Category Archives: Science

Special Bulletin: The Letter from Geneva

This segment really belongs as an appendix to ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but I deemed it to be of such startling importance that I decided to devote a Special Bulletin to it. It concerns a letter sent from Geneva to Len Beurton, the husband of Ursula, agent Sonia, in Kidlington, Oxfordshire, in March 1943, one that provokes an entire re-evaluation of the Beurtons’ relationship with the authorities. The letter was intercepted by the U.K. censorship before being mailed to the address to which Beurton had moved in August 1942, to be reunited with his wife, and it appears in one of the Kuczynski files at the National Archives, KV 6/41.

KV 6/41 must be one of the richest and most provocative files at Kew. Its activity record shows that it was a very frequently inspected folder during the 1980s and early 1990s. A book could be written on it alone, as it offers tantalising glimpses of other worlds, other discussions, other communications, and other meetings, the proceedings or records of which have been withheld or destroyed. Thus this analysis is highly exploratory, and reflects more my thinking as it has evolved rather than a tidy and complete item of research. I do not have clear answers to many of the riddles it offers, and am seeking help from my readers.

A recap may be useful for the occasional coldspur reader. Len Beurton was a veteran of the International Brigades in Spain, and had been recruited by his friend Alexander Foote to join the Soviet espionage team in Switzerland in early 1939, and train as a wireless operator under Ursula Hamburger (as she then was), née Kuczynski. With her Swiss visa soon to expire, Sonia was ordered, early in 1940, to travel to the UK, but needed a British spouse in order to gain a UK passport. Foote initially responded to the call, but then evaded it, on the grounds that he had a pregnant girl-friend in Spain, and recommended Beurton instead, who accepted the role with enthusiasm. Foote then provided perjurious evidence of Sonia’s husband’s infidelity in order for the pair to be married. Thereafter, SIS in Switzerland helped to arrange Sonia’s passage, via France, Spain, and Portugal, to England, where she installed herself and two children in Oxford at the end of January 1941. Len had not been able to join her at first, since his enlistment in Spain disqualified him from being given a visa to pass through France, Spain, and Portugal. After pleas from Sonia to the MP Eleanor Rathbone, and with the intervention of the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, SIS’s representatives in Geneva supported the project to bring him home. They provided him with a false identity, and Len was eventually able to leave the country, arriving back in the UK in late July 1942. Almost immediately, he and Sonia moved from their rented bungalow in Kidlington to a cottage attached to the house of Neville and Cissie Laski, in Summertown, Oxford, where Sonia rather flamboyantly installed her wireless set. Len, meanwhile, was thought to be spending time at the old address, and MI5’s F Division requested that mail sent to Len (but not Sonia) at Kidlington be intercepted. This letter is one of only two addressed to Beurton on file.

The Geneva Letter

An image of the document appears here:

The Letter from Geneva

[Do not be concerned about the readability of the document. I present it here to show that it exists, and to reveal one or two important aspects of it.]

First of all, the text:

“My dear Burton,

I have heard nothing from you since your arrival in the United Kingdom. I hope this only means that you are absorbed in work which so interests you that you have little time for private correspondence. Communication with U.K. has steadily deteriorated since your departure and I have no doubt that the day is not far off when only the air will be available!

            W. is as friendly and inscrutable as ever. Recently he became the proud father of a second daughter whom we expect to meet next week. He asks frequently of you and wonders where you have gone to earth.

            The general aspect of life here has changed very little since you left except that prices have steadily risen to ruinous heights.

            [ ‘paragraph missing’ *  ]

            Let us hear from you some time,

                        Your sincerely, V. C. Farrell”

* British Postal Censorship

“The British Examiner is not responsible for the mutilation of this letter.”

An inspection of the envelope indicates that the latter passed through German territory: several stamps with the swastika appear on the left side, with the slogan ‘Geöffnet’ [opened] between them. (The challenges of delivering airmail from Switzerland when the country was surrounded by Axis forces had not occurred to me. I found a link to the potentially very useful following article: “Zeigler, Robert (2008): “The Impact of World War II on Airmail Routes from Switzerland to Foreign Countries, 1939-1945” in the National Postal Museum at the Smithsonian, but the item has disappeared.) What is not clear is whether the letter was automatically forwarded to Summertown (if instructions for forwarding mail were still extant and valid), or whether it was simply delivered to the address at Kidlington, under the assumption that Len Beurton still lived there. An earlier item on file (at 47B) offers a list of intercepted mail from September 19 to October 10, 1942, including an item redirected from Kidlington, sent from Epping, in Essex, but there is no other record of interception details.

The story of the interception requests is a puzzle in its own right. The record is predictably incomplete, but the first request, for all correspondence sent to Avenue Cottage, Summertown, is made by JHM of F2A on September 15, for a period of two weeks. [This ‘JHM’ is probably the renowned punctilious solicitor, J. H. Marriott. Marriott was reportedly working in B1A as Secretary of the XX Committee by this time, but he was probably performing double-duty. His name appears in the Beurton file after the war, when he returned to F Division for a while.]  F2A was responsible for ‘Policy activities of C.P.G.B. in UK’, under John Curry’s ‘Communism and Left-Wing Movements’ Division. D. I. Vesey (B4A), working for ‘Suspected Cases of Espionage in UK’, under Major Whyte in Dick White’s ‘Espionage’ B Division, had referred to Beurton’s residence in Kidlington up until September 9, at which time he was seeking an interview with Beurton, which occurred on September 18. (His belated report was not submitted until October 20: the delay seems unnatural and indolent.) JHM’s analysis of the mail received from September 19 until October 10 is on file. It is a fascinating document, but there is no indication that any of the correspondents were followed up.

One entry, concerning the letter from Epping, Essex, introduced above, has been redirected from 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington, strongly indicating that the Beurtons had cleared out and informed the Post Office of their move. Another, astonishingly, is from Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, a very important figure in the war, accustomed to accompanying Eden and Churchill around the globe, addressed to ‘L. C. Beurton, Esq.’. Cadogan had also been instrumental in authorizing Beurton’s liberation from Switzerland. Was he perhaps asking whether his protégé had settled in satisfactorily? It seems very provocative for Cadogan to be writing, in his own hand, but JHM’s entry incontrovertibly records ‘envelope signed – A. CADOGAN’. A few letters are described as having been sent from Kidlington, but only one is identified – Dr. Duncan, at Exeter House. Is that a clue? It would have been highly negligent for these correspondents not to be followed up. The lead from Epping might have been very fruitful: Alexander Foote was later to tell his interrogators in MI5 that Sonia visited her contact in Epping once a month.

And then, on November 30, Hugh Shillito, F2B/C, ‘Comintern Activities General and Communist Refugees’ & ‘Russian Intelligence’, inquires of the G.P.O whether there is a telephone at 145 Oxford Road, stating that Beurton has ‘gone to live there’, as if Beurton had left the new family nook in Summertown to return to the premises north of Oxford. The following day, Shillito makes a request to Colonel Allan of the G.P.O. for a Home Office Warrant to check all of Len Beurton’s mail (but not his wife’s). Nothing had been submitted by December 19 (‘unremunerative’, in Shillito’s words), and the first item is the Geneva letter. But Shillito presumably sat next to JHM, and exchanged ideas and insights with him and with Vesey. How could Shillito have possibly been mistaken in thinking that Len was spending time at the address in Kidlington?

The Sender of the Letter

Who was the sender of this remarkable letter? The signature is somewhat inscrutable, but a helpful note visible at the side states: ‘V. C. Farrell. P.C.O., Geneva’, an annotation that was surely made much later. And there lies the real drama of the correspondence. For ‘P.C.O’ stands for ‘Passport Control Officer’, and that role was adopted by SIS as the (supposedly) undercover job title for SIS representatives in consulates and embassies abroad. Yet Victor Farrell was more than that. While his name does not appear in Keith Jeffery’s authorised history of SIS, Jeffery merely stating that ‘in September 1939, SIS had a station in Geneva, headed by a Passport Control Officer, with an assistant and a wireless operator’, Nigel West, in MI6, describes him in the following terms:

“One important figure already in Geneva at this time [June 1940] was Victor Farrell, an experienced SIS officer who had previously served in Budapest and had then replaced Kenneth Benton in Vienna in 1938. Farrell had been appointed to head the Geneva Station in place of Pearson, and had succeed in recruiting an extremely valuable local source of German intelligence. Farrell’s agent was Rachel Dübendorfer, a middle-aged Polish Jewess who was then working in the League of Nations’ International Labour Office as a secretary and translator.” (p 202). West also writes (p 152) that Menzies had appointed Farrell as PCO in Geneva in February 1940.

In Colonel Z, their biography of Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z network within SIS, (which work needs to be considered somewhat circumspectly), Anthony Read and David Fisher supply the information that Farrell had been Professor of English at the St Cyr military academy in France, and inform us that Farrell had been promoted to consul at the beginning of 1941, taking over from Frederick Vanden Heuvel. The authors also describe how the officers in Switzerland felt marooned from the outside world:

“The only way out for couriers, escapers or anyone else was the hazardous land route through southern France to Spain, using all the cloak-and-dagger paraphernalia of disguises, false names and forged papers. Radio sets were still in short supply, and in any case the Swiss, ever fearful for their precious neutrality, did not welcome the transmission of secret information which might be intercepted by the Germans and used as an excuse for invasion. The SIS therefore had only one available radio transmitter, located in Victor Farrell’s office in Geneva. This was used for urgent communications; anything less vital was sent as telegrams through the Swiss Post Office over the normal telegraph lines, enciphered by the one-time pad method  . . .” (p 239)

“Sissy [Dübendorfer] was a communist, and merged her network with Radó’s, and her communications were channelled through Allan [Alexander] Foote. Yet all the time, she was being paid by Victor Farrell.” (p 247) [This refers to the famous communist Rote Drei network in Switzerland. Alexander Radó was its leader, Alexander Foote its main wireless operator. The network was also called the Lucy Ring, after its reputed main informant, Rudolf Rössler, who was based in Lucerne.]

“All that was required of her [Sissy Dübendorfer] was that she should send the material given her by Farrell to Rössler via Schneider for evaluation, and then pass Rössler’s reports to Radó. But in order to maintain the camouflage, Dansey also used the various other routes to Rössler and Radó: Sedlacek, Foote, Pünter, and the official Swiss and British intelligence organizations all played their parts in his master plan.” (p 253)

In their companion book, Operation Lucy, Read and Fisher further describe Farrell’s valuable role: “He dealt with escaping prisoners, organising routes through southern France and across the Pyrenees into Spain, then Portugal and so to Britain, besides liaising with the French and with other agents working in the ILO and similar institutions in Geneva, on behalf of the SIS. He also looked after the smuggling of arms and strategic materials such as industrial diamonds. Farrell had his own radio transmitter/receiver, through which he could contact both Berne and London.” (p 111) M. R. D. Foote’s and J. M. Langley’s book titled MI9: Escape and Evasion 1939-1945 confirms that ‘Victor’ was the (unimaginative) cryptonym of the contact officer in Geneva for escaping prisoners-of-war and SOE agents.

SIS in Switzerland

It is very difficult trying to establish a clear chronology of the movements of the SIS officers in Switzerland during World War II. The chief was apparently Frederick Vanden Heuvel, who, according to West, was flown out to Berne by Menzies (or Dansey) at the beginning of 1940 to become the case officer of the valuable informant Madame Symanska. Yet, continues West, Vanden Heuvel had to decamp to Geneva in June 1940 in the face of a possible German invasion (p 202), before returning to Berne a month or two later. Jeffery, on the other hand, writes (p 507): “For most of the Second World War the main representative in Switzerland was Frederick ‘Fanny’ Vanden Heuvel, based in Geneva”. On page 381, Jeffery refers to some twenty-five reports that were sent from Geneva between August 1940 and December 1942, channeled through Symanska, with commentary apparently supplied by Vanden Heuvel. (How these reports were sent is not indicated, but the implication is by cable or by courier. If anything was sent by wireless, it would have had to go via Geneva, but that did not mean that Vanden Heuvel worked there.)

Yet Read and Fisher have Vanden Heuvel sent out by Claude Dansey to Zürich (i.e. not Berne) in February 1940, working out of offices at 16 Bahnhofstrasse, and being appointed vice-consul in March 1940, and then consul on May 31 (p 231 & p 238). Soon afterwards, he moved his base to French-speaking Geneva, leaving Eric Grant Cable in charge, and became Consul in Geneva until the beginning of 1941. At that time he passed on the title to Farrell, and moved, nominally to take on the ‘unlikely role of assistant press attaché in Berne’, but actually to deal with Symanska in that city. That makes more sense, in view of the absence of Farrell’s name in the correspondence concerning Sonia’s passport application in early 1940. In November 1940, when negotiations were undertaken over adding Sonia’s children to her passport, a single unencrypted cable from Geneva (‘PRODROME’) can be found in the archive, but no official’s name appears on it. In the Kuczynski archive at Kew, Len Beurton attests to Farrell’s being the consular officer (‘Geneva Consulate-general’) who helped him acquire a passport under a false name in early 1942. Beurton claimed that ‘after becoming friendly with a member of the British Passport Office in Geneva, to whom he claims he gave useful information’, he was given a passport under a false name. (Document 47A in KV 6/41 confirms that Farrell, as PCO in Geneva, enabled Beurton to get his passport.)

A clue to the ‘useful information’ that Beurton had provided to Farrell appears in another (anonymous) document on file, which reports that, when in Switzerland, Beurton had been in touch with a Chinese journalist accredited to the League of Nations, one L. T. Wang. A contact with a mysterious General Kwei is posited, but the contact appears to have more relevant implications. For Sonia herself, in Sonya’s Report, describes Wang in exactly the same terms, but adds the following: “He was married to a Dutch woman. General von Falkenhausen, a former military adviser of Chiang Kai-Shek who became High Commander in Belgium during the Nazi occupation, often stayed in Switzerland and was well acquainted with Wang and his wife. Through Wang, Len occasionally learnt something of the General’s opinions and comments.”

This is highly significant, for von Falkenhausen was later known to be a fierce critic of Hitler, and was lucky to escape execution after the failed assassination attempt of 1944. Allen Dulles was sent to Switzerland in November 1942 precisely to assess the level of opposition to Hitler, and Stalin would remain highly suspicious of any peace initiatives between the western Allies and the Nazis that took place behind his back. The fact that Beurton had first-hand information about a potential anti-Hitler movement (which, of course, he continued vigorously to pass on to Moscow) would mean that he had been an extremely valuable asset for SIS, who would have wanted to keep him in place. The fact that von Falkenhausen was known to be a realistic anti-Hitler conspirator at this time has been revealed by Dennis Wheatley, who, in his memoir of his work at the London Controlling Section (The Deception Planners) recalls how the Political Warfare Executive in April 1943 floated an idea for propaganda centred on an anti-Hitler figure for whom von Falkenhausen would be a prominent supporter.

The claim that Vanden Heuvel, and then Farrell, acted as consuls in Geneva, does raise some questions, however. What is certain is that the official working on behalf of His Majesty’s Consul at the time of Sonia’s passport application, in March 1940, was one H. B. Livingston. His stamped name, with ‘SGD’ [‘signed’] appearing next to it, appears above the rubric ‘His Majesty’s Consul’. If, as the authors mentioned above claim, Vanden Heuvel and Farrell occupied that office, Livingston must have been a junior member of staff, and the narratives would suggest that both Vanden Heuvel and Farrell distanced themselves from the details of the process. Thus it is impossible to confirm confidently either Read’s and Fisher’s claim of Farrell’s appointment in early 1941 or West’s assertion that Farrell was the immediate successor to the disgraced Pearson in February 1940. A synthesis of the various accounts would suggest that Farrell was an assistant to Vanden Heuvel, maybe with vice-consular status, in Geneva in 1940, before being promoted in early 1941. (This fact has significance when assessing Farrell’s exposure to Sonia’s various arrangements.)

Moreover, Livingston was a permanent fixture. On June 3, 1942, after the intervention of Sir Alexander Cadogan, he submitted a memorandum to Sir Anthony Eden, Foreign Office Minister, explaining his failure in being unable to help Mr Beurton. Yet, on July 20, Livingston is able to inform Sir Anthony that Beurton left Geneva on July 11, rather surprisingly informing his boss only now that Beurton had been issued a new passport under the name of John William Miller on March 9. It doesn’t sound like a civil servant completely in charge of the case: the message lacks authority, and his tone is very subservient. (What is extraordinary is the fact that Livingston sent the message as a package, enclosing Beurton’s old passport, and it was received at the Foreign Office as early as August 5. ‘John Miller’, moreover, was a cryptonym used by the circle of Alexander Foote (‘Jim’) to refer to Beurton.)

The Implications of the Letter

Len Beurton

In any case, the event of the letter is pretty remarkable. A high-up in the Secret Intelligence Service is sending a plaintext letter to a recognised communist who has married a wireless operator known to be a Soviet agent, in the knowledge that the letter will be opened and inspected by a) the Swiss authorities, b) the German censors, c) British Censorship, and d) (probably) MI5, before the recipient reads it. For some reason, the writer gets his addressee’s name wrong, calling him ‘Charles Burton’ on the envelope, when his name is really ‘Leonard Charles Beurton’. But the introduction is ‘My dear Burton’, an astonishingly intimate parlance for an exchange between a consul and a lowly peon. One would expect ‘Dear Mr Burton’ in a formal letter, and ‘Dear Charles’ if the two were close friends, even ‘Dear Burton’, if they had been at school together, but not bosom buddies *. ‘My dear Burton’ suggests a close colleagueship in the same organisation, or a professional acquaintance of some duration. (One can track the degrees of acquaintance and intimacy between British civil servants through their correspondence, ranging from, for example, ‘Dear Vivian’, through ‘My dear Vivian’, and ‘Dear Valentine’, to ‘My Dear Valentine’, in the case of the SIS officer Valentine Vivian.) But the two were not social equals, by any stretch. Readers will recall that Beurton stated that he had become ‘on friendly terms’ with the consular official, but what is going on here?

[* Back in the nineteen-fifties, my father recited to me a jingle from his schooldays:

“He had no proper sense of shame.

He told his friends his Christian name.”

This tradition at independent schools certainly endured into the 1960s.]

Moreover, the text surely has some coded messages. “I have no doubt that the day is not far off when only the air will be available!” certainly does not look forward to the time when airline passenger service will be restored between the two countries: it must refer to the use of wireless. “Recently he became the proud father of a second daughter . . .” is probably not referring to a real birth, but is some kind of pre-arranged text to indicate that something has happened, perhaps the recruitment of a new sub-agent. (Rössler had been recruited in November 1942.) Such a formulation was a common practice for coded messages in WWII. The statement that Farrell expects to meet W’s new daughter is very revealing, however, since it suggests that Farrell has taken over Beurton’s role in associating with Wang and his links to Falkenhausen.

The second part of the sentence might otherwise have indicated that ‘W’ could be Foote, but, now that L. T. Wang has been identified, and Beurton’s friendship with him revealed, the Chinse journalist must be the prime suspect. The statement that ‘communication has deteriorated since you left’ could refer to the fact that the German entry into Vichy France in November 1942 had made the escape/route (by which couriers could carry messages to London) even more perilous and unreliable. Yet ‘W’ is a very odd way of identifying a common acquaintance in a personal letter, and the usage draws attention to the secrecy. Why would Farrell not use the person’s real name, unless it was a foreigner with dubious connections? Moreover, Farrell signs off by requesting Beurton to ‘let us know’, not ‘let me know’, thus suggesting his membership of a larger organisation.

But, again, why was Farrell communicating by letter with Beurton rather than going through Head Office? Farrell expresses disappointment that he has not heard from Beurton, and regrets that Beurton has no time for ‘private correspondence’. Yet it is a strange set of circumstances where a consular official and a communist agent would try to establish a ‘private’ exchange of letters. And the implicit references to do not suggest that these are purely personal matters.

At face value, the letter makes an appeal to Beurton to contact the Geneva station by wireless. Now, although Jeffery’s History of SIS does not mention Farrell by name, it does reveal some useful facts about wireless communication at that location: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office” [apparently describing the situation in 1940], adding that “These communication difficulties meant that only messages of the highest importance could be sent by cable, and that much intelligence collected in Switzerland reached London only after a considerable delay. Because of the lack of continuous secure communications, moreover, London was unable to send out any signals intelligence material, which was another handicap for the Swiss station [undated, but implicitly suggesting the period after Vichy had been closed off in November 1942].” (p 380)

Analysis

In this context, we have to take some logical steps about the context of Farrell’s letter:

First of all, irrespective of the text enclosed, it would on the surface have been extraordinarily foolish for a senior diplomatic officer, having acted as a presumably objective arbiter in a repatriation case, to enter communication with the subject in any form. Yet Farrell not only bypassed the official channels: he wrote privately, from an undisclosed address, to a distorted and hence not immediately familiar name, using an unnaturally intimate form of address, and concluding with a near-undecipherable signature. He was indisputably trying to contact Beurton about business they had discussed, but in his effort made a clumsy attempt to conceal the fact.

Second, Farrell must have known that his letter would be intercepted by both Swiss and British –  and even Nazi –  censors, and that the message would reach the eyes of MI5, SIS and other government organisations. Yet he did not expect the Swiss censor to be able to identify him or Beurton, or the British censor to recognize his name. Beurton was known as ‘John Miller’ to the Swiss authorities. (Beurton appeared as ‘Fenton’, the name of his adoptive parents, in MI5 files, but his identity was known to MI5 before he arrived in Britain.) The fact that German intelligence could have discovered messages that pointed to Switzerland’s possibly weakening neutrality by allowing British wireless communications could have had a very serious consequence. Yet Farrell, an experienced SIS officer, was apparently not concerned about this exposure.

Third, given what is known about Farrell’s close involvement with, and recruitment and maintenance of, Sissy Dübendorfer, and her association with the ‘Lucy’ Ring, and his presence as Passport Control Officer in Geneva at the time Sonia departed for the UK (and probably when her marriage and passport application took place), one’s first instinct is to assume that he was familiar with the SIS exercise of enabling Sonia’s marriage, and her passage to the United Kingdom. He most certainly knew about the shenanigans involved in giving Len a false identity, and oversaw the whole project. Yet he might not have known about the details of the arrangement of Sonia’s affairs, if they were arranged before he was installed in Geneva, or were handled by other officers. (Sonia describes the passport officer as being somewhat remote, as if he were unfamiliar with her recent marriage, but, again, he may have been acting so.)

Fourth, the message indicates that Farrell had received information from a third party that Beurton had arrived safely in England, and rejoined Sonia, but had clearly not been given his Summertown address. In that case, however, unless he was confident that Beurton was living alone at Kidlington, a highly unlikely supposition, he must have realised that Sonia could have picked up the letter, and opened it, or that Len would have to explain to her what the letter was about. Thus he must have believed that referring elliptically to wireless transmission was not a statement that incurred undue risk in the management of Sonia.

Fifth, if one accepts that Farrell was an experienced and respected member of Dansey’s Z organisation, and that he performed his job of consul/PCO professionally, and one finds the superficial meaning of the text absurd, one can only assume that he had an ulterior motive beyond that outlined in the letter, and was consciously drawing Len out into the open. Alternatively, because he believed the import of his message was concealed, he did not believe that anyone not part of the conspiracy would be able to detect what was going on. He surely must have gained approval from Vanden Heuvel for what he was doing.

Sixth, if receiving messages on his apparatus in Geneva was not a problem (although without confirmation of receipt, or an ability to discuss them, their value would have been diminished), trying to acquire another sender in the United Kingdom would appear to be pointless. Thus Farrell’s request only makes sense if it implies a tacit agreement that Beurton’s wireless would communicate not with the Geneva station, but with a wireless apparatus outside the consulate – presumably Alexander Foote’s, and that, in addition, Beurton would have useful information to impart. He would have been of no value as a freelancer. Thus a clandestine but official link, not so easily detectable by the Swiss authorities, but monitorable by Dansey (presumably) at one end, and Farrell at the other, would allow a two-way exchange to take place. His invitation is undeniable: the content of any such exchange deriving from it still enigmatic.

Seventh, Farrell must have considered Beurton a loyal servant to the cause, committed to helping SIS, and he must also have imagined that Beurton’s International Brigade past had been some kind of cover, or that he had changed his views, or that his Communist past was irrelevant for the current project. This was an understandable attitude to take after June 1941, but would not have been when Sonia left Geneva at the end of 1940, when the Nazi-Soviet pact was still in effect. He and Beurton shared the desire to acquire information about opposition to the Nazis: they were both interested in helping escaped POWs get to Lisbon. Farrell has apparently taken over Beurton’s role as intermediary with Wang. Thus all evidence seems to suggest that Farrell trusted Beurton. (When Skardon and Serpell questioned Beurton in the infamous 1947 encounter at ‘The Firs’, they assumed Beurton was anti-communist, according to Sonia.)

Eighth, Beurton could thus, with the Soviet Union and Great Britain as allies, presumably feel at ease with working for SIS, expressing enthusiasm for his role in returning to the UK, and managed to convince Farrell and his team that he could put his wireless operations skills to good use in a shared cause. Beurton claimed, after his return, that he had been able to help Farrell on some matters of intelligence (surely the Wang-von Falkenhausen business), something that may have facilitated the granting of his false identity. As a quid pro quo for gaining Farrell’s help on his passport, he probably made some sort of agreement with Farrell for trying to communicate with Farrell (or the surrogate) by wireless when he reached the UK – perhaps on the status of Soviet POWs –  but probably did not plan to take it seriously. Farrell’s hint that he knows what Beurton is focused on (‘you are absorbed in work that so interests you’) indicates that Beurton might have confided in him some aspect of his plans with Sonia. Yet why, if Farrell had taken over Beurton’s role as intermediary to Wang, he would be expecting useful information from Beurton at a personal level now that Beurton was in England, is very puzzling.

Thus the primary enigma over Farrell’s approach stands out: was it authorised, unauthorised, or clandestine? If it was authorised, it would seem unnecessarily hazardous, as Beurton could much more easily have been contacted and influenced from London. If it was unauthorised, it would seem pointless, as Beurton would have nothing of value to offer to Farrell in Geneva, or any associate wireless operator in Switzerland, and raises all manner of questions of responsibility and secrecy. The third option is that it was clandestine, and that Farrell was also a Soviet agent or, at least, a sympathiser. Yet the foolishness of exposing his relationship with Beurton to Swiss, German and British intelligence is simply beyond belief, and Farrell’s stature as a senior SIS officer – even with what we know about Kim Philby – almost certainly would seem to exclude him from that category. Thus a more plausible conclusion is that the communication was ‘semi-authorised’: Farrell had received tacit approval for an exercise that would be denied on high if the details ever surfaced.

In this scenario, therefore, Farrell would have been treating Beurton as a potentially valuable communicant, with wireless skills, who would be able to facilitate secret, less obvious, exchange of information with Dansey in London and the Swiss outpost through its extended network, namely Foote. There was risk involved, but he must have considered that Sonia would not be perturbed by disclosure of the agreement. What information, and from what source, Beurton would have provided his contact in Switzerland is not clear. It may be coincidental that ‘Lucy’ (Rudolf Rössler) was recruited by the Swiss network in November 1942, shortly after Beurton’s arrival in Britain. Yet the case for Beurton’s being the conduit for Ultra-derived messages would appear to be weakened by the following:

  1. Foote had been transmitting such intelligence messages before Len’s arrival in the UK;
  2. Beurton, unlike Foote, would have explained to Moscow (via Sonia) the source of his intelligence, but Moscow continuously pressed for more information about ‘Lucy’;
  3. Even if he did not see the Ultra-based messages himself, Farrell would presumably have been aware of Beurton’s role, and thus would not have had to remind him of his obligations;
  4. If SIS had nurtured Beurton as an official messenger for such traffic, and trusted him, it would surely have kept him out of national service, so that he could continue his role;
  5. Foote would not have complained so much, after his return to the UK in 1947, about Sonia’s receiving warnings by an officer within MI5 about Fuchs’s imminent arrest.

Farrell’s Intentions: A Closer Study

If a more detailed look is taken at Farrell’s situation, enhanced by the (admittedly unreliable) memoirs of Foote and Sonia herself, one might conclude that Farrell was indeed acting in a semi-official capacity, probably with Vanden Heuvel’s knowledge, but without any formal approval from SIS in London. Consider the following reasoning:

Because of the multi-month delay since Beurton’s arrival in the UK, Farrell’s letter of March 1943 must have been prompted by some event. The likeliest candidates must be i) Beurton’s failure to do something, or ii) an unexpected happening with the Soviet network in Switzerland. Yet it is difficult to see how any of the events concerning the Rote Kapelle after July 1942 (such as Rössler’s recruitment) could have prompted the approach. The cryptic references to ‘W’, and W’s new child, would not appear to have anything to do with wireless communications. On the other hand, the progress of hostilities might have provided a stimulus: the Wehrmacht’s first major defeat of the war at Stalingrad, in February 1943, could conceivably have re-energised interest in the anti-Hitler movement. Farrell might have then tried to resuscitate a contact.

What was Farrell’s probable relationship with Beurton? His familiar mode of address shows that he had grown to know him well in the time between Sonia’s leaving (December 1940) and Beurton’s departure (July 1942). Beurton confirmed that he had provided Farrell with information and that the two had become friendly, but Sonia’s own account suggests that it was only very late in the cycle, after Cadogan’s involvement in February 1942. In Sonya’s Report, the author describes how Len’s applications to the British Consulate were brushed off since they had more urgent cases to deal with. Only after Cadogan’s letter (written February 29) did Farrell ask Beurton to come and see him, and then ‘smoothed the way for his journey’.

What was Beurton’s status? To SIS, it would probably have been safer, and more productive, for Beurton to remain in Switzerland, where he was effectively neutralized, but could provide useful information via his Chinese acquaintance, Wang.  It is significant that SIS apparently made no move to accelerate his reunion with his wife. After all, they (in London) did not really know whether he was an unideological agent (like Foote), or a committed communist (like Sonia). If he was an unreconstituted International Brigader, and had enthusiastically married Sonia, SIS would conclude that he was certainly the latter. But he shared SIS’s anti-fascist mission. Moreover, Sonia relates how Len and ‘Jim’ (Foote) grew apart in 1940, as Foote became more egoistic and pleasure-loving. She notes that Foote did not become a communist until he returned from Spain. Foote writes, in Handbook for Spies, that Beurton had no further contact with the group after March 1941. He also told MI5, in 1947, that Beurton had been very critical of Radó, whom Beurton ‘hated’, and that Moscow had asked Foote to get Beurton to stop sending embarrassing telegrams to Sonia that were unencrypted.

Did the request from the UK to do whatever it could to gain Beurton’s egress come as an unpleasant surprise, or simply a bureaucratic chore? Cadogan and Eden, after pressure from Sonia and Eleanor Rathbone, had become involved. There is no evidence of SIS applying pressure, and a note from SIS to Vesey on file reinforces the fact that the PCO in Geneva knew nothing of Beurton’s shady past beforehand. (It would say that, of course. It would not have been wise for SIS to admit to Cadogan and Eden that they had been employing known Communists for clandestine work.) So why would such high-ups agree to support the case of one single dubious citizen? It seems an inordinate amount of effort to gain the repatriation (and airplane flight home from Lisbon) of a highly dubious and subversive character, who was, moreover, on the C. S. W. (‘Central Security War’) Black List, and thus considered officially an undesirable. Sonia had also been placed on that list before her arrival.

One suggestion, put to me by Professor Glees, is that Beurton may have been recruited as an SIS agent before his marriage to Sonia, in a fashion similar to the method Foote indeed had been (according to my theory), and was instructed to marry her to facilitate her passage to the UK. In this role, his task would have been to keep an eye on Sonia, and he thus would have been sent to the UK to fulfil this mission, but reporting to Farrell via personal letter, and then wireless, rather than to London. This is a very dramatic hypothesis that must not be excluded, but it does raise questions about Beurton’s true commitment, and whether he never really switched allegiances, but acted along with SIS as far as he could. While Alexander Foote was an adventurer, of pliable political convictions, Beurton had been a dedicated communist for years, having joined the CP in Spain, and openly transferred to the CPGB on his return. Moreover, we have to face the fact that Beurton showed intense loyalty to Sonia, and followed her to East Germany in 1950, soon after she and their three children escaped, where they apparently lived happily together. According to Sonia, Beurton worked in a dedicated fashion for the German Democratic Republic for twenty years.

However, after Len’s departure, Farrell (and Heuvel, presumably) did nothing for eight months. If they had divulged anything confidential to Beurton, they must have known that, as soon as Beurton arrived in Oxford, he would tell Sonia about the set-up in Geneva, and what discussions he had had with Farrell. Did Farrell let Beurton know about the infiltration of the Rote Kapelle network (by Foote and Dübendorfer)? Surely not, otherwise Foote would have been blown. (Although Radó knew that Foote had friends in the British Embassy.) Foote underwent strenuous interrogation in Moscow after the war, and was absolved. Sonia admits she did not mistrust Foote in 1940, even when the breach with Beurton occurred. Again, that may have been an insertion required by the GRU, but the latter allowed Sonia to describe Foote’s innate humanity in warning her to leave the country well before Fuchs’s arrest.

Ursula Beurton (Sonia)

What did Sonia do in the weeks/months following Beurton’s return? The most significant is being set up, with Moscow’s approval, to meet Fuchs (although some accounts suggest she met him earlier). Did she get the all-clear because Beurton returned from Geneva? Thus Moscow could not have been alarmed by anything Beurton reported. Maybe she received the go-ahead on the basis that her husband was in place to transmit her messages. Meanwhile, Dansey and Menzies must have breathed a sigh of relief that nothing outwardly changed after Beurton’s arrival. There were no alterations in behaviour, and Sonia clearly believed she could transmit undisturbed.

Farrell’s informal approach to Beurton therefore only makes sense if either a) Farrell had not been personally involved with Dansey in the scheme to manipulate Sonia, and had been delegated with merely formal tasks to facilitate her passage only, or b) Beurton was now a recognized SIS agent, and Farrell was his controller. Sonia presents the request for a passport as a surprise to the British Consul in Geneva, as if he had no knowledge of the marriage itself. (“His response was distinctly cool.”) Farrell’s primary focus was on escape lines – as was that of Beurton, who was tasked by Moscow with trying to get escaped Soviet prisoners-of-war out of Switzerland. Farrell knew Beurton and Foote were (or had been) friends. Farrell must have had broad sympathies with anti-fascist activities, and believed Sonia’s story that she had abandoned any Soviet espionage because of her disgust with the Nazi-Soviet pact (a claim Sonia makes in her book, and one that is conveniently echoed in Foote’s Handbook for Spies, where it suited MI5 to indicate that Sonia’s disillusionment meant that she had given up spying).

A plausible explanation is that Beurton thus made some deal with Farrell concerning liaison with his (former) friend Foote, but did not take it seriously, as he considered he had duped Farrell, and thus did nothing about it on his return to the UK. If he had been recruited to keep a watch on Sonia, he would surely have passed on some worthless details to keep his legend alive, rather than do nothing at all. Beurton turned out to be a highly mendacious character, inventing all manner of stories to mislead the authorities about his travels, and his source of funds, but suddenly expressed a sense of entitlement when SIS aided his return to the United Kingdom

The conclusion must be that Farrell made an unofficial approach to Beurton, reckless in its poorly veiled language, but that all the authorities astonishingly failed to note its import, with the result that no strategies were derailed. Yet the existence of the Geneva letter shows a degree of connivance with the Beurton/Sonia axis that has been ignored by those who claim that SIS had no part in masterminding Sonia’s escape.

Conclusions

Farrell: On the most probable assumption that Farrell was acting without overt higher authority, the implication of his action is that a high degree of naivety must be ascribed to him and Vanden Heuvel, because, irrespective of their degree of trust in Beurton, and his exact mission, they must have realised that Beurton would immediately inform Sonia of what was happening. I am of the opinion that Sonia probably guessed in 1940 that SIS was trying to manipulate her, because of the chain of events that led to her arrival as a free Englishwoman in war-struck Britain in January 1941, but Len’s arrival eighteen months later, if he divulged any secret agreement with Farrell, would have immediately confirmed that everything they did was presumably under surveillance. And that fact has enormous implications for Sonia’s career in espionage after that date. Moreover, Farrell appears to disappear from the picture after this episode

Beurton: And how was Beurton to handle this fresh requirement made on him? Farrell expects him to have made contact with him since his departure, although perhaps not immediately by ‘air’. Is that an evasion, a subtly coded wish that he should have communicated by wireless by now? Beurton apparently did not hear from Farrell for eight months. Maybe he thought that, without a firm agreement on schedules, frequencies, callsigns, etc., or even knowledge of the capabilities of any wireless transmitter he might acquire or construct, he could safely avoid trying to make wireless contact with Farrell. But what about Dansey and SIS? If Farrell’s approach to Beurton had been authorized by Vanden Heuvel, but not by Dansey, it would explain why Dansey and his minions did not discreetly try to ensure that Beurton was following up. But Beurton’s status in the whole drama is now elevated: Soviet wireless operator, confidant with connections to the opposition to Hitler, clandestine communicant with – or even agent of –  SIS, and decoy for an important Soviet spy.

Sonia: One of the most significant conclusions must be that, if Farrell had tried to open a communication channel with Beurton, Sonia would have known about it as well. And, even if she knew nothing of the programme to manipulate her, the realisation that SIS was aware of Len’s capability for using wireless in the UK would make any attempt by her to perform clandestine transmissions pointless. The only other explanation would be that Sonia had left for the UK as a compliant accomplice in some disinformation exercise towards the Soviet Union, and went along with it, while all the time planning to pursue courier activities of which SIS was unaware (i.e. meeting with Fuchs). That hypothesis is unlikely, but not outrageous. I would not discard it immediately, and offer a possible scenario as to how it might have rolled out.

It is quite possible that SIS, having abetted Sonia’s marriage, then threatened her, when she applied for a passport, that they would reveal her subterfuge and return her to a probable death in Germany unless she agreed to work for them. The motive here would be to learn more about Sonia’s contacts, feed her disinformation, and, by using her transmissions as a crib, acquire clues to Soviet ciphers and codes. Sonia would have gone along with this scheme, of course, and, once she was in the UK, would have had to cooperate for a while. Yet, a ‘double agent’ (which, strictly speaking, she would not have been) cannot be relied upon unless his or her handler has exclusive control of the subject agent’s communications. Sonia would have alerted her true bosses of the situation via her brother and his conduit to the Soviet Embassy, and Military Intelligence would have adjusted plans and expectations accordingly.

Sonia & Len: In that temporary twilight world, the outcome would be that Sonia would have had to stifle her own transmissions (or deliver completely harmless messages, to fool her surveillers), and that Len would have managed to deceive or shake off his would-be SIS controllers, and transmit to the Soviet Union (or the Soviet Embassy) until he was called up for national service. While Len’s actual role with SIS remains very murky, Sonia may then have turned to couriers and the Soviet Embassy for delivering her intelligence from Fuchs.

The exploits of Sonia and Len in going to Switzerland, later escaping from there to the United Kingdom, and then surviving in Britain undetected, are so packed with incidents of unmerited good fortune, complemented by a massive series of untruths declared to immigration officers and others by the married pair, that one can come to only one reasonable conclusion: they were remarkably stupid, or they were abetted by an extraordinarily naïve British intelligence organisation. And, if they were allowed to get away with such obviously refutable false claims, they must have themselves concluded that the opposition was either simply incompetent, or believed that it could manipulate them without it’s being suspected. I shall cover the whole farrago of lies in a future piece.

SIS: The inescapable fact is that the existence of the letter proves that SIS was trying to manipulate Sonia (and Len), in a futile effort to control her broadcasts, and learn more about Soviet tradecraft and codes. What the letter and the surrounding information on file show is that, contrary to earlier analyses, which have focused on MI5’s negligence in not detecting what Sonia was up to, and thus allowing her to operate as a courier scot-free, is that MI5’s senior officers were colluding with SIS and allowing her to operate without hindrance. Beurton’s arrival caused a worrying flurry of unwanted interest from an eager junior in F Division (Shillito) at a time when B Division had studiously been ignoring her activity and movements. Ironically, Beurton was at this time, in 1942 and 1943, the probable real wireless operator transmitting Sonia’s messages, while Sonia was able to roam around with MI5 casually ‘keeping an eye on her’. All the time, however, she was able to distract her surveillers from the main illicit activity. Sonia outwitted both MI5 and SIS.

The pattern in KV 6/41 reinforces the major theme of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ –  that SIS developed a scheme to place Sonia in a  position where she would be encouraged to spy for the Soviets, but where her every move would be known to the Secret Intelligence Service. In order to execute this plan, SIS had to gain the co-operation of senior MI5 officers, who were responsible for the surveillance of possible threats, whether German or communist, on home soil, so that Sonia’s life would not be interfered with. Every time a junior officer pointed out Sonia’s background and communist ideology, or her connections with strident rabble-rousers like her brother, that officer was quashed, and instructed to lay off. Yet the corporate discomfort was obvious: in one very telling detail from after the war, the same John Marriott who worked for the Double-Cross operation in B1A, and then returned to communist counter-espionage in F Division as F2C (Shillito’s old job), wrote to Kim Philby of SIS on April 15, 1946. The FBI had contacted MI5 wanting information about Sonia in relation to her husband Rudolf Hamburger, who had been captured in Tehran, and the FBI wanted MI5 to question Sonia. Marriott wrote to Philby: “For a variety of reasons I do not feel able to comply with this request . . .”  Indeed.

Postscript

I wonder whether any readers can help with the following questions:

  • What was the staff organisation in the Geneva consulate from 1939-1943?
  • Who were the owners of the bungalow in Kidlington, and did they really eject the Beurtons and move in?
  • What route did mail from Switzerland to the UK take in 1943?
  • What other interpretations might one place on the message in the letter?
  • What was Beurton’s exact role supposed to be in making wireless contact with Switzerland?
  • Can anyone point me to details of Falkenhausen’s activities in the first years of the war?

As with all these intelligence mysteries, one has to believe there exists a logical explanation – unless, of course, the archival record itself is fallacious. One has to assume that each agent in the story was acting in the belief that what he or she did was in furtherance of his or her own interests, or those of their employer. The Geneva Letter is in the same category as the memorandum on Guy Burgess’s going to Moscow to negotiate with the Comintern, or the report from the Harwich customs officer querying Rudolf Peierls’s passport, or Dick White’s instructions to Arthur Martin to brief Lamphere on Philby. A convincing explanation will eventually be winkled out.

[I thank Professor Anthony Glees, Emeritus Professor of Security and Intelligence Studies at the University of Buckingham, and Denis Lenihan, distinguished analyst of intelligence matters, for their comments on earlier versions of this report. Professor Glees came to Roger Hollis’s defence in ‘The Secrets of the Service’, and can safely be described as a supporter of my theory that SIS manipulated Sonia: Mr Lenihan is overall a supporter of Chapman Pincher’s claims in ‘Treachery’ that Hollis was the Soviet mole ELLI, and is sceptical of the SIS-Sonia conspiracy theory. Neither gentleman has endorsed my argument, and any errors or misconceptions that appear in it are my responsibility alone.]

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The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 2)

[In Part 1 of this segment, I analysed the way in which Rudolf Peierls tried to frame his life and career. He almost managed to conceal a murky connection with the  Soviet authorities, but a study of archives, letters and memoirs strongly suggested a hold that Moscow exerted over him and his wife. In Part 2, I investigate how the network of physicists in Britain in the 1930s helped to enable Peierls’s close friend and protégé Klaus Fuchs to thrive, and explore how Peierls tried to explain away Fuchs’s ability to spy under his watch.]

Rudolf Peierls

When those UK public servants who aided or abetted the espionage of Klaus Fuchs were judged, whether they were in academia, government, or intelligence, the investigation essentially boiled down to four questions: 1) Were they incompetent? (‘I never knew he was a Communist’); 2) Were they negligent? (‘I knew he was a Communist, but didn’t think it mattered’); 3) Were they timid? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and was concerned, but didn’t want to rock the boat’); or 4) Were they culpable? (‘I knew he was a Communist, and that is why I recruited/approved him’). The actions of each were highly dependent upon roles and timing: supporting a communist scientist in the 1930s would have been almost de rigueur in physicist circles; in 1941 the Ministry of Aircraft Production was so desperate to beat Hitler that it admitted it had no qualms about recruiting a communist; after Gouzenko’s defection in 1945, and Nunn May’s sentencing, any communist links began to be treated as dangerous; in 1951 Sillitoe and White of MI5 lied to Prime Minster Attlee about Fuchs’s communism in order to save the institution’s skin. In comparison, in 1944 the OSS recruited Jürgen Kuczynski (Sonia’s brother, who introduced Fuchs to a member of Soviet military intelligence) because he was a communist. But the post mortems of the Cold War suggested that warning signals should have been made at every stage of the spy’s advancement to positions where he had access to highly confidential information.

Moreover, Fuchs is often presented in contrasting styles. On the one hand appears the superb master of tradecraft, who effortlessly insinuated himself into Britain’s academic elite, convinced the authorities of his skills and commitment, took up UK nationality, and then, with his keen knowledge of counter-surveillance techniques was able to pass on atomic secrets to his handler, Sonia, and later, in 1949, to give away no clues when he was being watched, being betrayed solely because of the VENONA decrypts, and the tenacity of those who followed the leads. On the other hand we see the clumsy communist, who made no effort to conceal his true affiliations, escaped undetected only because of the incompetence of MI5, but carelessly provided possible clues by visiting his sister in Boston, and contacting a known Communist (Johanna Klopstech) on his return to the UK in 1946. Moreover, he drank ‘like a fish’, according to Genia Peierls. When questioned, he was foolish enough to confess to espionage when anyone else would have brazened it out, with the result that his Soviet spymasters were disgusted with him.

Would it not have made more sense for Fuchs to soften his communist stance, thus avoiding a complete volte-face and loss of credibility with his leftist peers in England, but suggesting he was more of a vague theoretician than a firm believer in the Stalinist paradise? In this respect the relationship to Fuchs of Rudolph Peierls, as his mentor and recruiter, is especially poignant. In this article, I examine what is known about Peierls’s and other scientists’ awareness of Fuchs’s true political commitment, and how Peierls danced around the issue in the years after Fuchs’s prison sentencing, and later, when Fuchs was released, and left the UK for the German Democratic Republic. I expand my analysis by using the statements and testimony of other scientists who dealt with the pair.

I wrote about Peierls in Misdefending the Realm, and it might be useful to re-present here a few sections from my book that focused on my assessment of Peierls’s role in recruiting Fuchs to the Tube Alloys project, from Chapter 8:

Peierls’s account of what happened next is deceptive. In his autobiography he claimed that, several months after Fuchs’s release, when thinking about technical help he himself needed in the spring of 1941, he thought of Fuchs. “I knew and liked his papers, and I had met him”, he wrote, dismissing the relationship as fairly remote. Yet he had never written about Fuchs beforehand, and he does not describe the circumstances in which he had met him. His autobiographical contribution is undermined, however, by what he had told MI5. When he was interviewed by Commander Burt in February, 1950, shortly before Fuchs’s trial, he said that he had first met Fuchs “in about 1934, probably at some scientific conference”, but also stated that “he did not know him very well until Born recommended him”. Fuchs was later to confirm that he had met Peierls at a scientific conference “immediately before the war”. An MI5 report of November 23, 1949, states that “Peierls had met Fuchs at a Physics Conference in Bristol, when Peierls had first suggested that Fuchs should work under him at Birmingham”. That occasion was clearly before the war: Peierls and Fuchs had achieved more than merely discuss issues of joint interest, and Peierls clearly misrepresented the closeness of their relationship when speaking to Burt.

Without explaining how he had learned that Fuchs had been released from internment, and had returned to Edinburgh, Peierls stated that he wrote to Fuchs asking him whether he wanted to work with him, even before he (Peierls) had gained permission to do so. He next asked for official clearance, but was instructed “to tell him as little as possible”. “In due course he [Fuchs] got a full clearance, and he started work in May 1941.” One might conclude that the impression Peierls wanted to give is that it was a fortuitous accident that Fuchs’s availability, and his own need, coincided: he conveniently forgot the previous job offer. Moreover, the “and” in Peierls’s account is troublesome, suggesting a sequence of events that did not in fact happen that way. Fuchs had not received ‘full clearance’ by that time: in another item of correspondence, Peierls admitted that he had to wait. The process was to drag on for several months, and some MI5 personnel were later to express horror that the relevant government ministries had proceeded so carelessly in advancing Fuchs’s career without concluding the formal checks. For example, in June 1940, Peierls had taken Fuchs with him to Cambridge to meet the Austrian expert in heavy water, Dr. Hans Halban, who was a member of the exclusive five-man Tube Alloys Technical Committee: Fuchs’s training was assuredly not being held back.

Moreover, Peierls’s account does not correspond with other records. It is clear from his file at the National Archives that Fuchs was recommended for release from internment in Canada as early as October 14, 1940 (i.e. shortly after the meeting of the Maud Technical Sub-Committee), and that the termination of his internment (to return to Edinburgh) was officially approved a few weeks later. This followed an inquiry by the Royal Society as early as July 1940, since an MI5 memorandum states that “the Royal Society included Fuchs on list of scientists they wanted urgently released soon after Fuchs sailed on Ettrick on July 3, 1940.” An ‘exceptional case’ was made on October 17, and the Home Office gave Fuchs’s name to the High Commissioner for Canada. These requests would later appear very provocative, as a defined role for Fuchs appeared to have been described very early in the cycle. Yet, after his arrival in Liverpool in January 1941, the Immigration Officer specified very clearly to the Superintendent of the Register of Aliens that Fuchs would not be able to “engage in any kind of employment without the consent of the Ministry of Labour”.

It would at first glance be quite reasonable to suppose that Peierls had initiated this action, especially given the curious testimony of Fuchs’s supervisor at Edinburgh, Max Born. In a letter dated May 29, 1940, Born had written (to whom is not clear) that, despite Fuchs’s being “in the small top group of theoretical physicists in this country”, he and the others should not be freed from internment. Furthermore, Born wrote that “there are strict regulations that prohibit any liberated internees to return to the ‘protected area’ where they live”. “Even if they would be released they could not join my department again”, he added. Either this was a deliberate deception by Born, to provide a cover-story, or he had a quick change of heart, or he was sincere, but was overruled, the British government wishing to maintain the fiction that everything happened later than supposed. The third alternative can probably be discounted, as Born soon after began writing to influential persons, trying to gain Fuchs’s release, immediately after his arrest, and himself vigorously tried to find Fuchs remunerative employment as soon as he learned about Fuchs’s release from internment. In any case, the earlier statement represented an unnecessarily severe judgment, made just over two weeks after Fuchs’s interrogation and arrest, and its only purpose can have been to smooth the path of Fuchs’s employment elsewhere after his eventual release.  [pp 217-218]

And:

In fact, correspondence between Peierls and the pacifist-minded Born suggests that the two collaborated to find Fuchs employment very soon after his release from internment was approved. It appears the two scientists knew each other well. In the summer of 1936, Born (whose position at Cambridge had come to an end) had received an invitation from Kapitza to work for him in Moscow. The fact that Kapitza appeared then to be an unreformed Stalinist, writing in his letter of invitation: “Now, Born, is the time to make your decision whether you will be on the right or the wrong side in the coming political struggle”, did not deter Born.  He considered it so seriously that he started taking Russian lessons from Peierls’s wife, Eugenia, but instead assumed the chair of Natural Philosophy at Edinburgh University in October 1936. Laucht’s study of Frisch and Peierls refers to letters exchanged between Peierls and Born in November, 1940, where they explored opportunities for placing Fuchs successfully. This correspondence continued during the spring of 1941, with Peierls expressing extreme dedication towards bringing Fuchs into his camp. “Although it looked initially as if Fuchs would not make the move to the University of Birmingham, Peierls remained tireless in his effort to find a job for the talented physicist at his university. In the end, he succeeded and offered Fuchs a temporary position,” wrote Laucht. Thus Peierls’s version of the recruitment process can be interpreted as another self-serving memoir attempting to distance the author from a traitor. All this was known by MI5: they had gained Home Office Warrants to read the correspondence.

Max Born, moreover, was far from innocent in helping Fuchs on his mission. In his two items of autobiography, he relentlessly reminds his readers that he had no competence in nuclear physics, a convenient pretence for his attitude of non-participation and pacifism. Yet in his later, more comprehensive volume he related the episode of a visit to Cambridge in the summer of 1939, where he met the nuclear physicist Leo Szilard, and how, on his return, he shared with Fuchs Szilard’s conviction that an atom bomb could be made. He was then unequivocal that Fuchs knew that the nature of the work he would have to be engaged in was nuclear weapons research, with the goal of defeating Hitler, as he claimed he tried to talk Fuchs out of it. Just as Peierls did in his own memoir, Born concealed the fact of the correspondence between the two exiled scientists at the end of 1940, supporting the lie that it was Peierls’s sudden request for Fuchs in May of 1941 that occasioned the latter’s transfer from Edinburgh to Birmingham. [pp 220-21]

What new material can shed further light on this story? In some ways, the sources have become sparser. In recent years, previously available files concerning atomic weapons and energy research, including vital files on Klaus Fuchs, have been ‘retained’ by UK government departments for unspecified reasons. (see, for example:
https://www.the-tls.co.uk/articles/research-brought-halt-national-archives/
and

https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/dec/23/british-nuclear-archive-files-withdrawn-without-explanation ) Very recently, some of the files on Sonia’s family have been inexplicably withdrawn (’closed while access is under review’). In his 1997 biography of Professor Chadwick (the head of the British mission to assist in the Manhattan Project), Andrew Brown wrote: “Some of the wartime letters between Chadwick and Peierls that have never been released in England were available at the National Archives, but possibly as a result of the Gulf War, they were recently recensored by the US authorities”  –  an extraordinary admission of foreign interference. The Cleveland Cram archive of CIA material at Georgetown University has been withdrawn, at the CIA’s request (see: https://theintercept.com/2016/04/25/how-the-cia-writes-history/). Sabine Lee’s publication of the Letters of Rudolf Peierls has usefully extracted a number of communications between the scientist and his colleagues and contacts, but the emphasis is very much on technical matters, most of the letters appear in the original German, and the volume is very expensive.

On the other hand, a careful examination of the archival material of fringe figures (such as the enigmatic Herbert Skinner), and the articles, book reviews, memoirs and biographies of scientists who engaged with Peierls and Fuchs in the 1930s, 40s and 50s can reveal a host of subsidiary detail that helps to shed light on the process by which Fuchs was allowed to be adopted by Peierls, and approved for work on Tube Alloys.

The Physicists

The Physics Department at Bristol

The saga started at the University of Bristol, where a fascinating group of future luminaries was assembled in the 1930s. Klaus Fuchs arrived there, in October 1933, and was introduced to Professor Nevill Mott by Ronald Gunn, who was a director of Imperial Tobacco, was described by many as a Quaker, but was also a strong communist sympathiser. Gunn had visited the Soviet Union in 1932, had met Fuchs in Paris in 1933, and had sponsored his move to Bristol. The university admissions board accepted Fuchs as a doctoral student of Mott, who held the Melville Wills Chair of Theoretical Physics. Mott and Gunn were both alumni of Clifton College, as, indeed, was Roger Hollis, the controversial future chief of MI5. Mott had taken up his new position only in the autumn of 1933, at the young age of twenty-six, and one of his new colleagues was Herbert Skinner, to whom he was indebted for helping focus his research. Professor Tyndall’s history of the Physics Department also credits Skinner with endorsing the selection of Mott.

Skinner was later to become Fuchs’s boss at AERE Harwell, where Fuchs was to conduct an affair with Skinner’s ‘Austrian-born’ wife, Erna, described as ’glamorous’ in one memoir. Skinner had been appointed a Henry Herbert Will Research Fellow at Bristol in 1927, and was given a more permanent position as Lecturer in Spectroscopy in June 1931, which he held until 1946. In October 1934, Rudolph Peierls’s long-time friend, colleague and correspondent Hans Bethe arrived, but he stayed only four months before leaving for the United States to take up a chair at Cornell University. Soon after that, however, Herbert Fröhlich was added to the faculty. (I wrote about his miraculous escape from the Soviet Union in Part 1 of this analysis.) Fröhlich was appointed Lecturer in 1944, and Reader in 1946. He stayed until 1948, when he was appointed as Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Ronald Gurney was another Soviet sympathiser, a member of the local Communist Party, working as a George Wills research associate from 1933 to 1939, and contributing, alongside Fröhlich, to Mott’s research on semiconductors and crystals. (Ironically, Fuchs would later tell the FBI that Gurney was ‘a security risk’ because he and his wife had at Bristol both been members of the Society for Cultural Relations with the USSR.) Alan Nunn May, the other famed ‘atom spy’ was one of those scientists from King’s College, London, evacuated to Bristol at the start of the war.

Other German-speaking physicists were recruited, and were later, like Fuchs, to undergo internment during the ‘fifth column’ scare of 1940. Christopher Laucht writes, in Elemental Germans: “Other German-speaking émigré physicists who were interned included Walter Kohn and Hans Kronberger, as well as eight members of the physics department at Bristol University: Walter Heitler and his brother Hans, Herbert Fröhlich, Kurt Hoselitz, Phillip Gross and Heinz London, and two of their students Robert Arno Sack and G. Eichholz.” (p 27) Yet it is primarily the exposures of Mott, Born, Skinner, Gurney and Fröhlich to Klaus Fuchs, supplemented by the careers of two other important figures, Rotblat and Plazcek, that concern me here.

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott

Nevill Mott was ambivalent in his assessment of Fuchs. Mott was some kind of fellow-traveller himself: in his memoir, A Life in Science, he describes how in 1934 he enthusiastically paid a visit to the Soviet Union, ostensibly to attend a conference celebrating the hundredth anniversary of the birth of Mendeleyev. The scientist who invited him, Yakov Frenkel, was the same person who had invited Peierls to Odessa in 1931. Mott had the good (or bad) fortune to be accompanied on the Soviet boat by Sidney Webb. He recorded part of his experiences as follows: “To me, from England at the height of the depression, Russia appeared as a country without unemployment. At any rate, I wanted to believe in it. It was after the ‘dekulakization’ but before Stalin’s purges. ‘What about the Kulaks?’, I asked a Russian physicist. ‘Well, we had to get rid of the half million rich peasants in the interests of the masses, but now that this has been done there will be nothing more like it, and the future is rosy.’ I believed him.”

Mott could be described as the perfect embodiment of Lenin’s ‘useful idiot’. Admittedly, far greater persons posed the same question. Winston Churchill also asked Stalin about the kulaks, in 1942, although it was a foolish impulse, as the Prime Minister must have known full well by then what the nature and scale of the massacres, deportations and enforced famine had been, and, if he was not prepared to challenge the Soviet dictator on the matter, his question would turn out to be a political victory for Stalin. Mott was naive enough to admit his gullibility, at least: Peierls remained silent after his more tortured visit.

Yet Mott was a little evasive about Fuchs. In a memoir Bristol Physics in the 1930s, he wrote that Fuchs’s ‘views, as we all knew, were very left wing, and at the time of the Spanish Civil War, the rise of Hitler and Mussolini’s invasion of Abyssinia, so were those of many of the young physicists’. In A Life in Science, however, Mott’s awkwardness shines through. First he introduces Fuchs as ‘a political refugee, with communist sympathies’, not explaining how he knew that. He next writes that Fuchs was ‘was shy and reserved and I do not remember discussing politics with him’. But then he relates the famous incident of the meeting of the local branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union, which he and Fuchs – and maybe others – attended. The description ironically does not comment on those aspects of ‘cultural relations’ that Mott judged worthy of nurturing.

“In Bristol in the 1930s, we had a branch of the Society for Cultural Relations with the Soviet Union. It met from time to time in a studio in Park Street, which disappeared in 1940 in the first big raid on Bristol, (during which I remember walking home from a meeting, with incendiaries falling in the street). We used to dramatize translations of the Soviet treason trials, but which Stalin appears to have got rid of most of his possible rivals. They were accused of sabotage in the interests of the Germans. But my most vivid recollection is of Fuchs in the role of Vishinsky, the prosecutor, accusing the defendents [sic] with a cold venom that I would never have suspected from so quiet and unassuming a young man.” The mystery is a) why Fuchs would go out of his way to express his political sympathies, and b) why Bristol academia would not consider his behaviour outrageous.

Eventually, Fuchs moved on – to Edinburgh University, under Professor Max Born. The record here is again ambiguous. Mott described the action as follows: “After four years I arranged for him to go to the former leader of the Göttingen theorists, Max Born, by then Professor in Edinburgh. Born, in his autobiography, writes that I wanted to get rid of him because he was a communist, but that was not so; we had many refugees in Bristol and needed to think about permanent posts for some of them, and we hadn’t the resources to provide for all.”

Max Born

Max Born

Max Born had escaped from Nazi Germany in 1933, and after taking a position at St. John’s College, Cambridge, was in 1936 appointed to the Tait chair of natural philosophy at Edinburgh University. In an essay in his My Life and Views, Born wrote: “Next, Klaus Fuchs, a highly gifted man who never concealed the fact that he was a communist; after the outbreak of the war and a short internment as an enemy alien, he joined the British team investigating nuclear fission. I think he became a spy not from ulterior motives but from honest conviction.” Apart from the disingenuous claim that ‘ulterior motives’ and ‘honest conviction’ are opposite motivators in the field of espionage, Born makes it quite clear that he knew about Fuchs’s loyalties, writing in My Life about recently arrived scientists at Edinburgh: “One of the first of these was Klaus Fuchs, later so well known through the spy affair in which he was involved,’ as if The Spy Who Changed the World (Michael Rossiter’s clumsy title for his first-class biography, flawed only by its lack of specific references) had been a bit-player in some distasteful society scandal.

This controversy was intensified, however, when the first biography of Fuchs, by Norman Moss, titled Klaus Fuchs: The Man Who Stole the Atom Bomb, was reviewed by M. F. Perutz in the 25 June, 1987 issue of the London Review of Books. Fuchs had taught Perutz the principles of theoretical physics when both were interned in Canada in the summer of 1940. In his review, Perutz referred to the claim made by Prime Minister Attlee in the House of Commons that there had been no evidence that Fuchs had ever been a Communist, and commented: “When I mentioned this to a veteran physicist friend of mine recently, he interjected: ‘But Fuchs and I were in the same Communist cell when we were students at Bristol.’ Max Born, Fuchs’s former chief at Edinburgh, wrote about Fuchs: ‘He never concealed that he was a convinced communist. During the Russo-Finnish war everyone’s sympathies in our department were with the Finns, while Fuchs was passionately pro-Russian.’ On the other hand, Peierls had no idea that Fuchs was a Communist.”

Norman Moss explained more, in a response published by the LRB: “In his autobiography My Life, Max Born, who took on Fuchs as a young researcher, said Sir Nevill Mott told him he sent him away from Bristol University because ‘he spread Communist propaganda among the undergraduates.’ But there is a footnote containing a comment by Sir Nevill to the effect that Born must have misunderstood something he said, because he does not remember his doing any such thing. “In fact, none of Fuchs’s close friends knew he had been an active Communist in Germany. Fuchs did once defend Russia’s attack on Finland in 1939 in an argument with Born, as Professor Perutz says in his review and as I said in my book.”

While this sheds light on the Born-Mott misunderstanding, the final sentences would seem to be a non sequitur. It is worth examining Born’s text more closely. In fact he admitted surprise at the written reasons Mott gave for passing Fuchs on to him, which stressed Mott’s desire to learn more about Born’s ‘special methods’. Born felt that Mott understood such methods very well, and could have thus passed them on to Fuchs himself. The message that Mott later denied was delivered orally at a meeting in London. According to Born: “I enjoyed working with Fuchs so much that I wondered why Mott had sent him away. This was explained when I encountered Mott at a meeting in London. He asked me how I was getting on with Fuchs, and when I answered ‘splendidly’, and praised his talent, Mott said ‘What a pity I had to get rid of him. He spread communist propaganda among the undergraduates’. Mott told me that he had arranged for his own contribution to the general refugee fund to be directed to Fuchs, a generous gesture which possibly also showed how much he was afraid of communist propaganda.”

Does that last statement indicate that Mott was trying to buy Fuchs off? What did it mean that Mott (or Bristol) could not afford to pay Fuchs, but could cover his expenses at Edinburgh? It does not appear to make much sense. In any case, Mott apparently had a chance to review Born’s script before publication, as he was allowed to comment, in the footnote cited by Moss, as follows: “I must have made a remark which Born misunderstood or took more seriously than I intended. I do not remember believing that Fuchs spread communist propaganda among the students, and at a time when Hitler was the enemy I could not have worried unduly if he had. What happened was this. In Bristol we had research funds from the generous gifts of the Wills family, and with these and help from the Academic Assistance Council we built up a very strong group of physicists who had left Germany in 1933. Some we wished to keep; but established positions then as now were few and far between and for others we helped as we could to find jobs elsewhere. This is how we acted about Fuchs.”

A strong measure of truth may have accompanied that last claim, but how come Born could not have been apprised of it from the outset? Why did Mott beat about the bush? And why did he so carelessly misrepresent Nazi Germany’s status as of 1937, when Fuchs moved to Edinburgh? At that time, Hitler may have been a grossly unpleasant threat to leftist scientists like Mott, but he was no more ‘the enemy’ than Stalin was. It was a typically disingenuous footnote by Mott.

Many witnesses seem to be behaving economically with the truth here, including, of course, Clement Attlee, who had been lied to outrageously by Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5. Yet the most startling item of evidence is the statement by Perutz’s ‘veteran physicist friend’, who talks about membership of communist cells as casually as a British diplomat might refer to his house at Marlborough or Wellington. Who was this friend? And why would Perutz treat his friend’s confession so lightly?

Herbert Fröhlich

Herbert Froehlich

The friend cannot have been Skinner, as Skinner had died while attending a conference in Geneva in 1960.  Ronald Gurney had been a member of the CPGB, but he had left for the United States, where he died in 1953. If we are looking for a prominent physicist, of suspected communist affiliation, present at Bristol between 1934 and 1937, still alive in 1987, and a probable friend of Max Perutz, it would be Herbert Fröhlich. And the communist cell may not have been a unit of the Communist Party of Great Britain: it was much more likely to have been the German branch (the KPD). Fuchs regarded himself still as a member of the KPD when in the United Kingdom, and he had made contact with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother, who had arrived in London in 1933, and re-energised the KPD through the front of the Free German League of Culture. Jürgen became head of the KPD in Britain, and was in contact with the GRU representative in London, Simon Kremer.

You will not find a reference to Fröhlich in the biographies of Fuchs by Moss, Edwards, Rossiter or Close. Christopher Laucht, in Elemental Germans, records the contribution to the Maud Committee that Fröhlich made with Walter Heitner, in the field of spontaneous fission in uranium. Yet he glides smoothly over Fröhlich’s time in the Soviet Union, remarking solely that he experienced problems in getting his visa renewed. Laucht does note, however, that Fröhlich also lodged with the Peierlses, and that Peierls managed to gain funding for Fröhlich from the Academic Assistance Council.

G.J. Hyland’s biography of Fröhlich (A Physicist Ahead of His Time, published in 2015) provides the details on Frohlich’s experiences in the Soviet Union, whither he had also been invited by the ever-present Frenkel. Yet Hyland is comparatively bland on the physicist’s career after that, providing a text that is very much directed at the specialist. He does not mention any Maud work, although he does record that Fröhlich, after being released from internment in September 1940, returned to Bristol, but was prohibited from working on nuclear fission – an intriguing contrast to how Fuchs was sought out and approved. During the remainder of the war, Fröhlich ‘was occupied in part-time research for the Ministry of Supply, working initially on an image converter instrument for use on tanks to extend night vision’. Fröhlich was not naturalised until August 1946, but was then offered the position of Head of the Theoretical Physics Division at Harwell. “He declined this offer, however, not wanting to be involved with any work that might further nuclear warfare,” writes Hyland, adding: “Klaus Fuchs was appointed in his place!”

(I welcome any other suggestions as to who Perutz’s communist friend might have been.)

Herbert Skinner

Herbert Skinner

The most mysterious figure in this whole farrago is Herbert Skinner, since he owned an unmatched intimacy and longevity in his relationship with Klaus Fuchs, but his career is the least well documented of all. While his presence at Bristol University in the 1930s has been clearly described, his period in the war years has been sparsely addressed. His biographical memoir as a Fellow of the Royal Society indicates that, from 1939, he performed very valuable work on the detection of submarines by microwave radar, and after experiments in the Shetlands pursued the deployment of the technology at the Telecommunication Research Establishment at Malvern. (Ironically, this type of work was so secret, and so critical to the defence of the nation, that Skinner’s German-born colleagues were prohibited from working on it.) Skinner was then recruited, in 1943, to work as Oliphant’s deputy in California. Mike Rossiter simply notes that Skinner had contributed to the Manhattan Project at Berkeley ‘on electromagnetic separation with Lawrence’, and Frank Close similarly – but not strictly correctly – writes that ‘Herbert Skinner had also spent the war in the Berkeley team, which had studied separation of isotopes and investigated the physics of plutonium’. Skinner merits only one mention in Volume 1, 1939-1945) of Margaret Gowing’s history of Britain and Atomic Energy, when she refers to a Harwell planning meeting he attended in Washington in November 1944. Skinner does not appear in Graham Farmelow’s Churchill’s Bomb.

Skinner came to life again on his appointment at Harwell after the war as head of the General Physics Department. He was also John Cockcroft’s deputy, and in the first half of 1946 selected staff and guided the construction, while Cockcroft was still in Canada. Fuchs was one of those appointments, arriving at Harwell in June 1946. Before the sordid business in the late forties, however, when Fuchs conducted his affair with Erna Skinner, a liaison closely surveilled by MI5 and Special Branch, Skinner appeared with Fuchs in a very strange episode in New York. I introduced this event in my Letter to Frank Close, but it merits deeper coverage here.

The two of them had travelled to Washington in November 1947, in order to attend a declassification conference (November 14-16) where the implications of the McMahon Act on release of information on atomic weaponry and energy were to be discussed. Evidence supplied in 1950 to the FBI is so bizarre that I decided to transcribe here the main section of the report. (I do not believe it has been reproduced anywhere before this. See https://vault.fbi.gov/rosenberg-case/klaus-fuchs/klaus-fuchs-part-05-of/view  .) On February 4, 1950, Dr. Samuel Goudsmit * informed the FBI that Dr. Karl Cohen, who was head of the Theoretical Physics Division, and thus Fuchs’s counterpart in the Atomic Energy Program, had described to him how Fuchs, after meeting Cohen at a restaurant, had later called his counterpart, asking him to pick up a hat he had left at the restaurant and return it to the person from whom he had borrowed it on West 111th Street.

[* Goudsmit had been the head of the Alsos project, which set out to determine how close the Nazis were getting to the creation of an atomic bomb. After the war, he appears to have been a regular contributor to the FBI, the CIA and SIS. His name comes up as an informant in the Pontecorvo archive.]

The FBI interviewed Cohen on February 9, 1950.  He described his encounters with Fuchs at Columbia University and in Los Alamos, and then went on to explain that he had no further meeting with Fuchs until the declassification conference. His testimony is presented as follows:

“Cohen was told by Dr. Willard Libby of the Atomic Energy Commission that he should discuss with Fuchs the declassification of a certain document and make his recommendations to the conference. Cohen received a phone call from a woman who explained that she was a good friend of Fuchs, that Fuchs was staying either at the Henry Hudson Hotel or Park Central Hotel, and that Fuchs wanted to see Cohen. Thereafter Cohen called Fuchs and invited him to his home, which invitation Fuchs declined. He and Fuchs, however, had dinner at a restaurant of Cohen’s choosing, during which time they discussed the declassification of the document, Cohen recommending that it be declassified and Fuchs opposing. Cohen stated that some time after leaving the restaurant, Fuchs realized he had left a hat in the restaurant, which had belonged to the person with whom he had been staying. He asked Cohen to pick it up and return it since he, Fuchs, was leaving town. Cohen said that he regarded this request out of line, but agreed to call the people and tell them where they could obtain the hat. He did this, but the woman declined to retrieve the hat and consequently, a few days later, Cohen obtained it and returned it. It was Cohen’s recollection that Fuchs’ contact was a Dr. Cooper or Dr. Skinner, attached to the British Delegation that was in the United States for the Declassification Conference and who was staying with his wife and her father on West 111th Street. He said that when he returned the hat he met the scientist’s wife and her father. He described the wife as being typically English, but stated that her father was of European extraction and spoke with an accent. He said that on the bell to the apartment house there was the name Cooper or Skinner, as well as the name of the father-in-law. He commented that he would have forgotten this incident had it not been for the recent publicity on Fuchs.” The FBI later confirmed that the names on the bell of 536 West 111th Street appeared as Skinner, Hoffman and Kirsch, and that the apartment was owned by Mrs. Skinner ‘who is presently living in Connecticut’. The report added that ‘she had rented out this apartment to various roomers for the past six years’.

What is one to make of this extraordinary tale? Why was there such a performance around a simple hat? Was there any significance in Erna’s accompanying her husband to New York at that time? What was the role of her father, named Wurmbrand? (Her father was Moishe Michael Wurmbrand, who was born in Sadhora, a suburb of Czernowitz, in 1883 and died in New York in 1952. The claim that Erna was ‘Austrian’, as represented at the National Archives, may have been a convenient fiction, but Bukovina was governed by the Austrian Empire until 1918, after which it lay under Romanian rule until 1940. Skinner’s Wikipedia entry gives her maiden name as ‘Abrahamson’.) Why did Fuchs have to borrow a hat, and why could the Skinners not have picked it up themselves?

A former intelligence officer tells me that he regards the whole episode as an example of complex tradecraft, but, given Cohen’s sure innocence (else he would not have alerted the authorities), it seems a very clumsy effort by Fuchs that risked exposing contacts to the FBI. As I pointed out earlier, when speaking to the FBI, Fuchs identified the property as belonging to Mrs. Skinner, overlooking her husband’s presence. (I believe I misjudged the knowledge of the FBI about Cohen, and his role, in my earlier piece. And the FBI surely was aware of the joint mission of Fuchs and Skinner, although the report, rather dimly, states that ‘it would appear probable that Mrs. Skinner is the wife of Dr. W. H. B. Skinner . . . who was one of the members attending the Declassification Conference  . . .’) Perhaps Cohen was used, as an unwitting and innocent accomplice, to send a message about a completed project from the restaurant to the Skinners – or Erna’s father. Fuchs may have left a message at the restaurant chosen by Cohen, but wanted confirmation of its receipt to be delivered to Erna and her father by an unimpeachable medium. In any case, the incident shows that all the biographers of Fuchs have failed to exploit the considerable information about him in the FBI Vault.

How much did Herbert Skinner himself know what was going on? Why would he not have mentioned this incident to MI5 himself, given the suspicions he later claimed to have had about Fuchs? And why would the FBI not have made some connection? I have found no evidence of it in the obvious places. The FBI’s Robert Lamphere came to London with Hugh Clegg in May 1950, after Fuchs’s conviction, to interview the spy, and extracted from him the photographic recognition of his contact Harry Gold. Lamphere reports that Clegg, who was not familiar with the case, brought a copy of the whole Fuchs file with him, and read it on the plane. But Lamphere does not even mention Skinner in his book, The FBI-KGB Wars.

Skinner comes across as a very complex character. Rudolf Peierls has this to say about him, in Bird of Passage: “His [Cockcroft’s] second-in-command was Herbert Skinner, a well-known experimental physicist, whom we had known since the thirties. He was more forceful in conversation than Cockcroft; he tended to hold strong opinions, often more conservative than those of most physicists, and was never reluctant to make them known. His lively personal contacts with the staff at Harwell made up for Cockcroft’s detachment.” Cockcroft presented him as somewhat self-important, with a tendency to regard himself and his family as specially entitled. Others have described the Skinners’ boisterous parties at Harwell, which were less inhibited than those of the Cockcrofts.  Close describes him as follows: “A lean man with tousled hair, he and his wife Erna shared a bohemian outlook. She had grown up in Berlin between the wars. Both were socialists, like many of the scientists who had worked on the atomic bomb programme, but they also had a cosmopolitan circle of friends in London, all of which interested MI5.”

‘Bohemian’ and ‘cosmopolitan’ – dangerous epithets in the world of security. Yet how are the contrary ideas of ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ explained? Was Skinner a dissembler, working perhaps for some other organisation himself, and playing Philbyesque roles of communist one day, fascist sympathiser the next? Rossiter describes the two occasions, in December 1947 and February 1949, where Skinner confided to Fuchs that he had seen two separate reports from MI6 that indicated that German nuclear scientists had been detected working on a Soviet nuclear bomb at Sukhumi on the Black Sea coast, immediately putting Fuchs on his guard. Why and how would MI6 (SIS) have introduced such reports to a socialist like Skinner? Why would they not have gone to Cockcroft, and why did Skinner think it was suitable to show them to Fuchs, given the suspicions he admittedly harboured about him? Is there another narrative, with Skinner involved as some secret channel by SIS, to be uncovered here? So many questions, still.

It is true that MI5 did maintain a file on Herbert and Erna (see KV 2/2080, 2/2081 & 2/2082 at The National Archives). Yet it was not opened until the end of 1949, when the Fuchs affair was brewing, and MI5 noticed that Erna was associating ‘with a proven Soviet spy’ as well as ‘with persons who are potential spies’. (It was not unknown for MI5 to maintain files on MI6 operatives about whom they were not told anything.) Input from the FBI would have been very appropriate at that time, and it was careless of MI5 not to have recalled the 1947 visit to New York. It would also have been odd if Robert Lamphere did not mention the incident while he was in England. (Maybe he did, of course, but nothing was recorded.) One would think that any possible link that had an aspect of subterfuge should have been followed up. That was what ‘intelligence-sharing’ was about.

In any case, MI5 had by then demanded that Commander Henry Arnold, the Security Officer at Harwell, warn Skinner about such undesirable contacts. The Skinners admitted that they had communist friends, and MI5 considered that it would be safer to move Skinner to Liverpool, thus indicating that MI5’s discomfort over him anteceded Cohen’s revelations. (I shall investigate the whole story about the role of Liverpool University as a rest-home for distressed spies, and how MI5 misrepresented the project to Prime Minister Attlee, in a future article.)

On June 28, 1950, William Skardon interviewed Skinner at Liverpool, and elicited an extraordinary statement from him: “Dr. Skinner was somewhat critical of M.I.5 for having allowed Fuchs, a known Communist, to be employed on the development of Atomic Energy, saying that when they first met the man at Bristol in the 1930’s he was clearly a Communist and a particularly arrogant young pup. He was very surprised to find Fuchs at Harwell when he arrived there to take up his post in 1946.” One might ask what Skinner had done about this, in the fraught post-war world of 1946, with the Cold War under way, and Nunn May having been sentenced a few months before. Skinner was surely responsible for making the key appointments at Harwell. Skardon did in fact ask him, as his report shows: “Of course I asked Skinner whether he had done anything about this, pointing out that we were not psychic and relied upon the loyalty and integrity of senior officers to disclose their objections to the employment of junior members of the staff. He accepted this rebuff.”

Skinner echoed this opinion in a review of Alan Moorehead’s Traitors in The Atomic Scientists’ News : “We should not take on another Pontecorvo, who had never lived in England, or another Fuchs, whom we knew to have been a communist in Germany and who all through the 8 years of his stay in Britain until his employment on the project, had continually consorted with extreme left-wing groups without any attempt to disguise the fact.”  This was a remarkably naïve position for Skinner to take, given his prominence in atomic affairs, and his leading role at Harwell. More alarming, perhaps, was a Liverpool police report from May 10, 1951, sent to Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, that the Chief Constable had received information, from ‘a hitherto most reliable and trustworthy source’, that the Skinners were attending Communist Party meetings. Were they working under cover?

Skinner died in 1960, at the relatively young age of fifty-nine, at a conference in Geneva. Was there anything suspicious about his death? None appears to have been raised. But he was a very paradoxical character, and I do not believe the last word has been uttered on exactly what his role in atomic espionage – either abetting it, or trying to prevent it – had been.

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat

Joseph Rotblat never served on the faculty at Bristol, but his career is so interwoven with that of Peierls and the other émigré scientists that he merits a section here. His life was scarred by an unspeakable tragedy, but he came under suspicion by the FBI when he was posted to Los Alamos.

Rotblat was born in 1908 in Poland. He left Warsaw for Great Britain in 1939, travelling to Liverpool to learn more about the cyclotron being constructed there under James Chadwick’s direction. Chadwick soon awarded Rotblat a fellowship, which now meant that he could afford to bring Ewa, his wife, to the U.K. With the prospect of war looming, he returned to Poland in order to pick up Ewa. She was ill with appendicitis, however, so he reluctantly returned without her. Strenuous efforts to bring her out after the outbreak of war failed. She was killed at Belzec concentration camp, although Rotblat was not to learn this for several years.

Rotblat worked on the Tube Alloys project, although he had never became naturalised. He was nevertheless still allowed to join the Manhattan project at Los Alamos in January 1944, after a waiver had been granted. Committed to the project out of fear that the Germans would acquire the atomic bomb, Rotblat asked to be released when it seemed that the Germans would fail: he reputedly heard from General Groves that the Soviets were now the potential enemy, and his pro-Soviet sympathies rebelled at this prospect.

By this time he had come under suspicion. When he told Chadwick of his desire to return to the UK, Chadwick contacted General Groves, who showed him the contents of the FBI file on him, now available on-line. Exactly what happened cannot be determined from the file, as so many retractions and denials concerning its content occurred later. But Rotblat’s name was later found in Fuchs’s address book, which led to renewed investigations. Rotblat had met in the course of his year at Los Alamos a lady friend from England, in love with Rotblat, who at first indicated to the FBI that Rotblat had had communist sympathies, and wanted to train with the RAF so that he could parachute into Soviet-occupied Poland. That would have been unthinkable, given what he knew. The lady later retracted some of her testimony, and Rotblat apparently managed to convince the authorities that the accusations were baseless.

One final twist on the story is that Rotblat, leaving Los Alamos on Christmas Eve 1944 on a train to Washington and New York, packed a large box with all his personal records in it. After staying with Chadwick in Washington, he discovered in New York that the box was missing. Yet Martin Underwood, in an article for Science and Engineering Ethics in 2013 (‘Joseph Rotblat, the Bomb, and Anomalies for his Archive’) points out that highly confidential papers concerning critical developments at Los Alamos turned up in Rotblat’s archive at Churchill College in Cambridge, showing that Rotblat probably did engage in important work (despite his claim that he was bored and underutilised), and that thus not all his papers were in that mysterious lost box.

Rotblat was a complex character, and his work for the Pugwash Conference led him to a Nobel Prize. He worked closely with Peierls, who had been instrumental in setting up the Soviet-friendly British Association of Atomic Scientists in the early postwar years. Moreover, he was one of those scientists involved in the musical chairs at Liverpool. In 1946 he took up British citizenship, and was appointed acting director of nuclear physics at Liverpool. After Chadwick moved on to become Master of Gonville and Caius College at Cambridge in 1949, and Skinner was appointed his replacement, Rotblat, against Chadwick’s stern advice, left Liverpool to become Professor of Physics at St Bartholomew’s Hospital in London. By then he had learned that Ewa was dead. He was made a Fellow of the Royal Society at the age of eighty-seven, in 1995.

George Placzek

George Plazcek

George Placzek deserves a mention because he was a close collaborator with Peierls. As a resident scientist in Kharkov, working with Landau, he also attended the fateful 1937 conference in Moscow [but see below: the evidence is contradictory]. Yet he is distinctive mainly because he retained a fiercely critical opinion of the Stalinist oppression of scientists, and was outspoken about it when he returned to the West. Placzek was born in 1902 in Moravia, then part of the Austro-Hungarian Empire, and after working in Prague and Vienna, joined Lev Landau’s circle in Kharkov in 1937. There he witnessed some of the persecutions of scientists by Stalin, such as Houtermans, Ruhemann, Weisskopf, and Landau himself. Blessed with a sardonic wit, and a sense of humour, Placzek got himself into trouble. (As a fascinating but irrelevant sidenote in this whole saga of intelligence, Plazcek was to marry Els, the first wife of Hans Halban, the Austrian physicist: Isaiah Berlin married Halban’s second wife. For details, please read Isaiah in Love. Placzek was also involved in performing a security check on Pontecorvo at the time the latter was recruited, on Halban’s recommendation, in Montreal: correspondence from British Security Coordination in Washington was sent to him in March 1943.)

In the book he edited about the travails of scientists in the Soviet Union, Physics in a Mad World, Mikhail Shifman relates an anecdote about Placzek where his subject, having been offered a permanent chair in Kharkov, named five conditions that would have to be fulfilled for him to accept it. The last was that ‘the Khozyain must go’, with a scarcely veiled reference to the Boss, Stalin himself. While most of the small gathering that heard his playful speech were amused, the incident was reported by Ruhemann’s wife, Barbara, to the local Communist Party chief. It thus got back to Stalin, who immediately dubbed him as a Trotskyist. Plazcek managed to get away, unlike some of his colleagues, but he was a marked man.

The difference was that, when Placzek returned to the West, he ruthlessly warned his colleague of the dangers of Stalinism, unlike, for example, Ruhemann, who immediately joined the Communist Party, or Peierls, who maintained an undignified silence. As Shifman writes in Love and Physics: “In England, Fuchs could have discussed the situation with David Shoenberg, professor at the Mond Laboratory at Cambridge, who spent a year in Moscow (from September 1937 to September 1938) and had witnessed the arrest of Landau and hundreds of other innocent scientists and the onset of the Great Terror. Also, he could have spoken with George Placzek, who returned from Kharkov in early 1937; before his departure for the US in 1938 he stayed some time in Copenhagen, London, and Paris to explain the consequences of the communist ideology to the left-leaning colleagues he was in contact with.”

What is especially poignant is the fact that Placzek made several appeals to Peierls to intervene in the cases of incarcerated scientists in the Soviet Union. On September 4, 1938, he wrote to him from Pasadena: “Zunächst möchte ich Sie fragen, was mich der seelige Bucharin fragte, als ich ihn einmal sozusagen im Namen der internationalen Wissenschaft bat, sich dafür einzusetzen, dass Landau ab und zu ins Ausland gelassen werde, nämlich: Ist Ihre Demarche offiziell, offiziös, oder inoffiziell?” (My translation: “I would next like to ask you the question that the late Bukharin asked me, when once, in the name of international science I begged him to stand up for Landau’s being allowed to travel abroad occasionally, namely: Is your initiative official, semi-official, or unofficial?” In his biography of Plazcek, Shifman translates the passage as follows: “First of all, may I ask you, as blessed Bukharin asked me (when once I, so to say, personally represented international science and solicited for Landau, trying to convince Bukharin that they should now and then let him travel abroad), namely: is your démarche official, officious, or unofficial?”)  And, with a little more desperation, from Paris on October 17, 1938: “Ich höre dass der Schönberg jetzt in Cambridge sein soll, wissen Sie etwas authentisches über Dau???” (“I hear that Shoenberg is supposed to be in Cambridge by now, do you know anything authoritative about Landau???”)

Peierls’s response from Birmingham on October 22 was lapidary and vague. “Shoenberg habe ich gesprochen. Ueber Dau hatte er nicht mehr zu berichten, als wir schon wussten (oder jedenfalls befürcheteten). In dieselbe Gruppe gehören auch Rumer und Hellman. Hier in England läuft der Zehden herum, der via Berlin hierher vorgedrungen ist, aber seine russische Frau mit Kind in M. zurücklassen musste, und seit Monaten nicht mehr mit ihr korrespondiert. Es ist eine schöne Welt.” (In Shifman’s translation, from his biography of Placzek: “I spoke to Shoenberg. On Landau, he had nothing more to report than we already knew (or feared). Rumer and Hellman belong to the same group. [Walter] Zehden is running around here in England; he got here via Berlin, but had to leave his Russian wife and child in M[oscow], and hasn’t corresponded with her for months. What a world we live in.” Indeed, Sir Rudolf. [Shifman notes that Hellman, a German-born quantum scientist, had worked at the Karpov Institute in Moscow, was arrested on charges of espionage in March 1938, and shot in May 1938.] Later in the same letter, Peierls says: “I’d rather not write about the political situation. It’s just too annoying. [‘ . . .man ärgert sich doch zu sehr.’]”  That was an understatement, but a revealing one. Hitler’s persecutions and Stalin’s purges – a very tiresome business.

Plazcek also worked at Los Alamos on the Manhattan project. Later, in 1947, he tried to inject a dose of reality into the attempts to gain agreement with the Soviets over mutual inspection of installations working on nuclear weaponry, pouring cold water on the statement, expressed by Gromyko, that foreign inspectors would be allowed to pry around on Soviet territory. It appears he trusted Peierls to the end. And what was his end? He met a premature death in a hotel in Zürich in 1955, at the comparatively young age of fifty. His biographers Gottwald and Shifman ascribe his death to suicide, but was the long arm of Soviet intelligence behind his demise? Did they recall his heretical comments from 1937, and were waiting to pounce? Like Skinner, an unexplained death, far from home, in a Swiss hotel.

Rudolf Peierls

Rudolf Peierls

It thus seems inconceivable that Peierls could have not been aware of Fuchs’s communist allegiance. He worked with him closely, Fuchs lodged with him, they were friends. Frank Close describes Fuchs as ‘like a son’ to Peierls. So how did Peierls explain the situation? I analyse a few of his statements:

  1. “I can believe now that he may have had so much self control as to deceive all those who believed to be his friends. I asked him whether he really believed in the superiority of the Soviet system. His reply was, ‘You must remember what I went through under the Nazis’. I said I quite understood this but I was surprised he still believed in all this at the time we were in America.” (from letter to Commander Burt, received February 6, 1950)
  • “If one takes these statements as genuine, and it is very hard to believe anything else, he has lived all these years hiding his real allegiance, yet at the same time acquiring a genuine and almost passionate interest for his job and building up personal relationships and friendships which were kept quite separate from his secret contacts. One can believe that a man should hold political views of such strong, almost religious, conviction that he should let them override all other considerations, but it is incredible that, at the same time, a man who had never thought for himself and was always ready to go to enormous lengths in the interest of others, should allow himself to become so attached to the people and to allow other people to become so attached to him without seeing what he was doing for them.” (from letter to Niels Bohr, February 14, 1950)
  • “I knew he had left Germany because of his opposition to the Nazis and I respected him for this. I knew of his connection with left-wing student organizations in Germany since at that time the communist controlled organizations were the only ones putting up any active opposition . . .

During all these years we saw much of him. Shy and retiring at first he made many friends and in many conversations politics was, of course, a frequent topic. His views seemed perhaps a little to the left of ours, but he seemed to share the attitude to Communism – and to any kind of dictatorship – of most of his friends. I remember an occasion when he talked to a young man who was in sympathy with communism and in the argument Fuchs was very scornful of the other’s dogmatic views.

When I heard of his arrest I regarded it as quite incredible that anyone should have hidden his real beliefs so well. Looking back it seems that at first he shared in the life of his colleagues and pretended to share their views and attitude only in order to hide his own convictions. But gradually he must have come to believe what was at first only pretence. There must have been a time when he shared one attitude with his colleagues and friends and another with the agents to whom he then still transmitted information, and when he was himself in doubt which of the two was conviction and which was pretence. I do not want to enter into speculations about the state of his mind during all this time. Some have described it as a superb piece of acting, but either way it was certainly quite exceptional.

In the case of Fuchs, they would have had to probe very deeply to disclose his continued adherence to the communist cause and that would have required a depth of human insight that is very hard to achieve.” (from memorandum ‘The Lesson of the Fuchs Case’, March 1950)

  • “The main point was Fuchs had then, although he had changed his mind and allegedly or at least claimed not to be pro-Communist anymore, he still out of a sense of chivalry was refusing to name his contacts and so on, and they thought this was foolish and they expected I would think it foolish too, and they wanted me to urge him to do that – which I tried. I don’t know whether this was a success. Anyway, in the course of this conversation, Commander Burt of Scotland Yard, asked me what sort of man Fuchs had appeared to be and whether we realized what his views were. I said, ‘No, he didn’t say much on political things, but he gave the impression of agreeing with everybody else, being perhaps a little to the left of most of us but not drastically.’ Of course, I knew that as a young man he had been mixed up with a Communist student organization in Germany, but that was understandable and this was very common with young people.” (from interview with Charles Weiner, 1969)
  • “But I needed regular help – someone with whom I would be able to discuss the theoretical technicalities. I looked around for a suitable person, and thought of Klaus Fuchs. He was a German, who as a student had been politically active as a member of a socialist student group (which was essentially communist) and had to flee for his life from the Nazis. He came to England, where he worked with Neville Mott in Bristol, completed his Ph. D., and did some excellent work in the electron theory of metals and other aspects of the theory of solids. I knew and liked his papers, and had met him.

He also asked me whether Fuchs’s pro-communist views had been evident. ‘No’, I said, ‘he never talked much about his political views, but gave the impression he shared our general views. I knew, of course, that he had been strongly left-wing as a student, but that is very common with young people.

I formed the impression that his conversion from communism was genuine. His communist friends in Germany must have instilled in him a rather unfavourable picture of Britain, which life in Bristol and Edinburgh, where he perhaps still associated with left-wing friends, did not dispel.

Perhaps the process of understanding took so long because in our intellectual circles we are curiously shy about saying what we believe. Our style is not to use any words with capital letters. We don’t mind talking about what is wrong and what we want to fight, but we find it much harder to talk about moral principles and about what is right. Our behavior follows quite firm rules, but somehow we feel it is bad taste to spell them out, and they have to be discovered by observing how we act.” (from Bird of Passage, 1985)

It is instructive to examine the probable evolution of Peierls’s thoughts.

At the time of A) he knows that he is under suspicion as well (telephone taps have revealed Genia’s fears). He deems it appropriate to show some initiative with Commander Burt of Special Branch, knowing that the policeman will probably not be familiar with the background of Nazi and Soviet oppression of opposition elements. Peierls no doubt believes that Fuchs’s blatant demonstrations of pro-Soviet views may be forever concealed, so he confidently ascribes Fuchs’s deception of his friends to superlative self-control, thus absolving Peierls (who after all, is a very bright man) of any responsibility for not seeing through his subterfuge. In expressing sympathy for what Fuchs went through Peierls conveniently overlooks what his wife’s family, and the physicists who were murdered by Stalin, underwent, which dwarfed the actual sufferings of Klaus Fuchs.

A little later, in B), he is more reflective. Fuchs’s confession of January 27 made a claim that the spy was subject to a ‘controlling schizophrenia’ which allowed his life to be strictly compartmentalized. This is Fuchs’s excuse for letting down his friends. So Peierls can jump on this self-assessment to his own advantage, while at the same time expressing some sympathy for Fuchs’s commitment and earnestness. Yet the suggestion, to a fellow ‘peace-loving’ scientist, Bohr, that Fuchs possessed some kind of saintly altruism and selflessness is disturbing and irresponsible. It is not surprising that Peierls apparently did not share this confidence with anyone else.

A few weeks later, a more measured statement is required, in C). As an astute political watcher, Peierls has to show a greater awareness of the facts of life, and a slippery equivalence of ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’ is even admitted. He has to admit that he and Fuchs talked politics: after all, the Peierls household saw such lodgers as Bethe, Fröhlich, Frisch, G. E. Brown, even the recently deceased Freeman Dyson, as well as Fuchs, so it would have been difficult to steer the conversation away from politics. Now he indulges in some very fine distinctions: Fuchs’s views are ‘a little left’ from those of the Peierlses, but, in an unlikely aside, Peierls indicates that Fuchs was ‘very scornful’ of a dogmatic communist. In this, he directly contradicts Born’s evidence. Significantly, the episode is undated: in the thirties, through the Spanish Civil War, right up until the Nazi-Soviet pact, it would have been very appropriate in intellectual circles for enthusiasm for Communism as the ‘bulwark against Fascism’ to be expressed.

So what were Fuchs’s ‘real beliefs’ that he hid so well from Peierls? A loyalty to Stalin instead of an honest commitment to principles of the Bolshevik revolution? This reflection allows Peierls to make an artificial distinction between ‘his colleagues and friends’ and ‘the agents to whom he still transmitted information’, when Peierls must have known that there would not have been much time for idle political chit-chat during the encounters when Fuchs passed on his secrets, and was aware that he still mingled with  communist sympathisers, and had promoted his views unrestrainedly, such as at Bristol and Edinburgh universities, and in the internment camp in Canada. Thus he creates a cover for himself, suggesting that the authorities would have had to be very tenacious to detect Fuchs’s adherence to the communist cause when a relatively simple investigation would have revealed his political cause.

By the time of D), the crisis has blown over.  The complete text of the interview shows that Weiner was a very persistent interrogator, but he was not well-prepared on the Fuchs case. Peierls can dispose of Fuchs’s communism as a student entanglement, and represents the state of being ‘strongly left-wing’ as an affectation of young people, predominantly, calmly overlooking the fact that, in the 1930s, it was almost a required disposition of the intellectually ‘progressive’ academic body. In contrast to his statement of almost twenty years before (when politics was a ‘frequent topic of conversation’) Peierls now minimizes the time he and Fuchs talked politics, since Fuchs ‘didn’t say much on political things’. Moreover, he can diminish Fuchs’s involvement with the communist organisation in Germany, describing Fuchs’s role as being ‘mixed up’ with it, as if he were a respectable youth who had, ‘fallen in with the wrong crowd’, and become a delinquent, as one occasionally reads in the words of regretful parents. Yet such persons are part of the crowd, and are thus responsible.

This strain continues in Peierls’s autobiography in E), written sixteen years later. Moreover, Peierls can now afford to be cavalier with the chronology. His comment about looking around for ‘a suitable person’ overlooks the fact that Fuchs had been identified for early deportation from Canada in the summer of 1940, that Peierls and Born had discussed his recruitment, and that Fuchs knew, as early as January 1941, when he first met Simon Kremer, that he would have access to important information on nuclear physics. On the other hand, it is true that Peierls met Fuchs at Bristol, and collaborated with him. A letter from Nevill Mott to Peierls, dated December 4, 1936, invites Peierls to add his name to a paper produced primarily by Fuchs. Peierls declines.

And Peierls reinforces the illusion of political discussions, let alone articulation of extreme views. He echoes the notion that strong left-wing views are primarily the province of young people, and gives the impression that the young firebrand had mellowed, and shared the opinions of Peierls’s circle –  ‘our general views’. But again, he provides no date, and Peierls had gained a reputation for encouraging and harbouring communists at Birmingham University. He continues the lazy distinction between ‘left-wing’ and ‘communist’, but then indulges in some very complacent pipe-dreaming. Peierls is by now part of the establishment, the academic elite: he is an English gentleman. Thus he romantically starts to refer to ‘our intellectual circles’ –  the senior common-room at New College, Oxford, in the 1970s, presumably –  as if it were indistinguishable from the 1930s hothouses of Bristol, Cambridge, or Birmingham. That delicate English sensitivity in refraining from hard ideologies now provides cover for his group’s not quickly winkling out Fuchs’s traitorous impulses.  Peierls is now safe.

Thus Peierls, in the multiple roles of his public, private and secret lives, experienced all four of the traits I listed above. He had to present to the outside world the notion that he was not aware that Fuchs was a Communist. He had to convince the authorities selecting the Tube Alloys team that any suspicions of Fuchs’s ultra left-wing views did not present a danger, or reason for disqualification. He had to recoil from any exposure of Fuchs’s activities because of the threats that the Soviet regime made on Genia’s family. He had to conceal his own very real preferences for recruiting communist sympathisers to his team.

Peierls’s Naturalization

The last, highly important item, in the case against Peierls is his failure to tell the truth in his application for British citizenship. I pointed out, in Chapter 1 of this report, how a 1989 letter of his, to L. I. Volodarskaya, admitted that he had travelled to the Soviet Union several times in the 1930s. These visits had probably been concealed by dint of their being inserted into extended journeys to Copenhagen, to see Bohr and Placzek. In his statement (undated, viewable at KV 2/1658-1, but certainly accompanying his May 17, 1938 application for naturalisation), Peierls records the visits he made abroad between 1933 and 1938. The list includes a ‘holiday trip to the Caucases’ [sic] in 1934, and attendance at a Conference on Nuclear Physics in Moscow in 1937. He had much to hide.

It is worthwhile trying to define the sequence of events that led to his naturalization. For some reason, in Bird of Passage, Peierls does not describe the application. He writes of it only: “Our position improved further, quiet unexpectedly, when in February 1940 my naturalisation papers came through.” Yet in a letter to Professor Appleton, dated September 13, 1939 (written thus by a German subject after the outbreak of war), he explains that he first made his application in May 1938. We should recall that that date was immediately after his return from a holiday in Copenhagen, where an observant customs officer noticed the 1937 Soviet stamp in his German passport, and Peierls had been very evasive over the reason for his visit. He had got away with it, but perhaps that was an alarm call. Maybe Moscow had told him to acquire UK citizenship. Peierls never explained why or when he made the decision.

One might imagine that the idea of reprisals governed the timing. While Genia’s family was evidently undergoing threats in the Soviet Union, Rudolf’s father, Heinrich, and second wife, Else, were still resident in Nazi Germany in 1938. A too precipitous rejection of German citizenship might have caused repercussions for Heinrich and Else. Yet, according to Sabine Lee, Rudolf’s father and step-mother did not get permission to leave Germany, and be admitted to the UK, until early 1939. Peierls wrote that his father had been reluctant to leave Germany, because of his age, health, and lack of other languages, but that ‘in 1938, he finally decided to leave’. It does not seem as if it was as simple as that, but Heinrich and Else were able to join Heinrich’s brother, Siegfried, in New York in 1940.

The processing of the application took an inordinately long time. Peierls clearly believed that he would have to record the 1937 visit in his outline of foreign travel, and thus more boldly described the conference in Moscow about which he had been so sheepish a month before. He would have had, at some stage, to submit his German passport (which was to expire on May 17, 1939) to the UK authorities, but that apparently did not happen for some while, as the record from the Letters indicates he paid at least two more visits to Copenhagen that year. Peierls himself twice states, in his memoir, that he paid ‘several visits to Copenhagen’ in 1938). Yet, if his own admission elsewhere is correct about other undocumented visits to the Soviet Union in the 1930s, they must have been undertaken with a forged Soviet passport in order to leave and return to Copenhagen. (One wonders, also, whether an alien in the process of applying for citizenship would have been allowed to leave the country at all.)

The archive is very sketchy about what happened next, and some of the few documents that have survived have been redacted. One letter of December 8, 1938, reporting to the Chief Constable of Cambridge, lays out the positive outcome of an inquiry into Peierls’s credentials. Page 2 of a chronology laying out the processing of the request appears, and runs as follows (enigmatically, Page 1 is missing):

19.12.38 Confirms residence at Stockport

13.5.39 Positive interviews with Peierls’s referees

31.8.39 Application from Peierls for permit to join in A. R. P. (Air Raid Precaution) work

10.10.39 Peierls and wife exempted from internment

21.2.40 Fee of £9 paid for Certification of Naturalization

23.3.40 Oath of Allegiance received from Peierls

2.4.40 Naturalization granted

On July 18, 1939, Peierls wrote to the German Embassy, asking whether he could renounce his German citizenship before his naturalization papers came through, but received a dampening reply that he could only do that if he submitted birth certificates, which were, of course, already in the hands of the British authorities. And then, a remarkable revelation appears: on August 31, Peierls wrote to the Home Office, with some obvious – but subdued – frustration, trying to determine where his application stood. (This is presumably what the item above refers to.) “I am therefore writing now to ask whether there is any way of obtaining a statement to the effect that my application for naturalization is being considered, or some other statement which might make it possible for me to enroll [in any ARP service]”, he wrote. Was it really possible that, after fifteen months, Peierls had received no acknowledgment that his application was even being considered? Peierls does not record these events, either.

Perhaps the only conclusions that can be drawn from this saga is that there existed a strong reluctance to naturalize German scientists until war was imminent, or even under way. Yet a period between May 1938 and the outbreak of war in September 1939 for sitting on an application, with neither a rejection nor an approval, seems very odd. Were there some witnesses who made objections, aware perhaps of his connections and sympathies – even of his unadmitted travel to the Soviet Union? After all, someone decided to place the customs officer’s report on file –  a highly selective but broad hint from the authorities to us researchers, perhaps. Peierls again is very coy: he does not comment on the long period of waiting, or even suggest to Appleton that the delay is unreasonable. He must have been anxious not to appear peevish or querulous, as any more detailed inquiry might have upset the applecart. As it was, his collaboration with Frisch, and Appleton’s important role as Secretary of the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, and awareness of what he and Frisch were doing, saved him.

In their book A Matter of Intelligence, MI5 and the Surveillance of anti-Nazi Refugees 1933-1950, Charmian Brinson and Richard Dove sum up the episode as follows: “Peierls’ perceived importance in British atomic research can be measured by his successful application for British naturalisation. His work was considered so valuable to the war effort that he was granted British citizenship as early as [sic!] March 1940: a rare distinction, since naturalisation had been formally suspended for the duration of the war and was permitted only in exceptional circumstances.” Given what we know now (but which Peierls himself did not reveal), we might ask instead: ‘What took them so long?’

Conclusions

What was it that drew so many scientists to the communist cause? Winston Churchill spoke of the Nazis’ use of ‘perverted science’ in his ‘Finest Hour’ speech, but at that time the observation could more appropriately have been directed at Joseph Stalin. It was as if the slogan ‘the communist experiment’, in which millions of human beings were treated like laboratory rats in the quest to build Soviet man took on a respectability that merited the endorsement of the western scientific world. Yet an initiative to exploit their naivety was surely undertaken.

If I were an avid conspiracy theorist, I would be tempted to point out some alarming coincidences in the events that led to Fuchs’s betrayal of his naturalised allegiance, and his passing on of atomic secrets to the Soviets. I would refer to Ronald Gunn’s predecessor visit to the Soviet Union in 1932, and his sponsorship of Fuchs’s establishment in the UK. I would allude to the fact that Yakov Frenkel invited Peierls, Mott and Fröhlich to the conference in Odessa in 1934. I would point out that some unusual circumstances allowed all three to be installed in influential academic positions that they might otherwise not have achieved. Peierls was able to use the funding released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union to gain his position at the Cavendish Laboratory. Mott was appointed professor, at a very young age, for a position for which he had to receive technical guidance from Skinner at Bristol, because of the influence of his schoolfriend, Ronald Gunn, and the encouragement of Skinner himself. Peierls helped locate funding for Fröhlich to work under Mott after Fröhlich’s extraordinary escape from the Soviet Union. And then Gunn introduced Fuchs to Mott, who protected him, and then arranged his transfer to Edinburgh, again using special funding.

Rudolf Peierls was thus caught up in this maelstrom. True, he made some personal questionable decisions (as well as some good ones), but he was also inveigled into a conspiracy not of his direct choosing. This resulted, I believe, in his living a lie, and I know that he wrote a very dishonest memoir. I suspect the internal pressure on him may have been even greater than that on Fuchs, who, despite some superficial softening in his exposure to a liberal democracy, remained a hardened communist. Yet Peierls’s career, for all its achievement, was essentially dishonourable.

I received several notes of appreciation after I published Part 1 of this report on Peierls. I did not receive – even confidentially – any complaints over, or criticisms of, my conclusions about the probable explanation for the strange behavior of Rudolf and Genia. That may have been, of course, because no one who might challenge my thesis actually read the piece. Or it might mean that they read it, but did not want to draw any undesirable attention to it. (I suspect that Frank Close and Sabine Lee have read it, and even introduced it to the Peierls offspring. But maybe not.) My intention has not been to single Peierls out, and malign him, for the sake of rabble-rousing, and I have expressed a measure of sympathy for his probable plight. My goal, however, has been to stir up the complacent and lazy official and authorised historians, and the fawning biographers, and the custodians of MI5’s official memory. I want to encourage them to reach beyond the obvious, and question the very misleading memoirs, autobiographies and testimonies to their biographers made by such as Peierls, Berlin, White, Jebb, Philby, Foote, Sillitoe, Wright, etc. etc., instead of treating them as reliable archival material. I want them to amend their incomplete and erroneous accounts of how the realm was let down by a very shoddy security and counter-espionage system, and that continuing to try to conceal the facts performs a gross disservice to the historiography of British Intelligence. But not just that – to the history of the United Kingdom itself.


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The Mysterious Affair at Peierls (Part 1)

Rudolf Peierls

(Sir Rudolf Peierls was a German-born British scientist whose memorandum, co-authored with Otto Frisch in early 1940, helped convince the British authorities that an atomic bomb was a possibility. He later earned some notoriety by recruiting Klaus Fuchs to what was called the ‘Tube Alloys’ project. Fuchs then proceeded to betray secrets about the development of nuclear weaponry to his Soviet controllers, both in the UK and the USA. He was identified by decrypted Soviet Embassy traffic in 1949, persuaded to confess, and in early 1950 was convicted of offences against the Official Secrets Act.)

‘The British Connection’

One of the rarest books in my library must be a volume titled The British Connection, by Richard Deacon, which appeared in 1979. It looks to be a harmless publication, subtitled Russia’s Manipulation of British Individuals and Institutions – a subject obviously close to my research interests. I recall buying it via abebooks a few years ago, from Bradford Libraries, Archives and Information Services. A stamp indicates that it was ‘withdrawn’ at some stage, but the fact that it had been issued its Dewey categorization number, 327.120947, suggests that it may have rested on the library shelves for a while. A small square of paper stuck to the inside of the back cover includes the numbers 817 563 779 5, and the letters W/D handwritten underneath. Perhaps an enterprising young librarian decided to place it in the archive, and later, when all memory of the surrounding events had passed, the authorities decided to sell off surplus stock.

For all copies of The British Connection were supposed to have been withdrawn and pulped. The publishers, Hamish Hamilton, under threat from a lawsuit by Sir Rudolf Peierls, submitted to the claim that a libel had been written against the physicist’s good name. As Peierls himself wrote of Deacon’s book, in his 1985 memoir Bird of Passage (pp 324-325):

“It contained many unsubstantiated allegations against well-known people, including, for example, a completely unfounded slur on Lise Meitner, the well-known nuclear physicist. But nearly all the individuals mentioned were no longer alive, since in English law there is no libel against dead people. But for some reason the author thought I was dead, too, and made some extremely damning and quite unjustified statements about me.

Because of this I was able to take legal action very early, and a writ was served on the publishers and the author a few days after publication. The matter was settled out of court very promptly; the distribution of the book was stopped at once, so that the few copies that were sold are now collector’s items. I received a ‘substantial sum’ by way of damages. The speed of action was impressive: the settlement was announced in the High Court just thirteen days after I first consulted my solicitors. The publishers could have reissued the book in amended form, but they decided to abandon it.”

A few copies must have escaped, however, which makes one wonder how rigorous the process was. The Spectator even managed to commission the journalist Andrew Boyle (the author of The Climate of Treason) to review it. In its issue of July 21, 1979, in a piece titled Unnamed Names,   
(http://archive.spectator.co.uk/article/21st-july-1979/19/unnamed-names ), Boyle drew attention to the book’s ‘unsightly scar tissues of transplanting and overhasty cutting’. He expressed doubts about Deacon’s allegations concerning Pigou, Tomàs Harris and Clark Kerr, but overlooked the Peierls references. The British Connection is still available at several second-hand booksellers, and also at prominent libraries, so Peierls may have been misled about the severity of the censors’ role.

I cited this whole incident in Misdefending the Realm (pp 206-207), but believe now that I identified the wrong passage as the offensive slur. I concentrated on Deacon’s statement that ‘Peierls was one of the first to be suspected’ (after the acknowledgment by the British government that there had been leakages by scientists to the Russians), and pointed out that it was an undeniable fact that Peierls had come under suspicion, as the voluminous records on Peierls at the National Archives prove. Yet, after I sent scans of the relevant pages to Frank Close, the biographer of Bruno Pontecorvo and Klaus Fuchs (who had not been able to read the book), we realized, when I discussed the text with him, that another passage was probably much more sensitive. (Three years ago, Close shared some thoughts with me about the passage, but asked me not to promulgate them. These comments thus represent my own reactions.)

I shall not quote Deacon’s statements verbatim – which might be construed as repeating a libel, even though the victim is dead. He implied that a source of intelligence on the atom spies in the late 1940s was Alexander Foote, whom regular readers of this website will recognize as an important figure in the saga of ‘Sonia’s Radio’. Foote had been trained as a wireless operator by Sonia, and had worked in Switzerland as an illicit transmitter during the war until his incarceration in 1943. After the war, he had been summoned to the Soviet Union, a directive he bravely accepted, where the KGB/GRU grilled him. Convinced of his loyalty, however, Moscow then despatched him on a mission to South America. Foote ‘defected’ to the British in Berlin in July 1947. He was interrogated, and then brought back to Britain. (See Sonia’s Radio: Part VI)

The essence of Deacon’s information was a ‘hitherto unpublished’ statement made by Foote, who had been extremely upset by the perceived lack of interest in what he had to say to his interviewers (or interrogators) from MI5 after his experiences in Moscow. Foote claimed he was obstructed in his attempts to warn the Home Secretary of the fact that MI5 had been negligent in its surveillance of Ursula (Sonia) and her husband, Len Beurton, despite repeated approaches through private letters and interviews to members of Parliament. The most provocative claim that Deacon listed was that Foote had been fully aware, by the late 1940s, that the important figures in Zabotin’s network in the USA and Canada were Nunn May and Fuchs, and that Foote also believed that Peierls had also played a role in this network, although not such a risky one as Fuchs or May. Had Foote picked up this intelligence in Moscow? In any case, this was probably the accusation that provoked Peierls to invoke his solicitors.

One needs to be a bit careful with Foote. He no doubt had a grudge with the way he had been treated by MI6 (who, I believe, had been his employers), and probably expected to be treated as a hero on his return, rather than with the evident suspicion that he faced, mainly from MI5 officers who were not aware of his MI6 connections. He was also probably by then under a death-sentence from Moscow, which must have disturbed his equilibrium. Yet his personal loyalties were not as clear-cut as he made out. One of Deacon’s key statements is that ‘Foote himself was convinced that the vital information he gave the British authorities concerning the Beurtons, then living in Oxford, was passed back to the couple through someone in MI5 so that they were able to escape to East Germany before action was taken.’ We now know that MI5 had kept a watch of some sorts on the Beurtons, and evidently knew what they were up to – but chose to do nothing – and that Sonia and Len made their escape to East Germany immediately they heard of Fuchs’s arrest. No ‘action’ was ever intended, as MI5 knew what the Beurtons were up to when Foote broke the news to them. And, presumably out of affection for his instructor in Switzerland, Foote himself had vicariously sent a warning message to Sonia.

I carefully stated in Misdefending the Realm that I believed that Peierls was never engaged in direct espionage himself, but that he was probably an ‘agent of influence’ who, for whatever reasons, abetted Fuchs in his efforts to steal atomic secrets. I have identified multiple patterns of activity and testimony that contribute to this opinion, not least of which is the fact that a file exists at The National Archives (or, more correctly, in some government office, presumably the Home Office) that is titled ‘Espionage Activities by Individuals: Rudolf Peierls and Klaus Fuchs’, and is identified as HO 523/3. The record has been retained by the Government Department in question: I have made a Freedom of Information Request, but am not hopeful that it will be declassified because of my beseechings. What intrigues me is that the title does not say ‘Suspected Espionage . . .’ or ‘Investigation into Claims of Espionage . . .’, but simply ‘Espionage Activities’. If Deacon’s claims can still be considered erroneous, is it not strange that the British authorities would publicize the fact that they have retained a file that explicitly makes the same claim that he did?

Other documentary evidence that cries out for a re-assessment of Peierls’s role consists of the following: his own memoir, which elides over, or misrepresents, some very important events in his life; the large files at The National Archive that are publicly available, which point out many contradictions in his and his wife’s stories; the FBI files on Peierls and his wife that point out contradictions in their stories; the memoirs and biographies of other scientists, which highlight some anomalies, especially in Peierls’ awareness of Fuchs’s early communist activities, and whether he ignored them; accounts from the former Soviet Union, which point out a distressing way in which western scientists were manipulated and threatened; facts concerning Peierls’ courting of, marriage to, and escape with, his wife, who was born in Leningrad; and the details of Peierls’ highly controversial visits to the Soviet Union, including one at the peak of the Great Terror, in 1937, that he attempted to conceal at the time. It is the last two aspects on which I focus in this coldspur article.

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Moisei Uritsky

On August 30, 1918, Moisei Uritsky, the head of the Petrograd branch of the Russian secret police, the Cheka, was murdered by a young Socialist-Revolutionary. The next day (according to some accounts, a couple of weeks later, according to others, confusion over which may be attributable to hesitation over adopting the New Style calendar), another Socialist-Revolutionary, Fanya Kaplan, fired at Lenin himself, seriously wounding him, but not mortally. She was very short-sighted, and may have struggled to line up her target. These two events provoked Lenin to activate what has been called the ‘Red Terror’ – a frightful orgy of executions of thousands who could be considered enemies of the Bolsheviks. Robert Service, in his History of Twentieth-Century Russia, wrote: “According to official records, 12,733 prisoners were killed by the Cheka in 1918-19; but other estimates put the figure as high as 300,000.”

Some histories suggest that Lenin had been preparing for a fierce campaign of elimination of groups hostile to the Revolution for a while beforehand, and that he might even have set up the assassination of Uritsky as a justification for extreme measures. (Uritsky had been a Menshevik before joining the Bolsheviks, so he might have been considered expendable.) Uritsky had, however, gained a reputation for extreme cruelty, and enjoying the task of murdering aristocrats and members of the bourgeoisie. The man who killed him, with only one of eighteen shots finding his target, was a military cadet named Leonid Kannegiesser, a sensitive bisexual poet. Kannegiesser had been embittered and enraged when Uritsky killed his boyfriend in the Army, Victor Pereltsweig, that summer. Robert Payne, in his biography of Lenin, stated that Kannegiesser had also been revolted by the treaty of Brest-Litovsk, and the fact that so many of the Bolsheviks were Jewish. Kannegiesser was cool enough to have spoken to Uritsky on the telephone the day he killed him, and to have played chess with his father an hour before the deed.

Leonid Kannegiesser

The Kannegiesser household had been a popular venue for artists and poets to meet. In his study Marina Tsvetaeva, The Woman, Her World, and Her Poetry, Simon Karlinsky writes: “The Kannegiser [sic: many variant spellings exist] home was a major artistic and literary center of the northern capital. Numerous writers of the Russian emigration were to remember it in their memoirs. Tsvetaeva saw a great deal of the Kannegiser family during that visit and became especially friendly with the elder son, Sergei. But she also got to meet the younger son, Leonid, a budding poet and a close friend of the celebrated peasant poet Sergei Esenin. (Tsvetaeva strongly intimates in ‘An Otherworldly Evening’ that Esenin and Kannegiser were lovers at the time of her visit, a supposition supported by a close reading of their respective poems of the summer of 1916.)”

After the attack, Kannegiesser escaped by bicycle to the English Club. Some reports say that he was a British spy, and Bruce Lockhart, in his Memoirs of a British Agent, recounts how, immediately after the attacks, he and Captain Hicks were arrested and taken to the Lubianka under suspicion of being accomplices. In any case, Kannegiesser was quickly arrested when he reappeared from the Club in a longcoat, a weak disguise. After torture, he was executed in October 1918. Yet his guilt and ignominy spread further, both among his artistic circle and his immediate family. In her record of the time Memories: From Moscow to the Black Sea, Teffi (the pseudonym of Nadezhda Lokhvitskaya), the author wrote that Kannegiesser contacted her a few days before the assassination, hinting that he was being followed, and that he did not want his pursuers to be able to track him to Teffi’s apartment. The poet Marina Tsvetsaeva explained in her Earthly Signs that Kannegiesser had been a childhood friend, and when she mentions it on a mission to barter goods for grain soon after Uritsky’s death, a Communist severely reproaches her. Nadezhda Mandelstam, in Hope Against Hope, relates how her husband Osip had met Kannegiesser, shortly before the deed, in Boris Pronin’s Stray Dog, which was a cabaret/club where all the leading poets of the day got together to recite. These associations surely tainted the police-record of Kannegiesser’s friends.

Reprisals were swift. Ivan Bunin, in Cursed Days, wrote that ‘a thousand absolutely innocent people’ were killed in retaliation for the murder of Uritsky. Kannegiesser’s telephone book was found on him, with nearly five hundred names in it, with the result that many of his relatives and friends, and other people in the list, were immediately arrested. Mark Aldanov, who also knew Kannegiesser well, and published an account of the event from Paris in the 1920s, wrote that a thousand persons were killed in two days in early September. Kannegiesser’s father was taken in the same day of the murder: his aunt’s second husband (Isai Mandelstam, a distant relation of the famous poet, Osip) the following day. His parents (Ioachim and Rosa, née Saker) were interrogated for months before being released in December, and they would be persecuted for years. Kannegiesser’s older brother, Sergey, had committed suicide in 1917, but the no doubt distraught couple was allowed to leave the country in 1924 with their sole remaining child Elisaveta (who would later die in Auschwitz). Isai Mandelstam was exiled and persecuted for decades. He was lucky, I suppose, not to have been shot, unlike Osip, who died on his way to the camps, in 1938.

Iochaim Kannegiesser, an engineer, was the son of Samuil Kannegiesser, a medical doctor, and Rosalia Mandelstam, who lived in St. Petersburg. To show how tightly bound the families of Kannegiesser and Mandelstam were (interleaving with the Levins and Bloks, also), Rosalia’s brother Benedikt, who married one Zhanetta Gurevich, had three offspring, one of whom, Elena, married Rosalia’s son, Alexander – from her second marriage to Avram Blok –  while another was the same Isai mentioned earlier. [See the family tree below for clarification.] Moreover, Samuil and Rosalia had another son, Nikolai, who became a famous gynaecologist. He married Maria (another Levin), and had two daughters. But the genealogical record shows that Nikolai had another daughter, Olga, whose mother was apparently named ‘Kennegiesser’ (another variant). Whether from a previous marriage, or a child born out of wedlock, is not clear. Nikolai died from septicaemia in 1909, and his widow then married Isai Mandelstam, the very same individual mentioned above. Isai was an electrical engineer, but he had a flair for languages, and engaged in translations of western classics for much of his life.

Nikolai’s premature death, at the age of 43, meant that his first daughter, Eugenia, was not yet two when he died, while his second daughter, Nina was born posthumously. Eugenia became a physics student at the University of Leningrad (as St. Petersburg, next Petrograd, had now been named), and was an exact contemporary of the future Nobelist Lev Landau. The two of them joined up with other young physicists, George Gamow, Dmitri Ivanenko, and, later on, Matvei Bronstein, in a group known as the ‘Jazz Band’. Bronstein was killed in the purges of 1938; Landau was arrested the same year and freed only on the intervention of the influential and courageous physicist Pyotr Kapitza; Ivanenko was arrested in 1935, but survived until 1994. In 1930, from August 19th to the 24th, the All-Union Congress of Physicists was held in Odessa. It was attended by Eugenia Kannegiesser, Gamow and Landau, as well as by several foreign guests. Amongst these was Rudolf Peierls, attending as an assistant to the Austrian theoretical physicist Wolfgang Pauli, who was introduced to Eugenia. They fell in love, were married in Leningrad the following year, and after some bureaucratic hassles and delays, were allowed to emigrate at the end of 1931.

The Kannegiesser-Mandelstam Family Tree

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You could have searched in vain for published details of Rudolf Peierls’s connection with the assassin of Moishe Uritsky, and the revenge harboured by Lenin and Stalin against the kin of murderers of the Bolshevik vanguard. Both his Wikipedia entry and his citation in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biograph, simply refer to his encounter with Genia, and their subsequent marriage. In his memoir Bird of Passage, written as late as 1985, Peierls merely ascribes his invitation to Odessa, even though he was not at that time a scientist of renown, to Yakov Frenkel, a prominent member of the Ioffe Physico-Technical Institute in Leningrad. (Abram Ioffe was also at the conference in Odessa.) Peierls describes how he met Genia (‘a recent physics graduate’) on the beach at Lusanovka, but does not mention George Gamow in this context, even though a photograph from the Segré archive shows him, Gamow and Ioffe talking together in Odessa. Gamow and Genia had been close friends for a while, as the photograph below, taken from Gamow’s autobiography, shows.

George Gamow, Eugenia Kannegiesser & Lev Landau (from Gamow’s ‘My World Line’

(The very perceptive follower of these events might have noticed, in an article by Sabine Lee in the Winter 2002 issue of Intelligence and National Security titled The spy that never was, an observation that Peierls ‘had enough reasons for hating their [the Soviets’] system like poison’, with a clarification relegated to a footnote that ran as follows: “His wife’s family had been persecuted by the Stalinist regime, because one of her cousins had been an outspoken counter-revolutionary who had assassinated the then head of the Russian secret policy [sic], Uritzky.” The author, who did not delve deeply into the matter, and was clearly echoing what Peierls himself wrote, used as her source the letter to Viscount Portal found in the Peierls Private Papers held at the Bodleian: the MI5 files on Genia and Rudolf were not declassified until 2004. I shall return to Lee’s article later.)

Thus the account of the couple’s courtship, and trials in managing to gain a visa for Genia, must be viewed with some scepticism. Later, Peierls wrote of a time in 1934: “It was in their [the Shapiros’] house that we awaited a telephone call from Leningrad that brought us some disturbing news. Genia’s parents and her sister, Nina, had been exiled from the city to a small town some distance east of Moscow. One did not have to ask for a reason for this order; exile or arrest were then hazards that struck people at random, like lightning or disease. One tended to speculate about what factors might have contributed to this result, but this would never be known.” This can now be seen as disingenuousness of a high order – and it was before the assassination of Kirov, which did provoke more reprisals. Frank Close, in commenting on Genia’s reaction to Fuchs’s arrest in Trinity, states simply: “In Russia, members of Genia’s family had been incarcerated on the whims of the authorities.” There was random terror in Stalin’s Russia, but Stalin’s organs carried out more carefully targeted campaigns. Peierls undoubtedly knew the reasons.

I had found only one clue indicating that Peierls ever admitted that a dark cloud hung over his relationship with the Soviet government. It is to be found in one of the files on Peierls at the National Archives, namely KV 2/1662. After accusations had been made against Peierls in early 1951 because of his association with two academics at Birmingham University, known to be communists (referred to as ‘Prof. P’ – certainly Roy Pascal, and ‘Dr. B.’  – possibly the economist Alexander Baykov, but more probably Gerry Brown, a former Communist Party member in America, whom Peierls, shortly after Fuchs’s sentencing, had invited to a post at Birmingham University), in April 1951 Peierls had a conversation with Viscount Portal about the relationships. Portal had been chief of the Air Staff during World War II, and was Controller of Production (Atomic Energy) at the Ministry of Supply from 1946 to 1951. In a letter he sent to Portal after their conversation (the same one identified by Sabine Lee), Peierls tried to defend himself against the accusations, suggesting his associations were harmless or short-lived, and then presented the following tentative declaration:

“On the other hand, is it known that my wife is the cousin of Kannegiesser, a counter-revolutionary who assassinated Uritsky, who was then head of the Russian secret police? With the same, very rare surname, she was never allowed to forget this connection. It is known that her family was banished from Leningrad in 1935, partly because of this connection, and partly no doubt because of her marriage to a foreigner. They have not dared communicate with her for several years, and we do not know whether they are still alive.”

Peierls misstates Uritsky’s level of responsibility, but this paragraph is highly important. The scientist used this strange admission to shed doubt about the credibility and intelligence of his accusers, yet dug a pit of his own in so doing. The statement is to me remarkable, for the following reasons:

  1. His feigned ignorance as to whether the authorities [presumably] knew about Genia’s connection with Leonid. If he had not volunteered the information at any time, why would he expect them to know? And yet, if he seriously considered that it was the responsibility of intelligence organisations to uncover such facts, why was he not surprised that he had not been challenged by the association, given all that had recently happened?
  2. The claim that Genia was ‘never allowed to forget this connection’. Given that Peierls’ stance was that he and his wife were in complete ignorance of the persecution of her family members, what agency or person was constantly reminding her of the connection? True, she and Rudolf made a return visit to Leningrad in 1934, where she would have learned from her sister and her mother what was happening, but in 1937, at the height of the terror, Peierls went to Moscow alone. Was Genia in touch with members of the Soviet Embassy, and were those the persons who continued to threaten her, and presumably kept her informed on the fate of her relatives?
  3. The deliberate vagueness of ‘it is known that her family was banished from Leningrad in 1935’. Known by whom? Peierls claimed that, during his oppressive visit to a physics conference in Moscow in 1937, he managed to engineer a meeting with Genia’s sister Nina, who would have updated him on Stalin’s persecution. (Indeed, Stalin probably arranged for this meeting himself, as it would have been fatal for Nina otherwise, Peierls at that time being considered a German spy. I shall discuss this unlikely sequence of events later.) But who else would have known about this state of affairs, unless Peierls himself chose to tell them?
  4. When Peierls came to write his memoir, over thirty years later, he chose to overlook this particular exchange as he told his life-story, no doubt believing that the unfortunate episode and its aftermath were safely buried by then. Perhaps he thought the letter to Viscount Portal would never come to light.

We have no exact record of how Portal responded, but the outcome was favourable for Peierls. (The story of revenge executed on family members of defectors and enemies should have been known to MI5: Walter Krivitsky’s three brothers-in-law were killed after he and his second wife Tonia escaped to Canada, and he published his articles denouncing Stalin.)  By March 1954, F3 in MI5 was able to confirm the Uritsky story, but also concluded that there was no doubt as to Peierls’s loyalty. Rudolf Peierls was knighted in 1968, and a succession of honours and medals followed. He died in 1995. In 2004, the building housing the sub-department of Theoretical Physics at Oxford University was named the Rudolf Peierls Centre.

I had essentially finished the research that appears above by October 1 of this year. That day the book Love and Physics landed on my doorstep. Subtitled The Peierlses, it was published earlier this year, and is the work of a professional Russian-speaking theoretical physicist, Mikhail Shifman, now a professor at the University of Minnesota. (From information in Shifman’s book, I have been able to extend the details on the family tree I created, which is richer than the one Shifman offers, but not so extended. Otherwise, the research is my own.) Love and Physics is a valuable addition to the Peierls lore, since it combines letters written between Rudolf and Genia (extracted from Sabine Lee’s compilation of the correspondence), items from Rudolf’s diaries, reminiscences from such as Genia’s sister, Landau’s students, and the Peierlses’ friends, as well as archival material from both Russian, American and English sources (including the complete text of the notable letter to Viscount Portal quoted earlier.) Remarkably, it also contains the text of letters sent by Genia’s mother and stepfather, exiled to Ufa, from 1936, and a photograph of a postcard sent by Genia on November 25, 1936 to them. This correspondence presumably ended with the onset of the Great Terror, but the Soviet censors were surely familiar with its contents.

Yet Shifman singularly fails to interpret the material synthetically. The volume is essentially a scrapbook – a very rich scrapbook, but still a scrapbook. (I learned towards the end of this month that Love and Physics has been withdrawn by its publisher, because of copyright infringements. So now I own another rarity.) The various escapes (of the Peierlses, of Gamow, even of Landau) are ascribed to miraculous intervention. Shifman sees no anomalies in the fact of Peierls’s being invited to a conference in Moscow during the Great Terror at the same time that Isai Mandelstam was being interrogated in jail about Peierls’s activities as a spy. He seems completely unaware of the work of Pavel Sudoplatov, who boasted of engaging scientists in the West to provide secret information under the threat of their relatives being harmed. He criticises Peierls for being ‘naïve’ in helping carry out the Soviet Union’s message of ‘Peace’ over nuclear weapons after the war, but delves no further. The Uritsky episode is described in detail, but he makes no linkage between Genia’s plight, or the conflict in Peierls’s own testimony about the connection. The volume has been put together with the intent of gaining ‘re-assurance’ from various witnesses and participants that Peierls’s role was entirely honourable.

Shifman does refer, however, to one significant event in the saga. On May 29, 1999 the weekly magazine the Spectator carried an article by Nicholas Farrell which picked up the necessarily abandoned claim by Richard Deacon that Peierls had been a spy. Commentators have assumed that Farrell gained his information from the historian of intelligence Nigel West, who had recently published his book on the VENONA project. On the assumption that the identities behind the cryptonyms FOGEL/PERS and TINA were Rudolf and Genia Peierls, the author took advantage of the fact that Peierls was now dead to try to breathe fresh life into the theory that the couple had been working for the Soviets. It should be remembered that Nigel West had been a researcher for Richard Deacon as a young man, and Deacon’s stifled accusations probably still resonated strongly with West. Unfortunately, the identification was a mistake (and in Misdefending the Realm, I unfortunately echoed the Farrell/West hypothesis). The Spectator article was carelessly prepared, and overemotionally presented. Later research showed that TINA was Melita Norwood, PERS was Russell McNutt, and MLAD was Theodore Hall.

In 2002, Professor Sabine Lee, now Professor of Modern History at the University of Birmingham, the institution at which Peierls spent most of his academic life, published the article referred to earlier, The spy who never was. It stated as its objective the investigation of the claims that Peierls and his wife had spied for the Soviet Union. (Lee made an acknowledgment of thanks to the British Academy for supporting the research on which the article was based: why the British Academy felt it had to get involved with such an endeavour is not clear to me, since the piece appears only to exploit information available at the Peierls Archive at the Bodleian Library, and on the MI5 files on Peierls and Fuchs accessible online from the National Archives. Lee’s Acknowledgments in her editions of Peierls’s Letters credit both the British Academy and the Royal Society for funding the project, which is a phenomenon worthy of analysis some other time.) Lee painstakingly took her readers through Peierls’s career and his relationship with Fuchs, and, concentrating on the erroneous assumption concerning VENONA, treated these items as the only significant evidence for the prosecution. Yet she omitted to analyse all the other incriminating evidence: hers was a whitewash job that showed that she failed to understand the complexity and subterfuge of the agencies of Soviet intelligence, and the strains that many western scientists were put under. Lee correctly dismantled the Farrell/West allegations, but failed to address the core of the matter.

Thus a triad of academics has lined itself up to protect Peierls’s reputation: Frank Close, the author of Trinity, who was taught by Peierls at Oxford University; Sabine Lee, who is the lead historian at Peierls’ primary seat of learning, the University of Birmingham, and has edited a comprehensive set of the Peierlses’ letters, as well as a biographical sketch of Peierls (which appears in Shifman’s book); and Mikhail Shifman, whose thesis adviser at the Institute of Theoretical and Experimental Physics in Moscow was Professor Boris Ioffe, who worked under Kurchatov when Fuchs was supplying purloined information to the Institute. (Ioffe may have been a distant relation of the first director of the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute of the Russian Academy of Sciences, Abram Ioffe, who chaired the notorious 1937 conference in Moscow attended by Peierls.) Shifman comes to no outright conclusion on Peierls, but he is very respectful of Lee’s expertise and research, and admits to looking for ‘reassurance’ about Peierls’s loyalty from both Lee and the Peierlses’ offspring. Lee admits to having been much inspired by Peierls’s former protégé, the communist Gerald Brown: her edition of the Peierls-Bethe Letters is dedicated to him. None of these three writers appears to be familiar with the memoirs of Pavel Sudoplatov, Special Tasks, which outlined the strategies of issuing personal threats adopted by Soviet Intelligence to aid the country’s atomic weapons research.

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I wrote about Sudoplatov’s statement in a posting of three years ago: ‘Mann Overboard’. It is worth reproducing the extract in full again here. Pavel Sudoplatov was deputy director of Foreign Intelligence of the NKVD from 1939 until 1942, and in July 1941 was appointed director of the Administration of Special Tasks. ‘Special Tasks’ involved both assassination abroad (Sudoplatov had personally killed Konovalets in Rotterdam in 1938, and had supervised the assassination of Trotsky in 1940, so he was well qualified for the job), and stealing of secrets to assist the Soviet atomic bomb project. Sudoplatov wrote:

“There was one respected scientist we targeted with both personal threats and appeals to his antifascism, George Gamow, a Russian-born physicist who defected to the United States in 1933 when he was permitted to leave the Soviet Union to attend an international meeting of physicists in Brussels, played an important role in helping us to obtain American atomic bomb secrets. Academician Ioffe spotted Gamow because of his connections with Niels Bohr and the American physicists. We assigned Sam Semyonov and Elizabeth Zarubina to enlist his cooperation. With a letter from Academician Ioffe, Elizabeth approached Gamow through his wife, Rho, who was also a physicist. She and her husband were vulnerable because of their concern for relatives in the Soviet Union. Gamow taught physics at George Washington University in Washington, D.C., and instituted the annual Washington Conference on theoretical Physics, which brought together the best physicists to discuss the latest developments at small meetings.

            We were able to take advantage of the network of colleagues that Gamow had established. Using implied threats against Gamow’s relatives in Russia, Elizabeth Zarubina pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information.” (Special Tasks, p 192; published 1994)

Sudoplatov’s account has been challenged: he did get names of some spies wrong, for instance, but most of it has been confirmed by other sources. (Sudoplatov’s disclosures provoked wrath from some diehard KGB officers.) He does not specifically identify the Peierlses as targets, but Genia’s intimate friend Gamow had almost certainly been recruited in the Soviet Union: the comic-opera story of his plans to escape the country, followed by an absurd plea made to Molotov, can be inspected in my piece ‘Mann Overboard’. The prolonged delay of six months after the Peierls marriage before Genia’s exit visa was approved indicates that the decision was made only after very careful planning, with sign-off occurring at the highest level. In a testimony provided to Shifman by the scientist Freeman Dyson, the latter wrote of Genia’s ‘long experience of living in fear of the Soviet police’, which indicates that she and Rudolf confided to their closest friends how they were being threatened.

Genia and Rudolf Peierls

Yet even the somewhat starry-eyed Shifman shows a realistic assessment of the horrors of 1937, when he describes the intensification of the Great Terror in July of that year, and directly echoes Sudoplatov’s claims:

“Working on my previous book, Physics in a Mad World, I looked through a notable number of files from the archive of the German and Austrian sections of the Comintern. This archive is now kept in the Russian State Archive of Social and Political History (RGASPI) in the public domain. I was amazed by the number of German and Austrian communists who were agents of the Comintern in Western Europe and carried out the order of Stalin with an iron fist. In many dossiers there is a note ‘performed special assignments’. ‘Special assignments’ is a euphemism that could mean anything: from espionage to discrediting opponents among Russian emigres, from eliminating disobedient agents, to assassinating defectors from the ‘socialist paradise,’ Trotskyists (and Trotsky himself), and other ‘undesirable elements’.”

            “In 1934-36, many of the Comintern agents fled or were recalled to Moscow, and almost all disappeared in 1937-38: they were either sent to Gulag, or were executed immediately after their arrest by the NKVD.” (Love and Physics, p 265). There were other emotions than Love involved with Physics, for sure.

Thus Rudolf Peierls’s extraordinary trip to Moscow in the autumn of 1937 has to be analysed very closely. What was he thinking, walking into the lions’ den, still a German citizen who knew that the Germany Embassy would not come to his aid if anything untoward happened, at a time when Stalin was persecuting Germans scientists, especially those of Jewish origin? I start with Peierls’s account of the enterprise:

“In the summer of 1937 I was invited to a nuclear physics conference in Moscow, and Genia planned to come with me. But we were warned that her presence might prove an embarrassment to her friends and relatives, so she did not go. I went by myself, stopping for a week in Copenhagen. I then went . . .  to Leningrad, where I met Genia’s sister, Nina, who had by then been allowed to return to Leningrad. Landau was very worried by the state of affairs, a fact he mentioned only when we were walking in a park, and were secure from being overheard. Nevertheless, the scientific discussions at the conference itself were normal and fruitful.” (Bird of Passage, pp 129-130)

A dissertation could probably be written on this paragraph alone, given the numerous items that are left unsaid. Now that historians can pick up so much more background to the events in the Soviet Union and Copenhagen at the time, multiple questions have to be posed as to the accuracy of Peierls’s statement, from the circumstances of his departure to the question of whether, given the flimsiness of his account of it, he even attended the conference. I organize these questions around the following five subjects: 1) Arrangements for travel; 2) Logistics of the conferences; 3) The political climate in the Soviet Union; 4) Proceedings in Moscow; and 5) The meeting with Nina.

Arrangements for Travel

Remarkably, Sabine Lee completely overlooks the 1937 Moscow visit in her biographical sketch. This oversight is doubly strange because Peierls assumed his new position as Professor of Mathematical Physics at Birmingham University in October 1937. (He was offered the chair, in the spring of 1937, by Professor Mark Oliphant, who himself did not take up his chair of physics at Birmingham until the same month.) The Conference in Moscow took place from September 20th to the 26th. I suspect no record of the exchange between the organisers of the conference and the Peierlses exists (if indeed it was conducted by mail), but the event conveniently fell between the end of Rudolf’s period at the Mond Laboratory, where his position had been financed by the availability of funds released by the unexpected detention of Pyotr Kapitza in the Soviet Union, and the assumption of his new post.

So who warned Rudolf and Genia that Genia’s presence might prove ‘an embarrassment’ to her friends and relatives? That gesture showed an unusual amount of sensitivity and compassion on the behalf of the Soviet authorities. Given, however, that Genia’s parents were at that time in disgrace, exiled in Ufa, it seems unlikely that they would have been discomfited further by the presence of Genia in Moscow, unless, of course, the physicist’s wife made some sort of public protest – a highly unlikely happening. It would appear to me that Genia would have been mortally afraid of returning to the Soviet Union at this time, and might even have attempted to persuade her husband from going, had she not been aware that his summoning was a vital part of any arrangement made to protect her family from the direst outcome.

As will be shown, Rudolf combined his excursion with a visit to Copenhagen, which contains its own contradictions. Moreover, Rudolf was clearly aware that a visit to Moscow at this time might provoke some difficult questions from his British hosts. He must have gained a Soviet visa (his German passport had been renewed in Liverpool in 1934, for a period of five years), because an alert customs official at Harwich noticed the Soviet stamps in his passport – but not until Peierls returned from a holiday, ‘spending his Easter vacation’ in Copenhagen, in April 1938. As part of the report on his arrival at Harwich declares: “During the examination of his passport it was noticed that it contained a Soviet visa and Russian control-stamps for 1937, but the alien, when questioned, beyond confirming that he had visited the U.S.S.R. last year, did not appear to be willing to give any reason for his visit to that country, and, in view of his substantial position as a professor, Peierls was not further questioned on the subject.” (TNA, KV 2/1658/2, serial 1A)

Why Peierls should have to behave so furtively about a legitimate conference in Moscow is not clear. Had he perhaps concealed the whole adventure from his new supervisor, Professor Oliphant? One would have thought that the timing of the conference was excellent cover for whatever other business he had to attend to in the Soviet Union, about which he was clearly diffident to talk. If he had given a straight answer, perhaps no report would have been filed, and no one would have been any the wiser. Instead, MI5 opened a file on him, one that eventually ran to eight bulky folders.

One other aspect that has not been analysed properly is the financing of Rudolf’s and Genia’s travel in the 1930s. It was not as if they were flush with money, yet they flitted around Europe and the Soviet Union with seeming ease.  Shifman informs us (via Sabine Lee) that Rudolf’s father, Heinrich ‘provided some financial support to the young family, through wire transfers first to Switzerland and then to England, within the limits imposed by the Nazi government of Germany’, but Henrich was very cautious. He had not approved of Rudolf’s marriage in the first place, and he regarded their ventures to the Soviet Union as risky and hazardous. It was unlikely that, under these circumstances, he underwrote their extensive voyages, many of which were not even traced at the time.

For example, Sabine Lee’s edition of the Peierlses’ Letters (Volume 1) proves that Rudolf and Genia engaged in a lengthy and enigmatic visit to the Soviet Union in 1932 (completely ignored in Bird of Passage, which is an astonishing lapse), when Rudolf had already expressed how difficult it would be for the married couple to survive in Zürich on his meager salary after their marriage. For some reason, in the spring of 1932, Rudolf went to Moscow without Genia, and there applied for a visa for his wife to join him. It took so long that he had to leave the Soviet Union before Genia gained her visa, after which she was able to travel to Leningrad to stay there several weeks without him. (In the interview with Weiner [see below], he deceptively stated that he ‘came back earlier than my wife, who was staying longer’.) It sounds very much as if the granting of Genia’s visa was conditional on some effort or commitment by Rudolf. (Professor Lee offers no commentary at all on this highly controversial visit.) MI5 slipped up massively in not pursuing aggressively Kim Philby’s source of funding when he was sent as a journalist to Spain in early 1937. It probably should have been more pertinacious in ‘following the money’ when it came to the Peierlses’ travel arrangements. Yet the Security Service probably knew nothing about these journeys at the time: Rudolf and Genia were not yet resident in the United Kingdom.

Conference Logistics

Elsewhere, Peierls has given some vague descriptions of the movements of that summer, so threadbare that one might be justified in wondering whether he did in fact attend it. We owe it, however, to Paul Josephson, in his book Physics and Politics in Revolutionary Russia (1991) to confirm that Peierls did actually attend the conference. “The second all-union conference on the atomic nucleus, held in Moscow late in September 1937, drew over 120 Soviet scholars, and several physicists from abroad including Wolfgang Pauli, Rudolph Peierls, a longtime associate of L.D. Landau, and Fritz Houtermans”, he wrote.  Josephson cites official Russian records in his footnotes to this passage in Chapter 6, so this account can presumably be trusted. Yet Josephson does not mention Bohr, whose presence would certainly have been sought in normal circumstances, given his prominence and reputation. Izvestia sent him telegrams in November 1937, seeking his opinions on Landau’s discoveries, which indicates the level of regard in which he was held in Moscow. Bohr had spent some time in the Soviet Union in the summer of 1937, however, lecturing, and meeting Kapitza, so he presumably did not need to return so soon.

Peierls indicates very clearly that he spent a week in Copenhagen first, before advancing through Stockholm and Leningrad. Presumably that week must have taken place in the first half of September. But what was the purpose, and whom did he meet? It is very odd that he does not mention an important Scientific Conference reportedly organised by Niels Bohr, of which a very famous photograph exists, with Peierls sitting among many luminaries in the second row [see below]. Shifman reproduces this photograph, with the caption “The famous A auditorium of the NBI: Photograph by Nordisk Pressefoto, Niels Bohr Institute, courtesy of the AIP Emilio Segré Visual Archive, Fermi Film Collection, and Niels Bohr Archive, Copenhagen.” It all sounds very authentic – but the occasion is undated. (This image, with attendees named in manuscript, can be found, but it has a question mark after ‘1937’.) In her commentary to the Letters, Sabine Lee indicates that Genia accompanied Rudolf to a conference in Copenhagen at the beginning of September – a fact that appears to be confirmed by a reference in a letter to Rudolf from his father – after which Rudolf proceeded to Moscow alone, but no details are given. And in that case, why did Rudolf write that he ‘went by myself, stopping for a week in Copenhagen’? Was a meeting in Copenhagen a cover for a visit to Moscow?

Scientists in Copenhagen (1937?)

Searching for details of the Niels Bohr conference on the web is a mostly fruitless task: the photograph is the most regularly cited item. One rare specific reference to a Bohr conference that autumn comes from N. L. Krementsov, who, in his International Science Between the Wars: The Case for Genetics, writes: “Just a few weeks earlier, in mid-November [1937], he [Otto Mohr] had spent several days with Muller in Copenhagen (at a conference organized by Niels Bohr) . . . ”  But mid-November does not work with Peierls’s calendar. Another famous photograph shows Niels Bohr chatting with Werner Heisenberg in Copenhagen some time in 1937, yet again it is sadly undated. (Bohr’s Collected Works confirm that a meeting of the Copenhagen Academy was held on November 19: it states that the photograph was taken at Fredericksborg Castle.) The scene looks as if it were a conference, at some kind of open-air cocktail party: most of the attendees are wearing overcoats. But I find it extraordinary that, if so many famous scientists were assembled at such a critical time, there would not be some more tangible and reliable record of the proceedings.

Niels Bohr & Werner Heisenberg

Peierls added to the confusion by explaining, in Nuclear Physics 1919-1952, a work he edited, that Bohr was on a lecture tour of Japan in the early summer of 1937, and in June gave an address on nuclear physics in Moscow during his return home. In October 1937 he apparently spoke at the Congrès de Paris, but Ruth Moore, one of Bohr’s biographers, informs us that ‘in late September, not long after the Bohrs had returned to Copenhagen, Bohr went to Bologna, to attend the centenary [sic] celebration for Galvani.’  Abraham Pais, however, records that the Bohrs returned home as early as June 25: Moore’s ‘not long’ has to be interpreted vaguely. Further research indicates that the actual bicentennial of Galvani’s birth occurred on September 9, but the event was celebrated between October 17th  and the 20th . Moore continues by stating that Bohr was expecting to see Ernest Rutherford in Bologna, but there learned that Rutherford had died after a fall from a tree. (The dates now mesh.) Bohr thus rushed to England for the funeral service shortly after Rutherford’s death on October 19. No mention is made of a conference in Copenhagen amid all these activities.

Thus the facts about the Copenhagen conference, and Bohr’s activities in September, are very elusive and contradictory. No Bohr archival record or biographical work appears to refer to an early September conference: Volume 9 of Bohr’s Complete Works, edited by Peierls himself, contains an entry in its Index for ‘Copenhagen Conferences’, but for years 1932, 1933, 1934, 1936, 1947 and 1952 only. An early trawl through biographies of scientists appearing in the ‘1937’ photograph shows no reference to such an event. (The search will continue.) As I mentioned before, in his memoir, Peierls specifically indicates that he spent a week in Copenhagen before Moscow, in discussions with Bohr, but makes no reference to any conference. In the Letters, however, hints are planted at the holding of such an event, Peierls’s father echoing his son’s description of the coming function. In her own account, Genia travelled to Copenhagen, but then went home. Yet Peierls later wrote that he travelled to Copenhagen alone. In the Letters, Peierls and Hans Bethe discussed Bethe’s visit to Europe that summer, and they planned a ten-day motoring tour in Paris in early September, as Bethe was due to sail back to the United States in the third week of September. The September conference is like a refined version of Schrödinger’s Cat, where the box emblazoned with the photograph of the gathered scientists can be opened, but nothing is to be found inside.

Thus the only recognised conference in Copenhagen that autumn occurred much later, and was noted by Peierls when he edited Volume 9 of Bohr’s Complete Works. He wrote that Bohr delivered a paper back in his hometown in November: “Of a paper read to the Copenhagen Academy on 19 November 1937, only an abstract is published  . . .” So was that the occasion when the photograph was taken? If so, how did Peierls manage to attend it? Did he return to Copenhagen in November, fresh in his new post? If so, why did he not describe it? It is all very puzzling: I have written to Professor Sabine Lee to ascertain whether she can shed any light on the matter. In her initial response, she offered to help, but evidently completely missed the point of my questions: she had evidently not inspected coldspur. I followed up with more detailed questions about Peierls’s puzzling movements, and even offered to send her the current draft of this piece, so that she could enjoy a sneak preview.

Professor Lee eventually responded, on October 24. She failed to address my questions, however, simply writing: “As far as I can see, all the issues relating to the Peierlses and security have comprehensively been addressed in many thorough and serious explorations which, in my view, have proved beyond reasonable doubt that there is no question about the integrity of the couple.” I must surely have overlooked some important works. I found this attitude astonishing in its lack of intellectual curiosity, and for its untenable suggestion of ‘proof’, but also thought it a not unusual reaction for an academic with a territory and position to protect. Having appointed herself as the editor of Peierls’s Letters, Lee has shown a disappointing lack of energy in providing useful exegesis: if she encounters an event that can be confirmed by Bird of Passage, she refers us to such a text; if a phenomenon is ignored by Peierls, she likewise ignores it. And she appears to have little understanding of the world of intelligence.

The Political Climate in the Soviet Union

Summer 1937 was a dangerous time in Moscow – especially for Germans. Three major show trials had recently taken place. In August 1936, the prominent Party leaders Grigory Zinoviev and Lev Kamenev were among a group of sixteen who had been found guilty of plots against Stalin, and executed. In January 1937, Karl Radek and others were accused of plotting with Nikolai Bukharin against Stalin, Radek delaying his own demise by implicating Bukharin and Marshal Tukahchevsky. Nearly all were executed immediately. In late May, Tukhachevsky was forced to sign a confession that he was a German agent in league with Bukharin in a bid to seize power. He was tried and found guilty on June 11, and executed a few hours later. (Bukharin was executed the following March.) At this stage, Stalin was executing anyone – including his Comintern agents recalled from overseas – who could have been tainted by exposure to Western influences.

Shifman refers to the dangers that German scientists faced at this time. He reports how Hans Hellmann (1903-1938) emigrated to the Soviet Union after being dismissed from the University of Hanover on December 24, 1933. In Moscow, he assumed leadership of the Karpov Institute’s Theoretical Group. On March 9, 1938, however, he was arrested on the charge of spying for Germany, and was sentenced and executed on May 28, 1938. Fritz Noether (1884-1941) was a mathematician who likewise emigrated to the Soviet Union, where he was appointed professor at the University of Tomsk. He was arrested in November 1937, and on October 23, 1938, found guilty of sabotage and spying for Germany. He was sentenced to twenty-five years of Gulag, but executed on September 11, 1941.

Fritz Houtermans, who was described erroneously as a visitor from abroad, attending the conference with Peierls, was a German Communist who had worked for EMI in England – near Cambridge, where Peierls worked – before emigrating to the Soviet Union in 1935. Houtermans’ biographer states that Houtermans was arrested by the NKVD in December 1937. He was tortured and confessed to being a Trotskyist plotter and Gestapo spy (as his charge sheet, reproduced in Mikhail Shifman’s Physics in a Mad World, described), out of fear from threats against his wife, Charlotte. They had married in Tbilisi in August 1930 (or 1931), and Peierls and Pauli had attended the ceremony. However, Charlotte had already escaped from the Soviet Union to Denmark, after which she went to England and finally the USA. On May 2, 1940 Houtermans was extradited to Germany and arrested by the Gestapo at the Soviet-Polish border. Owing to the intervention of another scientist, he was released to work on German nuclear research, and survived until 1974.

According to Herbert Fröhlich’s biographer, G. J. Hyland, another member of the ‘Jazz Band’, Dmitri Ivanenko, had been arrested on February 27, 1935, in the wake of the Kirov assassination. (Kirov was head of the Party organisation in Leningrad, and was assassinated on December 1, 1934. Some accounts suggest that Stalin had himself arranged the murder.)  Shifman reports that Ivanenko and Landau had quarrelled in 1928, and Ivanenko had moved to Kharkov, but writes, however, that Ivanenko was not arrested until March 4, 1936. Whichever date is accurate, Ivanenko had then been exiled to a labour camp in Karaganda, but Vladimir Fock – another physics student whom Genia Kannegiesser/Peierls mentioned in a poem and in letters to Rudolf – managed to engineer an extraordinary intercession with Fröhlich before the latter escaped from the Soviet Union. Fröhlich was then able to gain further pressure from Pauli and Paul Dirac, and Ivanenko‘s sentence was commuted to exile in Tomsk.

Most poignant of all was the fate of Matvei Bronstein, another of the ‘Jazz Band’ alongside Landau, Gamow and Genia Peierls. He was arrested on the night of August 6, 1937, when aged thirty. According to the archives, his captors demanded that he hand over his arms and poisons, to which Bronstein responded with a laugh. He was sentenced and executed, on the same day, in a Leningrad prison in February the following year. It is not surprising that Lev Landau spoke to Peierls in tones of terror when they met the month after Bronstein’s arrest. Landau, a future Nobelist, was himself arrested on April 27, 1938, for comparing Stalinism to Nazism.

A report in Ukrainian Week from June 2019 (Landau worked in Kharkov) reinforces the fact that Landau and his circle had been under pressure for a while. It reports: “Already in 1936, the NKVD had begun to build a case against ‘a group of counterrevolutionary physicists at UPTI led by Professor Landau.’ The police interrogated Lev Rosenkevich, who was then the head of the radioactive measurement lab at the Institute. During this interrogation, Rosenkevich supposedly confessed that back in 1930 Landau’s ‘counterrevolutionary group’ had already been active at UPTI, and included Shubnikov and the head of the x-ray laboratory, Vadim Gorsky. The NKVD acted swiftly and in November 1937, Shubnikov, Gorsky, Rosenkevich and nuclear physicist Valentin Fomin were shot.” Thus we have further evidence of the horrors that Landau must have confided to Peierls in their furtive meetings of September 1937.

Another study might draw some interesting comparisons between those Germans persecuted in the Soviet Union and those like Charlotte Houtermans who were able to engineer a miraculous flight from the terror. Herbert Fröhlich was another who reputedly managed to ‘escape’. Fröhlich had been invited to work at the Ioffe Physical-Technical Institute in Leningrad by Yakov Frenkel, the same scientist who had invited Peierls to the Odessa Conference in 1930, and he thus left the University of Freiburg in 1933 for his new life. He in fact sought employment in the United Kingdom first, but failing to be awarded any funding, accepted Frenkel’s offer, waited six months to pick up a visa in Paris, and arrived in the Soviet Union only in the late summer of 1934. Thereafter, Frohlich’s account becomes increasingly dubious, however.

Herbert Froehlich

Fröhlich blamed his disillusionment on the assassination of Kirov in December 1934, and the ‘Great Terror’ that followed. Yet that was a premature assessment: the Great Terror is not generally recognized as starting until 1936, and foreign scientists were not persecuted at that time. Fröhlich, through another miraculous series of events that almost matched George Gamow’s picaresque adventures (see ‘Mann Overboard’), including a fortuitous exit visa planted in his passport, and his ability to buy a sleeper ticket on a train to Vienna with rubles without the NKVD’s noticing, managed to escape to Austria in May 1935. (Fröhlich’s ODNB entry states that he was ‘expelled’ from the Soviet Union. If Moscow wanted to punish him, it would surely have handed him over to Germany.)

What is also significant, as Christopher Laucht informs us in Elemental Germans, using part of the Peierls correspondence not published by Sabine Lee, is that Peierls was also involved in helping Fröhlich’s egress. With whom he communicated, and what exactly he achieved, are not clear, but any lengthy exchange with the Soviet authorities does not match with the more frenzied activity by which Fröhlich described the events. In any case, the community of German leftist émigré scientists in England no doubt took notice of his adventures. In England, Fröhlich took a position under Nevill Mott in Bristol, alongside Klaus Fuchs, and eventually became Professor of Theoretical Physics at Liverpool University. Even more astonishing is the fact that Fröhlich, despite all his tribulations with his Soviet hosts, apparently seriously considered an invitation by Frenkel to return to Russia soon afterwards. Even his biographer was moved to note: “Why he should ever have entertained this course of action is not at all clear, given his earlier experience there, and the fact that Stalin was still conducting his Great Purge.” The naivety of émigré Germans scientists was matched only by the clumsiness of the NKVD.

Thus Peierls’s decision to visit Moscow in the late summer of 1937 seems incredibly rash, unless he had some kind of relationship with the Soviet authorities. He was not yet a citizen of the United Kingdom, while his wife was in England with two children: he owned a German passport. It would be unlikely that the Germans would come to his rescue should he encounter any difficulties. He must have gained a clear understanding of the horrific goings-on in the Soviet Union. He admitted that Landau furtively explained to him the general oppressions of the Terror, but did not explain how Landau and his associates themselves were being persecuted at that time. A subtle point that has been overlooked, moreover, is this: if Landau was under intense investigation at the time, why did the authorities allow him to travel from Kharkov to Moscow for the conference, to meet a ‘Gestapo spy’? The NKVD surely intended him to speak to Peierls, and reinforce the fear that he should hold for the Soviet secret police.  He might well have impressed upon his friend that, unless Peierls continued to co-operate, his (Landau’s) life would be in danger. Otherwise, exactly what the benefits of attending such a conference would have been were extremely murky, as the following section makes clear.

Conference Proceedings

For someone who recalled so many events so crisply, Peierls was remarkably vague about Moscow in 1937. In an interview conducted by Charles Weiner of the University of Seattle in 1969, Peierls said: “I don’t remember much in detail about the conference. It was a time when work on cyclotrons in Russia had started. People were reporting on the progress. I don’t think they had a working cyclotron yet . . . “, adding later: “There was a conference in Moscow and when already the chance of foreigners to go there was already deteriorating, when the mass arrest had started. This was heading for Stalinism.” Apart from the outrageous misrepresentation about the nature of Stalinism, and how long Stalin’s murderous policies had already been in evidence, Peierls here completely finesses the point of why he had gone to Moscow. Given the poisonous atmosphere of the mid-1930s, might he perhaps have verified how useful such a gathering would be before agreeing to attend? And would he not have been required to submit a report on the proceedings his return? Yet he struggled to recall what the conference was about: “I think it was nuclear physics”. He recalls Bohr’s having been in Moscow in the summer, but mistakenly described George Gamow as being present that September, and had to be corrected by Weiner (who appears to be confused about the ‘conference’ at which Borg spoke in June, and the September event). Weiner was overall a very incisive interrogator, and had done his homework, but he missed an opportunity here.

The atmosphere in Moscow in 1937 must surely have been memorable, apart from what appears to have been a very meaty set of presentations. The Bulletin of the Atomic Scientists provides the following details about the agenda: “Twenty-three of the 28 papers were by Soviet authors, and they covered five main problems: the penetration of matter by fast electrons and gamma rays; cosmic rays; beta decay; the interaction of the nucleus with neutrons; and the theory of nuclear structure. There were also discussions of high-voltage apparatuses used for penetrating the nucleus.” The chairman of the conference was Abram Ioffe, who also chaired the conference in Odessa in 1930. He must have had special significance for Peierls, since his daughter, Valentina, was one of the ‘Jazz Band’ group of which Genia, Landau and Gamow were members. In view of Ioffe’s position, one might wonder whether information about the not totally reliable group filtered back to Ioffe himself. Landau was arrested soon after the conference, and I have already described what happened to Ivanenko and Bronstein.

A report on Ioffe’s address to the conference (from the Bulletin of Atomic Sciences) is worth quoting in full:

“Ioffe’s opening speech at the second conference reflected the forces at work under Stalin in the late 1930s and indicated that the field of physics was not immune to the political currents of the day. He spoke about the tremendous achievements of Soviet science, which under socialism was devoid of the slavery and exploitation of capitalist science. He described how advances in nuclear physics served to verify the validity of dialectical materialism. Ioffe praised the emergence of proletarian scientists who replaced the old intelligentsia and highlighted the great strides made since 1933: the creation of a large network of physics research institutes, and the fact that in four years the number of nuclear physicists in the Soviet Union had quadrupled to more than one hundred.

On a more somber note. Ioffe acknowledged the failure of Soviet physicists as yet to achieve ‘any kind of practical applications’. And while the Academy of Sciences Presidium, in the protocol issued at the end of the conference, touted the achievements of Soviet nuclear physics as outlined by Ioffe, it also drew attention to the failure to begin construction of a new, powerful cyclotron.”

Peierls obviously found this unremarkable, not noting the irony of the fact that Soviet scientists were being persecuted and murdered, while ‘capitalist science’ was reportedly riddled with ‘slavery and exploitation’.  Nor did he comment on the final communiqué issued by the attendees to the person who inspired the whole affair. According to the archive, “On September 1937 at the Second All-Union Conference on nuclear physics in Moscow, the participants addressed Comrade Stalin with these passionate words of admiration: ‘The successful development of Soviet physics occurs against the background of a general decline of science in capitalist countries, where science is falsified and is placed at the service of greater exploitation of man by man. . . Vile agents of fascism, Trotsky-Bukharinist spies and saboteurs  . . . .   do not stop short of any abomination to undermine the power of our country  . . . Enemies penetrated among physicists, carrying out espionage and sabotage assignment sin our research institutes  . . . Along with all the working people of our socialist motherland, Soviet physicists more closely unite around the Communist party and Soviet government, around our great leader Comrade Stalin  . . .’”

Either Peierls did not hang around to hear this nonsense, or listened, and concluded it was not worth recording for posterity when he returned to the United Kingdom. I repeat his only technical conclusion: “Nevertheless, the scientific discussions at the conference itself were normal and fruitful”, as if it had been just another conference, like one in Brussels, or Bath, perhaps. Why did this experience not solidify his resolve against the dark forces of Communism? On the other hand, his colleague David Shoenberg at the Mond Laboratory, with whom he worked on a paper on magnetic curves in superconductors in 1936, returned from Moscow in late September 1938, and told everyone about Landau’s arrest and incarceration. Shifman rather oddly suggests that Fuchs should have spoken to Shoenberg to learn the truth of Stalin’s oppression: but his mentor Peierls would have been just as capable, and much more conveniently placed.

Peierls, unlike Kapitsa, never petitioned Soviet authorities (except in a plea to Khrushchev for the emigration of Genia’s sister, Nina), never expressed or published any criticism of the murder and imprisonment of Soviet physicists under Stalin, including many eminent physicists and colleagues he had met at conferences in the Soviet Union. Nor did he support Soviet physicists who were active in the dissident movement, notably Yuri Orlov or Andrei Sakharov. His most fervent defense was for identified Soviet agents, such as Fuchs, and for suspected Soviet agents, such as Oppenheimer, and in his tortuous appeal on behalf of the convicted spy Nunn May.

The Meeting with Nina

The likelihood of Peierls’s being able to set up a safe meeting with his sister-in-law, Nina, in Leningrad at that time must have been extremely slim. Again, Peierls is terse about the occasion.  From Bird of Passage: “I then went . . .  to Leningrad, where I met Genia’s sister, Nina, who had by then been allowed to return to Leningrad. From there I went to Moscow.” No description of how he had managed to locate her, or what they discussed. Yet it would have been exceedingly dangerous for Nina to make contact with any foreigner. As Timothy Snyder has written in Stalin and Europe: Imitation and Domination, 1928-1953: “Well aware of the threat of total espionage from abroad, Stalin had by the 1930s created a system of ‘total counterespionage’ in the Soviet Union: ubiquitous surveillance and terror. Every contact with foreigners was watched. Every visitor to foreign consulates was investigated. Every immigrant was suspected as a possible foreign agent.”

Nina had been allowed to return from exile, of course. In March, 1935, she and her parents had been exiled to Ufa for five years, but, at the end of April, 1936, she had been allowed to return to Leningrad. Nina described this fortuitous event in these terms: “The slogan ‘Children are not answerable for their parents’ which Stalin suddenly produced at the start of 1936 immediately granted freedom to all young people who had been exiled from Leningrad as ‘members of the family’, and I was one of these. At the end of April I returned to Leningrad.” This fact is confirmed by a letter that her parents were able to send to Genia on May 9, 1936, when her mother writes that she knows only that Nina has gone to Leningrad. (The truth that Nina’s parents were as innocent as she was is irrelevant in this picture.) For some reason, however, Nina makes no mention of any meeting with Peierls in her memoir about her step-father, which was published posthumously in 1991. And maybe they did not meet in in Leningrad: Shifman writes elsewhere (p 13) that Nina, after her exile to Kazakhstan ‘returned to Leningrad after Stalin’s death’. Someone has the facts wrong.

What is more likely is that the whole encounter had been engineered by Stalin, to communicate to Peierls that his wife’s relatives were suffering, but that their situation could be eased by Peierls’s continued contribution to the Soviet acquisition of western atomic research. After all, it was no use threatening persons with the uncertain fate of their relatives unless you were able to confirm to your victim that they were still alive, but in permanent danger, and that others like them had been exterminated. And Isai’s fate would remain on a roller-coaster. Nina herself describes how autumn 1937 saw the start of arrests among people exiled from Leningrad, and that Isai was arrested in March 1938, and spent eight months in an overcrowded prison cell in Ufa. She remarks, about Isai: “He was interrogated twice: a repeat interrogation about the murder of Uritsky which had happened 20 years before, and on the ‘spying activities’ of Rudolf Peierls, who by that time already a physicist of world renown.” He was not physically assaulted, but subject to all manner of threats, as well as ‘screaming and foul language’.

We thus see the duplicity of the NKVD’s operation. On the one hand, it threatened an innocent man purely because of a distant (and non-blood) relationship with a known assassin, and sought to acquire knowledge from him of a German scientist’s supposed espionage simply because he (Isai) and his wife had been visited in 1934 by his step-daughter and husband, showing off their baby daughter. At the same time, they allowed this German spy to enter the country, unchallenged and unarrested, and permitted him to conduct a clandestine encounter with the prisoner’s other step-daughter, who had recently been released early from a term of exile, and converse with a suspected rebel (Landau), who was under close investigation. The contrast between the fate of other Germans, and Peierls’s relatively serene sojourn, and his ability to meet Nina unharassed, could not be more stark or provocative.

As a final twist in this saga of distorted memories and deliberate disinformation, I present the enigma of the text of a letter sent by Nina to Genia in May 1936, just before she returned to Leningrad, where she commented on the photographs of the Peierlses’ daughter. “Thank you for the pictures of Gaby”, she wrote. “We also received the Berlin pictures. Gaby there is a bit worse seen, but your Shweiger [father-in-law] is amazingly clear-cut; he has the face of an actor and resembles Isai. . . . Rudi looks best of all from the viewpoint of expressiveness.” Did Nina get the date or location wrong? Peierls never mentioned in Bird of Passage a visit to see his father in Germany after his own escape in 1933. He indicates that the next time he saw his father (and his step-mother, Else, his own mother having died in 1921) was in 1939, when they were allowed to emigrate, and stopped off in the UK on their way to the USA.  Yet that is also untrue, as the letters from his father and his step-mother indicate very clearly that they visited Rudolf and Genia in England in June 1936, i.e. after Nina’s letter was sent. Heinrich Peierls also refers to meeting Genia and Gaby early in 1934, in Hamburg, so Nina could not have been referring to photographs taken on that occasion.

What was Peierls doing back in Germany in 1935 or 1936, and why would he conceal the fact in his memoir? His published Letters also show that he and Genia made a visit to the Soviet Union in 1936, which again he ignores in his autobiography. In a letter to L. I. Volodarskaya of 27 September, 1989 (printed in Volume 2 of Lee’s edition of his correspondence), he tells his addressee that he and Genia visited the Soviet Union ‘a few more times in the early thirties’.  Yet he completely overlooks these events in his memoir. In a letter to H. Montgomery-Hyde of March 35, 1981, in Captain Renault style, he rebuked the author over his book The Atom Bomb Spies, writing; “I must say I am quite shocked by many inaccuracies and the general careless attitude to the facts which it reveals.” But Peierls is no better. How can one trust anything he says?

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According to all accounts by friends and colleagues Rudolf Peierls was a decent man, an integrated, pipe-smoking, crossword-solving English gentleman, feted, honoured and respected. Even if the meeting with his future wife had been arranged, theirs was clearly a love-match, and Rudolf was an attentive husband and a doting father. He was a brilliant scientist, and an excellent teacher who inspired hundreds of students. As the awards tumbled over him in the last couple of decades of his life, he surely basked in the reputation he had gained among scientists world-wide, and with the British intellectual elite.

Yet the great secret must have haunted him – to the degree that he could never even hint at it in his autobiography. Apart from his confession to Viscount Portal, he could never admit to the world that his wife’s kinship with a mortal enemy of the Bolshevik regime had placed intolerable burdens on them both. For there is surely another narrative that has to be pieced together: the flight from Germany; the fortuitous acceptance of a post at Cambridge using funds released by Kapitza’s forced detention in the Soviet Union; the unexpected invitation by Frenkel to attend a conference in Odessa; the introduction to Genia by another manipulated deceiver, George Gamow; the struggle to gain a visa for Genia, and then their miraculous departure to the West; their unexplained and unreported return visit to Moscow in 1932, when Peierls laboured to gain a re-entry visa for Genia; the assistance given to Fröhlich to ‘escape’ from the Soviet Union in 1934; the unlikely direct correspondence with exiled ‘criminals’ in 1936; the concealed visit to the Soviet Union in 1936; the unnecessary and dangerous attendance at the conference in Moscow in 1937, and the problematic private encounter with Landau; the perilous meeting with Nina in Leningrad that same year; the evasive explanation for that visit given to immigration officers in 1938; the adoption of British citizenship to allow him to work on the MAUD project; the timely awareness that Klaus Fuchs would be a useful asset on the project, and the promotion of his employment; his nurturing of Fuchs despite the knowledge of his Communist past; Peierls’s continued friendships with open Communists such as Roy Pascal; his recruitment of Gerry Brown, an open subversive communist from the USA, to a post at Birmingham soon after Fuchs’s conviction; and his contribution to the Manhattan project followed by his immediate support of peace movements that were instruments of Stalin’s aggressive objectives.

It is very difficult for those of us who have never suffered under a totalitarian regime such as Hitler’s or Stalin’s to judge the actions of those who were subject to the kind of threats that the Peierlses, Gamow, and others underwent. The date on which Genia and Rudolf sold their souls to the Devil will probably never be verifiable, but when it happened, they must have quickly realised that they were being sucked into a vortex that was inescapable. And yet . . .  Need Rudolf have been quite so diligent and dedicated in fulfilling Stalin’s wishes? Was he in fact specifically instructed to recruit Klaus Fuchs? Since his authority was at that stage minimal, could he have not found a way to exclude him from the project without damaging his own credibility, and thus possibly causing harm to Genia’s relatives? Did he and Genia not conclude that Stalin’s cruelty was capricious and random, in any case? Did he have to take so naively such an active role to promote the Atomic Scientists’ Association, since it had enough steam and authority to communicate its message without him?

I believe the April 1951 letter to Lord Portal is a vital part of the puzzle. Peierls must have been disturbed enough by his recent conversation with Portal to conclude that some kind of statement was appropriate. Suspicions and accusations were coming from the Americans, as well as from British sources (such as the rather dubious Kenneth de Courcy). It was the only place where he lifted the veil enough to admit that the Kannegiesser association might have been a factor. My theory would be that, soon after this, some kind of agreement (like that with Anthony Blunt) was forged between Peierls, MI5 and other authorities: Peierls probably admitted to a minor degree of carelessness with Fuchs, or sympathy for the Soviets in time of war, and was essentially forgiven. (‘Quite understand, old man . . .’; ‘Utter devils, those Russkies, eh?’; ‘What your poor wife must have been through  . .  .’; ‘At least that Fuchs fellow is behind bars  . . .’) The Russians had the bomb, so it was all (heavy) water under the bridge. Stalin died in 1953: maybe Peierls breathed a sigh of relief. Genia’s mother died in 1953, her step-father in 1954. Alexander Foote, a potential threat, died in 1956. Nina was the only surviving close relative, and Peierls made appeals to Khrushchev for her to be allowed to leave the Soviet Union.

Thus when the rumours were aroused again in 1979, with the publication of Deacon’s book, Peierls, now Sir Rudolf Peierls, with the Establishment behind him, bearing a  reputation for covering up embarrassing secrets about espionage and counter-espionage, was emboldened to deny everything, rightly thinking that there was not enough evidence around to disprove his contentions. The secrets of VENONA had not yet been publicised: there was no Internet. MI5 or the Home Office probably had a quiet word with the publisher, who did not put up a fight, not even bothering to re-issue Deacon’s book with the offending passages removed. In 1985, Peierls published his heavily sanitised memoir, which conveniently omitted several facts, distorted others, and elided over the more troublesome parts of his career and life. Even then, with Nina having died in Oxford in 1982, he could not bring himself to tell the full story. Neither Uritsky, nor Nikolai Kannegiesser, nor Stalin appears in the book.

If there is one experience that convinces me of Peierls’s harbouring of more dangerous affiliations to the forces of Communism, it is the 1937 Conference in Moscow. How could a liberal democrat, albeit with leftist leanings, as he described himself, possibly not conclude, after what he saw and heard in Moscow that dreadful summer, with the arrests and executions of the innocent  in their hundreds, that a Stalinist regime based on Communism was the most inhuman and destructive agency that could in those days be imagined? Peierls was surely not a Denis Pritt or a Leon Feuchtwanger, who reported enthusiastically about the justice of the show trials, but his silence places him in the same league as those rogues. Would not such a lover of liberty and pluralism have immediately reported on his experiences, informed his fellow-scientists (such as Fröhlich and Mott) of the true nature of the system they admired, and carefully re-assessed where his own allegiances lay? And would he not have been wary of any open communist, such as Fuchs, and at least striven to convince such persons of the folly of their convictions? Sabine Lee has written that ‘Rudolf Peierls never shied away from expressing his views in public’, but if that is so, he should be castigated as a humbug and a shameless apologist for Stalin.

Peierls in England: that will be the subject of the second (and maybe final) chapter of my analysis of The Mysterious Affair at Peierls. And now that Professor Lee has declared that their project is complete, I wonder whether the Royal Society and the British Academy would consider funding my more searching and inquisitive investigation into Rudolf Peierls?

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Special Bulletin: Hurricane Florence

Trees down on the triangle with Irwin Drive

I interrupt my regular bulletins to report on our experiences with Hurricane Florence. This major storm passed directly over St. James, in Southport, North Carolina, where our family lives, and caused some catastrophic devastation. It left us without power for several days, and we were able to keep up with what was going on only through our battery-driven radio, and cellphone contact with friends – some of whom had evacuated the town for safer havens. St. James issued a ‘mandatory’ evacuation order, but that meant that, if you did decide to stay, it was at your own risk, with no access to emergency facilities. About 300 families – maybe 15-20% of the occupants of St. James – decided, like us, to sit it out.

We have survived hurricanes up to a category 3 or even 4 beforehand. We have a variety of hurricane-shutters installed. While we are only a couple of miles from the ocean, we reside at the highest point in St James, about thirty feet above sea-level, which means we drain quickly. Brunswick County beaches face south-west, so the winds are normally less severe. We have stands of trees protecting us on the south side, where the first, ninth and seventh holes of the Members Club golf course – as well as the driving-range – help to break up the fiercest gales. And our closest friends are 1500 miles away. All of which reinforced our decision to stay. But we do not have a generator. . .

Our shutters are of a variety. Several are managed by a hand-driven crank, with a ratchet mechanism. Many are true shutters, which are closed and secured by bolting on a simple iron rod – downstairs from the outside (see picture) and upstairs from the inside, with one notable exception. We also have concertina-type doors that roll across the two large window-doors at the back of the house. The front door, and the windows of the recently converted back porch are all designed to resist hurricane-force 4 winds.

The hurricane shutters at No. 3835

But this was no ordinary hurricane. It was enormous – about half the size of France, which is 210,000 square miles. And even though it was only a category 2 when it made landfall at Wrightsville Beach, it brought an enormous volume of water with it. The water temperatures in the western Atlantic were very warm (in the 80s Fahrenheit), which gave Florence some enormous punch. She took a very slow and erratic path, which meant she stayed over the Cape Fear region for days. Forty inches of rain was expected in some parts (I am writing this on Sunday 16th September, without access to any news). Moreover, the ground was saturated. We have had sixty inches of rain this year before Florence arrived – over half of in the summer months – which means that trees were weakened, and there was nowhere for the water to go. Storm surge – abetted by the tides when they were high – was the biggest danger.

So Florence arrived on Thursday afternoon, when the first drops fell. We lost power about sixteen hours later. At noon on Friday, the eye passed over us, an episode normally accompanied by clear skies and calmness, although we learned from observation and the radio that the eye had filled in with rain. Two hours later, the gales returned, and it has been raining – mostly in torrents – ever since (11:00 am on Sunday, as I write), when raindrops are still falling into the new stream in our back yard. That means that the backside of the storm spent about forty-five hours to pass through: at two miles per hour, about 800 miles in radius. (I make these estimates with the help of my spies watching the radar on the Weather Channel from out-of-state safe houses, and communicating with me over an encrypted cellular connection. For security reasons, I cannot identify them by name, but their cryptonyms are ORCHARDIST, SAILOR, and TREASURER. They know who they are, and I am very grateful to them.)

At the end of our driveway

But this is a very serious matter. People have lost their lives, and property damage must be immense. We are in the hands of highly dedicated engineers and linesmen trying to restore our power. St. James is isolated, with all access roads impassable, and the main interstates (95 & 40) are also closed off in sections. I have not ventured beyond my driveway, but the flooding here must be disastrous in places. A few trees came down in the triangle opposite our house, but fortunately did not damage any property. One of Sylvia’s Bradford peartrees did not survive.

Sylvia’s Bradford Pear – probably cannot be replanted

I also took a few photographs of the flooded 1st hole at the Members Club, by the tee of which our house sits. (See below). We shall learn more soon, I hope.

The picturesque first hole at the Members Club. Be sure to take enough club to carry the demanding water hazard that bestrides the fairway . . .

Now you have cleared the water, you will need all of your 3-wood to reach this demanding par five, with its green well-protected by sand and water, and then face a tricky eagle putt.

Looking back to the first tee of the Members Club ‘Water Hole’. (Actually all eighteen are now called ‘the Water Hole’.)

And what about that last shutter? For some reason, the house designer decided that for two windows – in separate rooms – upstairs, each window would not have its own internal bar, but instead they would be linked and secured by an external bar that crossed the intervening wall. That means that a ladder has to be used to free the shutters, fold them back, and then bolt the shared bar tight. And the ladder has to be moved. Well, not only do I not really work on ladders any more, since the last practice I had with this, several years ago, the holly-tree in front of the windows has grown to such an extent that I had to abandon the exercise (see photograph), and risk the possibility that hurtling pine-cones (very dangerous missiles, by the way) would not break through our defenses.

The exposed windows!

One benefit of all of this was that I had a little nook during the day where enough light came through that I was able to read, as there was little else to do but meditate. (I was able to read Professor Foot’s extraordinary ‘SOE in France’, written in 1966 when he could not even admit that SIS existed.) During one long session, I started calculating how much water Florence actually dropped on SE North Carolina. If you take a section of 10000 square miles, which is not massive, just a portion of the tract that Florence covered, and a tenth of Florence’s area – Brunswick County is 1050 square miles, about 150 % of the size of Surrey, England, the area of which is 642 square miles – and project 40 inches of rain, I could fairly easily calculate mentally the number of cubic yards of water that must have fallen in the broader local area. Then I had to convert that number into recognizable gallons. But how many gallons in a cubic yard? I reckoned about 40, but the Encyclopaedia Britannica informed me the divisor was 54. So I was able to adjust my result to come up with 2,000,000,000,000 gallons, that is 2 European billion, and an American 2,000 billion. That means 6 cubic miles of water for the section I describe. Multiply that by six, and Coldspur diehards will recall that this amount would be enough to fill Lake Tahoe.

[Note: On September 19, the New York Times reported that Florence had dumped 8 trillion gallons on North Carolina alone. Sounds right.]

Lastly, I plucked from my shelves ‘The Connoisseur’s Crossword Book’, edited by Alan Cash, and published by Penguin in 1964. I had completed a few of the puzzles, but most had lain dormant, and it was a convenient way of spending the time, alternately reading a couple of clues by flashlight, and then trying to solve them in the dark. The first few were by the ‘legendary’ (though he did in fact exist) Ximenes, and it surprised me a) how verbose he was allowed (or allowed himself) to be, and b) how unXiminean his clueing occasionally was. Thus I was initially baffled by the following:
‘Refer with a certain amount of freedom – yes, with more of it (5)’, until I realized it was much more obvious than I had imagined. I believe the Times of today would have rejected what D. S. MacNutt was able to deploy in the Observer sixty year ago. He disobeyed some of his own rules (such as clue length), and his clues reflect a number of awkward structures (e.g. overuse of ‘I’ and cockneyisms, clumsy joining segments, superfluous ‘thes’ in anagrams, duplicated signifiers in the same puzzle, rather dubious indicators of troublesome letter sequences, and references to living persons), as well as classic and literary references that would be considered far too academic and esoteric for today’s solvers. Still, his influence on the craft of cruciverbalism was enormous, and I believe that individual setter styles ought to be allowed to transcend too rigorous formalism.

My thanks to everyone – especially those in England – who passed on their good wishes at a time that I was not able to respond. I shall do so individually. In the meantime, expect a stunning and shocking story on Coldspur on the regular last day of the month. This one will blow you away more than Florence ever could!

The power was restored at about 8 a.m. today, Monday. Wilmington still cut off, St. James still isolated, and water not potable, but we are making progress. Yet there is more rain forecast, and I hear thunder in the background, and it is getting closer.

Postscript: Now that we are on-line again, I can see how devastating the damage has been, how many lives were lost, and how many are suffering. We were lucky, and I thank all the responders and service people helping out those whose property has been ruined by the storm. In fact, just as I was about to post this on Monday afternoon, we lost cable, Internet and telephone service. It came back at about 1:50 today, Tuesday.

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My Experience With Opioids

One of the many paradoxes of life in the USA (like the sudden nervousness of the Republican Party about ‘open-carry’ laws that would allow rifles to be brought into the convention being held in Cleveland this week, or the driver with a ‘God Is My Pilot’ bumper-sticker who weaved his way illegally across lane dividers in front of me outside Wilmington a few days ago) is the country’s approach to drugs. While many states are now making the growth and sale of cannabis legal, the increase in the use of opioids is having a devastating effect on the overall health of the country’s citizens. In the USA in 2014, 28,600 persons lost their lives because of opioid overdoses. Where I live, in Brunswick County, I learn that more than half the candidates for positions in golf course maintenance withdraw when they learn that they will have to undergo a drug test.

Operating machinery under the influence of drugs is obviously a real risk. When I was working for IBM in Croydon in the early 1970s, when my colleagues and I went out for a jar or two at lunchtime at the ‘Porter and Sorter’, we probably would have failed any drug test, had it been applied, before operating any of the bank of machines that occupied an acre on the basement floor of Cherry Orchard Road, the beauty of whose environs had inspired Anton Chekhov to write perhaps his most notable play after he came to visit ‘for the waters’ in the late 1880s. (The data centre comprised an impressive range of computing power in those days, although it would have been eclipsed by the iPad that anybody casually uses today.)  Moreover, Thomas Watson Jr. would probably have had a fit if he had known that his male managers, salespersons and systems engineers no longer wore blue suits and white shirts, let alone went out to the pub at lunchtime. But, for recreational purposes, I have never ingested or inhaled anything stronger than a particularly nasty Balkan Sobranie in 1968, apart from the inevitable very occasional overindulgence with the grape or kindred spirits when celebrating such events as the Queen’s Birthday.

Yet I did have one life-changing experience with opioids. It all started in 1972, when I suffered a career-ending tumble on the rugby field that was diagnosed as a prolapsed disk. During the next year, all manner of treatments were tried. The most absurd was the encasement of my trunk in plaster of Paris, in an attempt to stabilise and straighten the spine, a remedy that was extremely uncomfortable and certainly not conducive to romance. I turned the condition into a party trick, encouraging persons not in the know to punch me in the stomach, rather as Sir Mansfield Cumming, the first director of SIS, would shock his audience by stabbing his wooden leg with a pen-knife when provoked to ire. When the plaster was taken off three months later, however, my scoliosis was just as bad as before, and my pain no less intense.

Eventually, in April 1973, I was called to hospital – to New Cross, where a large ward (immortalised by Chekhov in his 1892 short story, Ward No. 6) was occupied by patients suffering from a range of conditions, from herniated disks, like mine, to rheumatoid and other forms of arthritis. (One or two of those poor people were in dreadful pain.) There I was prescribed a regimen of three weeks’ bed-rest, which involved exactly that: minimal activity, lots of reading, talking to other patients and learning a lot, and inevitably chatting up the nurses, which had a very beneficial therapeutic effect  ̶  on me, I hasten to add. (I trust I did not offend any of the sorority through my attentions: I was still single then, and flirting with medical attendants was not then a criminal offence.) At the end of the three weeks, my back pain had diminished, but the rest-cure had not worked completely, so an operation was called for. With 50% of such cases going to an orthopaedic surgeon (and thus staying at New Cross), and 50% being destined for neurological treatment, I found myself in the latter category, and was sent to the Maudsley Hospital at Denmark Hill.

A day or two before I had the laminectomy, I was given a radiculogram (or maybe a myelogram), which involved a coloured dye being injected into the spinal column for better diagnosis through X-Rays, and thus guidance for the surgeon. This did not go well. I was not very excited about the prospect of the procedure when it was described to me, and I somehow managed to faint while on the trestle I had to lie on during the process, and fell to the ground. Whether the test was successful, I do not know, but I felt awful the next day, and was in such a state before the operation, with a headache, and my blood-pressure high, that the thought of an operation was really depressing. A couple of hours before the procedure, however, I was given my pre-medication. I was soon floating above the clouds, the warmth of the sun was gently embathing my whole body, and I was feeling a bonhomie towards all living creatures that would have made the Pope appear a curmudgeon. I could not have been more comfortable as I was wheeled into the operating theatre.

For part of the mixture administered to me was a generous helping of Omnopon. You can learn more about the compound Papavaretum at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Papaveretum: it appears that this opioid derivative is no longer used so frequently, because of side-effects, but it certainly worked for me. (I did not know what it was at the time.) And when I surfaced from the general anaesthetic, the first thing I heard was a soft voice encouraging me to wake up, and, when I opened my eyes, I found that the voice belonged to a most beautiful nurse. Perhaps I had landed in heaven after my trip through the clouds . . . But no, the environment was real, and I was taken to my personal ward in the Intensive Care area.

For a few days, I started to recuperate. But then, I suddenly started to be racked with appalling pains across my body, and a splitting headache. My temperature soared. While I was waiting for the surgical staff to be apprised of my condition (it took several hours to convince anybody I was really suffering), I lay there in agony. It felt as if a hot iron was gradually being moved up my spinal column to my brain. Then everyone suddenly sprang into action – with cold compresses, ice, fans, and massive penicillin injections every four hours. I had contracted MRSA, although I was never told as much at the time.

I could never stand injections, and I dreaded being woken up at four in the morning for the next dose. I would tense up, which made the process even more painful. Yet the beautiful nurse knew how to minimise the insult to the body: she would slap me on the buttock before administering the injection, which made it much less of a shock to the system. I thus hoped that she would be on duty as much as possible. Eventually, my fever came down, and the aches disappeared. But when the doctors tested my sciatic nerve, they found that the problem had not been addressed. I was much worse than I had been before the first operation (which had actually been performed by a trainee registrar). I would have to undergo a repeat – this time by the top surgeon himself.

So I prepared myself for another major operation. The beautiful nurse (who had been very kind to me) had by this time gone off for a long holiday in Greece, so I doubted whether I would see her again. But at least I had another pre-med to enjoy. That would be some compensation. I lay back, accepted the pre-med, and waited for the floating to re-start.

But it never happened! No clouds! No sun! No resolution of all the conflicts of the universe! I had been swindled! I even asked the nurses whether they had the prescription right. Yes, they had. The doctors had realised my parlous state before the first operation, but had judged that I was quite capable of undergoing the second without any artificial sedatives. And so it went. I was wheeled in, and went through the whole process, again, with ten days’ bed-rest before trying to move. (Customs change. When I had my last back operation in Connecticut in 1998, they had me walking around in hours, and out of the hospital in a couple of days.) It was not a simple outcome, as it happened. I contracted repeated infections on my spine, when the sutures refused to dissolve. I underwent further operations, and was eventually released from hospital in September 1973, having been admitted in April, but had further complications  ̶ and operations – that endured until the following year. I never played rugby again (nor did I get to Carnegie Hall), but was able to play squash and cricket for quite a while. And that was my experience with opioids.

And what happened to the beautiful nurse? Reader, I married her. And we look forward to our fortieth wedding anniversary in September of this year. Chekhov wrote about the whole episode  in . . . oh, well, perhaps not.

Scan0026

Croydon, September 24, 1976

This post appears before the end of the month, as I am leaving for the UK on July 21. A report of my trip will appear at the end of August. This month’s briefer than normal set of Commonplace entries appears here. (July 20, 2016)

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The Congenial Richard Dawkins

When I was in my early twenties, I read a book titled something like ‘Why Darwin Is Wrong’. It wasn’t a creationist text, but a popular science-based analysis. I can’t find the volume on abebooks (which doesn’t appear to list anything before 1981), but I recall quite clearly two of its major objections to Darwinian thinking, so far as the author understood it. One, that the notion of ‘The Survival of the Fittest’ (which was actually coined by Herbert Spencer to describe Darwin’s natural selection) was tautological, and thus meaningless, since what was ‘survival’ but another way of saying that an animal was ’fit’?  Two, that if the energies that contributed to survival took place after the animal had passed on its genetic material to its offspring, there would be no mechanism by which more adaptive traits would endure in the species.

I thought at the time that these points had merit, yet I was not completely discouraged from accepting that natural selection was the most plausible explanation for evolution, even though the exact mechanisms by which it occurred were still somewhat mysterious. I was, however, dismayed by another misconception, namely the way that the Theory of Evolution was frequently misrepresented as something purposeful by even the most knowledgeable of experts. I can recall the great David Attenborough, in Life on Earth, explaining certain phenomena in terms such as: “Thus, in order to survive, the bats had to develop radar.” This notion of purpose in Evolution is obviously nonsensical, and I have occasionally had to write to the Science Editor of the New York Times to point out where their journalists mistakenly ascribe this sense of an objective to adaptive changes. After all, did certain winged birds develop their flightlessness in order to make their life less hazardous? And what was the timescale according to which such adaptive changes worked? How long would it take for various initiatives to fail or succeed before the lack of ‘fitness’ wiped out the species? At the same time, as Jonathan Weiner’s The Beak of the Finch showed, describing the researches of Peter and Rosemary Grant on the Galapagos, small changes in the dimensions of finches’ beaks could rapidly take place in the light of changing climatic conditions and food supply.

Then Richard Dawkins’s Selfish Gene came along and changed everything, showing that the gene, not the individual organism (as Darwin believed) was the unit of natural selection. I have enjoyed Dawkins’s books since, although I found his first volume of autobiography, An Appetite for Wonder, rather scrappy and chippy. Now I have just finished his sequel, Brief Candle in the Dark. This is a new Dawkins. I think his PR firm must advised him not to be so offensive and controversial, because he positively oozes congeniality, and is nice about nearly everybody, and not nearly as scathing about religion as he used to be. (There must be a social meme in such superstitions that aids the survival of certain groups, a sad but unavoidable truth.) He also turns out to have almost as many friends as did Denis Healey or Lord Weidenfeld, and appears at times unbearably smug. As a curmudgeon myself, maybe I preferred the traditional Dawkins.

He has some fascinating new insights about the evolutionary process. I was interested to see what he had to say about the hot topic of epigenetics (defined in Chambers as the ‘gradual production and organisation of parts’, which is the study of how gene behavior is affected by environmental factors), and how he contrasted it with preformationist thinking (i.e. that, in essence, a homunculus was inside every human embryo). It seemed to me lately that some neo-Lamarckians, interested in promoting the notion of the passing on of acquired characteristics, have latched on to the term of ‘epigenetics’ to assist their cause. A footnote (p 402) from Dawkins is worth citing in full: “Don’t by the way be confused by the fact that the word ‘epigenetics’ has recently been hijacked as a label for a fashionable and over-hyped idea that changes in gene expression (which of course happen all the time during the course of normal embryonic development, otherwise all cells of the body would be the same) can be passed on to future generations. Such transgenerational effects may occasionally happen and it’s a quite interesting, if rather rare, phenomenon. But it’s a shame that, in the popular press, the word ‘epigenetics’ is becoming misused as though cross-generational transmission was a part of the very definition of epigenetics, rather than a rare and interesting anomaly.” Thank you, Professor. Just what I was looking for.

In one area however, I wonder whether Dawkins has got it wrong. I recall, at about the same time that I read the book on Darwin, taking in another work that pointed out how quickly scientists make analogies between the human body and whatever the current state of technology is (i.e. a pump in the 17th c., a clock in the 18th , an engine in the 19th , a computer in the 20th ). I thought that it might have been Arthur Koestler in The Ghost in the Machine, but I can find no trace of it there, and in those pre-spreadsheet days I did not keep track of every book I read. No matter: I think the point is valid. And Dawkins falls into the same easy motion. On page 382, when discussing the possible source of language, he makes the claim that ‘the human brain must possess something equivalent to recursive subroutines’ (an ability for a computer program to call itself and then return to an outer version of itself), a feature he says exists in Algol 60, but not the original IBM Fortran  language he used. Such a feature in human genes, which he calls ‘macro-mutation’ might have come about in a single mutation, and could have been responsible for the ability to create the phenomenon of language syntax. In reducing a complex organic process to a mechanical one, however, I believe Dawkins makes a categorical mistake. A computer program is only an artifact of the entity that he is describing, namely the human brain, which is a far more complex phenomenon than the strings of ones and zeroes that comprise a language compiler. His comparison is therefore merely crude reductionism.

But then Dawkins compounds his error. He goes on to write: “Computer languages either allow recursion or they don’t. There’s no such thing as half-recursion. It’s an all or nothing software trick. And once that trick has been implemented, hierarchically embedded syntax immediately becomes possible and capable of generating indefinitely extended sentences.”  First of all, if it is a design feature, it is not a trick. The trick – if there were one – would be an inherent flaw in the software where recursion did not work properly all the time – either by faulty implementation, or by a deliberate clandestine approach that made aberrant decisions based on some external circumstance or internal control data. After all, we each one of us know now about the Volkswagen Emissions Control Software, which gave false readings when the engine was being tested under laboratory conditions. Similarly, the implementation of a compiler program that claimed to allow recession could disable the function, or cause it not to work properly, depending on, for the instance, the date or time of day, the machine environment, or the particular iteration or count of the software execution.

He thus fails to distinguish between the design statement for a compiler that allows recursion, and the instantiation of that design in code. Moreover, no software is a perfect implementation, which causes the analogy inevitably to stumble. And by hinting at the notion of design in computer languages (what he signifies as the ‘trick’), Dawkins inadvertently undermines his analogy, since that notion of an architect has no role to play in evolutionary development, natural selection being an essentially haphazard process. Too many of his metaphors (for example, the arms-race, p 340; or ‘if we think of natural selection as a sculptor’, p 359) contain this notion of design at work, and thus weaken his whole argument, since the congenial atheist would assuredly deny the role of any ‘Designer’ in the process of language evolution. While many of the mechanisms by which genetic change occurs are still mysterious, that does not mean they are mystical. Following up on this theme, Dawkins later goes on to praise Chomsky’s idea of the language-learning apparatus being genetically implanted in the brain – which also strikes me as a bogus concept, since so many languages have implementations of syntax that are utterly antithetical and incompatible with other schemes. This is the weakest part of Dawkins’s theorizing.

Still, it was all a stimulating and enjoyable read, if you can put up with Dawkins continually reminding you how clever and successful he has been.

P.S. The New York Times informed me, on November 25, that the Saeed Book Bank in Islamabad, Pakistan, sells a thousand copies of Dawkins’s atheist treatise ‘The God Delusion’ each year. Not many people know that.

New Commonplace entries appear here.                                                                                                     (November 30, 2015)

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Hugh Walpole

In a passage about the Ministry of Information in WWII, I recently read a reference to the author Hugh Walpole, and was encouraged to pick up a biography of him by Rupert Hart-Davis at the university library in Wilmington. Now, I have never read a word of Walpole’s in my life, although I do recall a rather stout and daunting work, ‘Rogue Herries’, in my father’s grand bookshelf at home. (What did that title mean? What was ‘herrying’ anyway?) In his time (1884-1941) Walpole was surely one of the most popular and fertile authors in England, but I doubt many people read him nowadays. And then, on learning more about his life from Hart-Davis, I discovered that he possessed a familiar pattern of characteristics: an almost photographic memory, especially for other authors’ plots and characters; a highly creative mind, which allowed him to visualise complete novels before they were written; a passion for collecting things, and a love of lists (he would at the end of each year compile a list of his fifteen top friends – one for you, Mark Zuckerberg); a very prickly personality, and a clumsiness and lack of tact in dealing with other people. In short, he showed all the symptoms of Asperger’s Syndrome (see Orwell’s Clock).

I don’t believe that anyone else has made this assessment before. And it doesn’t really matter. I believe that the autism spectrum is very wide, and that even many among us who would never think of ourselves in that category can reveal aspects of the behaviour. Asperger’s wasn’t identified until 1944, and Hart-Davis, who wrote his biography in 1952, could not have been expected to be aware of it, since it came into prominence only thirty years later. (And now, some of the experts are trying to eliminate it as a separate nameable syndrome.) But what was astonishing to me was how frankly and pointedly Hart-Davis hinted at Walpole’s homosexuality. Such behaviour was still illegal in Britain at that time, as the recent publicity surrounding Alan Turing (‘The Imitation Game’) reminds us. What is really shocking to me is how inconsistently homosexuals were treated at that time, with the hero Turing (died 1954) being hounded despite his contributions, while the exhibitionist scoundrel Guy Burgess (defected to Moscow 1951), who boasted about his treachery, was tolerated and entertained.

My practice of updating my Commonplace Book  at the end of each month will remain in place . Starting now, I shall post the last month’s entries in a separate page, so that visitors may inspect them without having to delve down into the document containing everything for the current year. Thus see Recent Commonplace Entries. (My thanks to Mrs. Ethel Blenkinsop of Murmansk for this excellent suggestion.)         [November 30, 2014]

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