Sonia’s Radio – Part II

(For the story so far, please see Part I. This article brings the story up to May 1940, when Churchill was appointed Prime Minister.)

The failure to prosecute Sonia’s illicit radio activity has to be interpreted in the following contexts: the overall techniques for detecting unauthorised radio transmissions within British borders; the changing policy towards Soviet and Comintern wireless messages from the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact through the German invasion of the Soviet Union in June 1941, and beyond; evolving attitudes towards communists residing in Britain at that same time; and the tensions between MI5 and SIS that arose partly from the fact that international radio exchanges traversed the bailiwicks of each department.

The  main challenges in wireless telegraphy that faced Britain’s authorities as World War II approached could be characterised as follows: 1) the interception and interpretation of diplomatic and military traffic from the nation’s adversaries; 2)  the detection of subversive alien transmissions from within the country’s borders (the responsibility of MI5, also known as the Security Service); 3) the provision of secure and reliable communications for the government’s own diplomatic and military agencies; and 4) the supply of the same facilities for the intelligence service to communicate with its agents abroad – primarily in Europe (the responsibility of SIS, the Secret Intelligence Service, also known as MI6, and also, from July 1940, SOE, the Special Operations Executive). Much has been written about 1 (e.g. about ULTRA, the German enciphered traffic decrypted at the Government Code and Cypher School at Bletchley Park) and 2 (e.g. on the Double-Cross System, whereby German spies were ‘turned’ to send deceptive messages back to their masters). Very little has been written about 3, presumably because governments are loath to have light shed upon the strengths and frailties of their cryptographic techniques, and the damage that was caused when they were broken, while 4 has enjoyed a good deal of publicity because of the considerable media attention given to the exploits of those who tried to help ‘set Europe ablaze’, in Churchill’s much reported phrase. That coverage includes successes achieved by agents parachuted into Europe as well as disasters like the ‘Englandspiel’, when the Gestapo was able to convince SOE officers in London that the radio transmissions of captured agents in the Netherlands were genuine.

In addition, because of reasons of history, technology and expertise, no clear organizational charters for addressing these tasks existed. For example, during the 1930s, the nominal responsibility for the interception of hostile transmissions had lain with the War Office, under an organization named MI1g. The surveillance of radio communications thus resided alongside that of oversight of messages sent commercially by cable, and was seen essentially as a function of military intelligence. Yet the tasks carried out did not reside exclusively within the Military Intelligence organization, which sometimes appeared to be less than totally committed to its mission. The official historian of British Intelligence , when describing the group’s execution, added the qualification:  ‘ . . . with the GPO [General Post Office] acting as its agent for the provision of men and material and the maintenance and operation of the intercept stations’. This division of labour, however, was clearly not satisfactory in a time of war. In November 1939, in the light of such pressures, a new organization, the Radio Security Service, was set up as MI8c – thus still under Military Intelligence. This reallocation of effort was an improvement, but nevertheless still represented an uneasy compromise.

Furthermore, the precise nature of these groups and their reporting structures is difficult to determine, as the various histories offer conflicting accounts. Philip Davies informs us that MI1g was a ‘very small body’ staffed and equipped by the GPO, which maintained only three fixed and four mobile operating stations, supported by a ‘nascent corps of volunteer intercept operators’ – no doubt a very enthusiastic crew, but not automatically suggesting the discipline that would be required of military intelligence. Davies ascribes the organizational changes that occurred in November 1939 to the report on the security services undertaken by Lord Hankey, at the request of the Prime Minister, Neville Chamberlain, in August 1939, on the brink of war. (Other accounts suggest that funding for RSS had already been approved earlier that year.) Hankey identified three groups covering signals activity that were probably not working as efficiently as they could, and listed the processes: detection of illicit transmissions in the UK, the handling of radio beacons, and the challenge of communications from agents of SIS abroad. He recommended a new department be set up, absorbing all three. The outcome of Hankey’s recommendations was less dramatic: the unit in the GPO was set up as an independent group as the Radio Security Service (RSS), ‘placed under the War Office interception (Y) service, MI8, as MI8c’. Nigel West suggests that the head of MI5, Vernon Kell, may have contributed to this reorganization out of a fear that a network of agents within the UK would assist raiding German aircraft to home in on their targets, and wanted such illegal signals identified, and their originators arrested.

One frequent misconception – found in many books, and in profiles on the World Wide Web –  is that RSS had its origins within MI5 itself, the organization tasked with ‘defending the realm’, and thus needing to be aware of illicit signals activity emanating from within the country’s borders. It has been suggested that this historical background contributed to the later friction between MI5 and SIS over signals detection in 1941 (which will be analyzed in more depth later). The diaries of Guy Liddell (deputy to Jasper Harker of MI5’s Counter-Espionage B Division until he replaced Harker when the latter was moved upstairs in May 1940), provide evidence of this confusion. For example, when Chamberlain, defining one of the objectives of the study described above, asked Hankey to investigate the issue of information ‘leakages’ to Germany, portrayed by Liddell as a ‘wrangle’ between the War Office and SIS, Liddell discovered that Hankey too (no neophyte in these matters) was under the misapprehension that MI5 was responsible for wireless interception.

Quoting Davies’s cool judgment is the easiest way of summarizing the nature of this misrepresentation. Assessing the eventual takeover of RSS by SIS in 1941, Davies writes: “It is often asserted that SIS acquired RSS from MI5, over the security service’s objections, and that this was one of the sources of friction between the two agencies which marred their cooperation during the war. However, as pointed out by Hinsley and the former post-war Deputy-General of MI5, C. A. G. Simkins, in Volume IV of the official history of British intelligence in the Second World War, nothing of this sort took place. The RSS was acquired by the SIS from the War Office signals organization, MI8, with the very explicit backing of DGSS [Director-General of the Security Service] Sir David Petrie. However, the process by which this was developed was nothing like as consensual as Hinsley and Simkins suggest, with considerable resistance appearing, not from MI5, but from MI8 and even the DMI [the Director of Military Intelligence].”  Davies adds examples of the confusion in his Notes: “See, for example, West, MI6, pp. 148, 284 (although West also – correctly – identifies the RSS as having originally been under the War Office as MI8c), and in greater detail in his earlier, MI5: British Security Service Operations 1909-1945, pp 201-4. This version of events is also suggested in the first volume of the official history, Hinsley, et al., British Intelligence, vol. 1, p 277, although the official history corrects its position in the fourth volume on counter-espionage and security.” Davies’s commentary is a very important contribution to the narrative.

Thus, during the Phoney War (from September 1939 to May 1940), MI5 was out of the mainstream management of illicit signals detection, but still maintained a very strong interest in how it was executed, as the department was responsible for working with the police to investigate possible infractions of the law. The emergent RSS organization in fact worked alongside MI5 in the recently appropriated location of Wormwood Scrubs (whither the Headquarters of MI5 had moved in August 1939), allowing the Security Service to learn at close hand what was going on  ̶  a co-residency that coincidentally contributed to the historical confusion over responsibilities. Liddell and his officers frequently expressed frustration over the capabilities of the detection-finders, and its troops of ‘amateurs twiddling knobs’, being made aware of illicit signals from their old contacts in the Post Office. Liddell’s diary entries, at the end of 1939, are riddled with observations about illicit broadcasts being made, but not being followed up appropriately, even though the infractions turned out to be almost all harmless. He also expressed frustration with the laws that prevented the authorities from entering anyone’s premises in search of illegal apparatus.  Yet part of the overall strategy of radio communications was to give the Germans the impression that Britain’s detection techniques were not that efficient: MI5 was already using the double-agent SNOW (Arthur Owens) to relay information to the Nazis, and it did not want the Germans to start wondering why his broadcasts had not been picked up. What is more, no other evidence of German spies was found. Was this due to inefficiency, or to an absence of any subversive activity?

As 1939 turned into 1940, MI5’s interest seemed to switch from the detection of local radio transmissions to the analysis of broadcasts and messages emanating from Germany, primarily the threat represented by the New British Broadcasting Service, a propaganda vehicle of the Nazis. MI5 harboured the suspicion that the NBBS was sending coded messages to a ‘Fifth Column’ preparing to take up arms at the right call. Complex discussions took place between the War Office, SIS and GC&CS over whose responsibility this should be. While MI5 resisted attempts to have this task palmed off to its overstretched workforce, a continuing professional interest in the topic would eventually lead to Liddell’s hiring an executive from the BBC to set up a new group dealing with such ‘codes’. What did constitute a break-through, however, was the detection of wireless interactions on the Continent between German units and their corresponding offices or outlying agents: Liddell refers quite excitedly to the evolving decryption of such messages. It is not surprising that his diary had to be secreted.

Meanwhile, in the light of its failure to provide a cross-European network, SIS had its own reasons for improving its radio communications expertise, as Hankey had intimated. (At the outbreak of the war, for example, SIS agents in Switzerland could only receive radio traffic, not send it.)  The pre-war director of SIS, Hugh Sinclair, had concluded that he needed to own and maintain his own secure network, independent of the Foreign Office, for his secret communications with agents, and transmissions from embassies, overseas (i.e. separating task 3 from task 4). It can be seen that SIS was, somewhat anomalously, responsible for tasks 1 and 4, a grouping that turned out to be quite significant as the war progressed. In 1938 Sinclair moved the Government Code and Cypher School (GC&CS) from Broadway to Bletchley Park, and the next year moved  most of the staff at the Barnes wireless station (then shared with the Foreign Office – task 3) to Whaddon Hall, which, like Hanslope Park, where RSS was eventually to reside, was also close to Bletchley Park. Sinclair had recruited Richard Gambier-Parry from the private radio industry in 1938 to manage this new network. Gambier-Parry immediately developed new radio equipment in Barnes, including more portable sets for agents going overseas, and set up new transmissions stations, for example in Woldingham, Surrey. When Sinclair died in November 1939, he was replaced by Stewart Menzies, not an uncontroversial choice, but one supported by the Foreign Secretary, Lord Halifax. Menzies was not a strong leader, but he exploited his responsibility for GC&CS to his best advantage, gaining significant political support from Churchill.

As has been shown, the original mission of RSS had been to intercept and track down transmissions from enemy agents working from within Britain. According to Geoffrey Pridgeon’s account, The Secret Wireless War, the idea for engaging amateurs for this task had come from Lord Sandhurst of MI5, who approached Arthur Watts, then President of the Radio Society of Great Britain in the summer of 1939. MI5’s section to handle any spies who had been detected and apprehended also resided in Wormwood Scrubs, and it was there that Watts was interviewed. (Another contributor to the confusion over responsibilities.) While ‘amateur transmitters were impounded on the outbreak of war the short wave receivers were not’, writes Pridgeon: thus an enthusiastic body of capable interceptors was available. The rather transparent name of Illicit Wireless Intercept Organization (IWIO) was established, which eventually morphed into the RSS. The officer who headed this new organization was a Colonel Worlledge, described by West as ‘a veteran interceptor, who . . . was give an brief to “intercept, locate and close down illicit wireless stations operated whether by enemy agents in Great Britain or by any other persons not licensed to do under Defence Regulations, 1939”.’ This charter paradoxically suggested that the allegiance of persons operating such equipment could be determined prior to their apprehension, but at least it did not exclude the possibility of trapping (for instance) Communist agents as well.  Procedures were put in place for suspicious Morse signals to be transcribed by the force of Voluntary Interceptors (VIs) and sent to Howick Place in London, and Post Office direction-finding vans were ready to move in on the spies when their locations were discovered. On April 5, 1940, Liddell wrote: “Matters have been brought to a head by some radio-therapy organisation called Hanovia which has been broadcasting a colossal beam day and night. The discovery was made by Col. Worlledge and his boys with the vans.” Hereby Liddell perhaps betrayed his less than complete  respect for the organization.

The process of listening for enemy Morse signals was an arduous one, requiring intense concentration and patience. The volunteer hams who comprised the force were directed to tune in to particular German wave-bands at a certain frequency and then accurately and quickly transcribe what they heard. Call-signs might be changed, so operators started to learn the pattern of radio operations, the individual’s ‘fist’. Frequencies might be changed at set intervals, so listeners had to be attentive to signals suddenly stopping. Overall, however, the amateurs developed a higher level of skill than the professional Post Office operatives. Thus, by early 1940, the RSS had become very successful at picking up messages from German agents on the continent – but the department had not discovered any messages originating from British soil, apart from SNOW, the agent mentioned above. Yet this phenomenon eventually betrayed an important fact: communication with spies and their controls would obviously have been two-way. As Hinsley wrote: “Since Snow’s signals had not been heard before MI5 took control of him, the failure to intercept others was understandably attributed to the inefficiency of the watch or to technical problems, notably the difficulty of picking up low-powered high frequency signals except at very close or very long range. By December 1939, however, it had been recognised that the difficulty did not apply to transmissions made from Germany to agents: they had to be able to receive their control stations’ signals, and if they could hear them, so could the RSS.”

RSS was by this time energetically recruiting from the universities, as was MI5. Hugh Trevor-Roper was one of the first academics to be hired by E. W. B. Gill, the bursar of Merton College, Oxford, who had been recruited in December 1939 to head up what was called the ‘discrimination’ unit of RSS. Trevor-Roper thus took up his duties at Wormwood Scrubs, and built solid relationships with Liddell and other officers, such as ‘TAR’ Robertson and Dick White. Their supervision of agent SNOW (and his periods of downtime), combined with rapidly improving goniometric techniques for location finding, were to provide a breakthrough in traffic analysis. Having detected wireless messages between a German ship, the Theseus, off the Norwegian coast, and an Abwehr station in Hamburg, RSS sent the transcripts to GC&CS at Bletchley Park, but surprisingly was told that they should be ignored. Not the most tactful of persons, Trevor-Roper, intellectually stimulated, then quickly broke the cipher on his own, early in 1940. Bletchley Park was annoyed at this territorial infringement, but RSS succeeded in breaking further ciphers, and a special group was set up under Oliver Strachey at GC&CS to process such messages. Thus was begun the powerful programme that later became to be known as ULTRA.

Meanwhile, what of Sonia (Ursula Hamburger, née Kuczynski)? The accounts of her movements are inherently not very reliable. The memoir of a close colleague and agent of hers in Switzerland, Alexander Foote, ‘Handbook for Spies’ (published in 1950), was in fact ghosted by an MI5 officer, Courtenay Young, who had his employer’s own agenda in mind when he doctored Foote’s story. Sonia’s record is equally dubious, conveniently passing over several facts, having been directed by the authorities in Moscow. The files at the National Archives, especially those covering Foote’s interrogation by MI5 after he defected from the Soviets in 1947, probably provide the most realistic picture of the bizarre events that preceded Sonia’s arrival in England.

What appears indisputable, confirmed by all accounts, is that, in the summer of 1938, Sonia had been instructed to set up a spy network in Switzerland with herself as radio operator, one that eventually became known as the ‘Rote Drei’ (the ‘Red Three’). She had left her two children (a son Michael, by Rudolf Hamburger, the second Janina, by her lover from China, Ernst) at Felpham in Sussex, and spent three months in Moscow. She returned to England in October, seeking a recruit for her team, probably someone with experience in the Spanish Civil War, who would be suitable for carrying out espionage in Germany. The Communist Party of GB recommended one Alexander Foote, a leftist who had seen action in Spain, but was importantly not a CP member (which would have otherwise have drawn the attention of MI5 to him). Through illness, Foote missed his appointment with Sonia, but had a meeting with her sister Brigitte after Sonia had returned to Switzerland. In January 1939, Foote met Sonia in Geneva: she then trained him in radio operation, at which he became very proficient. They were also both capable of building their own radio equipment. The following month, Foote introduced an ex-colleague from Spain, Len Beurton, to Sonia, as a second agent to operate in Germany. By then, however, Sonia had received fresh instructions from Moscow.

Here the story diverges. It would seem that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) had determined that Sonia should return to Britain as a deep penetration agent, probably to initiate the transmission of purloined atomic weapons research to Moscow, as the Soviet Union had solid contacts with those carrying out atomic research in British universities at the time. But Sonia was not a British citizen, and entry would have been impossible in wartime. Foote’s account is not credible: he suggests that Sonia became so disillusioned about the Nazi-Soviet Non-Aggression Pact of August 1939 that she decided to quit espionage, and set her mind on returning to England. “The main obstacle, apart from Moscow’s views, was her German passport”, he writes, as if Moscow Centre would have tolerated such bourgeois self-indulgence. Foote then laconically comments on her arranged marriage to Beurton, and acquisition of a British passport.

Sonia herself approaches the truth a little more closely. She indicates that Moscow was predictably concerned about the expiry of her documents, that she was given a choice of marrying either Foote or Beurton, but that she found Beurton more congenial. (They did become devoted: the marriage lasted until his death in 1997.) Having married Beurton in February 1940, she was able to exploit the reputation of English friends introduced to her by her father, including the leftist John Belloch of the International Labour Organisation, the son-in-law of the Manchester Guardian correspondent, Robert Dell. Belloch’s name indeed appears in the National Archives as one who gave a good reference for her in her passport application. Then Moscow ‘suggested’ that she and Beurton ‘settle’ in Great Britain.

The National Archives indicate, however, that a more sinister plan of action was undertaken. In October 1939, Sonia had gained a divorce from her husband, Rudolf Hamburger (who had by then returned to the Soviet Union, but was complicit in the subterfuge, as Moscow orders were orders), based on the perjurious testimony of Foote, who claimed that he had seen Hamburger conducting an affair with Sonia’s sister Brigitte in London. Foote’s testimony is occasionally contradictory: for example, at one stage he told his interrogators that Sonia was ordered to go to Britain, but on another misleadingly claimed that ‘Moscow instructed Ursula that she was on no account to work in England, even if she wished to do so; it was against Soviet policy for foreign nationals to work in their own country, and against that country’. Yet it is unlikely that he would have invented such a story that would incriminate himself so boldly.

What followed next was either an example of gross incompetence or an exercise in looking the other way for some larger political reason. Despite the fact that MI5 knew of the subversive intentions of the whole Kuczynski family (her openly communist brother was rabble-rousing under internment at the time), and that the Soviet Union was at that time still an ally of Nazi Germany, and supplying it with war matériel to be used against Britain, MI5 failed to respond in a timely manner about any concerns they had about the genuineness of Sonia’s marriage and passport application. Sonia was issued her passport on April 24, 1940. (Some voices in MI5 spoke up: their contribution will be analyzed later.) She then prepared to take her two young children with her to England, Len inconveniently not yet being able to accompany them because his role in the International Brigade in 1936 would have prevented him travelling through Spain. She would eventually arrive in Britain in January 1941, after an extraordinary journey with her children that took her to Lisbon, where she would be granted passage on one of the few ships that were able to set sail in those days. Thus did the British authorities connive in the facilitating of the entry into the country of one of the most notorious communist agents of her time. And outside Oxford she would set up her radio, in the grounds of a house owned by Neville Laski, the brother of the communist fellow-traveller, agent of influence, and would-be terrorist, Harold Laski.

Thus, in May 1940, when Germany invaded the Low Countries, and WWII began in earnest for Britain, an intriguing confluence of factors was at work. Britain was now led by a premier who had a fascination with intelligence and clandestine operations. Radio-detection, interception and decryption techniques were rapidly advancing. With a German invasion in the offing, a ‘Fifth Column’ scare provoked the authorities to a hyperactive response to the threat of subversives in their midst, a group that was not restricted to Nazi sympathisers only. In March 1940 the scientists Peierls and Frisch published their famous memorandum recommending Uranium 235 as the basis for an atomic bomb, and the Maud commission on nuclear fission was set up the following month.  On the same day that the Netherlands were invaded (May 14, 1940), however, the scientist and future spy for whom Sonia would eventually act as courier, Klaus Fuchs (who had worked with, and been sponsored by, Peierls), was interned and sent to Nova Scotia. Sonia would soon be safely installed near Oxford, but her energies would have to wait until Fuchs’s communist past was overlooked in favour of his potential contribution to atomic weapons research, and he was plucked out of internment to join what was now named the ‘Tube Alloys’ project.

Principal Sources:

British Intelligence in the Second World War, by F. H. Hinsley et al.

The Security Service 1908-1945: The Official History by John Curry

The Secret History of MI6,1909-1949 by Colin Jeffery

The Defence of the Realm: The Authorized History of MI5 by Christopher Andrew

MI5 by Nigel West

GCHQ by Nigel West

The Secret Wireless War: The Story of MI6 Communications, 1939-1945 by Geoffrey Pidgeon

MI6 and the Machinery of Spying by Philip H. J. Davies

GCHQ by Richard J. Aldrich

The Secret World by Hugh-Trevor-Roper

The Secret Listeners by Sinclair McKay

The Secret War by Max Hastings

Sonjas Rapport by Ruth Werner

Handbook for Spies by Alexander Foote

The National Archives

(Part 3 – and maybe Part 4 – will appear in the next few months. Their writing will require me to inspect first some archival material at Kew that is not available for download remotely.)

This month’s Commonplace entries available here.  (June 30, 2016)


Leave a Comment

Filed under Uncategorized

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *