light. A reader sent me some provocative statements concerning Sonia from Soviet archives, a 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage has inspired some fresh observations about Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System, and my attention has been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. I shall report more, and make some textual amendments, next month – probably in the omnibus version only, to keep the integrity of the monthly posts whole.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

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With Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley

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Doctor in the House

The London Eye

The London Eye

Towards the end of July, I made another visit to the United Kingdom – my first for two years. The primary purpose of the trip was to defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Buckingham, but I intended to complement the ordeal with some more research at the National Archives at Kew, and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as see some old friends, and make personal acquaintance with some contacts that I had established through email introductions. I arrived soon after the Brexit referendum took place, so post mortems on the result, and on the process, were high on the agendas of those I spent time with.

After landing at Heathrow, I took my rented car round to Croydon, where I met for lunch my first host, David Earl, and a few old friends at Croham Hurst Golf Club, and then went to stay with David and his wife, Mieke. Mieke, alas, had recently broken her hip in a fall in her native Netherlands, but she was still her irresistibly ebullient self. Unfortunately, during that initial weekend, my back started convulsing with agonizing spasms, with the result that I was lying immobile on the floor by Monday morning. This necessitated attention being diverted from Mieke’s condition to mine (a phenomenon she bore with good grace), and, after I had illicitly taken three of her (non-opioid) pain-killing pills with no effect, it was David who came to the rescue by acquiring some simple heat-pad strips. Their application had a truly miraculous effect within a matter of hours, thus enabling me to continue my journey to Battersea that afternoon. On the Saturday, I had also managed to drive out to Oxted to see another pair of very old friends, Peter and Pia Skeen (Peter having been my best man back in 1976). They generously fitted me in while waiting for their son, Torsten, and his family to arrive from Dubai that afternoon, and sensibly agreed that they would pay closer attention to their personal schedules when my next visit was impending.

I spent a few days with my brother Michael and his wife, Susanna, in Battersea. Susanna has been undergoing a very arduous treatment of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but if anyone has the indomitability and will to beat it, it is she. (She was scheduled for surgery the day I left the UK, August 9.) I was received with the utmost hospitality, and enjoyed some deep discussions on many topics with Michael, who has an excellent brain – especially on financial matters – and who in my opinion expresses more insight and common sense than several economists who have won Nobel Prizes. (You know who you are.) I encouraged Michael to write up his thoughts. Meanwhile, the days of that week were spent in the National Archives, at Kew, a drive of about thirty minutes away. I was able to inspect several files there – too late for my thesis, of course, but research does not stop for artificial timetables  ̶   on Guy Burgess, on the ISCOT programme to decipher Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1943, on GCHQ, on the Kuczynskis, and on miscellaneous other MI5 and Foreign Office material.

While at Kew, I was privileged to have a meeting with Chris Mumby, Head of Commercial Services at the Archives. Last year I had written to him, expressing my interest in the process of digitisation, and explaining how difficult it could be for a remote researcher to identify and inspect important files. Those that have been digitised are available for a very reasonable fee, but constitute only a small percentage of the total, while a request for the digitisation of any thick folder (for personal purposes, though with universal benefit) is penally expensive. I was also intrigued by the arrangement The National Archives had made with Taylor and Francis, a company that makes selective documents available to subscribers, and how that contract related to the Archives’ own initiatives. Finally, I had expressed my astonishment that everyone was allowed access to Kew for free – even foreign residents like me. The Archives bear certain statutory obligations, but the more successful they are in attracting visitors, the more their support costs go up, at a time of static budgets. Could the Archives perhaps not charge admission fees, and perhaps establish a tax-free charity that could allow well-wishers to make donations to alleviate operating costs? I found a very professional and attentive ear in Mr. Mumby, and have every sympathy with him and his colleagues in their challenges. Enough said, for now.

I also met for dinner an old friend, and a new acquaintance. I have been collaborating with the screenwriter Grant Eustace (see http://www.granteustace.co.uk/) , with whom I used to play rugby at the Old Whitgiftians. He has produced a script based on aspects of my thesis, and I was pleased to meet him again, as well as his charming wife, Janie, at a restaurant in Kew, where we could exchange laments about dealing with the worlds of publishing and of other media. (A Hollywood producer had chanced upon my writings on ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but regrettably nothing came of it.) The next evening, I went up to Westminster to meet Andrew Lownie (see http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/) , who published a very well-received biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, last year. It was Andrew who introduced me to a vital document, released to the National Archives last September, which essentially proved my emerging hypothesis about Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow in 1940. Andrew and I have exchanged insights and findings on Burgess and his murky dealings with such as Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Ball, and it was productive to sit down face-to-face at last. I had to express some disappointment: when his book was published last year, I sent him a comprehensive list of observations and corrigenda. This summer, the work was re-issued as a paperback, but, while it contained some corrections, and some expanded Notes, no indication was given that the text had been changed. Moreover, while some of my emendations had been incorporated, rather sloppily some had been overlooked, and the author had not added my name in the list of Acknowledgments. Andrew has apologised. He has had his own struggles with the publisher. And we remain on good terms.

On Saturday, Michael, Susanna and I took a trip out to Chiswick Park, off the A4, one of those extraordinary lungs within Greater London’s boundaries. Unfortunately, Chiswick House itself, ‘one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England’ was closed on the Saturday, but we were able to take a leisurely stroll around the gardens.

Chiswick House

Chiswick House

Several renowned names are connected with the House: as the website (http://www.chgt.org.uk/) declares, somewhat enigmatically: “Leader of fashion and political activist for the Whig party, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire referred to her home at Chiswick House as ‘my earthly paradise’. Her parties and political breakfasts at Chiswick were renowned and notable guests included the politician Charles James Fox who later died in the Bed Chamber in 1806.” We are left to guess what he was up to earlier – before breakfast, presumably. I present a photograph of Michael and Susanna at the fountain, for the record.

Michael & Susanna

Michael & Susanna

The next day, I made my way to Oxford, where I would stay at the Holiday Inn, within ‘Park and Ride’ access to the town centre. Most of Monday and Tuesday were spent in the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, where I had arranged to study the files of Sir Patrick Reilly and Sir Joseph Ball, as well as letters that Sir Rudolf Peierls, the sponsor of, and collaborator with, the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, had written to various scientists during the course of Fuchs’s arrest and conviction. All three sources were as revealing because of what they did not say as much as for what was explicit. I also was shown round the new library  by Jessica Brown of the Development Office, and specifically led to the carrell that I had donated a year or two back .

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Roof of the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The Carrell at the Weston Library

The fixture is a slightly ostentatious but genuine gesture of appreciation for how Oxford has helped in my career: I do not believe I recognised it at the time, but Harold Macmillan’s 1975 observation that an Oxford education should teach you to detect whenever someone is telling you obvious rot (a dictum that he claimed he learned from the philosopher John Alexander Smith) has remained with me ever since, and has stood me in good stead in my life.

My supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, lives in Woodstock, just north of Oxford, and he kindly invited me for cocktails on the Monday, so I was pleased to see him again, and meet his charming wife, Linda. After more research on Tuesday morning, I repaired to my old college, Christ Church (known as ‘the House’) where Simon Offen, of the Development and Alumni office, generously entertained me to lunch, after which Cristina Neagu, the Keeper of the Special Collections in the Christ Church Library, showed me a fascinating array of old texts that have only recently been closely examined.  She also took me into the tower of the library, where an extraordinary camera (known, I think, as the ‘Graz’ machine) allows delicate documents to be photographed quickly, safely, and accurately, thus contributing to a series of world-wide collaborative projects after the images are passed to the Bodleian for publication (see http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/digital-library). I also bumped into the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy, who gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which we discussed, among other things, our shared lack of genealogical propinquity to the Dukes of Northumberland. That evening, I dined alone at The Trout at Godstow, only a few minutes away from the Holiday Inn, which has always been one of my favourite hostelries ever since I first went there in 1966. And the following morning I made my way to Buckingham for my viva.

I was honoured to have Sir Anthony Seldon and Professor Christopher Coker as my internal and external examiners, respectively. Moreover, I was gratified, immediately on entering the examination room, to be told that my thesis had been accepted – without any recommendations for changes. While this left the notion of the ‘defence’ of my thesis hanging in the air, it was the best kind of surprise. Thus “Confronting Stalin’s ‘Elite Force’: MI5’s Handling of Communist Subversion, 1939-1941” is now in the record books, although I have requested a suspension of promulgation of the text pending my attempts to convert it into a book. I enjoyed some interesting exchanges with my examiners, but the whole process was over in about three-quarters of an hour. At the end, knowing that Sir Anthony’s first teaching assignment had been at Whitgift School in 1983, I asked him whether he had encountered my father, Freddie, who, although having retired by then, was still active as historian and archivist, and would have taken a very strong interest in new members of staff. ‘F.H.G. Percy!’, he exclaimed. ‘That great man! (or words to that effect)’. He had never connected my name to his. [Late in August, I received a very generous note from Sir Anthony, which ran: ‘Many congratulations on an excellent Ph.D., and in memory of your distinguished and great father.’]

Then back to Battersea, to celebrate with champagne. The next morning I was off to the House of Lords, as Lord and Lady Young of Cookham had kindly invited me on a tour of the Houses, and to lunch. Aurelia, Lady Young has been a close friend of Professor Glees since childhood, and the Professor had introduced me to her (via email), as he believed I might have some insights into the history of her father, the Croatian sculptor, Oscar Nemon, based on my researches into the treatment by MI5 and the Home Office of émigré Jews in the late 1930s. Diligent readers may recall my reference to this wonderful lady in an earlier piece, to be found at http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/some-reflections-on-the-north-downs.

Lady Young

Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

Professor Glees & Lady Young

I was delighted to see the several busts crafted by her father in the Houses of Parliament: for some reason, I had never toured the place (was it not open to the public when I was growing up?), and it was very enjoyable to sit on the terrace with the London Eye in view. Lord Young, who has had a distinguished career in politics, is now a whip in the House of Lords. He was also at Christ Church, graduating shortly before I matriculated, so the photograph here probably represents our sharing memories of Christ Church personalities rather than his Lordship’s seeking my opinions on the security implications of Brexit.

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

Lord Young and Dr. Percy

The next day, I drove down to Dorset, to stay with another couple of old friends, Brian Wizard and his delightful wife, Sue, who own a very attractive cottage (actually, joined cottages) in Tarrant Monkton. Brian and I worked together in IT back in the 1970s, so we share a lot of memories of the software business, its heroes and its villains. Like me, Brian is very impatient of bureaucratic bumbling and obfuscation, and likes to write letters with a view to dismantling evasiveness and irresponsibility, so I was pleased to catch up with his latest exploits. The Wizards’ property rolls right down to, and then bridges, the River Tarrant, and as the photographs show, is a beautiful example of the art of country gardening.

Hotspur

Hotspur

Brian Wizard

Brian Wizard

Observant watchers may notice that Brian (notwithstanding his other excellent attributes) is a little challenged in the stature department: this feature, however, does enable him to walk around his cottage without stooping, while I am always in danger of bumping my head. I have thus asked him to consider raising the roof for my next visit. He and Sue regaled me with a very generous dinner in compensation for my discomfort.

On Saturday, onwards to Stow-on-the-Wold, a journey that reminded me that the British road system is quite good so long as you are travelling on radials from London. Still, it was a glorious drive through Cranborne Chase, followed by a rather boring patch until I arrived in the Cotswolds. There I was to stay a couple of nights with Derek and Maggie Taylor, Derek being a contemporary of mine at Christ Church, and the recent author of a couple of books (see www.derekjtaylorbooks.com ), about whom I have written on this blog. The Taylors had arranged a dinner where I was to meet an acquaintance whom I had not seen for almost fifty years – another House man, Nigel Robbins, who lives down the road in Cirencester with his wife, Stephanie. The next day, the three of us drove out to Snowshill Manor, an exquisitely situated house that was once owned by the eccentric collector Charles Wade.

From Snowshill Manor

From Snowshill Manor

In the evening we dined at the ‘Hare’ in Milton-under-Wychwood. There is little doubt in my mind that, if I ever returned to live in the UK, it would be somewhere in the Cotswolds. But English winters, after fifteen years in North Carolina? No, thank you.

So what about Brexit? Well, at my age, one tends to socialise with people whose views tend to echo one’s own, but I listened to – and read – a variety of opinions. First, some paradoxes. It seems bewildering to me that the European Union has been represented – both by some Remainers as well as by certain Leavers – as an exemplar of free-market global capitalism. (In his new book ,‘The Euro’, Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly makes the astonishing assertion that the problems of the euro are attributable to the ‘neoliberal ideology’ of its designers). The European Union is in fact a closed club, a customs union, with expensive barriers to entry, and the use of the euro imposes a number of stringent rules.  Some pro-EU observers assert that the nation-state is irrelevant in an era of globalisation, but, by the same token, the attempts of the Union’s regulators to maintain economic ‘stability’ will be as futile as those of an individual country. I also found it extraordinary how many Remainers drew attention to the loss in funding that would occur with Brexit, as if the Union were a rich uncle, and other countries were simply panting to hand over their hard-earned surpluses to subsidise British social projects. I was astonished at how many of the chattering classes, intellectuals, artists and luvvies, saw Brexit as the end of civilization, as if all cultural ties and links to Europe (of which Britain would still be a member) would have to be sundered if Article 50 were to be invoked. I was intrigued that, on the troublesome immigration issue, the more attractive business climate, the cultural pluralism, and the native language of Britain all conspire to make Britain a more attractive destination for entrepreneurial young persons. (I cannot see English plumbers looking for work in Gdansk or Bucharest.) I was appalled at the lack of preparation by David Cameron’s administration for the outcome of an ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum, something he should explicitly have considered even though he regarded ‘Remain’ as a foregone conclusion. My impression of Cameron, incidentally, was not improved by reading Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on the ex-Prime Minister, the paperback version of which came out shortly before I arrived.

Somewhat emotionally, I believe that it was timely and courageous to attempt an exit now, rather than later. (“Very bold, Prime Minister”, as Sir Humphrey would have subtly admonished.)  If the answer to the Union’s challenges is more integration, not less, then getting out as soon as possible is the right response. Even the Union’s stoutest defenders now recognize that the Euro is mortally wounded, and any efforts by the Eurocrats to make exit highly painful and onerous, and scare off any other pretenders, will only confirm how unaccountable and unresponsive the European council and parliament are – what has been called ‘the democratic deficit’. With a belief that budgets and political programmes are best exercised at the national level, and that part of our British democratic process has been [sic: can this continue with the implosion of the Labour Party?] ‘throwing this lot out and letting the others have a chance’ (would there ever be an official opposition in Brussels that was for decelerating the ‘European Project’?), I suspect something messy, but not nearly as dire or as wonderful as either camp would claim, will emerge. As for taking back control of legislation, however, I must confess to some doubts whether the British civil servants and parliament are any better than their EU counterparts, if the recent laws on hate-crimes are any indication. James Alexander Smith, we need you now. (I am more interested in Brexit than in the appalling saga of the US presidential elections, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed.)

Monday afternoon saw me spending an enjoyable couple of hours in Burford, where, among other things, I bought a copy of Clive James’s elegiac Sentenced to Life, and then I made my way to a hotel near Heathrow, so that I could return my rental car in good time the next morning. In the exit-lounge, as I waited to board, a young man offered me a seat, which I graciously declined. Have I suddenly become that old? It seems only a short while ago that I was offering my seat to the elderly. I shall be seventy in December: maybe everything up until this point has been achievement, and now begins the slow trudge downhill. But enough of gloomy thoughts: too much Clive James, perhaps. Better to relax on the plane  ̶  a little sparkling wine, and keep decline at bay by tackling the Times’s Saturday crosswords. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself for what I should do if an emergency message came on the intercom: ‘Is there a doctor on board?’, planning to rush over to deliver a soothing lecture on Isaiah Berlin and Guy Burgess to the afflicted passenger, but, mercifully for all, no call came. Instead I sank back to watch a Classic Movie – not ‘Doctor in the House’, but, from the same era, a piece of frothy nonsense titled ‘Funny Face’ (1957), which I had seen for the first and only time soon after it came out. It was redeemed, of course, by the bewitching Audrey Hepburn. I recalled several of the scenes very clearly, and the show put me into a nostalgic mood. ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan’, and, after an unnecessarily long layover in Charlotte, I was overjoyed to see my ever-lovely wife and daughter waiting at Wilmington Airport to drive me home to Southport.

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)

A very rewarding two-and-a-half weeks.

P.S. Susanna’s operation went well. She returned home to Battersea on August 14, and is recovering steadily, despite considerable discomfort and pain.

P.P.S. I have just spent several hours processing about 5,000 responses to my posts that had accumulated on my website since the beginning of 2015, and which I had carelessly ignored. This was no easy task: I had to inspect every individual response. Most were software-generated. The system did present them in batches of twenty, each of which I could mark, and then ‘block-process’ as spam, but some of the posts were hundreds of lines long, containing  dummy and real urls, requiring dozens of clicks to process each. Probably only 1% were genuine posts, with most of the rest coming from vendors of cheap merchandise, or people trying to sell me web optimisation services, and some bewilderingly not appearing to have any purpose at all. But when a responder shows his enthusiasm for ‘The Undercover Egghead’ by titling his response ‘Cheap Ray-Bans’, or another tells me how ‘utterly beneficial’  he found my piece on ‘Richie Benaud, My Part in His Success’ for his ‘True Religion Outlet’ posting, the haphazardness and futility of the exercise became clear. Presumably their originators believed that their posts would appear on Search engines without my having to ‘approve’ them. If I did miss, because of the purge, a sincerely targeted comment from any of my readers, I apologise. And if I had had the sense to mark each item of spam as such as soon as it arrived, I might have avoided the problem.

August’s Commonplace entries appear here. (August 31, 2016)

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