Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan, with More on Sonia

When I posted Denis’s commentary recently, I said that there was more to come. Thus I now present some further analysis by him, focussed primarily on Len Beurton’s presence in Kidlington, and the efforts by MI5 officer Hugh Shillito to track him down. I have not yet studied the Kew file on Sonia’s sister Sabine Loeffler, which Lenihan mentions, so I shall delay my response until I have done that. Again, readers are encouraged to offer their views on the matter.

Aspects of Sonia

Antony Percy’s ‘Sonia’s Radio’ at coldspur.com is a tour de force, beginning and ending with Sonia’s activities in Oxford, but in between encompassing such apparently diverse but in fact related matters as the bureaucracy dealing (or not) with wireless interception in the UK during World War II, written accounts of that subject, how Sonia and her husband got to the UK and ‘the claim that British authorities [MI6/SIS] had no involvement in exploiting the Soviet spyring in Switzerland to pass disguised ULTRA traffic to Stalin’s government’.

His conclusion, expressed as an hypothesis, is that MI6 were involved in exploiting the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland via that strange man Alexander Foote; that MI6 also ‘helped to engineer Sonia’s transfer to the UK, where SIS could extend its infiltration in, and surveillance of, communist espionage rings’; that ‘Senior Officers of MI5 had to be brought into the loop, since Sonia was operating on UK territory’; that ‘Sonia – with the help of Blunt’s revelations, and her bosses’ guidance ̶ had exploited this confusion, and hoodwinked both intelligence services. Her radio was found, and, in the belief of the security services that, with the help of RSS and the GPO, they had identified the sole danger, they no doubt eavesdropped on her transmissions’; and that her husband Len had another radio at a separate address at Kidlington in Oxford, and it was from there that the radio messages were really sent.

There are several difficulties with this hypothesis. I am not qualified to discuss the exploitation or otherwise of the Soviet spy-ring in Switzerland, but it may be worth observing that if there was such exploitation, it is a matter of wonder that the bragging rights have not thus far been exercised by official sources. Percy identifies a number of hints and glances in an extraordinary range of publications, as well as a number of denials of such exploitation, at least some of which he shows to be without much foundation. In total they do not carry conviction that such exploitation occurred.

Unfortunately the hypothesis really comes unstuck at the very last hurdle: Sonia and Len’s living arrangements in Oxford. Percy and Pincher both praise the MI5 officer Hugh Shillito for his work with the Beurtons. On their accounts he did good work on the case of the GRU spy Oliver Green, but the record shows that so far as investigating the Beurtons was concerned, he was rather dim.

Len’s Addresses

Working from Sonia and Len Beurton’s MI5 file (KV6/41), Percy notes that in November 1942 Shillito asked that mail going to 134 Oxford Rd Kidlingon be intercepted, as Len had gone to live there alone (there being no mention of Sonia). Percy takes this to be accurate, as he does memoranda in 1943 from Shillito to others which repeat this address. Percy suggests that ‘One possible explanation is that Sonia’s residencies were all arranged by the authorities, and that Beurton was ‘encouraged’ to stay in Kidlington after his arrival in order to keep the attention off Sonia’. Further, he asks: ‘Was Kidlington an area for secret meetings, and was Beurton acting as a courier for an unidentified third party, perhaps? Or perhaps he operated a radio there, and the device at Summertown was a ruse to distract the authorities?’

A close examination of the file shows that there is no evidence that Len ever lived at Kidlington on his own.

The file shows that when Len landed at Poole Airport on 29 July 1942 he gave his address in the UK as 134 Oxford Road, Kidlington. On Pincher’s account at Treachery 138, Sonia and the children had moved there in the previous April from The Rectory, Glympton, near Woodstock. Judging from the file, one of Beurtons’ case officers at that time was D I Vesey, who with an unidentified MI6 officer interviewed Len on 18 September 1942. Vesey recorded that ‘on the whole Beurton made a good impression.’ The arrangements for the interview had been made via the Oxford police, who had been provided with the Kidlington address.

There had however been a very interesting development in the meantime. Early in August Sonia had written to one of her sisters in London, Mrs Sabine Loeffler. MI5 had a file on her and her husband Francis (KV2/2927) and in fact were intercepting their mail as well as their telephone. Sonia’s letter showed a return address of Avenue Cottage, Summertown, Oxford and referred to both her and Len coming to London the following month. There is no record of the letter on the Loefflers’ file, as it was placed on the Beurtons’ file. Another MI5 officer, shown only by his initials JBM, promptly put a two-week return of correspondence check on that address. (This required the Post Office to record all mail going to that address, the postmarks, and the sender where recorded; the next step was a Home Office Warrant enabling items of mail to be opened). Pincher has Sonia and Len moving to Summertown ‘in the autumn of 1942’.

The return over the period 19 August to 3 September showed that no fewer than 26 items of mail were received for both the Beurtons at that address. One addressed to Mrs Hamburger (Sonia’s name from her previous marriage, still used by the child of that marriage) had been redirected from Kidlington. Some had apparently been sent from Kidlington and others from Oxford or London, sent by Len or Sonia or in one case by Sonia’s father. Given the volume and origins of the mail, it might have been a reasonable step to upgrade the check to a warrant, but JBM simply wrote on the return P A (put away).

While other mail checks – of both kinds – were put on the Beurtons later, they showed no such volume or origins of mail; in fact they received hardly any mail. Pincher would have noted at this point, had he been aware of this conjunction, that Hollis was absent from work ill from March to September 1942; and he would have drawn the inference that because of that absence the Beurtons were unaware that their mail was being intercepted in August-September, but they were aware at the other times. It is a point worth contemplating.

At least the exercise established that both Beurtons were living at Summertown, or so it seemed; but this escaped the notice of Shillito. When he took over the file again in November, he asked the Post Office whether the Kidlington address had a telephone, as he was interested in Beurton ‘who has gone to live there’. (There is no reply to this query on the file). Shillito may have been misled by the previous paper on the file, a letter from the British Vice-Consul in Lisbon to Beurton at the Kidlington address which had been intercepted and opened by the Post Office. Shortly thereafter Shillito obtained a Home Office Warrant for Beurton at the Kidlington address.

Nearly three weeks later, Shillito asked that the police make further inquiries about Beurton, noting that the Warrant had (unsurprisingly) been ‘unremunerative’, by which he presumably meant unproductive. This having been the case, it might have been prudent to check that Beurton was in fact living at the Kidlington address.

In January 1943 the Oxford City Police reported that ‘the Beurtons’ were living at George St Summertown and that they had interviewed two neighbours, Mrs Laski and Mrs Best. The information obtained suggested that the Beurtons had lived there for some time and there was no indication that Len did not live there in the normal way. On 6 July 1943, Shillito wrote to a colleague in MI6 saying among other things that ‘since their return to this country the Beurtons have been living together at Oxford…’ The following month however he wrote to a colleague in MI5 and said that Len ‘lives at 134 Oxford Rd Kidlington’, while in the same month he received a letter from the War Office giving Len’s address at Summertown. The penny appeared to have dropped at last with Shillito as he wrote to the Post Office saying that ‘Beurton has now moved’ and asking that the Home Office Warrant be changed accordingly.

Shillito was notified in December that Len had been called up by the RAF and had the Home Office Warrant at Summertown suspended. Inexplicably he then had another issued, applying both to Kidlington and to the RAF Station at Cardington where Len was based, explaining that it was ‘desired to cover both his home and service address’, despite official letters on the file all showing that Len lived at Summertown.

A year later, in December 1944, the Post Office wrote to Shillito about the check on Len, noting that it had been suspended in February last ‘as there seemed to be some doubt as to Beurton’s address’. Shillito cancelled the check, and thereafter had nothing to do with the case.

Tellingly, except in two cases (the Lisbon letter noted above, and a letter from Geneva, both writers evidently having used an address given to them some time previously, when it was accurate), there is no record on the file of any mail addressed to Len at Kidlington having been intercepted.

In summary, the totally confused or essentially dim Shillito:

– late in 1942 obtained a warrant for Len at the Kidlington address, notwithstanding that the file showed that he was living at Summertown;

– in August 1943 told a colleague that Len lived at Kidlington, despite having had a further report showing that he was living at Summertown;

– in December 1943 caused a warrant to be issued covering Len’s ‘home address’ at Kidlington, despite having received further official correspondence showing his address as being Summertown.

In the absence of others, the more mundane hypothesis that Sonia was able to conduct her business through a combination of MI5’s corruption and incompetence, as proposed by Pincher, survives.

The HASP Material

Drawing on Nigel West’s description in the Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence, Percy writes of this material that it ‘derived from partially successful attempts by the [Swedish signals interception organisation] FRA to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946’, and that ‘Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959’. He adds that some of the messages according to Wright in Spycatcher were from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow describing his meetings with Sonia.

Percy assumes that this is Venona material and says that ‘There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there’. He adds that Wright does not divulge what is in the messages and that he can find no reference to Sonia in the Venona transcripts, other than the one mentioned above.

There may be some confusion here. In Spycatcher (375), Wright describes part of the HASP material as ‘not genuine Venona’ and which was broken using a 1930s book of trade statistics.
While the GRU traffic was similar to that already broken ‘…there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident [in London] Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuzchinski.’ The messages showed ‘that Sonia had indeed been sent to the Oxford area by Russian Intelligence, and that during 1941 she was already running a string of agents. The traffic even contained the details of the payments she was making to these agents, as well as the times and durations of her own broadcasts’.

Wright records that he spent much time and effort over the next four years, without success, ‘searching for new VENONA and Sonia’s transmissions’.

Has anybody ever asked GCHQ for this material?

‘The String of Agents’

Are there any clues about agents other than Fuchs and perhaps Elli being run by Sonia, especially after the end of the war? If Hollis was Elli, MI5 were by then back in London and his Oxford connection was no more. One clue is the well-referenced entry on Sonia on Wikipedia where this appears:
‘In addition to the (retrospectively) high-profile spies Fuchs and Norwood, Sonya was the GRU handler for (among others) an officer of the British Royal Air Force and a British specialist in submarine radar. She was also able to pass to her Soviet employers information from her brother, her father, and other exiled Germans in England. It was, indeed, her brother Jürgen Kuczynski, an internationally respected economist, who originally recruited Klaus Fuchs to spy for the Soviets at the end of 1942.[5]’

The reference [5] is Thomas Karny (11 May 2007). “”Sonja” – Stalins beste Spionin”. Wiener Zeitung (online). It is beyond my linguistic or technical abilities to retrieve this item, although it is not clear if it extends beyond Jurgen.

The Wikipedia piece also says about Sonia (without references):
‘In Oxfordshire, together with Erich Henschke, she worked on infiltrating German Communist exiles into the US Intelligence Agency. By Autumn 1944 she and Henschke had succeeded in penetrating UK activities of the US Intelligence Service (OSS). The Americans were at this time preparing an effort called “Operation Hammer” for parachuting UK-based German exiles into Germany. Ursula Beurton was able to ensure that a substantial number of the parachuted OSS agents would be reliable communists, able and willing to make inside intelligence from the “Third Reich” available not merely to the US military in Washington, but also to Moscow.’

This gets support from the following CIA piece on-line: Gould, Jonathan S., “The OSS and the London ‘Free Germans'”, Stud. Intel. V46:1-11-29 (2002) PDF [1.0MB*]


Sonia’s Radio

Percy writes in the introduction to chapter 9: ‘[Len] and Sonia are watched, and in January 1943 an illicit radio transmitter is discovered in their rented accommodation’.

They were hardly being watched. The police called at the request of MI5, which happened twice in the period 1941-5. What was discovered in their rented accommodation in January 1943 appears to have been a radio receiver – a wireless – which could hardly have been illicit. One of Percy’s options for it elsewhere in his piece is that it was used only for reception (could it have been used for anything else?). Further, it was hardly ‘discovered’. It had been seen by a least one neighbour. The police who visited he house did not think it unusual enough to remark on it in their report, although the MI5 man to whom the report was sent did comment on it.

For what it’s worth, my memory of the 1940s in New Zealand is that wirelesses were often so large as to be items of furniture, and that aerials strung up on poles were often necessary for good reception. Sonia might easily have passed off the wireless and aerial as being needed for good reception from London or even Switzerland.


Obiter dicta

Percy records that ‘Nigel West has written to me the following: “I have two explanations for SONIA’s traffic. Firstly, it was probably very low power, and was only intended to communicate with the embassy in London, and not Russia. Secondly, the Abwehr taught GARBO how to emulate authentic British Army radio traffic. These signals were ignored by RSS. It may be that the GRU adopted the same tactics.”

The first explanation is contradicted by the sole Venona message mentioning Sonia – no 2943 of 31 July 1941 – which shows that she had tried and failed to make contact with Moscow via the radio on the four nights 26-29 July; by the GRU records which show that she notified Moscow on 4 September 1943 of the Quebec Agreement; and by the HASP material, which on Wright’s account (Spycatcher 375) showed in messages from the Soviet Embassy in London to Moscow ‘the times and durations of her [Sonia’s] own radio broadcasts’. As to the second, the information given to Pincher by the former RSS officer James Johnston confirms that Sonia’s transmissions were detected, but the reports were ignored. (Treachery 141, 260)


Other parts of the message concerning Sonia are not without interest. It shows her salary for seven months as being £406, so £59 a month; her husband £195; (?) from abroad £116; expenditure on radio and microdots £105; and expenditure on an item not identified £55, giving a total of £877. Assuming this is all expenditure for seven months, in 2020 terms the equivalent of £877 is £44,600, or say £75,600 for 12 months, just for one agent; so spying in 1941 was quite an expensive business.

Denis Lenihan, London, January 2020

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Response by coldspur

The HASP Material

Thank you for this clarification, Denis.  I should have kept the distinction between VENONA and HASP material clear. As you point out, part of this misconception is encouraged by Wright’s misleading characterization of HASP as ‘not genuine VENONA’. Moreover, his text (see p 186) appears to attribute to HASP lessons learned about J. B. S. Haldane (INTELLIGENTSIA) and Owen [sic: actually ‘Ivor’] Montagu (NOBILITY) that can be detected from VENONA transcripts, as Nigel West’s book confirms.

And I agree with you that the intelligence claimed for these messages is tantalising. Why have they not been revealed by GCHQ? I wonder whether it has anything to do with what Wright himself says about ‘the Sonia connection’ (p 375):

“The Sonia connection had been dismissed throughout the 1960s as too tenuous to be relied upon. MI5 tended to believe the story that she came to Britain to escape Nazism and the war, and that she did not become active for Russian intelligence until Klaus Fuchs volunteered his services in 1944 [sic!]. 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.”

I wonder whether you agree with me that this is pure hokum. What is behind that passive voice of ‘had been dismissed’? ‘Tended to believe’ suggests contrary opinions were voiced – and suppressed? And why would Wright get the chronology so wrong? After all, he, like Alexander Foote, believed that Sonia had been tipped off by an insider within MI5, and told Lord Trend that he believed that Hollis was ELLI. The whole point of ‘Sonia’s Radio’, and my subsequent research, is to show that MI5 and SIS colluded desperately to keep Sonia from being investigated properly. Of course GCHQ would ‘vehemently deny’ that she could have operated under their noses! Was Wright simply being loyal to MI5 here, and contributing to the project to blame everything on Hollis? (Answers on a postcard, please.)

‘The String of Agents’

I would be surprised to be able to verify that Sonia was running a ‘string of agents’ by 1941. (I likewise have been unable to locate the Wiener Zeitung article.) Sonia’s memoir is very vague about dates, and of course cannot be relied upon too much, but she was very occupied in 1941 in finding accommodation, meeting with her brother and Hans Kahle, and with ‘Sergei’ from the Embassy. “After I had succeeded in making some military contacts . . .”, she writes (p 243), with no explanation as to how or where or when the acquaintances were made, but it would have been foolhardy to have offered such persons money. On page 249, she describes how, in 1942, before Len came to England ‘I had taken up an important contact with an RAF officer whose wife and child had been evacuated to Oxford’ (James), and she eventually persuaded him, with Moscow Centre’s approval, to ‘cooperate’. James provided details of aircraft construction, but refused to take any money from the organisation. On page 250, she introduces ‘Tom’, a fitter in a car plant, who was recruited as a back-up wireless operator. He refused to take any money, either. In the English version of the book, she mentions Klaus Fuchs as coming into her life only at the end of 1942. I don’t know where ‘the specialist in submarine radar’ comes from.

Have I answered the point about her brother Jürgen, Henschke and the OSS adequately? On page 260 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she writes in some detail about the Strategic Bombing Survey, and confirms that Jürgen contacted her about it, so that she could ‘consult Centre’. After that, she took over from Jürgen, who had introduced Joe Gould, responsible for recruiting German emigrants for the espionage missions in Germany, to Erich Henschke. She thus worked with Henschke to identify ‘anti-fascists’ who could help. She says she never met Joe Gould. So the activity was hardly ‘penetration’, or ‘infiltration’: their help had been sought out. At least, that’s what Sonia writes. I don’t think the CIA article you identify contradicts that story, even though it fails to mention Sonia’s contribution.

Sonia’s Radio

Thank you. Yes, it is more accurate to say that the first discovery was made after a request from Hugh Shillito. I don’t recall where I implied that Sonia’s radio might have been only a receiver – which was characteristic of the apparatus of most of the ‘Lena’ spies – as Sonia would have been powerless without a transmitter, and knew how to construct one. I am not technically adept enough to know about the vagaries of wireless reception in wartime New Zealand (did the sheep interfere?), but I suspect outsize aerials would have been very conspicuous (and unnecessary) in wartime Oxfordshire. And why would anyone need to listen into broadcasts from Switzerland? Admittedly, Sonia gained permission from Mrs Laski to erect an aerial from Sonia’s roof to one of Mrs Laski’s stables, and wrote that ‘the aerial looked rather like a normal one for any radio receiver’.

Yet she acknowledged that, since amateur radio transmissions were forbidden, ‘we had to count on my transmitter being discovered at some point’, which is why she trained Tom. (How Tom was going to access secret material when Sonia had been arrested is not made clear.) I continue to maintain that it was extremely flamboyant for Sonia to parade her unusual aerial so boldly, and it should have merited attention. This was a woman who was known to derive from a Communist family and background, and was suspected by many junior officers in MI5. Moreover, the Oliver Green case was active in MI5’s portfolio, and had gained the urgent attention of Director-General Petrie! Why no action?

I don’t claim that Sonia transmitted exclusively by the methods Nigel West outlined: that came later. Certainly, she tried to communicate by conventional means in July 1941, as VENONA confirms. On page 243 of ‘Sonya’s Report’, she declares that she made some contact with the Soviet Union, and then Sergei gave her a miniature transmitter, ‘about eight by six inches’, which contained a new transmitter. She thereupon dismantled her old transmitter, ‘which was six times the size, and hid the parts for emergency use’. The event is undated. But the story suggests that it was late in 1941, before Len returned.

As for the GRU records for the Quebec Agreement, the HASP material, and James Johnston’s evidence to Pincher, I have to be very distrustful of all three, as none can be inspected! (Although I am sure that the RSS ignored Sonia’s transmissions.)

Keep on keeping on,

Tony  (March 26, 2020)

10 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, Politics

10 Responses to Special Bulletin: Denis Lenihan, with More on Sonia

  1. Michael Holzman

    Sonia did not need to try very hard to “penetrate” OSS as her brother worked there. He seems to be the person meant in Soviet communications as someone “close to the American Embassy” in London.

  2. coldspur

    I agree, Michael. I was going to make the same point. Thank you!

  3. Was he? Or was he a member of the Strategic Bombing Survey with the rank of Lt-Col in the US Army?

  4. Tony Percy

    I think the point is that Sonia’s brother, Juergen, was approached by Joe Gould of the OSS, via Henschke, who was also a member of the underground KPD in London, to identify Germans who could be parachuted into Germany to carry out surveillance work. Juergen then contacted Sonia so that she could let Moscow know what was happening. Thus Sonia did not achieve the ‘penetration’ herself. (See John Green’s ‘A Political Family’, pp 192-194)

  5. Richard Learie

    Tony/Denis

    Many thanks for this discussion.

    Regarding the “Aspects of Sonia” section. What were “Blunt’s revelations” mentioned in the section “Aspects of Sonia”?

    Denis – the failure to claim bragging rites may be due to the fact that MI5/MI6 had little to brag about in terms of positive intelligence gathered when compared to the negative impact of the Sonia fiasco as a whole. Better to cover up everything (essentially by silence to pretend it didn’t happen).

    Also if Hollis was Elli he would have warned the GRU of the British deception plan in Switzerland meaning there was indeed no positive intelligence benefit at all.

    Richard

  6. Thanks Richard.
    ‘Blunt’s revelations’ is a quote from Tony, so I’ll pass that to him.
    As to the bragging, one might argue the other way: there was so little to brag about that MI5 would have seized on anything positive.
    If Tony’s right about the Ultra material going to Moscow via Switzerland, then Hollis should have been discharging his duty to MI5 and his duty to the GRU by assuring the GRU that the material was genuine!
    Denis

  7. coldspur

    Thank you, gentlemen.

    I was referring to information supplied to Moscow by Blunt in 1942. See specifically pp 145-146 of ‘The Crown Jewels’.
    I judge it inconceivable that Hollis would have known anything about the feeding of Ultra material to the Rote Kapelle in Switzerland. It was an SIS exercise, carried out with extreme secrecy, and SIS were very jealous of handing out information to MI5, in any case. Thus, if any Soviet spy knew about the exercise, it would more likely have been Philby, and I do not believe anyone has ever suggested he did. The damage Blunt created in this respect is that he (with others) passed on unprocessed accounts of Ultra decrypts, and thus Stalin knew that he was being shortchanged by the edited leaks.

    I plan to post my full response on the Kidlington Affair later today.

    Tony.

  8. coldspur

    I have posted a response to the latter part of Denis’s article, at the end of his text.

  9. Denis Lenihan

    Sheep jokes! Have you no shame?
    Hollis may have known nothing from SIS about the Swiss Ultra material, but would not the GRU have checked it with him?

  10. coldspur

    I realise now that my words could be interpreted as a speciesist slur against the worldwide ovine community, and, if I have offended any of their number, I unreservedly take them back.

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