At the end of this dreadful year, I use this bulletin to provide an update on some of the projects that have occupied my time since my last Round-Up. I shall make no other reference to Covid-19, but I was astounded by a report in the Science Section of the New York Times of December 29, which described how some victims of the virus had experienced psychotic symptoms of alarming ferocity. Is there a case for investigating whether traditional paranoiacs may have been affected by similar viral attacks, harmed by neurotoxins which formed as reactions to immune activation, and crossed the blood-brain barrier?
The Contents of this bulletin are as follows:
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
The John le Carré I Never Knew
The Dead Ends of HASP
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Bandwidth versus Frequency
‘History Today’ and Eric Hobsbawm
Puzzles at Kew
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
‘Agent Sonya’ Rolls Out
Ben Macintyre’s biography of Sonia/Sonya received an overall very favourable response in the press, and it predictably irked me that it was reviewed by persons who were clearly unfamiliar with the subject and background. I posted one or two comments on-line, but grew weary of hammering away unproductively. Then Kati Marton, a respectable journalist who has written a book about one of Stalin’s spies, offered a laudatory review in the New York Times (see: https://www.nytimes.com/2020/09/15/books/review/agent-sonya-ben-macintyre.html?searchResultPosition=1) I accordingly wrote the following letter to the Editor of the Book Review:
Re: ‘The Housewife Who Was A Spy’
Even before Ben Macintyre’s book appears, enough is known about Agent Sonya to rebuff many of the claims that Kati Marton echoes from it.
Sonya was neither a spy, nor a spymaster (or spymistress): she was a courier. She did not blow up any railways in England: the most daring thing she did was probably to cycle home from Banbury to Oxford with documents from Klaus Fuchs in her basket.
A ‘woman just like the rest of us’? Well, she had three children with three different men. Her second marriage, in Switzerland, was bigamous, abetted by MI6, whose agent, Alexander Foote, provided perjurious evidence about her husband’s adultery. As a dedicated communist, she went in for nannies, and boarding-schools for her kids (not with her own money, of course). Just like the rest of us.
She eluded British secret services? Hardly. MI5 and MI6 officers arranged her passport and visa, then aided her installation in Britain, knowing that she came from a dangerous communist family, and even suspected that she might be a ‘spy’. The rat was smelled: they just failed to tail it.
Her husband in the dark? Not at all. He had performed work for MI6 in Switzerland, was trained as a wireless operator by Sonya, and as a Soviet agent carried out transmissions on her behalf from a bungalow in Kidlington, while her decoy apparatus was checked out by the cops in Oxford.
Living in a placid Cotswold hamlet? Not during the war, where her wireless was installed on the premises of Neville Laski, a prominent lawyer, in Summertown, Oxford. Useful to have a landlord with influence and prestige.
A real-life heroine? Not one’s normal image of a heroine. A Stalinist to the death, she ignored the horror of the Soviet Union’s prison-camp and praised its installation in East Germany after the war. Here Ms. Marton gets it right.
It appears that Mr. Macintyre has relied too closely on Sonya’s mendacious memoir, Sonjas Rapport, published in East Germany at the height of the Cold War, in 1977, under her nom de plume Ruth Werner. And he has done a poor job of inspecting the British National Archives.
As I declared in my Special Bulletin of December 8, I was, however, able to make my point. Professor Glees had introduced me to the Journal of Intelligence and National Security, recommending me as a reviewer of Macintyre’s book. Agent Sonya arrived (courtesy of the author) on October 8. By October 16, I had read the book and supplied a 6,000-word review for the attention of the Journal’s books editor in Canada. He accepted my text enthusiastically, and passed it on to his team in the UK. Apart from some minor editorial changes, and the addition of several new references, it constituted the review as it was published on-line almost two months later. It will appear in the next print edition of the Journal.
The team at the Journal were all a pleasure to work with, and they added some considerable value in preparing the article for publication, and providing some useful references that I had thought might be extraneous. But the process took a long time! Meanwhile, Claire Mulley had written an enthusiastic review of the book in the Spectator, and picked it as one of her ‘Books of the Year’. Similarly, the Sunday Times rewarded Macintyre by picking the production of one of their in-house journalists as one of the Books of the Year. I have to complement Macintyre on his ability to tell a rattling good yarn, but I wish that the literary world were not quite so cozy, and that, if books on complicated intelligence matters are going to be sent out to review, they could be sent to qualified persons who knew enough about the subject to be able to give them a serious critique.
Finally, I have to report on two book acquisitions from afar. It took four months for my copy of Superfrau iz GRU to arrive from Moscow, but in time for me to inspect the relevant chapters, and prepare my review of Agent Sonya. The other item that caught my eye was Macintyre’s information about the details of Rudolf Hamburger’s departure from Marseilles in the spring of 1939. I imagined this must have come from the latter’s Zehn Jahre Lager, Hamburger’s memoir of his ten years in the Gulag, after his arrest by the British in Tehran, and his being handed over to the Soviets. This was apparently not published until 2013. I thus ordered a copy from Germany, and it arrived in late November. Yet Hamburger’s story does not start until 1943: he has nothing to say about his time in Switzerland.
His son Maik edited the book, and provided a revealing profile of his father. Of his parents’ time in China, when Sonia started her conspiratorial work with Richard Sorge, he wrote: “Als sie nicht umhinkann, ihn einzuweihen, ist er ausser sich. Nicht nur, dass er sich hintergangen fühlt – sie hat die Familie aufs Spiel gesetzt.“ (“Since she could not prevent herself from entangling him, he is beside himself. Not just that he feels deceived – she has put the whole family at stake.”) When Sonia decided to return to Moscow for training, the marriage was over. And when she published her memoir in 1977 Maik noted: “Hamburger ist über diese Publikation und die Darstellung seiner Person darin hochgradig verärgert.“ (“Hamburger is considerably annoyed by this publication, and the representation of his character in it.”) Indeed, Maik. Your father suffered much on her account.
The John le Carré I Never Knew
I noted with great sadness the death of John le Carré this month. I imagine I was one of many who, during their university years, read The Spy Who Came In From the Cold, and was blown over by this very unromantic view of the world of espionage. Perhaps it was that experience that led me into a lifelong fascination with that realm. He was a brilliant writer, especially in the sphere of vocal registers. I wrote an extensive assessment of him back in 2016 (see Revisiting Smiley & Co.), and do not believe I have much to add – apart from the inevitable factor of Sonia.
In our article in the Mail on Sunday (see: https://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-8467057/Did-staggering-British-blunder-hand-Stalin-atomic-bomb.html , Professor Glees and I had characterized Sonia’s story as real-life confirmation of le Carré’s verdict that ‘betrayal is always the handmaiden of espionage’ , and I concluded my detailed explanation of the saga (see: http://www.coldspur.com/sonia-mi6s-hidden-hand/ ) with the following words: “What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.”
I had rather whimsically hoped that Mr. le Carré would have found these articles, and perhaps reached out to comment somewhere. But my hopes were dashed when I read Ben Macintyre’s tribute in the Times (see: https://www.thetimes.co.uk/article/john-le-carre-the-spy-who-was-my-friend-svr8tgv82 ). This is a typical item of Macintyrean self-promotion, as he encourages the glamour of le Carré to flow over him (‘Oh what prize boozers we were! How we joked and joshed each other!’), while the journalist attempts to put himself in a more serious class than his famous friend: “We shared a fascination with the murky, complex world of espionage: he from the vantage point of fiction and lived experience, whereas I stuck to historical fact and research.” Pass the sick-bag, Alice.
And then there was that coy plug for his book on Philby, A Spy Among Friends. “On another long ramble, between books and stuck for a new subject, I asked him what he thought was the best untold spy story of the Cold War. ‘That is easy,’ he said. ‘It is the relationship between Kim Philby and Nicholas Elliott,’ the MI6 officer who worked alongside the KGB spy for two decades and was comprehensively betrayed by him.’ That led to another book, ostensibly about the greatest spy scandal of the century, but also an exploration of male friendship, the bonds of education, class and secrecy, and the most intimate duplicity. Le Carré wrote the afterword, refusing payment.” Did ELLI not even touch the Great Man’s consciousness? What a load of boloney.
Thus, if le Carré really believed that the Philby-Elliott relationship was the best untold story of the Cold War, I knew we were on shaky ground. And, sure enough, a discussion on Sonya followed. “We met for the last time in October, on one of those medical toots, in the Hampstead house. A single table lamp dimly illuminated the old sitting room, unchanged over the years. Having read my latest book [‘Agent Sonya,’ for those of you who haven’t been paying attention], he had sent an enthusiastic note and a suggestion we meet: “You made us over time love and admire Sonya herself, and pity her final disillusionment, which in some ways mirrors our own. What guts, and what nerve. And the men wimps or misfits beside her.”
Hallo!! What were you thinking, old boy? Macintyre had hoodwinked the Old Master himself, who had been taken in by Macintyre’s picaresque ramblings, and even spouted the tired old nonsense that Sonya’s disillusionment ‘in some ways mirrors our own’. Who are you speaking for, chum, and what gives you the right to assume you know how the rest of us feel? What business have you projecting your own anxieties and disappointments on the rest of us? ‘Loving and admiring’ that destructive and woefully misguided creature? What came over you?
It must be the permanent challenge of every novelist as to how far he or she can go in projecting his or her own emotional turmoils into the world of outside, and claiming they are universal. As le Carré aged, I think he dealt with this aspect of his experiences less and less convincingly. And there have been some very portentous statements made about his contribution to understanding human affairs. Thus, Phillipe Sands, in the New York Times: “David [not King Edward VIII, by the way, but oh, what a giveaway!] was uniquely able to draw the connections between the human and historical, the personal and the political, pulling on the seamless thread that is the human condition.” (Outside Hampstead intellectuals, people don’t really talk like that still, do they?) With le Carré, one was never sure if he believed that the intelligence services, with their duplicities, deceits, and betrayals, caused their operatives to adopt the same traits, or whether those services naturally attracted persons whose character was already shaped by such erosive activities.
I believe the truth was far more prosaic. MI5, for example, was very similar to any other bureaucratic institution. In the war years, recruits were not subjected to any kind of personality or ideological test. They received no formal training, and picked up the job as they went along. Rivalries developed. Officers had affairs with their secretaries (or the secretaries of other officers), and sometimes they married them. Plots were hatched for personal advancement or survival. (White eased out Liddell in the same way that Philby outmanoeuvred Cowgill.) What was important was the survival of the institution, and warding off the enemy (MI6), and, if necessary, lying to their political masters. The fact is that, as soon as they let rogues like Blunt in, did nothing when they discovered him red-handed, and then tried to manipulate him to their advantage, White and Hollis were trapped, as trapped as Philby and his cronies were when they signed their own pact with the devil. Only in MI5’s case, these were essentially decent men who did not understand the nature of the conflict they had been drawn into.
On one aspect, however, Macintyre was absolutely right – the question of le Carré’s moral equivalence. With his large pile in Cornwall, and his opulent lunches, and royalties surging in, le Carré continued to rant about ‘capitalism’, as if all extravagant or immoral behaviour by enterprises, large or small, irrevocably damned the whole shooting-match. Would he have railed against ‘free enterprise’ or ‘pluralist democracy’? He reminded me of A. J. P. Taylor, fuming about capitalism during the day, and tracking his stock prices and dividends in the evenings. And le Carré’s political instincts took on a very hectoring and incongruous tone in his later years, with George Smiley brought out of retirement to champion the EU in A Legacy of Spies, and, a couple of years ago, Agent Running In The Field being used as a propaganda vehicle against the Brexiteers. (While my friend and ex-supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, thinks highly of this book, I thought it was weak, with unconvincing characters, unlikely backgrounds and encounters, and an implausible plot.)
I could imagine myself sitting down in the author’s Hampstead sitting-room, where we open a second bottle of Muscadet, and get down to serious talk. He tells me how he feels he has been betrayed by the shabby and corrupt British political establishment. It is time for me to speak up.
“What are you talking about, squire? Why do you think you’re that important? You win a few, you lose a few. Sure, democracy is a mess, but it’s better than the alternative! And look at that European Union you are so ga-ga about? Hardly a democratic institution, is it? Those Eurocrats continue to give the Brits a hard time, even though the two are ideological allies, and the UK at least exercised a popular vote to leave, while those rogue states, Hungary and Poland, blackmail the EU into a shady and slimy deal over sovereignty, and weasel some more euros out of Brussels! Talk about moral dilemmas and sleaziness! Why don’t you write about that instead? Aren’t you more nostalgic, in your admiration for the ‘European Project’, than all those Brexiteers you believe to be Empire Loyalists?”
But I notice he is no longer listening. I catch him whispering to one of his minions: “Who is this nutter? Get him out of here!”
I slip a few uneaten quails’ eggs into my pocket, and leave.
(A product of coldspur Syndications Inc. Not to be reproduced without permission.)
The Dead Ends of HASP
I had been relying on two trails to help resolve the outstanding mysteries of the so-called HASP messages that GCHQ had acquired from Swedish intelligence, and which reputedly gave them breakthroughs on decrypting some elusive VENONA traffic. (see Hasp & Spycatcher). One was a Swedish academic to whom Denis Lenihan had introduced me, Professor Wilhelm Agrell, professor of intelligence analysis at the University of Lund in Sweden. Professor Agrell had delivered a speech on Swedish VENONA a decade ago, and had prepared a paper in English that outlined what he had published in a book in Swedish, unfortunately not (yet) translated into English. The other was the arrival of the authorised history of GCHQ by the Canadian academic, Professor John Ferris. It was perhaps reasonable to expect that the VENONA project would undergo a sustained analysis in this work, which was published in October of this year.
Professor Agrell’s work looked promising. His paper, titled ‘The Stockholm Venona – Cryptanalysis, intelligence liaison and the limits of counter-intelligence’, had been presented at the 2009 Cryptologic History Symposium, October 15 and 16, 2009, at Johns Hopkins University in Laurel, MD. His annotations indicated that he had enjoyed extensive access to Swedish Security Police files, as well as some documents from the military intelligence and security services. Moreover, his analysis had benefitted from declassified American, German and British intelligence, along with some recently declassified Swedish files. His references included two useful-sounding books written in English, Swedish Signal Intelligence 1900-1945, byC.G. McKay and Bengt Beckman, and the same McKay’s From Information to Intrigue. Studies in Secret Service based on the Swedish Experience, 1939-1945. I acquired and read both volumes.
The experience was very disappointing. The two books were very poorly written, and danced around paradoxical issues. I prepared some questions for the Professor, to which he eventually gave me some brief answers, and I responded with some more detailed inquiries, to which he replied. He had never heard of HASP outside Wright’s book. He was unable to provide convincing responses over passages in his paper that I found puzzling. Towards the end of our exchange, I asked him about his assertion that ‘GCHQ has released agent-network VENONA traffic to the National Archives’, since I imagined that this might refer to some of the missing SONIA transmissions that Wright believed existed. His response was that he was referring to the ‘so called ISCOT material from 1944-45’. Well, I knew about that, and have written about it. It has nothing to do with VENONA, but contains communications between Moscow and guerilla armies in Eastern Europe, decrypted by Denniston’s group at Berkeley Street. At this stage I gave up.
In a future bulletin, I shall lay out the total Agrell-Percy correspondence, and annotate which parts of the exchange are, in my opinion, highly important, but I do not think we are going to learn much more from the Swedish end of things. The Swedes seem to be fairly tight-lipped about these matters.
I completed John Ferris’s Behind the Enigma on November 30, and put its 823 pages down with a heavy thud and a heavy sigh. This book must, in many ways, be an embarrassment to GCHQ. It is poorly written, repetitive, jargon-filled, and frequently circumlocutory. The author is poor at defining terms, and the work lacks a Glossary and Bibliography. Ferris has an annoying habit of describing historical events with modern-day terminology, and darts around from period to period in a bewilderingly undisciplined manner. He includes a lot of tedious sociological analysis of employment patterns at Bletchley Park and Cheltenham. One can find some very useful insights amongst all the dense analysis, but it is a hard slog tracking them down. And he is elliptical or superficial about the matters that interest me most, that is the interception and decipherment of Soviet wireless traffic.
One receives a dispiriting message straight away, on page 4. “This history could not discuss diplomatic Sigint after 1945, nor any technicalities of collection which remained current.” Yet this stipulation does not prevent Ferris from making multiple claims about GCHQ’s penetration of Soviet high-grade systems, and promoting the successes of other apparent diplomatic projects, such as Hungary, Czechoslovakia and Cuba. For example, he refers to Dick White’s recommendation in 1968 that more Soviet tasks be handed over to the US’s NSA (p 311), but, not many pages later, he writes of the Americans’ desire not to fall behind British Sigint, and their need to maintain the benefit they received from GCHQ’s ‘power against Russia’ (p 340). On page 355 we learn that GCHQ ‘ravaged Soviet civil and machine traffic’. I do not know what all this means.
It seems that Ferris does not really understand VENONA. His coverage of MASK (the 1930s collection of Comintern traffic with agents in Britain) is trivial, he ignores ISCOT completely, and he characterizes VENONA in a similarly superficial fashion: “It [GCHQ] began an attack on Soviet systems. Between 1946 and 1948, it produced Britain’s best intelligence, which consumers rated equal to Ultra.” (p 279). He fails to explain how the project attacked traffic that had been stored from 1943 onwards, and does not explain the relationship between the USA efforts and the British (let alone the Swedes). His statement about the peak of UK/USA performance against Soviet traffic as occurring between 1945 and 1953 (p 503) is simply wrong. VENONA has just four entries in the Index, and the longest passage concerns itself with the leakage in Australia. He offers no explanation of how the problem of reused one-time-pads occurred, or how the British and American cryptologists made progress, how they approached the problem, and what was left unsolved. Of HASP, there is not a sign.
It is evident that GCHQ, for whatever reason, wants VENONA (and HASP) to remain not only secrets, but to be forgotten. All my appeals to its Press Office have gone unacknowledged, and the issue of Ferris’s History shows that it has no intention of unveiling anything more. Why these events of sixty years and more ago should be subject to such confidentiality restrictions, I have no idea. It is difficult to imagine how the techniques of one-time pads, and directories, and codebooks could form an exposure in cryptological defences of 2020, unless the process would reveal some other embarrassing situation. Yet I know how sensitive it is. A month or two back, I had the privilege of completing a short exchange with a gentleman who had worked for GCHQ for over thirty years, in the Russian division. He said he had never heard of HASP. Well, even if he had, that was what he had been instructed to say. But we know better: ‘HASP’ appears on that RSS record.
Anthony Blunt: Melodrama at the Courtauld
Every schoolboy knows who murdered Atahualpa, and how in April 1964 the MI5 officer Arthur Martin elicited a confession of Soviet espionage from Anthony Blunt. Yet I have been rapidly coming to the conclusion that the whole episode at Blunt’s apartment at the Courtauld Institute was a fiction, a sham event conceived by Roger Hollis and Dick White, in order to conceal Blunt’s earlier confession, and to divert responsibility for the disclosure on to an apparently recent meeting between MI5 officer Arthur Martin and the American Michael Straight, after the latter’s confession to the FBI in the summer of 1963. By building a careful chronology of all the historical sources, but especially those of British Cabinet archives, the FBI, and the CIA, a more accurate picture of the extraordinary exchanges MI5 had with Blunt, Straight and the fifth Cambridge spy, John Cairncross, can be constructed.
The dominant fact about the timing of Blunt’s confession is that all accounts (except one) use Penrose and Freeman’s Conspiracy of Silence as their source, which, in turn, refers to a correspondence between the authors and the MI5 officer Arthur Martin in 1985. Only Christopher Andrew claims that an archival report exists describing the events, but it is identified solely in Andrew’s customarily unacademic vernacular of ‘Security Service Archives’. The details are vaguely the same. On the other hand, several commentators and authors, from Andrew Boyle to Dame Stella Rimington, suggest that Blunt made his confession earlier, though biographers and historians struggle with the way that the ‘official’ account has pervaded the debate, and even use it as a reason to reject all the rumours that Blunt had made his compact some time beforehand.
This project has been several months in the making. I was provoked by Wright’s nonsense in Spycatcher to take a fresh look at the whole search for Soviet moles in MI5. I re-read Nigel West’s Molehunt, this time with a more critical eye. Denis Lenihan and I collaborated on a detailed chronology for the whole period. I reinspected the evidence that the defector Anatoli Golitsyn was supposed to have provided that helped nail Philby. The journalist James Hanning alerted me to some passages in Climate of Treason that I had not studied seriously. I was intrigued by David Cannadine’s rather lavish A Question of Retribution (published earlier this year), which examined the furore over Blunt’s ousting from the British Academy after his role as a spy had been revealed, and I pondered over Richard Davenport-Hines’s misleading review of Cannadine’s book in the Times Literary Supplement a few months ago. I went back to the source works by Boyle, Andrew, West, Costello, Pincher, Penrose and Freeman, Wright, Bower, Straight, Cairncross, Perry, Rimington, and Smith to unravel the incongruous and conflicting tales they spun, and acquired Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross. I inspected carefully two files at the National Archives, declassified in the past five years, that appeared to have been misunderstood by recent biographers.
The dominant narrative runs as follows: Golitsyn created interest in the notion of the ‘Cambridge 5’, and helped to identify Philby as the Third Man; Michael Straight confessed to the FBI that he had been recruited by Blunt at Cambridge; the FBI notified MI5; MI5 interviewed Straight; MI5 could not move against Blunt (the Fourth Man) simply because of Straight’s evidence; MI5 concocted a deal whereby Blunt would essentially receive a pardon if he provided information that led to the ‘Fifth Man’; Blunt revealed that he had recruited John Cairncross; at some stage, MI5 interrogated Cairncross who, on similar terms, confessed; Cairncross’s evasions deflected suspicions that he could have been the ‘Fifth Man’; other candidates were investigated. Blunt’s culpability, and the fact of a deal, remained a secret until, in 1979, Andrew Boyle revealed the role of ‘Maurice’ in Climate of Treason, Private Eye outed ‘Maurice’ as Blunt, and Margaret Thatcher admitted the unwritten compact that had been agreed with Blunt. Yet a muddle endured.
The archives show that this was not the actual sequence of events. The timing does not make sense. And it all revolves around Arthur Martin’s two interrogations of Cairncross in Cleveland, Ohio, in February and March 1964, i.e. before the date claimed for Blunt’s confession to Arthur Martin. Wright’s Spycatcher is perhaps the most egregious example of a work where the chronology is hopelessly distorted or misunderstood, and the author is shown to be carrying on a project of utter disinformation. All other accounts show some manner of delusion, or laziness in ignoring obvious anomalies. The fact is that Hollis, White, Trend & co. all hoodwinked the Foreign Office, and withheld information from the new Prime Minister, Alec Douglas-Home. In my report at the end of January 2021 I shall reveal (almost) all. In the meantime, consider these priceless quotations (from a FO archive):
“It is desirable that we should be seen to be doing everything possible to bring him [Cairncross] to justice.’ (Sir Bernard Burrows, Chairman of the JIC, February 20, 1964)
“At the same time I am bound to say I think MI5 are taking a lot on themselves in deciding without any reference not to pursue such cases at some time (in this instance in Rome, Bangkok, and U.K.) and then to go ahead at others (here in USA). The political implication of this decision do not appear to have been weighed: only those of the mystery of spy-catching. However effective this may now have been proved, it is apt to leave us with a number of difficult questions to answer.” (Howard Caccia, Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, February 20, 1964)
“It is essential that I should be able to convince the F.B.I. that we are not trying to find a way out of taking action but, on the contrary, that we are anxious to prosecute if this proves possible.” (Roger Hollis to Burke Trend, February 25, 1964)
“We must not appear reluctant to take any measures which might secure Cairncross’s return to the United Kingdom.” (Burke Trend to the Cabinet, February 28, 1964)
The tradition of Sir Humphrey Appleby was in full flow.
Trevor Barnes Gives the Game Away
Regular Coldspur readers will have spotted that I frequently attempt to get in touch with authors whose books I have read, sometimes to dispute facts, but normally to try to move the investigations forward. It is not an easy task: the more famous an author is, the more he or she tends to hide behind his or her publisher, or press agent. Some approaches have drawn a complete blank. I often end up writing emails to the publisher: in the case of Ben Macintyre, it got ‘lost’. When Ivan Vassiliev’s publisher invited me to contact him by sending a letter for him to their office, and promised to forward it to his secret address in the UK, I did so, but then heard nothing.
With a little digging, however, especially around university websites, one can often find email addresses for academics, and write in the belief that, if an address is displayed publicly, one’s messages will at least not fall into a spam folder. I am always very respectful, even subservient, on my first approach, and try to gain the author’s confidence that I am a voice worth listening to. And I have had some excellent dialogues with some prominent writers and historians – until they get tired of me, or when I begin to challenge some of their conclusions, or, perhaps, when they start to think that I am treading on ‘their’ turf. (Yes, historians can be very territorial.). For I have found that many writers – qualified professional historians, or competent amateurs – seem to prefer to draw a veil of silence over anything that might be interpreted as a threat to their reputation, or a challenge to what they have published beforehand, in a manner that makes clams all over the world drop their jaws at the speed of such tergiversation.
In this business, however, once you lose your inquisitiveness, I believe, you are lost. And if it means more to you to defend a position that you have previously taken, and on which you may have staked your reputation, than to accept that new facts may shake your previous hypotheses and conclusions, it is time to retire. If I put together a theory about some mysterious, previously unexplained event, and then learn that there is a massive hole in it, I want to abandon it, and start afresh. (But I need to hear solid arguments, not just ‘I don’t agree with you’, or ‘read what Chapman Pincher says’, which is what happens sometimes.)
Regrettably, Trevor Barnes has fallen into that form of stubborn denial. When I first contacted him over Dead Doubles, he was communicative, grateful, open-minded. He accepted that the paperback edition of his book would need to reflect some corrections, and agreed that the several points of controversy that I listed in my review were all substantive. But when I started to quiz him on the matter of the disgraced MI5 officer (see Dead Doubles review), he declined to respond to, or even acknowledge, my messages. (And maybe he found my review of his book on coldspur, since I did take the trouble to point it out to him.) The question in his case revolves around a rather clumsy Endnote in his book, which, instead of achieving the intended goal of burying the topic, merely serves to provoke additional interest.
Note 8, to Part One, on page 250, runs as follows:
“Private information. James Craggs is a pseudonym. The name of the case officer is redacted from the released MI5 files. The author discovered his real identity but was requested by MI5 sources not to name him to avoid potential distress to his family.”
The passage referred to is a brief one where Barnes describes how David Whyte (the head of D2 in MI5), swung into action against Houghton. I reproduce it here:
“He chose two officers to join him on the case. One was George Leggatt, half-Polish and a friend, with whom he had worked on Soviet counter-espionage cases in the 1950s. The case officer was James Craggs, a sociable bachelor in his late thirties.”
That’s it. But so many questions raised! ‘Private information’ that ‘Craggs’ was ‘a sociable bachelor’, which could well have been a substitute for ‘confirmed bachelor’ in those unenlightened days, perhaps? (But then he has a family.) What else could have been ‘private’ about this factoid? And why would a pseudonym have to be used? Did ‘Craggs’ perform something massively discreditable to warrant such wariness after sixty years? Barnes draws to our attention the fact that the officer’s name is redacted in the released file. But how many readers would have bothered to inspect the files if Barnes has simply used his real name, but not mentioned the attempts to conceal it, or the suggestion of high crimes and misdemeanours? By signalling his own powers as a sleuth, all Barnes has done is invite analysis of what ‘Craggs’ might have been up to, something that would have lain dormant if he had not highlighted it.
For ‘Craggs’’s real name is quite clear from KV 2/4380. Denis Lenihan pointed out to me that the name was apparent (without actually identifying it for me), and I confirmed it from my own inspection. The MI5 weeders performed a very poor job of censorship. Indeed, ‘Craggs’s’ name has been redacted in several places, in memoranda and letters that he wrote, and in items referring to him, but it is easy to determine what his real name was. On one report, dated May 25, 1960, Leggatt has headed his report: “Note on a Visit by Messrs. Snelling and Leggatt . . .”. Moreover, on some of the reports written by Snelling himself, the initials of the author and his secretary/typist have been left intact in the bottom left-hand corner: JWES/LMM.
So, J. W. E. Snelling, who were you, and what were you up to? As I suggested in my review of Dead Doubles, the most obvious cause of his disgrace is his probable leaking to the Daily Mail journalist Artur Tietjen the details of Captain Austen’s testimony on Houghton’s behaviour in Warsaw. Yet it seems to me quite extraordinary that the institutional memory of his corruption could endure so sharply after sixty years. If there is no other record of what he did, the weeders would have done much better simply to leave his name in place. I can’t imagine that anyone would otherwise have started to raise questions.
Can any reader help? Though perhaps it is over to Trevor Barnes, now that he has opened up this can of worms, to bring us up to date. Moreover, I do not understand why Barnes was working so closely with MI5 on this book. Was he not aware that he would be pointed in directions they wanted him to go, and steered away from sensitive areas? In this case, it rather backfired, which has a humorous angle, I must admit. Intelligence historians, however, should hide themselves away – probably in some remote spot like North Carolina – never interview anybody, and stay well clear of the spooks. Just download the archives that are available, arrange for others to be photographed, have all the relevant books at hand and put on your thinking-cap. I admit the remoteness of so many valuable libraries, such as the Bodleian and that of Churchill College, Cambridge, represents a massive inconvenience, but the show must go on.
Bandwidth versus Frequency
My Chief Radiological Adviser, Dr. Brian Austin, has been of inestimable value in helping me get things straight in matters of the transmission, reception and interception of wireless signals. Sometime in early 2021 I shall be concluding my analysis of the claims made concerning SONIA’s extraordinary accomplishments with radio transmissions from the Cotswolds, guided by Dr. Austin’s expert insights. In the meantime, I want to give him space here to correct a miscomprehension I had of wireless terminology. A few weeks ago, he wrote to me as follows:
Reading your July 31st “Sonia and MI6’s Hidden Hand”, I came across this statement:
“Since her messages needed to reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000 kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach . . . ”
This requires some modification, as I’ll now explain. The term bandwidth (for which the symbol B is often used) implies the width of a communications channel necessary to accommodate a particular type of transmitted signal. In essence, the more complicated the message (in terms of its mathematical structure not its philological content) the wider the bandwidth required. The simplest of all signals is on-off keying such as hand-sent Morse Code. The faster it is sent, the more bandwidth it requires. However, for all typical hand-sent Morse transmissions the bandwidth needed will always be less than 1000 Hz. On the other hand, if one wishes to transmit speech, whether by radio or by telephone, then the bandwidth needed is typically 3000 Hz (or 3 kHz). Thus, all standard landline telephones are designed to handle a 3 kHz bandwidth in order to faithfully reproduce the human voice which, generally speaking, involves frequencies from about 300 Hz to 3300 Hz meaning the bandwidth is B = 3300 – 300 = 3000 Hz or 3 kHz.
By contrast, TV signals, and especially colour TV signals, are far more complicated than speech since even the old B&W TV had to convey movement as well as black, white and grey tones. To do that required at least a MHz or so of bandwidth. These days, a whole spectrum of colours as well as extremely rapid movement has to be transmitted and so the typical colour TV bandwidth for good quality reproduction in our British Pal (Phase Alternating Line) system is several MHz wide. As an aside, the North American system is called NTSC. When Pal and NTSC were competing with each other in the 1960s for world dominance, NTSC was known disparagingly by ourselves as meaning Never Twice the Same Colour!
So your use of the term band-width above is incorrect. What you mean is frequency. It is related to wavelength simply as frequency = speed of light / wavelength. And it is also more common, and more accurate, to specify a transmitter’s frequency rather than its wavelength. All quartz crystals are marked in units of frequency. The only occasion Macintyre took a leap into such complexities in “Agent Sonya” was on p.151 where he indicated that her transmitter operated on a frequency of 6.1182 MHz. That sounds entirely feasible and it would have been the frequency marked on the particular crystal issued to her (and not purchased in the nearby hardware shop as BM would have us believe).
You are quite correct in saying that to communicate with Moscow required a higher frequency than would have been needed for contact with Germany, say. But it would have been considerably higher than the 1000 kcs you mentioned. 1000 kcs (or kHz in today’s parlance) is just 1 Mcs (MHz) and actually lies within the Medium Wave broadcast band. Such low frequencies only propagate via the ground wave whereas to reach Moscow, and indeed anywhere in Europe from England, will have necessitated signals of some good few MHz.
In general the greater the distance the higher the frequency but that is rather simplistic because it all depends on the state of the ionosphere which varies diurnally, with the seasons and over the 11-year sunspot cycle. Choosing the best frequency for a particular communications link is a pretty complex task and would never be left to the wireless operator. His or her masters would have experts doing just that and then the agent would be supplied with the correct crystals depending on whether the skeds were to be during daylight hours or at night and, also, taking into account the distance between the transmitting station and the receiving station. In my reading about the WW2 spy networks I have not come across any agent being required to operate over a period of years which might require a frequency change to accommodate the change in sunspot cycle that will have taken place.
An example from the world of international broadcasting illustrates all this rather nicely. The BBC World Service used to operate on two specific frequencies for its Africa service. Throughout the day it was 15.4 MHz (or 15 400 kHz) while at night they would switch to 6.915 MHz (or 6 915 kHz). The bandwidth they used was about 10 kHz because they transmitted music as well as speech and music being more structurally complicated than speech needs a greater bandwidth than 3 kHz.
Thank you for your patient explanation, Brian.
Puzzles at Kew
I have written much about the bizarre practices at the National Archives at Kew, and especially of the withdrawal of files that had previously been made available, and had been exploited by historians. The most famous case is the that of files on Fuchs and Peierls: in the past three years, Frank Close and Nancy Thorndike Greenspan have written biographies of Klaus Fuchs that freely used files that have since been withdrawn. Then, in my August 31 piece about Liverpool University, I noted that, over a period of a couple of days where I was inspecting the records of a few little-known scientists, the descriptions were being changed in real-time, and some of the records I had looked at suddenly moved into ‘Retained’ mode.
My first reaction to this event was that my usage of Kew records was perhaps being monitored on-line, and decisions were being made to stop the leakage before any more damage was done. I thus decided to contact one of my Kew ‘insider’ friends, and describe to him what happened. He admitted to similar perplexity, but, after making some discrete inquiries, learned that there was an ongoing project under way to review catalogue entries, and attempt to make them more accurate to aid better on-line searchability. Apparently, I had hit upon an obscure group of records that was undergoing such treatment at the time. It was simply coincidence. (Although I have to point out that this exercise did not appear to be undertaken with strict professional guidelines: several spelling errors had in the meantime been introduced.)
A short time ago, however, another irritating anomaly came to light. I had been re-reading parts of Chris Smith’s The Last Cambridge Spy, when I noticed that he had enjoyed access to some files on John Cairncross which showed up as being ‘Retained’, namely HO 532/4, ‘Espionage activities by individuals: John Cairncross’. This sounded like a very important resource, and I discovered from Smith’s Introduction that, among the few documents on Cairncross released to the National Archives was ‘a Home Office file, heavily redacted’, which he ‘obtained via a freedom of information request.’ I asked myself why, if a file has been declassified by such a request, it should not be made available to all. It was difficult to determine whether Smith had capably exploited his find, since I found his approach to intelligence matters very tentative and incurious. I have thus asked my London-based researcher to follow up with Kew, and have provided him with all the details.
Incidentally, Denis Lenihan has informed me that his freedom of information request for the files of Renate Stephenie SIMPSON nee KUCZYNSKI and Arthur Cecil SIMPSON (namely, one of Sonia’s sisters and her husband), KV 2/2889-2993 has been successful. The response to Denis a few weeks ago contained the following passage: “Further to my email of 14 October 2020 informing you of the decision taken that the above records can all be released, I am very pleased to report that, at long last, these records are now available to view, albeit with a few redactions made under Section 40(2) (personal information) of the FOI Act 2000. The delay since my last correspondence has been because digitised versions of the files needed to be created by our Documents Online team and due to The National Archives’ restricted service because of the Coronavirus pandemic, this has taken the team longer to complete than it normally would. However the work is now compete [sic].”
This is doubly interesting, since I had been one of the beneficiaries of a previous policy, and had acquired the digitised version of KV 2/2889 back in 2017. So why that item would have to be re-digitised is not clear. And yes, all the files are listed in the Kew Catalogue as being available – and, by mid-December, they were all digitised, and available for free download.
Lastly, some business with the Cambridge University Library. On reading Geoff Andrews’s recent biography of John Cairncross, Agent Moliere, I was taken with some passages where he made claims about the activities of the FBI over Cairncross’s interrogations in Cleveland in early 1964. I could not see any references in his Endnotes, and my search on ‘Cairncross’ in the FBI Vault had drawn a blank. By inspecting Andrews’s Notes more carefully, however, I was able to determine that the information about the FBI came from a box in the John Cairncross papers held at Cambridge University Manuscripts Collection (CULMC) under ref. Add.10042. I thus performed a search on those arguments at the CULMC website, but came up with nothing.
My next step was thus to send a simple email to the Librarian at Cambridge, asking for verification of the archival material’s existence, whether any index of the boxes was available, and what it might cost to have some of them photographed. I very quickly received an automated reply acknowledging my request, giving me a ticket number, and informing me that they would reply to my inquiry ‘as soon as they can’. A very pleasant gentleman contacted me after a few days, explaining that the Cairncross boxes had not been indexed, but that he would inspect them if I could give him a closer idea of what I was looking for. I responded on December 17. Since then, nothing.
Trouble at RAE Farnborough
Readers will recall my recent description of the remarkable career of Boris Davison (see Liverpool University: Home for Distressed Spies), who managed to gain a position at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment at Farnborough, shortly after he arrived in the UK, in 1938. I wondered whether there was anything furtive about this appointment, and my interest was piqued by a passage I read in Simon Ball’s Secret History: Writing the Rise of Britain’s Intelligence Services (2020). As I have suggested before, this is a very strange and oddly-constructed book, but it does contain a few nuggets of insider information.
On page 199, Ball introduces a report on Russian (i.e. ‘Soviet’) intelligence written in 1955 by Cedric Cliffe, former assistant to Cabinet Secretary, Sir Norman Brook. Its title was ‘Survey of Russian Espionage in Britain, 1935-1955’, and was filed as KV 3/417 at the National Archives. Ball explains how Britain suffered from penetration problems well before the Burgess and Maclean case, and writes: “The most notable UK-based agents of the ‘illegal’ [Henri Robinson] were two technicians employed at the time of their recruitment in 1935 at the Royal Aeronautical Establishment, Farnborough. They had been identified after the war on the basis of German evidence, but no action was taken because one was still working usefully on classified weapons and the other one was a Labour MP.” But Ball does not identify the two employees, nor comment on the astonishing fact that a spy’s role as a Labour MP presumably protected him from prosecution. Who were these agents?
Then I remembered that I had KV 3/417 on my desktop. Only I had not recognized it as the ‘Cliffe Report’: the author’s name does not appear on it. (That is where Ball’s insider knowledge comes into play.) And in paragraph 96, on page 24, Cliffe has this to say:
‘Wilfred Foulston VERNON was also [alongside one William MEREDITH] an aircraft designer employed at Farnborough. He was active in C.P.G.B. activities from about 1934 onwards and visited Russia twice, in 1935 and 1936. From 1936 onwards he was, like MEREDITH, passing secret information through WEISS, first to HARRY II and later to Henri Robinson. He was probably present when MEREDITH was introduced to WEISS by HARRY II. In August 1937, a burglary at VERNON’s residence led to the discovery there of many secret documents. As a result, VERNON was suspended from the R.A.E., charged under the Official Secrets Acts, and fined £50 – for the improper possession of these documents, it should be noted, and not for espionage, which was not at this time suspected.’
Cliffe’s report goes on to state that, when Vernon’s espionage activities first became known, he was the Member of Parliament for Dulwich, which seat he won in 1945 and retained in 1950, losing it the following year. It was thought ‘impracticable to prosecute him’, though why this was so (parliamentary immunity? not wanting to upset the unions? opening the floodgates?) is not stated. Cliffe closes his account by saying that Vernon ‘admitted, under interrogation, that he had been recruited by Meredith and had committed espionage, but he told little else.’ An irritating paragraph has then been redacted before Cliffe turns to Vernon’s controller, Weiss.
This man was clearly Ball’s ‘Labour MP’. So what about his confession? MI5’s chunky set of files on Vernon can be inspected at KV 2/992-996, and they show that, once he lost his parliamentary seat in October 1951, MI5 was free to interrogate him, and he was somewhat ‘deflated’ by Skardon’s approach. After consulting with his sidekick, Meredith, he confessed to spying for the Soviets, and giving information to his controller. In 1948, Prime Minster Attlee had been ‘surprised and shocked’ to hear that MI5 had evidence against Vernon. Now that the Labour Party had lost the election, the case of Vernon & Meredith seemed to die a slow death. Vernon became a member of the London County Council. He died in 1975.
Little appears to have been written about the Weiss spy-ring. (Nigel West has noted them.) Andrew’s Defending the Realm has no reference to Cliffe, Weiss, Meredith, Vernon, or even the RAE. The Royal Aeronautical Establishment was obviously a security disaster, and a fuller tale about its subversion by Soviet agents, and the role of Boris Davison, remains to be told.
Eric Hobsbawm and ‘History Today’
Over the past six months History Today has published some provocative items about the historian Eric Hobsbawm. It started in May, when Jesus Casquete, Professor of the History of Political Thought and the History of Social Movements at the University of the Basque Country, provided an illuminating article about Hobsbawm’s activities as a Communist in Berlin in 1933, but concluded, in opposition to a somewhat benevolent appraisal by Niall Ferguson quoted at the beginning of his piece, that ‘Hobsbawm ignored entirely the shades of grey between his personal choice of loyalty and became blind to genocide and invasion, and the other extreme.’
The following month, a letter from Professor Sir Roderick Floud headed the correspondence. “As Eric’s closest colleague for 13 years and a friend for much longer”, he wrote, “I can testify to the fact that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is a travesty.” Floud then went on to make the claim that Hobsbawm stayed in the Communist Party because of his belief in fighting fascism, and claimed that Hobsbawm ‘did not betray his youthful – and ever-lasting – ideals’. Yet the threat from fascism was defunct immediately World War II ended. What was he talking about?
I thought that this argument was hogwash, and recalled that Sir Roderick must be the son of the Soviet agent Bernard Floud, M.P., who committed suicide in October 1967. I sympathize with Sir Roderick in the light of his tragic experience, but it seemed that the son had rather enigmatically inherited some of the misjudgments of the father. And, indeed, I was so provoked by the space given to Sir Roderick’s views that I instantly wrote a letter to Paul Lay, the Editor. I was gratified to learn from his speedy acknowledgment that he was very sympathetic to my views, and would seriously consider publishing my letter.
And then further ‘arguments’ in Hobsbawm’s defence came to the fore. In the August issue, Lay dedicated the whole of his Letters page to rebuttals from his widow, Marlene, and from a Denis Fitzgerald, in Sydney, Australia. Marlene Hobsbawm considered it an ‘abuse’ to claim that her late husband was ‘an orthodox communist who adhered faithfully to Stalinist crimes’, and felt obligated to make a correction. He did not want to leave the Party as he did not want to harm it, she asserted. Fitzgerald raised the McCarthyite flag, and somehow believed that Hobsbawm’s remaining a member of the Communist Party was an essential feature of his being able to contribute to ‘progressive developments’. “He was not to be bullied or silenced by Cold Warriors” – unlike what happened to intellectuals in Soviet Russia, of course.
So what had happened to my letter? Why were the correspondence pages so one-side? Was I a lone voice in this debate? Then, next month, my letter appeared. My original text ran as follows:
“I was astonished that you dedicated so much space to the bizarre and ahistorical defence of Eric Hobsbawm by Professor Sir Roderick Floud.
Floud writes that Hobsbawm ‘stayed in the Communist Party’ after 1956 ‘because of his belief in fighting fascism and promoting the world revolution, by means of anti-fascist unity and the Popular Front’. Yet fascism was no longer a threat in 1956; the Popular Front had been dissolved in 1938, to be followed soon by the Nazi-Soviet Pact of August 1939, which Hobsbawm and Floud conveniently overlook. Even though Stalin was dead by 1956, Khrushchev was still threatening ‘We shall bury you!’
Floud concludes his letter by referring to Hobsbawm’s ‘youthful – and ever-lasting ideals’, having earlier described the statement that Casquete’s description of him as ‘a desperate man clinging to his youthful dreams’ is ‘a travesty’. Some contradiction, surely.
Like his unfortunate father before him, who was unmasked as a recruiter of spies for the Soviet Union, and then committed suicide, Floud seems to forget that communist revolutions tend to be very messy affairs, involving the persecution and slaughter of thousands, sometimes millions. If Hobsbawm’s dreams had been fulfilled, he, as a devout Stalinist, might have survived, but certainly academics like Floud himself would have been among the first to be sent to the Gulag.”
Lay made some minor changes to my submission (removing references to the suicide of Floud’s father, for instance), but the message was essentially left intact. And there the correspondence appears to have closed. (I have not yet received the November issue.) I was thus heartened to read the following sentence in a review by Andrew Roberts of Laurence Rees’s Hitler and Stalin in the Times Literary Supplement of November 20: “That these two [Hitler and Stalin] should be seen as anything other than the Tweedledum and Tweedledee of totalitarianism might seem obvious to anyone beyond the late Eric Hobsbawm, but it does need to be restated occasionally, and Rees does so eloquently.” Hobsbawm no doubt welcomed George Blake on the latter’s recent arrival at the Other Place, and they immediately started discussing the Communist utopia.
End-of-Year Thoughts and Holiday Wishes
Towards the end of November I received a Christmas Card signed by the editor of Prospect magazine, Tom Clark. The message ran as follows: “Thank you for your support of Prospect this year. Myself and the whole team here wish you a very happy Christmas.” I suppose it would be churlish to criticize such goodwill, but I was shocked. “Myself and the whole team . .” – what kind of English is that? What was wrong with “The whole team and I”? If the editor of a literary-political magazine does not even know when to use a reflexive pronoun, should we trust him with anything else?
I have just been reading Clive James’s Fire of Joy, subtitled Roughly Eight Poems to Get By Heart and Say Aloud. I was looking forward to seeing James’s choices, and his commentary. It has been a little disappointing, with several odd selections, and some often shallow appreciations by the Great Man. For instance, he reproduces a speech by Ferrara from My Last Duchess, by Robert Browning, which contains the horrible couplet:
But to myself they turned (since none puts by
The curtain I have drawn for you, but I)
This is not verse that should be learned by heart. To any lover of the language, the phrase ‘They turned to me’, not ‘to myself’, should come to mind, and, since ‘but’ is a preposition, it needs to be followed by the accusative or dative case, i.e. ‘but me’. How could James’s ear be so wooden? Yet syntax turs out to be his weakness: in a later commentary on Vita Sackville-West’s Craftsmen, he writes: ‘. . . it was a particular focal point of hatred for those younger than he who had been left out of the anthology.’. ‘Him’, not ‘he’, after ‘for those’, Clive.
Of course, another famous ugly line is often overlooked. T.S. Eliot started The Love Song of Alfred J. Prufrock with the following couplet:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
It should be ‘Let us go then, you and me’, since the pair is in apposition to the ‘us’ of ‘Let us go’. Rhyme gets in the way, again. What a way to start a poem! What was going through TSE’s mind? So how about this instead?
Let us go then, you and me,
When the evening is spread out above the sea
But then that business about ‘a patient etherized upon a table’ doesn’t work so well, does it? Poetry is hard.
It’s ROMANES EUNT DOMUS all over again.
Returning to Clark and Prospect, however, what is this ‘support’ business? Does Clark think that his enterprise is some kind of charity for which his subscribers shell out their valuable shekels? I recall our very capable and inspiring CEO at the Gartner Group offering similar messages of gratitude to our customers, as if he were not really convinced that the product we offered was of justifiable value to them. I shall ‘support’ Prospect only so long as it provides insightful and innovative analysis, and shall drop it otherwise. Moreover, if Clark persists with such silly and pretentious features as ‘the world’s top 50 thinkers’ (Bong-Joon Ho? Igor Levit?, but mercifully no Greta Thunberg this year), it may happen sooner rather than later. I was pleased to see a letter published in the October issue, as a reaction to the dopey ’50 top thinkers’, where the author pointed out that there are billions of people on the planet whose thinking capabilities are probably unknown to the editors. The letter concluded as follows: “I know it’s a ‘bit of fun’, but it’s the province of the pseudo-intellectual pub bore to assert a right to tell us who the 50 greatest thinkers are.”
I wrote to Clark, thanking him, but also asked him how many people were involved in constructing his garbled syntax. I received no reply. Probably no Christmas card for me next year.
I wish a Happy New Year to all my readers, and thank you for your ‘support’.
“These got a further boost when, just after midnight on 9 June, CATO [the German codename for GARBO] spent two full hours on the air sending a long and detailed report to his spymaster, Kühlenthal. The risk of capture was enormous when an agent transmitted that long, for it gave the direction-finding vans plenty of time to locate him. But this very fact impressed the Germans with the importance of his signal.” (Hitler’s Spies, by David Kahn, p 515)
“If the receivers of this vast screed had paused to reflect, they might have registered how unlikely it was that a wireless would have been able to operate for more than two hours without detection. But they did not.” (Double Cross, by Ben Macintyre, p 324)
“Garbo still ranked high in the esteem of his controller, but if Kühlenthal had thought coolly and carefully enough, there was one aspect of that day’s exchange of signals that might have made him suspicious. Garbo had been on the air so long that he had given the British radiogoniometrical stations ample time on three occasions to obtain a fix on his position and arrest him. Why was he able to stay on the air so long? Did he have a charmed life? Or was he being allowed to transmit by the British for the purpose of deception? These were questions that Kühlenthal might well have asked himself. But instead of being suspicious, he sent a message to Berlin. In it he recommended Garbo for the Iron Cross.” (Anthony Cave-Brown, Bodyguard of Lies, pp 676-677)
“The Abwehr remained remarkably naïve in thinking that in a densely populated and spy-conscious country like England an agent would be able to set up a transmitter and antenna without attracting attention. Moreover, it seems not to have smelled a rat from the fact that some agents, notably GARBO, were able to remain on the air for very long periods without being disturbed. It did have the good sense to furnish agents sent to Britain with only low-power sets that would cause minimal interference to neighbors’ receivers and would be more difficult for the British to monitor – though they also afforded less reliable communication. Once again, GARBO was an exception. Telling the Germans that he had recruited a radio operator with a powerful transmitter, he sent his messages at 100 watts from a high-grade set. Even this did not raise the Abwehr’s suspicions.” (Thaddeus Holt, The Deceivers, pp 142-143)
“And so, with Eisenhower’s authorization, Pujol transmitted, in the words of Harris, ‘the most important report of his career’. Beginning just after midnight, the message took two hours and two minutes to transmit. This was a dangerously long time for any agent to remain on air.” (Operation Fortitude, by Joshua Levine, p 283)
“GARBO’s second transmission lasted a record 122 minutes, and hammered home his belief that the events of the past forty-eight hours represented a diversionary feint, citing his mistress ‘Dorothy Thompson’, an unconscious source in the Cabinet Office, who had mentioned a figure of seventy-five divisions in England.” (Nigel West, Codeword OVERLORD, p 274)
“The length of this message should have aroused suspicion in itself. How on earth a real secret agent could stay on the air transmitting for so long in wartime conditions was unbelievable. British SOE agents operating in Europe were told to keep transmissions to less than five minutes in order not to be detected. However, this was not questioned.” (Terry Crowdy, Deceiving Hitler, p 270)
“We are sure that we deceived the Germans and turned their weapon against themselves; can we be quite sure that they were not equally successful in turning our weapon against is? Now our double-cross agents were the straight agents of the Germans – their whole espionage system in the U.K. What did the Germans gain from this system? The answer cannot be doubtful. They gained no good from their agents, and they did take from them a very great deal of harm. It would be agreeable to be able to accept the simple explanation, to sit back in the armchair of complacency, to say that we were very clever and the Germans very stupid, and that consequently we gained both on the swings and the roundabouts as well. But that argument just won’t hold water at all.” (The Double-Cross System, by John Masterman, p 263)
“Masterman credited only his own ideas, fresh-minted like gold sovereigns entirely from his experiences on the XX Committee. The wonder of it is, with the exception of the sporadic pooh-poohing from the likes of maverick Oxford historian A. J. P. Taylor and veteran counter-intelligence officer David Mure, The Double-Cross System came to be swallowed whole. Farago’s book was essentially forgotten; Masterman’s became celebrated.” (Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden, p 314)
“Yet, when all is said, one is left with a sense of astonishment that men in such responsible positions as were those who controlled the destinies of Germany during the late war, could have been so fatally misled on such slender evidence. One can only suppose that strategic deception derives its capacity for giving life to this fairy-tale world from the circumstance that it operates in a field into which the enemy can seldom effectively penetrate and where the opposing forces never meet in battle. Dangers which lurk in this terra incognita thus tend to be magnified, and such information as is gleaned to be accepted too readily at its face value. Fear of the unknown is at all times apt to breed strange fancies. Thus it is that strategic deception finds its opportunity of changing the fortunes of war.” (Fortitude, by Roger Hesketh, p 361)
“Abwehr officials, enjoying life in the oases of Lisbon, Madrid, Stockholm or Istanbul, fiddling their expenses and running currency rackets on the side, felt that they were earning their keep so long as they provided some kind of information. This explains why for example Garbo was able to get away with his early fantasies, and Tricycle could run such outrageous risks.” (Michael Howard, British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5, p 49)
“However, the claim that the Double Cross spies were ‘believed’ in ‘Berlin’ needs some amplification. Even if the information was swallowed by the Abwehr, that is not to say that it was believed at OKW or that it influenced overall German policy. Part of the problem is that the Abwehr was not a very efficient organisation. Nor was it involved in significant analysis of its intelligence product: on the contrary, the Ast and outstations tended to pounce on any snippet of potentially useful information and, rather than evaluate its intelligence value, pass it on to Berlin as evidence of their ‘busyness’ and as justification for their salaries and expense accounts.” (David Kenyon, Bletchley Park and D-Day, p 163)
“We have succeeded in sustaining them so well that we are receiving even at this stage . . . an average of thirty to forty reports each day from inside England, many of them radioed directly on the clandestine wireless sets we have operational in defiance of the most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures.” (Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr, in February 1944, from Ladislas Farago’s Game of the Foxes, p 705)
“A fundamental assumption they [the Germans] made was logically simple: if they were reading parts or all of different British codes at different times, and no mention of any signal was ever found that referred to any material transmitted by the Germans in an Enigma-encoded message, then the system had to be secure.” (Christian Jennings, The Third Reich is Listening, p 261)
By 1943, the Radio Security Service, adopted by SIS (MI6) in the summer of 1941, has evolved into an efficient mechanism for intercepting enemy, namely German, wireless signals from continental Europe, and passing them on to Bletchley Park for cryptanalysis. Given the absence of any transmissions indicating the presence of German spies using wireless telegraphy on British soil, the Service allows its domestic detection and location-finding capabilities to be relaxed somewhat, with the result that it operates rather sluggishly in tracking down radio usage appearing to be generated from locations in the UK, whether they are truly illicit, or simply misguided. RSS would later overstate the capabilities of its mobile location-finding units, in a fashion similar to that in which the German police units exaggerated the power and automation of its own interception and detection devices and procedures. RSS also has responsibilities for providing SIS agents, as well as the sabotage department SOE (Special Operations Executive), with equipment and communications instructions, for their excursions into mainland Europe. SOE has had a very patchy record in wireless security, but RSS’s less than prompt response to its needs provokes SOE, abetted by its collaborators, members of various governments in exile, to attempt to bypass RSS’s very protocol-oriented support. RSS has also not performed a stellar job in recommending and enforcing solid Signals Security procedures in British military units. Guy Liddell, suspicious of RSS’s effectiveness, knows that he needs wireless expertise in MI5, and is eager to replace the ambitious and manipulative Malcom Frost, who is eased out at the end of 1943. It thus takes Liddell’s initiative, working closely with the maverick RSS officer, Sclater, to draw the attention of the Wireless Board to the security oversights. Towards the end of 1943, the plans for OVERLORD, the project to ‘invade’ France on the way to ensuring Germany’s defeat, start to take shape, and policies for ensuring the secrecy of the operation’s details will affect all communications leaving the United Kingdom.
NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE
Determining Censorship Policy
The Dilemma of Wireless
Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet
Problems with the Poles
Guy Liddell and the RSS
‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?
Special Agents at Work
NEPTUNE, OVERLORD, BODYGUARD & FORTITUDE
My objective in this piece is to explore and analyse policy concerning wireless transmissions emanating from the British Isles during the build-up to the Normandy landings of June 1944. This aspect of the war had two sides: the initiation of signals to aid the deception campaign, and the protection of the deception campaign itself by prohibiting possibly dangerous disclosures to the enemy that would undermine the deceits of the first. It is thus beyond my scope to re-present the strategies of the campaign, and the organisations behind them, except as a general refreshment of the reader, in order to provide a solid framework, and to highlight dimensions that have been overlooked in the histories.
OVERLORD was originally the codeword given to the assault on Normandy, but in September 1943 it was repurposed and broadened to apply to the operation of the ‘primary United States British ground and air effort against the Axis in Europe’. (Note that, on Eisenhower’s urging, it was not considered an ‘invasion’, a term which would have suggested incursions into authentic enemy territory.) NEPTUNE was the codeword used to describe the Normandy operation. BODYGUARD was the overall cover plan to deceive the enemy about the details of OVERLORD. BODYGUARD itself was broken down into FORTITUDE North and FORTITUDE South, the latter conceived as the project to suggest that the main assault would occur in the Pas de Calais as opposed to Normandy, and thus disguise NEPTUNE.
I refer the reader to six important books for greater detail on the BODYGUARD deception plan. Bodyguard of Lies, by Anthony Cave Brown (1975) is a massive, compendious volume, containing many relevant as well as irrelevant details, not all of them reliable, and the author can be annoyingly vague in his chronology. Sir Michael Howard’s British Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 5 (1990), part of the authorized history, contains a precise and urbane account of the deception campaign, although it is rather light on technical matters. Roger Hesketh, who was the main architect of FORTITUDE, wrote his account of the project, between 1945 and 1948, but it was not published until 2000, many years after his death in 1987, as Fortitude: The D-Day Deception Campaign. (In his Preface to the text, Hesketh indicates that he was given permission to publish in 1976, but it did not happen.) Hesketh’s work must be regarded as the most authoritative of the books, and it includes a large number of invaluable, charts, documents and maps, but it reflects some of the secrecy provisions of its time. Joshua Levine’s Operation Fortitude (2001) is an excellent summary of the operation, lively and accurate, and contains a highly useful appendix on Acknowledgements and Sources. Nigel West delivered Codeword Overlord (2019), which sets out to cover the role and achievements of Axis espionage in preparing for the D-Day landings. Like many of West’s recent works, it is uneven, and embeds a large amount of source material in the text. Oddly, West, who provided an Introduction to Hesketh’s book, does not even mention it in his Bibliography. Finally, Thaddeus Holt’s Deceivers (2007) is perhaps the most comprehensive account of Allied military deception, an essential item in the library, very well written, and containing many facts and profiles not available elsewhere. It weighs in at a hefty 1000+ pages, but the details he provides, unlike Cave Brown’s, are all relevant.
Yet none of these volumes refers to the critical role of the Home Security Defence Executive (HSDE), chaired by Sir Findlater Stewart, in the security preparations. (Findlater Stewart receives one or two minor mentions in two of the Indexes, but on matters unrelated to the tasks of early 1944.) The HSDE was charged, however, with implementing a critical part of the censorship policy regarding BODYGUARD. The HSDE was just one of many intersecting and occasionally overlapping committees performing the planning. At the highest level, the Ops (B) section, concerned with deception under COSSAC (Chief of Staff to Supreme Allied Commander), was absorbed into SHAEF (Supreme Headquarters Allied Expeditionary Force) in January 1944, when General Eisenhower took over command, expanded, and split into two. Colonel Noel Wild headed Ops (B), with Jervis Read responsible for physical deception, while Roger Hesketh took on Special Means, whose role was to implement parts of the deception plan through controlled leakage.
In turn, Hesketh’s group itself was guided by the London Controlling Section (LCS), which was responsible for deciding the overall strategy of how misinformation should be conveyed to the enemy, and tracking its success. At this time LCS was led by Colonel John Bevan, who faced an extraordinary task of coordinating the activities of a large number of independent bodies, from GC&CS’s collection of ULTRA material to SOE’s sabotage of telephone networks in France, as well as the activities of the ‘double-agents’ within MI5. Thus at least three more bodies were involved: the W Board, which discussed high-level policy matters for the double-cross system under General Davidson, the Director of Military Intelligence; the XX Committee, chaired by John Masterman, which implemented the cover-stories and activities of both real and notional agents, and created the messages that were fed to the Abwehr; and MI5’s B1A under ‘Tar’ Robertson, the group that actually managed the activities and transmissions of the agents. Lastly, the War Cabinet set up a special group, the OVERLORD Security Sub-Committee, to inspect the detailed ramifications of ensuring no unauthorised information about the landings escaped the British Isles, and this military-focussed body enjoyed a somewhat tentative liaison with the civilian-oriented HDSE through the energies of Sir Findlater Stewart.
When Bevan joined the W Board on September 23, 1943, the LCS formally took over the responsibility for general control of all deception, leaving the W Board to maintain supervision of the double-agents’ work solely. Also on the W Board was Findlater Stewart, acting generally on behalf of the Ministries, who had been invited in early 1941, and who directly represented his boss, Sir John Anderson, and the Prime Minister. The Board had met regularly for almost three years, but by September 1943, highly confident that it controlled all the German agents on UK soil, and with Bevan on board, held only one more meeting before the end of the war – on January 21, 1944. It then decided, in a general stocktaking before OVERLORD, that the XX Committee could smoothly continue to run things, but that American representation on the Committee was desirable. As for Findlater Stewart, he still had a lot of work to do.
Determining Censorship Policy
The move to tighten up security in advance of NEPTUNE took longer than might have seemed appropriate. At the Quebec Conference in August 1943 Roosevelt and Churchill had agreed on the approximate timing and location of the operation, but it needed the consent of Stalin at the Teheran Conference at the end of November, and the Soviet dictator’s commitment to mount a large scale Soviet offensive in May 1944 to divert German forces, for the details to be solidified. Thus Bevan’s preliminary thoughts on the deception plan for OVERLORD, sketched out in July, had to be continually revised. A draft version, named JAEL, was circulated, and approved, on October 23, but, after Teheran, Bevan had to work feverishly to prepare the initial version of the BODYGUARD plan which replaced JAEL, completing it on December 18. This received feedback from the Chiefs of Staff, and from Eisenhower, newly appointed Commander-in-Chief, and was presented to SHAEF in early January, and approved on January 19. Yet no sooner was this important step reached than Bevan, alongside his U.S. counterpart Bauer, was ordered to leave for Moscow to explain the plan, and convince the Soviets of its merits. Such was the suspicion of Soviet military and intelligence officers, and such was their inability to make any decision unless Stalin willed it, that approval did not arrive until March 5, when the delegates returned to London.
Yet Guy Liddell’s Diaries indicate that there had already been intense discussion about OVERLORD Security, the records of which do not seem to have made it into the HDSE files. Certainly, MI5 had been debating it back in December 1943, and Liddell refers to a Security Executive meeting held on January 26. At this stage, Findlater Stewart was trying to settle what travel bans should be put in place, and as early as February 8 Liddell was discussing with his officers Grogan and (Anthony) Blunt the implications of staggering diplomatic cables before OVERLORD. The next day, he met with Maxwell at the Home Office to discuss the prevention of the return of allied nationals to the country (because of the vetting for spies that would be required).
More surprisingly, on February 11, when reporting that the Chiefs of the General Staff had become involved, and had made representations to Churchill, Liddell refers to the formation of an OVERLORD Security Committee, and comments drily: “The committee is to consist of the Minister of Production, Minister of Aircraft Production, Home Secretary and Duncan Sandys, none of whom of course know anything about security.” This committee was in fact an offshoot of the War Cabinet, which had established a Committee on OVERLORD Preparations on February 9, part of the charter of which was ‘the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus, and increased exertions against espionage’, perhaps suggesting that not all its members were completely au fait with the historical activities of RSS and the W Board. It quickly determined that it needed a further level of granularity to address these complex security matters. Thus the Sub-committee on OVERLORD Security was established, chaired by the Minister of Production, Oliver Lyttleton, and held its first meeting on February 18, when Liddell represented MI5. Oddly, no representative from MI6 attended. Liddell continues by describing the committee’s charter as considering: 1) the possibility of withdrawing diplomatic communications privileges; 2) the prevention of export of newspapers; 3) more strengthened surveillance of ships and aircraft; 4) the detection of secret enemy wireless apparatus and increased precautions against espionage. Findlater Stewart is charged with collecting relevant material. In what seems to be an overload of committees, therefore, the HDSE and the War Cabinet carry on parallel discussions, with Findlater Stewart a key figure in both assemblies.
The primary outcome of this period is the resistance by the Foreign Office to any sort of ban, or even forced delay, in diplomatic cable traffic, which they believed would have harmful reciprocal consequences abroad, and hinder MI6’s ability to gather intelligence (especially from Sweden). This controversy rattled on for months [see below], with the Cabinet emerging as an ineffective mechanism for resolving the dilemma. Liddell believed that, if the Foreign Office and the Home Office (concerned about invasion of citizens’ rights) had not been so stubborn and prissy about the whole thing, the Security Executive could have resolved the issues quickly.
Thus the impression that Findlater Stewart had to wait for Bevan’s return for seeking guidance before chairing his committee to implement the appropriate security provisions is erroneous. Contrary to what the record indicates, the critical meeting on March 29 was not the first that the HDSE Committee held. Yet, when Bevan did return, he might have been surprised by the lack of progress. He quickly learned, on March 10, that the Cabinet had decided not to withdraw facilities for uncensored communications by diplomats, as it would set an uncomfortable precedent. That was at least a decision – but the wrong one. Bevan had a large amount of work to do shake people up: to make sure that the rules were articulated, that the Americans were in line, and that all agencies and organizations involved understood their roles. “Only under Bevan’s severe and cautious direction could they perform their parts in FORTITUDE with the necessary harmony”, wrote Cave Brown. Bevan clearly put some urgency into the proceedings: the pronouncements of LCS were passed on to Findlater Stewart shortly afterwards.
The history of LCS shows that security precautions were divided into eight categories, of which two, the censorship of civilian and service letters and telegrams, and the ban on privileged diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams, were those that concentrated on possible unauthorised disclosure of secrets by means other than direct personal travel. The historical account by LCS (at CAB 154/101, p 238) explains how the ban on cable traffic was imposed, but says nothing about wireless: “The eighth category, the ban on diplomatic mail and cipher telegrams was an unprecedented and extraordinary measure. As General EISENHOWER says, even the most friendly diplomats might unintentionally disclose vital information which would ultimately come to the ears of the enemy.”
What is significant is that there is no further mention of wireless traffic in the HDSE meetings. Whether this omission was due to sheer oversight, or was simply too awkward a topic to be described openly, or was simply passed on to the War Cabinet meetings, one can only surmise. When the next critical HDSE meeting took place on April 15, headlined as ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’, it echoed the LCS verbiage, but also, incidentally, highlighted the fact that Findlater Stewart saw that the main threat to security came from the embassies and legations of foreign governments, whether allies or not. Well educated by the W Board meeting, he did not envisage any exposure from unknown German agents working clandestinely from British soil.
The Dilemma of Wireless
It is worthwhile stepping back at this juncture to examine the dilemma that the British intelligence authorities faced. Since the primary security concern was that no confidential information about the details of the actual assault, or suggestions that the notional attack was based on the strength and movement of illusionary forces, should be allowed to leave the country, a very tight approach to personnel movement, such as a ban on leave, and on the holidays of foreign diplomats, was required, and easily implemented. Letters and cables had to be very closely censored. But what do to about the use of wireless? Officially, outside military and approved civil use (railway administration, police) the only licit radio transmissions were being made by Allied governments, namely the Americans and the Soviets, and by select governments-in-exile, the French, the Poles and the Czechs (with the latter two having their own sophisticated installations rather than just apparatus within an embassy). It was quite possible that other countries had introduced transmission equipment, although RSS would have denied that its use would have remained undetected.
Certainly all diplomatic transmissions would have been encyphered, but the extent to which the German interception authorities (primarily OKW Chi) would have been able to decrypt such messages was unknown. And, even if the loyalty and judgment of these missions could be relied upon, and the unbreakability of their cyphers trusted, there was no way of guaranteeing that a careless reference would not escape, and that a disloyal employee at the other end of the line might get his or her hands on an indiscreet message. (Eisenhower had to demote and send home one of his officers who spoke carelessly.) Thus total radio silence must have been given at least brief consideration. It was certainly enforced just before D-Day, but that concerned military silence, not a diplomatic shutdown.
Yet the whole FORTITUDE deception plan depended on wireless. The more ambitious aspect focused on the creation of dummy military signals to suggest a vast army (the notional FUSAG) being imported into Britain and moved steadily across the country to assemble in the eastern portion, indicating a northern assault on mainland Europe. Such wireless messages would have appeared as genuine to the Germans – if they had had the resources and skills to intercept and analyse them all. Thus the pretence had to be meticulously maintained right up until D-Day itself. In August 1943, the Inter-Services Security Board (ISSB) had recommended that United Kingdom communications with the outside world should be cut off completely, and Bevan had had to resist such pressure. As Howard points out, most involved in the discussion did not know about the Double-Cross System.
As it turned out, both German aerial reconnaissance and interception of dummy signals were so weak that the Allies relied more and more on the second leg of their wireless strategy – the transmissions of its special agents. Thus it would have been self-defeating for the War Cabinet to prohibit non-military traffic entirely, since the appearance of isolated, illicit signals in the ether, originating from British soil, and remaining undetected and unprosecuted, would have caused the Nazi receivers to smell an enormous rat. (One might add that it strains credibility in any case to think that the Abwehr never stopped to consider how ineffectual Britain’s radio interception service must be, compared with Germany’s own mechanisms, if it failed completely ever to interdict any of its own agents in such a relatively small and densely populated territory. And note Admiral Canaris’s comments above.) Of course, the RSS might have wanted to promote the notion that its interception and location-finding techniques were third-rate, just for that purpose. One might even surmise that Sonia’s transmissions were allowed to continue as a ruse to convince the Germans of the RSS’s frailties, in the belief that they might be picking up her messages as well as those of their own agents, and thus forming useful judgments about the deficiencies of British location-finding.
We should also recall that the adoption of wireless communications by the special agents was pursued much more aggressively by the XX Committee and B1A than it was by the Abwehr, who seemed quite content to have messages concealed in invisible ink on letters spirited out of England by convenient couriers, such as ‘friendly’ BOAC crewmen. Thus TREASURE, GARBO and BRUTUS all had to be found more powerful wireless apparatus, whether mysteriously acquired in London, from American sources, or whether smuggled in from Lisbon. The XX Committee must have anticipated the time when censorship rules would have tightened up on the use of the mails for personal correspondence, even to neutral countries in Europe, and thus make wireless connectivity a necessity.
In conclusion, therefore, no restrictions on diplomatic wireless communication could allow prohibition completely, as that would leave the special agents dangerously exposed. And that policy led to some messy compromises.
Findlater Stewart, the Home Defence Security Executive, and the War Cabinet
It appears that the War Cabinet fairly quickly accepted Findlater Stewart’s assurances about the efficacy of RSS. A minute from February 28 runs: “We have considered the possibility that illicit wireless stations might be worked in this country. The combined evidence of the Radio Security Service secret intelligence sources and the police leads to the firm conclusion that there is no illicit wireless station operating regularly in the British Isles at present. The danger remains that transmitting apparatus may be being held in readiness for the critical period immediately before the date of OVERLORD – or may be brought into the country by enemy agents. We cannot suggest any further measures to reduce this risk and reliance must therefore be placed on the ability of the Radio Security Service to detect the operation of illicit transmitters and of the Security Service to track down agents.” Thus the debate moved on to the control of licit wireless transmissions, where the HDSE and the War Cabinet had to overcome objections from the Foreign Office.
The critical meeting on ‘OVERLORD Security’ – ‘Withdrawal of Diplomatic Privileges’ was held on the morning of April 15, under Findlater Stewart’s chairmanship. This was in fact the continuation of a meeting held on March 29, which had left several items of business unfinished. That meeting, which was also led by Findlater Stewart, and attended by only a small and unauthoritative group (Herbert and Locke from Censorship, Crowe from the Foreign Office, and Liddell, Butler and Young from MI5) had considered diplomatic communications generally, and resolved to request delays in the transmission of diplomatic telegrams. After the Cabinet decision not to interfere with diplomatic cable traffic, Petrie of MI5 had written to Findlater Stewart to suggest that delays be built in to the process. A strangely worded minute (one can hardly call it a ‘resolution’) ran as follows: “THE MEETING . . . invited Mr. Crowe to take up the suggestion that diplomatic telegrams should be so delayed as to allow time for the Government Code and Cypher School to make arrangements with Postal and Telegraph Censorship for particularly dangerous telegrams to be delayed or lost; and to arrange for the Foreign Office, if they agreed, to instruct the School to work out the necessary scheme with Postal and Telegraph Censorship.”
It would be difficult to draft a less gutsy and urgent decision than this. ‘Invited’, ‘suggestion’, ‘to make arrangements’, ‘if they agreed’, ‘to instruct’, and finally, ‘particularly dangerous telegrams’! Would ‘moderately dangerous telegrams’ have been allowed through? And did GC&CS have command of all the cyphers used by foreign diplomacies? Evidently not, as the following discussion shows. It is quite extraordinary that such a wishy-washy decision should have been allowed in the minutes. One can only assume that this was some sort of gesture, and that Findlater Stewart was working behind the scenes. In any case, as the record from the LCS history concerning Eisenhower, which I reproduced above, shows, the cypher problem for cable traffic was resolved.
When the forum regathered on April 15, it contained a much expanded list of attendees. Apart from the familiar group of second-tier delegates from key ministries, with the War Office and the Ministry of Information now complementing Censorship, the Home Office, and the Foreign Office, Vivian represented MI6, while MI5 was honoured with the presence of no less than seven officers, namely Messrs. Butler, Robertson, Sporborg, Robb, Young, Barry – and Anthony Blunt, who no doubt made careful mental notes to pass on to his ideological masters. [According to Guy Liddell, from his ‘Diaries’, Sporborg worked for SOE, not MI5.] But no Petrie, Menzies, Liddell, White, Masterman, or Bevan. And the band of second-tier officers from MI5 sat opposite a group of men from the ministries who knew nothing of Ultra or the Double-Cross System: a very large onus lay on the shoulders of Findlater Stewart.
The meeting had first to debate the recent Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Diplomatic Missions, while not preventing the arrival of incoming travellers. Thus a quick motion was agreed, over the objections of the Foreign Office, that ‘the free movement of foreign diplomatic representatives to this country was inconsistent with the Cabinet decision to prohibit the receipt of uncensored communications by Foreign Missions in this country’. After a brief discussion on the movement of French and other military personnel, the Committee moved to Item IX on the agenda: ‘Use of Wireless Transmitters by Poles, Czechs and the French,’ the item that LCS had, either cannily or carelessly, omitted from its list.
Sporborg of MI5/SOE stated that, “as regards the Poles and the Czechs, it has been decided after discussion with the Foreign Office –
that for operational reasons the transmitters operated by the Czechs and the Poles could not be closed down:
that shortage of operators with suitable qualifications precluded the operation of those sets by us;
that accordingly the Poles should be pressed to deposit their cyphers with us and to give us copies of plain language texts of all messages before transmission. The Czechs had already given us their cyphers, and like the Poles would be asked to provide plain language copies of their messages.”
Sporborg also noted that both forces would be asked not to use their transmitters for diplomatic business. Colonel Vivian added that “apart from the French Deuxième Bureau traffic which was sent by M.I.6, all French diplomatic and other civil communications were transmitted by cable. There were left only the French Service transmitters and in discussion it was suggested that the I.S.S.B. might be asked to investigate the question of controlling these.”
Again, it is difficult to make sense of this exchange. What ‘operational reasons’ (as opposed to political ones) could preclude the closing down of Czech and Polish circuits? It would surely just entail an announcement to targeted receivers, and then turning the apparatus off. And, since the alternative appeared to be having the transmitters operated by the British – entrusted with knowledge of cypher techniques, presumably – a distinct possibility of ‘closing down’ the sets must have been considered. As for Vivian’s opaque statement, the Deuxième Bureau was officially dissolved in 1940. (Yet it appears in many documents, such as Liddell’s Diaries, after that time.) It is not clear what he meant by ‘French Service transmitters’. If these were owned by the RF Section of SOE, there must surely have been an exposure, and another wishy-washy suggestion was allowed to supply the official record.
The historical account by LCS says nothing about wireless. And the authorized history does not perform justice to the serious implications of these meetings. All that Michael Howard writes about this event (while providing a very stirring account of the deception campaign itself) is the following: “ . . . and the following month not only was all travel to and from the United Kingdom banned, but the mail of all diplomatic missions was declared subject to censorship and the use of cyphers forbidden”, (p 124, using the CAB 154/101 source given above); and “All [the imaginary double agents] notionally conveyed their information to GARBO in invisible ink, to be transmitted direct to the Abwehr over his clandestine radio – the only channel open after security restrictions on outgoing mail had been imposed.” (p 121) The irony is that Howard draws attention to the inconvenience that the withdrawal of mail privileges caused LCS and B1A, but does not inspect the implications of trying to suppress potentially dangerous wireless traffic, and how they might have affected the deception project’s success.
Problems with the Poles
Immediately after the critical April 15 meeting, the War Office began to toughen up, as the file KV 4/74 shows. The policy matter of the curtailment of diplomatic privileges was at last resolved. Findlater Stewart gave a deadline to the Cabinet on April 16, and it resolved to stop all diplomatic cables, couriers and bags, for all foreign governments except the Americans and the Russians. The ban started almost immediately, and was extended until June 20, even though the Foreign Office continued to fight it. Yet it required some delicate explaining to the second-tier allies. Moreover, the Foreign Office continued to resist it, or at least, abbreviate it. They even wanted to restore privileges on D-Day itself: as Liddell pointed out, that would have been stupid, as it would immediately have informed the enemy that the Normandy assault was the sole one, and not a feint before a more northerly attack at the Pas de Calais.
Brigadier Allen, the Deputy Director of Military Intelligence, who had been charged with following up with the ISSB on whether the British were controlling French service traffic to North Africa, drew the attention of the ISSB’s secretary to the importance of the proposed ban. The record is sketchy, but it appears the Chiefs of Staff met on April 19, at which a realisation that control over all diplomatic and military channels needed to be intensified. The Joint Intelligence Sub-Committee was instructed to ensure that this happened, and a meeting was quickly arranged between representatives of the ISSB, MI6, SOE, the Cypher Policy Board and the Inter-Service W/T Security Committee, a much more expert and muscular group than had attended Findlater Stewart’s conference.
While the exposure by French traffic was quickly dismissed, Sir Charles Portal and Sir Andrew Cunningham, the RAF and Royal Navy chiefs, urged central control by the Service Departments rather than having it divided between SHAEF and Allied Forces Headquarters, and invited the JISC committee “to frame regulations designed to prevent Allied Governments evading the restrictions imposed by the War Cabinet on diplomatic communications, by the use of service or S.O.E. ‘underground’ W/T channels for the passage of uncensored diplomatic or service messages.” This was significant for several reasons: it recognized that foreign governments might attempt to evade the restrictions, probably by trying to use service signals for diplomatic traffic; it recommended new legislation to give the prohibitions greater force; and it brought into the picture the notion of various ‘underground’ (not perhaps the best metaphor for wireless traffic), and thus semi-clandestine communications, the essence of which was barely known. This minute appeared also to reflect the input of Sir Alan Brooke, the Army Chief, but his name does not appear on the document – probably because the record shows that he was advocating for the shared SHAEF/AFHQ responsibility, and thus disagreed with his peers.
The outcome was that a letter had to be drafted for the Czechoslovak, Norwegian and Polish Commanders-in-Chief, the Belgian and Netherlands Ministers of Defence, and General Koenig, the Commander of the French Forces in the United Kingdom, outlining the new restrictions on ‘communications by diplomatic bag and cipher telegrams’ (implicitly cable and wireless). It declared that ‘you will issue instructions that no communication by wireless is to be carried out with wireless stations overseas except under the following conditions’, going on to list that cyphers would have to be deposited with the War Office, plain language copies of all telegrams to be submitted for approval first, with the possibility that some messages would be encyphered and transmitted through British signal channels. A further amendment included a ban on incoming messages, as well.
Were these ‘regulations’, or simply earnest requests? The constitutional issue was not clear, but the fact that the restrictions would be of short duration probably pushed them into the latter category. In any case, as a memorandum of April 28 makes clear, Findlater Stewart formally handed over responsibility for the control of wireless communications to the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC), reserving for himself the handling of ‘mail and telegrams’ (he meant ‘mail and cables’, of course). By then, the letter had been distributed, on April 19, with some special annexes for the different audiences, but the main text was essentially as the draft had been originally worded.
The Poles were the quickest to grumble, and Stanisław Mikołajczyc, the Prime Minister of the Polish Government-in-Exile, wrote a long response on April 23, describing the decision as ‘a dangerous legal and political precedent’, making a special case out of Poland’s predicament, and its underground fight against the Germans. He promised to obey the rules over all, but pleaded that the Poles be allowed to maintain the secrecy of their cyphers in order to preserve the safety and security of Polish soldiers and civilians on Polish soil fighting the German. “The fact that Polish-Soviet relations remain for the time being unsatisfactory still further complicates the situation,” he added.
It is easy to have an enormous amount of sympathy for the Poles, but at the same time point out that their aspirations at this time for taking their country back were very unrealistic. After all, Great Britain had declared war on Germany because of the invasion of Poland, and the Poles had contributed significantly in the Battle of Britain and the Italian campaign, especially. The discovery by the Germans, in April 1943, of the graves of victims of the Katyn massacre had constituted a ghastly indication that the Soviets had been responsible. Yet Stalin denied responsibility, and broke off relations with the London Poles when they persisted in calling for an independent Red Cross examination. Moreover, Churchill had ignored the facts, and weaselly tried to placate both Stalin and the Poles by asking Mikołajczyc to hold his tongue. In late January, Churchill had chidden the Poles for being ‘foolish’ in magnifying the importance of the crime when the British needed Stalin’s complete cooperation to conclude the war successfully.
Yet the Poles still harboured dreams that they would be able to take back their country before the Russians got there – or even regain it with the support of the Russians, aspirations that were in April 1944 utterly unrealistic. The file at HW 34/8 contains a long series of 1942-1943 exchanges between Colonel Cepa, the Chief Signals Officer of the Polish General Staff, and RSS officers, such as Maltby and Till, over unrealistic and unauthorized demands for equipment and frequencies so that the Polish government might communicate with all its clandestine stations in Poland, and its multiple (and questionable) contacts around the world. Their tentacles spread widely, as if they were an established government: on December 9, 1943, Joe Robertson told Guy Liddell that ‘Polish W/T transmitters are as plentiful as tabby cats in the Middle East and are causing great anxiety’. They maintained underground forces in France, which required wireless contact: this was an item of great concern to Liddell. Thus the Poles ended up largely trying to bypass RSS and working behind the scenes with SOE to help attain their goals. The two groups clearly irritated each other severely: the Poles thinking RSS too protocol-oriented and unresponsive to their needs, RSS considering the Poles selfish and too ambitious, with no respect for the correct procedures in a time of many competing demands.
The outcome was that Churchill had a meeting with Mikołajczyc on April 23, and tried to heal some wounds. The memorandum of the meeting was initialled by Churchill himself, and the critical passage runs as follows: “Mr. Churchill told Mr. Mikołajczyc that he was ready to waive the demand that the Polish ciphers used for communication with the Underground Movement should be deposited with us on condition first, that the number of messages sent in these ciphers was kept down to an absolute minimum; secondly, that the en clair text of each message sent in these ciphers should be communicated to us; thirdly, that Mr. Mikołajczyc gave Mr. Churchill his personal word of honour that no messages were sent in the secret ciphers except those of which the actual text had been deposited with us, and fourthly, that the existence of this understanding between Mr. Mikołajczyc and Mr. Churchill should be kept absolutely confidential; otherwise H.M.G would be exposed to representations and reproaches from other foreign Governments in a less favourable position.”
Thus it would appear that the other governments acceded, that the Poles won an important concession, but that the British were able to censor the texts of all transmissions that emanated from British soil during the D-Day campaign. And Churchill was very concerned about the news of the Poles’ preferential treatment getting out. Yet the JIC (under its very astute Chairman, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck) thought otherwise – that the news was bound to leak out, and, citing the support of Liddell, Menzies, Cadogan at the Foreign Office and Newsam at the Home Office, it requested, on May 1, that the Prime Minister ‘should consider the withdrawal’ of his concession, and that, if impracticable, he should at least clarify to Mikołajczyc that it ‘related to messages sent to the underground movement in Poland and not to communications with other occupied or neutral countries’.
Moreover, problems were in fact nor restricted to the Poles. De Gaulle, quite predictably, made a fuss, and ‘threatened’ as late as May 29 not to leave Algiers to return to the UK unless he was allowed to use his own cyphers. The Chiefs of Staff were left to handle this possible non-problem. Churchill, equally predictably, interfered unnecessarily, and even promised both Roosevelt and de Gaulle (as Liddell recorded on May 24) that communications would open up immediately after D-Day. Churchill had already, very naively, agreed to Eisenhower’s desire to disclose the target and date of NEPTUNE to France’s General Koenig. The Prime Minister could be very inspiring and insightful, but also very infuriating, as people like Attlee and Brooke observed.
And there it stood. Britain controlled the process of wireless communication (apart from the Soviet and US Embassies) entirely during the course of the D-Day landings, with a minor exposure in Polish messages to its colleagues in Poland. The restrictions were lifted on June 20. And B1A’s special agents continued to chatter throughout this period.
Guy Liddell and the RSS
Guy Liddell, deputy director-general of MI5, had been energized by his relationship with Sclater of the RSS, and, with Malcolm Frost’s departure from MI5 in December 1943, he looked forward to an easier path in helping to clean up Barnet, the headquarters of the Radio Security Service. In the months before D-Day, Liddell was focused on two major issues concerning RSS: 1) The effectiveness of the unit’s support for MI5’s project to extend the Double-Cross System to include ‘stay-behind’ agents in France after the Normandy landings succeeded; and 2) his confidence in the ability of RSS to locate any German spies with transmitters who might have pervaded the systems designed to intercept them at the nation’s borders, and who would thus be working outside the XX System.
Overall, the first matter does not concern me here, although part of Liddell’s mission, working alongside ‘Tar’ Robertson, was to discover how RSS control of equipment, and its primary allegiance to MI6, might interfere with MI5’s management of the XX program overseas. Liddell had to deal with Richard Gambier-Parry’s technical ignorance and general disdain for MI5, on the one hand, and Felix Cowgill’s territoriality on the other (since a Double-Cross system on foreign soil would technically have fallen under MI6), but the challenges would have to have been faced after D-Day, and are thus beyond my scope of reference. In any case, the concern turned out to be a non-problem. The second matter, however, was very serious, and Liddell’s Diaries from early 1944 are bestrewn with alarming anecdotes about the frailties of RSS’s detection systems. The problems ranged from the ineffectiveness of Elms’s mobile units to the accuracy of RSS’s broader location-finding techniques.
I shall illustrate Liddell’s findings by a generous sample of extracts from his Diaries, as I do not believe they have appeared in print before. Thus, from January 26:
Sclater gave an account of the work by the vans on an American station which had been d.f.d by R.S.S. The station was at first thought to be a British military or Air Force one as it was apparently using their procedure. The vans went out to the Horsham area where they got a very strong signal which did not operate the needle. Another bearing caused them to put the Bristol van out, which luckily found its target pretty quickly. The point of this story is that it is almost impossible to say more than that a wireless transmitter is in the north or south of England. Unless you can get into the ground-wave your vans don’t operate. To get into the ground-wave you may need to be very close to their target. There is still no inter-com between the vans and they cannot operate for more than 8 hours without having to drive several hundred miles in order to recharge their batteries. Not a very good show. Sclater is going to find out who is responsible for American Army signal security.
While this may not have been a perennial problem for units that were repeatedly broadcasting from one place, it clearly would have posed a serious exposure with a highly mobile transmitting agent. Moreover, at a meeting on February 17, MI6/SIS (in the person of Valentine Vivian, it appears) had, according to Liddell, admitted some of its deficiencies, stating, in a response to a question as to how its General Search capability worked: “S.I.S. did not think that an illicit station was operating in this country but it was pointed out that their observation was subject to certain restrictions. They were looking for Abwehr procedure, whereas an agent might use British official procedure, which would be a matter for detection by Army Signals, who were ill-equipped to meet the task.” Did Vivian not know what he was talking about, or was this true? Could an agent using ‘British official procedure’ truly evade the RSS detectors, while the Army would not bother to investigate? I recall that Sonia herself was instructed to use such techniques, and such a disclosure has alarming implications.
The minutes of the War Cabinet Sub-committee on February 17 confirm, however, that what Vivian reported was accepted, as an accompanying report by Findlater Stewart displays how the vision for wireless interception embraced by Colonel Simpson in 1939 had been allowed to dissolve. (In fact, as Liddell’s Diaries show, a small working-party had met on the morning of the inaugural meeting to prepare for the discussion.) In a report attached to the minutes, Stewart wrote the following (which I believe is worth citing in full):
“As a result of their experience extending over some four years the Radio Security Service are of opinion there is no illicit wireless station being worked in this country at present. Nevertheless it must be borne in mind that by itself the watch kept by the Radio Security Service is subject to some limitations. For example, the general search is mainly directed to German Secret Service communications and if an agent were to use official British signal procedures (there has already been some attempt at this), it is not likely to be picked up by the Service, and no guarantee that such stations would be detected should be given unless the whole volume of British wireless traffic, including the immense amount of service signal traffic, were monitored. This ‘general search’, however, is not the only safeguard. The danger to security arises from the newly arrived German Agent (on the assumption that there are no free agents at present operating here), but the art of tracking aircraft has been brought to such a point that the Security Service feel that in conjunction with the watch kept by the Radio Security Service even a determined effort by the enemy to introduce agents could not succeed for more than a few days. Admittedly if the agent were lucky enough to be dropped in the right area and obtain his information almost at once serious leakage could occur. But there is no remedy for this.”
I find this very shocking. While the RSS was justifiably confident that no unidentified spies were operating as its interceptors were monitoring Abwehr communications closely, it had abandoned the mission of populating the homeland with enough detective personnel to cover all possible groundwaves. Apparently, the sense of helplessness expressed in Stewart’s final sentence triggered no dismay from those who read it, but I believe this negligence heralded the start of an alarming trend. And the substance of the message must have confirmed Liddell’s worst fears.
Liddell and Sclater intensified their attention to RSS’s activities. Sclater also referred, later in February, to the fact that RSS had picked up Polish military signals in Scotland, but the Poles had not been very helpful, the signals were very corrupt, as picked up, and it was not even certain ‘that the messages were being sent from Gt. Britain’. Liddell also discovered that RSS had been picking up messages relating to Soviet espionage in Sweden, and blew a fuse over the fact that the facts about the whole exercise had been withheld from MI5 and the Radio Security Intelligence Committee, which Dick White of MI5 chaired. Thus, when he returned from two weeks’ leave at the end of March, his chagrin was fortunately abated slightly, as the entry for April 16 records:
During my absence there have been various wireless tests. GARBO, on instructions from the Germans, has been communicating in British Army procedure. He was picked up after a certain time and after a hint had been given to Radio Security Service. He was, however, also picked up in Gibraltar, who notified the RSS about certain peculiarities in the signals. This is on the whole fairly satisfactory. TREASURE is going to start communicating blind and we shall see whether they are equally successful in her case. Tests have also been taking place to see whether spies can move freely within the fifteen-mile belt. One has been caught, but another, whose documents were by no means good, has succeeded in getting through seven or eight controls and has so far not been spotted.
This was not super-efficient, however: ‘hints’, and ‘after a certain time’. At least the British Army procedure was recognised by the RSS. (Herbert Hart later told Liddell that ‘notional’ spies dressed in American military uniforms were the only ones not to get caught.) But the feeling of calm did not last long. Two weeks later, on April 29, Liddell recorded:
The Radio Security Service has carried out an extensive test to discover the GARBO transmitter. The report on this exercise is very distressing. The GARBO camouflage plan commenced on 13 March but the Mobile Units were not told to commence their investigations till 14 April. From 13 March to 14 April GARBO’s transmitter was on the air (and the operator was listening) for a total of twenty-nine hours, and average of one hour a day. On 14 April the Mobile Units were brought into action and they reported that the GARBO transmitter operated for four hours between 14 and 19 April inclusive. In fact, it operated for over six and a half hours, and it would seem that the second frequency of the transmitter was not recorded at all. On 15 April, GARBO transmitted for two whole hours. This incident shakes my confidence completely in the power of RSS of detecting illicit wireless either in this country or anywhere else. It is disturbing since the impression was given to Findlater Stewart’s Committee and subsequently to the Cabinet that no illicit transmissions were likely to be undetected for long. Clearly, this is not the case.
The irony is, of course, that, if the Abwehr had learned about RSS’s woes, they might have understood how their agents were able to transmit undetected. Yet this was a problem MI5 had to fix, and the reputation of the XX System, and of the claim that MI5 had complete control of all possible German agents in the country, was at stake. Liddell followed up with another entry, on May 6:
I had a long talk with Sclater about the RSS exercise. Apparently the first report of Garbo’s transmitter came from Gib. This was subsequently integrated with a V.I. report. The R.S.S. fixed stations in N. Ireland and the north of Scotland took a bearing which was well wide of the mark, and although the original report came in on March 13th it was not until April 14th that sufficiently accurate bearings were obtained to warrant putting into action of the M.U.s. They were started off on an entirely inaccurate location of the target somewhere in the Guildford area. Other bearings led to greater confusion. Had it not been for the fact that the groundwave of the transmitter was then ranged with the Barnet station it is doubtful whether the transmitter would ever have been located. The final round-up was not done according to the book, i.e. by the 3 M.U.s taking bearings and gradually closing in. One M.U. got a particularly strong signal and followed it home.
By now, however, Liddell probably felt a little more confident that homeland security was tight enough. No problematic messages had been picked up by interception, and thus there were probably no clandestine agents at large, a conclusion that was reinforced by the fact that the ULTRA sources (i.e. picking up Abwehr communications about agents in the United Kingdom) still betrayed no unknown operators. Nevertheless, Liddell still harboured, as late as May 12, strong reservations about the efficacy of RSS’s operations overseas, which he shared with the philosopher Gilbert Ryle at his club. At this time, MI5 was concerned about a source named JOSEFINE, sending messages that reached the Abwehr via Stockholm. (JOSEFINE turned out to be the Swedish naval attaché in London, and his associates or successors.) But then, Liddell expressed further deep concerns, on May 27, i.e. a mere ten days before D-Day:
I had a long discussion with TAR and Victor [Rothschild] about RSS. It seemed to me that the position was eminently unsatisfactory. I could see that the picking up of an agent here was a difficult matter. If he were transmitting on ordinary H.F. at fairly frequent intervals to a fixed station on the continent in Abwehr procedure we should probably get his signals. If he were transmitting in our military procedure it was problematic whether we should get his signals. If he were transmitting in VHF it was almost certain that we should not get him. I entirely accept this as being the position but my complaint is that the problem of detecting illicit wireless from this country has never been submitted to a real body of experts, and that possibly had it been given careful study by such a body at least the present dangers might have been to some extent mitigated. Victor agreed that it might be possible to work on some automatic ether scanner which would increase the chances of picking up an agent. There might also be other possibilities, if the ground were thoroughly explored. So much for picking up the call. The next stage is to D.F. the position of the illicit transmitter. Recent experiments had shown both in the case of GARBO and in the case of an imaginery [sic] agent who was located at Whaddon, that the bearings from the fixed stations were 50-60 miles out. This being so, the margin for error on the continent would be considerably increased. We have always been given to understand that fixed stations could give a fairly accurate bearing. The effect is that unless your vans get into the ground-wave they stand very little chance of picking up the agent. The D.G. is rather anxious to take this matter up; both TAR and I are opposed to any such course. I pointed out to the D.G. that the Radio Security Committee consisted of a Chairman who knew nothing about wireless, and that he and I had no knowledge of the subject, and therefore we would all be at the mercy of Gambier-Parry who could cover us all with megacycles. The discussion would get us no where and only create bad blood. He seemed to think however that we ought to get some statement of the position particularly since I pointed out to him that if an agent were dropped we should probably pick him up in a reasonable time. The fact is that unless the aircraft tracks pin-pointed him and the police and the Home Guard did their job, we should be extremely unlikely to get our man. Technical means would give us little if any assistance. By the time a man had been located the harm would have been done.”
Some of this plaint was misguided (VHF would not have been an effective communication wavelength for a remote spy), but it shows that, despite all the self-satisfied histories that were written afterwards, RSS was in something of a shambles. Fortunately there were no ‘men’ to be got: the Abwehr had been incorporated into the SS in the spring of 1944. Canaris was dismissed, and no further wireless agents were infiltrated on to the British mainland. Liddell was probably confident, despite RSS’s complacent approach, that no unknown wireless agents were at large because intercepted ISOS messages gave no indication of such. He made one more relevant entry before D-Day, on June 3:
TAR tells me that since 12 May RSS have been picking up the signals of an agent communicating in Group 2 cypher. They have at last succeeded in getting a bearing which places the agents somewhere in Ayrshire. The vans are moving up to the Newcastle area. Two hours later, TAR told me that further bearing indicated that the agent was in Austria. So much for RSS’s powers of D.F.ing. My mind goes back to a meeting held 18 months ago when G.P. [Gambier-Parry] had the effrontery that he could D.F. a set in France down to an area of 5 sq. miles.
Did someone mishear a Scottish voice saying ‘Ayrshire’, interpreting it as ‘Austria’? We shall never know. In any case, if Liddell ever stopped to think “If we go to the utmost to ensure there are no clandestine agents reporting on the real state of things here, wouldn’t German Intelligence imagine we were doing just that?”, he never recorded such a gut-wrenching question in his Diaries.
‘Double’ or ‘Special’ Agents?
Before Bevan left London for Moscow, he attended – alongside Findlater Stewart – that last meeting of the W Board before D-Day. They heard a presentation by ‘Tar’ Robertson, who described the status of all the double agents, confirmed that he was confident that ‘the Germans believed in TRICYCE and GARBO, especially, and probably in the others’. Robertson added that ‘the agents were ready to take their part in OVERLORD’, and offered a confidence factor of 98% that the Germans trusted the majority of agents. The concluding minute of the meeting was a recommendation by Bevan that the term ‘double agents’ be avoided in any documentation, and that they be referred to as ‘special agents’, the term that appears in the title of the KV 4/70 file. A week later, Bevan was on his way to Moscow.
The reason that Bevan wanted them described as ‘special agents’ was presumably the fact that, if the term ‘double agent’ ever escaped, the nature of the double-cross deception would be immediately obvious. Yet ‘special agents’ was not going to become a durable term: all agents are special in some way, and the phrase did not accurately describe how they differed. Liddell continued to refer to ‘DAs’ in his Diaries, John Masterman promulgated the term ‘double agents’ in his influential Double Cross System (1972), and Michael Howard entrenched it in his authorised history of British Intelligence in the Second World War – Volume 5 (1990).
Shortly after Masterman’s book came out, Miles Copland, an ex-CIA officer, wrote The Real Spy World, a pragmatic guide to the world of espionage and counter-espionage. He debunked the notion of ‘double agents’, stating: “But even before the end of World War II the term ‘double agent’ was discontinued in favor of ‘controlled enemy agent’ in speaking of an agent who was entirely under our own control, capable of reporting to his original masters only as we allowed, so that he was entirely ‘single’ in his performance, and by no means ‘double’.” The point is a valid one: if an agent is described as a ‘double’, he or she could presumably be trying to work for both sides at once, even perhaps evolving into the status of a ‘triple agent’ (like ZIGZAG), which applies enormous psychological pressure on the subject, who will certainly lose any affiliation to either party, and end up simply trying to survive.
Yet ‘controlled enemy agent’ is, to me, also unsatisfactory. It implies that the agent’s primary allegiance is to the enemy, but that he or she has been ‘turned’ in some way. That might be descriptive of some SOE agents, who were captured, and tortured into handing over their cyphers and maybe forced to transmit under the surveillance of the Gestapo, but who never lost their commitment to the Allied cause (and may have eventually been shot, anyway). Nearly all the agents used in the Double Cross System had applied to the Abwehr under false pretences. They (e.g. BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO, TRICYCLE) intended to betray the Germans, and work for the Allied cause immediately they were installed. Of those who survived as recruits of B1A, only TATE had arrived as a dedicated Nazi. He was threatened (but not tortured) into coming to the conclusion that his survival relied on his operating under British control, and he soon, after living in the UK for a while, understood that the democratic cause was superior to the Nazi creed. SUMMER, on the other hand, to whom the same techniques were applied, refused to co-operate, and had to be incarcerated for the duration of the war.
Thus the closest analogy to the strategy of the special agents is what Kim Philby set out to do: infiltrate an ideological foe under subterfuge. But the analogy must not be pushed too far. Philby volunteered to work for an intelligence service of his democratic native country, with the goal of facilitating the attempts of a hostile, totalitarian system to overthrow the whole structure. The special agents were trying to subvert a different totalitarian organisation that had invaded their country (or constituted a threat, in the case of GARBO) in order that liberal democracy should prevail. There is a functional equivalence, but not a moral one, between the two examples. Philby was a spy and a traitor: he was definitely not a ‘double agent’, even though he has frequently been called that.
I leave the definitional matter unresolved for now. It will take a more authoritative writer to tidy up the debate. I note that the highly regarded Thaddeus Holt considers the debate ‘pedantic’, and he decided to fall back upon ‘double agent’ in his book, despite its misleading connotations.
Special Agents at Work
The events that led up to the controversial two-hour message transmitted by GARBO on June 9, highlighted in the several quotations that I presented at the beginning of this script, have been well described in several books, so I simply summarise here the aspects concerning wireless usage. For those readers who want to learn the details, Appendix XIII of Roger Hesketh’s Fortitude lists most of the contributions of British ‘controlled agents’ on the Fortitude South Order of Battle, and how they were reflected in German Intelligence Reports. Ben Macintyre’s Double Cross gives a lively account of the activities of the agents who communicated via wireless – via their B1A operators, in the main.
TATE (Wulf Schmidt) was the longest-serving of the special agents, but the requirement to develop a convincing ‘legend’ about him, in order to explain to the Abwehr how he had managed to survive for so long on alien territory, took him out of the mainstream. In October 1943, Robertson had expressed doubts as to how seriously the Germans were taking TATE, as they had sent him only fourteen messages over the past six months, and in December, the XX Committee even considered the possibility that he had been blown. Their ability to verify how TATE’s reports were being handled arose mainly because communications were passed to Berlin from Hamburg by a secure land-line, not by wireless (and thus not subject to RSS/GC&CS interception.) Indeed, Berlin believed that the whole ‘Lena Six’ (from the 1940-41 parachutist project, and whose activity as spies was planned to last only a few weeks before the impending German invasion!) were under control of the British, but the Abwehr, in a continuing pattern, were reluctant to give up on one of their own. The post-war interrogation of Major Boeckel, who trained the LENA agents in Hamburg, available at KV 2/1333, indicates that Berlin had doubts about TATE’s reliability, but that Boeckel ‘maintained contact despite warnings’. TATE provided one or two vital tidbits (such as Eisenhower’s arrival in January 1944), and by April, the XX Committee judged him safe again. In May, he was nominally ‘moved’ to Kent, ostensibly to help his employer’s farming friend, and messages were directed there from London, in case of precise location-finding. But TATE’s information about FUSAG ‘operations’ did not appear to have received much attention: TATE’s contribution would pick up again after D-Day.
The career of TREASURE (Lily Sergeyev, or Sergueiev) was more problematical. In September 1943 she had had to remind her handler, Kliemann, that she was trained in radio operation, and that she needed to advance from writing letters in secret ink. Kliemann then improbably ordered her to acquire an American-made Halicrafter apparatus in London, and then promised to supply her one passed to her. He let her down when she visited Madrid in November, so the XX Committee had to start applying pressure. They engineered a March 1944 visit by TREASURE to Lisbon, where she was provided with a wireless apparatus, and instructed on when and how to transmit, with an emphasis that the messages should be as short as possible. She returned to the UK; her transmitter was set up in Hampstead, and her first message sent on April 13. There was a burst of useful, activity for about a month or so, but, by May 17, a decision was made that TREASURE had to be dropped. She confessed to concealing from her B1A controllers the security check in her transmissions that she could have used to alert the Germans to the fact that she was operating under control: she was in a fit of pique over the death of her dog. Robertson fired her just after D-Day.
TRICYCLE (Dusko Popov) had formulated a role that allowed him to travel easily to Lisbon, but the Committee concluded that he need to communicate by wireless as well. Popov had engineered the escape to London of a fellow Yugoslav, the Marquis de Bona, in December 1943, who would become his authorized wireless operator, and Popov himself brought back to the UK the apparatus that de Bona (given the cryptonym FREAK) started using successfully in February. Useful information on dummy FUSAG movements was passed on for a while, but a cloud hung over the whole operation, as the XX Committee feared, quite justifiably, that TRICYCLE might have been blown because Popov’s contact within the Abwehr, Johnny Jebsen (ARTIST) knew enough about the project to betray the whole deception game. When Jebsen was arrested at the end of April, TRICYCLE and his network were closed down, with FREAK’s last transmission going out on May 16. TRICYCLE explained the termination in a letter written in secret ink on May 20, ascribing it to suspicions that had arisen over FREAK’s loyalties. Astonishingly, FREAK sent a final message by wireless on June 30, and the Germans’ petulant response indicated that they still trusted TRICYCLE. After the war, MI5 learned that Jebsen had been drugged and transported to Berlin, tortured and then killed, but said nothing.
The career of BRUTUS (Roman Czerniawski) was also dogged by controversy, as he had brought trouble on himself with the Polish government-in-exile, and the Poles had access to his cyphers. Again, fevered debate over his trustworthiness, and deliberation over what the Germans (and Russians) knew about him continued throughout 1943. His wireless traffic (which had been interrupted) restarted on August 25, but his handler in Paris, Colonel Reile, suspected that he might have been ‘turned’. Indeed, his transmitter was operated by a notional friend called CHOPIN, working from Richmond. By December 1943, confidence in the security of BRUTUS, and his acceptance by the Abwehr, had been restored: the Germans even succeeded in delivering him a new wireless set. Thereafter, BRUTUS grew to become the second most valuable member of the team of special agents. A regular stream of messages was sent, beginning in from February 1, culminating in an intense flow between June 5 and June 7, providing (primarily) important disinformation about troop movements in East Anglia.
Lastly, the performance of GARBO was the most significant – and the most controversial. According to Guy Liddell, GARBO had made his first contact with the Abwehr in Madrid in March 1943. GARBO had also claimed to have found a ‘friend’ who would operate the wireless for him. The Abwehr was so pleased that it immediately sent him new cyphers (invaluable to GC&CS), and, a month later, advised him how to simulate British Army callsigns, so as to avoid detection. A domestic crisis then occurred, which caused Harmer in MI5 to recommend BRUTUS as a more reliable vehicle than GARBO, but it passed, and, by the beginning of 1944 GARBO was using his transmitter to send more urgent – as well as more copious – messages. GARBO benefitted from a large network of fictional agents who supplied him with news from around the country, and his role in FORTITUDE culminated in the epic message of June 9 with which I introduced this piece.
BODYGUARD was successful. The German High Command viewed the Normandy landings as a feint to distract attention from the major assault they saw coming in the Pas de Calais. They relied almost exclusively on the reports coming in from the special agents. They did not have the infrastructure, the attention span, or the expertise to interpret the deluge of phony signals that were generated as part of FORTITUDE NORTH, and they could not undertake proper reconnaissance flights across the English Channel to inspect any preparations for the assault that they knew was coming. Interrogations of German officers after the war confirmed that the ‘intelligence’ transmitted by the five agents listed above was passed on and accepted at the very highest levels. This phenomenon has to be analysed in two dimensions: the political and the technical.
The fact that the Abwehr (and its successor, the SS) were hoodwinked so easily by the substance of the messages was not perhaps surprising. To begin with, the Abwehr was a notoriously anti-Nazi organisation, and the role of its leader, Admiral Canaris, was highly ambiguous in his encouraging doubts about the loyalty of his agents to be squashed. He told his officer Jebsen (ARTIST) that ‘he didn’t care if every German agent in Britain was under control, so long as he could tell German High Command that he had agents in Britain reporting regularly.’ Every intelligence officer has an inclination to trust his recruits: if he tells his superiors that they are unreliable, he is effectively casting maledictions on his own abilities. Those who spoke up about their doubts, and pursued them, were moved out to the Russian front. The Double Cross System was addressing a serious need.
When the ineffectiveness and unreliability of the Abwehr itself was called into question, and the organisation was subsumed into the SS, the special agents came under the control of disciplinarians and military officers who did not really understand intelligence, were under enormous pressures, and thus had neither the time nor the expertise to attempt to assess properly the information that was being passed to them. They had experienced no personal involvement with the agents supposedly infiltrated into Britain. What intelligence they received sounded plausible, and appeared to form a pattern, so it was accepted and passed on.
Yet the technical aspects are more problematic. Given what the German agencies (the Sipo, Gestapo, and Abwehr) had invested in static and mobile radio-detection and location finding techniques (even though they overstated their capabilities), they should surely have asked themselves whether Great Britain would not have explored and refined similar technology. And they should have asked themselves why the British would not have exercised such capabilities to the utmost in order to conceal the order of battle, and assault plans, for the inevitable ‘invasion’ of continental Europe. Moreover, Britain was a densely populated island, homogeneous and certainly almost completely opposed to the Nazi regime, and infiltrated foreign agents must have had to experience a far more hostile and obstructive environment than, say, SOE agents of French nationality who were parachuted into a homeland that contained a large infrastructure of Allied sympathisers. Traces of such a debate in German intelligence are difficult to find. Canaris defended his network of Vertrauensmänner, and referred to ‘most intricate and elaborate electronic countermeasures’ in February 1944, but his motivations were suspect, and he was ousted immediately afterwards. Why was GARBO (especially) not picked up? How indeed could anyone transmit for so long, when such practices went against all good policies of clandestine wireless usage?
Even more astonishing is the apparent lack of recognition of the problem from the voluminous British archives. Admittedly, the challenge may have been of such magnitude that it was never actually mentioned, but one might expect at some stage the question to be raised: “How can we optimise wireless transmission practices so that it would be reasonable to assume that RSS would not be able to pick them up?” That would normally require making the messages as brief as possible, switching wavelengths, and changing locations – all in order to elude the resolute mobile location-finding units. That was clearly a concern in the early days of the war, with agent SNOW, when B1A even asked SNOW to inquire of his handler, Dr. Rantzau (Ritter) whether it was safe for SNOW always to transmit from the same place. Rantzau replied in the affirmative, reflecting the state-of-the-art in 1940. But progress had been made by the Germans, especially in light of the arrival of SOE wireless agents, and the XX Committee must have known this.
Yet, four years later, all that the XX Committee and B1a appeared to do was allow GARBO to emulate British military traffic. And they showed a completely cavalier attitude to the problem of time on the air by allowing GARBO to compose his ridiculously windy messages. After all, if they were sharp enough to ensure that signals emanated from a location roughly where the agent was supposed to be, in case German direction-finders were on the prowl, why would they not imagine that the Germans were contemplating the reciprocal function of RSS? It was even more comprehensively dumb than the Abwehr’s credulous distancing from the problem.
Did MI5 try to communicate to the Abwehr the notion that RSS was useless? Guy Liddell confided his doubts about the apparently feeble tracking of GARBO only to his diary, so, unless the Abwehr had a spy in the bowels of RSS, and a method of getting information back to Germany, that would have been an impossible task. Perhaps some messages from the special agents indicating that they were close to being hunted down, but always managed to escape, would have given a measure of verisimilitude, indicating the existence of a force, but a very ineffective one. The behaviour of B1A, however, in reusing transmission sites, while paying lip-service to the location-finding capabilities of the foe, but allowing absurdly long transmissions to take place, simply denies belief. The utterly unnecessary but studied non-observance of basic protocols was highly unprofessional, and should have caused the whole scaffolding of deceit to collapse. It is extraordinary that so many historians and analysts have hinted at this debacle, but never analyzed it in detail.
In conclusion, the mystery of the Undetected Radios was not a puzzle of how they remained undetected, but of why both the Abwehr and MI5 both considered it reasonable that they could flourish unnoticed for so long, and behave so irresponsibly. Findlater Stewart’s 1946 history of RSS – which helped set the agenda for the unit during the Cold War – proves that he did not really understand the technology or the issues. What all this implies for the Communist agent Sonia’s transmissions (around which this whole investigation started) will be addressed in a final report that will constitute the concluding chapter of Sonia’s Radio and The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.
(This report, on the dubious testimony of Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, concerning Agent Sonia and her wireless transmissions, is a long and challenging one, and I issue my customary health warning: Do not read this if you are of a sensitive disposition, or while operating agricultural machinery. I decided to lay out every step of my reasoning, with references, as I believe that, with the delivery of the authorised History of GCHQ in a few months’ time, it is important to present a comprehensive story of the slice of wartime Soviet wireless traffic that Wright focused on in his book. The interest in Spycatcher indicates that a mass of persons are fascinated by this topic: questions about possible traitors in the midst of the Security Service do not go away. I believe the issuance of this report is especially timely, as the recent feature in the Mail on Sunday should intensify the interest in the case that Wright made against Sonia and her alleged protector, Roger Hollis. If any of my readers would prefer to work with a Word version of this bulletin, in the belief that they might want to pore over it, and annotate it, please contact me at firstname.lastname@example.org. After a thorough background check by my team of ultra-sensitive, highly-trained, Moscow-based security personnel, the report will be sent to you.)
Rimington and some friends in the Security Service called Wright ‘the KGB
illegal’, because, with his appearance and his lisp we could imagine that he
was really a KGB officer.”(Defending The Realm, p 518)
want to prove that Hollis was a spy; if I can do that I will be happy.” (Peter
Wright to Malcolm Turnbull, from the latter’s ‘Spycatcher Trial’, p 31)
time has come for there to be an openness about the secret world of so long ago
… the consequences of Hollis being a spy are enormous. Not only does it mean
that MI5 is probably still staffed by people with similar view to him, but it
means that ASIO was established on terms with the advice of a Russian spy.” (Peter
Wright in the witness-box, Sydney, December 1986)
Wright and ‘Spycatcher’
Drought of 1942-44
did Wright Mangle the Story so much?
Wright and ‘Spycatcher’
As an ex-IBMer (1969-1973), until I read Spycatcher in the late nineteen-eighties, the only ‘HASP’ I knew was the Houston Automated Spooling Priority program (about which I shall mercifully write no more). One of the major contributions to mole-hunting that Peter Wright believed he made, in his best-selling account of dodgy business within MI5, was the unveiling of a new source of electronic intelligence, namely (as he described it) ‘the wartime traffic stored by the Swedish authorities known as HASP’. By citing a previously unknown and ever since unrevealed message that purported to indicate the size of Sonia’s ‘network’ of spies in 1941, Wright’s assertion has exerted quite a considerable influence on the mythology of Soviet ‘superspy’ SONIA. If judged as credible, his testimony boosts her achievements in England even beyond what the woman claimed in her memoir, Sonya’s Report. Moreover, Wright used this discovery as a major reason for confirming his belief that Roger Hollis was the Soviet mole known as ELLI: he drew attention to this accusation in his presence in the witness-box during the Spycatcher trial, and thus the process by which he came to this conclusion is of profound significance.
sold over two million copies. This success was mainly due to the outcome of Her
Majesty’s Government’s lawsuit against the author before publication, with
Malcom Turnbull’s successful defence in the trial of 1986-87 issuing a stern
blow to the forces of hypocritical secrecy. He was able to show that the
British authorities had connived at, or even encouraged, the publication of
Chapman Pincher’s two books, Their Trade is Treachery, and Too Secret
Too Long (as well as Nigel West’s A Matter of Trust), which made
nonsense of the claim that a ban on the whole of Spycatcher was
necessary for security reasons. It was the obstinacy of Margaret Thatcher,
abetted by poor advice, that caused the lawsuit to be pursued. The irony was
that it was Wright who had fed Pincher most of his stories, and Pincher would
later amplify Wright’s case against Hollis with the very influential Treachery.
That is why this article is so important. Those two million-plus readers need
to learn the facts about a critical part of Wright’s story.
significant outcome of a careful study of Wright’s claims concerning the HASP
story is the uncovering of secrets about the interception and decryption of
electronic traffic that the British intelligence services (MI5, MI6 and,
especially, GCHQ) would rather the public remain ignorant of. The authorised
histories of MI5 (Andrew) and MI6 (Jeffery) steered well clear of analysis of
the mechanics of wartime electronic espionage, since these volumes were
designed and controlled as organs of public relations. No discussion of Sonia,
or the controversies surrounding illicit wireless in wartime Britain, can be
found in their books, and Andrew (especially) points readers towards the
secondary literature without any indication of how reliable it is, or how selectively
it should be explored. Moreover, I
regret that I am not confident that all will be revealed to us when the authorised
history of GCHQ (Behind the Enigma, by Professor John Ferris) is
published later this year. While a subsidiary objective of my focus on Wright
is thus to provide a more rigorous analysis of the often puzzling story of the
Allied effort to interpret Soviet intelligence traffic in World War II, a more
thorough account will have to wait until a later bulletin.
secondary literature almost universally shows an alarming confusion about the
techniques and technology that underlay the surveillance of the traffic of
foreign powers before, during, and after WWII. The largely American literature
on the VENONA program (to which HASP was a critical adjunct: see below) is
distressingly weak on technology, and focuses almost exclusively on the
interception of traffic in the United States. Even such a well-researched and
methodical work as Philip H. J. Davies’s MI6 and the Machinery of Spying
contains only two short references to VENONA, guiding the reader (note 32, p
237) for ‘a (contested) British version of the story’ to Peter Wright’s Spycatcher.
This seems to me a gross abdication of critical responsibility. Davies
concentrates of human ‘machinery’, not technology, and delegates coverage of
problematic matters to a source he instantly characterizes as dubious. It would
appear, therefore, that, even though Wright’s story does not derive from any
published archive, his controversial memoir has become the default – but flawed
– authority. Yet he was a minor officer in the grand scheme of things, and an
elderly man with a grudge and a failing memory when his book was composed.
is certainly difficult to obtain reliable confirmation of the essence of HASP
from other academic, or pseudo-academic, sources. One might, for example, have
expected to learn about it in Richard J. Aldrich’s 2010 work, GCHQ, yet,
while providing a comprehensive chapter on HASP’s cousin VENONA, the author does
not mention the term. The only other analyst who appears to have written
explicitly about HASP without simply echoing Wright’s account is Nigel West, in
his 2009 book Venona. West has overall provided a competent guidebook to
the initial breakthroughs on decryption, and an excellent coverage of the content
of VENONA traffic, with emphasis on the London-Moscow communications, although
it would benefit from a revision to consider the relevance of such sources as
the Vassiliev Notebooks (see https://digitalarchive.wilsoncenter.org/collection/86/vassiliev-notebooks).
Venona is a highly readable summary for the curious student of
intelligence, but West’s coverage of the mechanics of VENONA is spotty
and inconsistent. Moreover, his representation of the HASP traffic is so
different from that of Wright that I believe the topic merits greater scrutiny,
and it is my goal here to provide that level of inspection, and assess the
validity of what Wright claimed. This is uncharted and complex territory,
however, and the landscape is strewn with pitfalls.
was one of the major successes of British-American co-operation on intelligence
matters after WWII. Owing to a procedural mistake in 1943, a large number of
GRU (military and naval intelligence) and NKVD/KGB (* state security) messages
exchanged between Moscow and outlying stations in foreign embassies employed a
defective technique for enciphering highly confidential messages – the re-use
of so-called ‘one-time pads’. Intelligence agencies have regarded one-time pads
as the most watertight way of preventing enemy decryption of messages, and they
were adopted by the Soviet Union in the 1930s. (Many readers will be familiar
with the concept if they have read Leo Marks’s Between Silk and Cyanide.)
Alert cryptanalysts in the National Security Agency (NSA), inspecting messages
in 1946, noticed unusual patterns, and in 1948 were joined by their British counterparts
from GCHQ in exploring the phenomenon. By applying painstaking techniques to
detect repeated sequences, they were able to initiate a project that gradually disclosed
several networks of spies in the USA, Canada, Britain and Australia, leading to
the successful prosecution of such as Julius Rosenberg, Klaus Fuchs, and Alan
Nunn May, and the identification of Donald Maclean. VENONA was not formally
revealed to the public until 1995.
exactly what this ‘re-use’ entailed, and where and when it took place, and to
which cryptological tools it applied, remains one of the most vexing puzzles in
the VENONA story. It is as if the practitioners, when explaining their
successes to the lay historians who carried their accounts to the world, wished
to keep the process and sequence of events to themselves, as a defensive
measure to protect their secrets, and maybe, even, to exaggerate what they were
able to accomplish. A deep integrative history is sorely needed.
The naming of the Soviet Security Organization changed frequently. In 1934,
the OGPU was transformed into the NKVD, which for a few months in 1941 became
the NKGB, before reverting to NKVD until April 1943. In March 1946, it became
the MGB, but foreign intelligence was transferred to the Committee for
Information (KI) from October 1947 to November 1951. In March 1953, on Stalin’s
death, the unit was combined with the MVD, out of which the KGB emerged, after
Beria’s execution, in March 1954. Source: Christopher Andrew. I sometimes use
‘KGB’ in this article to refer to the permanent body, as do many authors.]
One conundrum in the analysis of VENONA and HASP has endured: no author on the subject is precise about where and when VENONA (or HASP) was the result of intercepting cable traffic, and where and when it involved wireless traffic. This distinction is important when one considers the challenges facing the counter-espionage organisations of the nations trying to protect themselves. The term ‘cable’ is frequently used as a generic term for ‘telegram’, reflecting its historical background, but telegrams sent by wireless should definitely not be called ‘cables’. Christopher Andrew, in Defending the Realm, makes a useful distinction, but his account is incomplete and thus overall unsatisfying. He contrasts (on page 376) the regulations pertaining in the UK, where ‘even before the Soviet entry into the war, the Foreign Office had agreed that the Soviet embassy in London could communicate with Moscow by radio on set frequencies’, and adds that a project was soon underway to intercept these messages. On the other hand, no corresponding agreement existed in the USA, where, instead, ‘Soviet messages were written out for transmission by cable companies, which, in accordance with wartime censorship laws, supplied copies to the US authorities.’
statement is probably an echo of what appears in the staff (but not ‘official’)
story of VENONA, issued by the NSA/CIA in 1966 (VENONA: Soviet Espionage and
the American Response, edited by Robert Louis Benson and Michael Warner).
In the Preface (p xii) appear the following sentences: “Although Soviet
intelligence services had clandestine radio transmitters in diplomatic missions
located in several American cities, these apparently were to be used only in emergencies.
In consequence, KGB and GRU stations cabled their important messages over
commercial telegraph lines and sent bulky reports and documents – including
most of the information acquired by agents – in diplomatic pouches.” This
statement moves us closer to the truth, but in my opinion still misrepresents
the essence of the Soviet strategy concerning clandestine systems, and does not
explain whether these secret channels were intercepted at all.
abounds. For example, in the very first sentence of Venona, Nigel West
writes of the project to intercept Japanese traffic in October 1942 as follows:
“Cable 906 purported to be a routine circular in seven parts and, as it had
come off the wireless circuit linking Tokyo to Berlin and Helsinki, it
underwent the usual Allied scrutiny to see if it betrayed any information of
strategic significance.” Cables cannot ‘come off’ (whatever that means)
‘wireless circuits’, and it is inaccurate to describe temporary wireless paths
as ‘circuits’, since wireless transmission is by definition unconnected.
It makes sense to refer to a ‘circuit’ linking ‘Tokyo to Berlin and
Helsinki’ only in terms of a conceptual agreement about callsigns, frequencies,
and schedules between intelligence services and outposts. As another example, the
heading for the NSA’s official packaging of the London to Moscow traffic (at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf
) is titled ‘London GRU – Moscow Center Cables: Cables Decrypted by the
National Security Administration’s Venona Project’, a regrettable
misrepresentation of reality. The messages were sent by wireless.
misconception is aggrandized by Peter Wright himself. In Spycatcher, the
author, the self-professed expert in these matters, writes (p 182): “Whereas
the Americans had all the Soviet radio traffic passing to and from the USA
during and after the war, in Britain Churchill ordered all anti-Soviet
intelligence work to cease during the wartime alliance, and GCHQ did not begin
taking the traffic again until the very end of the war.” Sadly, every clause of
this woeful sentence contains at least one blatant error, which casts serious doubt
on his reliability on other matters. Specifically:
The Soviet VENONA traffic to and from the
USA was almost exclusively commercial cable traffic.
‘Had all the Soviet radio traffic’ is
meaningless. Did the Americans intercept it all? Most certainly not. As other
experts have pointed out, wireless traffic was banned (officially) during the
war. The Soviets used wireless as an emergency back-up system, but also as a
channel for clandestine espionage traffic.
No one can point to the minute where
Churchill ordered all interception, let alone all intelligence work, to cease.
Hinsley’s famous footnote [see below] speaks only of ‘decryption and
decoding’, not interception, and does not constitute an authoritative record. (Professor
Glees reports conversations with Hinsley on this point in his book The
Secrets of the Service: what Glees was told, namely that the Y Board may
have issued such an order, now appears to be confirmed by the in-house history
of the NSA.) We know that interception of signals continued, if erratically, throughout
the war, and that Alastair Denniston, previously head of GC&CS, started his
new project on Soviet traffic in late 1942.
GCHQ did not come into existence until 1946.
Before that the institution was known as GC&CS (Government Code &
Cypher School). During the war, however, RSS was responsible for ‘taking the
traffic’, and never reported to GC&CS. We know from RSS files that it
monitored Soviet traffic, and that the ISCOT project started picking up
Comintern messages in 1943.
Within this fog of misrepresentation a very important distinction remains. A cable is a wire, with the important corollary that those agencies that control the input to the physical cable may have special authority (or power) to intercept and store the traffic that is passed to them. Such transmissions can also be detected clandestinely by specialized sensory equipment, which would have to be laid close to the cable. Thus cables are a direct, bounded, targeted medium and not universally detectable. (Today’s fibre optic cables, which GCHQ and the NSA tap, follow largely the same oceanic paths used by the cables laid at the end of the nineteenth century.) Wireless traffic is looser: it is transmitted over the ether. It may be picked up by local groundwaves, or, remotely, by any receiving device that is geographically well-positioned to receive shortwave transmissions, allowing for the vagaries of atmospheric conditions, and frequencies used. Yet, while the atmosphere is lawless, the source of the transmission is frequently concealed, and the activity unpredictable. Wireless transmission presents a completely different set of security challenges.
P. S. I am grateful to Ian W. who, on the day this report was published, informed me that ‘cables’ might be transmitted for part of their journey over ‘wireless’ links – something I had suspected, but had not been able to verify. Ian also mentioned that, half a century ago, it was common for wireless contacts to be referred to as ‘circuits’.
in the century, circumstances – and improvements in technology – had encouraged
the use of wireless as a medium for confidential traffic. Private or
nationally-owned cable facilities had been shown to be liable to attack and
destruction. Such sabotage happened when the British cut Germany’s
nationally-owned transatlantic cables in 1914, an event that forced German
diplomatic traffic to be routed through ‘neutral’ third parties. Britain used
its sway to intercept German traffic, and with cryptological skills abetted by
the provision of codebooks supplied by the Russians, started deciphering German
messages. In February 1917, the British deciphered the Zimmermann Telegram,
which had encouraged Mexico to join forces against the United States. When
Zimmermann admitted the truth behind the cable telegram, public disgust brought
the USA into the war.
an exposure encouraged experimentation with a rapidly developing wireless
technology. (In Spycatcher, Peter Wright himself explained how, after
World War I, his father assisted Marconi in convincing the British government
that the beaming of short-wave wireless signals would be more effective than
deploying long-wave technology as a means of linking the Empire.) In turn, as
practices and understanding matured, that led to the important adoption of water-tight
encryption mechanisms. Correspondingly, in the next two decades of peace, host
governments tried to monitor such processes that originated on their home
territory, by attempting to pick up open transmissions from the air, to set
about decrypting them, and thus identifying possible hostile threats. The
British project known as MASK, which detected Comintern traffic in London in
the mid-thirties, was an example of such.
advent of war, however, made a more spirited approach to trapping and
prosecuting illicit wireless transmissions much more urgent. For example, at
the outset of World War II, the British were fearful of the possibility of
swarms of enemy wireless operators in their midst. They were initially not so
scared about routine intelligence-gathering as they were about the (imaginary) menace
of such spies using wireless to guide German bombers to their targets. The government
also wanted to control the dissemination overseas of secret intelligence by
conventional agencies. It made demands to foreign embassies and legations about
being informed of wireless frequencies, and even call-signs, before giving
approval for their use. Since a tacit understanding about reciprocal needs
existed, governments often turned a blind eye to some technical breaches (such
as the British with the Soviets, and the Swiss with the British). To monitor
abuse of the airwaves, interception services then had to deploy enhanced wireless
detection mechanisms to collect such clandestine messages, and maybe
direction-finding/location-finding systems and vehicles to verify the source of
such messages (as happened with the Soviet Embassy in London in 1942.) The
elimination of any possibly overlooked German wireless agents was critical for
the success of the Double-Cross system.
UK government thus permitted the use of wireless transmitters on embassy
premises only for Allies, while allowing, as a special case, the Polish and
Czechoslovak governments-in-exile to have their own independent wireless
stations, the Czech station in Woldingham, Surrey playing a very significant
role. In the UK, all represented governments (including those in exile) clearly
had a preference for using wireless rather than cable, in the belief that the
traffic might not be picked up at all, and thus be more secure. The Soviet
Union was in a unique position, as it was officially neither ally nor enemy
from September 1939 until June 1941, but was hardly neutral, as it had, in that
period been in a pact with Nazi Germany, and had aided the latter’s war effort
against Great Britain. In those circumstances, it was supposed to use its
wireless apparatus in the Embassy for diplomatic traffic only, and was instructed
to inform His Majesty’s Government of frequencies and callsigns being used.
when any embassy or legation in World War II wanted to send a ‘telegram’, it still
maintained some level of choice. First, it had to deal with the local
government, consider the regulations, and assess how strictly the rules were
going to be enforced. Indeed, many such messages were enciphered, but still sent
over private circuits. Copies were frequently taken by the local authorities, especially
by those who (as with the USA) forbad the use of clandestine wireless by
foreign governments. Indeed (as Romerstein and Breindel remind us in The
Venona Secrets), in 1943 the US Federal Communications Commission detected
illicit radio signals coming from the Soviet consulates in New York and San
Francisco, and confiscated the apparatus. Consequently, the NKVD and GRU in the
USA had to rely almost exclusively on commercial telegraph agencies to send
their messages to Moscow. Likewise, all confidential traffic beyond the
diplomatic bag that was sent back to Moscow by the embassy in Canberra,
Australia (a vital VENONA source), was officially transmitted by commercial
and Breindel’s account corresponds in general with what NSA officers have
written. Their statement is an echo of what appears in Benson’s and Warner’s
history mentioned above. In that work’s Preface (p xii) appear the following
sentences: “Although Soviet intelligence services had clandestine radio
transmitters in diplomatic missions located in several American cities, these
apparently were to be used only in emergencies. In consequence, KGB and GRU
stations cabled their important messages over commercial telegraph lines and
sent bulky reports and documents – including most of the information acquired
by agents – in diplomatic pouches.”
the FBI offers an intriguing twist to this story. In the archive of that
institution (‘The Vault’) can be found some provocative assertions. An undated
memorandum outlining considerations in using VENONA information in prosecutions
(p 63) declares that ‘these Soviet messages are made up of telegrams and cables
and radio messages sent between Soviet intelligence operators in the United
States and Moscow.” While that is an implausible triad (cables and radio
messages are both ‘telegrams’), it suggests a more complicated situation. And,
on page 72, the writer measures, with some timidity, some political considerations,
indicating that the Soviet Union might react in a hostile fashion to the news
that the USA had been spying on its wartime ally, thus not acting ‘in good
faith’. He writes: “ . . . while no
written record has been located in Bureau files to verify this it has been
stated by NSA officials that during the war Soviet diplomats in the U.S. were
granted permission to use Army radio facilities at the Pentagon to send
messages to Moscow. It has been stated that President Roosevelt granted this
permission and accompanied it with the promise to the Soviets that their
messages would not be intercepted or interfered with by U.S. authorities.”
can imagine the frequently naïve Roosevelt making an offer like this, but it is
difficult to imagine that the wary Russians would take such an offer at face
value, and have their cypher-clerks trek over to the Pentagon to send their
material in the knowledge that it would probably be intercepted. Moreover, not
all their traffic derived from Washington: New York and San Francisco were busy
outlets. The item is undated, and apparently unconfirmed, and thus needs to be
recorded as a footnote of questionable significance.
the other hand, what is certain is that the Soviet Embassy in London breached
the rules, even before Barbarossa, first of all by sending not just diplomatic
traffic but also military and intelligence reports to Moscow on the
acknowledged channels. Yet Soviet Military Intelligence (the GRU), which was
for a while the only functioning intelligence unit in the Soviet Embassy, as
the NKVD officers had reputedly been recalled for almost all of 1940, went far beyond
what was permitted in order to deceive surveillance mechanisms. I refer to a
VENONA message of July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, which is titled ‘Setting
up an illicit radio in the Soviet Embassy’. It unambiguously refers to
apparatus sent over in the diplomatic bag, but without clear instructions, and
requests more guidance on setting up the antenna. The GRU in London was trying
to establish an alternative mechanism for transmission without informing its
hosts, and, when the GRU rather absurdly suddenly were about to run out of
one-time pads in August/September 1940, messages at that time specify that the
‘emergency system’ should be used. The emergency system was planned not just as
a back-up procedure using a book-directed system for creating random keys (in
place of the printed one-time pads), but as the deployment of an alternative
wireless transmitter/receiver apparatus. (I analyse this phenomenon in more
detail at the end of this report.)
summarize, in the context of World War II: the pressures on combatants to
prevent unauthorised intelligence from leaving the nation were intense. The
distinction between the media was very important, as cables were finite,
self-contained, and asynchronous, and could easily be collected by the host country.
Wireless messages, on the other hand, were open, unconstrained, and
always somewhat speculative, but required a sophisticated infrastructure just
to be intercepted. Synchronicity was the goal with wireless, but was not always
achieved: your target might not pick up your message and acknowledge it, or
might receive it only partially. On the other hand, an unintended bystander
might intercept it. Moreover, to circumvent the efforts of the authorities,
units wanting to send intelligence back to their controllers would sometimes
set up alternative wireless systems in secret, of which the local government
had not been notified. I do not believe any analyst of VENONA has explained in
detail how the respective traffic was transmitted or collected in each country,
i.e. by cable, by authorised wireless, or by unauthorised wireless. Certainly,
the experience – and opportunity – differed greatly for the British and American
confusion appears to have leaked into the VENONA-HASP muddle. In order to put
the HASP phenomenon into the context of VENONA, I shall soon turn to the texts
of Peter Wright, the primary source about HASP, and add detailed commentary on
each passage. One of the difficult concepts to bear in mind with VERONA and
HASP is that decryption (with the exception of the Australian intercepts) did
not happen in real time. We are thus dealing with a process that attempted to decrypt
messages that may have been transmitted two or three decades earlier, which
were intercepted and stored at the time, but represent only a small percentage
of the total messages that could have been theoretically available. Thus
discontinuities and gaps are par for the course. Moreover, it is important to
understand that the Soviets did not realise for several years that their
systems had been exposed, and consequently did not rush to fix the problem. The
fact of the breakthrough was revealed to the Soviets by the spies William
Weisband and Kim Philby in 1949. Only then did the Soviets change their
procedures, but they could do nothing about the historical traffic of 1940-48.
itself is a murky project filled with anomalies and unanswered questions,
beyond the scope of analysis in this article. The set of facts that need to be
borne in mind when considering HASP are the following:
The key years of 1940 (when John Tiltman received a GRU code-book from the Finns); 1945 (when the damaged Soviet codebook gained at Petsamo was acquired by the USA, and when the GRU cypher-clerk Igor Gouzenko defected in Canada); 1946 (when Meredith Gardner made the first major VENONA decryption); 1949 (when ex-Comintern wireless operator Alexander Foote revealed GRU techniques in Handbook for Spies); 1954 (when Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov, Soviet cypher experts who had worked in Stockholm, defected in Australia); and 1959 (when the Swedes handed over HASP, the result of their decryption successes, to GCHQ and NSA).
The GRU developed an auxiliary clandestine system to maintain secrecy. This consisted of a) an alternative method of using a secure one-time pad exploiting a reference book known to both parties (which could be used on the regular channel), and b) a separate wireless receiver-transmitter and protocols, not to be announced to the domestic authorities.
In the USA and in Australia, the Soviet units used commercial cable channels almost exclusively. In Britain, all traffic was sent by wireless.
1987, Peter Wright (with the assistance of the journalist Paul Greengrass)
published his best-selling work Spycatcher, an account of the efforts by
the so-called ‘FLUENCY’ committee to identify a suspected mole in the senior
ranks of MI5. Wright, who had been ‘chief technical officer’ within the
service, was appointed chairman of the committee when it was set up in 1964. Because
of the way the programme had unmasked figures such as Fuchs and Maclean, the
disclosures from the VENONA project were viewed as possibly important providers
of further breakthroughs. Yet successes with VENONA traffic had been slowing
down in the early 1950s, and Wright stated that the project had come to a halt
in 1954. A few years later a fresh injection gave the project new life. I do
not intend to discuss the broader issues explored in Spycatcher: my
focus is on a strict analysis of the passages where Wright writes about HASP.
185-187 [i] “In 1959, a new discovery
was made which resuscitated VENONA again. GCHQ discovered that the Swedish
Signals Intelligence Service had taken and stored a considerable amount of new
wartime traffic, including some GRU radio messages sent to and from London during
the early years of the war. “
appears confused from the outset. He explicitly states that this traffic
included messages that could be classified as ‘GRU’ and ‘radio’. But if this
traffic had been stored, but not decrypted, how did the Swedish Service, or the
receiving agency, GCHQ, know they were GRU exchanges until they were decrypted?
Moreover, Wright states that these were radio messages sent ‘to and from London’.
Does that mean between London and Stockholm or between London and Moscow? The
suggestion could conceivably be the latter, as Stockholm would have been geographically
well-situated to pick up messages targeted at Moscow, and there would be little
reason for the GRU station in London to communicate with its Swedish
counterpart (although a few such messages do exist in the archive). Why the
Swedes would be interested, however, in intercepting and storing traffic that
did not concern them directly is a puzzle in its own way. As an added
complication, Fred. B. Wrixon, in his Codes, Ciphers & Other Cryptic
& Clandestine Communications, states that the Swedes ‘had intercepted
some GRU radio exchanges between agents [sic: my italics] in
Great Britain and their headquarters in the Soviet Union’, (p 118), and that
GCHQ gave the name HASP to the project to decipher them. Wrixon’s source
is not stated. How Wrixon derived this information is not clear, but it eerily
echoes one of Wright’s more outlandish caprices.
Wright mislead his readers, whether intentionally or not? I think so. His
assertion about the nature of the traffic appears to be contradicted by Nigel
West, who, in Venona, on page 120, presents an alternative explanation.
He writes: “ . . . in 1959 the Swedish National Defence Radio Institute
(Forsvarets Radioanstalt, FRA,) revealed that it had retained copies of a vast
quantity of the Stockholm-Moscow traffic and negotiated with GCHQ to release
its archive to the NSA via Cheltenham. This was the batch of intercepts
codenamed HASP, and, bearing in mind that some of these texts had been encoded
and signed by Petrov, there must have been a great temptation to confront him
with them – if only to tax his memory by seeking clues to the missing,
unrecovered groups.” West further explains that when the HASP material became
available, ‘two 1945 VENONA intercepts from the Stockholm embassy, dated 16
July and 21 September, showed that Petrov, then codenamed SEAMAN, had been the
personal cipher-clerk to two rezidents, first Mrs Yartseva, then Vasili
F. Razin. However, their experience in Sweden had not prepared the Petrovs for
the atmosphere of intrigue in Canberra.”
West makes a very clear connection between traffic obtained locally in Sweden
and the defection of Petrov and his wife in April 1954, and suggests, moreover,
that HASP material was exclusively Stockholm-Moscow traffic. This is markedly in
contrast to Wright’s representation. Yet West does not explain what the
relationship was between the HASP and the VENONA material, how the former
helped the GCHQ cryptanalysts, or where he derived his information. He refers
to intercepts, but were these raw encrypted data, or partially decrypted texts
– or both? The logic is very elusive, since the HASP messages are not separately
identifiable, but it would appear that additional information enabled the
cryptonym MORYAK (SEAMAN), as a key member of the Soviet embassy in Stockholm,
to be identified as Petrov. And indeed, the source telegrams confirm Petrov’s
statements from the memoir that he and his wife published in 1956.
significant distinction between the respective descriptions of HASP by Wright
and West can thus be seen, with West, to support his cause, providing more
tangible evidence of what the traffic contained. The account of another
historian, Christopher Andrew, would appear to reinforce West’s description, although
without actually mentioning HASP. On page 380 of Defend the Realm, Andrew
writes: “Following requests during 1960, the Swedes supplied copies of wartime
GRU telegrams exchanged between Moscow and the Stockholm residency, some of
which were discovered to have employed the same one-time pads used in hitherto
unbroken traffic with London. One hundred and seventy-eight GRU messages from
the period March 1940 to April 1942 were successfully decrypted in whole or
part.” Andrew’s message is explicit: these messages were not London-Stockholm
traffic, but Stockholm-Moscow messages that the Swedes had apparently enjoyed
some success in decrypting. His log of successful decryption applies to London-Moscow
traffic, however, the suggestion being that both sets of traffic used the same
one-time pads, and that no progress had been made by GCHQ on the London
what does that strange, anonymous notion behind ‘requests’ indicate? How did
the ‘requestor’ learn about them? What was the crypto-analytical expertise of
the Swedes, and had they previously shared experiences with GCHQ and NSA? The certain
implication here is that the FRA had successfully deciphered some local GRU
traffic, as West informed us. Yet it was not the messages themselves that were
of relevance to GCHQ’s investigations, but a suggestion that the process of
using stale one-time pads had been deployed, and that the revelations from
these could be applied to traffic that the GCHQ possessed, but had been unable
to break. This insight from Andrew (the source is the typically useless ‘Secret
Service Archives’ from the authorised ‘historian’), and his immediately
following comments, will turn out to be critical in working out what happened.
It should also be noted that Andrew specifically contradicts Wright’s
description of the essence of HASP, yet, with characteristic unscholarliness,
includes Spycatcher in his bibliography.
failure to specify explicitly whether these one-time pads were the conventional
set of random numbers created and printed by the KGB, or the alternative
‘reference-book’ mechanism used as a back-up system, is a critical oversight. I
note also that this notion of ‘re-use’ suggests that deploying the same conventional
pads across different intelligence stations was as much against the
rules as was the ‘re-use’ over time of pads by a single pair of
stations. Alternatively, it could mean that London-Moscow and Stockholm-Moscow
both used the same reference-book in their emergency systems. In
any case, this ‘re-use’ evidently occurred in 1940, well before the much
publicized year of 1943 described in the VENONA histories as the time when the
first infraction occurred. Andrew provides no guidance for his readers.
“GCHQ persuaded the Swedes to relinquish their neutrality, and pass the
material over for analysis. The discovery of the Swedish HASP material was one
of the main reasons for Arthur’s [Arthur Martin’s] return to D1. He was one of
the few officers inside MI5 with direct experience of VENONA, having worked
intimately with it during the Fuchs and Maclean investigations.
There were high hopes that HASP
would transform VENONA by providing more intelligence about unknown cryptonyms
and, just as important, by providing more groups for the codebook, which would,
in turn, lead to further breaks in VENONA material already held.
first point here is a reminder of Sweden’s neutrality – not just during World
War II, but during the Cold War, when it was not a member of NATO. Like
Portugal and Switzerland, Sweden had been abuzz with spies during World War II,
and its proximity to the northern ports of German-occupied Poland and the
Baltic States meant that Stockholm was well-positioned to supply information on
German naval capabilities, repairs, etc. Hence the feverish wireless
communications with Moscow. Moreover, that neutrality apparently endured, so
that Sweden would not have been a natural sharer of decryption techniques with
NATO members. Yet Sweden was not ‘neutral’ enough to be free of suspicions about
Soviet intentions, and thus pursued its own program of trying to gather
In Venona, Nigel West relates how the Swedes collaborated with the more advanced, cryptanalytically speaking, Finns, who had provided the American with highly useful aids when they handed over the partially burned Petsamo codebooks that had been retrieved from the Soviet consulate in June 1941. And, no doubt, informal links were in place between the Swedes and the British, as Wright’s text suggests. West even indicates that the Finns managed to understand how the Soviets ‘built code-tables and relied on a very straightforward mathematical formula to encode emergency signals’, but it is not clear exactly how this happened, or whether the lessons learned applied to the GRU as well as to the NKVD.
one overlooked event was John Tiltman’s acquisition of a GRU code-book
retrieved from the body of a Soviet officer in1940. On Page 372 of his history
of SIS, Keith Jeffery wrote: “In January
1940 Menzies asked Carr to find out if the Finnish authorities had ‘procured any
Soviet cryptographic material which could be communicated to us’. Carr immediately
replied in the affirmative and it was arranged that Colonel John Tiltman of
GC&CS should travel out to Finland, where he was presented by Hallamaa with
a Red Army code-book taken off a dead Russian officer and which ‘bore the marks
of a bullet. GC&CS noted afterwards that it had been ‘of real assistance’
to their cryptographers.” It does not seem that this contribution, which
predated the official recognition of the Petsamo code-book by five years, has
ever been recognized in the few accounts of VENONA decipherment that exist.
suggestion here, however, is that HASP was, in essence, different from
traditional VENONA, although it is not immediately obvious in what manner. The
implication is that HASP would share much with the VENONA traffic, such as the
use of the same codebook (the reference by which otherwise meaningless
sequences of numbers represented terms, functions, identities of persons, countries,
institutions, etc., sometimes known as a nomenclator). The studies of VENONA tell us that the
different functions of Soviet commercial organisations and intelligence
(Amtorg, NKVD, GRU, Naval GRU and Foreign Ministry) used different code-books,
and thus breakthroughs in one area did not mean that other successes naturally
followed. For instance, all departments referred to the Germans as ‘KOLBASNIKI’
(’SAUSAGE-DEALERS’), but in the NKVD book, that word could have been
represented as, say, ‘1146’, and in that of the GRU, ‘9452’.
system was all independent of one-time pads for further encryption. Yet, if
Andrew’s description is correct, Wright’s concluding sentence in this extract
makes more sense. If the Swedes had managed to make inroads into the GRU
codebook from the analysis of their local messages, that experience would
transfer directly to the British study of GRU traffic. The emphasis on ‘VENONA
material already held’ is telling. Wright is starting to backtrack from his
Moreover, since powerful new computers were becoming available, it made sense
to reopen the whole program (I was never convinced that the effort should have
been dropped in the 1950s), and the pace gradually increased, with vigorous
encouragement by Arthur, through the early 1960s.
In fact, there were no great
immediate discoveries in the HASP material which related to Britain. Most of
the material consisted of routine reports from GRU offices of bomb damage in
various parts of Britain, and estimates of British military capability. There
were dozens of cryptonyms, some of whom were interesting, but long since dead. J.
B. S. Haldane, for instance, who was working in the Admiralty’s submarine
experimental station at Haslar, researching into deep diving techniques, was
supplying details of the programs to the CPGB, who were passing it on to the
GRU in London. Another spy identified in the traffic was the Honourable Owen
Montagu, the son of Lord Swaythling (not to be confused with Euan Montagu, who
organized the celebrated ‘Man Who Never Was’ deception operation during the
war). He was a freelance journalist, and from the traffic it was clear that he
was used by the Russians to collect political intelligence in the Labour Party,
and to a lesser degree the CPGB.
of this is puzzling. Unfortunately, a detailed history of the evolutionary progress
of the VENONA decrypts is not possible, based solely on the selection of documents
released. As West writes in his Introduction: “Whereas the American policy appears to have provided a measure of
protection to the living, being those suspected Soviet sources who were never
positively identified or confronted with the allegations, their British
partners seem to have adopted political embarrassment as their principal
criterion for eliminating sensitive names. The only other deliberate excision
in the declassified documents is the consistent removal throughout of all
references to the first date of circulation. Each VENONA text is marked with
the last, and therefore most recent, distribution, but it is impossible to
determine precisely when the first break in a particular message was achieved,
or to chart the subsequent program of the cryptographers.”
Overall, West’s statement is accurate, although
some decrypts (such as those on BARON) do reveal a series of release dates, and
others have had the issuance date deleted. Unfortunately, many of the critical
items related to HASP, such as the discovery of the X Group, have no release
dates at all, so it is impossible to determine how much of the messages had
been decrypted before the contribution of the HASP codewords – and code-book. Wright’s
seemingly authoritative view is that the project was suspended in the early
1950s, and then reactivated at the end of the decade, but the redacted (or
concealed) data on the issuance of new decrypts does allow us to create only a
very partial evolution of texts through time.
this information described by Wright appeared as original VENONA material when
described by West in Venona (pp 62-63), and it can clearly be traced by
studying the on-line archive. So why does Wright revert to ‘the HASP material
which related to Britain’? He appears to be going back to his initial position,
that HASP consisted of traffic intercepted by the Swedes. That might have reinforced
the idea that HASP was a motley set of messages that included local
Stockholm-Moscow GRU/KGB traffic as well as interceptions of wireless messages
between London and Moscow – and maybe more. Yet that scenario continues to look
unlikely. And if these reports were ‘routine’, presumably familiar through
VENONA messages already deciphered, why did Wright not say so?
Furthermore, he introduces Haldane and Montagu as if their appearance were no surprise, and not scandalous. Haldane’s cryptonym was INTELLECTUAL and Montague’s NOBILITY: when did Wright learn that? The appearance of these cryptonyms would not have been ‘routine’ if this was the first occurrence, and their identities were not known. In fact, it would have been a stunning discovery to learn that one of Britain’s most respected scientists was a named spy. The fact that they were dead was irrelevant – except when it came to GCHQ’s heightened protectiveness about references to hallowed public figures, and maybe to their survivors. Wright’s manner here is astonishingly casual.
does not help that Nigel West (pp 75-81) presents the discoveries about Group X
and Haldane as standard VENONA traffic without mentioning any contribution from
HASP. He confidently identifies INTELLIGENTSIA as J. B. S. Haldane, and
NOBILITY as the Honourable Ivor Montagu. After all, West’s understanding of
HASP was that it concerned Stockholm-Moscow traffic: he writes that the arrival
of HASP allowed the project to ‘be put back into gear’, but does not explain
how that happened. West provides a lot of useful and fascinating information
about Haldane’s background and activities, but (for example) sheds no light on
how the decryption of the codeword INTELLECTUAL took place.
Andrew, however, is more explicit on this portion of the traffic, although he,
too, still does not mention HASP, and the description of it as ‘new’ VENONA is misleading
and unfortunate. “The main discovery from this new VENONA source was the
existence of a wartime GRU agent network in Britain codenamed the ‘X Group’,
which was active by, if not before, 1940. The identity of the leader of the
Group, or at least its chief contact with the GRU London residency, codenamed
INTELLIGENTSIA, was revealed in a decrypted telegram to Moscow on 25 July 1940
from his case officer as one of the CPGB’s wealthiest and most aristocratic
members . . .” Thereafter, Andrew rather surprisingly goes on to identify
INTELLIGENTSIA as Ivor Montagu, instead of ‘Montagu’s friend’, J. B. S. Haldane.
In an endnote (p 926, No 81), Andrew states that ‘West misidentifies NOBILITY as
Ivor Montagu and INTELLIGENTSIA as Haldane’, but provides no argument for this.
Certainly the meaning of the two cryptonyms would appear to suit West’s
2012, Nigel West amplified his previous analysis in the Historical Dictionary
of Signals Intelligence, where he added further detail: “. . . this unexpected windfall consisted of 390
partially deciphered messages, exchanged with Moscow between December 1940 and
April 1446 [sic!]. The FRA had succeeded, as early as 1947, in reading a
few messages, and between 1957 and 1959, some 53 texts were broken out.
Information identifying individual Soviet spies had then been passed to the
Allmänna Säkerhetstjänsten (General Security Service), which conducted
investigations that effectively neutralized them without compromising the
from the vagueness of such terms as ‘broken out’ (does that mean complete
decryption?), such level of detail is impressive, and authoritative-sounding,
and West piled on the authenticity by naming eighty NKVD cryptonyms that
provided ‘depth’ to the VENONA cryptanalytical process, including names that
would carry import for the Washington and London operations, such as DORA, EDWARD,
FROST, GROMOV, and LEAF. West then
listed an even longer array of GRU codenames, nearly all unfamiliar to me. But
he did explain that, in August 1942, Lennart Katz ‘a source run by a contact
working under diplomatic cover named Scheptkov, was arrested’, and provided
further leads. It sounds as if West had access to insider information (Venona
provides an Acknowledgement to ‘Stefan Burgland and some others who prefer to
remain anonymous’), and that those arrested may have been able to provide insights
on the ciphers and codes used. Moscow, however, appeared not to have worked out
what was going on, and how so many of its spies had been detected.
The extraordinary thing about the GRU traffic was the comparison with the
KGB traffic four years later. The GRU officers in 1940 and 1941 were clearly of
low caliber, demoralized and running around like headless chickens in the wake
of Stalin’s purges of the 1930s. By 1945 they had given way to a new breed of
professional Russian intelligence officers like Krotov. The entire
agent-running procedure was clearly highly-skilled and pragmatic. Great care
was being taken to protect agents for their long-term use. Where there seemed
poor discipline in the GRU procedures, by 1945 the traffic showed that control
was exerted from Moscow Center, and comparisons between KGB and Ambassadorial
channels demonstrated quite clearly the importance the KGB had inside the
Russian State. This, in a sense, was the most enduring legacy of the VENONA
break – the glimpse it gave us of the vast KGB machine, with networks all
across the West, ready for the Cold War as the West prepared for peace.”
section is mostly irrelevant to the quest. It is difficult to discern what
Wright is talking about when he does not provide samples of the messages. The
KGB’s operation in London was (we have been told by several experts) suspended
for nearly all of 1940, so the GRU was the only game in town. And these
‘headless chickens’ did manage to recruit Klaus Fuchs, and manage a ring of
useful scientists, such as Haldane. What he may have been alluding to was the
somewhat casual way that information was supplied in telegrams, but that would
have been more a case of insufficiently well trained officers, cipher clerks,
and wireless operators – which were evidently in short supply at the beginning
of the war – rather than the quality of
those who recruited and handled British agents. Kremer’s struggles with setting
up the alternative wireless link may be an example of what Wright was thinking
238-239 “Lastly there was the
VENONA material – by far the most reliable intelligence of all on past
penetration of Western security. After Arthur [Martin] left I took over the
VENONA program, and commissioned yet another full-scale review of the material
to see if new leads could be gathered. This was to lead to the first D-3
generated case, ironically a French rather than a British one. The HASP GRU
material, dating from 1940 and 1941, contained a lot of information about
Soviet penetration of the various émigré and nationalist movements who made
their headquarters in London during the first years of the war. The Russians,
for instance, had a prime source in the heart of the Free Czechoslovakian
Intelligence Service, which ran its own networks in German-occupied Eastern
Europe via couriers. The Soviet source had the cryptonym Baron, and was
probably the Czech politician Sedlecek [sic], who later played a prominent role
in the Lucy Ring in Switzerland.”
restricting of the ‘HASP GRU material’ to 1940 and 1941 is provocative, not
solely because he now seems to be classifying HASP material as GRU messages
collected locally. Is the temporal phrase ‘dating from 1940 and 1941’ merely adding
chronology for the full scope of the material, or is it a qualifying phrase
that subdefines a portion of it? The parenthesis, separated by commas, suggests
to me the former, namely ‘the only GRU material that can properly be classified
as HASP is that of 1940 and 1941’. Yet we have no way of knowing what GRU
material had been attacked, and partially decrypted, before 1960, apart from
various clues provided by the ‘experts’.
rubric around the published VENONA messages is disappointingly vague. Yet there
appears to be some discernible order behind the numbering scheme. In my
analysis of the traffic between March 1940 and August 1941 (the last date in
that year for which a message from London to Moscow has been published), I
counted 137 L-to-M messages, with the first numbered (by the GRU) as No. 120,
and the last as No. 2311. Yet a countback to zero seemed to occur at the
beginning of each year. The last listed in December 1940 is No. 1424, while the
first listed for 1941, on January 16, is No. 83. Thus one might assume that
well over 4,000 messages were sent by the London station in those two years.
Moscow to London traffic is sparser, with only 18 messages listed. The last
calendar entry present for 1940 is from September 21, numbered as 482, so it would
appear that Moscow was not so active sending messages to London, although the
record would suggest that the combination of RSS (Radio Security Service) and
GC&CS was picking up far fewer inbound messages, both in aggregate and proportionately,
than it was outbound. But that could also be explained by a far smaller
proportion of inbound messages being (partially) decrypted, or even a larger
amount being for some reason concealed.
numbers correspond closely with what Andrew has written (see above), where he
refers to 178 messages between the period March 1940 and March 1942. Yet the
autumn/winter of 1941/42 was clearly a period where activity of some sort
(number of transmissions, number of interceptions, number of partial decryptions,
number of released decryptions!) declined rapidly, and this is such a
controversial aspect of the whole business that I shall return to it after
completing my analysis of Wright’s text.
for the remainder of this passage, the information, again, is not breathtaking,
but Wright, alongside his rather laid-back commentary on Sedlacek [sic],
does suggest by his comments that GCHQ had decrypted nothing on the
Czechoslovak agent before the HASP project came along. Sedlacek [BARON] was a
familiar figure in the VENONA traffic (see West, pp 67-69), and he played a dangerous
game spying for the Swiss, the Czechs, the Russians – and the British, who later
supplied him with a passport under the name of Simpson so that he could enter
Switzerland and contribute to the Lucy Ring. Again, Andrew differs in his
analysis of BARON, quoting (page 926, Note 82) an unnamed MI5 officer as
saying, in 1997, that no serious attempts had been made to identify him. Why
anyone would expect an MI5 (or MI6) officer to be open and straightforward
about such a controversial figure as Sedlacek (if indeed that was who he was)
is puzzling. Andrew attempts to reinforce his argument by noting that the NSA
regards BARON as unidentified, but interest in these local European matters is unsurprisingly
muted on that side of the Atlantic.
indeed figures prominently in these messages: he was potentially very useful to
Moscow as he was clearly passing on, in the run-up to Barbarossa, information
about German troop movements in Czechoslovakia, Poland and Hungary, gained via
his contacts around Prague who were transmitting information to him via
Woldingham. I write ‘potentially’ because, of course, Stalin ignored all
intelligence about the German invasion as ‘provocation’.
374-375 [i] “There had recently been a small breakthrough in the existing
traffic which had given cause for hope. Geoffrey Sudbury was working on part of
the HASP material which had never been broken out. Advanced computer analysis
revealed that this particular traffic was not genuine VENONA. It did not appear
to have been enciphered using a one-time pad, and from the nonrandom
distribution of the groups, Sudbury hazarded a guess that it had been
enciphered using some kind of directory.
again, is distressingly vague. By alluding to ‘HASP material that had never
been broken out’, Wright again gives the impression that HASP was a collection
of London-to-Moscow (or Moscow-to-London) communications. Why would Sudbury
work on native Swedish transmissions? Presumably, ‘genuine VENONA’ to Wright was
traffic that had become decipherable because the Soviets, under pressure,
disastrously re-used one of their one-time pads. Distributing fresh pads was an
enormous task in war-time, so the London-Moscow GRU link may have resorted to a
different system whereby page-numbers and word-numbers in a shared book were
used for encipherment schemes. Such a mechanism was essential for any
transmission activity by clandestine agents, where the problems of distribution
and security with one-time pads would have been insuperable. Leo Marks composed
easily memorable verses for use in the field by SOE agents: the GRU used
statistical almanacs for in-house use.
the surface, Wright’s description of Sudbury’s analysis would appear, however,
to be reinforced by the few accounts of GRU espionage that we have. A classical
description of the use of one-time pads has the original cleartext (the passage
in native language) immediately processed by a portion of the one-time pad,
normally the next page, which would then be destroyed. In many accounts of the
Soviet system (e.g. James Gannon’s Stealing Secrets, Telling Lies), that
was the only method. Yet some accounts indicate that the GRU used a different
process of encipherment. Benson’s in-house history of the NSA informs us that Igor
Gouzenko described the method during his interview by Frank Rowlett in October
1945, when he revealed the back-up system of using a shared reference book in
place of classical one-time pads. (Oddly, in his CIA report, Cecil Phillips,
who assisted Nigel West in his researches, elides over this aspect of
Gouzenko’s contribution.) In Appendix A to his 1949 book, Handbook for Spies,
Alexander Foote (the Briton who was trained by SONIA as a wireless operator for
the GRU in Switzerland) explains how a keyword of six letters, ‘changed at
intervals by the Centre’ (and thus presumably communicated in later messages)
was first used to translate the letters of the alphabet into a set of apparently
meaningless numbers. Further manipulation transformed the text into five-figure
groups – not yet a very secure encipherment.
came the ‘one-time’ aspect of the GRU’s process – but it was not through the
use of a ‘pad’. Messages were then further processed by a function known as
‘closing’. Foote explained that, after the first stage of encipherment, he had
to ‘close’ the message ‘by re-enciphering it against the selected portion of
the “code book”’. (This ‘code-book, or ‘dictionary’ is a different entity from
the ‘codebook’ that contained numeric representations of common terms.) This
was a mechanism whereby a passage in a book owned by both parties was referred
to by page and line number in order to identify a sequence of characters to be
used to encipher a text one stage further. Max Clausen used a similar technique
when enciphering for Richard Sorge, another GRU agent, in Japan. Foote said that
he used ‘a Swiss book of trade statistics’: David Kahn writes that Clausen used the 1935
edition of the Statistiches Jahrbuch für das deutsche Reich. Thus, for
the GRU, the one-time pad was not a miniature printed guide that could be
easily destroyed, but an accessible but otherwise anonymous volume that could
be used by both ends of the communication. (Christopher Andrew’s claim that the
Stockholm residency and the London residency employed the same one-time pads is
thus probably not true: they almost certainly used the same – or a similar – reference
work, however.) Sudbury had indeed hit upon the truth, and a directory was at
work. This is what must be meant by ‘not genuine VENONA’.
should also be recorded on this topic is the claim that Richard V. Hall makes
in his ineptly titled but engrossing study of Wright and the Spycatcher
trial, A Spy’s Revenge, that Wright acted as a ghost writer on Handbook
for Spies. Since Wright was still working at the Admiralty Research Station
in 1949, and did not join MI5 until 1955, this claim should be viewed
circumspectly. If true, Wright’s apparent unawareness, in 1970, of GRU
enciphering techniques is even more inexcusable.
We began the search in the British Library, and eventually found a book of
trade statistics from the 1930s which fitted.
first glance, this represents an enormous leap of faith. From ‘some kind of
directory’ to stumbling on a book of trade statistics, with the implication
that many others had been tested and found wanting first? Can it really be
believed? That that is how the process worked, and that cryptologists would
stumble on the right book? They must surely have been able to exploit a message
that described the volume to be used, or gained a tip from someone. Suddenly,
Alexander Foote’s hint of a ‘Swiss book of trade statistics’ takes on new
significance. Wright echoes Foote’s words almost completely. Foote had died in
1956 (somewhat mysteriously: I am sure that Moscow’s ‘Special Tasks’ team was
after him), but was surely interviewed on these matters at length by MI5 and
GCHQ before he died.
the dominant reaction should be: why on earth were Sudbury and Wright not
familiar with Foote’s publication? It seems quite possible that they arrived at
this conclusion by other means – namely what the Petrovs told them, and how
Vladimir’s overall cryptological skills and knowledge, and particularly
Yevdokia’s experiences as a NKVD cipher-clerk in Stockholm, benefitted the FRA,
and in turn helped GCHQ. Yevdokia had worked for the GRU in her first eighteen
months with OGPU, so she may have had some insight into its coding techniques.
their post-war assignment in Stockholm, Vladimir Petrov and his wife had
arrived in Australia in 1951, and decided to defect in 1954. Nigel West writes
that Evdokia ‘was debriefed by western intelligence personnel, among them MI5’s
George Leggett, who travelled to Australia after the couple had been resettled
on their chicken-farm . . .’ Yet what Evdokia told them has not been disclosed.
Was she responsible for GRU coding and encipherment, as well as that of the
NKVD/MGB/KGB? Almost certainly not, but if so, she might have been able to
inform the Swedes of such items as the name of the code-book (dictionary) used,
and they thus were able to make some progress on the texts they had stored
before the British did anything. If she had no involvement with the GRU, she
might have been able to indicate the type of research volume that was used, and
repeated efforts by Sudbury on the few relevant books of trade statistics in
the British Library must have eventually borne fruit. Wright’s claim becomes
clearer. It looks, however, as if the Swedes kept their project to themselves
until 1959, when, for some reason, an informal link must have been elevated to
an official communication.
[iii] Overnight a huge chunk of HASP traffic was
broken. The GRU traffic was similar to much that we had already broken. But
there was one set of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from
the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Center, and described his meetings with
the GRU spy runner, Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski [sic].
is very dramatic – ‘overnight’, but, again, Wright dissembles and confuses. If
the traffic was suddenly ‘broken’, he suggests that ‘HASP’ was in the hands of
GCHQ already, but in a poor state of decryption. Now, HASP appears to mean ‘GRU traffic
derived from both Stockholm and London’. But why next characterise it as ‘the
GRU traffic’ – what else could it be? And what does ‘similar to’ mean? Were
they the same messages, enciphered differently? Was there really nothing new in
them worth recording? And his reference to ‘one set of messages’ is also
ambiguous. He gives the impression that this was a new trove of London-Moscow
traffic supplied by the Swedes, when we now know that that cannot be true.
one meeting between Sonia and her handler is recorded in the VENONA
transcripts, dated July 31, 1941. The full item appears as follows:
London to Moscow: No.2043, 31 July 1941
had meeting with SONIA on July 30. Sonia reported (15 groups unrecovered):
for 7 months: 406
from abroad: 116
on apparatus (radio and microdots): 105
played [broadcast] on 26, 27, 28 and 29 July at 2400, 0100, 0200 hours . . . but did not receive you. BRION
by translator: IRIS probably a woman, IRIS means either the flower, or a kind
of toffee. Unlikely choice for covername. JOHN probably Leon BUERTON [sic]
BRION probably SHVETSOV, Assistant Military Attaché.)”
the handler here is not Kremer: IRIS is probably Leo Aptekar, a GRU officer
registered as a chauffeur at the Embassy. The annotation here about BRION is
wrong: BRION has been confidently identified in the Vassiliev Notebooks as
Colonel Sklyarov, for whom Kremer worked. Wright (and the VENONA website)
identify Kremer as the rezident, i.e. senior GRU officer in London, but
that does not appear to be the case. In Venona (1999), Nigel West
described Kremer as being Sklyarov’s secretary, but in his 2014 HistoricalDictionary of British Intelligence, West declares that the position was
a cover for his ‘residency’, citing Krivitsky’s warning about him from 1940.
Gary Kern (the biographer of Krivitsky) reflects, however, on the fact that
others claim that Sklyarov was the boss. My analysis suggest that Sklyarov may
have been brought in because Kremer was struggling, and Kremer then probably
reported to Sklyarov after the latter arrived in October 1940. After all,
Kremer turned out to be an unsuccessful cut-out for Fuchs, a role he would have
hardly attempted had he been head-of-station. This is Pincher’s conclusion,
One of the irritating aspects of the Venona archive, as published, is that identification of codenames switches from page to page, and the identification of BRION is one such casualty, with the annotators not being able to make up their minds between Sklyarov and Shvetsov. Vladimir Lota, in his ‘Sekretny Front General’novo Shtaba’ (Moscow 2005), confirms that BRION was Sklyarov, and offers a photograph of the officer (see above). West selects one VENONA annotator’s analysis that the reporting officer was Shvetsov, but informs us that Shvetsov died in an air accident in 1942. (The source of this is not clear. The Petrovs record that the family of an unnamed London military attaché died in transit from Aberdeen to Stockholm in 1943, when the plane was shot down over Swedish territory by German aircraft, but suggest that the attaché himself was not on board. See Yuri and Evdokia Petrov’s Empire of Fear, p 165).
for Kremer, Mike Rossiter, the author of a biography of Klaus Fuchs, writes
that he returned to Moscow in 1941, while West indicates that he remained in
London throughout the war. Thus it is quite possible that Kremer composed
reports on Sklyarov’s behalf, although his role had hitherto been as a courier.
It was he who met Fuchs in August 1941, and he was Fuchs’s courier until the
latter found he could not work with him, whereupon Fuchs was handed over to
Sonia in the late summer of 1942. Kremer was also handling members of the X
Group, so it seems unlikely that, at the same time that Kremer was regularly
meeting Fuchs, he would also be meeting Sonia frequently, and then writing up
the reports for Moscow.
VENONA London GRU Traffic archive informs us that Kremer [BARCh] ‘was appointed in 1937 and is thought
to have left sometime in 1946. The covername BARCh occurs as a LONDON addressee
and signatory between 3rd March 1940 and XXth October 1940, after which it is
superseded by the covername BRION.’ (This analysis relies on the surviving
VENONA traffic only, of course.) BRION first appears as a signatory or
addressee on October 11, 1940. Thus the HASP traffic might provide evidence
that Kremer was still active, as courier or signatory, or both, or,
alternatively, the VENONA records might throw doubt on Wright’s claims about
HASP. All three officers (Kremer, Sklyarov, Shvetsov) were active in London on
June 7, 1941, as they are all cited as donating part of their salaries to the
bottom line on Wright’s observations is that we are faced with another paradox.
Apart from the fact that no trace of the ‘set of messages’ exists (why not, if
they were solved overnight?), the association of Kremer with Sonia is very
flimsy. The instance above is the sole surviving message in the VENONA archive
that mentions SONIA. Wright’s account would imply the following: Apparently out
of frustration with the fact that her transmissions received no response from
Moscow, Sonia managed to contact the Embassy, and to meet her handler within a
day or so. Sklyarov reported this event. At some stage afterwards, she was
transferred to Kremer, who, apart from handling Fuchs, now had occasion to meet
Sonia several times, and to make reports that he signed and sent himself. Yet
the official archive informs us that Kremer stopped signing messages himself
before Sonia even arrived in the United Kingdom.
What is also noteworthy is that Wright makes no comment about Sonia’s ability to escape radio detection-finding at this stage. If Sonia, as Kremer had recorded, had been transmitting for four successive nights, and had not been detected by RSS, one might have expected him, as a senior MI5 officer, to have reflected, at least, on her success in remaining undetected. He appears, at this stage, not to subscribe to the Chapman Pincher theory that Roger Hollis was able to interfere in the process; neither does he show any awareness that the proximity of Sonia’s home near Kidlington Airport might have masked her transmissions – which would admittedly have been a remarkable insight for that time. (It is probable that Sonia, and her husband, Len Beurton, adopted call-signs and preambles that made their traffic look, superficially, like British military signals, and that, should any remote direction-finding have taken place, the traffic’s origins would have been assumed to have been Kidlington airport itself.)
The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous
to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to
escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian
Intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944.
from an evasive non sequitur (the connection was held to be tenuous, but
MI5 accepted that Sonia became active with Fuchs in 1944, a very solid
interrelation), Wright enters dangerous territory here, with a vague and
undated summary of what ‘MI5 tended to believe’. Fuchs, of course, volunteered
his services in 1941, not 1944, and was in the United States throughout all of
1944. Yet Wright’s lapsus calami may reveal a deeper discomfort, in that
he utterly misrepresents the pattern of events. According to the archives, after
Alexander Foote had spilled the beans on Sonia’s activities in 1947, MI5 strongly
suspected that Sonia had been working for the GRU in the UK. They were ready (or
pretended to be so) to haul her in for questioning on the Fuchs case as early
as February, 1950, before his trial was even over, apparently unaware that she
had already fled the country! (The service probably connived at her speedy
escape.) The Fuchs archive at Kew shows that in November 1950, and again in
December, Fuchs, from prison, viewed photographs and recognized Sonia as his
second contact. Wright was either hopelessly uninformed, or acting completely
In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could have been broadcasting
her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between
1941 and 1943.
But Kremer’s messages utterly
destroyed the established beliefs. They showed that Sonia had indeed been sent
to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was
already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of
the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the time and durations
of her own radio broadcasts. I thought bitterly of the way this new information
might have influenced Hollis’ interrogation had we had the material in 1969.
statement attributed to GCHQ, if it indeed was made – and Wright provides no
reference – needs parsing very carefully. We should bear in mind that no GCHQ
spokesperson may have uttered these words, or that, if someone did state
something approximating their meaning, Wright may have misremembered them. He
provides no reference, no date, no name for the speaker.
of all, Sonia’s home. She had, in fact at least four residences during this
period, but, if we restrict her domiciles to those where she lived after she
became active, probably in June 1941, we have Kidlington (from that June) and
Summertown (from August 1942). Summertown was in Oxford, not near it.
Thus a reference to ‘her home’ expresses lack of familiarity with the facts.
‘Only radio messages’ is perplexing. Does it mean ‘only those radio messages
sent from her home?’, thus suggesting she could have sent messages from
elsewhere? Maybe, but perhaps it was just a clumsy insertion by Wright. The
omniscience that lies behind the denial, however, expresses a confidence that cannot
be borne out by the facts.
would have been less controversial for GCHQ simply to make the claim that no
unidentifiable illicit broadcasts had been detected, and that Sonia must
therefore have been inactive. But it did not. It introduced a level of
specificity that undermined its case. It suggested that Sonia might have been
broadcasting, but not from her home. If Sonia had been using her set, and
followed the practices of the most astute SOE agents in Europe (who never
transmitted from the same location twice – quite a considerable feat when
porting a heavy apparatus, and re-setting up the antenna), she would likewise
have moved around.
GCHQ to be able to deny that Sonia had been able to broadcast would mean that it
had 100% confidence that RSS had been able to detect all illicit traffic
originating in the area, and that, furthermore, they knew the
co-ordinates of Sonia’s residence at that time. Thus the following steps would
have had to be taken:
All illicit or suspicious
wireless broadcasts had been detected by RSS;
that could not have been accounted for were investigated;
Successful triangulation (direction-finding)
of all such signals had taken place to localise the source;
Mobile location-finding units had been
sent out to investigate all transgressions;
Such units found that all the
illicit stations were still broadcasting (on the same wave-length and with the
identical callsign, presumably);
offending transmitters were detected, and none was found to be Sonia’s.
from the fact that transmissions from Kidlington were masked by proximity to the
airport, and Sonia’s traffic concealed to resemble military messages, GCHQ’s
assertion requires an impossible set of circumstances: that, if and when Sonia had
broadcast, the location of the transmitter would have been known immediately,
and the RSS would have been able to conclude that the signals could not be coming from Sonia’s
residence. That was not possible. No country’s technology at that time allowed
instant identification of the precise location of a transmission. Not even
groundwave detection was reliable enough to ‘pin-point’ the source of a signal
to the geography of a city, even. Reports and transcriptions of suspicious
messages were mailed by Voluntary Interceptors to the RSS HQ at Arkley
View, in Barnet! Sonia would have had to broadcast for over twenty-four hours
in one session to be detected by a mobile unit operating at peak efficiency,
supported by rapid decisions (which was never the case). GCHQ might have
claimed to Wright that no illicit transmissions originated from the Oxford
area, and therefore they could discount Sonia’s apparatus (if they knew she had
one.) Yet, again, that would require RSS to have deployed radio
direction-finding technology in order to locate the transmitter, and Sonia
would surely have stopped broadcasting by then.
GCHQ’s claim is logically null and void. If Sonia made only one transmission,
from her home or anywhere else, she would never have been detected. If she made
more than one, from the same location, she would (according to the RSS’s reported
procedures) inevitably have been detected, interdicted, and prosecuted. And
GCHQ’s claim that she made no transmissions is clearly false, as she did
transmit from the semi-concealed site at Kidlington, which was apparently never
picked up. (After the war, she broadcast from her next home, The Firs at Great
Rollright, as Bob King of RSS has confirmed, but these events are strictly
outside the scope of GCHQ’s claim here.)
GCHQ (actually named Government Code & Cypher School, or GC&CS, during
the war) was not responsible for intercepting illicit transmissions in
1941-1943: that was the responsibility of RSS, which reported to SIS. GCHQ took
over RSS after the war. Institutional memory may be at fault.
Wright then undermines the GCHQ statement as an unfounded ‘belief’, as if it
were a vague hope rather than a matter of strict execution of policy. Thus,
either Wright drills a large hole in the track-record of GCHQ’s inviolability,
or his claims about Kremer’s reporting of ‘the times and durations’ of Sonia’s
own broadcasts lack any substance – or a mixture of both, since, irrespective
of Sonia, RSS may not have been perfect in its mission of pursuing all illicit
broadcasts, as we know from its own files. And we also know from the VENONA
transcripts that Sonia tried to contact Moscow on successive nights in July 1941,
from Kidlington. Since RSS apparently did not detect any of these
transmissions, GCHQ’s boasts of omniscience are flawed. Wright’s lack of
expressed astonishment at the inefficiency of RSS is again a remarkable
reaction. Moreover, why would Kremer report on such details of her
transmissions, if she was successfully in touch with Moscow already? It was one
thing to report her failure to get through, but these claims appear
superfluous, even absurd.
we treat this claim about Kremer’s reports on Sonia’s broadcasts depends very
much on how reliable a witness one views Wright by now. As Denis Lenihan has
pointed out to me, what Wright asserts contains so much fresh information that
his claims should be taken seriously. On the other hand, I would say that the Kremer
telegrams are simply too implausible to be considered as valuable evidence.
That Sonia would have had a ‘string of agents’ by 1941, that they would need to
be paid, that Kremer would consider it necessary to report to Moscow the
details of recent successful transmissions she had made to Moscow, even the
role of Kremer himself in meetings and handling Sonia, fail to pass the
authenticity test with this particular analyst. West and Pincher apparently
agree with me. West relegates the item to an endnote on page 70. Pincher
ignores the whole matter: there is no mention of HASP in his Index to Treachery.
we have to deal with the final claims. It would be very unlikely for a wireless
message, sent to Moscow in 1941, to provide the information that Russian
intelligence had specifically sent Sonia to the Oxford area, although that
might be a reasonable conclusion for Wright to make. In addition, the claim
that Sonia had rapidly acquired a ‘string’ of agents, and was seeking expenses
for payments that she was making to these mercenaries, is very improbable.
Where and how she acquired them is not stated, but any contact who might have
been providing information to Sonia informally would have probably jumped with
alarm if Sonia had suggested that he or she should be paid for such
indiscretions. Even Sonia herself, in her memoir, stated that the informants
she nurtured provided her with confidential information out of principle, not
the most awkward part of this testimony is the declaration that MI5 did not
have this evidence in 1969, when (so Wright claims) it might have helped with a
more successful interrogation of Hollis. Wright explicitly indicates that the
discovery occurred in 1970, or later. The critical discoveries that were made
in the decryption of reference book-based random numbers for the process of
‘closing’ were revealed, however, in the 1960s. The VENONA records show that
GCHQ tried to censor a series of the Moscow-Stockholm GRU traffic for the
Version 5 release of the decrypts, and that the Swedes had to restore the
excised passages in Version 6. I have studied all these messages: a few appear
to have no relevance to British affairs at all, but several do specifically
relate to the use of commonly owned books (knigi), and even identify the
titles of the volumes. All these messages have an issue date in the mid-1960s.
thus come to the conclusion that GCHQ and MI5 had four opportunities to learn
of the use of a common book to be used by agents and clandestine embassy
wireless when it was too dangerous to try to deploy conventional one-time pads:
Gouzenko’s revelations in 1945; Foote’s disclosures in his memoir of 1949; the
descriptions gained from questioning the Petrovs in 1954/55; and the
experiences of the Swedish FRA when they handed over their decrypts in 1960.
Practically all the final decryption work on GRU London-Moscow messages that
was possible was completed during the 1960s, yet Wright tries to pass off the
breakthrough by Sudbury, and the serendipity location of the directory in the
British Library, as occurring in the 1970s.
Once this was known I felt more sure than ever that Elli did exist, and that he
was run by Sonia from Oxford, and that the secret of his identity lay in her
transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before. The
only hope was to travel the world and search for any sign that her traffic had
been taken elsewhere.
the four years from 1972 to 1976 I traveled 370,000 kilometers searching for
new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions. In France, SDECE told me they had no
material, even though Marcel told me he was sure they had taken it. Presumably
one of the Sapphire agents had long since destroyed it. In Germany they professed
total ignorance. It was the same in Italy. Spain refused to entertain the
request until we handed back Gibraltar. I spent months toiling around telegraph
offices in Canada searching for traces of the telex links out there. But there
was nothing. In Washington, extensive searches also drew a blank. It was
heart-breaking to know that what I wanted had onceexisted,
had once been filed and stored, but had somehow slipped through our fingers.”
again, is a very controversial statement. Wright refers to ‘Sonia’s
transmissions, which inexplicably had been lost all those years before’. Yet
mentions of Sonia’s transmissions have never surfaced until now: the
HASP exercise concerned the GRU’s alluding to such messages. Wright has given
no indication that any of Sonia’s transmissions had been intercepted, and he even
cites GCHQ as saying she could not have operated her wireless set undetected. So,
if they never existed, they never could have been lost. Moreover, the records
of Kremer’s supposed transmission(s) have also been lost. Wright may have
wished that he had them in time to interrogate Hollis, but he cannot even
present them after 1970, when it was too late!
an astounding aspect of Wright’s testimony is his apparent lack of curiosity in
determining what happened to the missing messages. He does not investigate what
policy might have led to these last sets of decrypted traffic to be buried or
destroyed. Surely his named colleague Sudbury and his fellow-cryptologists must
have kept some copies of these vital messages, or at least have some recall as
to what happened to them? Yet Wright does not undertake a search domestically
first, or invoke his associates’ help in establishing the truth, and hunting
the transcripts down. He ventures no opinion on the fact of their possibly
being destroyed, but simply looks overseas.
there was a glimpse of hope that other countries might provide further VENONA
nuggets, but, since we now know that the Stockholm operation concerned local
traffic only, the quest seems very futile. And why ‘telex offices’? Why Wright
expected further evidence of Sonia’s transmissions to come to light in
telegraph offices around the world is astonishing. In the United Kingdom,
Sonia’s messages were illicit, and subject to surveillance, with Voluntary
Interceptors dispersed around the country to pick up the ground-wave from
suspicious transmissions. If, by any chance, her messages were noticed anywhere
else, amongst all the other radio noise, it would have been remarkable for any
institution, public or private, to have dwelled upon them long enough to
transcribe and store them. And if GCHQ (RSS) was never able to detect them, why
on earth would Wright expect some foreign entity to be able to do so?
addition, the question was not whether ELLI existed or not, but who ELLI was,
and how significant a player he or she had been, and when he or she had been
active. If this is the piece that clinches the argument for the case that
Hollis was ELLI, it stands on very unsolid ground. Exactly what the link was
between Sonia’s ability to maintain a string of agents and the existence of
ELLI is not made clear by Wright. Did Wright really believe that he would have
been able successfully to confront Hollis with the transcripts of Sonia’s
messages to Moscow, and challenge him on the grounds that he had been able to
prevent superior officers in MI5, RSS and GCHQ from performing their jobs?
all echoes the laborious claims made by Chapman Pincher that the only way that
Sonia could have hoodwinked MI5, RSS and GCHQ so that they all turned a blind
eye to her shenanigans was through the existence of an intriguer in the middle
ranks of MI5 who was so devious that he could entice his colleagues to ignore
the basic tenets of their mission. Presumably it was ELLI who, instead of
warning Sonia that it might be dangerous for her to persist in her illicit
transmissions from one single geographic location, somehow convinced RSS that
its procedures could be put in abeyance, and the signals ignored, and,
moreover, that corporate memory allowed this oversight to become enshrined in
official statements of policy within GCHQ after the war.
crucial questions arise out of all this analysis:
happened to the missing messages?
did Wright mangle the story so much?
much evidence conspires to inform us that what has been released to the archive
of London-Moscow GRU traffic is only a small fraction of what was actually
transmitted. The period of intensity is July 1940 to August 1941, followed by
scattered fragments into early 1942, and a vast gulf until the end of the war,
in 1945. The sequential telegram numbers tell us that less than 2% of the
messages in 1940 and 1941 have been published. We have no idea how busy the
communication link was during the next three years. We must therefore consider
two separate sub-questions: i) given the ‘overnight breakthrough’ described by
Wright, why were more messages in the 1940-1941 period not decrypted?, and ii)
why was there a drought from the winter of 1941-1942 onwards?
first sub-question cannot be answered by external analysis, as we do not know
whether all messages were intercepted, which of these succumbed to even partial
decryption, and which then remained classified because of issues of sensitivity
or confidentiality. I do point out, however, that the official US VENONA
website informs us that GCHQ did not hand over to the USA 159 of the GRU
messages (i.e. close to the number I highlighted earlier) until 1996 – after
the general disclosure of the VENONA project, indicating a high measure of
discomfort about the disclosures (such as the Group X information).
is also significant is that, having been passed decrypts from the Swedish authorities,
GCHQ actually removed sections of the translated text before passing them on
(in Version 5) to the Americans, with the result that the Swedes had to restore
(in Version 6) the excisions GCHQ had made. Thus many messages in the VENONA
archive include the puzzling rubric in their headings: “A more complete version
of British Government-excised messages previously released in fifth VENONA
release on 1 Oct 1996.” These revelations would seem to prove the case that the
Swedes had made partial decryptions of their local GRU traffic, that they send
these translations alongside the original messages, to GCHQ. It does not
explain why GCHQ thought it was its business to edit them before passing them
on to the NSA, especially if they also passed back their treatments to the
Swedes at the same time. A close
analysis of all the relevant changes in Version 5 and Version 6 would be
desirable. As I have indicated earlier, many of them have to do with the
disclosures about shared reference volumes.
Drought of 1942-1944
second sub-question lays itself open to deeper inspection, because of the
availability of other sources. On the matter of the missing messages, we need
they not exist?
they exist, but were never intercepted?
they intercepted, but never stored?
they stored, but subsequently lost?
they discovered, but not decrypted (even partially)?
they decrypted, but then not released?
first issue is especially fascinating, partly because of Alexander Foote’s experience
(or, at least, how he reported it). In October 1941, the Germans were at the
gates of Moscow, and the vast majority of Moscow’s government apparatus was
moved to Kuibyshev (now Samara), over a thousand kilometres to the east. In his
testimony to MI5 in 1947, Foote told his interviewers that, working out of
Switzerland, he lost contact with his controllers in Moscow in the middle of
October, and, a few days later, even cabled Brigitte (Sonia’s sister) in London
to determine what had happened. He then claimed that contact was not restored
until March 1942, when he resumed his broadcasts. (This is all in Handbook
for Spies, as well.)
the existence of this forced hiatus is belied on at least two fronts. The TICOM
(Target Intelligence Committee) archive indicates that Foote reported regularly
during those winter months. Moreover, his boss, Alexander Radó (DORA) was using
either Foote or another operator to communicate regularly with Moscow, as his
memoir Codename Dora describes, with frequent messages about German
troop movements. Radó echoes Foote’s story about the interruption, but states
that it was on October 29 that he sent a desperate message to Moscow Centre.
Contact was resumed at the end of November or the beginning of December, and
all dated messages from October (the texts of which appear in Radó’s book) were
re-transmitted. A telling detail indicates that Foote indeed was the chief
wireless operator at this time: a TICOM interception shows that he reported on
the source LOUISE from Berlin on December 3, and a related message listed by
Radó of December 9 similarly reported on LUISE’s intelligence from Berlin. It
could well be that Foote’s claim about radio silence was inserted by his
ghost-writer at MI5, Courtenay Young – but why?
telegrams are confirmed by Lota, who transcribes several of Radó’s messages
from this period, and even includes photographs of a few from 1942. A
satisfying match can be made between a telegram received on November 27, 1941 (Lota’s
Document No. 37, on page 353), and Radó’s original message created on October
27 (p 76 of Codename Dora), confirming the delay before ‘Moscow’
returned to the air, and, incidentally, discrediting Foote’s account. Thus one
might have expected a similar interruption to have occurred in London. Ivan
Maisky, the Soviet Ambassador, tells us otherwise, however. Molotov remained in
Moscow, and informed Maisky by telegram on October 17th that ‘most
of the government departments and the diplomatic corps’ had left for Kuibyshev.
This date, and the fact of the almost total evacuation of the Soviet
government, are confirmed by other memoirs, such as Tokaev’s and those of the
Petrovs. Maisky does not tell exactly when communications were re-established,
but hints it was after only a few days, and he was then able to resume full
contact. Thus he would have been able to pass on to the GRU officers inside his
embassy what was happening, and they would not have made futile attempts to
contact their bosses. Maybe, after a month, however, the watchers got tired of
waiting for something to happen, and dropped their guard?
there is the ‘government policy’ theory. In Defending the Realm (p 376),
Christopher Andrew, following up his comments about British government approval
of Soviet use on ‘set frequencies’ (see above), writes: ”These radio messages
were initially intercepted and recorded in the hope that they could eventually
be decrypted, but interception (save for that of GRU traffic, which continued
until April 1942) ceased in August 1941 because of the need to concentrate
resources on the production of ULTRA intelligence based on the decryption of
Enigma and other high-grade enemy ciphers. Interception of Soviet traffic did
not resume until June 1945.”
must be partially true. Yet Andrew shows a remarkable disdain for the facts in
his endnote to this section, where he adds: “Since the intermittent Soviet
reuse of one-time pads, the basis of the VENONA breakthrough, did not begin
until several months after the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June
1941, the messages intercepted and recorded up to August 1941 proved of little
post-war value to GCHQ.” Au contraire, maestro! There was practically
nothing that was useful that occurred after August 1941, as Andrew
himself records a few pages later, when he describes the disclosure of Haldane
and the X Group, from July 1940. Moreover, Andrew does not explain why
interception of GRU traffic continued for so long, or what happened to the
messages stored. The VENONA GRU files show only two messages from 1942, both
fragments, from January 19 (London to Moscow) and April 25 (Moscow to London).
resources had to deployed elsewhere is a dubious assertion, too. Much has been
made of the famous Footnote supplied by Professor Hinsley, on page 199 of
Volume 1 of British Intelligence in the Second World War, where he wrote
that ‘all work on Russian codes and cyphers was stopped from 22 June 1941’,
variously attributed to Churchill himself or the Y Board. The Foreign Office had promptly followed up
the Y Board’s edict by forbidding MI5 to bug the Soviet Embassy, or to attempt
to plant spies inside the premises, but was apparently more relaxed about the
activities of MI6 and GC&CS, which nominally reported to the Foreign
Office. While it may have taken a while for the policy statement to seep
through, we should note that the edict said nothing about stopping the interception
and storing of messages.
Benson’s in-house history of the NSA (of which a key chapter is available on
the Web) contains far more direct quotations from British authorities, such as
Tiltman, Dill, Marychurch and Menzies, than can be found (as far as I know)
from British histories. It reinforces the message that interception of Soviet
traffic fairly rapidly tailed off towards the end of 1942, and that, during
1943 and 1944 any messages that had been stored were actually destroyed, to the
later chagrin of intelligence officers. But that was what the alliance with the
Soviet Union meant: a severe diminution in attempts to exploit Soviet
intelligence, and that pattern was echoed in the USA. Since, at that time, no progress
had been made on deciphering Russian traffic, it may have made little
difference. One might also point out that, unless RSS intercepted all traffic,
and inspected it, they would not know which was GRU and which was not, which
makes Andrew’s already puzzling claim about the extension for GRU until April
1942 even more problematic, unless RSS knew that the secondary clandestine line
was for GRU traffic only. Moreover, Andrew does not present Hinsley’s argument
as a reason for the cessation.
Certainly the Soviet Embassy was watched, and traffic was being monitored closely in March and April 1942. As I write, I have in front of me (see photograph above) the page from the RSS file HW 34/23, which shows a set of daily messages intercepted from March 16 to April 16, with callsigns, that changed each day, also listed. Very provocatively, the word ‘HASP’ has been written in opposite the April 7 entry, in what appears to be an annotation of May 1, 1973, and on the following page appears ‘from Maisky to Cadogan April 1942’, as if Maisky had perhaps had to explain himself to the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office. (One cannot be certain that the annotation ‘HASP’ refers exclusively to the April 7 entry, or whether its serves as a general descriptor. If the latter, it would appear that, in 1973, the observer recognized this set of traffic, coming from the back-up GRU transmitter, as generic HASP material, but it does not explain how he or she reached that conclusion.) Other sheets suggest the surveillance went on into 1943. Yet all the evidence seems to point to the fact that, because of the signals being received from the Y Board and the Foreign Office, and the volumes of Nazi traffic to inspect, traffic from the clandestine line was either ignored, or simply piled up unused, and was discarded. Moreover, it was remarkably late for Wright (or whoever was the annotator) to be making, in 1973, a link between the HASP material of 1959 and the RSS files of 1943.
a completely new project to monitor Soviet traffic was started at the beginning
of 1943. After Commander Denniston had been replaced by Travis as the head of
GC&CS in January 1942, he moved to London to set up a team that would begin
to inspect and attempt to decipher Soviet diplomatic messages. This became
known as the ISCOT project, after its key contributor Bernard Scott (né
Schultz), and it led to the discovery of a rich set of ‘Comintern’ messages
between the Soviet Union and its satellite guerrilla operations, after Stalin
had supposedly closed down that organisation. Denniston was also involved in
direction-finding the illicit traffic of 1942 to the Soviet Embassy. Thus, even
if GRU/NKVD messages classified later as VENONA were ignored, it could hardly
have been because of scarcity of resources. In addition, Andrew never explains
why interception suddenly picked up successfully again in June 1945, and why
RSS/GCHQ had no trouble finding the frequencies and call-signs used by the GRU.
tantalising aspect of this whole investigation is the lack of overlap between
published records of the GRU, and interceptions stored as part of the VENONA
program. Verifiable records taken from Soviet archives are very thin on the
ground, and we should be very wary of claims that are made of privileged
access. Lota’s book (mentioned above) is a valuable source, containing multiple
texts, and even photographs. It concentrates very much on military matters,
especially concerning the movements of Nazi forces in the Soviet Union, and
thus does not touch the early aspirations of the ENORMOZ (atomic weapons
research) project. The familiar name of Sklyarov (BRION) appears quite
frequently, but the first example of his telegrams is dated September 23, 1941
(Document No. 25). The VENONA sample of intercepted GRU messages from London
(visible at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/media/documents/article/Venona-London-GRU.pdf
) shows regular communications from BRION up to August 28, 1941, followed by a
sprinkling of fragments up to March 1942, and then a long hiatus until 1945.
Lota’s coverage thus overlaps in time, but I can see no messages that appear in
I must include the maybe very significant possibility that the rival channel
set up in the London Embassy was not taken seriously enough. The official
VENONA USA website offers (in ‘The Venona Story’) a very provocative paragraph,
which runs as follows:
of GRU New York messages remain unsolved. The loss to history in the record of
the GRU in Washington is particularly noticed. Of the several thousand
Washington messages from 1941 to 1945, only about fifty were decrypted, in
spite of the best efforts of the United States and the United Kingdom. Unlike
the New York GRU messages, where translations concern espionage, these few
Washington translations deal with routine military attaché matters (such as
overt visits to U.S. defense factories). However, a separate Washington GRU
cryptographic system, which was never read, presumably carried GRU espionage
One might ask: ‘How did
they know about this “separate Washington GRU cryptographic system’”?’ And what
does ‘never read’ mean? That it was not intercepted? How did they know it was
GRU if they never ‘read’ it? If it had been sent via cable, it would have been
accessible, like all the other messages. Are the USA authorities referring to a
clandestine wireless system, perhaps? And, if so, why did they not close it
down? The reason these questions are relevant is that we have ample evidence
that the GRU in London did attempt to set up a clandestine wireless system, and,
after considerable teething problems, were apparently successful. (Vladimir
Petrov confirms that such an arrangement happened in Stockholm, as well.) As I
suggested earlier, it is possible that the RSS had worked out that the
clandestine channel was for the GRU only. The intense USA focus of the VENONA
website, and the various books that have been published in the US, mean that
this project has not received the attention it deserves.
closer inspection of the London-Moscow GRU traffic reveals the evolution of the
project. The documents in this file are unfortunately not in chronological
order, but a careful review suggests that the first reference is in a report dated
July 17, 1940, from London to Moscow, where it is evident that a
transmitter/receiver had been received in the diplomatic bag, but that the
instructions for its assembly and deployment were deficient. London has to ask
Moscow for the measurements for the aerial for MUSE’s apparatus. BARCh (Kremer)
had decided to install the set in the lodgings of the military attaché, as he
considered it was not safe in the Embassy, where the NKVD was ever-watchful.
(“The only ones to fear are the NEIGBOURS’ people, who are in so many places
here that it is hard to escape their notice.” This remark would tend to
contradict the well-publicised notion that the NKVD staff had all been recalled
to Moscow during 1940.) A few days later, however, it appears that Kremer has
been ordered to change his mind, and install the radio-set in the Embassy, and
is making rather feeble excuses about the lack of progress. On July 26, Kremer
complains that the receiver works on 100 volts, which means it would be burned
out by the 200-volt current in the embassy, and a transformer did not work. On
August 13, they are back in the attaché’s house, where alternating current is
available, and MUSE plans to try again, as a telegram of August 27shows.
Kremer requests a schedule for the following months.
August 30, 1940, reference is overtly made to the ‘London GRU emergency
system’. The operator MUSE had been heard clearly, on schedule. Yet problems in communication begin to occur
in September, and the Director begins to show impatience, reporting again on
September 18 that MUSE’s message was not received in full. Maybe it was
Kremer’s struggles that prompted the transfer of Sklyarov from New York. Kremer
tries to get his act together. In a message of October 3, he remarks that
Sklyarov’s arrival is impending. In the same message he reports that MUSE has had
a successful communication with Moscow at last, and that she will be trying
again on October 7. Yet it was not a proper two-way conversation. On October
10, 1940, one of the few messages from Moscow shows the Director informing
Kremer of further problems receiving messages on the illicit line, with nothing
received since September 18. The
Director has to remind him of the correct wavelength, crystal, callsign, and
takes Sklyarov himself to report on November 25 that MUSE is now ready to begin
regular communication, and that is the last we hear of the link for a while. Presumably
it worked satisfactorily. Yet a very significant message on July 31, 1941
indicates a hitch, and that MUSE has had to test communications again. Sklyarov
asked Moscow how well they had received her. The reason that this could be so
important is the fact that the only report on SONIA that appears in the
extracts was transmitted the very same day, suggesting perhaps that the
back-up system (for highly confidential espionage traffic) was not working. Similarly,
the only message from this period referencing Klaus Fuchs is of a short time
later, on August 10. It would seem, therefore, that Sklyarov had to resort to
the diplomatic channel to pass on critical information. Nearly all of the
messages in the intervening period (November 1940-July 1941) concern more
routine military matters (as Wright reported), so the absence of any other
information on SONIA, both beforehand and afterwards, could mean either that
there were no reports, or that they were sent on the clandestine channel.
was probably this traffic which excited RSS so much in the spring of 1942, when
they tracked unauthorised wireless signals emanating daily from the Soviet
Embassy, signals that displayed an unusual pattern of call signs. As I
described above, Alexander Cadogan in the Foreign Office seems to have
approached Ambassador Maisky about them, but may have received a brush-off. Yet
why only one of these messages was annotated with ‘HASP’ is puzzling. It is as
if the messages had been intercepted and stored, and one of them had been
(partially) decrypted through the assistance of the HASP code-book. But, in
that case, why only one? And where is it? Was it the missing message from
Kremer claimed by Peter Wright to show SONIA’s recruitment of her nest of
one final crucial paradox remains, concerning the two rare messages I
identified a few paragraphs earlier. In the 1940-1941 GRU traffic can be found
only one message referring to SONIA (3/NBF/T1764 of July 31, 1941: transcribed
above), and only one to Klaus Fuchs (3/PPDT/101 of August 10, 1941). The
singularity is startling. In their book, Venona; Decoding Soviet Espionage
in America, John Earl Haynes and Harvey Klehr offer (on p 439) a footnote
on the Fuchs message, which describes Fuchs’s meeting with Kremer. Part of the
note runs as follows: “This message is from a period antedating the Soviet
duplication of one-time pads. Its decryption was made possible because the
London GRU station in 1941 ran out of one-time pads and used its emergency
back-up cipher system based on a standard statistical table to generate the
additive key. British cryptanalysts working with the Venona Project recognized
it as a nonstandard and vulnerable cipher and solved it, but not until well
after Fuchs’s arrest.”
found this analysis disappointingly vague. Apart from the unlikelihood of the
GRU’s suddenly running out of one-time pads, the note did not indicate for how
long the back-up system had to run, and how the problem of distributing new
pads was resolved. I took a look at West again. On page 26, he writes: “The clerk [Gouzenko] also described the GRU’s
emergency cipher system, and although this was considered at the time to have
potential, it was never found to have been used apart from the 1940-41 London
traffic, when the GRU apparently ran out of OTPs.” This was even more opaque.
It threw the traffic for two whole years into the ‘back-up system’ bin, when a
cursory inspection of the files indicates that the primary system was working
well until Moscow and London started discussing the problem. Yet
it rather wearily echoed the text that appears in The Venona Story, namely
that ‘ . . . several
messages deal with cipher matters — in 1940 to 1941, the London GRU used a
so-called Emergency System, a variation of the basic VENONA cryptosystems.
London GRU messages merit very close attention.’ Indeed.
I managed to contact Dr. Haynes by email, and asked
him whether he could shed any light on the source of the footnote. He promptly
responded, reminding me that two messages in the GRU trove from this period
referred to the OTP problem, citing telegrams No. 410, of August 30, 1940, and No.
1036, of September 19, 1940. Yet Haynes and Klehr had cited 1941 in their note!
These two messages were transmitted about a year before the phenomenon
of the Fuchs and Sonia messages! How could an OTP problem remain unaddressed
that long? Was the implication that the back-up system (using the reference
book OTP on the diplomatic channel, as the new GRU wireless link was not yet
working) was used for the next twelve months? How should this information be
interpreted? I tactfully raised these questions with Dr. Haynes, but, even
after conferring with Louis Benson, he has not been able to shed any light on
the confusion over the expiration of the one-time pads, and the use of the
back-up system, although Benson did offer the important information that he
thought the British had ‘identified the standard statistical manual used to generate the additive keys’.
But no date was given.
The sequence of events between April 1940 and
March 1942, the period that encapsulates the most frequent of the London GRU
traffic, is so confused that a proper assessment must be deferred for another
time. The primary problem is that both London and Moscow refer, in messages
presumably transmitted using the standard diplomatic channel, exploiting
conventional one-time pads, of the imminent exhaustion of such tools. In that
process, they ask or encourage the immediate use of the back-up system. Yet it
is not clear that all successive messages use that back-up system, as later
messages make the same appeal. It might be that the pads were in fact re-used
as early as 1940. One enticing message (1036, of September 19, 1940) talks
about ‘the pad used having been finally destroyed’, as if it should have been
properly destroyed earlier, but was in desperation, perhaps, employed again,
against all the rules.
any case, a possible scenario could run as follows. Coincident with the GRU’s
plan to move Sonia to Britain, to create a new espionage network, it decided to
establish a clandestine wireless channel to handle her potential traffic. The
task was entrusted to Kremer, but he struggled with getting the apparatus to
work, and Sklyarov was transferred from New York to take charge. The
conventional connection was used until November 1940, when the clandestine line
was made to work, at about the time Sonia prepared to leave Switzerland. It was
thereafter used successfully, until an interruption at the end of July 1941 caused
Sklyarov to use the standard diplomatic channel for a critical message about
Sonia – the only one to have survived in VENONA. RSS appears to have noticed
messages on the clandestine link, but, if it did indeed intercept them and
store them, no trace has survived. It is probable that no messages on that line
were ever decrypted (apart from fragments at the end of 1941, and the two 1942
messages identified earlier). If other messages concerning Sonia were picked up
and analysed from the standard link, GCHQ and MI5 must have decided to conceal
them. (I have outlined this hypothesis to Dr. Haynes.)
did Wright mangle the story so much?
close inspection of Wright’s account in Spycatcher shows a glorious
muddle of misunderstood technology and implausible explanations. So why did he
publish such an incoherent account of what happened? I present three
simply did not understand what had been going on.
understood perfectly what had been going on, but wished to distort the facts.
had forgotten exactly what had been going on.
1 is highly unlikely. He had been recruited as an expert with scientific
training, and had showed knowledge of audio-electronic techniques to the extent
that he uncovered Soviet bugs on embassy premises. He must have understood the
principles of wireless communication, and the practical implications of
intercepting both cable and wireless traffic. Number 2 does not make sense, as
the mistakes that appear in his narrative tend to undermine any case he wanted
to make about the identity of ELLI and the pointers towards SONIA. The sentence
I cited above (in Cable or Wireless) is so manifestly absurd that it
should immediately have alerted any knowledgeable critic to the fact that
something was awry. If Wright had wanted to place a false trail, or was on a
mission, he would have ensured that he appeared as a reliable expert on the
main issues, but inserted subtle twists in the subordinate texts – in the
manner in which Chapman Pincher operated. Wright definitely wanted to
incriminate Hollis, but overall did not think he was distorting the truth, even
if he was part of the ‘conspiracy’ to obfuscate what happened in the VENONA
project. If he did embroider his account with the inclusion of an improbable
and unverifiable message, he surely did not think it would be considered
important, or that he would be found out.
one must conclude that, by the time Wright came to put his memoir together, he
was approaching his dotage. Even though he was only seventy-one years old in
1987, his health was not good: he had high blood-pressure, shingles, and
diabetes. In his account of the events, The Spycatcher Trial, Malcom
Turnbull repeatedly draws attention to Wright’s failing health and faulty
memory, pointing out that, as early as 1980 (when Wright was only sixty-four)
he was too frail to travel from Australia to the United Kingdom by himself. Wright
did not remember clearly how everything happened, how the intelligence services
were organized, what the processes behind VENONA were, or exactly what HASP
consisted of. His book was effectively ghost-written by Paul Greengrass, who
clearly did not understand exactly what he was told by Wright, and, by the time
it came for Wright to check the text, he was probably simply too impatient in
wanting to see the book published, and consequently did not go over carefully
everything that Greengrass had written. He was not concerned about the details:
he wanted to get back at MI5 over its mistreatment of him on the pension
business, he needed the royalties, and he was focused on getting the message on
believe that it is entirely possible that, in his summoning up the telegram
from Kremer that reported on Sonia’s network and payments, Wright was recalling
the July 31, 1941 message that I reproduced in full above. It does mention
agents and payments, but was sent not by Kremer, but by Sklyarov (BRION),
mistakenly identified as Shvetsov in the annotations. We should not accept
Wright’s account simply because, at one time, he had been an expert and a
reliable witness. In addition, later reports suggest that there was an
untrustworthy, almost devious, dimension to Wright’s behaviour. In his book on
the trial, Malcom Turnbull expressed surprise at Wright’s ‘too uncritical
worship’ of his mentor, Lord Rothschild. In his 2014 memoir, Dangerous to
Know, Chapman Pincher asserted that Rothschild and his wife Tess loathed
Wright, and he implied that Wright had exerted some kind of blackmail over the
pair by threatening to include a chapter in Spycatcher that described
Tess’s ‘long relationship with Anthony Blunt’.
I indicated earlier, Chapman Pincher does not use his sometime accomplice
Wright’s ‘evidence’ in his comprehensive presentation of the case against
Hollis. Given that Pincher clutched at every straw he could find, and was
always willing to present testimony from anonymous but ‘authoritative’ sources,
this omission is somewhat startling. All Pincher states on Sonia’s recruitment
of agents (beyond Fuchs and Norwood) runs as follows: “There is also new
evidence that she and Len may have recruited and serviced a further fellow
German communist – an atomic scientist working at the Clarendon Laboratory in Oxford,
whose wife Sonia had met socially.” (p 198 of Treachery) Pincher also
acknowledges that members of her family were informants for her, but dismisses
Sonia’s claims about finding and recruiting ‘minor agents’ as possibly being a
‘GRU legendary cover’ (p 259). What this ‘new evidence’ consisted of is not
explained, and the first statement has a very hypothetical ring about it. The
conclusion, however, must be that Pincher did not trust Wright’s account of the
Apart from the fact that ‘Spycatcher’ caught no spies, Wright was an unreliable witness. As D. Cameron Watt observed about the case: “A moderately careful reading of Wright’s book, let alone any checking of such statements he makes that can be checked, reveals, as most serious reviews of the book in the American press have shown, that Mr. Wright’s command of the facts, let alone his claims to universal knowledge, are such as to cast the gravest doubts on his credibility where his assertions cannot be cross-checked.” He completely misrepresented the structure of the VENONA project, and the material it used. He was likewise confused about the elements of the HASP program, and what the Swedes brought to the game. He magnified an illusory message, unlikely in its authorship, improbable in its content, and dubious in its objective, in order to promulgate a claim about Sonia that has no basis in any other facts, and to provide ammunition for a flimsy case that ELLI was Roger Hollis, the incrimination of whom he blatantly stated was his goal in publishing the book. In his muddled argument, he committed much damage to the other aspects of his case. At the time of the Spycatcher trial, even though he was only 71 years old, he was portrayed by Richard Hall and Malcolm Turnbull as an old, sick man, with a reputation for mendacity. He received the news of the outcome of the trial while in hospital.
VENONA files, which should provide the archival evidence for his investigation,
are in a mess. The USA website is very US-centric, it is scattered with
spelling mistakes, chronologically misplaced items, contradictory and incorrect
annotations about identities, misrepresentations of English place-names, and
wayward references that could be cleaned up by recent scholarship. The British
GRU traffic has been broken out, but it is out of sequence. An intense analysis
of the pan-European communications could shed some strong light on a host of
new relationships. A comprehensive index needs to be built, so that scholars
could be more productive in bringing their expertise to bear.
was a project that exploited GRU traffic between Stockholm and Moscow, which
had been partially decrypted by the Swedes. It succeeded because of the policy
that the GRU deployed, for the operations of clandestine and emergency
services, and those of agents under their control, of using a common
reference-book as a one-time pad. The Petrovs’ experience in Moscow and
Stockholm contributed substantially to identifying the volume used. Thus
dramatic improvements in decrypting certain London-Moscow traffic were made.
Yet fresh work can be undertaken. The considerations of HASP, and other
published material (e.g. Vassiliev), need to be incorporated into the British
VENONA story (of which there is no ‘authorised’ publication at all, and nothing
fresh since Nigel West’s book of 2009) and cross-referenced. An analysis of the
excisions that the British Government is stated to have made between the
Version 5 and Version 6 releases should be undertaken. In other words, it
constitutes a major opportunity for GCHQ in the year that its authorised
history appears. It needs a professional cryptanalyst to work on the source
messages, and the evolution of the decipherment.
I have written before, an authorised history of wartime and post-war interception
services remains to be written. To begin with, the function crossed multiple
organisations – not just all the intelligence services, but the War Office, the
armed forces, the Post Office, even the Metropolitan Police. The Radio Security
Service (RSS), of interest primarily to MI5, was never owned by the Security
Service (despite Nigel West’s continued claims to the contrary), and was
managed by a section of SIS from May 1941 until the end of the war, when GCHQ
took control of it. Yet Keith Jeffery, in his authorised history of SIS,
treated RSS (and GCHQ, which also reported to SIS during the war) as
step-children. It will be interesting to see whether the coming history of GCHQ
(Behind the Enigma, The Authorised History of Britain’s Secret Cyber
Intelligence Agency, by John Ferris, due in November of this year), when
covering the wartime years, treats RSS as an essential part of GC&CS (as it
believe that this bulletin provides an accurate account of the phenomenon of
HASP, but a similar modern exercise needs to be performed against VENONA
itself. After I post this report, I intend to draw the attention of the GCHQ
Press Office to it. I ask all readers who would like to see some effort
expended on clearing up this significant episode in British Intelligence
History to contact the Press Office at email@example.com themselves,
and thus reinforce my message.
(I regret that this research has been conducted without detailed access to the several files on VENONA at the National Archives, which have not been digitized. My previous superficial scans of the information did not indicate to me that the matters I have discussed were covered by the archival material at all. If any reader has found information in them that either clarifies, expands or confounds what I have written, please contact me. I also want to express my gratitude to Professor Glees, and to Denis Lenihan, for comments and suggestions they made concerning an earlier version of this article. Denis has continued to provide, right up to the completion of this report, very useful insights from the material he has analysed. Dr. Brian Austin has been a perennial outstanding adviser on wireless matters. I alone am responsible for the opinions expressed here, and any errors that may appear in the text.)
by Peter Wright
by Nigel West
Code Breakers, by David Kahn
Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon
for Spies, by Alexander Foote
Code Book, by Simon Singh
of Wits, by Stephen Budiansky
Secrets, Telling Lies, by James Gannon
Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, by Nigel West
Front General’nogo Shtaba’, by Vladimir Lota
Soviet Espionage and the American Response 1939-1957,
ed. Robert Louis Benson & Michael Warner
the Realm, by Christopher Andrew
Haunted Wood, by Allan Weinstein & Alexander
Decoding Soviet Espionage in America, by John Earl Haynes
& Harvey Klehr
Venona Secrets: The Definitive Exposé of Soviet Espionage in America,
by Herbert Romerstein & Eric Breindel
Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees
Secret History of MI6: 1909-1949, by Keith Jeffery
of Fear, by Vladimir and Evdokia Petrov
Silk and Cyanide, by Leo Marks
Ciphers & Other Cryptic & Clandestine Communications,
by Fred B. Wrixon
Intelligence in the Second World War, Volume 1, by
F. H. Hinsley and others
Venona Story, by Robert L. Benson
and the Machinery of Spying, by Philip H. J. Davies
Petrov Affair, by Robert Manne
Spy’s Revenge, by Richard V. Hall
Spycatcher Affair, by Malcom Turnbull
by Chapman Pincher
to Know, by Chapman Pincher
Wright and the ‘Spycatcher’ Case, by D. Cameron Watt, in Political
Quarterly, Volume 59, Issue 2, April 1988
previous chapter of this story concluded by describing the state of events in
the autumn of 1942. It had been a difficult year for the Allies, but the tide
of the war had begun to turn in their favour. The five-month battle of Stalingrad,
which represented the Soviet Union’s critical effort to repel the Wehrmacht, began
in October, and the USA’s arsenal was beginning to have an effect in the rest
of the world. Nazi Germany accordingly intensified its efforts to eliminate
subversive threats, and by this time had rounded up the sections of the Red
Orchestra operating on German soil, executing many of its members in December.
The Allied landings in North Africa (November) prompted Germany to occupy Vichy
France, which removed a safer base of operations for espionage and sabotage
work originating in Britain. Meanwhile, Churchill had ended his opposition to the
Overlord invasion plan in a deal over sharing of atomic research and
technology with the USA. Colonel Bevan had thus been appointed to reinvigorate
the important London Controlling Section, responsible for strategic military
deception, in August 1942, and serious plans for the invasion of Europe were
underway. Yet Bevan had a large amount of preparatory work to do, and
circulated his draft deception plan for the broader theatre of war, Bodyguard,
only at the beginning of October 1943. It was approved later that month, with
refinements still being made in December. All domestic intelligence agencies would
be affected by the objectives for the segment describing the European landings,
(penultimate?) chapter takes the story of wireless interception up to the end
of 1943, and again concentrates on the territories occupied by the Nazis in
Central Western Europe – the Low Countries and France, with a diversion into
Switzerland, as well as the domestic scene in Great Britain. Roosevelt had founded
the OSS (the Office of Strategic Services, roughly equivalent to MI6 and SOE) in
June 1942, and thus Britain’s dominant role in European resistance began to
fade. The rather haphazard approach to sabotage that had characterized SOE’s
work up till then began to evolve into a more considered strategy to support
the invasion. It was placed under closer military control in March 1943. The
uncertain role of Britain’s Double-Cross agents received a much sharper focus
in preparations for a campaign of disinformation to deceive the Germans about
the location of the landings. The RSS started to concentrate more on the
challenge of locating ‘stay-behind’ agents in Europe than on the detection of
illicit domestic transmissions in the United Kingdom. Yet issues of post-war
administrations began to surface and introduce new tensions: as the Red Army
began to move West, Churchill and Eden started to have misgivings about the
nature of some nationalist movements, SOE’s associations with communists, and
Stalin’s intentions. Moreover, Roosevelt’s OSS was much more critical of
Britain’s ‘imperialism’ than it was of Stalin’s ‘communist democracy’, which
also affected the climate with the various governments-in-exile in London.
The Reality of German
Direction- and Location-Finding
Whereas the missions of
the various German interception services had previously been focused on the
illogical basis of the political motivations of the offenders, in 1943 a split
based on geography was initiated. The WNV/FU assumed control for Northern
France, Belgium and South Holland, the Balkans, Italy, and part of the Eastern
Front, while the Orpo (Ordnungspolizei) was given responsibility for
Southern France, the rest of Holland, Norway, Germany and the rest of the
Eastern Front. This may have led to differences in operational policy, and
equipment used: little intelligence-sharing went on, however, because of
political rivalries. In the previous chapter I had suggested that the scope and
effectiveness of the German direction- and location-finding machine had been
exaggerated by the Gestapo as a method of deterrence, and that, in reality,
infiltrated wireless operators were betrayed more by shoddy practices and
informers. I now examine this phenomenon in more detail.
A popular reference work
on espionage (Dobson and Payne, 1997) describes the operation as follows:
direction-finding operations in France were centered on Gestapo headquarters in
the Avenue Foch in Paris. Relays of 30 clerks monitoring up to 300 cathode-ray
tubes kept up a continuous watch on every conceivable frequency between 10
kilocycles and 30 megacycles. When a new set opened up it showed at once as a luminous
spot on one of the tubes. Alerted by telephone, large goniometric stations at
Brest, Augsburg and Nuremburg started to take cross-bearings. Within 15 minutes
they were able to establish a triangle with sides about 16 km (10 miles) across
into which detector vans from a mobile regional base could be moved to pinpoint
more precisely the area of transmission.
Typically, a mobile
regional base would be equipped with two front-wheel-drive Citroen 11ight vans,
each crewed by four civilians carrying machine guns, and two four-seater
Mercedes-Benz convertibles with fake French licence plates. If the transmission
had ended the vehicles would move to the intersection points of the triangle
and wait in the hope that the unknown station would acknowledge a reply to its
message. An acknowledgment of a mere three to four seconds would allow an
experienced team to reduce the sides of the triangle to no more than 800 m (0.5
mile). If the transmission were longer, the operator would almost immediately
I see several problems
with this account. First of all, it contains no dates, no sense of gradual
establishment. I have not discovered any images of the CRT equipment claimed to
be deployed. If a transmitting set were to be detected without high-powered
interception stations working in harness first, it would have to be via
ground-wave, which would be restricted to a distance of about ten miles. That
limitation would not justify the huge expense required in the centre of Paris,
since most illicit transmissions occurred in the provinces. In any case, the
assumed illicit signals would have to be discriminated from all the other
police, military and industrial activity going on at the same time. The number
of personnel, vehicles and equipment to cover the whole of France would be
astronomically high, and, especially at this advanced stage of the war, Germany
did not have an available competent and dedicated labour force to deploy
successfully in such a project. How many ‘mobile regional bases’ were there? It
would have been a colossal waste of resources to deploy this infrastructure on
the assumption that occasional illicit transmissions could be promptly
identified and eliminated.
This dubious reference attempts to shed light on the process by means of an imaginative diagram:
The text for this entry is echoed almost verbatim in Jean-Louis Perquin’s The Clandestine Radio Operators (2011), a work that boasts a serious bibliography and set of sources. Here a few additional details are supplied by the author. The German unit is identified as the Kurzwellenüberwachung [Short-Wave Observation], or KWU, with a codename for the operation of DONAR. (I cannot find any other reference to a such-named unit – a true hapax legomenon?) “A total of one hundred and six men, seven mobile goniometers mounted either on trucks or on one of the service’s 35 cars was made available”. The author adds that protection was provided by the French Sureté Nationale. Yet the mechanisms are vague. “A control station equipped with over 300 (ultra-modern) receivers continuously monitored over thirty thousand frequencies . . .” The principle behind the scheme was that any unregistered frequency used was ‘highly likely to signal a covert radio-operator’. Then a telephone message was immediately sent to the three direction-finding centres in Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg, which would quickly be able to determine an equilateral triangle of 20 kilometre sides in which the operator was transmitting. Thereafter, the trucks were sent in to the tip of the triangle, sometimes supported by a team of pedestrian monitors using sensitive magnetometers on their wrists. In that way, they would quickly identify the building where the transmission was occurring, and arrest the agent before he or she committed suicide.
The operation was
claimed to be very efficient. “This was
the procedure used in 1943. If the clandestine transmitter was located in the
same city as a mobile goniometer base, the location of the transmitter could be
identified within a 200-metres radius in less than a quarter of an hour.”
Further: “As an example, the German DF could be within sight of a transmitter
half an hour after it sent its very first signal. It is likely that, by the
spring of 1944, the Germans were using a fully automated, car-mounted DF system
using a cathodic screen monitor.” The official historian of SOE, M. R. D. Foot,
may be the originator of this particular histoire, writing, in 1984: “The Germans, like the British, kept a constant
watch on every wireless wavelength, and it took only twenty or thirty minutes
for a team of their armed direction-finders to get within a few yards of an
operator who was fool enough to remain on the air so long. Relays of thirty
clerks with cathode-ray tubes in the Gestapo’s headquarters in the Avenue Foch
in Paris, for example, kept up a continuous watch on every conceivable
frequency. When a new set opened up, it was bound to show up on a tube; the
frequency could be read off at once. In a couple of minutes, alerted by
telephone, direction-finders at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg were starting to
take cross-bearings; within a quarter of an hour, detector vans would be
closing in on the triangle a few miles across that the cross-bearings had
It seems as if these
accounts were also received by the RSS, which at the end of the war compiled a
report on the Funkabwehr (available at HW 34/2 at the National Archives). The writer lists the claims made by captured
German officers, and ‘various sources’, illustrating them with such dramatic
detail as: “Within a period of two minutes each new suspect signal was observed
and reported by line to a large scale system of D/F networks which could obtain
bearings with an error of less than half a degree and so plot the position of
any station to an area within a radius variously estimated at from 4 to ten
kilometres. This process required a further seven minutes, after which five
further minutes were necessary to bring a very strong mobile unit organisation
into action and for them to proceed by short-range D/F and shifting to locate
the transmitter.” The report then casts serious doubts on the reliability of
these statements, which appear to be the work of German propaganda, sent out by
various media, in an attempt to discourage Allied wireless use.
The RSS report includes
some details about mobile unit operations: that the 1942 Operation Donar in the
Unoccupied Zone was largely ineffective, as few French-speaking persons took
part, and it was very obvious; that a single mobile unit roamed around Southern
France in 1943, ‘principally Marseilles and Lyons, until it settled in Lyons’
(which does not suggest dense coverage); that the communications between
interception and the D/F stations in the OKW were poor, certainly not as good
as the Orpo’s; that effectiveness was hindered by personnel transfer; that
local and atmospheric conditions greatly hindered accurate readings; that many
cases were recorded where the mobile units were totally unable to locate the
groundwave. In certain cases, mostly in urban areas, a very focused operation
could produce results, especially when the famous ‘guertel’ snifter (the Gürtel
Kleinpeiler für Bodenwelle) was introduced in 1943, but, overall,
location-finding was a very haphazard affair, and nothing like the streamlined
operation that the authorities liked to represent.
There is no reliable evidence of the number or names of clandestine operators who were caught by this method. It should be concluded that there must be a large amount of propagandizing in this scenario, with no reliable source provided. As previous incidents have shown, there is no dependable way of identifying the physical source of a ‘new’ message stream over the ether unless something is known about the data sent – the callsign, for instance, which may have been revealed through torture or collaboration. Only when triangulation occurs could the rough proximity of the transmission zone be determined. And the operator would have to continue transmitting for an inordinate amount of time for the detectors still be able to sense him or her when they eventually turned up in their vans. Moreover, part of agent practice was to employ ‘watchers’ who would look out for the tell-tale features of the DF vehicles, and agents were taught to stay on the air for only a few minutes at a time before signing off and moving location.
The whole process is
belied by some of the autobiographical accounts that were published after the
war. Jacques Doneux’s They Arrived By Moonlight is considered one of the
most reliable descriptions of the life of a clandestine radio operator – this
time in Belgium. He explains how he managed to evade the direction-finding
vans, by transmitting at different times of the day, by varying the location,
by staying on the air for no more than half an hour, and by using a protection
team to warn him of approaching vans. Significantly, one of the statements he
makes runs as follows (p 105): “We went to a place called La Hulpe
which was a short way out of Brussels and fairly safe from direction-finding;
this meant that we could have a good long sked with little fear of
interruption.” This suggests that urban detection capabilities were based on
ground-waves, and that the mechanisms for intercepting and trapping illicit
broadcasters were much less sophisticated than has frequently been claimed. (I
return to Doneux when discussing SOE later in this piece.) Another technique used with
some success by the territorial guardians, however, was the deployment of
radio-detecting planes. Doneux reports that ‘a Fieseler-Storch, flying low, often
appeared about ten minutes after an operator had started to transmit’. This
very visible and obvious mechanism clearly encouraged radio operators to be
brief. The RSS Report on the Funkabwehr claims, however, that the
Fiesler-Storch was equipped to operate where mobile units could not go, namely
the Russian Front and the Balkans.
Perquin presents a more down-to-earth analysis at the end of his article, where he breaks down the record of SOE’s F Section. “For ten arrested radio operators, at least five fell victims to carelessness of breaches of basic security rules; another two arrest [sic] could have been avoided had the transmissions not been sent from cities where German DF teams had regional branches. Many radio operators like other members of resistance networks were compromised because of careless talk, gossip, indiscretion, police investigations or sheer bad luck in the form of a routine police check. On the other end, the fact that ten radio operators were captured should not hide the extraordinary usefulness and effectiveness of the remaining ninety if one is to mention only F section. ‘Kleber’, belonging to the French intelligence branch and not to the SOE, never had a single incident when it used its eight transmitters to send signals to Algiers from the immediate vicinity of Pau (SW France). By 1944, the average duration of a transmission was less than three minutes per frequency.”
summary, the existence of location-finding teams is not in doubt, but they were
certainly far fewer in number than claimed by some expansive reports. They may
have picked up some random operators. Yet, rather than a comprehensive mechanism
for picking up previously unknown operators, it is much more likely that the
system was deployed to try to mop up remaining members of a network whose
predecessors had already been betrayed by some source or behaviour, when the
general neighbourhood in which they were working was already known. Promoting
the mythology of a powerful and ruthless machine may however have acted as a
useful deterrent for the Nazi security organs, and ascribing failure to it may
have served to absolve leaders and remote directors of resistance groups of
lapses in security procedures.
The Red Orchestra
A more reliable model
for how the Gestapo worked is provided by the successful efforts to close down
the section of the Red Orchestra that operated out of neutral Switzerland. As I
explained in the previous episode, the units of the Red Orchestra in Germany and
France had been largely mopped up by the end of 1942, primarily because of
atrociously lax inattention to security procedures by the Communist agents.
(The executions at Plötzensee carried on until December 1943.)
Developing an accurate
account of the operation of the ‘Rote Drei’ (as the main three wireless
operators in Switzerland, Foote, Radó and Bölli, were known) is notoriously
difficult. The memoirs of Foote – which were ghosted – as well as those of
Radó, are highly unreliable, and the source of much of the strategic
intelligence, probably gained from Ultra decrypts, is still hotly contested. The
authoritative-sounding analysis emanating from the CIA is also riddled with
disinformation. For a refresher on the background, I refer readers to ‘Sonia’s Radio’,
German Intelligence had
been intercepting the messages of the Soviet agents in Switzerland since
November 1941, but apparently no headway had been made on decrypting them. Then,
as the German network was being closed down, the volume of messages from across
the border increased. According to V. E. Tarrant, in The Red Orchestra: “During
the latter half of 1942 the German long-range radio monitoring stations in
Dresden and Prague reported heavy radio traffic from three short-wave
transmitters operating in neutral Switzerland. Through cross-bearings two were
tracked to Geneva, close to the Franco-Swiss border, and the third to Lausanne
on the northern shore of Lake Geneva.”
In January 1943, with
the German network rounded up and executed, attention thus switched to group in
Switzerland, and the pressure mounted for making sense of the transmissions,
and determining how vital and accurate they were. OKW/Chi (Chiffrier Abteilung)
was charged, on February 23, with attacking the messages, and, perhaps surprisingly,
made swift progress, an achievement which suggest, perhaps, that some work had
been undertaken in a more dilatory fashion before then. Tarrant again: “When
the intercepts of these transmissions were sent to the radio traffic analysts
in the Funkabwehr offices on the
Matthaïkirchplatz they concluded that the cipher employed by the Swiss
operators was of an identical format to the one-time pad that had been used by
the Grand Chef’s [Trepper’s] pianists.” Tarrant suggests
that the agent ‘Kent’, who was in the custody of the Gestapo, helped in the
deciphering process. In any case, the CIA reported that Chi had gathered all the
extant traffic by the end of March, and in a few days had discovered the main
principle of the encryption technique. By April 22, sixteen messages had been
The first reaction by
German Intelligence was to conclude that the information was of the highest
quality, and continued dissemination could seriously damage the war effort. Yet
the organs found it very difficult to identify a Berlin-based source
responsible for the information, or the medium by which the information could
have been passing. (I shall not re-explain here the claim that ‘Lucy’, the
enigmatic Rudolf Rössler, was in fact receiving his intelligence from the
United Kingdom, itself deriving form Ultra decrypts.) Instead, they resolved to
track down the suspects in Switzerland. Their location-finding techniques could
identify the cities from which the transmissions were being made, but
Switzerland was of course neutral territory.
Radó’s network took a
fairly relaxed attitude towards security. The Swiss Government was reasonably
tolerant of foreign intelligence activity, so long as it was not directed
against Switzerland itself. The unit considered itself free from the
observations and threats of the Gestapo, and was under enough pressure from
Moscow Centre, in the latter’s persistent requests for identifying sources, and
the torrents of questions that they presented to Radó and his team. Thus the
Germans had to use a combination of traditional espionage and political
pressure to help them track and close down the dangerous wireless trio.
In 1941 (or, according
to some accounts, 1942), Walter Schellenberg had been appointed by Himmler to
head Section VI, the RSHA’s foreign intelligence branch. Indeed, he had already
had clandestine meetings with the Swiss intelligence chief, Roger Masson, in
the summer and autumn of 1942, after Masson had heard rumours that the Germans
were planning an invasion of the country. Yet Schellenberg’s intentions in
setting up the meeting may have been to persuade Masson to cooperate in
prosecuting the Rote Drei. Max Hastings, in The Secret War,
informs us that Schellenberg told Masson then that Berlin had already decrypted
two of the ring’s messages, and was seeking help. The threat of invasion, which
was always a real threat to the Swiss, because of its German-speaking
population, and Hitler’s designs on the ‘Südmark’, was a not-so-gentle
incentive for Masson to ‘help with the RSHA’s inquiries’. The two met again,
early in 1943. It appears that Germany had made serious demands that
Switzerland maintain its neutrality, under threat of invasion, and Masson did
indeed crumble, and deploy his native counter-intelligence experts to mop up the
illicit wireless network.
The Gestapo had also
tried inserting agents to subvert and betray the network, but these were mostly
clumsy efforts that Alexander Foote was able to deflect. The mopping-up
operation did not take long, however. In September 1943, the Swiss Bundespolizei
(BUPO) began the operation to silence the transmitters. They used the
traditional goniometric techniques to locate the equipment more accurately,
starting with Geneva. Since the agents were not accustomed to moving premises,
or having to restrict the length of their transmissions (Foote recorded being
on the air for hours owing to the volume of work), there was no rush. Tarrant
even reports that ‘it took a few weeks for Lt. Treyer’s direction-finder vans
to pin-point the actual locations . . . ‘. That luxury would not have been
available in the pressure-cooked environment of Belgium or France. The BUFO
also used the famous method of turning off the power to houses individually in
order to notice when transmission stopped. And the frailties of war-time
romance took their effect, as well. Margrit Bölli, one of the wireless
operators, took a lover, Peters, who was in fact a German agent and stole her
cipher key. She ignored instructions, and moved to his apartment, where BUFO agents
tracked her. The Hamels were arrested on the night of October 13/14, and just
about a month after that Foote himself was arrested.
Radó escaped into
hiding, and some abortive attempts to resuscitate the network were made, but
they fell short – primarily because of funding. Ironically, BUFO tried to carry
on a ‘Funkspiel’ (along the lines of what the Germans performed in the
Netherlands) with the Soviets. Foote had owned a powerful wireless set, capable
of reaching Moscow, obviously, but also the Americas, and Treyer, in possession
of Radó’s code, initiated messages in German on Foote’s set, using that code.
Yet, as David Dallin inform us in Soviet Espionage, ‘Foote’s previous
messages, always in English, had usually been transmitted in his own code’.
(The Soviets deployed techniques for alerting Moscow Centre of code-switches to
be deployed in a following suite of messages.) The Soviets saw through the ruse
Because of the
sympathetic role that the spies had been playing in support of Switzerland’s
resistance to Nazism, they were all treated relatively well. Yet an important
source of intelligence was closed down. By then the Battle of Kursk (to the
success of which the Lucy Ring had substantially contributed) was over, the
Wehrmacht had been mortally damaged, and the war was as good as won. From the
standpoint of illicit wireless interception, however, the story has multiple lessons.
It reinforces the fact that remote direction-finding, across hundreds of miles,
could be an effective tool in locating transmissions at the city-level. It
shows that suborned and tortured agents, with knowledge of callsigns,
schedules, ciphers and codes, could provide a much quicker breakthrough to
decryption than laborious ‘blind’ brainwork. It stresses the importance of
solid tradecraft and security techniques for agents to avoid successfully those
in pursuit of them (although, in a small country like Switzerland, where their
activities were suspected anyway, it would have been impossible for the Rote
Drei to have held out for long). It emphasizes the role that simple
security techniques could play in avoiding the successful ‘turning’ of networks.
One other consequence of the operation was that Moscow stopped relying so much
on the illicit transmissions of mainly ‘illegal’ agents, and switched its focus
on using couriers and equipment in the Soviet Embassies to manage the traffic
that their spies were still accumulating.
Exploits of SOE &
I have earlier drawn
attention to the renowned actions taken by General Gubbins in tightening up SOE
security in 1943, and how they need to be questioned. Not only were these
initiatives very late, the claims about their success are not really borne out
by the evidence. Much has been written about the careful psychological
screening of potential SOE agents, and their wireless operators, and even more
has been written about their lengthy training in all manner of tradecraft as a
foreign agent, from practice at parachute-jumping to secure methods of wireless
transmission. Yet the experiences in France and the Low Countries, as recounted
by M. R. D. Foot, tell of a parade of broken backs, legs and ankles resulting
from clumsy parachute landings, of wireless sets that broke on impact, were
lost, or simply did not work. It seems quite extraordinary that so much would
be invested in preparatory training, only to be wasted in the minutes following
the dropping of the parachutists. (Several of these highly trained wireless
operators were killed in plane crashes.) SOE did not have the luxury of a rich labour
pool from which to select the most suitable candidates, and the pressures on it
to deliver were immense. Yet, despite the attention given to training, it was
clearly deficient in many areas.
regarding wireless security were still inconsistently applied. Foot again: “It did not take long [sic] for Gubbins, as head
of operations, to spot what was wrong, or for the signals training school at
Thame Park to start to impress on operators – as Beaulieu explained to
organisers – that mortal danger lay in trying to send long messages by
wireless.” Yet the order that no transmission was to last more than five
minutes did not go out until the winter of 1943-44. In September 1943 (when
Gubbins replaced Hambro as head of SOE), more flexible and unpredictable ‘skeds’
(transmission schedules – a critical part of the software, since they had to
take into consideration such factors as atmospheric disturbance) were
introduced: irregular hours and switching of frequencies made detection more
What became necessary
was a keen sense of how active the organs were in a particular area. Foot
relates how, in May 1943, an agent named Beckers was able to stay at his set
‘for two hours without any trouble, and only once heard of a D/F
car in the neighbourhood’. Another, Léon Bar, was quickly arrested after
starting to address a backlog of messages, and tried to shoot his way out of
trouble. He was tortured, and then killed, but it is not clear whether
direction-finding or betrayal caused his demise. Wendelen escaped surveillance
because he had an informer in the Vichy police, who warned him of all
direction-finding efforts in the Indre département. Yolande Beekman successfully
transmitted from same spot at the same hour on the same three days of the week
for months on end during 1943 and 1944. It is somewhat shocking to read, however,
that, in the summer of 1943, Wendelen returned to England, and had to make some
fundamental suggestions for better tradecraft, such as water-proofing the
containers, and requiring at least one look-out man during every schedule. Why
did it take so long to learn and apply these lessons?
some of the practices were not repeatable. Scheyven never transmitted from the
same house twice, and remained undetected. Goffin learned from predecessors:
“He kept his sets buried in large boxes in gardens; kept codes and crystals
hidden in a different address; never carried his set himself. His case can
stand for an example of how sensible SOE agents were able to benefit from the
more foolish mistakes of others.” Agents on the run, with no variety of safe
houses to choose from, could not afford such luxuries, and local residents
became increasingly petrified at being found out by the Gestapo harbouring an
illicit wireless operator. They knew the penalty. The operational pressures
were imperfectly understood by the controllers in London.
Doneux’s memoir seems to be a more reliable guide to the psychological stress.
He provocatively wrote that the locals, who had been working on subversive work
much longer than any agent, were frequently dismissive of strict security
procedures, preferring to rely on their own wits, and sense for danger. Doneux
was certainly aware of detector vans, but always used a squad of look-out men,
and paid solid attention to location and transmission-times. He was one who
considered that Nazi claims of radio-detection efficiency were inflated (viz.
his comment about moving to La Hulpe), but it did not take much for the
transmission to be interrupted, and the carefully prepared sked ruined. Extra
controls deployed by the Gestapo made walking around with a wireless
transmitter even more perilous, so mobility caused fresh challenges.
Lastly must be considered the advances in equipment, especially when SOE set up its own workshop in 1942 on being freed from dependence upon SIS. One of its first breakthroughs was the S-Phone, which was designed to be worn on an agent’s chest, whereby he could make contact with an allied aircraft by voice, up to a distance of thirty miles, and to a height of 10,000 feet. This technology had the advantage of using UHF, and was not detectable by conventional D/F techniques owing to the highly focused antenna, and the low power consumption. The S-Phone was used primarily to guide arriving planes on drop areas or landing-sites, but was also used to convey brief instructions and information between the two parties. Articles published elsewhere indicate that the S-Phone had been deployed as early as 1941, which suggests that SOE was very early in its lifetime carrying on secret research while nominally still under the control of SIS. William Mackenzie’s Secret History states, however, that ‘one of the very early uses of the S-Phone’ occurred only on July 22, 1943, when Lieutenant-Colonel Starr had been deprived of any regular wireless contact since November 1942, and had up till then had to rely on couriers through Switzerland and Spain. In any case, Gambier-Parry of Section VIII got to hear about the development.
by 1943, smaller transmitters were being used for regular short-wave
communication. Doneux refers to his carrying round his set under his overcoat.
Foot describes the first innovations by F. W. Nicholls as follows: a Mark II in action by October 1942, 20lb in
weight, which sent at 5 watts on 3-9 mc/s. Its successor, the B2 (technically,
the 3 Mark II) was even more popular: it required 30 watts, and needed only two
valves. It could transit between 3 and 16 mc/s, and could also receive. “None
of the SOE’s sets suffered from a tiresome disadvantage of the paraset, which
when switched to receive would upset any other wireless set in use for a
hundred yards around: a severe brake on action in built-up areas where
civilians were still allowed their own receiving sets.” The B2 weighed 32 lb.,
which sounds a bit bulky to be slipped under an overcoat, however. It was for
longer ranges. Doneux may have been using the Mark III, which weighed only five
and a half pounds, and fitted with its accessories into a tiny suitcase. Its
5-watt output could reach up to 500 miles.
In Western Europe, electric current was usually
available, which meant that generating capabilities were seldom required.
Matters were much tougher in other areas, such as Yugoslavia and Albania.
During the same period, authors such as Deakin record the treks involved in
lugging 48-lb transmitters and chargers driven by bicycle-type pedalling
mechanisms across mountainous country. (A famous example with the OSS in France
can be seen in the painting of Virginia Hall that I selected as the
frontispiece to this article.) Mules were required to carry such a load, and in
one memorable passage Deakin describes such a mule toppling into a crevasse,
taking the equipment with him. For purposes nearer to home, successful miniaturization
was slow to take hold: later in the war, when the Jedburgh teams were set up, a
new small ‘Jedset’ was developed, but its fragility and size meant that it was
frequently broken on landing. Not enough attention had been paid to insulating
it from hard contact with the ground.
SIS appeared to have greater success in 1943, although its mission of
intelligence-gathering was subject to consistent interference from the sabotage
objectives of SOE. With the invasion plans starting to be made, the demands
made on SIS branches for information about German defences, installations, and troop
movements, and research on potential landing-sites for the invasion, and the
like, became more intense – and more immediate. Couriers were slow, which
switched pressure to wireless communications.
volume of information that was successfully passed back to London suggests that
dozens, or even hundreds, of wireless operators managed to evade surveillance,
and send their reports successfully across the airwaves. Keith Jeffery, in his
authorised history of SIS, praises ‘Section VIII’s outstanding achievement in
developing and refining radio transmitters and receivers’, which ‘made an
indispensable contribution’. The author adds, however, that ‘at the sharp end
it was up to individual men and women to operate the equipment in often very
hazardous circumstances’. As an example, he cites the experiences of ‘Magpie’
in March 1943, who, pursuing loyally the strategy of trying to keep mobile, had
to walk nine miles to his next safe house, during which journey the handle of
the set broke twice, as it was not strong enough. Perhaps not such an
outstanding job of design, after all. The answer was – more sets, a requirement
to which Kenneth Cohen in London complied.
Belgium, at the end of 1942, SIS also experimented with specialised
ground-to-air communications, which allowed agents to communicate directly (and
without the lengthy process of Morse codification) using the so-called ‘Ascension’
sets developed by Gambier-Parry’s team. (These were presumably similar to the
technologies used by SOE. Indeed, an article in Cloak and Dagger suggest
that the sets were an enhancement of the SOE invention: see https://www.docdroid.net/MEaQLK7/cloak-and-daggerair-enthusiast-2007-07-08-130.pdf ) Jeffery writes that
‘the Ascension sets were used with some success in Belgium and elsewhere,
but the system was not very useful for long messages which still had to be
smuggled out by courier across long and precarious land routes’. That statement implies that long
messages could not be trusted to conventional short-wave radio connections,
because of the requirement to be on air for hours at a time, and the real or
imagined threat of radio-detection techniques. Jeffery suggests soon afterwards
that a lag of three or four months was occurring between information-gathering
and receipt, and that the results were therefore valueless. By May 1943 even
the courier supply lines had broken down.
Whether that problem was restricted to Belgium is not clear
(remember the ‘elsewhere’). Certainly in France the networks were overall much
more productive, despite a new set of challenges. A continual danger of a
network’s having been suborned existed, but this threat was complemented by the
onset of ideological disagreements between the various resistance groups, who,
as the day of liberation became more real, each promoted their own view on what
the political shape of the country should be after the war. For a while, the
Gestapo appeared to use propaganda rather than competent feet on the ground,
and anecdotal evidence suggests that the organisation was having trouble
providing enough sharp and well-trained officers and men to control the noisy
underworld. It frequently resorted to denouncers to make up for its
Yet, by the end of 1943, Madame Fourcade’s ‘Alliance’ organisation
was almost completely destroyed – not by super-efficient surveillance
techniques, but by Nazi infiltration of the groups. As Jeffery reports: “ . . . by the late autumn of 1943 most of the
Alliance groups in north-west France and the Rhone valley had ceased to
function”. Overall, communications out of France were considered to be
inadequate, and the main channel for passing information was with a French
diplomat in Madrid. Jeffery rather puzzlingly states that this person (named ‘Alibi’)
‘managed to establish wireless communications with networks in France’. This is
one of the many enigmatic, vague and incomplete observations in the authorised
history: no date is given, and the statement poses many questions. How were
skeds set up? How many staff were on hand to receive messages, at what hours?
And what did they do with them? Moreover, if a link could be made between
networks in France and Madrid, how was it that the sources could not
communicate with London directly?
The Evolution of the RSS
“James Johnston recalled in letters to me that he and his
colleagues had intercepted messages from an illegal transmitter in the Oxford
area, which he later believed to be Sonia’s, and had submitted them to MI6 or
MI5. ‘Our logs recorded her traffic, but they were returned with the reference
NFA [No Further Action] or NFU [No Further Use].’ According to Morton Evans, it
was Hollis and Philby who decided that the logs should be returned to the RSS
marked ‘NFA’ or ‘NFU”. This meant that the RSS was not required to send out its
mobile detector vans. No such action was ever taken against Sonia during the
whole duration of her illegal transmissions. ‘Her station continued to work,
off and on,’ Johnston recalled. ‘It must be a mystery as to why she was not
arrested.’’ (from Chapman Pincher’s Treachery,
This now famous passage by Chapman Pincher is extremely
controversial, suggesting that the identity of Sonia was known to the
authorities who monitored and instructed the interception plans of the squad of
Voluntary Interceptors who scanned the airwaves. In this latest manifestation,
it even identifies the senior RSS officer making the claim to Pincher, Kenneth
Morton Evans, who, in a letter to Pincher, reportedly stated that gave ‘full
details to Hollis in MI5 and Philby in MI6’, and implied that those two
intelligence officers were unable to decrypt the messages.
That latter assertion is absurd, as neither Philby nor Hollis, had
they indeed been passed the original texts, would have possessed the skills or
authority to start trying to decrypt them. Yet it is the suggestion that the
order to send out the mobile vans was withheld that is even more provocative.
Earlier, Pincher had written: ‘The RSS had responsibility for locating any
illicit transmitters. Detector vans with direction-finding equipment could be
sent in the area to track down the precise position of a transmitter with
police on hand to arrest the culprit. As a former operator James Johnston told
me, ‘Our direction-finding equipment was so refined that we were able to locate
any wayward transmitter’.”
Thus the objective observer, perhaps now familiar with the urgent
security rules impressed upon SOE agents in Europe, has to accept the following
scenario: Possibly illicit Soviet signals are detected emanating from the area
of Oxford in the UK, perhaps identifiable by their callsigns. These are sent to
the RSS discrimination unit, which studies them, and passes them to officers in
MI5 and MI6. After these gentlemen get around to inspecting them (and perhaps
attempting to decode them), it is their responsibility to say whether or not
the transmitter should be located. If so, the vans are sent into action
(perhaps a few days later), in the hope that the transmitter will still be obligingly
cooperating by transmitting from the same place.
It is not the purpose of this analysis to determine whether the
RSS was negligent over Sonia. This reader is convinced that she was left in
place so that her transmissions could be surveilled. (Remember, on January 23,
1943, the Oxford police had visited Sonia’s residence, and reported to MI5 the
discovery of a wireless set on the premises.) What needs to be established is
how reliable is the testimony (if it truly exists) of Kenneth Morton Evans, a
senior and capable wireless professional. From 1941 to 1945 he was the officer
in charge at Arkley, the RSS facility that gathered and processed all the
messages received by the Voluntary Interceptors. (In 1951, as an MI5 officer,
he wrote a letter to the Guardian claiming that The National Association
for Civil Liberties was a Communist front: see https://www.theguardian.com/uk/2002/jan/06/humanrights.world ) How was it that Morton Evans expected an illicit agent to hang
around in the same location for several days? Was his understanding of the
readiness and efficacy of the mobile vans accurate? Or was he also a party to
the cover-up over surveillance of Sonia, contributing to the convenient story
that Hollis had successfully protected her? And how did his account overall undermine
the pretence that Nazi agents were able to work undetected in England for
The facts about the mobile detection apparatus are elusive. I have started to examine some of the historical records at the National Archives. [But not all: I am still waiting to receive photographs of many critical files, such as the WO 208/5099-5102 series. This section may thus require a later update. This analysis is based on WO/208/5096-5098, HW 34/18, HW 43/6, CAB 301//77, ADM 223/793 and FO 1093/484.]
Soon after the outbreak of war, Colonel Burke of MI8c (the
forerunner of RSS) listed the equipment then in service, and made requests for
expansion. His deposition ran as follows:
Finding Stations 6 + 4
Stations 4 + 2
Mobile Vans 10 + 14
Detection Vans 88 (up to 200
Listening Posts 27
systems for regional centres 1 + 16
for beacons 0 + 20
He added that ‘only one
of the mobile vans is now fully equipped’, but that ‘the remaining vans should
be ready in two to three weeks’. It is not clear what the distinction is
between ‘mobile vans’ and ‘G,P.O. detection vans’. It could not be solely one
of ownership: an earlier memorandum noted that the GPO provided the six fixed
and ten mobile stations. It may have been one of designed function: a paper
written in January 1941 records that ‘mobile vans (which were normally used to
assist listeners in the detection and suppression of radio interference from
industrial and domestic equipment) had been lent by PO to deal with the problem
of detecting illicit radio beacons.’ Meanwhile the notion of ‘beacons’ (devices
to assist arriving bombers to find their targets) had evolved to one of illicit
transmissions. The Post Office was seen by military men as an unreliable, slow
and bureaucratic organisation, unsuitable for holding responsibility for such
official SIGINT history reinforces a rather casual approach to the use of
mobile units: “Fixed interception stations would search the ether . . . In the event of signals being intercepted,
they would pass to the direction-finding stations the callsign, wavelength and
text of the message. Supplementing this would be the widespread corps of
voluntary interceptors whose function it would be to listen to the amateurs
working in their area, observe their habits and report anything unusual. Mobile
units were to perform the function of determining the exact location of the
illicit transmitter. After the fixed D/F stations had located the general area
of the transmitter, the mobile direction-finding units would proceed there,
await further signals, obtain more accurate bearings and so narrow down the
area of search.” And it indicates that, when the transmitter was located, the
responsibility for what happened next would be MI5’s: the service might want to
monitor it rather than close it down. (In that case, why sending out mobile
vans, which might frighten the transgressor, and cause him to stop
broadcasting, is not explained.)
But what happened to the expansion programme? It probably never
occurred. As I have described before, by 1940 the interception mission of RSS
was almost focused on overseas traffic. The History suggests a somewhat
desultory approach could have been taken to what was then considered a non-problem.
At some stage, a Mobile Units Group, under Major Elmes,
centred in Barnet, controlled also the bases in Gateshead, Bristol and
Gilnakirk, the establishment of which I described in the previous chapter.
Fixed stations would then locate a general area of about 400 square miles. A report
would be given to MI5, and the Mobile Unit organisation set in motion. At least
three mobile vans were posted on the perimeter of this area, in contact with the
Police Station in neighbourhood, a headquarters to which an MI5 officer would
be attached. When the transmitter was heard, simultaneous bearings were taken
by the Mobile Units and reported to HQ, where they were plotted on a map. The units
then moved closer, and took fresh bearings ‘until definite action was possible
on the part of the MI5 officer present’. But MI5 had no powers of arrest, and
it is not clear what judgments the MI5 officer would be able to make on the
spot in the event that a transmitter was caught red-handed. The narrative
sounds like a good deal of wish-fulfilment, and post facto puffery for
vans definitely did exist, as Guy Liddell makes occasional reference to them in
his Diaries. Yet, in 1943, as RSS started to consider the security needs for
the invasion of Europe, it encountered fresh challenges. The History
again informs us: “‘During this period RSS had accepted a further extension of
its commitments without, however, affecting the vital features of its
programme. This was the monitoring, by mobile units, of certain classes of
signal made by our own stations, to prevent the inadvertent passage of
information likely, if intercepted, to be of use to the enemy. the possibility
of such leakage had been recognized and dealt with in the early days of the war
by the cancellation of amateur transmitting licences and the impounding of
transmitters, and the vetting of MI5 of firms requiring licenses for
experimental or testing purposes. With GPO collaboration such action was easy
to take, since licences were granted by that body. As the GPO did not
necessarily license other Government departments however, it was found that
there was a number of organisations using radio transmitters of which the Security
Service had no official knowledge, as for example, experimental establishments
of the Ministry of Supply, the Ministry of Aircraft Production, the Railways,
the GPO stations themselves and Cable and Wireless stations. In addition the
Police and the Fire Service possessed their own transmitters.” The organisation
was under stress, and memoranda attest to the fact that its original mandate
was being ignored.
budgetary memorandum from 1941 indicated that capital expenditures for two
Intercept Stations, at £25,000, and for Vehicles & Equipment, at £3,500,
were requested. Annual Expenditures for P.O. Agency Services (D/F & Mobile
Unit [sic!]) were estimated at £78,000. Yet, after some disturbing gaps
in the record, the Estimates for RSS in the Budget Year of April 1942 to March
1943 include very little on mobile units, with Special Apparatus given as
£10,000, and expenses of Mobile Unit Operations a mere £8000. This is not the
high-powered, swift-moving organisation reportedly described to Chapman Pincher
by Andrew Johnston and Kenneth Morton Evans, but a service apparently being
rapidly wound down. (Were radio-detection vans perhaps later requisitioned and
repurposed as transmitting vehicles to roam around issuing bogus signals
of a phantom army? And an intriguing minute from D. I. Wilson of B1A in MI5,
dated February 24, 1943, recommends that, if phantom armies were to be created,
bogus wireless traffic needed to be realized as well, to support the false
information to be passed on by the agents. Was Wilson perhaps the originator of
one of the more spectacularly successful aspects of the whole OVERLORD
operation?) Other memoranda written at this time indicate that the resources of
RSS, including the reconstruction and repositioning of receiving stations at
Hanslope, Cornwall and Forfarshire, and the installation of rhombic aerials, were
being increasingly focused on mainland European needs.
Meanwhile RSS struggled
to resolve its political problems in 1943, caused mostly by the over-secretive
Cowgill, the highly-opinionated Trevor-Roper, the arrogant Gambier-Parry, and
the manipulative Malcolm Frost. Frost left MI5 in November 1943 to return to
the BBC, and some of the organisational issues were addressed by splitting the
RSS committee into two, one for high-level policy, and the other for detailed
intelligence. Guy Liddell continued to be frustrated that Gambier-Parry was not
performing his mission regarding illicit wireless interception. In his diary on
February 18, he recorded that RSS was not doing its job, as two German agents
had been detected. One might interpret this discovery as a sign that RSS had
indeed been doing its job, but maybe the agents – whoever they were, and whose
existence was an alarming fact since T.A. Robertson had already reported that
all agents had been mopped up – were not detected through electronic means. The
same month he recorded that one Jean Jefferson had left the CPGB to operate a radio
as an illegal, but she is not heard of again. On March 11, Liddell noted that
Gambier-Parry had refused to accept responsibility for signals security. On
April 1, he wrote that Frost had informed him that the Post Office had ‘bumped
into’ an unknown 75-watt transmitter in Bloomsbury. It may have been SOE’s, but
it all went to show (as indicated earlier in this piece) that a large amount of
authorised radio transmission was carrying on of which MI5 had not been
informed. And on June 3, not yet licit transmissions were detected coming from
the Soviet Embassy.
The problem certainly
got worse, with multiple foreign embassies now starting to transmit from the
privacy of their premises, and the British government unwilling to intervene
because of possible reciprocal moves. A major meeting occurred on September 10,
1943, at which (as Liddell noted) Colonel Valentine Vivian seemed ‘unaware of RSS’s charter for detecting illicit
wireless communications from UK’. Liddell went on to write: “As regards the
diplomatic communications of the allies there appears to be no real
supervision. It was felt that to monitor and break these communications would
impose too great a task on GC & CS, who were already overburdened with
operational work. It was agreed that we should have a permanent representative
on the Reid Committee, that we should continue to look after the security of
non-service bodies, but that the results of the monitoring of the
communications of non-service Govt. Depts. should be sent by RSS to the Reid
Committee and not to ourselves.” Gambier-Parry’s apparent disdain for
interception is shown in a record of October 13, where the head of Section VIII
is shown to be a lone voice, thinking that ‘mobile units should not be taken across
the Channel until RSS have detected an illicit transmitter’. The issues of
quick mobility and transmission habits were obviously lost on him. (I have
written more about this matter, and especially the illicit broadcasts of the
Soviet spy Oliver Green, at http://www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio-part-viii/) .
Several reports written at the end of the war, in the summer of 1945 (inspectable at HW 34/18), suggest that deploying mobile units to track down illicit transmitters was a laborious and often futile exercise. (Of course, operations may have been scaled back by then, as the obvious threat had diminished, but the experiences are still informative.) In March 1945, a team of four mobile units were sent to Cheshire, and after several days managed to apprehend a GPO employee, a Volunteer Interceptor in Warrington. Another case in Birmingham was abandoned after five days. When unidentified transmissions were found to be emanating from the area of Kinross in Scotland, a troop of mobile vans was ordered from Barnet (about 400 miles away – hardly a rapid-response force) to investigate. The vans eventually discovered a Polish Military Signals Training Unit, which had conveniently and innocently continued with its traffic. Repeated interception of signals in London led back several times to the Soviet Embassy, where a ‘prototype model of a wide band DAG-1 D/F receiver’, which could track rapid changes in wavelengths used, was successfully utilised. Such cases confirm that RSS worked under a serious lack of intelligence about potential transmitters, and it had no mechanisms for adding to the portfolio of sources of radio-waves listed above. Why was no register, with geographical co-ordinates, maintained? Moreover, the mobile force the RSS deployed was scattered so broadly as to be almost completely ineffective for trapping careful illicit operators.
One last aspect of the interception
wars is that MI5 had a respectful admiration for the Germans, believing that
they were as efficient as RSS was in intercepting and interpreting traffic
emanating from domestic control stations. In his diary entry for May 23, 1942,
Guy Liddell describes how the Nazis were able to concentrate on Whaddon Hall
(the nerve-centre for SIS, which was also handling SOE traffic, at the time),
and quickly pick up the changes in frequency adopted by the British when they
were communicating with agents in Europe. He concluded by writing: “It seems
that the Germans have made a very close study of the form of Whaddon operators
and can recognize them very easily. Their Direction-Finding apparatus is
considered to be extremely good and accurate. They must think ours is very bad
in view of the fact that TATE and company have got away with it for so long.”
Indeed. Yet Liddell and his troops did not appear to conclude that that
observation represented a considerable exposure, or that the Germans might have
expected them to address this loophole as the plans for the invasion of Europe
There is no doubt more
to be told of this period, but the evidence already points to a strong contrast
in perceptions about illicit wireless transmission in mainland Europe and Great
Britain in this period. In Nazi-occupied Europe, the organs of security moved
aggressively and cruelly to eliminate any dangerous wireless traffic, although
admittedly with propaganda about mechanized forces that clearly did not exist,
with agents feverishly trying to escape capture by keeping transmissions short
and moving around to other safe houses. In Britain, the problem was not seen to
exist, but if it did, agents were able to move around unmolested in what should
have been an openly hostile climate, with no safe places to withdraw to, or
believed to sit at their same stations waiting conveniently for the mobile vans
to turn up in a few days at the appointed time, when they would start
transmitting again – and then the vans and the nervous MI5 officer might do
nothing at all. Yet that is not what the RSS officers said after the war. The
judgment of Hinsley and Simkins, on page 181 of Volume 4 of the History of
British Intelligence in the Second world War (“In all its activities the
RSS achieved a high and continuingly increasing degree of efficiency”) merits
some re-inspection. The mission from Barnet to Kinross particularly epitomizes
the poor use of intelligence and resources.
The Double-Cross System
After the invasion of
Britain was called off by Hitler towards the end of 1940 (but kept alive for
propaganda purposes until well into 1941), the role of the captured and turned
wireless spies as an instrument for influencing Nazi policies was debated at
length. All through 1941, and the beginning of 1942, officers of MI5 had
discussed among themselves, and sometimes with outsiders, such as those in
Military Intelligence proper, what the role of the information passed on to the
Abwehr should be. Should it be veiled propaganda? Should it overstate or
understate Britain’s military capabilities? Dick White recommended to his boss,
Guy Liddell, in April 1942 that the Committee managing double agents should
change ‘from that of a body of censors to that of a body of planners’, adding
that ‘the difference is that we are now asking questions of the Germans while
previously we were answering questions from them’. Yet it needed a lead. It was not until July
1942, after John Bevan had replaced Oliver Stanley as head of the London
Controlling Section, that operational plans were able to take on more solidity.
The XX Committee, under Masterman’s chairmanship, and MI5’s B1A could start to
think about serious deception strategies. (Volume 4 of the authorized History,
by Hinsley and Simkins, covers this period very well. KV 4/213 at the National
Archives is useful. Ben Macintyre’s breezy but uneven Double Cross is
also generally recommended as a contemporary study of the project.)
Meanwhile, the Committee
had to convince the Abwehr that its remaining agents were safe, and ready for
action, but not over-exuberantly so. After all, the Abwehr was supposed to be
in control. Long discussions took place over the necessity of passing facts on
via the agents, in order to maintain credibility, but also allowing for
occasional mistakes. Yet one critical aspect of the whole double-cross
operation was the extent that the undeniable primary contributors to the
successful deception project (BRUTUS, TREASURE, GARBO and TRICYCLE) were mostly
very late arrivals to the scene. What is even more important to state,
moreover, is that none of these was a classical ‘double agent’. They were all
Allied sympathisers who had inveigled themselves into the Nazi apparatus under
the pretence of wanting to help the Axis cause, but who then betrayed their
recruiters by disclosing their true allegiance when they arrived in Britain (or
spoke to British officials in Lisbon.) Admittedly, they might have been lying
(and agent ZIGZAG fell into this highly complex netherworld), but MI5
strenuously tried to verify stories. TATE was the only true double agent, who
had been turned after he had been captured, convinced of the necessity of his
role as a tool of British intelligence, mostly out of the fear for his life,
but who then gradually came to appreciate the benefits of his democratic host
country. As I explained in the last chapter, TATE’s value as a contributor to the
deception over FORTITUDE was diminished because the necessity for him to find a
modus vivendi and occupation to survive in Britain forced him to be a
more reclusive and less mobile observer of invasion preparations.
For a short while in April,
1942, moreover, the Double-Cross Committee had considered the implications of
running double-agents overseas, and taking over the transmitters that SIS
maintained at Whaddon Hall. This was because the SOE agent VICTOIRE, Mathilde
Carré, who claimed she had escaped from her German captors, had convinced her
interrogators that she was genuine. Masterman and Marriott in B14 thus started
to plan how messages could be sent back to members of the Interalliée as a
method for deception, since MI5 and SIS knew that the agents had been turned by
the Germans, but the Germans were assumed not to know this. The task presented
fresh challenges as to how lies and truth should be managed without detriment
to the real war effort. Before this task became reality, however, VICTOIRE was
unmasked by one of the officers she had betrayed, agent BRUTUS (see below), and
she was incarcerated for the remainder of the war.
In any case the official
accounts need to be treated carefully. John Masterman’s Double Cross System
contains an Appendix that claims that there were at least 120 double agents
managed by the XX System, and it lists thirty-nine of ‘the more interesting
cases that were operated from this country’. Yet this list includes such
dubious characters as SNOW (who was dropped as early as March 1941 since he was
probably a triple agent), the enigmatic GANDER (who may never have been turned,
and disappeared mysteriously from the scene in November 1940), and the turncoat
SUMMER (who tried to escape in January 1941, and whose fate remains
controversial). It also includes such figures as BALLOON, who was recruited by
TRICYCLE, which hardly puts him in the class of ‘double agent’: the term
sometimes used in the authorised history by Hinsley et al., ‘double-cross
agent’, is more suitable. (Masterman omits to mention a figure named BRISTLE, the
cryptonym appearing in KV 4/214 at the National Archives, an oversight that suggests
there may be a yet undiscovered tier of ‘less interesting’ agents whose names
MI5 would prefer to forget.) As Hinsley and Simkins more accurately represent
the state of the game in late 1943: “The newly acquired double agents [sic!]
off-set the loss of Zigzag, Rainbow, Father, Dragonfly,
Balloon and Mutt and Jeff, whose operations were now
closed down or suspended.”
This account necessarily
focuses on agents who successfully contributed to deception through wireless
communications, which was a complex issue in its own right. Because of MI5’s
desire to have information passed quickly to the Abwehr, agents who had
hitherto used secret ink or microphotography requested wireless apparatus from
their controllers. Indeed, GARBO exploited a delayed, but highly accurate,
message about TORCH landings, which conveniently arrived after the event, to
encourage a move to wireless usage. This may have prompted the Germans to
accelerate the use of wireless communications with GARBO. That would, of
course, allow the British to get disinformation in the hands of their adversaries
in a much more timely fashion, but it would also eliminate the convenience of
delivering highly accurate information with a built-in delay, thus increasing the
risk of injurious retaliatory action. The adoption of radio did necessitate the
delivery of codes, however, which was mightily useful for GC&CS in
extending the range of intercepted signals that could be decrypted.
So how did these vital agents fare in the use of radio? The final 1942 entry in the files of TATE [Wulf Schmidt] at Kew expresses confidence that the enemy trusts him, and that his story about transmitting early in the morning, before the farm hands go to work, has been accepted. Yet 1943 appeared not to be so successful, and his handlers voiced concern about his viability. (It was impossible to verify what the Abwehr thought of him, as messages from Hamburg to Berlin were sent by land-line.) During the period March-September he received only fourteen messages from the enemy, most of them very routine, as if it could not expect much valuable information from an agent fully engaged in agricultural work. An added complication arose because of the repatriation of a Nazi in November 1943. It was feared that this officer might have picked up rumours inside the camp where he was being held to the effect that MUTT, JEFF, SUMMER and TATE were all under control of the British. That encouraged MI5 to put TATE on ice for a while. A report in early January 1944 also lamented the fact that he had only one transmitting frequency (4603 kcs), which made communication as far as Hamburg difficult outside daylight hours. TATE thus made a request to have a small portable apparatus workable off the mains, and the minor role he was able to play in OVERLORD will be described in the next episode.
BRUTUS [Roman Czerniawski], a former Polish fighter Pilot, experienced a comparatively short career as a double-cross agent. After the Germans arrested him in late 1941 in France, where he had built up an intelligence network, he manufactured a deal whereby he traded the safety of his family for a role spying in Britain. Before he left Paris, he was given quartzes to take with him for the purpose of building a transmitter with the help of his Polish friends, although BRUTUS asserted that it would be difficult finding a wireless operator. After an ‘escape’ via the Pyrenees, he arrived in England on October 2, 1942. Certain necessary checks with Poles in exile complicated his adoption, but he was approved, and established contact in December 1942, with an apparatus constructed for him by MI5. (The archive does not indicate how he suddenly acquired operating skills.) He was then instructed to build his own radio set in early January 1943. Masterman was cautious, telling Bevan he wanted to run BRUTUS giving information, not as a deception medium.
The year 1943 turned out to be problematic, as BRUTUS stumbled into hot water with the other Poles over the Katyn massacre, and his overexuberant politicking. (The Germans had discovered the site of the massacres in April, but the Soviets had denied any responsibility, thus causing a rift in Allied circles. On April 25, the Soviet Union broke off relations with the Polish government-in-exile.) Moreover, there was a security problem, as the Poles had access to BRUTUS’s codes (and thus might learn about the deception plan for OVERLORD). Harmer also reported to Robertson on May 6 that White and Liddell were concerned lest the Russians intercept and decode the BRUTUS traffic and use it ‘as a basis for their allegations that the Polish Government are maintaining contact with the Germans’. Reed assured Harmer that the range for BRUTUS’s transmitter was only 400 miles, so there was no danger of interception, but the episode showed the tangled politics that were starting to affect counter-espionage exercises. BRUTUS successfully reported on the arrest of CARELESS in May 1943, and Ultra decrypts showed that his reports were being taken seriously. However, BRUTUS’s arrest in the fracas over Katyn caused an awkward interruption. MI5 found him a notional ‘operator’ (purportedly in Reading, actually working in Richmond, thus apparently breaking the rules observed in other cases to protect against German direction-finding) so that he would not have to operate the wireless himself. Intercepts indicated that he was not fully trusted, and by the end of the year, Harmer was suggesting that he be used solely as a courier. On the last day of the year, however, BRUTUS informed his handlers that he needed a new transmitter.
The career of TREASURE [Lily Sergueiev], a journalist of Russian extraction, was very short, and she was not even activated as a wireless agent until January 1944. Yet her association with German Intelligence went back as far as 1937, when she had declined to work for a contact in Berlin, one Felix Dassel. After the fall of France, when in Paris, she had recontacted Dassel, and agreed to work for the Abwehr. She had been introduced to her handler, Emile Kliemann, in June 1941, and soon started receiving training on operating wireless equipment. This was somewhat unusual, as the Abwehr seemed keener at this time to have their agents use couriers, secret writing and microdots. By February 1942, she had started practicing, transmitting and receiving on a proper set, but for reasons primarily to do with Kliemann’s rather erratic behavior and complicated love life, the practice was neglected. Indeed, as late as May 18, she was taught how to use invisible ink, and it was not until July 17, 1943 that she appeared at the British consular office in Madrid declaring that she intended to travel to England to spy, but wanted to switch her allegiance.
After researching her background, MI5 concluded that her intentions were genuine. But she still had to wait for the distracted Kliemann to get organised, and it was not until a few months later (her MI5 handler, Mary Scherer, said November 11; Ben Macintyre states October 7) that she was able to fly from Gibraltar to Bristol. Kliemann had promised her that she would be given a wireless set to be disguised as a phonograph, but he let her down, unable to procure one for her, instead promising that she would be passed one after she arrived in Britain. She boarded the plane without it – also without her beloved dog, an incident that would later cause deep rifts between her and those in MI5 she trusted. Her activity as a spy was then further delayed owing to her becoming seriously ill in December, and being hospitalised. Thus it was not until January 11, 1944 that MI5 started conceiving plans for putting TREASURE in possession of a wireless set. She was able to write to Kliemann informing him that she had now bought an American Halicrafter radio (actually supplied by MI5), even though possession of an unlicensed wireless transmitter was still a civil offence.
For most of his career TRICYCLE [Dusko Popov] was not a wireless agent, and he never used such equipment himself. He had managed to convince the Germans as of his bona fides, while remaining free to travel because of his import/export business, but had declared himself to the British back in 1940. Yet he had been sent by the German to the USA in October 1942, and spent most of 1943 in what turned out to be a fruitless (and expensive) sojourn. Even before his spell in the USA, the British had deciphered messages that indicated that the Germans had suspicions about him, but TRICYCLE bravely walked back into the lions’ den in Lisbon, and managed to brazen out his interrogators, who were anxious to believe that they still had a valuable resource under their control. On September 14, 1943, TRICYCLE flew back to Britain, carrying with him various espionage material and money, and also a wireless transmitter. So who was to operate it?
TRICYCLE had ingeniously convinced the Abwehr of a scheme to infiltrate supposed Yugoslavian Nazi sympathisers into Britain, disguised as refugees. Through his brother, Ivo Popov, TRICYCLE arranged for a naval officer called Frano de Bona to be recruited by the Abwehr and trained as a wireless operator. TRICYCLE returned to Lisbon and Madrid in his role as a Yugoslav diplomatic courier in November 1943, and there negotiated de Bona’s [FREAK’s] passage via Gibraltar to London, where he would operate TRICYCLE’s equipment. On December 8, Guy Liddell recorded his fear that the whole TRICYCLE set-up might collapse at any moment, but later that month FREAK started his work as a wireless operator. He would transmit regularly (his location not apparently revealed) for five months until being necessarily closed down because of a scare.
The most famous of the double-cross agents, and the one who contributed most to the deception exercise of FORTITUDE, was the Spaniard Juan García Pujol (GARBO). Again, his career went back a long way, and it was not until late in the war that his ‘network’ was supported by wireless transmission. He had originally presented himself to the British Embassy in Madrid in January 1941, but was turned away. Inventing information for the Abwehr, his reports were picked up by SIS, and he was eventually interviewed again in November 1941. He was smuggled out of Lisbon to Gibraltar, and hence to London, where he arrived on April 24, 1942. After interrogation, GARBO was transferred to the control of B1A in MI5. Over the next few years he would craft hundreds of letters written in secret ink, which mysteriously managed to reach the Germans in Spain and Portugal. As Ben Macintyre writes: “The information they theoretically supplied was written up in secret ink and dispatched inside innocuous letters that the Germans believed were either brought by courier or sent by airmail to various cover addresses in neutral Spain and Portugal. In fact they were transported in MI6’s diplomatic bags.”
Yet this was not going
to be a swift enough medium for the purposes of FORTITUDE. In August 1942,
GARBO had in principle gained permission to use wireless. The Abwehr had
encouraged GARBO to make his ‘notional’ agents use secret ink to communicate
directly, which would have made the control and distribution of disinformation
very difficult. Thus GARBO, having fortuitously ‘discovered’ a radio technician
employed on the outskirts of London who was a friend of his ‘Agent No 4’,
suggested that wireless should now be attempted for communications. When GARBO
reported, in November 1942, on convoy departures for the TORCH landings, and
the information arrived too late for the Germans to act upon it, it was a
timely signal for them to adopt a newer technology, and they wrote to him on
November 26 more warmly accepting his recommendation. In the words of Hinsley
and Simkins: “To begin with a
large volume of material continued to pass by air mail and courier. From the
end of August , however, almost all his [GARBO’s] messages were sent on his radio link. This followed
from the need, in support of Allied deception plans, to force the Germans’
correspondence with him on to the air and receive it with greater speed, and
also from the fact that, to give verisimilitude to his network by indicating to
the Germans that MI5 was aware of its existence but could not track it down,
steps were being taken to show them that its air mail letters were being
The first transmission was
scheduled to take place on March 6, 1943, and Guy Liddell reported that GARBO
did in fact establish radio contact with Madrid on March 12, with the MI5
operator resident at 55 Elliot Road, Hendon. The provision of a new cipher by
the Abwehr was highly valuable: Liddell further commented, on June 5, that
GC&CS regarded the results of interception as ‘outstanding’. Yet wireless
procedures were outstandingly undisciplined. Despite instructions to their new
operator to keep messages as short as possible (‘No
transmission should exceed fifty groups for safety sake’), and warnings about direction-finders, even
referring to the use of aeroplanes (which was a technique the Abwehr was
domestically familiar with), GARBO’s operator was shown to be on the air for
two hours at a time in June 1943, owing to the prolix and flowery reports that
he and Tomás Harris, his minder, compiled. By the end of August, nearly all
GARBO’s messages were sent by the wireless link, and after one or two hiccups
due to the Abwehr’s concerns about British censorship of the mails, and
possible exposure of the wireless-led network, communications flourished for
the remainder of the year.
As an interesting sidenote on the efficiency of
RSS, Hinsley and Simkins report that the service was able to detect GARBO’s
station. It was clearly closely involved with tracking the transmissions of the
agents. What had happened was that GARBO had been given a transmitting plan
that required the station to adopt military procedures for callsigns and
introductions, with the result that the signals would be confused with a
swelter of other military traffic, making connection with Madrid difficult for
a while. “ . . . in fact GARBO’s
transmissions were temporarily lost by the operators who had been intercepting
them for the RSS from places as far apart as Scotland, Gibraltar and Canada. .
. “, the historians wrote. “It was a tribute to the efficiency of the RSS’s
intercept network that after a few weeks it again reported Garbo’s transmitter
as a suspect station.”
As the preparatory period for the long-awaited invasion of Europe started, a strange, asymmetrical confrontation of wireless intelligence had developed. From the German side, the notion of a powerful direction- and location-finding apparatus had been created in response to a pervasive and potentially dangerous threat. Yet it was hard to implement. Its menace was used more as a deterrent than an enforcement mechanism, the security organs struggling with the practical limitations of such techniques, and having to rely more on informers and infiltration to subvert and destroy the enemy’s networks. In Britain, a similar powerful detection capability kept a close ear on the airwaves. The authorities, however, confident that no genuine hostile agents were operating on native soil, owing to the RSS’s interception, and GC&CS’s decryption, of Abwehr traffic, maintained a surprisingly casual stance towards illicit transmissions and their origin. Both German and British Intelligence were justified in thinking that the capabilities of their foe were at least as advanced as their own. After the war, the British boasted of their capabilities in a manner similar to that of the Germans. Yet MI5, in managing its Double-Cross System, was woefully careless in supervising the transmission schedules of its agents, and the Abwehr deluded itself in thinking that its agents could survive undetected in a small, hostile island.
Alert readers will have noticed that I received important communications from Roland Philipps (the biographer of Donald Maclean) and from Jan-Willem van den Braak (the biographer of the Abwehr spy Jan Willem ter Braak), whose work is being translated from the Dutch for publication in the UK. I shall report on the outcomes of these dialogues in next month’s report.
An observation on Guy Liddell and Roger Hollis by one of my contacts in intelligence inspired me to break out in verse on the subject of MI5’s efforts to counter Soviet influences. The doggerel can be found at DiaryofaCounterEspionageOfficer.
After I had put Part 3 of this saga to bed at the end of
September, some thoughts that I had vaguely touched on in earlier episodes returned
to me with more vigour: What if the mistakes over ter Braak and the controversial
report by Walter Gill (which effectively concluded that domestic wireless
interception was not necessary) were both deliberate exercises by MI5 and its
partners? Were the plans for the double-cross operation that far advanced in
the last few months of 1940 that it was considered vital to give indications –
in the belief that the Abwehr would pick them up – that Britain’s wireless
interception policies were so weak that German agents could essentially roam at
will, and broadcast home undetected? After all, as early as September 1939, Guy
Liddell of MI5 had written that ‘it was in our interests that the Germans should
regard us as grossly inefficient in these matters’, and that ‘if they thought
our organisation was good they might well ask how it was we managed to get his
[SNOW’s] messages through’. And were the Abwehr’s planting of obviously fake
identification cards on its agents a deliberate ruse to determine how gullible
the British counter-espionage services were?
These may be utterly fanciful notions, but they have a modicum of
sense about them, as all such exploits at face value are very difficult to
explain. One has to assume that agencies like MI5 and the Abwehr were continually
thinking: how will our enemy counterpart think and act? (A British FOES
committee did in fact exist: Guy Liddell described it as ‘an inter-services
committee that tries to
put itself in the position of the enemy intelligence service’.) And, if some sensible
insight were applied, each intelligence section should have assumed that its
counterpart, because of native influences, might in some circumstances act in a
different fashion. Thus, in this instalment, I start to explore the variations
in the strategies and successes of the major European-based espionage/sabotage
organisations: SOE (Special Operations Executive), the German Abwehr, and the
network of the Soviet Union’s GRU and KGB spies, and what their controllers
should have learned from their experiences in one theatre of war to apply to
another. There is a symmetry in some of the things undertaken by each
organisation, as they strain to develop measures to confound the forces trying
to counter them. Yet one can also spot asymmetrical aspects, driven by the
idiosyncratic nature of each force, including their overall motivations and
objectives, the personnel they selected, the territorial dimensions, and the
cultural drivers behind their operations. It is hard not to suppose, however,
that the policies of each were not somehow affected by their knowledge of what
their adversaries were doing with their own offensive activities.
The focus of my research
in this series has been the detection of illicit wireless. It is worth
recording here that the primary purpose of what is commonly known as RDF (Radio
Direction-Finding, but implicitly including Location-Finding) had, before the
war, been the interception and decryption of government (e.g. military,
diplomatic and police) traffic. Initially, precise location was not as
important as content. As countries started to perform intelligent traffic
analysis, however, the origin – and mobility – of transmitting stations,
especially military units, became much more significant, often providing
intelligence even though the underlying messages could not be decrypted. Then,
as the combat started, organisations had to start to apply their knowledge to
the possible threat of illicit stations operating behind their own lines.
With all three
combatants, the techniques for long-range triangulation were well-developed by
the time war broke out, and thus could in principle be quickly adapted for
identifying illicit domestic transmissions. The paradox was that, owing to the
vagaries of the behavior of radio waves, it was often easier to pick up
transmissions originating abroad than those issuing from inside the country’s
boundaries. As I explained in Part 1 of this saga, low-powered wireless sets
operating on high-frequencies in domestic territory, designed to exploit
‘bouncing’ off the ionosphere, were often hard to detect because of the skip
zones involved, and widely dispersed human interceptors would have been needed
to pick up their ground waves. Such a set-up was possible in the United
Kingdom, but not in the expanding German Reich. Moreover, the finer granularity
required for locating individual wireless sets (at building-block or house
level) demanded new mobile equipment and techniques not explored in long-range
As I discuss the strategies and challenges of the three espionage
forces, and attempt to assess their effectiveness, I shall be considering them
under the following criteria:
How good were the directors in planning how objectives should be met, and
following up by providing the motivation, material, and structure to allow
agents to be successful?
Quality of operators:
Were agents with the appropriate profile chosen for the job in hand?
Quality of training: Did
the agents receive thorough and suitable training?
Quality of equipment:
How effective was the equipment (primarily wireless apparatus) for the location
of operation and for transmission needs? Were conditions such as local power
supply properly taken into account?
Were safe and secure operating procedures defined, and did the agents follow
Remote support: Did the
agents receive reliable and effective support from their home controllers?
Detection capabilities: How
effective were the enemy’s radio-detection and direction-finding mechanisms?
Social environment: How
hostile or sympathetic was the social environment in which they had to work?
strategy: What goals drove the counter-espionage strategy of the enemy on whose
territory the spying took place?
June 1941 constitutes the major chronological dividing-line in the
conduct of wireless espionage. (In the light of my research, I have deviated
from the temporal Phases identified in my first post in this series, which had
Phase 1 completing at the end of 1940, and Phase 2 winding down in June 1942.) The
Nazi invasion of the Soviet Union immediately changed the German attitude in
Soviet counter-espionage from one of wary passivity to aggressive pursuit. The
Russian stance in illicit communications switched from cautious dormancy to careless
urgency. For Britain, it signalled that any planned invasion of the island
nation had been postponed indefinitely: the timing coincided with the transfer
of RSS to SIS, and the implementation of the new structure in MI5 under David
Petrie. The date has less significance for SOE: it was still in an
experimental, groping stage in the summer of 1941, with only two radio-stations
established in France by that time. My analysis thus presses forward in this
dimension of espionage and sabotage to address the continued struggles of the
unit into 1942. I now summarise the activities of the three agencies in this
period before delving into more detail.
I have shown how the greatest intensity of Nazi attempts to
infiltrate British territory occurred in the autumn of 1940 (Operation LENA),
with a couple of reconnaissance landings (by Jakobs and Richter) occurring in
the spring of 1941 – i.e. before Germany’s alliance with the Soviet Union
turned into a clash. By then, with the plan to invade the United Kingdom
abandoned, and Hitler’s attention now directed to Operation Barbarossa, the
agents whom the Abwehr had apparently successfully installed in Britain took on
less importance. They appear to have been largely forgotten, or abandoned, and
it took the arrival of new ‘spies’, such as TRICYCLE, GARBO and TREASURE (whom
I shall cover in the next chapter), to re-activate the espionage – and the
Double-Cross – project. Yet using wireless was not at the forefront of the
Abwehr’s plans, and MI5, in their efforts to facilitate the passing on of fake
information, had to be very careful and imaginative when encouraging use of the
As far as Britain’s own plans for espionage and sabotage were
concerned, Churchill had in the meantime (July 1940) established the SOE as a
force to penetrate Nazi-occupied Europe, and to soften up and harass the
invader’s government of occupied territories. Yet this was not primarily an
espionage organisation, like SIS (whose network had been almost completely destroyed
at the outset of war.) It was an outfit committed to sabotage, and, while
wireless communication became a critical part of its operational
infrastructure, the technology was used more to arrange for shipments,
drop-offs, and pick-ups, and only secondarily as a mechanism for providing
intelligence. Sabotage operations also drew more obvious attention from the
enemy: furthermore, in the first two years of its existence (i.e. until the
summer of 1942), SOE was hampered by being reliant on Section VIII of SIS for
its wireless equipment, wavelengths, codes, etc. The experience in responding
to illicit SOE transmissions in France may have given the German
counter-espionage agencies a leg-up when the Soviet apparatus fired up in the
summer of 1941, but, as will be shown, the evidence for this is shaky.
When Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, all Soviet agents in place
in Germany were immediately activated to provide intelligence about Nazi
war-plans. Yet they had not been completely dormant before then. The situation
was in fact more complex than that. After the show-trials and purges of
1937-1938, the KGB and GRU networks had been patiently rebuilt – not just in
Germany, but across most of Western Europe. As early as May 1940, however, when
Paris fell, Moscow suspected that relations with Nazi Germany – despite the
Ribbentrop-Molotov Pact – might deteriorate, and diplomatic representatives
(e.g. Kobulov in Berlin) started building networks of informers, not only in
Germany but also in Poland and Czechoslovakia. Elsewhere, the Soviet Union’s
spies had long been active, such as in the origins of the famous Red Orchestra
group in Switzerland, led by SONIA (Ursula Kuczynski) and DORA, the Hungarian Sándor
Radó, who had been recruited in 1935, and moved to Switzerland in 1939. Before
1941, however, couriers, and communications through local Soviet embassies, had
been a much more convenient method of passing information than the use of
wireless transmission methods.
up to June 1941
The decision to infiltrate spies into Great Britain in late 1940
was taken at short notice, but, like many events of a time when feints and
deceptions were part of the strategy, the exact date when Admiral Canaris
initiated the LENA programme is uncertain. In 2018, Bernard O’Connor, relying
on the rather dubious transcription of Lahousen’s War Diaries claimed by
Wighton & Peis sixty years earlier, asserted that Canaris told his Abwehr
officers as early as June 22 that gathering intelligence on Britain, in
preparation for the planned invasion, was of the highest priority. That early
preparation is vaguely echoed by Niklaus Ritter in his 1972 memoir, Deckname Dr. Rantzau, where he
improbably describes being in the company of Caroli (SUMMER) and Schmidt
(TATE), ready for their departure some time in July, when they had already
completed their eight-weeks’ training. Yet Ritter’s memory was at fault: he
describes them as leaving on the same plane – something which the British
archives strongly refute, so one must question the reliability of his memory.
John Lukacs, in The Duel, represents
Admiral Raeder as still trying to talk Hitler out of invading Britain as late
as July 11, with Hitler responding in terms of wanting to make peace with the
United Kingdom. O’Connor and Ben Macintyre both refer to a conference held in
Kiel ‘some time in July’ to plan the details of the LENA operation, an event
confirmed by the Kew file on the Hamburg Abwehr officer Praetorius (KV 2/170-1),
and given precision by KV 3/76, which sets it as taking place on July 16. That
would dovetail with Ritter’s account that eight weeks of training had to be
accomplished to meet Hitler’s deadline of September 15.
Praetorius’s recollection was that the agents parachuted in at
this time would ‘only have to be of independent means for 6-8 weeks as by at
time the invasion of England was expected to be an accomplished fact.’ Yet the
chronology does not work. If a decision had been made in July, the recruitment
and training of agents was supposed to take eight weeks, and their subsequent
independent existence on British soil might have been expected to take another
six to eight weeks, the latest date for a successful invasion would have to be
placed as late as early November. While Anthony Cave-Brown gave August 1 as the
date that Hitler issued his Directive 17 to prepare for the invasion of Britain,
Operation SEELÖWE (SEALION), Churchill himself reported it as being on July 16,
with Hitler’s apparent objective of having his forces arrive four weeks later.
On September 11, however, Hitler had to delay the invasion order until
September 24, and on September 17 he ordered the indefinite adjournment of
SEALION, and formerly cancelled it on October 12. Yet the first LENA agent,
Caroli (SUMMER) did not parachute in until September 3, and his colleagues were
still arriving in early November. It sounds as if Canaris gave Hitler
unreasonably optimistic indications of the speed with which agents could be
recruited and trained: if Hitler had been able to stick to his original plan,
there would have been no planting of infiltrators in the United Kingdom,
successful or not, to assist the invasion. Yet the program unaccountably went on
after invasion plans were suspended, which would have made nonsense of the
ability of the agents to survive independently for a few weeks.
Given the haste by which recruits had to be selected, vetted, and
prepared, it is thus difficult to take seriously the claim made a few years ago
(in Monika Siedentopf’s Unternehmen
Seelöwe) that the invasion of Britain was sabotaged by Canaris and his team,
in that they selected unsuitable candidates as spies who simply let the side
down. Apart from the chronological problems listed above, however successful
the few who landed might have been in evading capture, their effect on a
planned invasion that required destroying the Royal Air Force would have been
minimal either way. But that does not mean that the Abwehr’s project was not
quixotic, or even cruel. The agents were chosen in a hurry: they were not
native Germans, but mostly citizens of bordering countries (Denmark, Sweden, the
Sudetenland – the last, of course, transferred from Czechoslovakia to the
German Empire). Some were diehard Nazis, some were lukewarm, others were
pressured into signing up by threats. The belief was that agents from outlying
countries would fade into the background more easily than native Germans: some
had spent time in the UK beforehand, but, overall, they were hopelessly
unprepared for life in the United Kingdom. And as potential observers, they
were untrained. Reports at Kew indicate that ‘though they were expected to
report on such military objectives as aerodromes, land mines and gun batteries,
on examination they showed only a vague idea of the significant points to
note.’ They had ‘only an amateur
knowledge of transmission technique.’
The main point, however, was that the spies of the LENA operation
were not expected to be operational for long, a fact that is reinforced by the
way that most of them were equipped. More than half of the eighteen (the exact number
is debatable) who landed, either by parachute or boat, between September 3 and
November 3, 1940 either carried with them a transmitter only, or no wireless
equipment at all. A transmitter might have been useful for sending a brief set
of dazzling reports about air defences, bomb damage, or weather conditions, but
without an ability to have confirmed whether one’s messages were being received
correctly, it would have been a short and demoralizing career. For those agents
being parachuted in, wireless apparatus was a significant health hazard: at
least two spies were injured by virtue of their collision with the earth when
harnessed to sets weighing twenty pounds or more. Most had not practiced a
parachute-jump before. Moreover, many were told in Hamburg that there was not
enough shock-proof material available, and thus they would be equipped with
transmitters only. If wireless sets were dropped separately, there was the risk
of the apparatus’s never being found. TATE demanded he be equipped with a
combined Transmitter/Receiver. As his Kew file reports: “His
controller, RITTER [Captain Rantzau] then informed him that arrangements were
being made for him to take with him to England a separate transmitter and
receiver and also a large transmitter (called a ‘Z.B.V.’) which would be
dropped separately and which he could destroy if the smaller sets were unbroken
MI5’s analysis of the equipment the agents were provided with would indicate that they did not have a high chance of success in trying to contact their controllers. The boat agents (Meier, Waldberg, Kieboom and Pons, who arrived on the Kent coast) were equipped with compact and light cases, one weighing 7 lb., and containing batteries and connecting wires, the other weighing only 4 lb., containing the transmitter, aerial and spare valve. (This was in dramatic contrast to the bulky devices that SOE agents were required to take to France or, say, Yugoslavia, in following years.) Yet the experts judged that such low-powered devices ‘would require exceptional conditions to work over 100 miles’, with an expected range of nearer 50 miles. * If that assessment is correct, it would show an extraordinary misjudgment by the Abwehr experts: reducing power to such a degree that transmissions would not only be undetectable locally, but would also not have enough energy to reach their intended target. This statistic is put into perspective by the fact that the distance between the port of Southampton and Cherbourg is over 100 miles, while German wireless agents were transmitting home from as far afield as New York and Brazil.
This opinion needs to be balanced against that of E. H. Cookridge, who, in his
1947 work Secrets of the British Secret
Service, described Kieboom’s equipment as ‘a masterpiece of radio
precision’, following up by claiming that ‘the transmitter allowed to send [sic] messages over a range of more than
600 miles, yet was so small that it could be hidden in two leather boxes . . .’ (see Figure below). In his Preface,
Cookridge thanked the Foreign Office, the War Office, the Home Office and the
Lord Justice’s Office for their assistance, so his book should probably be
regarded as an item of selective disclosure for propaganda purposes, perhaps
maximizing the wireless threat.]
transmitter was reported to have a much more realistic range, of up to 1200
miles. Likewise, CAROLI’s (SUMMER’s)
equipment was much heavier and more powerful, but would have a corresponding
disadvantage of requiring much more space to set up the aerial. “Aerials
provided would not be easily untangled and satisfactorily erected except in
secure privacy with plenty of space. E.g. indoor space 60 ft. long or a
secluded wood with a fairly clear space 6o ft. long with trees etc. on which to
tie the end of the aerial to a height of at least 6 ft.” How a spy in tight
wartime conditions, in densely populated England, was supposed to accomplish
such a task is not clear. A tentative conclusion by the report at KV 3/76 was
that the agents were so ill-prepared that they should perhaps be considered as
it seems that the Abwehr stations stayed observant, looking for transmissions
from the agents. The same file, K 3/76, based on interrogations of the six
prominent spies captured by September 1940, supplemented no doubt by RSS
interception and decryption of Abwehr exchanges, discloses the following: “It
appears from other sources [sic:
surely a code for Ultra decrypts] that a constant watch is kept by Hamburg, Berlin,
Paris and Cherbourg, for the reception of any wireless messages by all agents
despatched to the U.K. This is
presumably in order to make sure that messages shall not be missed through bad
atmospheric conditions.” The advantage gained by the German Reich’s territorial
extension into Northern France (which also aided triangulation for
location-detection) was counterbalanced by the fact that ENIGMA radio
communications had to be used rather than highly secure land-lines, which
allowed British Intelligence to tap into the plans and processes of the Abwehr.
Moreover, by this time, Hamburg (which would have had secure contact with
Berlin) was shifting its attention to Norway, placing the responsibility for
Britain on to Paris and Cherbourg. A dangerous increase in interceptible
traffic was caused by the fact that the Abwehrstelle
in Brussels was used as an intermediary point for traffic, with messages passed
to it from advance stations to be decrypted, and then passed on to Hamburg,
Paris, or Berlin.
Because nearly all of the spies were picked up soon after they
landed, little can be said about the adequacy of their training. Ter Braak
apparently struggled with his receiver: concealing aerials in densely-populated
Britain, with vigilant landlords and ladies, would have been a problem. TATE
had only one frequency to work on, which was effective only in daylight hours:
this inhibited his activity later. TATE admitted that he had been taught the
fundamentals of operating, but nothing about wireless theory, which would mean
he would be helpless when problems occurred. He said that he
only knew “the practical details of how to join it up, erect the aerial, and
tune the transmitter by the lamp. He thought he could spot a disconnected wire
inside, but that was about all”. As Reed of B1A reported: “He had been
instructed to join motor-cycle batteries in series, but three 6 volt batteries
would burn out his valves.” Consequently, even with MI5 assistance, TATE
struggled to make consistent contact. Reed reported, on October 1, that ‘experiments
with [TATE’s] wireless were unsuccessful due to inefficiency of aerial provided
with a set of so small an output.’ His first successful message was not sent
until October 10: he was supposed to send a postcard in invisible ink to a
contact in Lisbon if his wireless failed to work. She never received the
had quickly understood that his life depended upon abandoning his Nazi
affiliations, and following the instructions of his new captors. Unlike SUMMER,
he did not have second thoughts, and thus did not employ any security code to
indicate that he had been turned. (He claimed that the possibility of being
captured and used had never been acknowledged by his trainers, and he thus did
not have such a code.) He initially operated his set himself, and thus
displayed a consistent ‘fist’. Yet the overall message to be gained from this
exercise is that the Abwehr controllers soon lost interest. As early as
September 7, Field-Marshal Jodl told the Abwehr to open up operations against
the Soviet Union. The realization that German could not dominate the skies
above Britain, and that a winter invasion across the Channel would simply be a
recipe for failure, had by then convinced Hitler that it was time to turn his
attention to the East.
TATE’s files at the National Archives show is the enormous lengths to which MI5
and RSS went to experiment with his apparatus, attempting to make contact with
Wohldorf. While SUMMER’s set had been shown to work quite quickly, MI5 provided
their counterparts at RSS with all the details of call-signs, frequencies, and
times so that the location-finding network of interception towers at Thurso, St
Erth, Gilnakirk, Sandridge, Cupar and Bridgewater could gauge the strength of
the signal, and give back advice. Hughes (W6B) and then Reed (who was on
secondment from the BBC) had to move the set around from city to countryside,
change the length of the aerial and fine-tune its alignment, and also have the
complex instructions for TATE’s back-up set translated before they were able to
send transmissions of consistent quality. Yet they were already sensitized to
the need to avoid German direction-finding – to a degree that was unnecessarily
cautious: they believed that the transmissions could have been localized to an
actual building (e.g. Latchmere House), a degree of accuracy way beyond what
the Funkabwehr was capable of at that time.
agent SNOW (Arthur Owens) was being kept in close confinement. It should not be
forgotten that SNOW was the original Abwehr agent equipped with wireless, and
was notionally active right up until April 1941. Yet the first experiments with
wireless were haphazard: he was supplied with a clumsy and reliable transmitter
(only) in February 1939, but, since he was able to meet his handler, Ritter, in
Hamburg until war broke out, and, after that, arrange regular rendezvous in the
Netherlands and in Belgium until the Nazis overran those countries in May 1940,
the use of wireless to pass on intelligence was not so critical. Of course,
that made the task of monitoring what he said impossible, and suggestions that
SNOW had betrayed his country by revealing suitable targets for bombing (i.e.
going beyond the ‘chickenfeed’ that he passed in his encrypted messages) caused
MI5 to terminate him, and incarcerate him for the remainder of the war.
was aware of SNOW’s wireless usage from the day his set was picked up. SIS even
broke the set, and had to repair it. But SNOW did not make his first successful
transmission until late August 1939: soon afterwards, MI5, aided by his wife’s
jealous reporting of his duplicitous activity, arrested him, and then found
both his transmitter, and then a receiver, concealed at his property in
Surbiton. Under MI5’s tutelage, SNOW moved house to premises where his aerial
would not stand out so obviously, and transmitted regularly on weather and less
than critical military operations and preparation. The first Double-Cross
message was sent on September 9, but no confirmation of receipt occurred for
some weeks. At some stage in October, Maurice Burton, who had earlier checked
to verify that SNOW was transmitting as instructed, took over the operation of
the apparatus, and eventually a new afu
transmitter-receiver was delivered through a third party.
the Abwehr had been careful enough to pay attention to SNOW’s radio ‘fist’, or
whether Burton was adept enough to emulate it, is not clear. The archival
reports give every indication that Robertson and his team assumed that Ritter
must have concluded that SNOW was being controlled by MI5. Guy Liddell even
wrote, on February 2, 1941: “Another
point that occurs to me us that the Germans must now be wise to the game of
collaring an agent and forcing him to use his wireless set in our interests.
There is in fact evidence that they are doing it themselves.” Yet
the Abwehr used what SNOW fed to them concerning passports and ration cards to
supply the LENA agents, and lure them to their doom or glory. Exactly who was
deluding whom by the time SNOW was regarded as a high security risk may well
never be established. A triple agent works only for himself, trying desperately
to play one employer against the other in order to survive. Interrogators of
Ritter after the war concluded that he had realized that SNOW had been turned,
but, when Ritter wrote his memoir in 1972, he gave no suggestion that SNOW was
anything but the genuine article. Ritter believed that SNOW was being used by
MI5, but that the Abwehr had outwitted them. He certainly would not wanted to
have admitted to his bosses in Berlin at the time that he had been deluded.
Other Abwehr officers interrogated were more outspoken and direct about their
suspicions: I shall explore these in a later chapter.
and RSS gained much from these experiences. They learned about the enemy’s
equipment, and the RSS was able to test out its interception and
location-finding techniques when they applied their sensors to TATE’s
transmissions, in order to evaluate how effective they were. Yet this was a
precarious time for MI5: the seeds of the successful XX Operation were quickly
sown, but Liddell and others also came to realise that allowing ‘undetected’
radios to operate would require the existence of a ham-handed and inefficient
detection service for them to evade interception. This concern would continue
to dog MI5 throughout the war – the fear that the Germans must assume that the
wily British had better radio-detection finding equipment than appeared to be
the case, and would thus assume that their agents were not operating freely.
And, as I pointed out in my article on ter Braak, is it not somewhat ridiculous
to think that, in densely-populated Britain, with a citizenship well advised to
look out for suspicious activity, that an obvious foreigner, with accented
English, could traipse round the country picking up information, and then
return to some lodging where he managed to conceal the existence of a lengthy
aerial while sending in his reports?
the Abwehr, their LENA spies were dispensable. The espionage service did not think
they would survive long, and it had low expectations of their deliverables. As
a July 1944 report submitted jointly by MI5 and SIS declared: “According to the
calculations of one Abwehr officer, eight-five per cent of the agents dispatched
were never heard of again; ten per cent turned in information which was either
worthless or false; the remaining five per cent provided sufficient accurate
reports to justify the expense of the remainder. The first two clauses of this
sentence may have a greater validity than the last.” (The last observation was
perhaps a tacit hint of the XX Operation.)
Agent Richter may have been sent in to verify whether TATE had been
turned, but the fact that the Abwehr never learned anything from Richter did not
deter them. The Abwehr no doubt had it confirmed for them how difficult it was
to infiltrate an island nation. MI5, even at that time, took pains to ensure
that manipulated transmissions took place in locations where the spy was
supposed to be, but the state of the technology on the German side at that time
was probably inferior to that of the British: even with appropriate
triangulation, transmitters could not be ‘pinpointed’ to much less than a
circle of 20-mile radius, and there is no evidence that the Germans bothered.
Yet the awareness of RDF as a technique for counter-espionage would have
registered with them, and would come sharply into focus a few months later.
a coda, and a point to be picked up later, the British apparently recognized,
after the war, the Germans’ superior techniques in detection and
direction-finding. In his 2011 memoir of his days at Bletchley Park, Secret Days, Asa Briggs writes that GCHQ
acquired a field north of Bletchley that was later named Furzton. “A radio
direction finding system developed by the Germans was installed there. Judged
superior to all existing British systems, it consisted of an outer circle of
forty and an inner circle of thirty smaller metal masts,” he adds. Yet a search
on ‘Furzton’ fails to come up with anything else. (Google led me to Hinsley’s
and Tripp’s Codebreakers, a book I
own, but with no incidence of ‘Furzton’, which does not appear in the Index.) To
learn more, perhaps, we must wait for the Official History of GCHQ to appear
next year. The overarching conclusion must be that, after the initial
excitement in setting up W Division in MI5 in August to track illicit wireless,
the transfer of RSS to SIS, and the establishment of the XX Operation,
accompanied by the belief that all German agents had been turned, incarcerated
or executed, concern about illicit radio
transmissions, whether they came from foreign embassies, maverick civilians,
Soviet spies, or even undetected German infiltrators, the demand for
prosecution of such activity through urgent and efficient location-finding went
somewhat off the boil.
Nazis had their equivalent of Britain’s Radio Security Service, the Funkabwehr,
sometimes translated as the Radio Defence Corps. Yet the Germans came rather
later to recognize that the threat of domestic illicit wireless communications
required a more committed function. Created by Hans Kopp in 1940, the
Funkabwehr reported to the OKW, the Oberkommando
der Wehrmacht, and readers may find references to the OKW/WNV/FU, a
typically precise but wordy example of how the Germans described their units, Wehrmacht Nachrichten Verbindungen
Funküberwachung, loosely the surveillance of radio intelligence and
a good history of the Funkawehr remains to be written, as German records are
unavailable. For a detailed history of the organisation, the
Wikipedia entry at https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Funkabwehr
is reasonably solid, but has
a very shaky chronology, is written too much in the passive voice, and in my
judgment contains several errors. * Moreover, it is highly
dependent on a 1946 report compiled by the RSS itself, which can be seen at https://drive.google.com/drive/folders/0B_oIJbGCCNYeMGUxNzk0NWQtNzNhZi00YWVjLWI1NmItMzc2YWZiZGNjNjQ5,
a folder in Christos T.’s excellent website dedicated to military intelligence
matters. While this account lacks the benefit of historical distancing, and
integration of much new material, I shall not repeat here the detailed
evolution of the Funkabwehr’s capabilities.
The danger of referring to Wikipedia, or indeed any on-line source, is that the
entry may change suddenly, or even disappear. The Wikipedia entry on the
Funkabwehr has been expanded considerably since I started this article.]
and Great Britain had long maintained ‘Y’ (signals interception) capabilities,
the focus of which had been primarily diplomatic and political communications
of foreign powers, but assumed interest in military plans and operations as war
approached. Britain had listening posts throughout the empire, and Germany had
established a similar network within the German borders. The Nazi interest in
the years before the war appears to have been directed more against the Soviet
Union: by 1937, from their intercept stations at Treunbritzen, Jüterbog,
Königsberg and Breslau, they were picking up a large amount of NKVD traffic
stretching from Murmansk to Odessa. This activity no doubt continued during the
period of the Nazi-Soviet pact (August 1939to June 1941), and helped Hitler
prepare for operation Barbarossa.
Yet, as the awareness of possible clandestine wireless activity within each nation’s borders increased, approaches to the problem started to diverge. True, the general methodology and use of technology were very similar, but the geographical and political constrains led the adversaries down different paths. First, the borders in the European theatre of operations remained stable for the British: the Germans had to deal with their fast expanding occupation of new territory. While it provided for a steady increase in suitable locations for interception stations (e.g. Brest, in France), it also increased the possible quantity of subversive communications. It also put more strain on inter-unit communications, since secure landlines were no longer available, and thus exposed more secret information transfer to interception itself. Moreover, the operations were frequently taking place in environments hostile to the invaders, with the risk of sabotage, and, certainly, non-cooperation.
aspect was duplication of effort. It sometimes comes a surprise to learn how
fragmented the approach of a totalitarian nation could be to intelligence
matters. Hitler encouraged rivalries, however, and there was a large absence of
trust between organisations. In fact, the function of the Funkabwehr was split
between the OKW unit and a section of the Ordnungspolizei
(or Orpo) called the Funkabwehrdienst,
which was under the control of Heinrich Himmler. Both units were responsible
for the location and apprehension of those transmitting illicitly, but for most
of the war their missions were divided by what could seem to be an absurd and
unproductive distinction. Orpo was responsible for identifying clandestine
operations against the government and the regime, while the WNV/FU directed its
efforts against activities against the state. How they could confidently conclude
which category a transmission belonged to before analysis, or why they
discounted the fact that some factions might effectively be fighting both, has
not been explained. Britain, on the other hand, maintained a unified control
over interception, and generally benefitted from the large amount of trust that
existed between the military, the political, the interception and the
cryptographic organisations. It was not until 1943 that the Orpo and the WNV
divided their tasks more sensibly along geographic lines.
critical matter that the RSS report brings to the surface is that of distortion
of signals, and how the proximity of electrically conductive objects of
dimensions close to the length of the wave could affect both reception and
interception. What the receivers of transmissions
initiated from agents in enemy territory were interested in was content, and weakening of the signal
would affect successful reception. Communication was one-to-one: the receiving
station would be the sole unit dedicated to trying to capture a transmission. Distortion
could mean that the signal was lost completely, or fell into the skip zone. Location was not important to such
receivers: indeed, transmitters were encouraged to move around (with those
clumsy antennas – but not too far afield so as to jeopardise the signals plan) to
evade detection. Interceptors, on the
other hand, were rarely interested in content:
they probably did not have the resources or time to decrypt the messages. What
drove them was location, so that they
could quickly eliminate (or turn) the offending agent and equipment. Distortion
might not mean complete loss, as multiple detectors had to be in place to
perform the triangulation necessary, but it could mean that a faulty indication
of location was reached.
it was all a hazardous business. The presence of interfering objects
(buildings, mountains), by radiating signals in new directions, can confuse the
process of triangulation, or cause the assumed location to be challengingly
large. This distortion can also occur simply because of the erratic behavior of
the ionosphere, especially at time of sunrise and sunset. Guy Liddell reported,
on February 10, 1941 that ‘the
alleged parachutist’s [JAKOBS’s] transmitter from this country was heard again on
Sunday but turned out to be a communication between Paris and Cracow’. In
a 1944 report, written by British Intelligence to prepare its officers for the
invasion of Europe, appears the following observation: “The skip distance of
any transmitter is calculable in normal circumstances; but, occasionally, owing
to temporary changes in the atmosphere freak results may be obtained, as in the
summer of last year when the short wave transmissions of Chicago police cars
were clearly (and tiresomely) audible on the south coast of England.” (I am
confident that this pamphlet, available at Kew at WO-279-499, was written by
Hugh Trevor-Roper: he was the Abwehr expert, and the prose has a donnish flair,
and is regularly sprinkled with Latin phrases.) We should also remember that
Britain’s scheme of catching all groundwaves by the dispersion of interceptors
throughout the country could not conceivably be mirrored in Germany, let alone in
its expanded territories. The dynamics of the cat-and-mouse game played between
spies and enforcers must be evaluated in this context.
therefore, the reputation of German counter-intelligence as a ruthless and efficient
machine, which has been encouraged by war-movies, and even historians of SOE,
is certainly overstated. The Funkabwehr suffered from duplication, tensions of
centralisation and decentralisation, inadequate training, poor communications,
a shortage of qualified amateurs (unlike Britain’s Voluntary Interceptors), too
rapid job movement, insufficient mobile units, sometimes poor quality
equipment, and lack of appropriate language skills. Coordinates provided by
remote RDF were frequently too vague to ensure successful local house-hunting.
Certainly the discovery of the Soviet Rote Kapelle spy network in the summer of
1941 moved operations into a higher gear, but the organisation in France (for
instance) remained weak until as late as 1943. The RSS report assesses the
technical resources at the outbreak of the war as being ‘completely
insufficient’, given the rapidly occurring military victories and the increase
in occupied territory’. It tells a story of frequent failure, that it took
weeks or even months before a transmitter was at all precisely located. Yet the
RSS seemed also to be under the impression that the number of Allied W/T agents
was rapidly growing in 1940, an illusion that is undermined by the histories of
SOE that have appeared. The more innovative technologies and approaches of the
Funkabwehr thus occur well after the period under the microscope in this
chapter, and will be analysed in a future episode.
SOE and Wireless:
SIS organisation in Europe had been greatly weakened by
the beginning of war, and the Venlo incident on November 9, 1939 (whereby the
Abwehr captured SIS officers in Holland, and gained detailed information about the
service’s structures and personnel) crushed it. SOE was launched, with a
charter written by the dying conservative Neville Chamberlain, and under the
ministerial direction of the socialist Hugh Dalton, in July 1940. Its mission
was to perform subversion and sabotage in those countries of Europe controlled
by the Nazis. While Chamberlain declared that its operations should be tightly
woven in to the greater military strategy of the war, this facet of its
decision-making was never really clear. Was it supposed to disrupt the Germans’
efforts to produce war material? Was it designed to initiate minor diversionary
attacks that would draw a high degree of military and police resources away
from other arenas? Or was it intended to help prepare for the eventual invasion
by softening up targets, and impeding troop movements? All these goals were
troubled by the fear of what reprisals the Nazis might take on such incendiary
activity, and what effect that might have on local morale. Moreover, SOE was
always competing for resources – especially for aeroplanes and wireless
equipment – and those often unfulfilled demands, hampered by other departments
that questioned SOE’s effectiveness, meant that SOE had a very chequered
history in the first two years of its existence.
sources on SOE are fragmented. M. R. D. Foot’s SOE in France, originally written in 1966, and reissued in 2004, is
an ‘official’ history, part of the Government Official History Series, but, as
is clear from its title, covers France only. (In an interesting sidenote, Foot
himself, in his 1976 work, Resistance,
refers to SOE in France as a
‘quasi-official’ history.) Foot wrote another volume covering all of SOE, SOE: The Special Operations Executive
1940-1946, in 1984, but it is not an ‘official’ or even ‘authorised’
history. Its chronology is hazy, and it provides little detail on wireless
equipment and procedures. After the war, an internal history was commissioned
from an Oxford don, W. J. M. Mackenzie (who had not been employed by SOE), and
was eventually published, in 2000, as The
Secret History of SOE: The Special Operations Executive 1940-1945. In all
three books, the coverage of wireless is very sketchy until 1943, after SOE’s
own research and manufacturing facilities had been set up, and Colonel Gubbins
rather belatedly introduced more rigorous signals procedures. Various memoirs
refer to the use of wireless, but they are not always reliable. A number of files have been released to the
National Archives in recent years, but few records of SOE’s activities in the
early years appear to have survived fire, destruction or the weeders, and what
have endured are (so far as I can judge) all undigitised
This report focusses on SOE in France, as it was the earliest field
of operation, and it is here that the most pressing lessons of wireless usage
were learned. SOE had two units working in France: the F Section, which was run
as a British operation, and the RF section, which was a Gaullist unit for which
French nationals only could work. F thus depended mainly on agents of
Anglo-French nationality who spoke the language fluently. And it took many months before SOE sorted out
is mission, recruited and trained people, overcame political opposition, and
were able to start placing agents deep inside France. It had infiltrated a few
agents equipped with wireless by sea, but their communications were apparently
spotty. The first confirmed F agent to be parachuted in with a wireless set was
Georges Bégué (aka George Noble), who
arrived in unoccupied central France on the night of 5/6 May 1941.
It might be expected that the local populace would be more
supportive of parachutists sent in to hinder and harass the invader, but it was
not necessarily so. Up until Barbarossa, the French communist party had
welcomed the Nazi allies of Moscow, and rapidly had to change their stance
after June 1941. Before then, however, communists were a threat to subversive
activities as possible informers. Even in Vichy France, considered to be safer
territory, many peasants were loyal to the administration, and would betray
illicit movements to the authorities, and hence to the Germans. SOE’s policy
with wireless operators was open to criticism: it would send in a team of three
(agent, courier, and wireless operator) rather than devolving the task of
transmission and receiving to the agent him- or her-self. Frequently the operator spoke no French, and
might be idle for weeks at a time, which meant concealment and exposure were a
constant concern. Yet progress was slow. Lorain (see below) writes that there
were only two clandestine stations working in France for Section F in May 1941,
and a year later, still only seven.
Thus one has to treat Foot’s claims about the rapidity with which
the Germans developed direction-finding techniques with some skepticism. He
reports that ‘the German
wireless interception service had detected Bégué’s transmissions
almost at once, had begun to jam them within half a week.’ The Vichy police was
involved, and ‘D/F vans joined in the search’. Elsewhere, in a general
commentary, Foot writes: “The German intelligence service’s wireless
direction-finding (D/F) teams were numerous and efficient, probably better than
the British, for whom Langelaan [George Langelaan, Knights of the Floating Silk, p 220] claimed that if ever an
unidentified transmitter was heard ‘in a manner of minutes a first, rough
direction-finding operation had been accomplished.’” Again citing Langelaan, Foot
then goes on to make the following rather nonsensical observation: “If the
transmitter was anywhere in the United Kingdom, in less than an hour experts
equipped with mobile listening and measuring instruments were converging on the
region where it had been located.” Why an official historian like Foot would
rely on Langelaan as a source, when the author was an SOE agent who probably
received the information second- or third-hand, is not clear. (Admittedly, Foot
would not have been able to find reliable information in the archives, but that
is no excuse for such slipshod reporting.) From other accounts (such as
Liddell’s Diaries), it is quite clear that, during this period, the approach by
RSS to suspicious signals was much less rigorous.
for what the capabilities of the Nazi teams were, ‘converging’ might mean
location-finding rather than physical movement, but the proximity of Augsburg
and Nuremberg to each other [see below] would mean any attempt at triangulation
with Brest on sites in Britain would be a very haphazard, as well as pointless,
exercise. Nevertheless, Foot goes on to
write: “French operators in the field early discovered that a long transmission
in a large town would probably bring a detection van to the door within thirty
minutes. The Germans soon worked out a technique for establishing what part of
a town a clandestine operator was working in, by cutting off the current
sub-district and noting when the clandestine transmission was interrupted; then
they would concentrate their efforts on the sub-district affected, and hope to
track down quickly at least the block, if not the building, the set was working
his general book about SOE, Foot reinforces the message. “In towns, sensible organisers and wireless
operators took care not to see too much of each other; for the wireless
operator was always the circuit’s weakest point. The Germans, like the British,
kept a constant watch on every wireless wavelength, and it took only twenty or
thirty minutes for a team of their armed direction-finders to get within a few
yards of an operator who was fool enough to remain on the air so long. Relays
of thirty clerks with cathode-ray tubes in the Gestapo’s headquarters in the
Avenue Foch in Paris, for example, kept up a continuous watch on every
conceivable frequency. When a new set opened up, it was bound to show up on a
tube; the frequency could be read off at once. In a couple of minutes, alerted
by telephone, direction-finders at Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg were starting
to take cross-bearings; within a quarter of an hour, detector vans would be
closing in on the triangle a few miles across that the cross-bearings had
indicated. Some of SOE’s early organisers in France and Belgium insisted on
sending messages so verbose that their operators had to remain at their morse
keys for hours at a time; and, inevitably, they were caught.
It did not take long for Gubbins, as head of
operations, to spot what was wrong, or for the signals training school at Thame
Park to start to impress on operators – as Beaulieu explained to organisers –
that mortal danger lay in trying to send long messages by wireless.”
Yet all this is undated, and
perhaps an indication why this analyst is wary is that Foot immediately follows
this last passage with the following: “By
the winter of 1943-4 – hardly before time – there was an order: no wireless
telegraphy (W/T) transmission was to last longer than five minutes.” In the
context of the war, this is an enormous chronological jump. Foot lists several
other operations (Forman and Labit, DASTARD, Bloch) in the second half of 1941
that he claims were terminated because the operators stayed on the air too
long, and were trapped by the efficiency of German detection-finding. Yet it is
perhaps more likely that many of these agents were betrayed by sloppy
tradecraft, or visible behavior that prompted the interest of citizens who felt
it their duty to report such activity before they were arrested for ignoring
it. In fact Mackenzie tells us that Labit (the wireless operator) had to escape
to the Unoccupied Zone without his set, while his partner Cartigny was probably
shot. Some gave the game away by weak identity cards, or obviously wrong serial
numbers on notes, the same types of error that had bedevilled the LENA spies.
In Resistance, Foot undermines his
argument by writing: “Early in the war, the Germans worked the process [of
interception] clumsily, but by the spring of 1943 they had main intercepting
stations in Augsburg, Berlin, Brest, Nuremberg, and no doubt elsewhere.” Again,
a distressing lack of precision, and a big chronological leap.
In his largely pictorial study of the use of wireless in the French Resistance, The Clandestine Radio Operators in France (2011), Jean-Louis Perquin presents an arresting account of the German special unit ‘dedicated to the detection of clandestine emissions’, describing a complex web connected to three detection-finding centres located in Brest, Augsburg and Nuremberg, and backed up goniometer trucks with equipped with the latest technology. Yet, again, chronology is vague: the text indicates that the procedure described was deployed in 1943. There is no evidence of the state-of-the-art in 1941. Perquin explains that RF agents were trained by British instructors, and also dependent on SOE equipment. “In Autumn 1941”, he writes, “following the numerous loss (sic) suffered by those specialists and considering how such losses were threatening the very existence of the networks, the SOE decided to create a security course in Grendon, Buckinghamshire.” Yet, if losses of agents were due to overlong transmission times, or failure to switch frequencies, one might think the problem could have been swiftly addressed through tighter discipline. Gubbins’s edict of winter 1943-44, after ‘it did not take him long’ to work out what was happening, simply seems absurd.
It appears that Foot and
Perquin were using the same source, but it is not clear what it is. In Resistance, Foot declares his heavy
reliance on Pierre Lorain’s Armement
Clandestin (1972), a book that also appears in Perquin’s Bibliography,
which was translated and published in English as Secret Warfare in 1983. Lorain gives a much more reasonable account
of what happened, and it is worth quoting three paragraphs in full.
“German detection methods had
made decisive progress in 2 years. In 1941 and 1942, the localization of a
clandestine station was extremely difficult. It could be carried out only if
the operator transmitted on the same days of the week, from the same site, and
on the same frequency during several consecutive hours. Direction-finding
operations were not yet automatic, and panoramic reception was non-existent.
The scanning of all usable frequencies was necessarily very slow and left substantial
In addition, during the final
approach, each Gestapo agent had to hide a heavy suitcase containing a receiver
with a loop aerial under his coat. A Tirolean cap or Basque beret tilting down
over his ear just barely hid an earphone. Their general posture aroused the
curiosity of even the most naïve of passersby.
The arrest of a radio operator
thus required long months of continual surveillance, the operation was
complicated by the fact that if a clandestine operator was spotted in the
unoccupied zone of France (controlled by Vichy), the Germans could only signal
the suspect frequency to the French radio control group at Hauterive near
Vichy. The latter promised to look into the matter, but secretly warned the
clandestine station to move as quickly as possible, and then supplied the
Germans with an almost completely false position.”
The Funkabwehr article I
referred to before contains nothing about operations in France against SOE. I
have been advised that the unit’s records reside somewhere in Moscow, so one cannot
judge how much of Lorain’s account is true. Yet it seems as if Foot’s official
history tries to deflect attention away from other systemic problems in SOE’s
deployment of wireless. (His comments above need to be transferred en bloc to the state of the game in 1943
onwards, a period I shall cover in a later article.) A careful reading of
Mackenzie would suggest that a number of severe problems affected both the F
and R/F operations in France until 1942: a lack of radio expertise for
establishing reliable wavelengths and schedules, leading to failed use;
struggles with transporting and concealing the heavy equipment; inappropriate
choices of agents who had unsuitable personalities; careless practices by the
wireless operators, who were not always trained properly; inappropriate
centralisation of transmissions because of shortage of equipment, leading to
intense and long broadcasts; betrayal by agents (such as the notorious
VICTOIRE); the unreliability of the local police in Vichy France. It was easier
for SOE to blame German direction-finding.
And it seems more probable that
other territories – and another enemy – were the arena in which the Reichssicherheitshauptamt improved its
detection capabilities. As I shall explore, the Funkabwehr was provoked into
quick reaction after Barbarossa (June 1941), as the Red Orchestra started
tuning up, primarily in Northern France and Belgium. Colonel Buckmaster, who
headed F Section, reported that, as late as August 1942, in the Occupied Zone,
he had only two wireless sets, of which one was operational, while in the
Unoccupied Zone, the numbers were six and four. In Belgium, however, the
following distressing tale emerges, as German counter-action took place. In the
First Quarter of 1941, two out of 9 sets had been captured and operated by
the Germans: the figures for the next three quarters were 5 out of 6; 8 out of 8; and 7 out of 8. I shall return to the topic of whether German RDF advanced faster in Germany, because of the activation of the Red Orchestra after Barbarossa, and explore how soon operations in France were able to take advantage of such breakthroughs. Overall, my conclusion would be that the sluggishness with which SOE mobilised its wireless communications, and the slow but steady steps by which the Funkabwehr moved into action against Communist spies in the latter half of 1941, suggests that Foot’s suggestions of hyperactive German detection-finding in 1941 are premature, and that the losses were due to other causes.
In any case we know that SOE
was inhibited by the fact that SIS controlled its cyphers and communications
until June 1942. Up until then, it had had to accept whatever equipment SIS
gave it – clumsy and heavy apparatus. As Foot writes: “Agents were not best pleased at SIS’s first
offering, a plywood box that weighed some 45 lb. (20kg), already looked
old-fashioned and contained a Mark XV two-valve transmitter fitted with a morse
key, and its power-pack, a 6-volt car battery.” Foot does not describe the
travails that agents lugging a 45-lb. suitcase around an unfamiliar terrain
must have experienced, let alone the difficulties in setting up a suitable
aerial without drawing attention to themselves.
The conclusion about SOE’s
(and specifically Gubbins’s) track-record concerning wireless up to 1942 must
be that the operation was needlessly clumsy. It cannot all be blamed on
SIS. I read A. R. B. Linderman’s Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin
Gubbins and the Origins of Special Operations Executive (2016) in the hope
of acquiring some deeper insights. Linderman informs us that a Frederick Nicholls
served under Gubbins as director of signals during World War II, but that is
the only mention that Nicholls merits in the Index, and the story is
disappointingly thin on wireless matters. Maybe the skills of Nicholls, who
‘had managed to establish wireless communications with the British Embassy in
Kabul during the Third Anglo-Afghan War’ (which occurred between May and August
1919) were stretched by the exigencies of communications in Nazi-occupied
Europe if that was his premier achievement. The clumsiness of SOE’s wireless
strategy would however endure until the end of the war, as I shall explain in a
While the Comintern and its allies had enjoyed successful
experiences with illicit wireless transmission in the 1930s, Stalin’s purges of
1937 and 1938 had required much of the Soviet Union’s networks in the West to
be rebuilt. It was not hard to find native Soviet sympathisers outside Germany,
since the propaganda of communism as the only effective bulwark against fascism
had worked effectively both on the disenchanted ‘toiling masses’ as well as on
the guilt-ridden intellectuals. Since Hitler had either executed, incarcerated
or forced into exile any members of the Party, or outspoken supporters of
communist doctrine, Germany remained a more difficult country to penetrate. But
neighbouring nations provided a rich source of potential spies and informants:
many eastern Europeans found homes in the Low Countries and France, for
instance, and were able to fade into the background without being conspicuous.
Britain had its own nests of spies, of course, both from the older universities
– who had successfully detached themselves from any association with the
Communist Party of Great Britain – as well as more traditional working-class
enthusiasts. But these eager adherents to the cause of the proletariat needed
managing, and directing in their efforts. They needed intermediaries, and they
need a mechanism for getting the fruits of their espionage back to Moscow.
Soviet espionage had three arms – the Comintern, the NKVD, and military intelligence, the GRU. David Dallin, in his epic Soviet Espionage (1955), informs us that, as early as late 1935, “Only a comparatively small Soviet apparat now remained in Germany: the greater part of the network had either been dissolved or moved abroad. The OMS had moved with the Comintern’s West European Bureau, the WED, to Copenhagen; the passport apparat had gone to the Saar, and Soviet military intelligence to Holland and France; the party leadership had migrated part to Prague and part to Paris.” Thus what survived the purges (with the GRU the most hard-hit) was still a very fragmented approach to intelligence-gathering, with no guarantee that it would be efficiently shared back in Moscow. In Volume 2 of his biography of Joseph Stalin, Waiting for Hitler, 1929-1941, Stephen Kotkin writes (p 496) that a dozen NKVD station chiefs abroad were arrested in 1937-1938, and that, in Berlin, ‘Stalin cleaned house, arresting nearly every NKVD operative there’. The GRU suffered even more, with 182 operational staff arrested in the same time-period. Yet the growing menace of Germany and Japan meant that, under Beria, a rapid repopulation of the networks had to be accomplished.
The International Brigades in Spain had constituted a useful
source of potential operatives, as well as an opportunity to grant new
identified to infiltrated agents, by virtue of the passports that had been
stolen from Brigade members when they entered Spain. Alexander Foote was a
famous example of such a footsoldier who was plucked from obscurity to be sent
to Switzerland to received training in wireless operation from Ursula
Kuczynski, agent SONIA. At the end of 1938, agents in their dozens started
arriving in Europe, as well as the Far East and the United States. Like the
Nazis, but with far more deliberation and craft, the Soviets chose, or allocated
citizenship to, agents who would never arouse suspicion owing to domestic
(Russian) nationality. The complex borderlands of the old Russian Empire
provided a rich environment for muddled heritage and absence of reliable
documentation, in order to allow unverifiable accounts of life-history to be
Accounts of training for wireless activity are thin on the ground.
SONIA’s memoir (which in these technical aspects is probably much more reliable
than in political observations, such as her absurd accusations of imperialistic
infiltration helping to crumble the Soviet Union) is certainly not typical. For she was respected enough to avoid the
purges, and also had had a long experience in China as a wireless operator
before being recalled to Moscow for leave and ‘discussions’ in late 1935. Her
account is unfortunately very muddled in chronology, but it is educational in
that it clearly identifies some of the problems that illegal wireless operators
would experience anywhere in Europe. After a brief interlude with her family in
London, she was then sent to Danzig, then a ‘Free City’, where she was
instructed to ‘obtain residence permits, find work to legalise our existence,
and set up our transmitter for radio contact with the Soviet Union’.
SONIA had been instructed how to build a transmitter in China, by
her lover, Ernst, and claims that she received a response from Moscow
immediately she set up her apparatus. Her task was to advise a group of
labourers undertaking occasional sabotage at a shipyard building U-Boats in
Danzig (where the Nazis were outrageously breaching the constitution that the
city had been granted), and transmit on their behalf. At one stage, she and
Rolf moved to a new house, but discovered that proximity to a power-station
made signals inaudible, and she had to take her equipment to an apartment – a
lesson that probably stood her in good stead later in England. Yet she
immediately stumbled dangerously: the apartment block she chose was the
residence of several Nazis, and one day the wife of them asked her whether the
reception on her radio had been affected by interference. Her husband had told
her he believed that someone was transmitting secretly, and was going to
arrange for the block to be surrounded. SONIA even mentions triangulation of
radio detection, which would have been a very early indication of the Nazis’
fears – and progress in allaying them.
SONIA did not take the right steps, however. She broadcast again,
from the same apartment at the same time, instead of the middle of the night
when neighbouring radios would not have been on. She should have moved to a
friend’s apartment, or returned to Warsaw. It appears that she was in awe of
doing anything without Moscow’s approval: the outcome was that she was ordered
to return to Poland as she could no longer transmit. Thus, when she met her
boss, Comrade Andrey, in Warsaw, she asked to receive further training in
wireless construction and use in Moscow. That need was reinforced by her
receiving a severe electric shock one night, burning her hand. SONIA would pay
two visits to Moscow during 1937 and 1938 (she admits that the details of each
congealed into a blur). Her return to Poland was uneventful. She had to return
to Danzig to help a comrade set up his transmitter, and admits that he was ‘slow
on the uptake’, so maybe Moscow’s selection and approval processes for its
agents were not very rigorous. Communist fervor may have been considered more
important than intelligence and the right psychological profile. SONIA felt she
was not accomplishing much: “The Danzig people had their own radio operator,
the Bulgarian comrade produced little information. I only transmitted once a
In August 1938, it was decided to send her to Switzerland, where the plan was to infiltrate agents into Germany, to make contacts at the Dornier aeroplane factory in Friedrichshafen. And that is where the story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ picks up, with her eventual successful establishment in Britain in the spring of 1941, and her activation as a wireless agent a few months later. She met up with Sándor Radó, who as agent DORA had been appointed head of the Swiss network, but had no wireless skills. In his memoir, Radó writes how Sonia visited in him in December 1939, and how the following month his radio contact with Moscow had been established. He also describes a visit in March 1940, set up by Moscow Central, by someone he knew only as KENT (see below). KENT spoke authoritatively about the necessity of secure wireless procedures, stressing the importance of changing the number and times of transmissions as often as possible ‘as the best protection against being located’. He added that operators should move around different residencies, as well. “Keep changing them if you can – but again, avoiding any kind of system. The thicker the fog, the better.” It suggests, again, that a prematurely intense fear of radio-detection capabilities existed with the Soviets, and that their listeners back in Moscow would be prepared to listen around-the-clock for their agents’ transmissions. But it was easier to preach such practices than to follow them.
The Soviet defector Walter Krivitsky also gave hints of subversive
radio activity in Central Europe. In his memoir In Stalin’s Secret Service, he related how Marguerite Browder, the
sister of the head of the US Communist Party, Earl Browder, had graduated from
the school in Moscow that specialised in wireless competency, and had then been
sent abroad as an illegal with an American passport issued in the name of Jean
Montgomery. “During 1936-1937 she worked in Central Europe where she laid the
ground for the establishment of our secret radio station,” he added, with an
unhelpful lack of precision. If we can rely on Krivitsky, shortly before his
recall to Moscow Sergei Spiegelglass, sent on a deathly mission by his OGPU
boss Yezhov, tried to get Krivitsky to assist in the assassination of his
friend and colleague Ignace Reiss. When Krivitsky demurred, he then asked
Krivitsky to hand Browder over to him, as he had an ‘important job’ for her in
France. The implication in Krivitsky’s rather fractured account is that he
managed to warn Browder of what Spiegelglass had in mind for her, and that she
was able to continue with her wireless activities.
In his biography of Kitty Harris, The Spy With Seventeen Names, Igor Damaskin informs us that the
European network was issued with much more sophisticated wireless equipment at
the end of 1936. Kitty Harris, who was Marguerite Browder’s sister-in-law, was brought
back to Moscow for retraining in January 1937. She apparently showed little
aptitude, and it was determined that ‘any more technical training would be a
waste of time. She was later assigned to be Donald Maclean’s handler in London
and Paris, where she specialised in photography.
Yet wireless usage in broader Europe at this time was sparse. It
was not necessary. Moscow had its eye on the long term. The presence of Soviet
legations or embassies in most capitals of the West provided a mechanism for
information to be collected and then sent by diplomatic bag or courier back to
Moscow. As a long-term measure, a wireless centre was set up in Brussels, where
Trepper, as the new leader of the western organisation, replacing Walter
Krivitsky, installed himself in March 1939. Yet, as Heinz Höhne tells us in Codeword Direktor, Trepper left it
dormant, concentrating first on recruiting a team of informers, and enlarging
his contacts with the world of business, the military and diplomacy. Even when
war broke out, there was no quick change of operation. Only when Nazi Germany
started its invasion of Belgium and the Netherlands in May 1940 did hasty
adjustments have to be made. Even though the Soviet Union was in a
non-aggression pact with Germany, its needs for information on Germany’s plans,
and the reactions of France and Great Britain to Nazi movements, placed
increasing pressure on Trepper and his cohorts to deliver.
Communication switched to radio sets when the Germans occupied
Brussels, and the staff of the Soviet legation was withdrawn. In August, 1940,
Trepper moved with his mistress to Paris, leaving there the unreliable playboy
Sukolov-Gurevich, known as KENT, as the only agent capable of representing the
GRU network. The Sokols were then recruited as wireless operators by the Soviet
Embassy, and trained by someone called Duval. By June 1941, the Soviet Military
Attaché, Susloparov, had moved to unoccupied France, and Trepper was in Vichy
on the day that Germany attacked the Soviet Union. Meanwhile, in Berlin, more
urgent plans were made in April 1941 to establish direct radio contact between
the cells led by Arvid Harnack and Harro Schulze-Boysen, the Soviet spies in
the heart of the Nazi administration. (Even if Stalin did not believe the
rumours of a Nazi invasion, some of his intelligence officers were presumably
more realistic.) In late May, two transmitters were sent by diplomatic bag from
Moscow to Berlin, ‘one a small battery model and the other a large
mains-powered set portable enough when broken down to fit in a suitcase’, as
Costello and Tsarev describe. Harnack was chosen to be the operator, but
declined, delegating it eventually to an engineer named Behrens, while
Schulze-Boysen took up the challenge for his group, with much more eagerness,
selecting a factory technician called Hans Coppi.
Costello and Tsarev report further: “The Berlin groups had
established several safe locations on the upper floors of trustworthy
colleagues’ houses in the countryside outside the city where the transmitters
could be assembled and their aerials run up into the attics in order to
communicate with Moscow. The Centre arranged to keep a listening watch on set
hours and days of the month, which were multiples of the numbers four and
seven.” Coppi received training from the local NKVD office, and successful
transmissions were made in the beginning of June, and picked up and decrypted
in Moscow. The infrastructure was in place when Operation Barbarossa was
started. As Dallin records the situation: “This,
then, was the setup on the eve of the Soviet-German war: a number of espionage
agencies with radio facilities and sources of information, organized but
dormant, in Belgium and Holland; rudimentary apparats in France and Denmark; a
few trading firms established as covers in Brussels, Paris, and Geneva; a
promising start in Switzerland; and a group of enthusiastic but inexpert
operators in the German capital.”
Thus, as the wartime alliances
solidified in the summer of 1941 (with the USA to join the Allies a few months
later) mainland Europe entered its most intense couple of years of illicit
wireless transmission and detection. Many agents – as well as dedicated
wireless operators – did not have a suitable profile for the tasks at hand, and
had been sketchily trained. The equipment they used was frequently clumsy and
unreliable. The support structures behind them had not always analysed the
variables of distance, sunspots, terrain, or mechanical interference in depth
enough to define the wavelengths and times that they should best operate. They
frequently disobeyed best practices in their transmission techniques, and
ignored rules of basic spycraft. But they all probably had an exaggerated sense
of the state-of-the-art of enemy detection and direction-finding techniques at
the time, and how efficient it was, and certainly used such capabilities as an
excuse for sloppy behaviour when agents were apprehended. All this would change
very rapidly as the battle of wits intensified in the second half of 1941, when
Nazi Germany honed its capabilities in the face of the Rote Kapelle activity. The
major significant conclusion is that, as Germany intensified its capabilities for
detecting the threat of domestic (or imperial) illicit wireless, Britain
moderated its own home coverage. Through policy and organisational change, it concentrated
much more on transmissions in mainland Europe, and on the interception and
decipherment of official transmissions made by the Nazi war machine.
The final observation to be
made is to note the anomalous attitude of British Intelligence towards its Nazi
enemy during this period. While crediting an exaggerated efficiency and skill
to the Abwehr’s counter-espionage activities, in the form of effective Radio
Detection- and Location-Finding, it attributed the obvious ill-preparedness of
the agents (training, language, identification papers, etc.) it sent to Britain
to the stupidity and clumsiness of the same organisation. Yet, while priding
itself on its superiority in both regards, the British intelligence services
(in this case MI5, RSS & SOE) developed casual habits in its interception
of domestic illicit wireless, and also sent agents to the continent who were likewise
unready or unsuitable for the challenges of working in hostile territory.
(I am again grateful to Dr.
Brian Austin for giving me guidance on matters of wireless technology. Any
mistakes or misrepresentation are mine alone.)
Sources, and for further reading:
SOE in France
by M. R. D. Foot
SOE, the Special Operations Executive by M. R. D. Foot
The Secret History of SOE by William Mackenzie
M. R. D. Foot
by Terry Crowdy
by David Dallin
Codeword Direktor by
Unternehmen Seelöwe by
Rediscovering Irregular Warfare: Colin Gubbins and the Origins of
Special Operations Executive by
A. R. B. Linderman
Secret Warfare by
The Clandestine Radio
Operators by Jean-Louis Perquin
Wireless for the Warrior,
Volume 4 Clandestine Radio by Louis Melstee and Rudolf F.
The Third Reich is
Listening by Christian Jennings
SNOW: The Double Life of
a World War Spy by Nigel West & Madoc Roberts
by David Gordon Kirby
by Ursula Hamburger
by Sándor Radó
by John Lukacs
by Ben Macintyre
by David Kahn
Fighting to Lose
by John Bryden
by John Costello and Oleg Tsarev
Secrets of the British
Secret Service by E. H. Cookridge
Codebreakers: The Inside
Story of Bletchley Park by Alan Stripp & Harry Hinsley
Bodyguard of Lies
by Anthony Cave-Brown
by Asa Briggs
by Kenneth Macksey
The Spy With Seventeen
Names by Igor Damaskin
In Stalin’s Secret
Service by Walter Krivitsky
The Guy Liddell Diaries,
edited by Nigel West
The National Archives at Kew, London
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
Monitoring the home security system at 3835 Members Club Boulevard
[Warning: This article may not be suitable for readers of a sensitive disposition. It describes encounters with information technology that may be disturbing to some.]
“Nowadays if there is an error in the input program the computer not only detects it but gives the approximate description and location of the error and recommends procedure for correction.” (Gerald S. Hawkins, in Stonehenge Decoded, 1965)
When IBM hired me as a trainee Systems Engineer in 1969, it was not because of my data processing skills. That day in late August, when I walked into the Katherine Street office in Croydon, Surrey (shortly before the branch moved into the new building on Cherry Orchard Road), I did not know the difference between a punched-card and a paper-clip. It was not a classical career beginning, and not a carefully-planned strategic move. In an indecisive third year at Oxford, I had applied to take the Certificate of Education after the completion of my degree in Modern Languages, but soon began to have doubts. On a weeklong visit to a local primary school in Purley, Surrey, before the first term started, I had innocently queried the headmaster as to why the classes did not appear to be learning multiplication tables by rote. “Oh, Mr Percy!”, he replied with a condescending smile. ‘We don’t do tables any more!” For this was the era of ‘child-centred’ learning, where every infant had to discover for him- or her-self that 7 x 8 resulted in 56, and so on. I recall the way that tables and mental arithmetic were drilled into my generation about fifteen years earlier, and how the pattern of number combinations has stayed with me ever since. In 1968, however, I was entering the world of Progressive Education.
Perhaps my aspirations were also checked by my term of teaching-practice. Having had a term of almost total inactivity, owing to my being on crutches because of a rugby injury, I was informed, in December 1968, that I was urgently needed as a replacement at Bognor Regis * Comprehensive School, as the previous teacher of Russian had been fired for getting one of his pupils pregnant. I did not learn the cause of the summons until I arrived: the school was also going through a painful merger of a grammar-school with a secondary modern, which also dampened what remained of my enthusiasm. Halfway through this term, I decided that a quick return to the classroom was perhaps not the most life-enhancing prospect to be contemplated. Taking advice from some outfit that suggested that my interest in chess, bridge, crosswords and logic puzzles might open up some doors in the computing industry, I secured interviews with some manufacturers, of which NCR and IBM were the most satisfactory. I took care to complete my Certificate of Education so that I could have a back-up career lest the corridors of business found my talents wanting.
[* Bognor Regis is a coastal town in West Sussex. It gained its regal addendum after King George V recuperated there, and the monarch’s dying words have been apocryphally reported as ‘Bugger Bognor!’. When Ursula Kuczynski (agent SONIA) needed a place for her children to stay while she returned to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1938, she left them with a friend in Felpham, which is part of Bognor. There is no truth to the rumour that I was in 1969 undertaking, under deep cover, some early sleuthing into Sonia’s contacts.]
Unfortunately, IBM was a little slow to snap up the opportunity to make me an offer, so I had to write to them to explain to them that this entrepreneurial youth was thirsting to make his contribution to the computing revolution. Perhaps the company was waiting for such a show of initiative, since I was rewarded with an appointment at the Head Office in Chiswick, to meet one of their Personnel Managers (no ‘Human Resources’ in those days: employees were certainly not ‘associates’, and customers were assuredly not ‘guests’). I was delighted to find that this benevolent soul had also studied Russian at Oxford. He started to quote me a quatrain of Pushkin’s, which I was happily able to complete. I passed the interview. I was in.
Before I started the eight-week basic training course at Sudbury, Middlesex, I had a week in the office, where I was directed to a small room, and given a Programmed Instruction text on IBM’s System/360 to work through. These matters were all rather daunting to me, and I recall I had to interrupt my study to ask the Systems Engineering Manager what the meaning of some concept was. It all comes back to me quite clearly: I wanted to know what was special about the sixteen ‘registers’ of any 360 computer system. Registers were (and no doubt still are) the mechanism by which the locations of computer memory were addressed, but they also seemed to have some properties that lent themselves to high-speed arithmetic. Somewhat confused, I asked the manager whether he could explain their nature to me. “Oh, I never really understood all that stuff”, he said. “I wouldn’t worry about it.” I think we adjourned to the squash court soon after that, and I gave him a good runaround in return.
The Systems Engineering class was tough. All new recruits were required to go through the same basic training, to make sure they were immersed into the IBM way of doing things. I recall a few students who had already served several years with IBM’s rival, ICL, and were thus already very familiar with the concepts and practice of data processing. Most of the graduates straight from university had scientific backgrounds, and had used computers in their laboratory work. There were times when I wondered whether I would make it. My ability to learn seemed to correlate exactly with the ability of the individual instructor to present topics in schemas that matched how my brain was able to integrate new ideas, namely very logically, with clear step-by-step evolution, and no grand jumps that left canyons of unexplored territory behind. Gradually, things began to make sense. I completed the three stages of the training about a year later, and was ready to roll.
Unfortunately, IBM was not sure at that time exactly what the role of systems engineers was, as anti-trust threats had meant that the company could not hand out systems engineering resources to its customers for free. At the same time, we were neophytes eager to learn by practical experience, while the projects we were given were haphazard, not always suitable, and not always educational. I soon learned that I liked coding, appreciated the value of well-designed and well-implemented systems, and became very frustrated with poorly written documentation. And I did have a knack for working out what was at fault when things went wrong, although that experience was marred by a disastrous project where I was asked to make some changes to a Vehicle Scheduling Package for a prominent and demanding customer. There was no guide to how the product worked, and I stumbled for weeks in trying to tweak it to meet the idiosyncratic needs of the customer. I received no help: the project was simply abandoned, I believe. But two lessons started to emerge in my mind: i) the knowledge that there was a logical explanation for every computer failure, and ii) the importance of good diagnostics being built into any product.
I move forward seven or eight years, and two jobs later. I was working as European Customer Service Manager for a small American software company. Our flagship product was known as a transaction-processing monitor, an adjunct to the operating system that handled communications with a network of terminals and managed the user programs that the customer wrote to provide on-line business functions. One of the challenges with this software configuration was that a motley set of technologies all operated in one partition, all clamoring for resources, and all potentially stepping on each other. Much of the code was written in low-level Assembler language, which provided greater manipulative power, and faster execution speeds, but also provided opportunities for corrupting storage occupied by other software. Frequent were the ‘core dumps’ (we still called them such, even though ferrite cores had been superseded as memory components by then) that were mailed in by customers when the system blew up, and we were unable to detect what had happened over the telephone. Then the support team would compare the state of computer memory with source listings of our product, in order to find out where our product (it was frequently the fault of the product) had gone wrong.
One particularly stubborn problem endures in my memory. A prestigious customer had experienced an execution failure, not recreatable, that caused the partition to explode. (The customer was actually the institution where the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, for whom Sonia had acted as courier in 1942-43, was working when he confessed in January 1950: there is no truth in the rumour that I was sent in by MI5, under subterfuge, to undertake an audit of its security procedures.) The requisite hundreds of sheets of print-out were sent in. No one could work out what had happened, and I devoted hours and hours to it. Eventually, I determined that it looked as if an error routine in IBM’s telecommunications package, VTAM, had failed to save properly the register contents that had been passed to it (and which had to be restored when the routine had completed its work), as all processes used those same registers I had been puzzled about back in 1969. I called the customer with my tentative suggestion, and asked him to pursue the matter with IBM. The next day he called back: indeed, one of the error handlers was incorrectly saving and restoring registers. He apologized for not searching for, and applying, the fix that would remedy the problem. Much goodwill was gained.
The second experience that reinforced my earlier lesson was in helping to roll out a new feature in the product, something called ‘Multiple Record Hold’ (MRH). The previous version had allowed only one file record to be held at a time, which was a heavy constraint. If a user application wanted to prevent anyone else accessing a customer record, say, while it then checked an inventory record that it might want to deplete, the systems designer was in a bind. MRH addressed that problem. But our developers designed and coded the feature too quickly and carelessly. Several occasions would arise where the programmer would try to invoke the feature inappropriately (for example, invalid keys, or multiple requests to the same file), or the software detected something illogical. It would return an ‘L’ code to the program, indicating such. But the programmer had no idea what it meant. There must have been several dozen places in the source code where an ‘L’ error code was returned. We, as support personnel, had to trace through the record of programmatic requests, and the source code listed, to detect at what point in the logic the ‘L’ had been returned, and then provide an explanation. But it could all have been made so simple: an auxiliary area existed where a return code could have been posted, and a corresponding piece of documentation could have explained what every code meant, with an enormous benefit in productivity. I was just about to start coding this enhancement when I was invited to work as Director of Technical Services for the parent company in Norwalk, Connecticut. At that time the flagship product was on the way out: the feature was never implemented. And so my wife and I, with ten-month-old son, moved to the USA.
[In parenthesis, for the more technical among my readership, I should also mention here that an unusual feature of this product was that the Control Program was written in a high-level language, COBOL, a decision presumably made in the interests of clarity and maintainability, not in the cause of performance. But when some advanced features were added to the product, it became necessary for the CP [not the Communist Party] to access low-level bitstrings, something COBOL cannot do. Thus an Assembler (low-level) language subroutine called GETBITS was added, to return statuses for further decision-taking and logic-branching. I recall very clearly how one of our most demanding – and shrewdest – customers in the UK, when undergoing performance problems, ascertained, through the use of a testing device, that GETBITS was consuming 6% of all machine cycles on its 370/145 – an enormous amount. Furthermore, when I inspected the new CP code, I discovered that, in many circumstances, the GETBITS routine was being invoked, but the CP was then taking branches that were completely independent of the results of the call! When I vaguely suggested to the President of the Company (who had probably written much of the original code himself) that I could rewrite the whole CP in Assembler language on my weekends, and deliver a much faster system to our customers, he declared, very seriously, that anyone who attempted that would be fired. He still relocated me to report to him in Connecticut, but later gracelessly told me that he only did so because the Director of R & D persuaded him. On such whims do whole lives change.]
The reason for this long introduction is that I recently had to replace my home PC, and experienced massive problems. For some months, my old HP Pavilion had been warning me of its imminent demise. The fan had broken, and the device was presumably in danger of overheating. I would get a warning message each time I re-booted, and occasionally Windows would blow up. So shortly before Christmas, I bought an HP Envy Desktop, preparing to install it after my winter break. I did not buy a printer or monitor: I had an HP Photosmart printer that was working well, and, only a year ago, I had had to replace the monitor that had suddenly died on me with a new model. This new monitor had HDMI support, but, since my PC was so old, it did not support an HDMI connection, and I thus had to use the older-generation VGA connector. This apparently meant that I had no sound support on my computer, but that was no great loss, even though I could not listen to music while I was working. I got used to it. Early in January, I thus loaded up the printer with new ink cartridges, backed up the files on the old PC, checked the cable configurations to ensure I knew what socket went in where, and unpacked the new machine.
To start with, all went very smoothly. True, Windows10 was a bit of a shock, with some features apparently dropped, and some weird patterns of activity occurring, such as random duplication of keyboard strokes. But overall it worked, and I restored my files (well, partially: but that’s another story.) Then I suddenly realised that I was not getting any sound from the computer, despite the new HDMI connection. The driver was okay, the system told me that the graphics was working properly, and yet no sound emanated from the monitor. It took me a while to work out that, all that long year ago, I had been sold a monitor with no sound support. Well, it was my fault for not asking, I suppose, but I think the salesperson was at fault, as well. Maybe he just wanted to move that product off the shelf. After all, why would I want to move from an antiquated broken monitor that supported sound to a spiffy new one that didn’t? There’s a lesson.
Next, I tried the printer. And here is where the problems started. Word documents would not print at all; PDFs would print, but very faintly. Crossword grids from the Web printed out partially. Emails from my queue printed fine, however. (I have one to prove it, as it relates to my problems.) What was going on with my device, which had been working so well a day beforehand? What caused such erratic behavior, where some items came out fine, but others were ignored? I did not believe it was a dirty printhead problem (something I had encountered and fixed a couple of years ago). My first step was, on my next trip into Wilmington (thirty-five miles away) to go to Best Buy, the store where I had bought both the printer and the PC, and ask for their advice. They immediately said ‘buy a new printer’, hinting that many users suffered from the same or similar experiences, as it would be too expensive to investigate the problem, and printers were so cheap. But I wasn’t going to give up that quickly.
After looking on the Web for users with similar complaints, I tried a number of things. I reloaded the printer driver (the current version was dated October 2015, which was perhaps not encouraging). I deleted the device, and added it back in. I reset it. I set it up as a default printer. I tried printing test pages. At some stage I logged on to the Microsoft and HP support forums, where ‘experts’ (but not employees of the respective companies) would generously offer suggestions to fix the problem. Nothing worked. Eventually, an HP employee joined the forum, and tried to help me. I shan’t go through all the steps he recommended, but he ended up giving me secret codes to enter on the printer itself, to determine why it wasn’t able to operate any off-line functions either. But even this process did not work as he outlined, as it was interrupted by another message. At this stage, we agreed that I should call up HP customer support.
Since the problem appeared to be with my newly warranted PC, I called the number for desktop computers, and was soon speaking to a support representative (in India), to whom I gave all the relevant information. Then, when I described my problem, he said that I needed to speak to the Ink-jet support group, and gave me another number to call. I went through the same process, was given a case-number, and started providing details of my problem. But when I gave the representative the Serial ID of my printer, she (in the US, this time) told me that I would have to pay for support, as the device was no longer under warranty. This did not completely surprise me – I have paid for such telephone support from HP beforehand – but I was not actually in the mood, given the trials I had already experienced, for having to pay for diagnosis that I really felt was HP’s responsibility. I somehow convinced her that she should at least provide an initial investigation of the problem for free. So we downloaded some software that allowed her to control my computer while I watched.
What happened next was rather disturbing. The representative asked me what make of router I was using, and when I responded ‘Ubee’, she expressed a degree of shock, almost one of recognition, as if the Ubee-Photosmart combination was a known toxic one. I tried to determine whether that was the case, but received no reply, as she started manipulating the Ubee tables on my PC. Clearly, she knows what she is doing, I said to myself. And then the connections were lost. First, the phone contact disappeared. She sent me a message indicating such, so I quickly sent her a text, imploring her to call me back. Then that connection went dead, too, and I was left stranded, with the shape of my router tables unknown, and the problem unresolved.
At least I had a case number. I called back, but this time was routed to another call-centre in India. Even though I gave the representative there the case-number, and told him what had happened, he claimed he could do nothing for me. I rung off in exasperation, hoping that the contact in the USA would call me back. But nothing happened. I suspect that the supervisor of the representative trying to help me in the USA had interrupted the process, probably reprimanding the young lady for not charging me for such support time, and thus had broken off all contact. I shall never know. Even when an HP customer relations person (who had presumably kept an eye on the forum, and had been alerted by the HP technician who joined it) contacted me afterwards, he was powerless to find out what had been going on. But to abandon a customer half-way through a process when the device was under the control of a remote technician was scandalous, in my unhumble opinion.
So I gave up, and bought a new printer, from Epson. Never again any HP products for me.
Perhaps it was all a strange coincidence, but one afterthought came to me. If my printer had enough intelligence in it that, when I ran out of ink, and inserted new cartridges, it could send a message in real-time to HP Central to encourage me to buy a replacement set, maybe it was also smart enough to detect that it was now being driven by a more modern, faster computer, and that a process akin to what we systems engineers used to call ‘graceful degradation’ should occur, so that the user would have to buy a new printer? That was the immediate recommendation of the technician at the company who sold me the printer, remember. After all, Apple has admitted slowing down its devices to preserve battery power, and Volkswagen fudged emissions when engines detected that they were running under laboratory tests. I would not be at all surprised if something like that happened.
And then my wife’s laptop computer started having problems. She would be told that an important Security update needed to be installed on Windows10, after which the process would hog her computer for hours on end, only to fail with the message ‘0x800700c1‘, when it was 99% complete. We ignored it for a while, since I was mightily consumed with sorting out my own PC, but I at last got round to investigating. ‘Contact Microsoft Support’ was the guidance, so I went on-line, and was soon directed to a document titled “You receive the error message ‘Something went wrong’, when attempting to install the latest version of Windows10.” I was amazed to learn that the company offered ‘many steps that I could try’, as there were ‘many possible reasons your device may be unable to update to the latest version of Windows’. This was extraordinary. A specific error message had been issued, yet the software had no clue as to what circumstances had cause it to fail, and the user of a consumer product was supposed to experiment with all these approaches in order to resolve the problem? What on earth would the Little Old Lady from Dubuque do?
I decided to request an on-line chat with a support person. This did not take long, and I was put in touch with Parthiban, in India. We set up the protocol by which such persons take over control of the computer, and he soon decided that the problem was due to a corrupt database, and a conflict with Norton Security. He initiated the update again, but he had to sign off before the process completed, leaving me with a link that I could invoke in case of failure. I was given a case-number, and waited for an hour or so. And then the installation failed again. So the next day, I used the reinvocation, and was before long involved in another on-line chat, with Deepthi. Now Deepthi did not appear to know what he (or she) was doing, as I could watch him wandering aimlessly around HP configuration options. My mistrust was justified, as he suddenly signed off the session without letting me know why.
Accordingly, the next day, I reinvoked the link, and noticed that I was 93rd in line, so decided to try again later. The queue had then diminished to 21, so I tried it again, and was soon engaged in an on-line exchange with Praveen. His diagnosis was that some cookies needed to be removed, and Norton Security had to be disabled for a while, as it was inhibiting the execution of the Microsoft Update routines. So I watched as he cheerfully went through the whole process leading up to the installation of the updates. Then he left me to watch for an hour, until the update failed again.
Yet, when I tried to re-invoke the link to resume my interchange, I was told that it was no longer valid. This time, I resolved to speak to a real person, called the support number, and, after a wait of about fifteen minutes, I described my problem to the support representative. She took my number, and soon I was talking to another agent, named Tony. (By asking him what time it was where he was working, I determined that he must be located somewhere in the Mid-West.) Anyway, while he seemed to be unable to look up my Call Number, and discover what approaches had already been applied, Tony sounded much more confident, and judged that I needed a larger partition size to run the routines. So I watched as he downloaded the Minitool Partition Wizard (how come Microsoft does not supply this facility?), which ran for about half an hour. That task having been successfully completed, he said he was going to re-install the whole of Windows10, so that I would not have to deal with a separate Security Update. I was getting a bit anxious as this process started, so I begged him to stay on-line until it completed, indicating that he could multitask with other customers while the update continued. Yet he was so confident that his solution would work, he said we should ring off: he did however commit to calling me in another hour to check how things were going.
Predictably, the update failed. After about an hour and a half of installation, verification, preparation and execution, I received a short message, with no diagnostic code: ‘Windows installation has failed’. And this saga would not be complete unless I informed you that, no, Agent 4 (Tony) never called me back, despite his promise. I had been abandoned again.
Before finally agreeing to give up completely, and simply to ignore the messages emanating from Microsoft that were constantly bugging my wife, as she worked at her computer, informing her that her security was at risk, and that updates still needed to be installed, I decide to post a plaintive appeal on the Microsoft Support Forum. I summarized all that had occurred, and expressed my frustration at Microsoft’s shoddy installation software, and its even more unprofessional support agents, who appeared to apply guesswork in trying to resolve problems, and repeatedly left consumers like me hanging dry. My appeal was quickly picked up by a Microsoft employee who has been very patient in going through my experiences. Yet his final recommendation, after I gave him the status of my Windows10 System Build, and maintenance applied, sounded very much like the process that Agent 4 had undertaken. When I pointed this out, he urged me to try what was (he said) a very simple process: indeed, he himself had written the on-line document that guided it. So I sat down, went through his steps, disabling Norton Security and trying again when that package told me that one of Microsoft’s modules was unsafe, and had had to be removed. About ninety minutes later, the Microsoft software, having gone through download, installation, verification, and preparation, started its execution. After half an hour, I received exactly the same message that had appeared in the previous try: ‘Windows installation has failed’.
The Forum Observer responded promptly, requesting that I send him (via OneDrive) a couple of log files from an obscure Windows folder. I am not sure why no one had thought of inspecting such data before (I had in fact suggested such a course of action several days earlier, as I suspected such files should exist somewhere). I had not used OneDrive (Microsoft’s file-sharing service on the Cloud) before, but I retrieved the logs, followed the instructions from my iPad, created the OneDrive link, and posted it on the Forum page.
And then I received the following amazing message from the moderator:
“A Windows upgrade requires DISM utility to work and in your case DISM fails which then triggers a rollback.
Right-click Start>Command Prompt (admin) and type in:
DISM /ONLINE/ CLEANUP-IMAGE/ SCANHEALTH
If that fails with 193 post back the DISM log present at C:\Windows\Logs\DISM\ again through Onedrive”
As John McEnroe would say: ‘You cannot be serious!” And don’t you just hate it when your DISM fails? So I went ahead, and yes, the SCANHEALTH failed with a 193, and I posted on the forum the link to the DISM log on OneDrive. Isn’t this exciting?
The next news was not good. My contact thought that the damage ‘was beyond repair, and that I would either have to reset Windows or do a clean install. He pointed me to another link, where a Mr Carmack had published a document titled ‘Clean Install Windows 10”. Mr Carmack attempted to sell the process by describing it as ‘a game-changing learning experience that will make you permanently the master of my PC’, going on to write that ‘to stretch this out over days or weeks you’ll learn better how each change affects performance.’ But typical home users of PCs do not have ambitions of becoming geeks, taking up Windows maintenance as a hobby. The only game I wanted changed was the one of getting Microsoft to fix its software. The steps that Mr Carmack outlined are monstrous (see https://answers.microsoft.com/en-us/windows/forum/windows_10-windows_install/clean-install-windows-10/1c426bdf-79b1-4d42-be93-17378d93e587), and must be very prone to error. And, even if I went through all this, what were the chances the problem would recur? I replied in this vein, thanking the moderator again, suggesting it was perhaps time to give up. ‘So what are the implications of simply ignoring the attempts by Windows to install the Security updates? Maybe the laptop should simply be replaced?’, I asked.
There is an easier way, replied the moderator. He outlined some other steps, recommending that I do a reset, ‘as it might remove the corrupt driver which is preventing the upgrade’. He had no idea what might have caused the problem, and suggested yet another site ‘where the experts might be able to help you better’. But, if a driver has been identified as defective, I wondered, why could it not be replaced? At this stage, I concluded that I had had enough. My wife and I would live with whatever nonsense Microsoft imposed on us, and replace the laptop with something from Apple when the time came.
It was difficult for me to imagine that my wife’s PC was the only one on the planet undergoing such experiences. She is a woman in a million, I know, but I do not understand how her rarity should extend to the tribulations on her laptop computer. And the exercise also reminded me how little way the software industry (or Microsoft, at any rate) has come in fifty years. The company delivers an upgrade to a system that is in many ways incompatible with the previous versions, and it has disabled certain functions. The on-line documentation frequently does not match how the screens of system information appear, so one is left groping. The diagnostic codes given when the software encounters problems are meaningless and obscure. One can find jokey tutorials on YouTube, but they are badly designed, often delivered in mumbles, and do not explain enough about the Whys of a particular feature. The support personnel who try to help the bewildered consumer are poorly trained, not provided with proper tools, and thus engage in guesswork. And, of course, we fogies have to deal with tracking down those tiny labels with product serial numbers, pasted in the most inaccessible places on the equipment, that have to be read with a magnifying-glass.
What galls me even more is that we (in the USA, anyway) are currently facing a bombardment of in-your-face advertising from Microsoft that promotes its new expertise in Artificial Intelligence as ‘Empowering Imagination’. It depresses me to think how such technology will be abused by a company so obviously inept at managing the release and maintenance of its own software. Perhaps the techniques of neural networks should be applied to Microsoft’s own configuration and diagnostic problems before they are imposed upon an unsuspecting world? Yet again, we have been here beforehand. I recall the surge of enthusiasm about AI about thirty years ago, when all number of hyperbolic claims were made about the advent of rule-based systems. Now we hear it again, with all sort of nonsense about systems that will be able to teach themselves how to be more effective, and thus achieve all manner of breakthroughs in medical diagnosis, or fraud detection, or whatever. Computers can be programmed to give results that appear to reflect intelligence, such as beating grandmasters at chess, but that does not mean that they are inherently intelligent.
Maybe this generation of AI is different, but a caveat remains. A key principle of computing science has been the verifiability of systems – the fact that code must be inspected to determine whether the logic has been implemented according to specifications. (If proper specifications actually exist, of course, which is a whole other problem: see Multiple Record Hold.) Thus I used to experience the process of ‘structured walk-throughs’, where one’s peers would wade laboriously through the code a colleague had written to apply more stringent tests that might escape the test data environment. If the onus of decision-making has now been delegated to the computing system itself, who now takes responsibility when something goes wrong? I was both amused and perturbed to read, in the New York Times, earlier this month, how engineers at Google have started analyzing how computers using neural networks reach the conclusions they do, as if the experts are concerned about the level of auditability that these systems provide. “Understanding how these systems work will become more important as they make decisions, like who gets a job and how a self-driving car responds to emergencies”, the article declared. (I write this the day after the Uber self-driving car in Tempe killed a pedestrian during a test-run.) Their concerns are appropriate: I smell litigation over unexplained, and inexplicable, disasters. The paradox is that, if the processes of AI are verifiable, the technology is considered mundane and unimaginative, while, if they are not, it is uncontrollable and dangerous. What do you think, HAL?
* * * * * * * * * * * *
A few years ago, the Times of London informed me it could no longer issue a cheque for the occasional fees for published Listener crossword puzzles without my submitting a complex form that confirmed that I was a proper US-resident tax-payer. The cost to complete the forms required was almost as much as the crossword fee, so I didn’t bother. Last year, my bank in the UK (with whom I have had an account since 1965) told me that I would have to change my deposit account into a long-term instrument that would mature in three years, as it was no longer allowed to pay interest on accounts to overseas customers. This month, I received a letter from Barclaycard (with whom I have had a sterling credit card for about forty years) advising me that my account would have to be closed in early April unless I could provide proof of a residential address in the United Kingdom. Thus another convenience (for paying magazine subscriptions, downloading files from the National Archives, purchasing gifts, even ordering a copy of my own book from amazon to send to a reviewer – all in sterling) disappears. I have maintained my UK citizenship, have paid all tax at source, as appropriate, and have always declared all my (puny) UK-based income to the US Internal Revenue Service. It is comforting to know that the British authorities are cracking down on the real risks to currency and tax fraud, and thus discouraging me from any further investments or expenditure in the UK, while allowing all that other soiled money from Russia and other places to be brought into London for the purposes of acquiring valuable assets and helping the economy.
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@ . . .) , and waited for a response.
And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.
I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.
I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.
When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.
Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.
After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.
As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?
At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.
Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.
But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.
Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks. In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible. I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”
I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.
I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.
Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content. These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”
Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).
I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.
On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.
Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?
* * * * * *
The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tim_Berners-Lee. He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.
Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”
Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:
“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?
For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.
The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.
Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”
My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.
* * * * * *
Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that ̶ but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services ̶ but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?
The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye ̶ for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”
I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).
But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155 ̶ ‘as favored by grandparents’.
* * * * *
Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted. I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive. I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.
I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.
Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”
So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.
The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.
While reading Robert Tombs’ superlative The English and Their History, I came across the following sentence, describing Samuel Johnson’s and Richard Addison’s London: “The mix of commerce and culture produced what has been termed ‘the public sphere’ – places and institutions for exchanging information and forming opinion, which lay between the purely private world and the official realm”. What could be more representative of that sphere in twenty-first century Britain than the pages of Prospect magazine, ‘the leading magazine of ideas’, as it promotes itself?
The February issue of Prospect included an article that outlined what has to be done with technology – primarily that concerning the use of social networking – to keep the citizens of the UK safe while protecting their liberties. The following earnest and superficially innocuous paragraph caught my eye: “The big technology companies have a crucial role – and unique responsibility – in building the security that keeps us free and safe. We trust them in part because they are private. Co-operation is much preferable to legislation. The next step is for all parties to collaborate on a way forward to benefit from new technologies while doing what we can to stop those who would do us harm. This kind of co-operation between public and private sectors is needs in free societies where security underpins our privacy, private enterprise and liberal democracy.”
But this simply will not do. To begin with, this contrast of ‘the public sector’ and ‘the private sector’ is hopelessly naïve. Whereas a government (or its civil servants) may be said to represent the populace, there is no such entity as ‘the private sector’ that may be negotiated with. A free market consists of a number of competing entities trying to differentiate themselves. Politicians frequently display a very wooden understanding of how markets work: I recall David Cameron’s meetings with ‘industry leaders’ to discover what it is they need from government. But what today’s leading businesses want will be protection in some way from any upstarts who threaten their turf. The needs of the market are not the same as the needs of current market-leaders. (Think of Norwegian Airlines threatening the established transatlantic carriers.) The FBI made the same mistake in thinking it could negotiate with ‘Silicon Valley leaders’ as a method of resolving this problem of encrypted information on PDAs and cellphones. This echoed the policy of President Obama, who in 2015 made a point of trying to ‘cooperate’ personally with Silicon Valley on these issues. Just this week, Obama officials again met representatives from technology and entertainment companies (but not chief executives) to discuss ways of combating extremists on-line. They still do not get it. This is a matter of law – to be addressed either by an interpretation of existing laws, or by new legislation. Parliament, not parleys.
For example, had a similar advance been suggested to computer technology leaders twenty-five years ago, the list of vendors would have probably included IBM, ICL, Data General, DEC, Wang, Honeywell, Siemens-Nixdorf . . . Apart from IBM, where are they now? Apple is presumably the IBM of today, but there is no guarantee that the ‘big technology companies of today’ (e.g. Facebook, Google, Snapchat, Twitter and Buzzfeed? – my computer industry advisory panel supplied me with these names) will dominate in ten years’ time. How long ago were Nokia and Blackberry the leaders in personal networking, for example? So how can such a suggested initiative encompass the coming vendors of tomorrow? Schumpeterian creative destruction is always at work.
What’s more, it would be illegal. Since most of the companies affected are American, any move by such to meet to discuss shared endeavours would have to be considered under anti-trust legislation (something that should probably have taken affect with Obama’s Affordable Healthcare Act, by the way.) For such companies to ‘collaborate’ with government to define pseudo-voluntary technology ‘standards’ (that would then be implemented at the whim of each company’s R & D design and implementation schedule) would be called for exactly what it is – conspiracy. And this aspect does not even touch the issue of whether such measures would be effective – which I shall not get into. This issue has been gaining intense attention in the past month, when Apple’s Tim Cook has again been assailed by the US Department of Justice. Cook has spoken out vigorously with the opinion that any back-door capabilities into a supplier’s encryption system would be abused by the bad guys. At the same time, Apple is planning for greater encryption of customers’ data in its ‘cloud’, which will make things even more difficult for law enforcement. (‘Ou sont les nuages d’antan?’) Yet in an Op-Ed piece in the New York Times on February 23, William J. Bratton and John J. Miller gave as their concluding argument for demanding that Apple should unlock its iPhone that Google and Apple ‘handle more than 90 percent of mobile communications worldwide’, and thus should be accountable for more than just sales. If such a rule does apply, it should apply to everyone.
So who is the supposed expert making this fanciful suggestion of bonhomous co-operation? Step forward, Sir John Sawers, ex-head of MI6, who indeed wrote the article. Not only that, Sawers advertises himself as having been ‘Chief of the Secret Intelligence Service (MI6) between 2009 and 2014’, and his second paragraph reminds us immediately of his credentials: “As MI6 Chief, my top priority was identifying terror attacks against Britain planned from abroad.” Sawers is then described as being the Chairman of Macro Advisory Partners.
What in heaven’s name is the ex-head of MI6 doing exploiting his past career while claiming to be an independent consultant? And how can he suggest that his role therefore gives him some credibility in representing the requirements and desires of the ‘public’ sector? There cannot be a more private organisation than MI6, whose very existence was withheld from the British public until 1994, of which no archival material has been released after 1949 (the year where the authorised history stops), and whence any retiring head a decade or two ago would have quietly folded his tent, picked up his ‘K’ (although Sawers had that already), and shimmied off to Torquay to tend his geraniums and take up square-dancing. Now such persons write their memoirs – surely in contravention of the Official Secrets Act ̶ and pontificate with the chattering classes in the press.
This dual role of subtly promoting MI6 connections and policy, and claiming to be an independent advisor, does not sit well with me. Can MI5 and MI6 not speak openly themselves about such policy? What do they think of this grandstanding and self-promotion, I wonder? Or has Sawers undergone some shift in position now that he has left his official intelligence hutch behind? If so, shouldn’t he describe what that is?
It gets worse, in a way. A quick search on the Web for Macro Advisory Partners shows that the firm has a Global Advisory Board of seven (see http://www.macroadvisorypartners.com/the-firm/global-advisory-board ), of whom the prominent names are Kofi Annan (seventh Secretary-General of the United Nations), David Milliband (of Labour Party renown, and now President and CEO, International Rescue Committee), and William J. Burns (President of the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, an institute which regrettably sounds like one of those Soviet fronts of the late 1940s: indeed, the Soviet spy Alger Hiss was its President between 1946 and 1949.) I didn’t see Cherie Blair’s name there yet, but she is no doubt a very busy woman. Sawers was Britain’s permanent representative to the United Nations between 2007 and 2009, so he no doubt developed some good contacts then. But is he running the show, or he taking his advice from this group of Kumbaya do-gooders? How will his undoubted steeltrap mind have been affected by such company? No wonder his recommendation for solving the technology problem is to get everyone around a table in peace talks.
I believe this is all highly irregular. Sawers surely has a pension that he can live off comfortably: he does not need this jump into the ‘private’ sector, where, ironically he can be much more expansive about his ideas than he was when working for the government. The undoubted impression that casual readers will gain from this promotional journalism is that there is some consistency in MI6 policy from the Sawers regime to the current set-up. That must make it very difficult for the present leaders of MI6 – and MI5, of course – to develop policy and work it through the normal processes, dealing with this distracting noise in the media. If they agree with what Sawers says, are they admitting that they are likewise influenced by pollyannaish internationalist wishful thinkers, instead of by steely pragmatism? And if they disagree with him, what does that say about continuity of purpose and perspective within MI6? It is all very messy, and, in the jargon of today ‘unhelpful’. Sawers should not have been allowed to exploit his past experience for monetary gain, and should have been prevented from entering the public sphere in this way: his employers should have insisted on a more stringent termination agreement.
Lastly, all this reinforces the unhealthiness of the transfer of careers between government and industry, and also demonstrates how absurd the UK Honours System is. ‘Captains of industry’, managing directors of private companies publically traded, should be looking after the interests of their shareholders. They do not provide ‘services to the industry’, for which gongs are awarded. In addition, they have their own generous rewards, being almost without exception overcompensated by crony boards of directors, and remunerated handsomely even if they fail. Public ‘servants’ (who all too often act as if they were our masters) should be expected to perform their jobs well: if they do not, they should be fired. And when they retire from highly-important positions, they should do exactly that – retire.
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Readers who followed my representation to the New York Times in my December blog may be interested to know of the follow-up. Having gained no satisfaction from the Public Editor (Margaret Sullivan), I wrote an email to the Executive Editor, and then one to the CEO, Mark Thompson. These attempts having resulted in not even an acknowledgment, I then sent a letter to Mr. Thompson, with a copy to the publisher, Mr. Sulzberger. Again, I have failed to extract even an acknowledgment from either gentleman. Did Mr. Thompson learn such manners at Merton College, I wonder?
I have since challenged the Public Editor on the Times’s somewhat irregular decision to give Madeleine Albright the opportunity to explain away her Clinton election campaign gaffe (about women supporting other women lest they go to hell) in an Op-Ed column. Again, no reply. And then, Ms. Sullivan announced earlier this week that she was leaving the position early to join the Washington Post. Am I entitled to imagine that perhaps she became frustrated in dealing with the bizarre journalistic principles at the Times, and that the paper’s failure to act on my complaint pushed her over the edge? (‘Dream on, buster.’ Ed.) As for Mr. Thompson, he left a mess behind at the BBC, and I expect further messes at the Times. This week, the paper ran a story about the post-mortem at the BBC over the matter of protected ‘stars’ like Jimmy Savile, who were allowed to get away with sexual malpractices in a corporate culture of fear at a time when Mr. Thompson was Director-General of the BBC (2004 to 2012). Mr. Thompson’s responsibility for that culture – or even the fact that he led the organisation – was omitted from the article.
In conclusion, I highlight an item from this month’s Commonplace entries, taken from Hugh Trevor-Roper’s waspish Wartime Journals: “The Christ Church manner, that assumption of effortless superiority, is said to be galling to those who weren’t at Christ Church. But we can’t expect the world to be run for the benefit of those who weren’t at Christ Church.” Indeed. Stop looking shifty, Thompson. (February 29, 2016)
A few years after I became an analyst/consultant at the Gartner Group, I was introduced by one of the DBMS vendors to the thoughts of Geoffrey Moore, who had some original ideas about the challenges of high-tech companies in introducing their disruptive products to mainstream buyers. His book, ‘Crossing the Chasm’ (1991) quickly became a classic in technology circles (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Crossing_the_Chasm), and I adopted his ideas in evaluating and guiding the strategies of companies in my bailiwick. Some CEOs claimed to be familiar with the theories, and even to putting them into practice, but since the distinct message in the early years of the Technology Adoption Life Cycle was ‘focus’, they understandably struggled to keep their companies in line. ‘Chasm’ thinking requires a proper marketing perspective, but independent VPs of Marketing in technological start-ups are a bit of a luxury, and VPs of Sales always think of Marketing as something that supports their Sales Plan, rather than of their Sales Plan as something which realizes the Marketing Plan. Trying to close a deal to unqualified and unsuitable prospects is frequently an exciting challenge for such types.
As my career at Gartner wound down, and I considered retirement, I chose to move to a small software company in Connecticut. I was quickly brought down to earth: as a Gartner consultant, I had earlier been engaged by the company for a day’s work, at quite high fees, during which the managers attending dutifully wrote down all I said, and nodded appreciatively. When I became an employee, however, and started suggesting (as VP of Strategic Planning) to the CEO how she might want to change some of the processes (such as not having the R & D plan changed each month after the latest visit by a customer or prospect to the development facility in Florida), I was swiftly told: ‘You don’t understand how we do things around here, Tony’. That was not a good sign. So I picked up my thinking about Chasm Crossing, tried to talk my CEO out of an acquisition strategy (devised to show muscle to the Wall Street analysts, but in fact disastrous), and reflected on how financial analysts misled investors about markets. I had learned a lot from the first software CEO I worked for, back in the early 1980s, but he was another who didn’t understand the growth challenge. ‘Entrepreneurial Critical Mass’ was the term he had used to persuade his owners to invest in an acquisition strategy that was equally misguided: I had had to pick up the pieces and try to make it work. (This gentleman was also responsible for bringing to the world the expression ‘active and passive integrity in and of itself’ to describe the first release of a new feature, which presumably meant that it worked perfectly so long as you didn’t try to use it.) My renewed deliberations now resulted in an article, titled ‘The Myth of Buying Market Share’, which explained how completely bogus estimates of ‘market size’ misled CEOs and investors into thinking that all they had to do to be successful was to pick up a portion of a fast-growing ‘market’. I believe it was published somewhere, but I cannot recall where.
I reproduce the article here. I have not changed a word: it could benefit from some tightening up in a few places, and some fresher examples, but otherwise I would not change a thing, even though it is now sixteen years old. At the time I wrote it, I contacted Geoffrey Moore, and sent him the piece. We spoke on the phone: he was very complimentary about my ideas, and we arranged to meet for dinner in San Francisco, where I was shortly to be attending a conference. I vaguely thought that I might spend my last few years actually putting into practice some of the notions that had been most useful to me in my analyst role, and wanted to ask Moore about opportunities at the Chasm Group. So, after the day’s sessions were over, I approached him, introduced myself, and said how much I was looking forward to dinner. He was brusque – dinner was off. Obviously something better, somebody more useful, had come along. I was for a few minutes crestfallen, but then realized that I would never want to work for someone who behaved that rudely. I resigned from the software company a month later and began my retirement a bit earlier than planned. Since then I have never touched the industry again, apart from one day’s work for another small software company in New Jersey that desperately needed help, and wanted to hire me as VP of Marketing after I did a day’s consulting for them. North Carolina beckoned, and I have never regretted getting out when I did.
After receiving a fascinating observation from a reader (via Nigel Rees), I have posted an update to my piece on ‘The Enchantment’. The normal set of Commonplace items can be found here. (January 31, 2016)
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)