Soviet Radio Operator – Dickson Island, 1937
(The story so far: Alexander Foote, working secretly for Claude Dansey’s Z organisation, has been recruited by the Comintern to act as a radio operator in Switzerland, under the supervision of Sonia, born Ursula Kuczynski. Since Sonia’s visa is about to expire, her bosses order her to marry a British citizen, Len Beurton, a colleague of Foote’s from the International Brigades, also working for Sonia, so that she may gain British citizenship and resettle in England. Dansey hopes that Foote may thus reach a dominant position in the Swiss network. Sonia then makes plans for her voyage to England. In earlier chapters in this saga (II and VI: please refer to SoniasRadio for refreshment), I have described the circumstances of Sonia’s arranged marriage to Len Beurton, and her subsequent application for the British passport that would enable her and her two children to escape to the United Kingdom in wartime. Here I concentrate on the way that the application was handled by the British authorities, and what the implications were after Sonia took up residence in Oxfordshire.)
The most remarkable fact about Sonia’s voyage, in the winter of 1940-41, is not that she accomplished the arduous wartime journey from Switzerland across France, Spain, and Portugal, eventually to the United Kingdom, with two young children in tow. What is truly inconceivable is why Moscow Centre ever thought that the mission should have been undertaken in the first place. The circumstances should have dictated to the Soviets that trying to install, as an illicit agent in Great Britain, a German-born legal resident with Sonia’s reputation would be a pointless exercise. * The facts were as follows: The Nazi-Soviet pact was in effect, and thus the potential sharing of intelligence between Hitler’s and Stalin’s regimes should have acted as an alarming deterrent to the sanctioning, by the officers in Britain responsible for immigration, of any unusual entry by communists. Sonia’s family (the Kuczynskis) – and especially her open rabble-rousing brother, Jürgen ̶ were already suspected by the British authorities of being dangerous subversives, with Jürgen, the leader of the exiled German communist party, considered an especial hazard, and accordingly interned. After the first candidate for betrothal (Foote) had suspiciously reneged on the agreement, Sonia had openly arranged a pro forma marriage in Switzerland to another former member of the International Brigades that fought illegally for the Republicans in Spain, someone known to the domestic authorities, in order to gain British citizenship. She had then applied for a UK passport, approaching the Passport Office in Berne, which was universally known as a front for the country’s Strategic Intelligence Service (SIS), sometimes known as MI6. The nanny hired by Sonia to take care of her children had then, out of pity for Sonia’s apparently ill-treated husband, or from despair at the prospect of being separated from Sonia’s daughter, reportedly ‘compromised’ [Moscow Centre’s term] Sonia by trying to alert the British consulate about Sonia’s shenanigans. Lastly, Moscow should have concluded that inserting an agent to work with a radio transmitter in a country known for its expertise in detection of alien wireless traffic would be a high-risk endeavour. It was almost as if SIS had been arranging for Sonia’s smooth transit behind the scenes. Who was bluffing whom?
[* The GRU referred to Sonia as its ‘illegal station head’ in the UK: she was in fact after 1941 a ‘legal’ operative, even though her British passport may have been acquired via deceptive, even illicit, means.]
Chapman Pincher, in his 2005 book Treachery, gives the most comprehensive account of Sonia’s deceptions and escapades at this time, but his interpretation is flawed because he is continually at pains to show that the MI5 officer Roger Hollis was Sonia’s prime informer, and successfully concealed the whole affair. In this respect, Pincher completely ignores the connivance of senior SIS officers (and surely that of their counterparts in MI5) at Sonia’s marriage and passport applications, whereas the archive very strongly suggests that lower-level officers in MI5 were frustrated, in their attempts to keep Sonia out, by their superiors conspiring with SIS. On the other hand, Pincher claims access to letters written by Sonia, interviews with her relatives, and Russian archival material – none of which I have seen. I shall therefore have to quote him with extreme caution. In addition, I recently learned that Sonjas Rapport (her memoir), when published in English, apparently included clarifying comments not present in the original German, and I have had to wait for the arrival of the English publication to complete this research. # The Soviet archive (what little has been released) appears to have been doctored, so a scrupulous cross-checking of testimony is constantly required.
[# The English version has some significant additions, including a somewhat rueful, yet defensive, Afterword, and a section on Sonia’s dealings with Klaus Fuchs (who was left unmentioned in the German version). I have not undertaken a detailed comparison of the texts, but some changes are startling. For example, ‘Im Sommer 1939 kam Rolf noch einmal zu uns’ (‘In the summer of 1939 Rolf visited us again’) is now rendered, with a combination of vagueness and precision, as ‘In 1939, Rolf came to see us for the last time.’ I pointed out the original chronological error, which completely misrepresents her husband’s movements, in Chapter VI: no doubt the author realised that subsequently revealed information about Rolf’s return to China would challenge her version of events. I have also just read John Green’s sympathetic portrayal of the Kuczynski clan, A Political Family, published this summer, where he confidently states that Sonia did not see Ernst (real name Johannes Patra), the father of her second child, Janina, between 1935 and 1955. That account dramatically destroys the episode of the sentimental reunion between Sonia, Rolf and Ernst in the summer of 1939 that Sonia described in Sonjas Rapport, and on which I cast serious doubts in Chapter VII of this saga.]
The Passport Application
Contrary to Sonia’s later claims that Moscow Centre did not order her (in her words ‘suggest’) to move until late autumn of 1940, the plans for England were established soon after the war started. On March 11 of that year the British Consulate in Geneva transmitted the application by Sonia [Ursula Beurton, previously Hamburger, née Kuczynski] for a passport, based on her February 23 marriage to Beurton (who was known as ‘Fenton’ in the MI5 files), to the Passport Office in London. Sonia’s references were given as Dr. Churchill, D. M. Macrae-Taylor and Mr. Blelloch. The last individual is mentioned in Sonia’s autobiography, holding an elevated position in that leftist establishment the International Labour Organisation (ILO), which was based in Geneva. Her father, Robert, had conveniently worked for the ILO after leaving Germany in 1933, before taking up a post at the London School of Economics. Sonia had written to her parents thanking them for giving her an introduction to Blelloch and his wife, who was the daughter of a left-wing journalist Robert Dell, at the Manchester Guardian. Ten days after Geneva submitted the application, J. M. Stafford of the Passport Office in London wrote to Captain Mars of MI5, asking for records of Sonia. After another week, Captain Mars replied that MI5 had no records of ‘Ursula Beurton’ and only a possible trace of her ex-husband ‘with a communistic smell’. It appears that this was enough to satisfy Mr. Stafford. Captain Mars was clearly no sleuthhound.
Yet even details like these are disturbing. The submission by H.B. Livingston, His Majesty’s Consul in Geneva, indicates that Sonia knew no British subject in Switzerland who could vouch for her, so she ‘obtained the signature of Mademoiselle Ginsberg, Assistant Librarian at the League of Nations, who is well known for her communist sympathies’. This would appear to be ‘Marie’, credited in Sonia’s memoir with supplying her with a Honduran passport, and Len with a Bolivian one. The National Archives at Kew (KV 6/45) tell us that Ginsberg had been recruited by Israeli Intelligence in 1938. Alexander Foote later suggested that this transaction occurred as an insurance policy should Sonia’s strategy of marrying Len not work out successfully. Sonia herself provided the references of Dr. Stella Churchill (psychotherapist, Labour councillor, and supporter of the Spanish Republic), Duncan Macrae-Taylor (the husband of her sister, Barbara) and Blelloch, all resident in England. Yet Livingston’s letter accompanying her application stated that Sonia was ‘not a British subject’, as if the marriage did not automatically give her that status, declaring: “There is reason to suspect that the main purpose of the marriage was to confer British nationality on the applicant to enable her to enter the U.K., the local Swiss authorities having refused to extend her residence permit”. Livingston goes on to confirm the divorce from Rudolf Hamburger that occurred the previous October. “A certified copy of the decree of divorce has been produced to me”. (The marriage certificate issued by the Canton of Vaud states that the divorce was not effective until December 28, 1939.) Yet Sonia must have misrepresented the parenthood of the second of her two children, whom she wanted entered in her passport, if it were indeed to be authorised, as Livingston goes on to write that she ‘had two children by the former marriage’. He also seemed to be unaware of the perjury performed by Alexander Foote that facilitated the award of the divorce.
Sonia did indeed suggest in her 1977 memoir that in early March 1940 she had given the impression to the English consulate in Geneva that the underlying motive for her marriage had been to gain a UK passport, and reported that that official was not overjoyed to hear that news. Yet this startling revelation is softened by a subtle change in the 1991 English translation. The original “Das englische Konsulat in Genf empfing mich unfreundlich, als ich auf Grund der Eheunterlagen einen englischen Paß beantragte” (‘The British consul in Geneva received me coldly when I applied for an English passport by virtue of my marriage documents’) is now presented as ‘Armed with our marriage certificate, I visited the British Consul in Geneva to apply for a passport; his response was distinctly cool.’ The latter formulation suggests the disdain was wholly incidental, removing any suggestion of the coolness being provoked by Sonia’s method of approach, or the evidence behind her application. Did her bosses perhaps later suggest that this was a provocative statement that needed to be toned down? Apparently the consulate was not fooled, as Livingston’s memorandum makes very clear.
Why did she volunteer that information? And why did it not constitute an objection to the approval of her application? Were the SIS officers managing the strings beneficially for her? Did her brazen behavior indicate that she even knew that? We should recall that the Geneva consulate was one of the last solid bastions of SIS as the Nazis extended their tentacles across Europe. The authorised historian of SIS, Keith Jeffery, explained that Claude Dansey, the head of SIS’s even more clandestine Z organisation, moved to Switzerland at the outbreak of war to supplement SIS’s Passport Control Officer, assistant and wireless operator, in the hope of more effectively trying to penetrate Germany (which, it must be remembered, is what Foote and Beurton had been doing under Sonia’s guidance). Dansey in fact made his first base in Zürich, with his cover as consul, but was recalled after Menzies became Chief of SIS in November 1939. Read and Fisher add that Dansey’s goal had been to absorb the main body of Z into the SIS as its Swiss section, yet he maintained control himself of some individual agents.
Unfortunately Dansey’s second-in-command (named by Read and Fisher as one Rex Pearson) had a drinking problem, and was replaced by Frederick Vanden Heuvel in February 1940. Vanden Heuvel was promoted to consul in May, and soon after moved to Geneva. Thus there was some discontinuity in the execution of consular duties in Geneva at the time of Sonia’s passport application. Jeffery’s history also claims that the Swiss operation was hampered in its communications, with the Swiss authorities reportedly banning the use of embassy radio for sending enciphered messages. Up until the fall of France in June 1940, the diplomatic bag was used via Paris, so Sonia’s application presumably went by that route. En clair cables were used for brief and non-confidential matters, but how the two Passport Offices communicated thereafter is not clear. For a while diplomats were able to make the laborious journey with their bags through Vichy France and Spain to Portugal, and then by plane to London, but even that avenue soon disappeared.
It was two months later that Milicent Bagot became involved with Sonia’s application. Though not an officer, Bagot was a very significant figure in MI5. Christopher Andrew describes her thus: “[Jane] Sissmore’s successor as the Security Service’s most influential woman in the 1940s and 1950s was to be the redoubtable Milicent Bagot, a classics graduate from Lady Margaret Hall, Oxford, who joined the Service from Scotland Yard as a twenty-year-old secretary in 1931 at the same time as [Hugh] Miller and [Guy] Liddell, and is believed to be the model for John le Carré’s character Connie.” (Defence of the Realm, p 131) Andrew goes on to describe Bagot’s ‘encyclopedic knowledge which impressed even J. Edgar Hoover’. Bagot pointed out to an officer named Cazalet that MI5 certainly did have records of Ursula Kuczynski, as well as of her father, and shrewdly reminded her superiors that the marriage was probably one of convenience. A memo on file records an anonymous but strong opinion that Sonia should not be granted a passport. Some officer must have thought that there were enough subversive Kuczynskis in the country already. Thus, on May 25, Cazalet recommended to Stafford that Sonia should not be given a passport, but if it could not be refused, it should be for limited validity, and should not be usable for travel. He added that her husband, Beurton, was on the C.S.W. (Central Security War) Black List, and was believed to be in Germany. Sonia was in fact the subject of Individual Case No. 186 in the Black List, and thus subject to special surveillance.
At least MI5 was tracking the movements of suspect persons with communist affiliations, but maybe Cazalet should have shown more interest in the fact that the elusive Beurton was now in Switzerland, probably alongside Alexander Foote, who, with exactly the same profile as a communist sympathiser and International Brigade member, had been responsible for bringing Beurton to Switzerland and Germany. (Why was Foote not on the same Black List?) Would that information not normally have provoked a surge of activity in an alert and well-led counter-espionage organisation? Did MI5 and SIS not cooperate? And what was SIS thinking? If a member of the International Brigades, a known communist, had turned up on its doorstep, and expressed a desire to make a pro forma marriage to another known subversive, might they perhaps have investigated a bit more, and even tried to determine what Beurton’s partner-in-crime, Alexander Foote, was up to in Switzerland?
Perhaps MI5 officers were instructed to hold off. Because, by then, events had taken their own course. On May 28, Stafford (of the Passport Office in London) replied that it was now too late to decline the application: the Passport Office had authorised issue on April 24. It shows either an extraordinary degree of negligence, or a remarkably high level of collusion. How could senior MI5 officers have ignored the recent happenings regarding Sonia’s family? On January 20, her brother Jürgen had been interned for his subversive opinions and behaviour, after publicly supporting the Nazi-Soviet pact. This immediately prompted the communist lawyer and MP, Dennis Pritt, alongside the fellow-travellers Dean Hewlett Johnson, John Strachey, and Harold Laski, to appeal for Jürgen’s release. MI5 and SIS were frustrated: the Home Office was persuaded by the Soviet sympathisers that Kuczynski was ‘an intellectual, and not an OGPU agent’, and hence issued instructions for his release on April 17, on the basis, presumably, that OGPU agents could only be uneducated thugs. That event happened on April 25 (the day after Sonia’s passport was approved), accompanied by the insight that membership of the Communist Party of Germany (KPD) was not sufficient cause for continued detention. The record in the National Archives indicating that MI5 was overruled is dated May 8. Did MI5 receive some political message at this time that they should be indulgent towards Sonia as well? She presumably knew nothing of the protests that had gone on back in London. Her only comment was: “Ten weeks later, on 2nd May, 1940, I held the precious document in my hands, much envied by other German refugees.” Indeed. They must have been puzzled how she achieved it so easily, even if she showed no surprise.
So Sonia received the all-clear. Yet it was some time during that summer, as she made plans for her departure, that Sonia had problems with her nanny, Olga Muth, which affected her situation in Switzerland. Sonia does not provide exact dates, but the events are broadly confirmed by Alexander Foote’s testimony under interrogation. Sonia described Olga as devastated by the fact that, since she had only a German passport, she would not be able to accompany Sonia and her children to England. “She could not live without Nina”, Sonia wrote. At this time, however, it is not clear that Sonia was planning to take her children with her, although she may not at that time have understood the exact status of her offspring concerning legal residence in the UK. “She [Olga] had decided to betray us in the hope that if something happened to me she could keep the child and take her back to Germany”, Sonia explained. What transpired was that Olga did approach the consular representative in Montreux to inform them of Sonia’s misdeeds, but her broken English was so bad that no one paid any attention to her. Sonia moved her kids away, and confronted Olga, who had a breakdown, but soon after moved to Germany.
With Muth safely out of the way, Sonia then confused her story again, as she claimed that ‘in the late autumn of 1940 Centre suggested that Len and I move to England’, blandly contradicting her account that she had already been planning to leave the children in their new lodgings in Geneva while she was abroad. Even though Sonia had asked, back in March, for her children to be entered on her passport, she may not have considered taking them with her at this stage. Len’s later testimony to the Passport Office in Geneva asserted that he was to accompany her to England, leaving the children behind, and then return to Switzerland to continue his medical treatment for tuberculosis. Of course, he was not tubercular, and not receiving medical treatment, and this attempt to conceal his past would catch up with Len later. But when he was prevented from travelling because he could not acquire a transit visa through Spain, on account of his membership of the International Brigades, it would presumably have cast suspicion on Sonia’s motivations and heartless behavior if she had left her offspring behind. She thus prepared her departure through Vichy France, and then via Spain to Portugal’s Lisbon where she hoped to reach England by plane or ship.
Foote confirmed, in an interview by MI5 in July 1947, Olga Muth’s attempted betrayal. Yet in his memoir he ascribes it to different motives – the fact that Olga [disguised as ’Lisa Brockel’] was disgusted with Sonia’s marriage to Len [‘Bill’], out of her respect and affection for Sonia’s husband, Rolf [‘Alfred’]. “She thereupon rang up the British consulate and denounced Sonia and Bill as Soviet spies and told them where the transmitter was hidden.” Whether this account is a fabrication devised by Foote’s ghost-writer, Courtenay Young, cannot be verified, but we can read enough consistency in the stories to trust that Olga did indeed try to alert the consulate, but, for whatever reason, the British authorities did not want to know. Yet Foote added, in his interrogation, that Moscow Centre was told of the betrayal, and regarded it as ‘compromising’, and, further, that it provoked their order for Sonia and Len move to England. Why, if Sonia was ‘compromised’ in the eyes of the SIS outpost in Switzerland, it made sense for her to move to the United Kingdom is not explained, apart from the fact that the latter was the only country for which she owned a valid travel-pass. That had, of course, been the plan for a long time: maybe the date of departure was simply brought forward. And perhaps the timing was provoked by other external circumstances, such as the announced release of Klaus Fuchs from internment.
The alternative (Soviet) suggestion would be that Sonia would have been compromised in the eyes of the Swiss authorities, if, horror of horrors, they had discovered that Sonia was involved in espionage, and using an illegal wireless transmitter. But that does not make sense. Sonia had to leave the country, anyway, as her visa had expired, and the Swiss authorities knew exactly what was happening. Even though Sonia included an ambiguous story about a German national, Hermann, who was discovered with a transmitter, it is not clear that she was in any real danger because of her own radio work. If the Swiss authorities had been informed, and wanted to move on her, they would presumably have done so immediately. Switzerland’s security service was turning a blind eye to such subversive behavior so long as it was directed against the Nazis, and not towards the Swiss government, and the Swiss authorities were in fact colluding with foreign intelligence organisations.
Thus, with one more bound, Sonia was free. She never explained how she arranged to take her children (Micha and Janina) with her, moving in her narrative quickly to a scene of leaving Len at the roadside as the three of them boarded the bus on December 18. (Janina, her daughter by her lover in Shanghai, Ernst, was only four-and-a-half at the time.) Yet a hitch had apparently occurred. As indicated earlier, in March, 1940, Sonia had requested that her children’s names be added to the passport, and this indeed happened, as a letter from the Geneva consulate indicates. Yet someone must have warned her that, since her children were identified as German nationals, there might be a problem allowing them to land in the United Kingdom. On November 29, 1940, Stafford indicated that he had received a request from the consul in Geneva that Sonia’s children would indeed be allowed to land. The bureaucracy must have moved with amazing speed. On December 10, Cazalet of MI5 stated that the department had no objection (although he misunderstood the problem, believing that the children were not already included on the passport). Communications took place via open cables. Perhaps Sonia and Len must have come to a late conclusion, when Len learned that the Spanish government would not allow him entry, that the children would be safer (and happier) with Sonia, that their presence was essential to her cover, and that Moscow must have approved such a decision (which, after all, could have hindered Sonia’s effectiveness). Instead of rebuffing this somewhat impertinent and hasty request, the consulate appears to have done all in its power to accelerate the approval of ensuring that the completion of the journey would be successful.
At this critical point of Sonia’s departure, it is useful to take stock of the positions of the various authorities. MI5, monitoring known communists and members of the International Brigades, has shown some interest in Len Beurton, but surprisingly none in his colleague and mentor, Alexander Foote. While lower-level employees express surprise that the known subversive Ursula Beurton would have her passport application approved after an obvious sham marriage, senior officers are bewilderingly silent. SIS, in its Swiss outpost, suffers from a similar split personality. Sonia’s representations are treated with justified suspicion at lower levels, but senior officers seem keen to allow Sonia to leave the country. Vanden Heuvel must have known what was going on, in order to be able to handle Sonia appropriately, and as a contact to receive intelligence from Foote. He must have been aware of Foote’s perjurious role in Sonia’s divorce proceedings, and of Beurton’s presence on the Black List. His staff was perhaps subtly instructed to abet Sonia’s journey in order that Foote might assume a more prominent role in the Comintern spy network. They are obviously relaxed about the prospect of a known Communist radio-operator taking up residence in the UK at a time when the Soviet Union was still aiding the German war effort, maybe believing that she would be frightened into inactivity, or that her affairs would be easily monitorable.
On the other hand, SIS in Britain might have developed plans for using Sonia when she came to Britain. They could have quietly welcomed her arrival, planning to encourage her into indiscretions, so that she might lead them to other cells, or allow the authorities to intercept her traffic, and thus gain further insights into Soviet ciphers to complement what they learned from Foote. Maybe SIS calculated that letting Sonia go was a cover for their playing ignorance about Foote’s role: it is highly unlikely that they trusted her enough to allow Foote to negotiate a deal with her, as she would have had to pass on such information to her bosses. But that could certainly have been Dansey’s thinking. The benefit of having Foote installed as a more influential though phony Communist in a Comintern spy-ring far outweighed the risk of having Sonia prowling around in England looking for secrets to betray. And if she did engage in espionage, the authorities would be surveilling everything she did. Moreover, if MI5 had hauled her in and broken her down, she might have expressed her suspicions about Foote’s bona fides, which would have put the British authorities in a highly awkward position.
Moscow Centre appears unconcerned with what SIS knows about Sonia, and is determined to carry out its plan to install her as a spy, ruthlessly exploiting her new British citizenship in order that she may betray her adopted country. They surely cannot be aware of any duplicitous activity on Foote’s part, as they would thereby have had any suspicions immediately confirmed about his loyalties – something he managed to stave off even when he reached Moscow in 1945. Yet the insouciance of Soviet Intelligence about the whole affair, and the way it ignored what must have appeared as rank stupidity on SIS’s part, is extremely difficult to explain. How did the officers rationalise the craven indulgence of the British authorities, unless they simply judged that they were clueless, or fatally infected with bourgeois sentimentalism? The casualness of Soviet Intelligence would appear to make sense only if it was supremely confident about the ability of its penetration agents to pull strings in MI5, SIS and other government departments, and thus ignore signs of Soviet espionage, or, at the other extreme, if it harboured a very low respect for Sonia’s skills and chances of survival, and her ability to avoid detection. We know the little respect they maintained overall for the fate of their agents, since many exposed to western influences were simply recalled and shot, but that does not make sense in Sonia’s case. They trusted her implicitly. The ease with which the whole process transpired, however, could have affected how Sonia was instructed to act when installed, and she came to understand that she would have to be very careful with her contacts and with her radio transmissions.
Interlude in Lisbon
We have to rely on Sonia’s account for details of the arduous journey across Europe. The fact that she wrote a letter to her parents from Lisbon describing the ordeal adds a degree of verisimilitude to the account. On December 23, 1940 the party arrived in Madrid, and by the next day reached Lisbon, the main exit point for refugees (and others) from Europe to the USA and Britain during the war. Lisbon was a city of desperate refugees: Ronald Weber describes the thousands, mostly Jews, who filled the city’s streets that winter, waiting for a chance to board one of the steamers sailing to the United States. The British unit MI9, responsible for setting up escape lines for stranded military men and agents, predominantly from France, was using the few airplane flights to England to repatriate its charges. Among this turmoil, Sonia admitted that all three of them were ill. Some time after Christmas, she had a meeting with the British consul, in order to gain approval for the voyage to England. She was told that she was about ‘the most insignificant person on the long list’. There were many destitute citizens without the means to survive, and those would take priority, since Sonia had access to funds (actually Moscow Centre’s Swiss bank account). Yet one obscure but revealing item in the archives indicates that the Portuguese issued her an exit visa as early as December 31. Sonia moved to Estoril, down the coast, and stayed – in relative comfort, to be sure – at the Grande Hotel.
One of the conundrums concerning her eventual arrival relates to the question of her destination in the United Kingdom. Her file at the National Archives (KV 6-41) includes a transcript of an intercepted letter that she wrote to her father on January 4, 1941, from the Grande Hotel, where the heading indicates that the letter was sent to 78 Woodstock Road, Oxford. The text expresses some desperation on Sonia’s part, because cables sent by her to her father had not been answered, and she does not know where to go upon her arrival in England. It shows Sonia’s request for the addresses of her father, of Brigitte (one of her sisters), and of the Taylors (her sister Barbara and her husband). She needs them, she says, because she does not know where they will land. Yet why would she ask for her parents’ address if she could send a letter to them? And why would she not just travel to her parents’ house from wherever she landed? And why would Barbara’s address be important in these circumstances? (Sonia naturally does not quote this letter in her memoir.) The report of the interrogation on arrival at Liverpool, however, records that Sonia’s immediately expressed intention was to visit her father at the address given above, and that she admits to having a sister, Mrs. D. B. Taylor, living in Red Ruth [sic]. The conflict between her frustration and ignorance in Lisbon and her comfort in Liverpool is partially explained by the existence of a photograph of the letter and envelope in the Taylors’ file at the National Archives (KV 2-2935-2). The letter was addressed to Dr. R. Kuczynski at 25a Upper Park Road in London, and forwarded to 78 Woodstock Road in Oxford. Sonia did thus not know about her exact destination while she was waiting for her passage in Portugal.
Milicent Bagot noted that Robert Kuczynski had moved to the Woodstock Road address on December 13, 1940, and was followed there by his son Jürgen, immediately after the latter’s release from a further spell of internment. She informed the Oxford Chief Constable of the fact in a letter dated January 26, 1941. Bagot unfortunately did not specify who lived at the house at the time: the Bodleian Record for 1941 indicates that a Mr. G. Churchill, a ‘friend of the Bodleian’, was resident there that year. It is possible that this gentleman was George Churchill (b. 1910), son of Sonia’s first referee, Dr. Stella Churchill. That hypothesis needs further investigation, but it would tie in with Sonia’s claim that the house was the domicile of friends of her parents. Chapman Pincher claims that Sonia had been ordered by her bosses to move to Oxford in October 1940, but I can find no evidence of this directive, and the letter from Lisbon would perhaps conspire against that theory. The location does, of course, support Pincher’s thesis that Sonia was sent to the United Kingdom to handle Roger Hollis, since the MI5 officer was now working at nearby Blenheim Palace, whither most of the Security Service had been evacuated in September 1940, but this seems coincidental. Pincher bizarrely ignores the Hotel Grande letter, which in its more familiar guise, would not help his argument. But he does point out that ‘somehow Sonia received that information [about her accommodations address], before or on her arrival in Liverpool’. The original of Sonia’s communication does point to the fact that the GRU (Soviet Military Intelligence) probably went to work on her behalf behind the scenes. But how did it get a message to her?
In what at first appears as one of those strange coincidences of war, the historian of philosophy and intelligence officer Isaiah Berlin stayed in Estoril while Sonia was there. He had been ordered by the British Ministry of Information to return to New York for work as a member of the British Library of Information, a propaganda unit, and had had strings pulled to get him a berth on a safer American ship, the Excambion. After arriving in Bournemouth on January 1 for the flight to Lisbon (according to his father, Mendel), he had apparently been stranded in Hampshire for a few days because of bad weather, but eventually set off, and was put up at the Palácio Hotel in Estoril (where SIS appeared to have a standing set of rooms reserved for its agents, and where Berlin had stayed the previous October). Berlin’s father, Mendel, recorded that Isaiah was held up in Bournemouth for eight or nine days, because of bad weather. Yet this must be a mistake, and Mendel’s arithmetic does not work. The Meteorological Office reports for Southern England at that time indicate it was cold and wet, but not so inclement as to inhibit flying. What is more, in another letter, Berlin writes that he spent two days at the Palácio before his voyage on January 10. And Mendel overlooks a strange visit to Oxford that Berlin apparently made just beforehand.
Berlin sent a letter on Dorchester Hotel notepaper to the Zionist leader Chaim Weizmann some time late in December. (He was assuredly not staying at the hotel: the Dorchester was where the Weizmanns kept their London residence, and Berlin was seeking them out.) He informed Weizmann that he was due to leave from Bournemouth on Friday January 3, but would be spending the Tuesday and Wednesday – namely the New Year holiday ̶ in Oxford. He also expressed the hope that he would see Weizmann in Lisbon if they were unable to meet before he left. Strangely, this is a theme that loses its urgency by the time Berlin reaches Lisbon, but the Oxford visit is left unexplained. Moreover, Mendel wrote that he and his wife accompanied Berlin to Bournemouth on January 1: this entry ‘in the family memoir’ either represents a very faulty memory, or else a clumsy attempt to conceal Berlin’s brief excursion to Oxford, and to minimise the time his son spent in Lisbon. Could Berlin have been visiting the Kuczynskis in Oxford, in order to pick up an urgent message? He lived only a mile from them in Hampstead, and it is highly likely they knew each other.
“The Palácio Hotel greeted me like a long lost friend and gave me a wonderful double bedroom in which I slept comfortably for 14 hours after an exceedingly rough flight”, Berlin wrote to his parents on hotel writing-paper from the ship. There is no documentary evidence that he was in Portugal to intervene on Sonia’s behalf, even though on the same day that this marxisant Section D officer in SIS, recently returned from an abortive trip to Moscow with the arch-spy Guy Burgess, left Lisbon for the USA (January 10), Sonia was informed by the consulate that she and her children would be taken to England by ship. Her passport was endorsed that day (‘Category “C”’), and she was soon informed by the British consul that her passage had been approved in principle. She and her children sailed soon afterwards (about the 17th). Did Berlin put in a good word at the consulate to accelerate her departure?
The circumstances of Berlin’s voyage are puzzling, from the muddled story of the delay onwards. Presumably staying at the Palácio was par for the course. The hotel’s website states: “The Hotel Palácio was the chosen home of numerous members of European royalty and was also the haunt of British and German spies, who could often be found in its bar.” Berlin hints at companion-travellers, but is coy about them, apart from an American financial journalist named Scriven, who flew with him from Bournemouth, also stayed at the Palácio, and with whom Berlin shared a cabin on the ship. Yet his introduction of Scriven is enigmatic, as Berlin’s first letter mentioning him, from on board the Excambion, merely suggests that they were sharing a cabin after meeting at the hotel. His next letter, however, from New York on January 28, refers to Scriven as his friend who accompanied him on the flight from Bournemouth. Was this explanation simply careless? Would Berlin’s parents not have encountered Scriven if he had been stranded with them all in Bournemouth for over a week, and thus not need an explanation by letter?
Edward Scriven was an American who had arrived in London in 1939 to open the London branch of Arthur C. Nielsen’s market research organisation. Berlin describes him as ‘head of a firm in England who supplies trade statistics to private firms and our Govt. departments’. Remarkably, that was very similar to the role that Sonia’s father, Robert Kuczynski, as a renowned economic statistician, was executing at that time, as demographic adviser to the Colonial Office. Were they acquainted? Scriven was apparently returning home since the war prevented him expanding the business in Europe, but why would he sharing a flight with Berlin, that was scheduled to leave nine days before the departure of the Excambion, on which ship he was allotted a berth with the Oxford don? This was not the time for weeklong holidays on the Portuguese coast. Maybe Berlin knew him already, and then acted as a courier, passing on information about where Sonia should stay in England, and addresses of contacts. If so, it would not have been the last time that Berlin acted as an intermediary to intelligence agents. It is unlikely he met Sonia in person, but he could have left a letter for her. Mendel Berlin’s testimony may have been crafted a little too precisely, with the purpose of laying an alibi (a not uncommon occurrence in Berlin’s life), since Berlin was loath to reveal anything concerning his intelligence-related engagements. Could Berlin have been working both for British and Soviet intelligence to facilitate Sonia’s voyage? The evidence is all circumstantial, but Pincher asked a very pertinent question, and I do not believe any more plausible method of communicating has been suggested.
Arrival in the UK
As for Sonia, after a voyage lasting three weeks, where the ship sailed in convoy with twelve others, trying to avoid the U-Boats, she and her offspring arrived on the SS Androceta in Liverpool on February 4. On her arrival, Security Control was ready for her. When questioned by the immigration authorities, she was very vague about her movements, and her testimony revealed some highly suspicious contradictions. She could not recall when she had first met her husband. (She clearly states ‘January or February 1939’ in her memoir.) She claimed that Len had gone to Switzerland for health reasons, suffering from tuberculosis, a fact that was patently not true. He had (she said) happily now recovered, but could not join her as he could not obtain a Spanish visa, since the Spanish authorities regarded him as a hostile character still of military age, even though he was medically unfit. She told Security Control that she had last arrived in Switzerland just before the war, but the Home Office report states that she said had been there only since February 1940, ‘where she married Beurton’ – which would have meant that she had not been present when her divorce was granted, and would have had to enjoy a whirlwind romance with her future husband (whom she married on February 23). (How could such widely different accounts emanate from the same interrogation?) She was able to provide her interrogator with the address of her sister (Barbara, Mrs D. B. Taylor) in Redruth, Cornwall, as well as the Oxford address, even though the intercepted letter indicated that she did not know where any of her relatives were living. Incidentally, Barbara and her husband were both reported to be members of the CPGB and thus under surveillance, even though John Green indicates that Barbara was the least politically active of the Kuczynski tribe: her spouse, Duncan, was astonishingly an intelligence officer in the RAF. Why did MI5 not pick up on these anomalies? If it had had shown the tenacity and attention to detail that such disclosures deserved, its officers might have been able to follow up with a more penetrating interrogation of her, but the spirit was missing. After all, had they not just approved and facilitated her entry to Britain?
And why Oxford? It might simply have been a convenient central meeting-point for the Kuczynski clan: the Taylors from Cornwall, Brigitte from Bristol, and her parents and brother from London. The children of her brother Jürgen and his wife Marguerite had been evacuated to Oxford, courtesy of their friend Celia Strachey (wife of John, who had helped engineer Jürgen’s release), so they knew the city. Perhaps they had to thrash out strategy. Jürgen was apparently not excited about her arrival. Alexander Foote told his interrogators that Jürgen feared that Sonia, as a spy, would draw attention to his own espionage and propagandist work in London, where he was openly communicating with the Soviet Embassy. Yet the secrecy itself was provocative. If Sonia were innocent, and had married a Briton, it might have been expected that her family would welcome her back warmly in London. The Kuczynski clan no doubt felt that having her close to them would be too dangerous, and draw the attention of MI5 and Special Branch, and thus chose Oxford as a rendezvous, but had trouble letting her know secretly, and in time. Hence Sonia’s urgent letter, which in fact betrays the fact that a secret destination was being planned. But choosing Oxfordshire as a place for a newly-arrived German-born woman to live in isolation must have raised suspicions. Sonia declares in her memoir that she went to Oxford because her parents were staying with friends there because of the air-raids in London, but she never explains how she learned about her destination, or the specific address.
As has been shown, Milicent Bagot had also been keeping a close eye on the movements of the Kuczynskis during January. Bagot, who, it must be remembered, had in May pointed out that Sonia’s marriage to Beurton was probably a sham, had also recommended, on November 23, that Jürgen Kuczynski should be re-interned. He was in fact released, after a hubbub in the Home Office, on January 22, in time to make the rendezvous. His file at Kew (KV 2/1872) shows that he was considered thus: ‘An extreme communist and fanatically pro-Stalin. One of Moscow’s most brilliant and dangerous propagandists. From various sources it is claimed that he is an illegal contact with the Soviet Secret Service.’ (April 9, 1941) A report from Huyton Camp, where he had been interned, dated January 29 (while Sonia was en voyage) reveals that an informer had said that Jürgen was a ‘GPU agent at large’. There was a continuous war between Bagot and the fellow-travellers such as the lawyer and M.P. Denis Pritt who had influence, and repeatedly came to his defence. Bagot did not receive the support she deserved, but the Kuczynskis clearly realised that they were all regarded with suspicion.
‘With difficulty’ (understandably), Sonia and her offspring managed to find a hotel in Liverpool (it was during a wartime blackout, of course), and, even more remarkably, succeeded in reaching Oxford by train the next day. What is extraordinary about this highly onerous journey, which surely must have been accomplished with some external support, is that MI5 was fully informed about all its aspects. Sonia was picked up by watchers as soon as she left Liverpool, and they informed the Chief Constable of Oxford on January 26, 1941, of Sonia’s father’s taking temporary lodgings in Oxford. Sonia claimed that, because of the air-raids, her parents had been living with friends in Oxford, but they had to return to London soon after as the room was needed by their friends’ relatives. By February 24, she has moved to 97 Kingston Road. That day, the Chief Constable of Oxford confirmed to MI5 that her sister Barbara Taylor was staying at that address with Sonia, who finessed the events of her reunion in her memoir. About Barbara, she wrote nothing. On February 25, a Mr Ryde (probably of Special Branch, in Reading) wrote to Shillito of MI5, enclosing his report on Sonia. Shillito is of the opinion that no further action was required, but that ‘an eye should be kept on her’. Yet another sister, Renate, wrote from 76 Woodstock Road on March 23 that she would be returning to London that week, and has ‘a lot to tell’ her brother Jürgen. Sonia moved again: on March 25 MI5 noted that she was now staying at the Rectory at Glympton, near Woodstock. There was much Kucyznski buzz in Oxford that February.
Work as a Spy
The next period of Sonia’s career is critical to the story. Yet it is difficult to describe accurately her actions in building an espionage network and using her wireless equipment to send illicit messages to her controllers. Her own memoir is bland, but known to be untrustworthy. The British archive gives ample evidence of the appeasement and indulgence of the authorities to Sonia’s activities, as well as to the effort of repatriating Len to join her, but understandably reveal nothing about her broadcasts. Some details ‘released’ from official Soviet archives look to be obvious fakes. The accounts of such as Peter Wright and Chapman Pincher are useful, but, frequently relying on unnamed ‘insider’ sources, are often embellished with details that fail the tests of chronology, psychology, procedure, or identity. Pincher includes multiple confidences from ‘impeccable’ British intelligence sources, unidentifiable transcripts supposedly provided by GCHQ, otherwise unrevealed documents from Soviet archives, and unreliable personal reminiscences from Sonia’s relatives. It is difficult not to conclude that much of the guidance offered by British intelligence officers is disinformation designed to encourage Pincher in his Hollis-hunt, and to distract him from more murky scenarios. Some of his suggestions are quite ridiculous (as, for example, the claim that RSS sent transcripts of Sonia’s broadcasts to Hollis and Philby for decryption), and he chooses to ignore the remarkable series of events by which the consulate in Switzerland provided a forged identity for Beurton so that he could rejoin his wife in England. One source is solider than all the others, however. The VENONA transcripts (partial decipherments of diplomatic cables between London and Moscow during the 1940s) give one rare glimpse into Sonia’s interaction with officials at the Soviet Embassy, and her practice of wireless telegraphy.
The earliest indication of Sonia’s activity appears to be given by an entry in the files of the Soviet Department of Defence, if the transcripts of these documents, which have authoritative-looking identifiers, can be relied upon. (They have been provided to me by a source who prefers to remain anonymous: I suspect they derive from the possessions of a CIA agent, who acquired them by undisclosed means.) It records that ‘soon after Sonia arrived in Britain and established radio communications with Moscow Centre, Ivan Proskurov, then head of Military Intelligence, responded with a message of encouragement’, and two days later (the entries are sadly not dated) sent her detailed instructions. “The assignments on information remain the same. Pay special attention to obtaining information concerning Germany, its army and military economy.” The first message signed off with ‘Warm regards to you and your kids. Regards from Frank [the codename for her ex-husband, Rolf Hamburger].’
I see several reasons for questioning the authenticity of (many of) these documents. First of all, the language here is avuncular and unbusiness-like, very much out of character for normal communications between Moscow and its agents. Rudolf was at that time under detention by the Chinese, causing the Soviets to request his release in June, so was hardly in a position to send his ex-wife his regards. The documents are undated, but the ‘soon after’ (and I am not sure who made that clarification), suggests to me ‘weeks’ rather than ‘months’. Sonia arrived in early February 1941, but did not construct her transmitter, and make contact with the Soviet Union, until late May – or possibly even later. It is not totally bizarre to imagine that, even during the time of the Nazi-Soviet pact, Moscow might be seeking dramatic new intelligence on Germany’s army and military economy, but it is absurd to suppose that Sonia, as a new arrival in Britain, would be in a position, from the Oxfordshire countryside, to identify, cultivate, and recruit agents with fresh knowledge in that domain. Moscow already had her brother, abetted by his father, openly giving information to the Soviet Embassy. I have to conclude the documents are fakes, disinformation designed to show, retrospectively, the honourableness of Soviet espionage aims at the time.
According to her own autobiography, Sonia travelled every two weeks to London to see her family, and to make her rendezvous with her Soviet contact, as pre-arranged in Switzerland. Her chronology is flawed. She made several abortive attempts (‘I do not recall how often I travelled to London’), which suggests a passage of several months, before her contact showed up. During this time she learned (from her brother?) that Rolf had been arrested. Next (‘at last’, but in fact as early as April, so she could not have accomplished many visits to London), she found a furnished bungalow to live in, in Kidlington, and in May made contact with her Soviet Embassy contact, Sergey, one we now know as Nikolai Aptekar, in London. She explained that she had all the parts of her radio ready, and could begin transmission ‘within 24 hours’. She noted that a few days passed since Hitler’s invasion of the Soviet Union (June 22), before she received any response to her call-sign, but that may have been a symbolically significant item of disinformation. She then stated that she started transmitting messages twice a week by radio, travelling every fortnight or so to visit her father or her brother in London, who supplied her with valuable information to send to Moscow. She stated that she was introduced by her brother to Hans Kahle, Klaus Fuchs’s associate in Canada, now working as a military correspondent for Time and Fortune magazines. Moscow Central agreed (so she averred) to her suggestion that she meet him regularly as well, as he has access to strategic information. She tells us that she reported such information on her radio to Moscow, ‘who frequently asked follow-up questions’. Thus the requirements of the earlier spravka were being fulfilled.
Sonia as Broadcaster
All thus suggests a high level of radio transmission activity in the summer of 1941, which one might have expected Britain’s Radio Security Services to have picked up – before Sonia’s transmission techniques significantly changed. There is little verifiable confirmation of her activity at this time, but we are fortunate to have the VENONA transcript of a single cable sent by the London residency to Moscow on July 31, 1941, by BRION (probably Boris Schwertzov, Assistant Military Attaché), describing a meeting that Sonia held the previous day with an intermediary codenamed IRIS. [For more information on the VENONA program, see https://www.nsa.gov/news-features/declassified-documents/venona/ .] IRIS, indeed a woman, has not been identified, but she appears in an earlier 1940 cable after performing espionage in Liverpool. This 1941 cable reports Sonia’s list of expenditures on radio parts, as well as the information that she had tried on four consecutive nights (July 26 to 29) to make contact with Moscow without receiving a reply. The timing of the claim for expenses would seem to undermine the validity of Proskurov’s communications given above.
A hint that Moscow might have been concerned about the quantity and detectability of illicit transmissions taking place is given by Sonia when she explains that at some stage she was given a miniaturised transmitter. She does not provide a date (and her story is not strictly sequential), but it probably was some time later, as she states that ‘after I had succeeded in making some military contacts’, she had a meeting with Sergey – who may have been a completely different person from the earlier ‘Sergey’ ̶ when she was given a small parcel measuring about six by eight inches, in which was lodged a small transmitter that she was able to conceal. Sonia then rather illogically comments that, while she transmitted from England ‘for five or six years’, amateur radio activities were strictly forbidden. So what was the relevance of a less obvious transmitter if she still had to encode messages and send them over the airwaves?
The failure of the British authorities to track Sonia’s transmissions has caused a lot of anguished debate. When Peter Wright, the author of Spycatcher, was investigating the case that Roger Hollis might have been a Soviet mole (under Sonia’s control), he doggedly tried to track down further transcripts of interactions between Moscow and London. He claimed to have found a trove of materials that originated in Sweden, known as HASP, derived from partially successful attempts by the Försvaerts Radioanstalt (FRA) to decipher the Soviet Embassy’s traffic between Stockholm and Moscow in the period December 1940 to April 1946. Nigel West reports that 390 such messages were passed by the FRA to GCHQ in 1959. Wright went on to say “But there was one series of messages which was invaluable. The messages were sent from the GRU resident Simon Kremer to Moscow Centre, and described his meetings with the GRU spy runner Sonia, alias Ruth Kuczynski.”
The reason this was important was that Wright had been fed the story by his bosses that Sonia did not become active for Soviet Intelligence until Fuchs returned from the USA in 1944! “In particular GCHQ denied vehemently that Sonia could ever have been broadcasting her only radio messages from her home near Oxford during the period between 1941 and 1943”, continued Wright. Yet Wright, even though he claimed that ‘Kremer’s messages utterly destroyed the established beliefs’, does not divulge what was in these messages. I can find no reference to Sonia in the transcripts available at https://www.wilsoncenter.org/sites/default/files/Venona-Stockholm-KGB.pdf: Nigel West has recently confirmed to me that no further Sonia-related material exists in VENONA beyond the cable listed above. There is no reason why Sonia should appear in Stockholm-based cables, or why Kremer’s messages should have been routed there. Moreover, Wright implied that GCHQ was responsible for radio interception at the time. It was not. That function belonged to RSS (the Radio Security Service), which was incorporated into SIS in 1941, and was not handed over to GCHQ until after the war. GCHQ was intently focused on decryption of German messages, and would not have known about any internal illegal transmissions unless RSS had brought them to its attention, since the security services agreed that all Nazi agents who had entered the country with radio equipment had been rounded up, and either executed, or ‘turned’ in the Double-Cross operation.
Chapman Pincher got the story even more wildly wrong, although he rightly pointed out that the team of Voluntary Interceptors (who listened out for possibly illicit broadcasts) sent their transcriptions to RSS for analysis. But Pincher claimed (in Too Secret Too Long, 1984) that a former senior officer in RSS, later identified, in Treachery, 2009, as James Johnston, had told him that undeciphered messages from Sonia, that must have been trapped by the interceptors, were sent to Roger Hollis, responsible for Soviet counter-espionage in MI5, and after 1944, also to Kim Philby in SIS, for analysis and further instructions. As if Hollis or Philby would have known where to start with enciphered messages that probably used one-time pads, which would have confounded even the experts in GCHQ! Pincher then goes on to claim that Hollis and Philby were thus able to hush up the whole series of events, convincing their colleagues in MI5 and SIS of the irrelevance of such findings.
In his later book, Pincher says more about the HASP archives (taking his feeds from Wright). In true Hinsleyesque style, he also offers the tantalising denial of a story that must have irked him: “A claim that British intelligence was ingeniously using her [Sonia’s] transmissions to feed disinformation to Moscow is equally without foundation.” Whose claim that was, and why he could so confidently reject it, is not explained, but one cannot help concluding that there was at least one party who was trying to air an inconvenient truth, even though I have been unable to detect any published claim that Sonia was being manipulated by SIS while in Britain. Yet, by his curt dismissal of such an assertion, Pincher weakened rather than strengthened his story, and drew attention to a plausible hypothesis. So there appears to have been another faction who thought that, by feeding Pincher those unlikely stories about the power of Hollis, it could safely distract attention from any investigation into the theory that Sonia’s role and activities were known to SIS, and may have been connived at for reasons of counter-espionage.
By then Anthony Glees had come to Hollis’s defence in The Secrets of the Service (1987), and reminded readers of the unlikelihood of Sonia’s being able to transmit so many messages undetected during the war. “Someone sending wireless traffic from an illegal source would have been picked up before they cleared their throats”, he wrote, thus suggesting either a) that Sonia’s claims about her multitude of transmissions were false, or b) if they were true, that there was a cover-up that must have gone beyond Hollis, since Glees dismissed the notion that the detection-finding mechanisms and processes were so poor that Sonia’s transmissions could not have been picked up. Glees, using his knowledge about how MI5 and GCHQ worked, very logically demolished Pincher’s case, declaring that i) it was not Hollis’ job to attempt to decipher messages; ii) if he had been her accomplice, Hollis would have warned Sonia not to transmit at all, rather than conceal her messages later; iii) it was highly unlikely that Sonia was in contact with any MI5 employee if she continued to broadcast; and iv) especially after June 22, 1941, when the heat turned off monitoring the Soviet Embassy, Sonia could have contrived to get her messages to the Soviet Embassy to be transmitted onward. “If Hollis were guilty of being Sonia’s contact”, Glees wrote, “it would be the absence of a wireless, rather than its presence, which would be suspicious.”
The debate was then picked up by W. J. West, in his 1989 book The Truth About Hollis (also published as Spymaster: The Betrayal of MI5). West brought a new perspective to the issue. He responded that Glees (and those who advised him) could be wrong, first, because the attention and focus of the volunteer interceptors were directed at German traffic, and second, because of the technology used. The interceptors had no recording equipment, writing everything down by hand. “The Soviets”, West added, ‘”were able to defeat any attempts at monitoring by the simple process of transmitting morse with a tape machine run at a speed which prevented its being taken down manually.” While this observation slightly misrepresents the role of the Voluntary Interceptors (who were given frequencies to track), the revelation shone a markedly new light on the process of interception, indicating how advanced techniques might have been able to avoid traditional goniometric methods. No doubt this technology was part of the miniaturised package that Sonia had been given.
Moreover, MI5 had by then recognized the problem of high-speed morse. Guy Liddell reported in December 1942, after Oliver Green’s communist ring in Birmingham had been uncovered, that Green, another International Brigades veteran recruited by the Comintern, had admitted that his team used, early in 1942, that same technique to communicate with Moscow. Liddell noted, on December 7, 1942 that Green had ‘refused to give their [the agents’] names or the location of their stations’ (KV 4/191). Moreover, a telling memorandum exists in the Green files, from Hale to Shillito, that hints at a deeper strategy: “His [Green’s] prosecution would on the other hand inevitably disturb the ground on which your present enquiries, designed to round up all these miscreants, are proceeding and this I would take to be the decisive consideration” (KV 2/2203). This communication represents proof that a project of surveilling suspected communist subversives was under way, and that a premature prosecution would frighten off other spies. Shillito’s inaction later suggests that some political constraints held him back.
On December 8, at a regular meeting with SIS, Liddell declared that the new technology would pose a problem for the Radio Security Service, and he then also referred to the fact that ‘we’ had experienced with some regularity the transmissions of a Russian station, identifiable by its call sign. The astonishing fact about this revelation, however, is that it appears not in Liddell’s Diaries that describe the same meeting, but in the Oliver Green files! It is as if Liddell was censoring himself because of the sensitivity of the admission – a definite case of the dog not barking in the night-time. Thus, instead of Liddell’s implicit suggestion that the new techniques might have posed a problem because it would have been RSS’s first encounter with illicit Soviet signals that happened to use high-speed morse, the Green papers prove that customary detection and direction-finding, that had been at least partially successful, would then have been impeded because of the new burst-mode transmissions. The files thus show evidence of investigations into clandestine radio transmissions by suspected Soviet spies, and it could well have been Sonia’s exchanges that were detected. So why did Liddell mask the full account of Green’s ring using detectible techniques in 1941? I shall return to this vital question in the next episode.
As for the new techniques, another file on Green at the National Archives (KV 2/2204) describes in detail the established technology of the ‘punch perforator’ in which messages were converted, and the dimensions of a transmitter that exactly match how Sonia described her set. It also refers to the use of battery-driven power that would hinder detection-finding techniques that relied on mains power being selectively withdrawn. One sentence reads: “The use of batteries instead of power from the mains for the transmitter is quite sound as the method of detection by cutting off power street by street had been used in many countries and has been suggested, but not I think actually used, in this country.” Readers who have seen accounts of Gestapo techniques in Belgium, France and Germany will be familiar with this approach. Green was, however, not tracked down by interception of radio messages (or so we are told), but by a chance discovery of incriminating material, and the claims he made about the transmissions made by his cell members do not appear to have been confirmed. We simply do not know for certain whether previous messages sent by Green’s ring had been monitored, or whether what had been picked up earlier was from other agents.
One can see how this off-line process would work. A manual key of some kind would still have been required to translate the enciphered text into morse code. But that process would have been undetectable. An off-line procedure like this would have allowed a tape to be transferred to the miniature transmitter, and the messages to be sent in burst mode. * T. J. West reminds us that the Soviet spies, the Krogers, were able to send their messages in the 1960s in a similar fashion, and remain undetected. Yet even if this technique had been used successfully, it does not answer all the questions. I have shown how Sonia was not able to deploy the technology until, at the earliest, late 1941, and she had been broadcasting regularly before then. Why were her earlier messages not picked up? Even if Sonia overstated her activity during that summer of 1941, we have it on excellent authority from the VENONA cable that she was busy on four successive nights trying to make contact with Moscow, and that her efforts were either not detected, or, if they were detected, were ignored. Was Sonia really just a disposable agent to Moscow Centre? Did they not care? Or did they guess what was going on, play Sonia along, offering ‘chickenfeed’ to the British authorities until they had a securer system in place? After all, the ability of the Swiss to detect illicit radios was known before Sonia left that country, and the Nazis started detecting the Soviet Rote Kapelle transmissions in June 1941: did the Soviets not think the British had similar technology and techniques at hand?
[* West refers to a photograph in a 1937 book by Peter Smolka (later Smollett), a Communist spy who infiltrated the Ministry of Information in WWII, titled Forty Thousand Against the Arctic, which shows the equipment in question. I reproduce it here.
A radio operator in the Soviet polar base of Dickson at the mouth of the Yenisei River (see https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dikson_Island), showing her playing telegraph chess. The spools are presumably the containers for the perforated tape. I am not sure whether the lady in the second photograph is admiring such a container.]
Fuchs, and Beurton’s Return
Sonia’s major claim to notoriety was based on her role as a courier to the atom spy, Klaus Fuchs. As with many of the events in her life, she represents the chronology wrongly in her book, where (in the English version only) she describes her first meeting with Fuchs as taking place towards the end of 1942. As I have pointed out in my doctoral thesis (to appear in book form later this year), it was in the interests of the British authorities, Soviet Intelligence, as well as Fuchs himself, to give the impression that Fuchs committed to espionage much later ̶ namely well after Nazi Germany’s invasion of Russia ̶ than he actually did, as the timing encouraged those involved to give his treachery a semblance of moral rectitude. Conscience-driven scientists believed it was their responsibility to share all the atomic secrets with their gallant ally, as it did not appear that the US and GB governments wanted to do so, or the scientists did not trust the authorities to deliver comprehensively. Yet the evidence shows that Moscow’s planning to exploit Fuchs’s sympathies and skills had evolved much earlier, and that Sonia’s mission to Britain may even have been conceived with the goal of installing her as Fuchs’s courier.
The Soviet attaché, Kremer, was already familiar with Fuchs when they met in Birmingham in August 1941, and Fuchs’s latest biographer, Mike Rossiter, notes that Fuchs met the Kuczynski family in Hampstead in early April 1941. Fuchs had been interned with the Kuczynskis’ friend, Hans Kahle in Canada, and while it cannot be determined exactly who initiated the move, in August Fuchs was effectively recruited by Sonia’s brother, Jürgen, and introduced to Sonia soon after. (Rossiter, reliant on his some of his conclusions on unverifiable Soviet archives, oddly suggests that Sonia did not take over the handling of Fuchs until after Kremer was recalled to Moscow in July 1942.) Fuchs’s first reports were received in Moscow in September, and Sonia started a productive arrangement with him that would continue until he was transferred to the USA in October 1943. Much of the material was too bulky to be transmitted by radio, so Sonia would also use drop areas to pass on what Fuchs gave her to contacts from the Soviet Embassy. Sonia also ‘recruited’ the valuable and prodigious spy Melita Norwood, who worked at the British Non-Ferrous Metals Research Association, which covered the ‘Tube Alloys’ project, as well as other minor figures in British services.
Meanwhile, what of Len Beurton? Sonia is typically misleading in her memoir, ascribing Len’s continued absence in Switzerland to Rado’s desire to keep him there as a radio operator, despite Moscow’s ‘order’ that he should resettle in England. (It is interesting that Sonia should at this stage indicate that Len had received the same ‘order’ [‘Betrag’] as she had, when earlier she had characterized her instructions to move to England as a ‘recommendation’ [‘Vorschlag’].) She even indicates that she was the boss: when Len asked Moscow whether he should follow Sonia, as she wished, or stay in Switzerland, as Rado had requested, Moscow apparently replied that he should do as she said. That was not Soviet Intelligence’s way of working. Yet Len’s problems were still to do with his inability to gain French and Spanish visas, and Sonia writes that the British consulate was at first unwilling to issue him with a false passport, a mechanism (she claims) it was applying to other candidates of military age trying to get home.
Sonia thus invoked the help of the International Brigade Association, in the shape of Hans Kahle, and then wrote to her ally Eleanor Rathbone, the left-wing MP who had done so much to help German communists establish themselves in Britain before the war. Sonia claims that Ms. Rathbone put a question in the House of Commons, specifically making an appeal for Len’s repatriation in order that he might serve his country. That seems unlikely: I can find no trace of such a specific question in Hansard, but there is no doubt that Rathbone’s secretary, Richard Law, wrote a letter for help to Alexander Cadogan, the Permanent Under-Secretary at the Foreign Office, on February 18, 1942, and Cadogan replied positively the next day. A follow-up letter from Law was required, dated March 4, which perpetrated the lie that Beurton had had a ski-ing accident in Switzerland that had prevented earlier return, and also mentioned his treatment for tuberculosis, which might be considered to be spreading the explanations a little too thickly. On June 3, Livingston even wrote to the Foreign Secretary, Anthony Eden, from Geneva, saying that ‘in April Beurton was examined by a French military doctor, who declared him unfit for military service.’ Such a ruling would have reduced the threat that Beurton might have represented as a combatant in any war. Beurton had reportedly applied again for Spanish and French visas: the Spanish visa was granted, but not the French.
The response it received clearly spurred the consulate into action, and it provided Beurton with a false passport in the name of John William Miller, as well as a doctor’s certificate (as Sonia reminds us) confirming that tuberculosis had incapacitated him for military service. The office thus falsified the evidence again. The result was that Beurton left Geneva for Lisbon and the UK on July 11 (information communicated in an en clair telegram, as if he were someone of importance). He arrived on July 29 at the Bournemouth Airport at Poole, the return segment of the same VIP route that Berlin had taken two years before. There was no lengthy, uncomfortable sea voyage for him. Beurton promptly admitted that his passport was false, denied his tuberculosis, and gave a feeble explanation about the money that he claimed had been left him. He even ascribed the tuberculosis story to advice he had received at the consulate, forgetting that it was a rigmarole he must have shared with Sonia two years beforehand, since she gave it as an excuse for his absence when interrogated in Liverpool. All in all, he betrayed a sense of indignant entitlement, and gave a sorry performance to his interrogators, who had clearly not been prepped appropriately. Beurton even stated that he was disappointed that the British authorities in Lisbon had not contacted Poole, in order to ease his passage through Control. And he introduced a new lie. As the Security report (of which a large portion has been redacted) records: “He did not leave Switzerland in the early part of the war because he and Mrs. Hamburger were waiting for the divorce proceedings to be completed in the Swiss courts.”
All this brazen behavior provoked a justifiably stern reaction in MI5 – at least in its lower echelons. Vesey cast serious doubts on the whole exercise, and wondered why SIS would issue a passport on such flimsy evidence, and questioned Beurton’s story about the source of his money. SIS responded in a letter to Vesey, claiming that the Passport office was ‘not of course aware of the issue of the individual circular concerning Beurton’, which assertion was patently nonsensical. By December 1942, Shillito in MI5 wrote that he was of the opinion that Beurton could be a Soviet spy. Beurton remained under close watch, and his mail was intercepted, as he was is ‘thought to have been in touch with agents of a foreign power’. Yet nothing more serious was undertaken, and Beurton joined his wife in Summertown, Oxford.
The conundrum of why Sonia’s radio traffic was ignored will be examined more closely in the next chapter of Sonia’s Radio. It appears that up until the winter of 1942, she had gone about her secret business successfully. As has been shown, most of the information that Fuchs passed before he left for the USA was no doubt too long and complicated to be sent by radio transmission, but there is no doubt about Ursula’s use of clandestine radio, which was strictly forbidden in wartime Britain. Yet a major new provocative event was about to take place. Sonia describes how, in the autumn of 1942, she moved into a cottage in the grounds of the house of Neville Laski, the brother of the fellow-traveller, Harold Laski. (Harold Laski, like Eleanor Rathbone, had conspired with such as Strachey, Wilkinson and Cripps either to assist entry into Britain of Comintern agents, or free from internment CP members like Sonia’s brother.) With Len’s help, Sonia strung up her radio in her new accommodation: what is even more incredible is that the existence of this apparatus was known to MI5. On January 25, 1943, D. M. Campbell, reporting on behalf of Major J. C. Phipps, wrote that ‘the Beurtons own a large wireless set’. In December 1942, Shillito had voiced his belief that the Beurtons were Soviet spies. The following month, incriminating evidence was handed to him. Yet nothing was done about it. Why was such obvious illicit behaviour not pounced upon, and why were the offenders not prosecuted?
The Lisbon Route, by Ronald Weber
Lisbon: War in the Shadows of the City of Light, 1939-1945, by Neill Lochery
Sonya’s Report, by ‘Ruth Werner’
Letters 1928-1946, by Isaiah Berlin
A Political Family: The Kuczynskis, Fascism, Espionage and the Cold War, by John Green
Mortal Crimes, by Nigel West
The Truth About Hollis, by W. J. West
Forty-Thousand Against the Arctic, by H. P. Smolka
The Spy Who Changed the World, by Mike Rossiter
New Commonplace entries appear here.