Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

[I have been reading the continuous appeals that come from my thousands of readers across the globe: ‘Give us more on Sonia!’ You can obviously not have enough of her. So, coming soon: Sonia and the Great Train Robbery, Sonia and Lord Lucan: The Hidden Affair, and Sonia and the Brexit Conspiracy. But for now, a return to World War II  . . .]

The Quebec Conference, August 1943

In the foreground, President Franklin Roosevelt, Prime Minister Mackenzie King, and Prime Minister Winston Churchill

Behind King – Anthony Eden and Brendan Bracken. Note, on Bracken’s left, a British official using his PDA to send a text message to Josef Stalin.

“Whereas it is vital to our common safety in the present War to bring the Tube Alloys project to fruition at the earliest moment; and whereas this may be more speedily achieved if all available British and American brains and resources are pooled; and whereas owing to war conditions it would be an improvident use of war resources to duplicate plants on a large scale on both sides of the Atlantic and therefore a far greater expense has fallen upon the United States;

It is agreed between us

First, that we will never use this agency against each other.

Secondly, that we will not use it against third parties without each other’s consent.

Thirdly, that that we will not either of us communicate any information about Tube Alloys to third parties except by mutual consent.”

(Introduction to the Quebec Agreement, August 19, 1943)

The first suggestion that Ursula Beurton, née Kuczynski, agent SONIA of the Soviet Union’s military intelligence (GRU), had transmitted to her bosses in Moscow, very soon after the event, the details of the Quebec Agreement, appears to be in Chapman Pincher’s 2009 book Treachery. The Quebec Conference constituted an important achievement in the conduct of the war, as one of its protocols was the agreement by which Roosevelt and Churchill committed to share atomic weapons research, now driven by the US-controlled Manhattan Project. If Pincher’s claim could be shown to be true, it would add another arrow to the bow of that band of historians who like to assert that the Cold War was provoked largely by the deception and distrust that the leaders of the two western democracies displayed towards Joseph Stalin. It would bring the advent of the Cold War forward a couple of years from an event frequently described as marking it, the defection in Ottawa of the Soviet cypher clerk Igor Gouzenko in 1945. It would also confirm the presence of a highly-placed Soviet mole in British government or intelligence agencies. On the other hand, should the evidence turn out to be implausible, it would indicate that Russian military intelligence is still engaged in disinformation exercises. This article shows that the contradictions and anomalies in the accounts of the leakage of this secret leave the published claims about Sonia’s activity open to a great deal of scepticism.

The agreement itself was significant, as British efforts to continue the Tube Alloys project (the name by which the research activity was disguised in the UK) early in 1943 were on hold. The country realized that it had neither the resources nor the time to deliver the bomb independently before the probable end of the war. On the other hand, many Americans were suspicious of Britain’s post-war plans for commercialisation of the technology, as well as being concerned about the number of foreign-born scientists working on the project in Britain and Canada. Some officials were understandably also very wary about the Anglo-Russian agreement on exchange of scientific information, which had been signed – with the knowledge of some, but apparently not of Roosevelt – in September 1942. Moreover, Roosevelt’s haphazard approach to strategy, delegation, and communication only made the status of cooperation even more shaky, a situation that Churchill was not willing to endure any longer. A visit to London in mid-July 1943 by Henry Stimson, Secretary of War, and Vannevar Bush, Chairman of the National Defense Research Committee, led to negotiations that paved the way for the signing of the agreement on August 19. The significance for the Allied war effort was that the Soviet Union took no part in the negotiations, and was not formally notified of the proceedings. Thus a high degree of security was wrapped around this item on the Quebec agenda, lest Stalin be offended by the private plotting of his allies in their war against Nazi Germany.

The danger implied by the betrayal of such sensitive information can easily be overstated, however. Chapman Pincher concluded that ‘what Stalin regarded as his allies’ perfidy inevitably affected his attitude when, on 28 November, he met Churchill and Roosevelt in Tehran to discuss both the war and the postwar situation’, even suggesting that the dictator might have interpreted the snub as ‘the first icy gust of the cold war to come’. This is, of course, pure conjecture on Pincher’s part: Stalin may, it is true, have been ill-disposed towards Roosevelt and Churchill at this time. He was still annoyed at the delays in opening the second front, and he had responded acrimoniously to Churchill in October when the British premier told him that he was suspending the Arctic convoys.  He was also irritated by the fact that his denials over the Katyn Forest massacre had recently been loudly rejected by the Polish government-in-exile. So ascribing Stalin’s peevishness to the conferring of his allies – when Stalin refused to travel any further than Iran to meet them, while Roosevelt and Churchill crossed half the world – and attributing the blame of the cold war on them, is a bit far-fetched.

Moreover, Stalin knew exactly what had been going on: he had dozens of spies in the UK, the USA and Canada keeping him informed of progress on the research into atomic weaponry. Yet Britain long remained a richer source of knowledge than the USA. The spy John Cairncross had been working for the Minister Without Portfolio, Lord Hankey, since September 1939, and had started providing copies of secret documents ever since Moscow sent out a questionnaire on the subject in the summer of 1941.  (Cairncross was transferred to GC&CS – Bletchley Park – in August 1942.) The fact that the UK and the USA signed an agreement would not have shocked the Soviet leader. Of course, if Stalin had discovered precise clauses that threatened the Soviet Union, his reaction might have been far more negative than if he had simply gained the impression that cooperative efforts between the USA and the UK were being regularised. Yet, while politicians soft on Soviet horrors, such as Roosevelt himself, and Anthony Eden, the British Foreign Minister, were reaching out to Stalin as a fellow-democrat and ‘man of peace’, Stalin harboured no illusions. He continued to regard the ‘imperialist’ powers as permanent adversaries, believed in the threat of ‘capitalist encirclement’, and was preparing for the time it would take for the Soviet Union to gather strength again after the war to face the inevitable conflict with his wartime allies. That is why he was so desperate to lay his hands on nuclear secrets. In fact, knowing about the shift of development exclusively to the USA helped his plans.

The emphases in the Agreement should be noted, too. While the first three clauses (listed above) are important, it is worth pointing out that a fourth clause was spelled out in much more detail, recognizing the dispute about commercial opportunities after the war, and providing a mechanism for its resolution. (see http://www.atomicarchive.com/Docs/ManhattanProject/Quebec.shtml) The detail applied to this clause suggests that more time was spent on it, and that the question of post-war rights was the primary occupation of the participants. One could now judge this focus as a distraction that was inappropriately mercenary at a time when the survival of western civilization was at stake. Moreover, the three main clauses – so casually laid out – contain their own seeds of controversy: the commitment to keep secrets to themselves shows a remarkably naïve perspective on the power of the respective governments to prevent espionage, while Stalin, if he did indeed read the verbiage, might have interpreted the conditions as a way of neutralising the threat by forming a stronger alliance with one of the parties – probably the USA, given Roosevelt’s warmness towards the Soviet Union – so that Great Britain would not be able to act independently. (One of Stalin’s first acts at Tehran was to peel Roosevelt away from Churchill for private talks, thus driving a wedge between them.) The force of the second clause must also be questioned: neither the US Congress nor the House of Commons (nor even Churchill’s Cabinet) had approved the condition, and the issue of how transferrable it was to the President’s and Prime Minister’s successors was also problematic. Both Roosevelt and Churchill would later affect surprise at the clauses they had approved in Quebec.

An important aspect of the event is that it was essentially two-layered. That some sort of announcement was in the works was common knowledge among the members of the Tube Alloys project: the team of scientists waiting in Britain was hoping for a positive message from the vanguard of James Chadwick, Rudolf Peierls, O. R. Frisch and Mark Oliphant, who had been sent out to the USA in early August, that the differences of opinion had been reconciled, and that the team could continue its work as a joint project with the Americans. Thus the fact that some tentative agreement had been made would be no surprise: Peierls, in his autobiography, Bird of Passage, even states that they heard news about progress in the negotiations before they left for the USA. This claim would appear to be supported by Margaret Gowing, who described (in her official history) how Sir John Anderson, Lord President and Churchill’s envoy, had been sent out to Washington at the beginning of August to negotiate the terms of an agreement with Bush and Dr. J. B. Conant. Matters progressed quickly, with the result that Anderson, on August 10, took with him to Quebec, to pass to Churchill, the draft of a paper identified then as ‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’. Wallace Akers, who was head of the Tube Alloys project in the Department of Industrial and Scientific Research, apparently grew so excited that he gained approval from Anderson to invite the four scientists from Britain to the USA, with the result that they arrived – with a haste that stretches credulity, and which discomforted their hosts – just over a week later.

The detailed text of the agreement, however, would have been considered a much more confidential matter, and Churchill and his team went to great lengths to keep the specifics secret. While, over sixty-five years later, the nature of the affront to Stalin when he learned about the agreement could be severely exaggerated, at the time, when Churchill and Roosevelt were completely unaware of the infiltration by Soviet spies in the fabric of government, the need for security was intense. Churchill was already so nervous about the risk of Ultra secrets being betrayed to the Germans via Soviet connections that he allowed only a heavily processed version of decrypts to be released to them. He was similarly guarded about nuclear secrets. On the other hand, Stalin knew that a conference was taking place: he sent to the two leaders an unpleasant telegram concerning Italy’s surrender on the last day of the sessions, and the tone of this message intensified Churchill’s fear of him.

In the first version of Treachery (page 5), Pincher claimed that the Russian archives showed that ‘on Saturday, September 4, 1943 – only sixteen days after the signing – Sonia, sitting in Oxford, supplied the Red Army Intelligence Center with an account of all the essential aspects of the Quebec Agreement’. Later in the book, on page 187, he wrote that “On 4 September, Sonia also transmitted a list of the atomic scientists chosen to work in America.” Pincher could provide no precise text for this document, but went on to write that the GRU archives recorded: “On 19 August 1943, in a secret personal message to Marshal Stalin, Roosevelt and Churchill reported about their agreed plans for the surrender of Italy and other matters but there was no word about the fact that they had also made an additional secret agreement about the use of nuclear weapons.” While Sonia’s prime role had been to service the communist scientist and spy Klaus Fuchs, Pincher concluded that Fuchs could not have been the source of this item of information. Sonia had not seen Fuchs since mid-August (he argued), and there was no mechanism by which the details of the agreement could have been passed to him in that time-frame.

What complicates Pincher’s thesis, however, is how, in Treachery, he selectively cites an earlier source, Ultimate Deception, (How Stalin stole the bomb), by Jerry Dan, actually the pen-name of one Nigel Bance. Dan’s book, published in 2003, consists of a detailed account of the Soviet Union’s quest for nuclear technology, gained from interviewing GRU and KGB sources in Russia, and using a rich vein of original documents, some of which the author reproduces in his book. (Dan’s work is a curious mélange of fact and fiction that needs to be parsed very carefully.) Dan’s critical sentences (p 208) about Sonia and the scientists are worth quoting in full: “General Groves, the newly installed head of the Manhattan Engineering District, the US codename for their atomic bomb project, agreed to the British request that a number of its scientists should work in America. Lord Cherwell, Wallace Akers and Michael Perrin, his deputy, met to decide what names to put forward to Groves, who reserved the right of refusal. Advised by two of his scientists, Mark Oliphant and James Chadwick, a list was finally agreed . . .  Word quickly spread in the scientific community as to who was on the list. Fuchs provided the names to Ruth [=Sonia], who then transmitted them to a grateful Moscow on September 4.”

A few items here are noteworthy. The first is that Dan, despite his privileged access to archival sources, makes no mention of the Quebec Agreement itself in describing Sonia’s transmissions of September 1943. The second is that he implies that the process, extensive and drawn-out (‘finally agreed’), must have taken several weeks to accomplish. (Some of the scientists were not yet British citizens, and had to be naturalized.) Yet he claims the list was in Sonia’s hands in early September: this does not make sense. The third is that Oliphant and Chadwick are defined as playing a key role in the selection of the scientists – yet they had both travelled to the USA with Peierls and Simon in August, and were still being briefed by Groves in September. Peierls recorded that the selection did not take place until after Niels Bohr arrived in the United Kingdom in October. Margaret Gowing, in Part 1 of her official history, Britain and Atomic Energy 1939-1945, confirms this. In addition, she wrote that ‘by the time the Combined Policy Committee formally ratified the proposals for collaboration in December 1943, the various missions and visits had been approved by General Groves, and the various British scientists concerned were already in, or on their way to, the United States’, thus reinforcing a more leisurely timetable. The idea that Fuchs (or anyone else) provided them to Sonia in early September cannot be taken seriously. Pincher carefully avoids endorsing Dan’s comment about Fuchs while using him as a buttress for his argument. This theme of the betrayal of the list of scientists occurring impossibly early will recur, and will be analysed in depth later.

Pincher’s account thus raises some provocative questions. The only text that he cited is clearly not an archival source record: it is a piece of commentary inserted at a later date. (From Dan’s examples, this appears to be a common practice in Soviet archives.) A truly current historical entry would not be able to report on the absence of any communication on something that had been withheld. Why was Pincher able to quote only the later analysis, and not the source? What exactly had Sonia provided in her message? What ‘essential aspects’ had been communicated? And how do we know that it was indeed Sonia who sent it? And, if had been Sonia, given that her son Peter was born four days after the radio message was sent, how did she meet her informant? Did he or she visit her house in Oxford? If so, would that not have been an enormous risk for the individual? Or did she really travel (she would take the train to Banbury in her various rendezvous with Fuchs) to make the encounter with her contact?

In 2009, Pincher had a definite theory. He was confident enough to name the MI5 officer Roger Hollis as ELLI, the spy within MI5 – later identified but not named by the Soviet defector Igor Gouzenko in 1945 – and declared him the informant. Pincher made some imaginative jumps in promoting his thesis that Hollis would have gained access to the information through his colleague at Tube Alloys, Roger Perrin. Pincher relied, however, on a 2002 work written (in Russian) by Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, Superfrau iz GRU, for the insight that ‘on 4 September, Sonia reported data on the results of the conference’. Pincher hypothesized that Hollis had reason to travel to the Oxford area from his office in London at that time, and, since Hollis was an old friend of Neville Laski’s, at whose house Sonia was accommodated, he had justifiable reasons for visiting her to pass over the information.

In the revised (‘Updated and Uncensored’) version of Treachery published in 2012, Pincher   appeared to bolster his claim by citing that, in July 2011 ‘the Moscow-based historian Dr Svetlana Chervonnaya reported having discovered a Soviet document confirming that Sonia had sent the information about the Quebec Agreement on 4 September 1943 and that, after translation into Russian, it was taken straight to Stalin’. Again, is this archival record merely a retrospective annotation? Once more, no text of the source document was provided. Were intelligence officers under Stalin thus methodical in reporting such routine events? After all, it is well-known that Stalin devoured all intelligence gained from his spy network. Why would this fact be worth recording? And, if the GRU was anxious, in the first decade of the 21st century, to make a case about western treachery from the 1940s, why not show the world the proof?

I can find no trace of any document pertaining to the Quebec Agreement on Dr Chervonnaya’s website www.documentstalk.com. Nor can I find any reference to it in the Vassiliev papers, which are available on-line through the Wilson Center in Washington. I have not read Superfrau iz GRU. Sonia chose not to (or was not allowed to) mention this critical event in her memoir Sonjas Rapport. The VENONA transcripts for this period appear to contain no references to Quebec, although one cable does cover a visit to the UK made in late August by the spy Cedric Belfrage, of the British Security Commission in New York. The other classical works about the opening up of the Soviet archives are likewise silent on any disclosure of the Quebec Agreement to Soviet Intelligence at the time. It is by no means clear who is quoting and echoing whom in these rumours of espionage. Yet Pincher’s poorly sourced claim has already started to become adopted by historians and biographers. In his 2011 account of the life of the Soviet spy in Canada, Fred Rose, David Levy, citing Pincher, accepts without question the fact that the details of the Quebec Agreement were leaked by ‘a highly-placed mole in British intelligence’, although he ambivalently declines to echo Pincher’s claim that that person was Roger Hollis. “Stalin apparently arrived in Tehran feeling himself the victim of a low blow, a dirty Anglo-American trick”, is nevertheless his confident conclusion.

In 2016, William Tyrer published an article titled The Unresolved Mystery of Elli in the International Journal of Intelligence. In this piece, Tyrer re-presented some of the arguments that Pincher gathered for his case that ELLI was Hollis, including the communication of the details on the Quebec Agreement, but concluded that the cases for ELLI being either Hollis or the known KGB agent Leo Long (as Christopher Andrew had claimed) were then ‘even weaker’.  Without either analyzing in detail some of the stronger evidence that Pincher provided to bolster his case, however, or the many anomalies and contradictions in it, Tyrer came to the unsupported conclusion that the idea that ‘Hollis was ELLI or a supermole appears to be more and more unlikely.’ Part of his argument rested on his claim that it was Fuchs, not Hollis, who was in the best position to provide Sonia with the information. While accepting without question the validity of the origin of the story of the leak to Stalin, Tyrer departed radically from Pincher’s analysis, going on to note the following: “But Sonia’s source for this information about the Agreement was very likely Klaus Fuchs, the Soviet atomic spy. At the time, Fuchs was part of a contingency of British scientists waiting in England for news that Roosevelt and Churchill had signed the Quebec Agreement. When the Agreement was finally signed, the British scientists, including Fuchs, were permitted to travel to the U.S. While the Agreement was kept a close secret – even Liddell at MI5 appeared to not know about it – Fuchs was probably sufficiently connected to hear its details.”

So what was the basis of this ‘connection’? How solid is that ‘probably’? Tyrer appeared to derive this conclusion from the evidence of the Russian writer on intelligence and military affairs, Vladimir Lota, who, Tyrer asserts, had access to some GRU files ‘off limits to other researchers’. Tyrer offered in a footnote that Lota wrote: “On 4 September, U. Kuczysnki reported to the Center information on the outcomes of the conference in Quebec. She had also learned that English scientists Pierls [sic], Chadwick, Simon and Olifant [sic] had departed for Washington. U. Kuczynski had received this information from Klaus Fuchs . . .” Tyrer added a detailed reference in The Russian Military Review for this nugget, and even provided a long URL for confirmation. Yet this passage needs to be inspected closely to test its validity.

Tyrer credited Dr. Svetlana Chervonnaya (the same person who aided Pincher) with the information: her opinion on the Fuchs/Hollis controversy is unknown to me. Yet some questions arise. Would GRU records really have referred to Sonia as U. Kuczynski, her birth-name? Why would Lota use this formulation, when she was known through her memoir as Ruth Werner, her proper name was then Ursula Beurton, and the archives refer to agents through their cryptonyms? And why would Chervonnaya indicate to Pincher that she had discovered this nugget herself, while informing Tyrer that Lota had exclusive access to the archive where it was found? Why would Pincher interpret her guidance as incriminating Hollis, while Tyrer uses it to point the blame towards Fuchs? Nevertheless, despite the uncertainties, and the fact that Pincher and Tyrer offer contradictory analyses of how the secret was leaked, Tyrer’s somewhat speculative contribution has started to pass into lore. If you inspect the very thorough and apparently authoritative text of the Wikipedia entry on the Quebec Agreement (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Quebec_Agreement) , you will find there the confident assertion that Sonia betrayed the secret to Moscow, and that it is attributed to Tyrer’s article on ELLI. There is no mention of Lota, or Chervonnaya, or Bokcharev and Kolpakidi, or a verifiable GRU archival source document – or even Chapman Pincher or Jerry Dan.

While Tyrer’s theory is orthogonal to the issue of ELLI, and whether Hollis did indeed own that cryptonym, this sequence of events seems highly unlikely (as Pincher would no doubt have agreed). As explained earlier, Peierls, Frisch and Oliphant had arrived in Washington the same day on which the Quebec Agreement had been signed, August 19, so the second piece of information – that Peierls and Co. had departed – would appear to have originated some time before. (A symptom of the confusion over dates here is that the historian Nigel West, in his study of Soviet penetration of the Manhattan project, Mortal Crimes, not only has the Peierls team crossing the Atlantic after the Quebec Agreement, but also sets it in August 1942.) Pincher himself recorded (again citing Russian archives) that Sonia did not see Fuchs between mid-August and November 1943. The spies and scientists were indeed ‘waiting’ for news about a hypothetical agreement, but when did they learn the news? The official historian of the atomic project, Margaret Gowing, wrote that Chadwick, Peierls and Oliphant did not even learn about the Los Alamos project from General Groves until September 1943. Fuchs had to gain a non-immigrant visa for the USA, but did not apply until October 22 (according to Norman Moss), which was granted on November 18 (much to the consternation of Milicent Bagot in MI5, as the National Archives at Kew confirm). Richard Rhodes, in The Making of the Atomic Bomb, describes how, as late as November 1943, Chadwick asked Frisch whether he would like to work in the United States, informing him that he would have to become a British citizen to gain his clearance. Fuchs and twenty-nine other scientists left soon afterwards, even though General Groves did not complete the approval process until December, after they had left the country.

Irrespective of exactly what insight was revealed illegally to Sonia, from all standpoints – temporal, logistical, security – it would seem impossible for Fuchs to have been the messenger. Yet the text in the passage by Lota that Tyrer supplies shows another anomaly. The ‘also’ is a strange construction to use when it introduces an event (the departure of Peierls & Co.)  that preceded the activities (concerning the Quebec Agreement) to which this event is additive! Is it not more likely that ‘this information’ that Lota writes about is the immediately antecedent statement about the departure of Peierls & co., in apposition to ‘the outcomes of the conference’, and not any revelation of the details of the Quebec Agreement itself? If the group had left for Washington in time to arrive on August 19, the departure must have been about a week beforehand. Since Fuchs had an appointment with Sonia in mid-August, it would suggest that it was on that occasion  – before the Quebec conference was held – that he passed on the news that Peierls & Co. had left. This scenario – that he reported solely on the departure of the vanguard, rather than the selection of the larger team of scientists approved for immigration – is far more plausible. He could not have known the details of the ‘Quebec Agreement’ at that time, although it is presumably quite possible that Rudolf Peierls, soon after August 10, when he learned of his invitation to rush over to the USA, had passed on to his protégé that an agreement in principle (‘the Tube Alloys Agreement’) had been forged, and that it would probably be endorsed at the meeting in Quebec. On the other hand, if Sonia did indeed learn more about the Quebec Agreement itself before her transmission of September 4, it surely must have come from someone else.

While Pincher also made a gratuitous and unfounded claim that the director-general of MI5, Sir David Petrie, ‘would have received a copy of the Quebec Agreement’, his argument that Sonia’s informant must have been Hollis relies primarily on the supposition that he probably heard about it from Michael Perrin, Akers’s deputy. Perrin was Hollis’s liaison in the Department of Scientific and Industrial Research, who arranged the original approval for Fuchs to be employed. Pincher states that Perrin ‘knew that the agreement had been signed because he had been given the “all-clear” to dispatch the first batch of scientists.’ Pincher wildly distorts the facts: Perrin certainly did not have that authority. Gowing informs us that the first meeting of the Combined Policy Committee did not take place until September 8, and that Chadwick had to make a further visit to the USA to discuss interchange with Groves. The decision on scientists had to await the return of Chadwick and his team from the USA. Unless Pincher was carelessly confusing the departure of the advance team in August with that of the larger contingent in November, his statement about Sonia’s providing the list of approved scientists as early as September 4 must be pure hokum, and casts much doubt on the veracity of his sources. And, as Tyrer sensibly countered, if Hollis’s superior officers David Petrie, Dick White and Guy Liddell did not know about the Agreement (Liddell refers to it for the first time in 1945), how would Hollis have been able to get his hands on it? As Michael Goodman’s official history of the Joint Intelligence Committee informs us, neither the JIC (nor even the Cabinet) knew about the details of the atomic weapons program until Hiroshima occurred. But using this argument as a way of showing that Pincher’s obsession with Roger Hollis was misguided and forlorn, and thus turning the finger of guilt on Fuchs, does not seem a profitable research avenue to pursue.

Moreover, Pincher’s explanation for the anonymity and obscurity of this piece of evidence is also illogical. Why would the GRU hold back on such an obvious coup, and not release the information until everyone involved was dead? Pincher believed the survival of relatives was part of the reason. In her memoir, Sonjas Rapport, (published in 1977) Sonia refrained (under the control of the GRU itself) from identifying Fuchs at all. He was still alive, and reputedly still not in great odour with the Soviets, as he had confessed, in their view unnecessarily, to espionage. After he died in 1988, however, she was allowed to speak up. Pincher records that she admitted her role as a courier for Fuchs in a television programme, and in the English translation of her memoir, Sonya’s Report, published in 1991, she added several paragraphs about Fuchs. For instance, she included the misleading observation that Fuchs must have ‘behaved naively’ when interrogated by William Skardon ‘the most psychologically astute interrogator of the British secret service’ – a judgment that severely overstates the ex-detective’s capabilities.

Then what about her coup with the Quebec Agreement? Even though Sonia was quick to make some political points in her memoir (such as the demands from the British public for the opening of the second front), she said nothing about the development of the joint plans for atomic weapons research, or how it doubtless betrayed the goodwill of the gallant Soviet people. Pincher wrote that this was ‘presumably because of continuing need to protect its source’ (in his view, Hollis). Yet Hollis had died in 1973: why would the GRU need to protect him? The GRU, however, did not relax its influence even after Fuchs died. Pincher also informed us that Sonia went to her death without revealing her coup over the details of the Quebec Agreement. “The GRU had been unwilling to release the secret while she was alive and did so only in a one-upmanship clash forced on it by old KGB officers”, he added. (Pincher did not explain how he came to this conclusion.) Yet his narrative does not make sense. For any department of Soviet intelligence to conceal such a propaganda coup is quite out of character: one can imagine an initiative to distort a historical event for political purposes as highly likely. If archival information has surfaced that sheds light on what happened seventy-five years ago, why not publish it? (Tyrer suggested, perhaps tongue-in-cheek, that the GRU is waiting for the death of Hollis’s widow, reminding us that Hollis died in 1973. I have not been able to track the birth or death of Edith Valentine Hollis, née Hammond, but Tyrer informs me that he saw her, in ‘a very healthy state’, only five or six years ago, in Catcott, Somerset.) And were there no confirmations of the Agreement from American sources that survived in the archives of the KGB and the GRU? (Stalin always liked confirmation of reports from the rival intelligence service.) What has been going on?

First of all, if the details of the Quebec Agreement were truly revealed in September, and if the cases for Hollis and Fuchs are both weak, who was the third party responsible? Could it have been Rudolph Peierls? As was explained earlier, Wallace Akers had invited Peierls and his colleagues to the USA at the beginning of August.   Unfortunately, Peierls does not cover the details of this visit in his memoir, but he may have been deceptive – not for the first time. Peierls (who recruited Klaus Fuchs) was a highly dubious character, as I have explained in Misdefending the Realm, and was not to be trusted to keep secrets to himself. When Fuchs was arrested in 1950, Peierls also came under suspicion. Could he have been the intermediary? Even with these facts, and with the assumption that Peierls did learn, very soon afterwards, the details of the agreement that had been signed, it is difficult to imagine how he could have communicated a message without detection across the Atlantic. He was a very cautious man, and overall worked very assiduously to make sure that his fingerprints were not on any trace of espionage. If he did tell Fuchs anything, it must have been whatever condensed message he had received about the status of negotiations, and the purpose of his voyage, before the Quebec Agreement was signed

Tyrer has, however, researched who would have known about the Agreement, and, having delved into the archives at Kew, has come up with a list of British officials who were informed of it. Much of this information can be confirmed by Gowing, since Appendix 4 in her history contains the text of the Agreement and the list of members of the Combined Policy Committee that was chartered with supervising the project in Washington: her text adds useful commentary. Thus the extended list includes names such as Sir John Anderson (Lord President of the Council, who drafted the agreement), W L Gorrell Barnes, J. M. Martin (Churchill’s secretary), Captain E Clifford (Office of the War Cabinet), Colonel J. J. Llewellin (the British Cabinet Minister Resident in Washington), Field-Marshal Sir John Dill (head of the British Joint Services Mission in Washington), and C. D. Howe (Canadian representative). Dill, Llewellin and Howe were all members of the Combined Policy Committee. Tyrer added that it was likely that Lord Cherwell, Churchill’s Chief Scientific Advisor, also received a copy, a fact that is confirmed by Gowing, as well as by the Oxford Companion to World War II. Might he be a link?

Even though Cherwell, the scientist known as ‘the Prof’, was not even in the Cabinet, he knew far more than the members of that body (apart from Churchill and John Anderson, presumably). Gowing also presented the startling information that Cherwell (partially to dissuade the Americans of the commercial competitive threat) had promoted the argument that the atomic bomb would be required after the war in case the Soviet Union acquired it. Cherwell therefore does not hold the profile of someone who would leak deliberately. Indeed, while this opinion in fact mirrored what Churchill himself was telling the Americans, it was astonishingly bold thinking for the summer of 1943. There would have been American generals who sympathized with that perspective, but Roosevelt and his aide Harry Hopkins would have been taken aback, given that their main political agenda was maximizing the opportunity to cooperate with Stalin in creating a peaceful post-war order. Hopkins was undoubtedly a bit naive. He seems to have been cleared of passing secrets to the Russians (something he was accused of), but he was more sympathetic to them, far too trusting of Stalin, and has even been characterised as a Soviet ‘agent of influence’.  He surely did not pass on any secret documents directly, but he might have said something to a spy on Roosevelt’s staff, in the same fashion that Cherwell might have confided in a trusted colleague, and the message could have been passed on. It should also be pointed out that Roosevelt had, unbeknownst to the team that went to London, already decided that the Agreement should go ahead. Thus Cherwell’s comparatively belligerent attitude would not have disqualified him from remaining a confidant: he might provide a clue to who the perpetrator was.

One of the objections to the claim that Roger Hollis was ELLI has been the fact that Soviet intelligence experts have reportedly expressed bewilderment at the proposition, and no evidence has appeared in Russian archives equating Hollis’s name with that cryptonym. (One can read claims that the defector Oleg Gordievsky knew that ELLI was Hollis, but was persuaded to keep quiet about it by MI5 and SIS as terms of his freedom after he escaped to the West in 1985. Gordievsky is still alive: I should like his attention drawn to this piece . . . ) On the other hand, some Soviet officers have reputedly pointed the finger at Victor Rothschild as an agent working for the Soviets, and Lord Rothschild was obliged to protest, late in life, that he had never been a spy, and even looked for vindication from Margaret Thatcher’s government that would disprove such an assertion (an impossible task). As I have shown in my book, Misdefending the Realm, Rothschild was at least an ‘agent of influence’ who exercised a dangerous effect on MI5’s attitude towards communists when he was employed by the Security Service during the war. His primary biographer, Norman Rose, underplayed his leftist beliefs and contributions towards Zionist ambitions in his book, Elusive Rothschild. Roland Perry went as far as naming Rothschild as a Soviet spy in his undisciplined The Fifth Man, a work that should be treated very circumspectly.

Did Rothschild have an opportunity to leak the details of the Quebec Agreement? He was a well-respected scientist, and a close friend of Lord Cherwell and of Churchill himself. His status allowed him to move freely around government institutions, especially in his role as an auditor of security on behalf of MI5. He was also a very close friend of Duff Cooper, who headed the Security Executive (and, as Rose reports, would join Cooper in making fun of David Petrie, the head of MI5). On the surface, it would appear much more likely that he would have learned about the Quebec Agreement before Fuchs or Hollis did. He might also have had a mechanism for contacting Sonia, through her father, Robert, or her brother, Jürgen, in London, or his friends. By the summer of 1943, Sonia’s landlord, Neville Laski, was living next to the Kuczynskis in Hampstead. (Remarkably, MI5 noted this fact on August 16, while Peierls was in transit to the USA: was this mere coincidence?) Laski was more right-wing himself, and a solicitor for the Home Office (and maybe even MI5), but his wife, Cissie, came from a fervently Communist family. Her brother was the Communist Jack Gaster, who married Isaiah Berlin’s close friend, Maire Lynd. If the Laskis moved out to their house in Oxford at weekends (as Pincher claims), Rothschild might have been able to pass messages to her for Sonia to transmit.

Yet this theory would appear to fall down over chronology, as well, certainly if Rothschild’s source were posited to be Cherwell or Churchill. Churchill did not return to London from his extended tour of Canada and the USA until September 19, after which date Cherwell soon received the news. Cherwell wrote a letter to Churchill deprecating the terms of the Agreement, but not until October 19. Unless information about the agreement, sent by encrypted telegram, had been carelessly shared with Rothschild (or some other), the timetable of Sonia’s reported transmission must exclude him. The notion that Robert Kuczynski could have been a vital link in the chain has been pointed out by several historians. Robert Chadwell Williams, the author of a 1987 biography of Fuchs, Klaus Fuchs: Atom Spy, wrote: “Her father continued his relationships with highly placed British officials, including Stafford Cripps, and passed Sonia information from Churchill’s War Cabinet.” (p 59) Cripps must be added to the list of suspects, although the chronology is still dubious.

Yet another prominent name should be added to the mix. In his monumental work, Hitler’s Spies, David Kahn informs us (p 311) that, on September 1, 1943, the Nazi spy JOSEFINE commented on the Quebec Conference. While the only extract that Kahn cites is information about the cross-Channel invasion, this fact shows that details of the conference were being passed to foreign embassies. For JOSEFINE (as Kahn also points out) was a pseudonym for the military, naval and air attachés at the Swedish Embassy in London, who were presumably passing information through the diplomatic bag to Stockholm. In his history of MI6, Nigel West explains that the identity of JOSEFINE was later unveiled by ‘one of MI5’s ablest officers’, whose name was Anthony Blunt. The leaks appeared to have originated with William Strang in the Foreign Office, who may have carelessly passed on information to Johan Oxenstierna, the Swedish naval attaché. Moreover, Blunt, as head of B1(b), was responsible for opening and inspecting the contents of diplomatic bags before they were shipped onwards, so, if information about atomic weaponry was also included in the report, he would have been in an excellent position to pick it up, and Sonia would have been redundant.

And a final avenue to be explored is the role of C. D. Howe, the Canadian representative on the Combined Policy Committee. I notice that in his afore-mentioned biography of Fred Rose (‘Stalin’s Man in Canada’), David Levy reports that Howe, head of the Department of Munitions and Supply, had in 1943 been approached for the formula of the explosive RDX by the Russians – the very same quest that resulted in Rose’s term in prison. ‘Canada was willing to supply it but the Americans were opposed’, writes Levy. Howe was a very influential Canadian businessman and politician, and he had been informed of the Manhattan Project in June 1943. His Wikipedia entry enigmatically records that ‘Howe had an excellent reputation, even in the Soviet Union’, although it does not explain the nature of his exchanges with Soviet representatives. Maybe he was a dubious choice for participation on the committee: perhaps his communications were entirely innocent. Yet it does appear problematic that a trusted member of the secret committee apparently had unofficial meetings with Soviet operatives seeking strategic technology.

Thus, if a leak really did take place, was Sonia truly involved, and did she in fact transmit this message herself? As I have shown in my on-line saga, Sonia’s Radio (www.coldspur.com/sonias-radio) Sonia’s husband, Len Beurton, was probably operating a wireless set out of the property they maintained in Kidlington, Oxfordshire. While TNA records show that Beurton returned to the domestic home shortly before Sonia’s labour, the Kidlington property was no doubt still in use. He would have been in a far fitter state to broadcast the news, and Sonia, aware that her decoy transmitter was being surveilled by Britain’s radio detection organs, would not have risked sending details of such a sensitive matter over her own equipment. That is, of course, if we can rely on these unseen Soviet archives that attribute the news to Sonia. It seems far more likely that the much more porous American administration  – outwardly much more sympathetic to Soviet Russia than even Anthony Eden’s Foreign Office, and populated at the highest level by Soviet spies – passed on the news to Moscow. For example, the spy Lauchlin Currie was one of Roosevelt’s administrative assistants, and Harry Hopkins might have given him the information. Harry Dexter White was also regularly passing on strategic information from the Treasury.  For some reason, intelligence officers in the GRU might have wished to muddy the waters by giving the credit to Sonia instead of revealing that the information was leaked through a KGB medium, or through a different country altogether.

The status of the GRU at this time, however, is particularly poignant. In the summer and autumn of 1943 the KGB (in fact named the NKGB at that time) voiced serious concerns about the reliability of its own atomic espionage network. The USA ring had been very slow in building contacts with access to inner secrets of the Manhattan project; KGB leaders asked questions about the duplication of effort between the GRU and its own organization; and strong doubts were starting to be raised about the reliability of the Cambridge Five – had they been turned by British intelligence? In mid-August Merkulov (head of the KGB) approved the transfer of GRU resources to the KGB, with the eventual outcome that Fuchs was assigned to a KGB handler in February 1944. Remarkably, the KGB had considered recruiting Fuchs when it discovered that he was one of the elected scientists set to work in the USA. Kukin, who had replaced Gorsky as head of the London station, was informed only then (in November) that Fuchs had been an agent of the GRU since 1941 – another indication that a leak came from elsewhere. Thus the GRU historians, working retrospectively, might have become a little carried away in describing this considerable coup over their overweening rivals.

In any case, there exists a great danger that a process of ‘ahistorical drift’, whereby the existence of an unverifiable story gains acceptance by being repeated in more serious historical studies, will take place with this event. One strong conclusion from all this noise might be that Fuchs passed on critical secrets to Sonia on two occasions. In August, he revealed the departure of Peierls & Co. In November, just before he left the UK (on the occasion when Sonia gave him his instructions for assignments in the USA), he may have known enough to tell her something about the Quebec Agreement, and certainly would have known of the list of approved scientists. Peierls could indeed have been the source of information by then. Then we would be left with a clumsy conflation of the two episodes in the Soviet archives, with Fuchs as the sole informer. Alternatively, another party did inform Sonia about the Quebec Agreement in early September, and she combined that information from him or her with her report from Fuchs.

One critical indication that Sonia would have been receiving intelligence elsewhere is that, before the rendezvous in November, she must have been passed instructions from a well-informed GRU contact, namely what Fuchs should do in the USA to meet his new contact. The GRU (or KGB) already knew that Fuchs (and the others) would soon be on their way to the USA. This item is extremely important: the necessary presence of alternative GRU channels of communication appears to have been overlooked in the various histories of its role in espionage in Britain. Thus, as Kukin’s testimony suggests, the meeting between Fuchs and Sonia in November was probably triggered more by Moscow Centre’s need to inform Fuchs of new subversive arrangements in the USA than it was by Fuchs’s (now redundant) requirement to inform Sonia of his imminent departure. In the latter half of November, therefore, there must have been some intensive wireless communication taking place between the Kremlin and the Soviet Embassy in London. The attribution of the leaks to Fuchs in August could well be a smokescreen designed to distract attention from more sensitive channels elsewhere.

An analysis of the various rendezvous between Fuchs and Sonia merits a study of its own. If, as Pincher, Williams, and others imply, the two arranged to meet about every three months, the encounters of August and November were extremely fortuitous. For them to have timed the first at exactly the date by which Peierls had heard about the coming agreement, but before he left for the USA, and the second for the time when Fuchs would have heard that his voyage had been approved, but just before he boarded the Andes on November 24, shows remarkable imagination. Sonia’s pregnancy should surely have been a consideration when they arranged, in August 1943, their next Treff. Mike Rossiter, in his 2014 biography of Fuchs, The Spy Who Changed the World, introduces a new gloss. He echoes the three-month intervals, but also claims that, as the Soviet Union’s own atomic project (Enormoz) got under way, Sonia was ordered to meet Fuchs ‘with increasing regularity’. Rossiter clumsily compromises the whole story by claiming that it was in September that Fuchs ‘became aware that he would probably be going to the United States’ – an account that satisfies neither of the scenarios. He does not indicate the source of these insights. Perhaps Fuchs and Sonia used the dubok (‘hiding-place’), which Sonia describes in the English version of her memoir, to leave messages requesting unscheduled meetings, but that must have been a very haphazard way of doing business. Maybe they used other human intermediaries, or maybe Fuchs even visited her lodgings, despite Sonia’s protestations to the contrary. Sonia ignores all this drama, only mentioning – rather implausibly – that Moscow Centre asked her to come up with a rendezvous in New York when Fuchs was about to be relocated. The inevitable conclusion from this analysis is that all attempts to plot the movements and exchanges of Fuchs and Sonia invariably include a large amount of guesswork.

It seems much more likely that the KGB took charge of this highly important project. Sonia regularly visited her relatives in London, and maybe they visited her in Oxford. Moscow was no doubt able to monitor the progress of the post-Quebec approval processes much more closely through its spies in London, and merely used Sonia as an intermediary to Fuchs, to make sure he would be as productive across the Pond as he was this side of it. The transfer of so much responsibility to Sonia looks like a clumsy attempt to boost their heroine’s reputation, and a wily ruse to shift attention away from her father, and from the role of some more highly-placed spies in Britain’s political administration.

Thus the most charitable interpretation of this garbled communication is that the historians involved have all confused a vague indication of improving US-Anglo relations as the Quebec Agreement itself, and the news of the departure of the vanguard with the final selection of scientists made in November. But it takes a remarkable coincidence, or a large measure of collusion, for all of them to misread similarly the evidence they claim to have discovered in the Russian archives, and to get the chronology so stupendously wrong. If claims are made that Stalin did indeed learn about the terms of the Quebec Agreement as early as September 1943, a credible explanation of how the agent responsible received the information is a vital part of the argument. Knowledge of the timing, format and exact content of the message would be a critical component of the analysis. The echo of the bewildering account of the list of scientists being passed on shouts out for documentary evidence. The puzzle behind this story can be represented in the following scenarios:

  1. No secret information about the Agreement was in fact sent to Moscow in September (in which case the GRU is involved in disinformation, a hoax);
  2. Secret information was sent, but not by Sonia (in which case the GRU should explain why it is attributing the leak to Sonia);
  3. Sonia (or her husband, Len Beurton) did transmit confidential information about the Agreement (in which case a comparison of source documents, and the text in the GRU archive should help identify who was responsible).

A proper resolution of this affair can therefore only come from the following steps:

  • Verifying the existence of a real document in the GRU archive, dated September 1943, that relates to the signing of the Quebec Agreement, and assessing whether this is a full and accurate transcript of the Agreement, or simply a summarization, or even an anticipation, of it, and whether it is genuine, or may have been inserted at a later date;
  • Verifying the existence of a dated document from the same period that speaks of the transit of scientists based in Britain to the United States, and assessing whether it refers to the recent past departure of the advance party in August, or the approval of the final team assembled in November for future departure in December;
  • Determining the source of the intelligence;
  • If the source is claimed to have come from the UK in September 1943, developing a hypothesis as to how the informant could have learned about the Agreement, or acquired a copy of it, especially given Sonia’s late-stage pregnancy;
  • Investigating whether the intelligence might have been gained elsewhere (e.g. through US sources), and whether it was falsely ascribed to Sonia or her husband.

Until the original documents referred to by such as Lota and Chervonnaya surface, a question-mark must linger over the claimed breach, through Sonia, of the security of the Quebec Agreement and the intelligence on the list of approved scientists. Yet if such documents do come to the surface, they may well help in the identification of ELLI.

“The historian must have a mulish obstinacy, a refusal to be gulled; he must be incredulous of his evidence or he will trip over the deliberately falsified”. (Sherman Kent in Writing History, p 7)

Breaking News: I have just discovered that Oxford Digital Media is releasing a film about Sonia’s espionage, titled The Spy Who Stole the Atom Bomb. See a trailer at http://www.thespywhostoletheatombomb.com/. I have not yet ascertained where it will be shown, but I regret that I was not engaged  as a consultant.  Please contact me if you have additional information. I have sent ODM an email suggesting that the producers of the film might want to read ‘Sonia’s Radio’.  8:30 PM, February 28.

This month’s Commonplace entries can be found here.

2 Comments

Filed under Espionage/Intelligence, General History

2 Responses to Sonia and the Quebec Agreement

  1. coldspur

    A chance re-inspection of David Kahn’s ‘Hitler’s Spies’, made in connection with a future research activity, led me to the remarkable statement that a Nazi spy in England named JOSEFINE had revealed details of the Quebec Agreement as early as September 1, 1943. I have thus inserted an additional paragraph into the text, indicating that Anthony Blunt must now be included in the drama. (March 7)

  2. coldspur

    I have inserted another paragraph – on the Canadian industrialist and politician C. D. Howe. I had reported that Howe was the Canadian representative on the Combined Policy Committee, and then a short note by David Levy in his book on the Communist agitator and spy Fred Rose, indicating that Howe had had exchanges with the Soviets over strategic military materials, caught my eye. Thus another candidate for the leak came into view. (March 11)

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