Sonia’s Radio – Envoi

To be published by the University of Buckingham Press on October 26 (in the UK; March 2018 in the USA)


“The science of intelligence analysis is the piecing together of many different segments of information, rather than total reliance on a single source. The overall picture is gained by interlocking a series of small pieces together until the final picture shows a completed intelligence jigsaw puzzle and not a myth.” (Nigel West, A Thread of Deceit: Espionage Myths of World War II, p 126)

(To conclude the story of ‘Sonia’s Radio’. For the complete story, please see ‘Sonia’s Radio‘.)

Sonia acted as courier for the atom spies Klaus Fuchs and Melita Norwood, until both contacts were broken off at the end of 1943, with Fuchs and his mentor Rudolf Peierls sailing to the USA to join the Manhattan Project, and Melita Norwood having a child soon after Sonia’s Peter was born. In October, as the Gestapo pressed the Swiss authorities to close down the remaining radios of the Red Orchestra, Alexander Foote suggested to his leader, Rado, that they take shelter in the British Embassy. Moscow, not unexpectedly, dismissed this idea scornfully. Foote was arrested in November 1943, an event that caused John Curry (now back in SIS) to write to Shillito in February 1944, asking him whether MI5 had any trace on Foote. He replied in the negative. MI5 was curiously maintaining a file on every single International Brigader except Foote, it seemed. When Sonia’s first husband, Rudolf Hamburger, was arrested in Persia as a Soviet spy in late 1943, it caused a minor frisson with Shillito and MI5, but no dramatic action ensued. The intelligence agencies were obviously trying to keep a lid on things.

Sonia is mostly reticent about her work at this time, although she writes that she travelled regularly to London, and she installed a (more powerful) radio in her new residence in Great Rollright, where she moved in 1945. But in the summer of 1946, Moscow Centre broke off contact with her, perhaps for security reasons. In July 1946, Fuchs had returned to the UK to take up a post at AERE, Harwell, although MI5 did not notice the fact until several months later. The Security Service did begin to wonder, however, in the wake of the defection of Gouzenko in Canada in 1945, whether Fuchs might have been passing secrets to the Soviets. He was accordingly put under surveillance, but knew about the watch being put over him, since Kim Philby had alerted Moscow Centre about the investigation. Matters stayed relatively quiet until July 1947, when Foote gave himself up to the British authorities in Berlin. Interrogated soon after, he explained his relationship with Sonia as members of the Rote Drei network. MI5 suddenly woke up to the fact that it had a genuine Soviet spy under its watch, with the result that the extraordinary interview of Sonia was undertaken by officers Serpell and Skardon at ‘The Firs’ in September 1947. The hapless investigators made the statement to Sonia that they ‘knew’ she had not been involved in espionage since she came to the UK, but wanted to know more about her work in Switzerland. Yet they failed to gain any confession from her. She had received a warning of Foote’s disclosures, Foote himself telling a friend of hers that she should be on her guard. That may well have been part of Foote’s cover, of course, to indicate that his loyalties remained with the Communists.

When Fuchs was eventually persuaded to confess to his espionage, and then arrested in February 1950, Sonia made a bolt with her family to East Germany. MI5 was so disorganised and inefficient that, several months later, in May, MI5 officers Graham, Reed and Marriott decided that they should perhaps interview this Ursula Kuczynski woman. They learned only in August that she had left the country. Fuchs did not positively identify his former courier from photographs until December 1950, by which time he knew the coast was clear. Sonia died in July 2000, still loyal to the Communist cause.

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When I set out on the project of Sonia’s Radio, I was not sure there would be a successful outcome to my quest. All I knew was that the episode of the discovery of Sonia’s wireless transmitter, and the subsequent lack of follow-up, were simply too provocative to be explained by mundane circumstances. Thus I became engaged on an assignment of detective work, trying to piece together a plausible explanation of what happened based on very incomplete evidence. It has been a classical ‘Collingwoodian’ exercise in history-writing. Percipient readers will have noticed that each month’s episode appeared without a clear indication of where the whole saga might lead.

Is the case solved? Well, not completely. I do not have in my hand the piece of paper  – unlike my experience in discovering the item in the National Archives that proved that Guy Burgess had set out to Moscow in 1940 on a mission to influence the Comintern against Hitler   ̶  that shows incontrovertibly that SIS had arranged for Sonia to immigrate from Switzerland to Oxfordshire as a known Communist spy, so that the British authorities might eavesdrop on her transmissions. I cannot even prove that Alexander Foote was recruited by Claude Dansey to the Z Organisation, or that he was actually the medium through whom Ultra secrets passed to Stalin.  But my former supervisor (and now collaborator) Professor Anthony Glees, who is necessarily a tough man to convince, and who studied the Sonia phenomenon intently in the 1980s, has told me that he thinks that I have ‘cracked’ the Sonia riddle. By that, he means that he agrees that Sonia had set up her wireless set to be discovered, as a decoy operation from what was happening in Kidlington, and that MI5/SIS was taken in by any dummy transmissions she made from that address, while the more dangerous activity took place a few miles away, undetected and unsurveilled. If my conclusions are correct, they do point to a massive cover-up by SIS and MI5 over what turned out to be a highly embarrassing episode. SIS arranged for a dangerous operator to be installed in England, who then abetted Fuchs’s and Norwood’s treachery under the noses of MI5. Is it any wonder why this story has been hushed up?

I shall no doubt continue to dig around, and may pick up further clues, but what lessons can I draw at this stage from the project?

1) Lack of Academic Curiosity:

It astonishes me that, outside a few dedicated amateurs, and a similar number of professionals (such as Professor Glees and Nigel West), the interest in resolving the paradoxes implicit in the Sonia case appears to be depressingly low. After all, Sonia has been elevated and advertised as ‘the Spy of the Century’, even more notorious (or illustrious) than Kim Philby, or her close friend and colleague in China, Richard Sorge. Her excursion to England is one of the most inexplicable series of events that one could imagine for that time, riddled with questionable decisions and underhand deals. The story of Soviet spies is one of the enduringly popular themes of the British popular and serious press, with books coming out regularly about them, especially as new information from the National Archives is released. Two new biographies of Burgess last year followed another best-selling account of Kim Philby by Ben Macintyre, and this year a biography of the complete Kuczynski family was published. And yet the machinations of Sonia, and how she was allowed to operate in wartime Britain, have not received the attention they deserve. The dedicated Chapman Pincher still was chasing the trail up to his hundredth birthday, but with a bee in his bonnet that irredeemably flawed his conclusions. And where are the street protests over the deceptions and camouflages of the official histories? It is all very odd.

In addition, I have been very disappointed at the lack of scholarly rigour evident in many of the books that cover the matters in which I was interested. I have noted a failure to follow through, lazy referrals to other ‘authorities’, a lack of recognition by the author that he (and it has been exclusively ‘he’) simply does not know what happened, or how groups were organised, or who did what, indicating a lack of perseverance in following up leads and inspecting dubious assertions. Even when obvious loopholes or gaps in the official history appear, the various chroniclers who have addressed intelligence aspects of the hostilities just raise a hesitant query, and then move on. And the history of signals security in WWII conveniently falls through all the cracks of the authorised histories: the story of the Y interception organisation and the RSS does not fall tidily in the domain of the military, or of MI5, SIS, GCHQ, even that of the Joint Intelligence Committee. Yet it also touches the GPO as well as the general public, with the team of ‘Voluntary Interceptors’ employed to track signals a vital cog in the operation. Thus no one takes responsibility for it. I have located (and acquired, pending mail across the Atlantic) a book titled The Official History of British Sigint (Volume I – Part II and Volume II), written just after the war by the official historian of British Sigint, Frank Birch, but Volume I, Part I (which would appear to contain some relevant insights) very oddly does not seem to be available. (See Moreover, it is impossible to find on amazon or abebooks. Maybe it was withdrawn – even pulped  ̶  because it displayed sensitive information. Could that be so? I have sent an email to the Military Press to seek guidance: my message was acknowledged, but no follow-up occurred. I called the Press, and left a message for the woman who responded, but there is still silence. It is all very strange. Will the coming official history of GCHQ perhaps remedy this shortcoming? I wouldn’t count on it.

2) Modest Public Response:

I should like to write that I have had received a swarm of useful information from readers of my saga. But it would not be true. I have received a varied set of feedback. The most intense was from a person in the world of media who wants to stay anonymous. He has published articles on espionage, and claims to have access to unpublished Soviet archives, some of which he has shown to me. A portion of it has been useful  – but one cannot wholly trust anything that comes out of Soviet/Russian archives. (As Max Hastings has observed: “In Modern China, as in Russia and to some degree Japan, there is no tradition of objective historical research. Absurd claims are thus made even by academics, unsupported by evidence.”) What is sometimes represented as official Soviet archival material has clearly been doctored  –  in this case, probably to support Sonia’s decoy activities. Overall this correspondent’s reserve, and reluctance to explain his sources  –  as well as the fact that he does not want his name to become public   ̶   discourage me from taking too seriously what he has provided. He wrote (before Chapter 9 appeared) that he disagreed with my analysis of Sonia, and he has recently confirmed his scepticism, but he has not written anything that explains to what degree or why. He went quiet for a while: perhaps Chapter 9 overwhelmed him. Towards the end of  this month, however, I did receive a message from him that alerted me to Hamish Macgibbon’s coming book on his father, James Macgibbon, who admitted to being a GRU spy. My contact speculated that Sonia might have been his intermediary and handler, known as ‘Natasha’. Because of chronology and geography, I find that unlikely.

The most fascinating response I received was from a former lodger of Sonia’s, who recalled the time he lived at ‘The Firs’ at Great Rollright: in her memoir, Sonia describes taking this gentleman’s mother breakfast-in-bed when she was pregnant with his brother. The correspondent is still living in the UK, and has maintained a fascinated interest in Sonia ever since his father realised in the 1980s who his family’s 1947 landlady had been. And I received a number of positive comments from persons who had no particular connection with Sonia, or anything to contribute about her, but who were generally just interested in stories of espionage. But overall, coldspur’s lack of visibility hindered the project.

3) The Untrustworthiness of Sources:

The dedicated reader will be familiar with my diatribe titled ‘Officially Unreliable’ from a few months back, where I analysed some of the mistakes and oversights that pepper ‘official’ or ‘authorised’ histories, including vacant and unsupported attempts to debunk rumours that might otherwise have not received any further airing. Yet another trend is pervasive  ̶  the tendency for historians and journalists to give far too much credit to presumed authorities who were witness to the events, as if the latter had far too much integrity for their word to be doubted. Thus I must include the influence that Gladwyn Jebb and Isaiah Berlin had on Verne Newton, that of Patrick Reilly and Dick White on Anthony Glees, Kenneth Cohen on Nigel West, Lord Rothschild on Peter Wright, Wright and Johnston (and many others unidentified) on Chapman Pincher. I could list others. The overall impeccable Harry Hinsley wove his spell on practically everybody, while countless earnest journalists and biographers went, armed with their notepads and tape-recorders to Moscow and Oxford and Arundel, to the wells of such as Kim Philby, Isaiah Berlin and Dick White, to learn how things really were, and solemnly transcribed their utterances. Yet all these sources had secrets to hide. Moreover, archival resources likewise have to be challenged and cross-verified. There is no doubt that some memoranda have been planted in the UK’s official records, to give a false trail.

Have I been scrupulous enough in questioning the sources who provided ammunition for my hypothesis? Malcolm Muggeridge? Edward Crankshaw? Victor Cavendish-Bentinck? Maybe not. But I believe there is a distinction to be made between, on the one hand, cross-checking the testimony of those who apparently had no motivation or potential gain to be made other than wanting a sometimes inconvenient truth to be disclosed, and, on the other, taking as gospel the observations of those who had a career and a reputation at stake, or were imbued with an over-developed sense of loyalty that demanded of them that institutions be protected at all costs. By extending the search beyond the obvious main actors on the stage, and the bit-players who observed them, to those in the wings who wondered whether the drama would ever involve them, one can make patterns, and develop hypotheses that provide a far more coherent explanation of what went on than was ever bequeathed in the utterances of the Great and the Good.

4. Exploiting the National Archives: ‘Traffic Analysis’

The volumes of material declassified to the National Archives in the past twenty years have provided a rich lode for the historian anxious to make his name. Yet the focus has almost exclusively been vertical, i.e. drilling down into the records of a famed spy or agent. Thus we have had such stirring stories as David Burke’s The Spy Who Came In from the Co-Op (about Melita Norwood), Ben Macintyre’s Agent Zigzag (about Eddie Chapman), and Stephen Talty’s Agent Garbo (about Juan Pujol), to name just a few. Far more arduous is the task of scouring the archives horizontally (for there is no indexing to support such a quest) to look for the activities of less than illustrious characters, and develop chronologies and story-lines about them, or to track themes that may be echoed or commented on in unlikely places. Yet only by that method can one find the links between what appear to be disparate cases, such as the involvement of Hugh Shillito in both the Green and the Kuczynski affairs, or the commentaries of Guy Liddell and the Madrid Abwehr  unit on radio-detection finding during the war that reveal much on the way that the RSS was led, and how espionage was carried out.

In addition, I have applied a methodology of what I call ‘traffic analysis’ to the archives – on the model of ‘traffic analysis’ in radio cryptography, where conclusions about the significance of messages can be made without having access to the texts of messages themselves, but alternatively on such phenomena as wavelengths, locations, call signs, regularity, and periods of silence. (“Traffic analysis is the science of extracting useful information from intercepted traffic, irrespective of whether the actual content is intelligible”, as Nigel West defines it in his Historical Dictionary of Signals Intelligence.) Thus gaps in the archive, redacted words, deleted pages, cross-references to records not made available, handwritten annotations, attempts at anonymity, decrypted signatures, hints at organisations, information on weeded documents that still appears in the index to the folder, and published descriptions (on the website) of records that have been identified but then withdrawn, or maintained by the holding government department, ‘for reasons of security’, all have delivered value in the development of workable hypotheses.

5. Outstanding Questions: Here are a few . . .

a) Sonia: The investigation into Sonia is not over. For example, as part of my discovery process into who had owned the property in Kidlington where Len Beurton spent so much time in 1943, I contacted the Land Registry in Cheltenham. Its website does not support electronic inquiries, so several weeks ago I wrote a letter, explaining that I need to know who were the owners (not the residents, who would have been on the electoral roll, and whose names I could have discovered via other sources). I invited the office to contact me by email, indicating that I could give a credit card number by telephone to pay for any services. I never even received an acknowledgment of my letter. Can anyone out there help?

And why did Shillito not dig further in what was going on in Kidlington? And was operating  a radio transmitter under the skirts of an aerodrome truly an effective camouflage? The Soviets appeared to think so. I do not know, but I am sure other information on Sonia’s and Len’s activities will appear. For example, my anonymous contact refers to his ‘chum’ in Moscow, who has access to the Soviet Military Intelligence archives. She must have some story to share. I have encouraged him to invite this lady (whose website on intelligence matters can be inspected at ) to take a look at ‘Sonia’s Radio’.

b) Alexander Foote: Was ‘Footie’ really recruited by Dansey? I am hopeful that some documents will eventually be released that will prove it. Perhaps now that a good case has been made about his employment, it will prompt the authorities to declassify further documents. I almost regard it as providential that the government decided, in October 2015, just as my doctoral thesis was coming to the boil, to release a document that proved that the purpose of Burgess’s 1940 mission to Moscow was to help engage the Comintern in the war effort. That clinched it for me, and kept my thesis alive: perhaps it will happen again.

c) Sedlacek: Were Sedlacek and Roessler the same person? That is one of my fanciful hypotheses, indicating perhaps that the curriculum vitae of Roessler was carefully created by SIS after the war. Foote’s identification of Lucy as Sedlacek cannot have been a simple error, and MI5, when it re-issued Handbook for Spies without correcting the identification, must have wanted to reduce the amount of attention given to the problem. We have a famous photograph of ‘Roessler’ in mandatory homburg and trenchcoat, but no photographs of Sedlacek.

Rudolf Roessler (Agent LUCY)

Yet, if SIS hired him, and gave him a phony British identity and passport, his photograph must presumably lie in the archives of Petty France (or now, Globe House) somewhere. Can anyone help?

d) Radio-Direction Finding: This matter has the potential to be the longest-running open item. How and why Sonia’s and Len’s transmissions were overlooked by the RSS is still a mystery. If the watch was still out for illicit transmissions from German agents, all suspicious and unaccounted for radio noise would have to be investigated. For me, the most challenging aspect of the activities of the XX Committee (which turned German agents, and controlled their transmissions back to Germany or Spain) has been its failure to ask itself: wouldn’t the Germans wonder why Britain’s most efficient radio-direction finding capabilities failed to pick up the constant stream of messages between the German Control and the agents in Britain – especially the large-volumes of traffic between GARBO and Madrid? (Johnny Jebsen, working for the Abwehr, but with determinedly fragile loyalty, did indeed doubt the agents’ integrity.) And why were the Germans not amazed that their agents could escape detection for so long? Amazingly, no decent history of RSS exists, and what has been written is scattered and contradictory.

In an attempt to discover what the British and Germans were thinking, I have thus started to inspect the dozens of National Archives files on GARBO, and a startling result has started to emerge. It may have been that the Abwehr in Madrid, which sent its instructions for transmission protocols, callsigns, and cyphers, in invisible ink on letters purportedly carried by courier, or mailed, and to which GARBO responded similarly (but actually transported in the SIS diplomatic bag), ‘managed’ by Tomas Harris and MI5 officers, believed that it was leading GARBO and his network to transmit in a way that camouflaged the messages, making them look like British military traffic. That would have given the Germans a justification, and the British an alibi, for pretending all was well. But it is all rather too fantastic at the moment, and I am hoping to get professional guidance on the degree of preposterousness inherent in such assertions. It requires a knowledge of radio, and wavelengths, and cycles, and of the methods by which military and air units deployed radio during the war, that I simply do not have. I need help.

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Web Woes (an update):

1) The Bank: I had a pleasant call with my contact at the Bank, but he seems utterly unmoved by the lack of progress on fixing the simple problem of customer guidance on the web site. The problem remains unfixed, almost nine months after I drew notice to it.

2) The History Today on-line subscription: The matter was resolved. Carelesssness with special characters (£ and $) was the problem.

3) I had a new bad experience with an American stock company. I could not pay in a dividend check as the perforation had split the machine-readable numbers on the bottom of the check. I called the number listed on the certificate to request a replacement, and an automated system guided me to the company’s website. Having registered (and provided all manner of personal details for future security purposes), I found the page where I should have been able to find the form that allowed me to request a replacement. It was not there, but instead a message told me to call a different number. I called that number, where an automated answering system directed me to the website. I returned to it, and sent an email describing the loop the company had created, and requested my replacement that way. I have not heard back from the company after a week, so have had to write one of my infamous letters.

4) AOL: I was required to upgrade my AOL system to a new interface: the current 9.8.2 would not be supported in a month or two. I did so, and then clicked on the request to have my Saved Mail and Favorites imported to the new system. “This operation could take a few minutes. Do not close down your system”, the message said. Two hours later, it was still running, and then I was suddenly locked out. I invoked the Windows Task Manager, to find that AOL alone was running, taking 50% of my CPU cycles. I had to close it down. I went to the AOL Support page, where one window invited me to report my problem by email. But it did not contain an email address! I tried to engage in a Chatroom conversation, and, after waiting ten minutes for an agent to become free, described my problem. The agent said I had to call a Help number for that problem. I called that number, and, after fifteen minutes on hold, spoke to a real person who said that, yes, there was a known problem with Import. “Then why did you not advertise that fact, instead of encouraging your users to execute the process?”, I asked.  “And how would that affect the deadline that AOL had set on support for the old system?” “And did you know about the uselessness of the email invitation?’ “And should I re-install the system?” “And will you get back to me with an explanation via email?” She answered ‘No’ to the last question, but had no answers for the other four. Then, while she invoked her second-line support, I lost the connection with her.

What is the matter with Internet support these days? Do executives ever test out their web interfaces before they release systems? And where is Sir Tim Berners-Lee and his ‘Open Data’ initiative, in the wake of the Equifax scandal? Data ‘open’ enough for you, Sir Tim? (See August coldspur.) And don’t get me started on emails from Facebook containing invitations to be ‘Friends’ from ladies with exotic-sounding names . . .

Finally, on Sunday, October 8, I shall be giving a speech at the St. James Community Center titled ‘Stalin’s Revenge’, based on the key episode in my forthcoming book. The book will be published in the UK on October 26, and in the USA in March next year. Its title is Misdefending the Realm, and is being promoted by Palamedes: please see You may order your copies on now. More on what no one has yet called ‘the publishing event of the season’ in my next blog: at least the book will appear in the centenary month of the October Revolution.

This month’s new Commonplace entries appear here.

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