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Web Woes

Last January, I received an email purporting to come from my bank. It looked legitimate: it had a clean logo, in the right colours, but it contained a predictable spelling mistake, and did not originate from a valid bank email address. Yet I was concerned how the sender had obtained the fact that I was a customer of the bank, and gained possession of my email address. Had there been a serious security breach? Having occasionally received spoof emails from other institutions, which I forwarded to the address they gave for reporting such, and subsequently received grateful acknowledgments, I did the same with this one. I looked up the address to which such suspected spoofs should be sent (abuse@  . .  .) , and waited for a response.

And waited. And waited. I lingered a couple of days, and then sent another message to that address, inquiring whether the mailbox was being monitored, and requesting a reply. There was still no response, or even an acknowledgment. That was depressing, and utterly unsatisfactory. I thus went to the website again, trying to find a manager responsible for email fraud. The website was singularly unhelpful: it did not allow any chatroom discussion of security topics, and I entered a hopeless loop of going back to being invited to send further emails to the given ‘abuse’ email address. The bank provided no lists of executives to contact, no bank head office address to write to, only a couple of telephone numbers, neither of which looked suitable for my problem.

I tried one of the numbers, and after going through security checks, I spoke to someone (in Ohio or Iowa, I believe). She could not help me, but agreed to forward me to someone who could. I was thus transferred to a number in Atlanta, where I again introduced myself and my problem, and went through security checks. That person also decided that he was not in the office that could help me, but knew which section was responsible, and transferred me to another number.

I waited about twenty minutes before someone accepted my call. I again described my problem, and went through the same security checks. I was then told that that office was responsible for ATM security, but not for possible spoofing breaches. When I described my frustration to her, she said that she did not know what the policy was, but it was maybe unrealistic of me to expect any response from the Abuse department. I replied that these days it was very easy to set up an automated email reply system that would at least confirm that a customer’s message had been received, and indicate what kind of action was being taken, and added that it seemed to me that the Bank did not look as if it took reports of spoofing attacks, and possible security breaches, very seriously. She assured me that that was not so, and agreed to track down the Abuse Department. I was then left hanging on the telephone for another five minutes.

When she returned, she gave me the name and address of a ‘Resolutions Services and Support’ office, but no telephone number, no name of an executive responsible, and could not explain why that was not so. When I asked her what I should do next if I sent a letter to that office, and received no reply, she encouraged me to write ‘Response Required’, to ensure that I did receive a reply. This I did. But I was not hopeful.

Fifteen years ago, when the Web started to become a useful communications mechanism, corporate websites were full of data about organisation, functions, executives, addresses, telephone numbers, etc. Nowadays, it seems that their prime purpose is to provide a blatant marketing presence, and to make it extremely difficult for the inquiring customer (or prospective customer) to identify a department or person he or she might wish to contact. In addition, we have the blitz of customised advertisements: I cannot bring up the BBC website to check the cricket scores, or surf to a news site to ascertain Kim Kardashian’s views on this year’s Man Booker Prize nominations, without waiting for half a minute while dopey high-resolution advertisements for car dealerships half an hour away, that I am never going to visit, are loaded. Somebody, somewhere, is paying for all this, and will one day work out that it is all a waste.

After composing a letter, and sending it to the address given, I had one last try at finding a real person’s telephone number. Eventually I found one, in the Public Relations department. I called it, and left a message describing my problem (it was a Saturday), thinking I had done all I could. And then, out of the blue, a couple of hours later, I received a very polite telephone call from a Bank employee, who said that he was the Executive in charge of Security. His friend in the PR department had picked up my message, and alerted him to it.

As we discussed my problem, Mr. Watkins (not his real name) apologised, but said that, owing to the vast amount of spear-phishing emails that the Bank received these days, it had decided not to acknowledge any messages received from its customers, as it only encouraged more traffic that could overwhelm the system, and he started to brief me on the security challenges that any bank of its size has to counter in 2017. I responded that that might be so, but in that case why did the Bank simply not include some text to indicate that it inspected every genuine message that came through to its hotline, but that it would probably not respond individually to every item? Would that not provide for a better management of customer expectations?

At this stage, Mr. Watkins started to give me another little lesson about technology, at which point I decided to explain my credentials. While I am no longer au fait with all the issues to do with website maintenance and data security, I was one of the two executives who launched the Gartner Group’s Security product back in 1999. When I described my background, Mr. Watkins became even more amenable, and we moved on to a new plane. He seemed very proud of the fact that the Bank spends millions and millions of dollars each year on security. He essentially agreed with my recommendations, gave me his telephone number, and encouraged me to stay in touch while he investigated the problem.

Over the next few weeks, Mr Watkins was jauntily positive. There had been meetings, attended by database administrators, web designers, lawyers, security experts, public relations people – even manicurists, for all I know. It was important that everyone had buy-in to this significant portal of the bank’s business, and every detail had to be examined. And then, early in March, he proudly told me that the new functions had been implemented.

But they hadn’t. There are two entries to the bank system – a public one, and a subsequent secure sign-on that leads to a private area where customers can maintain their accounts. The Bank had attempted to fix the public ‘help’ area, where they had incorporated the text I suggested (although they made an egregious spelling mistake in doing so, spelling ‘fraudulently’ as ‘frauduleny’), but they had not touched the private zone. When I pointed this out to Mr Watkins, he was incredulous, and eventually I had to send him screenshots to prove that those spaces existed. I gently pointed out to him that it was as if the Bank’s executives had never tried to log on to their system as retail customers. He was suitably chastened, and promised to get back to me. More meetings with lawyers and psychotherapists, no doubt.

Nothing happened for a while. I continued to perform my on-line banking, and regularly checked the ‘Help’ section of the secure banking site to see whether it had been fixed. On March 20, Mr Watkins wrote to me as follows: “I’m writing as a brief status update to let you know that the changes you’ve identified below are scheduled to be implemented within the next 2 – 3 weeks.  In addition, I’ve had our team perform a comprehensive review of all of our web pages to ensure as much consistency as possible.  I will update you again once the necessary changes are complete.”

I waited again. No update from Mr Watkins, so six weeks later, on May 2, I emailed him again, pointing out that the unqualified advice still sat there, unimproved, in the private area, but did confirm that the rubric in what was called the Security Center was now clean and (reasonably) correct. (It had new spelling problems: ‘out’ for ‘our’, but no matter  . . .) I gave him the url of the offending area. Because of some personal issues, he had to hand my message over to his personal assistant to work on. He was under the impression he had already informed me about the changes the Bank had made.

I had to start again with Christine (not her real name). After she sent me an email informing me that the changes had been made, and how I should report suspicious emails, I had to explain to her that there was a discrepancy between the two zones, and I informed her of the fresh spelling problem. “Thank you for the feedback,” she replied. “We are currently working with our teams to review and will keep you posted.” More teams, more confusion. Less chance of a correct fix. I remembered Charles Wang of Computer Associates, who said once that, when a programming project started to drag, he would take a person off the team, so that it would run faster.

Another few weeks passed by. On May 25, I emailed Christine, and copied in Mr. Watkins, asking where things stood, only to receive the following reply from Mr Watkins. “I’ve tasked the multiple teams involved in producing and delivering these web pages to pull together a broad effort to reconcile all content.  These teams are currently researching what this will involve and we plan to meet back with them to discuss their assessments during the week of June 12. Please rest assured that there are no idle hands involved in this work but given the significant size and complexity of this effort, I’m focused on a) updating any current pages while b) ensuring the proper controls are in place to ensure ongoing alignment and consistency.”

Well, ‘resting’ I probably was, but ‘assured’ did not exactly describe my composure. I waited again. And then, on June 21, I learned from Christine that a new executive had been brought in to ‘address the issue going forward’ (as opposed to ‘going backward’, I suppose). I was invited to join a conference call, so that my concerns could be addressed. I declined, however. I did not need a conference call, and I instead carefully pointed out again that, while the problem had been fixed in the Privacy and Security Center, the text had not been incorporated in the private area, for which I provided the link again. All that Christine did was to provide me with instructions on how I should use the Bank’s web-page to report problems (as if it were not supposed to be self-explanatory by now).

I took one final stab at explaining the problem, pointing out how badly designed the whole website was, with its circular paths and inconsistent terminology, and I provided an explicit analysis of the problems with the Bank’s customer interface. I expressed my amazement that Bank officers could not identify the anomalies in the system, and fix them. I copied the message to Mr. Watkins.

On July 1, a new communicant appeared – probably not the executive brought in by Mr Watkins, as he introduced himself as being ‘on the team that oversees the on-line banking platform’. Arthur (again, not his real name) kindly provided me with a long explanation of all the changes that the Bank was introducing, including not just my recommendations, but many other improvements, as well. I thanked him, and promised to keep my eye open.

Well, it is now July 25, as I write, and the same old text appears under ‘Report Fraud’ in the private banking section, with no indication that messages will not be acknowledged. A simple change that I could have implemented on my own website in under five minutes (literally) still baffles the combined expertise of the Bank after seven months. Is this a record? Banks complain that they are stifled by regulation, but if they cannot even manage changes of this magnitude off their own bat, what hope is there for them? Is this story not an example of corporate incompetence and internal bureaucracy gone mad?

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The second incident concerns a recruitment at my old Oxford college, Christ Church (an institution, I hasten to add, for the benefit of my American readers, that is not actually the equivalent of Oral Roberts University, despite its name). The Hilary Term issue of the college magazine proudly announced that Christ Church was welcoming Sir Tim Berners-Lee as a Research Student and member of the Governing Body, with a mission to ‘grow Computer Science at Christ Church’. For those readers who might not know about Sir Tim’s remarkable achievements, I point you to He is known as the ‘inventor’ of the World Wide Web, and director of the World Wide Web Consortium, and took his degree at Queen’s College, Oxford. As a retired information technologist, I admire and applaud his achievements.

Yet some things that Sir Tim wrote in this promotional piece in Christ Church Matters puzzled and disturbed me. He characterised ‘several connected initiatives’ in which he has been involved for some time as Open Data, Open Standards, and Human Rights on Web. As an expert in data management for some decades (I was a data and database administrator in the 1970s, have experienced several generations of data-base management systems, was the lead analyst and product director for Strategic Data Management at the Gartner Group for a decade, and successfully forecast how the market would evolve), I believe I understand fairly well the issues regarding data security and data sharing. I found Sir Tim’s pronouncements about Open Data naïve and erroneous, and his thoughts on the role of Open Standards confusing, and maybe misplaced. But what really provoked me was what he wrote about Human Rights on the Web. “We have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity”, he wrote, adding, somewhat rhetorically, about the concerns of the Foundation: “Is it [the Web] open, non-discriminatory, private and available to all, including minorities and women? Is it a propagating medium for truth and understanding, or more so for untruth and discord? Can these parameters be changed?”

Now I regard such questions as reasonably interesting, although I’m not sure what ‘minorities’ he was referring to (philatelists? Zoroastrians?), or why ‘women’ should come at the end of his list of concerns. But how could computer science be sensitive to such transitory social labels, or the gender of its users? Quite simply, what he proposes is either outside the realm of computer science, or lacking any toehold in what computer science has already generated about issues of data management (for instance, in the works of Sir Tim’s outstanding forbear, Edgar Codd, another Oxford man, an alumnus of Exeter College, and also a winner of the Turing Award). I found his pronouncements about serving humanity simply arrogant and pompous. Accordingly, early last March, I wrote a letter to the editor of Christ Church Matters, and to the Dean (whom I met last year, as my blog reported), which ran as follows:

“Am I the only reader of Christ Church Matters to be somewhat surprised, even alarmed, at the expressed rationale behind the new computer science initiative? The achievements of Sir Tim Berners-Lee are spectacular, and I have no doubt his intentions are honourable, but do the goals that he espouses not tread on the space of social advocacy, even corporate mission, rather than scientific investigation?

For example, the notions of ‘web-based data’, ‘Open Data’ and that ‘we [= who?] have a duty to ensure that the Web serves humanity, and all of humanity’ are certainly controversial. Data are not exclusively managed by web applications, but frequently shared. Indeed, it is a principle of good database design (a topic frequently overlooked in university computer science courses) that data be implemented for potential shared use, irrespective of delivery vehicle. There is thus no such entity as ‘Web-based data’. Professor Wooldridge’s statement that ‘when Governments generate data, there is huge potential value of that data is made freely available and open for all to use’ provokes enormous questions of privacy and security. To assume (as does Sir Tim) that ‘we’ can be confident enough to know how ‘all of humanity can be served’ has a dangerously utopian ring to it. Etc., etc.

The point is that technology is neutral: it can be used for good, or for ill, effect, and people will even disagree what those two outcomes mean. How is ‘all of humanity’ served when Islamic fanaticists can exploit web-based encrypted information-sharing applications to exchange plans for terror? Who benefits when private medical data is presumably made available for ‘all to use’? When is data private and when open? It is all very well for Sir Tim to assert that that his main motivation is ‘the personal empowerment of people and groups’ (is that phrase not both tautological and self-contradictory?), but that is a belief derived from his own sense of mission, not from a perspective of scientific inquiry.

Maybe these matters have already been discussed, and have been resolved. If so, I think it would be desirable to have them explained publicly. I believe those helping to fund such initiatives should be made aware that the boundary between science and evangelism appears to have shifted considerably.”

My letter was kindly acknowledged by the Dean, with a promise of follow-up, but I have heard nothing more. I suspect that I am seen as a minor irritant, getting in the way of some serious boosting of the college reputation, or maybe hindering access to vital government funding. But the question remains. There are researchers into computer science, and there are commercial enterprises. They frequently enjoy a symbiotic relationship, but there comes a time when enterprise have to make risks and decisions that go beyond what consortia and standards-groups can achieve. Ironically, Sir Tim’s statements about benefitting humanity sound uncannily like those of Mark Zuckerberg, the CEO of Facebook, who also has evangelical designs on improving the world. But the rest of us should be very wary of anybody who claims that omniscience to know how ‘humanity’ is best served, and who appears to be unaware of the Law of Unintended Consequences. And computer scientists should not start dabbling in evangelism.

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Regular readers of this website will recall my reference to The Trinity Six, by Charles Cumming, in my March blog. Since then, I have read his first Thomas Kell novel, A Foreign Country, and this month, the follow-up A Colder War (published in 2014), both of which I recommend. (Although I do not understand why we need to know every time Thomas Kell lights up a cigarette, or that he throws the butt of one into the Bosporus.) But my point here is to describe how unmistakably set in time these thrillers are – not so much by the political climate, although Iranian nuclear secrets and rebellious Turkish journalists give one a sense of that  ̶  but more by the use of technology. For the narrative is densely imbued with BlackBerries, iPhones, Facebook, TripAdvisor, SIM cards, SMS and O2 services  ̶  but not the dark Web, Snapchat or Twitter (or even Sir Tim’s Open Data initiative). Will it make the book soon seem dreadfully outdated, or will it be praised for its verisimilitude?

The pivot of the plot is indeed one such technological matter. (Spoiler Alert.) In what appeared to me as a very obvious mistake by the hero, an unencrypted text message leads to the eventual betrayal. And one other passage caught my eye  ̶  for a different reason. Cumming writes, about a surveillance operation at Harrod’s: “While most of the members of the team were using earpieces and concealed microphones, Amos had been given an antediluvian Nokia of the sort favored by grandparents and lonely widowers. Kell had banked on the phone giving plausible cover.”

I recognized that scene. Three or four years ago, I went into a branch of my bank to pay in a cheque (it may have been a check). The cheerful spirit behind the counter asked me whether I knew that I could pay in checks via my cell-phone (or mobile, as it would be known in the UK). Without saying a word, I then solemnly produced my venerated Motorola C155, manufactured ca. 2005, reliable, rugged, and not very handsome, and showed it to the woman. She then let out an enormous giggle, as if to draw the attention of her co-workers to this antediluvian instrument. As can be seen, it looks more like the shoebox phone from Get Smart (the 1960 TV series, not the 2008 movie).

But it did its job – just made and received phonecalls. My carrier forced me to replace it a couple of years ago, but, my fingers are too stubby for the keypad on the new thin model, and I never use my phone to access the Web. Enough woes in that. I miss my C155  ̶  ‘as favored by grandparents’.

*                            *                      *                      *                      *

Another saga started. In May, I had received a letter from History Today, inviting me to renew my subscription on-line. “Renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier”, it boasted.   I thus logged on to its website, but was frustrated in my attempts. I sent an email to the publisher, listing my failures. I explained that the system did not recognise that I was in the USA, did not allow me to enter my subscription reference, and quoted a sterling fee rather than the $99 mentioned in the letter. And when I signed on to my account, it gave me no option to renew, just to upgrade to access to the archive.  I received a prompt reply, which merely stated that the website had been going through some maintenance, but that once this were completed, I should be able to renew my subscription on-line.

I held off for a while, and then received another letter in the mail, which again proclaimed that ‘renewing your subscription couldn’t be easier’. It offered a price of $79, which I interpreted as a special offer, maybe making amends for the earlier technical problems. I thus logged on afresh, and made the renewal, but did notice that the confirmation came through with a charge against my US dollar credit card for £99. An obvious mistake, no doubt to be cleared up simply. I sent an email pointing out the error. After a couple of days, I had received no response apart from an email confirming my renewal, and encouraging me to contact the sender (the third name in as many messages) if I had any problems. I thus sent off another email, pointing out the discrepancy between the amount specified in the invitation letter, and somewhat impatiently requested a credit to be made against my credit card.

Yet another name replied, with the following message: “Thank you for your recent email.
I can confirm the reason they are different amounts and different currency is because it has been converted from USD to Pounds. So it will always show what we have received as payment here is England rather than the amount you paid is Dollars. If there is anything else that I can help you with please don’t hesitate to contact me.”

So, as the month wound down, I sent another message, pointing out that a fee of $79 would convert to £61, not £99. I am awaiting their reply. It is possible, I suppose, that they mistakenly took the exchange rate as 1.31 pounds to the dollar, rather than vice versa, although the letter lists the optimal online archive upgrade as a more accurate £30/$45. We shall see. If e-business speeds are predictable, I shall probably be able to provide an update to this transaction in January 2018.

The next episode of Sonia’s Radio will appear at the end of August. This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Part VIII

Soviet Radio Operator – Dickson Island, 1937

(The story so far: Alexander Foote, working secretly for Claude Dansey’s Z organisation, has been recruited by the Comintern to act as a radio operator in Switzerland, under the supervision of Sonia, born Ursula Kuczynski. Since Sonia’s visa is about to expire, her bosses order her to marry a British citizen, Len Beurton, a colleague of Foote’s from the International Brigades, also working for Sonia, so that she may gain British citizenship and resettle in England. Dansey hopes that Foote may thus reach a dominant position in the Swiss network. Sonia then makes plans for her voyage to England. In earlier chapters in this saga (II and VI: please refer to SoniasRadio for refreshment), I have described the circumstances of Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and her subsequent application for the British passport that would enable her and her two children to escape to the United Kingdom in wartime. Here I concentrate on the way that the application was handled by the British authorities, and what the implications were after Sonia took up residence in Oxfordshire.)

The most remarkable fact about Sonia’s voyage, in the winter of 1940-41, is not that she accomplished the arduous wartime journey from Switzerland across France, Spain, and Portugal, eventually to the United Kingdom, with two young children in tow. What is truly inconceivable is why Moscow Centre ever thought that the mission should have been undertaken in the first place. The circumstances should have dictated to the Soviets that trying to install, as an illicit agent in Great Britain, a German-born legal resident with Sonia’s reputation would be a pointless exercise. *  The facts were as follows: The Nazi-Soviet pact was in effect, and thus the potential sharing of intelligence between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes should have acted as an alarming deterrent to the sanctioning, by the officers in Britain responsible for immigration, of any unusual entry by communists. Sonia’s family (the Kuczynskis) – and especially her open rabble-rousing brother, Jürgen  ̶  were already suspected by the British authorities of being dangerous subversives, with Jürgen, the leader of the exiled German communist party, considered an especial hazard, and  accordingly interned. After the first candidate for betrothal (Foote) had suspiciously reneged on the agreement, Sonia had openly arranged a pro forma marriage in Switzerland to another former member of the International Brigades that fought illegally for the Republicans in Spain, someone known to the domestic authorities, in order to gain British citizenship. She had then applied for a UK passport, approaching the Passport Office in Berne, which was universally known as a front for the country’s Strategic Intelligence Service (SIS), sometimes known as MI6. The nanny hired by Sonia to take care of her children had then, out of pity for Sonia’s apparently ill-treated husband, or from despair at the prospect of being separated from Sonia’s daughter, reportedly ‘compromised’ [Moscow Centre’s term] Sonia by trying to alert the British consulate about Sonia’s shenanigans. Lastly, Moscow should have concluded that inserting an agent to work with a radio transmitter in a country known for its expertise in detection of alien wireless traffic would be a high-risk endeavour. It was almost as if SIS had been arranging for Sonia’s smooth transit behind the scenes. Who was bluffing whom?

[* The GRU referred to Sonia as its ‘illegal station head’ in the UK: she was in fact after 1941 a  ‘legal’ operative, even though her British passport may have been acquired via deceptive, even illicit, means.]

Chapman Pincher, in his 2005 book Treachery, gives the most comprehensive account of Sonia’s deceptions and escapades at this time, but his interpretation is flawed because he is continually at pains to show that the MI5 officer Roger Hollis was Sonia’s prime informer, and successfully concealed the whole affair. In this respect, Pincher completely ignores the connivance of senior SIS officers (and surely that of their counterparts in MI5) at Sonia’s marriage and passport applications, whereas the archive very strongly suggests that lower-level officers in MI5 were frustrated, in their attempts to keep Sonia out, by their superiors conspiring with SIS. On the other hand, Pincher claims access to letters written by Sonia, interviews with her relatives, and Russian archival material – none of which I have seen. I shall therefore have to quote him with extreme caution. In addition, I recently learned that Sonjas Rapport (her memoir), when published in English, apparently included clarifying comments not present in the original German, and I have had to wait for the arrival of the English publication to complete this research. #   The Soviet archive (what little has been released) appears to have been doctored, so a scrupulous cross-checking of testimony is constantly required.

[# The English version has some significant additions, including a somewhat rueful, yet defensive, Afterword, and a section on Sonia’s dealings with Klaus Fuchs (who was left unmentioned in the German version). I have not undertaken a detailed comparison of the texts, but some changes are startling. For example, ‘Im Sommer 1939 kam Rolf noch einmal zu uns’ (‘In the summer of 1939 Rolf visited us again’) is now rendered, with a combination of vagueness and precision, as ‘In 1939, Rolf came to see us for the last time.’ I pointed out the original chronological error, which completely misrepresents her husband’s movements, in Chapter VI: no doubt the author realised that subsequently revealed information about Rolf’s return to China would challenge her version of events. I have also just read John Green’s sympathetic portrayal of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, published this summer, where he confidently states that Sonia did not see Ernst (real name Johannes Patra), the father of her second child, Janina, between 1935 and 1955. That account dramatically destroys the episode of the sentimental reunion between Sonia, Rolf and Ernst in the summer of 1939 that Sonia described in Sonjas Rapport, and on which I cast serious doubts in Chapter VII of this saga.]

The Passport Application

Contrary to Sonia’s later claims that Moscow Centre did not order her (in her words ‘suggest’) to move until late autumn of 1940, the plans for England were established soon after the war started. On March 11 of that year the British Consulate in Geneva transmitted the application by Sonia [Ursula Beurton,  previously Hamburger, née Kuczynski] for a passport, based on her February 23 marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files), to the Passport Office in London. Sonia’s references were given as Dr. Churchill, D. M. Macrae-Taylor and Mr. Blelloch. The last individual is mentioned in Sonia’s autobiography, holding an elevated position in that leftist establishment the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was based in Geneva. Her father, Robert, had conveniently worked for the ILO after leaving Germany in 1933, before taking up a post at the London School of Economics.  Sonia had written to her parents thanking them for giving her an introduction to Blelloch and his wife, who was the daughter of a left-wing journalist Robert Dell, at the Manchester Guardian. Ten days after Geneva submitted the application, J. M. Stafford of the Passport Office in London wrote to Captain Mars of MI5, asking for records of Sonia. After another week, Captain Mars replied that MI5 had no records of ‘Ursula Beurton’ and only a possible trace of her ex-husband ‘with a communistic smell’. It appears that this was enough to satisfy Mr. Stafford. Captain Mars was clearly no sleuthhound.

Yet even details like these are disturbing. The submission by H.B. Livingston, His Majesty’s Consul in Geneva, indicates that Sonia knew no British subject in Switzerland who could vouch for her, so she ‘obtained the signature of Mademoiselle Ginsberg, Assistant Librarian at the League of Nations, who is well known for her communist sympathies’. This would appear to be ‘Marie’, credited in Sonia’s memoir with supplying her with a Honduran passport, and Len with a Bolivian one. The National Archives at Kew (KV 6/45) tell us that Ginsberg had been recruited by Israeli Intelligence in 1938. Alexander Foote later suggested that this transaction occurred as an insurance policy should Sonia’s strategy of marrying Len not work out successfully. Sonia herself provided the references of Dr. Stella Churchill (psychotherapist, Labour councillor, and supporter of the Spanish Republic), Duncan Macrae-Taylor (the husband of her sister, Barbara) and Blelloch, all resident in England.  Yet Livingston’s letter accompanying her application stated that Sonia was ‘not a British subject’, as if the marriage did not automatically give her that status, declaring: “There is reason to suspect that the main purpose of the marriage was to confer British nationality on the applicant to enable her to enter the U.K., the local Swiss authorities having refused to extend her residence permit”. Livingston goes on to confirm the divorce from Rudolf Hamburger that occurred the previous October. “A certified copy of the decree of divorce has been produced to me”. (The marriage certificate issued by the Canton of Vaud states that the divorce was not effective until December 28, 1939.)  Yet Sonia must have misrepresented the parenthood of the second of her two children, whom she wanted entered in her passport, if it were indeed to be authorised, as Livingston goes on to write that she ‘had two children by the former marriage’. He also seemed to be unaware of the perjury performed by Alexander Foote that facilitated the award of the divorce.

Sonia did indeed suggest in her 1977 memoir that in early March 1940 she had given the impression to the English consulate in Geneva that the underlying motive for her marriage had been to gain a UK passport, and reported that that official was not overjoyed to hear that news.  Yet this startling revelation is softened by a subtle change in the 1991 English translation. The original “Das englische Konsulat in Genf empfing mich unfreundlich, als ich auf Grund der Eheunterlagen einen englischen Paß beantragte” (‘The British consul in Geneva received me coldly when I applied for an English passport by virtue of my marriage documents’) is now presented as ‘Armed with our marriage certificate, I visited the British Consul in Geneva to apply for a passport; his response was distinctly cool.’  The latter formulation suggests the disdain was wholly incidental, removing any suggestion of the coolness being provoked by Sonia’s method of approach, or the evidence behind her application.  Did her bosses perhaps later suggest that this was a provocative statement that needed to be toned down? Apparently the consulate was not fooled, as Livingston’s memorandum makes very clear.

Why did she volunteer that information? And why did it not constitute an objection to the approval of her application? Were the SIS officers managing the strings beneficially for her? Did her brazen behavior indicate that she even knew that? We should recall that the Geneva consulate was one of the last solid bastions of SIS as the Nazis extended their tentacles across Europe. The authorised historian of SIS, Keith Jeffery, explained that Claude Dansey, the head of SIS’s even more clandestine Z organisation, moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war to supplement SIS’s Passport Control Officer, assistant and wireless operator, in the hope of more effectively trying to penetrate Germany (which, it must be remembered, is what Foote and Beurton had been doing under Sonia’s guidance). Dansey in fact made his first base in Zürich, with his cover as consul, but was recalled after Menzies became Chief of SIS in November 1939. Read and Fisher add that Dansey’s goal had been to absorb the main body of Z into the SIS as its Swiss section, yet he maintained control himself of some individual agents.

Unfortunately Dansey’s second-in-command (named by Read and Fisher as one Rex Pearson) had a drinking problem, and was replaced by Frederick Vanden Heuvel in February 1940. Vanden Heuvel was promoted to consul in May, and soon after moved to Geneva. Thus there was some discontinuity in the execution of consular duties in Geneva at the time of Sonia’s passport application. Jeffery’s history also claims that the Swiss operation was hampered in its communications, with the Swiss authorities reportedly banning the use of embassy radio for sending enciphered messages. Up until the fall of France in June 1940, the diplomatic bag was used via Paris, so Sonia’s application presumably went by that route. En clair cables were used for brief and non-confidential matters, but how the two Passport Offices communicated thereafter is not clear. For a while diplomats were able to make the laborious journey with their bags through Vichy France and Spain to Portugal, and then by plane to London, but even that avenue soon disappeared.

It was two months later that Milicent Bagot became involved with Sonia’s application. Though not an officer, Bagot was a very significant figure in MI5. Christopher Andrew describes her thus: “[Jane] Sissmore’s successor as the Security Service’s most influential woman in the 1940s and 1950s was to be the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, a classics graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who joined the Service from Scotland Yard as a twenty-year-old secretary in 1931 at the same time as [Hugh] Miller and [Guy] Liddell, and is believed to be the model for John le Carré’s character Connie.” (Defence of the Realm, p 131) Andrew goes on to describe Bagot’s ‘encyclopedic knowledge which impressed even J. Edgar Hoover’. Bagot pointed out to an officer named Cazalet that MI5 certainly did have records of Ursula Kuczynski, as well as of her father, and shrewdly reminded her superiors that the marriage was probably one of convenience. A memo on file records an anonymous but strong opinion that Sonia should not be granted a passport. Some officer must have thought that there were enough subversive Kuczynskis in the country already. Thus, on May 25, Cazalet recommended to Stafford that Sonia should not be given a passport, but if it could not be refused, it should be for limited validity, and should not be usable for travel. He added that her husband, Beurton, was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and was believed to be in Germany. Sonia was in fact the subject of Individual Case No. 186 in the Black List, and thus subject to special surveillance.

At least MI5 was tracking the movements of suspect persons with communist affiliations, but maybe Cazalet should have shown more interest in the fact that the elusive Beurton was now in Switzerland, probably alongside Alexander Foote, who, with exactly the same profile as a communist sympathiser and International Brigade member, had been responsible for bringing Beurton to Switzerland and Germany. (Why was Foote not on the same Black List?) Would that information not normally have provoked a surge of activity in an alert and well-led counter-espionage organisation? Did MI5 and SIS not cooperate? And what was SIS thinking? If a member of the International Brigades, a known communist, had turned up on its doorstep, and expressed a desire to make a pro forma marriage to another known subversive, might they perhaps have investigated a bit more, and even tried to determine what Beurton’s partner-in-crime, Alexander Foote, was up to in Switzerland?

Perhaps MI5 officers were instructed to hold off.  Because, by then, events had taken their own course. On May 28, Stafford (of the Passport Office in London) replied that it was now too late to decline the application: the Passport Office had authorised issue on April 24. It shows either an extraordinary degree of negligence, or a remarkably high level of collusion. How could senior MI5 officers have ignored the recent happenings regarding Sonia’s family? On January 20, her brother Jürgen had been interned for his subversive opinions and behaviour, after publicly supporting the Nazi-Soviet pact. This immediately prompted the communist lawyer and MP, Dennis Pritt, alongside the fellow-travellers Dean Hewlett Johnson, John Strachey, and Harold Laski, to appeal for Jürgen’s release. MI5 and SIS were frustrated: the Home Office was persuaded by the Soviet sympathisers that Kuczynski was ‘an intellectual, and not an OGPU agent’, and hence issued instructions for his release on April 17, on the basis, presumably, that OGPU agents could only be uneducated thugs. That event happened on April 25 (the day after Sonia’s passport was approved), accompanied by the insight that membership of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not sufficient cause for continued detention. The record in the National Archives indicating that MI5 was overruled is dated May 8. Did MI5 receive some political message at this time that they should be indulgent towards Sonia as well? She presumably knew nothing of the protests that had gone on back in London. Her only comment was: “Ten weeks later, on 2nd May, 1940, I held the precious document in my hands, much envied by other German refugees.” Indeed. They must have been puzzled how she achieved it so easily, even if she showed no surprise.

Departure Problems

So Sonia received the all-clear. Yet it was some time during that summer, as she made plans for her departure, that Sonia had problems with her nanny, Olga Muth, which affected her situation in Switzerland. Sonia does not provide exact dates, but the events are broadly confirmed by Alexander Foote’s testimony under interrogation. Sonia described Olga as devastated by the fact that, since she had only a German passport, she would not be able to accompany Sonia and her children to England. “She could not live without Nina”, Sonia wrote. At this time, however, it is not clear that Sonia was planning to take her children with her, although she may not at that time have understood the exact status of her offspring concerning legal residence in the UK. “She [Olga] had decided to betray us in the hope that if something happened to me she could keep the child and take her back to Germany”, Sonia explained. What transpired was that Olga did approach the consular representative in Montreux to inform them of Sonia’s misdeeds, but her broken English was so bad that no one paid any attention to her. Sonia moved her kids away, and confronted Olga, who had a breakdown, but soon after moved to Germany.

With Muth safely out of the way, Sonia then confused her story again, as she claimed that ‘in the late autumn of 1940 Centre suggested that Len and I move to England’, blandly contradicting her account that she had already been planning to leave the children in their new lodgings in Geneva while she was abroad. Even though Sonia had asked, back in March, for her children to be entered on her passport, she may not have considered taking them with her at this stage. Len’s later testimony to the Passport Office in Geneva asserted that he was to accompany her to England, leaving the children behind, and then return to Switzerland to continue his medical treatment for tuberculosis. Of course, he was not tubercular, and not receiving medical treatment, and this attempt to conceal his past would catch up with Len later. But when he was prevented from travelling because he could not acquire a transit visa through Spain, on account of his membership of the International Brigades, it would presumably have cast suspicion on Sonia’s motivations and heartless behavior if she had left her offspring behind. She thus prepared her departure through Vichy France, and then via Spain to Portugal’s Lisbon where she hoped to reach England by plane or ship.

Foote confirmed, in an interview by MI5 in July 1947, Olga Muth’s attempted betrayal. Yet in his memoir he ascribes it to different motives – the fact that Olga [disguised as ’Lisa Brockel’] was disgusted with Sonia’s marriage to Len [‘Bill’], out of her respect and affection for Sonia’s husband, Rolf [‘Alfred’]. “She thereupon rang up the British consulate and denounced Sonia and Bill as Soviet spies and told them where the transmitter was hidden.” Whether this account is a fabrication devised by Foote’s ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, cannot be verified, but we can read enough consistency in the stories to trust that Olga did indeed try to alert the consulate, but, for whatever reason, the British authorities did not want to know. Yet Foote added, in his interrogation, that Moscow Centre was told of the betrayal, and regarded it as ‘compromising’, and, further, that it provoked their order for Sonia and Len move to England. Why, if Sonia was ‘compromised’ in the eyes of the SIS outpost in Switzerland, it made sense for her to move to the United Kingdom is not explained, apart from the fact that the latter was the only country for which she owned a valid travel-pass. That had, of course, been the plan for a long time: maybe the date of departure was simply brought forward. And perhaps the timing was provoked by other external circumstances, such as the announced release of Klaus Fuchs from internment.

The alternative (Soviet) suggestion would be that Sonia would have been compromised in the eyes of the Swiss authorities, if, horror of horrors, they had discovered that Sonia was involved in espionage, and using an illegal wireless transmitter. But that does not make sense. Sonia had to leave the country, anyway, as her visa had expired, and the Swiss authorities knew exactly what was happening. Even though Sonia included an ambiguous story about a German national, Hermann, who was discovered with a transmitter, it is not clear that she was in any real danger because of her own radio work. If the Swiss authorities had been informed, and wanted to move on her, they would presumably have done so immediately. Switzerland’s security service was turning a blind eye to such subversive behavior so long as it was directed against the Nazis, and not towards the Swiss government, and the Swiss authorities were in fact colluding with foreign intelligence organisations.

Thus, with one more bound, Sonia was free. She never explained how she arranged to take her children (Micha and Janina) with her, moving in her narrative quickly to a scene of leaving Len at the roadside as the three of them boarded the bus on December 18. (Janina, her daughter by her lover in Shanghai, Ernst, was only four-and-a-half at the time.) Yet a hitch had apparently occurred. As indicated earlier, in March, 1940, Sonia had requested that her children’s names be added to the passport, and this indeed happened, as a letter from the Geneva consulate indicates. Yet someone must have warned her that, since her children were identified as German nationals, there might be a problem allowing them to land in the United Kingdom. On November 29, 1940, Stafford indicated that he had received a request from the consul in Geneva that Sonia’s children would indeed be allowed to land. The bureaucracy must have moved with amazing speed. On December 10, Cazalet of MI5 stated that the department had no objection (although he misunderstood the problem, believing that the children were not already included on the passport). Communications took place via open cables. Perhaps Sonia and Len must have come to a late conclusion, when Len learned that the Spanish government would not allow him entry, that the children would be safer (and happier) with Sonia, that their presence was essential to her cover, and that Moscow must have approved such a decision (which, after all, could have hindered Sonia’s effectiveness). Instead of rebuffing this somewhat impertinent and hasty request, the consulate appears to have done all in its power to accelerate the approval of ensuring that the completion of the journey would be successful.

Intelligence Strategies

At this critical point of Sonia’s departure, it is useful to take stock of the positions of the various authorities. MI5, monitoring known communists and members of the International Brigades, has shown some interest in Len Beurton, but surprisingly none in his colleague and mentor, Alexander Foote. While lower-level employees express surprise that the known subversive Ursula Beurton would have her passport application approved after an obvious sham marriage, senior officers are bewilderingly silent. SIS, in its Swiss outpost, suffers from a similar split personality. Sonia’s representations are treated with justified suspicion at lower levels, but senior officers seem keen to allow Sonia to leave the country. Vanden Heuvel must have known what was going on, in order to be able to handle Sonia appropriately, and as a contact to receive intelligence from Foote. He must have been aware of Foote’s perjurious role in Sonia’s divorce proceedings, and of Beurton’s presence on the Black List. His staff was perhaps subtly instructed to abet Sonia’s journey in order that Foote might assume a more prominent role in the Comintern spy network. They are obviously relaxed about the prospect of a known Communist radio-operator taking up residence in the UK at a time when the Soviet Union was still aiding the German war effort, maybe believing that she would be frightened into inactivity, or that her affairs would be easily monitorable.

On the other hand, SIS in Britain might have developed plans for using Sonia when she came to Britain. They could have quietly welcomed her arrival, planning to encourage her into indiscretions, so that she might lead them to other cells, or allow the authorities to intercept her traffic, and thus gain further insights into Soviet ciphers to complement what they learned from Foote. Maybe SIS calculated that letting Sonia go was a cover for their playing ignorance about Foote’s role: it is highly unlikely that they trusted her enough to allow Foote to negotiate a deal with her, as she would have had to pass on such information to her bosses. But that could certainly have been Dansey’s thinking. The benefit of having Foote installed as a more influential though phony Communist in a Comintern spy-ring far outweighed the risk of having Sonia prowling around in England looking for secrets to betray. And if she did engage in espionage, the authorities would be surveilling everything she did. Moreover, if MI5 had hauled her in and broken her down, she might have expressed her suspicions about Foote’s bona fides, which would have put the British authorities in a highly awkward position.

Moscow Centre appears unconcerned with what SIS knows about Sonia, and is determined to carry out its plan to install her as a spy, ruthlessly exploiting her new British citizenship in order that she may betray her adopted country. They surely cannot be aware of any duplicitous activity on Foote’s part, as they would thereby have had any suspicions immediately confirmed about his loyalties – something he managed to stave off even when he reached Moscow in 1945. Yet the insouciance of Soviet Intelligence about the whole affair, and the way it ignored what must have appeared as rank stupidity on SIS’s part, is extremely difficult to explain. How did the officers rationalise the craven indulgence of the British authorities, unless they simply judged that they were clueless, or fatally infected with bourgeois sentimentalism? The casualness of Soviet Intelligence would appear to make sense only if it was supremely confident about the ability of its penetration agents to pull strings in MI5, SIS and other government departments, and thus ignore signs of Soviet espionage, or, at the other extreme, if it harboured a very low respect for Sonia’s skills and chances of survival, and her ability to avoid detection. We know the little respect they maintained overall for the fate of their agents, since many exposed to western influences were simply recalled and shot, but that does not make sense in Sonia’s case. They trusted her implicitly. The ease with which the whole process transpired, however, could have affected how Sonia was instructed to act when installed, and she came to understand that she would have to be very careful with her contacts and with her radio transmissions.

Interlude in Lisbon

We have to rely on Sonia’s account for details of the arduous journey across Europe. The fact that she wrote a letter to her parents from Lisbon describing the ordeal adds a degree of verisimilitude to the account.  On December 23, 1940 the party arrived in Madrid, and by the next day reached Lisbon, the main exit point for refugees (and others) from Europe to the USA and Britain during the war. Lisbon was a city of desperate refugees: Ronald Weber describes the thousands, mostly Jews, who filled the city’s streets that winter, waiting for a chance to board one of the steamers sailing to the United States. The British unit MI9, responsible for setting up escape lines for stranded military men and agents, predominantly from France, was using the few airplane flights to England to repatriate its charges. Among this turmoil, Sonia admitted that all three of them were ill. Some time after Christmas, she had a meeting with the British consul, in order to gain approval for the voyage to England. She was told that she was about ‘the most insignificant person on the long list’. There were many destitute citizens without the means to survive, and those would take priority, since Sonia had access to funds (actually Moscow Centre’s Swiss bank account). Yet one obscure but revealing item in the archives indicates that the Portuguese issued her an exit visa as early as December 31. Sonia moved to Estoril, down the coast, and stayed – in relative comfort, to be sure – at the Grande Hotel.

One of the conundrums concerning her eventual arrival relates to the question of her destination in the United Kingdom. Her file at the National Archives (KV 6-41) includes a transcript of an intercepted letter that she wrote to her father on January 4, 1941, from the Grande Hotel, where the heading indicates that the letter was sent to 78 Woodstock Road, Oxford. The text expresses some desperation on Sonia’s part, because cables sent by her to her father had not been answered, and she does not know where to go upon her arrival in England. It shows Sonia’s request for the addresses of her father, of Brigitte (one of her sisters), and of the Taylors (her sister Barbara and her husband). She needs them, she says, because she does not know where they will land. Yet why would she ask for her parents’ address if she could send a letter to them? And why would she not just travel to her parents’ house from wherever she landed? And why would Barbara’s address be important in these circumstances? (Sonia naturally does not quote this letter in her memoir.) The report of the interrogation on arrival at Liverpool, however, records that Sonia’s immediately expressed intention was to visit her father at the address given above, and that she admits to having a sister, Mrs. D. B. Taylor, living in Red Ruth [sic]. The conflict between her frustration and ignorance in Lisbon and her comfort in Liverpool is partially explained by the existence of a photograph of the letter and envelope in the Taylors’ file at the National Archives (KV 2-2935-2). The letter was addressed to Dr. R. Kuczynski at 25a Upper Park Road in London, and forwarded to 78 Woodstock Road in Oxford. Sonia did thus not know about her exact destination while she was waiting for her passage in Portugal.

Milicent Bagot noted that Robert Kuczynski had moved to the Woodstock Road address on December 13, 1940, and was followed there by his son Jürgen, immediately after the latter’s release from a further spell of internment. She informed the Oxford Chief Constable of the fact in a letter dated January 26, 1941. Bagot unfortunately did not specify who lived at the house at the time: the Bodleian Record for 1941 indicates that a Mr. G. Churchill, a ‘friend of the Bodleian’, was resident there that year. It is possible that this gentleman was George Churchill (b. 1910), son of Sonia’s first referee, Dr. Stella Churchill. That hypothesis needs further investigation, but it would tie in with Sonia’s claim that the house was the domicile of friends of her parents. Chapman Pincher claims that Sonia had been ordered by her bosses to move to Oxford in October 1940, but I can find no evidence of this directive, and the letter from Lisbon would perhaps conspire against that theory. The location does, of course, support Pincher’s thesis that Sonia was sent to the United Kingdom to handle Roger Hollis, since the MI5 officer was now working at nearby Blenheim Palace, whither most of the Security Service had been evacuated in September 1940, but this seems coincidental. Pincher bizarrely ignores the Hotel Grande letter, which in its more familiar guise, would not help his argument. But he does point out that ‘somehow Sonia received that information [about her accommodations address], before or on her arrival in Liverpool’. The original of Sonia’s communication does point to the fact that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) probably went to work on her behalf behind the scenes. But how did it get a message to her?

In what at first appears as one of those strange coincidences of war, the historian of philosophy and intelligence officer Isaiah Berlin stayed in Estoril while Sonia was there. He had been ordered by the British Ministry of Information to return to New York for work as a member of the British Library of Information, a propaganda unit, and had had strings pulled to get him a berth on a safer American ship, the Excambion. After arriving in Bournemouth on January 1 for the flight to Lisbon (according to his father, Mendel), he had apparently been stranded in Hampshire for a few days because of bad weather, but eventually set off, and was put up at the Palácio Hotel in Estoril (where SIS appeared to have a standing set of rooms reserved for its agents, and where Berlin had stayed the previous October). Berlin’s father, Mendel, recorded that Isaiah was held up in Bournemouth for eight or nine days, because of bad weather. Yet this must be a mistake, and Mendel’s arithmetic does not work. The Meteorological Office reports for Southern England at that time indicate it was cold and wet, but not so inclement as to inhibit flying. What is more, in another letter, Berlin writes that he spent two days at the Palácio before his voyage on January 10. And Mendel overlooks a strange visit to Oxford that Berlin apparently made just beforehand.

Berlin sent a letter on Dorchester Hotel notepaper to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann some time late in December. (He was assuredly not staying at the hotel: the Dorchester was where the Weizmanns kept their London residence, and Berlin was seeking them out.) He informed Weizmann that he was due to leave from Bournemouth on Friday January 3, but would be spending the Tuesday and Wednesday – namely the New Year holiday  ̶  in Oxford. He also expressed the hope that he would see Weizmann in Lisbon if they were unable to meet before he left. Strangely, this is a theme that loses its urgency by the time Berlin reaches Lisbon, but the Oxford visit is left unexplained. Moreover, Mendel wrote that he and his wife accompanied Berlin to Bournemouth on January 1: this entry ‘in the family memoir’ either represents a very faulty memory, or else a clumsy attempt to conceal Berlin’s brief excursion to Oxford, and to minimise the time his son spent in Lisbon. Could Berlin have been visiting the Kuczynskis in Oxford, in order to pick up an urgent message? He lived only a mile from them in Hampstead, and it is highly likely they knew each other.

“The Palácio Hotel greeted me like a long lost friend and gave me a wonderful double bedroom in which I slept comfortably for 14 hours after an exceedingly rough flight”, Berlin wrote to his parents on hotel writing-paper from the ship. There is no documentary evidence that he was in Portugal to intervene on Sonia’s behalf, even though on the same day that this marxisant Section D officer in SIS, recently returned from an abortive trip to Moscow with the arch-spy Guy Burgess, left Lisbon for the USA (January 10), Sonia was informed by the consulate that she and her children would be taken to England by ship. Her passport was endorsed that day (‘Category “C”’), and she was soon informed by the British consul that her passage had been approved in principle. She and her children sailed soon afterwards (about the 17th). Did Berlin put in a good word at the consulate to accelerate her departure?

The circumstances of Berlin’s voyage are puzzling, from the muddled story of the delay onwards. Presumably staying at the Palácio was par for the course. The hotel’s website states: “The Hotel Palácio was the chosen home of numerous members of European royalty and was also the haunt of British and German spies, who could often be found in its bar.” Berlin hints at companion-travellers, but is coy about them, apart from an American financial journalist named Scriven, who flew with him from Bournemouth, also stayed at the Palácio, and with whom Berlin shared a cabin on the ship. Yet his introduction of Scriven is enigmatic, as Berlin’s first letter mentioning him, from on board the Excambion, merely suggests that they were sharing a cabin after meeting at the hotel. His next letter, however, from New York on January 28, refers to Scriven as his friend who accompanied him on the flight from Bournemouth. Was this explanation simply careless? Would Berlin’s parents not have encountered Scriven if he had been stranded with them all in Bournemouth for over a week, and thus not need an explanation by letter?

Edward Scriven was an American who had arrived in London in 1939 to open the London branch of Arthur C. Nielsen’s market research organisation. Berlin describes him as ‘head of a firm in England who supplies trade statistics to private firms and our Govt. departments’. Remarkably, that was very similar to the role that Sonia’s father, Robert Kuczynski, as a renowned economic statistician, was executing at that time, as demographic adviser to the Colonial Office. Were they acquainted? Scriven was apparently returning home since the war prevented him expanding the business in Europe, but why would he sharing a flight with Berlin, that was scheduled to leave nine days before the departure of the Excambion, on which ship he was allotted a berth with the Oxford don? This was not the time for weeklong holidays on the Portuguese coast. Maybe Berlin knew him already, and then acted as a courier, passing on information about where Sonia should stay in England, and addresses of contacts. If so, it would not have been the last time that Berlin acted as an intermediary to intelligence agents. It is unlikely he met Sonia in person, but he could have left a letter for her. Mendel Berlin’s testimony may have been crafted a little too precisely, with the purpose of laying an alibi (a not uncommon occurrence in Berlin’s life), since Berlin was loath to reveal anything concerning his intelligence-related engagements. Could Berlin have been working both for British and Soviet intelligence to facilitate Sonia’s voyage? The evidence is all circumstantial, but Pincher asked a very pertinent question, and I do not believe any more plausible method of communicating has been suggested.

Arrival in the UK

As for Sonia, after a voyage lasting three weeks, where the ship sailed in convoy with twelve others, trying to avoid the U-Boats, she and her offspring arrived on the SS Androceta in Liverpool on February 4. On her arrival, Security Control was ready for her. When questioned by the immigration authorities, she was very vague about her movements, and her testimony revealed some highly suspicious contradictions.  She could not recall when she had first met her husband. (She clearly states ‘January or February 1939’ in her memoir.) She claimed that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, suffering from tuberculosis, a fact that was patently not true. He had (she said) happily now recovered, but could not join her as he could not obtain a Spanish visa, since the Spanish authorities regarded him as a hostile character still of military age, even though he was medically unfit.  She told Security Control that she had last arrived in Switzerland just before the war, but the Home Office report states that she said had been there only since February 1940, ‘where she married Beurton’ – which would have meant that she had not been present when her divorce was granted, and would have had to enjoy a whirlwind romance with her future husband (whom she married on February 23). (How could such widely different accounts emanate from the same interrogation?) She was able to provide her interrogator with the address of her sister (Barbara, Mrs D. B. Taylor) in Redruth, Cornwall, as well as the Oxford address, even though the intercepted letter indicated that she did not know where any of her relatives were living. Incidentally, Barbara and her husband were both reported to be members of the CPGB and thus under surveillance, even though John Green indicates that Barbara was the least politically active of the Kuczynski tribe: her spouse, Duncan, was astonishingly an intelligence officer in the RAF. Why did MI5 not pick up on these anomalies? If it had had shown the tenacity and attention to detail that such disclosures deserved, its officers might have been able to follow up with a more penetrating interrogation of her, but the spirit was missing. After all, had they not just approved and facilitated her entry to Britain?

And why Oxford? It might simply have been a convenient central meeting-point for the Kuczynski clan: the Taylors from Cornwall, Brigitte from Bristol, and her parents and brother from London. The children of her brother Jürgen and his wife Marguerite had been evacuated to Oxford, courtesy of their friend Celia Strachey (wife of John, who had helped engineer Jürgen’s release), so they knew the city. Perhaps they had to thrash out strategy. Jürgen was apparently not excited about her arrival. Alexander Foote told his interrogators that Jürgen feared that Sonia, as a spy, would draw attention to his own espionage and propagandist work in London, where he was openly communicating with the Soviet Embassy. Yet the secrecy itself was provocative. If Sonia were innocent, and had married a Briton, it might have been expected that her family would welcome her back warmly in London. The Kuczynski clan no doubt felt that having her close to them would be too dangerous, and draw the attention of MI5 and Special Branch, and thus chose Oxford as a rendezvous, but had trouble letting her know secretly, and in time.  Hence Sonia’s urgent letter, which in fact betrays the fact that a secret destination was being planned. But choosing Oxfordshire as a place for a newly-arrived German-born woman to live in isolation must have raised suspicions. Sonia declares in her memoir that she went to Oxford because her parents were staying with friends there because of the air-raids in London, but she never explains how she learned about her destination, or the specific address.

As has been shown, Milicent Bagot had also been keeping a close eye on the movements of the Kuczynskis during January. Bagot, who, it must be remembered, had in May pointed out that Sonia’s marriage to Beurton was probably a sham, had also recommended, on November 23, that Jürgen Kuczynski should be re-interned. He was in fact released, after a hubbub in the Home Office, on January 22, in time to make the rendezvous. His file at Kew (KV 2/1872) shows that he was considered thus: ‘An extreme communist and fanatically pro-Stalin. One of Moscow’s most brilliant and dangerous propagandists. From various sources it is claimed that he is an illegal contact with the Soviet Secret Service.’ (April 9, 1941) A report from Huyton Camp, where he had been interned, dated January 29 (while Sonia was en voyage) reveals that an informer had said that Jürgen was a ‘GPU agent at large’. There was a continuous war between Bagot and the fellow-travellers such as the lawyer and M.P. Denis Pritt who had influence, and repeatedly came to his defence. Bagot did not receive the support she deserved, but the Kuczynskis clearly realised that they were all regarded with suspicion.

‘With difficulty’ (understandably), Sonia and her offspring managed to find a hotel in Liverpool (it was during a wartime blackout, of course), and, even more remarkably, succeeded in reaching Oxford by train the next day. What is extraordinary about this highly onerous journey, which surely must have been accomplished with some external support, is that MI5 was fully informed about all its aspects. Sonia was picked up by watchers as soon as she left Liverpool, and they informed the Chief Constable of Oxford on January 26, 1941, of Sonia’s father’s taking temporary lodgings in Oxford. Sonia claimed that, because of the air-raids, her parents had been living with friends in Oxford, but they had to return to London soon after as the room was needed by their friends’ relatives. By February 24, she has moved to 97 Kingston Road. That day, the Chief Constable of Oxford confirmed to MI5 that her sister Barbara Taylor was staying at that address with Sonia, who finessed the events of her reunion in her memoir. About Barbara, she wrote nothing. On February 25, a Mr Ryde (probably of Special Branch, in Reading) wrote to Shillito of MI5, enclosing his report on Sonia. Shillito is of the opinion that no further action was required, but that ‘an eye should be kept on her’.  Yet another sister, Renate, wrote from 76 Woodstock Road on March 23 that she would be returning to London that week, and has ‘a lot to tell’ her brother Jürgen. Sonia moved again: on March 25 MI5 noted that she was now staying at the Rectory at Glympton, near Woodstock. There was much Kucyznski buzz in Oxford that February.

Work as a Spy

The next period of Sonia’s career is critical to the story. Yet it is difficult to describe accurately her actions in building an espionage network and using her wireless equipment to send illicit messages to her controllers. Her own memoir is bland, but known to be untrustworthy. The British archive gives ample evidence of the appeasement and indulgence of the authorities to Sonia’s activities, as well as to the effort of repatriating Len to join her, but understandably reveal nothing about her broadcasts. Some details ‘released’ from official Soviet archives look to be obvious fakes. The accounts of such as Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher are useful, but, frequently relying on unnamed ‘insider’ sources, are often embellished with details that fail the tests of chronology, psychology, procedure, or identity. Pincher includes multiple confidences from ‘impeccable’ British intelligence sources, unidentifiable transcripts supposedly provided by GCHQ, otherwise unrevealed documents from Soviet archives, and unreliable personal reminiscences from Sonia’s relatives. It is difficult not to conclude that much of the guidance offered by British intelligence officers is disinformation designed to encourage Pincher in his Hollis-hunt, and to distract him from more murky scenarios. Some of his suggestions are quite ridiculous (as, for example, the claim that RSS sent transcripts of Sonia’s broadcasts to Hollis and Philby for decryption), and he chooses to ignore the remarkable series of events by which the consulate in Switzerland provided a forged identity for Beurton so that he could rejoin his wife in England. One source is solider than all the others, however. The VENONA transcripts (partial decipherments of diplomatic cables between London and Moscow during the 1940s) give one rare glimpse into Sonia’s interaction with officials at the Soviet Embassy, and her practice of wireless telegraphy.

The earliest indication of Sonia’s activity appears to be given by an entry in the files of the Soviet Department of Defence, if the transcripts of these documents, which have authoritative-looking identifiers, can be relied upon. (They have been provided to me by a source who prefers to remain anonymous: I suspect they derive from the possessions of a CIA agent, who acquired them by undisclosed means.) It records that ‘soon after Sonia arrived in Britain and established radio communications with Moscow Centre, Ivan Proskurov, then head of Military Intelligence, responded with a message of encouragement’, and two days later (the entries are sadly not dated) sent her detailed instructions. “The assignments on information remain the same. Pay special attention to obtaining information concerning Germany, its army and military economy.” The first message signed off with ‘Warm regards to you and your kids. Regards from Frank [the codename for her ex-husband, Rolf Hamburger].’

I see several reasons for questioning the authenticity of (many of) these documents. First of all, the language here is avuncular and unbusiness-like, very much out of character for normal communications between Moscow and its agents. Rudolf was at that time under detention by the Chinese, causing the Soviets to request his release in June, so was hardly in a position to send his ex-wife his regards. The documents are undated, but the ‘soon after’ (and I am not sure who made that clarification), suggests to me ‘weeks’ rather than ‘months’. Sonia arrived in early February 1941, but did not construct her transmitter, and make contact with the Soviet Union, until late May – or possibly even later. It is not totally bizarre to imagine that, even during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Moscow might be seeking dramatic new intelligence on Germany’s army and military economy, but it is absurd to suppose that Sonia, as a new arrival in Britain, would be in a position, from the Oxfordshire countryside, to identify, cultivate, and recruit agents with fresh knowledge in that domain. Moscow already had her brother, abetted by his father, openly giving information to the Soviet Embassy. I have to conclude the documents are fakes, disinformation designed to show, retrospectively, the honourableness of Soviet espionage aims at the time.

According to her own autobiography, Sonia travelled every two weeks to London to see her family, and to make her rendezvous with her Soviet contact, as pre-arranged in Switzerland. Her chronology is flawed. She made several abortive attempts (‘I do not recall how often I travelled to London’), which suggests a passage of several months, before her contact showed up. During this time she learned (from her brother?) that Rolf had been arrested. Next (‘at last’, but in fact as early as April, so she could not have accomplished many visits to London), she found a furnished bungalow to live in, in Kidlington, and in May made contact with her Soviet Embassy contact, Sergey, one we now know as Nikolai Aptekar, in London.  She explained that she had all the parts of her radio ready, and could begin transmission ‘within 24 hours’. She noted that a few days passed since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22), before she received any response to her call-sign, but that may have been a symbolically significant item of disinformation. She then stated that she started transmitting messages twice a week by radio, travelling every fortnight or so to visit her father or her brother in London, who supplied her with valuable information to send to Moscow. She stated that she was introduced by her brother to Hans Kahle, Klaus Fuchs’s associate in Canada, now working as a military correspondent for Time and Fortune magazines. Moscow Central agreed (so she averred) to her suggestion that she meet him regularly as well, as he has access to strategic information. She tells us that she reported such information on her radio to Moscow, ‘who frequently asked follow-up questions’. Thus the requirements of the earlier spravka were being fulfilled.

Sonia as Broadcaster

All thus suggests a high level of radio transmission activity in the summer of 1941, which one might have expected Britain’s Radio Security Services to have picked up – before Sonia’s transmission techniques significantly changed. There is little verifiable confirmation of her activity at this time, but we are fortunate to have the VENONA transcript of a single cable sent by the London residency to Moscow on July 31, 1941, by BRION (probably Boris Schwertzov, Assistant Military Attaché), describing a meeting that Sonia held the previous day with an intermediary codenamed IRIS. [For more information on the VENONA program, see .] IRIS, indeed a woman, has not been identified, but she appears in an earlier 1940 cable after performing espionage in Liverpool. This 1941 cable reports Sonia’s list of expenditures on radio parts, as well as the information that she had tried on four consecutive nights (July 26 to 29) to make contact with Moscow without receiving a reply. The timing of the claim for expenses would seem to undermine the validity of Proskurov’s communications given above.

A hint that Moscow might have been concerned about the quantity and detectability of illicit transmissions taking place is given by Sonia when she explains that at some stage she was given a miniaturised transmitter. She does not provide a date (and her story is not strictly sequential), but it probably was some time later, as she states that ‘after I had succeeded in making some military contacts’, she had a meeting with Sergey – who may have been a completely different person from the earlier ‘Sergey’  ̶   when she was given a small parcel measuring about six by eight inches, in which was lodged a small transmitter that she was able to conceal. Sonia then rather illogically comments that, while she transmitted from England ‘for five or six years’, amateur radio activities were strictly forbidden. So what was the relevance of a less obvious transmitter if she still had to encode messages and send them over the airwaves?

The failure of the British authorities to track Sonia’s transmissions has caused a lot of anguished debate. When Peter Wright, the author of  Spycatcher, was investigating the case that Roger Hollis might have been a Soviet mole (under Sonia’s control), he doggedly tried to track down further transcripts of interactions between Moscow and London. He claimed to have found a trove of materials that originated in Sweden, known as HASP, derived from partially successful attempts by the Försvaerts Radioanstalt (FRA) to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946. Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959. Wright went on to say “But there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuczynski.”

The reason this was important was that Wright had been fed the story by his bosses that Sonia did not become active for Soviet Intelligence until Fuchs returned from the USA in 1944! “In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943”, continued Wright. Yet Wright, even though he claimed that ‘Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs’, does not divulge what was in these messages. I can find no reference to Sonia in the transcripts available at Nigel West has recently confirmed to me that no further Sonia-related material exists in VENONA beyond the cable listed above. There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there. Moreover, Wright implied that GCHQ was responsible for radio interception at the time. It was not. That function belonged to RSS (the Radio Security Service), which was incorporated into SIS in 1941, and was not handed over to GCHQ until after the war. GCHQ was intently focused on decryption of German messages, and would not have known about any internal illegal transmissions unless RSS had brought them to its attention, since the security services agreed that all Nazi agents who had entered the country with radio equipment had been rounded up, and either executed, or ‘turned’ in the Double-Cross operation.

Chapman Pincher got the story even more wildly wrong, although he rightly pointed out that the team of Voluntary Interceptors (who listened out for possibly illicit broadcasts) sent their transcriptions to RSS for analysis. But Pincher claimed (in Too Secret Too Long, 1984) that a former senior officer in RSS, later identified, in Treachery, 2009, as James Johnston, had told him that undeciphered messages from Sonia, that must have been trapped by the interceptors, were sent to Roger Hollis, responsible for Soviet counter-espionage in MI5, and after 1944, also to Kim Philby in SIS, for analysis and further instructions. As if Hollis or Philby would have known where to start with enciphered messages that probably used one-time pads, which would have confounded even the experts in GCHQ! Pincher then goes on to claim that Hollis and Philby were thus able to hush up the whole series of events, convincing their colleagues in MI5 and SIS of the irrelevance of such findings.

In his later book, Pincher says more about the HASP archives (taking his feeds from Wright). In true Hinsleyesque style, he also offers the tantalising denial of a story that must have irked him: “A claim that British intelligence was ingeniously using her [Sonia’s] transmissions to feed disinformation to Moscow is equally without foundation.” Whose claim that was, and why he could so confidently reject it, is not explained, but one cannot help concluding that there was at least one party who was trying to air an inconvenient truth, even though I have been unable to detect any published claim that Sonia was being manipulated by SIS while in Britain. Yet, by his curt dismissal of such an assertion, Pincher weakened rather than strengthened his story, and drew attention to a plausible hypothesis. So there appears to have been another faction who thought that, by feeding Pincher those unlikely stories about the power of Hollis, it could safely distract attention from any investigation into the theory that Sonia’s role and activities were known to SIS, and may have been connived at for reasons of counter-espionage.

By then Anthony Glees had come to Hollis’s defence in The Secrets of the Service (1987), and reminded readers of the unlikelihood of Sonia’s being able to transmit so many messages undetected during the war. “Someone sending wireless traffic from an illegal source would have been picked up before they cleared their throats”, he wrote, thus suggesting either a) that Sonia’s claims about her multitude of transmissions were false, or b) if they were true, that there was a cover-up that must have gone beyond Hollis, since Glees dismissed the notion that the detection-finding mechanisms and processes were so poor that Sonia’s transmissions could not have been picked up. Glees, using his knowledge about how MI5 and GCHQ worked, very logically demolished Pincher’s case, declaring that i) it was not Hollis’ job to attempt to decipher messages; ii) if he had been her accomplice, Hollis would have warned Sonia not to transmit at all, rather than conceal her messages later; iii) it was highly unlikely that Sonia was in contact with any MI5 employee if she continued to broadcast; and iv) especially after June 22, 1941, when the heat turned off monitoring the Soviet Embassy, Sonia could have contrived to get her messages to the Soviet Embassy to be transmitted onward. “If Hollis were guilty of being Sonia’s contact”, Glees wrote, “it would be the absence of a wireless, rather than its presence, which would be suspicious.”

Sparring Techniques

The debate was then picked up by W. J. West, in his 1989 book The Truth About Hollis (also published as Spymaster: The Betrayal of MI5). West brought a new perspective to the issue. He responded that Glees (and those who advised him) could be wrong, first, because the attention and focus of the volunteer interceptors were directed at German traffic, and second, because of the technology used. The interceptors had no recording equipment, writing everything down by hand. “The Soviets”, West added, ‘”were able to defeat any attempts at monitoring by the simple process of transmitting morse with a tape machine run at a speed which prevented its being taken down manually.” While this observation slightly misrepresents the role of the Voluntary Interceptors (who were given frequencies to track), the revelation shone a markedly new light on the process of interception, indicating how advanced techniques might have been able to avoid traditional goniometric methods. No doubt this technology was part of the miniaturised package that Sonia had been given.

Moreover, MI5 had by then recognized the problem of high-speed morse. Guy Liddell reported in December 1942, after Oliver Green’s communist ring in Birmingham had been uncovered, that Green, another International Brigades veteran recruited by the Comintern, had admitted that his team used, early in 1942, that same technique to communicate with Moscow. Liddell noted, on December 7, 1942 that Green had ‘refused to give their [the agents’] names or the location of their stations’ (KV 4/191).  Moreover, a telling memorandum exists in the Green files, from Hale to Shillito, that hints at a deeper strategy: “His [Green’s] prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration” (KV 2/2203). This communication represents proof that a project of surveilling suspected communist subversives was under way, and that a premature prosecution would frighten off other spies. Shillito’s inaction later suggests that some political constraints held him back.

On December 8, at a regular meeting with SIS, Liddell declared that the new technology would pose a problem for the Radio Security Service, and he then also referred to the fact that ‘we’ had experienced with some regularity the transmissions of a Russian station, identifiable by its call sign. The astonishing fact about this revelation, however, is that it appears not in Liddell’s Diaries that describe the same meeting, but in the Oliver Green files! It is as if Liddell was censoring himself because of the sensitivity of the admission – a definite case of the dog not barking in the night-time. Thus, instead of Liddell’s implicit suggestion that the new techniques might have posed a problem because it would have been RSS’s first encounter with illicit Soviet signals that happened to use high-speed morse, the Green papers prove that customary detection and direction-finding, that had been at least partially successful, would then have been impeded because of the new burst-mode transmissions. The files thus show evidence of investigations into clandestine radio transmissions by suspected Soviet spies, and it could well have been Sonia’s exchanges that were detected.  So why did Liddell mask the full account of Green’s ring using detectible techniques in 1941? I shall return to this vital question in the next episode.

As for the new techniques, another file on Green at the National Archives (KV 2/2204) describes in detail the established technology of the ‘punch perforator’ in which messages were converted, and the dimensions of a transmitter that exactly match how Sonia described her set. It also refers to the use of battery-driven power that would hinder detection-finding techniques that relied on mains power being selectively withdrawn. One sentence reads: “The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country.” Readers who have seen accounts of Gestapo techniques in Belgium, France and Germany will be familiar with this approach. Green was, however, not tracked down by interception of radio messages (or so we are told), but by a chance discovery of incriminating material, and the claims he made about the transmissions made by his cell members do not appear to have been confirmed. We simply do not know for certain whether previous messages sent by Green’s ring had been monitored, or whether what had been picked up earlier was from other agents.

One can see how this off-line process would work. A manual key of some kind would still have been required to translate the enciphered text into morse code. But that process would have been undetectable. An off-line procedure like this would have allowed a tape to be transferred to the miniature transmitter, and the messages to be sent in burst mode. *   T. J. West reminds us that the Soviet spies, the Krogers, were able to send their messages in the 1960s in a similar fashion, and remain undetected. Yet even if this technique had been used successfully, it does not answer all the questions. I have shown how Sonia was not able to deploy the technology until, at the earliest, late 1941, and she had been broadcasting regularly before then. Why were her earlier messages not picked up? Even if Sonia overstated her activity during that summer of 1941, we have it on excellent authority from the VENONA cable that she was busy on four successive nights trying to make contact with Moscow, and that her efforts were either not detected, or, if they were detected, were ignored. Was Sonia really just a disposable agent to Moscow Centre? Did they not care? Or did they guess what was going on, play Sonia along, offering ‘chickenfeed’ to the British authorities until they had a securer system in place? After all, the ability of the Swiss to detect illicit radios was known before Sonia left that country, and the Nazis started detecting the Soviet Rote Kapelle transmissions in June 1941: did the Soviets not think the British had similar technology and techniques at hand?

[* West refers to a photograph in a 1937 book by Peter Smolka (later Smollett), a Communist spy who infiltrated the Ministry of Information in WWII, titled Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, which shows the equipment in question. I reproduce it here.


A radio operator in the Soviet polar base of Dickson at the mouth of the Yenisei River (see, showing her playing telegraph chess. The spools are presumably the containers for the perforated tape. I am not sure whether the lady in the second photograph is admiring such a container.]

Fuchs, and Beurton’s Return

Sonia’s major claim to notoriety was based on her role as a courier to the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs. As with many of the events in her life, she represents the chronology wrongly in her book, where (in the English version only) she describes her first meeting with Fuchs as taking place towards the end of 1942. As I have pointed out in my doctoral thesis (to appear in book form later this year), it was in the interests of the British authorities, Soviet Intelligence, as well as Fuchs himself, to give the impression that Fuchs committed to espionage much later  ̶  namely well after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia  ̶  than he actually did, as the timing encouraged those involved to give his treachery a semblance of moral rectitude. Conscience-driven scientists believed it was their responsibility to share all the atomic secrets with their gallant ally, as it did not appear that the US and GB governments wanted to do so, or the scientists did not trust the authorities to deliver comprehensively. Yet the evidence shows that Moscow’s planning to exploit Fuchs’s sympathies and skills had evolved much earlier, and that Sonia’s mission to Britain may even have been conceived with the goal of installing her as Fuchs’s courier.

The Soviet attaché, Kremer, was already familiar with Fuchs when they met in Birmingham in August 1941, and Fuchs’s latest biographer, Mike Rossiter, notes that Fuchs met the Kuczynski family in Hampstead in early April 1941. Fuchs had been interned with the Kuczynskis’ friend, Hans Kahle in Canada, and while it cannot be determined exactly who initiated the move, in August Fuchs was effectively recruited by Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, and introduced to Sonia soon after. (Rossiter, reliant on his some of his conclusions on unverifiable Soviet archives, oddly suggests that Sonia did not take over the handling of Fuchs until after Kremer was recalled to Moscow in July 1942.) Fuchs’s first reports were received in Moscow in September, and Sonia started a productive arrangement with him that would continue until he was transferred to the USA in October 1943. Much of the material was too bulky to be transmitted by radio, so Sonia would also use drop areas to pass on what Fuchs gave her to contacts from the Soviet Embassy. Sonia also ‘recruited’ the valuable and prodigious spy Melita Norwood, who worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which covered the ‘Tube Alloys’ project, as well as other minor figures in British services.

Meanwhile, what of Len Beurton? Sonia is typically misleading in her memoir, ascribing Len’s continued absence in Switzerland to Rado’s desire to keep him there as a radio operator, despite Moscow’s ‘order’ that he should resettle in England. (It is interesting that Sonia should at this stage indicate that Len had received the same ‘order’ [‘Betrag’] as she had, when earlier she had characterized her instructions to move to England as a ‘recommendation’ [‘Vorschlag’].) She even indicates that she was the boss: when Len asked Moscow whether he should follow Sonia, as she wished, or stay in Switzerland, as Rado had requested, Moscow apparently replied that he should do as she said. That was not Soviet Intelligence’s way of working. Yet Len’s problems were still to do with his inability to gain French and Spanish visas, and Sonia writes that the British consulate was at first unwilling to issue him with a false passport, a mechanism (she claims) it was applying to other candidates of military age trying to get home.

Sonia thus invoked the help of the International Brigade Association, in the shape of Hans Kahle, and then wrote to her ally Eleanor Rathbone, the left-wing MP who had done so much to help German communists establish themselves in Britain before the war. Sonia claims that Ms. Rathbone put a question in the House of Commons, specifically making an appeal for Len’s repatriation in order that he might serve his country. That seems unlikely: I can find no trace of such a specific question in Hansard, but there is no doubt that Rathbone’s secretary, Richard Law, wrote a letter for help to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, and Cadogan replied positively the next day. A follow-up letter from Law was required, dated March 4, which perpetrated the lie that Beurton had had a ski-ing accident in Switzerland that had prevented earlier return, and also mentioned his treatment for tuberculosis, which might be considered to be spreading the explanations a little too thickly. On June 3, Livingston even wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, from Geneva, saying that ‘in April Beurton was examined by a French military doctor, who declared him unfit for military service.’ Such a ruling would have reduced the threat that Beurton might have represented as a combatant in any war. Beurton had reportedly applied again for Spanish and French visas: the Spanish visa was granted, but not the French.

The response it received clearly spurred the consulate into action, and it provided Beurton with a false passport in the name of John William Miller, as well as a doctor’s certificate (as Sonia reminds us) confirming that tuberculosis had incapacitated him for military service. The office thus falsified the evidence again. The result was that Beurton left Geneva for Lisbon and the UK on July 11 (information communicated in an en clair telegram, as if he were someone of importance). He arrived on July 29 at the Bournemouth Airport at Poole, the return segment of the same VIP route that Berlin had taken two years before. There was no lengthy, uncomfortable sea voyage for him. Beurton promptly admitted that his passport was false, denied his tuberculosis, and gave a feeble explanation about the money that he claimed had been left him. He even ascribed the tuberculosis story to advice he had received at the consulate, forgetting that it was a rigmarole he must have shared with Sonia two years beforehand, since she gave it as an excuse for his absence when interrogated in Liverpool. All in all, he betrayed a sense of indignant entitlement, and gave a sorry performance to his interrogators, who had clearly not been prepped appropriately. Beurton even stated that he was disappointed that the British authorities in Lisbon had not contacted Poole, in order to ease his passage through Control. And he introduced a new lie. As the Security report (of which a large portion has been redacted) records: “He did not leave Switzerland in the early part of the war because he and Mrs. Hamburger were waiting for the divorce proceedings to be completed in the Swiss courts.”

All this brazen behavior provoked a justifiably stern reaction in MI5 – at least in its lower echelons. Vesey cast serious doubts on the whole exercise, and wondered why SIS would issue a passport on such flimsy evidence, and questioned Beurton’s story about the source of his money. SIS responded in a letter to Vesey, claiming that the Passport office was ‘not of course aware of the issue of the individual circular concerning Beurton’, which assertion was patently nonsensical. By December 1942, Shillito in MI5 wrote that he was of the opinion that Beurton could be a Soviet spy. Beurton remained under close watch, and his mail was intercepted, as he was is ‘thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. Yet nothing more serious was undertaken, and Beurton joined his wife in Summertown, Oxford.

The conundrum of why Sonia’s radio traffic was ignored will be examined more closely in the next chapter of Sonia’s Radio. It appears that up until the winter of 1942, she had gone about her secret business successfully. As has been shown, most of the information that Fuchs passed before he left for the USA was no doubt too long and complicated to be sent by radio transmission, but there is no doubt about Ursula’s use of clandestine radio, which was strictly forbidden in wartime Britain. Yet a major new provocative event was about to take place. Sonia describes how, in the autumn of 1942, she moved into a cottage in the grounds of the house of Neville Laski, the brother of the fellow-traveller, Harold Laski. (Harold Laski, like Eleanor Rathbone, had conspired with such as Strachey, Wilkinson and Cripps either to assist entry into Britain of Comintern agents, or free from internment CP members like Sonia’s brother.) With Len’s help, Sonia strung up her radio in her new accommodation: what is even more incredible is that the existence of this apparatus was known to MI5. On January 25, 1943, D. M. Campbell, reporting on behalf of Major J. C. Phipps, wrote that ‘the Beurtons own a large wireless set’. In December 1942, Shillito had voiced his belief that the Beurtons were Soviet spies. The following month, incriminating evidence was handed to him. Yet nothing was done about it. Why was such obvious illicit behaviour not pounced upon, and why were the offenders not prosecuted?

New Sources:

The Lisbon Route, by Ronald Weber

Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945, by Neill Lochery

Sonya’s Report, by ‘Ruth Werner’

Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin

A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War, by John Green

Mortal Crimes, by Nigel West

The Truth About Hollis, by W. J. West

Forty-Thousand Against the Arctic, by H. P. Smolka

The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter

New Commonplace entries appear here.

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Officially Unreliable

During my research into intelligence matters, I have noticed a disturbing phenomenon. Very often, writings by authors of dubious credentials, as well as informal interviews with eminent persons, are cited by professional historians in an indiscriminate and unqualified way. Whole volumes may be recommended, statements may be paraphrased or quoted, and items will appear in bibliographies, without the historian’s advising the reader on what terms the sources and publications should be treated. The now more authoritative assertions take on a new life of their own, and are referred to afresh in further works, thus consolidating what may have been utterly false in the first place. When this process occurs with official or authorised histories, the problem is particularly egregious, as the latter publications maintain an awe about them that may in fact be completely unmerited. By this process of implicit approval, more serious histories can apply a certificate of merit to works and conclusions that would have been otherwise justifiably questioned.

For example, the same day on which I started writing this piece, I came across the following passage, in Tyler Anbinder’s fascinating City of Dreams: The 400-Year Epic History of Immigrant New York: “Nearly every history of Civil War New York, for example, repeats the story that in June of 1863, ‘some 3,000 striking longshoremen, most of whom were Irish, were forced to watch as black men, under police protection, took their jobs on the docks.’ But this tale is apocryphal, repeated over and over since the first historian mistakenly published it in 1910. White soldiers, not African Americans, temporarily replaced the strikers in question.” (p 236)

I do not know what to call this phenomenon. It is a kind of Gresham’s Law of historiography, whereby the assembly of dubious assertions crowds out the results of more disciplined fact-finding methodologies. But that does not tell the whole story, and is not a reliable enough guide to what happens. After all, in the world of intelligence, archival sources may be no more dependable than those of private memoir, and distinguishing ‘good’ from ‘bad’ facts can be a considerable challenge. Indeed, the reverse sometimes occurs: theories and claims of apparent substance are sometimes ignored completely in favour of a highly dubious but protective political line, a default position that is provocative in itself. The phenomenon is more a kind of halo effect, whereby the seal of approval of the Official History gives a gloss to sometimes unmeritorious anecdotes, and a taint to reports that might otherwise have been considered creditworthy. It seems to be an inevitable side-effect of the practice of history-writing as public relations.

Official histories, it is true, recognize the role that personal memoir and witness statements play in complementing the archival record. The problem is that such sources frequently contain a mixture of well-documented research and practical experience, alongside the swallowing of dubious second-hand reports and even the fabrication of untruths – often out of a desire to enhance the subject’s reputation. What is needed is a rigid testing and verification of such accounts, and an explanation, when such narratives or assertions are re-presented, of the forensic case for accepting or doubting the quality of the secondary material. What is also essential is a selective reference to such material, rather than the blanket bibliography that appears to treat each listed work as having equal quality, and possessing a consistent internal integrity that it may well lack.

I plan to show examples by analysing four official or authorised histories in my sphere of research. The first is Margaret Gowing’s Britain and Atomic Energy, published in two parts in 1964 and 1974. The second is the  five-volume British Intelligence in the Second World War by F. H. Hinsley and others (encompassing a foot of shelf-space in my library), which appeared between 1979 and 1990. The third is Christopher Andrew’s authorised history of MI5, The Defence of the Realm (titled, for some strange reason as Defend the Realm in the USA), published in 2009. The last is Keith Jeffery’s MI6: The History of the Secret Intelligence Service, 1909-1949 (again re-titled for US consumption, rather deceptively, as The Secret History of MI6, 1909-1949), which came out in 2010. As I study these volumes, I shall also explore the different constraints under which they were produced, and the apparent methodology applied to their creation.

(I am barely going to touch, in this piece, the highly controversial and important topic of concealment or destruction of massive arrays of government files, primarily by the Foreign Office, and the secret warehouses such as that held at Hanslope Park. I refer the interested reader to Ian Cobain’s generally excellent 2016 work The History Thieves. I also regret that I have not yet been able to inspect Herbert Butterfield’s no doubt indispensable essay Official History: Its Pitfalls and Criteria from his 1951 publication History and Human Relations.)

Margaret Gowing was historian and archivist of the United Kingdom Atomic Energy Authority at Harwell when she was commissioned to write the official history. In her Preface, she defended the need for ‘official’ history because of the embargo on declassifying documents until 50 years after they had been created, saying that ‘the official historian’s official standing, his [sic] ties with a Government organisation, his signature of a declaration under the Official Secrets Act, make it possible for Government servants to speak freely to him and give him access to their papers”. She described her experience as altogether positive, with no obstacles put in her way, and access given to her to all government documents, with a small academic advisory committee set up to ensure proper standards of integrity were being applied, and the nation’s interests were being protected. In a ‘Note on Documentation’, she added: “In accordance with the practice of the official war histories, references to official papers that are not yet publicly available have been omitted: footnotes are confined to published material.” Her work is quite certainly an ‘official’ history.

Possibly anticipating objections, the author also asked: “What is the justification for official history at all?”, responding that ‘it lies primarily in the need for histories of recent events based on the documentary evidence, supplemented where possible from the oral evidence of people who lived through these events.’ She also said that ‘the historian and his employer bear a heavy responsibility for ensuring that an official history is written according to the strict criteria of the historical profession’. Yet the historian needs to be wary of oral evidence: on the one hand, memory may be at fault, but in sensitive areas (of which research into nuclear energy is undoubtedly one), the recollections of those involved may be subject to some censorship or distortion. Nowhere was this more clear than in the matter of espionage and the stealing of nuclear secrets, and here Ms. Gowing showed herself to be far too trusting of third-party sources (i.e. not relying exclusively either on her interviews with officials involved or on the written archive).

While Ms. Gowing overall provided a painstaking and very thorough of account of a highly technical subject, in one area she allowed herself to be manipulated. She appeared to rely almost exclusively on Alan Moorehead’s book The Traitors for her coverage of the Klaus Fuchs case, Fuchs having been convicted early in 1950 of stealing atomic secrets on behalf of the Soviet Union. She lists it as her primary source, even though the work was facilitated by MI5 as a public relations exercise. Moorehead was guided in his research while being shown select secret papers, and his conclusions completely misrepresented the chronology of Fuchs’s recruitment by both Soviet Intelligence and by the Tube Alloys Project (which was the codename for the undertaking when it was first set up). Gowing declares that Moorehead was granted more extensive access to official information than she was, a decidedly regrettable state of affairs: occasionally she gives hints of knowledge that Moorehead does not provide (such as the FBI interview with Fuchs in prison), but her sources are not provided. She thus echoes Moorhead’s public relations exercise, defending MI5’s weaknesses in not countering communist influences more aggressively, and reinforcing the notion that Fuchs’s communist beliefs were well-concealed. In summary, she thus let down the standards that she had claimed to espouse by relying on the conclusions of a journalist, failing to demand access (at least) to the same sources that Moorehead had been allowed to inspect.

My second example, the multi-volume history of British Intelligence in WWII, is tersely introduced as one of the set of ‘official histories’. “The authors of this, as of other official histories of the Second World War, have been given free access to official documents. They alone are responsible for the statements made and the views expressed”, we are told on the page facing the title-page. The Preface, however, explains a rather more complex set of compromises. A written parliamentary reply of January 12, 1978, had reminded former intelligence officers (and current historians) of the demands of the Official Secrets Act, and had attempted to make a distinction between ‘records of the Service Intelligence directorates, which will be placed with other departmental archives in the Pubic Record Office’, and other information which could not be disclosed. Yet, while this statement did not explain how such distinctions would made, or how or when the future decisions about declassification would be reached, the authors felt confident in stating that the guidelines issues have ‘not prevented us from incorporating in the published History the result of our work on records which are not to be opened’. The outcome was that the history includes a large number of assertions and conclusions that cannot be verified, since no specific source could be provided.

Furthermore, the authors rather disingenuously conclude their prefatory remarks with the following less-than-comforting statement: ‘That room remains for further research is something that goes without saying. [‘Obviously not!’] Even on issues and episodes for which we have set out to supply the fullest possible accounts, the public records will yield interpretations that differ form those we have offered.” Well, maybe so, Sir Humphrey. But if other historians are not allowed to inspect all the records that the official historians have investigated, they will be severely hamstrung. What the Government is effectively saying is that it trusts only its insiders (for Professor Hinsley was indeed one), and such confidants will clearly toe the line if they want to gain that well-earned knighthood. And the official history can thus not really be challenged, and instead monopolises the academic space, as any pretenders will not have had access to the real but very sensitive records that contributed to the account.

Notwithstanding the multiple merits of this work, which for the most part represents a solid integration of military and intelligence history, reflecting a painstaking and very thorough processing of much complex material, one has to regret the hypersensitivity of Hinsley’s political masters. Followers of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ will immediately recognise how unsatisfactory the methodology is. I have (in Chapters 4 and 5) provided two cases where the ‘interpretation’ of events by Hinsley and his team is highly dubious, and where no written record to support the assertions appears to exist. One was the endorsement of an event that probably did not take place (the claim that all work on Russian ciphers and codes stopped, on Churchill’s order, when Hitler invaded the Soviet Union, without any explanation as to how that decision was issued and acted upon), and the other the desperate attempt to prove a negative (that, contrary to rumours, the British authorities did not use the Lucy Ring to forward Ultra intelligence to Moscow). These two statements are not the stuff of serious historiography: they are political statements emanating from a defensive sense of security, from a belief that the authorities know best, and that the reading public should unquestioningly accept such dogma.

In reference to the main point of this piece (the unqualified use of third-party memoir), Hinsley and his co-authors are for the most part judicious, occasionally even – sensibly – challenging Churchill’s account of events. Yet the guard does drop. Hinsley has been broadly criticised for skating over technical issues concerning the interpretation and decryption of Enigma traffic.  Gordon Welchman (the main architect and creative mind behind the Ultra project, and author of The Hut Six Story) pointed out the flaws in Hinsley’s understanding, writing, in a letter from 1984: “Hinsley’s account of Bletchley Park activities during the first year of the war is wrong in almost every detail, and I do not know why.”  The challenge with methodology and technical coverage continued. Volume 5 of the History (Strategic Deception) was written by Michael Howard, who had the integrity to admit, in his Preface, that a situation where the text ‘must therefore be accepted as the only evidence of the contents of these files that can be made publicly available’, is one ‘with which no professional historian can be entirely happy’. Again, however, the historian concluded with the less than sincere comment that ‘although this is an “official” publication, it should not be regarded as the last word on the subject: nor should its judgements (for which the author bears sole responsibility) be necessarily regarded as definitive’. Howard indicated that he had the availability of foreign archives in mind when he wrote that, but the same objection arises: why should other professional historians not have the same access to confidential files as Howard did? The inevitable occurred: ‘Arise, Sir Michael’.

Where Howard lapsed was in his coverage of the Double-Cross System, whereby German agents were ‘turned’ to provide a mixture of false and harmlessly true information to their handlers. Howard passed the ball. “The technical problem of running double agents . . . . has been so well described by Sir John Masterman in his book The Double Cross System (1972) that little more need be added here”, wrote Howard. It is as if the controversy over the publication of his book, which Masterman had had to issue in the United States, since the British Government had refused permission, and threatened to sue Masterman, had been forgotten. The authorities wanted dozens of passages removed, but Masterman’s publisher agreed to only a few, and the government had to acquiesce. Dick White, who had supervised the whole MI5 Double Cross operation, was (according to his biographer, Tom Bower) infuriated by the vanity of Masterman, who had ironically been White’s former tutor, and whom White had brought into MI5. In fact, Bower claims that White only approved the project for Hinsley’s History as a method of bringing Masterman down to size. “Masterman’s self-glorification would be neutralised if the whole truth were told” , wrote Bower, paraphrasing White’s opinions.

Thus Howard’s sanitising of the whole controversy comes over as a little too fastidious, and some of the more technical aspects of the Double Cross system remained unanswered.  For example, why did the Germans not appear to question how Britain’s location-finding apparatus had not been good enough to detect the sizable and numerous transmissions sent to them by their supposed agents in the months before D-Day? (Howard reports that five hundred transmissions were made by agent GARBO alone between January and June 1944. The Gestapo would quickly have tracked down such an illegal activity. Why was Britain’s RSS group not able to do so?) Masterman, in his book, allocates only one sentence, with a footnote, on the purely technical aspects of managing double agents, and Howard sidesteps the issue by cross-referring to one of Hinsley’s Appendices, provided by an ex-MI5 officer, on the challenges of radio communications. This flabby appendix, which is somewhat embarrassing in its naivety, is also presented without commentary or explanation. True, Howard offered a much more comprehensive account of the XX project (no doubt to White’s satisfaction), and was able to introduce the previously secret dimension of Enigma decrypts to his story, but a more selective analysis and parsing of Masterman’s contribution would have been acutely appropriate. Incidentally, Howard also completely ignored the role that Soviet spies in Britain’s intelligence might have played in strategic deception, and in particular how their leaks may have affected the negotiation of joint ventures with the Russians.

Now the overall very competent Hinsley-Howard compendium has come to be recognised as a valuable authority. Yet it does not tell the whole story, it is inaccurate on much technical detail, much of its conclusions are unverifiable, and it is not discriminating enough in its selection of third-party sources. Moreover, any historian wanting to provide a review of the subject (perhaps based on those foreign sources that Howard could not consider) will be unable to inspect many of the primary materials that Howard was privileged to see, and will also not be able to interview the ‘experts’ who contributed to the official history.

Christopher Andrew’s history of MI5 is presented as being not ‘official’ but ‘authorised’, although the distinction is hardly crisp. Indeed, in his Preface, Andrew describes his response to MI5’s advertisement for a ‘part-time official [sic] historian’. The head of MI5 in the year of publication, Jonathan Evans, wrote in his Foreword that ‘striking the balance in the text between openness and the protection of national security has been a complex and demanding exercise requiring many hours of detailed discussion between Professor Andrew and members of the service, and an extensive clearance process involving other departments and services’. Evans went on to say that the History contained some embarrassing and uncomfortable information, but implied that Andrew had been given the independence to reach his own conclusions. Evans then made the extraordinary and illogical point that ‘it should not . . . be assumed that his conclusions are based solely on material in our records which is unavailable to the public’, as if a comprehensive, 850-page History could be crafted exclusively from unclassified documents. Perhaps this message of discomfiture was intended to communicate to the reading public that there could not possibly be yet more distressing secrets that could be revealed – unless, of course, questions of national security were at stake. (Evans provided a url which he claimed would explain the principles that governed MI5’s approach to the text: Regrettably that page is no longer available.)

Andrew records his occasional frustration at the constraints under which he had to work.  He confides in his readers that he felt it was important to read highly-sensitive files ‘in order to try to ensure that conclusions in The Defence of the Realm based on documents which can be quoted are not contradicted by files whose contents remain classified’. Yet that process lays an enormous onus on Andrew’s skill as an interpreter, for presumably no one else will be allowed to inspect such files that may be permanently classified. And we still do no know which documents fall into which category. For one of the most frustrating aspect of Andrew’s work is the unscholarly methodology for sources. Literally hundreds of citations state merely ‘Security Service Archives’, or ‘Home Office Archives’, and there is no indication given as to whether such documents are permanently embargoed, or which will be released after a certain time-limit.  There could be value in such a tabulation only if an internal document identified each individual source, on the basis that, if and when the archives in question were declassified and made available to the general public, an accurate cross-reference could be supplied to expand Andrew’s Notes (even as they stand, an impressive 123 pages), and allow future historians to develop more informative studies.

Moreover, Andrew certainly tilled other fields. His bibliography contains about 500 titles, quite an exhausting assignment of reading for a part-time historian: again, it is not clear whether every title was deserving of equal respect as far as authenticity and reliability were concerned. Peter Wright’s occasionally dubious Spycatcher appears in the bibliography, but Andrew admittedly qualifies his endorsement by discussing Wright’s collaboration with Chapman Pincher in the text. On the other hand, what is one to make of the fact that Andrew Boyle’s journalistic and controversial Climate of Treason appears in the bibliography, but not in the Index? Or the fact that the highly deceptive Sonya’s Report, by Ruth Werner, is also quoted as a source? At least Andrew does not list Alan Moorehead’s public relations exercise on behalf of MI5, The Traitors, but the outcome was that he completely ignored the internal crisis over the Fuchs case, where Sillitoe was required to lie to Prime Minster Attlee in order to maintain MI5’s survival after the Fuchs fiasco. But it is not clear that the bibliography offered represents ‘works in which I found useful nuggets’, ‘items for suggested further reading’, or something else altogether. It is certainly unscholarly.

Yet the apparent neglect (or ignorance) of such works poses its own set of unique puzzles. Should the fact that Andrew does not even mention, let alone analyse, Moorehead’s work, which the official historian of Atomic Energy had treated with such respect, be noteworthy? And why was Alexander Foote’s Handbook for Spies not consulted, given that it was largely ghosted by an MI5 officer, yet Peter Ustinov’s Dear Me is deemed worthy of mention? Why did Foote not even appear in the Index, given that he underwent intensive interrogation by MI5 in 1947? And why did Fred Copeman not appear in the History, given that he was a leader in the Invergordon Mutiny of 1931 (which is covered), and later, after his conversion from Communism to Catholicism and Moral Re-Armament and his award of the OBE, acted as a consultant to MI5 during the Foote investigation, and wrote a fascinating (but maybe deceptive) memoir titled  Reason in Revolt? Etc., etc.  Should we make conclusions about books and topics that were not considered suitable for inclusion in the bibliography?

Andrew’s production is in many ways an impressive achievement. It is a fascinating account of an institution that has for too long been unnecessarily secret. Moreover, most of the history is probably accurate. But we cannot know. Andrew necessarily had to compromise his professional integrity by submitting to bureaucratic demands and possibly spurious claims about risks to national security. Many of his sources cannot be checked, and his indiscriminate reference to works of dubious merit begs the questions: if what these authors say is sometimes untruthful and unverifiable, why do you trust what they write on other matters? How do you select what you consider to be accurate? Where is the methodology that distinguishes useful and reliable facts and experiences from the self-deception of memoir, the faulty memory, the desire for self-aggrandisement, the concealment of unpalatable actions, and the shakily passed-on rumour?

Jeffery’s history of SIS, presumably no longer ‘secret’, suffers from similar identity problems. The flyleaf (of my American edition) introduces it as an ‘authorized’ history. John Sawers, the then head of SIS, states in his Foreword that his predecessor decided to commission an ‘independent and authoritative’ volume. In the Preface, Jeffery writes that, in his practice of not including source references for documents not in the public domain, he follows ‘the precedent set by past British official histories’. The work is obviously supposed to be the ‘definitive’ history, a term that Jeffery uses, for example, to characterise Gill Morton’s study of Desmond Morton, Churchill’s Man of Mystery. Yet it also is confused about its scope. The flyleaf promotes SIS in glittering terms: “The Service pioneered cryptography on an industrial scale at Bletchley Park”, but Jeffery admits that GC&CS (later GCHQ) was really only a reluctant stepchild of SIS, under Menzies’s overall supervision. Jeffery’s coverage of GC&CS is superficial (there has yet to be written an official or authorised history of that institution), and sensibly concentrates on such matters as the controversy over Section V’s distribution of the so-called ‘ISOS’ (Intelligence Service Oliver Strachey) material coming from Bletchley Park. This spin on SIS’s responsibilities – something echoed by Sawers in his Foreword  ̶  may have been a useful way of promoting the book, but it was highly misleading.

This historian does show some concern for his professional role. He recognises the extraordinary decision that allowed him the opportunity, given the traditional secrecy that surrounded SIS (the existence of the service was not admitted until 1993), to perform his task. He appreciates the fact that he was given ‘unrestricted access’ to the Service archives. He regrets the fact that he cannot name names that have not already appeared in print. Yet he does not allow much room for alternative interpretations, or express the hope that other historians might be allowed to see what he was able to inspect.  Moreover, he is perhaps over-confident in the trustworthiness of the files he studied.  “The history, written as it were from headquarters, reflects the surviving SIS documentation upon which it is primarily based.” That means he has been more guarded in using accounts by ex-officers of SIS. “I have in general used memoir material very sparingly. Although often revealing on the personal side, the recollection of events and emotions, sometimes many years after, presents critical problems of interpretation and assessment for the historian, particularly in the matter of espionage and other covert activities, which are not infrequently cloaked about with a melodramatic air of secrecy, conspiracy, conjecture and invention.” Indeed – but what is the methodology that distinguishes such from fact? It is not clear.

On Notes and Sources, Jeffery is a bit more informative than Andrew, although his explanations are a little ambiguous. John Sawers explains a policy distinguishing ‘information drawn from the archive’ from ‘non-release of records’ that has in practice allowed the ‘occasional official release of some Service material’ in order to facilitate the writing of biographies of ‘important intelligence figures’ – hardly a water-tight or objective guideline, one might say. He also confirms the constraints of national security, the ‘neither confirm nor deny’ policy of government, as well as that elusive and controversial principle, the lack of damage to the ‘public interest’, the definition of which should probably not be left to those authorities whose business is secrets. Jeffery then writes: “As will be apparent from the reference notes, I have also had privileged access to relevant but closed documents held by other British government departments.” Yet it is not always clear from the Notes themselves what the status of the records is: at times, Jeffery provides a serial number, and indicates that the files are retained (which fact a brief inspection of the National Archives Catalogue confirms. The institution tantalising describes many files that have not been released). At others, he refers to minutes and memoranda that have no discrete identifier, but are listed less specifically as (for example) ‘PUSD papers, FCO’. (PUSD is not listed in his abbreviations, but is presumably Permanent Under-Secretary for Defence.) It is a big step forward from the anonymity provided by Andrew, but still very unsatisfactory. There is a lesson to be learned here.

As for non-archival sources, such as memoirs and biographies, Jeffery is a little more discriminating, although that in itself raises questions. Andrew was happy including Nigel West’s highly unofficial history of MI5 in his sources, but Jeffery does not list West’s book on SIS, nor Stephen Dorrill’s, nor even Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography of the wartime head of SIS, Stewart Menzies. What are we to make of that? That they were valueless? Why no mention of Isaiah Berlin’s revealing Letters? Was Berlin’s D Section mission to Moscow with Guy Burgess considered to be a fabrication? On the other hand, he does include in his bibliography the highly contentious biography of Claude Dansey by Anthony Read and David Fisher, Colonel Z, although in one of his notes he writes ‘for Dansey’s early life, see Read and Fisher’, as if the book should not be trusted for the bulk of Dansey’s career. Yet he never explains why. In Sonia’s Radio, I have pointed out that Jeffery was extremely cavalier in so blandly recommending Bradley Smith’s Sharing Secrets with Stalin (‘this book is excellent for Anglo-Soviet intelligence relations generally’) as it completely overlooks the influence that access to strategic information provided by Stalin’s spies must have exerted on negotiations. The less than completely honest statement concerning the traitors within British intelligence services remains one of the major flaws. Jeffery restricts his coverage of Philby primarily to reactions to the Gouzenko defection in 1945: Volkov (the would-be defector whom Philby betrayed the same year) does not even appear in the Index.

Thus Jeffery’s book turns out to be a rather indigestible confection, with too many loose ends, too many stories not pursued, too many unresolved questions, and too many controversies avoided. It may have been politic to avoid some topics, such as the mission to Moscow, the possible recruitment of Alexander Foote, the distribution of Ultra information to the Soviets, the entanglement with Soviet spy rings in Switzerland, all explained away in the implication that the evidence in the archive was too slim or non-existent for the episodes to be taken seriously. But we simply do not know that for a fact. And there exist far too many reports in memoirs by reputable persons of a countercultural series of activities to justify such inertia and complacency. Jeffery’s work is hardly the ‘rigorous’ treatment that Sawers advertised, and there appears to be no suitable forum for the unresolved issues to be thrashed out in a methodological and disciplined manner. Jeffery died of cancer in 2016, at the comparatively young age of 64, very surprisingly without having received any government award or honour.

What does all this mean?

First, that ‘official’ and ‘authorised’ histories should be approached with a great deal of suspicion. They may have honest and sometimes deserved pretensions as works of serious history, but should always be considered as items of propaganda. They cannot be reviewed properly in the open forums of academia and journalism, as their sources cannot be verified.

Second, that any historian who discovers facts in unpublished archives, but then has to negotiate with those who authorise his work over publicity of the same, and concede to their demands, is professionally compromised. If he or she is prohibited from expressing judgments and opinions about those events in future undertakings and teaching, effectively suppressing the truth, that person’s academic integrity is tainted, and scholarship is tarnished.

Third, while government institutions might be said to have a right to judge what is an issue of ‘national security’, they surely should not be allowed to have the last word on what is ‘in the public interest’, and hence censor what the public has a right to know. Certainly the reason given of ‘avoiding embarrassment’ that appears to dominate policies on withholding files should be excluded from any consideration. We should also always be suspicious of any person or body that assumes the omniscience to understand what constitutes ‘the public interest’. A parliamentary committee should be set up to adjudicate, or, better still, the Freedom of Information Act, which automatically calls for the release of files after a defined period, should be enforced in a consistent and disciplined manner.

Fourth, that greater discipline should be exercised over archival sources. All sources should have an identifier, even if it is not yet made public. We need three categories of registration: classified (retained) and unpublicised; 2) classified and publicised (as in many unreleased files described at the National Archives); and 3) declassified. A confidential registry of sources should be maintained when any authorised history is written, so that the sources may be revealed at that future time when the files are declassified (if indeed that happens).

Fifth, that it must be remembered that archival sources in the world of intelligence matters are especially suspect, since they may have been doctored, weeded, or redacted. While the accuracy of published material can be debated in public forums, an extra layer of scepticism must be applied when dealing with one person’s individual interpretation of secret archives, in the face also of justifiable doubt about the completeness of the sources.

Sixth, that all interviews undertaken by historians with individuals temporarily unshackled from the Official Secrets Act (or other confidentiality agreements) should be recorded and transcribed. They should then be made available at the same time that relevant files are released. That would help ensure that deceptive self-promotion and concealment were reduced in quantity, and government officials would be held accountable for their contributions.

Seventh, that all such historians should provide a methodology for how they approach memoir, biography and other historical works not based on the archival record. They should explain why an item appears in any bibliography, and discuss any individual work in that context in their History. Robert Conquest once said: “Just because a source may be erroneous or unreliable on certain points does not invalidate all its evidence.” The corollary would be that, just because a source can be shown in some places to be true, it does not mean that all its evidence is reliable. Historians should also be prepared to explain why they reject well-founded and broadly-supported published theories, and not simply make ex cathedra denials of them.

Can an objective history be written? Herbert Asquith said he did not believe there had ever been an historian who had not exhibited some amount of partisanship: “It is a common infirmity of the tribe.”  And I recorded the following in my April 2017 Commonplace entries: “Indeed, those who don’t like his [Eamon Duffy’s] work say he is a Roman Catholic first and a historian second. I don’t see what’s wrong with that. All of us bring our whole selves to scholarship, including our faith.” (Giles Fraser, in Prospect review of Duffy’s Reformation Divided: Catholics, Protestants and the Conversion of England, May 2017) Well, up to a point, Lord Copper. When does a point of view become a prejudice? A principle become a dogma? No doubt every historian brings some unique perspective to his or her process of interpretation, and selection itself reflects some intellectual preference, but if any allows a particular credo to dominate, the result will be an inferior product. While Evelyn Waugh was a novelist who happened to be Catholic, Graham Greene was undeniably a Catholic novelist, and I believe his oeuvre suffered because of that. (“Get a grip, Greene! You weren’t born with it. Make a choice, man!”)

So it is with history. Just as there can be no ‘Marxist’ or ‘feminist’ history, there can be no ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ history – or even ‘definitive’ history. Just history, written by qualified academics, with sources available to all, competing for credibility and reputation in an open market, and subject to refinement and re-interpretation in the light of new evidence. As Basil Liddell Hart was reputed to have said about an ‘official’ history of WWI: ‘official – but not history’.

P.S. As I was preparing this piece, I discovered the existence of an essay titled Intelligence and ‘Official History’, by Christopher Baxter and Keith Jeffery (the same), published in the 2013 compilation Intelligence Studies in Britain and the US: Historiography since 1945, edited by Christopher R. Moran and Christopher J. Murphy. I ordered it, and it arrived after I had completed my text. The authors focus more on the lack of intelligence analysis in official military histories, but include many of the same points that I make about the propagandisation of officialdom, the ambiguity of sources, freedom of access, and the dubiousness of memoir. In that vein they cite my supervisor at Buckingham, Professor Anthony Glees, who in 2003 said: “I don’t think governments should write their own history”, and “academics should not become ambassadors or politicians, or work for the secret service.” In the treatment of non-official sources, the authors provide a telling example with Brook Richards’ official history of clandestine sea operations during World War II, where the author stated that he was responsible ‘for the accuracy of any information not obtained from official British documents’, an assertion that would have been welcome in the histories that I have analysed. The authors also make the following conclusion: “Acknowledging and handling this kind of material (whether in the form of memoir or careful scholarship, as well as more popular works) can pose a problem for the official historian, who, in many cases, cannot simply ignore its existence, but whose use of it may be taken in some way to authenticate it.” Exactly: I could not have put it better myself.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here. And I have added a few more examples of Hyperbolic Contrast here.


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Sonia’s Radio – Part VII

Two readers have separately informed me that they found my last blog too exhausting. I have thus decided to offer health warnings in future. So, if you are not already utterly absorbed by the untold stories of the Ultra secret, and the saga of Sonia’s Radio, I alert you now that this month’s episode may send you to sleep. Please do not read it while operating agricultural machinery!


(In this installment, I analyse the backgrounds and possible motivations of the contributors to the ‘revisionist’ theory of Ultra dissemination, namely that it was fed to Soviet intelligence in Switzerland by SIS – probably via Alexander Foote. All these claims were then magisterially denied by the official historian. For the full story so far, please see Sonia’sRadio.)

The leading German cryptologist from WWII, Wilhelm Flicke, who in the late 1950s committed suicide in mysterious circumstances, wrote that ‘the Rote Drei’s source of information remains the most fateful secret of World War 2’. Echoing this opinion, Nigel West has told me that he has for a long time held the view that ‘the precise source of Lucy’s material is the last great secret of the war’. West’s crisp assessment of the conundrum can be read in his 1985 work Unreliable Witness: Espionage Myths of World War II (published in the USA as A Thread of Deceit). He has also recently suggested to me that ‘nothing much has changed since then’. Yet a flurry of material was declassified in the first decade of this century that must surely be taken into consideration when re-inspecting the mystery of the Lucy ring. Furthermore, many writers have coolly suggested, despite Professor’s Hinsley’s curt denial in the official history of British Intelligence, that there is no longer any mystery behind the distribution of Ultra material to Stalin via the Communist network in Switzerland. It continues to happen. For example, as I pointed out in last month’s blog, in 2013 Peter Matthews wrote, in his SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence 1914-1945, that Alexander Foote was working for SIS in Switzerland, and passing on to the Soviets the valuable Ultra information. Yet no controversy seems to exist: an astounding lack of intellectual curiosity on the part of professional historians is evident, with no protestations, no debates, no critical reviews. This chapter of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ tracks the progress of the revisionist theory over the past fifty years, and inspects the credentials and possible motivations of its proponents.

Muggeridge’s Revelations

Malcolm Muggeridge was the first to make an open statement about Alexander Foote’s possible role as an emissary, in the January 8, 1967, issue of the Observer. In this piece, presented as a review of Accoce and Quet’s The Lucy Ring, Muggeridge claimed to have first met Foote when the latter was installed, in some kind of sinecure, at the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries in the early 1950s. Without explaining how the facts of Foote’s position within an ostensibly Comintern-controlled network had come to the attention of the British authorities, Muggeridge indicated that the ‘Intelligence Department concerned with code-breaking’ faced the challenge of imparting information gained by breaking German codes. (Muggeridge did not use the term ‘Ultra’, nor did he identify Bletchley Park by name, at this time.) “A ready and convenient solution would have been to feed the information to the Russians through one of their own clandestine intelligence set-ups”, he wrote, implying that the Lucy ring was in fact largely a creature of British Intelligence. The availability of radio communications and diplomatic bag, according to Muggeridge, complemented by the country’s neutrality, made Switzerland, and Roessler, an obvious choice for the dissemination of Ultra secrets. In passing, Muggeridge trashed Accoce’s and Quet’s book for its ‘unresisting imbecility’.

Muggeridge was careful not to implicate Foote in this admission  ̶  somewhat oddly, as Foote had reportedly been dead for more than ten years. (It should be remembered, however, that the ex-SOE and SIS officer Ronald Seth in 1965 claimed that Foote was still alive.) “I put the suggestion to Foote, who looked faintly startled and then abruptly changed the subject,” wrote Muggeridge. The broadcaster and journalist known as ‘St. Mugg’ was either being very disingenuous, or he knew more than he admitted. While it might not have been obvious from this article, Muggeridge had in fact worked for SIS during the war. (More than that, apparently. In a blurb on the cover of Read’s and Fisher’s Operation Lucy [q.v.], he boasted that he was involved ‘in wartime clandestine Intelligence duties and in handling Ultra material.’) In an earlier Sunday Telegraph essay, The Case of Kim Philby, (1963) he had, in his customarily waspish way, explained that he had worked for Philby when on assignment in Mozambique. He found Philby congenial company, but considered him too ‘unstable and farouche’ to advance to the top of his career. Nevertheless, expressing some surprise at Philby’s advancement in SIS, he declared: “My own impression at the time was that the foolish and the phonies, not to mention the occasional rogues, were almost invariably preferred to the more honest, straightforward and perceptive.” It is clear that Muggeridge’s experiences with SIS soured him: in an even earlier Spectator article (1961), Public Thoughts on a Secret Service, he had scoffed at the pretensions of the British Intelligence and Counter-Intelligence services, concluding that the contradictions between security and freedom in a liberal democracy made their efforts largely pointless, offering along the way the sardonic observation that ‘Intelligence services are unfortunate in that the more suitable a person is for recruitment to them, the more disastrous he is likely to prove.’

How close was Muggeridge to the action, though? It is quite possible that he had taken advantage of access to information from Ultra insiders, for example his friend Edward Crankshaw, covered later in this piece. Nevertheless, it was Muggeridge, the irresolute counter-spy (he had considered suicide while on duty on the beaches of Mozambique) who broke fresh ground by hinting directly at a) a successful program of intercepting and deciphering vital German traffic, and b) the existence of a country-house where the project had been executed. He had probably offended the Official Secrets Act in such revelations, but no ‘D’ notice had been sent to his newspaper editors, and the response to his article was largely unremarkable. The week following his piece, the Observer published three letters.  The author Len Deighton, ignorant of Ultra, seriously missed the point, and stressed that the war in the Soviet Union was won by Russian blood and sacrifice rather than boffins in an English country house. A second correspondent, Alfred Fields, pointed out that Arthur Koestler (in The Invisible Writing) had recorded that Roessler had been one of the main wartime contacts of Admiral Canaris, head of the Abwehr. This letter hinted vaguely at a whole new dimension of intelligence co-operation: whether Canaris had in fact been working throughout his war with British interests in mind, a fascinating question that is beyond the scope of this investigation

The third letter is the most engrossing. One Charlotte Haldane, writing as a friend of Foote, explained how the confidences that Foote had shared with her indicated that he did not know where Lucy had gained his information, but at the same time she suggested that Foote’s experiences in being interrogated by both Soviet and British Intelligence would have deterred him from admitting anything. Haldane rather over-egged the pudding, however, by claiming that Foote ‘repeatedly [sic] told her that he had no idea, either at the time or later, where or how “Lucy” obtained his information, except that it came straight from the inner councils of the OKW’, as if she hadn’t wanted to accept his simple denial the first time. But why was she so interested in this matter, and why would she not accept Foote’s initial answer, but instead pester him so with her continual questioning? Haldane added that Foote was so puzzled about the origin of the intelligence that ‘he intended to revisit Switzerland to seek further information’. “The Swiss authorities, however, refused him entry owing to his former conviction and imprisonment”, she noted. Was this woman simply a very enterprising reporter?

Ms. Haldane’s role and interests were not revealed at the time. She had in fact been a member of the Communist Party well into the 1940s, and between 1926 and 1945 had been married to Professor J. B. S. Haldane, who was a Communist spy bearing the cryptonym INTELLIGENTSIA, as the VENONA transcripts show. She and her husband had been very active in helping the International Brigades reach Spain, so she had probably met Foote at that time. Indeed Foote recalled seeing her husband on the front line, waving a pistol at the advancing Franco troops: “Luckily for science, we managed to repel the Rebel attack and the professor was spared for his further contributions to world knowledge”, he wrote. Charlotte Haldane was also a close friend of the communist Hans Kahle, a co-conspirator with Jürgen Kuczynski, Sonia’s brother: Kahle became part of Sonia’s network. Shortly after the time of Foote’s interrogation by MI5, Charlotte claimed in a memoir (Truth Will Out) to have cut her ties to the Communist Party some years before, after which she had worked at the Talks Department of the BBC, replacing George Orwell. Her disenchantment was evidently more with Stalinism than with Communism, and she may well have maintained her contacts in the CPGB. She might have been given the mission by Moscow to ascertain the truth of Foote’s involvement with SIS: she never mentioned in her letter her past enthusiasms, or their shared involvement in the Spanish Civil War. Her credentials to comment objectively on the matter were thus somewhat dubious. Foote, knowing her history and allegiances, would have been very guarded in dealing with her.

The statement about his imprisonment needs clarifying, as well. Foote had indeed been imprisoned  ̶  but in no great discomfort  ̶   in Switzerland between November 1943 and September 1944, primarily as a gesture to assuage the Gestapo’s spy-hunters, but also to cover up possible misdeeds by Swiss intelligence. He had sensibly declined to return for a possibly more serious trial in October 1947, and was in absentia sentenced to thirty months in prison, a fine of 8000 francs, and fifteen years’ expulsion. The likelihood of his wanting to journey there on an idealistic mission to investigate Lucy’s sources, when leaving the UK would have exposed him to Soviet assassins, or, preferably but still unpleasantly, a probable spell in a Swiss prison, was extremely thin. It can safely be concluded that he was thus acting out his charade with Haldane. Foote’s file at the National Archives indicates that he hoped to show the manuscript of his Handbook for Spies to Charlotte before publication, in February 1949, as she wanted to use it for a BBC talk. A certain Copeman apparently talked him out of it, warning him of Haldane’s unreliability, but Foote was still in touch with Haldane in February 1952, considering a sequel. As is frequently the case with double-agents, the behavior is ambiguous: Foote might have been showing his true colours, but it is much more likely that he had been engaging in subterfuge to maintain his legend.  He clearly impressed Ms. Haldane, who trusted his story, and declared him ‘one of the bravest men I have known’. She doubtless held a romantic notion that Foote was an idealistic communist who had served the cause, and then seen the light, as had she. That is the outcome she wanted to occur, and Foote projected it for her.

The appearance of the gentleman named Copeman sheds a startling new light on the intrigue. For the individual was almost certainly Frederick Copeman, an ex-Communist of some repute who had been a prominent member of the Invergordon Mutiny. In his memoir, Foote indicated that Copeman, as ‘an old ‘friend’, had in 1938 recruited him for the dangerous assignment abroad. Copeman was a leading CPGB member who had headed the British Battalion of the International Brigades in Spain: that other communist apostate, Charlotte Haldane, attested to his courage and leadership, attributes that the archive now shows to be under question. Moreover, records recently released to the National Archives indicate that Copeman had abandoned his Communist allegiance in 1941, and was even awarded the MBE in that year for fire-fighting services. MI5 appeared to be aware of his recantation – and no doubt, too, was Moscow Centre. Copeman’s being introduced as some kind of external consultant to MI5 on dealing with the CPGB suggests that,  around the time of Barbarossa, he probably informed the Security Service of Foote’s recruitment. And Moscow Centre would also have learned then that one of their prime agents had defected, perhaps without massive concern now that Britain was an ally of the Soviet Union. But the relationships between Foote, Copeman and Haldane demand further investigation.

A comparison of Copeman’s 1948 memoir, Reason in Revolt (1948), with Foote’s Handbook for Spies (1949) sheds some important light on their respective political situations. The staging posts of Copeman’s initial mission to Spain closely match those of Foote. Foote left Dover on December 23, 1936, while Copeman sailed on January 1, 1937. They both assembled in Albacete, and were then drafted into the British battalion at Madriguerras (Madriguerus, according to Copeman), which they both stated was led by William Macartney, with Douglas Springhall as political commissar. Yet, while Foote asserted that almost half of the thousand or so British who served with the International Brigade were killed in Spain, and later characterised Copeman as ‘an old friend’ who was acting on behalf of Springhall in recruiting him for the Comintern, Copeman never mentioned Foote in his narrative. Foote felt free to write: “Later, of course, Copeman split with the Party and joined the Oxford Group [of moral rearmers, not spies, it should be added]”, but Copeman clearly wanted to conceal his role in recruiting Foote, and was sensitive to the latter’s precarious position in 1948. In fact, Copeman was somewhat of a surprising choice to help in Foote’s recruitment, as he was at that time already under a cloud with the CPGB because of his criticism of Communist brutality in the British battalion in Spain. If Moscow Centre had indeed learned of Copeman’s role in the hiring of Foote, it might have been doubly concerned about leakages to British intelligence over Foote’s mission in Switzerland. While all of this information was public at the time, none of these considerations appear to have been picked up after Charlotte Haldane’s contribution in the Observer.

Two weeks after Muggeridge’s article appeared, Accoce and Quet were given their chance to respond to his critique. They went on the offensive with some ill-focused bluster, but were on weak ground. Indeed, they admitted later that they had invented part of their story, which cast doubts on anything they wrote, despite their claims to extensive interviewing. (Witnesses do not always tell the truth.) Thus Muggeridge (on January 29) was able to demolish their riposte quite easily, though he did concede that his theory was ‘only a suggestion’. (Did someone have a quiet word with him in the interim?)  Moreover, he made the rather strange observation (given that in his original piece he had described Foote’s Handbook for Spies as ‘excellent’, and had noted its 1964 republication without identifying the obvious anomalies) that ‘though Messrs Accoce and Quet make a slighting reference to Alexander Foote, they seem to me to have drawn heavily on his Handbook for Spies in compiling their own, in my opinion, far flimsier and more credulous account of the Lucy set-up.’ Thus, despite his equivocal judgment on the merits of Foote’s book,  for a while Muggeridge had the last word  ̶  maybe a protest against a cover-up that he deemed pointless, and one that had condemned his friend Foote to a miserable and lonely life. A few years later, however, Muggeridge did go two steps further: hiding behind the protection of an American magazine, Esquire, in the September 1968 issue he went so far as to name ‘Bletchley’ as the location where the cryptographic work was done, and then asserted, more confidently, that ‘the Russians did get all relevant Bletchley material, routed to them via the ‘Lucy’ setup in Switzerland, whence it was transmitted to Moscow as having come from dissident German staff officers’. The seed had been cast, but appeared not to have landed on fertile ground.

Yet a few more years later, perhaps emboldened by other accounts starting to leak out, Muggeridge even identified the source of his information as Foote himself. In Volume 2 of his autobiography, Chronicles of Wasted Time, titled The Infernal Grove (published in 1973), Muggeridge repeated many ideas and phrases he had used in his Observer piece, but now explicitly quoted Foote as his source for the intelligence that Stalin was receiving ‘the requisite Bletchley material’ via the Lucy Ring in Switzerland. No one appeared to challenge this assertion, maybe not wishing to draw attention to the troublesome matter. Why Muggeridge, having admittedly protected Foote from any breach of secrets in 1967, would now claim that the Comintern radio-operator had revealed the whole story to him, has, however, not been addressed. Was it a harmless oversight? Or had he out of necessity been over-careful about Foote’s situation in 1967? It seems that no one pointed out this inconsistency to him.

Alarms and Diversions

Between the publication of Muggeridge’s Observer piece, and that of his autobiography, however, some significant events had occurred. It should be pointed out that all employees at Bletchley Park had signed the Official Secrets Act, and had thus promised to remain silent about their work, and even the existence of Bletchley Park itself. As Christopher Andrew wrote: “At the end of the Second World War, most of those who had been ‘indoctrinated’ into Ultra believed that it would never be revealed.”  Thus it was no doubt insulting to all of them that Muggeridge, as a former officer of SIS, would be allowed to refer to a centre dedicated to decryption, and even to name it, without any sanctions. However, when the work of a proven spy was published the same year (1968), identifying the Government Code and Cypher School, and describing the process of intercepting foreign traffic, the shock in many quarters must have been intense. For that is what Kim Philby revealed in his My Silent War, as Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio explained.

Philby’s escape to Moscow in 1963 had been a great embarrassment to the head of wartime SIS, Stewart Menzies, who, as Trevor-Roper reported, when challenged tried to downplay the significance of Philby’s role in SIS. But too many people knew the extent of Philby’s influence. Menzies had retired in 1952, but now had to endure the scandal of the fact that he had been responsible for recruiting, nurturing, protecting and promoting perhaps the most dedicated of the ‘Cambridge Spies’. Jeffery’s history of SIS contains the facsimile of a letter written by Menzies to the Foreign Office explaining how such an ‘able man’ as Philby could not possibly be released from working for SIS. Moreover, Menzies was not universally admired. Cavendish-Bentinck (the Chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee during the war) famously described him as ‘neither strong nor intelligent’, and opined that had he not had the fortune to be in charge of GC&CS after the death of his predecessor, Admiral Sinclair, in 1939, he would not have survived as head of SIS. Menzies died before Philby’s book was published, but, as his biographer Anthony Cave-Brown informed us, he had before his death been able to examine the proofs, with notable dismay.

Thus it is reasonable to assume that, once the cat was out of the bag, many officers who had been close to the cryptological events of World War II might have believed that a broader exposure was desirable: to set the record straight, to correct the unbalanced reputation of Menzies (and enhance their own for posterity, no doubt), by not just helping the veil to be lifted from the activities at Bletchley Park, but even to allude to the special project that, so they might have believed, helped win the war – the sharing of Ultra secrets with the Russians. But one thing at a time. The world did not yet know about Ultra, the secret of which was not declassified until the mid-1970s. That process, however, was no doubt facilitated by the gradual leaks of information that emanated from those who believed that their efforts demanded greater public credit, and thought to even the balance of bad publicity that had accrued to SIS and GCHQ from Philby’s acts and revelations. Other scholars put out tempting hints about collusion: the renowned chronicler of German intelligence, Ladislas Farago, in his 1971 book The Game of the Foxes, issued only one sentence on the Lucy Ring, but it hinted at sharing of agents: “It was there [Berne], too, that the British and Soviet secret services gained access to the operations plans [sic] and tactical dispositions of the Wehrmacht, through Alexander Foote and Rudolf Roessler,  . . .”. Even though Farago finessed the issue of the source, Foote was in this way explicitly identified as an agent of the British.

This story was soon amplified. Richard Deacon (the author of A History of the British Secret Service, published in 1969) was not a scholarly historian. His real name was Donald McCormick, he had worked for naval intelligence during World War II, and he had many contacts in the intelligence world, including Ian Fleming, from whom he gleaned his stories. His motivations appear to have been more for the journalistic main chance when he made his revelations. He openly claimed that Russian agents had been forewarned by spies within British institutions of Krivitsky’s disclosures, thus hastening the defector’s death, and he also trashed the theories of Accoce and Quet about the communications of multiple traitors within the German military machine: moreover, the information (so he pointed out) had arrived too regularly to have come from spies in Germany. The facts were quite clear, in his account. British Intelligence had cracked German military codes at Bletchley Park, with the aid of cipher machines captured from German submarines; neutral Switzerland was the ideal place for disseminating material to the Soviets; the Lucy Ring was an instrument of the British Secret Service; Roessler was known by the Czechs through the shadowy figure of van Narvig, and had spied for them; and Alexander Foote had for a long time been an agent of SIS and thus performed a patriotic service for his country.

In retrospect, if the accounts also leaked to Read and Fisher are to be believed, Deacon was right on the mark. And his book must have caused a few feathers to be ruffled in Whitehall. As British mandarins discussed the thorny problem of how to reveal the Bletchley Park story to the world at large, further accounts seeped out. Barton Whaley was an American academic who focused on deception and counter-deception – not just in military fields. His 1973 work, Codeword Barbarossa, inevitably concentrated on Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union, but his insights are provocative, since, based on his research and interviews, he concluded that Foote and Roessler had indeed been active in 1941, warning Stalin through the Lucy Ring about Hitler’s intentions, a theory that goes much against the conventional grain that Lucy himself was not introduced until 1942.  Whaley was also a champion of Muggeridge, and made the following telling observation: “Muggeridge’s hypotheses drew immediate favorable attention in Germany, where any allegation of treason in the OKW [Oberkommando der Wehrmacht] is still excitedly rationalized away in many circles. More recently, Muggeridge has raised his original tentative speculation [i.e. in the Observer in 1963] to outright assertion [i.e. in Esquire in 1968], although he gives no evidence for this change in status.” (Maybe because Foote was really dead by then?) Yet, even though Whaley directly pointed out the links between the Swiss and British Intelligence (his contact, Puenter, known as PAKBO, the main source of information on German plans, was said to be working with SIS’s John Salter), he was not confident enough to go the whole way, and thus describe the Lucy Ring as an agency of British Intelligence, and he still gave credit to the assumption that several Nazi informers were providing the material.

The Ultra Secret Is Revealed

Explanations for the eventual decision to allow the Ultra secret to be exposed tend to overlook the pressure applied by Muggeridge and Philby, and frequently cite works published in other languages, such as Gustave Bertrand’s Enigma, which appeared in 1973.  The story of Bletchley Park and Enigma decryption was officially released in 1974, when F. W. Winterbotham’s The Ultra Secret was published, albeit with some reluctant approval. Marshal of the Royal Air Force Sir John Slessor claimed in his Introduction to the book that he had been trying for twenty years to get the ban lifted, and admitted how the prohibition had inhibited any comprehensive writing of military history. Winterbotham’s entry in the Dictionary of National Biography betrays the reluctance of the government: ‘. . . he had had the text of his book vetted by the authorities, who finally allowed him to publish it, although they did not endorse it.’ In his autobiography, The Ultra Spy, published in 1989, Winterbotham revealed that, in 1972, he had approached Admiral Denning at the Ministry of Defence after an unidentified journalist had come to pick his brains about Ultra. He eventually managed to convince Denning that a ‘proper account of the Ultra secret should be published as soon as possible’. As is characteristic of such accounts, the claims of Winterbotham and Slessor do not gel neatly, and Winterbotham starts to display a pattern of self-promotion. Richard Aldrich, in his history of GCHQ, attributes the decision to desires by the government to balance the negative publicity arising from Philby’s absconding with positive PR: moreover, it could not control the stories about code-breaking coming out in the United States. On the other hand, Cave-Brown identifies Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, as the agent who pushed through the publication of The Ultra Secret, as well as that of Philby’s memoir, as acts of retribution for the slight on his father.

Winterbotham was a respectable choice as chronicler, since he had set up the first Scientific Intelligence Unit in SIS in 1939, and had been a vital part of the project at Bletchley.  He had worked directly for Menzies, establishing Hut 3, which took control of the interpretation and packaging of raw decrypts with the help of intelligence officers recruited from the services, setting up the shadow OKW, and arranging for the secure distribution of Ultra material to allied commanders and intelligence officers who ‘needed to know’. But his book contained many errors, primarily because of the author’s lack of understanding of cryptology (which was an aspect of the whole Enigma story that Denning demanded should not be covered): the authorities allowed them to stand. Moreover, covering the project of releasing the material to the Soviets was not part of Winterbotham’s charter. He also received much criticism, primarily from those who had taken their vow of silence very seriously, for spearheading the disclosure of the Ultra secret, but also for some self-aggrandisement. In the 1993 publication Codebreakers: the Inside Story of Bletchley Park, Edward Thomas (who had worked in Hut 3) set out to clear up one of the ‘many mis-statements’ that Winterbotham made about Bletchley, namely that he had established it and staffed it with German-speaking officers. Thomas claimed that none of such a group had been recruited, implying thereby that Winterbotham had in his account attracted renown to himself instead of a Captain Saunders.

Winterbotham made one important statement, however, that demands close analysis, and represents some evidence for his later surreptitious disclosures. On page 92, he wrote:  “I was never told by Menzies the real reason for the takeover, but gradually pieced together the facts that the Foreign Office and the directors of Intelligence of the armed services became alarmed at the power that Ultra had placed in Menzies’ hands, so that the Foreign Office decided to place control of this vital source of information in the hands of the Joint Intelligence Committee, which was given a Foreign Office chairman (Cavendish-Bentinck). It had been considered advisable to put all the departments at Bletchley under one director, Commander Travis, who was put in to replace Commander Denniston, the real founder of Ultra, now posted back to London on other cryptographic duties.”

The ‘takeover’ that Winterbotham referred to was the handing over (in July 1942) of Winterbotham’s ‘shadow OKW’ to the General Administration at Bletchley, a transfer over which Winterbotham declared some veiled resentment. Yet this is at first glance a somewhat puzzling observation, since the new leader Travis still reported to Menzies, and the loss of one responsibility undergone by Winterbotham was compensated by his increased activities managing the Special Liaison Units that managed the secure distribution of Ultra to the field, adding now responsibilities to the US command. By all accounts, he executed this task with flair and skill, which makes his 1943 award of a mere CBE somewhat surprising. In this role, moreover, he would have been intimately familiar with the communication facilities being set up by Gambier-Parry of SIS’s Section VIII between Britain and offices abroad, including Switzerland, yet he obviously judged this change of assignment as something of a demotion. In his autobiography, he claimed that Menzies was too weak to resist the encroachment of the naval Commander in charge of cypher-breaking at Bletchley, who had decided ‘he wanted my Hut 3’. But was this the whole story?

Perhaps one can read a different message between the lines. Winterbotham’s respect for Denniston (‘the real founder of Ultra’) is clear, and maybe Denniston, who was very concerned about the security of Ultra, had complained about Menzies’s proprietary approach to the traffic, and his personal delivery of the messages to Churchill’s office, when it needed to be owned and assessed by the official Joint Intelligence Committee. It could have been that such insubordination had put Denniston in bad odour, resulting in his demotion. Maybe Denniston, Winterbotham, and Cavendish-Bentinck had all conspired to wrest control of Ultra away from Menzies, whom none of them respected very much, and this was Winterbotham’s coded method of explaining how they had attempted to undermine Menzies’s authority. In the mid-nineteen-seventies, however, they needed help in getting their message out.

It is not easy now to discern the factions involved in the disputes over control of Ultra in 1941 and 1942. Jeffery explicitly states that Menzies twice had to fight off attempts by the directors of intelligence in the three armed services to wrest control away from him. These three were authorised recipients of Ultra, and thus intimately familiar with it, but Goodman informs us that Cavendish-Bentinck, the very effective chairman of the JIC (but a civilian among military men) was incredibly not permitted to see the transcripts until well after the war started. Yet Cavendish-Bentinck had a good sense for security, and for trust in information sharing. He did not consider that Churchill should have access to information that had not been properly assessed by the JIC. Churchill was wont to trust raw Ultra data too credulously: sometimes he held it close to his chest away from his own officers, but at other times, as Peter Calvocoressi observed in Top Secret Ultra, he had to be restrained from telling too much. There were clearly tensions between the suppliers and the customers of intelligence – a not unprecedented phenomenon. But there was also strong rivalry between the Navy and the RAF’s Coastal Command in the battle against submarines, and the Navy, with its traditional leading role in intelligence, won out. Winterbotham blamed Ian Fleming, who, it should be emphasised, was also a source of ‘information’ to some of the 1970s chroniclers. Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck were natural allies.

Then again, Nigel West implies that Denniston, while struggling with the pressures of growth at Bletchley Park, possibly received too much blame for the administrative problems, and, indeed, disputes over Denniston’s merits and failings carried on in correspondence into the 1980s. At the outset of the war, the Government Code and Cypher School was in fact managed by a Joint Committee of Control that included members of Bletchley Park (Travis and Tiltman) as well as officers from SIS (Winterbotham and Gambier-Parry) under the leadership of Menzies’s personal representative, Captain Hastings. Yet Denniston clearly had problems with relationships. Welchman’s biographer, Joel Greenberg, reports that Travis and Denniston could not stand each other, and that Travis had threatened that he would leave if Denniston were not dismissed. Denniston was also a sworn enemy of Richard Gambier-Parry of the Radio Security Service. This was clearly a personnel and bureaucratic mess. In addition, much of the tension arose because of the insertion of armed service experts into the centre, who had ideas about interpretation that went against the grain of the civilian staff who had developed good objective practices for assessing the traffic that came in to their hands. Thus it is probable that Winterbotham got himself embroiled in the controversy, struggling with dual allegiances.  Menzies (because of his reputation, and also due to his personality) was not strong enough to set down any firm policy, and thus resorted to the tactic of a temporising ‘inquiry’. When Hastings completed his report in the spring of 1942, Travis and the Directors of Intelligence came out of the episode rosily, while Winterbotham and Denniston suffered. Denniston was a natural third aggrieved party.

Rivalries and Resentments

I return to the literary chronology. In the year following Winterbotham’s revelations, in 1975, a new twist to the Ultra story appeared in a work by Charles Whiting. Whiting, a Briton, was a prolific author of thrillers who, although born in 1926, managed a varied experience with the Army in Europe at the end World War II. He developed an academic career, gaining his degree at Leeds University, as well as studying in several European universities. In his book Spymasters (as explained in Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio) Whiting openly acknowledged several high-powered names who had helped him in his researches, including R. V. Jones, Kenneth Strong, Hugh Trevor-Roper and Alexander Denniston, as well as Winterbotham himself. While it was not always clear which luminary had provided assistance in what areas (and thus no one could claim that Whiting’s thesis was unanimously approved by all those he acknowledged), in certain places he was very explicit. He emphasized the fact that Winterbotham had reportedly pressed upon Menzies that security over Enigma should be tightened, and thus the concept of the shadow OKW had come into being – initially for the purposes of keeping Allied personnel (not the Soviets) in the general dark as to sources. Yet Whiting echoed the bold breakthrough assertion that SIS was feeding this information to Foote in Lausanne: Menzies and Winterbotham ‘cooked up’ a plan to get the messages to Stalin when the official channel via Moscow (and Kuibyshev) was not working. Whiting also claimed that Dansey had boasted to Philby about the security of his carefully-built Lucy spy-ring, while adding that he did not believe that Philby understood the totality of the deception, even though the spy was aware of the interception process at the time.

Whiting’s confidants were clearly hard on the heels of the authorities in wanting the full story told. It was Whiting who first hinted at some of the stresses and rivalries at the time, which may have encouraged some officers harmed by Menzies to try to gain retribution for their mistreatment – even though Menzies was no longer alive. Whiting declared that Menzies ‘settled scores’ for past slights. He suggested that it was Denniston’s success at Bletchley Park that had gained him powerful enemies, ‘in particular Menzies’. Admitting that Denniston was sometimes his own worst enemy, ‘impatient, secretive, and quarrelsome’, Whiting stated that he fell out not only with Whitehall but also many of his colleagues. Menzies cruelly demoted Denniston, denied him the knighthood he deserved, and, after the war, unable to live on a pension of £591 a year, Denniston had to take up teaching again.

As for Winterbotham, he was reportedly left completely pensionless, and, after some time spent at BOAC, was, according to Whiting, left penniless. Yet this can hardly be true: Winterbotham was able to leave BOAC in 1952, and with his third wife, Petrea, left Effingham in Surrey to buy an eighty-acre farm in Devon. His distresses were probably less to do with money than with lack of recognition. It is revealing to note that Slessor observed in his Introduction to Winterbotham’s work that ‘it is a curious reflection on our system of Honours and Awards that he should have finished up after the war as a retired Group Captain with a CBE on a quiet farm in Devon’, hinting, perhaps, at unpublishable slights. Winterbotham himself contributed a fresh insight in his autobiography: one incident that pushed him over the edge and leave SIS, he wrote, was his re-assignment, at the end of the war, as a low-grade permanent civil servant by the Air Ministry, who claimed not to know what Winterbotham had been doing during the war, a snub that must certainly have soured him. Again, one suspects that this improbable incident is not the whole story. Maybe the authorities disapproved of his romantic life: as his autobiography discloses, he was a ladies’ man of some repute, and had been divorced twice by 1946. (He deftly ignores his second marriage in his autobiography.) Might some of these dalliances have made him a security risk? And, as has been shown, Winterbotham may have misrepresented his whole contribution.

Yet it must also be pointed out that Winterbotham’s professional exploits before the war, when on behalf of SIS he had negotiated with German Air Intelligence behind the back of the Foreign Office, did not endear him to its mandarins, and, indeed, Winterbotham’s account, in his Nazi Connection (1978), of what occurred at that time may not be wholly reliable. Some have claimed that Winterbotham had nurtured sympathies for the fascists in the mid-1930s, provoked by a profound hatred of communism, but that resentment may have been engendered by some of his bogus reports, part of a subterfuge to mislead his German contacts, that were misinterpreted by the Foreign Office. In any case, it appears he developed enemies. The hypocrisies and jealousies of the British diplomatic and intelligence establishment will be explored later, when the tribulations of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck are examined, but for the moment, I merely observe that those with an axe to grind over Stewart Menzies, or how pettily they had been treated after the war, believed they could regain some integrity by telling the truth: they did not need to spread any untruths.

One can see echoes of such frustrations elsewhere. The desire for greater openness about intelligence matters was apparently broad in the 1970s. For example, the writer of espionage thrillers and ex-SIS officer, John Le Carré, has recently written that Philby’s confidant, the officer who interrogated Philby in Beirut just before he absconded, Nicholas Elliot, explained to him how he was at that time obstructed from going public with his experiences. (Elliott, incidentally, took over Dansey’s agent-ring in Switzerland after the war.) “He was frustrated by our former Service’s refusal to let him reveal secrets that in his opinion had long ago passed their keep-by date. He believed he had a right, indeed a duty to give his story to posterity.” (The Pigeon Tunnel, p 177) Thus it is safe to conclude that the continued secrecy was resented by many who believed that the public had a right to know more about what had been, to them, honourable and successful operations. Le Carré omits, however, to mention Elliott’s highly entertaining 1993 ‘memoir’ With My Little Eye: unfortunately, Elliott did not disclose there much that was secret and pertinent to this story, limiting his formal disclosures to fresh observations on the disappearance of Commander Crabb, the diver who in 1956 died in Portsmouth Harbour while investigating a Soviet vessel, the Ordzhonikidzhe.

But it is not always easy to distinguish disclosures from disinformation. One curious contribution to the genre (which I have encountered only since I wrote Chapter 5) is that by a certain R. A. Haldane, whose 1978 book, The Hidden War, gave voice to Muggeridge’s claims, and highlighted the role of Lucy. Haldane nevertheless argued that ‘the theory that we fed the information via Lucy – who would thus have been no more than a cut-out – does not wash. What we fed to the Russians was fed direct’. To support this hypothesis, Haldane shrewdly pointed out the very vital fact (as I explained in Chapter 4) that the detailed requests that the Soviets made would have required an analytical capability stronger than information provided passively by intercepted messages. Without clarifying which particular agency, in what location, via which medium effected this transaction, Haldane’s elliptical comments do suggest that the message-passing occurred in Switzerland. It is obvious that passing Soviet requests for enhanced analysis via Roessler (who could not even operate a wireless set) would have been logistically pointless, and frustratingly slow. But the British believed that maintaining the façade of Lucy and his links was essential to keeping the trust of the Soviets.

The outcome was that Haldane discounted the role of subterfuge that Lucy gave to the whole operation, and which turned suspicion towards leaks in the German High Command. Thus, despite his analysis about the probability of a direct link between the Soviets and British intelligence, his conclusion surprisingly backed off from any tentative hypothesis, and treated the whole matter as a mystery. Moreover, he treated Foote’s memoir with a respect (‘it is entirely genuine’) that was unmerited when coming from an insider in MI5 who should have known the sordid history behind its creation. (He claimed that Foote purposely misidentified Roessler because the latter was still alive, but failed to record that Foote used the name of another real person, Sedlacek, rather than picking a pseudonym, as was used for other characters.) And why was Haldane not more demanding of the evidence behind the claims of Muggeridge and Calvocoressi, instead of pretending that there was probably no one still alive who knew the answer (p 116)? His argument is simply illogical.

Indeed, one has to wonder what the precise experience and qualifications of Haldane, who otherwise wrote a very competent and insightful book, really were. The flyleaf of the volume says that he was ‘a former intelligence officer and son of the Assistant Director of the M.I.5’. [From one hint in his book, and some elementary searches on Google, I have established that R. A.’s father was one Lt.-Col. M.M. Haldane, one of the first officers appointed to the future MI5 in 1914. R.A. was in fact a third cousin of the spy J.B.S.: R. A. was probably unaware of the irony of this relationship. The renowned Viscount Haldane was a cousin of M.M.] In his ‘Author’s Note’, Haldane said that, after cipher work, he moved to Home Security War Room, and in late 1941 was appointed Personal Intelligence Staff Officer to Brigadier-General C. C. Lucas, Director of Intelligence, Home Security, and a member of the Home Defence Committee. A gentleman of that name and rank did indeed exist, but a Google search elicits little, apart from the fact that Lucas was an aide to General French in WWI, and that he wrote a foreword to a book on how to ride side-saddle in 1938 – hardly the calibre of a man entrusted with Ultra secrets. Moreover, no such entity as the Home Defence Committee appears to have existed at that time; the Home Defence Executive, which was set up on May 10, 1940 ‘to coordinate the anti-invasion preparations of all the Service and civilian departments’ (Hinsley), was chaired by Findlater Stewart.

As for Haldane’s career, the author apparently wrote other books, on encipherment and business fraud, and was active after the war with the Nature Conservancy, but has otherwise sunk without trace. I have not come across The Hidden War in any bibliography. The book does indicate some expertise, and an experience in intelligence close to the major deception projects undertaken, but the purpose of its coverage of Enigma and Ultra is questionable. Four major aspects of his narrative, namely i) his use of an apparent cover organisation to conceal his role; ii) his disingenuousness over Foote’s memoir, iii) his highly ambiguous argument about Britain’s role in releasing Ultra to the Soviets, and iv) his failure to follow up research with Muggeridge and Calvocoressi (at least), suggest that his publication might have been part of a public relations exercise on behalf of MI5 and SIS.

Operation Lucy

The next major event in the saga (the publications of Radó, the CIA and Moravec having been covered in Chapter 5) was arguably the arrival of Operation Lucy, by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, in 1980. It is difficult to review critically this volume, as it lacks any references apart from the confidences that are attributed to some of its advisers during the course of the text. It has a superficially impressive list of Acknowledgments, including such obvious heroes as the now familiar cast of Peter Calvocoressi, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, Hugh Trevor-Roper, Ronald Lewin, and F. W. Winterbotham. Yet some scoundrels also appear here: Jürgen Kucynski, the famous subversive and active Communist, brother of the spy Ursula, aka Sonia; Sándor Radó, now graced with the title ‘Professor’, as if that gave him more credibility, as well as a host of not immediately familiar characters whose authority and counsel are uncertain. Did the authors implicitly trust everything these people said to them, without questioning their motives? It is not clear. Whatever the methodology (if it can be called that), the message arriving from the Read/Fisher book is unfailingly clear. The Lucy Ring was a creature of Colonel Dansey and his Z Organisation; Foote had been recruited by Dansey back in 1936; the use of wireless links between London and Foote was a perfect mechanism for passing Ultra information to the Soviets; Sedlacek was in parallel receiving such information from his Czech bosses via the Woldingham transmitter; the information was presented as if it had been leaked from the German OKW to Roessler; and the Soviets began to rely exclusively on Lucy for their knowledge of the Nazi order of battle at Kursk and elsewhere.

At key points, Read and Fisher invoke their informants by name. For example, Cavendish-Bentinck: “When we talked to Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, wartime head of Britain’s Joint Intelligence Committee, the overseer and co-ordinator of all Intelligence activity, he indicated Foote as one point of access and control. Foote was the obvious way in for Ultra material, particularly as he had his own transmitter/receiver – which could be used to contact Britain just as easily as Moscow – and his own personal cipher, which was unknown to Radó. There was no way that Radó or anyone else in the network could have checked what Foote was sending to Centre. In any case, Foote also had his own sources of intelligence in Germany and Switzerland, and so could be expected to send additional material to Moscow. He always remained semi-autonomous in the network.” And Winterbotham: “However, it would have been very rash for the British to have relied solely on Foote. The very fact that he was an obvious choice for use by London made it dangerous both to the security of Ultra and to Foote’s own cover as a genuine Soviet agent. In any case, such simplicity and directness were not Dansey’s way of doing things. He always favoured complexity, choosing twisting back alleyways in preference to the broad highway. The author of the first book on Ultra, Group Captain F. W. Winterbotham – who also confirmed that Britain controlled the Swiss network throughout the war – told us that this was typical of the way Dansey operated, and that he revelled in the pleasure of being able to ‘get one up’ on his rivals in the SIS.” (both on p 99) (Winterbotham divulged to his journalist friends far more than he ever committed to paper himself.)

Perhaps it is wiser to introduce here a contemporaneous critique of the book, by Edward Crankshaw, in the Observer of October 12, 1980. Crankshaw had good credentials: in 1940 he had joined SIS from the Army, where he had been a Signals Intelligence officer, and was sent to Moscow in 1941 to represent that function, to communicate the fruits of Ultra to his Soviet peers, and to try to gain captured documents from the Russian in exchange. As Calvocoressi wrote: “Attached to the British military mission in Moscow was a single officer – Major Crankshaw, already mentioned – who represented BP, Broadway, Military Intelligence and also the Admiralty. He was a complex node of intelligence in his own person and he reported to the ambassador who in turn passed on personally whatever secret intelligence London decided to vouchsafe.” (Crankshaw was educated at Bishop’s Stortford, the same school that produced Dick White and the Spycatcher officer, Peter Wright.) So he was undoubtedly an authority on the Ultra distribution program, and witnessed at first hand the breakdown of co-operation between the British and the Soviets in his time in Russia. The switch to using the Lucy network occurred before Crankshaw was re-assigned, in 1943, to Bletchley Park as liaison officer on matters Soviet.

Crankshaw’s Observer piece was titled ‘Uncle Tom Cobbleigh and all’ (playing off the fact that the mysterious Sedlacek, also known as Selzinger, and owning a British passport in the name of Simpson, provided by SIS, was known by all as ‘Uncle Tom’), and Crankshaw crisply endorsed the main planks of Read’s and Fisher’s case, which he described as ‘a hilarious read’, while conceding that the authors may not have realised just how comical their concoction was. “So Lucy in Switzerland was built up into a legendary secret agent with sources in the German High Command and used as the main channel for telling the Russians what Hitler was going to do next and when and how”, he explained, adding: “The authors get into their stride and tell this absurd, enthralling, sometimes moving and formidably complicated tale so admirably that one forgets the huge unanswered questions”.  While Crankshaw identified several inaccuracies in the story, he credited the authors with having attained as close and correct an account of the liaison (‘if that is the word’) between British and Soviet Intelligence as was humanly possible. So why would Crankshaw deceive about such a serious matter as this? His experience and evidence speak for themselves.

In fact Crankshaw may have been Muggeridge’s informer. In the Introduction to his 1940 work, The Thirties, Muggeridge explained that he had completed his manuscript in December 1939 ‘in a barrack hut at Ash Vale, near Aldershot’, when he was a member of the embryonic Intelligence Corps. On one occasion (probably early in 1940), he had been instructed to meet an officer from the War Office at the local railway station. After the customary salute, he accompanied the officer in the staff car, with Muggeridge sitting next to the driver, and the officer viewable in the driving-mirror, at which point the two recognized each other. The officer was Edward Crankshaw. “To the consternation of our driver, we began to fall about in the car in a condition of hopeless mirth at the unconscious deception we had practiced on one another. I believe I never took the war, certainly not the army, quite seriously again,” he wrote. Either Muggeridge and Crankshaw engaged in a conspiracy over the distribution of Ultra, or they shared a less than utterly respectful regard for the solemn self-delusions that accompany the exercise of intelligence and counter-intelligence. The latter explanation is the more likely.

Scandal and Controversy

Meanwhile, Victor Cavendish-Bentinck provided more solid testimony. Cavendish-Bentinck (later Lord Portland) has been generally regarded as a highly competent Director of the Joint Intelligence Committee, a post he held throughout the Second World War. Michael S. Goodman is expansive with praise for him in his official history of the JIC. Major-General Kenneth Strong wrote, in his Men of Intelligence, that ‘when Bill Cavendish-Bentinck came upon the scene in October 1939 the British Intelligence community was confused and seeking leadership,’ and that he turned out to be ‘an excellent chairman, tactful, relaxed, and good-tempered’. Cavendish-Bentinck was a shrewd judge of political and military opportunities and risks: he quickly pointed out the hazards associated with the launch of SOE, he was one of the few who took seriously Hitler’s threats to invade the Soviet Union, and he was one of the first to recognize that the Soviet Union might be a post-war threat (as Percy Craddock records), before that was an acceptable opinion in the Foreign Office.

As has been explained, in the reorganization tribulations of GC&CS in early 1942 overall responsibility had been placed under the custodianship of the Joint Intelligence Committee, giving Cavendish-Bentinck an intimate role in guiding the use of Ultra. This was clearly a point of contention between Menzies and Cavendish-Bentinck. It was also something that irked Winterbotham, who could not hide his sense of disappointment with Menzies in both his books. Lastly, there is confirmation of the leads which Cavendish-Bentinck apparently fed to Read and Fisher, in the 1986 biography of him written by Patrick Howarth, Intelligence Chief Extraordinary. On page 164, Howarth casually recorded what Cavendish-Bentinck had obviously told him: “In practice one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland. This served incidentally to enhance the credibility, and also the post-war reputations, of the Soviet agents involved.”

Did Cavendish-Bentinck harbour a grudge, as well? He was well exposed to the foibles of Menzies. He was involved in two committees that analysed SIS’s role and organisation. The first was initiated by the Foreign Office’s Permanent Under-Secretary Alexander Cadogan in 1943, when Cavendish-Bentinck served under Nevile Bland. The second was set up in June 1945, with Cavendish-Bentinck himself as chairman, to consider the post-war shape of SIS, which had generally been regarded as an organisational disaster throughout the war, as Philip Davies has vigorously asserted in his MI6 and the Machinery of Spying. Menzies admittedly had inherited a broken structure in 1939, after Sinclair’s death. Sinclair had even merged Dansey’s Z Organisation, which had been established as a back-up command in the event that SIS outstations were destroyed – as happened when Hitler swiftly invaded most of Europe   ̶   with SIS, which defeated the purpose of the set-up. Yet Menzies, as critics like Jeffery and Davies have pointed out, failed lamentably to create an efficient structure throughout the war, appointing effectively two vice-directors in Vivian and Dansey, who could not stand each other, and sustaining a much too flat management hierarchy, with lack of any proper delegation. For similar incompetence, Menzies had demoted and humiliated Denniston, but, instead of undergoing the same treatment himself, he exploited his knowledge of how Whitehall worked, and his individual relationship with Churchill, to protect his throne. Jeffery has categorised Menzies‘s treatment of Denniston (and others) as ‘unsentimental’, but a better epithet might be ‘unfair’ or ‘vindictive’: Menzies’s treatment by his employers was certainly more generous.

Moreover, Cavendish-Bentinck was considered as a leading candidate to replace Menzies as head of SIS in 1949, after he had been recalled from his position as Ambassador to Poland in less than honourable circumstances, with pressure coming from Communist sympathizers in the Labour government. Yet this consideration was plagued with controversy. Jeffery relates how William Hayter (head of the Services Liaison Department in the Foreign Office), and Howard Caccia (Cavendish-Bentinck’s short-termed successor on the JIC) both considered him an excellent choice to succeed Menzies, despite the fact that Cavendish-Bentinck had been denied the Ambassadorship to Brazil in 1947 on policy grounds. External circumstances hurt Cavendish-Bentinck. Shortly beforehand, details of his marital problems had appeared in the newspapers: his wife had refused him a divorce, and he had made several admissions of extra-marital affairs in his testimony, and had had to resign from the Diplomatic Service. Thinking perhaps that such rules did not apply to the still Secret Service (the existence of which was not even admitted publically), Hayter and Caccia pressed their case, but were overruled by the veto of the Foreign Secretary, Ernest Bevin.

Goodman’s Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee (2014) makes no mention of the SIS appointment, but does add some colourful detail. In a scenario eerily reminiscent of how the wife of MI5’s leader of counter-espionage Guy Liddell, a lady named Calypso (née Baring), had left her husband for the United States when war broke out, Cavendish-Bentinck’s wife, an American heiress called Clothilde Quigley, had also departed across the Atlantic with their children at the start of the war. Wishing to re-marry, Cavendish-Bentinck had started divorce proceedings at the time he moved to Warsaw. Yet, as Goodman reminds us, ‘under F. O. rules of the time,  no one in the  diplomatic service was permitted to re-marry without the permission of the Secretary of State’, that individual no doubt being an impeccable judge of public probity and private morals.  The outcome was that Cavendish-Bentinck’s political career came to an end, and his pension rights were terminated.

The same rules did not apply to heads of intelligence services so strictly. Menzies himself had gained a divorce in 1931, after his wife of thirteen years, Lady Avice Sackville (who became the model for George Smiley’s wife, Lady Anne, in John Le Carré’s Tinker, Tailor, Soldier, Spy) left him for another man. Yet such was the scandal of divorce that Menzies had had to resign from his regiment, and exert special influences to keep his job. And, as Goodman adds, there had been a precedent in the Foreign Office: Cavendish-Bentinck’s predecessor, Ralph Skrine Stephenson, had been allowed to re-marry. Cavendish-Bentinck’s error had been allowing the messy details of his private life to enter the columns of the press. Moreover, one of his most vigorous champions was Lord Beaverbrook, whom Bevin could not stand. With a classic touch of restrained sardonicism, Cavendish-Bentinck wrote to Bevin’s secretary: “The one matter on which I have strong feelings is that I should receive my pension, as I do not consider that an unfortunate divorce suit should be placed in a lower category than idleness or incompetence, and I understand that those who have to resign for these reasons are granted pensions.” But his fate was sealed.

The ‘revisionists’ can be said to fall into two camps. Muggeridge and Crankshaw were temporary intelligence officers, a touch cynical about the vanity and self-delusion that accompanied intelligence work, who believed that the façade needed to be undermined. Muggeridge was also obviously affected by the plight of his friend Foote, abandoned and abused, a traditional pawn in an unwritten novel by John Le Carré. Denniston, Winterbotham and Cavendish-Bentinck, on the other hand, were professionals who all harboured a strong belief in the importance of proper security for Ultra, whether it was to ensure that the right persons received it after proper assessment, or whether it was driven by the conviction that it should be kept from the eyes of those who might abuse it. It is not clear that they wanted the true story to come out because they were proud of the way that the information had been massaged and sent to Stalin, or because they were disgusted at the risks that the breach of security might have entailed. Yet it must have been particularly irksome for the three of them that, having instituted extremely tight procedures for distributing Ultra information to military commanders, they learned that GCHQ, SIS and MI5 all turned out to be leakier than the proverbial sieve. It seems inarguable that they agreed that Menzies’s reputation had been allowed to be swelled disproportionately, and that the revelation of the truth would no longer harm any national security interests.

Cavendish-Bentinck’s biography appeared in the mid 1980s, as a late sally in the war of words. By then, of course, Hinsley had issued his famous denial (“There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring”), effectively declaring that all of what I have listed above was merely tittle-tattle.  But why was there no protest? No inquiry? No interview? Why were Hinsley and Winterbotham not brought together in a studio? Why did BBC Panorama’s Ludovic Kennedy (who had survived the Arctic convoys, and whose sister was married to Peter Calvocoressi’s cousin) not take up the challenge? Why did Bruce Page and the Sunday Times’s renowned Insight team not delve into the murky controversy? Perhaps they were warned off. After all, in 1979 both Anthony Blunt and John Cairncross had been unmasked, two more spies (to add to Philby) who had been on the authorised list of Ultra recipients.

It clearly would not have helped the reputation of the British authorities if the world learned that the exercise to put Ultra into Stalin’s hands had been a complete waste of time because the corridors of power were riddled with his spies who were handing the stuff over in such quantities that they taxed the cipher clerks and radio operators in the Soviet Embassy. And the story of Leo Long in MI14 was yet to be revealed. It would not be surprising if British media leaders were advised that any further promotion of the alternative version of history would be harmful to the nation’s security interests, and were required to drop their attentions from the matter. Cavendish-Bentinck’s insertion is a rare example of plain speaking in the 1980s, and Winterbotham’s otherwise highly engaging autobiography – published a year before he died  ̶  was reticent and respectful in the extreme. Either what Winterbotham had divulged earlier was untrue, or he had been muzzled.

Alexander Foote

Lastly, what of Alexander Foote? Not much was added about his career in these works. Nigel West is of the opinion that Foote did not fit the mould of those that Dansey regularly hired for his Z Organisation, and cites Dansey’s deputy, Kenneth Cohen, as stating that he was ‘adamant that Foote had never been an MI6 agent’. Yet Cohen, by his own admission, did not join the group until 1937, while Foote had been recruited in 1936. In their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, Read and Fisher assert that Dansey kept his groups well compartmentalised, so Cohen might well not have known about Foote. Moreover, Cohen was in charge of French operations during the war, and never responsible for Switzerland. Read and Fisher also assert that Foote was not alone: Dansey had selected other deep agents ‘with suitable qualifications to infiltrate communist spy rings’, although no others have apparently come to light. Maybe they did not survive the Spanish Civil War, or could not build a convincing enough cover to be accepted by Moscow.

Yet it must be stated that, overall, hard evidence for Foote’s recruitment is thin, and tantalisingly provocative. The authors of Colonel Z claim Kenneth Cohen, Malcolm Muggeridge, Cavendish-Bentinck (a great admirer of Dansey), Frederick Winterbotham and Nigel West among the experts who provided them information for their story. Did they all see the final text, on which they could not possibly have agreed? Or was Cohen perhaps not telling the truth? That is one of the problems of books with an impressive list of sources and advisors, but where the claims made in the text are not directly linked to each individual contributor. Yet it would be unpractical to think that illuminating new sources will become available, unless an unexpected trove of SIS files is found and declassified.

In summary, the totality of the statements from the various revisionist officers still comprises a weighty message. So many distinguished men, who performed honourably for their country,  were prepared to promulgate statements that together made coherent sense, and helped resolve a longtime puzzle, while Professor Hinsley was allowed – or forced – to deny them in a shabby dismissal. The extraordinary outcome is that the contrarian view has entered the mainstream of public consciousness, but the claims of the authorised historian have remained unchallenged and unamended. Is it not time for an arbiter, wise and unbiased, to make a judgment on this timeworn debate?

New Sources:

SIGINT: The Secret History of Signals Intelligence, 1914-45 by Peter Matthews

The Official History of the Joint Intelligence Committee, Volume 1 by Michael S. Goodman

The Ultra Secret by F. W. Winterbotham

Men of Intelligence by Kenneth Strong

Intelligence at the Top by Kenneth Strong

The Hidden War by R. A. Haldane

The Hidden World by R. A. Haldane

The Pigeon Tunnel by John Le Carré

The Game of the Foxes by Ladislas Farago

The Thirties by Malcolm Muggeridge

The Nazi Connection by F. W. Winterbotham

The Ultra Spy, by F. W. Winterbotham

Unmasked! The Story of Soviet Espionage by Ronald Seth

VENONA: the Greatest Secret of the Cold War by Nigel West

The Philby Affair by Hugh Trevor-Roper

The Illegals by Nigel West

Truth Will Out, by Charlotte Haldane

With My Little Eye, by Nicholas Elliott

Gordon Welchman: Bletchley Park’s Architect of Ultra Intelligence by Joel Greenberg

Reason in Revolt, by Fred Copeman


This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

This posting was updated on May 12 to correct a fact about Charlotte Haldane, to add an explanatory paragraph about Frederick Copeman, and to expand a statement about Alastair Denniston after I read Greenberg’s biography of Gordon Welchman. After reading Copeman’s autobiography, I added a further paragraph on Copeman and Foote  on May 30. Coldspur

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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.

Ian Simpson & Richard Heald

The Elusive Third Man (Richard England) (video not yet displayable)

Hotspur & John Guiver

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  . . .

Percy, Earl, Flood, Stewart, Hislop & New

Kelly, Rawlings. McCombie, Jukes, Kirk & Singleton

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.

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.

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Sonia’s Radio – Part VI

(In this instalment, I examine the career of Alexander Foote in detail, and introduce some evidence that he was indeed employed by SIS. For the preceding instalments, please see SoniasRadio.)

In a review of the career of Alexander Foote, and an assessment of whether he was in fact recruited by Colonel Dansey for the latter’s Z Organisation, five major features of his career as a Soviet radio-operator are worthy of attention. One: the sincerity of Foote’s affiliation to communism and the genuineness of his commitment to espionage on behalf of the Soviet cause; two: his role in Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and in her subsequent move to the United Kingdom; three: his connections in Swiss society that enabled him to arrange funding for Radó’s cash-starved network, when paying for Lucy’s expensive services was a paramount concern; four: his identification of the informant known as ‘Lucy’ and his representation of the latter’s activity; and five: the credibility of his ‘defection’ in Berlin in 1947, when on assignment by the Soviets, and the nature of his subsequent interrogation by MI5. In the various accounts of his actions, certain contradictions point to the credibility of the claims for his recruitment by SIS, which, while substantial, unfortunately repose on largely hearsay evidence.

One of the problems is that much of the published material is inherently unreliable. The memoirs of Sonia and Radó have been broadly criticised as being controlled by their Communist masters. Foote’s memoir (which appeared itself in two self-contradictory versions) was ghost-written by MI5, and contains multiple untruths and distortions (to the extent that a verifiable and reliable account of his career does exist). Foote himself told the historian David Dallin that MI5 had ‘mutilated’ his book. Yet several source documents are available that give a more accurate account of what actually went on at the time, even allowing that the authors of such documents may have been distorting some of the facts themselves. (Even British archives may have been doctored!) The files on Foote’s interrogation by MI5 in 1947, and the 1949 report on the activities of the Rote Kapelle – both available at the National Archives – contain enough clues to counter what has for decades been presented as the ‘official’ story of Foote’s life.

The summarisation of Foote’s career – and in the form that Britain’s Security Services would rather have it expressed – runs as follows. He was born in 1905, in Kirkdale, Liverpool. After attending village school in Yorkshire, he was apprenticed to a salesman in Manchester, but joined the R.A.F. in 1935. A year later, however, he left the air force, and volunteered for the International Brigades in the Spanish Civil war, leaving in December 1936. In September 1938, he returned to England with a certificate of discharge on health grounds. On the recommendation of the British Communist Party, he was recruited by agents of Soviet Military Intelligence for unspecified work in Europe. In October 1938 he met Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski) in Geneva, and early the following year was given training in sabotage for work in Germany. He introduced his International Brigade colleague, Len Beurton, to Sonia, and the two spent several months, primarily in Munich, planning sabotage activity. Recalled just before the war broke out, he and Beurton received wireless/telegraph training from Sonia, who, with her residence visa about to expire, looked for a way of moving to Britain. She arranged a divorce from her husband, and married Beurton. She was able to escape with her two young children via Portugal to Britain in December 1940/January 1941, while her new husband had to remain in Switzerland because of passport and transit problems. Foote became the leading radio operator in the Swiss network of the Rote Kapelle, and was active until the Rote Drei was dismantled, in 1943, through pressure of the Gestapo on the Swiss authorities. After a period in prison, Foote escaped to France in 1944, contacted his Soviet masters, and agreed to return to the Soviet Union, where he was interrogated, but found not guilty of any misconduct. Over two years later, after special training, he was sent to Berlin in the guise of a German, to prepare for a new mission in South America, but presented himself to the British authorities with a desire to defect. He was brought to Britain and interviewed thoroughly by MI5, who then assisted him in the writing of a memoir, Handbook for Spies, and arranged a job for him in The Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries. Foote eluded any vengeance from the Soviet apparat, but died in August 1956.

The problem with this biography is that at every stage, if one delves a little more deeply, contradictions and paradoxes appear. To start with, Foote’s memoir, ghosted by the MI5 officer Courtenay Young, has massive errors of chronology and fact. As an example, in the first edition, published in 1949, Foote identifies the informant known as ‘Lucy’ as one Selzinger, a Czech who worked for his national General Staff. He describes the one occasion when he met him, after their release from prison in 1944, which is worth quoting (p 178): “A quiet, nondescript little man suddenly slipped into a chair at our table and sat down. It was Lucy himself. Anyone less like the spy of fiction it would be hard to imagine. Consequently he was exactly what was wanted for an agent in real life. Undistinguished-looking, of medium height, aged about fifty, with his mild eyes blinking behind glasses, he looked exactly like almost anyone to be found in any suburban train anywhere in the world.” Apart from the contradiction that Selzinger was both ‘little’ and ‘of medium height’, it is impossible to tell whether this encounter actually happened. Was Foote actually introduced to Selzinger, under the impression that this character was Lucy? Or did he meet the real Lucy (Roessler), believing that his name was Selzinger? Or even in reality meet Roessler, aware of his name and identity, after which MI5 distorted the whole episode with references to Selzinger, as a means of concealing the identity of Roessler (who might turn out to be a not very impressive superspy), in the belief that they could get away with it? The speculation is insoluble. (I shall return to Selzinger later.)

The pit that the officers of MI5 had started digging for themselves became deeper when Handbook for Spies was re-issued, in 1964. It was then graced with a new Introduction (anonymous, but presumably provided by MI5), which informs us that ‘Foote himself is dead: so is the fabulous ‘Lucy’ who even after the war could not refrain from continuing his real – as opposed to cover – occupation and worked for the Czech Intelligence Service’. It then adds blandly: “There have been no alterations to the original text save for the inclusion of Lucy’s real name.” Since the identity of ‘Lucy’ was now known from the trial that Roessler underwent in Switzerland in 1953, the pretence could not continue. (Selzinger was indeed not a pseudonym, unlike other fictions adopted, such as ‘Schulz’ for ‘Hamburger’, but indeed another person. Roessler died in 1958.) Thus Roessler’s name now appears where Selzinger’s was – but the descriptive information for him remains the same. Roessler – who was German, and escaped to Switzerland in 1933 – now becomes a Czech native. Several sentences describing Selzinger’s arrest, and subsequent granting of immunity by the Swiss government, because of his services (p 100), have been deleted. The result is a worse mess than that which appeared in the 1949 version, but for MI5 to attempt to unravel the lies it had told would probably only bring fresh inspection of the case. It was simpler to act as if it were merely a case of mistaken identity on Foote’s part, and to hope nobody noticed the anomalies. MI5 compounded its misjudgment, however, by claiming: “‘Sonia’ is living quietly in England. Foote’s original recruiter [Sonia’s sister, Brigitte] is now living equally quietly behind the Iron Curtain.” Both these facts were wrong. Sonia had rapidly escaped to East Germany after the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, the atom spy. The inevitable conclusion is that anything claimed in Handbook for Spies must be treated with suspicion. Sir Percy Sillitoe, the head of MI5, had to divert a request from the CIA (whose great interest had been provoked by Foote’s memoir) about the possibility of interrogating Foote: “I think Foote’s book should not be taken too literally as questions of detail are not necessarily accurately presented therein.” Indeed, Sir Humphrey.

The reader who is interested in further analysis of the workings behind this clumsy opus is pointed to Chapter 46 of Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book, Treachery, although Pincher concentrates on the cover-up behind Sonia rather than the events in Switzerland. (Intriguingly, Pincher incriminates MI5’s Dick White, who later rose to Director-General, even more than Roger Hollis.) The errors, however, clearly go beyond the deceptions over Sonia’s movements. Thus addressing the conflicts in Foote’s life-story requires a process of triangulation when all three sources of information (Foote’s memoir; the memoirs of others; and archival material) may be flawed. At this stage, when investigating the contradictions and puzzles, I deliberately use very conservatively Read’s & Fisher’s 1981 publication Operation Lucy, which contains (so far as I know) the most detailed account of Foote’s life available in print. While it contains a rich list of sources, and presents an equally deep array of impressive contributors in its Acknowledgments, very few of the facts of Foote’s life are anchored in any of the sources. The five features listed above are now analysed:

1) Foote’s commitment to communism:

Foote’s most significant two colleagues, his boss, Sándro Radó, and the person who trained him, Sonia, both nursed doubts about his ideological commitment. Radó was astonished at Foote’s lack of political education. While admitting his practical strengths, he declared: “ . . . the man had trouble finding his bearings in the complicated international situation and probably had only a vaguest notion of the working-class movement.” When Radó wanted to celebrate the twenty-fifth anniversary of the October Revolution, he turned up at Foote’s flat with a bottle of champagne. Yet Foote showed no recognition of the significance of the occasion. Radó even claimed that he complained to his bosses about the behaviour of ‘Jim’ (Foote’s cryptonym), but his protests were ignored, with Moscow showing an unexplained but maybe consequential confidence in Foote’s bona fides at that time. David Dallin, the author of Soviet Espionage, who interviewed Foote and other agents shortly before Foote’s death, wrote (in 1955): “Rado had no confidence in Foote or his loyalty to the Soviet cause and suspected him of being an agent of the British intelligence service assigned to penetrate the Soviet espionage machine. Rado and a few other members of the group believed that throughout his career, in Spain, in Switzerland, and later in Moscow, Foote had been in His Majesty’s service. ‘I have no documents to prove it,’ says a former member of the Rado network, ‘but I am certain that he was a British agent.’”

As for Sonia, when she first met Foote in 1938, she was impressed. He listened well, and asked good questions, and she concluded that he must be a brave and solid fighter to have joined the Brigades in Spain. (She was writing this account in 1977, long after the time when she learned that Foote had ratted, and was thus known to be a ‘traitor’.) Later, however, Foote prevaricated over the possibility of his marrying Sonia (i.e. before Beurton was selected for this glorious task), and Sonia wrote that he offered up the excuse that he had gone to Spain to avoid a reckless marriage offer he had made to an English girl. Sonia was not pleased. “Either the marriage offer had induced his going to Spain instead of political motives, or he had selfishly worked out an excuse for not committing to what Central wanted,” she wrote. While subtly endorsing the absolute authority of Moscow and its subjugation of personal desires (a point of great importance, as will soon be shown), she at this stage, in the summer of 1939, still did not doubt Foote’s political commitment.

Foote (or MI5) gave a rather unconvincing account of what propelled him towards communism, indicating that he was ‘discontent’ and ‘restless’, but that the Spanish Civil War crystallised his ‘somewhat inchoate thoughts’. The problem with this account is that it completely ignores what the archival evidence shows – that Foote signed up to join the RAF on July 26, 1935, (intriguingly under the name Alexander James Forde), but that the circumstances under which he was discharged were highly ambiguous. One note states that he was declared ‘illegally absent’ on December 23, 1936, the day he left on a one-day excursion ticket for Spain, to join the International Brigades. Foote claimed to his interrogators that he deserted because he was a ‘free-thinker’, and thus presumably not well-disposed to authority. Yet other records indicate that the RAF had no record of his desertion, and that his performance had been considered very satisfactory. His RAF discharge papers state that Foote’s services ‘were no longer required – at his own request’, and his character is identified as being ‘V.G’. No attempt was made to arrest him when he returned to the UK on September 16, 1938, and other notes suggest that MI5 (in the person of Roger Hollis) tried to hush the whole business up, when overeager junior officers in MI5 tried to pin down the RAF on the circumstances of Foote’s dismissal. A note indicates that Hinchley Cooke of C4a in MI5 asked the Home Office to cancel its inquiry into Foote as one of its ‘H.O.S.I.’ (‘Home Office Special Investigation’?) cases. It all suggests an outside agency was at work, that SIS had possibly intervened, and contrived the RAE to give Foote an unofficial discharge.

If anyone was pulling strings, it was a lengthy ordeal for Foote to undergo to build credentials. In his book, Foote gave an authentic account of his work as a battalion transport officer in Spain, and of his introduction to luminaries in the Communist Party movement, including Professor Haldane, and David Springhall, who would help recruit him for his ‘dangerous work’ in Europe on his return to Britain. He claimed that he was sent back on leave in September 1938 to attend the CP Congress in Birmingham. He was not a member of the Party, but his work as a transport worker made him ‘less vulnerable to accusations that he was a “Trotskyist”’. A project for him to work as a courier and smuggler between CPHQ and the battalion in Spain fell through, with the result that his old friend Fred Copeman informed him that the CPGB was recommending Foote for the mission in Europe (i.e. not Spain). Foote wrote that he did not know who his new masters were, but suspected that Copeman was involved with Soviet Military Intelligence. Foote then visited Brigitte Kuczynski in Hampstead (she remained anonymous, and the details in his memoir are wrong about the location) on ‘one fine October morning’, and quickly resolved to accept the assignment after a ten-minute encounter. There was no mention of a meeting with Sonia:  he had to make his arrangements quickly, as the meeting in Geneva was in a few days’ time. “I soon found myself on a boat crossing the Channel.”

Here again, the details are unreliable, as the chronology does not fit cleanly. As also explained by David Burke in The Lawn Road Flats, using the Kuczynski files at the National Archives, Sonia returned to the UK in October 1938, and approached Fred Uhlmann, an Austrian Communist who was also a Spanish Civil war veteran. Uhlmann spoke to Springhall, who in turn recommended Foote, whom Uhlmann then interviewed. Foote’s details were passed to Sonia, who had to get approval from Moscow. That having happened, Sonia was told to interview Foote before she returned to Geneva, but Foote was unable to make the appointment because of sickness (as Sonia explains in her memoir). Foote had to meet Uhlmann again at the King Street HQ, and receive his instructions to meet Brigitte instead.  This must all have taken some time, yet Foote was issued with a passport on October 12, after travelling to Manchester to have his former bank manager sign his passport application form – an unimaginably speedy process, especially given his background as someone who had recently absented himself from the country to join the International Brigades on a one-day excursion ticket. (To complicate matters further, MI5 believed that Foote and Brigitte had an affair.) Again, he must have had help in high places.

The incongruities in Foote’s account are many. If he was being given a deep cover, he actually showed a lot of resilience in going through with it all, but the hands of the authorities in managing his career are fairly obvious. Admittedly, if SIS did recruit him, it also enjoyed a lot of luck, in that Foote not only turned out to possess the right temperament, he also survived the conflicts in Spain. Yet his commitment to communism was less than red-blooded – a deficiency that will be explored further when his ‘defection’ is analysed.

2) Foote’s role in Sonia’s marriage and move to England:

Foote was eventually installed and trained as a radio-operator under Sonia, after paying visits to Germany to explore opportunities for sabotage. He was recalled just before war broke out, at the end of August 1939, when the implications of the Nazi-Soviet pact were playing havoc on the minds of communists in western Europe. Foote presents the announcement of the pact as a blow to Sonia’s resolve, after which she expressed a desire to Moscow to renounce undercover activities and move to England. In his memoir, Foote asserts that Sonia abandoned her work for the GRU at this stage. He suggests that her bosses in the Soviet Union had some misgivings about her opinions, but that to them a greater obstacle was her lack of papers, and she thus contrived both a divorce from her husband (identified as ‘Schulz’) and an ensuing marriage to Len Beurton, so that she would be given British citizenship, and thus be able to move to the UK. “She continued to obey such orders as she received, but at the first opportunity to the best of her ability she pulled out and returned to England”, Foote’s (MI5’s) account runs, and adds that “there are no Kremlin objections to retirement from the service if circumstances permit and discretion is maintained.” This is, of course, utter nonsense. The decisions of the party were not something between which agents could pick and choose: that would be bourgeois individualism. This account is admittedly echoed elsewhere: Radó gives the impression that Sonia left on her own initiative, and it is also possible that the Soviet Archive has been doctored to distort the truth. Yet Sonia would not have made any move without Moscow’s explicit permission.

One of the on-line readers of Sonia’s Radio (who wishes to remain anonymous) has given me a translation of a letter that Sonia was purported to have written to Moscow Centre in late August 1939, where she makes the suggestion that she divorce officially [sic] from Rolf (Rudolf Hamburger) and marry Jim (Foote) or John (Beurton). She tells them that she is ‘on firm footing’ in Switzerland (not true, as her residence pass is about to expire), and that her husband works as an architect in China (maybe not true, as she claimed in her memoir that he had just left Switzerland at that time, but certainly superfluous information, since Rolf also worked for the GRU, and Moscow would know what he was up to since it had ordered him to move there, and forced their separation). Yet her supposed letter strongly implies that it is her objective to continue her espionage work in Britain, and my contact comments that when she explained her predicament to Beurton, “Sonia said that in the interests of the future struggle with fascism, she needed to move to Britain”, thus confirming that she was still committed to espionage. In an extraordinary reversal of roles, the file indicates that Moscow goes along with Sonia’s plan – which, as will be shown in a later instalment, had been hatched some time beforehand.

Sonia’s record, in Sonjas Rapport, tells a different story. She had a worthless, expired German passport: she had been given permission by the Swiss authorities to stay only until the end of September 1939. At the beginning of 1939, Moscow Centre therefore sought possibilities for her gaining another passport, as it had fresh plans for her. At the same time, her marriage with Rolf was breaking up: as a symptom, her second child, Nina, had been fathered by Ernst, a fellow-spy in China. At the same time, Rolf was preparing to return, by order of Moscow, to China. According to Sonia, Rolf agreed to a divorce, and Sonia was instructed to marry one of the Englishmen (Foote or Beurton). She decided that Foote was more suitable, because of his similar age, and Foote consented to the plan. In another melodramatic twist (again in Sonia’s account only), Rudolf and Ernst visited her in August 1939, just before they jointly left for China, where Rudolf would be subordinate to Ernst, and Ernst here encountered his daughter for the first and only time. Sonia saw them both off at the railway station, and maybe allowed herself a single bourgeois tear. Yet the M15 report on the Rote Kapelle, written in October 1949, indicates that Rolf had arrived in Hong Kong in June 1939, so Sonia’s description of a sentimental reunion in August sounds very dubious. Is the Soviet archival piece more authentic than her memoir? Both show strong signs of disinformation.

Matters continued to get complicated. Sonia began to express a greater liking for Beurton than she had had for Foote, since Len was more sentimental, and loved both nature and her children. What is more, Foote was having second thoughts about the marriage, bringing up the story of his possible breach of promise, and he recommended that she marry Beurton instead. This is the occasion where Sonia expressed her doubts about Foote’s commitment, but she moved on, and the divorce came through at the end of the year. The fact that her Swiss pass had expired by then is overlooked in her narrative, but she does describe the problems she had trying to establish the legal basis on which a marriage between two persons whose countries were at war could be arranged. Moreover, she admitted that many sham marriages were going on at the time in Switzerland with the purpose of gaining British passports. It is very difficult to imagine Sonia getting her marriage approved, and her passport issued, without some generous assistance from the British Consulate in Berne. (I shall explore this part of the adventure in a future instalment.) Yet all the necessary documents became available for her marriage on February 23, 1940, and Sonia admits that she was brash enough to tell the Consulate that the reason for her marriage was to gain a British passport. On May 2, 1940, she held the papers in her hand.

The story is not yet complete, however. Foote’s evidence given to his interrogators at MI5 is not entirely reliable (as when, for example, he states that Sonia’s had requested to be posted to the USA after the signing of the Nazi-Soviet pact), but one remarkable statement arising from his interrogation by MI5 is so outrageous that Foote could have served no purpose in inventing it. In a memorandum dated September 17, 1947, he is reported as admitting that it was on his false testimony that Sonia obtained her divorce in the Swiss courts. “When I asked him what was the false evidence he had produced”, so MI5’s Serpell’s account runs, “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 [Brigitte].” (Coincidentally, Sonia’s narrative informs us that Brigitte was also visiting her in August 1939: did she help hatch the story herself?) This revelation indeed caused a massive re-think for Serpell, since it was he and Jim Skardon who had discussed the divorce with Sonia and Beurton at Great Rollright in Oxfordshire just four days earlier, and noticed the pair’s discomfiture. Yet Serpell still concluded that Sonia had not been involved in any espionage since she arrived in the country six years before. (On this delusion, more in a later instalment.)

The significance of this episode is great for other reasons. First, it suggests that the Swiss authorities needed more than a statement from Rolf that he approved the divorce, and also that they were probably unaware of the parentage of Sonia’s daughter. Yet unless Foote made a special return visit to the UK in 1939 (when there is no evidence that Rolf was in the country: on the contrary, Sonia says he was building up a false identity in France at the time), he was induced to perjure himself based on an imaginary event that would have had to happen a long time before. And the Swiss presumably accepted his evidence. On the one hand, in her version, Sonia probably wanted to avoid the sordid aspects of the whole affair, and show that Rolf’s agreement to the divorce was adequate justification for the Swiss authorities to approve it, when, in actual fact, Swiss law no doubt required some evidence of adultery (as was the case in Britain). Moreover, Foote told his interlocutors that Hamburger knew nothing about the divorce. If Rolf had been around in Switzerland at the time, it would clearly have been easier to manufacture the scene closer at hand. On the other hand, it was evidently very important to some influential British authority that Sonia secure her divorce, undertake her marriage, and gain entry to Britain, and it appears that Foote was organised to play a role in lubricating the event. Indeed, if Foote was entrapped by this ruse, it explains how MI5 was able to maintain another hold over him during his awkward time remaining in Britain after 1947. Moreover, the machinations behind the scene might suggest that SIS (if it was indeed pulling the strings) was not very excited about the prospect of Foote’s marrying Sonia, since it would remove him from a vital position within the Soviet spy network. Thus it probably coached him on an alternative plan.

Foote also admitted to the historian David Dallin that he knew the true motivation behind Sonia’s escape. In an interview on October 31, 1953, as Read and Fisher note, he told the historian that Sonia was transferred to England by her bosses. He does not declare outright that the purpose of her mission was to operate as an intermediary for Klaus Fuchs, but he does state that was what her role evolved into. Foote was a very bitter man by then: he felt monstrously abused by MI5, who had butchered his account of his experiences in Switzerland and in the Soviet Union, and he felt that British Intelligence had failed to act on all the warnings he had given them about the activities of the GRU in Britain. The evidence points to the fact that he been shamefully used, and that his grimy involvement in perjuring himself was a major reason why MI5 was able to maintain a hold over him.

3: Foote’s Swiss Connections:

Given Foote’s educational background, one of the more remarkable aspects of his career in Switzerland was his ability to find funding sources for the cash-starved network. That he did effect such a project seems certain. Handbook for Spies relates how, working with Radó, he convinced Moscow that arranging for funds to be transferred by the offices of American firms, at discounted exchange rates, would be a secure way of addressing the problem. Moscow agreed to his ideas. Radó says little about it, as it would clearly have indicated that he was not in total control. All he did admit was: “Jim had his radio-operating, and in addition Central set him special assignments that were not directly connected with the work of his group.” Radó had earlier admitted that Foote was ‘resourceful and ingenious when it came to tackling problems of a technical or economic nature’, but that is all. He was no doubt not very pleased with the fact that Jim had his own set of codes, and carried on conversations with Moscow Centre of the content of which he had no idea.

Part of Foote’s alibi to conceal his role as an illegal radio-operator was to set himself up as a rich but not very healthy ex-patriot. In this guise, he had several society friends. Indeed, Sonia indicates that he was having some kind of affair (‘ein Flirt’) with the sister of the Romanian Foreign Minister, whom he presumably met when, in the early days of the war, Moscow was suggesting that the whole apparat be moved to Bucharest – a transfer that was abandoned when the Germans invaded Romania. Foote claims he used such connections to advance the financial cause: “I made some discreet enquiries among my more monied Swiss friends and the shadier of my English acquaintances, and soon evolved a scheme which I thought would work. Through the agency of a Swiss friend I was able to get in touch with some firms which in the course of their normal business remitted money between Switzerland and the U.S.A.”  (The Rote Kapelle files at Kew indicate that one of the companies used was the R.K.O. Pictures organisation: it is worth noting that Claude Dansey was a director of Alexander Korda’s London Films, and that Korda made regular visits to Zurich, partly on Dansey business. The connection may be significant.)  In any case, Foote’s admission suggests that he must have been well-known to the British Consulate, who should no doubt have been making inquiries as to why this Englishman was resident in Switzerland, and not contributing to the war effort. Foote expands his story: “I then delved into the dim twilit world of the local black bourse and discovered that there were a large number of individuals who had friends in America who were prepared to take the place of my well-established firms and quite certain that their relatives would not question a sudden windfall of a few thousand dollars to the credit of their relative in Switzerland.” How this earthy and uneducated man (his ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, called Foote ‘well-nigh illiterate’, which was probably a bit unfair) suddenly acquired such polished skills is never explained.

In fact, rumours circulated in the circles in which Foote moved that he was a spy, and, in Guy Burgess-like fashion, he would refuse to deny them as part of the façade. David Dallin reports that, after Foote’s book was published, the Gazette de Lausanne ran a series of stories on several of his friends, accounts that contributed to his image as an eccentric but very likeable exile. Radó reports that this rumour went further than society friends. As he wrote, in a variation of Sonia’s story: “According to Jim the Lausanne authorities were under the impression he worked for British intelligence anyway. He had heard about this from the wife of the Rumanian minister of economic affairs [an almost exact echo of Sonia’s reference], a lady who visited Lausanne occasionally and from whom Jim had elicited quite a lot of useful information. On this occasion she had smilingly confessed over a glass of wine that her friend, the wife of the Rumanian ambassador, harboured this suspicion and had apparently communicated it at a diplomatic reception to one Colonel Perron of Swiss Counter-intelligence.” Radó indicates that Foote had been wise enough to report this impression to his bosses in Moscow. It was a wonder that they perceived the irony, that being a dangerous commodity in the offices of the Lubianka.

It is quite extraordinary that a) a person of Foote’s background would be able to manipulate such a deal, and b) the scheme would not have come to the attention of Swiss or British authorities. Did Foote possibly receive help from SIS? David Dallin’s testimony suggests he may have done. In the early 1950s, Dallin performed interviews with several people related to the Rote Drei and its network, one of whom was a lawyer, Roger Corbaz, who had been the presiding judge of the Swiss Military Tribunal that heard the case when Foote was tried in absentia, on October 30, 1947. Dallin relates that the money-transferring scheme was working quite satisfactorily, until a hitch occurred, some time in 1943. In order to try to fix the problem, Foote went to see a lawyer in Lausanne, to gain help in the transfer of a large sum from the United States, and brought along with him a British intelligence agent. In Dallin’s words: “Sensing something suspicious in Foote’s story, the lawyer told his new client: ‘I will arrange the transfer if you will bring proof that the money, deposited as you say in an American bank, belongs to you, and that the affair is clean and honest.’ Foote never reappeared.” Yet Corbaz himself may not have been entirely clean. The National Archives show SIS’s report on Foote’s trial in Lausanne (which a representative from SIS attended), where Corbaz stopped a court reader from calling out Foote’s list of contacts. Foote told Jim Skardon of MI5 that Corbaz had been involved with him in a black-market transaction just before he was arrested, and was thus probably embarrassed ‘in sitting in judgment in a case to which he had himself been a guilty party’. Foote nevertheless received a sentence of two-and-half years’ imprisonment, with an 8000 Franc fine, and confiscation of property. It is not surprising that he declined to attend.

The second major episode where Foote’s connections with the British Consulate came into play occurred when the spy ring was being hunted by the Gestapo, which was applying pressure on Swiss Security to identify and close down the Rote Drei. The way that Foote tells the story, the initiative came from Radó, who suggested seeking a safe house with the British – whether because he knew of Foote’s connections, or simply because the United Kingdom was a military ally, is not certain. Moscow Centre turned the idea down imperiously, suspecting Radó of, at best, ‘leanings towards the democracies, and at the worst downright treachery’. Radó himself had a different spin: he said that Foote brought him a message from Moscow advising them to ask ‘our friends’ for help. Justifiably, he wondered who such ‘friends’ might be. Not the Swiss Communist Party, for sure, as contact was forbidden. According to Radó, Foote then came up with the notion that Moscow might mean the Allies’ embassies in Berne, and Radó implies that Foote’s reputation would have played to good advantage. But Moscow found the suggestion completely unacceptable, and ordered him to go underground.

Radó’s ignorance of what was going on must also be questioned. His intermediary (at two levels of separation) with Roessler was a woman called Rachel Duebendorfer, who was working both for the Soviets and the British. She stubbornly refused to identify to Radó or to Moscow who Lucy was, but MI5’s file on Karel Sedlacek (aka Selzinger) states that in 1943 or 1944, Duebendorfer ‘reported to our Geneva representative that RADO’s W/T [wireless-telegraph] had broken down and that he had a lot of material which he did not wish to be lost to the Allied effort and which she passed to us on his behalf on the strict understanding that we did not report the fact to Moscow.’ Radó did not operate a wireless apparatus himself, but by then his operators had become compromised or captured. It was a big risk he took, defying his Moscow bosses by seeking assistance from the hated imperialists, and the action may have brought him into trouble later.

The conclusion must be that Foote enjoyed at least an unofficial solid relationship with the British authorities in Switzerland. And they, in turn, would have been very obtuse if they had ignored the rumours circulating, or were too idle to investigate what a character with Foote’s background was performing in those circumstances.

4) Foote’s Awareness of Lucy:

It is a fruitless endeavour to try to depict accurately the web of relationships in the intelligence world of Switzerland in WWII. Which informants were working for whom, who out of ideology and who for pecuniary reasons, who were merely couriers and intermediaries, who was officially on a foreign payroll, what information was fresh, which invented, who in Swiss Intelligence connived at the activities of foreign networks, how they held off the Nazis, which way intelligence was passed. Nor is it clear exactly how information was communicated, which radio sets were clandestine and which official and approved, or whether encrypted cables were being detected. Indeed, some recent opinion suggests that the whole reputation of the Rote Kapelle was boosted to impressionable allied officers by German intelligence experts anxious to curry favour, an initiative that only helped the post-war reputation of the Soviet Union. Yet a segment of the whole imbroglio can be taken under the microscope, based on the evidence that the CIA and British Intelligence gained from interrogations and captured German documents, the testimony of Foote, and other MI5 and SIS records.

One critical question to be posed is: why did MI5 allow the notion to be aired that Lucy was in fact Selzinger, instead of Roessler? This raises subsidiary questions, such as that raised earlier in this piece: whom did Foote really meet in 1944 – Selzinger or Roessler? And how much did he know about Roessler’s identity before then? The reasons these questions are important is that the account that Foote purportedly gives of Lucy’s activity in 1941 is probably wrong, as Radó and other sources have confirmed that Lucy was not recruited as an informant to the network until September 1942. Yet it is possible, as the head of intelligence in the Czech government-in-exile, Frantiśek Moraveč, claimed in his memoir Master of Spies, that Roessler was working for the British before then, using Sedlacek as a wireless-operator. The CIA Report asserts that this was so, that Sedlacek started reporting to London in September 1939, and his source was ‘Lucy’ [sic: a possibly very telling anachronism!]. It adds that he was activated and identified by the Communist ring only in September 1942 (i.e. when the ULTRA project incidentally took on life). The CIA Report points to the German transcriptions of the intercepted traffic as proof that Lucy’s material did not go to the Soviets until late summer of 1942, after Duebendorfer established the relationship. But that is not proof.  The historical focus on when ‘Lucy’ became known to Radó (and to the Gestapo) has diminished the role he may have previously played with Sedlacek and Foote. Sedlacek (or the Czech transmitting station at Woldingham) was almost certainly sending Roessler’s reports not just to London, but also to Moscow well before Moscow Centre became aware of ‘Lucy’s’ existence. If the Czechs were informing the British, they were surely informing the Soviets at the same time. That would explain why Foote (among others) made the claim – to Serpell during questioning – that ‘Lucy’ was active earlier than 1942, and that Moscow had been warned by Roessler of Hitler’s coming invasion in 1941. ‘Lucy’ was Roessler, but Roessler was not always ‘Lucy’, although the nickname may have anteceded his engagement by the Soviets.

Moreover, even though Foote was a radio-operator, and had his own codes, the intelligence that would have been passed to him (from Roessler to Schneider to Duebendorfer to Radó to Foote) would have been encrypted before it was given to him. Thus, if he were solely a Soviet-controlled operator, he would not have known at the time which messages were derived from Lucy’s sources, even though his memoir indicates the contrary. Moreover, when he finally met ‘Lucy’ (whom he might have heard of by repute), the book reports that he described him as less than average height, an assessment echoed by Dallin, although Dallin may have been merely repeating what Foote told him. Yet the few existing photographs of Roessler suggest a man of above average height. Perhaps Foote was introduced to Selzinger as a Lucy impostor (if indeed his account of the encounter is true) by arrangement of the British authorities, or maybe MI5 again just wanted to divert attention from Roessler when they massaged Foote’s testimony into his ‘memoir’. It is more likely that he knew them both.

By now, readers will be familiar with the claim that Malcolm Muggeridge made, reinforced by Read and Fisher, that Roessler was working for the British, as was the friend of his intermediary, Sissy Duebendorfer. In that case, MI5 was playing a dangerous game in presenting Selzinger as the vital link in the chain. It cannot be that they seriously believed that Selzinger was Lucy: the 1949 file on the Rote Kapelle clearly indicates that Roessler was the man behind the cryptonym. At that time, however (i.e. two decades before Muggeridge’s revelations), MI5 might have believed that there was too close a link between Roessler and SIS in Geneva to declare openly Roessler’s identity. Alternatively, they may have received pressure from SIS to confuse the issue. Claude Dansey had sadly died a few months before Foote’s return, and was thus out of the picture.  The text of Handbook for Spies was correctly passed to SIS before publication in 1949. Yet it was strangely signed off by Maurice Oldfield, who had joined the service only after the war, and was then only deputy to the head of counter-intelligence. (For some reason, Serpell had chosen to write to Oldfield about Foote’s case in November 1947.) Oldfield informed Reed of B2A that he could see no objection to its publication, but admitted that Colonel Vivian had not yet seen it. While he would later become director-general of SIS, at that time Oldfield could probably could not tell a Selzinger from a Seltzer. There is no evidence that Kenneth Cohen (Dansey’s deputy, who denied to Nigel West that Foote was ever recruited by SIS) saw the draft of the book. That was an extremely careless move by SIS.

One major cause of a possible exposure was that Selzinger had probably been in the employ of SIS himself. MI5 was not aware of that fact at the time, but a later investigation, in 1953, caused the Security Service to make a request to the Home Office about a British passport that had been issued to one Karl Sedlacek in the name of Charles Simpson. Eventually, MI5 was able to gain the following admission from SIS: “Sedlacek was a Czech Intelligence agent to whom we gave cover in 1939 and issued a British passport in the name of Mr. SIMPSON. . . . . to enable him to carry out a mission in Switzerland on behalf of the Czech Intelligence Service.” Why would the issuance of a British passport have been necessary to allow a Czech officer to work for the Czech Intelligence Service in a foreign, neutral country? SIS went on to state that, on one occasion when Sedlacek’s own wireless broke down in Switzerland (about 1941 or 1942), he requested that ‘our Geneva station’ transmit a quantity of material on his behalf. So why would SIS need to give Sedlacek cover? After all, he was a member of the Czech Intelligence staff, and in regular contact with Moraveč back in London. Was it perhaps so that he would be immune from prosecution, and would be able to be spirited back to the UK should a catastrophe happen, and the Nazis invaded Switzerland? Yet Moraveč wrote that Sedlacek moved painlessly from Czechoslovakia to Switzerland without having to go via London. The CIA Report makes no mention of Sedlacek’s being in England in May 1939 (when his UK passport was issued), but does puzzlingly state that ‘Sedlacek came to Switzerland (from Prague) with a British passport’, elsewhere saying that this was in June 1937. It states clearly that he was moving from Zurich to Lucerne in the spring of 1939. Again, it is a colossal muddle.

Another enigmatic entry in Foote’s archive reflects an interest expressed in March, 1952, by the French Embassy, who believed that a man called Simpson had been an agent of Foote in the Rote Kapelle, based on something Foote had said. The note goes on to indicate that Foote had stated (when, and to whom, is not clear) that ‘a certain Jean BOHNY was in 1942 instructed by Moscow to go to an address in St. Gallen and ask for “Charles SIMPSON” from whom he would obtain a short-wave wireless transmitter.’ These nuggets strongly suggest not only that the Czechs in London were in close communication with their Soviet friends (no revelation, this), but that Sedlacek was exercising his identity as a Briton at this time. Moscow should by all accounts have been advising its agents to stay well clear of any British intelligence operatives. Were the Czechs the ‘friends’ recommended by Moscow above? If so, why would Sedlacek masquerade as Simpson? The incident also sheds doubt on the story proposed in Handbook for Spies that Foote met Selzinger for the first time in 1944. It is all very bewildering – as it is no doubt intended to be.

Moreover, could Foote have been ‘our Geneva station’ as well as a Soviet radio operator? The authorized history of SIS suggests that its wireless capabilities in Geneva had been emasculated. Colin Jeffery writes: “There was a SIS wireless set at Geneva, but it could be used only for receiving messages as the Swiss authorities did not permit foreign missions in the country to send enciphered messages except through the Post Office . . .  Cypher telegrams could still be sent, but they ran out of one-time pads. Thus only messages of highest importance could be sent: much intelligence reached London only after delay. Lack of continuous secure communications meant London was unable to send out any signals intelligence material.” One should point out that Jeffery is being very evasive and disingenuous: the Swiss authorities turned a blind eye to such foreign transmissions, so long as their originators were not working against Swiss interests. They understood the common fight against the Nazi threat. Thus Jeffery’s account should probably not be taken very seriously. And indeed, he never explains how the problem was resolved, although by July 1943, he implies that it must have mysteriously been addressed.  He writes that the Abwehr spy, Hans Gisevius, considered that the communications channels of Allen Dulles, the Switzerland-based representative of OSS (the American equivalent of SIS) were so insecure that he advised the American to pass the information through British channels – which he did. It is not beyond the bounds of possibility to think that Foote’s equipment could have been used for official British purposes.

The result of this investigation is inevitably inconclusive, and may never be resolved satisfactorily. Yet it does point to a good deal of awkwardness on the part of British Intelligence in dealing with their activities in Switzerland, and a desire to muddy the waters as far as Foote was concerned. As indicated, Foote became immensely frustrated with the obtuseness he encountered in MI5, but one telling statement he made is recorded in his file: “During the war, you see  . . . . information  . . . . always looked upon by the Russians, more or less ran the war; it was an awful big  . . . Telegrams  . . .  to station; very important  . . . especially the way we handled it, a marvellous affair.. At least . . .  the way the information came, wonderful information.” Even this apparently highly edited fragment, a strangled mixture of pride and apology, seems to point unswervingly to Foote’s involvement with a Greater Game of Ultra distribution administered by SIS.

5: Foote’s Defection and Interrogation:

Given Foote’s remarkable escape from Switzerland to Paris in November, 1944, several questions arise concerning his motivations and objectives in reaching a safe haven, and his experiences thereafter. Why did he report to the Soviet Embassy, instead of trying to gain safety and liberty with the British? When he returned to Moscow, and was interrogated about his activities, why did the Soviets later send him back on a mission to Germany with a clumsily fake identity? When Foote then decided to ‘defect’, why was the GRU apparently so insouciant about his disloyalty? Why did they not eliminate him? And why, if he truly had been an SIS employee, did the service apparently disown him, and do nothing to protect him?

Three scenarios present themselves for the original approach to the Soviet Military Mission. One, Foote had always been a dedicated and obedient Communist agent, and any other course of action would have been out of the question. Two, he harboured severe doubts, valuing his freedom, but the fear of being hunted down in the West by GRU assassins was a less appealing prospect than facing the music with his bosses in Moscow. Three, he was instructed by SIS to continue the deception, and prolong his role as a Soviet radio-operator. From what is known about his character and associations, the first seems very unlikely. Foote liked his creature comforts, and he surely knew enough about life in the Soviet Union not to risk a sojourn to a place from which he might never return, no matter how strong his communist convictions might have been. He had helped the Allies win the war, and could probably expect a sympathetic hearing back in the United Kingdom. The second scenario is plausible: Foote had an exaggerated view of his own importance, considering himself the leader of Radó’s ring once the Hungarian had disappeared, and he claimed in his memoir that he had ‘voluminous’ information picked up from Roessler and another informer, Pünter, known as Pakbo, that he needed to pass on to Moscow. Maybe he expected a hero’s welcome, but also an opportunity to set the record straight with Moscow Centre (who was upset about the collapse of the Swiss network) before Radó had an opportunity to pitch his version. He also entered the Soviet Embassy with the goal of persuading them that the Swiss network could easily be resuscitated. That last fact might play into the third scenario: that SIS was very keen to see the deception maintained, and Foote to return to his role in Switzerland. Moreover, a breach in Foote’s commitment at this stage might have blown the whole operation, and drawn attention to Sonia’s enigmatic presence in England. Thus SIS might have strongly urged Foote to continue to work with the GRU, not realising that an order to go to Moscow was the outcome. And in a casual aside to Serpell that tells volumes, Foote made the ‘curious remark’ (in Serpell’s words) that he thought ‘the British would like him to go there’.

In fact both Foote and Radó were summoned to Moscow for ‘consultations’. Foote had considered all the options (so his ‘memoir’ claims), but he decided that, with the war still unfinished, he ought to see the project through, and defend himself. Readers may inspect Handbook for Spies to learn what he underwent in Moscow, but the outcome was that he managed to convince Poliakova and her successors (as she was purged after the Gouzenko affair) that he was not an agent provocateur, and even stressed, with true revolutionary ardour, how he wanted to continue the subversive campaign back in the West, noting, however, that ‘my first six weeks in Moscow had convinced me that Nazi Germany as I had known it was a paradise of freedom as compared with Soviet Russia.’ His story must have been persuasive. After undergoing intense training, he was established with a new identity – a German called Albert Mueller, born to an English mother, who was commissioned to set up a new espionage network in Argentina. Foote, who spoke poor German with an English accent, was instructed to spend six months in Berlin to strengthen his credentials. He left Moscow in early March 1947, and, after some curious experiences in Berlin, he entered the British Zone on August 2.

Why would the GRU send Foote on such a perilous and leaky expedition? Is it possible that they planned his defection, so that he could protect Sonia by reinforcing to British Intelligence the fact that she was a harmless ex-spy? Why did they not assassinate him? In Chapter One of his book, Foote writes (again, if  we can trust that the words are his): “When I walked out of the Soviet Zone and gave up my career as a Russian spy I was as surely condemned to death by the Russians as any criminal by a black-capped judge and through the due processes of law. The Soviet system knows only one penalty for failure or treachery – death.” But Foote was not killed, even though in the years after the war the Soviets did hunt down and kill multiple traitors or failures. Why would they be indulgent with him after they realised they had been hoodwinked at least once – by Foote’s blatant mendacity in Moscow, and probably by the deceptions played by the British in Switzerland? Is it possible that Foote was really a ‘Spy who Returned from the Cold’, and who was directed to re-insert himself in the British intelligence structure in order to distract attention from the pursuit of atomic secrets that Sonia was managing? Klaus Fuchs had returned from the USA to the UK in the summer of 1946, and had taken up a position at AERE Harwell. The possibility should not be discounted: David Dallin raises the idea, and even suggests that some British intelligence officers (who were sympathetic to Moscow) considered he might be a plant with an assignment to ‘worm his way in’.

When Foote was repatriated to the UK, it was MI5, not SIS, who interrogated him. It appears that SIS disowned any knowledge of him. That would have been necessary, of course, in order to maintain the fiction that he had not been under its control in Switzerland. Moreover, Claude Dansey had died on June 11, 1947, and was not around to take an interest. While Read and Fisher express surprise that Vanden Heuvel and Farrell (Dansey’s deputies in Switzerland) should have spoken up for him, any such action would have been a clear signal to the Soviets that their suspicions were justified. On the other hand, MI5 seemed bewildered by his experiences, and Foote was clearly threatened that he should keep silent about his experiences. One remarkable entry in the record of his interrogations (in this case, by Serpell and Hembly-Scales), in September 1947, runs as follows: “Essential he make no references to his connections with British Intelligence. I went on to emphasise that this was a general reservation and Foote’s associations with British Intelligence were not to be mentioned to anyone. I did not want to seem disloyal to Mr. Vesey, but Foote would understand that it was not safe for him to speak of British Intelligence interests even to this recommended firm of publishers! Foote lapped up this story and asseverated several times that he would never speak to anybody about his life with us or of our past interest in him . . .  Concluding, I told Foote that if he were to represent himself in any way as an assistant, past or present, of British Intelligence we were likely to hear it.” This statement crisply merges SIS and MI5 in the identity of ‘British Intelligence’. The message could not be clearer.

Obviously, as some commentators have suggested, MI5 had some power over Foote. Malcolm Muggeridge saw him as a broken man who was frightened of the Security Service. There was the possible dishonourable discharge from the Royal Air Force. There was the act of perjury in the matter of Rolf Hamburger and Sonia’s sister. And, to his credit, Serpell brought up the fact that acting as a Soviet spy when the Soviet Union was allied to the Germans during the time of the Nazi-Soviet Pact was not an action to be taken lightly by the British authorities. So Foote only hinted at the connection with Z and SIS, in asides which the censors of the archive thankfully did not delete. Contrary to what his memoir says, he assuredly did warn that Sonia was still linked to Moscow, and actively involved in espionage, although his interlocutors softened the message in their transcripts. Foote even indicated that Sonia’s brother Jürgen (a communist agitator and spy) was angry about Sonia’s return as a penetration agent, since it might have compromised the political work of the Kuczynski clan. He also provided further evidence by showing how the Soviets had invoked the help of Elinor Rathbone (the leftist activist) to enable Beurton to join his wife in England in July 1942.

Yet, despite Serpell’s sensible recommendations for following up Foote’s accusations about Sonia and her family, MI5 seemed bewilderingly slow to follow up, as if his well-articulated suspicions about Sonia were being stifled by its senior officers. The MI5 report on the Rote Kapelle, dated October 17, 1949 astonishingly states that Ursula Beurton ‘is not known to have engaged in any subversive activity’ between 1941 and that date. (This trend would reach ludicrous proportions later, when, after Fuchs’s trial, junior MI5 officers made recommendations to question Sonia further, unaware that she had fled the country several months before, immediately Fuchs had been arrested.) MI5’s chief counter-espionage officers Liddell and White withheld Foote’s testimony from Percy Sillitoe when the painful Fuchs post-mortem occurred. On the other hand, Foote apparently made a gesture to protect his former collaborators. In her book, Sonia relates a strange episode whereby Foote turned up at the house of a comrade (almost certainly Ullmann), and whispered urgent warnings that Sonia and Len should be very careful, stop work, and destroy everything. It would probably be accurate to attribute this activity to another ruse devised by SIS to reinforce the image of Foote as a confused patriot who still wished his communist friends well. No doubt Moscow got to hear of it.

Moreover, Foote displayed rather shocking Fascist sympathies to his interrogators. It was one thing to have doubts about the theory and practice of Communism, but it was another to suddenly veer towards the Fascist version of totalitarianism. A conversation between Foote and his sister on September 12, 1947, bugged by MI5, alarmingly showed that Foote compared the current British treatment of Germany unfavourably with the humanity of the Germans, and that he considered stories of Nazi atrocities to be greatly exaggerated. Radó drew attention to Foote’s ‘volte-face’, as Foote ‘sank back into the swamp of petty-bourgeois existence’. But this was worse, and could not be ascribed simply to ignorance and disdain for the practice of Communism. Indeed, Foote’s ideological weakness had been on display earlier: he confided to Serpell that he and Beurton had discussed working for the Nazis at one time in 1938, when they were in Munich together. Serpell even came to the conclusion that Foote might have had ‘some conscious connections with representatives of the German Intelligence in Switzerland’. Foote was assuredly a mixed-up case.

Yet Foote’s frustrations with the obtuseness of MI5 about communist subversion persisted, and, in the years after, he took his suspicions about infiltration in the service to a broader audience, writing letters to MPs, and even (according to Read and Fisher) demanding that a committee of Privy Councillors should investigate why his information had been ignored. But no one paid attention to him. His book was published, he was given a job in the Ministry of Agriculture and Fisheries, and his health declined. In 1955, Dallin published his book in which he indicated that Foote had approached Corbaz with a member of SIS. If Moscow Centre had picked that up, it might have concluded that Foote was not just a traitor, but a pernicious double-agent. At that time, as Boris Volodarsky informs us, the GRU was using poisons such as thallium to kill traitors in western Europe in a way that made the affliction look like severe gastritis. In any case, Foote was recorded as dying in August 1956 in University College Hospital, London, of acute peritonitis due to a perforated duodenal ulcer (Tarrant). Another account says he tore off his bandages in frustration and pain. Yet another claims that he did not die until several years later. The photograph of him at that time (see  : from 1955)  would seem to portray a man much older than the fifty-one-year-old he would have been in 1956, but maybe his trials had worn him out by then. In any case, MI5 was probably not sorry to see him out of the picture, and Moscow would not have regretted his passing.

The conclusion must be that a large array of evidence points to the fact that Foote was not a naïve romanticist who was captivated by the idea of communism, and worked innocently as a radio-operator for the Soviets in Switzerland until his spell in the workers’ paradise convinced him the cause was unjust. He was an untutored adventurist, a mercenary. And he was manipulated in other ways, by a shady British intelligence service who lured him with its unique version of adventure, in which he was taken advantage of for some greater scheme which has never seen the light of day, but which probably involved inveigling Sonia back to the UK so that her wireless transmissions could be monitored, and maybe her cohorts in espionage unveiled. For that reason, the work of Read and Fisher – based so much on informal anecdote and guidance – needs to be reassessed very seriously. In the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio, I shall return to the persons who provided the information that supported their argument, before turning back to Sonia’s extraordinary escape and charmed life in the United Kingdom.

New Sources:

Central Archive of the Ministry of Defense of the Russian Federation (at second hand)

The SIGINT Secrets by Nigel West

The Lawn Road Flats by David Burke

Dealing with the Devil by Dónal O’Sullivan

The Red Orchestra by V. E. Tarrant

The KGB’s Poison Factory by Boris Volodarsky

P.S. Towards the end of the month, I received from the New York Public Library some extracts from the Dallin Papers that I had ordered. I did not have time to analyze them before compiling this instalment. Moreover the notes that Dallin took are primarily in Russian and German. My understanding of German is still decent, but my Russian, after nearly fifty years of disuse, is patchy. I shall need to spend some further time on what Dallin recorded. Yet one comment he made stood out immediately. He startlingly describes on one page, when outlining the flow of information from the German Higher Command, that it passed by ‘Rössler-Selzinger – Lucie’. Is this making an equivalence of Rössler and Selzinger as being one person?? If so, that would explain a lot of the conflicts in Handbook for Spies. Could Sedlacek (Selzinger) conceivably have been set up by Czech and British intelligence as a German with the name of Rössler? A photograph from Selzinger’s British passport application (Simpson) would probably confirm or refute such a theory immediately. I wonder whether anyone out there can shed any light on this matter. Does anyone know more about Sedlacek? If so, please let me know. (March 2)

(This month’s new Commonplace Entries can be found here. I have also added a sprinkling of new Hyperbolic Contrast examples noted since last September, which are located here.)

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Sonia’s Radio – Part V

(In this instalment, I start to analyze a further contentious observation by the official historian of British Intelligence in WWII, namely the claim that the British authorities had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government.  The full text of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ so far can be seen here.)

Before Hitler invaded the Soviet Union in June 1941, Churchill (among many others) had tried to warn Stalin of the impending aggression. Yet the Soviet leader had given little credence to such warnings, treating them as provocations designed to create a rift between the two partners of the Nazi-Soviet pact. After Barbarossa, with the Soviet Union now a nominal ally instead of an auxiliary to the main foe, Churchill focussed on providing it with as much material and moral support as the country could afford. Bletchley Park had, moreover, been successful in deciphering several Enigma keys during the previous twelve months, which meant that vital intelligence about German troop movements in Eastern Europe was now available. Yet such breakthroughs in cryptanalysis, which included Soviet traffic that the Germans had intercepted and deciphered, had also taught the Chiefs of Staff and the JIC that Soviet codes were highly fragile. The risk of divulging to the Soviets that Enigma had been broken had to be eliminated in order to protect the secrecy of the whole programme. Thus Churchill, Menzies, and the Joint Intelligence Committee faced a daunting challenge – how to pass on to Stalin, without revealing the source, a steady flow of ULTRA-sourced information that might help him repel the Nazis?

In Volume II of his History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, Professor Hinsley explained how Stewart Menzies, the head of SIS, with responsibility for GC&CS, had to succumb to pressure to package ULTRA information (the generic term for intelligence gained by the analysis or decryption of all German radio communications) for distribution to Moscow. As Chapter 4 of Sonia’s Radio described, this was a contentious issue at Bletchley Park.  Sanitised reports were approved by Menzies, and sent to the British Military Mission (BMM) in Moscow, camouflaged as coming from ‘a well-placed source in Berlin’ or ‘a most reliable source’. Critical identifying information (such as unit identifications) was removed from the messages, and the BMM was instructed to request the Soviets not to disclose by wireless telegraphy that they were receiving intelligence from Britain. Hinsley went on to explain that this project appeared to work quite well until the summer of 1942, when the intransigence and lack of reciprocity on the Soviets’ part began to grate. He reported that the telegrams including high-grade signals intelligence (sigint) then ‘dwindled to a trickle’, but not before inserting a gratuitous and highly problematic aside. “There is no truth in the much-publicised claim that the British authorities made use of the ‘Lucy’ ring, a Soviet espionage organisation which operated from Switzerland, to forward intelligence to Moscow”, he declared (p 60). [As Part 2 of Sonia’s Radio explained, the Lucy Ring was a group of Communist-led informants and radio operators managed by Soviet military intelligence (the GRU) during World War II, of which Rudolf Roessler, who lived in Lucerne and was the eponymous ‘Lucy’, was both the most fertile and the most enigmatic of the informants. The group was sometimes referred to as the Rote Drei (‘Red Trio’), a subset of the Rote Kapelle (’Red Orchestra’, a transnational network of communist spies) after the number of its leading radio operators tracked by the Abwehr.]

Hinsley wrote this denial in 1981. Where did that ‘claim’ originate, and where was it so broadly publicized? What events provoked Hinsley to draw attention to such rumours? And why did he go into print as he did, a move that could only encourage speculation? Did he really believe that, as ‘official historian’, his ex cathedra word would be accepted without question? Since it would be impossible comprehensively to debunk any such rumour unless he provided cast-iron evidence (e.g. a memo written by Churchill, Menzies or Cavendish-Bentinck, say, explicitly forbidding any alternative channel of communication), his statement simply appears weak and provocative. As has been shown in Part 4, ‘official historians’ such as Hinsley cannot be relied upon to relate the true story.

This instalment investigates the controversy, analyzing at a high-level the main sources of the counter-cultural claim, and records the reactions of various historians and biographers after the official history was published. The story starts in 1949. A Handbook for Spies, the ‘memoir’ of Alexander Foote, the highly productive and capable radio operator who worked in Lausanne as one of the Rote Drei, and also the most controversial and engrossing character in this saga, had been published in that year. It was a mixture of fact and distortion, but it was also responsible for introducing the Lucy network to the world. Yet Foote did not write it himself. The goals that MI5 had in ghosting this work (its author was in fact the MI5 officer Courtenay Young) were primarily: i) to conceal Foote’s associations with SIS; ii) to present Foote as a once sincere Communist who saw the reality of the Soviet Union, and defected back to the UK; iii) to represent Foote as being far more important than his boss Radó, which was not the case; iv) to indicate that Foote was hazy about the identity of Lucy; v) to suggest that Lucy had been providing information for the Soviets well before the actual date of September 1942; and vi) to demonstrate that Sonia (née Ursula Kuczynski) had truly become disillusioned by the Nazi-Soviet pact, and therefore renounced espionage. A few years later, in 1955, before the death of Foote, the American historian David J. Dallin, in Soviet Espionage, wrote of Soviet suspicions in 1945 (i.e. before Foote and his boss, Radó, had returned to the Soviet Union) that the British security services were behind the intelligence emanating from the Swiss network, an admission that they were reluctant to make publicly. Overall, Dallin’s research was perhaps too reliant on the participants’ memoirs, but he apparently conducted interviews with Foote and others that translated into unique, and startling, evidence that pointed to Foote’s role as a British agent, even though his conclusion was equivocal. (Dallin obviously knew nothing about ULTRA.)  Yet it seems that Dallin’s book was largely overlooked at the time – except, perhaps, by the Soviets.

Thus the drama properly begins in 1967, when the former SIS officer Malcolm Muggeridge, reviewing in the Observer a contentious and highly imaginative book on the Lucy Ring (A Man Called Lucy) by the French authors, Accoce and Quet, hinted at the Bletchley Park cryptographic success in cracking Enigma traffic. He did not actually identify the place or organisation, but his claims were made seven years before the appearance of the first book in English that revealed the Enigma story, The Ultra Secret, by F. W. Winterbotham. Muggeridge also suggested that Foote had been working undercover for SIS, and ventured that SIS fed the Lucy Ring with critical information about German operations. This article provoked a brief but illuminating correspondence, after which Muggeridge then made his claim more assertively in the pages of Esquire in September 1968 (i.e. in an overseas publication). His theme was soon picked up and endorsed by Richard Deacon in his History of the British Secret Service (1969), where the author expressed a strong belief that a) the information could not have come directly from Germany, and b) Foote was working for SIS.

The next major sally in the debate, however, occurred when the Hungarian leader of the Lucy Ring, Alexander (Sándro) Radó, in 1971 published, in German, a memoir that extolled the virtues of his espionage team, articulated the doubts he had harboured about Foote’s loyalty at the time, but rubbished the claim that SIS had engineered the flow of information through his network – a work that was clearly controlled by his Communist bosses. (His book was translated into English, as Codename Dora, in 1977.) Next, in 1973, Muggeridge expanded his story in Volume Two of his autobiography Chronicles of Wasted Time, when he explicitly claimed that the information communicated to Moscow from Switzerland came from Bletchley Park. This assertion was picked up enthusiastically as a plausible explanation by Barton Whaley in his meticulously researched Codeword Barbarossa (1973). The same year, the supportive chorus was joined by the military historian Charles Whiting, in his Spymasters (originally published as The Battle for Twelveland). Whiting cited a distinguished set of experts who had helped him in his researches, namely (in England) Professor R. Jones, David Irving, Group-Captain F. Winterbotham, Sir Kenneth Strong, Field-Marshal Sir Gerald Templer, Patrick Seale, Professor Sir Hugh Trevor-Roper, and A. Denniston, which suggests that these grandees of intelligence must have been sympathetic to his conclusions. Whiting’s message was echoed by the Irish-American historian Constantine Fitzgibbon, who served both with the British army and US intelligence in World War II, in his 1976 work Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century. I shall in a later instalment analyze these volumes in more detail, to explain why insider sources tried to influence the private accounts, and how they attempted to counter the ‘official’ history by giving details of personal experiences to historians and journalists.

The CIA produced a comprehensive report on the Rote Kapelle in 1979, focusing sharply on some of the anomalies in other accounts, and indicating the flaws in Foote’s memoir.  (The timing of the publication is odd: it reads as if it had been written ten years before, as it speaks of events ‘twenty-five years’ ago, and anticipates the appearance of Radó’s 1971 memoir.) It also appeared to be unduly influenced by the unreliable Czech intelligence officer Frantisek Moraveč, exiled in Britain, who wanted to stress the contribution that his own spies had made to British intelligence-gathering. Moraveč was a close associate of Claude Dansey, the head of the Z Organisation within SIS, who used governments-in-exile to further his shadow espionage efforts in mainland Europe. And the Czechs were one of only two such governments that had been authorised to set up their own wireless communications from Britain, with stations in Prague and Switzerland, which adds fuel to the claim that they may have been involved in transmission of intelligence on behalf of the British. Yet Moraveč was dangerous (both he and his boss, Beneš, feature in VENONA transcripts): he had been in regular wireless contact with his agents in Moscow since the autumn of 1941, and had been undermining the alliance by feeding rumours about the flight of Hess, and other matters, to the Soviets.

In his 1975 memoir, Master of Spies, which suffers from some severe chronological errors, Moraveč had implied that the major flow of information came from Roessler to London via his agent Sedlacek, rather than in the opposite direction. The CIA report echoed this role that Sedlacek played, and how in September 1939 he started reporting by wireless to his bosses in London about German troop movements, information gained from Swiss intelligence, who in turn (the report claims) derived it from Lucy. (The file on Sedlacek at the National Archives reveals that SIS granted him a false British passport in the name of Charles Simpson in that same month, a provocative fact that will be explored in a coming instalment. Intriguingly, Foote – or rather, Courtenay Young  ̶  misidentified Sedlacek, by his alias Selzinger, as Lucy in Handbook for Spies.) Yet the CIA’s account failed to resolve satisfactorily the central issue of how Lucy obtained his information. It completely ignored Muggeridge’s suggestions about SIS involvement, and speculated that the information came somehow to Roessler by the highly dubious mechanisms of couriers or radio from the Abwehr. Moreover, the CIA was perhaps a bit too trusting of the claim that Roessler, shortly before he died, had revealed to a trusted friend the identities of his sources. The CIA even ‘improved’ Roessler’s claim by correcting the profile of one source he only obliquely identified. Yet its report still holds some clout in intelligence circles.

The year 1981 saw the arrival of Hinsley’s work mentioned above, the year after a radical new study of the Lucy Ring, Operation Lucy, had been published by the journalists Anthony Read and David Fisher, which heavily promoted the story that the Lucy Ring was largely controlled by Colonel Dansey. In this work, Read and Fisher provided acknowledgments to a long list of intelligence experts including Calvocoressi, Cavendish-Bentinck, Trevor-Roper, Lewin, Muggeridge and Winterbotham, who presumably approved of its message. No doubt this book provoked ire in intelligence circles, especially because of the prominent names identified as advisers, and Hinsley was therefore probably instructed by his political masters to insert his denial. The government’s concerns cannot have been eased by an Observer review of the Read/Fisher publication in October of 1980 by Edward Crankshaw – who happened to be the SIS officer sent to Moscow in late 1941 to handle the dissemination of ULTRA material to the Soviets. Crankshaw boldly asserted that Foote had been a double-agent recruited by Claude Dansey in the latter’s hyper-secret Z Organisation. Also in 1980, the GCHQ officer Peter Calvocoressi, in Top Secret Ultra, revealed Crankshaw’s role as emissary to Stalin in Moscow (naming figures was something Hinsley strenuously avoided, which prompted  a backlash), but was coy about alternative channels. Chapman Pincher, a journalist who had been a continual thorn in the flesh of the British authorities, brought his individual spotlight to the rumour in his 1981 work, Their Trade is Treachery, briefly endorsing the theory of SIS manipulation of Swiss communist spies, but both in that book and his 1984 Too Secret Too Long, he absolved Foote of double-agent responsibility, on the rather skimpy grounds that he had found no evidence that Foote had provided British intelligence with Soviet secrets during World War II.

In 1985, the prolific writer on intelligence matters, Nigel West, included in his Espionage Myths of World War II a chapter on the Rote Drei, summarizing the research so far, and pointing out the improbability of the scenario painted by Accoce and Quet, who, he declared, had admitted their fabling. West nevertheless strove to demolish the claim of British control of the ring primarily on the grounds (as West had been told) that Foote never worked for SIS. Yet West may have been fed a misleading story by Commander Cohen of the Z Organisation, and he appeared to be unaware that the Selzinger identified in Foote’s narrative was in fact Sedlacek, with the Moraveč connection. West also ignored (or overlooked) the testimony of Crankshaw, as well as that of the other ex-officers who had furtively supported some of the revisionist accounts. In fact, West presented his conviction about Foote so confidently that he excluded the need for any other forensic analysis of the controversy, such as the detailed analysis of radio traffic. Swayed by Radó’s endorsement, his judgment favours more a group of anti-Nazi officers in Zossen supplying the Swiss intelligence, an interpretation that does not appear to have been seconded by anyone else. Again, Radó cannot be treated as highly reliable on this matter.

The following year, Phillip Knightley published The Second Oldest Profession, where he expressed severe doubts about the notion of an SIS feed, but he misunderstood and misrepresented what Dansey’s role would have been, ignored much of the evidence, and thus arrived at an illogical conclusion. Also in 1986, Read and Fisher published their biography of Dansey, Colonel Z, echoing their previous story. Perhaps the most startling revelation at this time, however, was a terse statement in the biography of Victor Cavendish-Bentinck, who had chaired the Joint Intelligence Committee (JIC) during the war. As an establishment figure, one might have expected Cavendish-Bentinck to toe the government line, but, alongside Winterbotham, he had explicitly given the game away to Read and Fisher, and presumably approved what his biographer, Patrick Howarth, wrote in Intelligence Chief Extraordinary, also published in 1986: “. . . one of the methods adopted for conveying information of strategic importance to the Soviet Union was to leak it through SIS to known Soviet agents in neutral countries, particularly Switzerland.” The past chairman of the JIC thus added a generous dose of gravitas to the debate. Why would such prominent figures give their support to this theory unless it were true? It is hard to divine any ulterior motive.

And there the matter stood for a while, the pot boiling rather unproductively. This was the period when no new archival sources had come to light, a time when ageing participants wanted the untold story to be revealed even though they were still inhibited by the Official Secrets Act from full disclosure. What had been published became too frequently part of the lore, without deeper analysis. Dubious sources were cited by respectable historians, who were in turn quoted with an inappropriate authority. The inventions of Accoce and Quet were cited as much as the assertions of Muggeridge, but no one seemed to come to grips with the essential tension between the rival claims of Hinsley and those of the revisionists. Some of the main witnesses died before archival evidence came to light: Fitzgibbon in 1983, Crankshaw in 1984, Cavendish-Bentinck, Muggeridge and Winterbotham in 1990. Some stirred the pot: for example, in his 1987 biography of the traitor Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams echoed some of the false assertions while introducing some new ingredients of his own. Others surprisingly ignored it: Christopher Andrew and Oleg Gordievsky, in their 1990 work KGB: The Inside Story casually (and a little recklessly) cited both Accoce and Quet, as well as Read and Fisher, but wrote nothing about the role of the Lucy Ring as an indirect channel. In his 1995 book, The Red Orchestra, V. E. Tarrant attempted to debunk Read and Fisher by endorsing the myth that Roessler operated radio equipment himself, but his argument was inconsequential and illogical, for example suggesting that, since Cairncross took risks in passing on ULTRA information, the latter would not have concurrently have been sent clandestinely by SIS to the Lucy ring.

A surprisingly contrary voice from the other side appeared in 1994: while the Soviets generally had diminished any intelligence contribution by their allies in World War II, Pavel Sudoplatov, who had headed the project associated with atomic espionage, published Special Tasks, in which he expressed his belief that the British had indeed planted Enigma secrets in Switzerland. This represented a considerable change to policy expressed by the defunct Soviet Union, who had not liked to admit that its successes had been attributable to the wiles of their permanent enemies, the British imperialists. Moreover, Sudoplatov had been responsible for chasing down and eliminating traitors in Europe in the 1950s and 1960s, so presumably knew what he was talking about. His testimony is a little contradictory, however: on one page he states that he knew that the British were decrypting German traffic, but on the next he both indicates similarities between messages received from London and those from Switzerland, but implies that the British were protecting an agent in German headquarters. The publication of Nigel West’s and Oleg Tsarev’s Crown Jewels in 1998 made it absolutely clear that Moscow Centre was very much aware at the time that Enigma messages had been broken at Bletchley Park. So was Sudoplatov being deceitful, disingenuous, or simply forgetful? Probably a measure of all three. Yet by this time the relevance of Foote’s loyalties and involvement with the whole exercise of covert ULTRA distribution appeared to be going the same way as that of the Schleswig-Holstein question, of which Palmerston was said to have declared that only three men had ever understood it, one of whom was dead, the other mad, and the third (he himself) had forgotten it.

The decade of the 00s was one of declassification. In 2004 the files on Foote were released to the National Archives, and in 2008 the 1949 report on the Rote Kapelle produced by a joint project by MI5, SIS and the CIA was declassified. Richard J. Aldrich brought out his (unofficial) history of GCHQ (titled GCHQ)  in 2010, but disappointingly sidestepped completely the question of ULTRA dissemination to the Soviets on the basis that the issue was ‘academic’, since Cairncross and his cronies had been doing the job for them. On the contrary, it was certainly not ‘academic’, given that Britain’s intelligence agencies were trying to negotiate with the Soviets while being utterly unaware of such espionage, but that truth eluded Aldrich.   2010 also saw the authorised history of MI5 by Christopher Andrew, Defending the Realm, and the following year Colin Jeffery produced his authorised history of SIS, The Secret History of SIS, although his account stopped in 1949. One might have expected the latter work to bring some precision – and even resolution  ̶  to the debate. Yet the outcome was flat. While Jeffery brought out some fresh facts on the wartime SIS operation in Switzerland, he left many questions unanswered, skating over the challenges Menzies faced in delivering Ultra information to the team in Moscow, refusing to discuss the stalking-horse of alternative channels, and offering contradictory information on British wireless capabilities in Switzerland during the war. What is revealing, however, is what he stated in a note in Chapter 16, where he discussed intelligence sharing between the UK and the Soviet Union: “This book [Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith] is excellent for Anglo-Soviet relations generally”, as if he could finesse the issue by delegating it to a work written fourteen years before – by an American author!

The full title of Smith’s 1996 book is Sharing Secrets With Stalin: How the Allies Traded Intelligence, 1941-1945. It is an extraordinary work – not primarily because of its scholarly thoroughness in tracking down official sources – but for its reckless irresponsibility over the effects of espionage. It spends about three lines only on the activities of the Cambridge Five and their cohorts. Yet Smith’s oversight in not covering the fact that Cairncross, Blunt, Long, Philby and maybe Jenifer Hart (through her husband, Herbert) had access to Ultra material, and passed them on prodigiously to their Soviet handlers, performs a massive injustice to the topic of negotiating strategies between the Soviet Union and Great Britain over intelligence material. Since the British were ignorant of the treachery being performed under their noses, their concerns about the security of the Enigma programme were in practice meaningless, and since the Soviets were receiving comprehensive reports via subversive channels, their opinions about British cooperation would have been utterly suspicious and cynical. The irony of writing a book titled ‘Sharing Secrets’ without proper coverage of the main thrust of secrets-sharing appeared to elude Smith – and this at a time when the secrets betrayed by British and American spies working for the NKVD/NKGB * or the GRU were familiar to all historians. No wonder that Jeffery (and SIS) were quick to endorse a work that pretended that Communist espionage was not a factor, but it was also incredibly naïve of them to think that the omission would be overlooked. Yet they almost succeeded in evading the whirlwind.    [* The NKGB replaced the NKVD in 1943.]

Judgments today are all over the map. The issue lies in a perpetual fog, with observers dancing around it since they appear to be unable to assemble the various archival and anecdotal sources in order to analyze and distinguish them – something that this writer is attempting to address. Authoritative reference books fumble the story. The Oxford Companion to World War II (1995) studiously ignored the controversy, echoing the Hinsley line on its ULTRA entry, and that of the CIA in its paragraph on the Lucy Ring. Other works have taken a bolder line. For instance, Richard Bennett’s 2002 work Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, with a Preface by ex-SIS officer, David Shayler, boldly declared: “However it is certain that Roessler was a witting or unwitting British double-agent and that the Lucy Ring was used by SIS and probably later the OSS to feed ULTRA material through to the Soviet government.” No government spokesperson stands up to protest this ruling, or to invoke Professor Hinsley. The same year, John Keegan, in his well-respected Intelligence in War (2002), extraordinarily elided over the whole business, casually and improbably suggesting that Roessler was fed his information from Swiss Intelligence, ‘who maintained contacts with the German Abwehr’.  A puzzling conclusion: but that was all.

Likewise, Nigel West’s own Historical Dictionary of World War II Intelligence, published in 2008, safely chose to decline even to acknowledge the debate, merely reflecting the puzzled conclusions of the outdated CIA report of almost thirty years before. Max Hastings, in his Secret War (2015), despite offering evidence of the identical nature of intelligence that the Soviet Union was receiving via their spies in Britain and from the Lucy Ring, could not bring himself to accept the notion that Foote was an SIS agent – what he dubbed the ‘conspiracist’ theory’. He based his conclusions on his judgment of SIS expertise, and the fact that Philby would have betrayed Foote, but did not consider the rich parade of intelligence officers who had supported the theory, was apparently unaware of the Foote archive, and refused to discuss the possibility that Britain may have been behind the communications channel. He even declared that Roessler was providing, to the SIS office in Bern, the same secrets from the German High Command that he was forwarding via Foote to Moscow.

Apart from Hastings’s superficial dismissal, no respected academic has stepped forward to challenge the story of British subterfuge, on the grounds of undocumented rumours or circumstantial evidence. Of course the ‘rumour-mongers’ are all dead, and can no longer make their case. And what is also extraordinary is that no historian has chosen to comment on the implications of the ‘conspiracist’ theory and its relatives. Why no curiosity about the effect this initiative had on the outcome of the war, or on the strategies for Soviet espionage – both during the war, and after it? If the activity did truly aid the Soviets and shorten the war, and the Russians now acknowledge that fact, why on earth would the whole process have to be concealed and denied? Why still the mystery over a cooperative venture that helped defeat Nazism? Could the ruse possibly have been effected without a compliant role by Alexander Foote, which would cast a blazing new light on the Kuczynski affair? Maybe that is the reason for the coyness.

It is worthwhile stepping back to recapitulate and consider the opposing thought-processes, motivations and strategies at the time of Barbarossa, and after relations broke down a year later. What effect did these events have on the progress of the war? As the introduction to this instalment explained, when Hitler’s Germany invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941, the British wanted to increase the Soviet Union’s ability to resist the Nazis by offering it access to current ULTRA information, but it was imperative that they conceal the source. They knew, from intercepted German messages, that Soviet communications were severely fragile, and, if the Germans suspected that Enigma had been broken, the whole war effort (especially the campaign in North Africa and the protection of Atlantic convoys) was at risk. Yet for the same reason the British could also not explain to Soviet intelligence how they knew the latter’s encryption techniques were not secure enough. Moreover, in British military discussions, a renascence of the Soviet-Nazi alliance was also not excluded from the equation. The threat was real: in July 1942, Roosevelt was to learn from his ambassador in Switzerland that Hitler had made a peace offering to Stalin, and the fear endured. Stalin had to be appeased and assisted. (Yet Stalin would later make peace moves to the Germans himself.)

Thus, as Hinsley openly acknowledged, in the second half of 1941, an elaborate charade developed where raw ULTRA information was processed and packaged for Soviet consumption, using the British Military Mission. The British were of course completely unaware that the Soviet high command was concurrently receiving rich topical ULTRA information from their spies in British Intelligence. They thus faced more obstacles: the Soviets did not appear to trust what they were told, apparently because the information could not be accurately sourced, but in all probability because they quickly understood that they were receiving through official channels a lot less than they were gaining from their espionage network in Britain. Consequently, since the Soviets did not apparently appreciate their gestures, the British dithered and were inconsistent, and gave the Soviets the impression they could not be trusted – an exposure that was heightened by the rather arrogant manner of many officers in the military mission. Thus, so the theory goes, in the middle of 1942 Churchill insisted that his intelligence chiefs explore alternative paths for providing ULTRA intelligence, in the belief that the Soviets would more willingly trust information coming from a native Communist source – namely the GRU network in Switzerland.

What about the stance of the Soviets during that period? They certainly wanted all the intelligence about Hitler’s military formations and goals they could acquire, but were still innately suspicious of any information that the ‘imperialist’ British would give them, especially when the source could not be divulged. (Hinsley actually describes an incident in late 1941, in another footnote, which suggests that Macfarlane of the Military Mission may have carelessly let on where the intelligence derived, and Menzies had to cover quickly for him.) Thus the Soviets used what they were told as a measure of British sincerity, since they also had access to the trove of ULTRA information being passed to them by Cairncross, Blunt, Long, and Philby: they knew more than the British Mission in Moscow, and then in Kuibyshev, when Moscow was evacuated, and used what they learned to compare facts. Yet they also had to be wary, not giving away how much they knew, lest the British grew suspicious. (Ironically, the quality of the information received from their espionage network in Britain was so good that it caused the Soviets to ask whether they were being spoonfed with false information.) They could claim their own sources, but the Rote Kapelle was wrapped up by the Gestapo in everywhere but Switzerland by the late summer of 1942, and communications from NKVD agents behind the German lines on Soviet territory were very haphazard. In summary, the Soviets used British inconsistency about sharing secrets as an excuse for complaining, and were consequently stingy in providing reciprocal information. The hypocrisy of their withholding the insights gained from their extensive Rote Kapelle network in 1941 and 1942 would never have occurred to them.

If and when the British set up the shadow OKW (Oberkommando der Wehrmacht, or Supreme Command of the Armed Forces) source  ̶  probably in the summer of 1942  ̶  and decided to leak information through Foote, they probably used their Czech contacts to facilitate the exercise in Switzerland, and to mask Foote’s involvement. It may not be coincidental that three major events occurred in September 1942: the Gestapo’s wrap-up of the Rote Kapelle in Germany, Britain’s initiation of its ULTRA distribution in Switzerland, and Roessler’s joining the GRU spy network there as an informer. The British were obviously still unaware of Cairncross & Co., and evidence suggests that they may have received intelligence from the Soviet Union that they had sourced themselves. While believing that the Soviets would more easily accept intelligence coming from their own network, they omitted to consider that the Communists would be just as demanding of knowing sources for verification purposes as they had traditionally been. (One of the conditions of Roessler’s joining the Ring was that he would never identify his sources.) But the new strategy meant that the British pedalled back on any official ULTRA distribution via the Mission in the Soviet Union. The BMM was told on November 15, 1942, that distribution of decrypts was being discontinued, even though a few critical summaries were passed on after that date. For Moscow, the results of this policy must have cast fresh scepticism on the sincerity of the British, who thus gained no credit for helping the Soviet war effort. In fact Soviet trust decreased. Britain’s failure to match the highly detailed information supplied by Cairncross before Kursk, for example, indicated to the Soviets that the British had lost interest in its ally’s fortunes on the Eastern Front. That was a serious offence. (Intriguingly, Hinsley included, as Appendix 22 of Volume II of his History, a complete transcript of a vital April 23 intercept on Zitadelle, the German operation at Kursk – the very message that the Soviets must have received from Cairncross.)

When Roessler came on board in September 1942, the Soviets were very suspicious about possibly planted intelligence, making intense inquiries about the origin of his information. (Mirroring Churchill’s and Roosevelt’s concerns, Stalin was fearful of a separate rapprochement by them with Hitler.) Radó had to explain Roessler’s stipulations about anonymity of sources to them: he was also a mercenary, and needed to be paid. Yet, since the quality of the information coming from Lucy soon turned out to be of such high calibre, Moscow came to rely utterly on its Rote Drei sources. Moreover, as the texts of telegrams supplied by Radó in his memoir show, their demands became much more complex, so the Soviets appeared much more as customers of integrated intelligence rather than passive consumers of German bulletins and communications. It appears as if a dedicated team was creating packaged answers to complex questionnaires, a response that surely could come only from London. Sudoplatov relates how Moscow compared the reports coming from Switzerland with those arriving from the Cambridge ring in London, noted the similarities, but observed that the Lucy messages were more detailed than those arriving via British intelligence.

On the other hand, since the official supply-line was drying up, the Soviets co-operated less with the British Mission, shutting down (for instance) the intercept station at Polyarnoe they had allowed the British to use, and impounding Typex encoding machines. Thus they continued to diminish the sincerity of the Allied war effort, continuously applying pressure for the opening of the Second Front, over which Churchill had previously broken promises he had made to Stalin. Hinsley remarks on their failure to respond to the receipt of intelligence as well as their inability to collaborate on it. Heinz Höhne offered a disturbing example in his Codeword: Direktor (1971), where he reported that the Berlin Rote Kapelle group sent to Moscow intelligence that the Germans had captured British code-books which allowed them to know in advance British convoy plans for Murmansk: one hopes that this was passed on to London by Moscow, but evidence is not clear. Hinsley does not record any such communication. Relations deteriorated. The Soviets were resentful that they were sacrificing so much blood in repelling the Germans, while their allies kept delaying the opening of the Second Front. And after the Battle of Kursk in 1943, with the turning of the tide in their favour, the Soviets began to be less reliant even on the Lucy sources, which were themselves closed down with the arrest of the Swiss radio operators at the end of that year.

It would appear that the Soviets for a long time suspected the British role in the whole operation, and during the war did harbour suspicions that Foote was acting as a double-agent. Radó did not trust him, and provides several hints (confirmed by Dallin) of his links to British intelligence. But when Foote was interrogated in Moscow in 1945, having volunteered to return (in itself a strong symbol of innocence), he must have convinced his GRU masters that he had no knowledge of the link, or who Lucy even was, for they would surely have shot him if they had suspected otherwise. Following similar logic, Philby must surely not have been privy to Foote’s role supporting the ULTRA back-channel, else he would have advised his political masters so. The GRU thus regarded Foote more as a turncoat when he ‘defected’ back to Great Britain in 1947, probably changing their minds only when Roessler’s utility was shown to be negligible after Sedlacek recruited him to Czech intelligence after the war. Sedlacek, a true Communist (unlike Moraveč, who had to escape from the Communists as briskly as he had fled from the Nazis), had returned to the Czechoslovak Republic in 1947, and assuredly told his bosses the true story. Their fears were probably confirmed after Roessler’s trial in 1952, an event that prompted Dallin’s analysis given above. As will be shown, Dallin provided more damning evidence of Foote’s dual role.

Moscow probably wanted to elevate the role of its spy network in Britain above the possibly duplicitous behavior in Switzerland, and the reliance on British machinations. Accordingly, Cairncross was at some stage awarded the Order of the Red Banner by Stalin because of his contribution to the Battle of Kursk. Yuri Modin reports that Cairncross was handed the award by his new handler, Krechin, in 1944, but other accounts suggest it was not until 1948, and that Cairncross received only a monetary award in 1944 – in October. In fact, during 1943, at the time the Battle of Kursk was shaping up, Moscow Centre, through the exhortations of an NKVD officer, Elena Modrzhinskaya, was firmly of the impression that the whole ring of Cambridge spies were double agents: they were not cleared until August 1944. Thus it is worthwhile speculating that Cairncross’s award might have been given as a smokescreen, to distract attention away from the fact that the Soviets had finally accepted that they had been reliant on official British intelligence in their victory over Hitler. Moscow was reluctant to concede that it had been hoodwinked until Sudoplatov admitted as much, fifty years later.

Yet in 1943 the GRU apparently knew better than the NKVD. Sudoplatov claimed that the more precise version of the German battle plans that Cairncross provided in May 1943 (as explained earlier) proved to the GRU that the British had penetrated Radó’s group, that they were in that process ‘rationing information’, and thus were not so serious about contributing to a Soviet victory. That is also the conclusion of West and Tsarev, who, like Modin, claim that Cairncross provided far more detailed information about German troop movements before Kursk than did the British government. What is extraordinary, also, is the fact that, in June 1943, the GRU informed the NKVD of the value of Cairncross’s intelligence in winning the battle of Kursk. Since the two organisations were rivals, and the GRU prided itself on understanding its military needs far better than the NKVD did, that was a significant gesture. It is surprising that the Foreign Intelligence chief Fitin (the recipient of the report from the GRU) was not able conclusively to clear the spies of the charges of being double-agents until August 1944. The final point to be made is that Moscow, though clearly aware of the ULTRA project, since Blunt and Cairncross and Philby had all provided evidence of decryption of Enigma traffic, appeared not to appreciate Churchill’s fervent desire to protect its sources. Since, for most of 1943, it had regarded its spies as agents of British Intelligence, it maybe found it difficult to break away from the implications of that suspicion.

It may come as no surprise that Marshal Zhukov in his Memoirs (1969) gave no credit to Cairncross or other espionage sources, attributing the victory at Kursk to ‘the advantages of Soviet social order, and through heroic, tremendous efforts of the Soviet people led by the Party, both at the front and in the rear’ (i.e. partisans). Khrushchev echoed this assessment: Kursk was ‘the ultimate triumph of our Soviet Army, our ideology, and our Communist Party.’ In any case, the outcome was a further loss of trust on the Soviets’ part rather than an expression of gratitude. The Law of Unexpected Consequences was at work. British Intelligence made three strategic errors: 1) it failed to internalise the warnings of Walter Krivitsky about communist spies within the corridors of power, and thus left itself open to Soviet espionage; 2) it did not acknowledge that the Soviet Union was a temporary ally, but a permanent adversary, and thus failed to develop a consistent, resolute stance in negotiations with Stalin; and 3) it underestimated the discipline of Soviet Intelligence in wanting to verify sources of information before trusting them. Moreover its security turned out to be leakier than that of the Soviets. In summary, Menzies and his colleagues made a monumental but classical misjudgment of the thought-processes of their Soviet ‘frenemy’, assuming that they were well-intentioned intelligence officers in their own mould. But they were not gentlemen, they were inherently paranoiac, and they viewed conciliation as a great weakness.

This whole saga could prompt an observer to describe a regular course that such historiography takes in the world of Intelligence. (Indeed, some aspiring scholar might want to study other events to detect whether there is a pattern.) Stage 1 involves a period of silence, since secrets may still be of use against other enemies, and reputations have to be protected. Stage 2 reflects a desire by the authorities to gain recognition for their efforts, and they thus allow controlled leakages to occur, via trusted journalists or historians. The next Stage (3) is characterized by reactive measures, both by mavericks and by dedicated professionals who believe the whole truth is not being told. Inhibited by the Official Secrets Act, they themselves divulge alternative stories to their allies in publishing, while loyalists in turn release their own disinformation. To try to ensure a positive legacy, grandees issue dubious memoirs, or give deceptive interviews to their biographers. This leads to Stage 4, one of confusion, where both serious and speculative accounts cannot distinguish between reliable and unreliable sources, and questionable stories get cited in the indices of respectable historians, even. Stage 5 is led by the Official or Authorised History, where the powers-that-be attempt to bring order to the scene, giving an approved and trusted historian controlled access to secret files, and hoping that the public will treat such accounts with the reverence they do not deserve. By this time, most of the participants and witnesses are dead, and cannot question the conclusions, or promote their stories. Stage 6 is exemplified by the release of aged archives, which will have been weeded, but perhaps not very expertly so, and will thus provide a trove for a focussed historian. The declassification of such material leads to the final stage 7, where fact and fable are almost indistinguishable, but which gives an opportunity for an independent and enterprising historian, still relying on hypotheses, no doubt, but able to exploit a wealth of evidence in detective style, to put the archival record in context, and fill in pieces of the missing puzzle.

What is remarkable is that one sleuth practically experienced this complete cycle. Chapman Pincher started his career in tracking espionage and intelligence in 1950, at the trial of Klaus Fuchs, and published his last major work on it, Treachery, in 2011, three years before he died at the age of 100. Yet while uncovering several secrets, Pincher also contributed to the fog. His obsession with proving that Roger Hollis was the mole named ELLI blinded him to many research opportunities. Lest it be forgotten that this story is essentially about Sonia’s Radio, Pincher accepted the fact that the Lucy ring had been penetrated by SIS, but he established the conception that Foote could in no way have been a participant in this project. In his mind, had Foote truly been an SIS agent, he would no doubt have passed on what he knew about Sonia to his masters at the time she moved to the UK at the beginning of 1941, and not just when he ‘defected’ in 1947. Yet had Britain’s security services learned from Foote about Sonia’s true mission at that time, the guilt for the concealment and negligence over her could not have been laid at Hollis’s door alone. After all the words he had written about Hollis, Pincher could probably not face that reality.

Four theories about the source of the information, and the role of SIS, in the transmission of the Rote Drei’s intelligence can thus be postulated (ignoring the discredited Accoce/Quet theory of Roessler’s personally receiving radio transmissions from inside Germany, one echoed solely by Tarrant):

1) The Hinsley Denial: At its simplest, it unequivocably rejects any SIS involvement, but makes no other comment, implicitly suggesting that agents in the German High Command were responsible. This is the discredited thesis of Accoce and Quet, who later admitted they invented that part of the story. Max Hastings appears to be the lone defendant of this official line, without providing convincing evidence of the identity of the German sources, but any historian who declines to investigate the controversial claims (such as John Keegan) should also be listed here.

2) CIA/Nigel West/OUP Agnosticism: This group remains sceptical about both claims. It finds the theory of major leaks from the German High Command improbable, but tends to trust the story that Roessler identified his sources (primarily Gisevius and Oster) shortly before he died. It disbelieves (based on Commander Cohen’s evidence) the assertion that Foote was ever employed by SIS, and is influenced – perhaps too easily  ̶  by Moraveč, who claimed that more information came  from Roessler to GB than vice versa. This theory cannot conceive of an SIS back-channel to the Soviets in Switzerland working without Foote.

3) Muggeridge Revisionism: This school expresses a strong involvement by SIS in ULTRA distribution, with Foote as a compliant and vital member. It was initiated by Muggeridge’s disclosures in 1963, and its supporters presumably include all those luminaries who, behind the scenes, provided insights to Whiting, and Read & Fisher (e.g. Calvocoressi, Winterbotham, Strong, Cavendish-Bentinck, Denniston, etc.), as well as the open testimony of Crankshaw. This theory has now been endorsed by Sudoplatov  – if not explicitly, at least by the statements of his collaborators, Jerrold and Leona Shechter.

4) The Pincher Doctrine:  This sect believes in the existence of the set-up in (3), but concludes it was successful despite the lack of involvement of Foote, or even SIS’s knowledge of his role in the Soviet network. Chapman Pincher’s theory was presumably also adopted by Soviet Military Intelligence, whom Foote managed to convince that he was entirely innocent (otherwise they would have shot him), but Moscow may have come round to Theory 3 when they learned from Sedlacek, years after the war, about Roessler’s real value and role.

This extraordinary paradox will be explored in the next instalment, where the evidence for Foote’s recruitment by Colonel Dansey will be presented. For, if the probability that Foote was an agent of SIS and the Z Organisation can be shown to be high, it would presumably bring the (2) camp into (3), and demolish Pincher’s theory that Hollis was the prime culprit in facilitating Sonia’s entry to rural England, and was thus able to protect her thereafter from MI5 surveillance and subsequent arrest. And that would point to a major cover-up operation over the presence and use of Sonia’s Radio.

New Sources:

Special Tasks, by Pavel Sudoplatov

Master of Spies, by Frantisek Moraveč

Rote Kapelle: Spionage und Widerstand, by W. F. Flicke

Intelligence in War, by John Keegan

The Oxford Companion to World War II, by I. C. B. Dear & M. R. D. Foot (editors)

Codeword: Direktor, by Hans Höhne

Triplex, by Nigel West

Soviet Espionage, by David Dallin

Historical Dictionary of WWII Intelligence, by Nigel West

History of the British Secret Service, by Richard Deacon

Sharing Secrets with Stalin, by Bradley F. Smith

Their Trade Is Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Espionage: An Encyclopedia of Spies and Secrets, by Richard Bennett

The Second Oldest Profession, by Phillip Knightley

Memoirs, by Marshal Zhukov

Top Secret Ultra, by Peter Calvocoressi

Intelligence at the Top, by Kenneth Strong

Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, Robert Chadwell Williams

Chronicles of Wasted Time, by Malcolm Muggeridge

Spymasters, by Charles Whiting

Codeword Barbarossa, by Barton Whaley

Secret Intelligence in the Twentieth Century, by Constantine Fitzgibbon

The Invisible Writing, Arthur Koestler

The Great Game, by Leopold Trepper

KGB: The Inside Story, by Christopher Andrew & Oleg Gordievsky

Roosevelt’s Secret War, by Joseph E. Persico

The Crown Jewels, by Nigel West & Oleg Tsarev

The Mitrokhin Archive, by Christopher Andrew & Vasily Mitrokhin

My Five Cambridge Friends, by Yuri Modin

Khrushchev Remembers, by Nikita Khrushchev

P.S. I have enough material to write Part 6 of this saga next month, although I really should inspect one important document first. In 1949, MI5 combined with SIS and the CIA to write a report on the case of the Rote Kapelle, an analysis that was declassified in 2008. Coming as it did between the defection of Foote and the arrest of Klaus Fuchs, and in the same year that Foote’s memoir was published, this report should contain a trove of information (or disinformation) that will in any event help shed light on the attitude of the intelligence services to the Soviets’ spy ring. I shall be in the UK in March, and plan to visit Kew expressly to read this document, and shall thus update my text should the archive justify it. I should also like to inspect the Dallin papers at the New York Public Library, which include some unique conversations Dallin had in the early 1950s with Foote and others involved with the Lucy network, but I have no plans to trek North at the moment. As this month comes to an end, I am trying to negotiate with the Library the electronic release to me of selected documents from the Dallin archive.

January’s Commonplace entries can be seen here.

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Taking The Cake

With Alyssa, Alexis & Ashley: October 2016

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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Sonia’s Radio – Part IV

This instalment steps back to investigate a puzzling story about decryption of Soviet radio transmissions – the claim that Churchill put a stop to such activities immediately Hitler invaded the Soviet Union on June 22, 1941.

Attention to Soviet wireless transmissions was routine in the first period of WWII. The use of one-time-pads, which the Soviets had adopted for diplomatic and intelligence traffic after Prime Minister Baldwin’s ill-conceived disclosures in the House of Commons in 1927, continued to make nearly all messages undecipherable. Nevertheless, the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) continued to perform interception of Soviet traffic.  In his history of the establishment, GCHQ, Richard Aldrich reports that, in October 1939, extra facilities were requested by the naval officer, Clive Loehnis, in order to handle increased volumes, and that operators with signals intelligence skills were even sent out to Sweden, where reception of Soviet signals was better. Aldrich adds that the influx of cryptographers from Europe meant that some French expertise was added to Bletchley Park after the fall of France, and that a section staffed primarily by Poles was set up in Stanmore, in North London.

The official history is very lapidary: there is no entry for ‘Russia’ or ‘Soviet Union’ in the Index of Volume 1 of the History of British Intelligence in the Second World War, and Professor Hinsley could record only that, before the war, work on Russia’s service codes and ciphers had been confined to two groups, one in India, and one in Sarafand, in Palestine. He suggested that, after the Nazi-Soviet pact, some modest progress was made: “Since then GC and CS had broken the Russian meteorological cipher, read a considerable number of naval signals and decoded about  a quarter of some 4,000 army and police messages, but  . . . it [this ‘local traffic’]  yielded nothing of strategic importance.” This observation does reflect an increasing interest, but also indicates that, unsurprisingly, no breakthroughs had been achieved over one-time-pads. As the September 2016 instalment of ‘Sonia’s Radio’ hinted, individual memoirs refer vaguely to attempts by GC&CS to decrypt more strategic Soviet traffic, but a reliable account of exactly what happened is very elusive.

In 1979, however, a startling and controversial statement appeared. In the above-mentioned history by Hinsley, hidden in a footnote on page 199, can be found the following: “All work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped from 22 June 1941, the day on which Germany attacked Russia, except that, to meet the need for daily appreciations of the weather on the eastern front, the Russian meteorological cipher was read again for a period beginning in October 1942.” This astonishing assertion is a mixture of the precise and the vague – an exact date of a decision, but no indication of who made it. Moreover, it seems that the statement had been clumsily inserted at a late stage of publication, since the text is not properly aligned, as if something had been removed. Moreover, if the messages encoded with one-time-pads had been shown to be stubbornly intractable for fourteen years, what was the point of declaring that ‘work on Russian codes and ciphers was stopped’? Yet Hinsley’s enigmatic statement has pervaded historical consciousness to a large degree. What was the true story behind this claim?

The statement certainly merits some close parsing and analysis. If, indeed, the work was stopped on the same day that Hitler’s troops invaded the Soviet Union, how and why was such a decision, amidst all the tumult that must have been going on, made so swiftly? And how was it communicated so promptly to Bletchley Park, so that plans could be changed immediately? And was the implicit instruction that transmissions themselves would no longer intercepted, or did the restriction apply solely to decryption? And when were the restrictions removed, if ever? And for whose benefit was the decision made? Was it intended for Stalin to hear about, so that his trust in Britain’s support would be magnified? Or was it made from a fear arising from the belief that, if he ever discovered that efforts were being made to understand his diplomatic or other messages, he might . . . what? Have a huff? But was it not all a bit premature to assume that, before Stalin’s reactions to Barbarossa were even known, calling a halt to work on the coded messages of a country that had been Britain’s main subversive threat for over twenty years was a wise strategy? One can safely surmise that Stalin would have been astonished if Britain had indeed stopped trying to decode his traffic: it was not as if he would have withdrawn his army of spies as a reciprocal gesture of good will. Perhaps the decision was a bluff – an outward show of comradeship and trust, to be surreptitiously leaked to Generalissimo Stalin, while the secret programme was actually ordered to continue?

The essence of this momentous decision has been accepted by many historians and journalists, but not rigorously inspected by many. The first apparently to refer to it was the American historian Bradley F. Smith, who briefly expressed scepticism about the supposed decision in his 1983 volume The Shadow Warriors.  He wrote that it was difficult to take seriously the claim of a government that developed ULTRA that it had stopped work on all Soviet codes for the duration of the war. This was followed by Chapman Pincher, in his 1984 book Too Secret Too Long, where he pointed out that such a policy, made perhaps out of a naive belief that the Soviets would reciprocate such trust, may have enabled Stalin’s spies to perform their work undetected during the remainder of the war. Pincher, relying on information he received from Professor Hinsley, believed such a decision had indeed been taken, and that the Y Board devised the ruling after Churchill had made it clear that the Soviets should be treated as allies. Pincher even gained a confirmation from Dick White that that is what happened, although, since White was only Assistant-Director of MI5, in charge of B1 at the time, it is not clear how he was informed of the decision if no one else appears to have been aware of how it was made. In addition, it would have been highly unlikely that the Y Board, after receiving the directive from Churchill, would have met to discuss the issue the very same day that Barbarossa occurred.

Furthermore, Pincher echoed the essence of the edict as Hinsley presented it   ̶   that Soviet messages would no longer be decrypted, without any indication of whether transmissions would still be monitored, whether illicit or not.  Clearly a process of detecting and recording encoded transmissions had to be in place before any attempts were made to try to identify their source from call-signs and location-finding techniques, let alone trying to decrypt them. At this stage of the war, valuable information was being gained from the emerging technique of ‘traffic analysis’, which did not require decrypting of message texts. Moreover, since GC&CS realised that Soviet traffic was nigh undecipherable, with no breakthroughs in sight, an order to cease decryption efforts would have been a meaningless gesture, while traffic analysis, not proscribed by the edict, would still have been a valuable project. And messages were transcribed and stored for potential later analysis. Thus the emphasis on forbidding decryption seems something of a red herring.

Pincher also cast some doubt on Churchill’s intentions, by suggesting that he may have been alarmed by the decision (given his distrust of the Kremlin), again annotating that Professor Hinsley told him that ‘the MI6 chief or one of the Service Chiefs may have mentioned it to him verbally’ [sic: he presumably meant ‘orally’]. This is quite bizarre: the Prime Minister is described as making a clear policy statement, but then is surprised when he later learns it has been cast into practice. Pincher offers no explanation, and then goes off the rails even more, as his mission is clearly to implicate Roger Hollis in the concealment of Sonia’s radio traffic, attributing to him all manner of responsibilities that he did not have, such as decoding the messages himself.  He also seems to think that the Cambridge Spies would somehow have suddenly changed their attitude because of the ruling (when they had no control as to how their secrets were passed on), but he does not tell us how they learned of it. That is pure speculation.

One extraordinary segment in the story is the contribution by Anthony Cave-Brown in his 1987 biography of Stewart Menzies, ‘C’, more by what he doesn’t say as from what he does. (Menzies was the head of SIS, responsible for GCC&S, who took the ULTRA messages to Churchill personally.) There is no mention of Churchill’s edict in his story, no reference to Hinsley, and, though Cave-Brown is familiar with Read’s and Fisher’s biography of Dansey (Colonel Z), no statement on the possible leakage of ULTRA via Dansey’s Swiss network. Yet Cave-Brown does make the remarkable claim that, soon after Barbarossa, ‘’C’ had been able to read the Communist International’s secret wireless traffic with its supporters in Britain and elsewhere’, i.e. almost three years before the ISCOT project delivered any goods. Furthermore, he cites a diary entry by Churchill’s secretary, John Colville, dated September 9, 1941, that refers to information received from Desmond Morton (Churchill’s personal assistant for intelligence) concerning such information about Comintern orders from ‘secret sources’. Maybe Cave-Brown was under the impression that the intercepted traffic known as ‘MASK’ had continued beyond January 1937: as late as October 1942, Liddell was still referring to Comintern instructions coming ‘via courier or via the Embassy’. Or perhaps he was under the same misunderstanding as Michael Smith (see later) concerning overheard conversations at Communist Party HQ. This claim does not appear to be echoed anywhere else.

The next historian keen to delve into the story appears to be Anthony Glees. While researching his Secrets of the Service (also published in 1987), and aware of Pincher’s narrative, Glees also had the benefit of being able to contact Professor Hinsley, asking him who had given the order. Hinsley replied to Glees by saying that he ‘had no evidence as to who made the decision. Presumably it was taken by the Y Board.’ The plot now thickens. Is this not an extraordinary statement for an official historian to make? With no archival evidence, and no record of such a decision, to rely on hearsay would appear as an abdication of the historian’s responsibility. (I shall return to this issue when I investigate Hinsley’s assertions about ULTRA distribution in the next instalment of Sonia’s Radio.) Glees did actually gain confirmation from an (anonymous) SIS officer that the decision had been taken, and he thus investigated further. He also had the advantage of being able to interview Sir Patrick Reilly, who had been the personal assistant to Stewart Menzies from April 1942 until October 1943. Reilly’s line appeared to be, however, that, even if Soviet traffic had been monitored with any thoroughness, its impenetrability would have hindered any breakthroughs, and thus nothing about Soviet aims was lost to intelligence. In side-stepping the question, he thus shed no real light on the enigma, except for reinforcing the notion that the edict was practically of no consequence.

Conscious of how vital such a decision may have been in Britain’s failure to unmask Soviet spies, Glees returned to the key question of authority. He managed to induce Reilly and Lord Sherfield (who, while a future Ambassador to the United States, as Roger Makins would not appear to have been close to the action at the time, as Glees confirms) to agree that such a decision would have had to have come from Churchill himself ‘with the approval of either the Cabinet or the Joint Intelligence Committee and after consultation with ‘C’ [Menzies].’ With this judgment, however, Reilly and Sherfield completely contradict what Hinsley had told Pincher, namely that the Y Committee had made the ruling, and that Churchill learned of it later. Thus the issue of the edict’s being issued on June 22 has to be finessed: the storyline is dismally vague, and infected with speculation. Maybe Churchill communicated the decision privately to Bletchley Park via Menzies, and informed his cabinet later. Maybe there was no decision at all.

Glees skilfully analyses the question of why Churchill might have made the decision, and the implication that such considerations might have on his awareness that his intelligence agencies might have been infected by spies, concluding, along with Sherfield, that, since ‘you do not spy on your friends’, Churchill’s policy was eminently sensible. Glees also makes the very shrewd observation that, had the British policy-makers been allowed to read Soviet wireless traffic, they ‘might have picked up intelligence about the role of the Red Army in post-Nazi Europe’. One might wonder how seriously the Soviets were considering the shape of post-war Europe at a time when their own survival was at stake: not until the Battle of Kursk was won, in August 1943, might Stalin and his crew have had enough confidence in the outcome to believe that it might be able to define how it would bring the eastern states under Communist authority once the war was won. Thus Glees’s projections, working from a supposed edict from 1941, were quite imaginative, yet appear not to have been picked up by other historians.

Richard Deacon (the pseudonym of Donald McCormick), however, picked up Glees’s first point about not spying on allies, suggesting in The Greatest Treason (1989) that Churchill issued ‘a personal order that MI6 should cease to decode Soviet wireless traffic since it would be wrong to spy on friends’. Deacon than says that Roger Hollis (who was primarily responsible for monitoring communist subversion, and about to move into the new F Division set up by David Petrie) interpreted the decision as a political move on Churchill’s part to win friends on the left, implying, perhaps, that Churchill expected cryptanalysis to continue more discreetly. There was no doubt about growing sympathy for the Soviets at this time, but the idea of Churchill, for political reasons, making a public statement about a highly secret operation, simply does not make sense.

Yet what Glees grasped at is in fact exactly what happened. We know now that information about Soviet plans in eastern Europe was precisely what the British were able to gather – from decrypted Soviet transmissions, when the U.S.S.R. was an ally. We now know that this occurred in the West End of London, where an offshoot of Bletchley Park was set up in February 1942.  Commander Alistair Denniston (portrayed by Charles Dance in The Imitation Game) was effectively demoted from his leadership of GC&CS to establish the new operation, and to work on diplomatic and commercial ciphers instead. Nominally, Berkeley Street was used for analyzing diplomatic traffic, and nearby Aldford House for commercial messages, but Nigel West and others state that ISCOT operated from Alford House. ISCOT, named after the cryptanalyst who led it, Bernard Scott (who was later Professor Mathematics at Sussex University), ran from April 1943 until after the end of the war, and successfully intercepted and decoded Comintern messages to Soviet agents working behind Nazi lines.

Moreover, the records tell us that some monitoring activity antedated this programme. The Government Code and Cypher School admitted to its partners in Canada and the United States that it had indeed been intercepting and analyzing traffic from enemies, allies and neutrals alike.  John Bryden (in Best-Kept Secret) shows us a letter written on June 3, 1942 by Commander Denniston (then at the office in Berkeley Street)  that confirms that his group was spying on the messages of not only the enemy (Germany and Japan), but allies and neutrals as well, including Bulgaria, France, Hungary, Spain, Switzerland, and Russia. In his 2010 history, Richard Aldrich (who incidentally does not mention the rumoured edict at all) asserts that Britain was deciphering USA diplomatic traffic named ‘Grey’ throughout 1941, for Churchill’s particular appreciation. In fact, British and American cryptanalysts had been working on each others’ ciphers since they were Allies in the First World War. The claim about ‘not spying on friends’ as an important aspect of diplomatic policy is thus shown to be completely spurious. The USA was always more of a ‘friend’ than the USSR.

Very little has been written about the ISCOT project itself, although a voluminous set of transcripts of the traffic can now be inspected at the National Archives (HW 17/53-67). What is extraordinary is that, when the MI5 & SIS officer John Curry wrote his private history of MI5 in 1946 (not published at the time), he gave a comprehensive account of the whole programme (without revealing the codename ISCOT or the locations), even admitting that ‘early in 1944 G.C. & C. S. officers succeeding in reading some of the material’. He described the complete organisation of the ‘post-Comintern’ set-up, and the substance of the messages – something that appears to have been almost completely ignored by historians  ̶  and in fact Curry referred to a rich report he himself wrote about the project before he left SIS’s Section IX in November 1944. (It was thus probably Curry, not Archer, who wrote the report referred to by Curry’s successor, Kim Philby – see below.) The text of Curry’s history was not published until 1999, and was released to the National Archives the same year, but it had presumably been available for intelligence insiders in the intervening decades. Coincidentally (or was it not so?), the source texts of the decrypted transmissions were released at the same time. Not until 2011, when Ralph Erskine and Michael Smith published The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, did an account appear (Chapter 2) of the pre-war and wartime activity on Soviet codes, with credit given to Curry. This piece concentrates, however,  more on Curry’s disclosures on the 1930s MASK traffic, with only a few final terse sentences on the experiences at Berkeley Street, and no mention of the term ISCOT itself.

In the ISCOT files can be found a fascinating series of messages, dating from July 1943 onwards – and decrypted on some occasions as little as a few days afterwards  ̶  that show that, even though the Comintern had been officially dissolved in May 1943, it vigorously lived on, concealed as ‘Scientific Institute 205’, with Dimitrov still in charge. Stalin prepared his agents behind enemy lines in Europe to take power in their respective countries after the war, for example issuing orders that provisional governments must be initially set up as ‘democratic’ and not ‘communist’. It is clear that the highly-secure medium of one-time-pads was simply not applicable in these situations, because of the geographically spread and dynamic organisation that simply would not have been able to follow such disciplines. (Indeed, one of the messages with great alarm draws attention to loose encryption techniques, and how they must be repaired.) The radio operators used a hand-cipher based on grids and extracts from Shakespeare: one-time-pads were not introduced until the end of the war. Thus the challenge to the cryptographers at Aldford House were not so great as those they faced when analyzing official Soviet diplomatic traffic.

Some of the background to the whole exercise has been revealed in a series of articles that have appeared in specialist intelligence magazines, namely the Journal of Intelligence History, and Intelligence and National Security, between 1995 and 2013. The project became controversial later, and a dispute still exists as to whether or why the British Government did not incorporate the obvious messages from the ISCOT decrypts into their plans and negotiations concerning post-war Eastern Europe (the point that Glees latched onto without being aware of the project back in 1983). John Croft and Herbert Romerstein (two authors of the articles mentioned) themselves take opposing stances on the amount of damage done. But the fact that the existence and substance of the ISCOT transcripts seem to have been completely overlooked in all histories of the Second World War (even after 1999) would suggest that their content has been a subject of some embarrassment to the Foreign Office and to SIS. In his 2002 memoir, Know Your Enemy, Percy Cradock, who was chairman of the Joint Intelligence Committee from 1985 to 1992, echoes the story that ‘work on Russian ciphers had been given up as early as June 1941’, admits the lapse revealed by the VENONA project, but shows no awareness of the ISCOT transcripts, and concludes that ‘only low-grade information came via Sigint’. How could he possibly not have known about the programme?

Ironically, it was apparently the spy Kim Philby who first broke the news, in 1968, although in a veiled way. (Alistair Denniston’s son, Robin, drew attention to Philby’s shocking breakthrough, which was the first indication to the public that a body like GC&CS even existed.) Without using the term ISCOT (or even Bletchley Park!) Philby declared in his memoir, My Silent War, that Section IX of SIS had access to the transcripts, and that he instructed Jane Archer to compile a detailed analysis of the traffic, to keep her busy, presumably believing that the exercise could do no harm to him and his colleagues in espionage. He provided firm evidence that he was familiar with the texts, commenting that ‘despite the efforts of OSS and SOE to buy political support in the Balkans by the delivery of arms, money, and material, the National Liberation movements refused to compromise’. (It should be noted that the Chronology attached to Philby’s memoir misleadingly states that Section IX was set up in 1945, and that Philby headed it then. Chapter 7 rightly hints that it was set up in 1943, under ‘Currie’ [actually ‘Curry’], and that Philby took over in November 1944.) Moreover, Philby had a good relationship with Denniston in the latter’s new job: the reason he made contact was that, when investigating some Nazi reports that had been given to Allen Dulles’s OSS office in Berne, Switzerland, Philby decided to pass them by Denniston to verify their authenticity. Denniston was able to match the texts with recently decrypted messages, and thus increase the success of his department. Sadly, despite his anti-communistic instincts, Denniston would come to trust Philby: the Dulles exercise must have contributed. And ironically, it was his son who helped to get Philby’s memoir published in England. Cave-Brown suggests it was done partly to spite Menzies for how his father had been treated.

While Archer’s (or Curry’s) report has not come to light, the episode indicates at least three things. One, that its revelations might well have proved embarrassing to intelligence officers after the war, especially if the Comintern exchanges had not been shown to the Joint Intelligence Committee. Two, that the ISCOT exercise would quickly have come to the ears of Philby’s masters in Moscow, who presumably then did not consider the exposure dangerous enough to need to change their ciphers. It might have pointed to a leak if they had done so. In addition, the Soviets perhaps believed that they had Roosevelt and Churchill on the run, and that their current Allies against the Nazis, even if they did divine the Soviets’ true intentions, would have neither the guts nor the resources to challenge the Communist expansion at the end of the war. Only in 1945 did Soviet Intelligence switch to one-time-pads for ‘Comintern’ traffic, and thus make the transmissions unreadable again. The third conclusion one could make is that the Soviets would have definitely been alerted to the fact that British cryptographers were probably working on more Soviet traffic than that of the Comintern, despite any claims to the contrary that may have been leaked to them, including the now questionable edict emanating from Churchill or the Y Committee. And that might have affected their approach to security, and their use of radio elsewhere.

The move of Denniston to London has always been problematical, as if he had been rather brusquely sidelined. But another fact hints at more disciplinary action: while he was the longest-serving head of GC&CS (or GCHQ, the name granted to the establishment after the reorganisation), he is the only leader not to have been knighted, which is a quite extraordinary insult to someone who had delivered extremely well for most of his long career. Even if it is true that new management was required with the growth at Bletchley Park, and Denniston was not only uncomfortable with the task, but also suffering from severe illness, there was no reason for him to be treated so shabbily, with a demotion and reduction in pay. His replacement by Edward Travis in 1942 has been interpreted by most historians as a necessary move for greater efficiency. The insult is inexplicable: Travis was made director of GC&CS in March 1944, and knighted three months later. Denniston had led GC&CS for twenty years. Was there something else going on?

The more serious histories are unfortunately not very informative over the reasons for the reorganisation, and what caused Denniston’s demise. His new set-up, known as the Government Communications Bureau, rapidly grew in size. Seventy persons were rapidly installed, growing soon to two hundred, but Denniston’s son, Robin, reports that, by the summer of 1942, this had swelled to five hundred (admittedly on his father’s evidence) – certainly no humble backwater for a disgraced bureaucrat. Other sources contribute to the lack of clarity.  Ronald Lewin, in Ultra Goes to War (1978), understated the whole conflict, merely noting that ‘illness caused Denniston  . . . to be moved to quieter fields’. P. W. Filby wrote (in Intelligence and National Security): “Both [de Grey & Travis] felt that the organisation had become too much for Denniston, and finally it was decided to make Travis director at Bletchley (military) and Denniston head of the Diplomatic sections, with a small [sic] staff to be housed in Berkeley Street, London. . . . He was released from Bletchley and went to Berkeley Street without any ceremony. Our section, headed by Patricia Bartley, followed him in February 1942 and found rather a bitter man . . .”  Hinsley’s entry for Denniston in the Dictionary of National Biography surely does not perform justice to the whole episode, or Denniston’s subsequent achievement, stating merely that ‘from all accounts, Denniston is judged to have done a fine job at Berkeley Street.’  The newer entry in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography, updated by Ralph Erskine, is more laudatory: ‘. . . he brought unusual distinction and expertise, as well as devotion, to his work’, but it sheds no light on the fact of Denniston’s being rebuked so sharply.

So what caused Menzies’s disciplinary action? Anthony Cave-Brown’s biography indicates that Menzies was far more annoyed with Welchman, Turing, Milner-Barry and Alexander for bypassing the management chain (when they sent a memorandum about resources directly to Churchill) than he was with Denniston for not addressing with more determination the cliquey set-up at Bletchley Park. Moreover, Travis had been as responsible for the dysfunction as Denniston was. Yet Menzies made Denniston the scapegoat, despite their long friendship, in a move that Cave-Brown characterises as ‘one of ‘C’’s unhappier decisions’.  Sebag-Montefiore suggests that it was Denniston’s clumsy efforts to discipline Dilly Knox, and control the analysis and distribution of Knox’s decrypts, that pushed Menzies to demote him. It is all very murky, but the conclusion must be that Hinsley had obviously been told to say nothing about ISCOT, Denniston’s most successful project, even though the neutral reader might conclude that the whole programme was an achievement worth celebrating. The lesson is that we should not necessarily trust ‘official historians’.

Evidence appears of a continuing dispute over the relationship with the Soviets. In his memoir about his father’s career, Thirty Secret Years, Robin Denniston suggests that a long-running feud existed between Menzies and Denniston (thus undermining the strength of their long friendship), and that the head of SIS was clearly the person keen to demote and humiliate the head of GC&CS. Denniston had apparently been very critical of government officials who had given away the secrets of their cryptography to the Soviets – referring, no doubt, to the contemporaneous venture to Moscow to exchange information that was undertaken by Edward Crankshaw, as well as, possibly, the controlled leakage of ULTRA via agents in Switzerland that has been publicised in several accounts (but denied by Hinsley). Denniston, it should be remembered, had been in charge of GC&CS in 1927, when the ARCOS raid occurred, after which Stanley Baldwin disastrously explained in the House of Commons that Soviet codes had been broken. Ever since then, Soviet messages had confounded the cryptanalysts, and Denniston, infuriated by the senseless boast, had maintained his mistrust of politicians. It might thus suggest that the feud at Bletchley Park extended beyond mere responsibilities and local rivalries. There would be a camp that believed utter co-operation with the Soviets was necessary in the campaign to beat the Nazis, while another faction would have pointed out that the Soviet Union was only a temporary ally, and still a permanent adversary. The former group would have been expanded and energised by the influx of so many Oxbridge intellectuals at the beginning of the war.

Did Menzies and Denniston perhaps disagree about the possible exposure of ENIGMA by sharing secrets with the Soviets? By some accounts, Menzies also strongly advised against such co-operation, yet he was not a very forceful personality, and would not have stood up to Churchill. On the other hand, Denniston, who had his allies, too, was presumably encouraged to continue the efforts into attacking Soviet transmissions at Berkeley Street. (Travis also quickly recognised the Soviet threat.) Did Denniston perhaps speak out of turn about Menzies’s relationship with Dansey, and the exploit in Switzerland, and incur Churchill’s displeasure?  Or was the reprimand over Denniston’s perhaps too hasty rejection of Turing’s computational approach to decryption? Or was the dispute perhaps over sharing information with the Americans? Denniston had realised, even before the USA entered the war, that Great Britain and the United States would have to share the cryptographic load, and he had undertaken a visit to the US early in 1941 to discuss achievements and approaches for work allocation. Perhaps Menzies objected to this initiative, and Denniston disobeyed orders?

Denniston’s DNB entry describes the ‘reluctance’ from others concerning this overture, which ironically was soon justified, since the USA entered the war at the same time that he fell to the sword.  It is true that Philby wrote that Menzies added a final clause to the charter for Section IX of SIS, namely that he ‘was on no account to have any dealings with any of the United States services. The war was not yet over, and the Soviet Union was our ally’, but Philby’s testimony must not be treated as unequivocally reliable: the statement should probably be interpreted as deception imposed by Philby’s masters. In any case, the communist sympathisers took over in Section IX. The anti-communist Curry was out, and Robert Carew-Hunt (whom, along with Oliver Strachey, Donald Maclean had approached at Bletchley Park as possible recruits to Moscow Centre, which, even if the approaches had been rejected, must cast immediate doubt on the degree of their loyalty) joined Philby’s team. But no explanation does justice to the issue. And if some subtle subterfuge had been embarked upon, it surely would not have debarred Denniston’s knighthood. One has to conclude that Churchill was somehow involved with the decision.

So what else has been written about Churchill’s supposed edict? Michael Smith, in New Cloak, Old Dagger (1996), wrote that ‘a long drawn-out debate’ ensued over whether Soviet traffic should continue to be monitored, one that lasted until early 1942, which suggests that Churchill was not involved at all, the discussion occurring at a lower level. Smith indicates that the Poles at Stanmore were delegated the task of intercepting [sic] and attempting to decipher Soviet military transmissions, thus perhaps finessing the edict from on high that the British should cease such activities. Yet Smith goes a little over the top, next asserting that ‘within weeks, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Britain’. This claim (which would be quite extraordinary, if true, and very germane to the case of Sonia’s Radio) appears to have been based on a misunderstanding of a boast overheard at Communist Party HQ by the spy Oliver Green, who later admitted he had invented the whole story. There is no evidence that any illegal wartime transmissions between Soviet couriers and Moscow (as opposed to communications via the Soviet Embassy) were detected or decrypted – outside the mysterious case of Sonia.

More recently, Smith has refined his message. In the 2011 book that he co-edited with Ralph Erskine, The Bletchley Park Codebreakers, he claims that, despite Churchill’s order, coverage of Soviet traffic initially increased. (Somewhat surprisingly, he does not suggest that the edict was never issued, but that it was ignored.) A lengthy debate then ensued that lasted for months: the Russian section was not closed down until December 1941. (But maybe it was simply moved, and in fact active prior to the official date of April 1943.) He again grants the Poles the task of intercepting traffic and trying to break it, and indicates that the British kept two groups monitoring known Russian frequencies at Scarborough and Cheadle. He then introduces the history behind ISCOT in more detail (again without identifying it), and now clarifies his previous statement, saying, at some time in 1943, the Metropolitan Police intercept site at Denmark Hill and the Radio Security Service had begun to pick up messages between Moscow and its agents in Europe (subtly annulling his 1996 message about spies in Britain). This was ‘the Russian group business’ that Curry referred to. Yet Liddell discussed the topic in his diary as early as December 1942, using the exact same terminology, and expressing concern that RSS may have talked out of turn about it, which tantalisingly suggests that the programme had started earlier. Nevertheless, apart from affirming that British code-breakers ‘were again reading Soviet traffic’ by the summer of 1943, Smith draws back from any deeper analysis. His chapter stops there.

Is that the whole story? The disputations at Bletchley Park must be placed in a broader context of tensions. Disappointment in collaboration with the Soviets soon set in. After Barbarossa, attempts were made by both SOE and SIS/Bletchley Park to build relationships and exchange information with the NKVD. It took several months before it became clear that the Soviets did not want to share much information. By the second half of 1943, military planners were starting to consider the post-war threat that the Soviet Union might constitute. The growing dissatisfaction and feuding at Bletchley Park was not exclusively related to overload of the organisation: major fears about cipher security, and the possibility of leakage of Enigma secrets through the Soviets to the Germans, were a real concern, and the premature gestures made to the USA indeed did upset some. MI5 and SIS were frequently at loggerheads. MI5 was still very insistent on tracking illicit radio transmissions that may have had communist origins, while RSS was almost exclusively focussed on Nazi signals, something about which Guy Liddell constantly expressed concern. Liddell was also worried that new burst-mode wireless techniques used by Communist agents might overstretch RSS, and SIS’s tight control of ULTRA decrypts caused major rifts between the two organisations.  Lastly, the entry of the USA in December 1941 into the war changed the game. It made new awareness of the opportunities: the first Allied wireless conference was held (but without the Soviets) in Washington in April 1942, and GC&CS learned that summer that the Americans were intercepting all Soviet traffic, and that they were very anxious to crack the codes. The two countries set up parallel teams to share analytical work in this area in February 1943. In addition, the USA was very critical of co-operation between Britain and the Soviet Union, such as the scientific treaty of June 1942, and made its opinions felt. If Churchill knew what was going on, he did not complain, or shut the activity down.

So what was Hinsley thinking? He was in fact at the hub of all the controversy in December 1941. Nigel West tells us that, while Menzies was waiting for his special inquiry, undertaken by Major-General Martin, to be completed, Hinsley took over as ‘intelligence supremo’, the same month that the Russian section was closed down. (Hinsley was only twenty-two at the time – a little young for a ‘supremo’, one might think.) How could he have written what he did about the edict with a straight face, and later tried to defend it? Maybe he had a pang of conscience because he had backed the wrong horse, and wanted to conceal his position. Or maybe he was simply told by his political masters that this was the official story to tell, in the belief that the true facts about Berkeley Street and ISCOT and ULTRA distribution and US-UK collaboration and Sonia’s Radio would never see the light of day. For, on all grounds – historical evidence, motivations, outcomes, politics, pragmatics, security – the story of the edict simply does not make sense. As with the other cover-ups over Fuchs and communist spies, maybe there was a greater reputation to be protected, and a pretence required that claimed that ignoring domestic transmissions from Soviet spies was the order of the day. Fortunately, some officers saw fit to release some relevant archival material, and thereby, alongside the memories of so many wartime Bletchley Park servants who had been hushed for so long, but had then been encouraged to talk, a more accurate picture of the decisions of 1941 is gradually being revealed.

New Sources:

Journal of Intelligence History

Intelligence and National Security

Kahn on Codes, by David Kahn

Fighting to Lose, by John Bryden

Best-Kept Secret, by John Bryden

Enigma: The Battle for the Codes, by Hugh Sebag-Montefiore

Burn After Reading, by Ladislas Farago

The Deadly Embrace, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

Shadow Warriors, by Bradley F. Smith

Colonel Z, by Anthony Read & David Fisher

The Secrets of the Service, by Anthony Glees

My Silent War, by Kim Philby

Too Secret Too Long, by Chapman Pincher

Treachery, by Chapman Pincher

Know Your Enemy, by Percy Cradock

The Greatest Treason, by Richard Deacon

 ‘C’, by Anthony Cave-Brown

MASK, by Nigel West

P.S. Last month, I listed three items that merited further attention, and here provide an update:

1) A reader sent me some very provocative and potentially useful statements concerning Sonia, apparently sourced from Soviet intelligence archives. This reader (who prefers to remain anonymous) has peered deeply into Sonia’s case, and has given me many useful pointers. He provided extracts from the archives of Soviet military intelligence (that he translated himself), with precise references, which on the surface look very convincing. Yet I am not persuaded of the authenticity of the entries: some of the dates do not make sense, and the relationship between the GRU and Sonia sounds phony. It is possible, I suppose, that the entries are a combination of proper notes to file, and spravki that were added later, for reasons of disinformation. I have not succeeded in learning how this reader acquired the documents, or how he addresses the apparent contradictions. I shall pick this item up again in 2017.

2) A 2014 book I read about WWII counter-espionage prompted some fresh reflections on Trevor-Roper and the Double-Cross System. This book was John Bryden’s Fighting to Lose, which claimed to show that the Abwehr (the German Intelligence Service) was deliberately aiding the British effort to win the war, and that the Double-Cross System had been seen through by the Germans, and was in fact a failure. Part of the Abwehr’s deception exercise (according to Bryden) was to feed messages that used antiquated codes, one outcome being that GC&CS dismissed Trevor-Roper’s and Gill’s ‘breakthrough’ because they recognised that such codes had been decrypted in WWI. This assertion is made with utter confidence, but is at variance with all other accounts of the clash between RSS and GC&CS that I have read. I again defer closer inspection of this highly controversial item, which may shed fresh light on causes for feuding between Denniston and Menzies, until next year.

3) My attention had been drawn to an archive freshly published (by the NSA) on German wartime intelligence. For those readers who may not be aware of it, it can be found at I have dipped into what is a remarkable trove, but not made any organised study of it yet. Another task for 2017.                    © Antony Percy, 2016

The customary set of new Commonplace entries can be found here.


Filed under Uncategorized

Economists’ Follies


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

This month’s Commonplace entries appear here.


With Alyssa, Alexis and Ashley

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