I take a break from intelligence matters this month to celebrate Sylvia’s and my forty-fifth wedding anniversary, and to exploit the occasion by indulging in some mostly reliable reminiscences and reflecting upon them.
* * * * * * * * * *
On occasions, when conversing with Americans at social gatherings, I am asked at which ‘school’ (= ‘college’) I was educated. When I reply ‘Christ Church, Oxford’, a beatific smile sometimes takes over the face of my interlocutor, as if he (or she) believed that Christ Church was the British equivalent of Oral Roberts University, and they start thinking about whether they should invite me to be one of their lay preachers or readers at the local Methodist or Episcopalian Church. I am always quick to ward them off any such idea, as I do not believe I would delight their congregation, and it normally turns out that, when I start explaining the peculiar history of Christ Church (the ‘House’ – Aedes Christi, and never referred to as ’Christ Church College’), and its role as an independent college in the Oxford University framework, their eyes start to glaze over, and they look instead for someone they can discuss the football with.
But there was a time! I happened recently to retrieve from my archives my Report Cards from my years at St. Anne’s Preparatory School in Coulsdon, Surrey, for the years 1952 to 1956. In my Kindergarten report of Summer 1952, Mrs. Early’s assessment for ‘Scripture’ runs: ‘Listens to Bible Stories with interest’. Was this true absorption? Or a well-managed bluff? Or a view of astonishment? I cannot recall. A year later, I was third in the exams, although I dropped to sixth by Christmas. The following summer, there was apparently no exam, but it was recorded that I ‘attended morning assembly regularly’. I suspect I did not have a choice, but maybe others did? By Summer 1955, ‘Scripture’ had been replaced by ‘Divinity’, and I achieved a creditable second place in the exams, followed by more excellent results. But then, in my last term, in Summer 1956, I dropped to 18th in the standings, from a class of 27. ‘Very fair’, was the comment, which is English-teacher speak for ‘pretty awful’. What had happened? Obviously a crisis of faith had occurred. And it happened because of a convergence of music and history.
I had been intrigued by the History lessons, where we learned about Cavemen, and the Stone Age, and perhaps I found these a more plausible account of the Birth of Man than the rather saccharine Bible Stories. At about the same time, I recall we had music and singing lessons, where we were encouraged to trill lustily some English (and Irish, Scottish and Welsh) folksongs. Apart from such standbys as ‘Bobbie Shaftoe’, I particularly remember two songs: the first one that I had for long imagined was by Rabbie Burns – ‘A-Rovin’’, the second, ‘Greensleeves’. Looking the former up today, I see that its title is ‘The Maid of Amsterdam’, and is a traditional sea shanty that first appeared in London, in 1608, in a play by Robert Heywood. The chorus went as follows:
A-rovin’, a -rovin’, since rovin’s been my ru-i-in
I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you – fair – maid.
I can recall to this day the atmosphere in the classroom as we took up the refrain, with the smell of cabbage and dirty socks wafting in from other rooms, and my seat, bottom left, where I was always trying to catch the teacher’s attention.
But isn’t that extraordinary – that a prim preparatory school in postwar England would encourage its eight-year-olds to sing about ‘roving’? Assuredly we did not sing the whole song, as I note that the third verse runs as follows:
I put my hand upon her thigh Mark well what I do say I put my hand upon her thigh She said: “Young man you’re rather high!” I’ll go no more a-rovin’ with you fair maid
Needless to say, we did not get further than the first verse, but I think I was already enthused enough to think that this roving business was something I needed to investigate. I now wonder whether I already had at that time enough imagination to reflect that wasn’t it more likely that the Fair Maid would face Ruin than the Rover would? I was certainly not looking for ruination at that age, but I was very keen to learn more about this frightening prospect, and how beautiful maidens could indeed be the cause of the complete collapse into desolation or penury of innocent young lads like me.
But where to find ‘fair maids’? My father owned a handsome, tall, glass-lined – but locked – bookcase, and I could inspect the titles there through the panes. One title was The Fair Maid of Perth, which sounded promising. Perhaps Perth was a fertile location for the incipient Rover? So I looked up ‘Perth’ in the atlas: it seemed a bit far away. Requiring quite a substantial rove, in fact. My absence might have been noted, and I would have been pushed to get back in time for my favourite baked-beans-on-toast supper, so I abandoned that plan. Another potential source was Roy Race, of Melchester Rovers, who featured in Tiger magazine, but I soon saw that his adventures did not involve exploits with girls but instead such feats as rescuing the Rovers’ French import, Pierre Dupont, from a lighthouse where he had been kidnapped, so that they could get him back in time for kick-off. (“Who’d play the Rovers with Pierre on our wing ?” Tra-la-la.) All stirring stuff, of course, but not really relevant to the Quest.
And then there was Greensleeves. That glorious tune, and the illustrations, at the back of some encyclopædia or annual that I possessed, that showed a comely young girl, draped in muslin or something similar, sitting on a bough of a tree in some medieval forest. Was Greensleeves one of those maids who could ruin you? She didn’t look as if she were someone who could cause permanent damage. At the same time, I couldn’t see myself taking her home to meet Mum and Dad. (“Sit down, dear, and have a cup of tea. But why is your frock all green? Have you been frolicking in the grass?”) Nevertheless, maybe it would have been safe to do a little roving with her, to see what it was like, without getting into trouble.
Another permanent memory is attending Sunday School. I would inwardly seethe at being sent off, on an afternoon when playing outside beckoned far more energetically, to the church at the top of the hill in Coulsdon, Surrey. (It was St. Andrew’s, where my parents were married in August 1940, as the bombs started falling.) It was utterly boring, and prominent among the tedious exercises that we had to carry out was the recitation of the Apostles’ Creed, which, even then, I regarded as the most ridiculous mumbo-jumbo I had ever heard. (This was especially so with the St. James version in use then, that contained ‘the Holy Ghost’, ‘hell’, and ‘the quick and the dead’, making it particularly opaque.) It was never explained to us what these statements meant, how they were derived, or why they were important. We were just indoctrinated: “I believe in . . .”. I fail consistently to understand how any inquisitive child would not rebel against such nonsense, and the way it was drilled into us. But eight-year-olds in my world did not ask questions. We did what we were told. Moreover, the girls at Sunday School were all very soppy and outwardly very pious. Not a single green sleeve to be found among the lot of them.
But to return to school. At the end of one of the lessons, probably in the spring of 1956, I went up to speak to Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder, who for some reason were both present during the session. Mr. Robinson was a kindly, Pickwickian figure, who blinked at us, and always wore a three-piece-suit with a fob watch in his waistcoat. He taught us English and History. Mr. Wilder was much younger, tall and athletic, half-French. He taught Arithmetic, French, and sport, and impressed me and other pupils once when he said he could think in French. I had two questions for the pair of them: Who wrote ‘Greensleeves’? And which account of Man’s origins was right – the Garden of Eden or the Story of the Cavemen?
Mr. Robinson and Mr. Wilder looked at each other awkwardly. The Greensleeves question they were able to dispense with fairly quickly: ‘traditional’, ‘no known composer’, but the other one was challenging. I am not sure exactly what they said: they may have used the word ‘allegory’, but probably not, but I do recall having the impression that I should not take those Bible stories all very literally. And I think that did it for me, as far as religion was concerned. They confirmed for me that it was all bogus. I had sorted out something significant, and from that day on, I knew what I wanted to do. When cringe-making friends of my parents patted me on the head, and asked me what I wanted to be when I grew up, I would say I wanted to be an ‘influencer’, and would seek to monetise my content-creation as soon as I could. (That quickly shut them up.) Unfortunately it took sixty-five years for that idea to take off.
Now, I have to say that I was a very literal-minded little boy at that stage. I had great problems differentiating between fiction and reality, and no one had yet introduced me to William Empson and his Seven Types of Ambiguity. For example, I recall seeing the advertisement for Johnny Walker whisky on the front page of the Illustrated London News, where the slogan declared: ‘Born 1820. Still going strong!’, and it displayed a regency gentleman, in red jacket, shiny black boots, and a golden top-hat breezily striding somewhere. 1954 minus 1820 was 134. How could a man live to be that long, I asked myself, and where could I meet him?
And then there were the movies (pictures). We went to see The Blue Lamp, where Jack Warner played P.C. Dixon, and was eventually shot by the Dirk Bogarde character. (It came out in 1950. Did I really see it that early?) I was distraught. The very likable policeman was dead, definitely not ‘still going strong’, and it must have been ages before it was explained to me that it was all illusory. About that time we must also have seen a trailer for King Kong (children would not have been allowed to watch the full movie), and I had nightmares for months, since I believed that great apes could actually grow to that size and might terrorize our neighbourhood. And I know I was puzzled about ‘The Dark Ages’, concluding that for hundreds of years the sun did not come out, and people must have groped around in the murkiness until the light returned.
I recall, also, my bewilderment over my father’s occupation during the day. He would set off on his bicycle to school each day (a journey of about five miles along the busy Brighton Road), but I could not work out why a man of his age was still attending school. My sister eventually explained to me that he was not a pupil there, but a teacher. Somehow, even though I saw men of his age teaching at St. Anne’s, I had never made the connection.
Yet that summer of 1956 must have been very important. I remember being introduced to the Daily Telegraph cryptic crossword, and solving my first clue. (The answer was ‘OSCAR’.) I discovered – and delighted in – nonsense verse. I recall being fascinated by my father’s meagre store of one-liners, such as ‘She was a good cook, as cooks go, but, as cooks go, she went’, and was exceedingly happy to sort out why the linguistic twist worked, and why it made me laugh. I suddenly started to appreciate allusion, metaphor, irony, bathos, and paradox. The real world was far more subtle and multi-layered than I had ever imagined. At the same time, I felt a distinct disdain for the mythical and the mystical, a distaste that has never gone away. (The Greek Myths left me cold, as did C.S. Lewis and Tolkien. Though I loved Arthur Ransome’s Old Peter’s Russian Tales.) But not the mysterious: mystery was captivating. And Greensleeves lay in the field of mystery.
In September 1956 I started at Whitgift School in Croydon. Like many such independent schools, it had a charitable foundation, and the assumption seemed to be that all the pupils should be trained to be solid Christian gentlemen. That was assuredly something that the Headmaster, Geoffrey Marlar (who had ridden with the cavalry in WWI) believed. Coincident with my arrival at the school, our family had moved house – to more spacious accommodation rented from the school Foundation, on the playing-fields, about four hundred yards from the Headmaster’s house. If, on a Sunday, my brother and I played any ball-game that caused us to stray far from Haling Park Cottage, and Marlar espied us while gardening, he would shake a fist at us for breaking the Sabbath, and our father would get a roasting from him the next day. I found this all very strange, and the arrival of Cavaliers cricket on Sundays soon afterwards must have dismayed Marlar. (He retired in 1961.)
I had to attend daily Assembly, careful to be carrying my hymnbook for inspection. (For one week when I had mislaid that item, I recall taking in a pocket dictionary, and not being spotted.) I would never even have thought of getting exempted as a pagan, but then I learned that there was a category of boys called ‘Jews’ who were allowed to sit it out. This seemed to me grossly unfair. I couldn’t tell why these characters were any different from the motley crew of youngsters from all quarters of Europe, both friendly and inimical, that I had to deal with, and thus could not work out why they were allowed to escape all the mumbo-jumbo. Later I would learn that there were atheist Jews, and agnostic Jews, and Protestant and Catholic Jews, and Jews for Jesus, and non-Jews who had converted for marital reasons, but it all seemed to me like an Enormous Category Mistake at the time, even though I had not worked out why. Much later, after looking into the matter, I decided that dividing the world into Jews and Gentiles was patently absurd, and I was encouraged to learn that Schlomo Sands (in The Invention of the Jewish People) gave historical authority to my doubts and inclinations.
Then I got recruited to the Choir. Not because I liked singing, but because I apparently had a decent voice, and obedient boys did not challenge what their elders and betters decreed. The only trouble was that the times for Choir Practice and Rugby Practice collided, and it was an easy decision for me to pick the activity I preferred. Thus, when the first performance of Iolanthe was staged, in December 1957 (I think), one Fairy who had missed out on the rehearsals was able to give a startling innovative and true-to-life interpretation of the first chorus ‘Tripping Hither, Tripping Thither’, something which my classmates were quick to point out to me the following morning. Mortification came easily.
Hymn- and carol-singing was, however, quite enjoyable, and even the less devout masters joined in lustily (with my father notoriously singing out of tune, another embarrassing fact that was swiftly communicated to me by one of his colleagues). But it was important not to study the words too closely. I do not know how many of us inquisitive ten- and eleven-year-olds worked out, when singing the stirring Adeste Fideles, what ‘Lo, he abhors not the virgin’s womb’ meant, but it was a line that Frederick Oakeley (if indeed it was he) should have stifled at birth when he faced the challenge of translating
Deum de Deo, lumen de lúmine, gestant puellae viscera Deum verum, genitum non factum.
What was extraordinary to me then, and remains so, is how many of the school staff, presumably intelligent and well-educated persons who were supposed to be encouraging their pupils to think critically, swallowed up such nonsense unquestioningly.
In fact my sister confided in me an awful truth, in about 1959. She told me that our father (not Our Father, I hasten to add, since His views on the matter are for ever indeterminable) did not believe in the Apostles’ Creed. What a shock! I was like: ‘Hallo!’, and in my best Holden Caulfield style responded that surely no one believed in that stuff any more. Why Daddy had vouchsafed this truth to my sister, and not to me, was a mystery, but I concluded that, in my resolve not to accompany the rest of the family to church, something they did only at Christmas and Easter, I had perhaps been working my ‘Influencer’ magic on him for the good. (Those who knew my father will know how unlikely a story that is.)
But back to the choir. After a while, my voice broke, of course, and I became an alto. Something was wrong, however, and I was jolted out of my complacency when a fellow chorister – name of Balcomb (where is he now?) – pointed out loudly, to no one in particular, that ‘Percy just sang the treble part one octave lower’. Apparently I was supposed to sight-read the alto part from the hymnal, and thus harmonise with the basses and tenors. But I couldn’t do that! No one had told me what to do, or taught me how to sight-read. Another colleague informed me that most of the choir actually sang at their church, where they learned such tricks, but that his main objective in joining the church had been ‘to meet girls’. So maybe that was the route to take! But there was no way that I was going to sacrifice my irreligious principles for a bit of skirt-chasing (‘that’s not who I am’), so the hunt for Greensleeves was temporarily abandoned, and the choir permanently discarded.
Yet my teenage years were filled with things that I really did not want to do. I had joined a local Scout group, because a new master at the school had a son my age who was keen, and my parents thought it was ‘a good idea’ for me to join. I was made by my unmusical parents to take up piano-playing, something I was not adept at. I hated practising, and dreaded the weekly lesson, dearly hoping that the scheduled time would clash with an away cricket match. Later came the Combined Cadet Force, much harder to avoid, as the alternative was the Boy Scouts, but Monday night, preparing my uniform for CCF day, was the most dismal evening of the week.
This all left very little time for roving. I attended the Yates-Williams School of Ballroom Dancing, at the Orchid Ballroom in Purely, but that was all rather chaotic, and dancing was not my shtick, either. No time for careful wooing of Greensleeves. And glimpses of such a life were few and far between. When we studied Molière’s Bourgeois Gentilhomme, I recall Henry Axton trying to make the play a little more spicy for us (I was fourteen at the time), by suggesting, in the scene where M. Jourdain meets Dorimène, that he was probably trying to look down her cleavage. This was unbearably saucy for my liking, but indicated that Mr. Axton probably knew a bit about roving. I did not seek him out after the class, however, to quiz him on the details.
Thus, by the time the Sixth Form Socials arrived, where the girls from the local high schools were invited, I was hopelessly disadvantaged. (Well, there had been a few romantic roving episodes – none of Turgenevian proportions, I should add – but I must stay silent about them, as any account would be too shy-making.) I bet all those blighters sporting ‘Crusader’ badges were winning the roving spoils. And, bewilderingly, the Religious Knowledge classes continued into the Lower Sixth Form, where a dreary three-quarters of an hour was wasted each week in studying some Bible extract, and poor Don Rose was brought into relative despair in trying to fire evangelical enthusiasm in the few obvious non-believers in the class. On the other hand, John Chester, our Sixth Modern form-master, as a dedicated Count Bernadotte internationalist, was perplexed at any admission of atheism, seeing it as a symptom of Communism. Presumably the same impulse that provoked the US Congress to adopt ‘In God We Trust’ as the national motto in 1956.
There were not many women at Whitgift. In the early years, we had Miss Scott in the Art Room, and the Headmaster’s secretariat contained two ladies, a very pleasant person called Mrs. Haynes, and her rather dour assistant whom we nicknamed ‘Olga’, as she looked as if she had just stepped out of a Chekhov play. In a sincere attempt to bring more joy to their lives, I posted the following clerihew on the Poetry Wall in the Prefects’ Room:
Goes jiving in Staines,
Dances the polga.
I do not know whether Life imitated Art in this particular case, but such musings formed a creative break from our cheerless studies.
The themes from the German literature we were given as set books were too frequently beyond the ken of secluded and protected sixteen-year-olds like me. Thus Gretchen’s passion and torment in Goethe’s Urfaust were rather bewildering (‘abhorrence of a virgin’s womb’? Mr. Chester would never have discussed sex or pregnancy with us), although the role of Mephistopheles in introducing Faust to Roving was unmistakably evil. (Was Gretchen’s “Meine Ruh’ ist hin” a ghostly echo of “my ru-i-in”?) And Goethe’s development of the ending, where Gretchen’s Old Testament fate (“ist gerichtet” – “judged”) evolved eventually to one of New Testament salvation (“ist gerettet” – “saved”) cut no ice with me. On the other hand, the Cambridge Examiners, in their fashionable wisdom, set the Communist Bertolt Brecht’s turgid Leben des Galilei as the second set book. Definitely no cleavages on view there. The last book, Heinrich von Kleist’s Der Prinz von Homburg, was an extraordinarily modern psychological study, Shakespearean in its combination of historical drama with study of period-independent human failings. It was thus for me the most accessible of the three set texts. Kleist died in a joint suicide with his Greensleeves, the mortally ill Henriette Vogel, in 1811. No more a-rovin’ for you, Heinrich old chap. But your work lives on: ‘Born 1777 – Still Going Strong’.
Thus a rather confused and hesitant candidate applied for entrance to Oxford University.
It was a strange business, landing up at Christ Church, of all places, the home of the Oxford Cathedral, and alma mater of countless Prime Ministers. My acceptance was surely not because of my scholastic record or potential, and I can only assume that they must have picked me for one of three reasons:
1) They thought I was a fairly close relative of the Duke of Northumberland, they hadn’t had many Percys enrolled in recent years, and imagined I might be a useful addition to the beagling set;
2) They hadn’t filled their quota of infidels for the year, and needed to take some immediate affirmative action to balance the numbers;
3) They needed a versatile rugby three-quarter, who could play fly-half, centre, or full-back, and preferably someone who could bowl a bit as well.
In fact, I may have been admitted through a misunderstanding. When I had my interview, one of the dons suddenly asked me: “Have you done any roving?”, to which I immediately piped up, replying: “Not much, but I certainly expect to take it up enthusiastically if I am accepted!”. One or two heads nodded at this, which was quite encouraging. It was not until a few hours later that it occurred to me that the distinguished academic had perhaps been impressed with my strapping 6’ 4” physique, and that the question might have been: “Have you done any rowing?”. I must have disappointed the Senior Common Room when I did not take my place on the boats.
Yet it was a bit of a culture shock. The cathedral was obviously a dominant presence, and there was a fairly vigorous Church Militant group from such places as Wellington and Marlborough. I was not even like the agnostic worshipper at the Cathedral quoted in Peter Snow’s Oxford Observed: “I am conscious of communicating if not with Christ then with the whole of English history and tradition.” And I soon found that I, as an obvious non-cathedral-service attendee, was to be excluded from some of the key social events – such as the Chaplain’s sherry parties. (Such discrimination would not be allowed in 2021, where chaplains, now probably called Spiritual Care and Outreach Officers, presumably have to administer to everyone, including Buddhists, Rosicrucians and atheists, and to attend to their emotional needs when they are offended by the presence of statues of benefactors of less than stellar integrity. And I notice that Harvard University recently appointed an atheist as its Head Chaplain.) One of my few god-fearing friends did however encourage me to gatecrash one of those parties, but I was sent away with a flea in my ear – not what I considered very charitable behaviour. Yet I learned one thing: One did not go to the Chaplain’s sherry parties to meet Greensleeves. No sirree.
But the theologians! I could not believe how many canons and readers and students of Theology there were. What on earth was ‘Theology’ and how could one pursue a course of study in it? The study of ‘God’ or of ‘gods’? Even today, when I pick up a recent copy of Christ Church Matters, the House magazine, I find that most of the books by Christ Church alumni that receive reviews are on matters of religion (e.g. ‘Theologically Engaged Anthropology’, ‘The Study of Ministry’, ‘Theology and Religion: Why It [sic] Matters’; ‘Interfaith Worship and Prayer: We Must Pray Together’; etc. What is going on? How can such superstition occupy so many serious minds for so much of their time? I find it astounding. And then there are the editorials from the Dean, written in language that has no meaning at all for persons like me.
This lesson was brought home to me recently when I read an article in Prospect, titled ‘How to Build a New Beveridge’. It was written by someone called Justin Welby, who I assumed was perhaps the offspring of Marcus Welby, M. D., until the footnote informed me that he apparently occupied a role described as ‘Archbishop of Canterbury’. Welby started his article as follows: “An apocryphal riddle for theology students goes thus: ‘Could God create a rock so heavy that God couldn’t lift it?’ The problem, of course, is that if God can’t, then he’s not omnipotent. If God can, he can’t lift it, and so he’s not omnipotent.” (The rest of the essay was a depressing parade of preachy homilies, worthy of Private Eye’s J. C. Flannel.)
Apocryphal, eh? We all know about the Apocrypha, don’t we, and how they relate to truly genuine canonical texts. So that is what theology students were doing to earn their degree, discussing nonsensical questions like that, while I was slaving away, doing really useful stuff, such as trying to make sense of the High German Consonant Shift, and exploring the use of symbols in Chekhov’s plays! It reminded me of that other no doubt apocryphal essay question on the PPE (Philosophy, Politics and Economics) finals paper at Oxford: “Is this a question?”. One candidate was inspired enough to write simply: “If it is a question, this is an answer”, and was awarded a First on account of it. That is presumably how the Church, the Cabinet, and the Foreign Office were staffed – with people who could so ably tackle such urgent questions, and such achievements led them on to believe that they could ‘solve’ the pressing problems of their time, like ‘the problem of social welfare.’ Harrumph.
‘But enough of politics, what about your social life?’, I hear you cry. Well, a little roving went on. I’d like to report that, as in Philip Larkin’s imaginings with the women he encountered in books, ‘I broke them up like meringues’, but that would not be strictly true, and the National Profiterole and Meringue Authority might have had something to say about such a micro-aggression. Yet I shall necessarily have to draw a veil over such activities. More engaging for a mature audience, perhaps, might be some of my other social encounters. When I was a member of the Nondescripts, the Christ Church sporting club, I recall attending a cocktail party hosted or attended by J. I. M. Stewart, the English literature don who had rooms on my staircase in Meadows 3. Now, not all of you may know that Stewart wrote detective novels under the name of Michael Innes, so I thought I would be very clever, showing off how familiar I was with his œuvre, and I thus asked him something about the plot of Landscape with Dead Dons. He paused, looked at me rather quizzically, and observed: “Forgive me if I am mistaken, but wasn’t that work written by Robert Robinson?”. I suddenly felt very small, and wanted to hide behind the sofa.
Now it has all changed. The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, received last month, celebrates ‘Forty Years of Women at the House’, and a wonderful milestone it is, indeed. The magazine is dedicated completely to women, with a very impressive Introduction by the Senior Censor, Professor Geraldine Johnson, who informs us that ‘Unlike Catherine Dammartin, whose corpse was temporarily buried in a dung heap in 1557 for daring to live within the confines of Christ Church despite being the wife of a Regius professor, today’s women know that they belong at the House, front and centre.’ And indeed they do, as all the little darlings [Is this usage wise? It sounds very patronising and 1970s . . . Ed.] can be seen in a wide range of glittering photographs, in their blue stockings, green sleeves, and black gowns, alongside the senior members of faculty, and all those in the Cathedral, Steward’s Office, Hall, Lodge, Library, etc. etc. who make the place hum. Completely unexpected in 1965, when I arrived and was matriculated.
And then came a passage to the real world: teacher training, with a term at Bognor Regis Comprehensive School (where I was sent on an emergency mission to teach Russian and German, since the previous incumbent had turned out to be far too energetic a rover with one of his pupils), and then a move away from academia to business, and IBM. After a while, I met my Greensleeves, as I have described in http://www.coldspur.com/my-experience-with-opioids/. It all started because, during my extended stay in hospital (four months, in fact), I saw the invitation outside the hospital window: ‘Please Help Our Nurses’ Home’, and somehow failed to notice the apostrophe. That was in the summer of 1973, and Sylvia and I were married in September of 1976.
We have lived more than half our lives in the United States, and nearly half of that period in Southport, North Carolina – far longer than I have ever lived in one place. My accent still seems to be a source of fascination to many, and I am accustomed to being asked by the check-out personnel in the supermarket, even when I have explained that I have lived here for twenty years: ‘Do you like it here?’.
In The Road to Little Dribbling Bill Bryson lists some of the features of his adopted country that he likes: Boxing Day; Country pubs; Saying ‘you’re the dog’s bollocks’ as an expression of endearment or admiration; Jam roly-poly with custard; Ordnance Survey maps; I’m Sorry I Haven’t A Clue; Cream teas; the 20p piece; June evenings, about 8 p.m.; Smelling the sea before you see it; Villages with ridiculous names like Shellow Bowels and Nether Wallop. I could quickly add a few from my own collection of favourite UK phenomena, namely Stonehenge; the Listener crossword puzzle; Promenade Concerts; Jeeves; sheepdog trials; clerihews and limericks; the Wisden cricketers’ almanack; the Bluebell Railway. Yet if I had to come up with a list of similar Americana, it would run: Thanksgiving, the Grand Canyon . . . and, er, that’s it.
Thus, while the USA has been an overall very positive experience for us, it does not contain many truly endearing features. And several things about the country and its habits and customs sometimes drive Sylvia and me to distraction. But, if they came to be really unbearable and unavoidable, we presumably would move elsewhere – but whither? In our seventies, an upheaval moving to some remote island, like my wife’s St. Vincent, or Maui, or Mauritius, or the Isle of Wight, does not seem very appealing It would be a hard adjustment: moreover, once you have kids who really have not lived anywhere else, and then the grandchildren arrive, that effectively seals the deal. So we live with all the oddities and frustrations of the USA, and its Bible Belt.
It is a droll irony that, while the Protestant Church in the United Kingdom is established (i.e. recognised as the official church, in law, and supported by civil authority), but the level of public unbelief is distinctly high, in the United States, there is supposed to be a constitutional separation between Church and State, while Christian fervour is an unavoidable presence in the public sphere. A few years ago, the local electricity company, Brunswick County Public Utilities, decided to have ‘In God We Trust’ inscribed on all its support vehicles. Lord knows how devolving everything to a deity would help in the reliable delivery of power to the local citizenry, and I found this an unnecessarily divisive and pointless initiative, at an unjustifiable expense. It was my Micro-Aggression of the month. (I was effectively told to clam up, and was referred to the minutes of the council meeting where the majority decision had been made.)
When we first moved to Southport, one of the first questions our neighbours asked us was: ‘What Church do you belong to?’, something that would still be considered horribly crass in the UK, I imagine, as what one’s friends believed in, or what they worshipped, was none of anyone’s business, but the interrogation seemed perfectly natural to Americans who did not even know us. I think they got the message when we held our first dinner party, and did not offer a prayer of ‘Grace’ before the meal, a ceremony that can be seen quite frequently in public restaurants, with participants holding hands around the table. In Brunswick County can be found churches of practically every conceivable Christian denomination: Pentecostal, Evangelical, Baptist, Lutheran, Quaker, Methodist, Presbyterian, Reformed, Unitarian, Mormon, Apostolic, African Methodist Episcopal, Catholic, as well as Jehovah’s Witnesses and Christian Scientists. I have no idea what doctrinal differences separate these institutions, and have no wish to find out.
We attended the memorial service for a neighbour at the Episcopal Church in Southport a few months ago. I was astonished at how high-church it was. Swinging censers, the ritual of the eucharist, and the congregation all declaiming earnestly their belief in the Apostles’ Creed, and especially Eternal Life. When obituaries in the local paper state that the deceased (who normally has not ’died’, but ’passed’) has ‘gone to be with Jesus’, or ‘taken by the angels’, those who mourn him or her mean it quite literally. The after-life is ‘a better place’. But I can’t help but feel that if such people accepted that this life on earth is the only one they are going to have, they might value it rather more than they do. Ascribing disasters and premature or avoidable deaths to ‘God’s will’, or to His ‘Plan’, in the belief that everything will be well when we are all re-united, is a deeply depressing philosophy, in my opinion. It suggests that life is merely some dire metaphysical project akin to the Communist Experiment. And it is also a little hypocritical. When survivors of a tornado are pulled from the wreckage of their houses, their first statement is frequently: ‘The Lord saved me’, the implication being that the person down the street who did not survive was unworthy of such grace.
And yet. The charity . . . . The organisation of food-pantries when disasters like tornadoes and hurricanes strike . . . The helping hands offered to neighbours and strangers. All very splendid and admirable, but not a little perplexing.
Someone (Meister Eckhart, C. S. Lewis, Teilhard de Chardin, Cardinal Newman?) once said that one believes in this rigmarole purely because it is utterly irrational and inexplicable, which seems to me an argument for anything, like believing in the Tooth Fairy. And that line can take you into the Paul Johnson school of theology, namely that ‘because Christianity inspired great art, it must be true’. What is astonishing to me is that if otherwise smart persons are taken in by such nonsense, are they not likely to be taken in by a lot of other absurd theories that circulate – especially on the Web? Why should the particular mythology that was instilled into them at primary school have any greater significance and durability than any other? And what happens – heaven forbid! – when politicians take some disastrous course of action to which they say they were divinely inspired? Or fundamentalist Christians (or those claiming to be so) resort to quoting the Bible to avoid having to be vaccinated against Covid-19?
As I was putting the finishing touches to this piece I read, in the New York Times, an obituary of John Shelby Spong, a bishop in the Episcopal Church. He was born in Charlotte, North Carolina, in 1931. His mother was a strict Calvinist ‘who refused to sing hymns because they were not the word of God’, and it was apparently such fundamentalism that prompted Spong’s subsequent rejection of Christian orthodoxy. Thus Spong called on his flock to reject ‘sacrosanct ideas like Jesus’ virgin birth’ (no questions of womb-abhorrence for Spong, then) and ‘the existence of heaven and hell’, and in 2013 he preached that several of the apostles were ‘mythological’, also claiming that the notion that Jesus’ blood had washed away the sins of Christians was ‘barbaric theology’. But why stop there? If you start dismantling the whole edifice as superstition, there will not be much left. I was not surprised to read that the Bishop of Brisbane had barred Spong from speaking in his diocese.
God granted episcopant Spong
A life that was wondrously long;
This in spite of the breach
When Spong started to preach
“What the Bible reveals is all Wrong!”
Still, not much else I can do about it all, especially if some insiders have woken up to the truth. And it is not as if we atheists get together in pressure-groups, or go on marches. No point in having meetings to discuss policy: “Still no God, then?”; “So who brought the donuts?”; “Same time next month?”. I do occasionally venture out into the public sphere, however. Several years ago, the local paper printed a letter from a local citizen who had become angered that Walmart had replaced its ‘Happy Christmas’ welcome sign with one saying ‘Happy Holidays’. I was moved to respond, and the State Port Pilot published my letter, which ran as follows:
May I respond to Mr Livingston’s letter (‘Xmas’) with a few anecdotes?
In the country where I was born, the UK, where there remains an established church, the religious aspects of the Christmas festival had long been melded with pagan traditions. And to me, the beautiful Festival of the Nine Lessons and Carols, from King’s College, Cambridge, was as much a cultural event as a religious ceremony. Thirty years ago, there was no awkwardness about calling the period ’Christmas’, although today the members of the European Union are divided as to the degree to which they should acknowledge their Christian heritage.
When I came to the US, in 1980, I was quickly reminded how socially inept it was to send a Christmas card to friends who were Jewish, no matter how loosely religious they were. And a few years later, the new (Jewish) wife of an old friend of mine stormed out of the room when I – a non-believer ̶ put on some ‘Christmas’ music. (And it wasn’t Grandma Got Run Over By A Reindeer). But how was I supposed to know? And wasn’t that a bit of an overreaction?
When I came to Southport a few years ago, I was astonished that a Christian prayer was said at a secular business meeting, and I am still surprised that your columnists refer to ‘our Lord’, as if the Pilot were a parish magazine. But it does not surprise me that Walmart should have decided that it wanted to post a message of seasonal goodwill to all its customers, whether they be Jews, Sikhs, Moslems, Buddhists – or even atheists – as well as the dominant sects of Christianity. Mr Livingston can continue to enjoy making his personal celebrations in his church.
Finally, Happy Holidays to you and all your readers!
In conclusion, this extended anecdote is really a celebration: I did not find God, but I found my Greensleeves. I look back on my life of almost seventy-five years, with many important decisions made and a good number of lucky breaks accepted, of which meeting Sylvia was the best. My thanks to my beautiful and adorable wife for supporting me for so long.
Greensleeves was my delight, Greensleeves my heart of gold Greensleeves was my heart of joy And who but my lady Greensleeves.
(This month’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.)
With a special guest appearance from Lotte Lenya as Luba Polik
‘It makes Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy look like Dad’s Army’ (Michel Foucault)
* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *
1. The Story So Far and Dramatis Personae
2. Anomalies and Misconceptions:
a) The BSC Report and Roger Hollis
b) Peter Wright and VENONA Telegrams
c) Guy Liddell and the RCMP
d) Roger Hollis and Counter-Espionage
3. Background Clarification:
a) Stephen Alley
b) George Hill
c) George Graham
4. Guy Liddell’s Moves:
a) Petrie and Sillitoe
b) Security Issues
c) The Voyage to the Americas
1. The Story So Far:
In September 1945, a Soviet GRU (military intelligence) cipher-clerk, Igor Gouzenko, defected in Ottawa, bringing with him evidence of espionage in Canadian government institutions. William Stephenson, the head of British Security Coordination, the wartime intelligence unit in the United States, immediately took a keen interest in the matter. For various reasons, the growing news about Gouzenko’s revelations arrived in London at the desk of Kim Philby of MI6, who alerted his Moscow bosses via his handler, Krotov, and passed on the information with less than urgent dispatch to his colleagues in MI5. While the initial concern of MI5 was about the imminent departure for London of Alan Nunn May, the premier spy named by Gouzenko, the Security Service was also interested in the identity behind another person labelled as ‘ELLI’. ELLI was stated to have been a spy working within the intelligence services in the UK in 1942 or 1943, and had been revealed by Gouzenko’s colleague in Moscow at the time. MI5’s Roger Hollis, responsible for the surveillance of domestic subversives such as the Communist Party of Great Britain, returned from holiday to be sent immediately to North America to co-ordinate the handling of the Nunn May case, and the political fall-out from the defection. At the time he left, he almost certainly knew nothing of ELLI, and he did not see Gouzenko before returning after a couple of weeks. Meanwhile, Guy Liddell, head of B Division, responsible for Counter-Espionage, ruminated on the possible candidates for ELLI, concluding from the meagre descriptions received thus far that he probably had been associated with SOE, the Special Operations Executive. During the period in question, SOE had had a representative in Moscow, George Hill, and it liaised with the NKVD representative in London, Colonel Chichaev. Roger Hollis returned to the Americas, and had a short interview with Gouzenko in November. Liddell then discussed possible security exposures with Archie Boyle, who had been head of Security for SOE during the war. Politicians dithered about detaining and prosecuting the suspects, not wanting to upset Stalin.
Dramatis Personae (status in November 1945, unless otherwise indicated):
Attlee UK Prime Minister
Dalton Chancellor of the Exchequer: Minister for Economic Warfare 1940-42
Bruce Lockhart Deputy Under Secretary of State, Political Warfare Executive 1941-45
Findlater Stewart retired: previously Chairman of Home Defence Executive
Mackenzie King Canadian Prime Minister
Robertson Canadian Under-Secretary of State for Foreign Affairs
Petrie Director-General (retired April 1946)
Sillitoe Director-General (appointed November 1945)
Harker Deputy Director-General (retired 1946)
Liddell Director of B Division
White Deputy-Director, B Division
Curry historian: previously Director of F division, then transfer to MI6
Hollis (Assistant) Director of F Division (Subversive Activities0
Alley E2 (Alien Control of Finns, Poles & Baltic States)
Rothschild B1C (Sabotage)
Blunt B1B (Diplomatic)
Wright joined in 1954
Orr Room 055, War Office
Mills Canadian representative: demobilized September 1945
Curry established Section IX in 1943: moved back to MI5
Dwyer representative in BSC
De Mowbray joined in 1950
SOE (Special Operations Executive):
Nelson chief 1940-42
Hambro chief 1942-43
Gubbins chief 1943-46
Senter MI5 liaison
Boyle head of security
Hill Russian section representative in Moscow until May 1945
Graham aide-de-camp to Hill
Truskowski assistant to Hill
Seddon head of Russian section 1941-44
Manderstam head of Russian section 1944-45
Uren officer, spy; imprisoned
JIC (Joint Intelligence Committee):
Sudbury Russian cryptanalyst
RCMP (Royal Canadian Mounted Police):
Rivett-Carnac head of intelligence (Commissioner 1959-60)
Gagnon deputy Commissioner
Harvison head of Criminal Investigation (Commissioner 1960-63)
Leopold deputy to Rivett-Carnac; first translator; chief of Intelligence Branch (October 1945)
Black second translator
McLellan Inspector (Commissioner 1963-67)
BSC (British Security Co-ordination):
Dwyer MI6 representative: head of MI6 station (1945)
Evans colleague of Dwyer
FBI (Federal Bureau of Investigation):
Harvey counter-intelligence (moved to CIA in 1947)
Whitson expert in communism
Lamphere agent: espionage expert
OSS (Office of Strategic Services) & CIA (Central Intelligence Agency):
Angleton OSS counter-intelligence (chief of CIA counter-intelligence 1954)
GRU (Soviet military intelligence):
Zabotin Colonel, military attaché & head of station, Ottawa
Gouzenko cipher clerk
Kulakov cipher clerk
NKVD (or KGB, Soviet Security):
Ossipov Major-General, liaison to SOE in Moscow (Ovakimyan)
Chichaev [JOHN], Colonel, liaison to SOE in London (1941-45)
Krotov [BOB], controller of Philby (Krötenschield)
Gromov [VADIM], rezident in Washington since 1944 (Gorsky)
Kukin [IGOR], rezident in London, replaced Gorsky in 1944
Pravdin [SERGEY], officer in Washington (Abbiate)
Poliakova Lieutenant-Colonel (on loan from GRU)
Polik manager at the National hotel in Moscow
Worthington Toronto Sun
Picton Toronto Star
Pincher Daily Express
2. Anomalies and Misconceptions:
My overall approach has been to step through these events in strict chronological sequence. Judging from some of the feedback I received after my first instalment, however, I sense it will be useful to comment on some of the anomalies and misconceptions that have been published, and echoed, in recent accounts of the Gouzenko affair, in order to crystallize how the events of 1945 have been consistently misrepresented. [With the goal of improving the independent coherence of this piece, I re-present some material from the previous article.]
a) The BSC Report and Roger Hollis:
One dominant story that has entered the mythology is that of Roger Hollis’s reputed interference in the investigation by creating a false trail. For example, Amy Knight, in her 2005 book How The Cold War Began (which is frequently cited as the ‘standard’ work on the subject), writes (p 237): “Gouzenko’s information about ‘Elli’ was first conveyed during his interview with MI5’s Roger Hollis (with the RCMP present), who visited Gouzenko shortly after the defection. According to the report from the British Security Coordination, written in mid-September 1945, presumably after Hollis’s visit,
Corby [the codename for Gouzenko] states that while he was in the Central Code Section [in Moscow] in 1942 or 1943, he heard about a Soviet agent in England, allegedly a member of the British Intelligence Service. This agent, who was of Russian descent, had reported that the British had a very important agent of their own in the Soviet Union, who was apparently being run by someone in Moscow. The latter refused to disclose his agent’s identity even to his headquarters in London. When this message arrived it was received by a Lt. Col. Polakova who, in view of its importance, immediately got in touch with Stalin himself by telephone.”
Knight, rather mysteriously, here gives the source of this statement (from ‘the BSC Report’) as ‘Intelligence Department of the Red Army in Ottawa’, p 30. (On page 60, she indicates that that was actually the title of the BSC report.) The text is exactly the same as that identified by William Tyrer as coming from the Canadian National Archives, and Tyrer assumes that the message is numbered serial 2a in ELLI’s Personal File in London (as a reference to such a posting, but not the note itself, appears, in KV 2/1420, immediately after a September 15 report on the NKVD).
Yet Knight seems not to have inspected the archives in a disciplined fashion, instead relying too heavily (for example) on the account of Hollis’s activity provided by Dick White to his biographer, Tom Bower. She describes Hollis as MI5’s ‘point man’ for the Gouzenko case, and quotes Bower (The Perfect English Spy, pp 79 & 80) as follows: “MI5’s communist expert flew to Canada to meet Gouzenko on the shores of Lake Ontario”, adding: “Instead of tickling Gouzenko’s vanity and absorbing lessons about Soviet intelligence techniques, Hollis abruptly left the defector after just one hour and flew back across the Atlantic to chase Nunn May, now living in London.” As I shall show, this is pure fantasy. Knight’s ‘presumably’ reflects pure speculation.
Knight then inserts another observation, concerning an interview on October 29, conducted by the RCMP, and recorded only in handwritten notes, at which Gouzenko ‘elaborated’ on his story (p 238). He said (of ELLI) that it was ‘possible he or she is identical with the agent with a Russian background who Kulakoff [Kulakov, Gouzenko’s successor, who had recently come from Moscow] spoke of – there could be 2 agents concerned in this matter’. Knight’s account continues:
Corby handled telegrams submitted by Elli . . . Elli could not give the name of the [British] agent in Moscow because of security reasons. Elli [was] already working as an agent when Corby took up his duties in Moscow in May 1942 and was still working when Kulakoff arrived in Canada in May 1945. Kulakov [sic] said agent with a Russian connection held a high position. Corby from decoding messages said Elli had access to exclusive info.
This is presented as an extension of Hollis’s account of his interview with Gouzenko.
The significance of these claims becomes apparent when Knight later turns to the later re-investigation of the ELLI story on page 243. She reports on the visit by Patrick Stewart of MI5 to Canada in the autumn of 1972. Armed with ‘the notes of the initial debriefing of Gouzenko’, which the RCMP had generously just handed to him, Stewart met the defector in Toronto, showing him a copy of the BSC report, as well as the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly thereafter, ‘both of which had Gouzenko saying Elli was working in British Intelligence, MI6, not counterintelligence, MI5’. Knight then states:
“Gouzenko went into a fury and threw the papers across the room. He claimed that he had not said what was written in the BSC report, that someone had falsified his statements. As for the notes of the RCMP interview, which were in the handwriting of the translator, Mervyn Black, Gouzenko said they had been forged. He demanded, to no avail, that he be allowed to take the notes home so he could compare them with his copies of Black’s handwriting.”
Knight’s explanation for this outburst is that Gouzenko had been disappointed that the officer who interviewed him in September 1945 had granted him only a few minutes of his time, and did not seem interested in ELLI. When he later learned of that officer’s identity (Hollis), and that Hollis was suspected of being a mole, he believed that Hollis must have deliberately misrepresented his statements to conceal the fact that he was ELLI.
Knight was also basing her narrative on a 1984 compilation by John Sawatsky titled Gouzenko: The Untold Story. Chapter 20 of this book is titled The MI5 Interview, and various journalists, lawyers, broadcasters contributed to the investigation. These persons appear to confirm the following ‘facts’: an unnamed British fellow interrogated Gouzenko shortly after his defection; the meeting was brief; Gouzenko was asked very few questions, and he did not see the interrogator again; the Briton shielded his face; Gouzenko had identified a mole in British Counter-Intelligence [MI5]; Gouzenko was shown a thick report in the early 1970s by a different man from British intelligence; Gouzenko threw the report across the room as it contained ‘all lies’; Gouzenko had asserted that the British could not have a high-ranking mole in the Kremlin, ‘not when Philby was sitting as head of MI6’.
Several aspects of Knight’s account are very tangled. The story that she appears to tell all derives from her strong belief in Hollis’s meeting with Gouzenko in mid-September, and runs as follows, with my commentary in parentheses:
i) When Stewart arrived in Toronto, the RCMP showed him notes of the original debriefing of Gouzenko. (Why only then? Had MI5 never seen them before? How did they correspond to the reports sent over by Dwyer? Did they concern just a single debriefing, and in what way was it ‘original’? Knight suggested that the RCMP debriefing(s) occurred after the BSC interrogation.)
ii) Stewart showed Gouzenko ‘a copy of the BSC report and the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly after’. (What was the ‘BSC report’? According to Knight, it was the account of the September meeting where Hollis was present. She confirms that the BSC report had been written ‘in mid-September’: yet she knew that Hollis did not fly out until September 16. Elsewhere (p 60), she describes it as having been written by Evans and Dwyer, and that it was based on interviews with Gouzenko and an analysis of his documents (C293177, September 23). Moreover, in a message from London on October 1, after his return from Canada, Hollis informed the RCMP that MI5 had made ‘an extra copy of the interim report produced by EVANS and also of the additional pages I brought back’, apparently confirming Evans’s authorship, and that he, Hollis, was only the messenger (see KV 2/1412, sn.31A). And were ‘the notes from his interview with the RCMP shortly after’ the record of the October 29 meeting, or did they correspond to the ‘additional pages’ that Hollis brought back at the end of September? She does not say.)
iii) Gouzenko introduced the name of ‘ELLI’ when he spoke to Hollis in mid-September. (Knight appears adrift over this issue on two counts. She confuses references to an as yet unnamed agent with a later example of direct usage of that name, and she presents a muddled story about when that latter event occurred. The first citation above – where ELLI is not mentioned – is echoed on page 238, where she states that Hollis reported allegations about ELLI, ‘which is why they appeared in the BSC report’, after his ‘first’ meeting with Gouzenko, allegedly in September. She later quotes the RCMP report (above) of October 29, where Gouzenko talked about ELLI. Elsewhere, however (on page 62), Knight states that ‘ELLI’ was first recorded in a November 1945 RCMP report. She then (page 238) refers to Hollis’s ‘second’ meeting with Gouzenko (in November), and then implies that Liddell responded at that time by looking into the ELLI matter, and sent a telegram to Ottawa about possible identification. Yet she notes that this telegram was dated September 23! It is an unpardonable mess.)
iv) Hollis spent an hour with Gouzenko (at Camp X) before flying back to London. (This flies in the face of what Gouzenko claimed about the shortness of Hollis’s interrogation, which lasted ‘three minutes’, according to John Picton’s testimony in Gouzenko; The Untold Story. Camp X was a long way from Ottawa, and Gouzenko was not moved there until late October. Hollis’s interrogation at the end of November was indeed short.)
v) The main message from these reports was that ELLI was working in British Intelligence, MI6, not Counterintelligence, MI5. (This is not only incorrect factually, but inherently useless – a false contrast. Both MI5 and MI6 had counter-intelligence sections. In 1945, MI6’s counter-intelligence capabilities were stronger than MI5’s. Besides, Hollis’s report of November said no such thing. Interestingly, Genrikh Borovik, in The Philby Files, recorded that Gouzenko’s revelations pointed to a spy within SIS (MI6).)
vi) Gouzenko then went off the deep end, claiming that he had never said what was written in the BSC report, and that the statements were falsified. (Without knowing the exact text provided by Stewart, it is hard to inspect Gouzenko’s objections, but if the challenge was over the denial of the statement about a spy in Moscow, he was apparently wrong. The passage that Knight cites corresponds to what is available in the Canadian Archives, confirming that Gouzenko himself introduced this information. Yet I should note that, in his May 1952 testimony, Gouzenko made no reference to the existence of spies in Moscow, thus giving the denial from the Sawatsky book some merit.)
vii) Gouzenko challenged the notes of the RCMP interview ‘which were in the handwriting of the translator, Mervyn Black’, but he was not allowed to take them home to compare them with his copies of Black’s handwriting. (Black was most certainly not the translator at the time of the RCMP interrogation(s). Was this a simple mistake, with Stewart unaware of John Leopold’s role, and thus innocently misrepresenting the authorship? Or did Black’s name appear as the signatory, and had it been provided by MI5, in the belief that Black had been the translator in September, which would indicated dirty dealings?)
And what would Gouzenko have known about Philby in 1945? Of course Philby was never ‘head of MI6’, and he had a fairly junior role in MI6 in 1942-43. Gouzenko’s comment shows some retrospective imagination that failed to refute what he was claimed to have said at the end of the war. Sadly, Knight did not analyse any of these conundrums, but the distortions have reinforced some highly dubious mis-statements about the Gouzenko interrogations.
For example, Chapman Pincher echoed Knight’s story faithfully in order to solidify his case against Hollis (p 243 of Treachery, where he reprised the account he had first laid out in Their Trade Is Teachery). Gouzenko was shown ‘a substantial typewritten report that was allegedly Hollis’s account of his original interview’, including the claim about a mole in the Kremlin, he claimed. (This assertion would again fly directly in the face of the accusation that Hollis held only a peremptory interview with Gouzenko.) Pincher continued: “Gouzenko said that the document attributed other false statements to him guaranteed to discredit him as a witness and create the impression that he was unreliable. He told Peter Worthington, then editor-in-chief of the Toronto Sun, ‘whoever wrote that report about a fake interview had to be working for the Soviets’. Worthington put his account on record in a letter to The Spectator on 2 May 1987.”
Earlier, even Nigel West (who favoured Graham Mitchell rather than Hollis as the mole known as ELLI) had got in on the act. In A Matter of Trust (1982), West had rather imaginatively written that William Stephenson had facilitated Gouzenko’s extrication to Camp X: “Here, on the outskirts of the town of Oshawa, Gouzenko was interrogated at length by Stephenson, Hollis, and the Mounties” – an assertion wrong on at least three counts. Later, without providing any sources, West described, in his 1987 book Molehunt (p 79), Patrick Stewart’s visit to Toronto, with Stewart, in the presence of three armed RCMP officers, reading Gouzenko a copy of Hollis’s original report [sic] dated September 1945. “Gouzenko denounced the report as a fabrication,” wrote West, “and insisted that the remarks attributed to him by the author were bogus and had been manufactured with the intention of discrediting him. When asked about the authenticated signatures, Gouzenko insisted that they were forgeries.” West then openly wondered whether the report represented more evidence of the duplicity of DRAT [the codeword for the mole], or simply constituted additional proof of Gouzenko’s paranoia.
Again, in Gouzenko: The Untold Story, the contributors (including Gouzenko’s widow, Svetlana) appeared to corroborate the assertion that the Stewart package was a forgery, clumsily assembled, and something of an embarrassment to the RCMP officers who attended the meeting. Svetlana Gouzenko declared that the report had been pasted together from several separate documents, with inconsistent handwriting. She and Igor had suspected that the words in Black’s handwriting, confirming that Gouzenko had made such and such a statement, were not his, and that is why they wanted to compare the document with what they had at home. She was supported in her objections by the reporter John Picton, who described how the Mounties snatched the report back from Gouzenko. All this gimcrackery was later ascribed to Hollis’s malevolence.
The arrival of Molehunt provoked a lively review by the author’s ex-employer Richard Deacon in The Spectator, and a correspondence to which the journalist Peter Worthington (as noted by Pincher, above), and others, contributed. Deacon attempted to debunk the ‘guilty Hollis’ theory on the basis that i) the allegation about a mole in MI5 did not come up until a much later cross-examination of Gouzenko by the RCMP; ii) Norman Robertson, the Canadian permanent secretary for foreign affairs, came to London after Gouzenko’s defection, and briefed the heads of MI5 and MI6 on Gouzenko’s revelations, so Hollis’s obstructions would have been pointless; and iii) while Hollis was in Ottawa at the time of Gouzenko’s first interrogation, he spoke no Russian, and Nicholson of the RCMP (who was fluent in the language) conducted the interrogation. (The introduction of Nicholson has not apparently been endorsed by any other writer. Deacon’s ramblings did not help in any elucidation.)
This review prompted a spirited riposte by Worthington, who was convinced of Hollis’s guilt, basing his judgment on Gouzenko’s objection to the lies in the report ‘that had been made by the British intelligence officer who had interviewed and debriefed him in 1945 after he defected.’ Worthington especially drew attention to the claims made about the penetration of the Soviet system by British agents, and he reminded his Spectator readers that ‘the British security officer who came to Canada to interview Gouzenko in 1945 was Roger Hollis’. Worthington also boasted that Gouzenko had written, in 1952, ‘a special memorandum directed to British Intelligence’, which Worthington published in the Toronto Telegram 18 years later, and subsequently gave to Chapman Pincher in connection with his book Too Secret Too Long’, and which appears therein as Appendix A.
Yet, in their rush to jump on the band-wagon, all these writers seriously missed several vital points. Moreover, rather surprisingly, recent analysts, with a clearer canvas of archival material available, have failed to tidy up the mess. For example, two important articles that have been published in the intelligence press over the past few years have missed the opportunity to set matters straight. William Tyrer hinted at the confusion, but failed to come to grips with the problem in his rather convoluted coverage in ‘The Unresolved Mystery of ELLI’ (International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 29, 1-24, 2016). David Levy, in his article ‘The Roger Hollis Case Revisited’ (International Journal of Intelligence and Counterintelligence, 32, 146-158, 2019) skated towards the paradox, but then avoided exploring it. Both writers were equivocal about Hollis’s contribution in September 1945.
The first point is that Roger Hollis did not interrogate Gouzenko in September 1945. The archive is quite clear that his September mission was to deal with the courses of action deriving from the exposure of Nunn May. Gouzenko had been secluded, for security reasons. He and his wife were moved at the beginning of October to a safe-house in Kemptville, and, after a couple of nights, to one at Otter Lake (about 100 miles from Ottawa), and, two weeks later, to Camp X, which was situated near Whitby, on the northern shore of Lake Ontario, about two hundred and fifty miles from Ottawa. No casual meeting would have been allowed, and even the MI6 members of the now resident BSC team (Dwyer and Evans) were not given an audience. Dick White’s testimony about Hollis interrogating Gouzenko ‘on the shores of Lake Ontario’ represents a dangerously naive attempt to add verisimilitude. Hollis’s first interview with Gouzenko was on November 21, and the report I cited in my March article (the one discovered by William Tyrer, dated November 23, 1945) constitutes the record of that interview, when Gouzenko was brought from Camp X to Ottawa. (The fact that that meeting took place is confirmed by a telegram from London to New York of May 23, 1946, visible at KV 2/1423-2, sn. 216A.) On the other hand, the information about an Allied agent in the Soviet Union (including the reference to Polakova/Poliakova) was provided on September 15, the day before Hollis left for Canada the first time.
(By the time he wrote Cold War Spymaster (2018), Nigel West had modified his stance. He corrected the chronology, although he wistfully reflected on his previous assertion in the following terms: ‘While there is no evidence that Hollis actually met Gouzenko in September 1945 . . .’.)
Thus the second fact ignored by the commentators is that Hollis did not introduce the notion of a British spy in Moscow. The name ‘ELLI’ was known by September 15, and the transcripts of the telegrams received by Liddell in September show very clearly that this idea was transmitted by Dwyer, based on the RCMP interviews with Gouzenko. The insight stimulated both Dwyer and Liddell to focus, separately, on possible SOE links. The October 29evidence from Gouzenko confirmed the earlier ‘agent in Moscow’ story that he had supplied in September, but also severely muddied the waters before Hollis ever had a chance to meet him. Gouzenko was here relying on further hearsay evidence from another clerk, and thus possibly merging the details of two individuals, as well as casting doubts on the strength of the ELLI identification process. This recognition is confirmed by Liddell’s diary entry of November 5, well before Hollis’s interview with Gouzenko. The passage cited above by Knight corresponds to the RMCP interrogations that must have occurred in September and October. All that Hollis’s report states about the agent in Moscow is to confirm the previously offered insight that the attaché in Moscow would not reveal the name of his agent.
A third distortion occurs in the authorship of the so-called ‘BSC report’. As this was compiled before Hollis arrived on the scene (as is now obvious), it was clearly written by Peter Dwyer and John-Paul Evans, the MI6 representatives attached to BSC, who flew to Ottawa as soon as the Gouzenko case broke. (Knight records this authorship.) Yet neither Dwyer nor Evans interviewed Gouzenko in person. The BSC report was based on information provided by RCMP officers. Moreover, by some vague process of ahistorical drift, it is represented by Pincher and Worthington as being written by Hollis, but Hollis did not compile any report on Gouzenko (as opposed to one on Nunn May) until he had seen the defector, in late November. What he did accomplish, as noted above, was to bring a copy of the Dwyer/Evans report with him when he returned to the UK at the end of September. All of Knight’s analysis is based on the premise that the November 1945 interview that Hollis had with Gouzenko was his second exposure, and she thus presents earlier events (such as the RCMP interview on October 29) as elaborations on what she claims Hollis had discovered in September. Yet all information at that time came from the RCMP via Dwyer and Evans.
The fourth important matter overlooked by these writers is that Gouzenko was correct for the wrong reasons. He suspected forgery, but was let down by his faulty memory, and the wiles of MI5.It is somewhat astonishing that he could not distinguish, even twenty-seven years later, between the circumstances of his several interrogations at the safe house and at Camp X in September and October by RCMP officers (when John Leopold was the interpreter/translator), and his short interview with Hollis in November, which took place in Ottawa (by which time Mervyn Black had assumed the role). Gouzenko claimed to have been interviewed by an MI5 officer (presumably Dwyer, but certainly not Hollis!) in September, when, by all other accounts, not even Dwyer (of MI6) had direct access to him. Gouzenko failed to recall what he had told his RCMP interrogators, including the important intelligence about the British agent in Moscow, and mixed up those interviews with his encounter with Hollis. He rightly was suspicious of the document that Stewart showed him, but was in a muddle about what constituted British counter-intelligence (it could be MI5 or MI6), and allowed himself to be convinced that Hollis had concocted the whole mishmash. [Problems remain with Gouzenko’s testimony, which I shall analyze in a future report. And the possibility must not be discounted that the transcription of his earliest statements was in error, since he never signed off on it.]
In such a way do untruths accumulate. Amy Knight’s lack of chronological discipline causes her whole analytical scaffolding to collapse. Instead, the evidence all suggests a very clumsy attempt by MI5 to frame Roger Hollis, one that was abetted by Gouzenko’s erratic memory, and his strong suspicions of possible traitors around him.
b) Peter Wright and VENONA Telegrams:
Strangely, Peter Wright, in Spycatcher, made no mention of the Patrick Stewart visit to Canada in 1972. In contrast (p 282), he described his own efforts to interview Gouzenko in the mid-1960s, but was told that by then ‘he was an irretrievable alcoholic.’ “I sent a request to the Canadian RCMP for permission to interview Gouzenko once more, but we were told that Gouzenko had been causing problems for the Canadian authorities through his alcoholism and badgering for money. They feared that further contact with him would exacerbate the problems, and that there was a high risk Gouzenko might seek to publicize the purpose of our interview with him.” It is not clear why the RCMP changed their minds a few years later. Chapman Pincher took pains (Treachery, p 248) to relate that whenever he spoke to Gouzenko, and at the time Stewart interviewed him, the defector was coherent and rational in all respects, and that ‘the previous conviction in MI5 that he was a hopeless drunk was an internal deception’. Pincher does not explain why the RCMP originated this slur: nor does he say why or when it became a ‘conviction’ in MI5 rather than perhaps an excuse by the RCMP for limiting visits.
On the other hand, Wright did throw fresh confusion in the works through his citation of VENONA telegrams as a factor in reinforcing the treachery of ELLI, and the claim that Hollis was the probable candidate. First, he recorded that the RCMP told him that the original notes of the debriefing had been destroyed (thus implicitly questioning the authenticity of what Stewart later presented). Yet, as Wright puzzled over the evidence in intelligence files, and pondered over the reasons why Hollis had been sent out to Canada, he focused on Hollis’s apparent attempt to have Liddell’s diaries destroyed, since those journals had speculated on the identity of ELLI. [No matter that the Diaries never betray any suspicion that Hollis was ELLI: in fact they would help the cause for Hollis’s innocence.]
Then Wright recorded a somewhat miraculous breakthrough in breaking out VENONA traffic. He introduced his story by referring to the famous VENONA message that constitutes the confirmation from the KGB about the GRU, but he misrepresented its essence. Wright strongly implied that Hollis was sent to Canada in September to interview Gouzenko, and based his text on that assertion. “We have it from VENONA, however, that the KGB was unaware of the existence of a GRU spy in MI5 when Hollis travelled to Canada and interviewed Gouzenko,” he wrote. As I showed in the previous article, this is a great distortion, one that was reinforced by Pincher. That telegram states no such thing: it was dated September 17, before Hollis arrived in Ottawa, and merely confirmed Philby’s information about GRU spies in Canada. Moreover, Philby’s report of November 18 (which is reproduced in full on pages 238 and 239 of Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels, and appears in Vassiliev White Notebook p 27) deals exclusively with the Nunn May case, and its political fall-out, and makes no mention of ELLI or other spies within the intelligence services.
The breakthrough (according to Wright) came with the analysis of a week’s traffic from September 15. It began that day, ‘with a message to Krotov discussing, with no sense of panic, the precautions he should take to protect valuable argentura [sic: agentura] in the light of problems faced by the ‘neighbours’ in Canada’. Wright interpreted this to mean that the KGB had no reason to fear that any of its agents in Britain had been compromised by Gouzenko. Yet, by the end of the week, on September 22, ‘the tone of the messages is markedly different’. “The relaxed tone disappears, Krotov is given elaborate and detailed instructions on how to proceed with his agents. ‘Brush contact only’ is to be employed, and meetings are to reduced to the absolute minimum, if possible only once a month.”
Wright then asked GCHQ to conduct a search on the London to Moscow traffic – but it could not be read. The only significant message they could identify was a Moscow to London message sent on September 19-20 ‘which they could tell was a message of the highest priority because it overrode all others on the same channel’, and Wright concluded that its significance was obvious, as it had been sent the day after Philby had received the MI6 telegram containing Gouzenko’s description of ELLI in ‘five of MI5’. “Indeed,” he wrote, “when GCHQ conducted a group-count analysis of the message, they were able to conclude that it corresponded to the same length as a verbatim copy of the MI6 telegram from Canada which Philby removed from the files.”
Wright and Geoffrey Sudbury (his colleague at GCHQ then sat down made a determined attack on a high-priority message sent by Moscow in reply. It was sent at the end of the week (i.e. about September 22), and eventually they were able to break it out. According to Wright, it read: “Consent has been obtained from the Chiefs to consult with the neighbours about Stanley’s material about their affairs in Canada. Stanley’s data is correct.”
In many respects, this account looks like a farrago of nonsense. First of all, the Vassiliev Notebooks (Black, page 54) inform us that, in light of the increased local surveillance measures, a generic message for all stations (VADIM, SERGEY, BOB and IGOR) about the need for extra caution was despatched as early as September 10. It is worth citing the bulk of the message:
It is essential to carefully prepare for every meeting with agents; operatives should meet with agents no more than 2-3 times a week. Arrange work with agents in such a way that the work of the operating staff is indistinguishable from the work of other members of the Soviet colony. Select authoritative and confidential group handlers from among the local citizens and operate the agents through them. High level workers should meet with group handlers as rarely as possible and only for briefing and to go over assignments.
This message was not decrypted under VENONA.
Thus it would have been not only logistically impossible but also in contradiction of instructions for Philby to have received the message about ELLI, arrange a meeting with Krotov, have his handler send a message to Moscow, and the KGB then investigate the matter with their superiors and the GRU, and then send a message in return the next day. Moreover, we have it on record that the famed ‘confirmation’ message to Krotov (BOB) was sent on September 17, i.e. before Philby received the news about ELLI. Certainly, further warning messages were sent. A message dated September 21 (‘surveillance has been increased’: Vassiliev, Black, p 57) was directed at the USA (VADIM, in Washington) only, and identified agents operating in the USA. A similar message from Moscow to London on the same day (VENONA 34) includes the same precautionary language, and corresponds to the message identified by Wright above, but its main emphasis is on HICKS (Burgess). A further message that day (VENONA 64A) contains a specific warning about maintaining secrecy in meetings with STANLEY (Philby). Furthermore, according to the evidence, the phrase ‘five of MI5’ never appeared in any of the September reports: the indication of some association with ‘5’ in intelligence came in Hollis’s report at the end of November.
The conclusion must be that the precautionary messages had nothing to do with ‘ELLI’. In fact, Philby had requested an urgent meeting with Krotov on September 20 (using Burgess as a courier) in light of the Volkov news from Istanbul. Of course, Peter Wright was writing in 1987, long before Vassiliev got to work, and did not know then that the VENONA transcripts would eventually be published. He therefore thought he could get away with falsifying the record. He presented the confirmatory message about Philby as arriving several days later than it actually did, as if it had been provoked by an alert from Philby about ‘ELLI’ that in fact was never articulated.
c) Guy Liddell and the RCMP:
One of the dubious stories that has gained traction is Gouzenko’s claim that, when Guy Liddell visited Ottawa in 1944, this information was leaked by someone based in London. For instance, the claim can be found in the Spartacus profile of Gouzenko at https://spartacus-educational.com/SSgouzenko.htm. The source given is Philip Knightley’s Master Spy (1988), page 130. Yet no trace of that assertion can be found on page 130 of the book – nor on any succeeding page. Nevertheless, Chapman Pincher echoed this story (Treachery, p 24), where he (correctly) pointed out that Liddell did pay a visit in 1944 to advise the RCMP on German counter-espionage. Pincher quoted Gouzenko as suggesting that this leak meant that ‘Moscow had an inside track in MI5’.
Pincher’s opinions evolved through the creation of Their Trade is Treachery, Too Secret Too Long, and Treachery, as was only natural, given the paucity of archival sources in the early days, and the proliferation of rumours. Regrettably, instead of admitting that he did not know certain things, or that the information was ambivalent, Pincher would use every snippet to try to bolster his accusations against Hollis. (I shall investigate in depth, in a later article, Pincher’s interactions with Gouzenko.) The story about Liddell is just such an example. Gouzenko’s claim can be seen in the Report he submitted to Sergeant McLellan of the RCMP, after a request from MI5, on May 6, 1952. (As I indicated earlier, the whole report appears as Appendix A in Too Secret Too Long.)
Here Gouzenko described some ‘indirect, but possible evidence’. “In 1944, (the latter part, or maybe the beginning of 1945), in the embassy, Zabotin received from Moscow a long telegram of a warning character. In it, Moscow informed that representatives of British ‘greens’ (counter-intelligence) were due to arrive in Ottawa with the purpose of working with local ‘greens’ (R.C.M.P.) to strengthen work against Soviet agents, and that such work would definitely be stepped up.” After outlining the precautionary actions that were taken, Gouzenko commented: “Now it could be that Moscow just invented these representatives who were supposed to arrive in Ottawa, in order to make Zabotin more careful. On the other hand, it might be genuine, in which case it would mean that Moscow had an inside track in the British MI5.”
That is hardly the unqualified assertion as expressed by Pincher. Yes, Guy Liddell did pay a visit to Ottawa, in July-August 1944 (not at the end of the year). He was there to discuss with Cyril Mills a possible double-cross operation against the Germans, and advise the RCMP, which was in fact a police force, not a counter-espionage organisation. There is no evidence that MI5 recognised at that time a problem of Soviet agents in Canada, and Liddell travelled alone. Of course, Anthony Blunt (NKVD, not GRU) might have been the source of the information about Liddell’s visit. For example, on July 7, 1944, he provided Moscow with a full report on the Double-Cross system, and would have been very aware of Liddell’s movements.
d) Roger Hollis and Counter-Espionage:
Much has been made of the fact that Roger Hollis was MI5’s expert in Soviet counter-intelligence. Nominally, this might have been so, but, in truth, he was far from being able to fulfil that role. In September 1945, he was head of F Division, ‘Counter-Subversion’. F Division had been split off from B Division in April 1941 by the new Director-General Petrie, as part of his ‘new broom’ reorganization, so that Liddell’s team could focus on the Nazi threat. John Curry had been its first chief, but had moved across to a staff position under Petrie in October of that year, allowing Hollis to take his place. In May 1943, Curry moved over to MI6 to help set up the service’s Soviet counter-espionage section (Section IX).
The mission of F Division was very much on constraining and defanging domestic ‘subversive activities’. When Hollis was placed in charge of F2 (‘Communism and Left Wing Movements’), he had Clarke watching over Policy Activities of the CPGB (F2A), a vacancy for the position managing ‘Comintern Activities generally, and Communist Refugees’ (F2B), and Pilkington representing ‘Russian Intelligence’ (F2C). By April 1943, when Hollis had taken over the Division, Hugh Shillito had replaced Pilkington, and was responsible for F2B and F2C. Thus F Division was very thin on experience with the Soviet espionage threat. In his in-house history, John Curry lamented the fact that the only officers who knew anything about Soviet espionage (Liddell, Harker and Archer) had all been diverted to activities directed against the war enemy.
A major part of the problem was that the movements of communist subversives did not respect the artificial boundaries that divided the responsibilities of MI5 and MI6 into the territories of the Empire, and foreign countries, and thus MI5 was totally reliant on the co-operation of MI6 when it came to providing information about the backgrounds of dubious characters trying to enter the UK, or any imperial territory. The protective policies of Felix Cowgill caused serious rifts during World War II, especially over ISOS (Abwehr ENIGMA) decrypts that revealed German analysis of the results from double-agents, and MI5 also clashed with SOE over escaped agents being too hurriedly allowed into the country without proper vetting. The officers in charge had no direct exposure to the decade of the ‘Great Illegals’ in the 1930s, and the lessons that Walter Krivitsky had provided were too easily overlooked.
Hugh Shillito seems to have made a game attempt to overcome the inattention, and he doggedly pursued the cases of Oliver Green and Sonia, while receiving discouragement from senior officers. In these endeavours, he was determinedly backed up by Milicent Bagot, who assuredly knew the history, but they were both greatly rebuffed in their inquiries. As Curry wrote: “The only palliative to this situation [the inferiority of MI6 records] was that F.2.b was in the hands of Miss Bagot, whose expert knowledge of the whole subject enabled her to find and make available a large variety of detailed information based on the records of the past.” By the autumn of 1945, Shillito (whom Hollis had more than once, probably unjustifiably, characterised as ‘idle’ and ‘ineffective’ in complaints to Liddell, but of whom Curry thought highly), had left the service. Bagot was also fed up, and wanted a transfer.
What is more, MI5 at that time lagged severely behind MI6 in developing structures to handle the Soviet threat. MI6’s Section IX had been set up in May 1943 by Curry, and Kim Philby had engineered his takeover of it by November 1944, when Curry retired from the job. The result was that MI5 dithered. Liddell knew implicitly that the problem had to be addressed by MI5, as his diaries constantly show through the winter of 1945-46. Yet, even though he was the expert on what the Soviets were up to, it was not in his power exclusively to solve the problem. F Division, Petrie’s creation, did not report to him. Hollis, who had at least shown some imagination over the Soviet threat, and written several monitory reports in his vantage point in F Division, obviously did not want his stature diminished by reporting through Liddell.
Hollis was known as somewhat of a plodder, one who preferred the quiet life. He was not temperamentally suited for the role of counter-espionage chief. He did not have a first-rate brain, showed little intellectual curiosity, and would have been bemused by the layers of deception inherent in spycraft. He knew no Russian, and had not been exposed to the structures and techniques of the NKVD and the GRU. He was not a practised or natural interrogator. As K. D. Ewing, Joan Mahoney, and Andrew Moretta wrote, with some equivocation, in their 2020 book MI5, the Cold War and the Rule of Law: “That in 1945 Liddell chose to describe Hollis as an ‘expert’ on counter-espionage was arguably an accolade which reflects [more] the dearth of knowledge about Soviet intelligence operations against the west than upon Hollis’ qualities as a Security Service officer” (note 25, p 454).
Thus it is not surprising that Liddell himself eventually sought an audience with Gouzenko. Amy Knight completely mis-represented Hollis’s role when she described him as MI5’s ‘point-man’ on Gouzenko, and it appears that Kim Philby himself wrote a tissue of lies in his report to the KGB (Should Agents Confess?) when he described setting up meetings with Hollis and lawyers immediately the news about Nunn May came though. Hollis was on holiday at the time. (Unless, of course, Liddell was lying, and Philby’s account is more reliable . . .)
3. Background Clarification:
a) Stephen Alley:
Readers will recall, from my March posting, how Guy Liddell’s analysis of hints provided by Gouzenko through Peter Dwyer led him to discern an SOE connection in the person of ELLI. The fact that, under Operation PICKAXE, the Special Operations Executive had developed a liaison with the NKVD in Moscow and in London suggested to him that an indication of leakages hinted at by Gouzenko might involve security lapses at both ends. There is strong evidence that Stephen Alley, because of his fluent Russian, and his role within MI5, was the officer who shepherded Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD military attaché who represented Moscow in London. Liddell considered Alley as a possible candidate for ELLI before quickly rejecting the idea as absurd.
A close inspection of the conclusions of Dwyer and Liddell is provocative. As I described in March, Dwyer came up with Ormond Uren’s name as a candidate for ELLI. But Liddell instantly dismissed that hypothesis. On November 1, 1943, however, he had recorded in his diary that Uren had ‘divulged the complete lay-out of SOE’s organisation’. Thus something in the information provided by Gouzenko must have indicated to him either a) that there were corners of SOE’s organisation that were not known to Uren, or b) that the disclosures had occurred either before his recruitment to SOE (in 1942) or after his arrest (in July 1943), or c) that the additional hints about ‘Russian descent’ excluded Uren. The third alternative seems the most likely, and may have pointed him towards Alley. In addition, Uren was known to have worked by supplying secrets to Dave Springhall, not to a Soviet handler from the Embassy.
In my previous posting, I drew attention to the astonishing way in which Alley has been excised from the historical record. He makes three brief appearance in the published extracts from Liddell’s Diaries (Volume 1, pages 66, 158 and 245), but Nigel West does not judge him important enough to be listed in his introductory ‘Personalities’. Alley does not appear in the Index of Christopher Andrew’s Defend the Realm, nor does John Curry list him there in his in-house history of the Security Service. Similarly, Nigel West overlooks him in his account of MI5. Curry does show Alley in his organisation charts, however: for June 1941, as Major Alley, sharing responsibility with Mr. Caulfield for E2, a section of Alien Control that managed Nationals of Baltic, Balkan and Central European countries, and, in 1943, maintaining a similar role in that Division.
Yet Alley had a remarkable background. He was born in Russia, and thus had a stronger claim to have been ‘of Russian descent’ than any other candidate for ELLI. As Keith Jeffery recounts, Lieutenant Alley accompanied Captain Archibald Cumming as a member of the mission sent to Petrograd on September 26, 1914. By February 1917, Alley had been promoted to captain in MI1(c), and was responsible for controlling passengers travelling from Russia to England or France, for counter-espionage and the coordination of intelligence matters with the Russian Secret Service. Claims have been made, dependent on the verification for authenticity of a letter that Alley wrote to his colleague John Scale, that he was involved in the murder of Rasputin. Others suggest that he was party to the unsuccessful attempts to save the Romanov family from their execution. In his Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence, however, Nigel West brings Alley’s colourful career down with a thud. After being evacuated in 1918, Alley ‘served in MI5 for three years and then moved to Paris, where he ran a business trading in commodities’.
[In my previous piece, I referred to Alley’s memoir, held by Glasgow University, which rather shockingly tells how Alley was dismissed from MI6 for declining to assassinate Stalin. I have succeeded in contacting the Librarian at the University, but, because of the Covid lockdown, the staff were not allowed into the archive to inspect the status of the memoir for me. A verification of this astounding item will therefore have to wait a while.]
An analysis of MI5 files at Kew, and especially Guy Liddell’s Diaries, shows that Alley was involved in several significant activities with MI5 during World War II. He was the officer who welcomed Walter Krivitsky ashore in January 1940, impressing the defector with his excellent Russian, and thereafter acted as translator for Jane Archer (Sissmore) during the interrogations. Liddell records him having a last confidential discussion with Krivitsky before he returned to the Americas. When the Poles planned to assassinate Rudolf Hess in June 1941, in the belief that such an action would avert peace talks, Alley was brought in to investigate, and produced a report for Liddell – all of which is reported in Nigel West’s Encyclopedia of Political Assassinations.
When Liddell first identified Colonel Chichaev, the NKVD officer liaising with SOE in Operation PICKAXE, in his diary entry for July 19, 1943, the name of the officer who was introduced to Chichaev by the Czech, Bartik, was later redacted, but it is highly probable that it was Alley. Chichaev’s background in Finland and Reval was mentioned, and it would need MI5’s premier (and maybe only) Russian speaker in MI5 to engage with him. It is apparent that the officer had had a lengthy interview with Chichaev in order to assess his character. Alley’s name fits in the redacted space, and Liddell wrote of this officer: “He thinks that provided the odds are not too much against him, he can handle CHICHAEV without making the slightest concession to the amour propre of the man himself or the country he represents.” The fact that Alley had a prominent role in handling Chichaev is confirmed by numerous items concerning Chichaev’s engagements that appears in his file at the National Archives. They have the rubric “No action to be taken on this report without reference to Major Alley” boldly displayed on them.
Alley is also mentioned several times in the period in which the Gouzenko affair unfolded. He had apparently been drawn in to try to help the Dutch set up a counter-intelligence department, and Alley negotiates with Liddell and Colonel Eindhoven over providing training, in order to pre-empt the American OSS from taking over. It can thus be safely concluded that Alley’s name was considered persona grata for most of the war. For some reason, a direct association with Chichaev was later considered a little too sensitive, drawing attention unwittingly to what must have been an embarrassment.
Finally, Alley was friendly with George Hill, which brings him more closely into the net of the ELLI business. Exactly what Alley’s political sympathies were at this time is impossible to gauge (yet), but the role of this vital, knowledgeable, and influential personality in the Gouzenko affair has clearly been overlooked in the accounts to date. Last month, I emailed Nigel West to ask him why he thought that Alley had been ignored in all the histories (including his own). He replied that his impression was that Alley was not well-liked, and was regarded with some suspicion, by other MI5 officers. Yet West did not answer my question directly. I would have thought that the perceived lack of trust in Alley on the part of his fellow-officers should provoke greater interest in his career and influence, not less.
b) George Hill:
Far more has been written about Stephen Alley’s long-time fellow-agent and friend, and counterpart in the SOE Russian operation, George Hill. He wrote two published memoirs, Go Spy the Land (1932), and Dreaded Hour (1936), and an unpublished record of his WWII experiences, Reminscences of Four Years with N.K.V.D. (ca. 1967), is freely available from the Hoover Institution. As with any memoir, but especially those concerning intelligence matters, the material needs to be treated with caution. Furthermore, Peter Day has written a biography of Hill, Trotsky’s Favourite Spy (2017), which relies heavily on his subject’s memoirs, but also incorporates much archival and other material. Day informs us that, when Alley returned to Britain in 1919, he had ‘set up an unofficial lunch club for intelligence officers known as Bolo, short for the Bolshevik Liquidation Club, and George Hill had been a member alongside such as Sidney Reilly and Paul Dukes’. In Dreaded Hour, Hill describes how, in 1923, he bumped into his ‘old friend’, ‘Major Stephen Ally [sic], M.C. one time Assistant Military Attaché in Petrograd’ in London, whereupon the latter engaged him to help liquidate the Bulgarian branch of a huge British tobacco concern. Thus their anti-Bolshevik credentials had at that time been strong.
Hill’s appointment as SOE’s representative in Moscow was thus a controversial one, initially because the Foreign Office thought that his track-record in Russia would make him unacceptable to the NKVD, and on those grounds he had sceptics within SOE, too. After consulting Stafford Cripps, the ambassador in Moscow, Dalton was able to push though his nomination, and some have even stated that MI6 helped in the appointment – perhaps to weaken the unit. In January 1943, Menzies, who was a fierce critic of SOE, vented to Bruce Lockhart of the Political Warfare Executive about ‘the nomination of a hopeless adventurer like ‘Flying Corps’ Hill as their man in Moscow’, perhaps unaware that his underlings may have abetted the appointment.
More serious reservations emerged after Hill was installed, moreover. MI5 and others judged that he had become too easily manipulated by his Soviet counterparts, and feared that his character defects would lead him to be naturally exploited. He had been introduced to SOE through Lawrence Grand and D Section of MI6, and had actually shared training duties at Brickendonbury Hall and at Beaulieu with Kim Philby, who recalled Hill in his own memoir. The conflicts and disputes that endured over Hill’s time in Moscow are too complex to be covered in detail here, but can be summed up as consisting of the following: a) security exposures in the Moscow station; b) Hill’s indiscretions in getting too close to Ossipov, his NKVD counterpart, and giving him confidential information; c) Hill’s dalliance with the hotel manager, Luba Polik, who was surely under the control of the NKVD; and d) Hill’s evolving sympathies with his hosts’ politics, which drew him into a massive clash with the head of the Russian section of SOE, Len Manderstam, over the propaganda role of Soviet citizens forced to serve in the Wehrmacht.
For the purposes of the ELLI investigation, the claims about Hill running an agent in Moscow are of the most relevant. Recall the vital phrase from the BSC report: “The British had a very important agent of their own in the Soviet Union, who was apparently being run by someone in Moscow.” In his Reminiscences, George Hill describes how, in March 1942 he was accosted in his hotel by a man, Sergei Nekrassov, whom he did not recognize at first. When the man identified himself as Hill’s ‘Scarlet Pimpernel’, Hill realized who he was: ‘my best White Russian agent, 1919-1922. A Tsarist cavalry officer from a crack regiment, fearless, resourceful, who loathed the Reds, and went through their lines like a needle through a haystack.’
When Hill went to drink brandy in Nekrassov’s room, he quickly conjectured that Nekrassov had been sent as a provocation, and, overcoming the temptation to re-use Nekrassov as a source, he complained by telephone to Ossipov, who claimed to know nothing about Nekrassov. But before Ossipov arrived (at 5:30 in the morning), Hill wrote out a report on the incident, with one copy for Ossipov, and a second to the Foreign Office via the Embassy diplomatic bag. Thus, when Hill returned to the United Kingdom in the autumn of 1943, Liddell and White presumably had some knowledge of the incident. Part of Liddell’s diary entry for October 5, a long account of the discussion he had with Hill, alongside Dick White and John Senter (the MI5 liaison in SOE), accompanied by two other unnamed SOE members, runs as follows:
The Russians had sent him a man who had worked for him in 1920, and who had made suggestions about working for him again. Hill did not fall for this but immediately rang up the NKVD. The man was removed from the National Hotel where Hill stays with apologies. Three of four months later however he made another approach. Hill then became exceedingly annoyed. The man disappeared again and Hill was told that he had been severely dealt with. The whole thing was an obvious plant. It was however an interesting example of Russian distrust. Hill had never made any attempt to disguise his past activities in Russia which were of course well known to them owing to the publication of his book. He thinks he was accepted because he was regarded as a professional. The Russians have a liking for professionals and experts.
This passage is, I believe, significant in several aspects. First, it confirms what Hill wrote in his memoir, namely that he objected violently to the approach, and made his reaction known to Ossipov. (Whether that account is entirely true cannot be assessed, of course.) Second, Liddell was clearly familiar with the story of Hill’s encounter with an ‘agent’ in Moscow – although that figure was supposed to have been retired long before then – and appeared to accept Hill’s account at face value. Yet, in November 1945, Liddell was unable to associate this anecdote with the disclosure emanating from Gouzenko [see my March report]. Perhaps most startling, however, is the method by which the story could have been leaked – and possibly misinterpreted. Hill had sent a copy of his letter to the Foreign Office, and here, apparently, were two junior officers in SOE who were being regaled with the same information. Had Hill told them this story beforehand? It is not clear. Since Liddell also reported on the fact that Hill said that Chichaev ‘had received instructions from Moscow not to hold official conversations with U.35’ [‘Klop’ Ustinov, an MI5 agent: coldspur], it would seem a gross misjudgment by Liddell and White, on security grounds, to have Hill talking so freely on these matters.
In any case, it is perhaps easy to imagine how the story about Hill’s ‘agent in Moscow’ made the rounds, and became distorted in the process. If Alley was informed, he may have shared it with Chichaev, not even thinking that it was a confidential matter. Chichaev may not have understood the subtleties of the incident, but would have been bound to report such matters to his bosses in Moscow, with the inevitable result of alarm-bells ringing. Poliakova would have taken the news to the Kremlin, whereupon Ossipov would have smoothed matters over.
A question mark must remain over Hill’s honesty, as well as his judgment, however. Chapter XIV of his Reminiscences, purportedly written in 1945, starts off as follows:
“Uncle Joe”, had skilfully gained his aim. The Polish Provisional Government in London was powerless to prevent the Lublin Committee becoming the Lublin Provisional Government, and not much later the Government of Poland. Prime Minister Mikolajczyk due to pig headedness and failure to face realities and utter miscalculation of Mr. Churchill’s strength and the intention of dying President Roosevelt. Thus Poland as planned by Stalin became communist; a satellite of Moscow. General Mihailovic was out, Yugoslavia was to be governed by Marshall Tito, a satellite of Moscow. Bulgaria was communist, Comrade Vyshinsky saw to that. Czechoslovakia was still Democratic, but not for long. Truly those ‘Planners’ in London, drawn from the Foreign Office and State Department had made a mess of their task.
Yet in a report to his SOE bosses in January 1944, Hill had written the following:
All this means what I have endeavoured to point out in previous despatches that the moral leadership of the new Europe has passed to the Soviet Union in much the same manner as England had the moral leadership in the nineteenth century when Liberal movements were astir in Europe. The day has passed when this new movement should be considered in terms of ideologies. It is no longer a matter of communism versus capitalism or even socialism versus capitalism. It is rather a struggle of the peoples of Europe to free themselves of some of the vested interests of the past. These vested interests have been throttling the efforts of the people to attain that degree of political and economic security they feel will put an end to the miseries which have vitiated the lives of a whole generation. The peoples have been looking forward to the leadership of one of the great powers and in this way they have been finding it in the Soviet Union. It is up to the real democracies of the West not to lag behind but to keep in step with the progressive movements now preparing the way to a brighter future for the oppressed people of Europe. (from HS 4/338 at The National Archives)
This echoed a pitch he had given Bruce Lockhart in March 1943. It is pure Marxist propaganda, straight from the editorials of Pravda. Hill was a humbug, and a dangerous one at that. He had gone native. The efforts of ELLI pale beside this rampant example of ‘useful idiocy’. Yet, a third leg of the stool – alongside Hill’s romantic dalliances, and his Stalinist sympathies – eclipsed any security threat that may have been posed by the obscure ELLI. And that concerned Hill’s aide-de-camp, George Graham.
c) George Graham:
Readers will recall, from my March posting, the meeting that Liddell had with Archie Boyle on November 16, 1945, where they discussed, among other concerns about the Moscow outfit, their suspicions about George Graham. When Hill travelled to Archangel, at the end of September 1941, on the minesweeper HMS Leda, the other two members of his team were on another ship of the convoy, and arrived at the same time after a difficult three-week voyage. The first member, Major Richard Truszkowski (‘Trusco’), had been foisted on Hill at the last moment, and Hill complained bitterly about him in his memoirs, as he was the son of a well-known Pole who had fought Russia ‘tooth and nail, in Tsarist days’. The Polish faction in SOE had demanded that they have a representative with the Polish forces in the USSR, and Frank Nelson and Hugh Dalton had given in. Hill thought his appointment would only arouse the NKVD’s suspicions. (Hill had himself been cleared, despite his similar background.)
About Graham, Hill said little, only that the Lieutenant was in the Intelligence Corps, and that Hill had selected him as his A.D.C. Nevertheless, he relied upon him extensively. One of the items that the Hill party took with them to Moscow was a heavy Chubb safe in which to lock the codes and ciphers each night, but when the embassy was evacuated to Kuibyshev, soon after their arrival, because of the proximity of Hitler’s army, the safe had to be left behind. When an apartment had been found for the SOE office in Kuibyshev, Hill wrote in his diary: “We take care never to leave the flat alone; poor Graham is practically chained to it. Our files and codes are kept under lock and key when not in use. Not in a safe, deary – we ain’t got one – but in our largest suitcase, which is nailed to the floor.” [Much of Hill’s memoir derives from letters that he sent his wife.]
Yet a few months later, Graham and Hill were separated. When it was safe, after a few months, to return to Moscow, Ossipov went first, followed by Hill in early February. But Hill had to leave ‘Trusco’ and Graham behind, much to Hill’s chagrin. “I don’t like being separated from Graham, though, especially on account of coding,” he wrote. Trusco was scheduled to return to England in mid-February, so Graham would have sole responsibility for the flat. Before Hill left (by train), he had to write out orders for Graham, ‘covering every likely eventuality’. “Codes and cash we deposited with the Embassy, otherwise poor Graham would have been tied to the flat for keeps: he will do his coding at the Embassy”, he continued.
Hill’s chronology is annoyingly vague (and not much helped by Peter Day in Trotsky’s Favourite Spy), but it seems that Hill did not see Graham again until he returned to Kuibyshev in about July 1942, to renew his passport, as he had been recalled to London for discussions. Even (or especially) in wartime, strict diplomatic protocols had to be obeyed. Thus Graham had been left for several months without any kind of formal supervision. As a member of the Intelligence Corps, his credentials were presumably considered impeccable.
At some stage, concerns about SOE’s security in the Soviet Union must have been raised. Initially, this focused on physical security: SOE’s premises had been previously used by the Yugoslavs, and Soviet technicians must have placed bugs in them before Hill took over. Even Kim Philby knew about this. “A very belated security check of his conference room in Moscow revealed a fearsome number of sources of leakage”, he wrote in My Silent War, suggesting he knew about it at the time, or soon after. Yet the security problem did not stop there. And that is why the infamous Liddell diary entry for November 16, 1945, becomes so relevant. Archie Boyle, who was head of Security for SOE during the war, describes to Liddell the close relationship between Hill and Graham: “Archie says he cannot understand how a man like Hill can possibly be acceptable to the Russians unless they are getting some sort of quid pro quo, the more so since they banished his mistress to Siberia and then brought her back after a certain delay.”
Boyle also revealed something astounding. George Graham’s real name was Serge Leontieff, and he was a White Russian. Now, it would have been questionable enough for the Intelligence Corps to have recruited someone with such a history without a very careful background check, but to send him on a mission to Moscow, even under deep cover and an anglicised name, was surely irresponsible. If he truly was a White Russian (i.e. a person born in tsarist times, of probable aristocratic lineage, and against the revolution), the Soviets would be merciless, either rejecting him immediately, or accepting him in the knowledge that they would be able to suborn him by threats to surviving family members. And if he had arrived, apparently freely, from the Soviet Union at some later stage (perhaps in the early 1930s), that should have rung alarm bells about the circumstances of his escape, and the purpose of his arrival. No Soviet citizen was able to leave the country at that time without some ulterior motive on the government’s part.
A certain Serge Leontieff received his naturalization papers in London on December 20, 1933. He had been born in Peterhof, near Petrograd, on August 18, 1910, and his parents were given as Alexander Ivanovitch Leontieff and Olga Shidlovsky (formerly Leontieff), with Olga having British citizenship. Serge was single, gave his trade as Clerk (Journalist), and lived in Earl’s Court. The records suggest that his parents had been accepted to the UK some years before, but the circumstances of Olga’s second marriage are not clear. Nor is it explained how and why she alone took up British citizenship. A newspaper report (in the Winnipeg Tribune) shows that Alexander Leontieff, a former Colonel of the Imperial Guard, led the Old Moscow Balalaika Orchestra at a concert in London on May 30, 1931. Another short piece (in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram) informs us that on November 10, 1934, Alexey Leontieff, a former colonel in the Czarist Army, and manager of a local machine supply office, faced a firing-squad in Novosibirsk, for failing to provide proper machinery to a nearby collective farm. Were Alexander and Alexey brothers? And did ‘Serge’ want to try to determine what happened to his uncle? Pure conjecture at this time. Yet Graham’s past would turn out to be more complicated.
4. Liddell’s Moves:
In this context of mismanagement and deception Guy Liddell faced the combined challenge of the ELLI threat, and the disturbing news about SOE security lapses in Moscow, as well as concerns about his own professional status in MI5. (For a more detailed analysis of Liddell’s career, and the events of this time, I recommend to readers that they turn to http://www.coldspur.com/guy-liddell-a-re-assessment/ ).
a) Petrie and Sillitoe:
Guy Liddell had a difficult time with his boss, David Petrie, during this period. Liddell admitted that he lost his temper with Petrie back in February, and threatened to resign, over what seemed to be a relatively minor matter concerning the Channel Islands, when Petrie interfered after forgetting what Liddell had briefed him on beforehand. When Petrie planned his retirement (his sixty-fifth birthday fell on September 9, 1945), and considered who should replace him, Liddell was not his recommendation. Jasper Harker, Petrie’s nominal deputy, was not yet sixty, but was not a candidate, and retired in 1946. Various accounts have been put forward as to why Liddell was overlooked at this time, but the influence of the Attlee government, and MI5’s reputation for being anti-socialist, must have contributed to the decision to bring in an outsider. Findlater Stewart, so busy in trying to define the future of the intelligence services, had wanted Petrie to stay on for a couple of years ‘to put MI5 on a good peace-time footing’ (as Howard Caccia told Liddell), but he was overruled.
Petrie’s behaviour was decidedly odd. John Curry gave hints of his enormous stress and disappointment at the end of the war, hinting at ‘tragedy’, as if Petrie would have been glad to get out of the hothouse. Yet he took an unconscionably long time in leaving, and botched the handover. Liddell found him very listless over the Gouzenko case: on October 18, he recorded a frustrating meeting he had with Hollis and Petrie after Hollis’s return from Canada, when the two officers were seeking some high-level directive on signals security. Petrie did not want to speak to the Prime Minister (Attlee) himself, and merely suggested that Liddell and Hollis talk the matter over with Menzies, and have him make the approach to Downing Street. Overall, it was a poor performance by Petrie: he neglected to solve the problem of Soviet counter-intelligence himself, he failed to give Liddell the authority to do so, and he protected his own broken structures, all while knowing that his successor would be bewildered by the challenge.
Moreover, Petrie did not have the guts to inform Liddell himself that the next Director-General would be a policeman, Percy Sillitoe, the Chief Constable of Kent. Liddell heard the rumour on December 10, when Desmond Orr, a member of Petrie’s staff, and the liaison with the War Office told Liddell that he had learned ‘on good authority’ that a policeman in the UK had been appointed. The story was relayed to Liddell more strongly on December 17, so Liddell went to Petrie’s office, where the news was confirmed. Petrie, rather uncomfortably, explained that the choice had been between Liddell and Sillitoe, but that (as Liddell recorded Petrie’s words) ‘the Committee possibly having thought that it might be better that I should have my hands free to deal with the Intelligence side of things’. This was a weaselly and sophistical excuse – what else was MI5, if not ‘Intelligence’? And Petrie hypocritically did not divulge to Liddell the recommendations he had made in a report submitted in 1943, which specifically called for an external career police officer to take over. Liddell had been invited to appear before the Whitehall interviewing committee, but his diary entry for the interview, on November 14, does not reflect a convincing and authoritative display. The committee had seen several other impressive candidates (e.g. Strong, Eisenhower’s intelligence chief, and Penney, a senior military intelligence officer), and was perhaps going through the motions with Liddell. As confirmation of his shiftiness, Petrie did not want to make any formal announcement: he wanted the news to ‘leak out’.
Liddell was naturally very disappointed, and listed his reasons why choosing an outsider policeman was a bad idea, for practical considerations, and especially for morale. But then Petrie told him that he was going to stay on until April 1946, which left Liddell in a very invidious position. Petrie would be filling ‘Shillito’ (as Liddell’s secretary mis-spelled the newcomer’s name) with all the wrong ideas (such as separating Russian espionage from F Division, and inserting it in B), while Liddell and his team would have to perform the grunt-work of implementing new organisation and policies. Liddell eventually met Sillitoe – but not until February 8, his judgment being that he seemed ‘a pleasant person’. That had more the ring of Barbara Pym describing a new curate despatched to the parish by Lambeth Palace than a senior officer heralding a steely new director-general ready to take on the Gremlin from the Kremlin. MI5 needed more than leadership by a nice chap.
Yet one more clash with Petrie occurred. Liddell was keen to pay a visit to the United States – ostensibly to reinforce good relations with the FBI, but also for personal reasons. Rather than simply declare his intentions, he sought permission, and raised the matter with Petrie on February 4. Budgets must have been tight, and Petrie was not enthusiastic. Hollis had recently journeyed there, and Lord Rothschild also had a visit coming up. Petrie wanted to have Liddell around in March, when Sillitoe would be visiting regularly, and suggested he go in June instead. For reasons that will become apparent, that did not suit Liddell, and a compromise was suggested, whereby Liddell would pay half his passage if he insisted on leaving sooner. The next day, Liddell accepted those terms, but felt insulted by the way he had been treated. “I feel rather like a schoolboy who has been accused of wangling a day’s holiday on the excuse that he is going to his aunt’s funeral.” There was, however, a grain of truth behind that implicit grievance.
b) Security Issues:
In the previous piece, I left Liddell at the end of 1945 attempting to derive information from Stephen Alley, and pursuing military records in the quest for learning more about George Hill’s set-up in Russia. The follow-up with Alley is inconclusive: no entry in his diary refers to any explanation from Alley as to what the ‘ELLI’ reference might mean, but Alley still crops up, with regularity, and without any apparent suspicion expressed by Liddell. The visits by the Dutch counter-intelligence officers are mentioned. Alley wrote what must have been a controversial report on Polish organisations, destined for Cavendish-Bentinck at the JIC, and Cavendish-Bentinck has been told that he will receive ‘an expurgated edition’. Alley was also involved in checking out the activities of Poles recruited at sensitive government establishments. Part of Liddell’s entry for February 12 reads: “Alley has got a case of a Pole employed by RAE Farnborough. I understand that there are quite a number there always getting in touch with the pro-Russian group of Poles in this country. This may or may not be significant, but in any case there are over 80 British CP members in Farnborough through whom there is doubtless a complete leakage of information to the Russians.” A diary entry for February 21 shows that Alley had been tracking possibly illicit Polish use of wireless transmissions.
Thus it appears that Alley was a competent and well-respected member of the senior counter-intelligence staff, and one should perhaps conclude that Liddell had by then received a satisfactory explanation from the officer to the effect that the ELLI revelations had all been an unfortunate misunderstanding. If Alley had suggested otherwise to Liddell, but convinced Liddell that he himself was not ELLI, one might expect Liddell to have picked up the quest urgently elsewhere, and in his diary set to rest the suspicions over Alley. Yet he does neither (unless the relevant comments have been redacted). Moreover, questions he raises about ELLI’s identity later in the year, and, in 1951, when Kim Philby’s name is introduced as a possible ELLI candidate, suggest that Liddell was either very confused, very forgetful, or very negligent. As I shall explain in a future piece, he also does not appear to have shared his conclusions with Roger Hollis.
Moreover, the trail on military records, and the reliability of the Moscow staff, also goes completely cold. It is difficult to imagine that this is because interest in the case dissolved: it is much more likely that the findings were too embarrassing for Liddell to report. If Liddell had delved into the records (as I have done in recent weeks), he might have discovered some disturbing facts. Readers will recall that George Graham (born as Serge Leontieff) declared on his naturalization papers that his parents were Colonel Alexander Leontieff (b. 1887, d. in Hendon, 1957) and Olga Shidlovsky (b. 1892, d. in Tunbridge Wells, 1975). When he married Edith Manley Axten (1906-1980) in Amersham in April 1941, however, he gave his parents as Philippe Leontieff and Anna Grigorieva. It must be the same Serge Leontieff, since the birthdate is the same (August 18, 1910), and his address from the 1939 census (31 Longridge Road, Earl’s Court) is the same as that appearing on the naturalization record. Serge’s trade/profession is given as Air Raid Precaution Warden.
Before Graham’s final return from Russia, he and Edith had a son, Christopher J., who was born in March 1945 in Amersham. Thus Serge must have been in the UK in June 1944: indeed, the archives of the Russian section of SOE show that Graham (D/P 103) arrived in London on leave on May 4. Graham (recently promoted to Major) was with Hill at the latter’s farewell dinner in Moscow in May 1945, and had apparently returned from a visit to London with him in March. The father could therefore have been present at the birth. The son is listed as Christopher J. Graham, thus confirming that Leontieff changed his name to Graham at some stage between his wedding and his departure for Archangel. Christopher died in Wycombe in December 1949. Moreover, at her death in 1980, in Horsham, Sussex, Edith’s name is given as Edith Graham. I cannot yet determine the date or location of Serge’s death, since a few candidates with the 1910 birth-year appear, and such a discovery will require further information about Graham (such as a second initial, perhaps, and an inspection of the death certificate).
It would appear that two examples of fraud are at work here. Serge misrepresented his parentage at his marriage ceremony (for all I know, those two people never existed). Was it perhaps a union of convenience, to help establish his bona fides? And George Hill certainly misled his bosses when selecting Serge as his ADC, unless other forces decided to pick him and give him a new identity. Records show that this ‘George Graham’ was never in the Intelligence Corps. If Archie Boyle was really ignorant of it all until 1945, might Hill have been blackmailed by the Soviets into bringing Serge in, and was the very odd suggestion, coming from Novosibirsk, of the imminent execution of Alexey Leontieff in 1934 a warning? At a time when millions of Soviet citizens were being killed for utterly specious reasons, it seems very odd for a very specific press release like this to be made available to the West.
Did Boyle and Liddell interrogate George Graham? That would have been the obvious response, if they could track him down. Yet, even if they had done so, and the outcome was as disastrous as the evidence suggests it could have been, Boyle and Liddell would not have been able to do much more than try to wrap a discreet veil over the whole business, maybe concluding that the quid pro quo that Boyle referred to back in November 1945 had some substance to it. And George Hill would have become persona non grata. The possibility of a furtive mole called ELLI still being active in British intelligence would have been thrown into the shade had George Hill actually been working for the Soviets. That is what Len Manderstam believed. In From the Red Army to SOE he wrote: “I was sure George Hill was a triple agent. There was, in my opinion, no other explanation for his conduct and for subsequent events than that he was feeding information to the British, the Russians and the Germans. Even when he was liaising with the NVD on an official basis, I believe Hill supplied to them a great deal of important information and received little in return. He had been promoted to the control of SOE’s Mission in Moscow through his pre-war connections with the SIS and helped by the grandiose claims which he made for himself”. And Manderstam knew nothing about the George Graham fiasco, it seems.
Meanwhile the CORBY case opened up. On February 5, Prime Minister Mackenzie King set up the Royal Commission (the Kellock-Taschereau Commission) to investigate Gouzenko’s allegations, and it began secret hearings soon afterwards. A telegram of February 14 reported to MI6 that Gouzenko had been making a good impression. On February 6, Hollis had brought Liddell a transcript of a speech about Gouzenko made by Drew Pearson in the USA, thus breaking the silence, and the Gouzenko affair became public knowledge in the UK a week later. On February 20, Nunn May confessed to Commander Burt that he had indeed spied for the Soviets. The day before, Hollis had complained to Philby about his attempt to control the Gouzenko business, and he firmly requested that Philby relinquish it. On February 27, Liddell left on the boat-train with Victor Rothschild for Paris, and thence to Washington, courtesy of an RAF flight. Yet, partly because of inclement weather, he did not fly out of Paris until March 7.
c) The Voyage to the Americas:
Guy Liddell did not write up his diary entries for his visit to the Americas until he returned to the UK at the end of April. One of the most beguiling series of entries concerns his meetings with someone called ‘Gay’, whom he meets in the company of Carl Paulson, ‘a nice quiet type of American’ [yes, they do exist], on March 10. He sees her again in New York on March 16, and also the following day, and he would afterwards accompany her to Chicago and San Francisco. Yet this was not a conventional series of trysts. Liddell never identified ‘Gay’ in his diaries, but it is clear that she was his daughter, Elizabeth Gay.
Liddell had lost custody of his four children with Calypso (née Baring), and they had returned to the United States in 1941. Yet his elder daughter had obviously stayed in touch with him, and wanted him to meet her intended fiancé – even to give his approval to the match, perhaps, as she was not yet eighteen years old. Indeed, on April 5, 1946, the announcement was made that Elizabeth Gay Liddell, of Anselmo, California, was engaged to Ensign Carl G Paulson of the United States Naval Reserve, and they were married on May 4. Liddell was obviously not able to attend the wedding ceremonies, but the reasons for his hasty trip now become evident.
Not that he did not have important business affairs to deal with. He met members of the Security Council, discussing joint approaches to the Soviets, and then had a meeting with Lish Whitson and William Harvey of the FBI on communist matters. Liddell confided in his diary that ‘he was not au fait in any great detail about the Canadian case’, betraying his mental occupations elsewhere. He was much more comfortable on deception, and the Double-Cross System in WWII, and was able to explain to Colonel Sweeney in the Pentagon why a similar system against the Russians could not be effective in peacetime. On March 15, he had his meeting with J. Edgar Hoover, the head of the FBI, who talked so much that Liddell missed his train to New York. Liddell took the opportunity to ask Hoover whether he would object if MI5 placed an officer in Passport Control in Washington. Hoover had none.
And next – to Ottawa. He was met by Rivett-Carnac and Gagnon of the RCMP, and on March 18 witnessed Mackenzie King speak in the House of Commons. He dined with Peter Dwyer and his wife, so was presumably updated on proceedings with Gouzenko, but had a further opportunity to be briefed when he had lunch with a distinguished group at RCMP headquarters. (“We discussed the espionage case.”) On the morning of March 20, he had a talk with Leopold (the Gouzenko translator), and with Gagnon, and with Mead. And in the afternoon, Liddell spent an hour with Gouzenko himself, whom he found alert and intelligent. Liddell’s report (from his Diaries, not from the Gouzenko archive) runs as follows:
He will not be drawn into making any statement about matters of which he has no first-hand knowledge. He is somewhat temperamental, though when I saw him he was much elated by the fact that MAY had not been given bail and by Mackenzie King’s statement in the House of Commons commending his (CORBY’s) action. I asked him how it was that Russia had been going on in its present state for 28 years and how it was that the Russian people fought so well. He said that if I had been brought up on Marxian dialectics from the age of 6, if I had heard nothing but Soviet press and radio telling me that conditions abroad were far worse than any conditions in Russia, in fact that the rest of the world was living in squalor and revolution, if I had known what it was to walk down a street with my best friend and feel I could not talk freely, and if I had no opportunity of comparing my standards with those of anybody else, I should have been thinking as he did before he came to Canada. The impact of Canadian conditions was so terrific that he had been completely converted and had realised that from his youth up he had been completely deceived. He said that although he was under guard day and night by 3 officers of the RCMP he had never felt freer. I had no idea what it meant to him to be able to go out and buy a bag of oranges and a pound of hamburger. As a matter of fact it meant quite a lot to me on this occasion.
I then asked CORBY whether the Russians had deliberately let the Germans into their country in 1941. He said emphatically no. He was at the time at intelligence headquarters. The Russians were in fact running away and throwing away their arms to an alarming extent. It was only at Rostov on Don that anything like a halt was made. On this occasion Stalin put the NKVD behind the troops and gave them orders to fire on anyone running away. Subsequently there had been a tremendous wave of nationalist propaganda recounting deeds of Soviet heroism. In this way the tide had just been turned at Stalingrad.
Liddell had some further talks with RCMP officers, as well as Peter Dwyer, before returning to New York, and resuming the private part of his tour in the Americas – to Chicago and San Francisco with Gay.
I find this whole episode astonishing, for many reasons. The first is that no official record of the interview has been placed in the Gouzenko files, and the context of the experience that Liddell enjoyed has been completely overlooked. Did he not report on the encounter to Petrie and Sillitoe on his return? As an experienced officer, he would surely have followed protocol, and posted a memorandum on file. And there does not appear to be anything sensitive in his account that would require it to be weeded. It is all very bewildering. Christopher Andrew quotes a few sentences (pp 349-350), but appears not to grasp how bizarre the focus of the discussion was, given the recent revelations, the interrogations of the RCMP, the telegrams from Peter Dwyer, and the Hollis interview at the end of November 1945. Here was an opportunity for the head of British counter-espionage to ask searching questions of the defector who (according to the misguided beliefs of Amy Knight) was the person who provoked the Cold War, and who had provided alarming hints at Soviet spies in the fabric of British Intelligence, but Liddell failed to grasp the nettle. Instead he simply tried to satisfy his own intellectual curiosity.
There could be multiple explanations. Liddell could have invented the whole incident: yet, given the context, the ambience of the RCMP and the company of other intelligence officers, and the details in his report, that theory can be instantly discounted. More probable is that his account is incomplete. He probably did discuss – or broach – other matters (such as ELLI), but did not want them recorded. And if there were more sensitive revelations, it is quite likely that, for similar reasons, any report that he did submit to the Gouzenko file was buried, or subsequently weeded. Yet it also possible that, by that time, Liddell considered the whole ELLI business dead and buried, as if Alley had convinced him that it was all a harmless misunderstanding.
One must also consider the situation from Gouzenko’s side: perhaps he had grown so dismayed by MI5’s representation by then that he was not willing to speak about any confidential matters with such an officer, and glided over the more incisive questions. The first sentence of Liddell’s entry could be interpreted as saying that Gouzenko kept his lips sealed about the claims that his colleagues had made to him, using that pretext as an excuse for not opening up before another MI5 officer. Yet Liddell must have used an interpreter, and an RCMP witness. Was there no RCMP record of the interview? Gouzenko’s behaviour would surely have been worthy of remark.
Thus Gouzenko’s apparent poor recollection of the interview is also extraordinary. In Gouzenko: the Untold Story there is no mention of Liddell’s interview in March 1946. It is inconceivable that Gouzenko did not know to whom he was talking. Indeed, in his submission to the RCMP in 1952, he described how ‘on two occasions representatives of MI5 talked with me in Ottawa during the Royal Commission investigation’. (And we should note the length of Liddell’s interview – one hour, exactly the duration White attributed to Hollis.) The first of these was the encounter with Liddell. But by this time, Gouzenko had made up his mind. He was apparently convinced that ELLI was in MI5, and that the job of investigating him (or her) should thus have been entrusted to an outside agency, like Scotland Yard or the Army. ‘The result, even beforehand, could be expected as nil’ was how he characterized any outcome of the search for the agent. He must thus have decided to say little when Liddell appeared, and regarded the whole episode as inconsequential.
This was no well-oiled intelligence machinery at work. It all began with the disastrous lack of vetting of George Hill and his aide-de-camp when the SOE operation in Moscow was set up. When the Gouzenko defection occurred, the RCMP was hopelessly unprepared to handle the situation, and MI5 had vacated its representation. No disciplined interrogation of Gouzenko took place. MI5 failed to control the project, and allowed Kim Philby and MI6 to keep a rein on communications. As the Canadian, US and British governments dithered out of a desire to appease Stalin, MI5 dithered over its implementation of structures to handle Soviet intelligence attacks. It should have immediately seconded Jane Archer from MI6, to be accompanied by Stephen Alley, so that the team that handled Krivitsky so well could have reprised its success in Ottawa. Hollis was not the right candidate for either handling the political fall-out of the Nunn May case or interrogating Gouzenko. Liddell or Petrie should have taken on the former task, with Hollis instructed to keep close tabs on the ELLI business in London. If Hollis had been required to interrogate Gouzenko, he should have been well briefed, and been given a precise agenda. Boyle and Liddell should have doggedly pursued the leads on SOE security, and ensured that the ELLI identification was either pinned, and disposed of, and the outcome well communicated, or an action plan outlined to resolve the issue. Liddell should not have approached his opportunity to interview Gouzenko so casually.
The open identification of ELLI had not been conclusively determined, and questions about the merging of the features of multiple agents remained. The ‘dubok’ reference would not suit Alley easily, for example. Yet, what all this muddle meant was that fertile ground had been prepared for sowing confusion later on, and for Hollis to be conveniently framed as ELLI. Twenty years later, when the ELLI business was resuscitated, the screenplay turned out to be not so much Who Framed Roger Rabbit as Murder on the Orient Express, with a cast of guilty characters that included Dick White, Arthur Martin, Peter Worthington, Maurice Oldfield, Patrick Stewart, Chapman Pincher, Peter Wright, Stephen de Mowbray, James Angleton and Robert Lamphere, with Igor Gouzenko even dragged in as an accomplice himself.
Further Research Questions:
1) What secrets did Stephen Alley leave behind? I hope to be able to track down Alley’s memoirs when the Glasgow University Archive opens up again, but has any coldspur reader inspected these pages? Do any of you live in the Glasgow area, and could you possibly visit in person?
2) Where did George Graham come from, and what happened to him? Graham, né Leontieff, appears to have disappeared from the scene without trace. Does anyone have any knowledge of him or his wife, Edith, living in Amersham after the war?
3) What are the facts of the burglary at the Chichaev residence? I believe I now have discovered the official account, but has anyone read the Russian version of George Hill’s memoir, referred to by Dónal O’Sullivan in Dealing with the Devil? O’Sullivan has not replied to my email messages to firstname.lastname@example.org (California State University, Northridge).
4) What is the full story behind the security problems in the Russian Section of SOE? I thought Christopher J. Murphy (author of Security and Special Operations) might have some answers, but my phone and email messages to him at the University of Salford have been ignored. Does anyone know how to contact him?
And much to report on in later bulletins: ELLI in 1946 and beyond; a detailed analysis of Gouzenko’s statements, including what Pincher claimed he said to him; the composition of the NKVD intelligence organisation in London, 1941 to 1945; and maybe more.
[This report lays out the detailed arguments behind the recent article in the ‘Mail on Sunday’ that featured research by Professor Glees and me. We claimed that MI6 had engaged upon a reckless exercise to try to manipulate Sonia as some kind of ‘double-agent’, but had been fooled completely by Sonia’s working as a courier for the atom-spy Klaus Fuchs. This piece reproduces and recapitulates some of my earlier research on Sonia, but also presents some new analysis.]
Background and Sources
story starts – probably – in the summer of 1939. One has to qualify many of the
Switzerland-based events in this saga with ‘probably’ because so much of the
evidence is provided by Ursula and Len Beurton themselves, who, in their
testimonies to British immigration officials, told so many lies that it is
difficult to trust anything they said. Moreover, Ursula (agent SONIA) then
compounded the mendaciousness in her GRU-controlled memoir, Sonjas Rapport.
We can recognise the first set of untruths because the statements are often self-contradictory,
and easily refuted through an examination of the archival record. Many of
Sonia’s claims in her book have been shown to be false by simple inspection of
time and space, or by other records that have come to light that show persons
she talks about were simply not where she said they were at the time, or by
knowledge of the modus operandi of her employer, the GRU. Yet Sonia’s
account has been cited by numerous historians as if it were a reliable version
of what happened.
primary source for assembling the story is a rich set of files at the UK
National Archives – not just on Sonia, but on her family, the Kuczynskis, and
her husband Len Beurton, on the senior International Brigader she recruited for
her team in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, and on other Communist agents such as
Oliver Green, whose exploits reflect usefully on the policies and practices of
MI5. The files on the primary spy for whom Sonia acted as courier, Klaus Fuchs,
are also very relevant, as are, to a lesser extent, the Diaries of Guy Liddell,
the head of counter-espionage at MI5 at this time. (I have taken one hundred
pages of notes from the on-line Diaries, without recording a single reference
to Ursula, Kuczynski, Hamburger, or Beurton. The absence of nocturnal canine
latration, whether because of redaction or by Liddell’s choice, is highly
significant.) MI6 files are regrettably not available, but correspondence
between, and memoranda to and from, officers of the Security Service and the
Secret Intelligence Service are scattered among the files, as are occasional
items from the Home Office and the Foreign Office. These records are
complemented by a variegated set of files concerning the Radio Security Service
(RSS), which was responsible for wireless interception in WWII.
recently, some analysts have been promoting the value of files held in Russian
archives, although nearly all of these derive from KGB (State Security) records
rather than those of the GRU (Military Intelligence), for whom the Beurtons
worked. William Tyrer and Svetlana Chervonnaya (see www.documentstalk.com ),
have cited items of relevance, yet the existence of actual documents is hard to
verify. What Chervonnaya shows are primarily American, not Soviet documents,
and her focus is on American history. Moreover, her website appears to have
fallen into disuse in recent times. The Vassiliev Papers, again focussing on
KGB matters, are a highly reliable source, and show some important facts about
Sonia, at a time when the KGB was exerting more control over the GRU. They also reveal some interesting information
about Sonia and her brother after they escaped to East Germany.
Solid literature on Sonia is sparse. Alexander Foote’s memoir, Handbook for Spies, brings some psychologically convincing insights into his time with Sonia in Switzerland, as well as plausible observations on Sonia’s marriage to Len, but we have to recall that the book was ghost-written by MI5’s Courtenay Young. John Green’s 2017 study of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, is a useful compendium in some ways, drawing much from Kuczynski family memoirs and interviews, and helping with a few facts, but it contains many errors, and is too adulatory of the family’s ‘fight against capitalism’, thereby side-stepping any awkward anomalies in the records. (For example, he writes of the family’s ‘overall achievements and its contribution to our humanistic legacy’, a statement straight out of the Felix Dzerzhinsky playbook.) I have started to inspect one or two books in Russian: Vladimir Lota’s book on the GRU (cited in last month’s coldspurpost) provides convincing proof of the communications of the Rote Drei in Switzerland (although nothing of Sonia’s), and presents photographs of decrypted GRU telegrams. I ordered V.V. Beshanov’s book on Sonia, Superfrau iz GRU on May 3 of this year, but it has not yet arrived: I hope to be able to report on it in a later bulletin.
is certain is that Sonia was stranded in Switzerland in the summer of 1939. She
had moved from Poland, where her daughter Janina, by her lover in China, Johannes
Patra, had been born in 1936, but the affair had damaged her marriage to Rudolf
(Rolf) Hamburger. Sonia’s visa was due to expire at the end of September: she
and Rolf had acquired Honduran passports, but they were of dubious stature. If
Sonia were to be extradited to her German homeland, she would almost certainly
face death as a Jew and Communist. She had recruited the International
Brigaders Alexander Foote and Len Beurton as wireless operators, but they were
working as spies in Germany during the summer, and were not withdrawn until
just before war broke out.
Exactly what happened in those months is difficult to determine. Sonia’s account is illogical and inconsistent, and John Green skirts around that period, as if he didn’t trust her version of events, but also didn’t want to draw attention to the deceits. I gave an account in Sonia’s Radio: Part 2, but it is worth delving a little more deeply now, as the subterfuges hint strongly at strings working behind the scenes. The anomalies point strongly to the first plottings by the MI6 representative in Switzerland, Victor Farrell. What is certain is that Claude Dansey, the head of the shadow Z Organisation within MI6, and the deputy to the new Director-General, Stewart Menzies, had established its base in Geneva at the beginning of the war, and that Dansey himself was around to watch as these intrigues progressed, including Sonia’s divorce from Rolf Hamburger. Dansey did not return to Britain until November 1939.
In Handbook for Spies, Alexander Foote indicates that at this time Sonia’s husband, Rolf (identified as ‘Schultz’) was ‘incarcerated in a Chinese jail for Communist activities’. In Foote’s version of the story, therefore, Rolf never appears in Switzerland, and Foote records his visit to Sonia’s chalet, where she lived singly with her two children and the nurse. Foote then collapses the whole story of Sonia’s divorce and marriage as follows: “Sonia was increasingly dissatisfied with the life and work and wished to return [sic: she had never stayed there for long] to England. The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was of course her German passport. Therefore, in order to get British nationality, she managed to persuade Bill [Len Beurton] to agree to marry her if she could get a divorce from Schultz. She managed to obtain a divorce in the Swiss courts early in 1940, and straight away married Bill and was thus entitled to a British passport.” He adds that, throughout this whole exercise, ‘she had no intention of being unfaithful to Schultz’, but the charade of a mariage de convenance fell apart when she and Len fell in love. This is all nonsense, of course, because of her affair with Patra, and Foote’s suggestion that Sonia was feeling useless and ‘homesick’, with Moscow resisting her plans to withdraw from espionage. Sonia would have done what she was told.
In Sonya’s Report, the author imaginatively
has both her husband and her lover in Switzerland at the same time that summer,
but the chronology is gloriously vague. “In the early summer of 1939, as the
danger of war increased daily, an expired German passport was useless to an
emigrant. My Honduras passport did not give me real security either. Centre
asked what possibilities there might be of obtaining another passport for me.
We proposed that, before Rolf left Europe, we should start divorce proceedings
and I would enter into a pro-forma marriage with an Englishman.” Apart from the
somewhat premature series of activities described, Jim [Foote] won the lottery,
since his age was closer to Sonia’s: Rolf came to see Sonia for the last time.
“When his return to China had been approved, Centre enquired whether he would
be prepared to work under Ernst [Patra]. Generous and principled as he was,
Rolf had a high opinion of Ernst and agreed.” The display of lofty unselfishness
is comical: the notion that Soviet agents would have the freedom to accept or
decline Centre’s instructions is absurd.
Sonia then compounds the unlikelihood of this
domestic drama by having Ernst visit Switzerland, to see his daughter for the
first and only time, and she then (apparently in about July 1939) sees off her
husband and her lover from the train station in Caux. (Green informs us that
Sonia and Patra did not see each other between 1935 and 1955.) Helpfully, Rolf,
before he left, had written a letter to facilitate the divorce proceedings,
which Sonia ‘ever since the spring’ had been trying to finalise. (So much for
Sonia’s suggestion to ‘start divorce proceedings’ in early summer.) Why Rolf
could not have more actively contributed by playing his part while in
Switzerland is not explained. But then Foote tries to back out of the arranged
marriage, claiming some difficulties with a girl in Spain, and a possible
breach of promise. Why he had not thought of that earlier is likewise not explained,
but Foote then recommends Len to take his place, and Len gallantly accepts the
assignment, with Sonia saying that she will divorce him as soon as required. By
February 1940, Sonia had collected all the documents she needed in order to
When Foote was interrogated by MI5 and MI6
officers in late 1947, however, a different story emerged. In a report
distributed by Percy Sillitoe (from KV 2/1613-1, pp 23-28), Foote’s first
testimony claimed that Sonia’s divorce had been put through without Hamburger’s
knowledge, ‘Foote providing the principal false evidence of Hamburger’s
misconduct in London’. Later, however, Foote was shown information at Broadway
(MI6’s head office) suggesting that Hamburger had been in Switzerland in 1939,
indicating that the Security Intelligence Service was already keeping close
tabs on the extended members of the Kuczynski clan. Foote was shown a
photograph of Hamburger but was apparently ‘quite unable to identify it’.
When challenged later, Foote revealed even more
to the MI5 officers Hemblys-Scales and Serpell, the latter writing the report:
“Foote replied blandly that he had been the sole witness in the case. It was on
his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce from Rudolf Hamburger and
Foote made no bones at all about the perjury he had committed in the Swiss
courts. When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced, he said
that it had been a story of Rudolf Hamburger’s adultery with one of Sonia’s
sisters in a London hotel. I asked which sister was selected for this episode
and Foote replied, Mrs. Lewis. After these revelations, I can no longer feel
surprised at the anxiety shown by the Beurtons over the Hamburger divorce
during their conversations with Mr. Skardon and myself at Great Rollright.” And,
if Foote’s testimony were truthful, he would obviously have had to tell the
Geneva court that he knew what Hamburger looked like. In fact, he had committed
obvious perjury, as he now confessed.
we have the records from Moscow acquired by William Tyrer, although his story
contains its own contradictions. In a personal communication to me, he claimed
that Sonia and her husband lived with Honduran documents after she and Rolf
went to the Honduran consulate in Geneva, some time in mid-1939. Tyrer then,
somewhat implausibly, suggests that, with her Swiss mission completed, she set
her sights on going to Great Britain, where she would be more useful, and
moreover closer to her family – but that this desire awoke only after August
1940! He then cites a reliable-sounding but undated document (Tsa
MO RF, Op. 23397, delo 1, l. 33-37: The Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense
of RF, op. 23397, file 1, pp. 33-37) that purports to record a wireless
message from Sonia to Moscow Centre in late August 1939. It is remarkable in
many dimensions, not least because it suggests that the thought of divorce has
only just occurred to her, directly contradicting what she wrote in her memoir,
and because it also asserts that Rolf is already working in China, a fact of
which Moscow Centre would clearly have been aware, if it were true, and about
which it would thus not have to be informed.
The text of
the message (the name of the translator is not given, but it could be
Chervonnaya, since the English is choppy) runs as follows: “In case of war, I
will be sent to Honduras, where I won’t be able to work on your assignments. In
this connection, I have the following suggestion. The idea is, that I divorce
officially with Rolf and marry “Jim” or “John”. The marriage would be
fictitious, but it would help me to obtain a permanent British passport, with
which I’d be able to travel around the European countries without any obstacles
and would be able to go to Britain at any time.
… At present, I am still on a firm footing
in Switzerland – my husband works as an architect in China, myself with two
kids, I am unable to travel to join him, because China is in war. Waiting for
my husband’s arrival, I am taking a rest with the kids at a mountain resort.
With the help of my father, I am maintaining ties with some officials of the
League of Nations, which also helps to improve my credibility.”
for Sonia, Moscow Centre went along with her plan. For some reason, they did not
point out to Sonia that, in the event of war, she would not be able to gad
around Europe purely on the basis of a British passport. But why, if she was
proposing to divorce Rolf, would she lament that she was unable to join him in
China? (Note that Sonia here, in September 1939, first recommends the idea of
divorce, while claiming in her memoir that Rolf had left the previous month,
having already agreed to it. That the divorce was ‘unofficial’ beforehand is
evident.) And how would she know, having just seen Rolf off at the
train-station in Caux, that he was already working there as an architect? Even
more incredibly, why would she be waiting for her husband’s arrival in late
August 1939, if they had agreed to split? And, if Moscow had just approved
Rolf’s return to China, why would he be on his way back again?
conclusion must be that this document is a clumsy fake, inserted into the
archive at some unspecified time, and forgotten when the GRU helped Sonia write
her memoir. It is much more likely that Moscow approved the divorce plans much
earlier, ordered Rolf to return to China so that he was out of the way and thus
could not mess up the legal process, and then engaged in orchestrating Sonia’s
new British citizenship and infiltration into the United Kingdom as a courier.
And it is at this stage that MI6 starts to consider the possibilities of using
the opportunity to manipulate Sonia.
Step One: Facilitating Sonia’s divorce and re-marriage
There is no doubt that Alexander Foote had been recruited by MI6. The file KV 2/1613-1 specifically records how in 1947, after his desertion and return to Britain, MI5 warned Foote not to talk about his intelligence experiences, using the claim that he had been a deserter from the R.A.F. as a threat hanging over him. One does not have to buy in to the argument that he was eventually used as a medium for passing on packaged ULTRA secrets to the Soviets (as I do) to conclude that he had been infiltrated into the Swiss network in order to gain insights into its wireless techniques. Indeed, one might assume that he started passing on the practices described in Handbook for Spies to his controllers in Berne as early as 1940, when he became the leading operator for the Rote Drei.
when faced with the prospect that Sonia intended to marry Foote when she had
gained her divorce, MI6 would have been appalled at the plan. It would not have
helped them to have Foote repatriated to the United Kingdom as soon as he had
become effective. Yet the notion of potentially manipulating Sonia was
attractive: Len Beurton would be proposed as the replacement candidate to marry
Sonia. Foote would then come up with a bogus explanation as to why he could not
go through with the marriage, and would instead provide false evidence against
Rolf Hamburger, since the Swiss courts were apparently rather sticky when it
came to granting divorces against absent spouses. Whether Rolf actually
provided the letter that was supposed to grease the wheels is dubious:
apparently it was not enough to convince the authorities.
how did MI6 hope to use Sonia at this stage of the war? Of course, the Soviet
Union’s pact with Nazi Germany was in effect: in principle, she might have been
able to inform them of strategic intelligence. Yet her utility in Britain would
have been very constrained. Any activity on UK soil – including contacts with
as yet undiscovered sources – would transfer to MI5’s area of responsibility,
and the Security Service would therefore have to be party to the plot, and take
over the supervision and surveillance of Sonia. Perhaps they thought that she
would lead them to other GRU agents in Europe, and would repay her new masters
for their kindness in saving her from persecution in Germany. I suspect,
however, that the real agenda was to use her as some kind of ‘double agent’ *,
perhaps to feed her disinformation that she would be bound to transmit to
Moscow Centre, and thereby gain further insights into her encipherment
techniques. When her messages were intercepted (so went the plan), the fact
that she had been passed texts that she would encode would provide an excellent
crib for assisting in decryption – a technique that mirrored what RSS and
GC&CS were performing with transmissions performed by the Abwehr.
‘Double-agent’ is not really the appropriate term, as it suggests a
continuing dual role. ‘Controlled enemy agent’ is the preferred description. I
shall explore this phenomenon further in the coming final chapter of ‘The
Mystery of the Undetected Radios’.)
to her marriage certificate, Sonia received her divorce on December 29, 1939 (not
in October, as she for some reason told UK immigration officers later), and was
married to Len Beurton on February 23, 1940. Yet one further action hints at
the connivance of MI6.
anecdote appears in both Foote’s and Sonia’s narratives, although the details
and motivations differ slightly, and it involves Olga Muth, Sonia’s nanny. Muth
had been hired shortly after Nina’s birth in April 1936, and accompanied Sonia
to London, back to Poland, and then to Switzerland. Sonia presents Olga as
becoming distraught over the prospect of being separated from Nina, Sonia’s
daughter, and, in the knowledge that Sonia had a wireless transmitter, goes to
the British consulate in Montreux to denounce her as a spy. Foote states that
Olga was distressed by Sonia’s disloyalty to Rolf in not just marrying Len, but
subsequently falling in love with him.
Foote’s account, Olga rings up the Consulate to denounce Sonia and Len as Soviet
spies, telling them where the transmitter was hidden. In both versions, her
broken English was incomprehensible, and she was thus ignored. During his
interrogation in London, Foote additionally claimed (KV 2/1611-1) ‘that Ursula and Beurton were considered by
Moscow to have been compromised by the action of Olga Muth, and it was the
basis of their return to England.’ This is quite absurd: if they had been
rumbled in Switzerland by the British, they would hardly have been allowed to
settle in Britain. MI5’s Serpell sagely made a note, questioning why Sonia and
Len would have been denounced to the British authorities rather than the
Swiss? One might thus ask: Had the whole business been a ruse concocted
to suggest distancing of the Beurtons from MI6 in Switzerland?
Step Two: Providing Sonia with a Passport
On March 11, 1940, Sonia visited the British Consulate in Geneva to apply for a British passport, based on her marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files). She records that the reaction of the Consul was ‘distinctly cool’, Victor Farrell no doubt affecting a lack of enthusiasm for the whole venture. Mr. Livingston passed her application on to the Passport Office in London, adding the annotation that the purpose of her marriage was probably to confer British nationality on her, and then he rather provocatively appended the strange observation: ‘Husband is understood to be under medical treatment, and intends to return to Switzerland after escorting the applicant to England.’ Why Beurton, if he had recovered enough to make the arduous journey across Europe to Britain in war-time, would jeopardise his health, and then want to repeat the ordeal by returning to Switzerland for medical treatment instead of seeking it in the UK, is not evident.
I have described the events that took place next in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 2, and Chapter 8, but it is worth summarizing them here. The application was processed quickly, before Milicent Bagot, who was very familiar with the Kuczynski family, could advise against it. Sonia’s brother Jürgen had actually been interned as a dangerous communist, collaborating with another noted incendiary, Hans Kahle, in organizing espionage, but was conveniently released at about the same time that Sonia’s passport application was approved, in May. Len Beurton was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and thus not a person whose re-entry was to be encouraged. Cazalet in MI5 too late pointed out the anomalies, but stated that Sonia’s passport should be issued for limited duration, and should not be used for travel.
bizarre item in the KV 6/41 file shows that Sonia, perhaps concerned that the
application was not moving fast enough, actually sent a letter to her father
(addressed mystifyingly as ‘Renée’: his forenames were Robert René) requesting
local pressure on the Passport Office. In this missive, she curiously refers to
herself in the third person (‘Maria’), and informs her family that ‘Maria’s
husband’ (aka ‘Georgie’) has just written to the Office to advance his claim.
As it happened, the passport had been approved the day before: it is not clear
how Len’s personal approach would have helped his suit, unless he perhaps
thought that making an overt breach from his chequered past would somehow make
the Passport office look on his submission with more favour. Len’s letter has
not survived, but it was not necessary.
it is apparent that MI6 was able to bulldoze through the application, even
though Sonia was known to be one of a dangerous Communist family, with
lower-level officers in MI5 speaking strongly against the award, at a time when
the Soviet Union was supporting Nazi Germany in the war effort against Great
Britain. It is quite extraordinary that, during a period when any German
refugees were looked at with great suspicion, and as rumours of a dangerous
‘Fifth Column’ of hostile aliens were gathering momentum, MI6 would go to
strenuous efforts to facilitate the entry into the United Kingdom of a known
German-born revolutionary. Laconically, Sonia reported in her memoir: “In the
late autumn of 1940, Centre suggested that Len and I move to England”, as if
the thought had just occurred to them. (This is presumably the sentiment that
Tyrer echoes in his notes.)
Step Three: Exploiting Len’s Extended Presence in Switzerland
Len’s status in 1940 is a little perplexing. We know from the infamous ‘Geneva Letter’ (see The Letter from Geneva) that Farrell must have engaged him for some intelligence-gathering purposes, with the Falkenberg connection providing a vital insight into how prominent German minds against Hitler might be thinking. Yet it surely cannot have been MI6’s intention to prevent his leaving with Sonia, as it would draw undue attention to her situation, and would make her passage more hazardous. Was the statement about his returning to Switzerland a blind, when they knew that he would struggle to gain a transit visa, and might be even less welcome in the UK than Sonia was?
wrote that ‘as a former member of the International Brigade, Len could not
travel through Spain and had to stay in Geneva until we [Moscow? The British
Consulate?] could find a different route for him.’ Yet she presents this
observation very late in the cycle, after she and Len had received instructions
from Moscow towards the end of 1940. It is difficult to imagine that they could
have been so uninformed at this stage. She confirmed the fact when she was
interviewed by customs officials in Liverpool on February 4, 1941, saying
(after lying about how long she had been in Switzerland) that her husband had
been unable to leave Switzerland as he could not obtain a Spanish visa.
untruths about Len’s poor health (and other matters) start here. There are two
interrogation reports on Sonia on file: one dated February 8, from Security and
Immigration, and the other February 15, from the Home Office. In the former
report, she is quoted as saying that Len had been in Switzerland for about two years
‘for health reasons’. She cannot give a date for when she first met him, but claims
she went to Switzerland for the last time ‘just before the outbreak of war’,
and that Len had paid visits to Germany during the previous nine months in an
attempt to secure money owed her. She married Beurton in February 1940, ‘having
secured a divorce from her former husband’. Fortunately, Len had now recovered
from his tuberculosis, but had not been able to acquire a Spanish visa
necessary for reaching Portugal, because of his membership of the International
Brigades. Yet, despite Len’s ‘recovery’, she still cites his ill-health as an counter
to the Spanish government’s obduracy, suggesting that his inability to fight
should remove their concern.
Home Office Report gives a slightly different story. Now Sonia claims that she
had been in Switzerland since February 1940, thus eliding the circumstances by
which she had been able to acquire her divorce papers. She was presumably not
questioned as to where she had been prior to her arrival. She again says that
Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, but now embroiders the reason
why she had to leave Switzerland without him – that she was, as she coyly
admitted, ‘afraid to stay any longer owing to her connection with a well-known
anti-Nazi family’. That family was of course the Kuczynskis, to which she was
rather tightly bound, not simply ‘connected’. She does not indicate here that
Len has recovered, and thus leaves the argument that he was unfit to be a
fighting man in place.
report goes on to say that the Spanish visa ‘has been refused by the Spanish
authorities as he is still of military age and when it was pointed out to them
that he was medically unfit they said that the grounds for refusal were that he
was an engineer and therefore as valuable as a fighting man.’ It is not clear
whether the officials derived this information from Sonia herself, or another
source, but it does confirm that Len’s invalidity has already been raised as a
reason for letting him depart. Sonia rather ingenuously concluded her statement
by indicating that ‘Mr. Beurton would attempt to leave France by a cargo boat
from Marseilles’. A simple cross-check between different statements to customs
officials and Livingston’s passport application would have turned up an
enormous contradiction about the supposed frailty of Len’s health and his
desire to join his wife in England as soon as possible, as well as a cavalcade
of lies about their movements in Europe. MI5 and MI6 were simply not interested
any case, Len surely did face a challenge in trying to pass through France and
Spain because of his history as an International Brigader, and this fact would
consume some more of MI6’s devious energies later. Meanwhile, he made himself
useful. In Handbook for Spies, Foote stated that Len gradually
extricated himself from the Soviet organisation, and that contact ceased after
March 1941 (when Sonia was safely ensconced in Oxfordshire). This was the
period when Farrell presumably nurtured him, believing him also to be an ally,
and indebted to the British authorities, and used him for
intelligence-gathering purposes. Some time after his return to the United
Kingdom, Len apparently tried to revive his career with MI6. In the Alexander Foote
archive, in KV 2/1612-2, can be found a statement that Beurton ‘gave information about his work with KWEI,
Z.156 [presumably von Falkenberg] and Rolf SUESS which was of little
value, and he tried to obtain employment with British intelligence. This offer
was refused, and in July 1943 he asked for help in joining the R.A.F. on the
strength of “having rendered valuable assistance in Switzerland”’.
The exact sequence and timing of events is uncertain, but K 6/41 tends to undermine the ‘intelligence’ application in favour of the ‘R. A. F’ story. There, Colonel Vivian of MI6 confirms the approach, informing Shillito on August 17, 1943 that Beurton presented himself at the War Office with an introductory letter, asking for an interview with (name redacted). (But why else would Vivian have been involved?) Yet Beurton waited a long time to make this approach, as if he was not certain whether he was working for the GRU, or MI6, or both. He must have been getting rather desperate. Shillito had picked up the case again, and was busy asking questions at this time. Perhaps the combination of Farrell’s reminder in March, the imminent birth of his and Sonia’s baby, and his failure to find employment were making Len a bit desperate. MI6 in London were obviously quite aware of his services to the Swiss station, but had no wish to recruit him. If they were interested in taking him on, they would surely have acted soon after his arrival.
Step Four: Arranging the passage of Sonia and her children to Lisbon
Refugee literature informs us how arduous was the trek across France and Spain to the relative safety of Portugal. For a lone woman travelling with a nine-year-old son and a four-year-old daughter, it must have been especially difficult. Yet Sonia’s children (Maik and Janina) almost did not make it. The original passport application had specified that Sonia wanted her children added to the passport, but it seems that this inclusion did not guarantee their ability to travel, presumably since they had been born as German citizens, and had not been naturalized. This discovery occurred very late in the day. Sonia did not notice the dilemma until shortly before she left, apparently, or may have assumed that their status as appendages to her passport gave them right of entry. Else she may have considered that perhaps the original plan was for her to travel alone, leaving the children in Len’s (or somebody else’s) care. Sonia ignores the whole issue of her children’s approval process, merely stating that she planned to leave at the end of December.
KV 6/41 shows that an urgent plaintext telegram was sent from Geneva to London
on November 21, 1940, reflecting the recognition that the children might be
turned away on attempting to land. (The question of whether they would have got
past the Embassy in Lisbon is not raised.) Extraordinarily, the cable states,
even at this late stage, that the children would be accompanied by their
parents [sic, plural], and throws in the name of Sonia’s father,
(“Doctor Kuczynski of London University’), as if that impressive academic touch
would seal the deal. Mystifyingly still, Cazalet’s response of December 10 misses
the point entirely, stating that MI5 (to whom the request was addressed) ‘have
no objection to the names of Mrs. Ursula BEURTON’s children being added to her
passport and the children accompanying their mother to this country’. His memo
to Stafford of the Passport and Permit Office, dated December 4, clearly
indicates that the problem was due to the fact that they were ‘German born
she and her children arrived in Lisbon, Sonia faced multiple challenges in
planning her transit. This section of her memoir is probably one of the more
reliable parts, in the bare outline of their movements. She wrote a letter to
her parents in which she described the horrendous journey, the unheated bus
through France, the icy cold in which they stood waiting at customs houses,
alleviated by a more comfortable train ride from Barcelona to Madrid, and then
a more stressful passage to Lisbon, where they arrived on December 24, 1940, with
all three of them ill. The British consulate explained that Sonia was ‘about
the most insignificant person on the long list’, so she moved, somewhat
incongruously, to a comfortable hotel up the coast in Estoril (the ‘Grande’,
“once the setting for the European aristocracy to spend its summers”), using
monies from Moscow Centre’s account. “After about three weeks, the consulate
informed me that we would be taken to England by ship”, she wrote. Yet the
letter she wrote to her family on January 4 indicates that she already knew
then that the waiting-time would be ‘about three weeks’ – not a bad prospect
for someone so lowly on the pecking-order. She had been granted a Category ‘C’
endorsement (no internment required) on January 10. It appeared that MI6 had
primed the consulate: Sonia gave the game away again.
also helped with the expenses involved in transporting Sonia and her family
across Europe. While funding was tight in Switzerland, and caused special
stresses, Foote informed his interrogators that ‘Albert’ (Radó) managed to send
$3,500 to her in Portugal. This was obviously essential for Sonia’s living
expenses while staying at the Grande Hotel. Sonia admitted this contribution in
her memoir. Yet she was clearly indebted to MI6 for working behind the scenes
to advance her priority up the queue of desperate refugees waiting to gain a
spot on one of the ships bound for Liverpool. No questions were apparently
asked about her source of funds or her lavish accommodation.
Step Five: Helping Sonia Settle in Britain
In two respects, MI6 helped Sonia with her accommodation and trysting arrangements in England. In one extraordinary item of testimony, Foote told his interrogators (KV 6/43-243A) that, before Sonia left Switzerland, she asked Foote to send a message to Moscow giving the address in Essex where her GRU contact was to meet. Foote’s notebook revealed that Sonia was to ‘meet with the Russians on 1st & 15th of every month at 3pm GMT at Wake Arms in Epping’. This location has an especial interest, since some of the items of correspondence intercepted at the Summertown address in September and October 1942 came from Epping. It would nevertheless not have been an easy place to travel to and from for a mother with two young children resident in Oxford. Yet Epping had its enduring attractions. In 1944, Sonia consequently decided to send Nina, aged seven, to a ‘boarding school in beautiful rural surroundings near Epping Forest’, Micha having already won a scholarship to a boarding school in Eastbourne, Sussex. Nannies and boarding-schools: those are the emblems of the truly dedicated Communist with important work to do.
is astonishing about this item is how Sonia must have gained the intelligence. Unless
the claim was a gross invention by Foote (which seems unlikely, given its
detail, and the context), we have to consider the alternatives for the source
of a message that was to be sent to Moscow. It therefore could not have
originated from Moscow, but we also have to consider why Moscow would need this
information. Did Sonia believe that Moscow would have to pass it on to her GRU
contact in London, so that she and her handler could meet successfully? Surely
not: Moscow was in constant touch with London. Or was she simply confirming
what her GRU contact had told her already? Yet, even if she had been able to
contact the GRU in London, by wireless, or possibly by coded letter to her
sister or father, there would have been no need for her to inform Moscow, as
her relatives must have derived the data from the local GRU residency.
we have to assume that the address was given to her by Farrell in MI6. The
implication that MI6 was in communication with GRU officers in London about the
plan to bring Sonia to Britain, and aiding the process of setting up her treffs,
is too scandalous and impossible to consider. I suggest one tentative
interpretation. What probably happened is that Sonia had been able to inform
Moscow that MI6 was going to recommend a suitable meeting-place (presumably
with the objective of surveilling it closely), and, at the last minute before
she left, it gave her the times and location for Epping. Her message thus
constituted a warning to her bosses that this place was not to be used.
There is no other evidence that she travelled regularly to Epping, which would
have been an arduous journey from Oxford, although much easier from Hampstead,
if that is where MI6 believed she would probably take up residence.
fact that Foote had to inform Moscow of the arrangement must mean that the GRU
was aware that Sonia was negotiating with MI6. That was in principle also a
dangerous path, as such collaboration was severely frowned upon. In late 1943,
Radó received a royal carpeting when he suggested to Moscow that he and Foote
seek shelter in the British consulate in Geneva when the Gestapo started
applying pressure to the Swiss, and mopped up the Rote Drei network.
Sonia must have wisely told Moscow everything, and gained their approval for going
along with MI6’s game, as it represented the best chance of gaining the
foothold in Britain that they all desired.
The other instance where MI6 helped her was in her attempt to learn where her destination in England would be. I laid out in Sonia’s Radio: Chapter 8 how she sent a desperate letter from Lisbon to her father’s address in London, which was redirected to the address in Oxford that she would later give, as her destination, to the immigration officer in Liverpool. Whether Oxford was chosen as part of a deep strategy by the GRU, as a sensible idea by MI6, or out of a firm preference from the Kucyznski family is unclear. It may well have been the latter, as Jürgen Kuczynski had expressed dismay that Sonia was coming to Britain, where she might draw undue attention by MI5 and Special Branch to his own subversive activities on behalf of the Party. The anguish in her letter shows that Sonia must have known already that she was not welcome in London, and would be directed elsewhere. Yet Sonia did learn what this address was before she arrived in Liverpool. Some emissary from MI6 must have provided this information care of the Consul in Lisbon: there is no other reasonable explanation. In Chapter 8 I put forward one speculative notion.
voyage to Liverpool took three weeks: the Avoceta arrived on February 4.
After the interrogation(s) (in which she was now able to provide a destination
address), Sonia managed to find a hotel to stay in, and after an air-raid
interrupted night, the next morning travelled smoothly by train to Oxford.
Thereafter, her account does not ring true. She claimed that her parents were
staying with friends at the Oxford address (78 Woodstock Road, as the MI5 files
tell us: they followed her there), but that they had to return to London
‘because their room was needed by their friends’ relatives’. Implausibly, Sonia
states that, because house-hunting in Oxford was ‘hopeless’, she tried to find
something in the bombed cities, but that was impossible too. (Did she travel to
Portsmouth? Coventry? Liverpool? She does not say.) ‘At last’ she found a furnished room, but had
to send the children away, as the landlady insisted on only one renter. So she
found a room at the vicarage in Glympton, near Woodstock, settled down, and
started her fortnightly visits to London.
one were not aware of her brother’s objections, one night ask why on earth she
didn’t move to the bosom of her family in London, so she would have
grandparents to look after her children, and be able to carry on her trysts so
much more easily? Apparently ‘moving in with them was out of the question’, as
her parents were staying with friends in an overcrowded house’. In April 1941,
she conveniently found the furnished bungalow in Kidlington, with no landlady,
and the ability to keep her children with her. What she also omitted to mention,
however, was that, during these hectic weeks, she was actually residing with
her sister, Barbara, Mrs Taylor, at 97 Kingston Road, Oxford, as the
constabulary report of February 24 informs us. Barbara’s husband, Duncan
Burnett Macrae Taylor, was a trainee wireless operator in the R. A. F., and
thus may well have been the officer Sonia claimed to have developed as an
informer (‘James’) when she boasted of her ‘network’ in her memoir. Moreover,
the report says that her parents are still living at 78 Woodstock Road. It is
no wonder that Sonia fails to describe this part of her life in Oxford in any
Step Six: Allowing Sonia to Carry On Unsurveilled
What is clear from the archives is that a minimal surveillance of Sonia was undertaken, but it was of the generic kind of instructing the local constabulary ‘to keep an eye on her’, as if they might surprise her in the act of planting a bomb somewhere. It extended to intercepting her mail, but specifically did not track her movements. The problem is that much of the initiative came from younger officers, like Hugh Shillito, who were trying to do their job, but had clearly not been filled in on the bigger picture. Shillito (B.10.e) wrote to Major Ryde in Reading (the Special Branch representative) on February 7, suggesting that Sonia might want to ‘be kept under observation’. Yet he gives no indication that she is a communist, and related to subversives who have been interned. He merely states that she ‘clearly comes from an entirely different social stratum, and it appears that the marriage was one of convenience’. He says that Len’s ‘present whereabouts are unknown’. It is obvious that he has not been briefed properly, has not spoken to Milicent Bagot, has not read the immigration reports, and is completely unaware of the Communist group that Sonia was part of. He ends his request with the statement: ‘I shall be very interested to hear the result of any enquiries you may make’, but one could hardly expect Major Ryde to jump into action on the basis of this weak letter.
in fact copied his letter to the Oxford Constabulary, and Ryde did send it on
to the Oxford City Police. Acting Detective-Sergeant Jevons did make enquiries,
and discovered the facts about the Taylors, and also that Sonia’s father held ‘strong
Communist views’, facts that he reported to Shillito on February 24. The very
next day, Hyde sent a letter to Shillito, enclosing a copy of the Beurtons’
marriage certificate. This is shocking and absurd: Why did these dedicated
civil servants have to educate an MI5 officer about the details of the case? I
have noticed that MI5 officers often seemed remarkably ignorant of the marital
status of Len and Sonia: when Sonia’s application for a passport came through
in March 1940, Cazalet had even indicated that they thought Len was in Germany,
in February 1940, which would have been a ridiculous supposition if he had
married Sonia the previous month.
Shillito appears to have been kept in the dark, deliberately. His response to
Ryde of March 1 suggests that the marriage is all news to him. In any case, at
that point Shillito effectively signs off, deeming no further action required,
and again expresses the perennial hope that ‘an eye can be kept’ on Sonia. The
file is passed to B4, as it appears to be a Communist Party matter. Thereafter,
Sonia and Shillito disappear from the archival radar, the case not taking on
new life until her husband’s repatriation in July 1942, by which time Shillito
has been heavily involved with the business of Oliver Green, a member of the
Communist Party of Great Britain, and a spy who had been convicted and
imprisoned, not for espionage, but for forging petrol coupons. In the
reorganization of July 1941, after Petrie’s arrival, Shillito had been moved
into the new F Division, tracking CP members, and was given a new assignment.
to Sonia’s account, the hounds (if that is how these tentative inquisitors must
be characterized) must have been called off at about the time she first met
with her controller in London, in May, after several abortive attempts. She
travelled up to London every couple of weeks, to speak to her father, and
colleagues like Hans Kahle. She stayed with her parents, or one of her sisters,
presumably leaving her children behind. She never explains how they were taken
care of. It was in 1941, of course, that Peter Wright claimed that she
maintained ‘a nest of spies’, something that surely should have gained the
attention of any agency chartered with ‘keeping an eye on her’. As readers of
these bulletins will know by now, I largely discount Wright’s allegations,
although it is possible that Sonia developed contacts in important scientific
research organisations in Oxford. And
yet, throughout the rest of 1941, no one apparently noticed any of her journeys
and absences, or pondered how a mother was able to leave her kids behind so
political environment changed in 1941, of course. The Battle of Britain was over;
the threat of invasion receded; the search for parachuted German agents waned;
Hitler turned his attention eastwards and invaded the Soviet Union on June 22.
With Churchill’s immediate message of support to Stalin, and signals from the Y
Board and the Foreign Office that counter-intelligence operations against the
Soviet Union should be wound down, Sonia would have been seen in a different
light. What possible harm could a lone and disconnected housewife perform to
the cause of the war?
need for insights into Soviet decryption techniques, however, did not go away,
and GCHQ never completely abandoned its plans for attacking Soviet traffic. It
was in the summer of 1941 that Sonia, having assembled her wireless transmitter
at Glympton, began transmitting regularly to Moscow, and the only surviving
message concerning her wireless activity (not from her directly, but from the
Soviet Embassy) dates from July of this year. As I have outlined, her attempts
to contact her bosses at that time were made from Kidlington, and were
(apparently) never picked up. Thus it would appear that MI6 fell into a fallow
period with Sonia, not certain what to do with her, and perhaps frustrated in noticing
that, having installed herself as a competent wireless operator in Oxfordshire,
she stubbornly refused to co-operate by sending any messages that could be
circumstances surrounding Sonia’s broadcasts in 1941, and the apparent failure
of RSS to pick them up, are still perplexing. Since her messages needed to
reach Moscow, she would have had to use a higher band-width (probably over 1000
kcs) than would have been used by postulated Nazi agents trying to reach
Hamburg, or enemy wireless operators working on the Continent. Such signals
should have immediately drawn attention, but they would have been harder to
pick up at that wavelength, and it is probable that the Voluntary Interceptors (VIs)
had not been instructed to perform General Searches in this range. We can only
speculate as to how well MI6 understood the technicalities of waveband
selection for the cuckoo they had transplanted into their nest, or how
reluctant they would have been to divulge too much about her presence to RSS
officers who were supposed to detect her.
We do know that, by early 1942, a VI picked up such a signal from the Soviet Embassy, but location-finding techniques still had great difficulty in tracking it down. It may be that, not until MI6 took over the fixed direction-finding stations from the Post Office in late 1941, and built new ones, and connected them all, was the RSS able to include in its ambit a greater range of frequencies, and pass some of them to the VIs. One RSS officer, Bob King, assured me that the complete spectrum of wavelengths was monitored, and, moreover, that Sonia’s transmissions were picked up, and instructions received to ignore them, but the dating of such events suggests they were post-war. I shall pick up this fascinating aspect of the story in the conclusion to my series The Mystery of the Undetected Radios.
final anomalous oversight of this period was Sonia’s momentous meetings with
Klaus Fuchs. Yet those encounters properly belong to the time after Beurton’s
arrival back in the United Kingdom, which was an important scheme by MI6 in its
own right. It would be Len’s controversial arrangements for rejoining his wife
that would gain Hugh Shillito’s attention again.
Step 7: Orchestrating Len’s Repatriation
One extraordinary aspect of the whole project concerning Len’s repatriation is the extreme lengths that MI6 went to. When far more-deserving candidates, such as escaped prisoners-of-war, were struggling to gain passage back to England, Beurton, a known communist, agent in a Swiss spy network, and member of an official Black List, benefitted from the provision of false papers, and the advantage of an aircraft return to Poole, Dorset instead of the dangerous and slow sea journey that most refugees had to endure. (The busy MI9 route out of Gibraltar also used aircraft.) It is difficult to imagine that MI6 would go to such extreme lengths purely because of the pressure applied by leftist friends of the Kuczynskis, and for the office of the Foreign Secretary to become involved only draws attention to the anomaly.
will recall that, when Sonia arrived in Liverpool in early February 1941, one
of the accounts that she gave of Len’s absence was that he had gone two years
ago to Switzerland for treatment for tuberculosis, that he had recovered and
was thus fit to travel, but that the failure of the Spanish to grant him a
transit visa had prevented his accompanying her. (And that this intelligence
was in contradiction of what the passport application from Geneva had indicated.)
Unsurprisingly, the testimonies now differ. Sonia reported that Radó had
applied pressure on Len, saying that his work in Switzerland was more
important, and Len had been influenced by him. But when he asked Moscow what he
should do, they told him to ‘do as Sonya says’ – an extremely unlikely
described it differently: “Bill
[Len] then pulled out of the organisation, and though he remained in
Switzerland until 1942 he had no more official contact with us after March
1941. Moscow allowed him to try to make arrangements to leave at the end of
1941 and even assisted him in obtaining a British passport by getting a leading
British politician to intervene on his behalf. The politician concerned acted,
I am sure, quite innocently in this as worked through a number of cut-outs, and
the person in question would probably have been horrified at the thought of
assisting a Russian spy.” Probably a more accurate account, and a useful
commentary by the MI5 ghost-writer, to be sure. Radó echoed Foote’s account in Codename Dora,
indicating that ‘John’ [Len] stayed on to provide training (‘at Central’s
request’) but then observed that Len was able to leave the country by the
spring of 1941. Even if Radó
was mistaken over the date of Len’s derparture, it strongly suggests that Len
was not occupied with the Rote Drei any longer.
Sonia made much of Len’s struggles to gain any
priority with the consulate in the queue of escapees trying to reach Britain,
and she said she then contacted Hans Kahle, who, in turn invoked the support of
Eleanor Rathbone, the left wing MP, who pleaded on the basis of Len’s eagerness
to join the British Army. It might have suited MI6 to keep Len in place for a
while, since he was providing useful information on anti-Nazi thinking from his
association with General von Falkenhausen, but someone obviously concluded that
he would be of more use back in Britain. Events then took some extraordinary
turns, involving some barefaced lies that apparently did not concern the
authorities, who were, after all, responsible for some of them.
For example, Sonia wrote that Rathbone must
have asked a question in Parliament, along the lines of : “Why is a British
citizen and anti-fascist with military experience in the Spanish Civil War, who
is abroad and wants to volunteer for the British Army, not being given the
support of His Majesty’s Government in order to return to his home country?”
She overlooked the obvious paradox that, in order to gain a transit visa
necessary for repatriation and then enlisting, Beurton had to be declared unfit
for military service in Geneva. A veritable Catch22. [I cannot find, in the
1942 Hansard records, this question from the MP for the Combined Universities,
but Miss Rathbone was a vigorous and regular critic of government policy.]
When Rathbone wrote to Alexander Cadogan, the
Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, she
explained that Beurton had gone to Switzerland before the war for health
reasons, and then underwent a serious ski-ing accident that prevented him from
leaving. For good measure, the International Brigade Association secretary, Mr
Jack Brent, threw in (orally) that Beurton probably had tuberculosis as well,
and would therefore be unfit for military service, thus undermining Rathbone’s
appeal. This submission conveniently reinforced the ‘legend’ that Sonia had
built up about Len’s affliction, yet rather over-egged the pudding with the
details of Len’s misfortunes while ski-ing. Of course, the myth that Len was
unfit for military service was necessary in an effort to convince the Vichy
French and Spanish authorities that Len could not contribute to the war effort,
but it rather undermined the urgency of the reasons why the British authorities
would be eager to repatriate a tubercular, crippled Communist subversive. Did
they perhaps not recall that Klaus Fuchs’s brother Gerhard had arrived by
aeroplane in the UK from Switzerland in July 1939, but had been denied entry,
and had been forced to return, because he had tuberculosis?
any case, the Foreign Office wisely pointed out that Beurton would probably
need to be pronounced unfit by an impartial medical board in order to gain
transit visas from the French and Spanish authorities. On June 3, Livingston,
of the Geneva consulate, informed Sir Anthony Eden, the Foreign Secretary, that
Beurton had been trying to leave for two years (some slight exaggeration), but he
was able to supply the good news that, in April, the doctor attached to the
French consulate had declared him unfit for military service. Thereafter, they
had applied for French and Spanish visas. The Spaniards, not smelling a rat (or
possibly receiving some form of encouragement), had granted the visa, but the
French were still delaying things. Yet what Livingston did not state at this
juncture was that Beurton had already, on March 9, been issued with a false
passport in the name of John William Miller. This fellow must have been a
really important asset.
final visa was issued on July 8, Beurton left Geneva on July 13, and Livingston
reported his departure on July 20. There is no record of his journey on file,
but Beurton apparently was given VIP treatment, not taking the regular MI9
route for escaped POWs and agents from occupied Europe via Madrid to Gibraltar,
but enjoying instead the diplomatic route, and the comfort of a quick plane
from Lisbon. He arrived at Poole Airport on July 29, hale, but a little peeved
that the he had to undergo an interrogation, as he felt that the authorities in
Lisbon should have warned immigration about his arrival. He confidently declared
that his passport was a forgery, denied that he had gone to Switzerland for
health reasons, indicated that he had gone to Germany in January 1939 to
retrieve property owned by Rudolf Kuczynski, and intimated that he had an
affair with the latter’s daughter, Ursula. He boasted that he had survived on a
$20,000 legacy that he had been carrying round in cash. Furthermore he stated
that he and Ursula were married in May 1940, and that they did not leave
Switzerland at the beginning of the war as they were waiting for his wife’s
divorce papers to come through. He was, however, quick to mention his contact
from the League of Nations, L. T. Wang.
more incriminating farrago of lies would have been difficult to concoct. On
August 5, Vesey (B4A) wrote to MI6 expressing surprise that the Passport
Control Officer would have issued a false British passport to man whose history
must have been known. MI6 replied to Vesey that he had been given a faked
passport as he had been refused a transit visa in his own name, adding that the
PCO in Geneva was ‘of course’ not aware of the ‘individual circular’ concerning
Beurton, who had in the meantime approached the ‘Passport Control’ (i.e. MI6
itself) to join the Armed Forces. MI6 was meanwhile very interested in Wang and
Kwei. Vesey and a representative from MI6 would interrogate Beurton in October
about the questionable legacy and his actions with Sonia’s friend Marie
Guinzberg at the UN in gaining a Bolivian passport. Yet interest in all these
suspicious activities was buried.
Step 8: Suppressing Leads on Sonia’s and Len’s Activities
I have written at length on the apparent confusion surrounding MI5’s surveillance of the Kidlington and Summertown addresses, and the Beurtons’ telephone and mail (see http://www.coldspur.com/special-bulletin-response-to-denis-lenihan/, of March 19, 2020). Sonia claimed that she and Len had to move out of the Kidlington house very soon after Len’s arrival, but was fortunate in finding accommodation in the annex to the house owned by Neville Laski and his wife. Sonia was careful in picking landlords of impeccable standing: Laski was a notable jurist, and may have acted as a solicitor for MI5 at some stage. When the Beurtons moved to The Firs at Great Rollright after the war, they rented from Sir Arthur Salter, the Member of Parliament for Oxford University from 1937 to 1950.
main conclusion was that Hugh Shillito, having been emboldened by a successful
investigation of Oliver Green’s espionage activities, shifted his attention
back to the Beurtons soon after Len’s arrival in July 1942, but was firmly
discouraged by senior MI5 officers from pursuing the leads too energetically. For
example, the apparent failure to follow up on the provocative batch of letters
listed on file is perplexing. Just after the time (November 1942) when he had
gained the enthusiastic support of Director-General Petrie, and his immediate
supervisor Roger Hollis, for his prosecution of the Green case, Shillito made
the outlandish suggestion that Sonia and Len were probably Soviet spies. Yet
this was information that some senior officers did not want to hear.
would be quite plausible that Liddell and White had been drawn into the plot by
MI6 at this stage, but that Petrie and Hollis (who had replaced his former
boss, John Curry, as head of F Division in November 1941), had not. F2 was
responsible for ‘Communism and Left-wing Movements’, but Sonia and Len were not
associated with the Party, or visibly part of any ‘movement’, so they, along
with many other free-flowing communists (such as Jürgen Kuczynski and Fritz
Kahle) were allowed to behave unhindered. Perhaps a case was made on those
lines that the Beurtons should be ignored. As late as July 1943, however, when
the very disgruntled but severely anti-communist Curry had been transferred to
MI6, Shillito was still grumbling to his former director that he thought the
Beurtons were Soviet agents.
it is the Fuchs business that dominates this period. Sonia had been introduced
to Fuchs through her brother, Jürgen. From Sonia’s account, one would get the
impression that she cycled out to the Banbury area a dozen times or more,
sometimes meeting Fuchs in person, sometimes leaving a message in a shared
‘letterbox’ to arrange a subsequent meeting. When Fuchs passed her a
hundred-page book of blueprints, she had to travel to London to inform her
handler (by a secret chalk sign) that they would meet outside Oxford, and she
then had to pedal out to the junction of the A34 and the A40 to hand over the
formulae and drawings. Frank Close echoes the account of these idyllic trysts,
even quoting what Sonia later told the local Oxford newspapers: “During the
final months of 1942, and throughout 1943, Fuchs and Sonya met at regular
intervals near Banbury, always at weekends. She would come from Oxford by train
in the morning, Fuchs arriving from Birmingham in the afternoon. One meeting
was in Overthorpe Park, two miles east of Banbury, and within easy reach by
bicycle or on foot.”
One can already see the contradictions. Did Sonia bike the whole thirty miles to Banbury, or did she take her bicycle to the train station, and then ride out to Overthorpe Park? Remember, most of these adventures would have occurred in the windy and rainy English winter of 1942-1943: moreover the Beurtons’ son, Peter, was born in September 1943, which would have hindered Sonia’s cycling excursions in the latter part of this period. Fuchs would not have been able to make regular forays to duboks in North Oxfordshire just to inform Sonia when the next meeting should be. Sonia promoted the notion that they walked around arm-in-arm, as if they were lovers, to throw off any suspicions. Yet most of this must be fantasy.
probably met Fuchs for the first time in a café near Birmingham railway
station, in late summer 1942, and on that occasion they probably only checked
each other out. The Vassiliev Papers record that she had reported that Fuchs
had already passed papers to her by October 22 (and they also inform us that
Fuchs’s previous handler, Kremer, had returned to the Soviet Union in August
1942). MI5 later claimed that such meetings occurred only every two or three
months (echoing what Fuchs told them in his confession), and lasted only a few
minutes, which would appear to make more sense, with Fuchs needing to be
careful about absenting himself from Birmingham. If Sonia had indeed been
taking her bike to Oxford station at regular intervals, surely ‘keeping an eye
on her’ would have quickly led to her being stopped, and interrogated about her
business? And what happened if her bicycle had broken down and she had secret
plans in her basket?
Sonia’s handling of Fuchs lasted only one year. They had their infamous ‘Quebec Agreement’ meeting in mid-August 1943, and a final tryst in November. So, even allowing for MI5’s possible distortions to cover their ineptitude, she and Fuchs probably met only about three or four times before, which, logistically, makes much more sense. More poignantly, this period happened to coincide almost exactly with Len’s presence, and idleness, before being enlisted in the R. A. F. on November 18, 1943, as a trainee wireless operator. Len had expressed to Vesey, in October 1942, his annoyance at being turned down by the Air Force, whom he was keen to join, for health reasons. But his ill health was a myth. Had MI6 been working behind the scenes to disrupt his application? And what about the support of Rathbone, Cadogan and Eden for getting this man into the fight against the Nazis? Did Rathbone conveniently forget about the vociferous appeal she had made on behalf of the valiant British fighting-man?
there might be significance behind the apparent coincidence of Fuchs’s
productivity and Len’s wireless activity is too horrendous to consider, but
Beurton had surely taken over the operation of the radio in Kidlington from
Sonia. Was that what MI6 conceived as his role? Unless they were interested
purely in improved marital relations for Sonia and Len, MI6 must have had plans
for him. Yet he could not be used for intelligence purposes in the UK, and he
could possibly be a danger if used in the Armed Forces, as his later problems
in being accepted reveal. Farrell’s letter of March 1943 remains puzzling, but
could have been a coded reminder that Len needed to re-commit to the cause of British
Intelligence, and advice from his new-found ‘friend’ would be timely.
Sonia actually used her apparatus to transmit from the new address in Summertown
is mainly speculation. The discovery of her set in January 1943 has been
analysed studiously. Certainly she claimed that she transmitted regularly, and that
her children confirmed her nocturnal activities, but the evidence is sparse.
GCHQ, on behalf of RSS, claimed very unscientifically to Peter Wright that she
could not have transmitted undetected, but of course her messages might have
been intercepted, and decisions made to leave Sonia untouched and uninterrupted.
Wright himself wrote vaguely of Sonia’s lost messages, and scoured the globe
for them. William Tyrer’s dossier contains a number of unverifiable, mostly
undated, messages from Moscow to Sonia, but they are largely very
unbusinesslike and novelettish, and mostly predate the Fuchs era or are placed
after the war. If she did transmit anything from the Summertown address, it
would have been relatively harmless material, and used as a distraction to draw
attention away from Kidlington.
her knowledge and experience from direction-finding in Poland, however, it
would have been career suicide for her to transmit repeatedly from a single
address in densely populated England, and expect not to be detected. Thus one
must assume that either a) if she had been a genuine, freely-operating spy, she
would not have used her apparatus (maybe surprised that the authorities did not
investigate her equipment), but would have taken advantage instead of Len and
the Soviet Embassy to ensure that her secrets reached Moscow; or b) if she had
been aware of MI6’s attempts to control her, she would have transmitted only
her variant of ‘chicken-feed’, which would be enough to keep her watchers busy,
but would never reveal any information that might cast doubt on her ‘new’
loyalties, even if GC&CS were able to decipher her messages. In any case,
MI6 were stuck with the cuckoo in their nest, and, at the peak of Great
Britain-Soviet Union ‘co-operation’ in 1942-43, had to sit back and let things
take their course. Even though the extent of Sonia’s espionage may have been
overstated, she certainly duped British Intelligence in her coup with Fuchs.
Step 9: Keeping the Lid On, 1944-1946
After Fuchs’s departure for the USA in December 1943, and Len’s enlistment in the R. A. F., Sonia’s espionage activities waned. She claimed that she maintained her contacts, and continued to use her wireless, even stating that she sent her son, Micha, and daughter, Nina, to boarding-schools in Eastbourne and Epping respectively so that they would not notice her nocturnal transmissions. How the financially strained Beurtons found the money to pay for private education is never explained, although MI6 has been known to help out in this manner for well-deserving cases. Certainly Sonia helped Erich Henschke and other anti-fascists in the OSS project to drop agents into Germany, in late 1944, but since her brother Jürgen was actually engaged by the American OSS at the time, her actions would not have been regarded as suspicious.
also had some contact with Melita Norwood (TINA) who was probably of even more
use to the Soviets than was Fuchs, but this lasted only for a short time in
1945. Melita’s mother was on friendly terms with Sonia’s mother, and Sonia and
Melita had met shortly after Sonia’s arrival in 1941. It would not have been
efficient for Sonia, based in Oxfordshire, to have couriered for Norwood, who
was, after all, a KGB agent. The Vassiliev Papers (Yellow Notebook No. 1: File
82702) tell us that, even though Norwood had been recruited by the OGPU as far
back as 1935, the receipt of papers from her in June 1945 was only the second
batch she handed over. Moreover, she had left her job at the British
Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association in 1943 to bear her child, and was out
of action for over a year. Thus the claim that David Burke makes in The Spy
Who Came In From the Co-Op (p 14), that Sonia ‘was Melita Norwood’s
controller between 1941 and 1944’ should be quickly dismissed.
in the person of Shillito, continued to dig around, noticing the anomalies in
Beurton’s sickness record. Shillito also
noted that Sonia’s first husband Rudolf had been arrested as a spy in Persia,
which resuscitated his suspicions about Sonia. Sargant of O.D.3a had to respond
to Air Ministry questions about Len’s dubious story concerning money and
health. It was apparent that the Service was now having a difficult time
keeping up consistent appearances of the plot to which it had colluded, and
struggled to explain why Beurton had been given a fake passport. The rumours
even reached the US Embassy, who in August 1944 were anxious to track down
Rudolf Hamburger’s wife and family. Roger Hollis himself was called upon to
respond to an inquiry from M. J. Lynch. In a letter dated August 10, 1944,
Hollis made the best fist he could, admitting that the Beurtons had ‘communist
sympathies’, and had probably been funded by the Soviets, adding, however, that
MI5’s enquiries had come to nothing, and that neither Mr or Mrs Beurton had
been noticed performing anything nefarious. He clearly hoped the problem would
any case, Moscow Centre at this time decided to loosen its ties with Sonia,
although it articulated this message via the Embassy, which had become a much
safer way of exchanging vital information by this time. One of the more
convincing messages cited in William Tyrer’s dossier, dated January 15, 1945,
and sent to Sklyarov in London, runs as follows:
your personal information. In the mountain country [Switzerland]
Sonia was in contact with Albert [Rado] and his wife. The
counterintelligence in your country knows about Albert’s activities in the
mountain country and his work for us. There are grounds to suppose that to some
degree the counterintelligence may learn about Sonia’s work during her stay in
In this connection:
1. Any personal contact with Sonia should
be ceased and not to be resumed without our authorization.
2. To forbid Sonia to be engaged in our
work. She should lead the life of a model mother, wife and housekeeper. Report
on the execution. Direktor.”
Moscow was apparently alarmed by the break-up of
the Swiss Ring, and the fact that Alexander Foote and Radó might have betrayed
information about Sonia’s past activity. Yet there is a trace of
disingenuousness here: how could they have imagined that British
counter-intelligence was ignorant of Sonia’s career? Nevertheless, the pressure
increased, with Gouzenko’s defection in Canada in September 1945 causing panic,
and the closing down of multiple agents. The Vassiliev Notebooks (Yellow
Notebook, No, 1, p 86) confirm that Moscow cut off all contact with Sonia in
January 1946. When Fuchs returned to the UK in 1946, he had to seek out a new go-between.
Thereafter, while Sonia was said to communicate occasionally (the language is
ambiguous and puzzling), her sister Renate was used as an intermediary to get
funds to her. Sonia claimed that she still used her wireless set at this time,
having moved to The
Firs in Great Rollright, and Bob King of the
Discrimination Section of RSS reported to me that he was certain that her
messages were picked up by the RSS interceptors, but buried by senior officers.
Before the dramatic defection in July 1947 of
Alexander Foote, back to the British, and his subsequent interrogation by MI5,
one last twist in the story occurred, revealing the awkwardnesses of MI5
officers having to explain the situation. In April 1946, the FBI, still trying
to establish the whereabouts of Rudolf Hamburger, through J. Cimperman, contacted
MI5 to determine whether they might approach Ursula Beurton. This time, it fell
upon John Marriott (him of the XX Committee, now F2C), and he shared the
remarkable information that a letter from the FBI of July 13, 1945 had referred
to an address in Geneva (129 Rue de Lausanne), reportedly the address through
which Hamburger could be contacted, which was the same address where Mrs.
Beurton had last stayed in in Switzerland. Furthermore, she had indicated in
1941, when he arrived, that she thought her husband was still resident there.
One might imagine that an astute officer would either have concealed this information from the Americans, or, alternatively, shown great enthusiasm in following up this extraordinary coincidence. Marriott used it, however, to suggest to Cimperman that the relationships between the two men and Mrs. Beurton made it ‘undesirable’ to approach the lady. Yet he did promise to make further enquiries. The wretched Hamburger meanwhile had been taken back to Moscow from Persia, cruelly interrogated on the suspicion of being a spy, and sentenced to a long stay in a labour-camp. Peter Wright claims in Spycatcher that Hamburger had been an MI6 spy, although John Green comments that this story has never been corroborated.
Maybe foolishly (why would he think that Hamburger
still had a link with Geneva?), Marriott agreed to follow up, and turned to the
MI6 office responsible – Kim Philby. The same day, he wrote to Philby,
explaining the situation, and asking him to make enquiries about the address,
and provide, if possible, information on the whereabouts of Hamburger. Marriott
revealed his discomfort about Cimperman’s approach directly to Philby, stating:
“For a variety of reasons I do not feel
able to comply with this request,. . .”, hinting at a
tacit, awkward understanding between the two. Two weeks later, Philby, having initiated the appropriate search,
responded with a very enigmatic explanation, also confirming that his contact
was trying to establish whether Beurton was still living at that address. Continuing
to play his role of the simpleton, he added that ‘we have no knowledge of the
present whereabouts of HAMBURGER’. Marriott was soon able to enlighten Philby
that Beurton was now a Guardsman with the 1st Battalion of the
Coldstream Guards in the B.A.O.R. He then sent a very useless and bland letter
to Cimperman, which did nothing to shed light on the mystery of the shared
address. Apparently nobody followed up with Len or Sonia to learn more about
what may have been a Soviet safe-house. Philby clearly wanted to bury the
Step 10: Foote and Fuchs: Allowing Sonia and Len to Escape
Two challenges remained for the Beurtons – the defection of Alexander Foote, and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs.
GRU had always harboured its suspicions about Foote’s loyalties, because of his
relationship with the British consulate in Geneva, and especially when he
encouraged Radó to take cover with him there in November 1943. After Foote was
released from prison in November 1944, he made his way to Paris, where he made
the extraordinarily bold decision to travel to Moscow to face the music,
arriving in mid-January 1945. During the next couple of years, MI5 and MI6
communicated desultorily on Foote’s fate. Foote, meanwhile, was undergoing
intense interrogation, and his brazenness in afforming his loyalty must have
impressed the Soviets. He was sent to spy school, and on March 7, 1947, left
Moscow for Berlin, with a new identity, and a mission to operate as a Soviet
agent in South America. On July 2, he defected to the British authorities in
Berlin. Claude Dansey did not see his hero return: he had died, discarded,
disliked and dejected, on June 11.
was initially interrogated by MI6, and quickly revealed, as is evident from the
first Interrogation Report of July 14, that he had worked alongside ‘Sonia’ in
the Rote Drei, and that ‘Sonia’ was the alias given to her by the
Russian Secret Service, her real name being Ursula KUTSCINSKI’ [sic]. MI5’s
Serpell (who had replaced an exasperated Shillito by then) was sent out to
interrogate Foote, who immediately voiced his concerns about Sonia’s probable
espionage in Britain. Foote was brought
back to the UK, under an assumed name, and arrived at Northolt on August 7. All
this must have been a little embarrassing for MI6, who know saw matters
spiralling out of control, with officers who had not been ‘indoctrinated’ in
the case, including the new Director-General, spreading the news around. Percy
Sillitoe contacted the Canadians about the Gouzenko connection; Serpell
excitedly got in touch with the American Embassy. Foote, meanwhile, had a
crisis of conscience: Sonia had, after all, been his collaborator and tutor,
and he sent her a furtive message via Fred Ullmann, another International
Brigader who had originally helped recruit him, that she and Len should be on
news re-awakened MI5, with the familiar Marriott (now B1b) seeking information
on the Beurtons’ whereabouts, since they had lost track of Len since his
discharge in August 1945. He immediately
requested a Home Office Warrant check put on the Beurton’s correspondence, as
it had apparently just come to his notice that they had both been Soviet spies
in Switzerland during the early part of the war. Further revelations from the
interrogation of Foote came to light: “Foote suggested that another symptom of
SONIA’s continued link with MOSCOW after she reached England was contained in a
message he had from Moscow in 1941 about the efforts to get BEURTON back to the
U.K. The message said that ELEANOR RATHBONE and others were helping.”
treated the deluge of Foote’s divulgements as if they were all news to him, and
wrote, apparently without irony: “It is not clear why Ursula Beurton left
Switzerland as she did at the end of 1940 to proceed to this country, but on
the evidence of Foote she did so with at least Russian concurrence and the
possibility therefore cannot be excluded that she came here with a mission.” (Indeed. Had he not read the files
in the Registry?) On August 18, he disingenuously tried to finesse the issue by
noting that ‘the circumstances of the issue of this latter passport are known
to me, and are not relevant to my inquiries.’ The outcome was that Serpell, accompanied
by William Skardon, went to The Firs on September 13, to interrogate
Sonia and Len.
extraordinary encounter has been thoroughly reported on, by such as Chapman
Pincher and John Green. It seemed the intention of Serpell and Skardon was to put
Sonia at her ease, by assuring her that they knew that she had not engaged in
any espionage activity in Britain, but instead indicating that they wanted to
learn more about what had happened in Switzerland. Yet Sonia had been prepared
for the visit by Foote. While Serpell’s continued references to her marriage
unnerved Sonia, she realised that if she stuck to her guns, and remained
silent, no ill could come out of the exercise. After all, British Intelligence
had as much to lose from the truth coming out as she did.
the focus of the questions seemed to be on events in Switzerland (and
Marriott’s notes had indicated that questions concerning Len Beurton’s passport
were uppermost in his mind), Serpell and Skardon seemed singularly uninterested
in Len, who joined the gathering later, and even indicated that he thought that
he was on their side (which, of course, he had been, for a while). The behaviour
of the officers in this encounter bewildered Sonia: it was as if MI5 had been
trying to catch her out, but they performed with total clumsiness. Serpell and
Skardon revealed events in Switzerland that could only have been communicated
by Foote. Certainly, the visit confirmed that any espionage activity by her and
Len would have to cease at that stage, but Moscow had already decreed that
outcome. Or was it a subtle indication that MI5 knew all about her, and that
she and Len should make their escape while the going was good? That is an
interpretation that John Green hypothesizes. Remarkably, the Home Office
Warrant letter checks on not only Sonia, but on other members of her family,
were withdrawn immediately after this encounter. So life carried on smoothly
for a couple of years.
The arrest of Fuchs, on February 3, 1950, was more alarming. Sonia feared that he would reveal everything under interrogation, and, indeed, as early as February 20, J. D. Robertson (B2A) remarked that Sonia might be induced to talk because of the announcement of his arrest, although it is not clear what prompted him to make that connection. Fuchs had indeed spoken of a female contact he had had encounters with in Banbury, which should have set some MI5 pulses beating faster. Sonia herself wrote that ‘when the press mentioned that Klaus had been meeting a foreign woman with black hair in Banbury I expected my arrest any day’. Frank Close, in his biography of Fuchs, Trinity, reports that ‘the files record enigmatically that she was “touch not”’, but indicates that a pencilled annotation explained that this should be “tough nut”. Quite so: I have not been able to verify this, but the message is clear.
any case, Sonia jumped the gun, and escaped with her two youngest children to
East Germany on February 27, while Fuchs’s trial was under way. The
extraordinary gaffe in this exercise was that no effort at preventing her
departure was made, despite the obvious recognition that MI5 had shown (such as
in Robertson’s note) that she might have been connected to the case. It was
obviously easier to have her out of the way. She was untouchable. As Sonia herself wrote: “Either it was
complete stupidity on the part of MI5 never to have connected me with Klaus, or
they may have let me go with it, since every further discovery would have
increased their disgrace.”
departure must have been recorded, yet many MI5 officers remained in the dark.
They even expressed the desire for bringing her and Len in for questioning.
Fuchs continued to reveal more. On June 16, Robertson reported that Jürgen
Kuczynski was the person who had originally put Fuchs in touch with the
Russians. On June 22, a letter was sent
to the GPO, requesting a Home Office Warrant for Sonia, as ‘we have recently received information which indicates that Ursula
Beurton has not relinquished her connection with Soviet espionage since her
arrival in the U.K.in 1941’. Even Director-General Sillitoe was on the act,
asking Rutherford on July 25 about the whereabouts of Sonia and her husband. On
June 27, Len Beurton, who had been recovering from a broken leg sustained in a motorcycle
accident, was also allowed to leave the country untouched. On August 22,
Robertson at last learned that Sonia had flown the coop. Not until November did
Fuchs, obviously having been informed that Sonia and Len had safely left the
country, admit that Sonia was his contact, and on December 18 he recognized her
in a photograph. All through 1950, Liddell made no comment in his diaries about
the Kuczynski link – or, if he did, the passages have been redacted. When Sonia
was at last identified, his chagrin, and that of all senior officers in MI5 and
MI6, must have been immense.
What started out as an imaginative opportunity for MI6 turned into a nightmare. It enabled the entry into Britain of a spy dedicated to the communist cause, one who helped her masters acquire secrets that would have been used to destroy the pluralist democracy. No doubt encouraged by the fruitful achievements of the emerging MI5 operation of developing double-agents (at that time, SNOW), Claude Dansey, the deputy to Stewart Menzies, alighted upon the availability of Ursula Hamburger to implement a similar project for Soviet spies. He was in Switzerland from September to November 1939, as Sonia’s divorce proceedings culminated. His man, van den Heuvel, and Farrell, the Passport Control Officer who was van den Heuvel’s deputy, became the instruments to make the plan a reality. In believing that they were saving Sonia’s life by abetting her escape, MI6 succumbed to the illusion that she and Len would be permanently beholden to them.
managing so-called ‘double-agents’ is a hazardous business. It requires both
very tight operational security, restricting knowledge of the project to as few
persons as possible, and maintaining exclusive control over the agents’
movements and communications. The handling agency can never be sure that the
person assumed to having been turned has made an ideological about-face, and
switched his or her loyalties. Thus, unless a very tight rein is held over the
agents’ behaviour, there is always the risk that, in their communications, they
will betray the fact that they are being manipulated, or even arrange
unsurveilled meetings where they will be able to describe what is going on. That
is why they are properly called ‘controlled enemy agents’. MI5 knew this; the
Abwehr knew this; the CIA, in its enthusiasm for transplanting the Double-Cross
techniques to their own theatre of operations after the war, were slow to
recognize the truth. For some reason MI6 did not think through the implications
of bringing Sonia and Len into their fold.
brunt of the burden fell upon MI5, who were responsible for domestic security
against subversion and espionage. And the archive shows clearly how the service
was divided over how to handle Len and Sonia once they arrived in Britain. The
senior officers (Liddell and White, but not the Director-General) were surely
complicit with MI6 in the scheme. Junior officers and recruits (such as
Shillito, Cazalet, Reed, Vesey, J. D. Robertson, Bagot, Serpell) were kept in
the dark, and left to stumble around, pursuing leads, until they became too
energized in their suspicions, recommended some kind of interrogation or
prosecution, and had to be gently talked out of it. (At a high-level meeting on
January 25, 1950 between Lord Portal, Roger Makins, Liddell and White at the
Ministry of Supply, this uncomfortable truth was even admitted.) The middle
ranks (such as Marriott, Hollis, and Curry) were no doubt brought, at least
partially, into the subterfuge, and were delegated the unpleasant tasks of
dealing with other organisations, such as the Foreign Office, MI6 and the FBI. As
can be seen, primarily in Marriott’s anguished correspondence, they struggled
dismally with explaining away the inexplicable. The complexities of the project
and its intelligence ramifications were clearly too deep to be entrusted to the
Directors-General, one a soldier (Petrie) and the other a policeman (Sillitoe),
although Petrie’s anti-communist vigour would mean that he probably had to have
things explained to him after the Green case.
all, the exercise shows how improbable the theory must be that Roger Hollis
single-handedly, as a Soviet mole, managed to protect Sonia (and Len) from the
attention and prosecution that they obviously deserved. This theory has taken
root so deeply that new historical works and biographies regularly appear that
take it for granted that the assertions of Chapman Pincher and Peter Wright
should be accepted unquestionably. Hollis’s guilt is affirmed purely on the
basis that he must have protected Sonia (Len is rarely mentioned). The mass of
detail that shows how Sonia and Len were nurtured, supported, assisted,
recruited, even lied for – and then deliberately ignored, and allowed to escape
– proves that it could not have been because of Hollis’s skills in throwing a
blanket of ignorance around the couple with the outcome that they were thus
able to remain unmolested. Even if Hollis had possessed the power and authority
to insist that they were harmless, the widespread knowledge about their
background, the illicit marriage, the recruitment of Len by MI6, the phony
stories about ex-husbands, tuberculosis, and ski-ing injuries, about forged
passports, dubious medical certificates, and unlikely inheritances would have
made his protestations a laughing-stock.
the English edition of her memoir, Sonia wrote: “I know no Fifth Man, and I
must also spoil the speculation or, as some writers state, ‘the fact’ that I
ever had anything to do with the one-time director of MI5, Roger Hollis”. That
may be one of the few true statements she made in her book. Later in life,
however, she wryly admitted that she mused over the possibility that someone in
MI5 was protecting her. Indeed, madam.
for the GRU, Sonia’s penetration of British atomic research was a coup,
although perhaps not as astounding as the mythology has made it. Fuchs was her
source for only a year, and modern assessments indicate that, as far as the
United Kingdom was concerned, Engelbert Broda and Melita Norwood were probably
far more valuable contributors to the Soviet’s purloining of weapons secrets.
Sonia’s connection with Norwood has often been overplayed. Yet Sonia’s
achievements were a significant blow to the prestige of British Intelligence, which
had held a worldwide reputation now revealed to be unmerited. In the first
couple of decades after the war, the Soviet Union and East Germany openly
denied the activities of their spies, wanting to impress their citizens that
their scientific achievements were attributable to Communist ingenuity.
when the spy scandals were rolled out in the United States and Great Britain
did the mood change to one of pride in how their intelligence services had
outfoxed the West’s. Then they lauded openly the achievements of their ‘atomic
spies’, promoting memoirs like Sonia’s. President Putin, relying on his
public’s fragile connection with history, after a brief fling promoting Soviet
spy exploits (see the case of Svetlana Lokhova and The Spy Who Changed
History, at http://www.coldspur.com/four-books-on-espionage/
) seems now to want to return to the Cold War status quo ante,
reinforcing the idea that the Soviet Union’s success with nuclear weaponry owed
more to Russian skills than it did to underhand espionage and the theft of the
discoveries of former allies.
has to assume that the GRU in Moscow knew exactly what was going on at the
time, and took a back seat while MI6 floundered. Immediately Sonia or Len was
first approached by MI6 with any sort of feeler, each would have reported it to
Moscow. Thus all further moves would have been passed on as well. Anthony Blunt
was keeping his bosses informed, and relayed to them the lukewarm attention
that Hugh Shillito paid to CP and GRU spies. The GRU must have wondered exactly
what MI6 was up to, if it believed the opposition’s service could manipulate Soviet
agents with such naivety. Indeed, around this time, the GRU’s sister service,
the NKGB (as the NKVD-KGB was known at that time), was so dumbfounded by the fact
that British Intelligence could allow the Cambridge Ring to flourish that it
issued an internal report suggesting that the whole exercise was one of
disinformation. Referring to the Double-Cross (XX) Committee as one of the
vital institutions involved, Elena Modrzchinskaya, the head of the Third
Department of the NKGB’s First Directorate, published the report in November
1942: it took almost two years for the suspicions to be disproved, and
credibility in the sources re-established.
if MI6 and MI5 showed an alarming amateurishness about the whole process, the
GRU’s agents likewise put on a dismal display of tradecraft. Before placing
‘illegals’ in the western democracies, the GRU and OGPU/NKVD invested an
enormous amount of time in creating solid ‘legends’ for their agents, where,
supported by false passports, individuals of indeterminate central and eastern
European origin were allowed to establish convincing identities and occupations
in the cities from which they operated. The GRU could not have exerted any
influence on the stories that Sonia and Len concocted before embarking on their
journeys to Britain, yet they – especially Sonia – should have been well
indoctrinated into the necessity of maintaining a coherent narrative about
their previous travel, objectives, sources of funds, business activities, and
Sonia and Len behaved, however, completely amateurishly. Their accounts to the immigration authorities were absurd. It was as if they did not even discuss what their separate stories should be if they were interrogated, and how these rigmaroles would mesh together. The resulting narrative was so ridiculous that it should immediately have been discredited, and the suspects hauled in. We now know, of course, why that did not happen. Perhaps the Soviets, and Len and Sonia in particular, were so sure of MI6’s game-plan that they felt that they did not need to bother. But that assumption would have been based on granting the fragmented and pluralistic British intelligence services a discipline and unity that may have existed in the Soviet Union, but simply was unrealistic in a democratic society.
What it boils down to is that the truth is indeed stranger than anything that the ex-MI6 officer John le Carré, master of espionage fiction, could have dreamed up. If he ever devised a plot whereby the service that recruited him had embarked on such a flimsy and outrageous project, and tried to cover it up in the ham-fisted way that the real archive shows, while all the time believing that the opposition did not know what was going on, his publisher would have sent him back to the drawing-board.
This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.
A few months ago, I noticed an advertisement that Aeroflot, the Russian carrier, had placed in the New York Times. The appearance reminded me of an approach I had made to the airline over forty-five years ago, in England, when, obviously with not enough serious things to do at the time, and maybe overtaken by some temporary lovelorn Weltschmerz, I had written a letter to its Publicity Manager, suggesting a slogan that it might profitably use to help promote its brand.
Miraculously, this letter recently came to light as I was sorting out some old files. I keep telling my wife, Sylvia, that she need not worry about the clutter that I have accumulated and taken with me over the years – from England to Connecticut, to New Jersey and to Pennsylvania, and then back to Connecticut before our retirement transplantation to North Carolina in 2001. The University of Eastern Montana has generously committed to purchasing the whole Percy archive, so that it will eventually be boxed up and sent to the Ethel Hays Memorial Library in Billings for careful and patient inspection by students of mid-twentieth century social life in suburban Surrey, England.
I reproduce the letter here:
Letter to Aeroflot, March 1972
I notice that you have started advertising on London buses. I have for some time thought that a good slogan for Aeroflot would be: ‘Happiness is just an Ilyushin’, which is a pretty awful pun, but a fairly Russian sentiment. E.G.
. . .В себя ли заглянешь, там прошлого нет и следа;
И радость, и муки, и всё там ничтожно . . . (Lermontov)
Yours faithfully, R. A. Percy”
[Dimitri Obolensky, in the Penguin Book of Russian Verse, translates this fragment of an untitled poem as follows: “If you look within yourself, there is not a trace of the past there; the joys and the torments – everything there is worthless . . .”]
I am not sure why Aeroflot was advertising on London Transport vehicles at the time, since the Man on the Clapham Omnibus was probably not considering then a holiday in Sochi or Stalingrad, and anyone who did not have to use the airline would surely choose the western equivalent. Nevertheless, I thought my sally quite witty at the time, though I did not receive the favour of a reply. Did homo sovieticus, with his known frail sense of humour, not deem my proposal worthy of merit? After all, humour was a dangerous commodity in Soviet times: repeating a joke about Stalin might get you denounced by a work colleague or neighbour and sent to the Gulag, while Stalin himself derived his variety of laughs from ordering Khrushchev to dance the gopak late at night, and forcing his drinking-pals on the Politburo to watch him.
I think it unlikely that the state-controlled entity would have hired a Briton as its publicity manager, but of course it may not have had a publicity manager at all. Maybe my letter did not reach the right person, or maybe it did, but he or she could not be bothered to reply to some eccentric Briton. Or maybe the letter was taken seriously, but then the manager thought about Jimmy Ruffin’s massive 1966 hit What Becomes of the Broken-Hearted? (see https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cQywZYoGB1g) , and considered that its vibrant phrase ‘Happiness is just an illusion/filled with darkness and confusion’ might not communicate the appropriate atmosphere as Aeroflot’s passengers prepared to board the 11:40 flight from Heathrow to Minsk. We shall never know.
The Stalin-Class S. S. Baltika
My first real encounter with homo sovieticus had occurred when I was a member of a school party to the Soviet Union in the summer of 1965. As we went through customs after disembarking from the good ship Baltika, I recall the officer asking me, in all seriousness, whether I was bringing in ‘veppons’ with me. After verifying what he had asked, I was able to deny such an attempt at contrabandage. I had conceived of no plans to abet an armed uprising in the Land of the Proletariat, as I thought it might deleteriously affect my prospects of taking up the place offered me at Christ Church, Oxford, the following October. Moreover, it seemed a rather pointless question to pose, as I am sure the commissars would have inspected all baggage anyway, but perhaps they would have doubled my sentence if they had caught me lying to them, as well as smuggling in arms. Yet it showed the absurd protocol-oriented thinking of the security organs: ‘Be sure to ask members of English school groups whether they are smuggling in weapons to assist a Troyskyist insurrection against the glorious motherland’.
At least it was not as naïve as the question that the US customs officer asked me, when I visited that country for the first time about eleven years later: ‘Do you have any intentions to overthrow the government of the United States?’. Did he really expect a straight answer? When H. G. Wells asked his mistress, Moura Budberg, whether she was a spy, she told him very precisely that, whether she was a spy or not, the answer would have to be ‘No’. That’s what spies do: lies and subterfuge. If I really did have plans for subversion in the United States, the first thing I would have done when I eventually immigrated here would be to plant a large Stars and Stripes on my front lawn, and wear one of those little pins that US politicians choose to place in their lapels, in the manner that Guy Burgess always sported his Old Etonian tie, to prove their patriotism. So the answer in Washington, as in Leningrad, was ‘No’. That was, incidentally, what Isaiah Berlin meant when he wrote to his parents in July 1940 that Americans were ‘open, vigorous, 2 x 2 = 4 sort of people, who want yes or no for an answer. No nuances’. These same people who nailed Al Capone for tax evasion, and Alger Hiss for perjury, would have to work to convict Tony Percy for the lesser charge of deceiving a customs official.
H.G. Wells, Maxim Gorky & Moura Budberg
I did not manage to speak to many homines sovietici during my time in the Soviet Union, but I did have one or two furtive meetings with a young man who was obviously dead scared of the KGB, but even keener to acquire nylon shirts and ballpoint pens from me, which I handed over at a night-time assignation in some park in Leningrad. That was clearly very foolish on my part, but it gave me an early indication that, despite the several decades of Leninist, Stalinist, Khruschevian and Brezhnevian indoctrination and oppression, the Communist Experiment had not succeeded in eliminating the free human spirit completely. Moreover, despite the ‘command economy’, the Soviets could not provide its citizens with even basic goods. When the Soviet troops invaded eastern Europe in 1944, among other violations, they cleared the shelves, grabbed watches, and marvelled at flush toilets that worked. As Clive James wrote in his essay on Coco Chanel: “It was the most sordid trick that communism played. Killing people by the millions at least had the merit of a tragic dimension. But making the common people queue endlessly for goods barely worth having was a bad joke.”
Piata-Victoriei Square, Bucharest
My only other direct experience with life behind the Iron Curtain was in Bucharest, in 1980. In an assignment on which I now look back on with some shame, I was chartered with flying to Romania to install a software package that turned out to be for the benefit of the Ministry of Home Affairs, probably for the Securitate. I changed planes in Zürich, and took a TAROM flight (not in an Ilyushin, I think, but in a BAC-111) to reach Ceausescu’s version of a workers’ paradise. The flight crew was surly, for they had surely glimpsed the delights of Zürich once more, but knew that they were trapped in Romania, and had probably been spied upon as they walked round one of the most glittering of the foreign cities. And yet: I had been briefed beforehand to bring in some good whisky and a stack of ‘male magazines’ to please my contacts among the party loyalists. This time, I was able to bypass customs as a VIP: my host escorted me past the lines directly to the car waiting for us, where I was driven to my hotel, and handed over my copies of The Cricketer and Church Times for the enjoyment of the Romanian nomenklatura. I spent the Sunday walking around the city. The population was mostly cowed and nervous: there was a crude attempt to entrap me in the main square. During my project, I was able to watch at close hand the dynamics of the work environment in the Ministry, where the leader (obviously a carefully selected Party apparatchik) was quick to quash any independence of thought, or attempts at humour, in the cadre that he managed. A true homo sovieticus daciensis.
The fantasy that occupied Lenin’s mind was that a new breed of mankind could be created, based on solid proletariat lineage, and communist instruction. The New Man would be obedient, loyal, malleable, unimaginative, unselfish, unthinking. Universal literacy meant universal indoctrination. The assumption was accompanied by the belief that, while such characteristics could be inculcated in captive youth, inherited traits of the ‘bourgeoisie’ would have to be eradicated. The easiest way of achieving that was to kill them off, if they did not escape first. There were almost as many executions in the Red Terror of 1918 as there had been death sentences in Russian courts between 1815 and 1917, as Stephen Kotkin reminds us in Volume 1 of his epic new biography of Joseph Stalin. Kotkin also recounts the following: “Still, Lenin personally also forced through the deportation in fall 1922 of theologians, linguists, historians, mathematicians, and other intellectuals on two chartered German ships, dubbed the Philosophers’ Steamers. GPU notes on them recorded ‘knows a foreign language,’ ‘uses irony’.” Irony was not an attribute that homo sovieticus could easily deploy. What was going on had nevertheless been clear to some right from the start. In its issue of June 2, 2018, the Spectator magazine reprinted an item from ‘News of the Week’ a century ago, where Lenin and Trotsky were called out as charlatans and despots, and the revolution a cruel sham.
The trouble was that, once all the persons with education or talent had been eliminated or exiled, there were left only hooligans, psychopaths, or clodpolls to run the country. Kotkin again: “A regime created by confiscation had begun to confiscate itself, and never stopped. The authors of Red Moscow, an urban handbook published at the conclusion of the civil war, observed that ‘each revolution has its one unsightly, although transient, trait: the appearance on the stage of all kinds of rogues, deceivers, adventurists, and simple criminals, attaching themselves to power with one kind of criminal goal or another. Their danger to the revolution is colossal.’” This hatred of any intellectual pretensions – and thus presumptions about independent thinking – would lead straight to Pol Pot and the Khmer Rouge, with their execution of persons wearing eyeglasses, as they latter could obviously read, and thus might harbour ideas subversive to agrarian levelling.
Oleg Gordievsky, the KGB officer who defected to Britain in 1985, crystallized the issue in his memoir Next Stop Execution. “Until the early 1970s I clung to the hope that the Soviet Union might still reject the Communist yoke and progress to freedom and democracy. Until then I had continued to meet people who had grown up before the revolution or during the 1920s, when the Soviet system was still not omnipotent. They were nice, normal Russians – like some distant relatives of my father who were engineers: not intellectuals or ideologues, but practical, decent people, embodying many of the old Russian engineer characteristics so well described by Solzhenitsyn. But then the last of these types died out, and the nation that emerged was composed purely of Homo sovieticuses: a new type had been created, of inadequate people, lacking initiative or the will to work, formed by Soviet society.” [The author acknowledged the ungrammatical plural form he used.] Thus Gordievsky classified both the common citizenry intimidated into submission and the apparatchiks themselves as homines sovietici. He also pointed out that what he found refreshing in English people generally was their capability for spontaneity, their discretion, their politeness, all qualities that had been practically eliminated in Russia under Communism. He may have been moving in sequestered circles, but the message is clear.
I sometimes reflect on what the life of a Soviet citizen, living perhaps from around 1922 to 1985, must have been like, if he or she survived that long. Growing up among famine and terror, informing against family members, with relatives perhaps disappearing into the Gulag because of the whisperings of a jealous neighbor, or the repeating of a dubious joke against Stalin, witnessing the show-trials and their ghastly verdicts, surviving the Nazi invasion and the horrors of serving in the Soviet armed forces, and then dealing with the long post-war deprivation and propaganda, dying before the curtain was pulled back, and the whole horrible mess was shown to be rotten. Yet some citizens had been taken in: they believed that all the suffering was worthwhile in the cause of Communism. In Secondhand Time, the nobelist Svetlana Alexievich offers searing portraits of such persons, as well as of those few who kept their independence of thought alive. Some beaten down by the oppression, some claiming that those who challenged Stalin were guilty, some merely accepting that it was a society based upon murder, some who willingly made all the sacrifices called for. Perhaps it was a close-run thing: the Communist Experiment, which cast its shadow over all of Eastern Europe after the battle against Fascism was won, almost succeeded in snuffing out the light.
(Incidentally, in connection with this, I recommend Omer Bartov’s searing Anatomy of a Genocide: The Life and Death of a Town Called Buczacz, published this year. Its title is unfortunate, as it is not about genocide. It tells of the citizens of a town in Galicia in the twentieth century, eventually caught between the monsters of Nazism and Communism. It shows how individuals of any background, whether they were Poles, Ruthenians, Ukrainians, or Jews, when provoked by pernicious demagogues or poisonous dogmas, could all behave cruelly to betray or murder people – neighbours – who had formerly been harmless to them. All it took was being taken in by the rants of perceived victimhood and revenge, or believing that they might thus be able to save their own skins for a little longer by denouncing or eliminating someone else.)
I was prompted to write this piece, and dredge out some old memories, by my reading of Odd Arne Westad’s The Cold War a few months ago. In many ways, this is an extraordinary book, broad in its compass, and reflecting some deep and insightful research. But I think it is also a very immoral work. It starts off by suggesting, in hoary Leninist terminology, that the battle was between ‘communism’ and ‘capitalism’ – a false contrast, as it was essentially between totalitarianism and liberal, pluralist democracy. (For a fuller discussion of this issue, please read Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.) Westad goes on to suggest that the Cold War’s intensity could have been averted if the West had cooperated with the Soviet Union more – a position that ranks of sheer appeasement, and neglects the lessons of ‘cooperation’ that dramatically failed in World War II. (see http://www.coldspur.com/krivitsky-churchill-and-the-cold-war/) But what really inflamed me was the following sentence: “There were of course dissidents to this ameliorated view of the Cold War. In the Soviet Union and eastern Europe some people opposed the authoritarian rule of Communist bosses.” On reading that, I felt like hurling the volume from a high window upon the place beneath, being stopped solely by the fact that it was a library book, and that it might also have fallen on one of the peasants tending to the estate, or even damaged the azaleas.
‘Some people opposed the . . . rule’? Is that what the Gulag and the Great Terror and the Ukrainian Famine were about, and the samizdat literature of the refuseniks, and the memoirs of Nadezhda Mandelstam and Yevgenia Ginzburg, and the novels of Alexander Solzhenitsyn, and many many more? Did these people protest noisily in the streets, and then go home to their private dwellings, resume their work, perhaps writing letters to the editors of progressive magazines about the ‘wicked Tories’ (sorry, I mean ‘Communists’)? How on earth could a respectable academic be so tone-deaf to the sufferings and struggles of the twentieth century? Only if he himself had been indoctrinated and propagandized by the left-wing cant that declares that Stalin was misunderstood, that he had to eliminate real enemies of his revolution, that the problem with Communism was not its goals but its execution, that capitalism is essentially bad, and must be dismantled in the name of Equality, and all that has been gradually built with liberal democracy should be abandoned. Roland Philipps, who recently published a biography of Donald Maclean (‘A Spy Named Orphan’), and who boasts both the diplomat Roger Makins (the last mandarin to see Maclean before he absconded to Moscow) and Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips (who served as an ambulance-driver with the Republicans in Spain) as his grandfathers, asked Wogan, shortly before he died in 1993, where he stood on the durability of Communism. “He said that Stalin had been a disaster for the cause but that the system was still inherently right, would come round again, and next time be successful.” Ah, me. Wogan Phillips, like Donald Maclean, was a classic homo sovieticus to the end.
Wogan (‘Rockfist’) Phillips
As we consider the popularity of such as Jeremy Corbyn and Bernie Sanders, it is as if all the horrors of socialism have been forgotten. A few months ago, the New York Times ran a full-page report on the disaster of Venezuela without mentioning the word ‘socialism’ once: it was apparently Chávez’s and Maduro’s ‘populism’ that put them in power. A generation is growing up in China that will not remember Tiananmen Square, and the Great Leap Forward and the Cultural Revolution will not be found in the history books. Maybe there is an analogy to the fashion that, as a schoolboy, I was given a rosy view of the British Empire, and was not told of the 1943 famine in India, or the post-war atrocities in Kenya. But I soon concluded that imperialism was an expensive, immoral and pointless anachronism, and had no interlocking relationship with liberal democracy, or even capitalism, despite what the Marxists said. This endemic blindness to history is ten times worse.
So why did my generation of teachers not point out the horrors of communism? Was it because they had participated in WWII, and still saw the Soviet Union as a gallant ally against Hitler? Were they really taken in by the marxisant nonsense that emerged from the Left Bank and the London School of Economics? Or were they simply trying to ratchet down the hostility of the Cold War, out of sympathy for the long-suffering Soviet citizenry? I cannot recall a single mentor of mine who called out the giant prison-camp for what it really was. Not the historians, not the Russian teachers. The latter may have been a bit too enamoured with the culture to make the necessary distinction. Even Ronald Hingley, one of my dons at Oxford, who was banned from ever revisiting the Soviet Union after his criticisms of it, did not encourage debate. I had to sort it out myself, and from reading works like Robert Conquest’s The Great Terror, Koestler’s Darkness at Noon, Marchenko’s My Testimony, Mandelstam’s Hope Against Hope and Hope Abandoned, and Ginzburg’s Into the Whirlwind. On the other hand, under the snooker-table in my library rests a complete set of the Purnell History of the Twentieth Century, issued in 96 weekly parts in the 1960s. (Yes, you Billings librarians: soon they too shall be yours.) In part 37, that glittering historian, TV showman, hypocrite and Soviet stooge A. J. P. Taylor wrote: “Lenin was a very great man and even, despite his faults, a very good man.” For a whole generation, perhaps, the rot started here. That’s what we mostly heard in the 1960s. But Lenin was vicious, and terror was his avowed method of domination.
President Putin is now trying to restore Stalin’s reputation, as a generation that witnessed the horrors of his dictatorship is now disappearing. So is Putin then a homo sovieticus? Well, I’d say ‘No’. Maybe he was once, but he is more a secret policeman who enjoys power. The appellation should be used more to describe those cowed and indoctrinated by the regime rather than those who command it. Putin’s restoration of Stalin is more a call to national pride than a desire to re-implement the totalitarian state. Communism is over in Russia: mostly they accept that the Great Experiment failed, and they don’t want to try it again. More like state capitalism on Chinese lines, with similar tight media and information control, but with less entrepreneurialism. As several observers have noted, Putin is more of a fascist now than a communist, and fascism is not an international movement. Maybe there was a chance for the West to reach out (‘cooperate’!) after the fall of communism, but the extension of NATO to the Baltic States was what probably pushed Putin over the edge. The Crimea and Ukraine have different histories from those in Latvia, Lithuania and Estonia, and I would doubt whether Putin has designs on re-invading what Kotkin calls Russia’s ‘limitrophe’ again. He is happier selectively cosying up to individual nations of Europe, especially to those countries (e.g. Poland, Hungary, and now maybe Italy and Austria, and even Turkey) whose current leaders express sympathy for his type of nationalism, while trying to undermine the structure of the European Union itself, and the NATO alliance.
So whom to fear now – outside Islamoterrorism? Maybe homo europaensis? I suspect that the affection that many Remainers have for the European Union is the fact that it is a softer version of the Socialist State, taking care of us all, trying to achieve ‘stability’ by paying lip-service to global capitalism while trying to rein it in at the same time, and handing out other people’s money to good causes. And it is that same unresponsive and self-regarding bureaucracy that antagonizes the Brexiteers, infuriated at losing democratic control to a body that really does not allow any contrariness in its hallways. (Where is the Opposition Party in Brussels?) I did not vote in the Referendum, but, if I had known then of all the legal complexities, I might have voted ‘Remain’, and fought for reform from inside. But my instincts were for ‘Leave’. If the European Project means tighter integration, political and economic, then the UK would do best to get out as soon as possible, a conclusion other countries may come to. The more oppressive and inflexible the European Union’s demands are (to discourage any other defectors), the more vigorously should the UK push against its increasing stranglehold. That does not mean goodbye to Goethe and Verdi, or those comforting ’cultural exchanges’, but it does require a bold stance on trade agreements, and limitations on migration of labour. We should beware of all high-faluting political projects that are experimental, and which remove the responsibility of politicians to their local constituents, as real human beings will be used (and maybe destroyed) in the process. A journalist in the New York Times wrote a few weeks ago that he was ‘passionate’ about the European Union. That is a dangerous sign: never become passionate over mega-political institutions. No Communist Experiment. No New Deal. No Great Society. No European Project. (And, of course, no Third Reich or Cultural Revolution.) Better simply to embrace the glorious muddle that is liberal democracy, and continue to try to make it work. Clive James again: “It is now part of the definition of a modern liberal democracy that it is under constant satirical attack from within. Unless this fact is seen as a virtue, however, liberal democracy is bound to be left looking weak vis-à-vis any totalitarian impulse.” (I wish I had been aware of that quotation earlier: I would have used it as one of the headliners to Chapter 10 of Misdefending the Realm.)
I close with a riposte to A. J. P. Taylor, extracted from one of the great books of the twentieth century, The Stretchford Chronicles, a selection of the best pieces from Michael Wharton’s Peter Simple columns in the Daily Telegraph, from 1955 to 1980. These pieces are magnificent, daft, absurd, hilarious, and even prescient, where Life can be seen to imitate Art, as Wharton dismantles all the clichéd cant of the times, and anticipates many of the self-appointed spokespersons of loony causes and champions of exaggerated entitlement and victimisation who followed in the decades to come. Occasionally he is simply serious, in an old-fashioned way, as (for example) where he takes down the unflinching leftist Professor G. D. H. Cole, who in 1956 was trying to rally the comrades by reminding them that ‘while much has been done badly in the Soviet Union, the Soviet worker enjoys in most matters an immensely enlarged freedom’, adding that ‘to throw away Socialism because it can be “perverted” to serve totalitarian ends is to throw out the baby with the dirty bath-water’. Writes Wharton:
“This is familiar and most manifest nonsense. What has gone ‘amiss’ in Socialist countries is no mere chance disfigurement, like a false moustache scrawled by a madman on a masterpiece. It is Socialism itself, taken to its logical conclusion.
The death of freedom, the enslavement of the masses, the withering of art and culture, the restless, ruthless hunt for scapegoats, the aggressive folie de grandeur of Socialist dictators – these are no mere ‘perversions’ of Socialism. They are Socialism unperverted, an integral and predictable part of any truly Socialist system.
We are not faced here with so much dirty bath-water surrounding a perfectly healthy, wholesome Socialist baby. The dirty bathwater is Socialism, and the baby was drowned in it at birth.”
The main purpose of my visit to the U.K. this month was to attend the degree ceremony at the University of Buckingham and to receive formally my doctoral award. As many readers will recall (wake up at the back, there!), my thesis covered the subversion of MI5 by communist agents and influences at the beginning of WW II. A symptom of this institutional failure was the later indulgence shown to the Soviet spy Leo Long after he was caught red-handed passing military secrets from MI14 in 1943, my claim being that this ‘Sixth Man’ may have been even more dangerous than the pentad of Cambridge graduates that has gained practically all the publicity. (The latest issue of Christ Church Matters, the alumni magazine of my Oxford college, contains an article about my research, titled ‘The Moscow Plot’, and it can be viewed here.) Followers of my subsequent research on ‘Sonia’s Radio’ may also have noticed that I have hinted at the remote possibility that the 1956 death of Alexander Foote may have been faked by MI5 (with the connivance of SIS) to prevent his assassination by Soviet military intelligence. The relevance of these two items will become clear by the end of this blog entry.
On the first evening of my trip, after I had arrived early in the morning at the Battersea residence of my brother, Michael, and his wife, Susanna (who has courageously and gratifyingly recovered from her cancer treatment), Michael and I went to the Instituto Cervantes near the Strand to attend an interview with Professor Sebastian Balfour, Emeritus Professor of Contemporary Spanish Studies at the London School of Economics. Professor Balfour and Michael had become friends when they were both in hospital, and the Professor had very kindly ensured that Michael received special attention when he was in dire straits. I had met the Professor and his wife, Grainne, at Michael’s house on my previous visit, and was eager to learn what the Professor had to say about Spanish matters in the last century, and later even, right up to the secession attempts now being made by Catalonia. What with Philby’s association with Franco, Spender’s mission on behalf of the Comintern, Foote’s action with the International Brigades, as well as the whole sorry story of the Soviet-directed elimination of the anarchists, and the orchestration of the stealing of Spain’s gold by Orlov on Stalin’s behalf, the events of the Spanish Civil War were very relevant to my research area.
Professor Balfour offered us some excellent insights, skillfully weaving the experiences of Spain in the twentieth century into the fabric of today’s cultural and ideological dynamics. Moreover, at the party after the event, I was pleased to meet Mark Ezra and his wife, who were neighbours of the Professor. Mark turned out to be a film-producer, and I was happy to take his address as a possible contact for arranging a deal for the script (based on the central event of my thesis) that my friend and colleague Grant Eustace has been trying to place. Moreover, in one of those strange coincidences that tend to aggregate as one gets older, I discovered later that Mr Ezra had attended Ampleforth College, and had been educated both by Susanna’s father (Haughton) as well as by her first (deceased) husband (Dammann).
After the Spanish event, Michael and I took a taxi to Chelsea, where Susanna was winding down a dinner with four long-standing friends, all outstandingly bright professional women, and wonderful company.
Nicola, Nemeen, Mo, Janie & Susanna
The conversation was lively, and one of the friends (Mo, who is a psychotherapist) decided to issue nicknames to us all. I was given the cryptonym POLARBEAR, (surely in ignorance of my austere reputation as COLDSPUR), which prompted me to respond that my times must be numbered, as the beast ran the risk of soon becoming extinct. This was a highly enjoyable and lively end to the day, which had started by seeing me deplane at Heathrow at what was in fact 3 am in Southport, North Carolina (already on summer time), and which closed by my collapsing into bed at midnight local time.
I had arranged to meet Grant Eustace for lunch in Victoria the following day (Friday 10th), and was able to pass him the lead. Grant and I exchanged sympathies over the struggles with making headway in the worlds of publishing and the media, but maybe something will become of this opportunity. In any case, Grant is always working on some stimulating project, and I enjoy learning about his new ventures. On Saturday morning, I had to catch a train to Newcastle, in the North of England, since I was attending, as my more impulsive alter ego of HOTSPUR, the annual Listener Crossword Setters’ Dinner in Gateshead. I had not attended this event for ten years, but the opportunity was too great to pass up, even though I was a bit embarrassed by the mistake in my centennial Alan Turing puzzle of five years ago. I need not have worried: I was not booed on arrival. It was an excellent occasion, where I re-encountered some old friends, and established new ones. The pseudonyms of the setters often resemble the cryptonyms of agents working for Soviet Intelligence: thus my friend Ian Simpson (who was one of my testers) bears the same sobriquet (HOMER) as the Cambridge Spy Donald Maclean. The photo below shows Ian sitting next to Richard Heald, a renowned solver. THIRD MAN (Richard England, not Kim Philby), who holds the current record of most consecutive Listener puzzles correctly solved (103, I believe, and still active), was supposed to be in the photo, but he, who remembered me as a fellow London Society Rugby Football referee, somehow was recorded only in a short video-clip. (‘Third men’ customarily prefer being airbrushed out of history.) I was honoured to be sitting next to SHACKLETON (John Guiver), who won the prize for the best puzzle of 2016. This event is a very British affair, and a great institution, populated by smart, inventive and congenial people, who love words, and crosswords, and all the cultural trappings that accompany the Listener puzzle. But 2017 will probably be my last dinner.
I took the return train to London the following morning, arriving back in Battersea in mid-afternoon. That evening I was fortunate enough to meet the philosopher John Hyman, Professor in Aesthetics at the University of Oxford, who is also a friend of Michael’s and Susanna’s, and had been invited to dinner. John had expressed interest in my thesis since he knew Isaiah Berlin (indeed he had once been on a bus with him, and thus considered Isaiah and himself ‘fellow-travellers’) and asked me several penetrating questions. I was happy to discuss the implications of Berlin’s friendship with such as Guy Burgess, Lord Rothschild, and, most of all, Jenifer and Herbert Hart, since Jenifer had been Berlin’s lover, and Herbert had been a most important influence on jurisprudential philosophy, being acknowledged several times in Hyman’s recent Action, Knowledge and Will, a volume I might perhaps not have picked up otherwise. I prepared for the occasion by reading the most relevant chapters on the train from Gateshead, but (perhaps fortunately) we ran out of time before I could be questioned on the arguments. (I regret I am a bit slow on these matters: I am still trying to come to grips with ‘Freddie’ Ayer’s 1936 Language, Truth and Logic.) But again, a most enjoyable evening.
Monday saw me meeting my old friend David Earl, who picked me up at East Croydon Station, whence we repaired to a pub for lunch and caught up with each other’s news. David has always shown a solicitous interest in my research, and asked me again whether I had been ‘tapped on the shoulder’ over my subversive line of inquiry. I suggested to him that it might be a bit late for that, and that any such warnings would now only aid publicity for my forthcoming book. Later that afternoon, I went to Whitgift School, where I was able to see two long-standing friends, Tia Afghan, the Head Librarian, and Bill Wood, the Archivist, before preparing to attend the AGM and Annual Dinner of the Old Whitgiftian Golf Society, a group I had joined on a previous visit to the U.K. Some of the gentlemen attending I had never met before, a few I had played golf with, but I was delighted to see again some old colleagues from the rugby and cricket fields, such as Mike Wilkinson, Paul Champness, Alan Cowing, Howard Morton, and Jeremy Stanyard. It was another highly enjoyable evening: golf is thriving at the School, and while the Headmaster chose the occasion to give a rather supererogatory motivational speech, it did not detract from the sense of fellowship. Howard Morton kindly drove me home to Battersea.
Messrs. Stanyard, Wilkinson & Champness (centre)
Peter Abel (left) et alii
Work followed on Tuesday. I went to the National Archives at Kew, where I had to wait to get my Reader’s ticket renewed, and then hung around while my requested files were retrieved. My goal that day was to dig around in the records of the Radio Security Service to discover what attempts had been made to intercept unfamiliar and unauthorised radio traffic either being received or transmitted within the UK’s shores in the 1940s. I also managed to inspect the missing volume of the files on the Rote Kapelle: for some reason, the third volume of biographical information on RK members and affiliates had not been digitised, and thus I had been unable to download it from my home in Southport. When I brought this oversight to the attention of the Kew authorities a few weeks ago, they could not explain it, and committed to rectify the problem, but were in no rush to do so, especially as I was about to visit the Archives. I discovered several nuggets, some that addressed enigmas, some that provoked new ones.
The next day saw Michael, Susannna and me driving to Oxford, where we were scheduled to be shown round the exhibition on Volcanoes at the new Weston Library of the Bodleian by its lead curator, David Pyle, Professor of Earth Sciences at the University. This visit had been arranged by another coincidence: I have been a Friend of the Bodleian for some years, and when I met Jessica Brown of the Development Office last summer, I had happened to mention that my wife Sylvia had been born in St. Vincent. A few weeks later, astutely recalling the connection, Jessica contacted me about the Volcanoes plans, saying that the eruptions of La Soufrière on the island constituted an important part of the coming exhibition, and would I be interested in it? I was able to inform her that Sylvia and I had trekked up to the top of the mountain in the autumn of 1978, whereupon our guide – who had never seen smoke emanating from the base ̶ wanted immediately to dash back down the mountain for fear it were about to erupt again. Moreover, I was able to extract from my files a report on the adventure that I had written back in May 1979, after the major eruption that occurred on Easter Friday. (See here.) The long and short of it was that I agreed to help fund a video and audio display about the Caribbean volcanoes in the transept space at the exhibition, and the personal attention of the kind and expert volcanologist, Professor Pyle, was our reward. The exhibition contained a remarkable set of accounts, illustrations, and maps from the Bodleian Libraries, as well some items borrowed from outside. I heartily recommend a tour: the exhibition closes on May 21.
La Soufrière at the Bodleian
Michael, Susanna & I on the roof of the Weston Library
We then moved on to Christ Church, my alma mater, where I had arranged a visit to the Library. Dr Cristina Neagu, who is keeper of the Special Collections, was able to show us a rich and assorted set of documents, from commentaries by Maimonides to recently discovered notebooks and publications by Lewis Carroll, as well as the remarkable Graz camera that is contributing to an exciting digitisation project at the Bodleian. The wealth of the Special Collections is extraordinary, and is being made more broadly available through the interpretation of scholars, and the efforts of Cristina and her team, supported by innovative digitisation techniques. This was another very fascinating experience, and we returned to our hotel at Peartree Road well stimulated, ready for some excellent refreshment and dinner at the Trout at Godstow.
No relaxation! The next day (Thursday), Susanna was seeing a friend in Oxford, so Michael drove us to Bletchley to spend a day at Bletchley Park, the wartime home of the Government Code and Cipher School (renamed Government Communications Headquarters at some stage during the war). While I knew a fair amount about GC&CS from my reading (especially about the analysis of ENIGMA traffic), I had never visited the place itself. For me, much of the inspection of the various huts was less than overwhelming, but the experience was enhanced by a brief tour of Bletchley Park House itself (in which the office of its chief, Alastair Denniston, stood), and capped by a remarkable exhibition in Block B, where a moving account of Alan Turing’s life and tragic end was given, as well as a crisp and articulate demonstration of a reconstructed ‘Bombe’ at work. An ENIGMA message was decrypted with the help of a ‘crib’ that relied on the fact that no letter could ever be encoded as itself, the multiple wheels rotating until a trial set of complete matches was made. The (volunteer) demonstrators performed a superlative job: one of them told us that her father had worked at Bletchley Park during the war, and then, after learning Russian, had moved on to manage English Accessions at the Bodleian. But the exhibition was also a little coy about the controversies that still surround wartime security and management. For example, in the Visitor Centre, three plaques show Stewart Menzies (head of SIS, to whom GC&CS reported), Alastair Denniston (who led GC&CS from 1921 to 1942), and Edward Travis (director from 1942 to 1952). Menzies is graced with his ‘Sir’, but with no dates. Denniston and Travis are both given their years of birth and death, but no titles, although Travis was given his knighthood a few months after his appointment, while Denniston was shamefully never given one. Maybe embarrassment over this snub still lingers.
Susanna took the bus from Oxford to Buckingham to join us on Thursday evening, where we were staying in preparation for the degree ceremony on Friday. Friday turned out to be the coldest day of my stay: I had to pick up my cap and gown in good time before setting off for a meeting with Christopher Woodhead, the editor at Buckingham University Press. We had not met in person, so it was good to discuss across the table plans for the book based on my thesis ̶ indexing, illustrations, cover, launch. We appear to be on target for a September publication. And then ̶ off to the Church of St Peter and St Paul for the secular Convocation for the Conferment of Degrees. This was a very well planned and executed ceremony, one of five held over two days, so that each graduand could receive a personal introduction. Sir Anthony Seldon, Vice-Chancellor of the University (and also my internal examiner) gave a bravura performance in orchestrating the ceremony, which was enhanced by a wise and amusing speech by Lord (Mervyn) King, former Governor of the Bank of England, and honorary graduand for the School of Humanities. It was followed by an excellent buffet, where we were pleased to be joined by my supervisor, Professor Anthony Glees, and Sir Anthony Seldon, as well as by the MP for Buckingham (and Speaker of the House) John Bercow. The whole event was a grand example of British pluralism: persons of many countries, creeds, colours and cultures (and ages) coming together (in a Protestant church) to celebrate academic achievement and to be individually recognised, before dispersing to their different groups and associations. Pluralism, not multi-culturalism, in the spirit of the endorsements in my thesis. A very satisfactory day, and I am proud to be associated with the sole independent university in Britain with its motto ̶ Alis Volans Propriis (‘Flying On Our Own Wings’). I was sorry that Sylvia and Julia could not be there to witness it, but the support of Michael and Susanna meant a lot.
Sir Anthony Seldon & Michael
Susanna & John Bercow
So then back to London, and champagne. The next day I had a reunion of the 1965 School Prefects at Whitgift, held at a pub near Hyde Park Corner. On my way there, I saw Howard Morton, who lives in Chelsea, and I was introduced to his charming Rwandan-born wife, Yvonne, and son, James. Twelve prefects attended the lunch: three of them I had not seen in over fifty years. Of course we each had perfect memories of what happened all that time ago, even if they did not all coincide, but Peter Kelly had brought along a few artifacts to provide documentary evidence, and to provoke lively discussion. We all fondly remembered our former leader and Head Prefect, John Knightly, who had sadly succumbed to cancer a couple of years before. I was sorry that not all could make the event, but Peter kindly arranged it at fairly short notice, and it was good to see so many old friends again. One remarkable fact that arose from the occasion was that Andrew Jukes (one of those whom I had not seen for fifty years) told me that he was in Washington (where his father worked in the Embassy) at the time that Burgess and Maclean absconded in 1951 . . .
Sunday was a day off. I needed a rest, and to catch up. On Monday morning, I took the train to Minster ̶ between Canterbury and Ramsgate ̶ to have lunch with Nigel West (Rupert Allason), the doyen of writers on intelligence and espionage matters. I have read (and own) several of his books, but I keep encountering vital titles that I have overlooked and need to read. Nigel had attended the seminar I held at Buckingham a few years ago, so I was able to update him on the progress of my research and conclusions. We covered a lot of ground, including ELLI’s identity, Sedlacek and Roessler, Alexander Foote and Claude Dansey, the mistreatment of Denniston, the ISCOT program, and Sonia’s broadcasts. (Nigel once interviewed Sonia.) Nigel is not surprised by Denniston’s lack of a knighthood, pointing out that neither R. V. Jones nor Commander Godfrey was thus honored, but I continue to maintain that there is a deeper, murkier story behind the insult. Nigel also explained to me the reason why one’s effects are checked before entering the Archives at Kew: an academic had been detected inserting falsified documents into files, and then claiming breakthrough ‘findings’ some time later. (Not in my field, I hope.) That story can be inspected in West’s latest book, Cold War Counterfeit Spies. I was also very happy to meet Nigel’s charming wife, Nicola, a professional violinist, and the time went all too quickly before I had to catch the train back to London.
I needed one more day at Kew, so on Tuesday I caught the train from Clapham Junction to Richmond, switching to the ‘Underground’ to Kew Gardens, with an easy walk to the National Archives. I had a few files I needed to re-inspect, namely Dick White’s apologia to the Cabinet Office, the records of Leo Long, as well as the Kuczynski files that are not available on-line, in order to catch any details I had overlooked beforehand. I also discovered another intriguing RSS file, which included a highly provocative 1943 letter from Richard Gambier-Parry (head of Section VIII in SIS) to Claude Dansey, requesting his support in an attempt to tighten up radio security in the light of unauthorized foreign traffic from England. This was interesting, since Guy Liddell of MI5 Counter-Espionage frequently complains about Gambier-Parry’s lack of concern for such matters, while Dansey has never been known as showing much interest in wireless technology. Gambier-Parry also wrote, alongside SOE, about a unit named ‘P5’, which I had not encountered before. (The structure of wartime SIS is a highly confusing topic: the authorised historian of SIS Colin Jeffery suggests that P5 was a group liaising with Vichy France, while Phillip Davies indicates it dealt with the Polish government-in-exile and the Free French, which is a much more likely scenario.)
Before I left Kew, I bought a copy of West’s Cold War Counterfeit Spies, as well as Peter Matthews’ SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, which appears to fill an important gap in the literature by concentrating on German interception and decryption techniques. From a quick scan, I noticed that Matthews makes the confident assertion (on p 196, though curiously without providing a reference or source, or even listing Foote in the index) that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable ULTRA information. (This is a hypothesis I am attempting to prove in ‘Sonia’s Radio’.) Thus casually do narratives get confirmed in the historical record, so I was naturally intrigued in the evidence after which he came to this conclusion, which directly contradicts what Professor Hinsley, the authorised historian of British Intelligence in WWII, has written about the release of ULTRA information to the Soviets. I look forward to reading the work from cover to cover, but have already succeeded in making contact with Mr. Matthews, and he has just informed me that he was actually with the Army in Berlin when Foote defected there in 1947! (He also carried out at that time several interviews with German radio intelligence officers.) He has promised to inspect his files to find out what sources confirm the impression he had at the time. But I certainly agree with him in one respect: Foote’s life story ‘could fill another book’.
Time to come home. I left Battersea for Heathrow at 5:30 on Wednesday in order to catch my 8:50 plane to Charlotte. It left at 9:30, and arrived half an hour early, which can be explained only by extraordinary tailwinds, or a padded schedule that leads to improved on-time arrival records. So I had plenty of time for my connection to Wilmington – too much, in fact. The plane coming in from Columbia, SC, was delayed because of maintenance problems, so that, instead of leaving at 4:10, it taxied off to the runway at about 7:00. As we were about to take off, the pilot announced that we would have to return to the gate since one of the flight attendants would otherwise exceed her working time for the day. This was doubly ridiculous: American Airlines should have known what was happening and made a decision beforehand, and the policy that a flight attendant would be dangerously overworked, having spent three hours in Columbia presumably doing nothing, and when the 30-minute flight to Wilmington does not even allow for serving drinks in cabin class, is an example of regulation at its most absurd. Furthermore, we then waited another half an hour until the replacement crew member arrived, while American Airlines told us nothing. What about regulations helping passengers? By the time I arrived home, I had been travelling for twenty and a half hours – something my doctor has advised me not to do. Of course, I do not seek expensive regulations to support frustrated passengers. I want choice of airlines, and less government interference when safety is not an issue. But the options are currently few without even longer flights and journey segments.
Lastly, a strange coincidence. On the train to Newcastle on March 11, I had started reading Charles Cummings’s The Trinity Six, an intelligence thriller about an academic, Sam Gaddis, who chases down a story about a notorious ‘Sixth Man’, and even encounters, at the National Archives, a beautiful SIS officer disguised as a helpful employee. The death of the Sixth Man turns out to have been faked by MI5/SIS, so that his existence can be concealed from the Soviets, who have even more interest than SIS in shielding the public and press from the real story behind his betrayal. I recommend the book wholeheartedly. What is noteworthy, however, is that Chapter 26 begins with the following sentence: “Forty minutes earlier, Tanya Acocella had been passed a note informing her that Dr. Sam Gaddis – now known by the cryptonym POLARBEAR because, as Brennan had observed, ‘he’ll soon be extinct’ – had visited an Internet café on the Uxbridge Road and purchased an easyJet flight to Berlin.” Is this art imitating life, or vice versa, or simply a normal occurrence in the world of spooks? I had never met Susanna’s friend Mo before, she knew nothing about me, and I had not opened a page of Cummings’ book at that time. Gaddis does not fall victim to the multiple murders being carried out by the Russians, which is a good sign, I suppose: on the other hand, no sultry temptresses welcomed me at Kew. Yet I suspect that it will be MI5 who may not be very happy with me when my revisionist history of that institution comes out this autumn. Is POLARBEAR a marked man? My friend David may think so. I arrived in Britain, however, on my UK passport, and left on my American one. This highly sophisticated ruse ̶ one learned from my handlers ̶ may have thrown them off the scent. POLARBEAR landed, but never took off again.
Towards the end of July, I made another visit to the United Kingdom – my first for two years. The primary purpose of the trip was to defend my doctoral dissertation at the University of Buckingham, but I intended to complement the ordeal with some more research at the National Archives at Kew, and at the Bodleian Library in Oxford, as well as see some old friends, and make personal acquaintance with some contacts that I had established through email introductions. I arrived soon after the Brexit referendum took place, so post mortems on the result, and on the process, were high on the agendas of those I spent time with.
After landing at Heathrow, I took my rented car round to Croydon, where I met for lunch my first host, David Earl, and a few old friends at Croham Hurst Golf Club, and then went to stay with David and his wife, Mieke. Mieke, alas, had recently broken her hip in a fall in her native Netherlands, but she was still her irresistibly ebullient self. Unfortunately, during that initial weekend, my back started convulsing with agonizing spasms, with the result that I was lying immobile on the floor by Monday morning. This necessitated attention being diverted from Mieke’s condition to mine (a phenomenon she bore with good grace), and, after I had illicitly taken three of her (non-opioid) pain-killing pills with no effect, it was David who came to the rescue by acquiring some simple heat-pad strips. Their application had a truly miraculous effect within a matter of hours, thus enabling me to continue my journey to Battersea that afternoon. On the Saturday, I had also managed to drive out to Oxted to see another pair of very old friends, Peter and Pia Skeen (Peter having been my best man back in 1976). They generously fitted me in while waiting for their son, Torsten, and his family to arrive from Dubai that afternoon, and sensibly agreed that they would pay closer attention to their personal schedules when my next visit was impending.
I spent a few days with my brother Michael and his wife, Susanna, in Battersea. Susanna has been undergoing a very arduous treatment of chemotherapy for breast cancer, but if anyone has the indomitability and will to beat it, it is she. (She was scheduled for surgery the day I left the UK, August 9.) I was received with the utmost hospitality, and enjoyed some deep discussions on many topics with Michael, who has an excellent brain – especially on financial matters – and who in my opinion expresses more insight and common sense than several economists who have won Nobel Prizes. (You know who you are.) I encouraged Michael to write up his thoughts. Meanwhile, the days of that week were spent in the National Archives, at Kew, a drive of about thirty minutes away. I was able to inspect several files there – too late for my thesis, of course, but research does not stop for artificial timetables ̶ on Guy Burgess, on the ISCOT programme to decipher Soviet diplomatic traffic in 1943, on GCHQ, on the Kuczynskis, and on miscellaneous other MI5 and Foreign Office material.
While at Kew, I was privileged to have a meeting with Chris Mumby, Head of Commercial Services at the Archives. Last year I had written to him, expressing my interest in the process of digitisation, and explaining how difficult it could be for a remote researcher to identify and inspect important files. Those that have been digitised are available for a very reasonable fee, but constitute only a small percentage of the total, while a request for the digitisation of any thick folder (for personal purposes, though with universal benefit) is penally expensive. I was also intrigued by the arrangement The National Archives had made with Taylor and Francis, a company that makes selective documents available to subscribers, and how that contract related to the Archives’ own initiatives. Finally, I had expressed my astonishment that everyone was allowed access to Kew for free – even foreign residents like me. The Archives bear certain statutory obligations, but the more successful they are in attracting visitors, the more their support costs go up, at a time of static budgets. Could the Archives perhaps not charge admission fees, and perhaps establish a tax-free charity that could allow well-wishers to make donations to alleviate operating costs? I found a very professional and attentive ear in Mr. Mumby, and have every sympathy with him and his colleagues in their challenges. Enough said, for now.
I also met for dinner an old friend, and a new acquaintance. I have been collaborating with the screenwriter Grant Eustace (see http://www.granteustace.co.uk/) , with whom I used to play rugby at the Old Whitgiftians. He has produced a script based on aspects of my thesis, and I was pleased to meet him again, as well as his charming wife, Janie, at a restaurant in Kew, where we could exchange laments about dealing with the worlds of publishing and of other media. (A Hollywood producer had chanced upon my writings on ‘Sonia’s Radio’, but regrettably nothing came of it.) The next evening, I went up to Westminster to meet Andrew Lownie (see http://www.andrewlownie.co.uk/) , who published a very well-received biography of Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, last year. It was Andrew who introduced me to a vital document, released to the National Archives last September, which essentially proved my emerging hypothesis about Guy Burgess’s mission to Moscow in 1940. Andrew and I have exchanged insights and findings on Burgess and his murky dealings with such as Isaiah Berlin and Joseph Ball, and it was productive to sit down face-to-face at last. I had to express some disappointment: when his book was published last year, I sent him a comprehensive list of observations and corrigenda. This summer, the work was re-issued as a paperback, but, while it contained some corrections, and some expanded Notes, no indication was given that the text had been changed. Moreover, while some of my emendations had been incorporated, rather sloppily some had been overlooked, and the author had not added my name in the list of Acknowledgments. Andrew has apologised. He has had his own struggles with the publisher. And we remain on good terms.
On Saturday, Michael, Susanna and I took a trip out to Chiswick Park, off the A4, one of those extraordinary lungs within Greater London’s boundaries. Unfortunately, Chiswick House itself, ‘one of the finest examples of neo-Palladian design in England’ was closed on the Saturday, but we were able to take a leisurely stroll around the gardens.
Several renowned names are connected with the House: as the website (http://www.chgt.org.uk/) declares, somewhat enigmatically: “Leader of fashion and political activist for the Whig party, Georgiana Duchess of Devonshire referred to her home at Chiswick House as ‘my earthly paradise’. Her parties and political breakfasts at Chiswick were renowned and notable guests included the politician Charles James Fox who later died in the Bed Chamber in 1806.” We are left to guess what he was up to earlier – before breakfast, presumably. I present a photograph of Michael and Susanna at the fountain, for the record.
Michael & Susanna
The next day, I made my way to Oxford, where I would stay at the Holiday Inn, within ‘Park and Ride’ access to the town centre. Most of Monday and Tuesday were spent in the new Weston Library of the Bodleian, where I had arranged to study the files of Sir Patrick Reilly and Sir Joseph Ball, as well as letters that Sir Rudolf Peierls, the sponsor of, and collaborator with, the atom spy Klaus Fuchs, had written to various scientists during the course of Fuchs’s arrest and conviction. All three sources were as revealing because of what they did not say as much as for what was explicit. I also was shown round the new library by Jessica Brown of the Development Office, and specifically led to the carrell that I had donated a year or two back .
The Roof of the Weston Library
The Carrell at the Weston Library
The fixture is a slightly ostentatious but genuine gesture of appreciation for how Oxford has helped in my career: I do not believe I recognised it at the time, but Harold Macmillan’s 1975 observation that an Oxford education should teach you to detect whenever someone is telling you obvious rot (a dictum that he claimed he learned from the philosopher John Alexander Smith) has remained with me ever since, and has stood me in good stead in my life.
My supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, lives in Woodstock, just north of Oxford, and he kindly invited me for cocktails on the Monday, so I was pleased to see him again, and meet his charming wife, Linda. After more research on Tuesday morning, I repaired to my old college, Christ Church (known as ‘the House’) where Simon Offen, of the Development and Alumni office, generously entertained me to lunch, after which Cristina Neagu, the Keeper of the Special Collections in the Christ Church Library, showed me a fascinating array of old texts that have only recently been closely examined. She also took me into the tower of the library, where an extraordinary camera (known, I think, as the ‘Graz’ machine) allows delicate documents to be photographed quickly, safely, and accurately, thus contributing to a series of world-wide collaborative projects after the images are passed to the Bodleian for publication (see http://www.chch.ox.ac.uk/library-and-archives/digital-library). I also bumped into the Dean of Christ Church, the Very Revd. Professor Martyn Percy, who gave me a warm and enthusiastic welcome, after which we discussed, among other things, our shared lack of genealogical propinquity to the Dukes of Northumberland. That evening, I dined alone at The Trout at Godstow, only a few minutes away from the Holiday Inn, which has always been one of my favourite hostelries ever since I first went there in 1966. And the following morning I made my way to Buckingham for my viva.
I was honoured to have Sir Anthony Seldon and Professor Christopher Coker as my internal and external examiners, respectively. Moreover, I was gratified, immediately on entering the examination room, to be told that my thesis had been accepted – without any recommendations for changes. While this left the notion of the ‘defence’ of my thesis hanging in the air, it was the best kind of surprise. Thus “Confronting Stalin’s ‘Elite Force’: MI5’s Handling of Communist Subversion, 1939-1941” is now in the record books, although I have requested a suspension of promulgation of the text pending my attempts to convert it into a book. I enjoyed some interesting exchanges with my examiners, but the whole process was over in about three-quarters of an hour. At the end, knowing that Sir Anthony’s first teaching assignment had been at Whitgift School in 1983, I asked him whether he had encountered my father, Freddie, who, although having retired by then, was still active as historian and archivist, and would have taken a very strong interest in new members of staff. ‘F.H.G. Percy!’, he exclaimed. ‘That great man! (or words to that effect)’. He had never connected my name to his. [Late in August, I received a very generous note from Sir Anthony, which ran: ‘Many congratulations on an excellent Ph.D., and in memory of your distinguished and great father.’]
Then back to Battersea, to celebrate with champagne. The next morning I was off to the House of Lords, as Lord and Lady Young of Cookham had kindly invited me on a tour of the Houses, and to lunch. Aurelia, Lady Young has been a close friend of Professor Glees since childhood, and the Professor had introduced me to her (via email), as he believed I might have some insights into the history of her father, the Croatian sculptor, Oscar Nemon, based on my researches into the treatment by MI5 and the Home Office of émigré Jews in the late 1930s. Diligent readers may recall my reference to this wonderful lady in an earlier piece, to be found at http://www.coldspur.com/reviews/some-reflections-on-the-north-downs.
Professor Glees & Lady Young
I was delighted to see the several busts crafted by her father in the Houses of Parliament: for some reason, I had never toured the place (was it not open to the public when I was growing up?), and it was very enjoyable to sit on the terrace with the London Eye in view. Lord Young, who has had a distinguished career in politics, is now a whip in the House of Lords. He was also at Christ Church, graduating shortly before I matriculated, so the photograph here probably represents our sharing memories of Christ Church personalities rather than his Lordship’s seeking my opinions on the security implications of Brexit.
Lord Young and Dr. Percy
The next day, I drove down to Dorset, to stay with another couple of old friends, Brian Wizard and his delightful wife, Sue, who own a very attractive cottage (actually, joined cottages) in Tarrant Monkton. Brian and I worked together in IT back in the 1970s, so we share a lot of memories of the software business, its heroes and its villains. Like me, Brian is very impatient of bureaucratic bumbling and obfuscation, and likes to write letters with a view to dismantling evasiveness and irresponsibility, so I was pleased to catch up with his latest exploits. The Wizards’ property rolls right down to, and then bridges, the River Tarrant, and as the photographs show, is a beautiful example of the art of country gardening.
Observant watchers may notice that Brian (notwithstanding his other excellent attributes) is a little challenged in the stature department: this feature, however, does enable him to walk around his cottage without stooping, while I am always in danger of bumping my head. I have thus asked him to consider raising the roof for my next visit. He and Sue regaled me with a very generous dinner in compensation for my discomfort.
On Saturday, onwards to Stow-on-the-Wold, a journey that reminded me that the British road system is quite good so long as you are travelling on radials from London. Still, it was a glorious drive through Cranborne Chase, followed by a rather boring patch until I arrived in the Cotswolds. There I was to stay a couple of nights with Derek and Maggie Taylor, Derek being a contemporary of mine at Christ Church, and the recent author of a couple of books (see www.derekjtaylorbooks.com ), about whom I have written on this blog. The Taylors had arranged a dinner where I was to meet an acquaintance whom I had not seen for almost fifty years – another House man, Nigel Robbins, who lives down the road in Cirencester with his wife, Stephanie. The next day, the three of us drove out to Snowshill Manor, an exquisitely situated house that was once owned by the eccentric collector Charles Wade.
From Snowshill Manor
In the evening we dined at the ‘Hare’ in Milton-under-Wychwood. There is little doubt in my mind that, if I ever returned to live in the UK, it would be somewhere in the Cotswolds. But English winters, after fifteen years in North Carolina? No, thank you.
So what about Brexit? Well, at my age, one tends to socialise with people whose views tend to echo one’s own, but I listened to – and read – a variety of opinions. First, some paradoxes. It seems bewildering to me that the European Union has been represented – both by some Remainers as well as by certain Leavers – as an exemplar of free-market global capitalism. (In his new book ,‘The Euro’, Joseph Stiglitz repeatedly makes the astonishing assertion that the problems of the euro are attributable to the ‘neoliberal ideology’ of its designers). The European Union is in fact a closed club, a customs union, with expensive barriers to entry, and the use of the euro imposes a number of stringent rules. Some pro-EU observers assert that the nation-state is irrelevant in an era of globalisation, but, by the same token, the attempts of the Union’s regulators to maintain economic ‘stability’ will be as futile as those of an individual country. I also found it extraordinary how many Remainers drew attention to the loss in funding that would occur with Brexit, as if the Union were a rich uncle, and other countries were simply panting to hand over their hard-earned surpluses to subsidise British social projects. I was astonished at how many of the chattering classes, intellectuals, artists and luvvies, saw Brexit as the end of civilization, as if all cultural ties and links to Europe (of which Britain would still be a member) would have to be sundered if Article 50 were to be invoked. I was intrigued that, on the troublesome immigration issue, the more attractive business climate, the cultural pluralism, and the native language of Britain all conspire to make Britain a more attractive destination for entrepreneurial young persons. (I cannot see English plumbers looking for work in Gdansk or Bucharest.) I was appalled at the lack of preparation by David Cameron’s administration for the outcome of an ‘Exit’ vote in the referendum, something he should explicitly have considered even though he regarded ‘Remain’ as a foregone conclusion. My impression of Cameron, incidentally, was not improved by reading Sir Anthony Seldon’s book on the ex-Prime Minister, the paperback version of which came out shortly before I arrived.
Somewhat emotionally, I believe that it was timely and courageous to attempt an exit now, rather than later. (“Very bold, Prime Minister”, as Sir Humphrey would have subtly admonished.) If the answer to the Union’s challenges is more integration, not less, then getting out as soon as possible is the right response. Even the Union’s stoutest defenders now recognize that the Euro is mortally wounded, and any efforts by the Eurocrats to make exit highly painful and onerous, and scare off any other pretenders, will only confirm how unaccountable and unresponsive the European council and parliament are – what has been called ‘the democratic deficit’. With a belief that budgets and political programmes are best exercised at the national level, and that part of our British democratic process has been [sic: can this continue with the implosion of the Labour Party?] ‘throwing this lot out and letting the others have a chance’ (would there ever be an official opposition in Brussels that was for decelerating the ‘European Project’?), I suspect something messy, but not nearly as dire or as wonderful as either camp would claim, will emerge. As for taking back control of legislation, however, I must confess to some doubts whether the British civil servants and parliament are any better than their EU counterparts, if the recent laws on hate-crimes are any indication. James Alexander Smith, we need you now. (I am more interested in Brexit than in the appalling saga of the US presidential elections, by the way, in case you hadn’t guessed.)
Monday afternoon saw me spending an enjoyable couple of hours in Burford, where, among other things, I bought a copy of Clive James’s elegiac Sentenced to Life, and then I made my way to a hotel near Heathrow, so that I could return my rental car in good time the next morning. In the exit-lounge, as I waited to board, a young man offered me a seat, which I graciously declined. Have I suddenly become that old? It seems only a short while ago that I was offering my seat to the elderly. I shall be seventy in December: maybe everything up until this point has been achievement, and now begins the slow trudge downhill. But enough of gloomy thoughts: too much Clive James, perhaps. Better to relax on the plane ̶ a little sparkling wine, and keep decline at bay by tackling the Times’s Saturday crosswords. Meanwhile, I mentally prepared myself for what I should do if an emergency message came on the intercom: ‘Is there a doctor on board?’, planning to rush over to deliver a soothing lecture on Isaiah Berlin and Guy Burgess to the afflicted passenger, but, mercifully for all, no call came. Instead I sank back to watch a Classic Movie – not ‘Doctor in the House’, but, from the same era, a piece of frothy nonsense titled ‘Funny Face’ (1957), which I had seen for the first and only time soon after it came out. It was redeemed, of course, by the bewitching Audrey Hepburn. I recalled several of the scenes very clearly, and the show put me into a nostalgic mood. ‘Das Ewig-Weibliche zieht uns hinan’, and, after an unnecessarily long layover in Charlotte, I was overjoyed to see my ever-lovely wife and daughter waiting at Wilmington Airport to drive me home to Southport.
Sylvia & Julia (at Lake Tahoe, June 2015)
A very rewarding two-and-a-half weeks.
P.S. Susanna’s operation went well. She returned home to Battersea on August 14, and is recovering steadily, despite considerable discomfort and pain.
P.P.S. I have just spent several hours processing about 5,000 responses to my posts that had accumulated on my website since the beginning of 2015, and which I had carelessly ignored. This was no easy task: I had to inspect every individual response. Most were software-generated. The system did present them in batches of twenty, each of which I could mark, and then ‘block-process’ as spam, but some of the posts were hundreds of lines long, containing dummy and real urls, requiring dozens of clicks to process each. Probably only 1% were genuine posts, with most of the rest coming from vendors of cheap merchandise, or people trying to sell me web optimisation services, and some bewilderingly not appearing to have any purpose at all. But when a responder shows his enthusiasm for ‘The Undercover Egghead’ by titling his response ‘Cheap Ray-Bans’, or another tells me how ‘utterly beneficial’ he found my piece on ‘Richie Benaud, My Part in His Success’ for his ‘True Religion Outlet’ posting, the haphazardness and futility of the exercise became clear. Presumably their originators believed that their posts would appear on Search engines without my having to ‘approve’ them. If I did miss, because of the purge, a sincerely targeted comment from any of my readers, I apologise. And if I had had the sense to mark each item of spam as such as soon as it arrived, I might have avoided the problem.
In the summer of 1967, at the age of twenty, I spent a few weeks with a German family in Hesse. They were very hospitable to their young English guest, although I believe the parents may have taken advantage of his naivety. The father of the household had survived the Russian Front, which was no mean achievement, and he was understandably rather dour and uncommunicative about the whole experience. His wife, however, tried to propagandise me, claiming that they (i.e. German citizens in general) knew nothing about the concentration camps, and that they believed that they were some kind of ‘holiday camp’ where the Jews were being sent. (I cannot recall her exact words in German, but that was the distinct impression she left with me.) She also made some cryptic remarks about ‘Mittel-Deutschland’ and ‘Ost-Deutschland’, which I vaguely thought at the time must refer respectively to what was then the German Democratic Republic, and the land within the 1937 borders of the German Reich that had been given to Poland after the Potsdam Conference. I was too shy (or too polite) to challenge her on what appeared to be a nostalgic wish that the old boundaries might be restored at some stage. (The Federal Republic of Germany had not at that time even recognized the German Democratic Republic.)
I thought of this Frau when I read a recent New York Times piece titled The Displaced, in its Magazine of November 8, by one Jake Silverstein, which was designed to highlight the fact that nearly 60 million people had been displaced since World War II, and that half of them were children. It was supposed to be an innovative article, using some kind of 3-D technology, an app, and some cardboard Google glasses (none of which I experimented with), but the introductory comments caught my eye. The article reproduced a famous photograph by Henri Cartier-Bresson, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR35432.html , but several aspects of the way this photograph was introduced seemed questionable to me. Silverstein describes the picture as follows: “ . . . a girl of about ten . . is standing behind an enormous pile of belongings, which have been rightly packed for a long journey. . . . Both [the girl and her younger brother] look directly at the photographer, who took this picture at Dessau, as scores of Germans displaced during World War II began returning home.” Under the photograph runs the description: “A camp in Dessau, Germany, in April 1945, for displaced people liberated by Soviet troops”.
What is going on here? These phrases provoked so many questions in my mind that I hardly knew where to begin. A camp set up in April, 1945, when the war was not over until May 8? Germans displaced in World War II – by whom, I wonder? Did Germans not cause massive displacements themselves? Returning home? From where? What was their ‘home’, and why were they not ‘at home’ beforehand? And those Soviet troops ‘liberating’ German territories? If they were true ‘liberators’, were the Soviets really encouraging ‘displaced’ people to return to their natural habitat? So perhaps these people weren’t German, after all, as the caption suggested? And might they in fact have been running away in fear from the Soviets, whose reputation for murder, rape and pillage made them, for some, an even more obnoxious threat than the Nazis? For these were, indeed very confused – and confusing – times.
I posed such questions to the Public Editor at the New York Times, as it seemed to me that the paper’s editors must have considered these questions. If they had not, this was surely an example of careless journalism – laziness and superficiality. And I thought the matter important as the episode was being used as a banner for a brand new publishing exercise. Yet, after one perfunctory acknowledgment, the Times has gone silent, and ignored my messages. It presumably either thinks its statements are defensible, or that the whole issue is completely unimportant. I thus decided to document it all myself. I thought the best way of approaching the topic was to attempt to answer those journalistic standbys: What? When? Where? Why? How? Who?
That the photograph shows refugees of some sort, there is little doubt. Yet they do not possess any air of desperation: they look healthy and calm, and do not appear to have been abused. They are surely not Prisoners of War, or slave laborers. Members of the group in the middle distance are smiling, and the size and volume of the possessions strewn on the street suggests that they have made their way to the camp with some form of transport, perhaps a horse-driven cart, or a man-pulled barrow. They have surely not travelled far, but how can Silverstein know that they are preparing for a ‘long journey’? Is the location really a camp? It is difficult to say. The atmosphere is very different from that of most of the other photographs in this group that refer to the Dessau camp, but the texts of the latter appear very unreliable, indicating, for example, families of healthy-looking Soviet ‘refugees’ who are about to return to their homeland. How Soviet families, for example, were allowed to find refuge from the Soviet Union in the German Reich, and yet apparently flourish, is a question that is deeply inexplicable, one which Magnum superficially brushes aside. And clearly, not all images in the set are taken inside the camp, even though they are captioned as such.
That the Central European problem of Displaced Persons (DPs) was massive is unquestioned. The historian Michael Jones has reported that the number of DPs that the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration (UNRRA) had to deal with increased from 350,000 at the end of March 1945 to over 2 million by early May.
The date of April 1945 must be wrong. It appears that Silverstein just plucked it from the website where the photograph appears, without thinking. The caption for it supplied by Magnum runs as follows: ‘Dessau. A transit camp was located between the American and Soviet zones organized for refugees, POWs, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern Front of Germany that had been liberated by the Soviet Army.’ Since the surrender document created for the Germans was not signed until May 8, it would have been very unlikely for refugee camps to have been set up in April so close to the combat zone, what with fierce fighting still continuing in the neighborhood. Dessau is about fifty miles downstream from Torgau, also on the Elbe, renowned for the certainly staged encounter between US and Soviet troops on the Elbe, which did not take place until April 25. It occurred after a US officer had met a Soviet counterpart on the west side of the Elbe, at Leckwitz, which is about halfway between Torgau and Dresden. Hitler committed suicide on April 29, but the fighting was still intense: between April 16 and May 8, Soviet casualties were over 350,000, of which 100,000 were killed. At that time, there were about 250,000 German soldiers in the zone between the approaching GB-US and Soviet lines. A desperate attempt by German troops and civilians, fleeing from the Soviet forces, to cross the Elbe at Tangermünde, about sixty miles north of Dessau, started on May 6, thus showing that the area was in turmoil right up until the surrender was signed (in Rheims on May 7, and ratified in Berlin the following day).
In fact, an explanation below another photograph expands the time-period: it says that ‘Cartier-Bresson . . took the photo between 21 April and 2 July 1945, between the American occupation of the city and the arrival of their Russian replacements’. This latter date is certainly a more reliable, yet still dubious, pointer to the time: the US forces vacated Dessau some time in July. Magnum does the cause of scholarly research no favors, however, by assigning the same erroneous caption to all forty-one photographs it displays in this album.
Whereas the boundaries of the occupied zones (Soviet, US, GB, and France) had been set at the Yalta Conference in February, both British and US forces actually advanced up to 200 miles (to the ‘Line of Contact’) inside what was legally the Soviet zone, and did not withdraw until early July 1945. Thus Dessau, which is situated just south of the River Elbe, and west of the River Mulde, was well inside the Soviet Zone of Occupation. Yet the Magnum captions again distort the facts: by stating that the transit camp ‘was located between the American and Soviet zones’, they suggest that Dessau was the permanent boundary, and misrepresent the coordinates of the American zone. Moreover, Magnum encourages this view by captioning photographs of refugees crossing the Elbe as follows: ‘The river deviding [sic] the Soviet and American sectors. Refugees making way to refugee camps’, and ‘A pontoon bridge between the border zone crossing of refugees. The river was the line dividing Soviet and American sectors’. Unfortunately, this was the impression many refugees had at the time – that by crossing the Elbe they would reach the safety of the American zone, when in fact Dessau was just about to be ceded to the Soviets.
That there was a camp at Dessau is plausibly confirmed by other sources: it may have been set up on the grounds of an existing Nazi concentration camp. ‘Working for the Enemy’ claims that ‘The Dessau camp is listed by the Red Cross International Tracing Service as having existed from November 1944 until 11 April 1945, with an inmate population of about 340’, suggesting it was dismantled just before the Americans arrived. It cites witnesses who state that a ‘death march’ out of Dessau started around April 11, as Allied troops approached it from all sides. The SS wanted to deliver the inmates to the International Red Cross in Prague. No doubt the same camp facilities were eventually used by the Americans – and then the Soviets.
The emphasis in the New York Times article is on ‘displacement’, more specifically on ‘scores [sic!] of Germans displaced during World War II’ who ‘began returning home’, with the suggestion that such people had been ‘liberated by Soviet troops’. This vague assertion is not helped by the Magnum rubric, which describes the refugees as ‘political prisoners, POW’s, STO’s (Forced Labourers), displaced persons, returning from the Eastern front of Germany’. Since the photographs include images of ‘Soviet and Ukrainian refugees awaiting repatriation to their homeland’, one might well ask why such persons had ‘returned’ from the Eastern Front. It is palpable nonsense. Yet, examining the single photograph used by Silverstein, one might pose other penetrating questions. If the refugees are indeed German, why had they been displaced, and by whom? Hitler’s policy of Germanization of the lands bordering the Reich involved resettlement of German citizens from the homeland into vanquished territories, but also involved the recall of remote German communities (such as in the Ukraine and the Baltic States). At the same time, Hitler imported thousands of foreign captives to work as slave laborers within the Reich: they had certainly been ‘displaced’ and wanted to return home, whether it was to France, Poland, Ukraine or even the Soviet Union. It was a very messy time. As Christopher Snyder has written in Bloodlands: “German men went abroad and killed millions of ‘subhumans’, only to import millions of other ‘subhumans’ to do the work in Germany that the German men would have been doing themselves – had they not been abroad killing ‘subhumans’.”
But to speak of the Germans in terms suggesting that they were the primary victims of displacement is an insult to all the other groups of non-Germans who suffered far greater privations, not least, of course, the six million Jews who lost their lives, and thus had no chance of returning ‘home’, wherever that was. Certainly, many Germans suffered when the terms of the Yalta agreements were executed, with Soviet and Polish troops taking their revenge on Nazi massacres and destruction by murdering and abusing Germans in such areas as Silesia or Pomerania, which needed to be cleaned out to make room for Poles whose eastern boundaries had been ceded to the Soviet Union. After Hitler’s death, however, his successor, Admiral Dönitz, used radio broadcasts to warn the German nation that the primary menace was the Bolsheviks, with the result that Nazi armies in the East continued hopelessly to fight the Soviet forces, in an effort to give an opportunity for thousands of civilians (and soldiers) to flee towards the West.
Dönitz specifically intended to drive a wedge between the Western Powers and the Soviet Union, believing that the democracies would come to the realization that Bolshevism was the enduring foe that they would sooner or later need to turn against. At the same time he encouraged a massive exodus of German citizens from their homes in the east, whether their domiciles had been destroyed or not. In fact, the Germans recognizably stalled for time over the process of signing the surrender document, in the hope of allowing more refugees and troops to escape the Russians. Thus to talk of such as ‘displaced persons’ (DPs) returning ‘home’ would be a gross distortion.
A few weeks later, when the Potsdam conference was over in August 1945, the Oder-Neisse line that delineated the new western border of Poland was solidified. The Soviet troops prepared for these new boundaries as they advanced. As Antony Beevor writes, in The Second World War: “As Stalin had intended, ethnic cleansing was pursued with a vengeance. Troops from the 1st and 2nd Polish Armies forced Germans from their houses to push them across the Oder. The first to go were those on pre-1944 Polish territory. Some had lived there for generations, others were the Volksdeutsch beneficiaries of the Nazis’ own ethnic cleansing in 1940. Packed into cattle wagons, they were taken westwards and robbed of their few belongings on the way. A similar fate awaited those who had stayed behind or returned to Pomerania and Silesia, which now fell within the new Polish borders. In East Prussia, only 193,000 Germans were left out of a population of 2.2 million.” It is thus very difficult to judge why and how any group of such German refugees could be said to have been ‘displaced’ in the sense of casualties of war. And it would not appear that the refugees in Silverstein’s photograph had undergone such stern privations.
Were such people indeed being ‘liberated’, as the captions claim? The term ‘Liberators’ originated in the Yalta agreement, where Declaration II stated that the leaders of the Allies ‘jointly declare their mutual agreement to concert during the temporary period of instability in liberated Europe the policies of their three Governments in assisting the peoples liberated from the domination of Nazi Germany and the peoples of the former Axis satellite states of Europe to solve by democratic means their pressing political and economic problems.’ For reasons of political unity, it was incumbent to consider all victorious powers as ‘Liberators’, rather than ‘Occupiers’, but two major problems ensued. First, it suggested that Germans themselves needed ‘liberating’ from Nazi oppression (rather than being complicit agents in the brutality), and second, it assumed that Communist totalitarianism was indeed a force for freedom. As the Oxford Companion to World War II states: “The German advance into the Baltic States in 1941 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous occupation of the previous year. Yet it brought terrible impositions and murderous policies of its own. Similarly, the western advance of the Soviet armies in 1944-5 was welcome to the extent that it put an end to the murderous German occupation of the previous years; yet it brought reprisals and totalitarian policies that were no less vicious than those it removed. Liberations that did not liberate are not worthy of the name.”
Juozas Lukša, a CIA-trained Lithuanian resistance fighter, makes a similar point from the benefit of direct experience, cited by Edward Lucas in his book Deception: “In 1940, the Russians had come marching into our land to ‘liberate’ us from ‘capitalist and Fascist exploiters.’ In 1941, the Germans had marched in after them and thereby ‘liberated’ us from ‘Bolshevik bondage’. And now, the Russians were back again – this time to ‘liberate’ us from ‘the tyranny of Nazi hangmen’. But since we still recalled how they had gone about ‘liberating’ us the last time, we didn’t think we had any cause to rejoice.”
What is unarguable is that millions of ethnic Germans outside the new borders were persecuted, with as many as 100,000 killed arbitrarily, and with thousands committing suicide rather than falling prey to the vengeful and pillaging Soviets. Germans living in the Czech Sudetenland (which had been appropriated by Germany in October 1938, as part of the Munich agreement) before the war) were given only a few minutes to pack and flee. Hundreds died en route from Poland and Czechoslovakia. And many more who found themselves in the Soviet zone tried desperately to reach the zones of the Western democracies – which is probably what the Magnum photographs show.
So can the group illustrated by the New York Times be identified with any confidence? Interestingly, the Magnum Archive includes another photograph of the threesome, presumably taken very soon after the first, visible at http://www.magnumphotos.com/image/PAR227694.html. Here the railway is in view, and one can also detect that a third child is lying on the bundle of possessions. While the young girl strikes a defiant posture, the expressions on the faces of the background group (is one of them wearing an army uniform?) suggest that they are in good spirits, and are expecting a train to take them away soon, probably westwards. Given the pictures of returning Ukrainians and Russians, however, one cannot be absolutely sure that they are not going eastwards. Again, their condition, and the size of their bundle of possessions, indicate they have not suffered much, and have probably not travelled far, and were not expelled in haste, to reach Dessau. But many of the other Magnum photographs are enigmatic. The image at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2K1HRG547X4I claims to show Belgian and French forced labourers, who, again, look remarkably fit. Moreover, they are carrying a poster of Stalin. Another image, at http://www.magnumphotos.com/C.aspx?VP3=SearchResult&ALID=2TYRYDYQFCXU, purportedly shows ‘a Soviet child, who was deported with his parents, returning to his homeland’. The child incongruously is carrying an umbrella. What in fact happened was that all Soviet citizens returning from captivity in Germany were either murdered, sent to the GULAG, or ostracized. An umbrella would not have helped them. Cartier-Bresson was a Communist sympathizer, and many of the photographs have a propaganda feel.
One inescapable conclusion from the photographs and the historical accounts of the time (including the horrifying escapes at Tangermünde, which can be seen at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4YDN9lcS6tI ) is that most of the ‘displaced’ persons who thought that they would reach a safe haven after reaching the western side of the Elbe were probably unaware of the boundaries agreed at Yalta, and were soon to be horribly disillusioned, as the Western powers had to cede the territory to the Soviets. How many of them, as native Germans, succeeded in escaping from the Soviets to the real American, British or French zones 100 miles away or more would be a story well worth investigating.
Apart from the obvious fact that one should be very careful in reproducing, or citing, information on the Internet, the publication of this piece by the New York Times indicates to me that its journalism can occasionally be amateurish, and its editorial supervision inadequate. The paper claims that ‘we observe the Newsroom Integrity Statement, promulgated in 1999, which deals with such rudimentary professional practices as the importance of checking facts, the exactness of quotations, the integrity of photographs and our distaste for anonymous sourcing.’ So what happened here, with the casual reliance on a third-party source, and no apparent fact-checking? Moreover, the reaction of the office of the Public Editor has, frankly, been deplorable. It should either acknowledge there was a problem, and admit it publically, or inform me that it thinks the information was correct, and that my complaint is thus rejected. Certainly, if a message that children are always innocent victims in times of hardship and privation was intended to be communicated, the piece transmitted it. But I doubt whether that proposition would ever be contested by anybody.
For an established newspaper reporter, however, lazily to select a photograph which he thought might dramatise his case, and unthinkingly use the descriptive text provided by a website that has clearly been influenced by propaganda, without performing any of the slightest checks of fact verification, or investigating the political and military environment in which the photograph was taken, is simply unacceptable. The issue of refugees, migrants and asylum-seekers, and the righteousness of their respective causes, and what they are escaping from, and how they might be liberated, is obviously very topical. (The week that this item was posted, the New York Times reported that the city of Ramadi had been ‘liberated’ by Iraqi government troops, but suggested at the same time that some citizens might prefer life under Daesh.) If the newspaper wanted to make a pertinent case about the plight of such displaced persons, however, a far more careful exploration of the context was necessary to give guidance on reasons, identities, victims, oppressors, homelands, statuses, etc., instead of making a shallow and factitious emotional appeal to its readership. The irony of ‘Refugees’ trying to escape from their ‘Liberators’ has been lost on the New York Times. Yet the newspaper seems to think nothing is awry.
⃰ ⃰ ⃰ ⃰⃰ ⃰ ⃰ ⃰ ⃰ ⃰ ⃰
(Since I wrote this piece, I have learned that Jake Silverstein is in fact the Editor-in-Chief of the New York Times Magazine. The current issue of the Magazine indicates he has at least twenty persons with the word ‘editor’ in their job title. But who edits the editor-in-chief?)
Working for the Enemy edited by Billstein, Fings, Kugler and Levis
The Oxford Companion to World War II
The Times Atlas of the Second World War
Bloodlands by Christopher Snyder
The Second World War by Antony Beevor
The End by Ian Kershaw
No Simple Victory by Norman Davies
Armageddon by Max Hastings
The Second World War by Martin Gilbert
After Hitler: The Last Ten Days of World War II in Europe, by Michael Jones
Deception: The Untold Story of East-West Espionage Today by Edward Lucas
Several weeks ago, the New York Times published a travel piece about Lake Tahoe, that body of water that straddles the California-Nevada border. The article included an astonishing claim – that the lake contained enough water to cover the whole drought-ridden state of California to a depth of fifteen feet. At the time, I found it hard to believe, but was too busy to perform the research and calculations that would verify or refute this assertion. So I was not surprised when, a couple of weeks ago, the paper issued a correction that stated that the lake would cover the state to a level of fifteen inches, not feet.
Is this still credible? After all, Lake Tahoe is the size of a small English county, 191 square miles, something between Rutland and the Isle of Anglesey. California is almost 164,000 square miles, almost double the area of Great Britain. Lake Tahoe must be very deep, right? Well, its average depth is given as 1000 feet (its maximum being 1644 feet), offering it a volume of 36 cubic miles (1000/5280 *191). The multiple of California’s area over Tahoe’s is 858.6 (164,000/191). Spreading Tahoe’s water over the area of California gives 1.164 feet (1000/858.6), or about fourteen inches. So the revised claim is fairly accurate.
So I got to thinking about other freshwater lakes. The largest in North America, Lake Superior, is 31,700 square miles in area, not as deep as Tahoe, but still providing 2903 cubic miles in volume. The greatest in the world in volume is Siberia’s Lake Baikal, which, while only 12,248 square miles in area (one and a half times the area of Wales) contains 5700 cubic miles of water, as its average depth is 2500 feet, with the deepest section reaching over a mile (5387 feet), well above the highest mountain in Britain, Ben Nevis. Thus, if the 15-inch claim is correct, the water in Baikal could cover the whole of California to a depth of 200 feet (5700/36 x 1.25). Perhaps President Putin could spare some for those long-suffering Californians? (While in California, one of the books I read was Ian Frazier’s Travels in Siberia. Frazier quotes Dr. Sergei V. Shibaev, director of the Siberian Geophysical Survey at the Russian Academy of Sciences, in downtown Yakutsk, as saying: ‘But all other rivers in Yakutia are extremely pure, with reserves of water for all mankind. There is a deficiency of freshwater on the planet, as is known. We in Yakutia have freshwater here.’)
I thought I should check out Lake Tahoe. As it happened, we travelled to San Jose, California, in June, to visit our son and his family, now consisting of five – wife Lien, Ashley, now three years and eight months, whom regular readers will recall from ‘An American Odyssey’, and the twins, Alexis and Alyssa, whose second birthday we celebrated while we there there. We broke our visit to spend a few days in South Lake Tahoe, a drive of about four hours away from San Jose, and ascended the gondola (a ski-lift in winter) to a height of about 9000 feet, where I was able to take the pictures below. Yes, you could easily fit Rutland into the lake – including Rutland Water, Europe’s largest man-made lake when it was constructed in 1971 – and, with a highpoint of 646 feet, the county would easily be submerged in Lake Tahoe. Truly multum in parvo, as Rutland’s motto goes.
Lake Tahoe, looking North towards Nevada
Looking West towards San Francisco
Julia and I at Lake Tahoe
Meanwhile, Ashley and the twins gave us great pleasure: we hadn’t seen them for eighteen months. After some initial shyness, they took to us very well. It is astonishing to me that Lady Ashley, at that age, could be so facile with an iPad and iPhone. I do not believe such skills are ‘in her blood’ or ‘in her DNA’, as that would mean a magical transfer of genetic material some time between the birthdates of her four grandparents and her arrival on the scene, but she has taken to them with complete confidence. (Her father’s working for Apple, and her mother’s aptitude in the same area, may have something to do with it.) However, I was able to introduce her to some new gadgets – a ‘non-scrollable, foldable, combustible information delivery vehicle’ (commonly known as a ’newspaper’), as well as a ‘single-function photographic device’ (a ‘camera’). Ashley was intrigued by both items, as she had clearly not seen either of them before. I present a few photographs of our visit.
James, Lien, and the girls at the twins’ 2nd birthday party
My three grand-daughters and I
The girls overpowering their father.
Sylvia and I at Father’s Day Dinner at Morton’s
A few new Commonplace entries for the month, to be found here. June 30, 2015