Mann Overboard!

This essay is not about Thomas, Manfred, or even F. G. Mann: it concerns the scientist, Wilfrid, of that Ilk. It was prompted by my recent reading of Andrew Lownie’s biography of the spy Guy Burgess, Stalin’s Englishman, which reveals a number of important facts about the notorious reprobate. It is a highly enjoyable work, my only major reservation being that Lownie does not assiduously enough pursue the several hares that he starts, leaving such readers such as this one gasping to know (for example) why Burgess not only managed to maintain any job he had in government, but how he succeeded in getting placed elsewhere despite his reputation. I have a particular interest in Burgess’s high-level sponsors and protectors (there must have been at least one), because of my research into the enigmatic voyage that he and Isaiah Berlin made towards Moscow in the summer of 1940.

One intriguing detail that Lownie does bring to the table, however, is an addendum to the case of espionage made against the nuclear scientist Wilfrid Mann. When Andrew Boyle published his Climate of Treason (originally titled The Fourth Man) in 1979, the author made broad hints about the identity of two suspected spies. The first, whom he called ‘Maurice’ was quite easily identified as being Anthony Blunt. The second, ‘Basil’ (whom Boyle then called the ‘Fifth Man’, not knowing about John Cairncross or even Leo Long at the time), was a British scientist in Washington whose name had been revealed to the F.B.I. by the Israelis, and who was subsequently ‘turned’ by the F.B.I. to provide disinformation to the Soviets. Boyle wrote: “It has not surprised the counter-intelligence interrogators that ‘Basil’ broke down quickly and easily, confessing that he had become a covert Communist in his student days and a secret agent for the Soviet not long afterwards.” (p 310) Unlike the hints about Blunt (who turns up regularly in Boyle’s book), there was only one reference to the obvious candidate for ‘Basil’, namely Wilfrid Basil Mann, where he attends a party given by Kim Philby, at which Burgess predictably misbehaves. Boyle must have felt on firm ground to use Mann’s second name without fear of a libel suit.

Mann replied not with a legal action, but with a rather dubious protest, in a book titled Was There a Fifth Man? (1982), suggesting explicitly that the question should be about whether such a character existed rather than whether he, Mann, was that person. It cast doubt on Boyle’s chronology, claiming to show that the author was not around when the episodes of espionage occurred, and that he was in fact out of the nuclear picture when the leaks occurred. Like so many memoirs in the field of espionage and counter-espionage, however, Mann’s account is not really to be trusted. Yet the topic of his guilt has languished for a while, with no definite proof either way (not that proof could be found that determined that anyone had never been a spy, as Lord Rothschild discovered). And then, in 2015, Lownie offers his revelation. He presents new evidence of Mann’s guilt. On page 213, he writes: “ . . .  Mann’s recruitment and turning has now been confirmed by Patrick Reilly, chair of the Foreign Intelligence Committee, and then the Foreign Office Under-Secretary in charge of intelligence, who wrote in his unpublished memoirs, ‘that “Basil”, who can easily be identified, was in fact a Soviet spy is true: and also that he was turned round without difficulty.” Lownie gives a reference to this item as appearing at the Bodleian Library. I am sure it is valid, and I plan to inspect it next time I am in Oxford. But I wonder why it has not been picked up before?

Moreover, another lead appears in Lownie’s book. On page 211, he reproduces two caricatures drawn by Burgess on Wilfrid Mann’s copy of Atomic Energy, the author of the book described here as being George Crannov. This is, however, an obvious misprint, as Lownie has admitted to me: the caricature clearly shows the correct name of the author, G. Gamow, who is described, in Burgess’s writing, as being ‘under the action of absinth’, and it features an obvious image of Joseph Stalin chewing a cocktail-table, as if Gamow were haunted by the influence of the Soviet dictator, and taking on his shape. The episode occurred in November 1950, as the caricature is clearly dated. What is going on here? And what is the connection between Burgess, Mann, Gamow, and Stalin?

Well, I am familiar with this George Gamow. In my thesis about Soviet subversion that is about to be submitted, I have a paragraph on him, which runs as follows (the footnotes and endnotes demanded by such a work being replaced with parenthetical explanations):  “As has been shown with Isaiah Berlin’s father, Mendel, threatening exiles with harm to relatives still living in the Soviet Union was a favoured tactic of Stalin’s secret police. Pavel Sudoplatov [who headed the ‘Special Tasks’ group, responsible for the liquidation of Stalin’s enemies, and had blood on his hands, personally] described how another physicist suffered the same treatment because of his concern for relatives left behind. ‘Using implied threats against Gamow’s relatives in Moscow, Elizaveta Zarubina [a resident NKVD operative in the Unites States, and also not a nice person] pressured him into cooperating with us. In exchange for safety and material support for his relatives, Gamow provided the names of left-wing scientists who might be recruited to supply secret information.’  Like Peierls’ wife, Eugenia, George Gamow had started his scientific career in Leningrad: he was also a friend of Peierls [Rudolf Peierls, who spearheaded atomic weapons research in Britain in 1940, and was the colleague and mentor of the atomic spy Klaus Fuchs], who credited Gamow’s explanation of alpha decay as ‘one of the earliest successes of quantum mechanics’. Max Born [another famous émigré scientist with communist sympathies] explains that Gamow made several unsuccessful attempts to escape to the West from the Soviet Union, but eventually gained a permit in 1932 after several distinguished physicists, including Einstein and Bohr, had guaranteed his return. When Gamow decided to settle in the United States, Stalin was so furious at his refusal to return that he took his frustration out on Pyotr Kapitza [another leading Soviet scientist who worked at Cambridge University for many years, before being recalled by Stalin and not allowed back].”

You can find a rich biographical article on Gamow. ‘Getting a Bang out of Gamow’, at  https://physics.columbian.gwu.edu/george-gamow , although it says nothing about any espionage activity, or his relationship with Mann and  Burgess. He is credited with being the originator of the ‘Big Bang’ theory of the universe, and is ascribed as having a considerable influence on the scientists at Cambridge’s Cavendish Laboratory. It includes a fascinating photograph of John Cockcroft and Gamow at the Laboratory in 1931. The account of the escape by Gamow and his wife to the West, after making unsuccessful attempts beforehand, does not ring true. The fact that he gained – ‘more than a little surprised’  ̶  Molotov’s and Stalin’s approval for him and his wife to attend a conference in Brussels in 1933 suggests a deal was done.  In fact, Gamow wrote a memoir titled My World Line [that I read since I originally published this piece], which totally finesses the whole drama in a way that makes his escape from the Soviet Union seem like farce.

Gamow and his wife, Rho, were so desperate to leave the Soviet Union that, in the summer of 1932, they attempted to row in a kayak across the Black Sea to Turkey, but were beached by a violent storm. They also inspected the Finnish border in Karelia to see where they might cross. Despite these escapades, Gamow, on receiving an invitation to attend the October 1933 Solvay International Congress on Physics in Brussels, applied for a visa for Rho and himself. Through Bukharin, he arranged an unlikely interview with Molotov, then President of the USSR, to make his case. Gamow tells the story thus: “Here I told him the truth, nothing but the truth, but not the whole truth. ‘You see’, I said, ‘to make my request persuasive I should tell you that my wife, being a physicist, acts as my scientific secretary, taking care of papers, notes, and so on. So I cannot attend a large conference without her help. But this is not true. The point is that she had never been abroad, and after Brussels I want to take her to Paris to see the Louvre, the Folies Bergère, and so forth, and to do some shopping.’ He smiled, made a note on his pad, and told me to come back a week or so before I would leave, adding, ‘I don’t think this will be difficult to arrange.’”

To imagine that the gloomy and unhumorous Molotov would find such an explanation engaging is high comedy. In fact Gamow did experience difficulties getting his passports, and they arrived shortly before he was due to leave. He disingenuously observed, nearly forty years later: “Thinking back now, I still cannot figure out how it happened that I got the second passport. It seems likely that the wires had crossed somewhere.” It looks very much as if Sudoplatov was right, and the condition of his going was committing to a mission to steal Western nuclear secrets. As Gamow writes elsewhere (p 93): “It became a crime for Russian scientists to ‘fraternize’ with scientists of the capitalist countries, and those Russian scientists who were going abroad were supposed to learn the ‘secrets’ of capitalistic science without revealing the ‘secrets’ of proletarian science.”  Gamow never went back to the Soviet Union, yet claimed that he was able to maintain good relations with Soviet consulate personnel in Washington. On page 131, he writes: “In fact, during that winter [of 1934], Rho and I kept up contact with the consulate, and even went to movies with some of its members, criticizing the Hollywood productions. The case of Kapitza only strengthened my decision not to return to Leningrad.” If Gamow really had absconded without permission, it would gave been utterly foolhardy for him to present himself at the Soviet consulate.

(Another interesting tidbit is that Gamow presents a fetching photograph (p 49) of a very alluring young lady sprawled on his lap in a ‘private room at a restaurant’ in Leningrad, with his good friend Lev Landau – who won the Nobel prize in 1962  ̶  acting as ‘the hired musician’. The lady is Yevgenia Kanegiesser, who was to become Rudolf Peierls’s wife: Landau was a close friend of Peierls as well. Gamow coolly notes that Yevgenia ‘eventually married a German theoretical physicist, Rudolf Peierls, and left Russia’, as if he really didn’t know Peierls at all, which is not how Peierls represented their relationship. Gamow is a phoney.)

While Sudoplatov may not be normally be considered a wholly reliable source, it would appear that he was probably accurate in this case, and we could conclude from Gamow’s own clumsy testimony that he had a justification for being mentally tormented.  What does Mann therefore say about him? Well, he admits he knew him. On page 70 of his memoir, he writes: “During this latter period of my stay in Washington [1950] we became very friendly with Professor George Gamow and his wife Rho, and I attended one semester of his course of lectures on nuclear physics at George Washington University, which helped me to keep in touch with my fast-fading profession.” All well and good. But Mann also adds something about the caricature incident. Describing a party hosted by Mann himself, on November 25, 1950, he writes: “Guy Burgess gate-crashed the party on the excuse of bringing Kim’s secretary. It was the only time he entered our house but while he was there he got hold of a book by George Gamow entitled Atomic Energy (a subject on which he occasionally tried to sound me out!) and drew a caricature of one of the guests on the inside of the cover, and as psychologically interesting one of Stalin eating a marble table of the type one might find in a side-walk café in France.” All this sounds very bogus: the jokey aside, the deliberate indication that Burgess had never visited before (Lownie notes that Burgess was a close friend of Mann’s at the time, citing a colleague of Mann’s, Arnold Kramish, who encountered them together in Washington several times), Burgess’s ability to select the right book, Mann’s omission that the caricature described Gamow (even though he reproduces the text in his book, also). It surely sounds as if Burgess and Mann both knew Gamow, and that the relationship probably went back further than Mann claimed, i.e. that he was able to fit in a semester of lectures during this short time. Mann was probably recruited by Gamow.

Moreover, other things in Mann’s testimony do not ring true. One major problem I have is with his membership of the Technical Committee of the MAUD project on atomic weaponry (which was the name given to the activity before it was transferred from ICI to the government, and became the Tube Alloys project, late in 1941). Mann resigned almost as soon as the Committee was set up, in May 1941. He writes (p 20): “In the spring of 1941, under the strain of the hit-and-run raids, I began to feel dissatisfied with my work on the uranium project, and I went to discuss it with the Rector of Imperial College, Sir Henry Tizard. Sir Henry had been chairman of the Technical Sub-Committee of the Air Defence Research Committee since the mid-1930s and had, I understood, played a great part in pushing the development of the spitfire and of Robert Watson-Watt’s radio direction finding, each of which had stood us in good stead on the Battle of Britain. I told him that I could not believe that an atom bomb would be developed in time to win the war against Germany and I felt I ought to get into other work more directly concerned with the main objective. Sir Henry agreed and so I entered into negotiations with the Ministry of Supply in London while continuing to give my lectures at the Imperial College. I started work at the Ministry on 12 May, although the correspondence showed that the negotiations continued until 29 June in order to clarify whether or not my work at the Imperial College constituted ‘an outside interest’!”

Is this not extraordinary, that an eminent scientist should be allowed to run away from a project of such national importance, based on such a whimsical excuse, at a time when native British scientists were urgently needed on the project, especially when Mann was so closely involved with the key figures on the project, Rudolf Peierls, Basil Dickins and G. P. Thomson? Mann adds: “After 12 May, when I went to work at the Ministry of Supply, I had not, as far as I remember [always a sign of the selective memory at work. Coldspur], taken any part in the work of the MAUD Technical Committee, but I had apparently remained a member of it.”  Yet on December 22, 1941, J T C Moore-Brabazon, of the Ministry of Aircraft Production, writes a letter to Mann, saying that the report of the MAUD Committee has been examined by the Defence Services Panel of the War Cabinet Advisory Committee. He appears to be thanking Mann for his efforts, writing: “Inasmuch as the completion of the examination of this project by your [sic] committee, and the acceptance, in the main, of your [sic] recommendations, move the whole matter to the stage where large scale experiment and possible production are now our principal concern, a new organisation has been set up on this basis, and I think the time has come to wind up the MAUD Committee. In doing so I would like to take this opportunity of thanking you for the tine and thought which every member must have devoted to this very difficult problem, in preparing, in such a short time, so clear and concise a summary of the whole question. Although the Committee are now disbanded I am sure that the new organisation under D.S.I.R. can rely upon your co-operation at any time when they may want your help or advice” (from Appendix A of Mann’s book). Moreover, Mann merits no entry in Margaret Gowing’s official history of Britain and Atomic Energy: he is simply listed as one of the Technical Committee in a footnote to page 48 of Volume 1.

This is all very strange. Why would Moore-Brabazon be thanking Mann so profusely if he had been an absentee and reluctant contributor? Why Mann would want to diminish his efforts and expertise is also puzzling, unless he wanted to give the impression  ̶  as he carefully notes elsewhere  ̶  that he was no longer active in atomic research: “Thus ended my association with nuclear physics until the end of the war . . . “. But this was obviously not so, as he was sent to Washington in the late summer of 1943, to serve in the British Central Scientific Office in Washington. This account, again, does not ring true, as he informed his boss at the Ministry of Supply that he was resigning before he even received the USA-based job offer. Maybe, like Burgess, he had friends in high places.

Nigel West’s Historical Dictionary of British Intelligence does not help much. It describes Mann’s career only from 1948 onwards, suggesting that he was approached by a Soviet diplomat in 1961, and that his subsequent meetings with that person were monitored by the F.B.I., but it says nothing about the earlier espionage activity, apart from referring to what Boyle wrote. West concludes his entry on Mann by writing: “Having successfully repudiated the allegations, Mann retired to Chevy Chase, Maryland, and later moved to Baltimore, where he died in March 2001. In 2003, documents retrieved from the KGB archive suggested that Mann may have been a Soviet spy codenamed MALLONE.”

Another hare left unchased. Will someone please haul Wilfrid Mann in?

The normal set of Commonplace entries can be found here, and a few more examples of the Hyperbolic Contrast here. (October 31, 2015)

1 Comment

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

One Response to Mann Overboard!

  1. Dalene Clegg

    great post! when can we expect more like these? 🙂

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